Des never got a clear look at the man who'd ordered his transfer. By the time they'd gotten him out of the pit, the cloaked figure had vanished. They gave him food and water, then let him clean and refresh himself. Though he was freed from the cuffs, he was still under heavy guard as he boarded a small transport ship heading for Korriban.
Nobody spoke to him on the trip, and Des didn't know what was going on. At least he wasn't cuffed anymore. He chose to take that as a good sign.
They arrived in the middle of the day. He had expected them to touch down at Dreshdae, the only city on the dark and forbidding world. Instead the ship landed at a starport built atop an ancient temple overlooking a desolate valley. A chill wind blew across the landing pad as he disembarked, but it didn't bother Des. After the stale air of the pit, any breeze felt good. He felt a shiver go down his spine as his foot touched Korriban's surface. He'd heard that this had once been a place of great power, though now only the merest shadows remained. There was an undercurrent of malice here; he'd felt it as soon as the transport had entered the bleak planet's atmosphere.
From this vantage point he could make out other temples scattered across the world's desert surface. Even at this distance he could perceive the eroded rock and crumbling stone of the once grand entrances. Beyond the valley, the city of Dreshdae was a mere speck on the horizon.
He was met on the landing pad by a hooded figure. He could tell right away this wasn't the same one who had come to him in the pit. This person had neither the size nor the impressive bearing of his liberator; even through the containment field Des had been able to sense his commanding presence.
This figure, which Des now thought to be female, motioned for him to follow. Silently she led him down a flight of stone steps and into the temple itself. They crossed a landing and descended another set of stairs, then repeated the pattern, working their way level by level down from the temple's apex to the ground below. There were doors and passages leading off from each landing, and Des could hear snippets of sound and conversation echoing from them, though he could never quite tell what was being said.
She didn't speak, and Des knew better than to break the silence himself. Technically, he was still a prisoner. For all he knew, she was leading him to his court-martial. He wasn't about to make things worse by asking foolish questions.
When they reached the bottom of the building, she led him to a stone archway with yet another flight of stairs. These were different, however: they were narrow and dark, and wound their way down until they vanished from sight deep in the bowels of the ground. Without a word his guide handed him a torch she had taken from a bracket on the wall and then stepped aside.
Wondering what was going on, Des made his way carefully down the steep staircase. He couldn't say how much deeper he went; it was difficult to maintain any perspective in the narrow confines of the stairwell. After several minutes he reached the bottom, only to find a long hallway stretching out before him. At the end of the hallway he encountered a single room.
The room was dark and filled with shadow. Only a few torches sputtered on the stone wall, their dying flames barely able to pierce the gloom.
Des paused at the threshold, letting his eyes adjust. He could just make out a dim figure inside. It beckoned to him.
He felt a chill, though the room was far from cold. The air itself was electric, filled with a power he could actually feel. He was surprised that he didn't feel afraid. He recognized what he felt as the chill of anticipation.
As Des moved deeper into the room the features of the shrouded figure became clear, revealing himself to be a Twi'lek. Even under the loose-fitting robe he wore, Des could see he was thick and heavyset. He stood nearly two meters tall, easily the largest Twi'lek Des had ever met ..
. though not quite as large as Des himself.
His lekku wound down his broad chest and wrapped back up around his muscular neck and shoulders; his eyes glowed orange beneath his brow, mirroring the flickering torches. He smiled, revealing the sharp, pointed teeth common to his species.
"I am Lord Kopecz of the Sith," he said. At that moment, Des knew without a doubt this was the cloaked one who had come to him in the pit, and he gave a slight bow of his head in acknowledgment.
"I am to be your inquisitor," Lord Kopecz explained, his voice showing no emotion. "I alone will determine your fate. Rest assured my judgment will be final."
Des nodded again.
The Twi'lek fixed his burning orange eyes on Des. "You are no friend of the Jedi or their Republic."
It wasn't a question, but Des felt compelled to answer anyway. "What have they ever done for me?"
"Exactly," Kopecz said with a cruel smile. "I understand you have fought many battles against the Republic forces. Your fellow troopers speak highly of you. The Sith have need of men like you if we are to win this war." He paused. "You were a model soldier ... until you disobeyed a direct order."
"The order was a mistake," Des said. His throat had grown so dry and tight that he had trouble getting the words out.
"Why did you refuse to attack the outpost during the day? Are you a coward?"
"A coward wouldn't have completed the mission," Des replied sharply, stung by the accusation.
Kopecz tilted his head to the side and waited.
"Attacking in the daylight was a tactical mistake," Des continued, trying to press his point. "Ulabore should have relayed that information back to command, but he was too scared. Ulabore was the coward, not me. He would rather risk death at the hands of the Republic than face the Brotherhood of Darkness. I prefer not to throw my life away needlessly."
"I can see that from your service record," Kopecz said. "Kashyyyk, Trandosha, Phaseera ... if these reports are accurate, you have performed incredible feats during your time with the Gloom Walkers. Feats some would claim to be impossible."
Des bristled at the implication. "The reports are accurate," he replied.
"I have no doubt that they are." Kopecz either hadn't noticed or didn't care about the tone of Des's reply. "Do you know why I brought you to Korriban?"
Des was beginning to realize that this wasn't really a court-martial after all. It was some kind of test, though for what he still wasn't sure. "I feel I've been chosen for something."
Kopecz gave him another sinister smile. "Good. Your mind works quickly. What do you know of the Force?"
"Not much," Des admitted with a shrug. "It's something the Jedi believe in: some great power that's supposed to be just floating out there in the universe somewhere."
"And what do you know of the Jedi?"
"I know they believe themselves to be guardians of the Republic," Des replied, making no attempt to hide his contempt. "I know they wield great influence in the Senate. I know many believe they have mystical powers."
"And the Brotherhood of Darkness?"
Des considered his words more carefully this time. "You are the leaders of our army and the sworn enemy of the Jedi. Many believe that you, like them, have unnatural abilities!'
"But you do not?"
Des hesitated, struggling to come up with the answer he thought Kopecz wanted to hear. In the end he couldn't figure out what his inquisitor was looking for, so he simply told the truth. "I believe most of the stories are greatly exaggerated."
Kopecz nodded. "A common enough belief. Those who do not understand the ways of the Force regard such tales as myth or legend. But the Force is real, and those who wield it have power you can't even imagine.
"You have seen many battles but you have not experienced the real war. While troops vie for control of worlds and moons, the Jedi and Sith Masters seek to destroy each other. We are being driven toward an inevitable and final confrontation. The faction that survives, Sith or Jedi, will determine the fate of the galaxy for the next thousand years.
"True victory in this war will not come through armies, but through the Brotherhood of Darkness. Our greatest weapon is the Force, and those individuals who have the power to command it. Individuals like you.
He paused to let his words sink in before continuing. "You are special, Des. You have many remarkable talents. These talents are manifestations of the Force, and they have served you well as a soldier. But you have only scratched the surface of your gift. The Force is real; it exists all around us. You can feel the power of it in this room. Can you sense it?"
Des hesitated only a moment before nodding. "I feel it. Hot. Like a fire waiting to explode."
"The power of the dark side. The heat of passion and emotion. I can feel it in you, as well. Burning beneath the surface. Burning like your anger. It makes you strong."
Kopecz closed his eyes and tilted his head back, as if basking in the heat. The tips of his head-tails twitched ever so slightly. The only sound was the faint crackle of flame from the torches. A bead of sweat rolled down the crown of Des's bare scalp and along the back of his neck. He didn't wipe it away, though he did shift his feet uncomfortably as it trickled its way between his shoulder blades. The slight movement seemed to snap the Twi'lek out of his trance.
He didn't speak again for several seconds, but he studied Des intently with his piercing gaze. "You have touched the Force in the past, but your abilities are an insignificant speck beside the power of a true Sith Master," he finally said. "There is great potential in you. If you stay here on Korriban, we can teach you to unleash it."
Des was speechless.
"You would no longer be a trooper on the front lines," Kopecz continued. "If you accept my offer, that part of your life is over. You will be trained in the ways of the dark side. You will become one of the Brotherhood of Darkness. And you will not return to the Gloom Walkers."
Des felt his heart pounding, his head swimming. As long as he could remember, he'd known he was special because of his unique talents. And now he was being told that his abilities were nothing compared with what he could really accomplish.
Still, part of him balked at the idea of leaving his unit without even having a chance to say good-bye. He considered Adanar, Lucia, and the others as more than just fellow soldiers; they were his friends. Could he really abandon them like this, even for the chance to join the Sith Masters?
He recalled one of the last things Groshik had ever said to him: Don't count on others for help. In the end each of us is in this alone. The survivors are those who know how to look out for themselves.
Everything he'd had, he'd given to his unit. He'd saved their lives too many times to count. And in the end, when the enforcers had come to take him away, they'd been powerless to save him. They would have tried if he'd let them, but they would have failed. Des realized the truth: his unit-his friends-could do nothing for him now.
He could rely only on himself, like always. He'd be a fool to turn this opportunity down.
"I am honored, Master Kopecz, and I gratefully accept your offer."
"The way of the Sith is not for the weak," the big Twi'lek warned. "Those who falter will be ... left behind." There was something ominous in his tone.
"I won't be left behind," Des replied, unfazed.
"That remains to be seen," Kopecz noted. Then he added, "This is a new beginning for you, Des. A new life. Many of the students who come here take a new name for themselves. They leave their old life behind."
Des had no desire to hang on to any part of his old life. An abusive father, the brutality of working the mines on Apatros; he had been seeking a new life for as long as he could remember. The Gloom Walkers had offered an escape, but it had been a temporary one. Now he had a chance to leave his past behind forever. All he had to do was embrace the Brotherhood of Darkness and its teachings. And yet, for reasons he couldn't explain, he felt the cold grip of fear closing in on him. The fear made him hesitate.
"Do you wish to choose a new name for yourself, Des?" Kopecz asked, possibly sensing his reluctance. "Do you wish to be reborn?" Des nodded.
Kopecz smiled once more. "And by what name shall we call you now?"
The fear would not stop him; he would seize the fear, transform it, and make it his own. He would take what had once made him weak and use it to make himself strong.
"My name is Bane. Bane of the Sith."
Lord Qordis, exalted Master of the Sith Academy on Korriban, scratched gently at his chin with long, talon-like fingers.
"This student you have brought me-this Bane-has never been trained in the ways of the Force?"
Kopecz shook his head and twitched his lekku ever so slightly in annoyance. "As I told you before, Qordis, he grew up on Apatros, a world controlled by the ORO Company."
"Yet you managed to find this young man and bring him here to the Academy. It seems almost too convenient."
The heavyset Twi'lek snarled. "This is not a plot against you, Qordis. That is no longer our way. We are a Brotherhood now, remember? You are too suspicious."
Qordis laughed. "Not suspicious; cautious. It has helped me to maintain my position here among so many powerful and ambitious young Sith."
"He is as powerful as any of them," Kopecz insisted.
"But he is also older. We prefer to find our students when they are younger and more ... malleable."
"Now you sound like a Jedi," Kopecz sneered. "They seek younger and younger pupils, hoping to find them pure and innocent. In time they will refuse any who are not infants. We must be quick to pluck those they leave behind. Besides," he continued, "Bane is too strong to simply pass over, even for the Jedi. We are lucky we found him before they did."
"Yes, lucky," Qordis echoed, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "His arrival here seems to be an incredible turn of many fortuitous events. Quite lucky indeed."
"Some might see it that way," Kopecz admitted. "Others might see it as something more. Destiny, perhaps."
There was silence while Qordis considered his longtime rival's words. "The other acolytes have been training for many years. He will be far behind," he said at last.
"He will catch up, if given the chance," Kopecz insisted.
"And I wonder ... will the others give him that chance? Not if they are smart. I'm afraid we may simply be throwing away one of Lord Kaan's best troopers."
"We both know the Jedi won't be defeated by soldiers," Kopecz snapped. "I'd gladly trade a thousand of our best troopers for even one Sith Master."
Qordis seemed taken aback by his passionate reaction. "He is that strong, is he? This Bane?"
Kopecz nodded. "I think he might be the one we've been searching for. He could be the Sith'ari.""Before he can claim that title," Qordis said with a cunning smile, "he'll have to survive his training."