"I don't understand, Master Valenthyne," Johun said, casting his gaze from side to side as they made their way down the aisles of the Jedi Archives. "I left him here less than an hour ago."
He had expected to find Darovit sitting at a terminal in one of the four halls, or possibly examining the bronzium busts in the rotunda. But when he brought Master Valenthyne to speak with the young man, Darovit had vanished.
"He's probably just lost somewhere in the stacks " Farfalla assured him.
Johun signaled to a passing analysis droid. It turned and made its way toward them with quick, stiff-legged steps.
"May I be of assistance?" it inquired helpfully.
"I'm looking for someone," Johun explained. "A young man."
"Beings of all species and ages visit the Archives," the droid responded. "I would be better able to provide assistance if you could provide a description, Master Jedi."
"He is missing his right hand."
There was a soft whir as the droid accessed its recent memory banks.
"I believe I recently saw the man you are looking for in the third hall" the droid offered, turning to lead them in that direction.
Johun didn't bother to wait; he pushed past the droid in his haste. Farfalla followed closely at his heels.
There were many people examining the datacards located in the third hall, but the Healing Hermit of Ruusan was not among them.
"We've got to find him!" Johun said to his Master, then ran up and down the entire length of the hall, peering into the side aisles to see if Darovit was hidden among the stacks. His disruptive antics drew the ire of several of the other scholars.
Farfalla reached out and grabbed Johun as he ran past a second time, stopping him before he could make another lap of the hall.
"He's not here, Johun " he said.
There was a loud clearing of the throat, and two men turned to see an older redheaded woman glaring at them.
"Master Valenthyne," she said, "I respectfully remind you that the Archives is a place of contemplative research. Your young friend would be better served to resume his exercises out in the training yards."
"Our apologies, Master Qiina," he whispered. "But this is a matter of some urgency. We are looking for someone who has gone miss-ing"
"It is easy to lose oneself in the wisdom of the Archives," Qiina replied. "I myself often disappear for days at a time."
Farfalla smiled politely at the jest. "This is somewhat different."
The analysis droid that had been helping them earlier toddled over toward them, having only just now caught up after they left it behind in their haste. Johun glanced at the droid, then back to Master Qiina.
"We're looking for a young man" he told her. "He's missing his right hand"
Qiina raised her eyebrows. "I saw him not thirty minutes ago. He was with a young woman."
"A woman?" Farfalla asked in surprise.
"They seemed to know each other" the old Jedi informed them. "They called each other by silly little nicknames. Tomcat and Rain, if
I remember correctly."
Johun seized Farfalla's arm. "Rain was his cousin! The one he met down in the caves. She's here!"
"Do you know where they went, Master Qiina?" Farfalla asked. The old woman shook her head. "They were using that terminal over there to look something up. Then they left."
Farfalla turned to the droid. "Is there any way we can find out which records they were viewing?"
"I am sorry, Master Jedi," the droid replied. "To protect the privacy of our scholars and to avoid compromising their research, the terminals do not store any data on which records they were used to explore."
"Your friends seemed to be in quite a hurry" Qiina offered. "I doubt they even bothered to return the datadisk to the stacks. It might still be plugged into the terminal."
Johun rushed over to the screen. It was still logged on, under the name Nalia Adollu. As Qiina had guessed, there was a datacard loaded in. He pulled up the disk's index as Farfalla came and peered over his shoulder.
"Tython," the Jedi Master remarked, picking out the common theme among the thousands of articles and papers referenced by the index. "Birthplace of the Jedi."
"That must be where they're going" Johun insisted. "Bane must have gone into hiding in the Deep Core!"
He turned to Farfalla, clutching his Master's arm in his urgency. "You have to convince the Council to let us go after them."
Farfalla's eyes were cold and hard. "I doubt the Council will be in any great hurry to take action in this matter," he warned.
"But Master Valenthyne-" Johun pleaded, only to have the other man cut him off with a sharp wave of his hand.
"The Council will not help you, Johun. Therefore we must go to Tython ourselves."
Johun's eyes went wide in surprise.
"I swore a vow to General Hoth," Farfalla explained, his voice taking on the hard tone of military command he had not used since the disbanding of the Army of Light. "I promised I would not rest until the Sith had been cleansed from the galaxy. I still intend to honor that vow.
"Go find Masters Raskta and Worror," he added. "They also served with Hoth on Ruusan. They will join us in our cause. Tell them we leave within the hour."
* * *
The first thing Zannah did after the Loranda had escaped Coruscant's orbit and made the jump to hyperspace was wash the black dye out of her hair.
She'd engaged and locked the autopilot before heading off to the staterooms in the aft decks, leaving Tomcat to wander freely about the vessel. When she emerged, still drying her restored blond locks with a towel, he was calmly waiting for her.
He had settled in on one of the long, padded couches in the Lo-randas sitting lounge, reclining comfortably along its length. Judging by the drink in his hand, he had also located the collection of ales Hetton had kept on board. Still dressed in the ragtag robes of a hermit, he cut an image that was slightly comical.
"Even with the dye job gone, you still don't look anything like what I thought you'd grow up as," he told her.
It wasn't just her hair that Zannah had changed; she'd also replaced the drab Jedi robes with her more familiar and comfortable all-black garb. Being left-handed, she'd hung her lightsaber on that same hip, and the valuable datacard with the article on the orbalisks had been secured in a cargo pocket sewn into her trousers along the outside of her right thigh.
"This is the real me," she assured him.
She had often assumed character roles and disguises in her missions for Darth Bane, and she was usually comfortable in the act of deception. Yet for some reason she'd found the guise of Nalia repellent, and she'd been eager-almost desperate-to rid herself of all remnants of the Padawan facade.
"So am I your prisoner?" he asked as she sat down on the seat across from him.
"I don't think prisoners are allowed to drink tarul while they lounge on couches," she noted, tossing the towel onto the cushions beside her.
"Then why did you bring me along?" Tomcat asked, sitting up and leaning forward, suddenly serious and intent.
"I couldn't leave you behind. You were going to expose me and my Master to the Jedi Council. You were a threat to the Sith."
"Do you really believe you're a Sith, Rain?"
"Don't call me that," she said angrily. "Rain is dead. She died on Ruusan. My name's Zannah now."
"I guess Tomcat died on Ruusan, too " he agreed somberly, slowly swirling the glass in his hand. "You should probably call me Darovit now. But you never answered my question. Do you really believe you're a Sith?"
"I am Darth Zannah, apprentice of Darth Bane, Dark Lord of the
Sith," she said, making no effort to hide the fierce pride she felt in the titles. "And one day I will destroy my Master and choose an apprentice of my own, continuing the legacy of the dark side."
"I don't believe that" Darovit told her, obviously unimpressed with her declaration. "I know you, Zannah. You're not evil."
"Evil is a word used by the ignorant and the weak," she snapped. "The dark side is about survival. It's about unleashing your inner power. It glorifies the strength of the individual."
"That's not you, either," Darovit countered. "Followers of the dark side must be brutal and ruthless. You care about others, Zannah."
"You don't know me " she sneered at him. "I've killed more people than you can possibly imagine."
"I've killed people, too. Bug died because of me," Darovit said softly, referencing the third cousin who had come with them to Ruusan. "But killing people doesn't make someone into a Sith," he said in a louder voice.
"Don't lecture me on the ways of my order," Zannah warned, getting to her feet and snatching up the towel off the cushion beside him. "What could you possibly know that I have not already learned?"
"I may not know the dark side," Darovit admitted, looking up at her. "But I know you. I know what you're capable of."
Zannah angrily threw the towel across the room, flinging it through the open door into the stateroom. She stepped forward and grabbed Darovit's right forearm, spilling his drink. Then she twisted his arm up so his stump was right before his face.
"Maybe you forgot who gave you this" she reminded him.
Darovit made no move to break free of her grasp, though she clutched his arm so hard that her nails were digging into his flesh.
"I'm not a fool, Zannah" he said calmly. "Your Master would have killed me in that cave. I know you did this to save my life."
She released her grip, tossing Darovit's arm back down into his lap in disgust. She turned her back on him and marched up the corridor toward the cockpit. The young man tossed the empty glass onto the couch and scrambled to his feet to follow.
"You risked yourself to save me, Zannah," he called out after her as she neared the cockpit. "You did it because you cared about me."
Wheeling around, Zannah reached out with the Force and yanked Darovit to the floor. He landed with a grunt, facedown at her feet.
"Things have changed since then " she said, then spun away from him again and threw herself angrily into the pilot's seat.
Darovit got up slowly and moved to stand behind her chair, hovering over her right shoulder.
"If you don't care about me anymore, then why did you bring me with you?" he asked quietly.
"I already told you" she said stiffly, staring straight ahead. "You would have exposed us. I couldn't leave you behind."
"You could have killed me."
"Ha!" Zannah barked out a laugh, turning her head and craning her neck to glare at him contemptuously. "Just strike you down with the power of the dark side in the middle of the Jedi Temple? Do you think the Sith are fools?"
"We're not in the Jedi Temple anymore," Darovit said softly. "Why don't you kill me now?"
Zannah snapped her head forward again so she wouldn't have to look at him. "You're a healer. We can use you."
"There are plenty of healers in the galaxy," her cousin pressed. "Ones who can't expose you to the Jedi."
"I don't have time to find anyone else. You were in the right place at the right time," she insisted. "You got lucky"
"That's not true, Zannah. How do you think I recognized you after all these years? There's a bond between us. There always has been. Ever since we were little."
Zannah didn't say anything, but merely shifted in her seat.
"Do you remember when we were kids? Everyone thought I was so strong in the Force, and nobody believed you had any power at all."
She didn't answer, but she did remember. As children Darovit was the one who could levitate objects, and bat away fruit tossed into the air with a stick while blindfolded. Her own powers hadn't manifested until she found herself alone on Ruusan.
"I didn't realize it then, Zannah, but the power I showed, all those tricks I did-that wasn't me, it was you! Even as kids you knew how badly I wanted to be a Jedi, and you wanted to help me. So you channeled your own power through me, allowing me to do all those things."
"That's not how I remember it," she said coldly.
"You didn't do it on purpose," Darovit explained. "The bond we shared was so strong, and you cared about me so much, that your subconscious took over."
"That's the stupidest theory I've ever heard." Zannah snorted, still staring straight ahead.
"Is it? Think about it, Zannah. After we lost you on Ruusan, it was like my powers disappeared. That's why I failed as a Jedi and as a Sith.
"My power is weak. That's why I survived the thought bomb when all the Sith and Jedi around me were destroyed by its power. It only affected those with a strong affinity for the Force.
"And what about you? You have so much power. Why do you think it took so long to show itself? You were always channeling it through me." He paused. "You won't become the Dark Lord of the Sith, Zannah," he added. "It's just not in your nature. Sooner or later you'll realize that."
"Shut up," she said flatly, still keeping her eyes riveted on the controls in front of her. "If you say one more word I'll take your other hand."
Darovti didn't reply, but his fingers instinctively went to his stump.
"I brought you along for one reason, and one reason only" she continued, her voice still completely devoid of emotion. "My Master is infested with parasites called orbalisks. And you are going to heal him."
"But ... I don't know how" Darovit protested, forgetting her warnings to remain silent.
Zannah reached back with the Force, wrapping it around his windpipe. And slowly she began to squeeze. Darovit fell to his knees, his hands flying up to his throat as his oxygen was cut off.
"There is a data terminal in the back," Zannah said, ignoring his choking coughs. "Use it to go over everything in the article I took from the Archives."
She pulled the card from the pocket on her thigh and tossed it down in front of her suffocating cousin. He was rolling back and forth on the floor now, his hands clawing at his throat. His face had turned a bright red, and his eyes were starting to bulge from his sockets.
"If you can't find a way to help my Master by the time we get to Tython " she warned, "he will kill you."
She released Darovit from the Force choke, and he gasped and gulped down air in raw, ragged breaths. She turned to watch him with a cruel smile on her lips, making sure he knew she was enjoying his suffering. Eventually he recovered enough to pick up the datacard and head for the terminal in the back.
Once he was gone, Zannah got up from her chair and began to pace back and forth between the pilot's and copilot's seats. She knew Darovit was wrong. He had to be. She was confident in her commitment to the dark side, despite everything her cousin had said. But there was enough weight to some of his arguments to make her wonder what Bane would think about all this.
If her Master-like Darovit-believed her actions showed a lack of commitment to the ways of the Sith, things would go very badly for her when they reached Tython.
* * *
Belia Darzu had been a Shi'ido in life, a changeling species whose members were capable of shifting their appearance, so it was not surprising that the projection that served as the gatekeeper of her Holocron similarly changed forms. At various times she appeared to be Twi'lek, Iridonian, Cerean, or human, occasionally even switching between genders.
"The process of creating a Holocron cannot be rushed " the gatekeeper explained. "The adjustments to the matrix must be made with precision and care."
She was currently in the form she most often assumed: that of a tall human female with short brown hair. She appeared to be roughly thirty years of age, with a sly, almost crafty, look to her features. In this guise she was typically clad in a dark, formfitting flight suit, dark boots, and a pale yellow vest that left her arms bare. She also wore yellow gloves, a short black sleeve over each elbow, and a red flight cap and belt.
After his initial activation of the Holocron's power, Bane had brought it up out of the inner sanctum and into a large common room on the main level that once served as a mess hall for Belia's living followers. Here Bane had been exploring the Holocron off and on for the past several days. He had proceeded carefully, still drained from his battle with the technobeasts. The slow pace allowed him to recuperate his energies and rebuild his strength as he probed the crystal archives.
Much of what he discovered focused on the rituals and practices of Sith alchemy-something he would explore in depth when he had more time. Other times he stumbled across Belia's own philosophical examinations of the Force, though in truth there was little there that Bane hadn't already discovered for himself. Only now had he finally found what he had truly been searching for.
"It can take weeks, or even months" Belia's image explained, "before the final stages of construction are completed."
Her form flickered, to be replaced by the image of a Holocron shown in cutaway. The filaments and strands of the crystal matrix in the image began to shift and move, illustrating the adjustments the gatekeeper was talking about. Bane didn't bother paying close attention; he already knew how to fine-tune the matrix's internal structures.
"You said the adjustments can take months. How is that possible?" Bane asked with a shake of his head. "The cognitive network degrades too quickly."
Belia's image flickered into view again. "The cognitive network must be trapped within the capstone before you begin," she explained.
"Capstone?" Bane asked, his nerves tingling with excitement. In all his research he had never heard mention of a capstone before.
An image of a Holocron appeared once more, though no longer in cutaway. The small black crystal built into the apex of the pyramid was flashing.
"The capstone is key to the process," Belia's voice said. "Without it the cognitive network will degrade before you complete your adjustments, and you will fail every time."
Bane stared in wonder at the image. He had known that the dark crystal was an essential part of the Holocron's construction. Yet he had believed its sole purpose was to channel the power of the symbols etched across the sides of the pyramid into the matrix. He never imagined it would serve another function as well.
"How do I trap the cognitive network inside the capstone?" he asked, eager to learn the secret that had eluded him.
"You must invoke the Rite of Commencement," Belia told him.
The projection shifted to show an incredibly elaborate and complicated Sith ritual, one that went beyond anything Bane had mastered so far. With subtle pushes from the Force he flipped through image after image after image, realizing it would take him many months of careful study to memorize the rite. Still... the secret was his!
Satisfied, he shut the Holocron down. It was time to leave Tython and return to Ambria. If all had gone well, his apprentice would be there waiting for him.
He made his way outside, where the Mystic waited. But as he prepared to board his ship, he saw another vessel in the distance racing toward him. He reached out with the Force, and felt the presence of Zannah inside... and one other.
The Loranda came in to land fifty meters from where his own ship had touched down. Bane stood impassively, waiting for Zannah to emerge. When she did, there was a young man with her. The Dark Lord could feel the Force in him, though its presence was weak. When he saw that the man was missing his right hand, everything fell into place.
"We were supposed to meet at Ambria," he snarled at Zannah. "Why did you come here? And why did you bring him?"
"I came to warn you," she answered quickly. "The Jedi know you survived the thought bomb."
"Because of him," Bane said, nodding in the other man's direction.
"He was going to speak to the Jedi Council," Zannah explained. "If he vanished, they might dismiss the rumors that you still lived."
"Why didn't you just kill him?" Bane asked, his tone ominous.
"He's a healer" was her immediate reply. "He knows how to free you from the orbalisks."
Zannah's answers came too quickly to suit Bane. It was as if she had already had this argument, likely rehearsing it in her head over and over in preparation for this meeting.
"Is this true?" he demanded of the other man. "I can't do it here," Darovit answered. "I need supplies. Special equipment. It's dangerous, but I think it can be done."
Bane hesitated. Not because of the potential danger; he had known that any procedure to rid himself of his infestation would be fraught with risk. But now that he knew his failures with the Holocron were not linked to the orbalisks feeding on his power, he wanted to reevaluate the decision to remove them.
The sight of another ship appearing over his apprentice's shoulder, still too far in the distance to make out a model or affiliation, put an end to his deliberations. An instant later he felt the unmistakable light-side power of those on board.
Zannah must have felt it too; she turned and looked in that direction, then turned back to him with a worried grimace.
"Is something wrong?" the young healer asked, noticing the exchange. "What is it?"
"We were followed," Zannah muttered.
The ship was coming in quickly, too fast for them to get into their own craft and take to the sky. If they tried, the other vessel would shoot them down before they took off.
"Inside the fortress," Bane ordered. "The Jedi have found us."