Chapter 22

It took nearly an hour before Bane reached his destination. The vegetation around him was teeming with life, but as he was carried along through the jungle he saw nothing larger than insects or small birds. Most creatures scattered before the rancor's advance, vanishing long before Bane ever cane close enough to catch even a glimpse of them. Yet though they scampered away, the rancor's keen sense of smell often picked up their trail, and more than once Bane had to rein in the beast's hunting instincts to keep it on course.

As difficult as it was to keep the beast from racing off in pursuit of its next meal, it became even more difficult to drive it forward as they neared the temple. Every few steps it would try to veer to the side or suddenly shy away from its course. Once it even tried to rear up and dislodge him from its shoulders.

Bane couldn't see more than a few meters ahead through the thick vegetation, but he knew they were close now. He could sense the power of the Temple, calling to him from behind the impenetrable curtain of tangled vines and twisted branches. Clamping down with the dark side, he crushed the last of the mighty rancor's will to resist and urged it forward.

Suddenly they broke through into a clearing, a circle nearly one hundred meters across. In the very center stood the Rakatan Temple. The structure rose nearly twenty meters to the sky, a monument of carved rock and stone. The only entrance was a broad archway at the peak of an enormous staircase carved into an outside wall of the Temple itself. Its surface was pristine: stark and pure, unsullied by clinging moss or climbing ivy. The grounds surrounding it were barren but for a carpet of short, soft grass. It was as if the jungle feared to creep forward and reclaim the tainted stone.

Bane leapt down from his mount, all his attention focused on the structure towering before him. Freed from his power, the rancor turned and fled back into the undergrowth. The terrible crashing cacophony of its escape was overlaid with its tortured howls, but Bane noticed neither sound. He had no more use for the rancor; he had found what he was searching for.

He took a trembling step forward before stopping short. He shook his head to clear it. The dark side was strong here, so strong it made him feel light-headed. That meant this was a place of danger; he couldn't afford to be wandering around in a stupor.

According to the accounts he'd read in the archives, the Temple had once been protected by a powerful energy shield, one that required an entire Rakatan tribe-of which each individual had been a powerful Force-user-to bring it down. He didn't sense any such barrier, but only a fool would proceed without caution.

As he had done in the tombs on Korriban, he began to probe the area around him with the Force. He felt the echoes of the safeguards that had once protected the Temple, but they were so weak as to be almost nonexistent. He wasn't surprised. The shields around the Temple had been fueled by the power of the orbiting Star Forge. With its destruction, the shields had failed-along with all the other defenses that had made the Unknown World a graveyard of ships.

Wondering what else had been lost in the Star Forge's violent end, he crossed the surrounding courtyard and mounted the Temple steps. The staircase was steep but wide, and the stone was neither worn nor cracked despite its age. It ended at a small landing leading to the stone archway of the entrance, three-quarters of the way up. He paused at the threshold, then passed through. He had a brief sensation of what it must have felt like for those who came before him: the anticipation, the thrill of discovery. Once inside, however, it only took a few minutes of exploration for his excitement to fade.

Like Korriban, the Temple had been stripped of anything of value. He searched for hours, beginning with the top floor where he had first come in and proceeding deeper and deeper until he reached the bottom level, combing every centimeter of the empty halls and deserted rooms. Yet even though his search was proving futile, he didn't despair. The crypts in the Valley of the Dark Lords had felt drained-used up and sucked dry. The Unknown World felt different. There was still power here.

There had to be something here for him to find. He was certain of it. He refused to accept another failure.

It was in the lowest level of the Temple, far below the planet's surface, that his obsessive quest finally ended. When he first stumbled into the room his attention was immediately drawn by the remains of a massive computer, but it was clearly beyond any hope of repair. And then he noticed something on the stone wall behind the computer.

The surface was etched with a number of arcane symbols: the language of the Rakata, perhaps. They meant nothing to him, and he would have dismissed them without a second glance. Except that one of them was glowing.

He almost hadn't noticed it at first. It was subtle: a faint violet hue tracing the edges of one of the unusual shapes. It was almost perfectly level with his eye.

As he stared at it, the glow grew stronger. He stepped forward and reached out tentatively with his hand. The light winked out, startling him into taking a step back. He reached out again, but this time, instead of using his hand, he reached out with the Force.

The stone character flared to life.

Struggling to contain his eagerness, he again extended his hand and pressed hard against the glowing symbol. There was the sound of turning gears, and the grinding of stone on stone. The seams of a small square-less than half a meter on each side-took shape in the wall as a section of stone pushed out.

Bane stepped back as the chunk toppled down from the wall and shattered on the ground at his feet, revealing a small cubbyhole behind it. With no hesitation, he thrust his arm into the darkness to seize whatever was inside.

His fingers wrapped around something cold and heavy. He drew it out and stared in wonder at the artifact in his hand. Slightly larger than his fist, it had the shape of a four-sided pyramid-a tiny replica of the Temple in which he stood. Bane instantly recognized his prize for what it was: a Sith Holocron, a repository of forbidden knowledge just waiting to be unlocked.

The art of constructing Holocrons had been lost for countless millennia, but from his studies Bane knew something of the basic theory behind their design. The information they contained was stored within an interwoven, self-encrypted digital matrix. A Holocron's protection systems couldn't be circumvented or broken; the information couldn't be sliced or copied. There was only one way to access the knowledge captured within.

Each Holocron was imprinted with the personality of one or more Masters to serve as guardians. When accessed by one capable of understanding its secrets, the Holocron would project tiny, crude hologrammic images of the various guardians. Through interaction with the student, the programmed simulacra would teach and instruct in much the same way as would a flesh-and-blood mentor.

However, all accounts of Sith Holocrons had made mention of the ancient symbols adorning the four-sided pyramid. The Holocron he held in his hand was almost completely blank. Could this possibly predate even the Holocrons of the ancient Sith? Was this a relic of the Rakata themselves? Would the guardians of the Holocron be the imprinted personalities of alien Masters from a time even before the birth of the Republic? And if so, would they be willing to teach him their secrets? Would they even respond to him?

Moving carefully, he set the Holocron gently on the floor, then sat down before it. He crossed his legs and began the deep, slow breathing of a meditative trance. Gathering and focusing his energy, Bane projected a wave of dark Force power out to engulf the small relic on the floor. The Holocron began to sparkle and shimmer in response.

He held his breath in anticipation, unsure what would come next. A small beam of light projected out from the top, the particles scattered and diffused. They began to shift and spin, coalescing into a cloaked figure, its features completely hidden by the hood of its heavy robe.

Then a voice spoke, crisp and clear. "I am Darth Revan, Dark Lord of the Sith."

The empty halls of the Temple above trembled with the reverberations of Bane's triumphant, booming laughter.

To Bane it seemed the teachings contained within the single Holocron surpassed those of the Academy's entire archives. Revan had discovered many of the rituals of the ancient Sith, and as the Holocron's avatar explained their nature and purpose, Bane could barely wrap his mind around their awesome potential. Some of the rituals were so terrible-so dangerous to attempt, even for a true Sith Master-that he doubted he would ever dare to use them. Yet he dutifully copied them down on sheaves of flimsi, preserving them so he could study them in greater depth later.

And there was far more than just the ancient practices of dark side sorcerers stored inside the Holocron. In only a few short weeks he'd learned more about the true nature of the dark side than he had in all his time on Korriban. Revan had been a true Sith Lord, unlike the simpering Masters who bowed to Kaan and his Brotherhood. And soon all his knowledge-his understanding of the dark side-would belong to Bane.

Githany woke with a start, kicking the covers off her cot and onto the dirt floor of the tent. She was sweating and flushed, but it wasn't from the heat. Ruusan had entered its rainy season, and though the days were warm and humid, at night the temperature dropped enough that the sentries on duty could see the misty clouds of their own breath.

She'd been dreaming of Bane. No, not dreaming. The details were too sharp and clear to call it a dream; the experience too vivid and real. It was a vision. There was a link between the two of them, a bond established through their time together studying the Force. A connection between mentor and student was not unheard of, although Githany was no longer sure who had really been the Master and who the apprentice in their relationship.

Her vision had been one of stark clarity: Bane was going to come to Ruusan. But he wasn't coming to join the Brotherhood. He was coming to destroy it.

She shivered, the perspiration cooling her skin in the chill night air. She rolled out of bed and pulled her heavy cloak on over her thin bedclothes. She had to speak to Kaan about this. It couldn't wait until morning.

The night was dark: the moon and stars were blocked out by the brooding storm clouds that had filled the sky ever since she and the others from Korriban had arrived. A light mist fell from the sky, a slight improvement from the steady drizzle that had been falling when she'd crawled wearily into bed.

A handful of other Sith were wandering the camp. A few mumbled unintelligible greetings as they passed, but most kept their heads down and their feet plodding steadily through the mud. The ardor Kaan had inspired when the reinforcements had arrived had been dulled by the seemingly endless stream of gray, wet days. It would be several more weeks before the rains abated and gave way to the sweltering heat of Ruusan's long summer. Until then Kaan's followers would continue to suffer from the damp and cold.

Githany paid no attention. Focused on her mission, she slowed only when she reached the entrance to the great tent that Kaan had made his personal quarters. There was a light burning inside; Lord Kaan was awake.

She entered tentatively. What she had to say was for his ears only. Fortunately, she found him alone. But she stopped in the entry, staring in morbid fascination at the apparition before her. In the dim glow of the lantern that served as the tent's only source of illumination, Kaan looked like a man gone mad.

He was pacing quickly up and down the length of the tent, his steps uneven and erratic. He was hunched over nearly double, muttering to himself and shaking his head. His left hand constantly strayed up to tug on a strand of his hair, then quickly jerked down as if it had been caught in some forbidden act.

She could hardly believe that this crazed being was the man she had chosen to follow. Was it possible Bane had been right all along? She was on the verge of slipping back out into the sodden night when Kaan turned and finally noticed her.

For a brief moment his eyes showed wild panic: they burned with the fear and desperation of a caged animal. Then suddenly he snapped to his full height, standing straight and tall. The look of terror left his eyes, replaced by one of cold anger.

"Githany," he said, his welcome as cold as his icy expression. "I was not expecting visitors."

Now it was she who felt fear. Lord Kaan radiated power: he could crush her as easily as she crushed the small beetles that sometimes scuttled across the floor of her tent. The memory of the craven, broken man was gone, blasted from her mind by the overwhelming aura of Kaan's authority.

"Forgive me, Lord Kaan," she said with a slight bow of her head. "I need to speak with you."

His anger seemed to soften, though he still maintained his undeniably commanding presence. "Of course, Githany. I always have time for you."

The words were more than cordial formality; there was something deeper beneath them. Githany was an attractive woman; she was used to being the object of innuendo and men's barely hidden desire. Usually it evoked little more than revulsion, but in Kaan's case it brought a warm flush to her cheeks. He was the founder of the Brotherhood of Darkness, a man of vision and destiny. How could she not be flattered by his attentions?

"I've had a premonition," she explained. "I saw . . . I saw Darth Bane. He was coming to Ruusan to destroy us."

"Qordis has made me well aware of Bane's views," he said, nodding. "This is not unexpected."

"He doesn't see the glory of our cause," Githany said, apologizing for Bane. "He's never met you in person. His only understanding of the Brotherhood comes through Qordis and the other Masters-the ones who turned their backs on him."

Kaan gave her a puzzled stare. "You came to warn me that Bane is planning to destroy us. Now it seems you are trying to justify his actions."

"The Force shows us what may be, not necessarily what will be," she reminded him. "lf we can convince Bane to join us, he could be a valuable ally against the Jedi."

"I see," Kaan said. "You feel that if we bring him into the fold of the Brotherhood, then your premonition will not come true." There was a long pause, and then he asked, "Are you certain your personal feelings for him are not clouding your judgment in this matter?"

Embarrassed, Githany couldn't meet his eyes. "I'm not the only one who feels this way," she mumbled, staring down at the ground. "Many of the others from Korriban are troubled by his absence, as well. They've felt his strength. They wonder why one so strong in the dark side would reject the Brotherhood."

She raised her head when Kaan placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You might be right, Githany. But I cannot act on your suggestion. Nobody even knows where Bane is."

"I do. There is a . . . a bond between us. I can tell you where Bane has gone."

Kaan reached out to take her chin in his cupped palm. He tilted her head back ever so slightly. "Then I will send someone to him," he promised. "You did the right thing by coming to me, Githany," he added, gently releasing her and giving her a reassuring smile.

Githany, beaming with pride, smiled back.

She left a few minutes later, after explaining where Bane had gone and why. Kaan watched her go, her words troubling him though he was careful not to let it show. He had allayed her fears and he was confident she would remain loyal to the Brotherhood despite her obvious attraction to Bane. Githany imagined herself the object of every man's desire, but Kaan could see a similar desire burning brightly within her: she hungered for power and glory. And he was all too willing to feed her pride and ambition with his flirting, praise, and promises.

Still, he wasn't sure what to make of her vision. Though he was strong in the Force, his talents lay elsewhere. He could change the course of a war with his battle meditation. He could inspire loyalty in the other Lords through subtle manipulations of their emotions. But he had never experienced a premonition like the one that had brought her to his tent in the middle of the dark night.

His first inclination was to dismiss it as baseless worry brought on by low morale. The reinforcements from Korriban had brought expectations of a quick end to Ruusan's long war. But General Hoth was too clever to let his Army of Light be crushed by the superior Sith might. He had switched tactics, conducting a war of hit-and-run skirmishes, stalling for time as he tried to marshal more support for his own forces.

Now the Sith were growing impatient and restless. The glorious victory Kaan had promised them weeks earlier had not materialized. Instead they trudged through mud and never-ending rain, trying to defeat an enemy that wouldn't even stand and fight. Githany's visit hadn't surprised him. The only real surprise was that more of the Dark Lords hadn't come to voice their dissatisfaction.

But that only made Githany's warnings more dangerous. Bane had rejected the Brotherhood in a very public spectacle; all the recruits from Korriban claimed to have seen it in person. The story had spread through the camp like a plague. At first they had scoffed at his arrogance and stubbornness; he had chosen to walk alone, and he would not share in the triumph of the Brotherhood. In the absence of that triumph, however, some of the recruits had begun to wonder if Bane was right.

Lord Kaan had his spies among the Dark Lords. The whispers had reached his ears. The Lords were not ready to act on their doubts, but their resolve was weakening-along with their allegiance. He had forged a coalition of enemies and bitter rivals. Though the Brotherhood of Darkness appeared strong as durasteel, one firm voice of dissent could fracture it into a thousand fragile pieces.

He grabbed the lantern from his tent and headed out into the night's drizzle, his long stride propelling him quickly through the camp. He would deal with Bane, just as he had promised Githany. If the recalcitrant young man could not be convinced to join them, he would have to be eliminated.

Within a few minutes Kaan had reached his destination. He paused at the door, remembering his anger at Githany's unexpected entrance into his own tent. Not wishing to antagonize the man he had come to see, he called out, "Kas'im?"

"Come in," a voice answered a second later, and he heard the unmistakable shuush of a lightsaber powering down.

He entered to find the Twi'lek Blademaster clad only in breeches, sweating and breathing hard.

"I see you're up," he noted.

"It's not easy to sleep on the eve of battle. Even a battle that never seems to come."

Kas'im was a warrior; Kaan knew he chafed at their inactivity. Drills and exercises could not quench his desire for actual combat. At the Academy on Korriban the Blademaster had performed his duty without complaint. But here on Ruusan the promise of battle was too near, too insistent. The scent of blood was always in the air, mingling with the sweat of fear and anticipation. Here Kas'im could be satisfied only once he stood face-to-face with an enemy. Soon his frustration would boil over into rebellion, and Kaan could ill afford to lose the loyalty of the greatest swordsman of his camp. Fortunately, he had a way to deal with both his problems-Bane and Kas'im-in one fell swoop.

"I have a mission for you. A mission of great importance."

"I live to serve, Lord Kaan." Kas'im's answer was calm, but his head-tails twitched with anticipation.

"I must send you far from Ruusan. To the ends of the galaxy. You have to go to Lehon."

"The Unknown World?" the Blademaster asked, puzzled. "There is nothing there but the graveyard of our order's greatest defeat."

"Bane is there," Kaan explained. "You must go to him as my envoy. Explain that he must join the rest of the Sith here on Ruusan. Tell him that those who do not stand with the Brotherhood stand against it."

Kas'im shook his head. "I doubt it will make a difference. Once his mind is set he can be ... stubborn."

"The dark side cannot be united in the Brotherhood if he stands alone," Kaan explained. As he spoke, he reached out with the Force, pushing ever so gently at the Twi'lek's wounded sense of pride. "I know he rejected you and the other Masters on Korriban. But you must make this offer once more."

"And when he refuses?" Kas'im's words were quick and sharp. Inwardly, Kaan smiled at the Blademaster's growing anger even as he pushed just a little more.

"Then you must kill him."