Lord Hoth, Jedi Master and acting general of the Republic forces on Ruusan, sat huddled on a stump outside his tent and stared up at the dark clouds hovering above the camp. He scowled at the brooding sky as if he could banish the coming storm with the fierceness of his expression.
"Is something troubling you, Lord Hoth?"
The voice of Master Pernicar, his longtime friend and right hand during this never-ending campaign, snapped his attention back to where it belonged.
"What isn't troubling me, Pernicar?" he asked with a heavy sigh. "We're low on food and medpacs. Our injured outnumber our hale. The scouts report that reinforcements are on their way to assist Kaan and his Sith." He slapped his hand down on one knee. "All we have coming to our aid are youths and children."
"Children who are strong in the Force," Pernicar reminded him. "If we don't recruit them to our side, the Sith will claim them for theirs?'
"Blast it, Pernicar, they're just children! I need Jedi. Fully trained. All we can spare. But there are still members of our own order who refuse to help us."
"Perhaps it's how you ask them," a new voice said from behind him.
Hoth rubbed his temples but didn't turn to face the speaker. Lord Valenthyne Farfalla had been one of the first Jedi Masters to join the Army of Light on Ruusan. He had fought in nearly every confrontation, and the Sith had come to know him well: Farfalla was hard to miss even in the chaos of battle.
He had long, flowing curls of golden hair that hung down past his shoulders. The breastplate of his armor was also gold, buffed and polished until it gleamed before every battle. It was trimmed with bright red sleeves and adorned with rubies that matched the color of his eyes and contrasted with his pale skin.
Lord Hoth found him insufferable. Farfalla was a loyal servant of the light, but he was also a vain and prancing fool who spent more time selecting his wardrobe before each battle than he did planning strategy. Farfalla was the last person he wanted to deal with now.
"If you showed more tact, Lord Hoth," Farfalla continued, gliding into view, "you might have rallied more Jedi to your cause."
"I shouldn't have to persuade them!" Hoth roared, leaping to his feet and waving his arms in exasperation. Farfalla hopped nimbly out of the way. "We're fighting the Sith! The dark side must be destroyed! We could do it if more Jedi were here!"
"There are some who don't see it that way," Pernicar said calmly. He had become used to Hoth's outbursts during their time on Ruusan, and had learned to ignore them, for the most part.
"There are other Republic worlds besides this one that are under attack," Farfalla chimed in. "Many Jedi are aiding the Republic troops in other sectors, helping them against the Sith fleets."
Hoth spat on the ground and was pleased to see Farfalla's look of horrified disgust. "Those fleets might fly the banner of the Sith, but they're made up of ordinary beings. The Republic has the numbers to beat them back. They don't need the help of the Jedi to do it. All the real Sith-the Dark Lords-are here now. If we defeat the Brotherhood of Darkness, the Sith rebellion will collapse. Don't they understand that?"
There was a long silence as the other two exchanged uneasy looks. It was Pernicar who finally found the courage to answer.
"Some of the Jedi believe we shouldn't be here. They feel the only thing keeping the Brotherhood together is their hatred of the Army of Light. They claim if we disband and surrender Ruusan, then the Sith will quickly turn against each other, and the Brotherhood will tear itself apart."
Hoth shook his head in disbelief. "Don't they see what a great opportunity we have here? We can wipe out the followers of the dark side once and for all!"
"Some might argue that is not the purpose of our order," Farfalla suggested gently. "The Jedi are defenders of the Republic. They feel the Army of Light is prolonging the rebellion by strengthening the Sith resolve. They say you are actually causing harm to the Republic you were sworn to defend."
"Is that what you think?" Hoth snarled.
"Lord Farfalla has been with us since the beginning," Pernicar reminded him. "He is only telling you what others are saying-those Jedi who have not come to Ruusan."
"The Sith are getting reinforcements from Korriban," Hoth grumbled. "We barely have enough numbers to hold them off as it is. I'll just have to make them understand!"
"We would probably have more success if someone else approached them," Farfalla said. "There are some who believe this has become a personal vendetta for you. They do not see Ruusan as the ultimate struggle between the light and the dark, but rather as a feud between you and Lord Kaan."
Hoth sat back down wearily. "Then we are doomed. Without reinforcements we will be overwhelmed."
Farfalla crouched down beside him, laying a perfectly manicured, heavily perfumed hand on Hoth's brawny shoulder. It took every ounce of the general's Jedi discipline not to shrug him off.
"Send me, my lord," Farfalla said earnestly. "I have been here since the beginning; I believe in this cause as strongly as you."
"Why should they listen to you any more than me?"
Farfalla gave a high, twittering laugh that set Hoth's teeth on edge. "My lord, for all your skill in battle and all your strength in the Force, you are somewhat lacking in the delicate art of diplomacy. You are a brilliant general, and your taciturn nature serves you well when giving orders to your troops. Unfortunately, it can set those who are not under your command on edge."
"You are too blunt, my lord," Pernicar clarified.
"That's what I just said," Farfalla insisted with just a hint of annoyance. Then he continued, "On the other hand, people find me witty and charming. I can be quite persuasive when necessary. Give me leave to recruit others to our cause, and I will return with a hundred-no, three hundred!-Jedi ready to join the Army of Light."
Hoth dropped his head into his hands again. His temples were throbbing: Farfalla always seemed to have that effect on him.
"Go," he muttered without looking up. "If you're so certain you can bring me reinforcements, then bring them."
Farfalla gave an extravagant bow, then turned with a flourish and left, his golden locks streaming out behind him in the rising wind of the coming storm.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Pernicar spoke again. "Is that wise, my lord? Our numbers are already thin. How long do you think we can survive without him?"
The rain began to fall in great, heavy drops, and an idea sprang into Hoth's mind. "The Sith can't defeat us if we don't stand and fight," he said. "We won't give them a chance. The wet season is here; the rains will make it impossible for their trackers to find us. We'll hide in the forest, harrying them with quick attacks and ambushes before we vanish back into the trees."
"That strategy won't work once the dry season comes," Pernicar warned.
"If Farfalla hasn't brought me my reinforcements by then, it won't matter," Hoth replied.
The five Interlopers-small, midrange multitroop transport ships used by the Sith-swept in low over Ruusan's horizon. Each vessel carried a crew of ten, comprised entirely of former students and Masters from Korriban's Academy.
In the lead ship Githany worked the controls with the calm precision of a highly trained pilot. She'd actually learned to fly on a Republic vessel, but the basics were the same.
The Interlopers were lighter and quicker than the Bivouac transports preferred by the Republic. The Interlopers had less armor plating, sacrificing the safety of the occupants inside in exchange for greater range and maneuverability. As if to prove the point, she banked her vessel down and hard to port, bringing it so close to the planet's surface that the leaves on the trees of Ruusan's great forest trembled in the wake of the ion drive.
The other vessels followed her lead, never breaking formation. Linked to Githany through the Force, the other pilots reacted in perfect unison to her every move. If she made a mistake, the entire convoy would go down. But Githany didn't make mistakes.
"It might be safer to climb higher above the tree line," Lord Qordis observed from his seat at Githany's side in the cockpit.
"I don't want the Jedi picking anything up on their scanners," she explained, her attention focused on keeping the ship from smashing into the ocean of wood mere meters below the hull. "The Brotherhood hasn't secured this region. If a squad of seekers locks on to us, these transports aren't equipped with enough firepower to hold them off."
Far in the distance half a dozen small fighters came into view, their trajectory bringing them on a direct line to intercept the Interlopers' path. Qordis swore, and Githany braced herself to begin evasive maneuvers.
A second later she recognized the distinctive outline of the Sith Buzzards and breathed a sigh of relief. "Our escort's here," she said.
They'd be at the Sith base camp in a few minutes, and with the Buzzards there to pick off any incoming Jedi fighters there was no need to fly so dangerously close to the treetops anymore. She could have eased back on the stick to bring the ship up to a safer altitude.
Instead she held her course. She enjoyed the thrill of being one tiny miscue from an instantaneous and fiery end. From his rigid posture in the copilot's chair, it was clear Qordis didn't share her opinion.
Once they cleared the forest she throttled back their speed, then brought the ship down gracefully in the landing field at the edge of Lord Kaan's encampment.
A small collection of Sith Masters, Kaan standing at their head, waited to greet the reinforcements as they disembarked. They might have been only fifty in number, but each one of them was a Sith Lord: more powerful than an entire division of soldiers.
As she made her way down the ship's exit ramp, Githany was quick to understand why their presence had been so urgently requested. Beyond the assemblage of Dark Lords the rest of the camp spread out to the limits of her vision, and all she could see was a picture of grim despair. Ragged, ramshackle tents arranged in tight rings of five housed the bulk of the army: cloth domiciles stained and torn by wind and rain. Scattered among them were repulsorcraft, heavy turrets, and other instruments of war. The equipment was caked with dried mud and spots of rust, as if efforts to keep it properly maintained had been abandoned.
The troops were spread out in small pockets, huddled around cook fires built in the circles of tents. Their uniforms were covered in dust and grime; many wore dirty bandages over wounds they had given up all hope of keeping clean or sterile. Their faces were all scarred by the bitter taste of far too many defeats at the hands of their enemy, and it was the hopelessness of their expressions that made the greatest impression.
Lord Qordis seemed similarly taken aback at the dismal scene, and he grimaced as Lord Kaan approached.
Kaan appeared thin, his face drawn and etched with lines of worry. His hair was bedraggled and unkempt. A day's worth of stubble shadowed his chin, making him look old and weary. He seemed physically smaller than Githany remembered him. Diminished. Less commanding. The spark she had found so compelling when she'd first met him was no longer there. His eyes had once burned with the fire of a man absolutely confident of his imminent success. Now they burned with something else. Desperation. Madness, perhaps. She couldn't help but wonder if Bane had been right.
"Welcome, Lord Qordis:" Kaan said, grasping the newcomer's arm in greeting. He released his grip and turned to address the rest of them. "Welcome, all of you, to Ruusan."
"I didn't expect to see your army in such sorry shape:' Qordis mumbled.
A look that might have been anger flickered across Kaan's features. Then it was gone, replaced by the beaming confidence Githany remembered. He threw his shoulders back and stood a little straighter.
"You can't judge the victor of a war without seeing the condition of both sides:' he said crisply. "The Jedi are in far worse shape. My intelligence reports that their casualties are far greater than ours. Their supplies are running low; their numbers are dwindling. We have medpacs, food, and greater numbers. And they do not have fresh reinforcements."
He lifted his voice so that it carried throughout the camp, his words booming across the tented landscape. "Now that you are here, the Brotherhood of Darkness is at last whole!"
The troops in camp paused and looked up at him. A few rose expectantly to their feet. There was fire in that single bold statement; it rekindled hope from the damp ashes of their fatigue and despair.
"The full power of the Sith Lords is now united here on Ruusan," he continued, projecting his words to even the most distant of his followers. Reaching out to them with the undeniable power of the Force, he fed them, rejuvenated them, and filled their hollow spirits. "We are strong. Stronger than the Jedi. We are the champions of the dark side, and we will crush Lord Hoth and his servants of light!"
A great shout roared up from his troops. Those who were seated leapt to their feet. Those who were standing thrust their fists up in the air. The echo of their cheers shook the camp like a groundquake.
Githany felt it as surely as the rest of the troops. It was more than just the words. It was the way he said them. All her doubts and fears simply vanished, crushed by the weight of that single brief speech. It was as if she had been compelled to obey by a power greater than herself.
They made their way through the camp, reveling in the newfound optimism of the troops as Lord Kaan led them to the great tent where he convened his war sessions. A thickset Twi'lek fell into step beside Lord Qordis just ahead of Githany. Swept up in the moment, it took her several seconds to remember him: Lord Kopecz.
"Where's Bane?" he asked Qordis, his voice so low that only Qordis and Githany likely heard him.
"Bane is gone," Qordis replied.
Kopecz grunted. "What happened? Did you kill him?" He made little attempt to hide his contempt.
"He still lives. But he has turned his back on the Brotherhood of Darkness."
"We need him," Kopecz insisted. "He's too strong for you to just let him go."
"It was his choice, not mine!" Qordis snapped.
They continued in without speaking. Kopecz at last broke the silence, sighing as he asked, "Do you at least know where he went?"
"No," Qordis said. "Nobody knows."
Bane dropped the Valcyn out of hyperspace on the farthest edge of the remote system, then kicked in the ion drives and continued slowly toward the only habitable planet: a small world locked in orbit around a pale yellow star.
The planet's official name was Lehon-the same as the solar system-but it was more commonly referred to as the Unknown World. Nearly three thousand years before, in this insignificant system located beyond the farthest edges of explored space, Darth Revan and Darth Malak had discovered the Rakata: an ancient species of Force-users that had ruled the galaxy long before the birth of the Republic.
They had also discovered the Star Forge, an incredible orbiting space station and factory ... and a monument to the power of the dark side. A great battle had been fought here between the Republic, led by the redeemed Jedi Master Revan, and Darth Malak's Sith. Malak had fallen, the Sith were routed, and the Star Forge had been destroyed, though at great cost to the Republic.
Even now the remnants of that titanic battle remained. Ships from both fleets had been engulfed in the cataclysmic explosion that had destroyed the Star Forge. Anything caught up in the shock waves of the detonation, including the massive factory itself, had been warped and shredded by the concussive force, then fused together by the heat of the blast into unrecognizable chunks of molten metal.
Much of the wreckage had coalesced into a wide band that encircled the small planet of Lehon like the rings common to many of the gas giants across the galaxy. The rest of the debris was scattered throughout the system, orbiting the sun like a vast asteroid field that made navigation difficult, if not impossible.
Bane switched the controls to manual and took over. Using the Force, he maneuvered his ship carefully through the treacherous obstacle course. It took nearly an hour to reach his destination, and by the time he finally passed beyond the ring and into the relative safety of the Unknown World's atmosphere, he was sweating from the intense concentration.
There was no other ship traffic to contend with, of course. Nobody hailed him as he dropped from the sky toward the planet's surface, looking for a place to land.
The Rakata had been a dying species on the verge of extinction when Revan and Malak discovered them. Virtually all evidence of their existence beyond their tiny homeworld had been wiped out; they had been purged from galactic memory. Nothing had significantly changed after the Battle of the Star Forge to alter that fact.
Republic officials had been aware of them, of course, but their existence had never been officially recognized beyond the classified reports of the conflict. It was believed that the general population wouldn't have reacted well to the sudden reemergence of an ancient species that had once enslaved most of the known galaxy. The few surviving Rakata had declined to leave their ancestral home, and their numbers had been insufficient to maintain a viable gene pool. Within a few more generations the long, slow extinction of their species was finally complete.
Keeping secret the existence of the Rakata had proven to be a surprisingly simple task. The system had never attracted much attention after the battle. Although there was a vast amount of starship material left over from the destruction of the Star Forge, no attempts were made to salvage any of it. Rather than desecrating the floating graves of its soldiers, the Republic chose to honor the memory of its dead by designating Lehon a protected historical site. That made it technically illegal for any ship to enter the system without official authorization.
Nobody ever bothered to seek such permission. The system had no inherent value or resources, other than the protected starship debris. It was located well beyond any of the established hyperspace lanes and trade routes-so far out that not even smugglers bothered with it. A small notation of its location was added to the official Republic records, and it began to show up as an insignificant speck on the fringes of some of the more detailed star charts. Beyond that, it might as well have not even existed.
Bane understood that it wasn't quite as simple as that. The Unknown World was a place strong in the Force. It may even have been the birthplace of the first servants of the dark side: the Rakata leaders who drove their people to conquer and enslave hundreds of worlds ten thousand years before the rest of the galaxy even discovered hyperdrive technology. That power had been concentrated and focused in the Star Forge, and would have been released with its destruction.
The Jedi understood this, and they feared what evil might breed in such a place. The Republic officials had acted on their instruction, isolating the entire system, effectively quarantining it from the rest of the galaxy. In the ensuing centuries the Jedi had worked to keep its secrets hidden. The story of Revan and Malak lived on, as did rumors and speculation regarding the Rakata, but the true nature of the Unknown World was buried beneath a shroud of secrets and lies of omission.
In the Academy archives Bane had come across bits and pieces that hinted at the truth. At first he hadn't even realized the implications of what he was seeing. A small mention of the world here. An allusion to it there. Understanding had come slowly as he'd unraveled the mysteries of the dark side. As his knowledge grew, he had come closer and closer to assembling the entire puzzle. He'd thought to complete it in the Valley of the Dark Lords but had failed. Now he had come here to claim the final piece.
Below him the world was a patchwork of small tropical islands separated by bright blue ocean. He used the Valcyn's sensors to identify the largest landmass, then swooped in looking for a place to touch down. The island was almost completely covered by thick, lush jungle, and there were no clearings large enough for his ship. Finally, he pulled the throttle back and began a slow descent, landing the Valcyn on the crystal sand beach on the island's edge.
As soon as Bane's feet touched the Unknown World's surface he felt it: a deep thrumming, similar to what he'd first felt on Korriban but much, much stronger. Even the air felt different: heavy with ancient history and secrets long forgotten.
Standing with his back to the ocean, staring into the virtually impenetrable wall of forest that covered the island's interior, he sensed something else, as well: a presence; a life-force of immense size and strength. It was moving toward him. Quickly.
A few seconds later he could hear it crashing through the undergrowth. It must have been drawn by the ship's landing on the beach, an enormous hunter looking for fresh prey.
The rancor burst forth from the trees and began loping across the sand, bellowing its terrible cry. Bane held his ground, watching it come, marveling at the speed with which the massive beast moved. When it had closed the distance between them to less than fifty meters, he calmly held up a hand and reached out with the Force to touch the mind of the charging monster.
At his unspoken command it stumbled to a halt and stood in place, panting. Careful to keep the creature's predatory instincts firmly in check, Bane approached the rancor. It remained still, as docile as a tauntaun being inspected by its rider.
From its size Bane could see it was a full-grown male, though the bright coloration of its hide and the small number of scars suggested that it must have only recently come to adulthood. He laid his palm on one of its massive legs, feeling the trembling muscles beneath the skin as he probed deeper into its animal brain.
He found no awareness, concept, or understanding of the Masters who had once tamed such beasts for use as guardians and mounts. He wasn't surprised: the Rakata had vanished many centuries before this rancor had been born. But Bane was looking for something else.
A collage of images and sensations assailed him. Countless hunts through the forest, most ending in successful slaughter. The rending of sinew and bone. Feasting on the quarry's still-warm flesh. The search for a mate. Battling with another rancor for dominance. And then, finally, he found what he was searching for.
Buried deep in the creature's memories was the image of a great four-sided stone pyramid hidden deep within the jungle's heart. The rancor had seen it only once, back when it was still a youngling in the care of the herd mothers. Yet the structure had left an indelible mark on the brutish mind.
The rancor was an animal, the top of the Unknown World's food chain. It knew no fear, yet it let out a low moan as Bane dredged up the memory of that Temple. The beast shuddered, knowing what was expected of it, but it was powerless to flee; the Force compelled it to obey.
It crouched low to the ground, and Bane leapt up onto its back. It rose carefully to its feet, its rider perched on its great, hunched shoulders. At Bane's command the rancor lumbered off, leaving the beach behind and heading back into the forest, carrying him toward the ancient Rakatan Temple.