Bane had missed the morning practice session. It wasn't hard for Kas'im to figure out who was responsible for his absence.
He didn't bother to knock on Lord Qordis's door; he simply used the Force to burst apart the lock, then kicked it open. Unfortunately, the element of surprise he'd been hoping for had been lost.
Qordis had his back to the door, examining one of the magnificent tapestries that hung beside his oversized bed. He didn't turn when the Blademaster burst in; he didn't react at all. Which meant he'd been expecting the intrusion.
Kas'im gestured violently with his hand, and the door slammed shut. What he was about to say wasn't for the ears of the students. "What in blazes did you do, Qordis?"
"I assume you are referring to apprentice Bane" came the too-casual reply.
"Of course I kriffing mean Bane! No more games, Qordis. What did you do to him?"
"To him? Nothing. Not in the way you're thinking. I merely tried to reason with him. Tried to make him understand the necessity of working within the structure of this institution."
"You manipulated him," Kas'im said with a sigh of resignation. He knew Qordis had no fondness for Bane. Not with Lord Kopecz-his longtime rival-being the one who'd brought him here. The Blademaster realized he should have warned the young apprentice to be on his guard.
"You twisted his mind somehow," he continued, trying to draw out a reaction. "You forced him down a path you wanted him to take. A path of ruin."
There was no immediate reply. Tired of staring at Qordis's back, he stepped forward and reached up to grab the taller man by the shoulder, whirling him around to face him. "Why, Qordis?"
In the first brief second that the overseer of the Academy was spun around, Kas'im caught a glimpse of uncertainty and confusion in the gaunt, drawn features. Then those features twisted into a mask of rage, dark eyes burning in sunken sockets. Qordis slapped Kas'im's hand away.
"Bane brought this on himself! He was willful! Obsessed with the past! He is of no use to us until he accepts the teachings of this Academy!"
Kas'im was taken aback: not by the sudden outburst, but by the unexpected glimpse of uncertainty that had preceded it. Suddenly he wondered if maybe the meeting hadn't gone exactly as planned. Perhaps Qordis had tried to manipulate Bane and failed. It wouldn't be the first time they'd underestimated their unusual apprentice.
Now Kas'im felt more curious than angry. "Tell me what happened, Qordis. Where is Bane now?"
Qordis sighed, almost regretful. "He's gone into the wastelands. He's heading for the Valley of the Dark Lords."
"What? Why would he do that?"
"I told you: he's obsessed with the past. He believes there are secrets out there that will be revealed to him. Secrets of the dark side."
"Did you warn him of the dangers? The pelko swarms? The tuk'ata?"
"He never gave me a chance. He wouldn't have listened anyway."
That much, at least, Kas'im believed. Yet he wasn't sure if he trusted the rest of Qordis's story. The Master of the Academy was subtle, crafty. It would be just like him to trick someone into venturing through the deadly Valley of the Dark Lords. If he wanted to eliminate Bane without being held accountable, this would be one of the ways to do it-except for one small thing.
"He's going to survive," Kas'im stated. "He's stronger than you know."
"If he survives," Qordis replied, turning back to the tapestry, "he will learn the truth. There are no secrets in the valley. Not anymore. Everything of value has been taken: stripped away first by Sith seeking to preserve our order, and later by Jedi seeking to wipe it out. There is nothing left in the tombs but hollow chambers and mounds of dust. Once he sees this for himself, he will give up his foolish idealization of the ancient Sith. Only then will he be ready to join the Brotherhood of Darkness."
The conversation was over; that much was clear. Qordis's words made sense, if this was all part of a larger lesson to make Bane finally abandon the old ways and accept the new Sith order and Kaan's Brotherhood.
Yet as he turned and left the room, Kas'im couldn't shake the feeling that Qordis was rationalizing events after the fact. Qordis wanted others to believe he had been in control the whole time, but the haunted look the Blademaster had glimpsed gave evidence to the real truth: Qordis had been scared by something Bane had done or said.
That thought brought a smile to the Twi'lek's lips. He had every confidence Bane would survive his journey into the Valley of the Dark Lords. And he was very interested to see what would happen when the young man returned.
Sirak was moving gingerly. He'd spent the past thirty-six hours in a bacta tank, and though his injuries were completely healed, his body still instinctively reacted to the memories of the wounds inflicted by Bane's saber. Slowly, he gathered up his personal effects, anxious to return to the familiar surroundings of his own room and leave the solitude of the medcenter behind.
One of the med droids floated in, bringing him a pair of pants, a shirt, and a dark apprentice's robe. The clothes smelled of disinfectant; it was common practice to sterilize everything before bringing it into the medcenter. The garments fit, but he knew as soon as he put them on that they had never been worn before.
He hadn't seen a single being other than the med droids since being carried unconscious from the dueling ring. Nobody had come to checkup on him while he'd floated in the healing fluid: not Qordis, not Kas'im, not even Llokay or Yevra. He didn't blame them.
The Sith despised weakness and failure. Whenever apprentices lost in the dueling ring, they were left alone with the shame of their defeat until strong enough to resume their studies. It happened to everyone sooner or later ... except it had never before happened to Sirak.
He had been invincible, untouchable-the top apprentice in every discipline. He'd heard the rumors and the whispers. They called him the Sith'ari, the perfect being. Only they wouldn't be calling him the Sith'ari now. Not after what Bane had done to him.
He turned to the door and found Githany standing there, watching him. "What do you want?" he asked warily.
He knew who she was, though he'd never actually spoken to her. On the day of her arrival he'd identified her as a potential threat. He'd watched her, and he'd seen her watching him, each measuring and gauging the other, trying to determine who had the upper hand. Sirak was wary of all potential challengers, or so he had thought-until the one student he'd feared the least had brought him down.
"I came to speak to you," she answered. "About Bane."
He twitched involuntarily at the name, then cursed himself for his reaction. If Githany had noticed, she gave no indication.
"What about him?" he asked curtly.
"I'm curious as to what your plans are now. How are you going to handle this situation?"
It was a struggle to summon up his old arrogance, yet somehow he managed a satisfactory sneer. "My plans are my own."
"Are you going to seek revenge?" she pressed.
"In time, perhaps," he finally admitted.
"I can help you."
She took a step farther into the room. Even in that single step Sirak could see that she moved with the sensual grace of a Zeltron veil dancer. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Why?"
"I helped Bane defeat you," she said. "I recognized his potential from the moment I first saw him. When Qordis and the other Masters turned their backs on him, I secretly taught him their lessons in the Force. I knew the dark side was strong in him. Stronger than in me. Stronger than in you. Maybe even stronger than in the Masters themselves."
Sirak couldn't see the point of her story. "You still haven't answered my question. You got what you wanted out of Bane. Why help me now?"
She shook her head sadly. "I was wrong about Bane. I thought if helped him grow stronger, he would embrace the dark side. Then I could learn from him and gain power of my own. But he is incapable of embracing the dark side. Everyone else believes his triumph over you was a great victory. Only I recognized it as a failure."
She was toying with him. Mocking him. And he didn't like it. "No one ever beat me in the dueling ring before Bane!" he snapped. "How can you call him a failure?"
"You're still alive," she said simply. "When the moment came to strike you down and end your life, he hesitated. He couldn't bring himself to do it. He was weak."
Intrigued, Sirak didn't respond right away. Instead he waited for her to elaborate.
"He plotted and planned for months to take his revenge on you," she continued. "His hate gave him the strength to surpass you ... and at the last instant he showed mercy and let you live."
"I left him alive at the end of our first duel," Sirak reminded her.
"That was no act of mercy-it was an act of contempt. You thought you had utterly destroyed him. If you knew he would rise up to one day challenge you again, you would have taken his life regardless of the rules of the Academy.
"You underestimated him. A mistake I know you won't make again. But Bane does not underestimate you. He knows you are powerful enough to represent a true threat. Yet still he left you alive, knowing you would one day seek revenge against him. He is either a weakling or a fool," she concluded, "and I want no part of either."
There was some truth in what she said, but Sirak still wasn't convinced. "You change allegiances too quickly, Githany. Even for a Sith." She was silent for a long time, trying to figure out how to answer him. Then suddenly she looked down at the floor, and when she looked up her eyes were filled with shame and humiliation.
"It was Bane who ended this alliance, not me," she admitted, nearly choking on the words. "He abandoned me," she continued, making no attempt to hide her bitterness. "He left the Academy. He never told me why. He never even said good-bye."
Suddenly everything fell into place. Sirak understood her sudden desire to join with him in a partnership against her former ally. Githany was used to being in control. She was used to being in charge. She was used to being the one who ended things. And she didn't like being on the other side.
It was like the old Corellian expression: Fear the wrath of a female scorned.
"Where did he go?" he asked.
"The students are saying Qordis sent him out into the Valley of the Dark Lords."
Sirak nearly blurted out, Then he's dead already! but at the last second he remembered her admonishment not to underestimate Bane again. Instead he said, "You expect he will return."
"I'm certain of it."
"Then we will be ready," Sirak promised. "When he comes back, we will destroy him."
As Bane marched across the scorched sand of Korriban's wastelands, he noticed the sun sinking quickly below the horizon. He'd been walking for hours beneath its heat; the small city of Dreshdae and the temple that towered over it were far behind him. They had been reduced to mere specks on the horizon; if he was to look back, he would have just been able to make them out in the fading light.
He didn't look back. He marched doggedly onward. The blazing heat hadn't slowed him; neither would temperatures that were about to drop to near freezing with the setting of the sun. Physical discomfort-cold, heat, thirst, hunger, fatigue-had no significant effect on him, sustained as he was by the power of the Force.
Still, he was troubled. He remembered the first time he'd set foot on Korriban. He'd sensed the power of the world: Korriban was alive with the dark side. Yet the feeling had been faint and distant. During his time at the Academy he'd grown so accustomed to the almost subconscious hum that he barely even noticed it anymore.
When he'd left the temple and the starport behind, he'd expected that feeling to grow stronger. With each step drawing him closer to the Valley of the Dark Lords he thought he'd feel the dark side growing in its intensity.
Instead he'd felt nothing. No noticeable change at all. He was only a few kilometers away from the valley's entrance; he could see the shaded outlines of the nearest tombs carved from the stone walls. And still the dark side was no stronger than a hollow echo, no more than the lingering memory of distant words spoken in the distant past.
Pushing his doubts and reservations aside, he redoubled his pace. He wanted to reach the valley before complete darkness. He had grabbed a handful of glow rods before leaving the Academy; he could use them to find his way if necessary. Unfortunately, their light would act like a beacon in the darkness, signaling his location to anyone-or anything. With his new lightsaber at his side he was confident he could survive almost any encounter, but there were things that lurked near the tombs whose attention he would rather not attract.
The last few rays of light still hung in the air when he finally reached his destination. The Valley of the Dark Lords lay sprawled out before him, hidden beneath the cover of twilight's gloom. He briefly considered stopping for the night and making camp until dawn, then rejected the idea. Day or night would make no difference once he was inside the tombs: he'd have to use the glow rods no matter what time it was. And now that he was finally here he was too eager to see what he could find to put it off any longer.
He chose the nearest temple, the only one he could actually make out in the dim light. Like all the tombs, this one had been dug out from the high stone cliffs that boxed in the valley on either side. The grand archway at the entrance had been built out from the cliff face, but the chambers that housed the remains of the Dark Lord interred within wound their way deep into the rock.
As he got closer, he could make out intricate designs carved into the archway. Something was written across the top in letters he didn't recognize. He guessed that the craftsmanship would have been awe inspiring at one time, but eons of desert winds had worn away most of the detail.
He paused on the threshold, taking in the air of forbidden mystery that surrounded the entrance to the tomb. He still sensed no change in the Force, however. Stepping up to the entrance, he was shocked to see that the great stone slab of a door had been split asunder. He ran his fingers along the edges of the fissure. Smooth. Worn. Whoever had broken the door had done it long ago.
Bane stood up straight and marched boldly through the shattered portal. He made his way down the long entrance tunnel, moving slowly through the gloom. Half a dozen meters in, the darkness became absolute, so he pulled out a glow rod and activated it.
An eerie blue light filled the tunnel, sending a small swarm of deadly pelko bugs scurrying for refuge beyond the dim circle of illumination. They had been stalking him, closing in from all sides. He could still sense them there, lurking in the shadows all around him, but he wasn't afraid. After all, it wasn't the light keeping them at bay.
Pelko bugs, like many of the creatures indigenous to Korriban, were attuned to the Force. They would have sensed Bane's arrival even before he entered the tomb; his power would inevitably draw them in. Yet it also kept them and their paralyzing spines at a safe distance. Instinctively, the pelko bugs could sense the sheer scope of his power; they were wary of him. They wouldn't come close enough to actually attack him, making them nothing more than a nuisance. Larger predators, like the tu'kata, might pose a real threat. But he'd deal with them if and when the time came.
Right now he was more concerned with the potential dangers the builders of the tomb might have left behind. Sith mausoleums were notorious for their fiendishly lethal traps. Bane reached out with the Force, carefully probing the walls, ground, and ceiling in front of him for anything out of the ordinary. He was relieved-and slightly disappointed-to discover nothing. Part of him had hoped he would stumble across an undiscovered chamber, something the Jedi had missed.
He continued down the tunnel, winding his way past various chambers where the wealth and treasures would have been buried with the deceased Dark Lord-along with his still-living lesser servants. The rooms held no interest for him; he wasn't a grave robber. Instead he continued deeper and deeper until he reached the burial chamber itself.
The pelko bugs matched his progress, endlessly circling just beyond the blue illumination cast by his glow rod. He could hear the high-pitched clicking-skreek skreek skreek-of the frustrated swarm: powerless to assail their prey, yet irresistibly caught up in the wake of his passing.
The burial chamber was easily identifiable by the enormous stone sarcophagus in the center of the room, resting atop a small stone pedestal. It was little more than a blocky shadow on the fringes of the glow rod's light, but it filled him with a sense of both fear and awe.
Still using the Force to scan for traps, he cautiously approached the tomb, his trepidation growing as the blue light washed over it to reveal more and more details. The stone was carved with symbols similar to those on the crypt's entrance, but these hadn't suffered untold centuries of erosion. They stood out starkly, brutal and sharp. He couldn't read the unfamiliar language or identify the Dark Lord from the crest, yet he knew this was the resting place of an ancient and mighty being.
He reached the platform; it stood a little higher than his knee. He put one foot on it, then reached out to grip a protruding edge of one of the carved symbols on the side of the sarcophagus itself. He half expected to receive a sharp jolt or shock, but all he felt was cold stone beneath his palm.
Using his hold to maintain his balance, he hauled himself up so that he was standing with both feet on the platform, looking down at the top of the tomb. To his horror, he could now see that the stone slab sealing the sarcophagus had been virtually destroyed. Whatever had been inside was gone, replaced by rubble, dust, and a few bits of broken bone that might once have been the fingers or toes of the Dark Lord's skeletal remains.
He stepped down from the platform, frustrated but still not willing to give up. Slowly, he turned in a great circle, as if he expected to find the stolen remains lying in a corner of the burial chamber. There was nothing: the tomb had been robbed and defiled.
Bane hadn't been sure what he expected to find, but it wasn't this. The spirits of the ancient Dark Lords were beings of pure dark side energy; they were as eternal as the Force itself. The spirit would linger for centuries-millennia, even-until a worthy successor came along. Or so the texts in the archive had led him to believe.
Yet the harsh evidence before him was undeniable. The ancient manuscripts had failed him. He had gambled everything on the truth of their words-even defying Qordis himself-and he had lost.
In desperation he cast his head back and threw his arms to the uneven rock of the ceiling above. "I'm here, Master!" he cried. "I've come to learn your secrets!" He paused, listening for a response. Hearing nothing, he shouted, "Show yourself! By all the power of the dark side, show yourself!"
His words reverberated off the walls, sounding empty and hollow. He dropped to his knees, his arms falling to his sides and his head slumping forward. As the echo died away, the only sound was the shrill clicking of the pelko bugs.
Kopecz spit on the ground as he surveyed the camp. He was surrounded by an army, but it was an army of inferiors. Everywhere he looked he saw the minions of the Sith: battle ragers, assassins, and apprentices. But there were precious few Sith Masters. The seemingly endless war against the Jedi on the battlefields of Ruusan was taking a heavy toll on Kaan's Brotherhood of Darkness. Without reinforcements they would be forced to retreat-or be wiped out by General Hoth and his hated Army of Light.
The heavyset Twi'lek rose to his feet, spurred to action by the realization that something had to be done. He made his way through scattered pockets of soldiers, noticing how many were injured, exhausted, or simply defeated. By the time he reached the entrance to Lord Kaan's tent the contempt he felt for his so-called Brothers had reached a boiling point.
When Kopecz entered, Lord Kaan took one look at him and dismissed his other advisers with a sharp wave of his hand. They filed out, none of them daring to come too close.
"What is it, my old friend?" Kaan asked. His voice was charming as ever, but his eyes were wide and wild, like a hunted beast.
"Have you seen what passes for our army out there?" Kopecz snarled, poking a thumb over his shoulder as he walked slowly forward. "If this is all we have to stand against Lord Hoth, we may as was well burn our black robes and start practicing the Jedi Code."
"We have reinforcements coming," Lord Kaan assured him. "Two more full divisions of foot soldiers, another core of snipers. Half a platoon of repulsorcraft armed with heavy guns. There are many who are drawn to the glory of our cause. More and more each day. The Brotherhood of Darkness cannot fail."
Kopecz took little comfort in his promises. Lord Kaan had always been the strength of the Brotherhood of Darkness, a man who had rallied the Dark Lords to a single cause through the greatness of his personality and vision. Now, however, he looked like a man on the edge. The strain of constantly battling the Jedi had left him frazzled.
Kopecz shook his head in disgust. "I'm not one of your sycophantic advisers," he said, his voice rising. "I won't grovel and scrape before you, Lord Kaan. I won't heap praise on your fool head when I can see with my own eyes that you are leading us to our destruction!"
"Keep your voice down!" Kaan snapped. "You will destroy the morale of our troops!"
"They have no morale left to destroy," Kopecz shot back, though he did lower his volume. "We can't defeat Jedi with ordinary soldiers. There are too many of them and not enough of us."
"By us you mean those worthy of joining the ranks of the Dark Lords," Kaan replied. He sighed and stared down at the holomap spread out on the table before him.
"You know what you have to de Kopecz told him, his voice losing some of the anger. He had chosen to follow Kaan; he wouldn't abandon him now. But he wasn't about to sit idly by and face certain defeat. "We face an army of Jedi Knights and Masters. We can't stand against them without our own Masters from the Academy. The students, too. All of them."
"They are mere apprentices," Kaan protested.
"They are the strongest of our order," Kopecz reminded him. "We both know even the lowliest students on Korriban are stronger than half the so-called Dark Lords here on Ruusan."
"Qordis's work is not yet complete. The students there still have so much to learn," Kaan insisted, though without much force. "So much untapped potential. The Academy represents the future of the Sith."
"If we cannot defeat the Jedi here on Ruusan, then we have no future!" Kopecz insisted.
Lord Kaan clutched his head with his hands, as if a great pain threatened to burst his skull in two. He began to tremble in the grip of some terrible palsy. Kopecz involuntarily stepped back.
It only took a few seconds for Kaan to regain his composure and lower his hands. The haunted look in his eyes was gone, replaced by the calm self-assurance that had drawn so many to the Brotherhood in the first place.
"You're right, old friend," he said. The words were smooth and easy; he spoke as if a great weight had been lifted from him. He radiated confidence and strength. He seemed to glow with a violet aura, as if he were the very embodiment of the dark side. And suddenly, inexplicably, Kopecz was reassured.
"I will send word to Qordis," Kaan continued, the Force emanating from him in palpable waves. "You are right. It is time for those at the Academy on Korriban to truly join the ranks of the Sith."