Bane's challenge hung in the air, as if the relentless sheets of rain had somehow trapped his words. Through the darkness of the storm he saw the crowd part and Sirak step slowly forward.
The Zabrak moved with a quiet confidence. Bane had hoped the unexpected challenge might unsettle his enemy. If he could rattle Sirak, catch him off guard or confuse him, he would have an advantage before the fight even began. But if his opponent felt anything at all, he kept it carefully masked beneath a cold, calm veneer.
Sirak handed his long, double-bladed training saber to Yevra, one of the Zabrak siblings who always seemed to follow in his wake, then stripped off his heavy, rain-soaked cloak. Beneath his robes he wore a simple pair of breeches and a sleeveless vest. Without a word he held out his balled-up cloak and Llokay, the other Zabrak, scampered out from the crowd and took it from him. Then Yevra scurried in to return his weapon to his open and waiting hand.
Bane peeled off his own cloak and let it drop to the ground, trying to ignore the cold sting of the rain on his naked torso. He hadn't really expected Sirak to be flustered by his challenge, but at the very least he'd hoped the Zabrak would be overconfident. There was, however, a ruthless efficiency in Sirak's preparation-an economy and precision of movement-that told Bane he was taking this duel very seriously.
Sirak was arrogant, but he was no fool. He was smart enough to understand that Bane wouldn't challenge him again unless he thought he had some plan for victory. Until he understood what that plan was, he wasn't going to take his opponent for granted.
Bane knew he could probably beat Sirak now. Like Githany, he didn't believe in the legend of a chosen one who would rise up from the Sith ranks: he was convinced Sirak was not, in fact, the Sith'ari. He didn't want just to beat him, however. He wanted to destroy him, just as Sirak had destroyed him in their last meeting.
But Sirak was too good; he'd never leave himself exposed the way Bane had. Not at first. Not unless Bane somehow lured him into it.
Across the ring Sirak assumed the ready position. His rain-slicked skin seemed to glow in the darkness: a yellow demon emerging from the shadows of a nightmare into reality's harsh light.
Bane leapt forward, opening the melee with a series of complex, aggressive attacks. He moved quickly . . . but not too quickly. There were gasps of astonishment from the crowd at his obvious and unexpected skill, though Sirak turned aside his assault easily enough.
In response to the inevitable counterattack, Bane let himself stagger back into a stumbling retreat. For a brief instant he saw his opponent overextend, leaving his right arm vulnerable to a strike that would have ended the contest right then and there. Fighting his own finely honed instincts, Bane held back. He'd worked too long and too hard to claim victory with a simple blow to the arm.
The battle continued in the familiar rhythm of combat, the ebb and flow of attack and defense. Bane made sure his attacks were effective yet crude, trying to convince his enemy that he was a dangerous but ultimately inferior opponent. Each time he warded off one of Sirak's charges he embellished his defensive maneuvers, transforming quick parries into long, clumsy swipes that seemed to keep the double-bladed saber at bay as much through blind luck as intention.
With the surge and swell of each exchange Bane gently prodded with the Force, testing and searching for a weakness he could exploit. It took only a few minutes until he recognized it. Despite his training, the Zabrak had no real experience in long, drawn-out battles-none of his opponents had ever lasted long enough to truly push him. Imperceptibly, the strikes of his foe became less crisp, the counters less precise, and the transitions less elegant as Sirak gradually wore down. The fog of exhaustion was slowly clouding his mind, and Bane knew it was only a matter of time until he made a crucial-and fatal-miscalculation.
Yet even though he was battling the Zabrak, Bane's real struggle was with himself. Time and again he had to pull back to keep from lunging through an opening presented by his enemy's increasingly desperate assault. He understood that the crushing victory he sought would only come through patience-a virtue not normally encouraged in followers of the dark side.
In the end his patience was rewarded. Sirak became more and more frustrated as he continually tried and failed to bring his bumbling, stumbling opponent down. As the prolonged physical exertion began to take its toll, his swings became wild and reckless, until he abandoned all pretense of defense in an effort to end the duel he sensed was slipping away from him.
When the Zabrak's desperation turned to hopelessness, every impulse in Bane screamed with the desire to take the initiative and end the fight. Instead he let the tantalizing closeness of Sirak's defeat feed his appetite for vengeance. The hunger grew with each passing second until it became a physical pain tearing away at his insides: the dark side filled him and he felt it on the verge of ripping him apart, splitting his skin and gushing out like a fountain of black blood.
He waited until the last possible second before unleashing the energy bottled up inside him in a tremendous rush of power. He channeled it through his muscles and limbs, moving so fast it seemed as if time had stopped for the rest of the world. In the blink of an eye he knocked the saber from Sirak's hand, sliced down to shatter his forearm, then spun through and brought his saber crashing into his opponent's lower leg. It splintered under the impact and Sirak screamed as a shard of gleaming white bone sliced through muscle, sinew, and finally skin.
For an instant none of the spectators was even aware of what had happened; it took their minds a moment to catch up and register the blur of action that had occurred so much quicker than their eyes could see.
Sirak lay crumpled on the ground, writhing in agony and clutching with his one good hand at the chunk of bone protruding from his shin. Bane hesitated a split second before moving in to finish him off, savoring the moment ... and giving Kas'im the opportunity to intervene.
"Enough!" the Blademaster shouted, and the apprentice obeyed, freezing his saber even in the act of chopping it down on his helpless foe. "It's over, Bane."
Slowly, Bane lowered his saber and stepped away. The fury and focus that had turned him into a conduit of the dark side's unstoppable power was gone, replaced by a hyperconscious awareness of his physical surroundings. He was standing atop the temple roof in the middle of a raging storm, drenched in cold rain, his body half frozen.
He began to shiver as he cast about the ground for his discarded cloak. He picked it up but, finding it soaked completely through, didn't bother to put it on.
Kas'im stepped from the crowd, smoothly placing himself between Bane and the helpless Zabrak.
"You have witnessed an amazing victory today," he told the assembled throng, shouting to be heard above the pounding rain. "Bane's triumph was as much a result of his brilliant strategy as his superior skill."
Bane was barely listening to the words. He merely stood in the center of the ring, silent save for the chattering of his teeth.
"He was patient and careful. He didn't just want to defeat his opponent ... he wanted to destroy him! He achieved dun moth-not because he was better than Sirak, but because he was smarter."
The Blademaster reached out a hand and placed it on Bane's bare shoulder.
"Let this be a lesson to you all," he concluded. "Secrecy can be your greatest weapon. Keep your true strength hidden until you are ready to unleash the killing blow."
He let go of Bane's shoulder and whispered, "You should go inside before you catch a chill." Then he turned to address the stunned Zabrak siblings standing at the edge of the circled students. "Take Sirak down to the medcenter."
As they moved forward to carry their moaning and barely conscious champion away, Bane turned toward the stairs. Kas'im was right: he had to get out of the rain.
Feeling strangely surreal, he walked stiffly toward the stairs that led into the warmth and shelter of the rooms below. The crowd parted quickly to let him through. Most of the other apprentices were staring at him with expressions of fear and open wonder, yet he barely noticed. He descended the steps to the temple's main floor, walking in a stupor that was broken only when he heard Githany call his name.
"Bane!" she shouted, and he turned to see her hurrying down the stairs after him. Her drenched hair was plastered haphazardly to her face and forehead. Her soaked clothes clung tightly to her body, accentuating every curve of her shapely form. She was breathing hard, though whether from excitement or the exertion of catching up to him he couldn't say.
He waited at the base of the stairs as she approached. She ran down the steps toward him, and for a moment he thought she would continue on into his arms. At the last second she stopped, however, and stood mere centimeters from him.
Githany took a second to catch her breath before she spoke. When she did, her words were harsh, though her voice was low. "What happened up there? Why didn't you kill him?"
Part of him had been expecting this reaction, though another part of him was hoping she had come to congratulate him on his victory. He couldn't help but feel disappointed.
"He sent me to the bacta tank in our first duel. Now I've done the same to him," he replied. "That's vengeance."
"That's foolish!" she shot back. "You think Sirak's going to just forget about this? He'll come after you again, Bane. Just like you came after him. That's the way this works. You missed your chance to put a permanent end to this feud, and I want to know why."
"My blade was raised for the killing blow," Bane reminded her. "Lord Kas'im stepped in before I could finish Sirak off. The Masters don't want one of their top students to end up dead."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Your blade was raised, but Kas'im didn't stop you. You hesitated. Something held you back."
Bane knew she was right. He had hesitated. He just wasn't sure why. He tried to explain it . . . to Githany and himself. "I've already killed one foe in the ring. Qordis chastised me for Fohargh's death. He warned me not to let it happen again. I guess . . . I guess I was worried about what the Masters would do to me if I killed another apprentice."
Githany's eyes narrowed in anger. "I thought we'd finally stopped lying to each other, Bane."
It wasn't a lie. Not exactly. But it wasn't entirely accurate, either. He shifted uncomfortably, feeling guilty beneath her furious glare.
"You couldn't do it," she said, reaching out and jabbing him hard in the chest with her finger. "You felt the dark side swallowing you up, and you pulled back."
Now it was Bane's turn to get angry. "You're wrong," he snapped, swiping her accusing hand away. "I retreated from the dark side after I killed Fohargh. I know how that felt. This is different."
His words carried the righteous weight of truth. Last time he'd felt hollow inside, as if something had been taken from him. This time he could still feel the Force flowing through him in all its savage glory, filling him with its heat and power. This time the dark side remained his to command.
Githany wasn't convinced. "You still aren't willing to give yourself fully to the dark side," she said. "Sirak showed weakness, and you showed him mercy. That's not the way of the Sith."
"What do you know of the ways of the Sith?" he shouted. "I'm the one who's read the ancient texts, not you! You're stuck learning from Masters who've forgotten their past."
"Where in the ancient texts does it say to show compassion to a fallen enemy?" she asked, her voice dripping with scorn.
Stung by the words, Bane shoved her sharply backward and turned away. She took a quick step to balance herself, but kept her distance.
"You're just angry because your plan fell apart," he muttered, suddenly unwilling to face her. He wanted to say more, but he knew the rest of the students would be down soon. He didn't want anyone to see them talking together, so he simply walked away and left her standing there alone.
Githany followed him with cold, calculating eyes. She'd been impressed watching him toy with Sirak in the ring; he'd seemed invincible. But when he'd failed to kill the helpless Zabrak, she was quick to recognize and identify what had happened. It was a flaw in Bane's character, a weakness he refused to recognize. Yet it was there nonetheless.
Once the passion of the moment had faded-once he was no longer driven by the dark side-his seething bloodlust had cooled. He hadn't even been able to kill his most hated enemy without provocation. Which meant he probably wouldn't be able to kill Githany if it ever came down to it.
Knowing this changed the nature of their relationship once again. Recently she'd begun to fear Bane, afraid that if he ever turned on her, she wouldn't be strong enough to stand against him. Now she knew that this would never happen. He simply wasn't capable of killing an ally without justification.
Fortunately, she didn't have the same limitations.
Bane was still thinking about what Githany had said later that night as he lay in bed, unable to sleep. Why hadn't he been able to kill Sirak? Was she right? Had he pulled back out of some misguided sense of compassion? He wanted to believe he had embraced the dark side, but if he had, he would have cut Sirak down without a second thought-no matter what the consequences.
However, it was more than this that was bothering him. He was frustrated by how he'd left things with Githany. He was undeniably drawn to her; she was hypnotic and compelling. Each time she brushed up against him he felt chills down his spine. Even when they were apart he often thought of her, memories lingering like the scent of her intoxicating perfume. At night her long black hair and dangerous eyes haunted his dreams.
And he honestly believed she felt something for him, too ... though he doubted she would ever admit it. Yet as close as they'd become during their secret lessons together they'd never consummated their yearning. It just seemed wrong while Sirak was still the top apprentice at the academy. Defeating him had been the underlying goal for each of them; neither one had wanted any distractions from that goal. He was a common foe that united them to a single cause, but in many ways he had also been a wall keeping them apart.
Taking Sirak down should have leveled that wall into rubble. But Bane had seen the disappointment in Githany's face after the battle. He'd promised to kill their enemy, and she'd believed in him. Yet in the end his actions had proved he wasn't up to her expectations, and the wall between them had suddenly grown much, much stronger.
Someone knocked softly at the door of his chamber. It was well after curfew; none of the apprentices had any reason to be in the halls. He could think of only one person who might be wandering the halls at this hour.
Leaping from his bed he crossed the floor in one quick stride and yanked open the door. He quickly masked his disappointment at seeing Lord Kas'im standing beyond the threshold.
The Blademaster stepped through the open door without waiting for an invitation; he gave Bane a nod that told him to close it once he was inside. Bane did as he was bidden, wondering at the purpose of the unannounced late-night visit.
"I have something for you," the Twi'lek said, brushing away the folds of his cloak and reaching for his lightsaber on his belt. No, Bane realized. Not his lightsaber. The handle of Kas'im's weapon was noticeably longer than most, allowing it to house two crystals, one to power each blade. This hilt was smaller, and it was fashioned with a strange curve, giving it a hooked appearance.
The Blademaster ignited the lightsaber: its single blade burned a dark red. "This was the weapon of my Master," he told Bane. "As a young child I would watch for hours as my Master performed his drills. My earliest memories are of dancing ruby lights moving through the sequences of battle."
"You don't remember your parents?" Bane asked, surprised.
Kas'im shook his head. "My parents were sold in the slave markets of Nal Hutta. That's where Master Na'daz found me. He noticed my family on the auction blocks; perhaps he was drawn to them because we were Twi'leks like himself. Even though I was barely old enough to stand, Master Na'daz could sense the Force in me. He purchased me and took me back to Ryloth, to raise me as his apprentice among our own people."
"What happened to your parents?"
"I don't know," Kas'im replied with an indifferent shrug. "They had no special connection to the Force, so my Master saw no reason to purchase them. They were weak, and so they were left behind."
He spoke casually, as if the knowledge that his parents had lived and probably died as slaves in the service of the Hutts had no effect on him whatsoever. In a way his apathy was understandable. He'd never known his parents, so he had no emotional ties to them, good or bad. Bane briefly wondered how his own life might have been different if he had been raised by someone else. If Hurst had been killed in the cortosis mines when he was just an infant, would he still have ended up here at the Academy on Korriban?
"My Master was a great Sith Lord," Kas'im continued. "He was particularly adept in the arts of lightsaber combat-a skill he passed on to me. He taught me how to use the double-bladed lightsaber, though as you can see he preferred a more traditional design for himself. Except for the handle, of course."
The blade flickered out of existence as he shut off the weapon and tossed it to Bane, who caught it easily, wrapping his hand around the hooked handle.
"It feels strange," he muttered.
"It requires a minor variation in your grip," Kas'im explained. "Hold it more in the palm, farther away from the fingertips."
Bane did as instructed, letting his body grow accustomed to the odd heft and balance. Already his mind was beginning to run through the implications of the new grip. It would give the wielder more power on his overhand strikes, and it would change the angle of the attacks by the merest fraction of a degree. Just enough to confuse and disorient an unsuspecting opponent.
"Some moves are more difficult with this particular weapon," Kas'im warned. "But many others are far more effective. In the end I think you'll find this lightsaber will suit your personal style quite well."
"You're giving this to me?" Bane asked incredulously.
"Today you proved you were worthy of it." There was just a hint of pride in the Blademaster's voice.
Bane ignited it, listening to the sweet hum of the power pack and the crackling hiss of the energy blade. He performed a few simple flourishes, then abruptly shut it off.
"Does Qordis approve?"
"The decision is mine, not his," Kas'im stated. He almost sounded offended. "I haven't held on to this blade for ten years just so Qordis can decide who I give it to."
Bane answered with a respectful bow, fully aware of the great honor that Kas'im had just bestowed upon him. To fill the uncomfortable silence that followed he asked, "Your Master gave you this when he died?"
"I took it when I killed him."
Bane was so stunned that he couldn't cover his reaction. The Blademaster saw it and smiled slightly.
"I had learned everything I could from Master Na'daz. As strong as he was in the dark side, I was stronger. As skilled as he was with the lightsaber, I became better."
"But why kill him?" Bane asked.
"A test. To see if I was as strong as I believed. This was before Lord Kaan rose to power; we were still trapped in the old ways. Sith versus Sith, Master versus apprentice. Foolishly pitting ourselves against one another to prove our dominance. Fortunately, the Brotherhood of Darkness put an end to all that."
"Not completely," Bane muttered, thinking of Fohargh and Sirak. "The weak still fall to the strong. It is inevitable."
Kas'im tilted his head to the side, trying to gauge the meaning behind his words. "Don't allow yourself to be blinded by this honor," he warned. "You are not ready to challenge me, young apprentice. I have taught you everything you know, but I haven't taught you everything I know."
Bane couldn't help but smile. The notion of facing Kas'im in a real fight was preposterous. He knew he was no match for the Blademaster. Not yet. "I will keep that in mind, Master."
Satisfied, Kas'im turned to go. Just before Bane closed the door behind him he added, "Lord Qordis wants to see you first thing in the morning. Go to his chambers before the morning drills."
Even the sobering prospect of meeting with the Academy's grim overseer couldn't dampen Bane's elated spirit. As soon as he was alone in his room he reignited the lightsaber and began practicing his sequences. It was many hours before he finally put the weapon away and crawled wearily into bed, all thoughts of Githany long banished from his mind.
The morning's first light found Bane at the door leading into the private quarters of Lord Qordis. It had been many months since he had last been here. At that time he had been chastised for killing Fohargh. This time he had severely injured one of the top students of the Academy-one of Qordis's personal favorites. He wondered what was in store for him.
Summoning his courage, he knocked once.
"Enter," came the voice from within.
Trying to ignore a feeling of trepidation, Bane did as he was told. Lord Qordis was in the center of the room kneeling on his meditation mat. It was almost as if he hadn't moved: his position was exactly the same as it had been at their last meeting.
"Master," Bane said, making a low bow.
Qordis didn't bother to rise. "I see you have a lightsaber on your belt."
"Lord Kas'im gave it to me. He felt I earned it with my latest victory in the ring." Bane suddenly felt very defensive, as if he was under attack.
"I have no wish to contradict the Blademaster," Qordis replied, though his tone suggested the opposite. "However, though you now carry a lightsaber, do not forget that you are still an apprentice. You still owe your obedience and allegiance to the Masters here at the Academy."
"Of course, Lord Qordis."
"The way in which you defeated Sirak has left quite an impression on the other students," Qordis continued. "They will look to emulate you now. You must set an example for them."
"I will do my best, Master."
"That means your private sessions with Githany must end."
A chill washed over Bane. "You knew?"
"I am a Sith Lord, and Master of this Academy. I am not a fool, and I am not blind to what is happening within the walls of the temple. I tolerated such behavior when you were an outcast because it did no harm to the other apprentices. Now, however, many of the students will be watching you closely. I do not want them following your path and trying to train one another in a misguided attempt to duplicate your success?'
"What will happen to Githany? Will she be punished?"
"I will speak with her just as I am speaking with you. It must be clear to the rest of the apprentices that the two of you are not training together in private. That means you cannot see her anymore. You must avoid all contact except in the group lessons. If you both obey me in this, there will be no further consequences."
Bane understood Lord Qordis's concerns, but he felt the solution went too far. There was no need to cut him off from Githany so completely. He wondered if the Masters knew of his attraction to her. Did they fear she would be a distraction?
No, he realized, that wasn't it. This was simply about control. Bane had defied Lord Qordis; he had succeeded despite being shunned by the rest of the Academy. Now Qordis wanted to claim ownership of Bane's accomplishments.
"That is not all?" Qordis continued, interrupting Bane's thoughts. "You must also put an end to your study of the archives."
"Why?" Bane burst out, surprised and angry. "The manuscripts contain the wisdom of the ancient Sith. I have learned much about the ways of the dark side from them."
"The archives are relics of the past," Qordis countered sharply. "They are from a time that has long since vanished. The order has changed. We have evolved beyond what you learned in those musty scrolls and tomes. You would understand this if you had been studying with the Masters instead of rushing off on your own path."
You're the one who forced me down that path, Bane thought. "The Sith may have changed, but we can still build on the knowledge of those who came before us. Surely you understand that, Master. Why else would you have rebuilt the Academy on Korriban?"
There was a flash of anger in the Dark Lord's eyes. He obviously didn't like being challenged by one of his students. When he spoke, his voice was cold and menacing. "The dark side is strong on this world. That is the only reason we chose to come here."
Bane knew he should let the matter drop, but he wasn't ready to back down. This was too important. "But what about the Valley of the Dark Lords? What about the tombs of all the dark Masters buried on Korriban, and the secrets hidden inside them?"
"Is that what you seek?" Qordis sneered. "The secrets of the dead? The Jedi pillaged the tombs when Korriban fell to them three thousand years ago. Nothing of value remains."
"The Jedi are servants of the light," Bane protested. "The dark side has secrets they will never understand. There may be something they missed."
Qordis laughed, a harsh and scornful bark. "Are you really so naЇve?"
"The spirits of powerful Sith Masters are said to linger in their tombs," Bane insisted, stubbornly refusing to be cowed. "They appear only to those who are worthy. They would not have revealed themselves to the Jedi."
"Do you really believe ghosts and spirits still linger in their graves, waiting to pass on the great mysteries of the dark side to those who seek them out?"
Bane's thoughts turned back to his studies. There were too many such accounts documented in the archives to be mere legend. There had to be some truth to it.
"Yes," he answered, though he knew it would infuriate Qordis even more. "I believe I can learn more from the ghosts in the Valley of the Dark Lords than the living Masters here at the Academy."
Qordis leapt to his feet and slapped Bane hard across the face, his talon-like fingernails drawing blood. Bane held his ground; he didn't even flinch.
"You are an impudent fool!" his Master shouted. "You worship those who are dead and gone. You think they hold some great power, but they are nothing but dust and bone!"
"You're wrong," Bane said. He could feel the blood welling up in the scratches on his face, but he didn't reach up to wipe it away. He simply stood still as stone in front of his seething Master.
Even though Bane didn't move, Qordis took half a step back. When he spoke, his voice was more composed, though it still dripped with anger. "Get out," he said, extending a long, bony finger toward the door. "If you value the wisdom of the dead so much, then go. Leave the temple. Go to the Valley of the Dark Lords. Find your answers in their tombs."
Bane hesitated. He knew this was a test. If he apologized now-if he groveled and begged the forgiveness of his Master-Qordis would probably let him stay. But he knew Qordis was wrong. The ancient Sith were dead, but their legacy remained. This was his chance to claim it as his own.
He turned his back on Lord Qordis and marched from the room without a word. There was no point in continuing the argument. The only way he could win was by finding proof. And he wasn't going to find it standing here.