Johun walked with long, quick strides down the dormitory corridors of the great Jedi Temple. He passed halls and staircases leading to the various wings that had been constructed to house the Jedi Knights and Padawans who chose to dwell here on Coruscant, making his way toward the base of the Spire of the High Council and the private chambers reserved for the Masters-in-residence.
He nodded curtly to those who waved or called out to him as he marched briskly past, but Johun had no time to stop and exchange pleasantries. He had received a summons from Valenthyne Farfalla immediately after landing, and Johun had a pretty good idea what his old Master wanted to talk to him about.
When he arrived at his destination he was surprised to find the door to Farfalla's private quarters standing open, the Jedi Master seated at a desk inside, deep in study.
"You wanted to see me?" Johun said by way of greeting, stepping inside and closing the door behind him.
The room was decorated much as Farfalla's private cabin had been aboard the Fairwind, the flagship of the now disbanded Jedi fleet. Fine art adorned the walls, and expensive rugs covered the floor. In one corner sat the four-poster bed depicting the key stages of Valenthyne's rise to the rank of Jedi Master.
"Johun," Farfalla said with mild surprise. "I did not expect to see you so soon." He turned in his seat and motioned to one of the other chairs in the room, indicating that his guest should sit.
"Your summons sounded urgent," Johun answered. He spread his feet and stood stiffly, refusing the offer of a chair.
"I need to speak with you," Farfalla said with a weary sigh.
"As my friend, my Master, or a representative of the Jedi Council?"
"That depends on what you have to say," Farfalla answered, ever the diplomat. "I have heard that Chancellor Valorum intends to petition the Senate for funds to create a memorial to Hoth and the other Jedi who fell on Ruusan."
"No doubt he believes this to be a fitting tribute to the people who gave their lives to keep the Republic safe," Johun remarked. "A tribute some would say is long overdue."
Farfalla raised an eyebrow. "So you had nothing to do with this request? Valorum came up with this idea on his own?"
"I never said that," the Jedi Knight replied. The truth, as both he and Valenthyne were well aware, was that Valorum had agreed to do this to show his gratitude toward Johun for saving him during the attack on Serenno.
"As I suspected," the Master said with another sigh. "The Jedi Council does not approve of this, Johun. They see it as an act of pride and arrogance."
"Is it arrogant to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice?" Johun asked, staying calm. He was a Jedi Knight now; the Padawan who would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation was long gone.
"Requesting a memorial to honor your former Master smacks of vanity" Farfalla explained. "In elevating the man who first trained you, you in effect elevate yourself."
"This is not vanity, Master," Johun explained patiently. "A memorial on Ruusan will serve as a reminder of how one hundred beings willingly marched off to face certain death so that the rest of the galaxy might live in peace. It will be a powerful symbol to inspire others."
"The Jedi do not need symbols to inspire them" Farfalla reminded him.
"But the rest of the Republic does" Johun countered. "Symbols give power to ideas, they speak to the hearts and minds of the average person, they help transform abstract values and beliefs into reality.
"This monument glorifies the victory on Ruusan: a victory that came not through the strength of our army, but through the courage, conviction, and sacrifice of Hoth and those who perished with him. It will serve as a shining example to guide the citizens of the Republic in their thoughts and actions."
"I see Valorum's flair for speeches has rubbed off on you," Valen-thyne said with a rueful smile, recognizing that he would not be able to convince Johun to change his position.
"It was you who chose to assign me to the Chancellor's side," Johun reminded him. "And I have learned many things in my years of service."
Farfalla rose from his seat and began to pace the room.
"Your arguments are eloquent, Johun. But surely you know they will not sway the Jedi Council."
"This matter falls outside the Council's authority," Johun reminded him. "If the Senate approves funding for Valorum's request, construction on Ruusan will begin within the month."
"The Senate will never refuse Valorum anything." Farfalla snorted. He stopped pacing and turned toward Johun. "And what will your role be in this project?"
"That, too, is for the Senate to decide," Johun answered evasively. However, after a moment he relented and told Farfalla the truth. "The Chancellor has agreed to travel with a full security complement on future diplomatic missions so that I will be free to go to Ruusan and oversee construction of the memorial."
Farfalla sighed and sat back down in his chair.
"I understand why you are doing this, Johun. I do not fully approve, but neither I nor the Jedi Council will stand in your way." After a moment he added, "I doubt we could stop you now even if we tried."
"At times I can be most stubborn " the Jedi Knight replied with the hint of a smile.
"Just like Hoth," Farfalla noted.
Johun chose to take his words as a compliment.
* * *
"My father died when I was only an infant," Hetton said, his voice low enough that Zannah had to strain to hear it over the clacking of their footsteps on the polished marble floor. "Burdened with the responsibilities of being the head of our house, my mother left it to the servants to raise me. They knew of my special gifts for many years before word of it ever reached my mother's ear."
"Perhaps they feared what she might do to them if they told her," Zannah suggested.
She and Hetton were alone now. After her performance in the throne room, he had insisted on bringing her to see his vast collection of Sith manuscripts and artifacts, located in his inner sanctum on the far side of the great mansion. He had also insisted that his guards stay behind. To pass the time on the journey through the seemingly endless halls and rooms of his manor, he had started to tell her his personal history.
"My mother was a strong and intimidating woman," Hetton admitted. "Perhaps the servants were afraid of her. Whatever the reasons, I was already in my early twenties before she finally discovered my affinity for the Force."
"How did she react?"
"She saw my talents as a tool we could use to further the fortunes of our house. She had no use for the Jedi-or even the Sith, for that matter-but she wanted to find someone to help teach me to better master my skills.
"This was many years before the Brotherhood of Darkness came to power," he reminded her before resuming his tale.
"After a number of discreet inquiries and many substantial bribes and payments, she finally settled on a Duros named Gula Dwan."
"He became your Master?"
"Master was a title he never deserved," Hetton replied with just a hint of bitterness. "He was nothing but a bounty hunter and assassin who had the good fortune to be born with the ability to touch the Force. Over the years he had gleaned a simple understanding of the most basic techniques to access his power, allowing him to levitate small objects and perform other similar tricks,
"But he had no allegiance to the Sith or the Jedi; Gula's only fealty was to whoever paid him the most credits. And my family could afford to pay him more credits than he had ever dreamed of."
They had reached another set of large double doors, though these were sealed and locked from the other side. Her host reached out and placed his palm on the surface, then closed his eyes. Zannah felt the soft whisper of the Force; then the lock clicked and the door swung open to reveal Hetton's inner sanctum.
The room was part library, part museum. Shelves of ancient manuscripts and scrolls, and endless lines of old datatapes lined the walls, and there was a data terminal and large viewscreen in one corner. Several long glass display cases ran lengthwise down the center of the room, displaying the collection of Sith treasures Hetton had spent the past three decades acquiring: strange glowing amulets, small jewel-encrusted daggers, a variety of unusual stones and crystals, and the handles of at least a dozen different lightsabers.
"Gula's instruction gave me a foundation on which to build, but most of my learning came from the books and manuscripts you see before you," Hetton said with pride.
They walked slowly along the length of the display cases, Zannah splitting her attention between Hetton's words and the intriguing array of Sith artifacts. She could still feel faint remnants of dark side energy clinging to them: fading memories of the incredible ^power they once contained.
"Early on in my apprenticeship I recognized Gula for the fool he was. At my urging, my mother used the wealth and resources of our house to scour the galaxy in pursuit of every record, object, or trinket even remotely associated with the dark side so that I could further my learning without having to rely exclusively on my so-called Master.
"As you might expect, much of what came to us was worthless rubbish. But over the years a number of rare and valuable items found their way into my possession."
Hetton turned to the shelves, running his hands lovingly over the cataloged volumes.
"The knowledge here allowed me to quickly surpass Gula. Once my mother realized he was no longer of any use to us, she had him killed."
Zannah started and blinked in surprise. Hetton laughed softly at her reaction.
"My mother was a woman driven by ambition and ruthless practicality. She had worked hard to keep my existence hidden from the Jedi and Sith; if Gula were allowed to simply leave our service, it was inevitable he would reveal our house's great secret."
"A necessary death" Zannah said with a nod, realizing that Bane probably would have done the same thing. Then, hit with a sudden flash of insight, she said, "You were the one who killed him, weren't you?"
Hetton smiled at her. "You are as perceptive as you are powerful. When the order came down from my mother, I was more than happy to comply. Gula had become a burden and an impediment to my own research into the ways of the dark side."
"You speak of your mother as if she is gone " Zannah noted. "What happened to her?"
Hetton's eyes narrowed, and his expression grew dark.
"About fifteen years ago, when Kaan first began to assemble his Brotherhood of Darkness, my mother urged me to reveal myself and join their cause. She believed they would succeed in their quest to destroy the Republic, and she sought to ally our house with the rising new power in the galaxy.
"But I refused to become part of Kaan's cult. He preached that all who followed the dark side would serve as equals-a democracy of Sith. I found the concept repugnant, a perversion of everything I had studied and believed in.
"However, my mother still thought in terms of governments and political alliances. Through my study of the dark side I had transcended such mundane interests, but she could not grasp my objections. In the end, I was forced to eliminate her."
This time Zannah wasn't surprised. "She would have ignored your wishes and tried to forge an alliance with the Brotherhood," she said, showing that she understood-and even approved of-Hetton's matricide. "She would have exposed you. You had no other choice."
"I poisoned her in her sleep," Hetton explained, his voice betraying just a hint of regret. "It was a peaceful death; I never wanted her to suffer. After all, I'm not a monster."
There was a moment of silence as he let his thoughts linger over what he had done. Then he shook his head and resumed speaking as he led Zannah over to the monitor and data terminal.
"With the fall of the Brotherhood and the reformations of the Jedi Order, I became more bold. In addition to my quest to seek out the knowledge and artifacts of the ancient Sith I also began to assemble an army of followers. Under the separatist banner, I drew those individuals with unique skills and talents into my service. We were united in our hatred of the Republic and the Jedi, yet I was still wary of revealing my true purpose: the resurrection of the Sith!
"And now you are here," he said, concluding his tale. He reached down and removed a datacard from the terminal they were standing beside. "The timing could not be more perfect."
Zannah wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, but before she could ask a question he had placed the datacard in her hand. "What's this?"
"Do you know the name of Belia Darzu?" he asked her. Zannah shook her head. "She was a Dark Lord of the Sith who reigned over two centuries ago. She was a student of Sith alchemy; it was said she learned the secrets of mechu-deru, the ability to transform the flesh of living beings into metal and machinery. She used this power to create an army of technobeasts: organic-droid hybrids bound to her will."
Zannah vaguely recalled a passing mention of technobeasts from her studies, though the name Belia Darzu still didn't sound familiar.
"Many also believe that before her death she discovered the secret of creating Sith Holocrons," Hetton added, and Zannah's thoughts flashed back to Bane and his failed attempts to do the same.
"Ultimately, Belia was betrayed and murdered by her own followers " Hetton continued. "A familiar occurrence in the histories I have read. When she fell all her secrets were lost, though there is speculation that much of what she discovered is still stored in the archives of her stronghold on Tython."
"Tython?" Zannah exclaimed, recognizing the name. "Isn't that one of the Deep Core worlds?"
The Deep Core was a small cluster of densely packed stars centered on a black hole in the very heart of the galaxy. The worlds of the Deep Core-planets like Tython-typically appeared only in myths and legends, or in the wild tales of half-mad explorers who claimed to have visited them. Unstable solar masses, large pockets of antimatter, and gravity wells powerful enough to warp the space-time continuum made it virtually impossible to chart safe hyperspace routes into the region.
"I know what you're thinking," Hetton said. "I was skeptical myself at first. But the more I learned about Belia, the more evidence I found to support the theory that her stronghold was on Tython."
"Even if it's true," Zannah protested, "nobody knows how to get to
"I do" Hetton said with a sly smile. "In my research I discovered the coordinates for a long-for gotten hyperspace lane into the Deep Core. But I never dared to make the trip. I feared the defenses of Belia's stronghold would be impenetrable. And then I met you."
"I don't see what this has to do with me," Zannah said.
"For many years I have studied the dark side, but my power has plateaued. I will learn nothing further on my own. I need a new
Master-one with the power to penetrate the defenses of Belia's stronghold and lay claim to her secrets."
"You want to become my apprentice?" Zannah asked, her voice rising in disbelief.
"Everything I know about Belia Darzu, including the hyperspace route to Tython, can be found on that datacard," Hetton said, speaking quickly. "I am presenting it to you as a gift, a sign of respect and admiration and proof of the seriousness of my offer."
"You're at least twice my age!" Zannah exclaimed, still unable to wrap her mind around the bizarre turn of events.
"Age has little relevance in matters of the Force," Hetton assured her. "Your power is far greater than mine. I am asking you to teach me the ways of the dark side. In exchange, I offer you access to all the knowledge I have collected over the past thirty years."
"I am only an apprentice myself," Zannah admitted. "And my Master would kill us both before he accepted your offer. For the Sith to survive, there must only be one Master and one apprentice."
"Then how does the Sith line continue?" Hetton asked, puzzled.
"When I surpass my Master, I will kill him and take his place," Zannah explained, relaying the beliefs that Bane had drilled into her over the past decade without even thinking. "Then I will find my own apprentice to carry on the legacy of the dark side."
Hetton was silent for a moment, considering what she had said. "Perhaps that time is now," he said softly. "Together, we could end your Master's reign."
Zannah actually laughed at the suggestion. Helton's eyes narrowed momentarily, stung by her reaction.
"I have more resources at my disposal than you might imagine," he said, raising his hand and snapping his fingers.
Two of his red-cloaked guards appeared beside him, seeming to materialized out of thin air. Zannah let her hand drop to her lightsaber, wondering if she had been lured into a trap. She couldn't figure out where the guards had suddenly come from; even if they were somehow cloaked, she should have been able to sense their presence through the Force.
The guards made no move to attack her, however, and a second later she relaxed once more and looked questioningly at Hetton.
"As I told you before, I have recruited a number of individuals with unique and specialized talents to my side," he explained. "Included among them are eight former students of the Sith Academy on Umbara."
Through Bane, Zannah knew those students sent to Umbara were trained in stealth and assassination, learning to use the Force to mask their presence from all manner of detection. That was why she had been unable to sense them in the room.
"Should you accept me as your apprentice, my guards will swear fealty to you as well," Hetton told her. "You will have a squad of eight unstoppable, undetectable killers at your command."
Zannah was silent for several minutes, thinking about everything he had said.
"We cannot risk the Jedi learning of our existence," she warned at last. "If you become my apprentice, you must leave all this behind."
"I could not stay here much longer anyway," Hetton reminded her. "It won't be long before the Great Houses discover I am the founder of the Anti-Republic Liberation Front. They will seize my assets and condemn me for a traitor.
"I have already begun the process of transferring my library onto datacards in preparation for my flight."
In her mind Zannah weighed all she knew of Darth Bane's strength and power against Hetton and his eight Shadow Assassins, trying to determine which side had the upper hand. In the end she couldn't accurately predict who would survive such an encounter, but she decided she wanted to find out.
"How soon can you and your assassins be ready?"
"We can leave within the hour."
"And after Bane is dead we will go to Tython?"
"If that is your wish, Master," Hetton said with a bow.