Zannah made her way slowly through Carannia's market square, purchasing supplies to replace those Bane had inadvertently destroyed. Only a week had passed since she'd last been here, but in that short time a great many things had changed.
Kel was dead, for one. The HoloNet was buzzing with the news of the failed attempt to kidnap Chancellor Valorum, and all the accounts made specific mention of the red-skinned Twi'lek and his end at the hands of a Jedi Knight named Johun Othone.
Three of the others from the small group were dead as well, though reports indicated that two of the terrorists had fled the scene. From the descriptions given it was obvious to Zannah that Paak and Cyndra were the two surviving fugitives.
The attack had prompted immediate condemnation from the Senate and the rest of the Republic. More important, the Counts of Serenno had promised swift and decisive action to stamp out the separatist organizations that plagued their fair world. Based on the enormous rewards being offered for information leading to the capture of those involved in the attack, it seemed the nobles intended to keep their promise.
Even had Kel and his friends succeeded, Zannah now realized, the reaction of the Counts would have been the same. In the aftermath of the violence, the bodies of several members of Count Nalju's household staff were discovered near the landing site. They had been sent to greet Chancellor Valorum on his arrival, only to be murdered by the radicals who had set the ambush.
The deaths of several long-serving followers was a great tragedy for House Nalju, but it paled in comparison with the horror elicited by the attack itself. The Count had personally sponsored the Chancellor's visit; an assault upon his esteemed guest was an insult to family honor, and a crime tantamount to attacking the Count himself. Always willing to protect their own, the other Great Houses had rallied to the Nalju cry, vowing to hunt down and exterminate those responsible for this atrocity.
No doubt Darth Bane had foreseen this outcome. For the next several years the eyes of the Republic would be focused intently on Serenno and its campaign to snuff out the separatist elements that had infiltrated its culture.
"Don't move" a familiar female voice hissed in her ear, and Zannah felt the muzzle of a blaster press itself hard into the flesh of her lower back.
"I'm surprised you'd dare to show your face in public," Zannah whispered without turning around to face the Chiss standing close behind her. "There's a lot of credits being offered for your head."
"Thanks to you," Cyndra snapped back, jabbing her painfully with the weapon. "Now start walking. Slowly."
There were a dozen ways Zannah could turn the tables on Cyndra, but each of them involved a display of dark side power she wasn't willing to make in the crowded market square. So she did as ordered, making her way past the vendor stalls as she waited for the right moment to make her move. Cyndra followed close, pressing tight up against her to shield the blaster at Zannah's back with her own body.
"Where are you taking me?" Zannah asked her.
"We're going to see Hetton," Cyndra snarled. "He's got some questions for you."
How convenient, Zannah thought. Vve got some questions for him, too.
Cyndra took her down a narrow alley leading away from the market square to a deserted side street.
"Stand still or I shoot" she warned Zannah, then pulled a comlink from her belt. "I've got her," she said. "Come pick us up."
In less than a minute an airspeeder swooped down to land on the far side of the street. Zannah wasn't surprised to see Paak sitting in the pilot's seat. He jumped out as the Chiss marched her prisoner over to the vehicle.
"Told you she'd come back," he said to his companion.
"Just search her for weapons," she answered-
Paak leered at Zannah as he roughly patted her down. "What have we here?" he exclaimed, discovering her only weapon and holding it up for inspection.
The handle of Zannah's lightsaber was slightly longer than normal to accommodate the twin crystals required to power the blades that extended from either end. However, while most traditional double-bladed weapons had blades each measuring a meter and a half or more, those of Zannah's lightsaber were slightly under a meter in length. This small but significant difference was critical to the way in which she used her weapon ...
"The smaller blades give you greater speed and maneuverability," her Master explained as the fourteen-year-old Zannah twirled her newly constructed lightsaber in her left hand, focusing on mastering the feel of its unique balance and weight.
"Crip the handle lightly in your fingers. Control the weapon with your wrist and hand rather than the muscles of your arm. You will sacrifice reach and leverage, but you will be able to create a shield of impenetrable defense."
"Defense will not slay my enemy," Zannah remarked, smoothly transferring the spinning crimson blades from her left hand to her right and back again.
"You lack the physical strength required for the powerful attacking strikes ofDjem So or the other aggressive forms" her Master explained. "You must rely on quickness, cunning and, most of all, patience to best your enemies."
He ignited his own lightsaber and took a long, looping swing in her direction. Zannah intercepted the blow with her own weapon, easily deflecting it to the side.
"Form three allows you to parry incoming attacks with minimal effort," he told her. "Your opponent must expend precious energy with each blow, slowly tiring while you remain fresh and strong."
Bane seized the hook-handled grip of his own lightsaber with both hands and raised it high over his head, then brought it straight down in a fierce chop. Using the techniques he had made her practice for two hours each day over the past year, Zannah meet her Master's blade with one of her own. Had she tried to meet it head-on, the strength of his attack would have driven her own weapon back into her, or knocked the lightsaber from her hand. Instead she clipped his blade with a glancing contact, rerouting it so that it continued its downward arc at an angle, passing harmlessly a few centimeters from her shoulder.
"Good" Bane said approvingly, winding up for another heavy-handed swipe. "Do not block. Redirect. Wait for opponents to become weary or frustrated. Let them make a mistake, then seize the opening and make them pay."
To illustrate his point Bane took a wild swipe that she easily picked off. The momentum of his swing caused him to lean too far forward, exposing his shoulder and back to her counterattack. With a flick of her wrist Zannah directed her own weapon toward the opening. She scored a direct hit, one of her twin blades tracing a ten-centimeter~long slash across his shoulder that would have severed the arm of any other opponent.
In Bane's case, however, the blade only cut through the cloth of his shirt and left a small scorch mark on the impregnable shell of the or-balisk beneath.
"You're dead!" she exclaimed triumphantly, still twirling her blade so that it never lost momentum.
Bane nodded in approval But it was early, and the day's lesson had only just begun.
"Again," he commanded in the stern taskmaster's voice he always used during their drills and practice sessions....
"What is this? A lightsaber?" Paak muttered, turning the handle over in his hands. "Where'd you get this? You steal it off a Jedi or something?"
Zannah didn't bother to answer. There was nobody else in view; the three of them were alone in the deserted street. She could easily have ended their lives right there and escaped. But they had said they were taking her to Hetton, and she was most eager to meet the founder of the Anti-Republic Liberation Front.
"Helton's going to be very interested in this," he remarked. "Very, very interested."
"Come on. Let's get moving" Cyndra told him. "I don't want to keep Hetton waiting. He's mad enough at us already."
Paak tossed the lightsaber onto the passenger seat in the front, then climbed into the pilot's chair.
"Get in the back," Cyndra ordered Zannah, waving the blaster's nose threateningly.
She did as she was told, and a second later Cyndra climbed in beside her, still keeping her weapon trained on Zannah. The airspeeder lifted off the ground, whisking them through the city and out to the countryside beyond.
"How long until we get there?" Zannah asked.
"Shut your kriffing mouth," Cyndra answered. "They'll be plenty of time to talk when you explain to Hetton why you betrayed us."
"Kel always was a sucker for a pretty face" Paak said, glancing back at her over his shoulder. "Always knew it would be the death of him. If he was smart he would have just stuck with you, Cyndra"
Cyndra's red eyes narrowed angrily. "Shut up and drive, Paak."
"You and Kel?" Zannah said, legitimately surprised. "I'm sorry. I didn't know"
"Neither did Cyndra," Paak said with a laugh. "At least not until you showed up at our meeting. She wanted to kill you right there. Lucky for you she's a professional."
The rest of the ride passed in silence as they made their way farther and farther from the city. Soon they passed into the country estates of the noble families, confirming Zannah's suspicion that Hetton was a member of a powerful Serenno house. She wondered what would happen to him now that the political climate of Caran-nia had turned so strongly against the separatists.
The speeder continued on, passing over lavish rose gardens that stretched for acres, the irrigation provided by exquisite fountains while armies of staff clipped and pruned to keep each individual flower in a perfect, pristine state.
An enormous mansion loomed in the distance; in truth it looked more like a castle than a home. The flag flying from one of the many turrets was a bright red, emblazoned with a single eight-pointed star of gold. Zannah suspected it was derived from the five-pointed star of the Demici Great House. Apparently Helton's family were distant relations of the Demicis that had earned the right to create their own variation on the family crest.
When they landed they were met by six guards clad in long red robes. Each wore a full helmet that completely covered the head and face, and they all carried force pikes. The meter-and-a-half-long metal poles were equipped with stun modules at the tip, capable of discharging an electrical current to stun or incapacitate opponents... or even kill if set to a high enough power. She recognized the exotic weapon from Bane's teachings; it had been a favorite of the Umbaran Shadow Assassins, though the members of the group had gone into hiding with the fall of Kaan's Brotherhood.
"Get out," Cyndra demanded, gesturing once again with her blaster. A small part of Zannah pitied the Chiss-Kel had used her then tossed her aside-while another part of her resented her blue-skinned romantic rival. But she was not about to let either emotion affect her thoughts or actions in any significant way.
She did as she was told, exiting the vehicle and submitting to another search by one of the red-robed guards before passively holding her hands out before her and allowing them to slap a pair of binder cuffs on her wrists. Only then did Cyndra finally put away her blaster, stuffing it into her belt and grabbing Zannah by the arm to pull her along after Paak and the guards.
The procession made its way through a high archway and into the marble-lined hall beyond. Paintings and sculptures lined the walls; floating holographic artworks hovered near the ceiling. The display of wealth would have impressed or even intimidated most visitors, Zannah suspected. She, however, saw the collection as nothing but a waste of funds that could have been better spent elsewhere.
The mansion was enormous, and it took them five full minutes to pass from the airspeeder landing pad to the reception chamber where Hetton awaited them. Zannah knew they were near their destination when they stopped before a pair of towering doors, closed and barring their progress. Two of the guards stepped forward, one on each door, and pushed them open.
The room beyond was thirty meters long and twenty meters wide. Like the halls, the walls were lined with art, and a long red carpet led to a small staircase and a raised dais at the far end. The room was devoid of furniture except for a large chair atop the dais, though Zan-nah thought it could more properly be described as a throne.
Sitting there, flanked by two more of the red-robed guards, was a man who could only be Hetton himself. He was small in stature, and older than she had suspected; he looked to be in his late fifties. She had expected him to be garbed in the colors of his house, but instead he wore black pants, a black shirt, black boots, and black gloves. Crimson striping trimmed the tops of his boots and the cuffs of his gloves. A hooded cape, also black with crimson trim, was draped across his shoulders, though the hood was thrown back to reveal his face.
He had fine gray hair, cropped very short. He had a long, pointed nose, and his pale blue eyes seemed small and too close together. There was a cruel tilt to his thin lips that made it almost appear as if he was sneering. As they entered, he leaned forward in his seat and clutched at the arms of his oversized throne; he looked hunched, sinister.
Although he was not conventionally attractive or physically imposing, there was an undeniable air of importance about him. Zannah suspected it was a natural confidence born of wealth and privilege, but as she was marched down the red carpet toward him, she realized it was something far more impressive: Hetton radiated with the power of the dark side!
They approached until they were ten meters from the steps leading up to Hetton's seat, then stopped at a signal from one of the guards flanking the throne. Their escort stepped to the side, leaving Zannah, Paak, and Cyndra alone before Hetton.
"And who are you, my dear?" Hetton asked, his words sharp and clipped as they echoed thinly off the walls of the great room.
"My name is Rainah," Zannah answered. "I am-I was-a friend of Kel's."
"Of course," Hetton said with a knowing smirk. "Kelad'den had many female friends."
"She's the one who betrayed us to the Republic!" Cyndra said angrily, shaking the still-cuffed Zannah by her elbow as she spoke.
"I didn't betray anyone," Zannah protested, stalling for time as she tried to gauge Hetton's power.
During the war between the Brotherhood of Darkness and the Army of Light, both sides had actively sought to recruit those with power into their ranks. But it would have been a simple enough matter for a family as obviously rich and powerful as Hetton's to shield one of their own from both the Jedi and the Sith.
"You knew every detail of our plan," Cyndra insisted. "Who else could it have been?"
"You and Paak seem to have survived somehow," Zannah remarked, letting the unspoken accusation hang in the air as she continued her subtle probing of Hetton.
His power didn't have the raw, untamed feel of one who had never been trained. Was it possible he'd once had a tutor or mentor? Had someone knowledgeable in the Force taught him the ways of the dark side, then abandoned him to follow Kaan? Or was there some other explanation?
"I am not a traitor!" the Chiss shouted angrily.
"Calm down, Cyndra," Hetton said, sardonically amused at her outrage. "Chancellor Valorum had a Jedi Knight with him. Your mission was doomed to failure from the start.
"And even if you had succeeded," he added, his voice dropping to a low and dangerous whisper, "you still would have brought the wrath of the Great Houses crashing down on us.
"What were you thinking?" he demanded with a sudden shout that made both Paak and Cyndra jump. Zannah could feel the air crackle as the small man called upon the Force, gathering the energies of the dark side. His power was undeniable, yet as she felt it building she was confident his abilities would be no match for hers. "Hetton, wait!" Paak shouted, sensing the peril they were in. "We've got something for you."
He held up Zannah's lightsaber, waving it above his head so Hetton would be sure to see it. The effect was immediate and instantaneous; the building power of the dark side vanished as Hetton froze, his eyes riveted on the hilt. After a moment he seemed to regain his composure and sat back down, signaling for one of his guards to bring the treasure to him.
When it was placed in his hand he studied it carefully for a full minute before setting it reverently in his lap.
"Where did you find this?" he asked softly, though there was a dangerous undercurrent in his voice.
"On her" Paak said. "She wouldn't tell us how she got it"
"Is that a fact?" Hetton muttered, suddenly staring at Zannah with renewed interest, running the fingers of one hand idly over the lightsaber's handle. "I would be most interested to learn how she acquired this particular specimen."
"Give me five minutes alone with her" Cyndra said. "I'll get her to talk."
Zannah decided that the game had gone on long enough. It would have been a simple matter to snatch the lightsaber back to her shackled hands using the Force, but she had other weapons at her disposal...
"The Force manifests itself in many different ways," Darth Bane told her. "Every individual has strengths and weaknesses-talents they excel at and others that are more difficult."
The twelve-year-old Zannah nodded. Several months before, Bane had unlocked a new data bank of information in Freedon Nadd's
Holocron. Though he wouldn't tell her what he had uncovered, he had added a new element to her training shortly after his discovery. Every two or three days he would put her through a series of rigorous tests and challenges designed to evaluate her command of different aspects of the Force.
Until today he had refused to discuss the results of his experiments with her, and Zannah was beginning to fear she had somehow failed him.
"Some possess raw elemental power; they can unleash storms of lightning from their fingertips, or move mountains with their mere thoughts. Others are more gifted in the subtle intricacies of the Force, blessed with the ability to affect the minds of friend and foe alike through the arts of persuasion or battle meditation."
He paused and fixed her with a long stare, as if considering whether to say more.
"A rare few have a natural affinity for the dark side itself. They can delve into the depths of the Force and summon arcane energies to twist and warp the world around them. They can invoke the ancient rituals of the Sith; they can conjure power and unleash terrible spells and dark magics."
"Is that my gift?" Zannah asked, barely able to contain her excitement. "Am I a Sith sorcerer?"
"You have the potential," Bane told her. From inside his robes he produced a thin leather-bound manuscript. "Hidden deep inside the Holocron, I discovered a list of powerful spells. I transcribed them into this tome. They will help you focus and channel your power for maximum effect... but only if you study them carefully."
"I will, Master" Zannah promised, her eyes gleaming as she reached out to take the book from his hands.
"My ability to guide and teach you in the ways of sorcery are limited," Bane warned her. "My talents lie in another direction. To unleash your full potential you will have to do much of the study and research on your own. It will be... perilous."
The thought of exploring the dark and dangerous secrets of Sith sorcery alone filled her with dread, but the chance to achieve a power beyond the abilities of her Master to comprehend was a temptation she could not resist.
"I will not disappoint you, Master" she vowed, clutching the tome tightly against her chest.
"And if you ever try to use one of your spells against me" Bane added as a final caution, "I will destroy you."
Zannah shook her elbow free of Cyndra's grasp and raised her shackled hands before her face. Weaving her ringers in a complex pattern in the air, she reached out with the Force and plunged deep inside the Chiss woman's mind to find her secret, most primal fears. Buried in her subconscious were nameless horrors: abominations and creatures of nightmare never meant to see the light of day. Drawing on the power of Sith sorcery, Zannah plucked them out and brought them to life one by one.
The entire process took less than a second. In that time Cyndra had drawn her weapon, but instead of pointing it at Zannah she suddenly screamed and aimed it high in the air above her, firing wildly at demons conjured from her own mind that only she could see.
The illusions grew more real and more terrifying the longer the spell continued, but Zannah had no intention of ending it yet. The Chiss shrieked and threw her weapon to the ground. She flung her head wildly from side to side, covering it with her arms and screaming "No!" over and over before collapsing on the floor. Weeping and sobbing, she curled up into a tight little ball, still muttering "No, no, no..."
Everyone else in the room was staring at her in horror and bewilderment. Some of the guards took a step back, afraid they might somehow become infected by her madness.
Zannah could have ended it then, dispelling the illusion and allowing Cyndra to fall into unconsciousness. She would wake hours later with only the most basic recollection of what had happened, her mind instinctively recoiling from the memories of what it had witnessed. Or Zannah could push the illusion even farther, driving her victim to the edge of insanity and beyond. An image of the Chiss romantically entangled with Kel sprang unbidden to her mind-and Zannah pushed.
Cyndra's cries of terror became animal howls as her sanity was ripped apart by the ghastly visions. Her hands scratched and clawed at her own eyes, tearing them out. Blood poured down her cheeks, but even blindness couldn't save her from the nightmares crawling through what was left of her mind.
Her howls stopped as her body went into seizure; her mouth foamed as her limbs convulsed wildly on the floor. Then, with a final bloodcurdling shriek, she fell suddenly limp and lay still. Her conscious mind completely and irrevocably obliterated, her catatonic body was now nothing more than an empty shell.
The body shivered once, and Zannah knew that somewhere in the deepest core of Cyndra's subconscious a small part of her still existed, silently screaming, trapped forever with the horrors inside her own mind.
Though everyone had borne witness to the Chiss's gruesome and terrifying end, Zannah was the only one who knew what had really happened. Yet even she was never quite certain just what her victims saw. Based on their reactions she figured it was probably better not to know. She coolly regarded Cyndra's body on the floor, still trembling occasionally, then glanced up to see Hetton staring at her intently.
She turned away when she heard Paak shouting at her from across the room.
"You did this!" He pointed an accusing finger at her. "Stop her or she'll kill us all!" he cried.
Several of the guards took a step toward her, only to pull up at a slight shake of the head from Hetton.
"She's not dead" Zannah announced. "Though whatever's left of her mind surely begs for death."
The answer did nothing to calm Paak's mounting hysteria. Reaching into his boot, he pulled out a short vibroblade and rushed at
Zannah with a scream.
The spell she had unleashed on Cyndra was powerful but exhaust-ing. Zannah doubted she'd be able to effect a similar reaction in Paak before he ran her through with his blade. So instead of sorcery, she turned to more conventional means to dispatch him.
Extending her shackled hands, she used the Force to draw the lightsaber from Hetton's lap, sending it flying across the room and into her waiting palm. As the blades ignited she casually snapped her restraints with a single thought
Paak had come in expecting to skewer a helpless prisoner; he wasn't ready to face an armed foe. She could have slain him right then and there, but she noticed that Hetton was still sitting passively in his seat, observing the action. Zannah decided she'd give him a show.
Instead of decapitating her overmatched opponent, she simply toyed with him, twirling and spinning the lightsaber through intricate, hypnotic patterns as she easily parried his ham-fisted blows. Paak was a brawler, all muscle and no technique, making it ridiculously simple for her to repulse his attacks. He came at her three times, hacking and slashing as he tried to bowl her over. Each time she would nimbly skip to one side and redirect his blade with her own, turning their combat into a dance where she was most definitely taking the lead.
After three failed passes, the tattooed man threw his blade down in frustration and scooped up Cyndra's fallen blaster. He took aim and fired twice from point-blank range, but Zannah didn't even flinch.
Using the precognitive awareness of the Force, she was easily able to anticipate the incoming shots and intercept them with the crackling crimson blades of her lightsaber. The first bolt ricocheted harmlessly up into the ceiling; the second she sent back at Paak.
It struck him square between the eyes, leaving a smoking hole in his forehead. His body went rigid, then toppled over backward.
Still twirling her weapon, Zannah turned to face Hetton again. He had not moved from his throne; nor had he made any signal to his guards. As she stared at him he rose slowly to his feet and walked down the stairs of the dais until he was standing only a few meters in front of her. Then he dropped to his knees before her and bowed his head.
In a trembling voice he whispered, "I have been waiting for someone like you my entire life."