Bane made his way down the hall with careful, measured steps. But though his pace was somber and subdued, his mood was one of elated triumph. In the weeks since his fateful meeting with Githany his situation had turned around completely.
As promised, she was teaching him. The first few sessions had gone slowly as she'd helped him work through his mind's fear of its own potential. Bit by bit the black veil had been torn away. Piece by piece she was helping him reclaim what he had lost, until once again he felt the power of the dark side coursing through his veins.
Since then the training had gone much more quickly. His hunger for revenge drove his studies. It fueled his ability to use the Force. It enabled him to understand the lessons that the Masters had taught Githany and she had then passed on to him. Despite being ignored by the instructors, he was once again learning everything the other apprentices were being taught-and learning it rapidly.
As another student passed Bane bowed his head, keeping up the pretense of subservience. It was important that none of the others suspected anything had changed. He kept his training with Githany hidden from everyone, even Kas'im ... just as the Blademaster's training was kept secret from her.
Kas'im knew he was growing more formidable with the blade, but didn't know he was making similar strides in other areas. Githany could see his progress in unleashing his true potential with the Force, but wasn't aware he was also mastering the intricacies of lightsaber combat. As a result, they were both likely to underestimate the full scope of his abilities. Bane liked the subtle edge that gave him.
His days were now filled with study and training. In the darkest hours before morning's first light he would meet Kas'im to practice drills and techniques. He would meet with Githany in the archives in the midday, where she could share instruction with him without fear of interruption or discovery. And whenever he wasn't training with Kas'im or studying with Githany, he read the ancient texts.
Another apprentice approached and Bane moved to the side, projecting an image of weakness and fear to hide his remarkable metamorphosis. He waited until the other apprentice's footsteps faded away before heading down the stairs toward the tomes in the temple's lowest levels.
Qordis or one of the other Masters might have been able to pierce the false front he projected and sense his true power, were they not blinded by their own arrogance. They had dismissed him as a failure; now he was beneath their notice. Fortunately, this anonymity suited Bane just fine.
He hardly slept at all anymore. It seemed his body no longer needed sleep; it fed on his growing command of the dark side. An hour or two of meditation each day was enough to keep his body energized and his mind invigorated. He consumed knowledge with the appetite of a starving rancor, devouring everything he got from his secret mentors and always hungering for more. The Blademaster was amazed at his progress, and even Githany-despite her years of study with the Jedi-was hard-pressed to keep ahead of him. Everything he learned from them he supplemented with the wisdom of the ancients. On his first arrival he had sensed the value of the archives, only to turn his back on them as he had been drawn into the daily routine and intense lessons of the Academy. Now he understood that his initial instincts had been right after all: the knowledge contained in the yellowed parchments and leather-bound manuscripts was timeless. The Force was eternal, and though the Masters at the Academy now walked a different path than their Sith forebears had, they all sought answers in the dark side.
He smiled at the irony of this life. He was the outcast, the student Qordis had wanted left behind. Yet with Githany, Kas'im, and his own study of the archives, he was receiving far more education than any other apprentice on Korriban.
The truth would be revealed soon enough. When the time was right, Sirak would discover that he had underestimated Bane. They all would.
"Excellent!" Kas'im said as Bane blocked the Dark Lord's flurry and countered with one of his own. He didn't actually score a direct hit, but he did force the Blademaster to take a full step back under the fury of his assault.
Suddenly the Twi'lek leapt high in the air, spinning and twisting so he could lash down at Bane as he flipped over the top of him. Bane was ready, switching from offense to defense so smoothly it all seemed to be a single action. He parried both blades of Kas'im's weapon even as he ducked out of the way and rolled clear to safety.
He spun to face his foe, only to see that Kas'im had lowered his weapon, signifying the end of the lesson.
"Very good, Bane," the Twi'lek said, giving him a slight bow. "I thought you might be caught off guard by that move, but you were able to anticipate and defend it with near-perfect form."
Bane basked in his Master's praise, but he was sorry to know the session was over. He was breathing hard, his muscles glistening with sweat and twitching with adrenaline, yet he felt as if he could have continued fighting for hours. Sparring and drills had become much more than mere physical exertion for him now. Each movement, every strike and thrust, had become an extension of the Force acting through the corporeal shell of his flesh-and-bone body.
He longed to engage another opponent in the dueling ring. He hungered for the challenge of testing himself against the other apprentices. But it wasn't time. Not yet. He still wasn't good enough to defeat Sirak, and until he could take the Zabrak down he had to keep his rapidly developing talent hidden.
Kas'im tossed him a towel. Bane was pleased to see that the Twi'lek was sweating, too-though nowhere near as profusely as he was.
"Do you have anything you want me to work on for tomorrow?" Bane asked eagerly. "A new sequence? A new form? Anything?"
"You've moved far beyond sequences and forms," the Master told him. "In that last pass you broke off your attack in the middle of one sequence and came at me from a completely different and unexpected angle."
"I did?" Bane was surprised. "I ... I didn't really mean to."
"That's what made it such a potentially devastating move," Kas'im explained. "You're letting the Force guide your blade now. You act without thought or reason. You're driven by passion: fury, anger . . . even hate. Your saber has become an extension of the dark side."
Bane couldn't help smiling, but then his brow furrowed in consternation. "I still couldn't get past your defenses," he said, trying to re-create the battle in his mind. No matter what he had tried to do, it seemed one side of the Twi'lek's twin-bladed weapon was always there to parry his attack. A seed of doubt crept into his mind as he recalled that Sirak used a similar style of weapon. "Does the double-bladed lightsaber give you an advantage?" he asked.
"It does, but not in the way you believe," Kas'im replied.
Bane was silent, waiting patiently for further explanation. After a few seconds his Master obliged him.
"As you already know, the Force is the real key to victory in any confrontation. However, the equation is not so simple. Someone well trained in lightsaber combat can defeat an opponent who is stronger in the Force. The Force allows you to anticipate your opponent's moves and counter them with your own. But the more options your foe has available, the more difficult it is to predict which will be chosen."
Bane thought he understood. "So the double-bladed weapon gives you more options?"
"No," Kas'im replied. "But you think it does, so the effect is the same."
For several seconds Bane thought about the Blademaster's strange words, trying to decipher them. In the end he had to admit defeat. "I still don't understand, Master."
"You know the single-bladed lightsaber well; you use it yourself and you've seen most of the other apprentices use it, as well. My double-bladed weapon seems strange to you. Unfamiliar. You don't fully understand what it can and cannot do." From the lack of impatience or exasperation in the Twilek's tone, Bane could tell this was something he hadn't been expected to grasp on his own.
"In combat, your mind tries to keep track of each blade separately, effectively doubling the number of possibilities. But the two blades are connected: by knowing the location of one, you are automatically aware of the location of the other. In actual practice, the double-bladed lightsaber is more limited than the traditional lightsaber. It can do more damage, but it is less precise. It requires longer, sweeping movements that don't transition well into a quick stab or thrust. Because the weapon is difficult to master, however, few among the Jedi-or even the Sith-understand it. They don't know how to attack or defend effectively against it. That gives those of us who use it an advantage over most of our opponents."
"Like Githany's whip!" Bane exclaimed. Githany eschewed traditional weaponry in favor of the very rare energy whip: just one of the many traits that made her stand out from the other apprentices. It operated on the same basic principles as a lightsaber, but instead of a steady beam, the energy of the crystals was projected in a flexible ribbon that would twist, turn, and snap in response to both Githany's physical motions and her use of the Force.
"Exactly. The energy whip is far less efficient than any of the lightsaber blades. However, nobody ever practices against the whip. Githany knows that her enemies' confusion at being confronted with the whip gives her an edge."
"By telling me this secret, you've given up your advantage," Bane noted, smiling as he pointed to Kas'im's double saber.
"Only to a very small degree," the Twi'lek said. "You now understand why an exotic weapon or unfamiliar style will be more difficult to defend against, but until you become an expert in a particular style, in the heat of combat your mind will still struggle to grasp its limitations."
Bane kept pressing, eager to turn this new insight into something practical he could use. "So by studying different styles, I could negate that advantage?"
"In theory. But time spent studying other styles is time away from mastering your own form. Your best progress will come from focusing more on yourself and less on your opponent."
"Then why even bother telling me all this?" Bane blurted out, frustrated.
"Knowledge is power, Bane. My purpose is to give you that knowledge. It is up to you to figure out how best to use it."
With those words the Blademaster left him, heading down the temple stairs to steal a few hours of sleep before the morning sun rose. Bane remained behind, wrestling with the lesson until it was time to meet Githany in the archives.
The smell of burning ozone wafted through the archives, filling Githany's nostrils as she watched Bane practicing his latest exercise. The room crackled and hissed as he channeled the energy of the Force and flung it about the room in great arcing bolts of blue-violet lightning.
Githany stood with Bane at the center of a maelstrom. A fierce wind swirled around them, tearing at her hair and the folds of her robe. It rocked and shook the bookshelves, knocking manuscripts to the floor and rifling their pages. The air itself was charged with electricity, causing her skin to itch.
In the midst of it all, Bane laughed, then raised his arms in triumph and launched another blast to ricochet off the far wall. Each time the lightning flared, the intensity of the flash burned Githany's retinas, causing her to shield her eyes. She noticed that Bane didn't look away: his eyes were wide and wild with the rush of power.
The thunder was almost deafening, and the storm was still building. If Bane wasn't careful, the echoes would reach the levels above the archives, revealing their secret training ground to the rest of the Academy.
Moving carefully, Githany reached out and touched his arm. He snapped his head around to face her, and the madness in his eyes almost made her recoil. Instead she smiled.
"Very good, Bane!" she shouted, trying to make her voice heard above the din. "That's enough for today!"
She held her breath in anticipation until he nodded and lowered his arms. Instantly she felt the power of the storm abating. Within a few seconds it was gone; only the mess it had made remained.
"I've-I've never felt anything like that before," Bane gasped, his face still showing his exhilaration.
Githany nodded. "It's a remarkable sensation," she agreed. "But you must be careful not to lose yourself in it." She was parroting the words of Master Qordis, who had taught her how to summon Force lightning only a few days earlier. However, she had never conjured anything even approaching the majesty of what Bane had just unleashed.
"You must maintain control, or you could find yourself swept up in the storm along with your enemies," she told him, trying to mimic the calm, slightly condescending tone the Masters used with their apprentices. She couldn't let him know that he had already surpassed her in this new talent. She couldn't let him know that she had felt the cold grip of fear clutching at her during his performance.
He looked around at the toppled shelves, taking in the books and scrolls strewn about the room. "We'd better clean this up before somebody sees it and wonders what happened in here."
She nodded again, and the two of them set to restoring the archives to their previous state. As they worked, Githany couldn't help but wonder if she had made a mistake in allying herself with Bane.
Only the top apprentices had been present when Qordis had taught them to use the dark side to corrupt the Force into a deadly storm. None of them-not even Sirak-had been able to create much more than a few jolts of energy that first day. Yet only an hour after being taught the technique by Githany, Bane had summoned enough energy to rip apart an entire room.
This wasn't the first time Bane had taken a lesson she had taught him and exceeded her achievements on his first attempt. He was far stronger in the Force than she had realized, and he seemed to be growing more so each day. She worried that she might lose her control over him.
She was careful, of course. She wasn't foolish enough to tell him everything she learned from the Sith Masters. Yet that didn't seem to be giving her an advantage over her pupil anymore. Sometimes she wondered if all his study of the ancient texts was actually giving him an advantage over her. Learning at the feet of a true Master should be more beneficial than reading theoretical works written thousands of years earlier ... unless the current-day Sith were somehow flawed.
Unfortunately, she didn't know how she could test her theory. If she suddenly started spending hours each day in the archives, Bane would wonder what she was up to. He might decide that her teachings weren't as valuable as what he could learn on his own. He might decide she was expendable. And if it came down to a confrontation, she was no longer sure she could defeat him.
But Githany prided herself on her adaptability. Her initial plan of keeping him as a subservient apprentice was no longer viable. She still wanted Bane on her side, though; he could prove to be a powerful ally-beginning with his killing Sirak.
They worked in silence for the next hour, gathering up the books and straightening the shelves. By the time the room was restored to some semblance of order, Githany's back ached from the constant bending, lifting, and reaching. She collapsed into one of the chairs, giving Bane a tired smile.
"I'm exhausted," she said with an exaggerated sigh.
He made his way over and stepped behind her, placing his large hands on her shoulders, just at the base of her long neck. He began to massage the muscles, his caress surprisingly gentle for a man so large.
"Mmm . . . that feels nice," she admitted. "Where did you learn to do this?"
"Working the cortosis mines teaches you a lot about aches and pains," he replied, working his thumbs deep into her shoulder blades. She gasped and arched her back, then went slowly limp as her muscles melted beneath his touch.
He rarely spoke of his past life, though over their time together she had pieced most of it together. In contrast, she had always been much more guarded with what she revealed about herself.
"You asked me once why I left the Jedi," she mumbled, feeling herself drifting away on the rhythmic pressure of his fingers on her neck. "I never told you, did I?"
"We all have things in our past we would rather not revise he replied without stopping. "I knew you would tell me when you were ready." She closed her eyes and let her head fall back as he continued to knead her shoulders.
"My Master was a Cathar," she said softly. "Master Handa. I studied under him for almost as long as I can remember; my parents gave me over to the order when I was just a toddler."
"I've heard the Jedi care little for the bonds that hold families together."
"They only care about the Force," she admitted after a moment's consideration. "Worldly attachments-friends, family, lovers-cloud the mind with emotion and passion."
Bane chuckled, a deep, low sound she felt thrumming through the tips of his fingers. "Passion leads to the dark side. Or so I've heard."
"It wasn't a joke to the Jedi. Especially not to Master Handa. The Cathar are known as a hot-blooded species. He was always warning me and Kiel about the dangers of giving in to our emotions."
"Kiel Charny. Another of Handa's Padawans. We often trained together; he was only a year older than me."
"Another Cathar?" Bane asked.
"No, Kiel was human. Over the years we became close. Very close."
The slight increase in the pressure of his touch told her that Bane had taken in the full meaning of her words. She pretended not to notice. "Kiel and I were lovers," she continued. "The Jedi are forbidden from forming such attachments. The Masters fear it will cloud the mind with dangerous emotions."
"Were you really attracted to him, or just to the idea of disobeying your Master?"
She thought about it for a long time. "A bit of both, perhaps," she said finally. "He was handsome enough. Strong in the Force. There was an undeniable attraction."
Bane only grunted in response. His hands had stopped massaging, and were now resting on her neck.
"Once we became lovers it didn't take long for Master Handa to find out. Despite all his preaching about controlling emotion, I could tell he was furious. He commanded us to set our feelings aside and forbade us from continuing our relationship."
Bane snorted his contempt. "Did he really think it would be that simple?"
"The Jedi see emotion as part of our bestial nature. They believe we must transcend our baser instincts. But I know passion is what makes us strong. The Jedi only fear it because it makes their Padawans unpredictable and difficult to control.
"Master Handa's reaction made me realize the truth. Everything the Jedi believed about the Force was a perversion of reality, a lie. I finally understood I would never reach my full potential under Master Handa. That was the moment I turned my back on the order and began planning my defection to the Sith."
"What about Kiel Charny?" He was rubbing her shoulders once again, but his hands were a little rougher now.
"I asked him to come with me," she confessed. "I told him we had a choice to make: the Jedi, or each other. He chose the Jedi."
The tension in Bane's hands eased ever so slightly. "Is he dead?"
She laughed. "Did I kill him, do you mean? No, he was still alive the last I heard. He may have died battling the Sith on Ruusan since then, but I didn't feel the urge to kill him myself."
"Then I guess your feelings for him weren't as strong as you thought."
Githany stiffened. It might have been a joke, but she knew there was truth in Bane's words. Kiel had been convenient. Though there was a physical attraction, he had become more than a friend mostly because of her situation: studying day and night with him under Master Handa; the pressure of living up to the unrealistic ideals of a Jedi; the stress of being trapped in the seemingly endless war on Ruusan.
Bane ringed her neck with his hands, his touch firm but not tight. He leaned down and whispered in her ear, causing her to shiver at the warmth and closeness of his breath. "When you finally betray me, I hope you care enough to try to kill me yourself."
She jumped up from the chair, slapping his hands away and spinning to face him. For a split second she saw a self-satisfied expression on his face. Then it was gone, replaced by a look of apologetic concern.
"I'm sorry, Githany. It was just a joke. I didn't mean to upset you."
"I opened up a painful part of my past, Bane," she said warily. "It's not something I want to make light of."
"You're right," he said. "I ... I'll go."
She studied him as he turned and made his way out of the archives. He seemed genuinely sorry for what he'd said, as if he regretted hurting her. The perfect situation to give her the emotional leverage she had been looking for ... if only she hadn't seen that flicker of something else.
Once he was gone she shook her head, trying to make sense of the situation. Bane looked like a great, hulking brute of a man, but there was wisdom and cunning beneath his heavy brow and bald skull.
She thought back on the last twenty minutes, trying to determine when she had lost control of the situation. There had been sparks between them, just as she had intended. Bane had done nothing to hide his desire for her; she'd sensed the heat as he caressed her neck. Still, something had gone wrong with her carefully planned seduction.
Was it possible she actually felt something for him?
Githany unconsciously bit her lower lip. Bane was powerful, intelligent, and bold. She needed him if she was going to eliminate Sirak. But he had a knack for surprising her. He kept challenging and defying her expectations.
She had to admit she found him intriguing in spite of this. Or perhaps because of it. Bane was everything Kiel hadn't been: ambitious, impulsive, unpredictable. Despite her best intentions, some small part of her was drawn to him. And that, more than anything else, made him a very dangerous ally.