There was an air of unusual celebration in the halls of the Sith Academy. The Brotherhood of Darkness had scored a resounding victory over the Jedi on Ruusan, and the jubilation of the feast Qordis had thrown to mark the victory lingered in the air. During training sessions, drills, and lessons, students could be heard whispering excitedly as details of the battle were shared. The Jedi on Ruusan had been completely wiped out, some said. Others insisted Lord Hoth himself had fallen. There were rumors that the Jedi Temple on Coruscant was defenseless, and it was only a matter of days before it was ransacked by the Dark Lords of the Sith.
The Masters knew that much of what was being said was exaggerated or inaccurate. The Jedi on Ruusan had been routed, but a great many had managed to escape the battle. Lord Hoth was not dead; most likely he was rallying the Jedi for the inevitable counterattack. And the Jedi Temple on Coruscant was still well beyond the reach of Kaan and the Brotherhood of Darkness. On the orders of Qordis, however, the instructors allowed the enthusiasm of their apprentices to go unchecked for the sake of improving morale.
The exultant mood at the Academy had little effect on Bane, however. It had taken three weeks of regular sessions in the bacta tank before he'd fully recovered from the horrific beating Sirak had given him. Most of the time a loss in the dueling ring required only a day or two in the tanks before the student was ready to resume training. Of course, most of the students didn't lose as badly as Bane had.
Hurst had been free with his fists, and Bane had suffered more than a few severe thrashings growing up. The punishments of his youth had taught him how to deal with physical pain, but the trauma inflicted by Sirak was far worse than anything he'd endured at his father's hands.
Bane shuffled slowly down the halls of the Academy, though his measured pace was one of choice rather than necessity. The lingering discomfort he felt was insignificant. Thanks to the bacta tanks his broken bones had mended and his bruises had vanished completely. The emotional damage, however, was more difficult to reverse.
A pair of laughing apprentices approached, regaling each other with supposedly factual accounts of the Sith victory on Ruusan. Their conversation stopped as they neared the solitary figure. Bane ducked his head to avoid meeting their eyes as they passed. One whispered something unintelligible, but the contempt in her tone was unmistakable.
Bane didn't react. He was dealing with the emotional pain in the only way he knew how. The same way he'd dealt with it as a child. He withdrew into himself, tried to make himself invisible to avoid the scorn and derision of others.
His defeat-so public and so complete-had destroyed his already suspect reputation with both the students and the Masters. Even before the duel many had sensed that his power had left him. Now their suspicions had been confirmed. Bane had become an outcast at the Academy, shunned by the other students and disregarded by the Masters.
Even Sirak ignored him. He had beaten his rival into submission; Bane was no longer worthy of his notice. The Zabrak's attention, like the attention of nearly all the apprentices, had turned to the young human female who had come to join them shortly after the battle on Ruusan.
Her name was Githany. Bane had heard that she had once been a Jedi Padawan but had rejected the light in favor of the dark side ... a common enough story at the Academy. Githany, however, was anything but common. She had played an integral role in the Sith victory on Ruusan, and had arrived at Korriban with the fanfare of a conquering hero.
Bane hadn't been strong enough to attend the victory feast where Qordis had introduced the new arrival to the rest of the students, but he had seen her several times at the Academy since then. She was stunningly beautiful; it was obvious that many of the male students lusted after her. It was just as obvious that several of the female students were jealous of her, though they kept their resentment well hidden for their own sake.
Githany was as arrogant and cruel as she was physically becoming, and the Force was exceptionally strong in her. In only a few weeks she'd already developed a reputation for crushing those who got in her way. It was no surprise she had quickly became a favorite of Qordis and the other Dark Lords.
None of this really mattered to Bane, however. He trudged on through the halls, head down, making his way to the library located in the depths of the Academy. Studying the archives had seemed the best way to supplement the teachings of the Masters in the early stages of his development. Now the cold, quiet room far beneath the Temple's main floors offered him his only place of refuge.
Not surprisingly, the massive room was empty save for the rows of shelves stacked with manuscripts haphazardly arranged and then forgotten. Few students bothered to come here. Why waste time contemplating the wisdom of the ancients when you could study at the feet of an actual Dark Lord? Even Bane came here only as a last resort; the Masters wouldn't waste their time on him anymore.
But as he perused the ancient texts, a part of him he'd thought dead began to reawaken. The inner fire-the burning rage that had always been his secret reserve-was gone. Still, even if only faintly, the dark side called to him, and Bane realized that he wasn't ready to give up on himself. And so he gave himself up to studying.
It wasn't permissible for students to remove records from the archive room, so Bane did all his reading there. Yesterday he had finally completed a rather long and detailed treatise by an ancient Sith Lord named Naga Sadow on the uses of alchemy and poisons. Even in that he had found small kernels of deeper wisdom he had claimed for his own. Bit by bit his knowledge was growing.
He walked slowly up and down the rows, glancing at titles and authors, hoping to find something useful. He was so intent on his search that he failed to notice the dark, hooded figure that entered the archives and stood silently in the doorway, watching him.
Githany didn't say a word as the tall, broad-shouldered man wandered through the archives. He was physically imposing; even under his loose-fitting robes his muscles were obvious. Concentrating as she had been taught by the Jedi Masters before she'd betrayed them, she was able to feel the power of the dark side in him; he was remarkably strong in the Force. Yet he didn't carry himself like a man who was strong or powerful. Even here, away from the eyes of anyone else, he walked stooped over, his shoulders hunched.
This was what Sirak could do to a rival, she realized. This was what he could do to her if she went up against him and lost. Githany had every intention of challenging the Academy's acknowledged top student . . . but only once she was certain she could beat him in the dueling ring.
She had sought out Bane hoping to learn from his mistakes. Seeing him now, weak and broken, she realized she might be able to get more from him than just information. Normally she would be wary of allying herself with another student, particularly one as strong as Bane. Githany preferred to work alone; she knew all too well how devastating the consequences of unexpected betrayal could be.
But the man she saw was vulnerable, exposed. He was alone and desperate; he was in no position to betray anyone. She could control him, using him as necessary and disposing of him when she was done.
He took a book down from one of the shelves and walked slowly over to the tables. She waited until he had settled himself in and begun his reading. She took a deep breath and cast back her hood, letting her long tresses cascade down her shoulders. Then she put on her most seductive smile and moved in.
Bane carefully opened the pages of the ancient volume he had taken down from the archive shelves. It was titled The Rakata and the Unknown World, and according to the date was nearly three thousand standard years old. But it wasn't the title or subject matter that had grabbed him. It was the author: Darth Revan. Revan's story was well known to Sith and Jedi alike. What intrigued Bane was the use of the Darth title.
None of the modern Sith used the Darth name, preferring the designation Dark Lord. Bane had always found this puzzling, but he had never asked the Masters about it. Perhaps in this volume by one of the last great Sith to use the designation he could find out why the tradition had fallen into disuse.
He had barely begun to read the first page when he heard someone approaching. He glanced up to see the Academy's newest apprentice--Githany-striding toward him. She was smiling, making her already remarkable features even more attractive. In the past Bane had only seen her from a distance; up close she literally took his breath away. As she swept into the seat beside him, the faintest whiff of perfume tickled his nose, causing his already racing heart to quicken its beat.
"Bane," she whispered, speaking softly even though there was no one else in the archives to be disturbed by their conversation. "I've been looking for you."
Her statement caught him by surprise. "Looking for me? Why?"
She placed a hand on his forearm. "I need you. I need your help against Sirak."
Her closeness, the brief contact with his arm, and her alluring fragrance sent his head spinning. It took him several moments to figure out what she meant, but once he did her sudden interest in him became obvious. News of his humiliation at the Zabrak's hands had reached her ears. She had come to see him in person, hoping she might learn something that would keep her from falling victim to a similar failure.
"I can't help you with Sirak," he said, turning away from her and burying his face in his book.
The hand on his forearm gently squeezed, and he looked up again. She had leaned in closer, and he found himself staring right into her emerald eyes.
"Please, Bane. Just listen to what I have to say."
He nodded, not sure if he'd even be able to speak while she was pressed so close against him. He closed the book and turned slightly in his chair to better face her. Githany gave a grateful sigh and leaned back slightly. He felt a small flicker of disappointment as her hand slipped from his arm.
"I know what happened to you in the dueling ring," she began. "I know everyone believes Sirak destroyed you; that somehow the defeat robbed you of your power. I can see you believe it, too."
Her face had taken on an expression of sorrow. Not pity, thankfully. Bane didn't want that from anyone-especially not her. But she showed genuine regret as she spoke.
When he didn't reply she took a deep breath and continued. "They're wrong, Bane. You can't just lose your ability to command the Force. None of us can. The Force is part of us; it's part of our being.
"I heard accounts of what you did to that Makurth. That showed what you were capable of. It revealed your true potential; it proved you were blessed with a mighty gift." She paused. Her gaze was intense. "You may believe you've squandered that gift, or lost it. But I know better. I can sense the power inside you. I can feel it. It's still there."
Bane shook his head. "The power may be there, but my ability to control it is gone. I'm not what I used to be."
"That's not possible," she said, her voice gentle. "How can you believe that?"
Though he knew the answer, he hesitated before replying. It was a question he had asked himself countless times while floating in the weightless fluid of the bacta tank. After his defeat he'd had plenty of opportunity to struggle with his failure, and he'd eventually come to realize what had gone wrong ... though not how to fix it.
He wasn't sure he wanted to share his personal revelation with a virtual stranger. But who else was he going to tell? Not the other students; certainly not the Masters. And even though he hardly knew Githany, she had reached out to him. She was the only one to do so.
Exposing personal weakness was something only a fool or an idiot would risk here at the Academy. Yet the hard truth was that Bane had nothing left to lose.
"All my life I've been driven by my anger," he explained. He spoke slowly, staring down at the surface of the table, unable to look her in the eye. "My anger made me strong. It was my connection to the Force and the dark side. When Fohargh died-when I killed him-I realized I was responsible for my father's death. I killed him through the power of the dark side."
"And you felt guilty?" she asked, once again placing a soft hand on his arm.
"No. Maybe. I don't know." Her hand was warm; he could feel the heat radiating through the fabric of his sleeve to his skin underneath. "All I know is that the realization changed me. The anger that drove me was gone. All that was left behind was ... well ... nothing."
"Give me your hand." Her voice was stern, and Bane hesitated only an instant before reaching out. She clasped his palm with both her hands. "Close your eyes," she ordered, even as she shut her own.
In the darkness he became acutely aware of how tightly she had clenched his hand: squeezing the flesh so hard he could feel the beating of her heart through her palms. It was quick and urgent, and his already racing heart accelerated in response.
He felt a tingling in his fingers, something beyond mere physical contact. She was reaching out with the Force.
"Come with me, Bane," she whispered.
Suddenly he felt as if he were falling. No, not falling: diving. Swooping down into a great abyss, the black emptiness inside his very being. The chill darkness numbed his body; he lost all sensation in his extremities. He could no longer feel Githany's hands wrapped about his own. He didn't even know if she was still sitting beside him. He was alone in the freezing void.
"The dark side is emotion, Bane." Her words came to him from a long way off, faint but unmistakable. "Anger, hate, love, lust. These are what make us strong. Peace is a lie. There is only passion." Her words were louder now, loud enough to drown out the drumming of his heart. "Your passion is still there, Bane. Seek it out. Reclaim it."
As if in response to her words his emotions began to well up inside him. He felt anger. Fury. Pure, pulsing hatred: hatred of the other students for ostracizing him, hatred of the Masters for abandoning him. Most of all he hated Sirak. And with the hate came the hunger for revenge.
Then he felt something else. A spark; a flicker of light and heat in the cold darkness. His mind lunged out and grasped the flame, and for one brief instant he felt the glorious power of the Force burning through him once more. Then Githany let go of his hand and it was gone-snuffed out as if he had merely imagined it. But he hadn't. It was real. He'd actually felt it.
He opened his eyes warily, like a man waking from a dream he was afraid to forget. From the expression on Githany's face, he knew she must have felt something, too.
"How did you do that?" he asked, trying and failing to keep the desperation out of his voice.
"Master Handa taught me when I was studying under him in the Jedi order," she admitted. "I lost touch with the Force once, just as you have. I was still a young girl when it happened. My mind simply couldn't cope with something so vast and infinite. It created a wall to protect itself?'
Bane nodded, remaining fervently silent so she could continue.
"Your anger is still there. As is the Force. Now you must break through the walls you've built around it. You have to go back to the beginning and learn how to connect with the Force once more."
"How do I do that?"
"Training?" Githany answered, as if it was obvious. "How else does one learn to use the Force?"
The faint hope her revelation had kindled inside him died.
"The Masters won't train me anymore," he mumbled. "Qordis has forbidden it."
"I will train you:' Githany said coyly. "I can share with you everything I learned from the Jedi about the Force. And whatever I learn about the dark side from the Masters I can teach to you, as well."
Bane hesitated. Githany was no Master, yet she had trained as a Jedi for many years. She probably knew much about the Force that would be new to him. At the very least he'd learn more with her help than without it. And yet something bothered him about her offer.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked.
She gave him a sly smile. "Still don't trust me? Good. You shouldn't. I'm only in this for myself. I can't defeat Sirak on my own. He's too strong?'
"They say he's the Sith'ari," Bane muttered.
"I don't believe in prophecies," she countered. "But he has powerful allies. And the other Zabrak apprentices here are completely loyal to him. If I'm ever going to challenge him, I need somebody on my side. Somebody strong in the Force. Somebody like you."
Her reasons made sense, but there was still something bothering him. "Lord Qordis and the other Masters wouldn't approve of this," he warned her. "You're taking an awful risk."
"Risks are the only way to claim the rewards," she replied. "Besides, I don't care what the Masters think. In the end those who survive are the ones who look after themselves."
It took Bane a second to realize why her words sounded so familiar. Then he remembered the last thing Groshik had said to him before he left Apatros. In the end each of us is in this alone. The survivors are those who know how to look out for themselves.
"You help me regain the Force, and I'll help you against Sirak," he said, extending his arm. She clasped it in her own, then stood up to leave. Bane held his grip, forcing her to sit back down. There was a dangerous glint in her eye, but he didn't let go.
"Why did you leave the Jedi?" he asked.
Her expression softened, and she shook her head. She extended her free hand and placed it gently on his cheek. "I don't think I'm quite ready to share that with you."
He nodded. He didn't need to push her now, and he knew he hadn't earned the right yet.
The hand on his cheek fell away, and he let go of her arm. She gave him one last appraising glance, then rose and walked away with brisk, purposeful strides. She never glanced back, but Bane was content to follow her swaying hips until she was out of sight.
Githany knew he was watching her make her exit. Men always watched her; she was used to it.
All in all she felt the meeting had gone well. For a split second at the end-when he'd refused to let go of her arm-she had wondered if she'd underestimated him. His defiance had caught her off guard; she'd expected someone weak and subservient. But once she'd looked into his eyes she'd realized he was clinging to her out of desperation and fear. One single meeting and he already couldn't bear to let her go.
Even though she'd been with the Sith only a short time, the ways of the dark side came naturally to her. She felt no pity or sorrow for him; his vulnerability only made him easier to control. And unlike the Jedi, the Brotherhood of Darkness rewarded ambition. Each rival she brought low proved her worth and elevated her status within the Sith.
Bane would make the perfect tool to bring her rivals down, she thought. He was incredibly strong in the Force. Even stronger than she'd first realized. She'd been amazed at the power she'd felt inside him. And now he was completely wrapped around her finger. She just had to make sure he stayed that way.
She'd bring him along slowly, always keeping him just behind her own abilities. It was a dangerous game, but one she knew she could play well. Knowledge was power, and she alone controlled what knowledge he would gain. She'd teach him. String him along, twist him to her will, then use him to crush Sirak. And then, if she felt Bane was growing too powerful, she'd destroy him, too.
Night had fallen over Korriban; sputtering torches cast eerie shadows in the halls of the Academy. Bane made his way through those halls wrapped in a black cloak, little more than a shadow himself.
It was forbidden for apprentices to leave their rooms after curfew-one of the steps Qordis had taken to reduce the "unexplained" deaths that seemed to be all too common in academies populated by rival students of the dark side. Bane knew that if he was caught, the punishment would be severe. But this was the only time he could act without fear of being seen by the other students.
He wound his way through the dormitory floor that housed the students until he reached the stairway leading to the upper levels and the Masters' quarters. He glanced quickly from side to side, peering into the flickering shadows cast on the stone walls. He paused, listening for the sound of anyone who might catch him in the halls. He had memorized the routes of the night sentries who patrolled the corridors after dark; he knew it would be almost an hour before they returned to this floor of the temple. But there were many other underlings-kitchen staff, cleaning staff, groundskeepers-who served the needs of the Academy and might be wandering about.
Hearing only silence, he proceeded up the stairs. He made his way quickly past the personal quarters of Qordis, somewhat relieved to see that even the Sith Master felt the need to close and lock his door at night. He continued on past another half a dozen doors, pausing only when he reached the entrance to the Blademaster's room.
He knocked once softly, careful not to wake the others. Before he could knock a second time, the door swung open to reveal the Twi'lek. For a split second Bane thought he must have been standing on the other side waiting for him. But that was impossible, of course. More likely the Blademaster's highly tuned reflexes had reacted to the first knock so quickly that he had already crossed the room and opened the door by the time the second rap came.
He was clad in a pair of pants, but his torso was bare, showing his scarred and tattooed chest. His confused expression confirmed Bane's assumption that the Blademaster hadn't known he was coming, and the speed with which he reached out to grab Bane and haul him inside the room confirmed his suspicions about his extraordinary reflexes.
Before Bane even realized what was happening, the door was closed and locked behind him, sealing the two of them together in the small, dark room. His host lit a small glow rod on a stand by the bed and turned to glare at his uninvited guest.
"What are you doing here?" he hissed, keeping his voice low.
Bane hesitated, uncertain how much to tell him. He had been thinking about Githany's offer, and what she had said to him. He had decided she was right: he had to look out for himself if he was to survive. That meant he had to be the one to bring Sirak down, not her.
"I want you to train me again:" Bane whispered. "I want you to teach me all you know about the art of lightsaber combat."
Kas'im shook his head in response, but Bane thought he sensed a brief hesitation before he did so.
"Qordis will never allow it. He has made it very clear that none of the Masters is to waste any more time on you."
"I didn't think you answered to Qordis," Bane countered. "Aren't all the Masters equal in the Brotherhood of Darkness?"
It was a blatant appeal to the Blademaster's pride, and the Twi'lek easily recognized it for what it was. He smiled, amused at Bane's boldness. "True enough," he admitted. "But here on Korriban the other Lords defer to Qordis. It avoids ... complications."
"Qordis doesn't have to know," Bane pointed out, taking heart in the fact that Kas'im hadn't flat-out refused him yet. "Train me in secret. We can meet at night on the temple roof."
"Why should I do this?" the Twi'lek asked, crossing his muscular arms. "You ask for the teachings of a Sith Lord, but what are you offering me in return?"
"You know my potential," Bane pressed. "Qordis has cast me aside. If I succeed now, he cannot take the credit. If I become an expert warrior for the Brotherhood, Lord Kaan will know you were the one who trained me. And if I fail, no one will ever suspect your part in this. You have nothing to lose."
"Nothing but my time," the other replied, scratching his chin. "You've lost your will to fight. You proved that against Sirak." His lekku were quivering ever so slightly, and Bane took it as a sign that, despite his words, he was seriously considering the offer.
Again, Bane hesitated. How much did he dare to reveal? He still planned to let Githany teach him about the Force and the ways of the dark side. But he had realized that if she was his only teacher, he would forever be beneath her in power. If he wanted to be the one to take out Sirak, he'd need Kas'im to help him . . . and he'd need to keep her from finding out.
"My will to fight is back," he finally said, deciding not to reveal Githany's involvement in his sudden resurrection. "I'm ready to embrace the power of the dark side."
Kas'im nodded. "Why are you doing this?"
Bane knew this was the final test. Kas'im was a Dark Lord of the Sith. His talent and skill were reserved for those who would one day rise up and join the Masters in the Brotherhood of Darkness. He wanted more than proof that Bane was truly ready for this. He wanted proof that Bane was worthy.
"I want revenge," Bane replied after careful consideration. "I want to destroy Sirak. I want to crush him like an insect beneath the heel of my boot."
The Blademaster smiled in grim satisfaction at his answer. "We will begin tomorrow."