High atop the temple of Korriban, beneath the light of a blood-red moon, two figures stood poised in silhouette: one human, one Twi'lek. A chill wind swept across the roof, but though both combatants had stripped off their robes to fight bare-chested, neither shivered from the cold. They might have been statues, still and hard as stone, were it not for the smoldering heat in their eyes.
Without warning the figures lunged, moving so swiftly it would have been impossible for an observer to say which one acted and which reacted. They met with a thunderous crash of their savage blades.
Even as he desperately fought to hold his ground, Bane was studying Kas'im carefully. He was acutely aware of every feint and strike, analyzing and memorizing each block, parry, and counterstrike. The Blademaster had said his time would be better spent focusing on improving his own technique, but Bane was determined to negate Sirak's advantage by absorbing all he could from the Twi'lek's double-bladed fighting style.
The exchange lasted well over a minute, with no break or lull in the action, until Bane spun away to regroup. He had sensed his attacks slipping into an unconscious pattern, and predictability was death against an opponent as skilled as Kas'im. He had fallen into that trap once the previous week. He wasn't about to make the mistake twice.
The two combatants faced each other once again, motionless save for their eyes, which flicked and darted in search of any sign they could use to gain some slight advantage.
Over the past month their training sessions had become less frequent but far more intense. Part of Bane believed Kas'im actually found value in sparring against him: the Blademaster had to grow bored crossing blades with apprentices and students so far beneath his own level.
Of course, Bane had yet to land a telling blow against his Master. But each time they sparred he felt as if he was getting closer and closer to a victory. Kas'im's form and technique were flawless, but Bane was aware that the slightest miscue was all the opening he needed.
Both fighters were breathing hard; the session had gone far longer than any before it. Their battles typically ended when the Twi'lek landed a scoring blow, disabling one of his student's limbs with the burning pelko venom. On this night, however, Kas'im had yet to land such a blow.
Kas'im charged forward, and the clang and clash of their weapons rang out over the rooftop in a sharp staccato rhythm. They stood toe-to-toe, hammering away at each other, neither giving ground or quarter. Ultimately Bane was forced to disengage, breaking off the melee before the Blademaster's superior skill broke down his defenses.
This time it was Bane who initiated the charge. Once again their training sabers rained down, and once again they broke apart with both combatants unscathed. This time, however, the outcome of the battle was no longer in doubt.
Bane hung his head and lowered his blade in an admission of defeat. The last pass he had held Kas'im off, but with each swing of his saber he had grown a microsecond slower. Fatigue was setting in. Even the Force couldn't keep his muscles fresh forever, and the seemingly endless duel had finally taken too great a toll. The Blademaster, on the other hand, had lost almost none of his speed and sharpness.
Bane doubted he would get through the next pass, and even if he did, the one after that would bring certain defeat. It was inevitable, so there was no point in pressing to the point that he actually suffered the pain of getting hit.
Kas'im seemed momentarily surprised at the concession, then nodded in acceptance of the victory. "You were smart to recognize that the battle was over, but I expected you to fight on until the end. There is little honor in surrender."
"Honor is a fool's prize," Bane replied, reciting a passage from one of the volumes he had recently read in the archives. "Glory is of no use to the dead."
After pondering his words for a moment, the Blademaster nodded. "Well said, my young apprentice."
Bane wasn't surprised that Kas'im didn't recognize the quote. The words had been written by Darth Revan nearly three millennia earlier. The Masters were as lax as the students when it came to studying the ancient writings. It seemed the Academy had turned its back on the past champions of the dark side.
True, Revan had eventually gone back over to the Jedi and the light after being betrayed by Darth Malak. Still, Revan and Malak had come within a hairsbreadth of wiping out the Republic. It was foolish to discount all they accomplished, and even more foolish to ignore the lessons that could be learned from them. Yet Qordis and the other Masters stubbornly refused to spend any time studying the history of the Sith order. Fortunately for Bane, it was a trait they passed along to their students.
It had given him an undeniable advantage over the other apprentices. If nothing else, it had shown him the true potential of the dark side. The archives were filled with accounts of incredible feats of power: cities laid waste, worlds brought low, entire star systems swallowed up when a Dark Lord caused the sun to go nova. Some of these tales were likely exaggerations, myths that had grown with each retelling before being set down on parchment. Yet they had their roots in truth, and that truth had inspired Bane to push himself farther and faster than he otherwise would have dared.
Thinking of Revan and the Sith Lords of the past brought to mind another question that had been troubling him for some time. "Master, why don't the Sith use the Darth title anymore?"
"It was Lord Kaan's decision," the Twi'lek told him as he toweled off. "The Darth tradition is a relic of the past. It represents what the Sith once were, not what we are now."
Bane shook his head, dissatisfied with the answer. "There has to be more to it than that?' he said, stooping to retrieve the robe he had cast off at the start of their duel. "Lord Kaan wouldn't throw out the ancient traditions without justification."
"I see you won't be satisfied with the easy answer," Kas'im said with a sigh, pulling on his own robe. "Very well. To understand why the title is no longer used, you must understand what it truly represents. The Darth title was more than just a symbol of power; it was a claim of supremacy. It was used by those Dark Lords who have sought to enforce their will on the other Masters. It was a challenge-a warning to bow down or be destroyed."
Bane already knew this from his studies, but he didn't think it was wise to interrupt. Instead he crossed his legs and lowered himself into a sitting position, looking up at his Master and just listening.
"Of course, few of the Dark Lords would ever submit to another's will for long," Kas'im continued. "Wherever one of our order took up the Darth title, deception and betrayal were always close at hand to snatch it away. There can be no peace for a Master who dares to use the Darth name."
"Peace is a lie," Bane replied. "There is only passion?'
Kas'im raised an eyebrow in exasperation. "Peace was a poor choice of words. What I meant was stability. Those Masters who chose the Darth title spent as much time guarding against their supposed allies as they did battling the Jedi. Kaan wanted to put an end to such wastefulness."
From where he sat, it seemed to Bane as if the Blademaster was trying to convince himself as much as his student.
"Kaan wants us to focus all our resources on our true enemy instead of one another?" Kas'im asserted. "That is why we are all equals in the Brotherhood of Darkness."
"Equality is a myth to protect the weak," Bane argued. "Some of us are strong in the Force, others are not. Only a fool believes otherwise."
"There are other reasons the Darth title was abandoned?" Kas'im insisted with just a hint of frustration. "It attracted the attention of the Jedi, for one. It revealed our leaders to the enemy; it gave them easy targets to eliminate."
Bane still wasn't convinced. The Jedi knew who the real leaders of the Sith were; whether they called themselves Darth or Lord or Master made no difference. But he could tell the Twi'lek was uncomfortable with the discussion, and he knew enough to let the matter drop.
"Forgive me, Lord Kas'im," he said, bowing his head. "I meant no offense. I only sought to draw upon your wisdom to explain that which I could not understand myself."
Kas'im looked down at him with the same expression he had used when Bane had abruptly ended their duel a few moments earlier. Eventually, he asked, "So now you see the wisdom behind Lord Kaan's decision to end the tradition?"
"Of course," Bane lied. "He is acting for the good of us all." As he rose to his feet he thought, Kaan's acting like one of the Jedi. Worrying about the greater good. Seeking to bring harmony and cooperation to our order. The dark side withers and dies under those conditions!
Kas'im stared at Bane as if he wanted to say more. In the end, however, he let it drop. "That's enough for today," he said. In the distance the sky had turned the faint gray of first light; dawn was only an hour away. "The other students will be arriving for their training soon."
Bane bowed once more before taking his leave. As he made his way down the temple steps he realized that Kas'im, for all his skill with the lightsaber, couldn't teach him what he really needed to know. The Twi'lek had turned his back on the past; he had abandoned the individualistic roots of the Sith in favor of Kaan's Brotherhood.
The mysteries of the dark side's true potential were beyond his reach-and likely beyond the reach of every Master at the Academy.
Githany could sense that something was troubling Bane. He was barely paying attention as she shared what she had learned from the Sith Masters in her most recent lessons.
She didn't know what was bothering him. In truth, she didn't care. Unless it interfered with her own plans.
"Something's on your mind, Bane," she whispered.
Lost in his thoughts, he took a moment to react. "I'm . . . I'm sorry, Githany."
"What's wrong?" she pressed, trying to sound genuinely concerned. "What are you thinking about?"
He didn't answer at first; he seemed to be weighing his words carefully before speaking. "Do you believe in the power of the dark side?" he asked.
"And is it what you envisioned? Does the Academy live up to your expectations?"
"Few things ever do," she replied with a hint of a smile. "But I've learned a lot from Qordis and the others since I've come here. Things the Jedi could never have taught me."
Bane gave a derisive snort. "Most of what I've learned has come from these books." He waved a hand at the shelves.
She wasn't sure what to say next, so she said nothing.
"You once told me the Masters didn't know everything," Bane continued. "You meant the Jedi Masters at the time, but I'm starting to believe it applies to the Sith, as well."
"They were wrong to turn their backs on you," she said, seeing the opportunity she had long been waiting for. "But you have to place your blame where it belongs. We both know who is responsible for doing this to you."
"Sirak," he said, spitting out the name as if it were poison.
"He must pay for what he did to you, Bane. We've waited long enough. It's time."
"Time for what?"
Githany allowed the hint of a tremor into her voice. "Tomorrow morning I'm going to challenge him in the dueling ring."
"What?" Bane shook his head. "Don't be stupid, Githany! He'll destroy you!"
Perfect, she thought. "I have no choice, Bane," she said gravely. "I've already told you I don't believe in the legend of the Sith'ari. Sirak may be the top student in the school, but he's not invincible."
"He may not be the Sith'ari, but he's still too strong for you. You can't face him in the dueling ring, Githany. I've studied him; I know how good he is. You can't beat him."
She let his words hang in the air for a long time before dropping her head in defeat. "What other choice is there? We have to destroy him, and the only way is by facing him in the dueling ring."
Bane didn't reply right away; she knew he was mulling over another solution. They both knew there was only one possible course of action, one answer he would inevitably come to. They'd have to kill Sirak outside the ring. Assassinate him. It was a blatant violation of the Academy's rules, and the consequences would be severe if they were caught.
That's why it had to be Bane who came up with the idea. Once it was out there, Githany was confident she could maneuver him into performing the actual deed by himself. It was the perfect plan: get rid of Sirak and have Bane assume all the risk.
Later she could "accidentally" tip off the Masters about Bane's involvement ... if she needed to. She wasn't so sure about that part of her plan anymore, though. She wasn't convinced she wanted to betray Bane. But she didn't mind manipulating him.
He drew in a long breath, gathering himself to speak. She prepared herself to give a very convincing-and very contrived-exclamation of surprise.
"You can't face Sirak in the ring, but I can," he said.
"What?" Githany's surprise was completely genuine. "He nearly beat you to death last time! He'll kill you for sure this time!"
"This time I intend to win."
The way he spoke made Githany realize she was missing something. "What's going on, Bane?" she demanded.
He hesitated a moment before admitting, "I've been training with Lord Kas'im in secret."
That made sense, she saw. In fact, she should have figured it out on her own. Maybe you would have if, if you hadn't let Bane get to you, she chided herself. You knew you were starting to have feelings for him; you let them cloud your judgment.
Out loud she said, "I don't like being played for a fool, Bane."
"Neither do I," he said. "I'm not stupid, Githany. I know what you wanted from me. I know what you expected me to say. I will get my revenge on Sirak. But I'm taking my own path."
Without even realizing it she had begun chewing on her lower lip. "When?"
"Tomorrow morning. Just as you said you were going to."
"But you know I wasn't serious."
"And you know I am."
Unbidden, Githany's finger began to twine itself in a lock of her hair. She pulled her arm down sharply as soon as she realized what she was doing.
Bane reached out a hand and let it rest gently on her shoulder. "You don't have to worry," he reassured her. "Nobody will know you were involved."
"That's not what I'm worried about," she whispered.
He tilted his head to one side, studying her closely to see if she was being honest with him. Much to her own surprise, she actually was.
Bane must have sensed her sincerity, because he leaned in close and kissed her softly on the lips. He drew back slowly, letting his hand slip from her shoulder. Without another word, he rose to his feet and made his way toward the door leading out of the archives.
She watched him go in silence, then at the last second called out, "Good luck, Bane. Be careful."
He stopped as if he'd taken a blaster bolt in the throat, his body rigid. "I will," he replied without looking back. And then he was gone.
Moments later Githany felt her face burning. She absently brushed away a tear coiling down her cheek, then brought her hand up slowly, staring in disbelief at the moisture smeared across her palm.
Disgusted at her own weakness, she wiped the tear away on the folds of her cloak. She stood up from the chair and threw her shoulders back, bracing her spine and holding her head high and proud.
So what if things hadn't quite gone according to plan? If Bane killed Sirak in the ring, her rival would still be dead. And if Bane failed, she could always find someone else to assassinate the Zabrak. It would all work out the same in the end.
But as she marched smartly from the room, part of her knew that wasn't true. No matter how this played out, things were going to be very different from anything she had imagined.
The morning sky was dark with storm clouds. Far in the distance thunder could be heard rumbling across the empty plains that separated the temple from the Valley of the Dark Lords.
Bane hadn't slept that night. After his confrontation with Githany, he had returned to his room to meditate. Even that had proved difficult; his mind was churning with too many thoughts to properly focus.
Memories of the gruesome beating he had suffered kept forcing themselves to the fore, dragging doubt and the fear of failure behind them. So far he'd managed to resist the whispers that threatened his resolve, and he'd stayed firm in his original plan.
The apprentices were gathering, some casting sour glances at the clouds overhead. The temple roof was completely exposed to the elements, but no matter how wet, cold, and miserable the students got, they knew the drills and challenges would not be canceled. A little rain was nothing to a Sith, Kas'im was fond of saying.
Bane found his place amid the throng in preparation for the group drills. The apprentices around him studiously ignored his presence. It had been this way ever since his loss to Sirak: he was shunned; he had become anathema to the other students. Though he trained with them in all the group sessions, it was as if he didn't really exist. He was a silent shadow lurking on the fringes, excluded in spirit if not in actual physical presence.
He scanned the crowd for Githany, but when he caught her eye she quickly looked away. Still, he found her presence reassuring. He believed she wanted him to succeed, or at least part of her did. He believed that some of what they felt for each other was more than just part of the game they had both been playing.
As the drills began he made a point not to look over at Sirak. He had studied the Zabrak in excruciating detail over the past months; anything he happened to notice now would only cause him to second-guess himself. Instead he focused on his own technique.
In the past he had purposefully worked errors and mistakes into his routines during the drills in order to keep his growing talent hidden from any student who might happen to cast a glance in his direction. Now, however, the time for secrecy was gone. After the challenges today everyone would know what he was capable of-or he would be dead and forgotten forever.
The rain began to come down. Slowly at first; fat, heavy drops spaced enough apart that he could make out the sound as each one landed. But then the clouds opened up and the rain came in a steady, pounding rhythm. Bane barely even noticed. He'd escaped inside himself, digging down deep to confront his fear. As his body went through the motions of basic attack and defense stances along with the rest of the class, he slowly transformed the fear into anger.
It was impossible for Bane to say how long the training session lasted: it seemed to go on forever, but in actual fact Kas'im probably kept it brief in light of the steady downpour soaking his charges. By the time it ended and the apprentices had gathered into the familiar circle around the dueling ring, the young man had turned his seething anger into white-hot hate.
As he had done the last time he challenged Sirak, he entered the ring before anyone else had a chance to act, pushing his way through the crowd from his position on the outermost edge. There was a murmur of surprise when the others recognized who had stepped forward.
He could feel the dark side churning inside him, a storm far fiercer than the one pelting down on him from the sky. It was time for his hate to set him free.
"Sirak!" he shouted, his voice carrying over the rising wind. "I challenge you!"