The next morning Bane was not with the other students on the temple roof as they sparred. Lord Qordis wanted to speak with him. Privately.
He strode through the virtually empty halls of the Academy toward the meeting, his outward appearance calm and confident. Inside he was anything but.
All night, as he lay surrounded by the silence and darkness of his room, the duel had played itself over and over in his head. Free from the emotion of the battle, he knew he had gone too far. He had proven his dominance over Fohargh by pinning him with the Force; he had achieved dun moch. The Makurth would never dare to challenge him again. Yet for some reason Bane hadn't been able to stop there. He hadn't wanted to stop.
At the time he had felt no guilt over his actions. No remorse. Yet once his blood cooled, part of him couldn't help but feel he had done something wrong. Had Fohargh really deserved to die?
But another part of him refused to accept the guilt. He'd had no love for the Makurth. No feelings at all. Fohargh had been nothing but an obstacle to Bane's progress. An obstacle that had been removed.
He had given himself over to the dark side completely in that moment. It had been more than simple rage or bloodlust. It went deeper, to the very core of his being. He'd lost all reason and control . . . but it had felt right.
Bane had spent a long and sleepless night trying to reconcile the two emotions: triumph and remorse. But when the summons came that morning his inner conflict had been swept away by more immediate concerns.
Fohargh's death would have repercussions. Combat was supposed to test the apprentices, harden their mettle through struggle and pain. It wasn't meant to kill. Each and every disciple at the Academy, from Sirak down to the least and lowest of the students, had the ability to become a Master. Each possessed an extremely rare gift in the dark side-a gift that was meant to be used against the Jedi, not against one another.
In killing Fohargh, Bane had thinned the ranks of potential Sith Masters. He had dealt a serious blow to the war effort. Each apprentice at the Academy was valued more highly than an entire division of Sith troopers. He had destroyed an invaluable tool. For that, Bane suspected, he would be punished severely.
As he marched toward the meeting that could decide his fate he tried to push both fear and guilt from his mind. Nothing he did now could bring Fohargh back. The Makurth was gone, but Bane was still here. And he was a survivor. He had to be strong. He had to find some way to justify his actions to Lord Qordis.
He was already putting together his arguments. Fohargh had been weak. Bane hadn't just killed him: he'd exposed him. Qordis and the other Masters encouraged rivalry and dissension among their charges. They understood the value of challenge and competition. Those who showed promise-the individuals who elevated themselves above the others-were rewarded. They received one-on-one instruction with the Masters to reach their full potential. Those who could not keep up were left behind. That was the way of the dark side.
Fohargh's death was no more than a natural extension of the dark side philosophy. His death was the ultimate failure-his own failure. Why should Bane be blamed for another's weakness?
His pace quickened and he clenched his teeth in angry frustration. No wonder his emotions were so conflicted. The teachings of the Academy were self-contradictory. The dark side allowed for no mercy, no forgiveness. Yet the apprentices were expected to pull back once they had bested their opponents in the dueling ring. It was unnatural.
He had reached the threshold of Qordis's door. He hesitated, briefly wavering between fear of what his punishment would be and anger at the impossible situation he and all the other apprentices were put in every day.
Anger, he finally decided, would serve him best.
He knocked sharply at the door, then opened it when the command to enter came from within. Qordis was kneeling in the center of the chamber, deep in meditation. Bane had been in this room before, but he couldn't help but marvel at the extravagance. The walls were adorned with expensive tapestries and hangings. Golden braziers and censers burning heavy incense were scattered haphazardly about to provide a dim glow in the hazy air. In one corner was a large, luxuriant bed. In another was an intricately carved table of obsidian, a small chest atop it.
The lid of the chest was open, revealing the jewelry inside: necklaces and chains of precious metals, rings of gold and platinum encrusted with ostentatious gemstones. Qordis took great pains to surround himself with material goods and the trappings of wealth, and he took greater pains to make sure others noticed his opulence. On some level, Bane suspected, the Sith Lord derived pleasure-and power-from the covetous desire and greed his possessions inspired in others.
The trinkets held little interest for Bane, however. He was more impressed with the manuscripts and tomes that lined the bookshelves along the wall, each a magnificent volume clad in leather embossed with gold leaf. Many of the volumes were thousands of years old, and he knew they contained the secrets of the ancient Sith.
At last Lord Qordis rose to his feet, standing tall and straight so he could look down on his student with his gray, sunken eyes.
"Kas'im told me what happened yesterday morning," he said. "He tells me you are responsible for Fohargh's death." The tone of his voice gave Bane no clues as to his emotional state.
"I am not responsible for his death," Bane answered calmly. He was angry, but he wasn't stupid. He chose his next words very carefully; he wanted to convince Lord Qordis, not enrage him. "Fohargh was the one who let his guard down. He left himself vulnerable in the ring. It would have shown weakness not to take advantage of it."
His statement wasn't entirely factual, but it was close enough to the truth. One of the first lessons Kas'im taught students was how to build a protective shield around themselves in combat to prevent an enemy from using the Force against them. A Force-talented opponent could yank away your lightsaber, knock you off balance, or even extinguish your lightsaber's blade without the touch of a hand or weapon. A Force-shield was the most basic-and most necessary-protection there was.
It had become instinctive for all the apprentices, almost second nature. As soon as the blade was drawn, the protective veil went up. Guarding against the Force powers of the enemy and obscuring your own intentions required as much concentration and energy as augmenting your physical prowess or anticipating the moves of your foe. It was that unseen part of combat, the invisible battle of wills, not the obvious interaction of bodies and blades, that more often than not decided the fate of a duel.
"Kas'im says Fohargh did not lower his guard," Qordis countered. "He says you simply ripped through it. His defenses could not stand before your power."
"Master, are you saying I should hold back if my opponent is weak?" It was a loaded question, of course. One Qordis didn't even bother to answer.
"It is one thing to defeat an opponent in the ring. But even once he was down, you continued to attack him. He was beaten long before you killed him. What you did was no different from striking with the blade against a fallen and unconscious foe . . . something that is not permitted in the training ring."
The words struck too close to home, dredging up the guilt Bane had tried to bury even as he had made his way to this meeting. Qordis was silent, waiting for Bane's reaction. Bane had to make some type of reply. But the only answer he could come up with was a question he had wrestled with in the twilight hours before dawn. "Kas'im knew what was happening. He could see what I was doing. Why didn't he stop me?"
"Why not, indeed?" Qordis replied smoothly. "Lord Kas'im wanted to see what would happen. He wanted to see how you would act in that situation. He wanted to see if you would be merciful . . . or if you would be strong."
And suddenly Bane realized he hadn't been called into the Master's room to be punished. "I ... I don't understand. I thought it was forbidden to murder another apprentice."
Qordis nodded. "We cannot have the students attacking each other in the halls; we want your hatred to be directed against the Jedi, not one another." The words echoed the argument Bane had been having with himself only minutes earlier. But what came next was something he hadn't anticipated.
"Despite this, Fohargh's death may turn out to be a minor loss if it helps you to achieve your full potential. Exceptions can be made for those who are strong in the dark side."
"Like Sirak?" Bane asked, the words out of his mouth before he even realized what he was saying.
Fortunately, the question seemed to amuse Lord Qordis rather than offend him. "Sirak understands the power of the dark side," he said with a smile. "Passion fuels the dark side."
"Peace is a lie, there is only passion." Bane muttered out of habit. "Through passion, I gain strength."
"Exactly." Qordis seemed pleased, though with himself or his student it was hard to tell. "Through strength, I gain power; through power, I gain victory?'
"Through victory my chains are broken," Bane dutifully recited.
"Understand this-truly understand it-and your potential is limitless!"
Qordis gave a dismissive wave of his hand, then settled back onto his meditation mat as Bane turned to go. At the door of the room, though, the young man paused and turned back.
"What is the Sith'ari?" he blurted out.
Qordis tilted his head to the side. "Where did you hear that word?" His voice was grave.
"I ... I've heard some of the other students use it. About Sirak. They say he could be the Sith'ari."
"Some of the old texts speak of the Sith'ari," Qordis answered slowly, gesturing with a ring-laden claw at the books scattered about the room. "They say the Sith will one day be led by a perfect being, one who embodies the dark side and all we stand for."
"Sirak is this perfect being?"
Qordis shrugged. "Sirak is the strongest student at the Academy. For now. Perhaps in time he will surpass Kas'im and me and all the other Sith Lords. Perhaps not." He paused. "Many of the Masters do not believe in the legend of the Sith'ari," he continued after a moment. "Lord Kaan discounts it, for one. It goes against the philosophy underlying the Brotherhood of Darkness."
"What about you, Master? Do you believe in the legend?"
Bane waited while Qordis considered his reply. It felt like forever.
"These are dangerous questions to ask," the Dark Lord finally said. "But if the Sith'ari is more than a legend, he will not simply be born as the exemplar of all our teachings. He-or she-must be forged in the crucibles of trial and battle to attain such perfection. Some might argue such training is the purpose of this Academy. But I would counter by insisting that we train our apprentices to join the ranks of the Sith Lords so they may stand alongside Kaan and the rest of the Brotherhood."
Realizing that was as good an answer as he was going to get, Bane nodded and left. He had been absolved of his crime, given a pardon because of his power and potential. He should have been exultant, triumphant. But for some reason all he could think about as he headed up to the roof to join the other students was the sticky gurgles of Fohargh's dying breaths.
That night, in the privacy of his room, Bane struggled to make sense of what had happened. He sought the deeper wisdom behind the Master's words. Qordis had said that his emotions-his anger-had let him summon up the strength to defeat Fohargh. He said passion fueled the dark side. Bane had felt this enough times to know it was true.
But he couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to it than that. He didn't consider himself a cruel person. He didn't believe he was ruthless or sadistic. Yet how else to explain what he had done to the helpless Makurth? It had been murder, or execution ... and Bane was having trouble accepting it.
He had a lot of blood on his hands: he'd killed hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Republic soldiers. But that had been war. And the ensign he'd killed on Apatros had been a case of self-defense. Those were all cases of kill or be killed, and he had no regrets about what he'd done. Unlike yesterday.
No matter how he tried, he couldn't find a way to justify what had happened in the ring. Fohargh had taunted him, feeding his rage and lethal fury. Yet he couldn't even use the excuse that he'd been swept up in the heat of the moment. Not if he was being honest with himself. He'd felt his emotions raging through him as he'd drawn on the dark side, but the act itself had been cold and deliberate. Calculating, even.
Lying in his bed, Bane couldn't help but wonder if the relationship between passion and the dark side was more complex than Qordis had made it seem. He closed his eyes, thinking back on what had happened. He took slow, deep breaths, trying to stay calm and detached so he could analyze what had gone wrong.
He had been humiliated and embarrassed, and he'd responded with anger. His anger had let him summon the dark side to lash out at his enemy. He could remember a feeling of elation, of triumph, when Fohargh went sprawling through the air. But there was something else, too. Even in victory, his hatred had kept growing, rising up like the flames of a fire that could be quenched only with blood.
Passion fueled the dark side, but what if the dark side also fueled passion? Emotion brought power, but that power increased the intensity of those emotions . . . which in turn led to an increase in the power. In the right circumstances, it would create a cycle that would end only when a person reached the limits of his or her ability to command the Force-or when the target of his or her anger and hatred was destroyed.
Despite the heat in his room, a cold shiver ran down Bane's spine. How was it possible to contain or control a power that fed on itself? The more he, as an apprentice, learned to draw on the Force, the more his emotions would control him. The stronger a person became, the less rational he would be. It was inevitable.
No, Bane thought. He was missing something. He had to be. If this were true, the Masters would be teaching the students techniques to avoid this situation. They would be learning to distance themselves from their own emotions, even as they used them to draw upon the dark side. But there was nothing of this in their training, so Bane's analysis had to be wrong. It had to be!
Somewhat reassured, Bane let his thoughts drift into the comfort of sleep.
"You make me sick," his father spat. "Look how much you eat! You're worse than a kriffing zucca pig!"
Des tried to ignore him. He hunkered down in his seat at the dinner table and concentrated on the food on his plate, shoveling slow forkfuls into his mouth.
"Did you hear me, boy?" his father snapped. "You think that food in front of you is free? I gotta pay for that food, you know! I worked every day this week and I still owe more now than I did at the beginning of the blasted month!"
Hurst was drunk, as usual. His eyes were glassy, and he still reeked of the mines; he hadn't even bothered to shower before hitting the bottle he kept tucked away beneath the covers of his cot.
"You want me to start working double shifts to support you, boy?" he shouted.
Without looking up from his plate Des muttered, "I work just as many shifts as you do."
"What?" Hurst said, his voice dropping down to a menacing whisper. "What did you just say?"
Instead of biting his lip, Des looked up from his plate and right into his father's red, bleary eyes. "I said I work as many shifts as you do. And I'm only eighteen."
Hurst pushed his chair away from the table and rose. "Eighteen, and still too dumb to know when to keep your mouth shut." He shook his head from side to side in exaggerated disappointment. "Bloody bane of my existence is what you are."
Throwing his fork down on his plate, Des pushed his own chair back from the table and stood up to his full height. He was taller than his father now, and his frame was beginning to fill out with muscles earned in the tunnels.
"Are you going to beat me now?" he snarled at his father. "Going to teach me a lesson?"
Hurst's jaw dropped open. "What the brix is wrong with you, boy?"
"I'm sick of this," Des snapped. "You blame all your problems on me, but you're the one who's drinking away all our credits. Maybe if you sobered up we could get off this stinking world!"
"You smart-mouthed, mudcrutch whelp!" Hurst roared, flipping the table so it crashed against the wall. He leapt across the now empty space between them and grabbed Des by his wrists in a grip as unbreakable as a pair of durasteel binders. The young man tried to wrench free, but his father outweighed him by twenty-some kilos, almost half of which was muscle.
Knowing it was hopeless, Des stopped struggling after a few seconds. But he wasn't going to cower and cry. Not this time. "If you're going to beat me tonight," he said, "remember that it might be the last time, old man. You better make it a good one."
Hurst did. He lit into his son with the savage fury of a bitter, hopeless man. He broke his nose; he blackened both his eyes. He knocked out two of his teeth, split his lip, and cracked his ribs. But throughout it all Des never said a word, and he didn't shed a single tear.
That night, as Des lay in his bed too bruised and swollen to sleep, a single thought kept running through his mind, drowning out the loud drunken snores of Hurst passed out in the corner.
I hope you die. I hope you die. I hope you die.
He'd never hated his father as much as he did at that moment. He envisioned a giant hand squeezing his father's cruel heart.
I hope you die. I hope you die. I hope you die.
The words rolled over and over, an endless mantra, as if he could make them come true through sheer force of will.
I hope you die. I hope you die. I hope you die.
The tears he'd held back during the brutal thrashing finally came, hot drops streaming down his purple, swollen face.
I hope you die. I hope you die. I hope you -
Bane woke with a start, his heart pounding and his body bathed in terror sweat as he thrashed against the covers tangled around his legs. For a brief second he thought he was back on Apatros in the cramped room filled with Hurst and the overwhelming stench of booze. Then he realized where he was, and the nightmare began to fade. A horrible realization swept in to take its place.
Hurst had died that night. The authorities had ruled it a natural death. A heart attack, brought on by a combination of too much alcohol, a life working the mines, and the overexertion of nearly beating his own son to death with his bare hands. They never suspected the real cause. Neither had Bane. Not until now.
Trembling slightly; he rolled over, exhausted but knowing sleep wouldn't come again this night.
Fohargh wasn't the first person he had murdered with the Force. He probably wouldn't be the last. Bane was smart enough to understand that.
He shook his head to clear away the memory of Hurst's death. The man had deserved neither pity nor mercy. The weak would always be crushed by the strong. If Bane wanted to survive, he had to become one of the strong. That was why he was here at the Academy. That was his mission. That was the way of the dark side.
But the realization did nothing to quell the queasy feeling in his stomach, and when he closed his eyes he could still see father's face.