The caves were cool and damp, but they were far from dark. The rock walls and ceiling were laced with crystals that caught the dim light from the glow rods, reflecting and refracting their illumination throughout the cavern. Small pools shimmered on the floor, and enormous stalagmites jutted up toward the roof. An inverted forest of stalactites hung down, water dripping steadily from their tips to splash and ripple the pools far below. In some places the protrusions on the floor and ceiling had actually fused, joined by centuries of sediment deposits from the endless trickles of moisture. The enormous columns were magnificent: massive, yet at the same time delicate and fragile.
Kaan had no time to marvel at the natural beauty of their surroundings. He knew the Jedi scouts had marked their exodus to this underground refuge. And he knew General Hoth wouldn't wait long before coming after him.
The cavern, though large, was crowded with the rest of the Brotherhood. Every surviving Sith Lord-with the notable exception of Darth Bane-was gathered with him here to make their final stand. The rest of his army was guarding the main entrances to the subterranean tunnels, with orders to hold off the inevitable Jedi attack for as long as possible.
Eventually those outside would be overwhelmed, but Kaan was confident their numbers would delay Hoth long enough for the ritual of the thought bomb to be completed.
"Gather 'round," he called out to the others. "It is time."
Githany knew there was something very wrong with Lord Kaan. She had suspected something was amiss when they had fled the arriving Jedi reinforcements. When they landed back at camp, Kaan had disappeared into the communications tent, then reappeared moments later and gone into his own tent without speaking a word. But when he emerged from his tent, the irresistible force of his charisma was back in place. He came to them then not as a defeated leader seeking to make amends but as a conquering hero, defiant and unbowed. He stood proud, the picture of might and glory.
He spoke to them, his voice strong and his words bold, radiating authority. He spoke of leading them in a joining of their minds, a ritual that would far surpass the one Bane had led them in only hours earlier. He told them of a terrible weapon they would unleash against their foes. He rekindled their faith and hope by revealing the existence of the thought bomb.
He had promised them victory, as he had done so many times before. And, as they had always done in the past, the Brotherhood had followed him once again. Followed him here to this cave, though Githany wasn't sure if it was more accurate to say they had been led-or lured.
She had followed him along with everyone else, compelled by the passion of his words and the sheer magnitude of his personality and presence. All thoughts that he might be unstable or unfit to lead them had been forgotten in the heady pilgrimage through the night to the shelter of this cave. Once they reached their destination, though, the exhilarating rush had faded away, replaced by a stark and undeniable clarity. And she had finally seen the truth revealed in the illumination of the glow rods reflected in the crystals of the cavern walls.
Kaan's appearance and garb weren't unusual, apart from the dust, grime, and blood of the recent battle. But now Githany could see a crazed look in his eyes; they were wide and wild and shone with a fierce intensity, sparkling as brightly as the crystal shards all around them. Those eyes brought back memories of the night she had surprised Kaan in his tent. The night she had seen her vision of Bane's return.
He had looked disheveled and frantic, lost and confused. For a brief moment she had glimpsed him as he truly was: a false prophet, unable to see past his own delusions. And then the flickering vision had disappeared, forgotten until this instant.
Now, however, the memory came flooding back, and Githany knew she was following a madman. The arrival of the Jedi reinforcements and the shocking defeat had caused something inside him to snap. Kaan was leading them to their doom, and none of the others could sense it.
She didn't dare to speak out against him. Not here in this cave, surrounded by his once again fanatically loyal followers. She wanted to sneak away, slip quietly off into the darkness beyond the radiance of the glow rods, and escape this horrible fate. But she was caught up by the crush of bodies that surged forward at Kaan's command.
"Gather in. Closer. Form a circle; a ring of power."
She felt his hand grab her tightly by the wrist and pull her in so that her body pressed up against his. Even in the chill of the cave, his touch was freezing. "Stand beside me, Githany," he whispered. "We will share in this moment of exaltation."
Loudly he shouted, "Join your hands as we must join our minds."
The fingers of his right hand wrapped around her left, seizing it in a grip cold as ice and unyielding as durasteel. One of the other Sith Lords took her other hand, and she knew all hope of escape was gone.
Beside her, Kaan began to chant.
Githany was not the only one who sensed something wrong with Lord Kaan. Like all the others, Lord Kopecz had been swept up in the excitement of the thought bomb. He had cheered with all the rest when Kaan described how it would obliterate the Jedi and imprison their spirits. And he had eagerly joined in the throng that had followed him to the cave.
Now, however, his zeal had faded. He was thinking rationally again, and he realized the plan was utter insanity. They were at ground zero of the thought bomb's detonation. Any weapon powerful enough to destroy the Jedi would destroy them, too.
Kaan had promised them that the strength of their combined will would allow them to survive the blast, but now Kopecz had his doubts. The promise stank of wishful thinking birthed from a desperate mind that refused to admit defeat. If Kaan had had this thought bomb all along, why hadn't he used it before?
The only logical answer was that he was afraid of the consequences. And though Kaan, in his madness, may have let go of that fear, Kopecz was still sane enough to cling to his.
The rest of the Sith pressed forward in response to Kaan's command, but Kopecz fought against the momentum of the crowd and moved in the opposite direction. None of the others seemed to notice.
A wall of bodies surrounded Kaan, blocking much of the light from the glow rods. In the shadows the Twi'lek moved carefully toward the cavern's main exit, surprisingly silent for such a large being. He didn't turn or look back as he entered the tunnel to the surface, and picked up his pace only once he heard the Brotherhood begin a slow, rhythmic chant.
Escape was impossible, of course. By now the Jedi would already have the entire tunnel complex surrounded. Soon they would engage the Sith troops out on the surface, trying to break through their barricade to come after Kaan and end the last great battle of Ruusan. Kopecz didn't know if they would make it in time. Part of him actually hoped they would.
In the end, though, he wanted to make sure it didn't matter to him. He'd join the defenders on the surface in one last stand against the Jedi. Death was inevitable; he was willing to accept that fact. But he also knew he'd rather die from a lightsaber or a blaster shot than be caught by the thought bomb's detonation.
The chant was simple, and after repeating it only once Kaan was joined by the rest of the Brotherhood. They recited the unfamiliar catechism in a steady, constant rhythm. Their voices bounced off the cavern walls, the ancient words mixing and mingling in counterpoint as they echoed throughout the cave.
Githany could feel the power beginning to gather in the center of the ring, like a fierce whirlpool spinning faster and faster. She felt the pull on her conscious thoughts as they were dragged down, her awareness, her mind, and even her identity swallowed up in the vortex. The cool dampness of the cave faded, as did the reverberation of their voices. She could no longer smell the mildew and fungus growing in the hidden corners, or feel the pressure of the hands that gripped her own. Finally, the shimmering of the reflective crystals and the pale light from the glow rods melted away.
We are one. The voice was Kaan's, yet it was hers, as well. We are the dark side. The dark side is us.
Though she could no longer hear the sound of their chanting she could sense it, even as her mind slipped deeper and deeper into the center. Realizing she would soon lose both the ability and the desire to free herself from Kaan's ritual, she tried to fight against what was happening to her.
It was like swimming against the relentless undertow of an ocean's heart. She felt the words of their recurring mantra taking physical shape. They wrapped around their collective will, trapping it, shaping it, and binding it into a rapidly coalescing form.
Feel the power of the dark side. Surrender to it. Surrender to the unified whole. Let us become one.
From deep within herself Githany summoned her last reserves of resistance. Somehow they were enough, and she was able to wrench her mind free from the unholy conclave.
She staggered back with a gasp, her sense crashing over her like floodwaters bursting through a retaining wall. Sight, sound, smell, and touch returned all at once, overwhelming her frantic mind. The light from the glow rods had grown faint and dim, as if it, too, was being swallowed by the ritual. The chant continued, so loud now it actually hurt her ears. The temperature had dropped so sharply that she was able to see her breath, and tiny crystals of frost had begun to form on the stalactites and along the edges of the tiny puddles and pools.
Suddenly she realized that neither Kaan nor anyone else had a grip on her hands. They were all standing in the ring, arms raised toward its center, oblivious to the world around them. At first it looked as if they were grasping at nothing, but as her eyes adjusted to the gloom she caught sight of a strange distortion in the air.
Githany couldn't bear to look at it for more than a moment. There was something terrible and unnatural about the wavering fabric of reality, and she turned away in horror.
Bane was right, she realized. Kaan has brought us to ruin!
There was a faint tug on her mind. A gentle pull that was quickly growing stronger, threatening to draw her in with the others. She stumbled away from the profane ceremony and its doomed celebrants, squinting to see her way along the uneven footing.
Bane tried to warn me, but I wouldn't listen. Her thoughts were a chaotic jumble of regret, desperation, and fear. Even as one part of her brain chastised her for her mistake, another was forcing her to back away from the abomination being birthed by the Brotherhood.
Her retreat brought her to one of the cavern walls and she followed along it, looking for a way out. The compulsion of the ritual was growing stronger. She could feel it calling to her, inviting her to join the others and share their fate.
She had no plan, no sense of where she was going. She simply had to escape, flee, get out. Get away from here before she was sucked in once again. A small space opened in the stone: a narrow tunnel entrance just wide enough for her to sneak through. She squeezed her body into the crevice, the jagged stone slicing through cloth and skin.
The pain was nothing to her. The physical world was slipping away again. Desperately, Githany managed to throw herself forward, crashing to the ground, then crawled frantically on her hands and knees down the tunnel.
Away. She had to get away. Away from the ritual. Away from Kaan. Away from the thought bomb before it was too late.
The Sith soldiers guarding the entrance to the subterranean tunnels were strong in number but weak in spirit. They offered only token resistance to Farfalla and the rest of the Jedi advance units who came against them. The last battle of Ruusan quickly transformed into a mass surrender, with the enemy throwing down their weapons and begging for their lives.
Farfalla walked among his troops, surveying the scene. General Hoth was close behind with the bulk of the army. He'd be surprised to find the war already over when he arrived.
"How goes it?" Farfalla asked one of the unit commanders.
"The Sith troops have us outnumbered three to one," the commander answered gruffly. "And they're all trying to surrender at the same time. This is going to take awhile."
Farfalla gave him a hearty laugh and slapped him on the shoulder. "Well said," he agreed. "Sometimes I think people only follow the Sith because they know we will take them alive if they lose."
"Don't you dare take me alive, Farfalla," a voice gurgled. Turning his head sharply, he saw a heavyset Twi'lek lying wounded on the ground.
The injured Twi'lek struggled to his feet, and Farfalla was surprised to see that he wore the robes of a Sith Lord. His face was so covered in blood and gore, most of it his own, that it took the Jedi a moment to recognize him.
"Kopecz," he said at last, remembering him from days long gone, back when Kopecz had been a Jedi. "You are hurt," Farfalla continued, extending his hand in an offer of friendship. "Lay down your weapons and we can help you."
The Twi'lek's meaty hand lashed out to slap him away. "I chose my side long ago," he spat. "Promise me death, Jedi, and I will give you a warning. I will tell you Kaan's plan."
One look at the Dark Lord's wounds told Farfalla his enemy didn't have long to live in any case. "What do you know?"
Kopecz coughed, choking on the blood welling up in his throat. "Promise me, first," he wheezed.
"I will grant you death, if that is what you truly seek. I swear it."
The Twi'lek laughed, pink froth bubbling up on his lips. "Good. Death is an old friend. What Kaan has planned is far worse." And he told Farfalla about the thought bomb, his words sending a chill down the Jedi Master's spine. When Kopecz had finished he bowed his head and took a deep breath to gather his strength, then activated his lightsaber.
"You promised me death," he said. "I wish to fall in combat. If you hold back at all, you will be the one who dies here today. Do you understand?"
Master Farfalla nodded grimly, igniting his own weapon.
Lord Kopecz fought valiantly despite his wounds, though he was no match for a fresh and uninjured Jedi Master. In the end, Farfalla fulfilled his promise.