"No!" Kas'im barked, disdainfully slapping Bane's training saber aside with his own weapon. "Wrong! You're too slow on the first transition. You're leaving your left side wide open for a quick counter."
The Blademaster was teaching him a new sequence; he'd been teaching it to him for more than a week. But for some reason Bane couldn't seem to grasp the intricacies of the movements. His blade felt clumsy and awkward in his hand.
He stepped back and resumed the ready position. Kas'im studied him briefly, then dropped into a defensive stance in front of him. Bane took a deep breath to focus his mind before letting his body trigger the sequence once again.
His muscles moved instinctively, exploding into action. There was a hiss as the downstroke of his blade carved through the air in the first move, a blur of motion ... but far too slow. Kas'im responded by slipping to the side and bringing his own double-bladed weapon around in a long, swift arc that struck Bane hard in the ribs.
The breath whooshed out of him and he felt the searing pain of the pelko barbs, followed by the all-too-familiar numbness spreading up through the left side of his torso. He staggered back, helpless, as Kas'im watched silently. Bane struggled to stay upright and failed, collapsing awkwardly to the floor. The Blademaster shook his head in disappointment.
Bane dragged himself to his feet, trying not to let his frustration show. It had been nearly three weeks since he had beaten Fohargh in the ring, and since that time he had been training with Kas'im in individual sessions to improve his lightsaber combat. But for some reason he wasn't making any progress.
"I'm sorry, Master. I will go practice the drills again," he said through gritted teeth.
"Drills?" the Twi'lek repeated, his voice cruel and mocking. "What good will that do?"
"I ... I must learn the sequence better. To become faster."
Kas'im spat on the ground. "If you truly believe that, then you're a fool." Bane didn't know how to respond, so he kept silent.
The Blademaster stepped forward and gave him a sharp cuff on his ear. It was meant not to hurt, but to humiliate. "Fohargh was better trained than you," he snapped. "He knew more sequences, he knew more forms. But they couldn't save him.
"The sequences are just tools. They help you free your mind so you can draw upon the Force. That is where you will find the key to victory. Not in the muscles of your arms or the quickness of your blade. You must call upon the dark side to destroy your enemies!"
Clenching his jaw from the burning pain now spreading through the entire left side of his body, Bane could only nod.
"You're holding back," the Master went on. "You aren't using the Force. Without it, your moves are slow and predictable."
"I ... I'll try harder, Master."
"Try?" Kas'im turned away in disgust. "You've lost your will to fight. This lesson is over."
Realizing he had been dismissed, Bane slowly made his way to the stairs leading down from the temple roof. As he reached them, Kas'im called out one last piece of advice.
"Return when you are ready to embrace the dark side instead of pulling away from it."
Bane didn't turn to look back: the pain and numbness of his left side made that impossible. But as he hobbled down the stairs, Lord Kas'im's words echoed in his ears with the ring of truth.
This wasn't the first training session he had failed in. And his failures weren't limited to Kas'im and the lightsaber. Bane had gained in both reputation and prestige when he defeated Fohargh; several of the Masters had shown a sudden willingness to give him individual, one-on-one training. Yet despite the extra attention, Bane's skills hadn't progressed at all. If anything, he'd actually taken several steps back.
He made his way through the halls to his room, then lay down gingerly on his bed. There wasn't anything he could do while he was temporarily crippled by the pelko venom except rest and meditate.
It was obvious something was wrong, but he couldn't say exactly what. He no longer felt sharp. He no longer felt alive. When he had first become conscious of the Force flowing through him, his senses had become hyperaware: the world had seemed more vibrant and more real. Now everything was muted and distant. He walked through the halls of the Academy as if he was in some kind of trance.
He wasn't sleeping well; he kept having nightmares. Sometimes he dreamed of his father and the night he died. Other times he dreamed of his fight with Fohargh. Sometimes the dreams blended together, merging into one terrible vision: the Makurth beating him in the apartment on Apatros, his father lying dead in the dueling ring atop the temple on Korriban. And each time Bane would wake choking back a scream, shivering even though his body was bathed in sweat.
But it was more than just lack of sleep that left him in a dazed stupor. The passion that had driven him was gone. The raging fire inside him had vanished, replaced by a cold emptiness. And without his passion, he was unable to summon the power of the dark side. It was becoming harder and harder to command the Force.
The changes were subtle, barely noticeable at first. But over time small changes built up. Now moving even small objects left him exhausted. He was slow and clumsy with the training saber. He could no longer anticipate what his opponents would do; he could only react after the fact.
He couldn't deny it any longer: he was regressing. Apprentices he had surpassed long ago had caught up to him again. He could tell he was falling behind just by watching the other students during their studies ... which meant they could probably tell, too.
He thought back on what the Twi'lek Master had told him. You've lost your will to fight.
Kas'im was right. Bane had felt it slipping away since his first dream of his father. Unfortunately, he had no idea how to reclaim the anger and competitive fire that had fueled his meteoric rise through the hierarchy of Sith apprentices.
Return when you are ready to embrace the dark side instead of pulling away from it.
Something was holding him back. Some part of him recoiled from what he had become. He would meditate for hours each day, concentrating his mind in search of the swirling, pulsing fury of the dark side locked away within him. Yet he searched in vain. A cold veil had fallen across the core of his being, and try as he might he couldn't tear it aside to seize the power that lay beneath.
And he was running out of time. So far nobody had dared to challenge him in the dueling ring-not since Fohargh's death. The Makurth's gruesome end still inspired enough fear in the other students for them to steer clear of him. But Bane knew they wouldn't keep their distance much longer. His confidence and abilities were waning, and his failures were becoming more public. Soon it would be as obvious to the other students as it was to him.
In those first days after Fohargh's death his only true rival had been Sirak. Now every apprentice on Korriban was a potential threat. The hopelessness of the situation tore away at his guts. It made him want to scream and claw at the stone walls in impotent rage. Yet for all his frustrations, he was unable to summon the passion that fed the dark side.
Soon a challenger would step forward in the dueling ring, eager to take him down. And there was nothing he could do to stop that moment from coming.
Lord Kaan paced restlessly on the bridge of Nightfall as it orbited the industrial world of Brentaal IV. The Sith fleet occupied the Bormea sector, the region of space where the Perlemian Trade Route and the Hydian Way intersected. The Brotherhood of Darkness now controlled two of the most important hyperspace lanes serving the Core Worlds; Republic resistance to the ever-advancing Sith fleet was crumbling.
And yet despite this most recent victory, Kaan felt something wasn't right. If anything, their conquest of the Bormea sector had been too easy. The worlds of Corulag, Chandrila, and Brentaal had all fallen in rapid succession, their defenders offering only token resistance before retreating in the face of the invading horde.
In fact, he had sensed only a handful of Jedi among the Republic forces opposing them. This was not the first time the Jedi had been virtually absent from key battles: during encounters at Bespin, Sullust, and Taanab, Kaan had expected to be confronted by a fleet led by Jedi Master Hoth, the only Republic commander who seemed capable of winning victories against the Sith. But General Hoth-despite the reputation he had earned in the early stages of the war-was never there.
At first Kaan suspected it was a trap, some elaborate scheme arranged by the wily Hoth to ensnare and destroy his sworn enemy. But if it was a trap, it had never been sprung. The Sith were pressing in from all sides; they were almost sitting on the doorstep of Coruscant itself. And the Jedi had all but vanished, seemingly having deserted the Republic in its time of greatest need.
He should have been ecstatic. Without the Jedi, the war was as good as over. The Republic would fall in a matter of months, and the Sith would rule. But where had the Jedi gone? Kaan didn't like it. The strange message Kopecz had sent just a few hours earlier had only added to his unease. The Twi'lek was coming to meet Nightfall with urgent news about Ruusan, news he wouldn't transmit across regular channels. News so important he felt he had to deliver it in person.
"An interceptor has just docked in Nightfall's landing bay, Lord Kaan," one of the bridge crew reported.
Despite his anxiousness to hear Kopecz's news, Lord Kaan resisted the urge to go down to the landing bay to meet him. He felt something had gone very, very wrong, and it was important to maintain an appearance of calm assurance before his troops. Yet patience was not a virtue many of the Sith Lords possessed, and he couldn't keep himself from pacing as he waited for the Twi'lek to make his way to the bridge and deliver his ominous report.
After what seemed like hours but was no more than a few minutes, Kopecz finally arrived. His expression did nothing to alleviate Kaan's growing apprehension as he crossed the bridge and gave a perfunctory bow.
"I must speak with you in private, Lord Kaan."
"You may speak here," Kaan assured him. "What we say will not leave this ship." The bridge crew of Nightfall had been handpicked by Kaan himself. All had sworn an oath to serve with absolute loyalty; they knew the harsh consequences should they break that oath.
Kopecz glanced suspiciously around the bridge, but the crew were all focused on their stations. None of them seemed even to notice him. "We've lost Ruusan," he said, whispering despite Kaan's assurances. "The base set up on the surface, the orbiting fleet ... all of it wiped out!"
For a moment Kaan didn't speak. When he did his voice had dropped to the same level as Kopecz's. "How did this happen? We have spies throughout the Republic military. All their fleets have fallen back to the Core. All of them! They couldn't possibly have mustered enough strength to take back Ruusan. Not without us knowing!"
"It wasn't the Republic," Kopecz replied. "It was the Jedi. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Jedi Masters, Jedi Knights, Jedi Padawans: an entire army of Jedi."
Kopecz cursed loudly. None of the crew so much as glanced in his direction, a testament to their training and their fear of their commander.
"Lord Hoth realized that the strength of the Jedi order was spread too thin trying to defend the Republic," Kopecz continued. "He's gathered them all into a single host with only one goal: destroy the users of the dark side. They don't care about our soldiers and fleets anymore. All they want to do is wipe us out: the apprentices, the acolytes, the Sith Masters ... and especially the Dark Lords. Lord Hoth himself is leading them," the Twi'lek added, though Kaan had already guessed this for himself. "They call themselves the Army of Light."
Kopecz paused to let the news sink in. Kaan took several deep breaths, silently reciting the Code of the Sith to bring his whirling thoughts back into focus.
And then he laughed. "An Army of Light to oppose the Brotherhood of Darkness."
Kopecz stared at him with a bewildered expression.
"Hoth knows the Jedi aren't capable of defeating our vast armies," Kaan explained. "Not anymore. The Republic is doomed. So now he concentrates exclusively on us: the leaders of those armies. Cut off the head and the body will die."
"We should send our fleet to Ruusan," Kopecz suggested. "All of them. Crush the Jedi in one fell swoop and wipe them from the galaxy forever."
Kaan shook his head. "That's exactly what Hoth wants us to do. Divert our armies from the Republic, draw them away from Coruscant. Give up all the ground we have gained in a foolish and pointless attack on the Jedi."
"You say he has an army of Jedi: thousands of them. What chance does a fleet of mere soldiers have against such an enemy? Ships and weapons are no match for the power of the Force. Hoth knows this."
Finally Kopecz nodded in understanding. "You always said this war would not be decided by military might."
"Precisely. In the end the Republic is merely an afterthought. Only through the complete annihilation of the Jedi order can we achieve true victory. And Hoth has been kind enough to gather them all in one place for us."
"But the Brotherhood is no match for the massed strength of the entire Jedi order," Kopecz protested. "There are too many of them and not enough of us."
"Our numbers are greater than you think," Kaan said. "We have academies scattered throughout the galaxy. We can swell our numbers with Marauders from Honoghr and Gentes. We can gather all the assassins trained at Umbara. We will command the students at Dathomir, Iridonia, and all the rest of the academies to join the ranks of the Brotherhood of Darkness. We will assemble our own army of Sith-one capable of destroying Hoth and his Army of Light!"
"And what of the Academy on Korriban?" Kopecz asked.
"They will join the Brotherhood, but only after they have completed their training under Qordis."
"We could use them against the Jedi," Kopecz pressed. "Korriban is home to the strongest of our apprentices."
"That is precisely why it is too dangerous to bring them into this conflict," Kaan explained. "With strength come ambition and rivalry. In the heat of battle their emotions will take over their minds; they will turn against each other. They will divide our ranks with infighting while the Jedi remain united." He paused. "It has happened to the Sith too many times in the past; I will not allow it to happen again. They will stay with Qordis and complete their training. He will teach them discipline and loyalty to the Brotherhood. Only then will they join us on the field of battle."
"Is that what you believe," Kopecz asked, "or what Qordis has been telling you?"
"Don't let your mistrust of Qordis blind you to what we are trying to accomplish," Kaan chided. "His pupils are the future of the Brotherhood. The future of the Sith. I will not expose them to this war until they are ready." His tone clearly brooked no further argument. "The apprentices at Korriban will join the Brotherhood in due time. But that time is not now."
"Well, it better be soon," Kopecz muttered, only partially mollified. "I don't think we can beat Hoth without them."
Kaan reached out and grasped the Twi'lek's meaty shoulder in a firm grip. "Never fear, my friend," he said with a smile. "The Jedi will be no match for us. We will slaughter them at Ruusan and wipe them from the face of the galaxy. The apprentices may be the future of the Brotherhood, but the present belongs to us!"
Much to Kaan's relief, Kopecz returned his smile. The leader of the Brotherhood would have been less pleased if he had known that much of the Twi'lek's satisfaction came from the knowledge that Qordis would miss out on the glory of the coming victory.
Lord Kas'im entered the opulently decorated chamber and gave a nod in the direction of his fellow Master. "You wanted to see me?"
"News from the front," Qordis said, rising slowly from his meditation mat. "The Jedi have massed together under a single banner on Ruusan. General Hoth is leading them. Lord Kaan has gathered his own army. Even now they are headed there to engage the Jedi."
"Are we going to join them?" Kas'im asked, his voice eager, his lekku twitching at the thought of pitting his skills against the greatest warriors of the Jedi order.
Qordis shook his head. "Not us. None of the Masters. And none of the students, unless you feel one of the apprentices is ready."
"No," Kas'im replied after a moment's consideration. "Sirak, perhaps. He is strong enough. But his pride is too great, and he still has much to learn."
"What about Bane? He showed great promise in disposing of Fohargh."
Kas'im shrugged. "That was a month ago. Since then he has made almost no progress. Something is holding him back. Fear, I think."
"Fear? Of the other students? Of Sirak?"
"No. Nothing like that. He's finally seen what he is truly capable of; he's seen the full power of the dark side. I think he's afraid to face it."
"Then he is of no further use to us," Qordis stated flatly. "Focus on the other students. Don't waste your time on him."
The Blademaster was momentarily taken aback. He was surprised that Qordis would be so quick to give up on a student with such undeniable potential.
"I think he just needs more time," he suggested. "Most of our apprentices have been studying the ways of the Sith for many years. Ever since they were children. Bane didn't begin his training with us until he was a full-grown adult."
"I'm well aware of the circumstances surrounding his arrival at this Academy!" Qordis snapped, and Kas'im suddenly realized what was really going on. Bane had been brought to Korriban by Lord Kopecz, and there was precious little love lost between Kopecz and the leader of the Academy. Bane's failure would ultimately become a poor reflection on Qordis's most bitter rival.
"The next time Bane approaches you, turn him away," the Dark Lord told him, his tone leaving no doubt that his words were a command and not a request. "Make sure all the Masters understand that he is no longer worthy of our teachings."
Kas'im nodded his understanding. He would do as ordered. It wasn't fair to Bane, of course. But nobody ever claimed the Sith were fair.