Zannah had never actually set foot on Nal Hutta before, but she knew the world well enough by reputation. While the ruling Hutt clans had entirely covered the surface of Nar Shaddaa, the nearby moon, with a sprawling cityscape, Nal Hutta remained largely undeveloped. The planet's predominant natural terrain of marshland had been poisoned by the pollution spewing unchecked from industrial centers scattered across the world, turning the surface into a cesspool of fetid swamps capable of supporting only mutated insect life. The capital city of Bilbousa huddled beneath a perpetual sky of greasy-gray smog punctuated only by dark clouds drizzling acid rain on the stained and pockmarked buildings below.
The physical ugliness of the world was mirrored by its moral corruption. Hutt space had never been a part of the Republic, and the laws of the Senate held no sway here. What few rules there were had been handed down by the powerful Hutt clans that controlled nearby Nar Shaddaa, making Nal Hutta a haven for smugglers, pirates, and slavers.
But protection from Republic law enforcement came with a price. The Hutts considered other species to be inferior, and all resident aliens on both Nar Shaddaa and Nal Hutta had to pay a hefty monthly fee to one of the ruling clans for the privilege of living under their protection. The exact price fluctuated wildly, depending on the rising and falling fortunes of the respective clan, and it wasn't unusual for it to double or even triple without warning. In such cases, those who were unwilling or unable to meet the new price tended to disappear, with all their possessions and assets being claimed by the sponsoring clan, in accordance with Hutt law.
The bias against other species would have made it difficult for Zannah to get the information she needed. The port authorities on Nal Hutta had a deeply ingrained mistrust of outsiders asking questions, and it was unlikely any amount of credits could have convinced them to overlook their prejudices to tell her anything useful. Fortunately for her, however, Bane's network of informants and agents included several high-ranking members of the Desilijic clan, one of the most prominent, and stable, Hutt factions. In the familiar guise of Allia Omek, Zannah was able to use these contacts-along with the ship registration stored in the late Pommat's datapad-to track down the silver-haired man she had followed here from Doan.
She'd learned his real name was Set Harth, and there was a persistent rumor that he had once been a Jedi. She'd also discovered that he was incredibly wealthy. And while nobody she spoke with seemed to know the exact source of his vast fortune, all agreed his gains were almost certainly ill gotten. On Nal Hutta, that was generally seen as something to be admired.
One other interesting fact had also surfaced during her investigations: Set Harth was a fixture on the thriving Nal Hutta social scene. Despite the fact the city was a grimy, greasy pit ruled over by the oppressive clans of Nar Shaddaa-or maybe because of it-the nonHutt residents of Bilbousa were prone to throwing lavish and extravagant parties, each one a celebration of hedonistic excess. Set Harth never failed to receive an invitation to these functions, and he was even known to host them several times a year.
By good fortune he was at one of these galas tonight, giving Zannah an opportunity to break into Set's mansion to try to gain a better understanding of the man who could possibly become her apprentice.
Her first impression was that, in many ways, his mansion resembled the estate Bane had set up on Ciutric IV: it was less a home than a temple of elegance and luxury in which no expense had been spared. A chandelier fashioned from Dalonian crystal dominated the entrance, reflecting the light from Zannah's glow stick with soft turquoise hues. The halls were lined with marble tiles, and several of the rooms Zannah inspected contained Wrodian carpets, each one woven over several generations by a succession of master artisans. The massive dining room could easily seat twenty guests at a table made from crimson greel wood. The desk in Set's study was even more extravagant; she recognized it as the work of the master crafts-beings of Alderaan, hand carved from rare kriin oak.
But the furniture paled when compared with the rare and expensive works of art that accentuated each room. Set had a penchant for bold, striking pieces, and Zannah was almost certain everyone was an original work. She recognized statues carved by Iood Kabbas, the renowned Duros sculptor, landscapes from Unna Lettu, Antar 4's most famous painter, and several portraits that bore the unmistakable style of Fen Teak, the brilliant Muun master.
Clearly, the owner was someone who preferred the finer things in life. Bane's estate on Ciutric was supposed to give the same impression to visitors-all the extravagant art and opulent furniture was part of a facade, key to maintaining the disguise of a successful galactic entrepreneur. In Set's case, however, she wasn't sure the lavish decor was an act. There was a vibrancy here. Things felt real. Alive. The more she looked around, the more Zannah began to believe that the Dark Jedi wasn't just playing a part: his home was a true reflection of his personality. Set obviously enjoyed spending his fortune on material goods; he craved the attention and envy it inspired in others.
The thought gave Zannah pause. Bane had taught her that wealth was only a means to a greater end. Credits were nothing but a tool; amassing a vast fortune was nothing but a necessary step on the path to true power. Materialism-an attachment to physical goods beyond their practical value-was a trap; a chain to ensnare the foolish with their own greed. Apparently Set had yet to learn this lesson.
That is why he needs a Master. He needs someone to teach him the truth about the dark side.
Continuing her tour, Zannah mounted a large spiral staircase leading up to the second floor. Running her hand absently across the fine finish of the railing on the balcony overlooking the sitting room below, she made her way to the rear of the mansion. There she came across Set's library. Hundreds of books lined the walls, but most were novels written purely for entertainment:works she wouldn't consider worthy of reading herself. One shelf did give her hope, however: a collection of technical manuals and guides authored by experts in more than two dozen widely varied fields. Assuming Set had actually read and studied them all, he was a man of broad knowledge and numerous talents.
At the back of the library was a nondescript door; beyond it, Zannah could sense the power of the dark side. It called out to her, like the vibrations of a churning engine thrumming through the floor. Approaching carefully, she felt the power grow. It wasn't coming from any person or creature; she knew the sensation of a living being attuned to the Force. This was different. It reminded her of the invisible pulses of energy she had felt emanating from the Force crystals she had used to construct her lightsaber.
She tested the door and was surprised when it opened easily. Obviously, Set was confident in his privacy-but then, he no doubt had never suspected that a Sith might come to visit. Stepping into the room, she found it small and plain next to the rest of the mansion. There were no works of art, and the only furnishing was a display case set against the back wall a few meters away. By the light of her glow lamp, she could see an array of jewelry carefully arranged in the display case: rings, necklaces, amulets, and even crowns, all imbued with the power of the dark side.
Zannah had seen collections like this before. Ten years ago Hetton, a Force-sensitive Serrenian noble obsessed with the dark side, had shown her a similar trove of Sith artifacts:an offering he had hoped would convince Zannah to take him on as her apprentice despite his advanced age. Unfortunately for Hetton, his baubles and trinkets hadn't been able to save him-or his trained guards-when they confronted Zannah's own Master. Bane had shown Hetton the true power of the dark side, a lesson that had cost the old man his life.
Bane also collected the treasures of the ancient Sith, but he preferred the wisdom contained in the ancient texts. Zannah knew he looked on the rings, amulets, and other paraphernalia with disdain. The spark of the dark side that burned within them was like a single drop of rain falling into the ocean of power he already commanded; he saw no need to augment his abilities with gaudy jewelry fashioned centuries ago by ancient Sith sorcerers. Her Master believed true strength must come from within, and he had ingrained this belief in his apprentice. Apparently that was another lesson she would have to teach Set Harth, assuming he proved himself worthy of being her apprentice.
Zannah froze as she felt a sudden presence within the mansion. Reaching out with the Force, she confirmed her suspicions: Set had returned from his party, and he was alone. Extinguishing her glow rod, she moved in perfect darkness back toward the main entrance, letting the Force guide her path.
Slipping silently to the railing overlooking the large sitting room at the foot of the stairs, she spotted her quarry almost directly below her. By the light of the lamp on a nearby end table she could see him lounging on an exquisite leather couch, a bottle of fine Sullustan wine in one hand and a half-filled glass in the other. He was still dressed in the clothes he had worn to the party: a turquoise-blue shirt of fine Dramassian silk, tailored black slacks, and knee-high boots polished to perfection. The collar of his shirt was unbuttoned and its long, loose-fitting sleeves hung from his wrists, billowing softly as he gently swirled the wine to release its full body between each sip.
She made no attempt to mask her own presence; she was curious to see if Set would sense her through the Force the same way she had sensed him on his arrival. Much to her dismay, he seemed completely oblivious, lost in the comforts of his home and the enjoyment of his drink.
Zannah leapt over the railing and fell five meters to the floor below, landing behind him, silent save for the soft rustle of her black cape. Set shifted at the noise, twisting in his seat to fix his bleary gaze on the intruder.
"Greetings," he said with a smile, seemingly unsurprised by her arrival. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure. My name is Set Harth."
He raised his drink and tilted his head as if toasting her arrival.
"I know who you are," Zannah replied coldly.
Set carefully placed the wine bottle and his glass on the nearby end table, then turned back to Zannah and patted the cushion beside him. "Why don't you make yourself comfortable? Plenty of room for both of us."
"I prefer to stand."
Zannah was both confused and dismayed by his reaction. Instead of being guarded, wary, or even outraged at discovering an intruder in his home, Set seemed to be hitting on her. His tone was playful and suggestive. Couldn't he sense that his life hung in the balance? Couldn't he sense the danger he was in?
Set responded to her refusal with an easy shrug. "Followed me home from the party, did you?" he guessed. "Normally I wouldn't forget such a pretty face."
Zannah cursed herself as a fool. She had come here looking for an apprentice and found nothing but a womanizing fool too interested in making clumsy advances to recognize her power. Her failure was embarrassing; she knew with certainty Darth Bane would have seen Set for what he was right away.
"You still haven't told me your name," Set reminded her, waggling his finger in front of his face. "You're a very naughty girl."
The attack came the instant Zannah opened her mouth to reply. It came without any warning, Set moving with the preternatural speed of the Force. The Dark Jedi's lightsaber materialized in his hand, igniting and spiraling across the room toward her faster than thought itself.
Zannah barely managed to duck out of the way, the lightsaber's blade slicing off a section of her cape as she threw herself to the floor. By the time the weapon completed its boomerang path and returned to Set's hand, he was on his feet:as was Zannah.
She realized Set's initial greeting had all been an act. He had been waiting with his lightsaber up his sleeve the whole time, just looking for Zannah to lower her guard. Maybe there was hope for him yet. "You move fast," Set noted, a hint of admiration in his voice.
His words no longer carried the light, easy tone of a guest at a party; he had dropped all pretense now. His blue eyes were sharp and focused, boring through his opponent searching for any weakness he could exploit.
Zannah braced herself for his next assault. In her mind the next few seconds played out in a thousand different scenarios, each unique in its specific details, each a vision of a possible future glimpsed through the power of the Force. The sheer number of possibilities could be overwhelming, but Bane had trained her well. Instinctively, she collapsed the matrix of probabilities into the most likely outcomes, effectively allowing her to anticipate and react to her opponent's next move even before it happened.
Set fired out a sharp burst of dark side power in a shimmering wave designed to knock her from her feet. Zannah easily countered by throwing up a protective energy barrier, the simplest and most effective way for one Force-user to defend against the attacks of another. It was a technique taught to every Jedi Padawan, and it had been one of the earliest lessons Bane had required her to master.
"You're a Jedi?" Set exclaimed. "A Sith," Zannah replied.
"I thought the Sith were extinct," he replied, casually twirling his lightsaber in one hand, never taking his eyes off Zannah.
"Not yet," She stood still, her own lightsaber still tucked inside her belt. But she was wary now: Set had almost fooled her once, and she wasn't about to let it happen again.
"Let me see if I can fix that."
As he leapt over the couch toward her, Zannah ignited her own weapon. The twin blades sprung to life, and she fell into the familiar dance.
Set came in low to start, slashing at her legs. When she parried his incoming blade he spun away quickly, moving out of range before she could retaliate. With the Force he picked up a bronze bust on the side of the room and hurled it toward her left flank. At the same time, he dived forward into a somersault that brought him close enough to strike at her right side as he tumbled past her.
Zannah easily repelled both threats, her spinning blades slicing the bust in half even as she pivoted just enough so that Set's weapon missed her hip by less than a centimeter. For good measure she kicked him hard in the back as he rolled past, a blow meant not to disable him, but to goad him on to further aggression.
When two skilled combatants engaged each other with the lightsaber, the blades moved so quickly it was impossible to think and react to each move. Bane had taught her to rely on instinct, guided by the Force and honed by thousands of hours' training in the martial forms. This training allowed her to realize within the first few passes that Set was using a modified variation of Ataru, a style defined by quick, aggressive strikes. In only the first few moments of battle she had already evaluated her opponent, noting his speed, agility, and technique. Set was good. Very good. But Zannah also knew without any doubt that she was much, much better.
Set, however, had yet to come to the same realization. Her kick had had the desired effect: when he came at her the next time his face was twisted with snarling rage. His fury allowed him to call upon the dark side, making him even more dangerous as he unleashed his next series of attacks. Leaping high in the air, crouching low to the ground, lunging forward, springing back, spinning, twisting, and twirling, he came at her from every conceivable angle in a relentless barrage meant to overwhelm her defenses, only to have Zannah turn his efforts back with a cool, almost casual, efficiency.
Lightsaber battles were brutal in their intensity; few duels lasted more than a minute. Even for a trained Jedi, the effort of all-out combat was exhausting:particularly when using the acrobatic maneuvers of Ataru. It didn't take long for Zannah to sense that her opponent was wearing down. She, on the other hand, was barely winded. At Bane's urging, she had become an expert in the defensive sequences of the Soresu form. It was simple for her to parry, redirect, or evade her opponent's blows by using Set's own momentum against him, easily keeping the Dark Jedi at bay.
In their short encounter, she was presented with at least a dozen opportunities to land a lethal blow to the silver-haired man. But she hadn't come here to kill him; not yet, at least. She had come here to test him, to see if he was worthy of being her apprentice.
He didn't have to beat her to succeed in Zannah's eyes; he only had to show potential. Despite his inability to penetrate her defenses, she had seen enough to satisfy her. He may have been reckless and wild with the lightsaber, but he was also imaginative and even, at times, a little unpredictable. He had shown enough cunning when they first met to make Zannah underestimate him. And, most importantly, she could feel the power of the dark side raging within him as he grew more and more determined to take her out:futile though his efforts might be.
She was toying with him now, dragging the battle out. It wasn't enough for her to want Set as an apprentice; he also had to want her to be his Master. She had to prove her superiority so completely that he would be willing to serve. It wasn't enough just to beat the Dark Jedi; she had to break him.
When he was a step slow in retreating after one of his thrusts, she kicked his feet out from under him and sent him sprawling to the floor, only to back away and let him get to his feet again. When he moved back in, she twisted her lightsaber in a sharp, unorthodox move, hooking one of her blades onto his and wrenching the weapon from his hand.
Set sprang back immediately and used the Force to yank the hilt back to his palm, then stubbornly renewed his attacks. But as the seconds slipped by, the fire of the dark side was less and less able to fight off the fatigue setting into his joints and limbs. It was inevitable that his weary body would betray him, and soon enough he came in with his blade held out too far to the side, instead of tight in front of him. Zannah stepped forward and snapped her foot straight up, catching Set under the chin. He staggered back howling in pain while a string of unintelligible profanities spewed from his mouth, along with a spatter of blood.
"Do you yield?" Zannah asked.
His only response was to spit a gob of blood onto the expensive carpet at his feet and rush forward once more.
Zannah felt a small twinge of disappointment. She had hoped he would be smart enough not to continue a battle he could not win. Another lesson I will have to teach you.
As he drew near, she responded not with physical violence, but rather with a powerful spell of Sith sorcery that attacked Set's mind. He tried to throw up a protective Force barrier in response, but Zannah's power shredded his defenses, leaving him completely vulnerable.
Sith sorcery was as much a part of the dark side as the deadly violet bolts of energy her Master unleashed from his hands, and when Bane had first recognized her talent for the subtle but devastating magics he had encouraged her studies into the arcane. From ancient texts she had learned to twist and torment the thoughts of her enemies. She could make them see nightmares as reality; she could cause their deepest fears to manifest as demons of the psyche. She could, and had, rip the minds of her enemies apart with a simple thought and a gesture.
With Set, however, she did not intend to destroy him completely. Instead she enveloped him in a cloud of utter despair and hopelessness. She reached into the innermost recesses of his mind and wrapped it in the nothingness of the void.
Set's eyes went blank, his jaw hung slack, and his lightsaber slipped from nerveless fingers. He slowly slumped to the ground, his eyes closing and his body trembling slightly as he curled up into a fetal position.
This was to be his final test. A weak mind would collapse upon itself to wither and die, leaving the victim forever comatose. If Set was strong, however, his will would fight back against the horror. Little by little it would tear away at the emptiness, refusing to die, clawing its way back to the surface until consciousness finally returned.
If Set was truly worthy of being her apprentice, he would recover from his current condition in a day or two. If not, she would simply have to begin her search anew.