Chapter 23

Fuming, Zannah stomped her way across the sand between Caleb's shack and the edge of the camp, where her Master lay on the hover gurney

She checked the monitor attached to the gurney's side, getting a reading of his vitals. He was still alive, but fading fast. Soon he would be gone, taking all his knowledge and secrets with him.

She was standing over the gurney when Darovit emerged from the shack several minutes later. He crossed the camp to stand beside her, gazing down at Bane.

"When he goes," he said, offering his cousin words of condolence, "at least he'll go peacefully."

"Peace is a lie!" Zannah snarled back. "It doesn't matter if you die in your sleep or on the battlefield, dead is still dead."

"At least he's not feeling any pain," Darovit replied, tossing out another meaningless platitude.

"If you feel pain," she answered, "it means you're still alive. Give me pain over peace any day."

"I never thought I'd hear you say that, Zannah," Darovit said sadly, shaking his head, "Can't you see what he's made you become?" He made me become a Sith, she thought. Out loud she said, "He made me strong. He gave me power."

"Is that all you care about now, Zannah? Power?"

"Through power I gain victory, and through victory my chains are broken."

"Power doesn't always bring victory," Darovit countered. "Even with all the power you have, you couldn't make Caleb help you"

Bane would have found a way, she thought bitterly, but didn't say anything.

"I understand what happened to you" her cousin said, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, "You were just a kid. Scared. Alone. Bane found you and took you in. I understand your loyalty to him. I understand why you care about him."

Zannah shook his hand off and turned to stare at him with an expression of wide-eyed disbelief. "I'm a Sith. I don't care about anyone but myself."

"You care about me." Zannah didn't reply, refusing to be drawn again into the same argument they'd had on the way to Tython.

"You don't want to admit it" Darovit pressed, "but I know you care about me. And about your Master, too. Your actions prove that, no matter what you say. But Caleb's right, you know. Bane's a monster; we can't let him go free.

"But he doesn't necessarily have to die," he added. "What do you mean?" Zannah said, suddenly wary. "I spoke with Caleb. He thinks you're a monster, too. But he doesn't know you like I do. You're not a monster, Zannah . . . but you'll become one if you let anger and hate rule your life."

"Now you sound like the Jedi" she said carefully. Darovit was clearly up to something, but she couldn't figure out what it was.

"I'm starting to realize they're better than the alternative," he admitted. "I know what's going to happen, Zannah. If Bane dies, you'll kill Caleb."

She hesitated, then nodded. "Probably." There was no point in lying.

"You're balanced on the precipice" her cousin warned her, his voice suddenly urgent and intense. "You can still turn back from this life, Zannah. But if Bane dies, I know your desire to avenge him will drive you to murder Caleb. And I'm afraid your Master's death will push you over the edge. It'll turn you into him.

"I don't want you to turn into him," he added more softly, nodding down at Bane's motionless form on the gurney. "I have to save you from yourself. I had to find some way to stop you from killing Caleb. So I convinced him to heal Bane. It's the only way to make you turn away from the teachings of the Sith."

"That... that makes no sense," Zannah said, her mind reeling as she tried to wrap her head around his logic. "If Bane lives he'll never let me abandon my studies." And why would I even want to? she added silently.

"Before Caleb will help," her cousin explained, "you have to dispatch one of the Loranda's message drones. You have to tell the Jedi where we are so they can come and arrest Bane."

"What?" Zannah shouted, taking a half step away from him, "That's crazy!"

"No, it's not!" he said, grabbing her by the arm with his good hand and pulling her back to face him. "Please, Zannah, just listen to me. If you send that message to the Jedi and hand Bane over to them, it will prove you're turning your back on the ways of the Sith. It will show you want to make up for all the pain and suffering you've caused.

"And it's the only way Caleb will agree to heal him," he added a second later, letting go of her arm.

"You saw what Bane can do," she said. "What's to stop him from killing the Jedi when they get here?"

"The orbalisk toxin is melting Bane's body from the inside. Even with Caleb's help it will be weeks, maybe months, before he can even get out of bed."

"So what's to stop me from just taking Bane away as soon as he's healed?"

"Your greatest weapon is secrecy. The Jedi think your Order is extinct. They won't waste their time chasing shadows every time someone whispers the word Sith. That's the only reason you've been able to survive so far.

"But once you send off the message drone, everything changes. They'll know the Sith still exist. They'll have the proof they need to drive them to action. Every Jedi Knight and Jedi Master across a million worlds will be searching for you. The Sith won't be able to hide anymore."

Zannah knew he was right. It was the very reason Bane had worked so hard to keep their existence nothing more than an unfounded rumor.

"Besides," Darovit added, "Caleb won't do anything unless we disable the ship first. If you try to run, you'll have to drag Bane out into the desert on foot. Even if he survived the trip, you wouldn't get very far before the Jedi arrived."

"Sounds like the healer doesn't trust me," Zannah mumbled darkly.

"You did almost kill him," her cousin pointed out.

"If I hand him over to the Jedi," she wondered aloud, "what happens to me?"

"I don't know," the young man admitted. "The Jedi might arrest you, too. But I'm hoping they'll recognize your actions as a turning point in your life. Maybe they'll see it as an attempt to make amends.

"Maybe they'll even take you in," he suggested. "I've heard the Jedi believe in the power of redemption. And, like I said, it's better than the alternative."

"What about you?" she asked. "What will you do?"

"I won't be part of this if you choose to kill Caleb and let Bane die," he told her. "But I don't think you will."

"How can you be so sure?"

"I've told you, Zannah-we share a bond. I can tell what you're thinking, what you're feeling. You're afraid of being alone . . . but you're not alone. Not anymore.

"You'll make the right choice. And when you do, I'll be there for you."

She weighed the offer carefully, chewing on her lip so hard her teeth drew blood. If she refused, Bane was dead and she'd have to continue the Sith Order on her own. Kill Caleb, find an apprentice ... probably kill Darovit, too. If she agreed, she had to betray her Master to the Jedi, which would mark the end of the Sith and the first step in her long road of redemption and atonement.

"Bane's time is running out," her cousin prodded. "You have to decide."

The two paths loomed large before her: alone into the darkness, or into the light with Darovit at her side. She spun the problem over and over in her mind until, finally, the answer came to her.

"Tell Caleb I agree to his demands."

* * *

Bane opened his eyes slowly; his lids felt heavy, weighed down as if they were lined with metal filings. He could feel them brushing over his pupils, rubbing like sandpaper as he blinked against the harsh light streaming down on him. The brightness made him squint again as he tried to sit up.

His body refused to move. Legs, arms, and torso ignored the impulses from his brain to rise. Even his head couldn't budge. There was sensation in his extremities: He could tell he was lying on his back, and he could feel the rough grain of a burlap sheet or a coarsely woven cloth against his skin. But he was paralyzed, unable to move.

He let his eyes flicker open once more, and the brightness began to fade as his pupils gradually contracted. He was staring up at a low, sloping ceiling of simple wooden planks. A ray of sunlight beamed through a narrow crack in the wood, shining directly on his face.

Groaning he managed to turn his head to the side so the light no longer hit his eyes. The change of angle also gave him a better view of the room he was in: small, plain, and strangely familiar. Before he could match the setting to any of his memories, a figure stepped into his line of sight.

From the fact that he was staring directly into a pair of worn leather boots, Bane deduced that he was lying on the floor. The figure stood over him for a moment, then crouched down to look him in the eye.

The face-ten years older, but unmistakable-jogged the Dark Lord's memory. He had lain on this very floor over a decade earlier on the border between life and death, even as he lay now.

Caleb, he tried to say, but the only sound that came out was a soft groan. Like the rest of his body, his lips, tongue, and jaw refused to move. Bane tried to call upon the power of the dark side to grant him strength, but his will was as weak and helpless as the rest of him.

"He's awake," Caleb called out loudly, never taking his eyes off his patient.

From outside Bane heard the sound of approaching footsteps. He tried to speak again, pouring all his strength into a single word.

"Caleb."

His voice was a faint whisper, but this time the word was clear. The healer didn't bother to respond. Instead he stood up, leaving Bane staring at his boots once more. Bane heard the dull thud of running footsteps on the sand outside change to the sharp clack of boot heels on the shack's wooden floor.

"Let me see him!"

He recognized the voice of his apprentice, and his mind slowly began to reassemble the pieces of what had happened. He remembered the battle with the Jedi on Tython; he remembered unleashing a storm of Force lightning at the last of his foes. He remembered the kriffing shield the Ithorian Master had thrown up around him. After that, all his memories were of unbearable pain.

Somehow the Jedi's barrier had trapped Bane inside the center of the dark side storm. The electricity had enveloped him, millions of volts arcing through his body, cooking his flesh from the inside and throwing his muscles into an endless series of violent seizures that threatened to rip his body apart.

The energy had coursed through the orbalisks embedded in his skin, too. The creatures absorbed the power, hungrily devouring it until they became so engorged that the soft, pliant flesh of their underbellies had began to swell. Squeezed ever tighter against the unyielding chitin of their own exterior shells, they'd begun to burrow deeper into Bane. He remembered screaming as thousands of tiny teeth started sawing away at subcutaneous tissue, chewing through muscles, tendons, and even bone.

But burrowing deeper hadn't stopped the creatures from feasting on the electricity coursing through Bane's frying innards. They'd continued to expand until they had begun to pop, rupturing like overfilled balloons pinched beneath the hard shells.

Bane had stayed conscious through the torture of the electricity cooking him alive and the agony of the teeth burrowing into his flesh. But the indescribable pain from the chemicals released by the exploding orbalisks dissolving his body on a cellular level finally caused him to black out... only to wake up here.

A pair of boots stepped in beside Caleb's: the smaller feet of a woman, most likely Zannah.

"He's trying to speak," Caleb said from up above Bane's line of sight.

He tried to tilt his head again, this time managing to look up toward the pair standing over him. Zannah noticed and crouched down to raise his head and shoulders. She slid a makeshift pillow formed by her balled-up cloak underneath his neck to support him. He felt her long, thin fingers on his back as she did so.

The contact brought a realization crashing down on Bane-the orbalisks were gone! That was why he had felt the coarse blankets against his bare skin. That was why he could feel Zannah's fingers pressing against his flesh.

"Orbalisks?" he managed to gasp.

"We had to remove them" his apprentice informed him. "They were killing you."

Bane felt the world going dim again, his body exhausted by the two words he had spoken. As he lost consciousness, he felt a pang of regret for what he had lost.

* * *

To Zannah's untrained eye, her Master looked much stronger when he opened his eyes again two days later. This time he was able to turn his head slowly from side to side, taking in the surroundings of Caleb's home and the nearby presence of his apprentice.

"What happened?" he asked.

The words were faint, his voice still raw and ragged.

"Caleb healed you," she told him, adjusting the pillow she had taken from the Loranda and placed under his head and shoulders to prop him up. "He saved your life."

Four days ago such a statement would have been hard to imagine. Caleb had watched Zannah program the message drone and send it off to the Jedi, then warned her there was a strong chance Bane wouldn't survive the treatment.

She'd thought at first it might be a ploy, an excuse Caleb was giving to cover up his actions if he decided to let her Master die ... or simply killed him. So she'd kept a close eye on the healer during Bane's treatment. Even though she knew there were a hundred ways he could end Bane's life without her having any clue as to what he was doing, Zannah hoped her presence might dissuade him from trying anything underhanded.

Now she realized how pointless her vigil had been. Caleb was a man of his word; he was burdened and bound by foolish notions like honor. He had promised to help Bane as long as she alerted the Jedi, and since she had held up her end of the bargain, he had made every effort to do the same.

Zannah had originally suggested moving Bane back to the Lo-randa's medical bay for the treatments, but Caleb had refused. He'd claimed the powerful energies coursing through the land around his camp gave strength to his medicine. Darovit had agreed, and Zannah, having felt the power of the place herself, had relented.

The healer had started by forcing a foul-smelling liquid he had concocted in his cooking pot down Bane's throat to counter the effects of the orbalisk toxins. Darovit had warned her that the poison was killing Bane, eating away at his body. But it was only when they began to peel away the orbalisks, beginning with the charred shells of those that had died, that Zannah understood the full scope of how badly her Master had suffered.

What lay beneath could no longer be called skin; it couldn't even be properly called flesh. A pulpy mass of green and black ichors released by the parasitic organisms mixed with oozing white pus and bloody red tissue from Bane's own body. Looking at the damage it was obvious, even to someone like Zannah, with no medical expertise, that the only thing keeping Bane alive was his power in the Force. His wounds gave off the gangrenous odor of spoiled meat, and it was all she could do not to vomit.

The next step involved removing the still-living orbalisks. The key, as Zannah had suspected, was electricity. Caleb had brewed a sticky, highly conductive gel over his fire, then used it to coat the exterior shell of each orbalisk. Next he took a long, thin needle attached to a power cell salvaged from the Loranda and inserted it into a tiny hole at the very tip of the orbalisk's plated skull. The needle pierced the soft body underneath, discharging a powerful electrical jolt to stun the creature.

This caused the orbalisk to release a small burst of solvent chemicals that weakened the powerful adhesive the creature used to bond itself to the host. With the adhesive bond weakened, the creature could be manually pried loose. The still-stunned parasites were then tossed into a large, water-filled tank hooked up to one of the Lo~ randa's power cells and killed with a final dose of electricity. The process had to be carefully repeated for each individual in the colony that had sprouted over Bane's body, and even with both Darovit and Caleb working on him the procedure had taken several hours.

The flesh beneath the living orbalisks was pale and ragged, with deep, weeping sores where it had been constantly chewed and gnawed by the parasites' tiny teeth. The wounds looked minor when compared with the grisly mess beneath the dead shells.

Once Bane was cleansed of the infestation, Caleb had rubbed a salve over his entire body and wrapped him head-to-toe in bandages.

The dressings had been changed every four hours for the first two days, the salve reapplied each time.

Zannah was impressed with Caleb's skill. Bane had been little more than a mass of dead and infected tissue when the healer had begun, and by the time the bandages came off for good Bane's ravaged body had been reborn. His skin was now a bright pink, unusually supple and extremely sensitive, though over the coming weeks she'd been told it would slowly return to a more normal color and texture.

"Caleb saved me?" Bane muttered softly. "How did you convince him?"

Zannah hesitated, not sure what to tell him. Darovit and Caleb were just outside the door; they could walk in at any moment. But even if they caught her telling Bane about the message drone, why would they care? The deed was done. Her Master was still too weak to stand, and by now the Jedi were probably less than a day away from Ambria.

"We had to tell the Jedi you were here. I sent a message telling them a Sith Lord had killed five Jedi on Tython. I told them you were with Caleb on Ambria, injured and helpless. They're coming for you."

Anger flashed through Bane's eyes and he tried to sit up, but only managed to raise his head a few centimeters off the pillow before falling back. Realizing he was helpless, her Master stared at her with accusing eyes.

"You exposed me," he said. "You betrayed me."

"I had to keep you alive," she explained, falling back on the argument she had used to make her final decision. "You still have so much to teach me."

"How can that happen now?" he demanded angrily. "The Jedi will never allow it."

Zannah didn't have an answer she could give him. Bane closed his eyes, though whether in defeat or thought she couldn't say. She could just make out Darovit and Caleb talking in low voices outside by the fire.

Bane's eyes opened a few seconds later, burning with a fierce intensity.

"Darth Zannah, you are my apprentice. The heir to my legacy. You can still claim the destiny that is yours by right. You can still ascend to the rank of Sith Master."

He was speaking louder now, his strength slowly returning. Zannah wondered if the men outside could hear him.

"Take your lightsaber and strike me down! Claim my title as your own. Slay the others and flee this place before the Jedi arrive. Seek out a new apprentice. Keep our Order alive "

Zannah shook her head. Caleb had already considered that possibility, and effectively eliminated it. "Our ship is disabled, and the Jedi will be here in a matter of hours. Even if I flee into the desert, they will find me before I can escape this world."

"I never thought you would fail me so utterly," Bane told her, turning his head away from her in disgust. "I never thought you would be the one to destroy the Sith."

She didn't say anything in her defense, and a few seconds later Bane turned back to face her once more, casting his eyes to the lightsaber on her belt.

"I don't want to live as a prisoner to the Jedi," he said, his voice low, as if he now knew there were others who might overhear, "You can end this before they arrive."

Zannah shook her head. She hadn't gone to all the trouble of saving her Master's life just to kill him now. "While you live there is still hope, Bane," she said quietly, worried what Darovit or Caleb would think if they heard her words. Yet she had to offer some type of reassurance to her Master. "The Sith may yet rise again."

Bane shook his head, though it took a monumental effort. "The Jedi will never allow me to escape. They will sense my power, and keep me under the constant guard of a dozen Jedi Knights until the

Senate decides to execute me for my crimes. Kill me now and deny them their justice."

Zannah had spent the past two days by Bane's side, waiting for him to wake again. It had been clear he would live, but she'd wanted to speak with her Master to be certain his mind was still intact. She'd wanted proof that all his faculties-his intelligence, his cunning- had survived his ordeal. She had it now, ironically expressed in his desire to die.

"A Sith never surrenders, Master," she told him.

"And only a fool fights a battle that cannot possibly be won," he answered sharply. "The Jedi will be here soon. Act now. Strike me down!"

She shook her head. Her Master tried to rise, his fury giving him the strength to sit halfway up. And then he collapsed back onto the pillow, utterly exhausted.

As her Master slipped once more into unconsciousness, Zannah realized he was right. The Jedi were coming, and if she didn't act now it would be too late. She stood up and drew her lightsaber, knowing the hum of its blade would alert the two men outside. She didn't care. By the time they realized what she was doing it would be too late.