Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

Chapter 23

"Those who use the dark side are also bound to serve it. To understand this is to understand the underlying philosophy of the Sith."

Bane sat motionless, eyes riveted on the avatar of a Dark Lord three thousand years dead and gone. Revan's projected image winked out of existence, then slowly flickered back into view. The Holocron was failing. Dying. The material used to construct it-the crystal that channeled the energy of the Force to give the artifact life-was flawed. The more Bane used it, the less stable it became. Yet he couldn't set it aside, even for a single day. He had become obsessed with tapping all the knowledge trapped within, and he spent hours on end drinking in Revan's words with the same single-minded determination he had used when mining cortosis back on Apatros.

"The dark side offers power for power's sake. You must crave it. Covet it. You must seek power above all else, with no reservation or hesitation."

These words rang especially true for Bane, as if the preprogrammed personality of his virtual Master sensed it was nearing its end and had tailored its last lessons especially for him.

"The Force will change you. It will transform you. Some fear this change. The teachings of the Jedi are focused on fighting and controlling this transformation. That is why those who serve the light are limited in what they can accomplish.

"True power can come only to those who embrace the transformation. There can be no compromise. Mercy, compassion, loyalty: all these things will prevent you from claiming what is rightfully yours. Those who follow the dark side must cast aside these conceits. Those who do not-those who try to walk the path of moderation-will fail, dragged down by their own weakness."

The words almost perfectly described Bane as he had been during his time at the Academy. Despite this, he felt no shame or regret. That Bane no longer existed. Just as he had cast aside the miner from Apatros when he had taken his Sith name, so had he cast aside the stumbling, uncertain apprentice when he had claimed the Darth title for himself. When he'd rejected Qordis and the Brotherhood, he had begun the transformation Revan spoke of, and with the Holocron's help he was at last on the verge of completing it.

"Those who accept the power of the dark side must also accept the challenge of holding on to it," Revan continued. "By its very nature, the dark side invites rivalry and strife. This is the greatest strength of the Sith: it culls the weak from our order. Yet this rivalry can also be our greatest weakness. The strong must be careful lest they be overwhelmed by the ambitions of those beneath them working in concert. Any Master who instructs more than one apprentice in the ways of the dark side is a fool. In time the apprentices will unite their strength and overthrow the Master. It is inevitable. Axiomatic. That is why each Master must have only one student."

Bane didn't respond, but his lip instinctively curled up in disgust as he remembered his instruction at the Academy. Qordis and the others had passed the apprentices around from class to class, as if they were children in school instead of heirs to the legacy of the Sith. Was it any wonder he had struggled to reach his full potential in such a flawed system?

"This is also the reason there can be only one Dark Lord. The Sith must be ruled by a single leader: the very embodiment of the strength and power of the dark side. If the leader grows weak, another must rise to seize the mantle. The strong rule; the weak are meant to serve. This is the way it must be."

The image flickered and jumped, and then the tiny replica of Darth Revan bowed its head, drawing its hood up to hide its features once more. "My time here is ended. Take what I have taught you and use it well."

And then Revan was gone. The glow emanating from the Holocron faded away to nothing. Bane retrieved the small crystal pyramid from the floor, but it was cold and lifeless in his hands. He felt no trace of the Force inside it.

The artifact was of no more use to him. As Revan had taught him, it must therefore be discarded. He let it drop to the floor. Then, very slowly and deliberately, he crushed it with the power of the Force until only dust remained.

The Sith Buzzard broke into Lehon's atmosphere and plummeted down through the clear blue sky. At the controls Kas'im made slight alterations to keep his vessel on its course, a direct line for the homing beacon of the Valcyn.

He'd half expected Bane to have disabled the beacon, or at least changed its frequency. But despite being aware of it-the beacon was standard on virtually all craft-he had left it alone. Almost as if he wasn't afraid of anyone coming after him. As if he welcomed it.

Within a few minutes Kas'im got a visual on his target. The ship that had once-briefly-belonged to Qordis before Bane had taken it for his own was resting on a beach of white sand, the azure waters of the Unknown World's vast oceans on one side and the impenetrable jungle on the other. Scans showed no signs of life in the immediate vicinity, but Kas'im was wary as he brought his own craft in to touch down beside it.

He powered down the Buzzard and climbed out of the hatch. He felt the energy of the world, and the unmistakable presence of Darth Bane, seemingly emanating from the jungle's dark heart. Leaping to the ground, he landed with a dull thud on the soft-packed sand, his feet sinking in ever so slightly. A cursory examination of the Valcyn confirmed what he'd already suspected: his prey wasn't here.

Any tracks Bane might have left in the sand had been washed away by the tides or carried away on the breeze. Yet he knew where he was going. Before him, the jungle loomed lush and vibrant, thick and forbidding: an almost impenetrable wall of vegetation, except for a wide swath carved through it.

Someone or something of massive size and strength had torn that path through the trees and undergrowth. Already the jungle was trying to reclaim it. Moss grew thick across the ground, and a vast network of creeping vines wound their way over the surface. But it was clear enough for the Twi'lek to follow.

Hidden eyes were watching him from the jungle: even without the Force he would have felt their gaze studying him, evaluating him, following his every move in an effort to determine if this newcomer to the ecosystem was hunter or prey. To help clarify his role, he drew out his great double lightsaber and ignited the twin blades, then began to jog slowly down the path.

As he ran, he probed the surrounding foliage with the Force. Most of the creatures he sensed posed little threat. Still, he was wary. Something had blazed the trail he was following. Something big.

Almost ten kilometers in-he'd been jogging for nearly an hour-the Blademaster finally encountered his first rancor. The trail took a sharp turn to the east, and as he wound around the corner the creature burst from the surrounding trees, snarling and howling.

Kas'im wasn't surprised in the least by the ambush. He'd sensed the rancor's presence from several hundred meters away, just as it had surely caught his scent and stalked him from some great distance. He met the creature's charge with calm, ruthless efficiency.

Ducking under the first swiping claw, he carved a deep gash along the beast's left foreleg. When it reared back to bellow in pain, he sliced another deep groove in its soft underbelly. The rancor didn't fall right away; it was far too massive to be felled by a pair of wounds from a lightsaber. Instead the pain drove it into a berserk rage. It flailed about with its teeth and talons, spinning, snapping, and slashing at everything around it.

Kas'im twisted and dodged, leaping over one attack, then dropping to the ground to roll beneath another. He moved so fast he would have been nothing but a blur had the rancor not been blinded by rage. And with each evasion he struck another blow, whittling away at the mountain of sinew and flesh like a master sculptor working a lump of lommite.

The rancor floundered, lumbering and stumbling as if it were performing some drunken spacer's dance. In contrast, Kas'im was quick and precise. With each passing second his opponent slowed, its strength ebbing away. At last, with a forlorn groan, the beast toppled forward and lay motionless.

Leaving the beast where it had collapsed, Kas'im pressed on with a newfound urgency to his pace. The battle, short and simple as it had proved, was the first time he'd been tested in a true life-or-death struggle since he'd agreed to help Qordis train the students at the Academy. He was pleased to see that his skills had not been diminished by the long layoff.

Kas'im had a feeling he was going to need those skills again before the day was through.

Bane was sitting cross-legged on the stone floor of the central chamber on the Rakatan Temple's uppermost floor. He was meditating on Revan's words as he had often done between the Holocron's lessons. Now that the artifact was gone, it was even more important to contemplate what he had learned about the nature of the dark side . . . and the path it would lead him down.

By its very nature, the dark side invites rivalry and strife. This is the greatest strength of the Sith: it culls the weak from our order.

The constant battling of the Sith since the beginning of recorded history served a necessary purpose: it kept the power of the dark side concentrated in a few powerful individuals. The Brotherhood had changed all that. There were now a hundred or more Dark Lords following Kaan, but most were weak and inferior. The Sith numbers were greater than they had ever been, yet they were still losing the war against the Jedi.

The power of the dark side cannot be dispersed among the masses. It must be concentrated in the few who are worthy of the honor.

The strength of numbers was a trap . . . one that had snared all the great Sith Lords who had come before. Naga Sadow, Exar Kun, Darth Revan: each had been powerful. Each had drawn disciples in, teaching them the ways of the dark side. Each had assembled an army of followers and unleashed them against the Jedi. Yet in each and every case the servants of light had prevailed.

The Jedi would always remain united in their cause. The Sith would always be brought low by infighting and betrayals. The very traits that drove them to individual greatness and glory-the unrelenting ambition, the insatiable hunger for power-would ultimately doom them as a whole. This was the inescapable paradox of the Sith.

Kaan had tried to solve the problem by making everyone equal in the Brotherhood. But his solution was flawed. It showed no understanding of the real problem. No understanding of the true nature of the dark side. The Sith must be ruled by a single leader: the very embodiment of the strength and power of the dark side.

If all are equal, then none is strong. Yet whoever rose from the swollen and bloated ranks of the Sith to claim the mantle of Dark Lord would never be able to hold it. In time the apprentices will unite their strength and overthrow the Master. It is inevitable. Together the weak would overwhelm the strong in a gross perversion of the natural order.

But there was another solution. A way to break the endless cycle dragging the Sith down. Bane understood that now. At first he had thought the answer might be to replace the order of the Sith with a single, all-powerful Dark Lord. No other Masters. No apprentices. Just one vessel to contain all the knowledge and power of the dark side. But he had quickly dismissed the idea.

Eventually even a Dark Lord would wither and die; all the knowledge of the Sith would be lost. If the leader grows weak, another must rise to seize the mantle. One alone would never work. But if the Sith numbered exactly two . .

Minions and servants could be drawn in to the service of the dark side by the temptation of power. They could be given small tastes of what it offered, as an owner might share morsels from the table with his faithful curs. In the end, however, there could be only one true Sith Master. And to serve this Master, there could be only one true apprentice.

Two there should be; no more, no less. One to embody the power, the other to crave it. The Rule of Two.

This was the knowledge that would lead the dark side into a new age. A revelation that would bring an end to the infighting that had defined the order for a thousand generations. The Sith would be reborn, the new ways would be swept away-and Bane would be the one to do it.

But first he would have to destroy the Brotherhood. Kaan, Qordis-all who had studied with him on Korriban, all the Masters on Ruusan-had to be purged until he alone remained.

Darth Bane, Lord of the Sith. The title was his by right; there was no other strong enough in the dark side to challenge him. The only question that remained was who was worthy of being his apprentice. And how he would eliminate the others.

"Bane!" Kas'im's voice cut off his thoughts midstream. "I come with an invitation from Lord Kaan."

Bane leapt to his feet, whipping out his lightsaber, enraged at being disturbed on the cusp of enlightenment. He glared at Kas'im, as angry at himself for being too engrossed in his own thoughts to sense the Twi'lek's presence as he was at the interruption.

"How did you find me?" he asked, casting out with his mind to see who else might have invaded the Rakatan Temple and its inner sanctum. He felt a mixture of relief and disappointment when he realized Kas'im was alone. He had been hoping for one more ... but she must have chosen not to come.

"Lord Kaan told me you had come to this world. Once I entered the atmosphere, I simply followed the Valcyn's beacon," the Blademaster replied. "How Lord Kaan knew you would be here I couldn't say."

Bane suspected Githany must have told him, but he didn't bother telling that to the Twi'lek. Instead he asked, "Did Kaan send you to kill me?"

Kas'im gave a slight nod. "If you will not join the Brotherhood, I will leave your corpse on this barren and forgotten world."

"Barren?" Bane echoed, incredulous. "How can you say that? The dark side is strong here. Far stronger than it ever was on Korriban. This is where we will find the power to destroy the Jedi-not in Kaan's Brotherhood!"

"Korriban was once a place of great power, too," his former instructor countered. "Over the centuries thousands of Sith have explored its secrets, and none of them discovered any great strategy to defeat our enemy." The Twi'lek ignited his double-bladed lightsaber before continuing. "It is time to end this foolish quest, Bane. The old ways have failed. The Jedi defeated those who followed them: Exar Kun, Darth Revan . . . they all lost! We have to find a new philosophy if we want to defeat them."

For a brief moment Bane felt the faint flicker of excitement. Kas'im's words echoed his own thoughts. Was it possible the Blademaster was the apprentice he sought?

Kas'im's next words brought Bane's hopes crashing down. "Kaan understands this. That is why he created the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the future of the dark side."

Bane shook his head. The Blademaster was as blind as all the others. For that he had to die. "Kaan is wrong. I will never follow him. I will never join the Brotherhood."

Kas'im sighed. "Then your life ends here." And be leapt in, his weapon moving with far more speed than he had ever shown during their practice sessions.

Parrying the first sequence Bane realized his former Master had always been holding something in reserve . . . just as Bane himself had done in the early stages of his battle against Sirak. Only now was he seeing Kas'im's true ability, and he was barely able to defend himself. Barely, but still able.

His opponent grunted in surprise when Bane warded him off, then stepped back to regroup. He'd come in hard and fast, expecting to end their battle quickly. Now he had to reevaluate his strategy.

"You're better than you were when we last fought," he said, clearly impressed and making no attempt to hide it.

"So are you," Bane responded.

Kas'im lunged in again, and the room was filled with the hiss and hum of lightsabers striking each other half a dozen times in the space of two heartbeats. Bane would have been carved to ribbons had he tried to react to each move individually. Instead he simply called upon the Force, letting it flow through him and guide his hand. He gave himself over to the dark side completely, without reservation. His weapon became an extension of the Force, and he responded to the Twilek's unstoppable attack with an impenetrable defense.

Then he went on the attack. In the past he had always been afraid to surrender his will to the raw emotions that fueled the dark side. Now he had no such limitations; for the first time he was calling on his full potential.

He drove Kas'im back with furious slashes, forcing his old mentor into a backpedaling retreat across the floor of the chamber. Kas'im flipped back and out through the door into the hall beyond, but Bane was relentless in his pursuit, leaping forward and coming within a centimeter of landing a crippling blow to the Twilek's leg.

His strike was turned aside at the last second, but he quickly followed it up with another series of powerful thrusts and stabs. The Blademaster continued to give ground, pushed inexorably back by the raging storm of Bane's onslaught. Each time he tried to change tactics or switch forms, Bane anticipated, reacted, and seized the advantage.

The outcome was inevitable. Bane was simply too strong in the Force. Only some unexpected maneuver could save Kas'im, but they had fought too many times in the past for him to surprise Bane now. Over the course of his training Bane had seen every possible sequence, series, move, and trick with the double-bladed lightsaber, and he knew how to counter and nullify them all.

The Blademaster became desperate. Leaping, spinning, ducking, rolling: he was wild and reckless in his retreat, seeking now only to escape with his life. But he didn't know the Temple like Bane did. Bane kept the routes to the outside cut off, slowly herding his opponent into a dead-end hallway.

Recognizing what was happening, Kas'im blew open the heavy door of a side room with the Force and dived inside. Bane knew there was no other exit, and he paused at the threshold of the room to savor his victory.

The Twi'lek stood in the center of the empty chamber, panting heavily, stooped ever so slightly, his head bowed. He looked up when Bane stepped through the doorway. But when his gaze met Bane's, there was no hint of defeat in his eyes.

"You should have finished me when you had the chance," he said. There was less than five meters between them, but it was just enough space for Kas'im to give the hilt of his lightsaber a quick twist. The long handle separated in the middle, and suddenly he was armed not with one double-bladed lightsaber, but with a pair of single blades, one in each hand.

Bane hesitated. Few of the students at the Academy had even attempted to use two sabers at once. The Blademaster had always discouraged them from this variation of the fourth form, saying it was inherently flawed. Now, as he saw the cruel and cunning expression on his enemy's face, Bane understood the real truth.

The battle was rejoined, but now it was Bane who was in full retreat. Without proper training, even his enormous command of the Force was unable to anticipate the unfamiliar sequences of the two-handed fighting style. His mind was flooded with a million options of what his opponent might attempt, and he had no experience to draw on to eliminate any of them. Overwhelmed, he staggered back, floundering with the desperation of a drowning man.

Within the first few passes Bane knew he couldn't win. Kas'im had trained his entire life for this moment. After years of study, he'd mastered all seven forms of the lightsaber. Then he'd honed his skill for decades, perfecting every move and sequence until he had become the perfect weapon and the greatest living swordsman in the galaxy. Maybe the greatest swordsman ever. Bane was no match for him.

The Blademaster was unrelenting in his pressure. He seemed to wield six blades rather than two: he attacked with a peculiar rhythm designed to keep his foe off balance, coming in with one blade high and the other low at the same time, striking from opposite sides at odd and opposing angles. Bane had no option but to fall back ... and back ... and back. He was fighting now with a single purpose: somehow escaping with his life. One hope gave him the strength to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds; one advantage the Blademaster had lacked during his own retreat. He knew the layout of the Temple, and he was able to work himself slowly toward the exit.

Battling through the halls and corridors, the combatants rounded a corner to bring them in sight of the Rakatan Temple's only entrance: the wide archway and the small landing beyond, with the wide staircase leading back down to the ground nearly twenty meters below. In the instant it took Kas'im to recognize where they were and realize that his opponent might still escape, Bane thrust out with the Force. He knocked the Twi'lek off balance for a brief second, then backflipped out through the archway and onto the landing. He dropped into a crouch, still facing his opponent. But in his haste Bane had leapt too far; he was balanced precariously on the precipice of the uppermost stair, the steps falling sharply away behind him.

Kas'im responded by using the Force to knock Bane backward, sending him tumbling down the great stone staircase, away from the Blademaster. The fall would have broken his neck-or at least fractured an arm or a leg-if Bane hadn't cocooned himself in the Force. Even so he reached the bottom bruised, battered, and momentarily stunned.

On the landing high above Kas'im stood beneath the massive arch of the Temple entrance, staring down at him.

"I will follow you wherever you run," he said. "Wherever you go I will eventually find you and kill you. Don't live your life in fear, Bane. Better to end it now."

"I agree," Bane replied, hurling out the wave of Force energy he had been gathering during the Blademaster's speech.

There was nothing subtle about Bane's attack: the massive shock wave shook the very foundations of the great Rakatan Temple. The concussive blast had enough power to shatter every bone in Kas'im's body and pulverize his flesh into a mass of pulpy liquid. But at the last possible instant he threw up a shield to protect himself from the attack.

Unfortunately, he couldn't shield the Temple around him. The walls exploded into great chunks of rubble. The archway collapsed in a shower of stone, burying Kas'im beneath tons of rock and mortar. A second later the rest of the roof caved in, drowning out the Twi'lek's dying screams with a deafening rumble.

Bane watched the spectacle of the Temple's implosion from the safety of the ground at the foot of the stairs. Billowing clouds of dust rolled out from the wreckage and down the stairs toward him. Exhausted by the long lightsaber battle and drained by the sudden unleashing of the Force, he simply lay there until he was covered in a layer of fine white powder.

Eventually he struggled wearily to his feet. Reaching out with the Force, he sought some sign that Kas'im might still be alive beneath the mountain of stone. He felt nothing. Kas'im-his mentor, the only instructor at the Academy who had ever actually helped him-was dead.

Darth Bane, Dark Lord of the Sith, turned his back and walked away.