Who's this?" the man at the door demanded, eyeing Zannah with suspicion. He was human, though his face and shaved head were covered with green and purple tattoos that made it difficult to pick out his features. He wore a light blue shirt and dark blue pants. He was shorter than Kel, but much thicker through the waist and chest.
"She's with me, Paak," Kel replied, pushing him aside and passing through the door, pulling Zannah along with him.
The unfurnished room beyond was small and dark. Music and loud laughter could be faintly heard from the cantina on the floor above them, but those gathered in the cellar spoke only in low, conspiratorial whispers. Inside the room were four others gathered in a tight circle: two more young men, a woman only slightly older than Zannah, and a blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss female.
Paak trailed after them, unwilling to let the matter drop. "You can't bring her here!" he insisted.
"She works at the embassy," Kel assured him, relaying the false backstory Zannah had offered at their first meeting. "She can help us."
The heavier man grabbed Kel by the elbow and spun the Twi'lek around to face him. "You don't get to make that decision! Hetton is our leader, not you!"
"Hetton put me in charge of this mission," Kel reminded him angrily.
"Only because you offered to purchase those forged passes to get us past the embassy guards!" Paak snapped back. "He put you in charge because he needed your credits!"
"Hetton doesn't need anyone's credits," the red-skinned Twi'lek replied contemptuously. "He put me in charge because he was tired of dealing with oafish thugs like you."
Paak's lips curled up in a menacing snarl, but Kel had already turned away, dismissing his underling. Zannah waited to see if the tattooed man would go after Kel, but he only shook his head and went back to his position guarding the door.
Kel marched over to the others, who widened their circle to accommodate him. Zannah hung back slightly, noting the others regarding her with curious stares. She stared back, though she was already well aware of everything she needed to know about them.
Like Kelad'den they were revolutionaries: young, idealistic, and pitiful. Easily swayed and manipulated by fiery speeches and impassioned rhetoric, they had been recruited by the mysterious "Hetton" into joining the Anti-Republic Liberation Front-one of a hundred small, insignificant separatist movements scattered across the galaxy.
For a small radical group, however, the ARLF was particularly well funded, and the membership included an inordinate percentage of highly skilled and dangerous individuals. Elite warriors like Kel, or beings with advanced military training, were the norm rather than the exception. For one reason or another, they had all sworn allegiance to Hetton and his organization.
Zannah imagined they believed themselves to be heroes or even eventual martyrs to their glorious cause. Yet she felt nothing but disdain for them. Despite their martial backgrounds, they were little more than overgrown children gathering in tiny, dark rooms to whisper secret plans and plot petty terrorist actions against a galactic government that didn't even know they existed.
Even Kel wasn't above her contempt. Still, she did have to admit that there was something appealing about him. Allowing him to fall in love with her hadn't been necessary to complete her mission, yet she had been willing-even eager-to have his attention. The attraction went beyond his mere physical appearance. There was a wild energy about him. He burned with a savage arrogance; its fire enveloped her whenever they were together.
She knew she was drawn to his warmth in part because her Master was always so cold. Bane had served as her guardian for ten years; he had raised her and protected her and trained her in the ways of the Sith. Yet she didn't think of him as a father figure. While he hadn't been cruel or abusive, neither had he shown any affection toward her, not even a trace of empathy or compassion. He valued her not as a person but as his heir; she was nothing but a mechanism to continue the Sith legacy after his death.
Encased in his orbalisk armor, Bane was barely even human anymore. Anger, hate, love, desire-they were nothing to him now but a means to fuel his power. Yet Zannah still needed to feel. She hungered for the raw passion of real emotions. She craved them.
She had found them in Kel. He had given her the one thing her Master could not. But she never considered betraying or abandoning Darth Bane. She had seen his absolute command of the Force; she had tasted the power of the dark side in him. He was the Dark Lord of the Sith, and Zannah would one day tear the mantle from his shoulders and seize it for her own. Nothing-not fanciful notions, not the temptation of emotional fulfillment or even love-would keep her from claiming her rightful destiny.
Compared with this, Kel and the other separatists gathered in the room were tiny, insignificant people leading small, meaningless lives. Their only worth was that Bane saw a potential use for them, and it was her duty to make sure that whatever they had planned fit into her Master's grand design.
Kel had revealed their intended scheme to her during a romantic dinner: They planned to kidnap minor local officials and hold them for ransom. They actually believed the media interest generated by their actions would be the catalyst that would unite the people of the Outer Rims to rise up as one and overthrow the Senate.
They were pathetic in their naivete^ fools Zannah had chosen to become pawns in her own mission. They were tools to be used and then discarded once they had served their purpose ... and that purpose was to die so that she could fulfill the directive of her Master.
"My fellow patriots," Kel began, his voice rising in the manner of a professional orator giving a public performance. "We are united in a single cause-the complete and utter destruction of the Republic. Yet what have we done so far to accomplish this?
"We speak of revolution yet we are afraid to do what is necessary to make it happen. But that will soon change. In three days, we will force the Republic to stand up and take notice of us!"
"Three days?" Cyndra, the Chiss protested. "What are you talking about?"
"Helton wants us to strike during the Armistice Celebrations" Paak added. "It will draw more attention if we act on the anniversary of the Ruusan Reformations."
"Why wait months when the perfect opportunity is right before us?" Kel asked, using the same arguments Zannah had used to persuade him. "Nobody will care about the fate of a single ambassador.
We must find a target that will make the entire galaxy sit up and take notice!"
"Who?" one of the young men demanded.
"Chancellor Valorum's term ended two years ago," Paak spat out from over by the door.
"He still serves the Senate as a diplomatic emissary. And it was his so-called Unification Policies that have drawn so many worlds back into the web of Republic influence. He is responsible for everything we are fighting against, the symbol of everything we wish to destroy. He is the perfect target."
"How do we get to him?" Cyndra asked.
"He has scheduled a secret meeting with the heads of Serenno's most powerful noble families. We believe he is going to try to persuade them to take steps to put down the separatist movements on this world-movements like our own."
"How did you find out about this?" the young woman asked.
Kel nodded in Zannah's direction, his head-tails twitching slightly. She stepped forward and began to speak.
"My name is Rainah. I'm an administrative assistant at the Republic embassy."
This was the lie she had first used to draw Kel's attention, and it was a convenient cover for the information she had purchased from one of Bane's mysterious underground contacts...
"Everything is in place, Lord Eddels," the Muun croaked, handing a datapad to her Master. "Everything you will need is in here."
Zannah had never seen a Muun before, and she found something inherently off-putting about this one's appearance. He was tall enough to look Bane in the eye, but his head, body, and limbs were elongated and thin, as if he had been horribly stretched to reach his current height. His skin was pale, pasty white with a disconcerting hint of a sickly pinkish hue. His features were flat, his eyes and cheeks appeared sunken, the corners of his mouth turned down in a perpetual frown, and he didn't appear to have a nose. His head was hairless, and he wore drab, brown clothing. He looked extremely uncomfortable beneath Tatooine's twin suns, but he was too professional to give voice to his complaint.
Earlier, Bane had explained that this meeting in the sandy wasteland of the Dune Sea was the culmination of a plan set in motion nearly a year before, shortly after they had first touched down on Ambria. A plan she had inadvertently been the catalyst for. Scribbled in the back cover of the manuscript she had discovered and presented to her Master at the Sith camp on Ruusan had been a long list of cryptic numbers: anonymous accounts with the InterGalactic Banking Clan.
Lord Qordis, Bane told her, had been a collector of rare and expensive treasures. Over the years he had siphoned off an incredible fortune from the combined wealth ofKaan's Brotherhood of Darkness and secreted it away, drawing on it whenever he purchased another item to feed his avarice. With the Brotherhood gone, Bane was the only one left who knew about, and could lay claim to, those accounts. But material wealth had no appeal to her Master beyond what use he could put it to.
"Information is a commodity. It can be traded, sold, and purchased. And in the end, credits are only as valuable as the secrets they can buy."
Over the past year Bane had begun to spend the credits. Key administrative officials were bribed to gain access to classified files. Government spies and well-connected criminal figures were hired to be his agents. Using his newfound wealth, he carefully built a network of informants to be his eyes and ears across a hundred different worlds.
However, Bane never had any direct contact with any of these people. As the last of the Sith, it was vital that he remain shrouded in anonymity. Everything he'd accomplished had been through the use of a broker-the Muun who now stood before them.
"You followed my instructions exactly?" Bane asked the Muun.
"Precisely, Lord Eddels. All payments will be made through tertiary accounts, completely untraceable to the source," the Muun assured him, "In return you will receive regular dispatches and a constant stream of legal and illegal information. Any instructions you wish to pass on to your agents will be delivered through secure messaging services. Completely anonymous."
"And no one else knows I am involved?"
"You are well aware of my reputation" the Muun reminded him. "I pride myself on discretion. That is why people like you come to me, Lord
"Then our business here is done"
Glancing briefly down at Zannah, the Muun turned and made his way slowly across the sand toward his waiting ship. The young girl watched, eagerly anticipating the manner of his death. The idea that her Master would allow the Muun to leave this meeting alive never entered her mind. He alone knew the identity of the individual responsible for creating the galaxywide web of spies and informants. He alone had seen Bane's face.
The Muun reached his ship without incident and climbed aboard. She continued to watch as the engines flared to life and the vessel began to climb in the sky. When it disappeared beyond the horizon unharmed, she turned to her Master in disbelief,
"You let him live?"
"He still has value to us" Bane answered.
"But he's seen you! He knows who you are!"
"He knows only as much as he needed to: a wealthy man using the name Lord Eddels hired him to set up an anonymous information network. He has no knowledge of who I really am or what my true purpose might be. And he has no knowledge of where or how to find me unless I contact him with a location for another meeting."
Zannah recalled a story her Master had once shared with her about a healer on Ambria named Caleb. Bane, near death, had come across the healer and ordered the man to help him. But Caleb, sensing the power of the dark side in her Master, had refused. Ultimately Bane had compelled Caleb's obedience by threatening the life of his daughter. Once the Dark Lord was healed, he had taken no action against the man who had dared to defy him. The healer had power, and her Master knew that the value of letting him live outweighed the risks-and petty pleasure-of ending his life.
"No purpose in his death," Zannah muttered, chewing her lip thoughtfully...
"Rainah can provide us with the exact times and locations of Chancellor Valorum's schedule" Kel explained to the rest of the small group. "When his shuttle touches down, we'll be there waiting for him."
"He'll have guards," Paak warned.
"Only his personal security detail," Zannah countered. "Anything more would draw unwanted attention."
"He wants to keep his arrival here secret," Kel added. "The Senate refuses to officially acknowledge that separatist movements even exist, so his mission has been classified as a personal visit."
"Three days is too soon," Cyndra objected. "We need more time to prepare."
"Everything we need is right here" Kel replied. "We have the weapons, and we're all trained to use them. We know where and when the Chancellor is coming. What else is there?"
"An order from Hetton," Paak muttered.
Kel turned on him angrily. "Do we really need Helton's permission? Are we children? Are we incapable of acting on our own?"
"He's our leader," Paak muttered sullenly. "He tells us what to do."
"So does the Republic Senate," Zannah chimed in. "Isn't this the very thing you're fighting against? Obedience to a master-any master-is still slavery."
She said the words with utter conviction even though she didn't believe them. At the same time, she reached out with the Force to touch the minds of everyone in the room. It was possible to use the dark side to dominate another's will, but that would not serve her purpose here. The effects of mental domination would begin to fade after a few hours. By the time of Chancellor Valorum's arrival, any direct influence she exerted over Kel and his friends would be completely gone.
Zannah preferred a more subtle and insidious approach. Instead of using the Force to bend them to her will, she was gently prodding their collective psyche, pushing their thought patterns to make them more emotional, more aggressive. By itself the process was useless, but combined with persuasive words to further stir the blood, the effects could be more powerful-and more permanent-than the brute force of simple mind control.
However, the words couldn't come from her. She was a stranger here; they didn't trust her. Their natural instincts would be to reject her arguments; in their artificially induced hyperaggressive state they would quickly turn against her. They needed to be convinced by someone they knew. Someone like Kel.
"You say you want independence," the handsome Twi'lek told them. "You say you will fight for your freedom. Yet when I offer you this chance, you want to slink away like a Kath hound banished from its pack."
"We should wait for the Armistice Celebrations," Cyndra insisted. "We need to stick to the original plan."
"A plan is nothing until you act on it," Kel replied. "We talk about what we will do in the future, but when the Armistice Celebrations come, how easy will it be to find another excuse to wait yet again?
"Secret meetings will not bring change to the galaxy. Plans alone will not make the Senate tremble or bring the Republic to its knees. We must take action, and the time for action is now!"
Zannah recognized her words being spoken with Kel's voice. She had fed them to him over weeks of intimate conversations, planting the seeds of ideas, then watching them grow. Now he spoke the words with passion and fire, delivering them as if he truly believed they were his own.
Bane would be pleased. This was true power: to twist another to your purpose, yet have him believe he was in control. Kel was her puppet, but his pride and ego had blinded him to the strings she used to make him dance.
"We stand on the precipice of a momentous event," he continued. "In three days we will strike a great blow against the tyrants of the Republic, the first step in our long and glorious march to independence and true freedom!"
A spontaneous cheer of assent rose up from the room, and Zannah knew Kel had won them over. Only Paak and Cyndra showed any signs of reluctance, but as the rest of the group began working on the details of the plan to capture Chancellor Valorum, even they set aside their hesitations.
The meeting lasted long into the night, and when it was over she and Kel went back to the small apartment she had rented as part of her cover story.
"You were magnificent tonight," she breathed.
"This is the last time I can see you until all this is over," Kel warned. "The others are counting on me. I can't have any distractions."
As an answer she reached out and grabbed his wrist, then pulled him close in a tight embrace.
He left the next morning. Zannah kissed him good-bye and went back to sleep. Later, she rolled out of bed and began to gather her things. Her mission here was over; she knew she would never see Kel alive again. It was time to return to Ambria.
* * *
The camp was in ruins. The tents were leveled, their canopies shredded and torn. Wooden supply crates had been smashed into sawdust and splinters, their contents tossed and scattered on the wind. Hundred-kilogram fuel cells lay strewn about the campsite, some thrown fifty meters from where they had been stored.
The ground was littered with debris and marred by dozens of still-smoldering black scorch marks Zannah recognized as the remnants of a terrible storm of unnatural lightning. The air still crackled with the power and energy of the dark side that made her tingle in fear and anticipation.
It was easy enough to guess what had happened. Bane had failed yet again in his attempt to create a Holocron, then in a blind rage lashed out at the world around him with all the power of the Force.
If she had been here when it happened, Zannah wondered, could she have stopped him? Would she even have been able to survive?
She saw Bane seated on the far side of the camp, his back to her as he stared out to the horizon, meditating on his failure. He turned to face her as she approached, rising up to his full two-meter height so that he towered above her. His clothes had been torn and burned away, revealing the full scope of the orbalisk infestation. Hundreds of the creatures clung to him; except for his face and hands, his body was now completely covered. He looked as if he were wearing a suit of armor fashioned from the hard, oblong shells of dead crustaceans. Yet she knew that beneath the shells, the parasites were still alive, feeding on him.
Bane claimed the orbalisks enhanced his power, granting him unnatural strength and healing abilities. Yet witnessing the aftermath of his failure with the Holocron, Zannah wondered at what cost those abilities came. What use was greater power if it could not be controlled?
To her relief the fury seemed to have passed, and Zannah knew better than to ask him about it. Instead she offered news of her mission.
"It's done. When Chancellor Valorum's shuttle lands, Kel and his followers will be waiting for him."
"You have done well," Bane answered.
As always, she felt a surge of pride and accomplishment at her Master's praise. But her satisfaction was tempered by memories of Kel, and the knowledge that he was lost to her forever.
"Is there any chance they will succeed?" she asked.
"No," Bane said after a moment's consideration,
"Then what purpose do they serve?" she demanded, finally giving in to her frustration. "I don't understand why you send me on missions like this! Why waste all this time and effort if we know they're going to fail!"
"They don't need to succeed to be of value to us " Bane answered. "The separatists are only a distraction. They draw the attention of the Senate, and blind the eyes of the Jedi Council."
"The Jedi have surrendered themselves to the will of the Senate. They have let themselves sink into the morass of politics and bureaucracy. The Republic seeks a single, unified government to maintain peace throughout the galaxy, and the Jedi have been reduced to nothing more than a tool to make it happen.
"Each time radicals strike against the Republic, the }edi Council is called upon to take action. Resources are wasted on quelling rebellions and uprisings, keeping their focus away from us."
"But why must the separatists always fail?" Zannah asked. "We could help them succeed without risking exposure!"
"If they succeed, they will gain support," Bane explained. "Their power and influence will grow. They will become harder to manipulate and control. It is possible they might even become strong enough to bring down the Republic itself."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Zannah asked.
"The Republic keeps the Jedi in check. It maintains control and imposes order across thousands of worlds. But if the Republic falls, a score of new interstellar governments and galactic organizations will rise. It is far easier to manipulate and control a single enemy than twenty.
"That it is why we must seek out radical separatist groups, identify the ones that have the potential to become true threats, then encourage them to strike before they are ready. We must exploit them, playing them off against the Republic. We must let our enemies weaken one another while we stay hidden and grow strong.
"One day the Republic will fall and the Jedi will be wiped out," he assured her. "But it will not happen until we are ready to seize that power for ourselves."
Zannah nodded, though her mind was reeling as she tried to comprehend the true complexity of her Master's intricate and convoluted political machinations. She thought back to all her past missions, trying to see how each one played a part in his plans.
"You have never questioned your missions before," Bane noted. He didn't sound angry, but rather curious.
She didn't want to tell him about Kel. Even though she had accomplished everything Bane had demanded of her, she knew he would view her feelings for the Twi'lek as a sign of weakness.
"Even if I didn't understand the purpose behind my missions, I never had reason to doubt your wisdom, Master" she answered, realizing she could turn his question to her advantage.
"Yet you doubt me now?"
She took a long, slow look around, letting her eyes linger over the wreckage of the camp surrounding them.
"I've never seen you lose control of your power like this before," she whispered, shrouding her deceit in a kernel of truth. "I feared the orbalisks could be impairing your judgment. I feared they might have finally driven you mad."
Bane didn't answer right away, and when he did his voice was short and gruff. "I control the orbalisks. They do not control me."
"Of course, Master," she apologized. But she knew from his reaction that she had successfully planted the seed of doubt. Attempting to manipulate her Master was a dangerous game, but it was a risk she had to take. If the orbalisks drove him into another rage, he might kill her. Convincing Bane to seek out some way to rid himself of the infestation was a matter of self-preservation.
"Clean up the camp," Bane commanded. "Then head back to Serenno. We need more supplies."
She acquiesced with a bow and began gathering up debris as Bane resumed his meditations. As she slowly restored some semblance of order to their camp, Zannah began to see that the doubts she had planted in Bane's mind could have one other valuable, long-term benefit.
It was inevitable she would one day challenge him for the title of Sith Master, but Bane was incredibly strong-both physically and in the Force. Encased in a suit of living armor that augmented his powers and protected him from virtually all known weapons, he was nearly invincible.
Convincing Bane to shed his orbalisk coat, Zannah realized, might be the only real hope she had of defeating him and achieving her destiny.