General Hoth couldn't help but offer the ragged hint of a smile despite the dead and wounded that lay scattered across the battlefield. The Sith had sprung their trap, and somehow the Army of Light had survived.
He recognized Farfalla's colors on the gunships that were now circling the field, keeping the Sith stragglers pinned down under whatever cover they could find until the troops on the ground could surround them and demand their surrender. Most were quick to comply. Everyone knew the Jedi preferred taking prisoners over killing their enemies, just as everyone knew the Jedi treated their prisoners humanely. The same could not be said for the Sith, of course.
A small convoy of personal fliers was emerging from the gunships, flying down to join the survivors on the ground. The general recognized Farfalla aboard the lead flier, even as Farfalla caught sight of him and came in to land.
The younger Jedi stepped off his flier, not speaking but extending his hand by way of cautious greeting. He was dressed in clothes as bright and outlandish as ever, but for some reason it didn't bother Hoth as it once had. Hoth stepped over to him and clasped him in a firm embrace, causing Farfalla to laugh in surprise. Hoth only released him from the fierce hug when Farfalla began to cough and sputter.
"Greetings, Lord Hoth," Farfalla said once he was released, making a deep bow and a flourish. Standing up, he gazed out across the battlefield, and his expression became more serious. "My only regret is we couldn't get here sooner."
"It's a miracle you're here at all, Farfalla," Hoth replied. "I'm afraid to even ask how you managed to run the blockade, in case this all turns out to be nothing more than the fevered dream of a doomed and dying man."
"Rest assured, General, I am quite real. As to how we arrived, that is easy enough to explain: the Sith broke the ranks of their blockade to engage our fleet. With our capital ships drawing the focus of their cruisers and Dreadnaughts, we were able to send several gunships down to your aid."
"What about the rest of our fleet?" Hoth asked in concern. "The Sith had nearly double the numbers of your ships."
"They held their own long enough for us to get through the blockade, then disengaged and retreated with surprisingly few casualties."
"Good." The general nodded. Then he frowned. "But I still don't understand why they would engage your fleet at all. It makes no sense!"
"I can only assume that they received orders to do so from someone here on the surface."
"Kaan was on the verge of wiping us out," Hoth insisted. "The last thing he would do is give the order to engage."
Both Jedi were silent for a moment, pondering the implications of what had happened. Finally Farfalla asked, "Is it possible we have an unknown ally among the Brotherhood of Darkness?"
Hoth shook his head. "I doubt it. More likely the Sith are finally beginning to turn on each other. It was inevitable."
Master Farfalla nodded his agreement. "It is the way of the dark side, after all."
Kaan was fuming as his flier touched down back at the Sith camp. How could everything have gone so terribly wrong in such a short time? They had been on the cusp of victory, and now suddenly they were on the knife's edge of defeat.
He stormed across the camp toward his tent, ignoring the questioning looks of Githany and the others. They wanted an explanation, but he didn't have one to give. Not yet. Not until he got a status report from Admiral Nyras. How did Farfalla break through the kriffing blockade?
His anger was so great that he didn't notice Qordis's flier parked near his tent, or the droplets of blood scattered on the ground nearby. If he had, he might have searched the area and found the body stashed in the nearby undergrowth. But all of Kaan's focus was concentrated on reaching his tent and the communications equipment inside.
He found Bane there waiting for him, standing still as stone.
"Back so soon, Kaan?" he asked. "What happened to your glorious battle?"
"Reinforcements," Kaan snarled. "Somehow Farfalla found a way to break through our blockade."
"I told your fleet to engage the Jedi," Bane said, his words as casual as if he had been discussing the weather.
Kaan's jaw dropped. He had suspected treachery, but he wasn't prepared for the traitor to openly admit it! "But ... why?"
"I wanted all the Jedi here on Ruusan at the same time," Bane replied.
"You blasted fool!" Kaan shouted, waving his arms madly as if they were gripped by uncontrollable spasms. "Victory was ours! We had Hoth beaten!"
"That is your goal, not mine. I'm after a prize far greater than the death of General Hoth. He is but one man."
Kaan barked out a harsh laugh. "We all know what prize you seek, Darth Bane. You're here to take over the Brotherhood."
Bane shrugged indifferently, as if it didn't matter one way or the other to him.
He seemed so calm, so certain of what he was doing. It was all Kaan could do to keep himself from leaping at the larger man's throat. Didn't he understand what he had done? Couldn't he see that he had doomed them all?
Kaan slumped wearily into a chair. "If you lead them against the Jedi, you lead them to their slaughter."
Now it was Bane who laughed-a low, sinister chuckle. "How quickly you've fallen into despair, Kaan. It seemed only hours ago you were certain of victory!'
"That was before Farfalla and his reinforcements arrived," Kaan shot back. "Back when we had the advantages of numbers and air superiority. All that is gone, thanks to you. We can't possibly defeat them now."
"I can," Bane vowed.
Kaan sat up straighter in his chair. Again, there was that unwavering confidence. Bane knew something he didn't. Some trick. "Another ritual like the last one?" he guessed.
"I know many rituals. Many secrets. And I have the strength to use them."
Dread gripped Kaan. "The thought bomb," he breathed.
"Your leadership has failed!" Bane declared. "Now I will take the Brotherhood down the path to victory."
"And what of me?" Kaan asked, already knowing the answer.
"You can swear your loyalty to me with all the others," Bane told him, "or you can die here in this tent."
Lord Kaan knew he was no match for Bane, either physically or through the power of the Force. Yet he wasn't about to surrender so easily. Not while he still had cunning, guile, and his unique talents of persuasion on his side.
"Do you really believe the others will follow you?" he asked, pushing out with the Force to plant the first seeds of doubt in his rival's mind. "They are still wary of you after your last ritual."
A flicker of uncertainty passed across Bane's hard features. Kaan increased the pressure of his invisible compulsions and continued to speak. "The Brotherhood is about equality, not servitude. Asking the others to bow down before you will only drive them away-or turn them against you."
He rose from his chair as Bane nervously stroked his chin, weighing the arguments. "How do you think the others will react when I tell them how you orchestrated the arrival of the Jedi reinforcements?"
Bane's dark eyes flashed angrily, and his hand dropped to the hilt of his lightsaber.
"Killing me won't keep your secret," Kaan warned him. "The others know you weren't at the battle when Farfalla's ships arrived. More than a few of them probably already suspect you of betraying them."
Kaan pushed even harder with the Force, trying to twist and warp Bane's very thoughts. "You may be the strongest among us, but you can't defeat us all. Not by yourself, Bane."
The big man staggered and clutched at his head. He stumbled over to the chair and collapsed in it, the wood groaning under his massive frame. He hunched forward, hands pressing hard on his temples.
"You're right," he said through tightly clenched teeth. "You're right."
"There's still hope, though," Kaan said, stepping over and placing a reassuring hand on Bane's broad shoulder. "Follow me and I will keep the others from turning against you. Join us in the Brotherhood!"
Bane nodded slowly, then turned his head to stare up at Kaan with a desperate, hopeless expression in his eyes. "What about the Jedi? What about their gunships?"
Kaan stood, slowly releasing his mental hold over the other man. "We can nullify their air superiority by retreating into the caves," he said. "I know General Hoth; he will follow us. And there we will unleash the thought bomb against them."
Bane leapt to his feet eagerly. Kaan was pleased to see that his powers of Force persuasion were as strong as ever. Even Bane was not immune to his manipulations. "I will do as you say, Lord Kaan!" he exclaimed. "Together we will destroy the Jedi!"
"Peace, Bane," Kaan urged, extending tendrils of soothing calm. He had nullified the threat to his position that Bane represented, but he knew the effect was only temporary. In time Bane's hostility would return, as would his dreams of usurping the mantle of leadership. Kaan needed to find a more permanent solution.
"Unfortunately," he said, "there are still ... complications."
"I can convince the rest of the Brotherhood to forgive your treasonous acts, but only after the Jedi are destroyed. Until then, you will have to remain hidden from the others."
The confused and hurt expression on Bane's face was pitiful, but Kaan was used to eliciting such naked emotion in those he manipulated.
"I will lead the Brotherhood to the caves," he explained. "I am strong enough to join their minds and unleash the power of the thought bomb without your help. You stay here in the tent until nightfall, then sneak out of the camp. Stay safely out of view until the deed is done."
"And once the Jedi are destroyed you will return for me?"
"Yes," Kaan promised, his voice solemn. "Once the Jedi are gone, I will return for you with the full strength of the Brotherhood!' That much, at least, was truth. He would leave nothing to chance; he wouldn't underestimate his opponent anymore. Bane had already survived one assassination attempt. This time he would unleash the full numbers of his followers against his foe.
"I will do as you command, Lord Kaan," Bane replied, dropping to one knee and bowing his head. Kaan turned and marched out into the camp, heading for his own tent where the pages containing the ritual of the thought bomb were hidden away.
Bane stayed in the position of supplication until the Dark Lord was well out of sight, then stood up and brushed the dirt from his knees with a grim scowl. He had felt Kaan's efforts to dominate his mind, but they had had no more effect than a rusted knife scraping against the hide plates of a Halurian ice-boar. Yet he had seized on the opportunity and delivered a performance worthy of the greatest dramatist on Alderaan.
Kaan was convinced the thought bomb was the key to Sith victory, and he was about to ensnare the rest of the Brotherhood in his web of madness. The second phase of Bane's plan was set in motion. By nightfall the next day it would all be over.
On the perimeters of the Jedi camp, patrols circled endlessly throughout the night, ever vigilant and watchful. It wasn't just attacks from the Sith they stood guard against, but also the invasions of the floating, fur-covered bouncers.
The previously peaceful and docile native creatures of Ruusan had been driven mad by the cataclysm that had swept through the forest. Before, they had been a familiar and welcome sight: gathering in groups over the sick and wounded to project images of comfort and healing. Now they emerged from the night's gloom in terrible packs, inflicting twisted nightmares that brought suffering, terror, and panic to all in the vicinity.
There was nothing the patrols could do but shoot the tormented creatures on sight, before they spread their madness among the Jedi. A grim task, but necessary-as so many other things here on Ruusan had been.
Fortunately, the patrols had managed to keep the bouncers at bay, and the mood within the confines of the Jedi camp itself was one of cautious optimism. After the hopeless despair of the past months their subdued enthusiasm almost felt like jubilant revelry to General Hoth.
They were no longer the hunted, cowering in the depths of the forest, surviving only as long as they remained hidden. The Jedi had gained the upper hand: their new camp had been set up on the open plains along the edges of the very battlefield where the war had turned. And now it was the Sith who had gone into hiding.
The general, though still exhausted by the desperate escape from the flames and the fighting that followed, refused to sleep. There were too many details to see to, too many things that needed his attention.
In addition to organizing the patrols to protect against the bouncers, he also had to oversee the distribution of fresh supplies. Farfalla's ships had delivered desperately needed food, medpacs, and fresh power cells for blasters and personal shields. With most of their other stores lost to the unnatural wildfire that had devastated the forests, the general wanted to make sure all his troops were properly reequipped and tended to before he granted himself the luxury of rest.
He wove his way through dozens of dying campfires and scores of snoring bodies. They were still short on tents for the troops, but those without were more than content to spend the warm nights splayed out on the ground sleeping beneath the open sky.
"General!" a voice called out, surprisingly loud in the otherwise still night. Hoth turned to see Farfalla running toward him, sure-footed despite the darkness as he leapt nimbly over the slumbering soldiers in his way.
Pausing to let him catch up, Hoth returned his now customary-yet still extravagant-bow with a courteous nod. "Do you have news, Master Farfalla?"
The younger man nodded excitedly. "Our scouts have spotted the Sith on the move. Kaan is leading them east, toward the foothills."
"Probably heading into the caves and tunnel systems," Hoth guessed. "Trying to take away our advantage in the air."
Farfalla smiled. "Fortunately, we've already done some reconnaissance on the area. We know most of the major access points to and from the surface. Once they go into the tunnels we can surround the exits. They'll be trapped!"
"Hmmm ..." Hoth stroked his heavy beard. "It isn't like Kaan to make such an obvious tactical mistake," he muttered. "He's up to something."
"I could instruct some of the scouts to follow them into the tunnels and keep an eye on them," Farfalla suggested.
"No," Hoth said firmly after only a moment's consideration. "Kaan will be watching for spies. I won't deliver any of our people into his hands for interrogation."
"Maybe we could starve them out," Farfalla offered. "Force them to surrender without any more bloodshed."
"That would be the best solution," the general admitted. "Unfortunately, I don't think we can afford that kind of time." He gave a deep sigh and a weary shake of his head. "I don't know why Kaan's heading into the caves ... I just know we have to do something to stop him." Resolve hardened his face. "Sound the reveille and assemble the troops. We'll go in after him."
"Not to question your orders, General," Farfalla began, as tactfully as he could, "but is it possible Kaan is luring you into a trap?"
"I'm almost certain of it," Hoth conceded. "But it's a trap he's going to spring sooner or later anyway. I'd rather not give him time to prepare. If we're lucky we can catch him before he's ready."
"As you command, General," Farfalla said with another of his grandiose bows. Then he added, "You, however, should get some sleep. You look as pale and drawn as one of the Sith yourself."
"I can't sleep now, my friend," Hoth answered, placing a heavy hand on Farfalla's delicate shoulder. "I was here at the start of this war. I was the one who led the Army of Light here to Ruusan to face Kaan's Brotherhood of Darkness. I must see this out to the end."
"But how much longer can you go without sleep, General?"
"Long enough. I get the feeling this will all be over by tomorrow's end-one way or another."