When the Valcyn arrived at Ruusan, Bane was surprised to find both Sith and Jedi fleets in the system. The Sith had formed a blockade around the planet, obviously trying to prevent the Jedi from bringing reinforcements to their fellows on the surface.
Yet to Bane's eye it appeared that the Jedi were making no effort to run the blockade. Their ships seemed content to wait, lurking just beyond the range of enemy fire. And the Sith couldn't attack without breaking formation and exposing their lines. The result was a tense stalemate, with neither side willing to make the first move.
Despite the blockade, Bane was able to land his ship on Ruusan without drawing the attention of either fleet. The Jedi weren't concerned with ships going to the planet, and the Sith were patrolling in patterns designed to guard against large-scale incursions. The blockade was meant to stop troop transports, supply ships, and their escorts; it was all but useless against a single scout vessel or fighter.
His sensors picked up the Sith encampment soon after he breached the atmosphere, and he brought the Valcyn in on the far side of the world. The blockade patrols hadn't spotted him, and he'd disabled the ship's beacon before leaving Lehon. Nobody knew he was here. He planned to keep it that way for a while longer.
He set the ship down in the cover of a small range of foothills several kilometers from the encampment. He would draw less attention approaching on foot, and he wanted to keep the Valcyn's location secret in case he needed it to make a quick escape. He disembarked and began the long hike to meet up with Kaan and his fellow Sith.
The feel of this planet was far different from any of the others he had been on. This was a tired world, weary and spent with the endless wars being waged across its surface. There was a malaise in the air, like some infectious disease of mind and spirit. The Force was strong on Ruusan inevitable given the vast numbers of Sith and Jedi there. Yet he sensed it was in turmoil, a maelstrom of confusion and conflict. Neither the dark nor light held sway. Instead they collided and fused, becoming an obscene, indecisive gray.
Far to the east he could see the edges of Ruusan's great forests. He could sense the Jedi hiding deep within them, though they used the light side to mask their exact location. The Sith encampment was to the west, several kilometers away from the forest's borders. Between them stretched a vast panorama of gently rolling hills and plains: the site of all the major battles that had been fought on Ruusan so far. The constant fighting had been punctuated by six full-scale engagements, battles where each side had brought its full strength to bear in an effort to wipe out the enemy-or at least drive them from the world. Three times Hoth and the Army of Light had seized the upper hand; the other three had gone to Kaan and his Brotherhood. Yet none of the victories had been decisive enough to bring an end to the war.
From the pungent smell of death Bane suspected some smaller confrontation had been recently fought over this territory, as well. His suspicions were confirmed when he crested a rise and came across a scene of slaughter. It was hard to tell who had won: bodies clad in the garb of each side were everywhere, intermingled as if the combatants had remained locked together in hatred long after they had all been slain. Most of the dead were likely to be followers of the Jedi or minions of the Sith, rather than actual Jedi Knights or members of the Brotherhood, though he noticed dark Sith robes on a handful of the bodies.
Hovering above the killing field were the bouncers, a unique species native to Ruusan. There were at least half a dozen, spherical in shape and of various sizes, with most being between one and two meters across. Their round bodies were covered with thick green fur, as were the finlike appendages protruding from their sides and the long ribbonlike tails that streamed out behind them. They had no visible facial features other than dark, lidless eyes.
Reports indicated they were sentient, yet to Bane they looked like animals scavenging the remains of the battle. As he approached he realized they were communicating, though they possessed no mouths. Somehow they were projecting mental images of succor and comfort, as if they sought to heal the wounds of the scarred land beneath them.
They scattered at Bane's approach, whisking themselves away like a bizarre school of fish capable of swimming through the skies. As he drew nearer, he realized they had been congregating over one of the fallen. The human man was not quite dead, though the gaping wound in his gut gave stark evidence that he wouldn't live to see the night.
He wore the robes of the Sith, and the shattered remains of a lightsaber's hilt lay near his outstretched hand. Bane recognized him as one of the lesser students from the Academy on Korriban: so weak in the dark side, it wasn't even worth the bother of learning his name. Yet he knew Bane.
With a groan the man rolled onto his back and hauled himself up to a sitting position, leaning his head and shoulders against a nearby stone. His eyes-glazed and dilated-cleared momentarily and came into focus. "Lord Bane ... ," he gasped. "Kaan told us ... you were dead."
There was no point in replying, so Bane said nothing.
"You missed the fight ... ," the man mumbled, the words hard to hear through the choking bubbles of blood welling up in his throat. A coughing fit cut off what he was going to say next. He was too weak to even bring up his hand to cover his mouth as he spewed red spots over Bane's dark boots.
"The battle was glorious," he finally croaked out. "It's an honor to ..
. fall in such a splendid battle."
Bane laughed loudly, the only appropriate response to such ridiculous stupidity. "Glory means nothing for the dead," he said, though it wasn't clear if the man could even hear him in his fevered state.
He turned to go, then paused when he felt a feeble tug on his heel. "Help me, Lord Bane."
Lifting his boot free of the clutching hand, Bane answered, "My name is Darth Bane." There was a sickening crunch as his boot slammed down, grinding the man's skull into the rocks propping him up. His body convulsed once then lay still.
The purging of the Sith had begun.
Lord Kaan lay on his back on the small cot in his tent, eyes closed, gently massaging his temples. The strain of keeping his followers united in a common cause was taking a heavy toll, and his head constantly pulsed with a dull and relentless ache.
Despite their success in recent battles with the Jedi on Ruusan, the mood in the Sith camp was tense. They had been on Ruusan too long-far too long-and reports kept filtering in of Republic victories in distant systems. Even with his ability to manipulate and influence the minds of the other Dark Lords, it was becoming more and more difficult to keep the Brotherhood focused on their battle against the Army of Light.
He knew there was one sure way to end the war, and end it quickly. The thought bomb. He had spent many nights wondering if he dared to use it. If they lured the Jedi in and unleashed the thought bomb, its blast would completely obliterate their enemies. But would the combined will of the Brotherhood be strong enough to survive such power? Or would they get swept up in the backlash of the explosion?
Time and again he had dismissed it as too dangerous, a weapon so terrible that even he-a Dark Lord of the Sith-was afraid to use it. Yet each time he considered it for a few moments longer before backing away from the abyss.
A sound outside the tent caused him to open his eyes and sit up sharply. A second later Githany, now seen by many as his right hand, poked her head in. "They're ready for you, Lord Kaan."
He nodded and rose to his feet, taking a second to calm and compose himself. If he showed any weakness, the others might turn against him. He couldn't let that happen. Not now, when they were so close to ultimate victory. That was why he had summoned the other Dark Lords: one final gathering to strengthen their resolve and assure their continued loyalty.
Githany led the way through the camp, and he followed her to the large tent where the other Sith Lords were waiting for him. He entered with conviction and purpose, projecting an aura of confidence and authority.
As was customary whenever he entered a room, those in the assemblage rose to their feet as a sign of respect. There was one, however, who remained seated, arms folded across his thick chest.
"Are you too heavy to rise, Lord Kopecz?" Githany asked pointedly.
"I thought we were all equals in the Brotherhood," the Twi'lek snarled back, speaking more to Kaan than to her.
Kaan knew he had to tread carefully. This was not the first time Kopecz had been the voice of dissent, and many of the others took their cues from him. Unfortunately, he was also one of the most difficult to influence and control.
"Equals. Quite right, Lord Kopecz," he said with a weary smile. "Remain seated. All of you. We have no need of these pointless formalities."
The rest of the group did as he bade and found their seats once more, though it was clear everyone still felt the tension between the two of them. He let a wave of soothing reassurance ripple out across the room as he crossed over to the strategy table.
"The war against the Jedi is almost won," he declared. "They are on the verge of collapse. They have retreated into the forests, but they are running out of places to hide."
Kopecz snorted derisively. "We've heard that refrain one too many times."
It took tremendous effort to maintain his composure, but somehow Lord Kaan managed to reply in a calm, even voice. "Anyone who has doubts about our strategy here on Ruusan is free to speak," he offered. "As has already been pointed out in this meeting, we are all equals in the Brotherhood of Darkness."
"It's not just Ruusan I'm worried about," Kopecz replied, accepting the bait and rising to his feet. "We've lost ground everywhere else in the galaxy. We had the Republic reeling. But instead of finishing them off, we let them regroup!"
"Most of our early victories came before the Jedi joined their cause," Kaan reminded him. "The point of attacking the Republic in the first place was to draw the Jedi out. We wanted to force them into a battle of our choosing: this battle, here on Ruusan.
"Now we are on the verge of wiping them out. And with the Jedi gone, we can easily reclaim the worlds that have slipped back under the Republic's control-and many more besides."
Though Kopecz was silent, there were murmurs of agreement from the other Sith Lords. Kaan pressed his point even farther.
"Once we wipe out the enemy here on Ruusan our armies will sweep across the galaxy virtually unopposed. Conquering territory in every sector, we will encircle Coruscant and the other Core Worlds like a noose, drawing ever tighter until we choke the very life out of the Republic!"
There was a roar of approval from the crowd. When Kopecz spoke again, even he seemed to have lost some of his hostility.
"But victory here is not assured. We may have Hoth's army surrounded and pinned down, but there's a Jedi fleet with hundreds of reinforcements lurking on the edges of this system."
"Their reinforcements are on the edge of the system," Kaan admitted with a nod, not bothering to deny what every single one of them knew to be fact. "Just as they have been for the past week. And that's exactly where they will stay: far away from the surface where they are needed.
"The bulk of our fleet is in orbit around Ruusan itself, and the Jedi lack the numbers or the firepower to break through our blockade. If they can't unite their numbers with those here on the surface, Hoth and his followers will fall. And once we have finished them off we can mop up the tattered remnants of the Order at our leisure."
Kopecz, mollified, sat down with one final comment. "Then let's finish Hoth off quickly and get off this blasted rock."
"That's exactly the point of this strategy conference," Kaan said with a smile, knowing he had once again averted a potential schism in the Brotherhood. "We may have lost a few skirmishes here and there, but we are about to win the war!"
Githany stepped up and handed him a holomap with the latest data from their reconnaissance drones. He gave her a nod of thanks and unfurled it on the table, then bent down for a closer look.
"Our spies indicate Hoth's main camp is located here," he said, jabbing a finger at a heavily wooded section of the map. "If we can flush them out of the forest we might be able to-"
He stopped short as a dark shadow fell across the map. "What now?" he demanded, pounding his fist on the table and snapping his head up to find the cause of this latest interruption.
An enormous mountain of a man stood in the doorway, blocking the light streaming in from outside. He was tall and completely bald, with a heavy brow and hard, unforgiving features. He wore the black armor and robes of the Sith, and a hook-handled lightsaber hung at his side. Though he had never met the man before, Lord Kaan had heard enough about him to know exactly who he was.
"Darth Bane!" he exclaimed. He cast a quick glance in Githany's direction, wondering if she had betrayed him. From the expression on her face, it was obvious she was just as surprised as he was to see their visitor alive and well.
"We . . . we thought you were dead," he began uncertainly. "How did-"
"I'm tired," Bane interrupted. "Do you mind if I sit?"
"Of course," Kaan quickly agreed. "Anything for a Brother."
The big man sneered as he settled into one of the nearby chairs. "Thank you, Brother."
There was something in his tone that put Kaan's guard up. What was he doing here? Did he know that Githany had tried to poison him? Did he know Kaan had sent her?
"Please continue with your strategy," Bane urged with a casual wave of his hand.
Kaan's hackles rose. It was as if he was being given permission to continue; as if Bane was the one in charge. Gritting his teeth, he looked down at the map again and resumed where he had left off. "As I was saying, the Jedi are hiding in the forests. We can flush them out if we split our numbers. If we deploy our fliers, we can flank their southern lines-"
"Bah!" Bane spat out, slapping his open palm down hard on the table. "Deploying fliers and flanking armies," he mocked, rising to his feet and thrusting an accusing finger at Kaan. "You're thinking like a dirt general, not a Sith Lord!"
A heavy silence had fallen across the room; even Kaan was left speechless. He could feel all eyes on him, watching intently to see what would happen next. Bane stepped in close, his face just centimeters from Kaan's own.
"How did you ever find the guts to poison me?" he asked in a low, menacing whisper.
"I ... that wasn't me!" Kaan stammered as Bane turned his back on him.
"Don't apologize for using cunning and trickery," the big man admonished, moving over to the strategy table. "I admire you for it. We are Sith: the servants of the dark side," he continued, bending down to study the troop positions and tactical layouts spread out before him. "Now look at this map and think like a Sith. Don't just fight in the forest ... destroy the forest!"
It was Githany who finally broke the ensuing silence, asking the question on everyone's mind. "And just how do you propose we do that?"
Bane turned back to them with an evil grin. "I can show you."
Night had fallen, but in the lights of the blazing campfires Bane could see the others scurrying to and fro, making the preparations as he had instructed. When he sensed Githany approaching from behind him, he turned. She was holding a bowl of steaming soup and wore a cautious, uncertain expression.
"It will be another hour before they are ready to begin this ritual of yours," she said by way of greeting. When he didn't reply she added, "You look tired. I brought you something to restore your strength."
He took the bowl from her but didn't raise it to his lips. He had discovered the ritual she spoke of while studying Revan's Holocron: a way to unite the minds and spirits of the Sith through a single vessel so their strength could be unleashed upon the physical world. In many ways the process was similar to the one used to fashion a thought bomb from the Force, though this was less powerful than the ritual he had sent as a peace offering to Kaan-and far less dangerous.
He realized Githany was still studying him closely, so he tilted his head toward the soup. "Come to poison me again?" he asked. There was just a hint of playful teasing in his voice.
"You knew all along, didn't you?" she said.
He shook his head. "Not until I tasted the poison on your lips."
She raised a single eyebrow and gave him a coy smile. "But you came back for a second helping. And a third."
"Poison should not harm a Dark Lord," he told her. Then he admitted, "Yet it almost killed me." He paused, but she didn't say anything. "There are too many Sith Lords in the Brotherhood," he went on. "Too many who are weak in the dark side. Kaan doesn't understand this."
"Kaan's afraid you've come back to take over the Brotherhood!' After a moment she added, "I think he's right."
Not take over, he thought, but obliterate. He didn't bother to correct her, though; it wasn't the time yet. He still needed further proof that she was the right one to become his apprentice. Two there should be; no more, no less. One to embody the power, the other to crave it. It was a choice he wasn't about to rush into.
"I can show you the true power of the dark side, Githany. Power beyond what any of these others can even imagine," he said.
"Teach me," she breathed. "I want to learn. You can show me everything . . . after you've taken Kaan's place as leader of the Brotherhood!"
He couldn't help but wonder if she was still trying to manipulate him. Did she want to play him and Kaan against each other? Or was she looking for him to usurp Kaan as proof of his newfound strength?
No, he admitted. She still doesn't understand that the entire Sith order must be torn apart and rebuilt from scratch. Maybe she won't ever understand.
"Tell me something," he said. "Was it your idea to poison me? Or Kaan's?"
With a slight laugh, she ducked beneath his arm holding the bowl of soup and came up close against his chest, looking right up into his eyes. "It was my idea," she confessed, "but I was careful to make sure Kaan thought it was his."
There might be hope for her yet, Bane thought.
"I know I made a mistake before," she continued, moving away from him. "I should have gone with you when you left Korriban. I didn't realize what you were after; I didn't understand the secrets you were seeking. But I understand them now. You are the true leader of the Sith, Bane. I'll follow you from now on. And so will the rest of the Brotherhood, after we use your ritual to destroy the Jedi."
"Yes," he agreed, keeping his voice carefully neutral and taking a sip of the steaming soup. "After we've destroyed the Jedi."
Bane knew they couldn't really destroy the Jedi. Not here on Ruusan. Not like this. Somehow the Jedi would survive. No ordinary war could completely eliminate the servants of the light. Only the tools of the dark side-cunning, secrecy, treachery, betrayal-could do that.
The same tools he would use to wipe out the entire Brotherhood of Darkness ... beginning with the ritual tonight.