Chapter 8: Like Drowning
“What’s that? A shelter?” The speeder skidded to a stop and Erithon pointed, eyes narrowed, at the horizon. The smooth line of the skyline was broken by a small bump. The trooper passed a pair of viewers to Aitahea, and she peered at the same spot.
They’d traveled for a few hours after the ambush at the starship graveyard, moving slower than they would have liked without more protection against the cold, both of them feeling the exhaustion of the skirmish. But there was no time to recover; the apprentice was still moving unhindered.
“I can’t be sure, but…” she paused, passing back the equipment before closing her eyes. She reached out in the Force for the now-familiar dark presence that would indicate the Sith apprentice. It didn’t take her long to find the threads of shadowy power that entwined the little mound. “Yes. She’s there. And she hasn’t gone far, either.” Aitahea’s brows knit, a strange sensation prickling at her mind. “She’s gone… down?”
Erithon started, surprised at the Jedi’s comment. “Can she do that?”
Aitahea shook her head, equally mystified. “I’m unsure how, but she’s traveling into the ice, down towards something. Something very evil.” The Jedi shivered, and not from the cold.
That was all the trooper needed to hear, and he swung the snowspeeder in the direction of the shelter and gunned the engines. “Then we’d better hurry.”
Reaching the makeshift shelter took only a short time, and the companions made note of the single speeder and small cache of supplies as they entered the tiny space. Aitahea had palmed her lightsaber, but didn’t ignite the blade. Erithon snapped on a glowrod to illuminate the dim interior and immediately noticed another opening, this one angled down and into the ice.
Aitahea knelt at the breach, hovering a hand over the recently bared surface. “She’s using the Force to cut through the ice,” she murmured, pulling her hand away quickly. “Fury and hate, tools of the Sith. And she’ll only find more power as she goes further.” The Jedi stood, looking back to Erithon. Her skin was pallid in the greenish light of the glowrod. “She’s found an ancient temple of some kind, buried under the ice here.”
“Is it the weapon she’s been looking for?” Erithon asked, drawing one of the smaller blasters he carried.
“We have to assume so. She’ll be more dangerous and far stronger here than she would have been otherwise,” Aitahea admitted. “We have to stop her before she finds whatever is down there.”
“Strong or not, there’s only one of her and two of us,” the trooper reassured, giving Aitahea a confident grin as he nodded. She slowly nodded in return, buoyed by his self-assurance and optimism.
Aitahea took a moment to clear her head. The dark side presence was creeping into her thoughts and emotions, threatening her concentration and sureness. She pushed the ominous sensation aside forcefully. Peace. Serenity. Harmony, she thought, centering her mind. She found hope in Erithon’s luminous presence as well, and she smiled boldly.
“The Force is with us, Erithon. We’ll stop her.”
The apprentice looked up, turning languidly to meet her visitors with a cloying smile. “Oh, how nice, Jedi, you brought a friend,” she taunted. “I’ve been expecting you, but it would have been polite to inform me that you were bringing a guest.”
Erithon raised an eyebrow at the banter, unimpressed. “Cute. Do they all talk like this?”
Aitahea shook her head, though whether it was in response or a refusal to answer, the trooper couldn’t tell. She began approaching the Sith girl, her lightsaber stowed on her belt and hands open in a gesture of benevolence.
“Please, this isn’t something we have to do. Just tell me what you’re looking for,” Aitahea coaxed. Erithon swore he could feel a strange pressure in her words.
“Master Jedi, do you really think that trick will work on me?” the girl smirked, dark eyes glinting red for a split second. Aitahea stopped, letting her hands fall to her sides. Erithon began edging around the perimeter of the room, planning to get on the Sith’s other side while she was focused on the Jedi.
“Isme,” Aitahea gasped. The apprentice’s eyes narrowed dangerously; she snapped on her lightsaber and brought it to bear. The Jedi, stock still and wide eyed, made no move to draw her own weapon.
“How do you know my name?” Isme demanded, her sudden wrath noticeable even to Erithon, who paused to look worriedly at Aitahea. The Consular seemed frozen with indecision, even as the Sith continued to advance on her.
“It wasn’t in the file,” Aitahea whispered. “I… just know. I know you.” A single tear coursed down one cheek, unnoticed by the distraught Jedi. Erithon eyed them both warily, shocked at his Jedi’s uncontrolled behavior. What was happening here?
Aitahea herself felt fuzzy and confused. She was tired, hurt, and the sudden shock of recognition had sent her reeling, losing all sense of composure, no touchstones of her training within reach. She drowned in darkness and confusion. Who was this Sith girl? What could make her so familiar, enough to call up her name?
Despite her many missions to defeat or defy similar foes, this girl was different. Some deep part of Aitahea remembered her, recognized her in spirit. And she sensed the Sith’s equal response, beyond the impassioned suspicion that accompanied their mutual recognition.
But Isme was Sith and refused to submit to her own apprehension. Instead, she threw her head back and laughed, the sound colder than the ice that surrounded them, chilling both Aitahea and Erithon to the bone. He circled further; just a little more and he’d be able to flank the Sith without putting Aitahea, obviously still troubled, at risk.
“That is extraordinarily unlikely, Jedi, unless you’ve spent time on Korriban,” she smirked, lowering her lightsaber. “You don’t have nearly enough darkness for that. You would never have survived.” Isme turned away from the Jedi, stalking back to the strange altar she’d been standing before.
The trooper had his blaster trained on the apprentice, ready to take her down, when she unexpectedly spun to face him, one arm flung out and crackling with lightning. The weapon jerked out of his hands and Erithon found himself slammed back against the freezing stone of the tomb. Aitahea’s voice echoed through the room in a wordless cry of alarm.
“No… fair,” he grunted, straining against the invisible bonds. Isme’s icy laugh rang through the temple again, punctuated by the sound of Aitahea’s jade lightsaber being ignited, her affliction broken as Erithon came into harm’s way. The Jedi pointed the bright weapon at her foe, ready to spring. Isme simply sneered and threw her arm to the side, causing Erithon to fly across the room, colliding with the adjacent wall and slumping boneless to the floor, clearly unconscious.
“Idiot,” Isme scoffed, turning back to the altar once more and ignoring Aitahea as she stalked forward. “As if some Force-blind grunt could stop me.”
Aitahea reached to brush Erithon’s presence, silent but still strong and alive. Relief swept over her, strengthening her will. She thrust her own fury deep, back into the recesses of her mind, knowing that it would only enhance the effect of the insidious dark side powers that swirled through the tomb. Peace. Harmony. Serenity. “I can stop you by myself, Isme, if I must,” Aitahea assured, brandishing her lightsaber. “I won’t let you hurt anyone else.”
“I am not swayed by your intimidation, Jedi,” Isme murmured, her focus on the altar, both the girl and the stone swathed in darkness. The capstone shuddered once, twice. “Or by fear.” Cracked.
“Stop now, Isme, before it’s too late.”
The Sith turned to glare impatiently at Aitahea. Beneath the cast of red, her eyes were brown. Auburn hair escaped her dark hood in flyaway tendrils. Aitahea gasped, once again overwhelmed by the strange familiarity she sensed in the other girl.
“You Jedi talk too much,” she hissed, and Aitahea found herself lifted into the air, an unseen hand closing around her throat. The Jedi struggled uselessly, her lightsaber falling from her hand as she instinctively reached for her neck. It was more than the loss of air; a shadow invaded her thoughts. She would die here, Erithon would die here, and countless others would perish at the hands of the Sith. All because Aitahea would fail.
“No!” the strangled denial ripped from her throat, and Aitahea collapsed to the floor, gasping. Isme looked back at her, surprise registering in her expression for the first time.
“Hm. That was interesting,” she observed briefly, before turning back to the altar. The capstone had been shattered, and Isme hovered a hand over the recess inside, ready to draw out the contents. “You are rather strong, after all. But no matter, I’m almost finished here. You might as well observe.”
Aitahea, on hands and knees, struggled to lift her head. She watched a triumphant smile blossom on the apprentice’s face as she removed a small, intricate pyramid from the niche. A holocron.
If she’d had the strength to do so, Aitahea might have laughed in relief. The holocron could not be the dangerous artifact itself; it could only hold instructions and location. There was still time to make this right.
“They’re lovely, aren’t they, Jedi?” Isme marveled, turning to display the object hovering above her palm. “So much power in one beautiful little container. So easy, so accessible.” The holocron spun slowly in her grasp, Isme admiring it as it turned.
Biding her time, Aitahea pretended to keep recovering, shrouding her true intentions in her very real pain and exhaustion. Erithon still remained unconscious across the room, unable to assist her. Aitahea focused, drawing on the last of her reserves for strength.
“Now, let us see what dark wisdom it holds, shall we?” Isme murmured, closing her eyes. She cupped the holocron in both hands, crystal facets winking darkly as it began to open.
Aitahea moved. She flung herself painfully to her feet, reaching for the holocron. Isme’s eyes flickered open, shocked and furious, for a split second. Then everything went white.
“Blast it, Jedi! What have you done?” Isme shrieked into the emptiness.
Aitahea tried to look around, but there was literally nothing to look at. She hung suspended in nothingness. The sensation was not uncomfortable, as there was no point of reference for comfort or otherwise. Isme was nearby, unable to be seen, but the Jedi was buffeted by her fury and frustration.
“This is Rakata,” Aitahea murmured. She’d encountered the strange technology left behind by the Infinite Empire, millennia before the Republic, in other missions, and it was unmistakable. Despite their power, the Rakata had eventually fallen to their own machinations, but their influence played havoc on the galaxy for eons.
“Ah, little Force children,” a low voice greeted, and Aitahea noted strange but familiar form of a Rakata approaching. “Oh, Sith, so eager and angry. You I am familiar with.” Aitahea could feel Isme’s indignant rage pierce the Force. The Rakata turned its eyes to the Jedi then. “But you… something different. Something new. Interesting.”
“She is nothing!” Isme howled, uncontrolled rage at her own powerlessness. “I came here for your power, your knowledge! Give it to me!”
“No!” Aitahea protested, feeling like an argumentative child. She pushed away her irritation and stilled her panic. “She intends to do great harm!”
The Rakata seemed to chuckle deep in its throat, revealing rows of sharp teeth. “Fascinating. One who desires knowledge, another who wishes to keep it hidden.” The creature sighed in satisfaction, seeming to relish the dilemma before it. “It has been ages since I last had any entertainment. This seems as generous an opportunity as any.
You, little Sith, seeker of my dark wisdom. You may have it.” Aitahea heard Isme hiss in satisfaction. “But you, bright one, you will also receive knowledge. What will you do with it, I wonder?”
Aitahea shuddered and drew her arms around herself, suddenly freezing. “No, no, that is not what I seek.”
“Nevertheless, small creatures, that is what I will provide. Off with you now, little ones. I will watch what unfolds with great interest.” The Rakata offered a brief, mocking bow, then faded into the nothingness. Isme was gone as well. Aitahea was more alone than she had ever been in her life. Then the whispering began.
She covered her ears and screamed.
“Aitahea! Aitahea! Blast it, Jedi, open your eyes!”
Aitahea’s eyes finally fluttered open to focus on the worried face of Erithon, hovering over her. He looked intact, other than a few fresh scratches in his armor, and none the worse for wear after his encounter with the apprentice. He had one arm under Aitahea’s shoulders, the rest of her laying on the freezing stone floor of the ancient temple. The cold had seeped into her body; she shivered like she might never be warm again.
“Stars!” she gasped and flung herself heedlessly into his arms. Erithon gathered her close and pressed his face into her shoulder. “I was afraid she’d kill you.”
“So was I, to be honest,” Erithon replied, releasing the Jedi only to grasp her by the shoulders and look her over. He smoothed a hand over her hair, causing her to smile tremulously. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“The holocron,” Aitahea shuddered, prompting the trooper to study her carefully once again. “It’s gone.”
“And so’s your Sith. But she let us live. What does that mean?” Erithon pressed, and Aitahea shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, turning her head to look at the shattered altar. “Isme. Something stopped her. No,” Aitahea amended, shaking her head again. “She stopped herself. There’s something about her, some connection we have.”
“I don’t know, I can’t remember.” The Jedi looked vaguely at Erithon, eyes clouded. “But we have to get away from here. I can’t focus. And we have to find her. Find Isme.”
“But we have no idea where she’s going! How are we going to track her? The same way you did before? She’ll be expecting it!”
Aitahea’s eyes emptied for a long, terrifying moment. Erithon was about to shake her when she blinked rapidly and then doubled over, trembling violently.
“Aitahea!” Erithon gathered her into his arms, her slender fingers grasping at the edges of his armor.
“I know,” she moaned, shaking her head. “I know. The ritual. The holocron, I saw it, I know what she needs.” She sagged weakly against him; Erithon had to wrap both arms around her to keep her upright. “Please. You have to get me out of here.”
“Done,” he stated, sweeping her up and cradling her close before standing. “We’re out of here.” Aitahea didn’t reply other than to voice a soft murmur of assent. “Stay with me, Jedi. We’re not done yet.”
The first third of their journey was difficult, trying to climb the slick ice stairs while supporting the barely-conscious Jedi. Erithon was surprised they were still intact; Isme must have wanted a quick escape. The further from the tomb they got, the more strength Aitahea seemed to regain. After a time she affirmed that she could climb independently, and their journey grew far quicker after that.
When they reached the surface, the wreckage of their speeder and the Force-made shelter indicated that the Sith apprentice had found some time to hinder their pursuit. Erithon swore colorfully before calling Aurek for transport. It would still take them quite a few hours to arrive, avoiding the same wreck they’d been ambushed at, but at least they were on their way.
Aitahea was improving with every minute, her disorientation and weakness fading. Erithon quickly set up the temporary shelter from their mercifully intact supplies and got them both settled inside.
“What was that all about down there?” he asked the Jedi once they were installed safely in the shelter, divested of weapons and packs. A small heater brought a cheery warmth to the small space, warding off not only the cold but Aitahea’s disturbing malaise. He insisted on looking her over for injuries, causing her some small amount of consternation as he gently but firmly examined her.
“Dark side energies,” she said, shuddering at the memory. “Extraordinarily powerful and millennia old,” she added as the trooper turned her head to the side with one hand, scowling at the bruises on her neck. “I’m surprised you didn’t notice it as well.”
Erithon eyed the Jedi skeptically and dropped his hand from her face. “I’m not a Force user.” The blaster injury to her shoulder didn’t seem any worse, but Erithon took out the medkit and made to change the hastily applied kolto bandage. That at least seemed to comfort him, being unable to do anything about the bruises. The shelter was considerably warmer than the shadowy temple, but Aitahea still shivered when he carefully pulled aside the collar of her robe. He was all business and purpose, yet Aitahea could still sense an undercurrent of longing beneath his efficient ministrations. She fought to focus on their conversation.
“One doesn’t always have to be Force sensitive to feel darkness or light. The Force flows through all of us.” Aitahea winced when Erithon removed the bandage, exposing singed flesh to the frigid air. He moved quickly to apply the new dressing, and the Jedi sighed in relief. “Thank you. I’ll be able to heal it myself after I’ve recovered some.”
“Well, in the meantime, you’ll have to settle for good old kolto,” Erithon replied, gently drawing her collar back into place and struggling to hide the flush that briefly colored his cheeks. Finally satisfied with her condition, Erithon sat back and considered. “Come to think if it, that was a pretty creepy spot. No doubt about that.”
Pulling her hood and cloak closer to ward off a sudden chill, Aitahea nodded her agreement. “I should be thankful that was all you felt. For me…” she trailed off, shaking her head and wrapping her arms around herself. “It was like drowning. Suffocating.”
Erithon frowned, furrowing his brow at her explanation. “I’m not sure I really understand. I mean, I could see it was affecting you, and it wasn’t good.”
The Consular raised a hand, palm facing toward Erithon. “There are two sides to the Force, as you’ve probably heard. The light and the dark. Jedi, for the most part, seek the light, following a path of service and compassion. We give, we serve, in an effort to create balance in the galaxy.” She twisted her wrist, turning the back of her hand to Erithon. “The Sith philosophy is to follow one’s passions, to use the power of the Force to dominate and serve themselves.”
“I remember you saying something about her being angry,” Erithon interjected, watching her hand curiously.
“Yes. While a Jedi will try to control her emotions in order to make responsible, impartial decisions, a Sith will harness these darker, more personal emotions to tap into more power. Anger, fear, hate.” Aitahea sighed, closing her hand into a tight fist. “I’m not as strong there, in a place so imbued with that kind of influence. It’s difficult and… disorienting,” she explained, letting her fingers uncurl slightly, as if she held something precious in her empty hand. “But fighting it is worth it, in the end. Light will always find its way.”
“I can see that,” Erithon began, reaching out to clasp her hand between his own. “You managed to save my life, whatever you did. That apprentice knocked me pretty silly there for a while.” He smiled gratefully and smoothed his hands over her shoulders, hoping to warm her. “That was something.”
Aitahea smiled, allowing herself to ease into Erithon’s grasp. The connection was soothing, and despite herself, Aitahea found herself craving the comfort of contact after her brush with the dark side. “We’re partners, Erithon. As long as I’m able to, I’ll protect you.” She looked up at him, green eyes warm.
Erithon stared, fingers tightening on her arms. Stars, he wanted to kiss her right then, just start kissing her and not stop, the mission and the Sith and the whole frozen planet be damned. Unthinkingly, he had drawn her close, one arm at her back and the other behind her head, pulling her to him. He’d forgotten the temple, forgotten everything but his joy at her safety; that she was here, close to him, whole and lovely. She was all that mattered.
He’d just begun to lean down when Aitahea ducked, and the surprised Erithon planted a kiss on the hood of her cloak. He pulled back in chagrin, and Aitahea began giggling. One hand covered her mouth, though it couldn’t hide the mischievous smile that glittered in her eyes or the bright blush that colored her cheeks. Erithon gaped, dumbfounded.
“I’m sorry,” Aitahea laughed, “That wasn’t really fair of me.”
“Well, I was- I just,” Erithon stammered, before narrowing his eyes at the Consular, half playful, half accusing. “Hey, I thought you said you weren’t in my head. Damn right it isn’t fair.”
“Your, ah, objective right then was unmistakable. It practically ran me over like a bantha stampede,” she teased, the words punctuated with more gentle laughter.
Seconds later he gave up entirely, dropping his head into his hands. “Wow. I would pick the only Jedi empath on Hoth as the girl I wanted to put the moves on.”
Aitahea leaned forward, reaching out with just slightly trembling fingers to touch Erithon’s dusky blonde hair. He looked up in surprise, and she traced her fingers down his cheek. Her smile was achingly patient. Erithon thought his heart might just pound right through his armor.
“Don’t give up, Major. There is a battle here yet to be decided,” Aitahea explained, eyes secretive and pensive. Her smile gently faded, and Erithon found her pressed against his chest, her head on his shoulder. “We have a strong connection. It’s difficult to shield myself from your feelings, or you from mine,” she added quietly. Erithon felt her shiver, an echo of the flipping he felt his stomach doing. It wasn’t at all unpleasant. “But I’m not sure I want to.”
He put his arms around her, carefully and as platonic as he could this time. “I’m not sure I understand,” he admitted.
“That makes two of us,” Aitahea answered, closing her eyes.