Kaan, Githany, and the rest of the Dark Lords had gathered atop a barren plateau overlooking the vast forests where Hoth and his army were hiding. They had come on their fliers: short-range, single-person, airborne vehicles front-mounted with heavy blaster guns. The fliers were parked at the edge of the plateau, fifty meters away from where the Sith sat in a loose circle. The ritual had begun.
They were communing with the Force, all of them slipping into a meditative trance as one. Their minds drifted deeper and deeper into the well of power contained within each individual, drawing on their strength and combining it through a single conduit. Bane stood in the center of the circle, urging them on.
"Touch the dark side. The dark side is one. Indivisible."
The night sky filled with dark clouds and a fierce wind swirled across the plateau, tearing at the cloaks and capes of the Sith. The air shook with the thunder and crackle of a mounting electrical storm. Bolts of blue-white lightning arced through the air, and the temperature suddenly dropped.
"Give yourself over to the dark side. Let it surround you. Engulf you. Devour you."
The Brotherhood slipped deeper into the collective trance, barely even aware of the storm now raging about their physical selves. Bane stood at the eye of the storm, drawing the bolts of lightning into himself, feeding on them. He felt his strength surge as he channeled and focused the dark side from the others.
This is how it should be! All the power of the Brotherhood in one body! The only way to unleash the full potential of the dark side!
"Do you feel invincible? Invulnerable? Immortal?"
He had to shout to be heard above the howling wind and thunder. A web of lightning spiraled out from his body, connecting him to each of the other Sith. He shivered then suddenly went stiff, arms spread out at his sides. Slowly, his rigid body began to rise into the air.
"Can you feel it?" he screamed, feeling as if the raw power of the Force roaring through him might rip his very flesh asunder. "Are you ready to kill a world?"
There was very little in the galaxy that could scare a man like General Hoth. Yet as he sat looking over the latest situational reports from his scouts he felt the first glimmers of real fear gnawing away at the base of his skull.
The rift between himself and Farfalla had been mended, but now there was no way to get the reinforcements down to Ruusan's surface. Small messenger ships with a crew of one or two had been able to slip past the Sith blockade undetected, though on occasion even these vessels had been spotted and destroyed. Anything larger would never make it.
But his fear was more than the result of his frustration at having help so near yet so impossibly far away. There was something sinister in the air. Something evil.
Suddenly an image leapt unbidden to his mind: a premonition of death and destruction. He sprang to his feet and ran from his tent. Even though it was the middle of the night, he was only mildly surprised to see that most of the rest of the camp was up and about. They had felt it, too. Something coming for them. Coming fast.
They were looking to him for leadership, waiting for him to take command. He did so with a single, shouted order.
The storm rolled down from the plateau and rumbled across the forest. Hundreds of forks of searing lightning shot down from the sky-and the forest erupted. Trees burst into flames, the blaze racing through the branches and spreading out in all directions. The underbrush smoldered, smoked, and ignited; and a wall of fire swept across the planet's surface.
The inferno consumed everything in its path.
Heat and fire. There was nothing else in Bane's world. It was as if he had become the storm itself: he could see the world before him, swallowed up in red and orange and reduced in seconds to ash and embers by the unchained fury of the dark side.
It was glorious. And then suddenly it was gone.
There was a jarring thump as his body dropped from where it had been hovering five meters above the ground. For several seconds he was completely disoriented, unable to figure out what happened. Then he understood: the connection had been broken.
He rose to his feet slowly, uncertain of his balance. All around him were the forms of the Sith, no longer kneeling in meditation but collapsed or rolling on the ground, their minds reeling from the sudden end to the joining ritual. One by one they also regained their composure and stood, most looking as confused as Bane had been only seconds before.
Then he noticed Lord Kaan standing off to the side, over by the fliers.
"What happened?" Bane demanded angrily. "Why did you stop?"
"Your plan worked," Kaan replied curtly. "The forest is destroyed, the Jedi have fled to open ground. They are exposed, vulnerable. Now we go to finish them off."
Kaan had broken the connection, and somehow he had managed to drag the others out along with him, as if he had some hold over their minds. Perhaps he does, Bane thought. Further proof that they all had to be destroyed if the Sith were to be cleansed.
As the others regained their senses, Kaan was shouting out orders and battle plans. "The fire flushed the Jedi out into the open. We can mow them down from the sky. Hurry!"
They jumped at his command, rushing to their waiting vehicles and taking to the sky with battle cries and shouts of triumph.
"Come on, Bane," Githany said, rushing past him. "Let's join them!"
He grabbed her arm, pulling her up short. "Kaan is still trying to win this war through blasters and armies," he said. "That is not the way of the dark side."
"It's more fun this way," she said, the excitement obvious in her voice. She shook free of his grasp.
As he watched her run to join the others he realized that she had been corrupted by the teachings of Qordis and the Academy on Korriban. Despite her promise to follow Bane, she couldn't see beyond the Brotherhood and its limitations. She was tainted-unfit to be his apprentice. She would have to die with all the others.
There was the faintest hint of regret as he made the decision, but the regret was hollow: the echo of a feeling, the last vestiges of an emotion. He snuffed it out quickly, knowing it could only make him weak.
"You frighten us, Bane," a voice said from behind. He turned to see Kopecz studying him carefully.
"When we were focusing the Force through you, it felt as if you had your teeth on our throats," the Twi'lek continued. "As if you were trying to suck us dry."
"The power of the dark side is strongest if it is concentrated in one vessel," Bane replied. "Not spread out among many. I did it for the sake of the dark side."
Kopecz shook his head and climbed onto his flier. "Well, we know you weren't doing it for us."
Bane watched him soar off. Then he climbed onto his own flier, but instead of following Kaan to the battle he set a course back to the Sith camp. The first phase of his plan to destroy the Brotherhood was complete.
When he arrived back at the camp twenty minutes later, he wasn't surprised to find it completely deserted. All the Dark Lords had been on the plateau for the ritual, and they had all flown off in Kaan's wake to face the suddenly vulnerable Jedi. The soldiers, servants, and followers who made up the bulk of the Sith army had originally been left behind at the camp, but they had since received commed orders from Kaan and the others to join them at the battlefield.
Bane brought his flier in for a landing in the heart of the camp, right beside Lord Kaan's tent. He killed the engine and was surprised to hear the distant whine of another flier approaching. He looked up, curious. When it swooped in low, he recognized the rider.
The vehicle was bearing down on him in a direct line. Bane let his hand drop to his lightsaber, ready to unclip it at a moment's notice. The Force welled up within him, prepared to throw up a protective shield if the flier's front-mounted blasters should open fire.
But the flier didn't attack. Instead it swooped a few meters over his head, banked sharply, then came in for a landing beside his own.
"You have no need of your weapon," Qordis said as he dismounted. "I've come with an offer."
Realizing there was no immediate threat, Bane let his hand drop back to his side. "An offer? What could you possibly have to offer me?"
"My allegiance," Qordis said, dropping to one knee.
Bane stared down at him, his expression a mixture of horror, amusement, and contempt. "Why would you give your allegiance to me?" he asked. "And why should I even want it?"
Qordis rose slowly to his feet, a cunning smile on his lips. "I am not blind, Lord Bane. I see you speaking with Githany. I see how you are undermining Kaan. I know the real reason you have come to Ruusan."
Perplexed, Bane wondered if it was possible that Qordis-the founder of the Academy on Korriban, the most ardent proponent of all that was wrong with the Sith-had finally seen the truth.
"What exactly are you proposing?" he asked through clenched teeth.
"I know what happened to Kas'im. He sided with Kaan against you. He paid for that decision with his life. I am not so foolish. I know you're here to take over the Brotherhood," he declared. "I believe you will succeed. And I want to help you."
"You want to help me take over the Brotherhood?" Bane laughed; Qordis was as blind and misguided as the rest of them. "Replace one leader with another, and you and the rest of the Brotherhood continue on as before? That's your brilliant plan?"
"I can prove quite useful to you, Lord Bane Qordis insisted. "Many of the Brotherhood are former students of my Academy. They still look to me for wisdom and guidance."
"And therein lies the problem." Bane lashed out with the dark side, seizing Qordis in an immobilizing, crushing grip. His opponent tried to protect himself, throwing up a field to deflect the incoming assault, but Bane's attack tore through the pitiful defense, wiping it away as if it hadn't even been there.
There was a strangled cry of pain from Qordis as the Force tightened around him and lifted him up from the ground.
"Your wisdom has destroyed our order," Bane explained casually, watching as Qordis struggled helplessly above him. "You have polluted the minds of your followers; you and Kaan have led them down the path of ruin."
"I-I don't understand," Qordis gasped, barely able to speak as the breath was squeezed inexorably from his lungs.
"That has always been the problem," Bane replied. "The Brotherhood must be purged. The Sith must be destroyed and rebuilt. You, Kaan, and all the others must be wiped from the face of the galaxy. That is why I have returned."
Dawning horror spread across Qordis's long, drawn features. "Please he groaned, "not ... like this. Release me. Let me ... draw my lightsaber. Let us fight ... like Sith."
Bane tilted his head to the side. "Surely you know I could kill you just as easily with my lightsaber as I could with the Force."
"I . . . know." Qordis's skin was turning red, and his body was trembling as the pressure mounted. Each word he spoke took tremendous effort, yet somehow the dying man found the strength to make his final plea. "More ... honor ... in ... death ... by ... combat?'
Bane gave an indifferent shrug. "Honor is for the living. Dead is dead."
A final push with his mind tightened the invisible vise. Qordis let out a final scream, but with no air in his lungs it came out only as a rattling gasp that was lost beneath the snapping and crackling of his bones.
Had Bane still been capable of such emotions he might actually have pitied the man. As it was, he simply let the corpse fall to the ground then wandered into Kaan's tent and the communications equipment inside. It was time to enact the second phase of his plan.
On the deck of Nightfall, great flagship of the Sith fleet, acting commander Admiral Adrianna Nyras responded to the hailing frequency coming from the private comlink on her wrist.
"This is Admiral Nyras," she said into it. "I await your orders, Lord Kaan."
"Lord Kaan is not here," an unfamiliar voice replied. "This is Lord Bane."
She hesitated for only a second before answering. Kaan rarely let anyone else use his personal transceiver, but on occasion it did happen. And with the security encryption on the equipment, it was virtually impossible for anyone else to tap into the frequency. The message had to be coming from the Sith camp, which meant she really was speaking to one of the Dark Lords.
"Forgive me, Lord Bane," she apologized. "What are your orders?"
"Unchanged," she replied, her voice sharp with military precision and efficiency. "The blockade is intact. The Jedi fleet still hovers just beyond our range."
"Pardon?" she asked, so surprised that she momentarily forgot whom she was speaking to.
"You heard me, Admiral," the voice on the other end snapped. "Engage the Jedi fleet."
The order made no sense. The last time Kaan had spoken to her, he had ordered her to hold their position at all costs. As long as they maintained location in orbit, their blockade was virtually impenetrable. If they broke formation and attacked the Jedi fleet, however, they wouldn't be able to stop drop ships from landing reinforcements on the surface.
Still, she had been given strange orders before during her service with the Sith. There were rumors that Kaan had some mystic power, some way to influence the outcome of a battle through the power of the Force that could make traditional strategies fall by the wayside. And if a Dark Lord was giving her a direct order, using the personal communications equipment in Lord Kaan's tent, she wasn't about to run the risk of refusing to obey.
"As you command, Lord Bane," she answered. "We will engage the Jedi."
The fire drove General Hoth and his army from the sheltering confines of the forest. Leaving most of their supplies and equipment behind, his troops ran through the trees, a mad scramble to escape the searing heat and flames. Those who stumbled or fell were instantly swallowed up by the conflagration. Somehow most managed to stay ahead of the deadly fires, eventually bursting out of the woods and into the rocky plains where so many battles had already been fought.
The Sith were there waiting for them.
The first wave of Hoth's followers to emerge from the forest were mowed down by blasterfire. Those just behind were able to draw their lightsabers and deflect many of the deadly bolts as they raced out onto the plains, only to be swallowed up by the throngs of Sith soldiers rushing forward to engage them.
Though outnumbered, the Jedi more than held their own. They drove the Sith ranks back, breaking their lines and throwing them into chaos and disarray. But Hoth knew that the real trap had yet to be sprung.
Hewing down any foe foolish enough to come in range of his light-saber, the general could sense these were not the true Sith. The Dark Lords were not among them: these were the faceless hordes, nothing more than a distraction.
Where are they? What is Kaan up to?
The answer came an instant later when a battalion of fliers swooped in over the horizon, unleashing a deadly barrage across the battlefield. Guided by the power of the dark side, the heavy guns were deadly in their accuracy, decimating Hoth's troops and turning the tide of the battle back in favor of the Sith.
Hoth had faced impossible odds before and triumphed. Yet he knew this battle was fated to be his last.
But I will make a last stand worthy of story and song, he thought defiantly, even though there won't be anybody left to sing it.
The world dissolved into the numbing fog of war. Screams and the sounds of battle became a dull, indistinguishable roar. The spray of dirt and stone from the blaster bolts exploding into the ground showered down on him from above, mingling with the sweat and blood of both friend and foe. He swung each blow as if it might be his last, knowing that sooner or later one of the fliers would lock in on him and swoop down to finish him off.
Lord Kaan's flier carved a path back and forth above the milling soldiers on the battlefield below, soaring over the chaos like a grim bird of prey. From his vantage point it was clear the battle was theirs. Yet even though they were ill equipped, outnumbered, and badly outgunned, the Jedi fought bravely to the bitter end. There was no hint of retreat, no breaking of their ranks. He couldn't help but admire such courage and such devotion to a cause even in the face of certain death. If his own troops had been so steadfast in their loyalty and purpose, he would have won this war long ago. It wasn't that they lacked discipline: the Sith armies were just as well trained as those of the Jedi or the Republic. They simply lacked conviction.
Too often their morale had been held together only by the sheer force of Kaan's will, his battle meditation strengthening their resolve whenever the situation seemed grim or desperate. But his battle meditation could only do so much. Against an entire army of Jedi on guard against the Force powers of the Sith, it could do little more than instill a vague sense of unease. A small advantage, but one easily overcome. Here on the surface of this wretched world, the Brotherhood of Darkness and its minions had been forced to fight on their own merits, without his intervention. And far too many times they had come up short.
There had been occasions when he'd questioned the ability of his followers to succeed on their own. There were instances when he wondered if the Sith troops had become so reliant on the enormous advantage of his battle meditation that they had forgotten how to fight effectively without it. But now, at last, the ultimate victory had been achieved. The Jedi were making a last, desperate stand-one glorious to behold-yet the outcome was inevitable. There was just one thing left for Lord Kaan to do before the fighting ended.
He continued to weave back and forth, firing sporadically at the enemy below as he searched for his real prey. Then at last he saw him: General Hoth, standing in the very center of the fray, surrounded by a bulwark of valiant allies and a relentless sea of Sith foes that broke against them again and again and again.
Locking his flier's guns on his target he swooped in, intent on taking his rival's life in a spectacular strafing run. But a mere second before he fired, a massive explosion rocked his flier, causing it to veer to the left. His shots carved a deep furrow in the ground several meters to the left of the general, leaving him miraculously unharmed.
Hoth continued fighting as if he hadn't even noticed, but Kaan banked his vehicle around sharply to see what had happened. Before he completed the turn, another explosion shook the sky beside him, and he saw one of the other fliers careen out of control and crash into the ground.
He looked up, realizing they were under attack from above. A pair of massive gunships were descending on the battle, their batteries blasting the Sith fliers from the sky one by one. On the underside of each ship, the colors of Jedi Master Valenthyne Farfalla were clearly visible.
Impossible! Kaan cursed silently. There is no way they could have broken through the blockade! Not with ships like this! Yet somehow they had.
Another series of blasts took out three more of the small fliers, and Kaan realized it was his army that was now suddenly overmatched. The fliers were quicker and more maneuverable than the Jedi gunships, but their blasters wouldn't even make a dent in the larger vessels' heavily armored hulls.
For a brief second he thought he might be able to rally the other Dark Lords. If they concentrated their attacks, they might be able to bring the gunships down-though their own losses would be heavy. But he dismissed that idea as quickly as it had come.
He wasn't the only one who had noticed the arrival of the Jedi reinforcements. Faced with overwhelming odds, the Dark Lords under his command had reacted in the only manner they understood: self-preservation through flight. Already most of the other fliers had broken off their strafing runs and were executing evasive maneuvers, intent only on escaping the battlefield alive. And with their Lords and Masters fleeing the engagement, the hordes of Sith soldiers on the ground would be quick to follow. Imminent victory was about to become disastrous defeat.
Swearing vile oaths against both the Jedi and his own people, Lord Kaan knew there was only one option left. Weaving and darting to avoid a pair of bolts intended to blow him from the sky, he joined the retreat.