Consciousness returned slowly to Set Harth. It was as if his mind were swimming through a swamp, struggling to escape the murky depths of his own subconscious. Pushing up through the sludge he finally broke the surface, though the lingering memories of strange dreams and nightmares still prowled the dark corners of his mind.
On some level he was aware the nightmares had nearly driven him mad. They had been on the verge of destroying him, but Set had refused to succumb. Bit by bit he had managed to shove them back down into the hidden recesses of his mind where they belonged, separating fantasy from reality one small piece at a time.
How long was I out? he wondered, keeping his eyes closed and his breathing steady so as not to reveal he had woken up. Feels like days.
He was in his own room, that much he was sure of. He recognized the smell of his perfumed pillow, the soft feel of silk sheets against his skin, the luxurious comfort of his down-filled mattress. Everything else was still a blur.
Come on, Set. Let's figure this out.
Careful to avoid the horrors of his recent nightmares, Set stretched his memory back, trying to piece together exactly what had happened to him.
The blond woman.
She had been waiting in his mansion when he returned home from the party. It wasn't the first time that had happened:though this was the first time his uninvited guest had tried to kill him.
Probably wasn't really trying to kill you, he reminded himself. Seeing as how you're still alive.
They had fought. That much he remembered clearly. They had fought and she had beaten him.
Though his eyes were still closed, Set was beginning to assemble a detailed image of his surroundings by reaching out with the Force. He was in his own bed, in his own room. But he wasn't alone. Someone else was there. The woman.
Claimed she was a Sith.
He still had no idea why she had broken into his home. He couldn't even guess why she had left him alive. But he was determined to make her regret it.
Pushing out gently with his mind, he scanned the room for his lightsaber. It was resting on his dressing table on the far side of the room. The woman was sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed, patiently waiting for him to wake up. Would he be able to use the Force to pull the lightsaber across the room and into his hand before she could react?
And then what? She already beat you once.
Maybe this time he could surprise her. Catch her off guard. Carefully, he began to gather his power.
"I thought you were smarter than that," the woman said.
Set froze. Going to have to talk your way out of this one. Time to turn on the charm.
He opened his eyes and gave an easy laugh.
"Can't blame a guy for trying," he said with a shrug, sitting up in bed.
He was still dressed in the same clothes he had worn to the party.
"That was quite an entrance you made last night," he said.
"Three nights ago," she corrected, returning his smile with a humorless stare. "I was beginning to wonder if you would be trapped in your nightmares forever."
Her words caused his mind to momentarily flash back to the terrors he was still struggling to suppress, and he shuddered involuntarily.
"I managed to find my way out," he answered, his voice grimmer than he intended. "What did you do to me? Some kind of drug?"
"If that's what you really think," she said, her lip curling up in disdain, "then I'm wasting my time here."
There was an implied threat in her words, and Set's survival instincts kicked into high gear.
Get on the ball, Set. You don't want to make this woman angry.
"Sorcery," he said after a second of deliberation. "You said you were a Sith. You attacked my mind with some kind of spell."
She nodded, and Set saw her shoulders relax. So she had been on the verge of killing him for his ignorance.
"Are you the assassin who killed Medd Tandar?" he asked, still trying to fit everything together.
The woman shook her head, blond curls swaying slightly.
She's attractive enough:if you can get past the whole Sith sorceress thing. "You followed me here from Doan," Set guessed, desperately looking for some piece of information he could use. If he figured out what she was after, then he'd have something to bargain with. "You want the talismans."
"You're half right," she replied. "I followed you from Doan, but I'm not interested in the talismans."
Set wasn't used to being at a disadvantage. If he didn't have it, he was usually smart enough to figure out a way to get it. Here, however, he was utterly at a loss as to the woman's motives and goals. And so he had no recourse but to fall back on the one thing he hated most of all: total honesty.
"I have absolutely no idea what you want with me."
"My name is Darth Zannah," she explained, "and I am looking for an apprentice."
On one level, Set was even more confused than before. But part of his mind-the part that had kept him one step ahead of the Jedi for the past ten years-seized on her words. Now you know what she wants. Figure out a way to use it.
"Why are you looking for an apprentice?" he asked carefully, wary of enraging her with his lack of understanding.
"The Jedi believe the Sith are extinct," she began. "But you can plainly see by my presence that the Jedi are wrong. The Sith still exist, but now we number only two: one Master, and one apprentice. One to embody the power of the dark side, the other to crave it."
"So you want to increase your numbers," Set reasoned. "You're seeking recruits to join your cause and rebuild the Sith armies."
"That is the path to failure," Zannah replied. "The history of the Sith has proven that in greater numbers the Sith will always turn their hatred against one another. It is inevitable; it is the way of the dark side.
"The only way we can survive is by following the Rule of Two. Our numbers can never grow beyond this. The Master will train his apprentice in the ways of the Sith, until one day she must challenge him. If she proves unworthy, the Master will destroy her and choose a new apprentice. If she proves the stronger, the Master will fall and she will become the new Dark Lord of the Sith, and choose an apprentice of her own."
Set felt like things were becoming clearer now. "You are the apprentice. You think it's time to challenge your Master. And you want me to help you defeat him."
"No!" she snapped, causing Set to flinch in his bed. "That is the old way. Lesser followers would unite their inferior skills to bring down a strong leader, weakening the Order. This goes against everything the Rule of Two stands for.
"If I am to become the Dark Lord of the Sith, I must prove myself by facing my Master alone. If I am unworthy, then I will fall:but the Order will remain strong under his leadership.
"Do you understand?"
Set understood all too well. "The Rule of Two guarantees that each Master will be more powerful than the one who came before. It culls the weak." Good for the Sith as a whole, but not so great if you're the one getting culled.
Zannah may have been willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of the Sith Order, but Set wasn't ready to do the same. Of course, he was smart enough not to say so out loud.
Instead, he asked, "What made you choose me?"
"I have been seeking an apprentice for some time now," Zannah explained. "When I stumbled across your path on Doan, I knew it was more than mere chance.
"You are strong in the Force, and you have rejected the Jedi and their teachings. You are intelligent and resourceful. But your potential is unfulfilled. You have not dedicated yourself to the dark side. In your quest for the talismans of the ancient Sith you are like a child playing with his toys.
"You have no thoughts of the future. No ambition. No plan. No vision. That will change if you agree to be my apprentice. Join me and I will show you your destiny."
"For thousands of years the Jedi and Sith have waged an endless war against each other. The Jedi believe the war is over. They think the Sith are gone. But we still exist in the shadows, planning our revenge.
"With patience and cunning, we are laying the seeds of our ultimate victory. Generation after generation our power and influence will grow until one day we will destroy the Jedi, and the Sith will rule the galaxy."
Set wasn't interested in ruling the galaxy. Or destroying the Jedi. It sounded like a lot of work. It's not like you've got a lot of options. She's not going to just let you walk away if you refuse.
Aloud, he said, "The Rule of Two dictates there can only ever be two Sith, so how can you take me as an apprentice if your Master is still alive?"
"If you accept my offer, you will accompany me as I go to face my Master," Zannah explained. "But you must not interfere. If he falls, then I will take you on as my apprentice."
"What happens to me if you fail?" Set wondered.
"If I die, my Master will need a new apprentice. If he judges you worthy, then you will replace me. If not..."
There was no need for her to finish the thought.
Set wasn't crazy about the deal, but he understood the position he was in. Refuse, and she would kill him. Accept, and there was a good chance he would die anyway if Zannah proved weaker than her Master. And even if she was victorious, he would be returning to the life of an apprentice:a life he had been eager to escape while he was with the Jedi.
But there was one thing worthwhile in Zannah's offer. He had been given a glimpse of what she was capable of during their one-sided battle in his living room. It might be worth a few years of following orders and calling her "Master" if he could learn to command that kind of power for himself.
"You said you can help me reach my full potential. Teach me how to unlock the true power of the dark side."
"If you follow me," Zannah promised, "you will become more powerful than you ever imagined."
* * *
Zannah could sense Set Harth's reluctance to become her apprentice. He lacked the burning hatred of the Jedi and what they represented; he had little interest in embracing the greater destiny of the Sith. But it was also obvious that he was tempted by her promises of individual power.
Set cared only for himself. He would accept her offer only because he saw it as a means to an end, a way to make himself stronger. Zannah knew this, and she was prepared to accept it. She would have preferred to find an apprentice eager to learn the Sith philosophies Bane had imbued in her, but in the lack of a better option she was willing to work with what she had.
She understood the risks, but nothing of importance had ever been accomplished without risk. Over the first few years of his training, she would keep a close eye on Set. She would be wary of treachery and deceit as little by little she exposed him to the greater truths Bane had taught her. She would use his lust for personal power as the bait to draw him deeper and deeper into the ways of the Sith.
In time Set would come to accept the teachings and philosophies as she had done. As his understanding of the dark side evolved, he would gain the vision to see beyond his own petty wants and desires. He would recognize their need to destroy the Jedi and he would embrace the ultimate destiny of the Sith.
And if he did not, then she would destroy him and find another to serve her.
All this was running through her mind as she watched the silver-haired Jedi rubbing his chin, contemplating the prospect of becoming her apprentice.
"I accept," he said at last. "And I am honored you have chosen me."
"No, you're not," she said. "But someday you will be."