Winter was still a new-and not entirely welcome-phenomenon on Ruusan. Originally it had been a temperate world, its climate controlled and moderated by the vast boreal forests that dominated the planet's surface. But during the prolonged conflict between the Brotherhood of Darkness and the Army of Light, millions of hectares of old-growth trees had been decimated, turning a huge swath of Ruusan's northern hemisphere into a desolate and arid wasteland.
Alone, the dramatic changes in the geographic features of the world might not have been enough to affect a significant climatic shift. However, the damage to the environment left the world more vulnerable to the terrible devastation of the thought bomb. In the wake of Kaan's ultimate weapon, a powerful Force nexus was created: an invisible maelstrom of dark- and light-side energies capable of permanently altering the planet's weather patterns.
As a result, even in the regions of the planet where the forests still stood, snow-a rarity in generations gone past-became a regular yearly occurrence. The unprecedented winters typically lasted only a few months, but they were particularly brutal on an ecosystem that had evolved in a much warmer clime. Some of the flora and fauna of Ruusan, like the humans who still inhabited the world, had learned to adapt. Other species simply died off.
Over the years Darovit had learned there were three keys to surviving the harsh cold. The first key was to always dress in layers. His hooded overcloak was a gift from a farmer he had treated for a bad case of fungal rot. The thick sweater beneath had been offered as payment by a miner after Darovit mended the man's foot; he'd accidentally crushed it with his own pneumatic jack. In fact, every garment on his person-the long-sleeved shirt, his heavy trousers, his warm padded boots, the fur-lined glove on his left hand, and the custom-made cuff covering his amputated stump-had been given to him by locals who had come to his isolated home seeking aid from the "Healing Hermit"
The second key to surviving the winter wind and snow was to stay dry. He learned to watch the sky, seeking shelter at the slightest sign of precipitation. If he allowed his clothes to become wet, hypothermia could easily set in before he was able to find help. It was one of the disadvantages that came with living alone deep inside the forest, but Darovit had become too accustomed to his life of solitude to give it up now.
In his first years he had been a wandering vagabond, exploring the wilds of Ruusan as he traveled between the small pockets of civilization scattered across the land. But as he learned to hunt and forage for himself, he found fewer and fewer reasons to venture into the towns and villages he came across.
Six years ago he had wearied of his nomadic existence. Locating a suitably remote location beneath a large stand of sheltering trees, he had constructed a simple hut of branches and mud. The hut gave him a sense of permanence and stability while still allowing him to enjoy the inner peace he had found in his self-imposed isolation.
There were no other human settlements within ten kilometers of his home, and even the closest bouncer colony was almost five kilometers away. Yet that didn't mean he was without visitors. From the teachings of the bouncers and the experiences of his youthful travels, he had become wise in the lore of herbal medicines and natural remedies. Three or four times a month he would be visited by someone imploring him to treat some malady or injury. Darovit never turned these people away, asking only that in return they respect his privacy... though often patients bestowed small gifts on him, like the clothes he now wore, as tokens of their gratitude.
The third key to surviving the inhospitable Ruusan winters was to never venture out at night. Bone-chilling temperatures, the chance of becoming lost and unable to find shelter, and even the occasional predator made risking the darkness a dangerous and foolish proposition.
Yet here Darovit was in the dead of night, his feet crunching over the wind-crusted snow. He'd left the warmth of his hut many hours behind him as he set out to see with his own eyes if the rumors he'd heard from many of his recent patients were true.
"No," he whispered to the small green-furred bouncer hovering above him. "Just curious."
For reasons he still didn't fully understand, the bouncers had developed a particular fascination with him. During the day there were always two or three of them circling his domicile. And each time he left his hut at least one of the unusual creatures accompanied him.
Perhaps they felt responsible for his well-being after rescuing him from the cavern of the thought bomb. Or maybe they were drawn to him by their shared vocations: the bouncers eased the mental anguish of those suffering or in pain, and Darovit had chosen to share his healing talents with any who came to him seeking succor. It was even possible they simply found him entertaining or amusing, though in truth Darovit didn't know if bouncers had a sense of humor.
He had quickly grown used to their constant company. They were gentle companions, and they seemed to sense when he was in the mood for conversation and when he just wished to be left alone with his thoughts. Most of the time he found their presence calm and soothing, though some bouncers were less soothing than others. The young female accompanying him now, Yuun, seemed to be more talkative than her compatriots. Darovit home now, "Not yet," he whispered.
Two of Ruusan's Three Sisters moons were waxing full tonight, their light reflecting off the silver layer of frost and the white blanket of snow that had accumulated over the past few weeks. Darvoit was crouched behind a copse of trees, leaning on his walking stick for support and reaching out with the stump of his right hand to push the branches aside so he could peer through without being spotted. Through the vapor clouds of his own breath, he studied the scene that confirmed the rumors were true: the Jedi had returned to
Darovit had openly scoffed the first time a patient mentioned that the Republic was going to build a monument to honor those who had fallen on Ruusan. It made no sense to undertake such a project now, Darovit had argued, a decade after the battle. Yet there was no denying what he saw through the branches.
A large plot of land on the edge of the forest had been cleared of snow, revealing the frozen, scrub-covered fields beneath. The perimeter had been marked with stakes and surveyor's chains, and the groundbreaking had already begun. The deep furrows of soil dug up by the construction droids to lay the foundations struck Darovit as a wound upon the planet itself.
Several dozen large stones were scattered about the site, each brought to Ruusan from the birth world of one of the dead Jedi the monument was meant to honor. To Darovit's eye the alien rocks stuck out like a Wookiee in a crowd of Jawas: unwelcome interlopers defacing the Ruusan landscape.
"They have no right to be here," he whispered angrily
Hurting nobody, Yuun suggested.
"This land is only just now beginning to heal itself from their kriffing war" he answered. "It's taken ten years for the people to put this all behind them. Now the Jedi want to open old wounds."
Senate approved. Not Jedi.
"I don't care what the official story says. I know the Jedi are behind this. It will lead to trouble."
Yuun was too young to remember the war that had ravaged her world. She hadn't witnessed the senseless death and suffering that drove hundreds of bouncer colonies into madness. Damaged beyond all hope of salvation, the wounded bouncers had projected thoughts of pain and torment, attacking and even killing other living creatures until they were slain by Jedi teams sent to wipe them out.
"The Jedi and their war nearly destroyed Ruusan," Darovit told her. "Countless thousands of men, women, and children died. The forests burned. And your species was hunted almost to extinction."
Sith started war.
"The Sith couldn't have had a war on their own. They needed someone to fight, and Hoth was more than willing to throw his Jedi followers against them," Darovit argued, wondering how much the bouncers-and Yuun in particular-knew of his past. "Both sides were equally to blame."
It was a statement of fact, rather than a question. "Maybe," the young man admitted, leaning on his walking stick. "But trouble seems to follow the Jedi wherever they go. And I'm not going to sit back and watch so they can destroy this world a second time."
Apart from the construction droids the dig site was deserted; the organic crews only worked during the light of day. Crouching low and holding his walking stick parallel to the ground at his side, Darovit crept out from the cover of the trees.
Peace. Calm, Yuun projected after him, trying to soothe his anger. But she wasn't bold enough to follow him out into the open, and he ignored her pleas until he had crossed beyond the range of her telepathic communication.
Darovit wasn't strong in the Force; that was part of the reason he failed in his attempts to join both the Jedi and the Sith. But he did have a minor affinity for it, enough to allow him to creep through the dig site unseen and unnoticed by the semi-intelligent construction droids.
Construction droids were employed only for simple, basic tasks. The majority of the work on the monument would be done by a crew using heavy machinery and hoversleds. Moving quickly, Darovit made his way to the nearest sled, crouching down out of sight behind it.
He had come well prepared, stashing a large supply of powdered tass root and two handfuls of crushed petals from the flowers of the scintil vine in the pockets of his overcloak. Individually the two substances were harmless, yet when mixed together and dampened they had a startling interaction.
With his good hand he pried open the sled's maintenance panel just below the control box and stuffed four scintil petals into the re-pulsor coils. Next, he sprinkled a pinch of powdered tass root over the petals. Then, as a final touch, he scooped up a handful of snow, letting it melt in his glove so it would drip down onto the mixture.
There was a soft hiss and a sharp alkaline smell as the elements combined to form a highly corrosive paste that began to eat its way through the repulsor coils. Darovit snapped the sled's maintenance cover back in place; wispy tendrils of brown-green smoke wafted out from underneath it.
Darovit spent the next hour moving from sled to sled, pausing whenever a construction droid wandered past in its preprogrammed assignments, oblivious to the vandal in their midst. By the time he got back to where Yuun was still waiting for him, every single hover-sled had been disabled.
Temporary solution. Will replace.
"Repulsor coils are expensive," Darovit said. "And they're always in high demand. This should set them back at least a week."
"I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve for our Jedi friends," he assured the little bouncer. "This was only the beginning."
Light soon. Home now?
Darovit glanced up and saw the faint glow of the first of Ruusan's twin suns peeking over the horizon.
"Home," he agreed.
* * *
Three weeks had passed since Zannah had presented her Master with the datacard that had almost cost the young apprentice her life. Bane had used that time to study the datacard's contents carefully, analyzing every tiny scrap of information Hetton had assembled about Belia Darzu. He cross-referenced much of the data with his own sources, verifying everything he could to authenticate Hetton's research. And Bane was now confident that everything the old man had discovered was true.
Bella's experiments in Sith alchemy had revealed the secrets that allowed her to surround herself with a technobeast army. Even more impressive, at least from Bane's perspective, Belia had successfully created her own Holocron. And there was strong evidence to support the theory that the Holocron she created-the repository of all her knowledge-was still hidden somewhere in her stronghold on Tython.
Bane ran the final diagnostics check on his vessel: he couldn't afford to have anything break down on the upcoming journey. The hy-perspace route into the Deep Core was treacherous, and if something went wrong there was no chance of anyone coming along to find him. He would die a cold and lonely death-a frozen corpse floating in a metal coffin around the black hole at the galaxy's heart.
The Mystic's systems all appeared to be in perfect working order. One of the new Sienar-designed Infiltrator series, the Mystic was a medium-sized long-range fighter Bane had anonymously acquired through his network of front-men and shadowy suppliers. Built to carry up to six passengers, Infiltrators were armed with light weapons and equipped with minimal plating, the focus of the model being on speed and maneuverability. The Mystic had been customized with the addition of a Class Four hyperdrive, enabling her to outrun virtually any other vessel she encountered.
Though there was room on the vessel for both Master and apprentice, Bane had decided Zannah would not accompany him on his trip to Tython. But she was not going to simply wait on Ambria for his return.
Along with his study of the datacard Bane had also spent a great deal of time thinking about the orbalisks clinging to his flesh. Though it was possible that he would discover new information on Tython unlocking the final secrets of creating a Holocron, it was also possible that Belia had succeeded using the exact same process he had employed in his failed attempts. Bane still could not discount the theory that the orbalisks were responsible for his failure, bleeding him of the dark side energies he needed to draw on to complete the procedure.
There were other considerations, as well. Twice now he had lost himself in a bloodrage, thought and reason replaced by the mindless urge to destroy anything and anyone in range. The first time it happened he had left their camp in ruins: a foolish and pointless waste of resources.
The second time had almost been far more costly. Had he succeeded in killing Zannah, he still would have found Helton's datacard on her. But he would also have been forced to find a new apprentice. A decade of training would have been lost, thrown away because of his temporary madness.
Zannah had saved herself by explaining the motives behind her actions. She had acted in perfect accordance with her Master's teachings-a fact Bane should have realized on his own. But the orbalisks blinded him to her skilled machinations, and he now understood that the raw power they granted him came at the expense of subtlety and cunning.
So while he went to Tython to face the dangers and defenses of Belia's lost stronghold, Zannah was undertaking a mission of her own.
* * *
Hetton's ship was magnificent. A custom built cruiser eighty meters in length, she could comfortably hold twenty passengers, yet only a single pilot was required to operate her. Every detail of her construction and design had been made to Hetton's precise and lavish specifications. Equipped with enough firepower and armor plating to take on a small capital ship, the interior was still luxurious enough to host a formal dinner for planetary dignitaries. No expense had been spared, the vessel being as much a symbol of his incredible wealth as it had been a mode of transportation. There was only one thing Zan-nah disliked about it: He had called it the Loranda, after his mother. She reached forward and punched the controls, marveling at the smooth takeoff and responsiveness of the yoke as she guided the ship up and out of Ambria's atmosphere. In two day she would be touching down on Coruscant; no doubt she'd have to bribe a spaceport administrator to keep her arrival off the official books. The Loranda was still registered to Helton, and her arrival would draw immediate attention if it was logged with the proper authorities.
Fortunately it was common practice for the nobles of Serenno to make frequent unscheduled-and unreported-landings, even on Coruscant. The wealthy weren't bound by the rules of the average Republic citizen, and portraying herself as a servant sent to bribe a port administrator upon landing wouldn't strike anyone as unusual. Arriving onworld without drawing undue attention would be the easy part of her mission. Gaining access to the Archives in the Jedi Temple would be much more difficult.
Bane was taking a tremendous gamble in sending her there. They had spent the past decade hiding from the Jedi, and now she was about to enter the very heart of the order. But she couldn't second-guess his decision, not when she had been partly responsible. It was she who had planted the first seeds of doubt in her Master's mind about the orbalisks, and now her scheme had come to fruition. Bane had decided-for her sake and the sake of the Sith-that he had to free himself from the infestation.
Nothing in Freedon Nadd's original experiments indicated that the orbalisks could be extracted from the host, and Bane's own research into the subject had failed to uncover anything to the contrary. But the Jedi Archives were the greatest single collection of assembled knowledge in the known galaxy. If an answer existed, they would find it there.
Her Master had taken every precaution to keep her true identity hidden while she visited the Archives. Through his network of mysterious informants and shadowy contacts, he had assembled a list of names and background portfolios for virtually every member of the Jedi Order. From this list, he had chosen one name that suited their purpose: Nalia Adollu.
Nalia was a Padawan of approximately Zannah's age under the tutelage of Anno Wen-Chii, a famously reclusive Pyn'gani Jedi Master on the Outer Rim world of Polus. Over the past week Zannah had memorized every detail of her profile and history, along with the history of Master Anno, so she could pass herself off as the young woman.
The cover story was simple: Zannah would claim her Master was studying a rare breed of parasitic organism that lived beneath the ice-covered surface of Polus. Eager to compare the newly discovered life-form with similar species from other worlds, but loath to leave the quiet of his homeworld, he had sent his Padawan to gather research materials from the Jedi Archive.
Yet she would need more than a plausible cover story to maintain her disguise when she presented herself to the chief librarian and asked for permission to view the Archives. Zannah and Nalia were of the same age. They were roughly the same height and shared the same athletic build. They both had long, flowing hair-though Zannah had dyed her locks a deep, lustrous black to match those of the other woman.
It had been five years since Nalia had last left her Master's side on Polus, so there was little chance of running into anyone who knew her well enough to recognize Zannah as an imposter. But even if her appearance didn't give her away, there was one final element to consider.
Throughout her mission, she would be surrounded by servants of the light; if they sensed the dark side in her, she would be instantly exposed. The secrecy she and Bane had worked so hard to preserve would be destroyed. Everything they had labored for over the past decade, everything they had accomplished, would be for naught. She would surely be captured, possibly condemned to death, and her Master would be hunted down and slain.
The only way the plan would work was if she could use the power of Sith sorcery to mask her strength while simultaneously projecting an aura of light-side energy. It was a complicated spell, one she had never tried before. It required a balance of strength and delicacy, and she had practiced it continuously in the weeks leading up to her departure. Yet despite her best efforts, there were still moments when her concentration slipped and her true nature showed through.
She just had to hope that, if it happened on Coruscant, none of the Jedi would be close enough to notice.