Ten Years Later
The Outer Rim world of Serenno was one of the wealthiest planets in the Republic. It was also a breeding ground for anti-Republic sentiment and radical separatist movements, often secretly funded by the vast wealth of various Serenno noble families eager to free themselves from the political yoke of the Galactic Senate.
Yet despite the dangerous revolutionary undercurrents of its culture, or perhaps because of them, the great outdoor market of the planetary capital of Carannia had become renowned as a hub of interstellar mercantilism. Shoppers of two dozen different species mingled freely beneath the tents and awnings of a thousand vendor stalls. From dawn to dusk the cries of merchants hawking goods imported from every corner of the galaxy mingled with the shouted bids of haggling customers. Even the affluent and privileged braved the masses of the crowded plaza, willingly reducing themselves to part of the unruly mob pushing and shoving its way through the stalls in search of rare or valuable treasures that could be found nowhere else. Zannah stood motionless in a secluded corner of the market square, trying to avoid notice. It wasn't easy for her to blend in with a crowd; although she was of average height, she was a strikingly attractive young woman. It was necessary for her to take precautions when she didn't wish to draw the appreciative stares of males, or the envious glances of other females. In this particular instance she had donned a loose black cloak that covered her from head to toe, obscuring her lean, athletic figure. The hood was pulled up to conceal her flowing mane of long, curly blond hair, and the shadows it cast across her features hid her bright, fierce eyes.
She had also wrapped herself in a faint aura of insignificance, an illusion of the dark side that allowed her to hide in plain sight when she ventured out in public. It wouldn't shield her from the eyes of anyone looking for her, but as long as she didn't draw attention to herself she would remain unnoticed and unremembered by the vast majority of weak-minded common folk.
Even with these precautions, she would occasionally notice someone giving her a second glance. There was something about her, a hard edge to the way she moved and even the way she stood, that set her apart from others. Yet it was far easier for her to remain inconspicuous than it was for her Master. Over the past decade, the or-balisks that had attached themselves to Bane's torso had spread until they covered virtually his entire body. Only his feet, hands, and face remained free of the infestation, and only because he took extreme precautions: He wore special gloves and boots at all times, and when he slept he donned a special helmet that resembled a cage, meant to keep the parasites from growing over his face.
Cloaks and thick layers of clothing couldn't fully hide what he had become. Anyone who happened to catch a glimpse of the shiny carapaces beneath his garments would definitely remember. As a result, Bane rarely left their camp on Ambria. He relied on his apprentice to be his eyes and ears to the outside world. He counted on her to act as an agent of his will, to coordinate and oversee the intricate plans he orchestrated from behind the scenes.
That was why she was here now, waiting for a young Twi'lek she knew as Kelad'den. It was unlikely that was his actual name, however. After all, he didn't know her real name ... despite the fact that they were lovers.
Kel was a political revolutionary-a self-styled freedom fighter battling tyranny as a high-ranking member of a small extremist group determined to bring down the Republic. It had taken Zannah several months to win his trust, but he had finally succumbed. Last night, as they had lain intertwined in the rough sheets of the small bed in Zannah's rented apartment, the Twi'lek had promised to meet her at midday in the plaza to bring her to one of his organization's clandestine meetings.
From the height of the sun in the afternoon sky it was obvious Kelad'dan was late. Still, Zannah continued to wait. She had learned the value of patience early on in her studies...
"Secrecy. Cunning. Patience. These are the weapons of the Sith" her Master told her.
They had left Onderon eight days before, abandoning the Star-Wake and acquiring another vessel from a Neimoidian merchant to bring them to Ambria. It was here on this remote world that Bane would begin her training.
"Act in haste and you give the advantage to your enemy" Bane explained. "Sometimes the proper, and more difficult, course is not to act. Even the greatest warrior often fails to wait until the moment is right before striking out. That is a mistake we cannot afford to make."
She nodded, absorbing his words and committing them to memory. But words were only part of her training. Her Master also gave her a task-a test that would prove she had truly learned her lesson.
In one of the caves near the shore of Lake Natth, a few kilometers from their camp, lived a small family of neeks: small, reptilian herbivores native to Ambria. Only a meter in height, they stood upright on their hind legs, using their tails for balance and support. Their forelimbs were short and underdeveloped, good only for digging up shallow roots or carrying small nuts back to their nests. They had long necks and tiny heads with small, toothless jaws that resembled beaks.
The first day she and Darth Bane had arrived on the world, Zannah had noticed them scurrying and darting about on the hot sands of the beach. As the first part of her training, Bane had tasked her with bringing one of the neeks to him, alive and unfettered.
The mission proved to be much harder than she first imagined. A common food source for the large carnivores that often prowled the shores of Lake Natth, neeks were skittish by nature. They would flee at the sight of her, scampering off to disappear into the small cracks and crevices in the rocks surrounding the caves where they made their home.
She couldn't simply set a trap for one; Bane's instructions required her to bring him one that came of its own free will. At first Zannah had tried luring them back to the camp by leaving a trail of food, but the creatures were mistrustful and spurned her offerings. Next, she tried dominating one's mind as she had seen Bane do with the drexl. But at Lake Natth an ancient Jedi had once bound the dark side power of his enemies. That same power had emanated from the depths of the poisonous waters over the centuries, mutating the neeks and making them immune to her clumsy efforts to control them with the Force.
In the end she realized she would have to tame one, training it to grow accustomed to her presence. So early each morning she made her way down to the entrance of the cave, where she would sit cross-legged and practice the meditation exercises Bane was teaching her.
She would stay motionless for hours, then calmly get up and return to the camp in the late afternoon, only to repeat the process the next morning. For the first three days she was completely alone, but on the fourth day the neeks began to show themselves. Cautious at first, they would dart out into view and scamper past her, well beyond her reach. By the middle of the second week they began to grow used to her presence, and would sit and stare at her, only a few meters away. Occasionally one would bark out a squeaking yip in her direction, or emit a low, tremulous chirping from the back of its throat. By the third week one particularly curious youngling, not even as tall as Zannah's knee, came close enough to her that she was able to reach out and touch it
After that she started bringing food to her vigil, letting a small morsel sit in the open palm of an upturned hand at her side. The same bold little neek would approach her with trepidation each time, balancing its fear against the alluring scent of the nuts wafting up from the young girl's hand. She would coo to it softly, and eventually it would gather its courage enough to rush in and snatch the morsel away before scurrying off to the safety of its cave, peeping with excitement.
Zannah started positioning herself farther from the cave for her meditations. Each day the neek would come looking for her, ranging beyond the familiar borders of its territory in its quest to find her. Bit by bit she drew it closer and closer to the camp until one day, when she got up to leave, the neek began to follow her.
She made a point of taking soft, slow steps so as not to startle it. Moving with small strides so she wouldn't lose her balance, she gingerly shifted her weight from one foot to the other as she led the tiny creature all the way back to her Master.
It was near nightfall when she arrived, her pace turning the relatively short distance from the lake back to the camp into a four-hour journey. There were several tents in the camp; in addition to the ones she and Bane slept in, there was one for storing food, another for clothing and equipment, and still others for weapons and fuel for their star-ship and land half-track. The tents were arranged in a three-quarter circle, facing inward toward the cooking fire.
Bane was sitting by the blaze waiting for her, stirring at a bubbling pot of bland-smelling stew. He had taken off his shirt in the summer night's heat. In the flickering glow of the flames, his apprentice could see that the orbalisks were beginning to spread. The one on the back of his shoulder had traced its way across his bicep to the elbow of his heavily muscled arm, while the organism on his chest now extended halfway down his abdominal muscles and partway up his throat. Several narrow, dark bands of softer-looking flesh bisected each shell vertically, and the girl realized that in addition to growing, the creatures were about to split apart and multiply.
Suppressing a shudder, Zannah called out softly to him. "I have completed my first lesson, Master."
Bane glanced down at the small neek trailing into the camp behind her, visible proof that his apprentice had fulfilled the task he had given her. Zannah followed his gaze, turning toward the tiny creature. It looked up at her and chirped expectantly. She bent down to pet it, and Bane reached out with the Force and snapped its long, thin neck.
"You have done well," he muttered as she stared in horror at the tiny body twitching at her feet. "Now toss it in the stew"
Zannah took a moment to steel herself, pushing away the grief that threatened to well up inside her. When Bane had first given her this task, she realized, he must have known she would develop a fondness for the little neek. If she had been wiser she would have foreseen this, and viewed the creature simply as a tool-something to be used then tossed aside-rather than allowing herself to become emotionally attached. The pain she felt now over its death was a warning-a reminder that her only allegiance was to her Master.
She picked up the body and carried it over to the bubbling pot. Toss-ing it in, she looked Bane square in the eye.
"I see you decided to teach me two lessons today, Master."
His only response was a grim smile....
"Rainah," she heard a voice shouting above the din of the market, using the false name she adopted for all her missions. After a moment she was able to pick Kelad'den out of the crowd, motioning her to come over and join him on the far side of the square.
Twi'lek complexions came in a wide variety of colors, but Kel was of the extremely rare red-skinned Lethan race. Like most Lethans, he was undeniably gorgeous. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a hard, flat stomach and perfectly proportioned limbs. He wore tight black pants and a loose-fitting tan tunic that hung open at the front to expose the lean muscles of his chest and abdomen. He had sensuous, perfectly symmetrical features: soft, full lips and dark, smoldering eyes that seemed to draw you in if you stared at them too long. His firm, shapely lekku coiled around his neck and shoulders, winding their way suggestively down the front of his open tunic and exposed chest.
"Rainah!" he cried out a second time, causing more than a few people to stop and look at him curiously Zannah cursed under her breath, and moved quickly through the crowd to his side.
"Keep your voice down," she hissed when she got close. "Everybody's staring at us!"
"Let them stare" he said defiantly, though he did lower his voice to match hers. "They're commoners. Their opinion means nothing to me."
Kel was a child of position and privilege. In addition to being of Lethan stock, he came from a family that ranked among the nobility of the Twi'lek warrior caste. His entire life he had been told by all those around him how special he was; it was only natural he would grow up believing others to be beneath him.
At times Zannah admired his haughty arrogance. It was a sign of power: He knew he was a superior specimen, and he wasn't afraid to show it. But it was also his great weakness. She had discovered early on that Kel was easily manipulated through flattery or challenges to his pride and ego, and she wasn't afraid to exploit that knowledge in the pursuit of her mission.
"You're late," she told him. "I don't like to be kept waiting."
"I shouldn't even be doing this," he snapped back at her.
"I'm sorry," she said, pressing herself close and wrapping her arms around his neck and shoulders, "I was beginning to think you were with another lover," she purred. "If I ever find you with another female, I will cut her heart out."
Kel pulled her even tighter against his body. "You are more than enough for any male," he whispered into her ear, sending a shiver down Zannah's spine.
She kissed him on the lips, then broke the embrace. "We don't have time for this," she protested. "Your friends are waiting for us."
Licking his lips as if he could still taste her, Kel nodded and grabbed her hand. "Let's go," he said, pulling her through the crowd of shoppers.
* * *
As dusk fell over the camp on Ambria, Darth Bane reached out toward the tiny crystal pyramid he had carefully positioned on the small pedestal in the center of the otherwise empty tent. Moving slowly, he brushed his fingers gently against its cold, dead surface, then pulled his hand back when he saw it tremble. An instant later his fingers started twitching spasmodically as tingling jolts of sharp pain laced their way from his elbow down to his wrist. Swearing a silent oath, he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, trying to ride it out.
Because of the orbalisks that encased his body, he was used to living in constant pain. It was always there, a dull throbbing just above the level of subconscious awareness. Normally he could shut it out, bearing the torments of his infestation with no visible effects. However, if he wasn't careful-if he pushed himself top far-the physical demands could overwhelm him. The tremor had been a warning, the first sign that he was reaching the edges of his endurance.
Three times before he had attempted to create his own Sith Holocron, and each time the project had ended in failure. He wasn't about to fail this time. He knew that one false move at this stage and all his work, literally years of preparation, would be undone. Yet he also knew that he had no choice but to find a way to deal with the pain and continue his work.
He had made his first attempt five years before. Using Freedon Nadd's Holocron as a blueprint, he had re-created the intricate matrix of lattices and vertices that were the key to storing nearly infinite amounts of knowledge in a data system small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. It had taken months to gather and fashion the rare crystal into the filaments and fibers of the interlaced network, followed by weeks of delicate and painstaking adjustments. The matrix had to fall within highly exacting specifications, and Bane had spent hundreds of hours making thousands of precise, subatomic alterations through the power of the Force to ensure that each crystalline strand was properly in place.
Once the crystal matrix inside the Holocron was ready, he had carefully transcribed the ancient symbols of Sith power onto the pyramid's surface. The markings were part of a powerful ritual that was critical to maintaining the stability of the matrix after it was infused with the energies of the dark side. Unfamiliar with the exact purpose or meaning of the arcane glyphs, Darth Bane had once again used Nadd's Holocron as his guide, studying the markings etched on the surface, then copying them exactly on his own creation.
But when he tried to activate the Holocron by channeling his power through it, the matrix imploded, collapsing in on itself and reducing the artifact to a pile of glimmering dust in a crackling white flash.
He had tried again several months later, only to be met with the exact same result. Forced to admit that the secret of crafting Holo-crons was still beyond him, Bane had begun a campaign to discover everything he could about the powerful talismans. With Zannah's aid, he accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge on the subject.
He devoured every datacard, historical account, and personal memoir he could find that theorized on the steps needed to create one of the fiendishly complex pyramids. He came across thousands of veiled references to, and hundreds of theoretical speculations on, the art of crafting a Holocron. However, he was unable to find a single source that explicitly set out the spells and rituals required, and their secrets still eluded him.
Bane refused to give up. He continued his research, seeking out rare tomes, hidden documents, and forbidden works of lore. It took three more years until he learned the purpose and meaning behind the glyphs... and in doing so he found an answer to why his first efforts had failed. He discovered that each Holocron was emblazoned with symbols that were uniquely tied to the Sith Lord responsible for the artifact's creation. The miniature pyramids were far more than a simple collection of raw data. Learning was imparted through the wisdom of a gatekeeper-an advanced simulated personality that mimicked the creator's own identity. The right combination of symbols, applied in conjunction with specific sorceries and spells of the ancient Sith, would allow Bane to capture his appearance, knowledge, and cognitive processes. Within the structure of the Holocron they would be transformed into a three-dimensional hologram to guide and direct anyone who used the artifact. The cognitive network that fueled the gatekeeper also stabilized the interwoven lattices and vertices of the matrix, keeping it from collapsing as it had done on Bane's previous attempts.
Armed with this new understanding, Bane had made a third attempt to create his own Holocron two years ago. He had proceeded
carefully; the Rituals of Invocation required to divine and inscribe the proper symbols onto the pyramid's surface were mentally and physically exhausting. Ever wary of making a mistake, he had drawn the process out over two long weeks. Ironically, his caution proved to be his undoing. As he began manipulating the inner structures of the crystal matrix during the final phase of the project, he sensed that the power of the symbols had faded. The cognitive network of the gatekeeper had degraded to the point that it lacked the ability to support and stabilize the matrix.
In desperation, he had sought some way to restore it, only to realize his efforts were futile. Enraged at yet another failure, he had crushed the useless pyramid to dust with his bare hands.
Before beginning his fourth and most recent attempt, Bane had vowed that he would not fail again. Time was the real key. He had to finish aligning the matrix and infuse it with his dark side energies within a few days, before the cognitive functions of the gatekeeper began to degrade. Now, after months of gathering the rare materials, weeks of meditations to focus his power, and three straight days and nights of intense focus and concentration, he was finally nearing the end. Only a few dozen minor adjustments still needed to be made, but Bane was keenly aware that time was running out.
Three days of constantly drawing upon the Force without food or respite had left him exhausted in body, mind, and spirit. He was particularly vulnerable to the orbalisks in this state. Normally they fed off the dark side energies that naturally flowed through him, but the creation of the Holocron demanded that he channel all his power directly into his work. The parasites were slowly starving, and in response they were flooding his bloodstream with chemicals and hormones intended to drive him into a mindless fury so they could gorge themselves on the dark side as he unleashed his rage.
The spasming muscles of his hand and fingers were a direct result of their efforts, and there was nothing Bane could do but wait for the tremor to pass. He had only a few hours left to complete his work, yet he couldn't risk making a mistake and damaging the delicately interwoven crystal fibers of the Holocron's internal structure.
Slowly he was able to reassert control over his convulsing digits, ruing each precious second that slipped away as he did so. When his hand at last became still, he took a slow, deep breath to refocus his mind, then reached out with the Force to touch the matrix once more.
A ribbon of electric blades raveled itself around the muscles and nerves of his spine, causing him to arch backward as he screamed in agony. The pain momentarily broke his concentration, and an uncontrollable surge of dark side energy shot through him and into the Holocron. An instant later it exploded, spraying Bane with a shower of crystal fragments and dust.
For several seconds he simply stared at the empty pedestal, feeling the pulsing hunger of the orbalisks and his own gathering rage. A red veil fell across his vision, and Darth Bane surrendered himself to the fury.