Chapter 18

The Mystic dropped out of hyperspace with a jolt. Through the cockpit viewport a large planet loomed only a few thousand kilometers away, its surface concealed beneath a thick mass of rolling gray clouds. Bane checked the nav computer, confirming via the coordinates that he had arrived at Tython.

Like all planets in the Deep Core, Tython was a world shrouded in mystery and legend. Some accounts held that the Jedi had visited this world during the era of the Great Hunt, three thousand years ago, to cleanse it of the fearsome terentateks, monstrous creatures that fed on the lifeblood of those sensitive to the Force.

Much older legends identified Tython as the original birthplace of the Jedi Order over twenty-five thousand years before. According to the tale, priests and philosophers of the world had the ability to draw upon a mystical energy they called Ashla; a power that represented all compassion and mercy in the universe. They were opposed by a rival group that drew their strength from Boga, the manifestation of raw passion and pure uncontrolled emotion.

The stories said that a great war ensued between the two groups, with the worshipers of Ashla emerging victorious. The first Jedi Knights supposedly had evolved from the survivors of the war, creating the first Hghtsabers in their initiation ceremonies. Many years later, the legend continued, some of these Jedi left Tython and braved the unstable hyperspace routes to share their beliefs with worlds beyond the Deep Core. And as they met and mingled with other civilizations, Ashla and Boga became more commonly know as the light and dark sides of the Force,

Bane didn't know if the legend was true, but even if it was, it merely proved the superiority of the dark side and its inevitable conquest of the light. For though the followers of Ashla had supposedly defeated the followers of Boga, the dark side had prevailed in the end. Tython, revered by many as the birthplace of the Jedi Order itself, was now a bastion of dark side power, and the location of Bella Darzu's hidden fortress.

Bane knew it was possible that other people still lived on Tython: descendants of the early Jedi who had survived for eons in the isolation of the Deep Core. But he had no interest in seeking them out, even if they existed. Armed with the information from Helton's datacard, he was heading straight for Bella's stronghold.

Pushing forward on the yoke, he sent the Mystic plunging down into the atmosphere of the cloud-covered world. Breaking through the mist, he saw that the surface below was the color of ash; barren fields stretched endlessly beneath an unbroken mantle of gray and sunless sky.

He brought his ship in low, only a few hundred meters above the ground, as he raced toward the only feature visible on the horizon: a massive, two-towered citadel constructed entirely of black durasteel.

The building was square and measured 150 meters on each side. The exterior walls rose up thirty meters above the ground, and the only entrance appeared to be a massive, twenty-meter-wide gate on the face of the front wall. The towers stood on either side of the front wall, rising up another ten meters from the corners.

As he closed to within a few hundred meters, a barrage of ion cannon fire erupted from the towers. Bane pulled hard on the stick, banking the Mystic ninety degrees to starboard, narrowly avoiding the unexpected attack. Except for her technobeasts, Belia's stronghold was supposed to be empty.

He circled and brought his ship in again, setting the targeting systems to lock on to the first of the two towers. The ion cannons roared again, and Bane barrel-rolled out of the line of fire as he opened up with the Mystic's lasers, reducing one of the towers to a heap of molten slag as he flew by.

The Mystic's sensors had detected no life-forms present during his pass, suggesting that the ion cannons were likely part of an automated defense system still active after almost three centuries. This theory was confirmed twenty seconds later when Bane used the exact same barrel-roll maneuver on his next attack run to eliminate the second tower; automated defenses were nothing if not predictable.

He circled the citadel twice more, making a sensor and visual scan to confirm that there were no other threats before bringing his ship down to land on the barren ground a short distance from the stronghold's entrance.

Drawing his lightsaber, he leapt from the cockpit and moved carefully forward until he stood before the black gate. It loomed above him, a giant blast door without handles, hinges, or a visible control panel. Gathering his power, he placed his left palm against the surface. The gate exploded, rupturing inward with a sharp bang that reverberated down the long, dark hallway leading into the fortress.

Bane stepped forward, wary and watching for any trick or trap that might await him. He could feel the power of the dark side in this place, but he detected no immediate threats to his person, and he proceeded cautiously.

Using glow rods to light his way, he explored the stronghold room by room, stirring up dust that had lain undisturbed for centuries. It was primarily a military base, the majority of the space taken up with the barracks and mess halls necessary to house and provide for an army of followers. But the rooms were deserted. Not even the vermin and insects one would expect in an abandoned building prowled the halls, though whether they were kept at bay by the dark side energy permeating the air or by some unknown means he couldn't say.

As he moved deeper into the fortress, he began to come across Bella's alchemy labs. Sealed beakers filled with strange-colored liquids rested atop long metal tables. Empty vats connected by coiled glass piping used to distill or separate mixtures lined the walls. In one room the hearts and brains of a dozen different species floated in specimen bottles, preserved forever in clear embalming fluid. Another lab contained notes and sketches tracking Bella's efforts to transform living creatures into organic-droid hybrids.

Bane paused at these, glancing through them briefly before continuing on his way. He was unable to make sense of the cryptic scrawl; he needed to find Bella's archives-and hopefully the Holo-cron where she had stored all her knowledge-if he was to comprehend her experiments.

Near the back of the building he came upon a narrow set of stairs leading down to the underground levels. One thing Helton's research had not provided was a map of the stronghold's interior, but he could feel the power emanating from beneath him. There was little doubt that the source of the dark side energies hanging like smoke in the air of every room and hallway of the fortress was located at the bottom of the steps. It was here, Bane knew, that he would find Bella's inner sanctum.

He crept down the stairs. At the bottom was another long, narrow hall, and at the end of this corridor was a small, archaic wooden door. A sliver of pale fluorescent light shone out from beneath. Unlike the floor above, Bane realized, generators were still providing power to the room beyond-another sign that it was of critical importance.

Bane approached the door, pausing at the threshold. He was unable to get any sense of what awaited him on the other side; his Force awareness was overwhelmed by a great concentration of dark side power. Taking a deep breath, he gently pushed open the door and stared in fascinated horror.

The chamber beyond was enormous, at least fifty meters long and easily twenty wide. Standing alone in the center was a pedestal, atop of which rested a small, familiar four-sided pyramid: the Holocron of Bella Darzu. Yet this was not what had grabbed Bane's attention. The rest of the room had been completely overrun by an army of techno-beasts.

They seemed to have come from all manner of species: a menagerie of humanoids and beasts from every corner of the galaxy that had fallen victim to Bella's technovirus. Once a mutated combination of flesh and technology, most of the technobeasts' living tissue had long since rotted and fallen away. What remained were desiccated strands of skin and sinew clinging to bone, supported and held together by rods, wires, and twisted scraps of metal.

The arms and hands of those creatures that had walked on two legs in life had been transformed into flat, jagged blades extending from their elbows. The larger creatures-like the technobeast bantha he saw across the room, or the rancor near the pedestal in the center-had become machines of war, with blaster cannons fused to their shoulders and their hides replaced with spiked, plated armor.

From Helton's research, Bane knew that the technovirus attacked the frontal lobes of the brain, reducing its victims to mindless automata incapable of higher thought functions-a grim fate for any sentient being. The creatures in the room were in an even worse state. Over the centuries what remained of their brains had been kept alive by the nanogenes of the technovirus, but the inevitable long-term degradation had impaired their motor skills and reduced them to shells of shambling, mummified metal.

Bane guessed that the army assembled in the chamber must once have roamed the halls and rooms of the stronghold, guarding it against attack and serving the needs of their mistress. With Bella's death-poisoned by the assassins of the Mecrosa Order when her alliance with them fell apart-they had been left to wander mindlessly, without any purpose or direction. Over the decades they'd been slowly drawn to this chamber by the dark side energies radiating from the Holocron, the last surviving remnant of their mistress, calling them to her side. Driven only by simple, primal instinct, they had been helpless but to obey until, one by one, the entire bulk of her technobeast army had assembled in this single chamber.

An eerie silence hung over the scene; the vocal cords of the unfortunate creatures had disintegrated hundreds of years earlier. The only sound was the faint whirring of mechanized joints and the rusty scraping of metal across the stone floor as they milled about in slow confusion. Occasionally they would bump one another with a hollow clank, their movements awkward and clumsy as they jostled for position to move ever closer to the Holocron in the center of the room. But though they were clearly drawn to it, none dared to come within three meters of its pedestal. Instead they congregated in a loose, scuffling circle, an army of the living dead awaiting orders that would never come.

Bane stepped into the room, lightsaber drawn. The technobeasts ignored his presence, their attention focused only on the Holocron.

He made his way slowly through their legions, trying to estimate their number as he edged ever closer to the center of the room. Fifty? A hundred? It was impossible to count; their bodies of rusted metal and mummified flesh all seemed to blend together into a single ghastly mass.

Reaching the pedestal at the heart of their numbers, he paused, uncertain what would happen when he reached out to claim the Holocron as his own. Would the creatures bow down before him as their new Master, or would they fall upon him in single-minded fury to protect the idol they worshiped? There was only one way to find out.

As his fingers closed over the Holocron he heard a noise that caused him to pull his hand back with a start. It sounded like the moan of a long-dead god rising from the grave; a hundred mechanized limbs sprang to action with an angry hum as the monsters swarmed over him.

Bane thrust out with the Force, and a dozen of the oncoming creatures exploded into dust and tiny flecks of small, twisted metal. But the others surged forward like a wave, driving him under. Their feet stomped and kicked at him; their bladed arms slashed at him as he lay prone on the floor. But none of their attacks could pierce the chitinous shells of his orbalisk armor.

From his back, Bane slashed indiscriminately with his lightsaber, hewing off limbs with every swipe. There were no screams of pain or gouts of blood-the bodies of his enemies had been exsanguinated when their flesh had crumbled away centuries before. The only sounds of battle were the Dark Lord's own grunts of exertion, the clatter of metal falling to the stone floor, and the occasional small shower of sparks.

Even in their rage, the creatures were slow and cumbersome. Bane's vicious strokes quickly cleared enough space for him to find his feet again. He rose to see the wall of creatures pressing in on him, and he unleashed a wave of lightning through their ranks. The bolts arced through the mostly metal bodies; the nanotechnology that animated their frames and gave them life smoked and smoldered, and a dozen more of his opponents toppled over never to rise again.

A heavy blow suddenly struck Bane in the back, the metal rancor sending him flying with a swipe of one massive, club-like claw. He slammed face-first into what might once have been a human, and the technobeast opened its mouth and released a cloud of tiny metal spores directly into his face.

Bane breathed them in even as he cut the creature down, chopping it diagonally clean through from shoulder to hip. He could feel the technovirus inside him, its nanogene spores burrowing up to his brain to eat away his frontal lobes and begin the process of transforming him into an abomination that was neither droid nor alive.

Before he could reach out with the Force to save himself, he felt a surge of heat in his blood as the orbalisks released a burning chemical to destroy the microscopic invaders. His skull felt as if it were on fire as his heart pumped the searing chemical through his carotid artery and up into the capillaries of his brain, but he could feel the nanogenes wither and die in the heat almost instantly.

Using the pain in his head to fuel his rage, Bane spun and leapt at the rancor, slicing both its metal legs out from under it. The laser cannons on the creature's shoulders tried to fire at him, but in the more than two hundred years since its creation the power cells had lost their charge and the only result was a barely audible click. The torso fell to the floor, but the claws still clutched for him; Bane had to leap back out of the way before lunging forward to sever the arms at the shoulders.

That enemy vanquished, he used the Force to disintegrate two more advancing technobeasts, then felt something bump against his foot. He glanced down to see that the rancor's jaws had clamped shut on his boot; it was trying to gnaw off his leg. Once again his orbalisk armor protected him from harm, and Bane sliced the rancor's head from its body, relieved to see it finally go still.

There were still dozens upon dozens of the abominations in the chamber, closing in on him from all sides. Bane now realized that they couldn't possibly harm him, but he also knew the technobeasts would not stop until he had reduced each one to pieces.

The slaughter lasted over an hour. He used his lightsaber to repeatedly dismember his enemies, conserving his Force abilities to stave off exhaustion in arms, legs, shoulders, and back. Three times during the one-sided melee he allowed himself to lose focus, his martial instincts thrown out of sync by the unnerving silence of his enemies as they were butchered. Each time his attention lapsed he was knocked to the ground by the blows of one of the lumbering creatures that got close enough to make contact and forced to battle his way back to his feet. Two other times during the battle he felt the burning in his brain as the orbalisks purged his system of yet another cloud of nanogene spores he had unknowingly inhaled.

By the time it was done every muscle in his body ached from hewing through hundreds of cubic meters of metal, bringing back memories of the long shifts he had endured in the mines of Apatros as a young man. From wall to wall the room was littered with the limbs, torsos, and heads of the technobeasts, the carnage made bearable only by the fact that there was no gore.

Kicking aside the remains with weary legs, Darth Bane slowly cleared a path back to the center of the room. He extinguished his lightsaber and hung it from his belt, then staggered forward, grasping the edges of the pedestal to keep from collapsing as his thighs and calves simultaneously cramped.

Gritting his teeth, he leaned heavily on the pedestal to take the weight off the locked-up muscles. Breathing deeply, he called upon what remained of his Force abilities to replenish his strength. After several minutes the spasms began to fade, and he was able to stand gingerly once more.

His body and will were exhausted; the smart thing would be to rest before attempting to use the Holocron. But he had come too far, and endured too much, to be put off any longer.

Still clutching the pedestal for support with both hands, the Sith Master stared at the talisman, focusing his will on bringing it to life. Slowly it began to pulse with a faint inner light of deep, dark violet, and Bane smiled.

Soon, all the secrets of Belia Darzu would be his.