Bane had never been so hungry in his life. It twisted his stomach into knots, causing him to hunch over as he trudged slowly across Korriban's wastes toward Dreshdae. For thirteen days he had searched the tombs in the Valley of the Dark Lords, sustaining himself only with the Force and the hydration tablets he'd brought along for the desert journey. He never slept, but rested his mind from time to time through meditation. Yet for all its power, even the Force couldn't create something from nothing. It could ward off starvation for a time, but not forever.
Twice he'd been set on by packs of tuk'ata, the guardian hounds that prowled the crypts of their former Masters. The first time he'd driven them away with the Force, seizing the body of the alpha male and hurling it into the rest of the pack, injuring several of the beasts. They'd scurried away with high-pitched howls that had sent shivers down his spine. The second attack had been far bloodier. While exploring one of the most recent tombs he'd found himself surrounded by a dozen tuk'ata: a pack twice the size of the first. He'd unleashed his lightsaber on them, slicing through flesh and bone. When the pack finally broke and fled, only four of the twelve tuk'ata still lived.
After that the tuk'ata left him alone, which was a good thing, because he was no longer sure he'd be able to hold them off if they attacked again. To fuel his muscles for the ongoing search through tomb after tomb, he'd overtaxed his body's reserves, literally devouring himself from the inside out. Now he was paying the price.
He could have eased his suffering by slipping into a meditative trance, slowing his heartbeat and vital functions to preserve his energy. Yet in the end that would accomplish nothing. Nobody would come to find him, and eventually even a state of hibernation would end in a slow, if relatively painless, death.
Death was not an option he was ready to consider. Not yet. Despite his futile search, despite the crushing disappointment, he wasn't ready for that. Not if it meant that the truth he had discovered would die with him. So he endured the pain, and willed his rapidly failing flesh to take him back. Back to the Academy.
It had taken him only a day to walk to the valley at the beginning of his quest. He was now on the third day of his trip back. He had been strong and fresh when he'd first set out; now he was famished and weak. But there was more to his slowed pace than mere physical wanting.
Before he had been buoyed by expectation. Now he was weighed down by the burden of failure. Qordis had been right: the ancient Dark Lords of Korriban were gone. Nearly three thousand years had passed between the time the Sith had been driven from Korriban by Revan, and the day Kaan's Brotherhood of Darkness officially reclaimed this world for the order. In that time the legacy of the original Sith had been completely wiped away.
He'd gone into the desert seeking enlightenment, but found only disillusionment. Korriban was no longer the cradle of darkness; it was a husk, a withered, desiccated corpse that had been picked clean by scavengers. Qordis had been right . . . yet Bane now understood that he was also very, very wrong.
Bane hadn't found what he was looking for in the tombs. But in the long trek back across the desert his mind had finally become clear. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion: the physical suffering cleansed his thoughts. It stripped away all his illusions and exposed the lies of Qordis and the Academy. The spirits of the Sith were gone from Korriban forever. But it was Lord Kaan's Brotherhood of Darkness-not the Jedi-who were to blame.
They had twisted and perverted the ancient order of the Sith. The Academy's teachings flew in the face of everything Bane had learned in the archives about the ways of the dark side. Kaan had cast aside the true power of the individual and replaced it with the false glory of self-sacrifice in the name of a worthy cause. He sought to destroy the Jedi through might of arms, rather than cunning. Worst of all, he proclaimed that all were equal in the Brotherhood of the Sith. But Bane knew equality was a myth. The strong were meant to rule; the weak, to serve.
The Brotherhood of Darkness stood for everything that was wrong with the modern Sith. They had fallen from the true path. Their failure was the reason the spirits of the Dark Lords had vanished. None on Korriban--not Master, not apprentice-had been worthy of their wisdom; none worthy of their power. They had simply faded away, scattered like a handful of dust cast across the desert sand. Bane could see the truth so clearly now. Yet Qordis and the others were forever blind. They followed Kaan as if he had bound them up with some secret spell.
A faint gust of wind brought the sound of distant voices to his ears. Glancing up, he was surprised to see the temple of the Academy looming ahead of him, less than a kilometer away. Caught up in his philosophical ramblings, he hadn't realized how far he'd come. He was close enough to see small figures moving at the base of the building: servants, or possibly a handful of students from the Academy out wandering the surrounding grounds. One of them noticed him approaching and scurried back inside, probably to deliver news of his return to Qordis and the other Masters.
Bane wasn't sure what kind of reception they'd give him. In truth he didn't care, as long as they brought him food. Beyond that they were of no use to him anymore. He despised them all: Masters and apprentices alike. They were no better than the Jedi who had looted Korriban three millennia before. The Academy was an abomination, a testament to how far the Sith had fallen from the true ideals of the dark side.
Bane alone understood this. He alone saw the truth. And he alone could lead the Sith back to the way of the dark side.
He wouldn't be foolish enough to say so, of course. The Brotherhood would never follow him; neither would Qordis or any of the others at the Academy. Weak and ignorant as they were, they could still overwhelm him with their numbers. If he was to restore the Sith to their true glory, he would need an ally.
Not one of the Masters: they were all too close to Kaan. And the apprentices were nothing but groveling servants, blindly following their Masters. They had no real understanding of the dark side. They didn't sense that they were being led down a false path. Not a single one of them was worthy.
No, Bane corrected himself. There was one. Githany.
She wasn't intimidated by the Masters. She had defied them to train Bane. The fact that she'd done it for her own selfish reasons only offered further proof that she understood the true nature of the dark side.
He wished now that he had spoken to her before he'd left the Academy. He could have at least tried to explain why he had to go. She had been disappointed in him for letting Sirak survive. Rightfully so. But in the end he was the one who had turned away from her. He was the one who left her behind while he went in search of Korriban's hidden secrets. What could she possibly think of him now?
As he reached the edge of the temple grounds the scents of the midday meal being prepared in the kitchens wafted out to him, driving all other thoughts from his mind. Mouth watering and stomach rumbling, he hobbled up the steps toward the ever-nearing prospect of food.
The news that Bane had returned did not sit well with Qordis. The timing couldn't have been worse. Lord Kaan had sent an urgent message: everyone from the Academy was to come to Ruusan to join the battle against the Jedi. The apprentices were all to be presented with lightsabers and given seats in the Brotherhood of Darkness, elevating them to the ranks of the Dark Lords of the Sith.
It wouldn't do to show up with one of his most powerful students being as defiant as Bane had been at their last meeting. It would be even worse if Bane spurned the offer and went off on his own, disobeying the command to go to Ruusan. Lord Kaan had managed to keep the Brotherhood together, but it was an alliance that was always on the verge of disintegrating. In the face of their repeated failure to drive the Jedi from Ruusan, the refusal of one prominent Sith to fall into line might be all it took to make everything unravel.
One defection could lead to others, and things would return to a state of chaos: Sith fighting Sith as the various Dark Lords sought to dominate and destroy their rivals. The Jedi would survive and rebuild their order, all the while laughing at the foolishness of their mortal enemies.
If only Bane had perished out in the wastes of Korriban! Unfortunately, he had returned, and Qordis couldn't do anything to eliminate him now. Not after Kaan's directive. They had need of every lightsaber and every Sith, especially one as strong as Bane. For the sake of the Brotherhood-for the sake of Lord Kaan's glorious vision-Qordis would have to find some way to make amends.
News that Bane had returned spread quickly through the Academy. Sirak wasn't surprised. If anything, he was relieved. When Master Qordis had informed the students they would soon be shipping out to Ruusan, he'd feared they would leave before Bane returned, denying him his vengeance.
Instead fortune had smiled on him. He'd have to act quickly, though. Once they left Korriban it would be too late. Lord Kaan would have all the apprentices swear vows of loyalty and fealty to each other when they joined the Brotherhood. Killing his enemy after that would be an act of betrayal punishable by death. He wanted revenge, but not at the cost of his own life.
He knew Yevra and Llokay would help him, but he'd need more than them to destroy an enemy as strong as Bane. He needed Githany.
Knocking on the door to her room, he waited for her to call "Enter" before going in.
She was lying on her bed, looking casual and relaxed. In contrast, Sirak felt taut as a wire stretched beyond its limit.
"He's back" was all he said.
"When?" She didn't need to ask who he was talking about.
"He staggered in an hour ago. Maybe less. He went straight to the kitchens."
"The kitchens?" She seemed surprised. Or offended. No doubt she'd expected him to come to her first.
"He's vulnerable," Sirak pointed out, his hand dropping to the hilt of his newly acquired lightsaber. "Half starved. Exhausted. We should go after him now."
"Don't be stupid," she snapped. "What would the Masters do to us if we chopped him down in the kitchens?"
She was right. "Do you have a plan?"
She nodded. "Tonight. Wait in the archives. I'll bring him to you there."
"I'll bring Yevra and Llokay."
A sour grimace puckered up her face. "I suppose we'll need them," she conceded, making no effort to hide her distaste.
Sirak's mouth twisted into a cruel grin. "I only ask one more thing. Let me be the one who deals the killing blow."
Bane collapsed into his bed, his belly full to bursting. He'd gorged himself in the kitchen, tearing into the food with the manners of a Gamorrean soldier at the barracks trough. He'd stuffed himself with everything in sight until his ravenous hunger was sated. It was only then that he remembered he hadn't actually slept in nearly two weeks.
Hunger had given way to exhaustion, and he'd wandered from the kitchen to his room in a daze. Within seconds he had dropped into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He woke several hours later to a knocking at his door. Still groggy, he forced himself to his feet, lit a glow rod, and opened the door.
Qordis was standing in the hall. He barged in without waiting for an invitation, closing the door behind him. Bane was too busy trying to shake off the last vestiges of sleep to protest.
"'Welcome back, Bane," the Master said. "I trust your journey was . . . educational."
Puzzled at Qordis's cordial tone, Bane only nodded.
"I hope you understand now why I let you go," Qordis said.
Because you were too much of a coward to try and stop me, Bane thought, but didn't say anything aloud.
"This was the final phase of your training," the Master continued. "You had to understand why we have abandoned the old ways. This is a new age, and you could understand that only once you recognized the old age was truly gone."
Bane maintained his stoic silence, not agreeing with Qordis but unwilling to argue the point.
"Now that you have learned your final lesson, the Academy has nothing left to teach you." On that point, at least, they were in complete agreement. "You are no longer an apprentice, Bane. You are now fit to join the ranks of the Masters. You are now a Dark Lord of the Sith."
He paused, as if expecting some kind of reaction. Bane stood still as the stone statues he'd seen guarding the tombs of the ancient Sith in some of the older crypts.
Qordis cleared his throat, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "I know Lord Kas'im has already given you a lightsaber. I, too, have a gift for you." He held out his hand, a lightsaber crystal in his palm.
When Bane hesitated, Qordis spoke again. "Take it, Lord Bane." He put a special emphasis on the new title. It sounded sour in Bane's ears: an empty honor bestowed by a fool who believed himself a Master. But he said nothing as the other continued speaking.
"This synthetic crystal is stronger than the one powering your lightsaber now," Qordis assured him. "And it is much, much stronger than the natural crystals the Jedi use in their own weapons."
Moving slowly, Bane reached out and took it in his hand. It was cold to the touch at first, but as he gripped it the six-sided stone quickly grew warm.
"The timing of your return from the wastes couldn't have been better," Qordis continued. "We are making preparations to leave Korriban. Lord Kaan has need of us on Ruusan. All the Sith must be united in the Brotherhood of Darkness if we are to defeat the Jedi."
"The Brotherhood will fail," Bane stated, boldly declaring what he knew to be true only because he knew the other wouldn't believe. "Kaan does not understand the dark side. He is leading you down the path of ruin."
Qordis drew in a sharp breath, then spat it out in an angry hiss. "Some might consider that talk to be treason, Lord Bane. You would do well to keep such ideas to yourself in the future." He wheeled away and strode angrily to the door, wrenching it open. His reaction was exactly as Bane had expected.
The tall Master spun back to face Bane one more time. "You may be a Dark Lord now, Bane. But there is still much about the dark side you do not understand. Join the Brotherhood and we can teach you what we know. Reject us, and you will never find what you seek."
The Master stalked out; Bane watched silently as the door swung shut behind him. Qordis was wrong about the Brotherhood, but he was right about one thing: there was still much about the dark side Bane needed to understand.
And there was only one place in the galaxy he could go to learn it.