Chapter 9: More Than Enough
In the hours they waited for the Aurek transport, Aitahea meditated. Her intention was twofold; she needed to heal, and the few quiet hours they had here might be the last for a long time. That seemed successful enough, her shoulder soothed and bruises eased away. Now she needed to think. The Rakata had given her a horrifying understanding, one that she truly did not want to explore, but the mission would demand it.
Aitahea knew the ritual. The extraction of another Force-user’s life in order to prolong that of another. A sacrifice.
While the Rakata had revealed to her the true meaning of the ritual that Isme sought, Aitahea was missing another essential piece of information: where the artifact that could focus the ritual was located. The location had been given to Isme alone – even if she didn’t know how to control it. Yet. It was a nasty trick the Rakata had played on them, handing enemies two pieces of a puzzle they both desperately wanted to solve and couldn’t without the other.
The Jedi hadn’t mentioned her alarming discovery to Erithon yet. She wanted to understand it a little better first, but her own meditations wouldn’t be enough. It would take the resources of the Jedi Council to truly assess what she knew, and perhaps more still. Aitahea considered her options. Traveling to Tython for access to the Archives and the wisdom of the Council would take too long. Aitahea would have some access from her ship, as well as still being able to travel. But the question was where to travel to.
She had one possibility in mind, and fortunately it was close. The galaxy was thick with Rakata influence, but nowhere else was it more accessible than Belsavis, the planetary prison the Republic had sought to keep secret. Aitahea knew that both Jedi champions, the Barsen’thor and the Hero of Tython, had dealt with the ancient race’s technology while completing missions there; the reports were readily available to any Jedi seeking knowledge. The location of the artifact – and Isme herself – could even be there, a stone’s throw away from Hoth.
Aitahea’s piece of the puzzle was most likely the reason Isme had spared their lives, Aitahea suspected. While the Sith girl had been suspicious of Aitahea’s sudden and emotional recognition, she didn’t seem to share it, so that knowledge hadn’t saved them.
Make that three items for meditation, Aitahea thought, reaching up to press her fingers to her temples. As if Isme herself were not enough of a challenge, the revelation of her identity had plunged Aitahea into a miasma of confusion and guilt.
Isme had been her friend, a fellow Initiate at the Jedi Academy on Coruscant. The terrified child with dark eyes and tawny, flyaway hair. Aitahea had only known Isme for a few months before their world was shattered around them, and she’d mourned the other child along with the rest of her clan of empaths.
Isme had been on the path of a Jedi once.
That realization tore Aitahea’s heart to pieces, each one bearing a question. Didn’t her clan perish at the hands of the Sith during the Sacking of Coruscant? Had Master Faron somehow been able to protect them? How did Isme survive? Did any of the others? Where were they? How had she become Sith?
And why, why hadn’t Isme been with Aitahea and her family that night Aitahea had been spared?
Aitahea knew the practical answer for that question: Isme had simply not been allowed to go with her friend. They were too young, and while Aitahea had her parents as guardians, Isme had no one but the Jedi. It hadn’t been permitted, and no amount of childish insistence had been able to change Master Faron’s mind.
Things could have been so different.
Distracted and frustrated by too many dark thoughts, Aitahea glanced over to where Erithon slept, leaned back against the wall of the shelter with one of their surviving packs as a pillow. As a Jedi, Aitahea had learned to keep her own council, but at the moment all she wanted was to pour out her uncertainty and doubt to the trooper – to her friend. It had felt good to explain to him the connection she felt they shared. Candor was an unusual freedom she rarely explored, nor had cause to.
She wondered as to the source of their bond, more complex than mutual respect and partnership, past a unified dedication to compassion – why this man, and why now? The memory of him playfully accusing her of ‘being in his head’ made her smile. She recognized Erithon’s teasing as a mechanism for his own understanding, a method of dealing with his uncertainty. And a very un-Jedi part of her enjoyed that she was foremost in his thoughts.
Aitahea had offered to take watch, given that she could meditate and still stay aware of their surroundings. She was glad he rested, smiling at the peace that had fallen over his sleeping countenance. It was the least she could offer for his dedication.
Finding a renewed peace in Erithon’s slumbering presence, the Jedi settled back into a comfortable position and closed her eyes. Meditation came easy.
When Isme woke, reeling from the use of the Rakata holocron, the Jedi and her trooper were both still unconscious. She would have killed them both and left them to rot in the tomb, but for this infuriating game the holocron occupant had set before them. Damn the Rakata!
Instead, she fled the ancient temple, destroying their speeder with a wave of her hand before racing away to the Imperial base to take her ship into orbit. She would determine her next destination from there; she already felt the pull of her prize on a planet she could not name. But even if she arrived there before the Jedi, she couldn’t take back the artifact without its instructions. This ridiculous contest was wasting her time, and time was not a luxury she enjoyed. Not as an apprentice.
She’d been a slave since she could remember. Her memories before arriving on Dromund Kaas were hazy and unpleasant– truly, nothing about her life before her arrival at Lord Zorion’s household was worth recalling.
Isme liked to believe she had been tested and found worthy the day she killed Lord Zorion’s two apprentices. She had been purchased for Zorion’s household due, in fact, to the presence of the new additions. An extra set of hands for the precocious young men who’d so recently returned from the Academy, ready and eager to prove themselves, not to mention indulge in their newly elevated status.
She’d spent the last several years as part of a huge slave population, easily managing to keep herself unnoticed or hidden. Now, suddenly thrust into the role of a solitary handmaiden, she was unusually exposed. She despised it, but her position gave her no room for complaints or protest. They intended their indulgences to include Isme, willing or not, that day she arrived.
When Lord Zorion walked into the room, Isme assumed that death would be the least punishment she could expect. The two apprentices were dead by her hand, and she – clothing torn and incandescent with anger and terror – held the offending weapon in her hand. It wasn’t even one of the boys’ lightsabers; it was a kitchen knife she’d secreted away, hidden in her apron. She wasn’t a fool, after all.
But Zorion only glanced at her with a raised brow before appraising the dead apprentices in disgust. “Wretched fools,” he sneered, dismissing their very corpses with a wave of his hand. Isme tensed as he turned to her, blood-slick hands clenching the knife tight, and stood her ground. Zorion nodded his approval and said the only words he would speak to her for a year:
“As a point of reference, this type of untidy violence is frowned upon at the Academy – though I certainly won’t deny it occurs when necessary. I would prefer you refrain from engaging in it while you’re there.”
And the next day she was on Korriban.
Isme was strong in the Force and knew it. She excelled at the Academy, besting rivals and surmounting challenges one after the other. She grew powerful, relishing the taste of freedom, however fleeting it was. Isme made her own choices, choices that benefited only herself. She became Sith. The Code was her mantra.
Peace is a lie, there is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
But she knew she hadn’t attained all she needed when Lord Zorion came to collect her. She was not yet free, still chained to a master. She was still bound, even if the terms of her servitude were different. It ate at her every day.
She learned to savor the fury that came with her captivity, capture it and make it hers. The passion that provided her with strength. The strength to – eventually – gain victory, break her chains both real and imagined.
Until that time, she remained in service to Lord Zorion and his whims. In truth, Isme rarely minded or disagreed with the missions he sent her on. More often than not it was to retrieve a curious relic, providing her with ample opportunity to explore the galaxy and teach herself whatever she could. It was a rather charmed life, considering all that had come before.
Isme hadn’t yet failed to return with each requested item, but Zorion was growing uncharacteristically impatient this time. Perhaps it was recent events – the alleged death of the Emperor at the hand of the Jedi – that had him on edge and pressing Isme to use more speed. The upper echelons of the Empire were in turmoil, not that Isme directly cared. She had no designs for the Dark Council.
What did she want? Isme wasn’t entirely sure. And other than in this specific case, she had time.
If she could learn the secrets of this particular artifact, she would have more than enough.
Erithon and Aitahea were both well rested by the time the small – but thankfully enclosed – transport from Aurek arrived at their location. The pilot brought news that Aitahea’s ship, the Luminous, had also returned to Hoth after Prelsiava had safely delivered the ambassadors to Coruscant.
They were ready to move. Aitahea sent a message ahead for Prelsiava to prepare to head for Belsavis, and explained their next destination to Erithon as they headed back to the base, seated facing each other in the small passenger section. He didn’t require much.
“That place is a nightmare,” he said with a groan, and Aitahea smiled ruefully at him. “Even this iceball is better. At least you stay one temperature – freezing.”
“I agree, but it’s necessary,” Aitahea said by way of apology. “Since we don’t have enough time to travel all the way to Tython, going directly to the source – the Rakata – is the next best option.”
“You’re right, of course,” Erithon admitted, shaking his head. His Force presence was strong and sure, but impatient. “We just don’t have the luxury of time.”
“No, we don’t,” the Jedi agreed. “We’ll have a little time to regroup while en route. I can show you what reports have been brought back by the Jedi on the Rakata influence on the planet. The data is substantial, but I recall a specific lead I want to follow.”
Erithon raised his brows at her. “Oh?”
“Another Consular, the Barsen’thor, encountered an ancient being called the Imprisoned One. It is – or at least was, once – Rakata. Powerful and dangerous, so much so that the Rakata themselves imprisoned him for his crimes.”
“Seeking to use the Force and some kind of nanotechnology to assure his own immortality, or so the reports state. He was regarded as a criminal and a heretic even amongst the Rakata,” she explained, looking at her hands.
“Sounds awfully close to what our Sith apprentice is pursuing,” Erithon muttered dryly. The Jedi nodded, eyes pensive. “So we find this guy, then what?”
“I’m hoping he’ll be able to tell us where to look for her.”
Erithon leaned forward, eyeing her critically. “I thought you said in that nasty temple that you knew where she was going.”
Aitahea sighed; this explanation was going to be long and complicated. “I wasn’t speaking clearly; I’m sorry. While you were unconscious, Isme opened the holocron at the same time I was reaching for it. Rakata technology is different – we were both… Isme and I were both given information from the holocron, just not the same information.
“The Rakata who created the holocron – the powerful personality inside that drives the holocron itself, beyond just a memory – found us amusing enough to begin a cruel game.” Aitahea paused, fighting to suppress a shudder. “She was given the location of the artifact, the one we suspect will transfer a Force-user’s life and energy to that of another. That’s why I want to go to Belsavis. It’s possible the artifact might be there in the vaults, or if not, the Rakata may know where it is now. I hope.” Aitahea swallowed hard, suddenly nauseous.
Erithon watched the Jedi pale and frowned grimly. “And what did it give you?”
A long, uncomfortable moment passed in which Aitahea remained silent and stoic. She looked troubled, Erithon thought, fragile and vulnerable and carrying an inexplicably heavy burden. He reached across the aisle, putting a gloved hand over hers, causing her to look up in surprise.
She turned her hand over, gripping his fingers feverishly, even as she closed her eyes in what looked all too much like pain. “It told me-” she choked, shuddering, “I know how to perform the ritual. I know the ritual.”
“Aitahea,” he whispered, trying to keep his voice low, “I don’t understand.”
The Jedi shook her head violently, as if trying to fling the thoughts from her head. “I know how to take the life from someone else and – and make it-” She held tight to his hand, as if it were a lifeline. “And it’s so simple,” she breathed, trembling. “Such a sickening, hideous deed, and so easy.”
“Okay, it’s okay,” Erithon soothed, apologetic and horrified all at once. “Let it go for now; we’ll deal with it later.” Despite his words, he didn’t let go of her hand – and if it hadn’t been for the blasted pilot, he’d have pulled her close. At least until she stopped shaking like she was.
Aitahea nodded repeatedly, swallowing hard, and finally looked up. “Thank you,” she whispered, and Erithon found in her eyes the recognition that she had seen what was in his heart – that desire to sweep her into his arms and tear away this thing that terrified her so much. To protect her, take away this unspeakable horror and put the galaxy to rights.
Erithon’s expression hardened for a moment and he nodded earnestly. “We’ll make this right, Aitahea. I swear it. Whatever we have to do, wherever we have to go. We’ll catch her.”
After a moment she smiled, color coming back to her cheeks and a sudden radiance warming her gaze. “I believe it when you say it.”