Chapter 24

There was neither time nor reason to mourn Kas'im's death. For all his use in the past, he had become simply an obstacle in Bane's path. An obstacle that was now gone. Yet his arrival on Lehon had prompted Bane to action. For too long he had separated himself from the events of the galaxy, seeking wisdom, understanding, and power. With the Temple's destruction there was no reason for him to remain on the Unknown World. And so he began the long trek through the jungle on foot, following the same path Kas'im had taken only hours before.

He could have used the Force to summon another rancor to speed him along, but he wanted time to think about what had happened ... and how he would deal with the Brotherhood.

Kaan had perverted the entire Sith order, transforming it into a sickly assemblage of mewling sycophants. He had tricked them all into believing they could achieve victory over the Jedi through martial might, but Bane knew better. The Jedi were many, and they gained strength when united against a common foe: that was the nature of the light side. The key to defeating them wasn't fleets or armies. Secrecy and deception were the weapons to bring them down. Victory could only come through subtlety and cunning.

Subtlety was something Kaan lacked. If he had been smart, he would have sent Kas'im to Lehon in the guise of a disgruntled follower. The Blademaster could have arrived with a tale of how he had turned his back on the Brotherhood. Bane would have accepted him as an ally. He would have been suspicious, of course, but over time his vigilance would have waned. Sooner or later he would have let his guard down, and Kas'im could have killed him. Assassination was quick, clean, and effective.

Instead, Kas'im had come and issued an open challenge, following the rules of some foolish code of honor. There was no honor in his end; there was no such thing as a noble death. Honor was a lie, a chain that wrapped itself around those foolish enough to accept it and dragged them down to defeat. Through victory my chains are broken.

Bane followed the rancor's trail through the trees without incident; the denizens of the jungle steered well clear of him. He caught a brief glimpse of a pack of six-legged felines scavenging the corpse of a rancor along the path, but they scattered at his approach. They waited a long time after he was gone before slinking back to continue their meal.

By the time he arrived at the beach he had devised his plan. Kas'im's ship was sitting on the sand beside his own, and he quickly stripped it of supplies, including the message drones. He lugged them over to his own vessel, then made a quick inspection of the Valcyn. Finding all systems in working order, he boarded. Before liftoff, he programmed a course into the message drone using coordinates he had downloaded from Kas'im's ship. A few minutes later, the Valcyn launched from the Unknown World's surface, climbing higher and higher until it broke through the atmosphere into the black void of space. Bane punched in the hyperspace coordinates of his destination, then discharged the message drone.

The drone would reach Ruusan within a few days, offering Kaan a truce and delivering a gift-a gift he suspected Kaan would be too foolish and vain to recognize for what it really was.

The Brotherhood would never defeat the Jedi. And as long as they existed, the Sith would be tainted, befouled like a well poisoned at the source. Bane had to destroy them. All of them. To do that, he'd have to use the weapons Kaan had been too proud or too blind to use against him: deception and betrayal. The weapons of the dark side.

"I don't like splitting our squads like this," Pernicar whispered, following closely at Lord Hoth's heel. The general looked back along the ragtag line of soldiers trudging through the forest. Less than a score in total, half starved, most wounded and ill equipped, they looked more like refugees than warriors in the Army of Light. They were carrying supplies from the drop point back to the camp, as were two other caravans taking different routes.

"It's too dangerous to travel in one large group," Hoth insisted. "We need these supplies. Splitting us into three caravans gives us a better chance that at least some of them will make it back to camp."

Hoth glanced back along the path they had come, wary of signs of pursuit. The rains had stopped nearly a week earlier, but the ground was still soft. The passing of his troops left deep impressions in the loamy ground.

"Even a blind Gamorrean could track us now," he grumbled. Silently he wished for a return of the concealing rains he had so often cursed these past few months while sitting huddled and shivering beneath inadequate shelters fashioned from leaves and fallen branches.

Yet he knew it wasn't trackers they had to worry about. He cast out with the Force, trying to sense hidden enemies lying in wait in the trees ahead. Nothing. Of course if there were any Sith, they would he projecting false images to conceal themselves for their--

"Ambush!" one of the points screamed, and then the Sith were upon them. They came from everywhere: warriors wielding lightsabers, soldiers armed with blasters and vibroblades. The clash of durasteel and the hiss of crossing energy blades mingled with the screams of the living and the dying: screams of rage and triumph; of agony and despair.

A volley of blasterfire ripped through his lines, taking down those Padawans too inexperienced to deflect the shots. A second volley tore through the melee. The bolts ricocheted wildly as Sith and Jedi alike batted them aside, doing little real harm but adding to the chaos. Lord Hoth stood in the thickest of the fighting, hewing down foes foolish enough to come in range of his fierce weapon. His nostrils were filled with the greasy-sweet stench of charred flesh, and a wall of bodies was mounting around him. And still they kept coming, swarming over him like carrion beetles on a fresh kill, seeking to drag him down by sheer numbers.

Pernicar vanished beneath the sea of enemies, and Hoth redoubled his efforts to reach his fallen friend. He was unstoppable in his fury, like the devastating storms of the Maw itself. When he reached him, Pernicar was already dead. Just as the rest of them soon would be.

An explosion on the edge of the battle briefly drew his attention skyward. One eager minion of the Sith lunged forward, seeking glory beyond her wildest expectations by trying to kill the mighty general while he was distracted. Hoth never even turned his gaze, but merely cast out with the Force, imprisoning her in a stasis field. She stood helpless, frozen in place until struck down by the careless follow-through from a vibroblade wielded by one of her own side.

Her death barely even registered in Hoth's conscious thoughts. He was focused on the four swoopbikes barreling down on the battle, their heavy guns pounding into the enemy lines. The Sith ambush scattered, unable or unwilling to stand against heavy air support. It took all of Hoth's Jedi training not to chase after them and hack them down from behind as they fled into the safety of the trees.

A moment later the swoops landed to cheers from the dozen or so Jedi still standing. Lord Valenthyne Farfalla, looking as fastidiously proper as ever, dismounted and bowed low before his general.

"I heard you were bringing supplies, my lord," he said, rising with all the affected elegance of a Coruscant Senator. "We thought we'd come give you an escort."

"There are two other caravans," Hoth snapped. "Instead of standing here gloating, you should be heading out to help them."

Farfalla pursed his lips in displeasure, a peevish, pouty expression. "We have other swoops escorting them already." He hesitated, as if considering whether to say anything more. Hoth shot him an angry look that all but screamed at him to remain silent.

Despite this-or maybe because of it-he added, "I thought you'd be more welcoming to my reinforcements."

"You've been gone for months!" Hoth snarled. "While you've been out playing diplomat, we've been stuck here in a war."

"I did as I promised," Farfalla responded coldly. "I've brought three hundred Jedi reinforcements. They'll be in your camp as soon as we have enough fighters to break our transports through the Sith planetary blockade."

"Little comfort to those who gave their lives waiting for you to arrive," Hoth shot back.

Farfalla glanced at the corpses scattered on the ground. Seeing Pernicar among them, his expression fell. He crouched down beside the body and whispered a few short words, then touched the fallen soldier once in the center of his brow before standing up once more.

"Pernicar was my friend, too," he said, his tone softer now. "His death pains me as much as it does you, General."

"I doubt that," Hoth muttered angrily. "You weren't even here to see it."

"Do not let your grief consume you," Farfalla warned, the ice back in his voice. "That path leads to the dark side."

"Don't you dare speak to me of the dark side!" Hoth shouted, jabbing an angry finger in Farfalla's face. "I'm the one who's been here battling Kaan's Brotherhood! I know its ways better than anyone! I've seen the pain and suffering it brings. And I know what it will take to defeat it. I need soldiers. Supplies. I need Jedi willing to fight the enemy with the same hatred they feel for us." He let his finger drop and turned away. "What I don't need is some prancing dandy lecturing me on the dangers of the dark side."

"Pernicar's death is not your fault," Farfalla said, coming forward to place a comforting hand on Hoth's shoulder. "Let go of your guilt. There is no emotion. There is peace."

Hoth wheeled around and slapped his hand away. "Get away from me! Take your blasted reinforcements and run back to Coruscant like the mincing cowards you are! We don't need your kind here!"

Now it was Farfalla who turned away, stomping angrily back to his swoopbike while the rest of the group watched in silent shock and horror. He threw one long leg over the seat and fired up the engines.

"Maybe the other Jedi were right about you!" he said, shouting to be heard over the roar of his swoop. "This war has consumed you. Driven you to madness. Madness that will lead you to the dark side!"

Hoth didn't bother to watch as Farfalla and the other swoops sped off into the distance. Instead he crouched down beside the body of his oldest friend and wept at his brutal, senseless end.

When Githany finally arrived, Kaan had to keep himself from snapping at her. She had already seen him with his guard down: uncertain, unsure. He had to be careful when dealing with her now, lest he lose her allegiance. And he needed her more than ever.

Instead he spoke in a casual tone that held only a hint of icy disapproval beneath its surface. "I sent for you nearly three hours ago."

She flashed him a fierce, savage smile. "There was a sortie going out against one of the Jedi supply caravans. I decided to go with them."

"I haven't heard the reports yet. What was the result?"

"It was glorious, Lord Kaan!" She laughed. "Three more Masters, six Jedi Knights, a handful of Padawans ... all dead!"

Kaan nodded his approval. The tide of battle was ever changing on Ruusan, and with the end of the rainy season the pendulum had swung back in favor of the Sith. Of course he knew it was more than a change of weather that had restored the morale of his troops and brought them a string of resounding victories.

The Army of Light was fractured. Their numbers on Ruusan were dwindling. Valenthyne Farfalla was orbiting the world with reinforcements, but Kaan's spies reported a rift between Hoth and Lord Farfalla that kept the newcomers from joining the fray. Without Master Pernicar to blunt their sharp animosity, the two Jedi Masters' mutual antipathy was crippling the Jedi war effort.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Kaan. For a change it was the Jedi who were split by infighting and rivalries, while the Brotherhood of Darkness remained united and strong. Part of him found the strange reversal troubling. In the long nights when he couldn't sleep, he'd often walk the floor of his tent wrestling with the seeming paradox.

Had the armies on Ruusan crossed a line where light and darkness meet? Had the endless conflict between the Army of Light and the Brotherhood of Darkness drawn them both into a void where the ideologies became hopelessly intertwined? Were they all now Force-users of the Twilight, caught between the two sides and belonging to neither?

However, the arrival of the morning sun would inevitably banish such thoughts with news of yet another Sith victory in the field. And only a fool questioned his methods when he was winning. Which was why he wasn't sure what to make of the message he had recently received from Darth Bane.

"Kas'im is dead," he told Githany, getting directly to the matter at hand.

"Dead?" Her shocked reaction affirmed Kaan's decision not to share this news with the rest of the Brotherhood. He had been careful to keep the purpose of the Blademaster's departure secret until he knew the outcome of the confrontation. "Was it the Jedi?" she asked.

"No," He admitted, choosing his words carefully. "I sent him to parlay with Lord Bane. Kas'im thought he could convince him to join us. Instead, Bane killed him."

Githany's eyes narrowed. "I warned you about him."

Kaan nodded. "You know him better than any of us. You understand him. That is why I need you now. Bane sent me a message."

He reached over and flicked on the message drone sitting on the table. A tiny hologram of the heavily muscled Dark Lord materialized before them. Even though the details of his expression were difficult to make out at that size, it was clear he was troubled.

"Kas'im is dead. I . . . I killed him. But I've been thinking about what he said before ... before he died."

Githany gave Kaan a curious look. He shrugged and tilted his head toward the hologram as it continued to speak.

"I came here searching for something. I'm ... I'm not even sure what it was. But I didn't find it. Just like I didn't find it in the Valley of the Dark Lords on Korriban. And now Kas'im is dead and I. . . I don't know what to do ..."

The projection bowed its head: lost, confused, and alone. Kaan could clearly see the scorn in Githany's expression as she watched the spectacle before her. At last the figure seemed to compose itself, and it looked up once more.

"I don't want Kas'im's death to be in vain," Bane said emphatically. "I should have listened to him in the first place. I . . . I want to join the Brotherhood."

Kaan reached out and flicked the drone off again. "Well?" he asked Githany. "Is he serious? Or is this just a trap?"

She chewed at her lower lip. "I think he's sincere," she finally said. "For all his power, Bane is still weak. He can't surrender himself fully to the dark side. He still feels guilt when he uses the Force to kill."

"Qordis mentioned something similar," Kaan said. "He told me Bane had a chance to kill a bitter rival in the dueling ring at the Academy, but he pulled back at the last moment."

Githany nodded. "Sirak. He just couldn't bring himself to do it. And Kas'im was his mentor. If Bane was forced to kill him, it would have been even harder for him to deal with it."

"So I should send an emissary to meet with him?"

She shook her head. "Bane is more trouble than he's worth. He's vulnerable now, but as his confidence returns he'll become as headstrong as ever. He'll bring dissension to the ranks. Besides," she added, "we don't need him anymore. We're winning."

"So how do you propose we deal with him? Assassins?"

She laughed. "If he could handle Kas'im, then I doubt anyone else will stand a chance against him. Anyone but me."

"You?"

Githany smiled. "Bane likes me. I wouldn't say he trusts me, exactly ... but he wants to trust me. Let me go to him."

"And what will you do when you find him?"

"Tell him I miss him. Explain that we've considered his offer, and we want him to join the Brotherhood. Then, when his guard is down, I'll kill him."

Kaan raised his eyebrows. "You make it sound so simple."

"Unlike Kas'im, I know how to handle him," she assured him. "Betrayal is a far more effective weapon than the lightsaber."

She left the tent a few moments later, taking the message drone and the coordinates Bane had sent along for the meeting. Kaan had every confidence she'd get the job done. And he saw no reason to share with her the small package that had arrived in the message drone's storage compartment.

Bane had sent it to Lord Kaan as a peace offering; a way to atone for Kas'im's death. It wasn't much to look at: text written on several sheets of flimsi, the writing cramped and hurried as if it had been recorded while listening to someone else speak. Yet within its pages it contained a detailed description of one of the most fearsome creations of the ancient Sith: the thought bomb.

An ancient ritual that required the combined will of many powerful Sith Lords, the thought bomb unleashed the pure destructive energy of the dark side. There were risks involved, of course. That much power was highly volatile, making it difficult to control even for those who had the strength to summon it. It was possible the blast could annihilate the entire Brotherhood along with Hoth's Army of Light. The vacuum at the center of the blast could suck in the disembodied spirits of Sith and Jedi alike, trapping them side by side for all eternity in an unbreakable state of equilibrium at the heart of a frozen sphere of pure energy.

Kaan doubted he'd actually have need of such a weapon to finish off the Jedi here on Ruusan. After all, he was winning the war. Still, as he began his pacing for another long and sleepless night, he couldn't help studying the ritual of the thought bomb over and over again.