Lord Hoth tossed and turned, unable to sleep. The creaking of his cot joined the whining buzz of the bloodsucking insect swarms that followed his army wherever they made camp. The noise was compounded by the whirring hum of small-winged night birds swooping in to feast on the insects that feasted on his soldiers. The result was a shrill, maddening cacophony that hovered on the edges of hearing.
But it wasn't the noises that were keeping him awake, or the unrelenting heat that left him with a constant sheen of sweat on his brow, even at night. It wasn't the military strategies and battle plans constantly running through his mind. It wasn't any one of these things, but rather the sum of all of them together-and the fact that there seemed to be no end in sight to this blasted, cursed war. Minor annoyances that had been tolerable during the first months on Ruusan had been magnified by frustration and futility into unbearable torments.
With an angry growl he cast aside the thin blanket he slept under, tossing it into the far corner of his tent. He swung his legs over the side and sat up on the edge of the cot, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and his head clasped between his hands.
For two standard years he had waged his campaign against the Brotherhood of Darkness here on Ruusan. In the beginning many Jedi had rallied to his side. And many Jedi had died-too many. Under Lord Hoth's command they had sacrificed themselves, offering up their own lives for the sake of a greater cause. Yet now, after six major battles-not to mention countless skirmishes, raids, minor clashes, and indecisive engagements-nothing had been decided. The blood of thousands stained his hands, yet he was no closer to his goal.
Frustration was beginning to give way to despair. Morale was the lowest it had ever been. Many of the soldiers grumbled that Farfalla was right: the general had let Ruusan become his mad obsession and was leading them to their doom.
Hoth no longer even had the strength to argue with them. Sometimes he felt as if he had forgotten the reasons he had come here in the first place. Once there may have been virtue in this war, but such nobility had long since been stripped away. Now he fought for revenge in the name of those Jedi who had fallen. He fought out of hatred of the dark side and what it stood for. He fought out of pride and a refusal to admit defeat. But most of all, he fought simply because he no longer knew anything else.
Yet if he gave up now, would it make any difference? If he ordered his troops to retreat, to evacuate the planet in Farfalla's ships, would anything change? If he stepped aside and left the burden of battling the Sith-here on Ruusan or elsewhere in the galaxy-to another, would he finally find peace? Or would he simply be betraying all those who had believed in him?
To disband the Army of Light now, while the Brotherhood of Darkness still existed, dishonored the memory of all those who had perished in the conflict. To press on meant many more would surely die-and he himself might be lost to the light forever.
He lay back down and closed his eyes again. But sleep would not come. "When all the options are wrong," he muttered to himself in the darkness, "what does it matter which one I choose?"
"When the way before you is not clear," an ethereal voice answered, "let your actions be guided by the wisdom of the Force."
Hoth snapped his head up to peer through the darkness of the tent. A figure was just barely visible in the shadows, standing on the other side.
"Pernicar!" he exclaimed, then suddenly asked, "Is this real? Or am I actually sound asleep in my cot, and all this nothing but a dream?"
"A dream is only another kind of reality," Pernicar said with an amused shake of his head. He crossed the tent slowly, moving closer. As he approached, Hoth realized he could actually see through him.
The apparition settled itself on the cot. The springs didn't creak; it was as if he had no weight or substance at all.
This had to be a dream, Hoth realized. But he didn't want to wake. Instead he clung desperately to the chance to see his old friend again, even if it was just an illusion conjured up by his own mind. "I've missed you," he said. "Your counsel, your wisdom. I need them now more than ever."
"You were not so eager to listen to me when I was alive," the Pernicar of his dream replied, striking at the most secret guilt and regrets buried deep in Hoth's subconscious. "There was much you could have learned from me."
A funny thought struck the general. "Was I your Padawan all this time, Master Pernicar? So young and foolish that I didn't even know you were trying to instruct me in the ways of the Force?"
Pernicar laughed lightly. "No, General. Neither one of us is young-though we both have had more than our share of foolish moments."
Hoth nodded somberly. For a moment he said nothing, just enjoying Pernicar's presence once again, even if he was only here in spirit. Then, knowing there must be some purpose to this elaborate charade his subconscious had created for him, he asked, "Why have you come?"
"The Army of Light is an instrument of good and justice," Pernicar told him. "You fear you may have lost your way, but look to the Force and you will know what you must do to find it again."
"You make it sound so simple," Hoth said with a slight shake of his head. "Have I really fallen so far that I cannot even remember the most basic teachings of our order?"
"There is no shame in falling," Pernicar said, standing up. "There is only shame if you refuse to rise once again."
Hoth sighed heavily. "I know what I must do, but I lack the tools to do it. My troops are on the verge of collapse: exhausted and outnumbered. And the other Jedi no longer believe in our cause."
"Farfalla still does," Pernicar noted. "Though you had your differences, he was always loyal."
"I think I've driven Farfalla away for good," Hoth admitted. "He wants nothing more to do with the Army of Light."
"Then why are his ships still in orbit?" Pernicar countered. "You drove him away with your anger, and he fears you may have fallen to the dark side. Show him this is not so and he will follow you again."
Pernicar took a step back. Hoth could sense himself beginning the slow climb to consciousness again. He could have fought against it. He could have struggled to stay in the dream world. But there was work to be done.
"Good-bye, old friend," he whispered. Slowly, his eyes opened, revealing the waking world and the empty darkness of his tent. "Good-bye."
Sleep did not return to him that night. Instead he thought long and hard about what Pernicar had said to him in his dream. Pernicar had always been the one he'd turned to in times of confusion and trouble. It made sense that his mind would conjure up the image of his dearest friend to set him on the proper path again.
He knew what he had to do. He would swallow his pride and ask Farfalla's forgiveness. They had to set aside their personal differences for the sake of the Jedi.
First thing in the morning he emerged from his tent, determined to send an envoy to Farfalla. But to his surprise he found that one of Farfalla's people had come to speak with him.
"I wondered if I had made this trip in vain," the messenger admitted once Lord Hoth had welcomed her into his tent. "I was afraid you would refuse to even see me."
"Had you come a day earlier you probably would have been right," he confessed. "Last night I had a ... revelation that changed things."
"I guess we're lucky I came today, then," she replied with a cordial tilt of her head.
"Yes, lucky," he muttered, though part of him believed the timing of the dream had nothing to do with luck at all. Truly, the Force was a powerful and mysterious ally.
Bane could still feel the poison in his system as he drove the land crawler across Ambria's vast and empty plains. The rumble of the engine couldn't quite drown out the rattle and clank of the junk piled in the back. The clatter kept him from pushing the memories of the vehicle's previous owners completely from his mind, but he felt no remorse over their deaths.
He'd left their bodies lying where they'd fallen-in the midst of the battlefield where they'd gathered their prizes. Their deaths had given him the strength to press on, but already the surge of power he had felt was fading. He had the strength to keep the synox at bay for a few more hours, but he needed to find a permanent cure.
He needed to find Caleb. If he could reach the healer, there was still hope. But the man's dwelling was still many kilometers away.
It was only a matter of time until his body succumbed to the paralysis and his mind was swallowed by the fevered madness brought on by the toxin. For now, though, his anger allowed him to keep his thoughts clear.
He wasn't angry at Githany. She had only acted as a servant of the dark side should. His rage was directed inward-toward his own weakness and misplaced arrogance. He should have anticipated the true depth of her cunning.
Instead he had let her poison him. And if he died now, his great revelation-the Rule of Two, the salvation of the Sith-would end with him.
Caleb felt the land crawler's approach long before he saw or heard it. It was like a storm on the wind, a black sky rushing in to cover the sun. When the vehicle rolled to a stop before his hut he was already sitting outside waiting for it.
The man who climbed out was large and muscular, a sharp contrast with Caleb's own thin and wiry frame. He wore dark clothing, and a hook-handled lightsaber dangled from his belt. His skin was gray as ash, and his features were twisted into an expression of cruelty and contempt. Even were he not sensitive to the ways of the Force, it wouldn't have been hard for Caleb to recognize him as a servant of the dark side. What he might not have sensed was how powerful this grim visitor truly was.
But Caleb had dealt with powerful men and women before. Jedi and Sith alike had come to him in the past, and he had turned them all away. He was a servant of the common people, those who could not help themselves. He wanted no part of the war between light and darkness.
The man began walking toward him, moving stiffly. The foul stench of poison wafted out from the dying Sith's pores, smothering the scent of the boiling soup hanging over Caleb's fire. Jabbing a stick into the coals to stir up more heat, Caleb now understood his visitor's unnatural complexion. The effects of synox were unmistakable. He figured the doomed man had at most a day before he died.
He didn't speak until the man stood directly above him, looming like the specter of death itself.
"There is venom in your body," Caleb said placidly. "You have come for the cure," he continued. "I will not give it to you."
The man didn't speak. Not surprising, given his state. The poison would have left his tongue cracked and swollen, his mouth parched and blistered. But he didn't need words to convey his message as his hand dropped to the hilt of his lightsaber.
"I am not afraid to die," Caleb said, with no change in his voice. "You may torture me if you want," he added. "Pain means nothing to me."
To prove his point, he plunged his hand into the bubbling cauldron. The scent of seared flesh mingled with the smells of soup and poison. His expression never changed, even as he withdrew his hand and held it up to show the scalded flesh.
He saw doubt and confusion in the newcomer's eyes, a look he had witnessed many times before. In the past his stoicism had served him well, usually thwarting the plans of those Sith or Jedi who had sought him out for one reason or another. They couldn't understand him, and that was how he wanted it.
He cared nothing for their war or what either side valued. In fact, there was only one thing he cared about in all the galaxy. And this performance was his only hope of protecting it from the monster standing above him.
The implacable man before him puzzled Bane. His only hope for survival had just been denied him, and he wasn't sure what he could do about it. He could sense the power in this man, but it wasn't the power of either the dark side or the light. It wasn't even the power of the Force in any normal sense of the word. He drew his strength from ground and stone; mountain and forest; the land and the sky. Despite this difference, Bane could sense that the man's power was formidable in its own way. Bane found its strangeness disturbing, unsettling. Was it possible he was actually going to lose this battle of wills? Was it possible this simple man-a man with only the faintest flicker of the Force inside him-was actually able to defy a Dark Lord of the Sith?
Had the healer's mind been weak Bane could have simply compelled him to do his bidding, but his will was as unyielding as the black iron of the pot he had plunged his hand into. He had demonstrated that pain and threat of death would be ineffective tools in convincing him to change his mind, as well. Even now Bane could sense his mind building up walls to block out the pain; burying it so deep it almost seemed to disappear. And there was something else he was burying as well. Something he was desperately trying to keep Bane from uncovering.
Bane's eyes narrowed as he recognized what it was. He was trying to hide the presence of another, shielding whoever it was from the Dark Lord's hazy, fevered perceptions. He turned his attention to the healer's small, ramshackle hut. The man made no move to stop him. In fact, he had no reaction at all.
The door was blocked by nothing but a long curtain that flowed gently in the breeze. Bane stepped forward and flipped it aside to reveal a small, ramshackle room. A young girl, her eyes wide with terror, huddled silently against the far wall.
A grim smile of relief touched the corners of Bane's lips as he realized the truth. Caleb had a weakness after all; he cared about something. All his strength of will was useless because of this one failing. And Bane was not above exploiting it to get what he needed.
With a single mental command he swept the terrified girl up into the air, carrying her out to suspend her upside down above the healer's boiling pot.
Caleb leapt to his feet, showing real emotion for the first time. He reached out to her, then pulled his hand back, his eyes flicking between his daughter and the man who literally held her life in his grasp. "Daddy," she whimpered, "help me."
The man's head dropped in defeat. "All right," he said. "You win. You will have your cure."
The healing ritual lasted all through the night and into the next day. Caleb drew on all manner of herbs and roots: some cooked in the boiling waters of his pot; others ground up into paste; still others placed directly on Bane's swollen tongue. Throughout the entire process Bane was wary, ready to unleash his vengeance against the healer's child should the man try to betray him.
But as the hours went by he slowly felt the synox leaching from his body, drawn out by the medicines. By evening of the next day all traces of the poison were gone.
Bane returned to his camp and packed up. A few hours later he was ready to lift off and leave Ambria behind.
After the completion of the healing ritual he had briefly considered slaying both father and daughter for the crime of seeing him in his moment of weakness. But those were the thoughts of a man blinded by his own arrogance. His recent encounter with Githany had shown him the dangers of that path.
Neither Caleb nor his daughter presented any threat to him or his goals. And Caleb had a skill he might one day need again. For all its power, the dark side was weak in the healing arts.
So he had let them live. There was no purpose or advantage in their deaths. Killing without reason or gain was a petty pleasure of sadistic fools.
And Bane was determined-as he punched the coordinates for Ruusan into the nav computer-to cleanse the dark side of fools.