Bane's power was growing. In only a few months of training he had learned much about the Force and the power of the dark side. Physically, he felt stronger than ever before. In morning training runs he could sprint at nearly full speed for five kilometers before he even began breathing heavily. His reflexes were quicker, his mind and senses were sharper than he possibly could have imagined.
When necessary he could channel the Force through his body, giving him bursts of energy that allowed him to do seemingly impossible feats: perform full flips from a standing position; survive falls from incredible heights uninjured; leap vertically ten meters or more.
He was completely aware of his surroundings at all times, sensing the presence of others. Sometimes he could even get a feel of their intentions, vague impressions of their very thoughts. He was able to levitate larger objects now, and for longer periods. With each lesson his power grew. It became easier and easier to command the Force and bend it to his will. And with each week, Bane realized he had surpassed another of the apprentices who had once been ahead of him.
Less and less of his time was spent in the archives studying the ancient scrolls. His initial fascination with them had faded, swept away by the intensity of Academy life. Absorbing the knowledge of Masters long dead was a cold and sterile pleasure. Historical records were no competition for the feeling of exhilaration and power he felt when actually using the Force. Bane was part of the Academy and the Brotherhood of the Darkness. He was part of the now, not the ancient past.
He began to spend more time mingling with the other students. Already he could sense that some of them were jealous, though none dared to act against him. Competition among the students was encouraged, and the Masters allowed the rivalry to drift into the animosity and hatred that fueled the dark side. But there were harsh penalties for any apprentice caught interfering with or disrupting the training of another student.
Of course, all the apprentices understood that the punishment was actually for the crime of being careless enough to get caught. Treachery was tacitly accepted, as long as it was done with enough cunning to avoid the notice of the instructors. Bane's phenomenal progress protected him from the machinations of his fellow students; no one could move against him without drawing the attention of Qordis or the other Sith Lords.
Unfortunately, the extra attention made it difficult for Bane himself to use treachery, manipulation, or similar techniques to attain greater status within the Academy.
There was, however, one sanctioned way students could bring a rival down: lightsaber combat. The chosen weapon of both the Jedi and the Sith, the lightsaber was more than just a blade of energy capable of cutting through almost every material in the known galaxy. The lightsaber was an extension of the user and his or her command of the Force. Only those with strict mental discipline and total physical mastery could use the weapon effectively ... or so Bane and the others had been taught.
Few of the students actually possessed lightsabers yet; they still had to prove themselves worthy in the eyes of Qordis and the others. Yet that didn't keep Lord Kas'im, the Twi'lek Blademaster, from instructing them in the styles and techniques they would use once they had finally earned their weapons. Each morning the apprentices would gather on the wide, open roof of the temple to practice their drills and routines under his watchful eye, struggling to learn the exotic maneuvers that would bring them victory on the battlefield.
Perspiration was already running down the crown of Bane's head and into his eyes as he put his body through its paces. He blinked away the stinging sweat and redoubled his exertions, carving the air before him again and again and again with his training saber. All around him other apprentices were doing the same; each was struggling to conquer his or her own physical limitations and become more than just a warrior with a weapon. The goal was to become an extension of the dark side itself.
Bane had begun by learning the basic techniques common to all seven traditional lightsaber forms. His first weeks had been spent in endless repetitions of defensive postures, overhand strikes, parries, and counter-strikes. By observing the natural tendencies of his students as they learned the basics, Lord Kas'im determined which form would best match their style. For Bane he chose Djem So, Form V. The fifth form emphasized strength and power, allowing Bane to use his size and muscles to his best advantage. Only after he was able to perform each of the moves of Djem So to the satisfaction of Kas'im was he allowed to begin the real training.
Now, along with the other students at the Academy, he spent the better part of an hour each morning practicing his techniques with his training saber under the Blademaster's watchful eye. Made of durasteel with blunted edges, the training sabers were crafted specifically so that their balance and heft mimicked the energy beams projected by real light-sabers. A solid blow could inflict serious damage, but since a lightsaber did not work that way, each training blade was also covered with millions of toxin-filled barbs too small to see, fashioned from the microscopic ridge spines of the deadly pelko bug-a rare insect found only deep beneath the desert sands of the Valley of the Dark Lords on Korriban itself. With a direct hit, the minuscule barbs could pierce the weave of any fabric; the pelko venom would cause the flesh immediately to burn and blister. Temporary paralysis set in instantly at the point of infection, leaving any limb struck all but useless. This provided an excellent way to mimic the effects of losing a hand, arm, or leg to a lightsaber blade.
The morning was filled with the grunts of the apprentices and the swish-swish-swish as their blades sliced the air. In some ways it reminded Bane of his military training: a group of soldiers united in the repetition of drills until the moves became instinctive.
But there was no sense of camaraderie at the Academy. The apprentices were rivals, plain and simple. In many ways it wasn't that different from his days on Apatros. Now, however, the isolation was worth it. Here they were teaching him the secrets of the dark side.
"Wrong!" Kas'im suddenly barked. He had been walking up and down the ranks of apprentices as they trained, but had now stopped right beside Bane. "Strike with malice and precision!" He reached out and seized Bane's wrist, turning it roughly and changing the angle of the training blade. "You're coming in too high!" he snapped. "There is no room for error!"
He stayed at Bane's side for several seconds, watching to ensure the lesson had been properly learned. After several hard thrusts by Bane with the altered grip, the Blademaster nodded in approval and continued his rounds.
Bane repeated the single move over and over, careful to maintain the height and angle of the blade exactly as Kas'im had shown him, teaching his muscles through countless repetitions until they could replicate it flawlessly each and every time. Only then would he move on to incorporating it into more complicated maneuvers.
Soon he was breathing heavily from his exertions. Physically Kas'im's training sessions couldn't measure up to hammering a cortosis vein with a hydraulic jack for hours at a time. But they were far more exhausting in other ways. They demanded intense mental focus, an attention to detail that went far beyond what was visible to the naked eye. True mastery of the blade required a combination of both body and mind.
When two Masters engaged in lightsaber combat, the action happened too quickly for the eye to see or the mind to react. Everything had to be done on instinct; the body had to be trained to move and respond without conscious thought. To accomplish this, Kas'im made his students practice sequences, carefully choreographed series of multiple strikes and parries drawn from their chosen style. The sequences were designed by the Blademaster himself so that each maneuver flowed smoothly into the next, maximizing attack efficiency while minimizing defensive exposure.
Using a sequence in combat allowed the students to free their minds from thought as their bodies automatically continued through the moves. Using sequences was more efficient and much quicker than considering and initiating each strike or block on its own, providing an enormous advantage over an opponent unfamiliar with the technique.
However, ingraining a new sequence so it could be properly executed was a long and laborious process. For many it would take two to three weeks of training and drills-longer if the sequence was derived from a style the student was still struggling to master. And even the tiniest mistake in the smallest of moves could render the entire sequence worthless.
Kas'im had spotted a potentially fatal flaw in Bane's technique. Now Bane was determined to fix it, even if it meant hours of practice on his own time. Bane was relentless in his pursuit of perfection-not just in his combat training, but in all his studies. He was a man on a mission.
"Enough," Kas'im's voice called out. At that single command all the students stopped what they were doing and turned their attention to the Blademaster. He was standing at the head of the assemblage, facing them.
"You may rest for ten minutes," he told them. "Then the challenges will begin."
Bane, along with most of the others, lowered himself into a meditative position, legs crossed and folded beneath him. Laying his training saber on the ground beside him, he closed his eyes and slipped into a light trance, drawing on the dark side to rejuvenate his aching muscles and refresh his tired mind.
He let the power flow through him, let his mind drift. As it often did, it drifted back to the first time he'd touched the dark side. Not the fumbling brushes he'd had back on Apatros or during his days as a soldier, but a true recognition of the Force.
It had been his third day here at the Academy. He'd been applying the meditation techniques he'd learned the day before when suddenly he felt it. It was like the bursting of a dam, a raging river flooding through him, sweeping away all his failings: his weakness, his fear, his self-doubt. In that instant he'd understood why he was here. At that moment his transformation from Des to Bane, from mere mortal to one of the Sith, had truly begun.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory my chains are broken.
Bane knew all about chains. Some were obvious: an abusive, uncaring father; grueling shifts in the mines; debts owed to a faceless, ruthless corporation. Others were more subtle: the Republic and its idealistic promises of a better life that never materialized; the Jedi and their vow to rid the galaxy of injustice. Even his friends in the Gloom Walkers had been a kind of chain. He'd cared for them, been responsible for them. Yet in the end, what use had they been when he'd needed them most?
He understood now that personal attachments could only hold him back. Friends were a burden. He had to rely on himself. He had to develop his own potential. His own power. In the end, that was what it really came down to. Power. And, above all else, the dark side promised power.
He heard the sounds of movement around him; the soft shuffle of robes as the other apprentices rose from their meditations and made their way toward the challenge ring. He grabbed his training saber with one hand and sprang to his feet to join them.
At the end of each session the class would gather in a wide, irregular circle at the top of the temple. Any student could step into the circle and issue a challenge to another. Kas'im would observe the duels closely, and once it was over he would analyze the action for the class. Those who won would be praised for their performance, and their status in the informal hierarchy of the Academy would rise. Those who lost would be chastised for their failings, as well as suffering a blow to their prestige.
When Bane had first begun his training, many of the students had eagerly called him out. They knew he was a neophyte in the Force and they were eager to take down the heavily muscled giant in front of their classmates. At first he had declined the challenges. He knew they were the quickest way to gain prestige at the Academy, but he wasn't foolish enough to be drawn into a battle he was guaranteed to lose.
In the past months, however, he had worked hard to learn his style and refine his technique. He learned new sequences quickly, and when Kas'im himself had commented on his progress, Bane had felt confident enough to begin accepting the challenges. He wasn't victorious every time, but he was winning far more duels than he was losing, slowly climbing his way to the top of the ladder. Today he felt ready to take another step.
The apprentices were standing three rows deep, forming a ring of bodies around a clearing in the center roughly ten meters in diameter. Kas'im stepped into the middle. He didn't speak, but merely tilted his head-a sign that it was time for the challenges to begin. Bane stepped into the center before anyone else could make a move.
"I challenge Fohargh," he announced in ringing tones.
"I accept" came the reply from somewhere in the crowd on the opposite side. The apprentices parted to let the one challenged pass. Kas'im gave a slight bow to each combatant and stepped to the clearing's edge to give them room.
Fohargh was a Makurth. In many ways he reminded Bane of the Trandoshans he had fought in his days with the Gloom Walkers. Both species were bipedal saurians-lizardlike humanoids covered in leathery green scales-but the Makurths had four curved horns growing from the top of their heads.
Early in Bane's training, he had fought Fohargh-and he had lost. Badly.
The Makurth was nocturnal by nature. Like the miners of the night shift on Apatros, however, he had grown accustomed to an unnatural schedule in order to train with the rest of the apprentices at the Academy. During their first duel Bane had underestimated Fohargh, expecting him to be sluggish and slow during the daylight hours. He wouldn't make that mistake twice.
As Kas'im and the apprentices watched in silence, the two combatants circled each other in the ring, training sabers held out before them in standard ready stances. The Makurth's breath came in grunts and growls from his flaring nostrils as he tried to intimidate his human opponent. From time to time he'd give a short bellow and shake his four-horned lizard's head while flashing his savage teeth. The last time he'd faced the green-scaled, snorting demon of an apprentice, Bane had been intimidated by Fohargh's act. Now he simply ignored the posturing.
Bane lunged out with a simple overhand strike, but Fohargh responded with a quick parry to deflect the blow to the side. Instead of the crackle and hum of blades of pure energy crossing, there was a loud clang as the weapons clashed. Immediately the combatants spun away from each other and resumed their ready positions.
Bane rushed forward, his blade ascending diagonally from right to left in a long, swift arc. Fohargh managed to redirect the impact with his own weapon, but lost his balance and stumbled back. Bane tried to press his advantage, his training saber arcing up from left to right. His opponent spun out of harm's way, backpedaling quickly to create space. Bane broke off the half-completed sequence and settled back into the ready position.
Back on Apatros his latent abilities in the Force had allowed him to anticipate and react to the moves of his foe. Here, however, every opponent enjoyed the same advantage. As a result, victory required a combination of the Force and physical skill.
Bane had worked on acquiring that physical skill over the past months. As this ability grew, he was able to devote less and less of his mental energy to the physical actions of thrust, parry, and counterthrust. This allowed him to keep his mind focused so he could use the Force to anticipate his opponent's moves, while at the same time obscuring and confusing his enemy's own precognitive senses.
The last time he and Fohargh had fought, Bane had still been a novice. He had only learned a handful of sequences. Now he knew almost a hundred, and he was able to transition smoothly from the end of one sequence into the beginning of another, opening up a wider range of attack-and-defense combinations. And more options made it more difficult for a foe to use the Force to anticipate his actions.
Fohargh, despite his terrifying appearance, was smaller and lighter than his human opponent. Physically outmatched by the brute force of Bane's Form V, he was forced to rely on the defensive style of Form III to keep his larger opponent's overpowering attacks at bay.
Spinning his training saber in a quick flourish, Bane leapt high in the air and came crashing down from above. Fohargh parried the attack but was knocked to the ground. He rolled onto his back and barely managed to get his saber up in time to block Bane's next slashing attack. A chorus of metal on metal rang out as Bane's blows descended like rain. The Makurth kept him from landing a direct hit with a masterful defensive flurry, then swept Bane off his feet with a leg-whip, leaving them both supine.
They flipped to their feet simultaneously, mirror images, and their sabers met with another resounding crash before they disengaged once again. There were some whispers and mutters from the assembled crowd, but Bane did his best to tune them out. They had thought the battle was over ... as had Bane himself. He was disappointed that he hadn't been able to finish off his fallen opponent, but he knew victory was near. Fohargh's survival had extracted a heavy toll: he was breathing in ragged gasps now, his shoulders slumping.
Bane rushed Fohargh again. This time, however, the Makurth didn't back away. He stepped forward with a quick thrust, switching from Form III to the more precise and aggressive Form II. Bane was caught off guard by the unexpected maneuver and was a microsecond slow in recognizing the change. His parry attempt knocked the tip of the blade away from his chest, only to have it slice across his right shoulder.
The crowd gasped, Fohargh howled in victory, and Bane screamed in pain as the saber slipped to the ground from his suddenly nerveless fingers. Mindlessly, Bane used his other hand to shove his opponent in the chest. Fohargh reeled backward, and Bane rolled away to safety.
Scrambling to his feet, Bane extended his left hand to the training saber lying on the ground three meters away. It sprang up and into his palm, and he once again assumed the ready position, his right arm dangling uselessly at his side. Some Sith learned to fight with either hand, but Bane hadn't yet reached that advanced stage. The weapon felt awkward and clumsy as he held it. Left-handed, he was no match for Fohargh. The fight was over.
His opponent sensed it, as well. "Defeat is bitter, human," he growled in Basic, his voice deep and menacing. "I have bested you; you have lost."
He wasn't asking Bane to yield; surrender was never an option. He was simply taunting him, publicly humiliating him in front of the other students.
"You trained for weeks to challenge me," Fohargh continued, drawing out his mockery. "You failed. Victory is mine again."
"Then come finish me!" Bane snapped back. There wasn't much else he could say. Everything his enemy said in his heavily accented Basic was true, and the words cut far deeper than the blunted training saber's edge possibly could.
"This ends when I choose," the Makurth replied, refusing to be baited.
The eyes of the other apprentices burned into Bane; he could feel them drinking in his suffering as they stared at him. They resented him, resented the extra attention he had been receiving from the Masters. Now they reveled in his failure.
"You are weak," Fohargh explained, casually twirling his own saber in a complex and intricate pattern. "You are predictable."
Stop it! Bane wanted to scream. End this! Finish me! But despite the emotion building up inside him, he refused to give his opponent the satisfaction of saying another word. Instead he let the all-but-useless saber fall once more to the ground. In the background he could see the Blademaster watching intently, curious to see how the confrontation would reach its inevitable end.
"The Masters cosset you. They give you extra time and attention. More than the others. More than me."
Bane barely even heard the words anymore. His heart was pounding so loud he could hear the blood coursing through his veins. Literally quaking with impotent rage, he lowered his head and dropped to one knee, exposing his bare neck.
"Despite this, you are still my inferior ... Bane of the Sith."
Bane. Something in the way Fohargh said it caused Bane to glance up. It was the same way his father used to say the word.
"That name is mine," Bane whispered, his voice low and threatening. "Nobody uses it against me."
Fohargh either didn't hear him or didn't care. He took a leisurely step forward. "Bane. Worthless. An insignificant nothing. The Masters wasted their time on you. Time better spent on other students. You are well named, for you truly are this Academy's bane!"
"No!" Bane screamed, thrusting his good hand out palm-forward even as Fohargh leapt in to finish him off. Dark side energy erupted from his open palm to catch his opponent in midair, hurling him back to the edge of the crowd where he landed at Kas'im's feet.
The Master watched with an intrigued but wary expression. Bane slowly clenched his fist and rose to his feet. On the ground before him, Fohargh was writhing in agony, clutching at his throat and gasping for breath.
Unlike the Makurth, Bane had nothing to say to his helpless opponent. He squeezed his fist harder, feeling the Force rushing through him like a divine wind as he crushed the life out of his foe. Fohargh's heels pounded out a staccato rhythm on the temple's stone roof as his body convulsed. He began to gurgle, and pink froth welled up from between his lips.
"Enough, Bane," Kas'im said in a cold, even voice. Though he stood only centimeters away from the death throes of his student, his eyes were fixed on the one still standing.
A final surge of power roared up in the core of Bane's being and exploded out into the world. In response, Fohargh's body went stiff and his eyes rolled back in his head. Bane released his hold on the Force and his fallen enemy, and the Makurth's body went limp as the last vestiges of life ebbed away.
"Now it's enough," Bane said, turning his back on the corpse and walking toward the stairs that led back inside the temple. The circle of students quickly opened a path for him to pass. He didn't need to look back to know that Kas'im was watching him with great interest.
Bane felt the presence of someone following him down the stairs from the temple roof long before he heard the footsteps. He didn't change his pace, but he did stop at the first landing and turn to face whoever it was. He half expected to see Lord Kas'im, but instead of the Blademaster he found himself staring into the orange eyes of Sirak, another apprentice at the Academy. Or rather, the top apprentice at the Academy.
Sirak was a Zabrak, one of three apprenticing here on Korriban. Zabrak tended to be ambitious, driven, and arrogant-perhaps it was these traits that made the Force-sensitives of the race so strong in the ways of the dark side-and Sirak was the perfect embodiment of those characteristics. He was far and away the strongest of the three. Wherever Sirak went, the other two usually followed, trailing at his heel like obedient servants. They made a colorful trio: red-skinned Llokay and Yevra, and pale yellow Sirak. But right now the other two were conspicuously absent.
There were rumors that Sirak had begun studying the ways of the dark side under Lord Qordis nearly twenty years ago, long before the Academy at Korriban had been resurrected. Bane didn't know if the rumors were true, and he hadn't thought it wise to ask about it. The Iridonian Zabrak was both powerful and dangerous. So far Bane had done his best to avoid drawing the attention of the Academy's most advanced student. Apparently, that strategy was no longer an option.
The rush of adrenaline he'd felt as he'd ended Fohargh's life was fading, along with the confidence and sense of invincibility that had led to his dramatic exit. Bane wasn't exactly afraid as the Zabrak approached him, but he was wary.
In the dim torchlight of the temple, Sirak's pale yellow skin had taken on a sickly, waxen hue. Unbidden, it brought back memories of Bane's first year working the mines on Apatros. A crew of five-three men and two women-had been trapped in a cave-in. They had survived the collapsing tunnel by escaping into a reinforced safety chamber dug out of the rock, but noxious fumes released in the collapse had seeped into their haven and killed them all before rescue teams could dig them out. The complexion of their bloated corpses was the exact same color as Sirak's: the color of a slow, agonizing death.
Bane shook his head, pushing the memory away. That life belonged to Des, and Des was gone. "What do you want?" he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
"You know why I am here" was the icy response. "Fohargh."
"Was he a friend of yours?" Bane was genuinely confused. With the exception of his fellow Zabrak, Sirak rarely mingled with the other students. In fact, many of the accusations Fohargh had leveled at Bane-such as preferential treatment from the Masters-could easily be applied to Sirak, as well.
"The Makurth was neither friend nor enemy" was the haughty reply. "He was beneath my notice, as were you. Until now."
Bane's only reply was a steady, unblinking stare. The flickering torchlight reflecting off the Zabrak's pupils made it seem as if hungry flames licked away at the inside of his skull.
"You are an intriguing opponent," Sirak whispered, taking a step closer. "Formidable . . . at least compared with the other so-called apprentices here. I am watching you now. I am waiting."
He reached out slowly and pressed his finger into Bane's chest. Bane had to fight the urge to take a step back.
"I do not issue challenges," the Zabrak continued. "I have no need to test myself against a lesser opponent." Flashing a cruel smile, he lowered his finger and took a step back. "However, when you fool yourself into believing you are ready, you will inevitably challenge me. I shall be looking forward to it."
With that he brushed past Bane on the narrow landing, bumping him slightly with his shoulder as if unaware of him, then continuing on down the stairs to the level below.
The message of that slight bump was not lost on Bane. He knew Sirak was trying to intimidate him . . . and to goad him into a confrontation Bane wasn't ready for. He wasn't about to fall for the trap. Instead he stood motionless at the top of the landing, refusing to turn and watch Sirak depart. Only when he heard the sounds of the rest of the class descending from the roof did he move again, spinning on his heel and continuing down the stairs to the lower levels and the privacy of his own room.