Night had fallen over Ambria, but Bane was not interested in sleep. Instead he was sitting cross-legged in what remained of their camp, waiting for Zannah to return with supplies so they could rebuild. As he waited, he meditated on his most recent failure with the Holocron.
The dilemma offered no easy solution. If he pushed himself too hard, his body would betray him, causing him to make mistakes during the precise adjustments of the Holocron's matrix. If he went slowly, conserving his strength, he would be unable to finish before the cognitive network began to degrade. The two factors worked at cross purposes, and Bane had racked his mind to find a way to balance the requirements of both time and effort.
His most recent attempt had pushed his power to its limits, bringing him to the edge of complete exhaustion. Yet even if he hadn't made the critical error that caused the matrix to collapse, he doubted he would have been able to complete the final adjustments in time.
The more he contemplated the process, the more frustrated he became. He had failed on both sides of the spectrum, unable to finish in the allotted time and lacking the necessary strength to complete his task without error.
Was it possible there was some other essential element in the process that he was missing? Was there one more secret waiting to be unlocked that would finally allow him to create a Holocron so he could pass his wisdom and knowledge on to his successors? Or was the failure in him? Did he simply lack power? Was his command of the dark side somehow less than that of the ancient Sith Lords like Freedon Nadd?
It was an uncomfortable line of speculation, but it was one Bane forced himself to consider. He had read the histories of the great Sith Lords; many were filled with feats almost too incredible to be believed. Yet even if these accounts were true, even if some of his predecessors had had the ability to use the dark side to destroy entire worlds or make a sun go nova, Bane still felt that his power measured up to the described abilities of many of those who had successfully created Holocrons of their own.
But how much of your power is wasted on the parasites infesting your body?
The question sprang unbidden to his mind, posed not in his own voice but that of his apprentice. Zannah had expressed her concerns about the effect the orbalisks might be having on him; it was possible she was right.
He had always believed the drawbacks of the orbalisks-the constant pain, the disfiguring appearance-to be offset by the benefits they provided. They healed him, made him physically stronger, and protected him against all manner of weapons. Now he began to question that belief. While it was true that he could channel his power through the creatures for a temporary increase in his abilities, over the long term they might actually be weakening him. They were constantly feeding on the dark side energies that flowed through his veins. Was it possible that, after a decade of infestation, his ability to draw upon the Force had been subtly diminished?
It was an idea he would have once dismissed out of hand. But his continued failure with the Holocrons had forced him to reevaluate his symbiotic relationship with the strange crustaceans. He could feel them even now, feeding, drawing on the Force that flowed through his veins.
The orbalisks suddenly became agitated. They twitched and trembled against his flesh; he felt their insatiable hunger growing as if in response to the nearby presence of a fresh source of dark side power. Bane glanced around, expecting to see Zannah approaching the camp beneath the brightness of the full moon. He saw nothing; he sensed nothing-not even the small creatures and insects that came out at night to hunt for food, flying overhead or crawling across the sand. The normal awareness he had of the ambient world around him seemed strangely muted or... masked!
He leapt to his feet and drew his lightsaber, the blade blazing to life with a crackling hiss. A burst of red light exploded around him, illuminating the darkness and burning away the illusions cloaking his unseen enemies.
Eight red-robed figures surrounded the camp, their identities hidden by the visors of their helmets. Each carried a long metal rod that Bane recognized as a force pike, the traditional weapon of the Umbaran Shadow Assassins.
Specially trained in the art of killing Force-sensitive adversaries, Shadow Assassins preferred to rely on stealth and surprise. Exposed by Bane's energy burst, they suddenly found their greatest advantage taken away. And even though there were eight of them, Bane never hesitated.
He leapt forward and cut the first red-robed figure down before he-or she-had a chance to react, a single slash of his lightsaber bisecting the unfortunate opponent horizontally, just above the waist.
The other seven swarmed him, thrusting their force pikes forward to deliver the deadly electrical charge stored in the tips. Bane never even bothered to parry the incoming blows, relying on his orbalisk armor to protect him as he adopted a strategy of pure offense.
His unexpected tactics caught two more of the assassins completely unprepared, and they walked right into a sweeping two-handed cut that disemboweled them both.
The remaining five struck Bane almost simultaneously, their force pikes sending a million volts of current through his body. The orbalisks absorbed most of the charge, but enough filtered through to jolt him from his teeth down to his toes.
The Dark Lord staggered and fell to his knees. But instead of rushing in to finish him off, the assassins simply stood their ground. The idea that anything smaller than a bantha could withstand a direct hit from a force pike set to maximum charge-let alone five pikes at the same time-was inconceivable. Their miscalculation gave Bane the second he needed to shake off the effects and rise to his feet, much to the amazement and horror of his enemies.
"Zannah was right about you," a voice from behind Bane called out.
He whirled around to see a small man in his fifties, clad all in black, standing on the far edge of the camp. In his hand was a green lightsaber, though it was obvious from the way he gripped it that he had never received any proper training in how to handle the exotic weapon.
At the man's side was Bane's own apprentice; she had not drawn her lightsaber.
Bane snarled in anger at her betrayal, his rising anger fueled by the chemicals the orbalisks were pumping into his system.
"Today is the day you die, Darth Bane," the man said, charging forward to attack.
At the same time, the five red-robed figures rushed in from behind him. Bane spun and thrust his open palm toward them, lashing out with the power of the dark side. Like the Jedi and Sith, one of the first techniques Shadow Assassins learned was the creation of a Force barrier. Channeling their power, they could form a protective shield around themselves to negate the Force attacks of their enemies. But if an opponent was strong enough, a concentrated attack could still breach the barrier. Darth Bane, Dark Lord of the Sith, was definitely strong enough.
Two of the assassins were stopped in their tracks, knocked to the ground as if they had run into an invisible wall. Two more, weaker and less able to defend themselves against Bane's power, were sent flying backward. Only the fifth was strong enough to resist the Sith Lord's throw and continue his charge.
However, without his brethren at his side to harry and distract his foe, he found himself the sole focus of Bane's wrath. Unable to defend against the savage sequence of lightsaber cuts and thrusts, he fell in a matter of seconds, half a dozen fatal wounds scored across his chest and face.
While the four remaining assassins regained their feet, Bane wheeled back to their leader. Wisely, the man in black had stopped his own charge and was gathering the Force. As Bane stepped toward him the man unleashed it in a single long, thin bolt of indigo lightning. Bane caught the blast with his lightsaber, the blade absorbing the energy. In retaliation he struck back with lightning of his own- a storm of a dozen bolts arcing in toward his target from all angles.
The man leapt high in the air, flipping backward to avoid the deadly electrical conflagration. He landed on his feet ten meters away, a small, smoking crater marking the spot where he had been standing only an instant before.
"Zannah!" the man shouted. "Do something!"
But Bane's apprentice didn't move. She merely stood off to the side, biding her time and observing the action.
The assassins fell on Bane again, but instead of repelling them with the Force, he allowed his body to become a conduit, turning himself into a physical manifestation of the dark side's tumultuous power. As he spun like a whirlwind, his blade seemed to be everywhere at once: hacking, slashing, and slicing his enemies to ribbons.
All four assassins died in the attack, though one managed to land a single blow with his force pike before his throat was slit, the wound so deep it nearly severed his head. Fueled by rage and fury, Bane shrugged off the deadly electrical shock like a rancor shrugging off the bite of a venn-bug.
Once again he turned his attention to the man in black. Bane marched slowly toward him as his adversary stood frozen in place, paralyzed by the terrifying knowledge of his own imminent death.
"Zannah!" the man cried out to her again, holding his lightsaber vertically before him as if it were a talisman that could hold the approaching demon at bay. "Master! Help me!"
Bane chopped down with his own weapon, severing the man's sword arm at the elbow. The man screamed and dropped to his knees. An instant later his voice went silent as Bane ran him through with a single hard thrust, the lightsaber entering his chest just below his heart and protruding a full half a meter out the back of his shoulder blade.
Bane slid his blade back out. As the old man's body fell face-forward into the dirt, the Dark Lord turned to his apprentice. Zannah merely stood there, watching him.
"You betrayed me!" he roared and leapt at her.
Zannah had watched the battle with interest, taking careful note of Bane's tactics and tendencies and storing them away for later. Her Master easily dispatched Hetton and his minions, as she had expected ... though there had been a brief instant near the start of the battle when Bane had appeared vulnerable. Apparently the orbalisks were not able to fully protect him against the electrical current of the force pikes-another fact she made a point of filing away for later.
When it was over her Master turned to face her. She waited for him to demand an explanation, but instead he let loose with a cry and flew at her. Zannah barely had time to ignite her twin blades to meet his completely unexpected attack.
She fell into a defensive posture as she so often had during their training sessions. But this was no drill, and her Master came at her with a speed and ferocity she had never faced before. Giving in to his orbalisk-fueled bloodrage, he was like a wild animal, raining savage blows down on her from all angles, the strikes coming so fast it seemed as if he wielded a dozen blades at the same time. Zannah fell into a full retreat, desperately giving ground beneath the overwhelming assault.
"I did not betray you, Master!" she shouted, trying to make Bane see reason before he cleaved her in two. "I lured Hetton here so you could kill him!"
She ducked under a horizontal cut from his lightsaber, only to catch a heavy boot in her ribs. She rolled with the kick, narrowly avoiding the return cut of his blade. She parried a sharp descending blow, gathered her feet under her, and launched herself backward, flipping ten meters clear.
"Listen to me, Master!" she shouted now that she had put some distance between them. "If I wanted to betray you, why didn't I help them during the-oooffff!"
Bane hit her with a powerful Force throw, sending her hurtling backward. Only the barrier she had instinctively thrown up at the last second to shield herself saved her bones from being shattered by the concussive force of the impact.
She scrambled to her feet and twirled her lightsaber before her, creating what she hoped would be an impenetrable wall of defense. Instead of trying to pierce her guard, Bane leapt high in the air and came down almost right on top of her. She deftly parried his blade, redirecting it to the side as she spun away to keep his body from slamming into her. But Bane caught her on the chin with his elbow as she turned, the blow snapping her head back. Her body went limp, her weapon dropped from her nerveless fingers, and she crumpled to the ground.
For a second she saw nothing but stars. Her vision cleared to reveal the image of Darth Bane looming above her, his blade raised for the coup de grace.
"I only did this for you, Master!" she shouted up at him, ignoring the throbbing pain in her jaw. "I only wanted to bring you the key to creating a Holocron!"
Bane hesitated, her words finally piercing the bestial madness that had enveloped him. He stared down at her on the ground, his head tilting to the side as his bloodlust slowly faded.
"You did this for me?" he asked suspiciously.
Zannah nodded frantically, even though it made her head spin. "Hetton recognized me as a true Sith. I had to find some way to eliminate him and his minions to keep our existence secret."
"So you led them here to ambush me," he said, his skepticism obvious.
"I had to win his trust," Zannah explained, speaking quickly and reaching into the folds of her clothes to pull out the datacard Hetton had given her. "I had to trick him into giving me this, so I could then give it to you."
She held the datacard up toward her Master, marveling at the fact that it had survived the punishment he had inflicted on her during their confrontation. Bane reached out to take it from her grasp, lowering his lightsaber and extinguishing the blade.
He gave a brief nod and took a step back, allowing her room to stand. Zannah retrieved her own lightsaber from where it lay on the ground, then rose slowly to her feet. Her head was still swimming from the elbow to her jaw, making it difficult to stand without swaying slightly.
"I knew you had the strength to defeat them, Master," Zannah said. "That was why I didn't come to your aid during the battle."
"And what if you were wrong?" Bane asked in a quiet, menacing voice. "What if they had somehow killed me?"
"Then you would have been weak, unworthy of being the Dark Lord of the Sith," Zannah answered boldly. "And you would have deserved to die."
"Precisely" Bane said with his familiar grim smile, and Zannah knew her Master approved.