Bane knew he had to do something. His situation was becoming desperate. He was still floundering, unable to call upon the power he had used to destroy Fohargh. But now his weakness had become public.
Yesterday during the evening training session he had approached Kas'im to arrange a time for more one-on-one practice, hoping to break free of the lethargy that gripped him. But the Blademaster had refused him, shaking his head and turning his attention to one of the other students. The message was clear to everyone: Bane was vulnerable.
As the students gathered in a circle on the top of the temple after the morning drills, Bane knew what had to be done. His reputation had protected him from the challenges of the other students. Now that reputation was gone. But he couldn't sit back passively, waiting for one of the other students to challenge him and take him down. He had to seize the initiative; he had to go on the attack. Today he had to be the first one to step into the ring.
Of course, if he challenged one of the lesser students, everyone would see it as confirmation of the weakness he was trying to hide. There was only one way he could redeem himself in the eyes of the school and the Masters; there was only one opponent he could call out.
Several of the apprentices were still milling about, trying to find a place where they would be able to clearly observe the morning's action. It was customary to wait until everyone was in place before issuing a challenge, but Bane knew that the longer he waited, the harder his task would be. He stepped boldly into the center of the circle, drawing curious stares from the other students. Kas'im fixed him with a disapproving gaze, but he tried to put it out of his mind.
"I have a challenge," he proclaimed. "I call out Sirak."
There was an excited buzz among the students, but Bane could barely hear it above the pounding of his own heart. Sirak rarely fought in actual combat; Bane had never even seen him in action. But he'd heard other students talk of Sirak's prowess in the dueling ring, telling wild tales of his unbeatable skills. Ever since the Zabrak had approached him on the stairs, Bane had watched his opponent during training sessions in preparation for this confrontation. And from what he'd seen, the seemingly exaggerated accounts of his prowess were all too accurate.
Unlike most of the students, Sirak preferred the double-bladed training saber to the more traditional single blade. Apart from Kas'im himself, Sirak was the only one Bane had ever seen wield the exotic weapon with any signs of skill. His technique seemed almost perfect to Bane's inexpert eye. He always seemed in complete control; he was always on the attack. Even in simple drills his superiority over his opponents was obvious. Where most students took two to three weeks to learn a new sequence, Sirak was able to master one in a matter of days. And now Bane was about to face him in the dueling ring.
The Zabrak stepped out from the crowd, moving slowly but gracefully as he responded to the challenge. Even walking to the center of the ring he exuded an air of menace. He casually flourished his weapon as he approached, the twin durasteel blades carving long, languid arcs through the air.
Bane watched him come, feeling his heart and breathing quicken as his body released adrenaline into his system, instinctively readying itself for the coming battle. In contrast with his physical body, however, Bane felt no significant change in his emotional state. He had expected to feel a surge of fear and anger as Sirak approached, emotions he could feed off to rip through the lifeless veil and unleash the dark side. But the lethargic stupor still enveloped him like a dull, gray shroud.
"I wish you had challenged me earlier," Sirak whispered, his voice just loud enough for Bane to hear. "In the first week after Fohargh's death many thought you were my equal. I would have gained great prestige in defeating you. That is no longer the case."
Sirak had stopped his advance and was standing several meters away. His double-bladed training saber still danced slowly through the air. It moved as if it were alive, a creature anticipating the hunt, too excited to remain motionless.
"There will be little glory in defeating you now," he repeated. "But I will take great pleasure in your suffering."
Behind Sirak, Bane saw Llokay and Yevra, the other Zabrak apprentices, push their way to the front of the crowd to get a better view of their champion. The brother wore a cruel grin; the sister, an expression of hungry anticipation. Bane did his best to tune out the eagerness on their red faces, letting them blend into the unimportant background scenery of the spectators.
All his concentration was focused on the fluid movements of the unfamiliar weapon in Sirak's hands. He had tried to memorize the sequences Sirak worked on during the drills. Now he was looking for clues that would tip his opponent's hand-that might reveal which sequence he planned to use to begin the battle. If Bane guessed right, he could counterattack and possibly end the battle in the first pass. It was his best chance at victory, but without being able to draw on the Force, his odds of correctly guessing which sequence his foe would choose were very, very slim.
Sirak raised the double-bladed saber up above his head, spinning it so fast it was nothing but a blur, then lunged forward. One end came down in a savage overhead strike that Bane easily parried. But the move was only a feint, setting up a slashing attack at the waist from the opposite blade. Recognizing the maneuver at the last second, Bane could do nothing more than throw himself into a backward roll, narrowly escaping injury.
His foe was on him even before he got to his feet, the twin blades slicing down in an alternating rhythm of attacks: left-right-left-right. Bane blocked, rolled, twisted, and blocked again, turning back the flurry. He tried a leg-sweep, but Sirak anticipated the move and nimbly leapt clear, giving Bane just enough time to scramble to his feet.
The next round of attacks kept Bane in full retreat, but he was able to prevent Sirak from gaining an advantage by giving ground and reverting to basic defensive sequences. He was still desperately trying to gain some advantage by watching his opponent's moves. At one moment Sirak seemed to be using the jabs and thrusts of Vaapad, the most aggressive and direct of the seven traditional forms. But in the middle of a sequence he would suddenly shift to the power attacks of Djem So, generating such force that even a blocked strike caused Bane to stagger back. A quick turn or rotation of the weapon and one of the twin blades was suddenly swinging in again at an awkward angle, causing Bane to reel off balance as he knocked it aside.
There was a brief lull in the action as the two combatants paused to reevaluate their strategies, each breathing heavily. Sirak twirled his weapon in a quick, complex sequence that brought the saber under his right arm, around behind his back, over his left shoulder, and around to the front. Then he smiled and did it in reverse.
Bane watched the extravagant flourish with a sinking feeling. Sirak had been toying with him in the first few passes, dragging the fight out so his victory would seem more impressive. Now he was showing his true skill, using sequences that blended several forms at once, switching rapidly among different styles in complex patterns Bane had never seen before.
It was just one more sign of the Zabrak's superiority. If Bane tried to combine different styles into a single sequence, he'd probably gouge out an eye or smack himself in the back of the head. It was clear he was overmatched; his only hope was that his enemy would get careless and make a mistake.
Sirak moved in again, his training saber moving so quickly that Bane could hear the sizzle as it split the air. Bane leapt forward to meet the challenge, trying to call up the power of the dark side to anticipate and block the dual blades moving too fast for his eyes to see. He felt the Force flowing through him, but it seemed distant and hollow: the veil was still there. He was able to keep the paralyzing edges of Sirak's saber at bay, but it required him to concentrate all his attention on controlling his own blade . . . leaving him vulnerable to the real purpose of the attack being unleashed against him.
Bane's skull exploded as Sirak's forehead slammed into his face. Pain turned his vision into a field of silver stars. The cartilage of his nose gave way with a sickening crunch, a geyser of blood gushing forth. Blind and dazed, he was able to parry the next strike only by instinct guided by the faintest whisper of the Force. But Sirak spun as his saber was turned away and delivered a back roundhouse kick that shattered Bane's kneecap.
Screaming, Bane collapsed, his free hand slamming into the ground as he braced his fall. Sirak crushed the fingers under his boot, grinding them into the unyielding stone of the temple roof. A knee came up, fracturing his cheek and jawbone with a thunderous crack.
With a last, desperate burst Bane tried to hurl his opponent backward with the dark side. Sirak brushed the impact aside, easily deflecting it with the Force-shield he had wrapped himself in at the start of the duel. Then he moved in close to finish the job with his blades. The first blow hit with the impact of a landspeeder slamming into an irax, breaking Bane's right wrist. The training saber dropped from his suddenly nerveless grasp. The next strike took him higher up on the same arm, dislocating his elbow.
A simple kick to the face sent jagged bits of tooth shooting out of his mouth and bolts of pain shooting through his broken jaw. He slumped forward, barely conscious, as Sirak stepped back and lowered his saber, reaching out with a free hand to grab Bane around the throat with the crushing grip of the Force. He raised his arm, lifting the muscular Bane as if he were a child, then hurled him across the ring.
Bane felt another bone snap as he crashed to the ground, but his body had passed into a state of shock and there was no longer any pain. He lay motionless in a crumpled, twisted heap. Blood from his nose and mouth clogged his throat. A coughing fit racked his body, and he heard rather than felt the grinding of his broken ribs.
Everything began to go dim. He caught a glimpse of a pair of blood-flecked boots striding toward him, and then Bane surrendered himself to the merciful darkness.
Kopecz shook his head as he studied the battle plan Kaan had laid out on a makeshift table in the middle of his tent. The holomap of Ruusan's terrain showed the positions of the Sith forces as glowing red triangles floating above the map. The Jedi positions were represented by green squares. Despite this high-tech advancement, the rest of the map was a simple two-dimensional representation of the surrounding area's topography. It did nothing to convey the grim devastation that had left Ruusan a virtual wasteland, ravaged by war.
Three great fleet battles had taken place high above the world in the past year, scattering debris from the losing side across the sparsely populated world each time. Scorched and twisted hulls that had once been ships had crashed into the lush forests, igniting wildfires that had reduced much of the small world's surface to ash and barren soil.
Ruusan, despite its meager size, had become a world of major importance to both the Republic and the Sith. Strategically located on the edges of the Inner Rim, it also stood at what most considered the border between the Republic's dangerous frontier and its safe and secure Core. Ruusan was a symbol. Conquering it represented the inevitable advance of the Sith and their conquest of the Republic; liberating it would be emblematic of the Jedi's ability to drive the invaders away and protect the Republic's citizens. The result was an endless cycle of battles, with neither side willing to admit defeat.
The First Battle of Ruusan had seen the invading Sith fleet rout the Republic forces using the elements of surprise and the strength of Kaan's battle meditation. The second battle saw the Republic try to reclaim control of Ruusan and fail, driven back by the enemy's superior numbers and firepower.
The third battle in the skies above Ruusan marked the emergence of the Army of Light. Instead of Republic cruisers and fighters, the Sith found themselves facing a fleet made up primarily of one-and two-crew fighters piloted exclusively by Jedi. The common soldiers who had joined Kaan's army were no match for the Force, and Ruusan was saved ... for a time.
The Sith had responded to the Army of Light by amassing the full numbers of the Brotherhood of Darkness into a single army, then unleashing it on Ruusan. The war that had ravaged the world from on high moved down to the surface, with far more devastating consequences. Compared with space fleet battles, ground combat was brutal, bloody, and visceral.
Kopecz slammed his fist down on the table. "It's hopeless, Kaan."
The other Dark Lords gathered in the tent murmured in agreement.
"The Jedi positions are too well defended; they have all the advantages," Kopecz went on angrily. "High ground, entrenched fortifications, superior numbers. We can't win this battle!"
"Look again," Kaan replied. "The Jedi have spread themselves too thin."
The big Twi'lek studied the map in more detail and realized Kaan was right. The Jedi perimeter extended too far out from their base camp. It took him barely a moment to realize why.
The clash between armies of Jedi and Sith, led by Jedi Masters and Dark Lords, had shaken the foundations of the world. The power of the Force raged unchecked across the battlefields like the thunder of an exploding star. Towns, villages, and individual homes caught up in the storm had been wiped out, leaving only death and destruction behind. Civilians caught up in the wake of war had been forced to flee, becoming refugees of an epic battle between the champions of light and dark.
Seeing their suffering, the Jedi had sought to console, comfort, and protect the innocent citizens of Ruusan. They planned their strategies around defending civilian settlements and homesteads, even at the expense of resources and tactical advantage. The Sith, of course, made no such concessions.
"The Jedi's compassion is a weakness," Kaan continued. "One we can exploit. If we concentrate our full numbers on a single point, we can breach their lines. Then the advantage will be ours."
The assembled generals and strategists of the Brotherhood of Darkness nodded in agreement. Several raised their voices in roars of triumph and congratulations. Only Kopecz refused to join in the celebrations.
"The Army of Light still outnumbers us two to one," the heavyset Twi'lek reminded them. "Their lines may be overextended in some places, but we don't know where they are vulnerable. They know our scouts are watching; they hide their numbers just as we hide ours. If we attack a location where their numbers are strong, we'll be slaughtered!"
The rest of the generals stilled their voices, no longer swept up in their leader's enthusiasm now that the glaring flaw in his plan had been exposed. Again, there were rumbles of disagreement and displeasure. Kopecz ignored the reaction of the other Dark Lords. For all their power, for all their ambition, they were like so many banthas, blindly following the rest of the herd. In theory everyone in the Brotherhood of Darkness was equal, but in practice Kaan ruled the others.
Kopecz understood this, and he was willing to follow him. The Sith needed a strong and charismatic leader, a man of vision, to quell the infighting that had plagued their ranks. Kaan was just such a leader, and he was normally a brilliant military tactician. But this plan was madness. Suicide. Unlike the rest of the rabble, Kopecz wasn't about to follow their leader into certain death.
"You underestimate me, Kopecz," Kaan reassured him, his voice calm and confident, as if he had anticipated this question all along and had an answer prepared. Perhaps he did. "We won't strike until we know exactly where they are most vulnerable," the Dark Lord explained. "By the time we attack, we'll know the precise number and composition of every unit and patrol along their perimeter."
"How?" Kopecz demanded. "Even our Umbaran shadow spies can't provide us with that kind of detail. Not quickly enough to use it in planning our attack. We have no way of getting the information we'd need."
Kaan laughed. "Of course we do. One of the Jedi will give it to us."
The flaps covering the entrance of the long tent serving as the Sith war room parted as if on cue, and a young human woman clad in the robes of the Jedi order stepped through. She was of average height, but that was the only thing about her that could ever be called average. She had thick, raven hair that tumbled down past her shoulders. Her face and figure were perfect examples of the human female form; her tricopper-hued skin was set off by green eyes smoldering with a heat that was both a warning and an invitation. She moved with the lithe grace of a Twi'lek dancer as she walked the length of the assembled Dark Lords, a coy smile on her lips as she pretended not to hear their whispers of surprise.
Kopecz had seen many striking females in his time. Several of the female Dark Lords gathered in the tent were gorgeous, renowned as much for their incredible beauty as their devastating power. But as the young Jedi drew closer, he found he was unable to take his eyes off her. There was something magnetic about her, something that transcended mere physical attractiveness.
She carried her head high, her proud features issuing an unspoken challenge as she approached. And Kopecz saw something else: naked ambition, raw and hungry.
At his side Kaan whispered, "Remarkable, isn't she?"
She reached the front of the tent and dipped smoothly to one knee, bowing her head ever so slightly in deference to Lord Kaan.
"Welcome, Githany," he said, motioning for her to rise. "We've been waiting for you."
"It's my pleasure, Lord Kaan," she purred. Kopecz felt his knees go momentarily weak at her sensual voice, then snapped to rigid attention. He was too old and too wise to let himself be blinded by this woman's charms. He cared only about what she could offer them against the Jedi.
"You have information for us?" he asked abruptly.
She tilted her head to one side and gave him a curious glance, trying to find the reason for his cold reception. After a moment's pause she answered, "I can tell you exactly where to strike at their lines, and when. Lord Hoth put a Jedi named Kiel Charny in charge of coordinating their defenses. I got the information directly from him."
"Why would this Charny share that kind of information with you?" Kopecz asked suspiciously.
She gave him a sly grin. "Kiel and I were . . . close. We shared many things. He had no idea I would come to you with the information."
Kopecz narrowed his eyes. "I thought the Jedi disapproved of that sort of thing."
Her smile became a sneer. "The Jedi disapprove of a lot of things. That's why I've come to you."
Kaan stepped forward before he could ask any more questions, placing a familiar hand on her hip and turning her away from Kopecz.
"We don't have time for this, Githany," he said. "You must give us your report and return to the Jedi camp before anyone notices you're missing."
She flashed a dazzling smile at Kaan and nodded. "Of course. We have to hurry."
He gently ushered her over to the holomap, and a knot of strategists closed in, shielding her from view as she gave them the details of the Jedi guard. A few seconds later Kaan emerged from the crowd and walked back over to stand beside Kopecz.
"Ambition, betrayal-the dark side is strong in her," the Twi'lek whispered. "I'm surprised the Jedi ever took her in."
"They probably believed they could turn her to the light," Kaan replied, speaking just as softly. "But Githany was born to the dark side. Like me. Like you. It was inevitable she would join the Sith someday."
"The timing is fortunate," Kopecz noted. "Maybe a little too fortunate. It may be a trap. Are you sure we can trust her? I think she's dangerous."
Kaan dismissed the warning with a soft laugh. "So are you, Lord Kopecz. That's what makes you so useful to the Brotherhood."
Bane was floating, weightless, surrounded by darkness and silence. It seemed he was adrift in the black void of death itself.
Then consciousness began to return. His body, jerked from blissful unawareness, thrashed in the dark green fluid of the bacta tank, creating a stream of bubbles that rose silently to the surface. His heart began to pound; he could hear the blood rushing through his veins.
His eyes popped open in time to see a med droid come over to adjust some of the settings on his tank. Within seconds his heart rate slowed and the involuntary thrashing of his bruised and broken limbs settled. But though his body was calmed by the tranquilizer, Bane's mind was now fully alert and aware.
Memories of motion and pain flickered across his mind. The sights, sounds, and smells of combat. He remembered the approach of bloodstained boots: his blood. Kas'im must have stepped in after he'd blacked out and kept Sirak from killing him. They must have brought him here to heal.
At first he was surprised that they would bother to help him recover. Then he realized that he, like all the students at the Academy, was too valuable to the Brotherhood to simply throw away. So he would survive .. . but his life was essentially over.
Since coming to the Academy he had worked toward one clear goal. All his studying, all his training had been for one single purpose: to understand and command the power of the dark side of the Force. The dark side would bring him power. Glory. Strength. Freedom.
Now he would be a pariah at the Academy. He would be allowed to listen in on the group lessons, to practice his skills in Kas'im's training sessions, but that would be all. Any hope he might have had of getting one-on-one training with any of the Masters had been crushed in his humiliating defeat. And without that specializing guidance, his potential would wither and die.
In theory all in the Brotherhood were equal, but Bane was smart enough to see the real truth. In practice the Sith needed leaders, Masters like Kaan, or Lord Qordis here at the Academy. The strong always stepped forward; the weak had no choice but to follow.
Now Bane was doomed to be one of the followers. A life of subservience and obedience.
Through victory my chains are broken. But Bane had not found victory, and he understood all too well the chains of servitude that would bind him forevermore. He was destroyed.
Part of him wished Sirak had just finished the job.