Darth Bane felt them long before he saw them.
Those ignorant in the ways of the Force saw it as only a weapon or tool: It could strike out against a foe in battle; it could levitate nearby objects and draw them into a waiting palm or fling them across a room. But these were mere wizard's tricks to one who understood its true power and potential.
The Force was a part of all living things, and all living things were a part of the Force. It flowed through every being, every animal and creature, every tree and plant. The fundamental energies of life and death coursed through it, causing ripples in the very fabric of existence.
Even distracted by the agonizing flashes of the blades slicing apart the inside of his skull, Bane was sensitive to these ripples. They gave him an awareness that transcended space and even time, granting him brief glimpses into the always shifting possibilities of the future. That was how, still two kilometers and several minutes away from where Kaan and his army had made their camp, he knew others were already there.
There were eight in total, all human-six men and two women. Mercenaries who had signed on with the Brotherhood for credits and a chance to strike at the hated Republic, they had survived the final battle with Hoth's troops. They had most likely fled the confrontation the instant Kaan had descended into the bowels of the planet's surface to lay his trap for the Jedi, displaying the loyalty of all followers bought and paid for. And now, like blood beetles picking the rotting meat off a bantha's corpse, they had come to scavenge whatever remnants of value they could find from the deserted Sith camp.
"There's someone up ahead," Zannah whispered a minute later. Less attuned to the subtle nuances of the Force than her Master, it had taken her longer to sense the danger. But given her lack of training, the fact that she had noticed anything at all was testament to her abilities.
"Wait here," Bane ordered, holding out a hand to freeze Zannah in her place. Wisely, she obeyed.
He didn't look back as he broke into a full run. The ground rushed by beneath his feet, a blur of motion as he called on the Force to drive him forward. The pain in his head vanished, swept away by the anticipation of battle and the physical exhilaration of his charge.
Within sixty seconds the Sith camp came into view, the outlines of the doomed mercenaries clearly visible as they argued over which objects were worthy of plunder. Six of the looters were gathered in the small clearing at the center of the camp, dividing up the spoils. The other two were on point: sentries stationed near the outskirts of the tents to watch for signs of trouble. Their posts were mere formality, however. The sentries should have been stationed on opposite sides of the camp to guard against assault from either direction. Instead the two men were standing less than twenty meters apart, more interested in having someone to pass the time with than in securing the perimeter.
Bane surveyed the scene with contempt as he bore down on them, the Force allowing him to take in every detail in one quick glance. The men on point were oblivious to his approach, their attention drawn by the angry shouts of disagreement coming from the other six bickering over their ill-gotten gains.
Altering his course slightly so his arrival would be hidden by a large supply tent until the last possible instant, Bane gave a final burst of acceleration and descended upon the camp in a storm of ruin. He drew and ignited his lightsaber in one smooth motion. The keening hum of the crimson blade preceded him, betraying his position a few precious seconds before his arrival. The advance warning gave just enough time for the nearest sentry to draw his blaster, but not nearly enough time to save him from the coming slaughter.
Bane materialized from behind the supply tent and fell on his first victim like a dark wind, slicing him diagonally from shoulder to hip. The man wore battle armor made up of composite plates stitched together on an interwoven padded underlay to allow for flexibility. The vest covering his chest was capable of absorbing several high-powered blaster shots from inside thirty meters, but Bane's blade sliced through the protective layers and carved a fatal five-centimeter gash through the flesh and bone beneath.
As the first victim toppled over, Bane leapt high in the air toward his next foe, instantly closing the ten meters between them and simultaneously evading the hastily fired shot from the second sentry's blaster pistol. As he came down virtually on top of his enemy, he delivered an overhead, two-handed descending chop- a classic move from Djem So, the fifth and most powerfully aggressive form of lightsaber combat. The heavy strike perfectly bisected the unfortunate man's helmet and drove deep into the skull beneath.
The gruesome ends of the first two mercenaries gave the others time to recognize what was happening. They drew their weapons and fired a full volley of blaster bolts at Bane as he turned to face them from across the camp. Smoothly transitioning from the attacking style of Form V to the more defensive style of Form III, Bane deflected the incoming bolts with two-handed parries of his lightsaber, flicking them aside with almost casual disdain.
Twirling his weapon in his right hand, Bane paused to relish the hopelessness and terror emanating from the half a dozen surviving mercenaries as they recognized the inevitable fact of their own deaths. Clustered together in the clearing between the tents, they did the only thing that gave any of them a chance of survival-they broke and ran.
They scattered in all directions: one of the women ran off to the left, two men ran off to the right; the other three turned and fled in a direct line away from the deadly interloper. Still twirling his light-saber, Bane thrust his empty hand out before him, palm extended as he unleashed the Force in a wave of concussive power at the woman fleeing to his left. The wave cut a swath of devastation through the camp. Tents were uprooted from the ground, their material torn and shredded. Wooden supply crates exploded into kindling> the shattered contents spraying out in a shower of splintered shrapnel.
The Force wave slammed into the woman's back, pulverizing her spine and snapping her neck as it drove her facedown into the dirt and pinned her against the ground. Her corpse twitched once, then went forever still.
Clenching the fingers of his left hand tight against his open palm, Bane wheeled toward the two men on his right and thrust his fist up into the air. A dozen forks of blue lightning arced out from above his head to envelop the screaming soldiers, cooking them alive. Shriek-ing in agony, they danced and twitched like marionettes on electric strings for several seconds before their smoking husks collapsed on the ground.
In the few seconds it had taken to dispatch the others, the surviving three mercenaries had reached the far side of the Sith camp. A few meters beyond the edge of the tents a line of trees marked the start of the thick Ruusan forests. The concealing branches taunted them with offers of safety, giving even greater haste to their terror-filled flight. Bane watched them retreat with idle disinterest, savoring their fear.
A handful of steps from freedom, one of the men made the fatal mistake of glancing back over his shoulder to see whether their adversary was following. On a whim, Bane sent his lightsaber hurtling toward him with a casual toss. The spinning blade sliced through the air in a tight loop, crossing the expanse of the camp in a fraction of a second before swooping back to be caught in the waiting hand of its Master.
Two of the mercenaries vanished into the forest, crashing through the underbrush. The third-the one who had paused to look back- stood still as stone. A second later his head toppled forward from his shoulders to bounce and roll across the ground, severed from the cauterized stump of his neck by the crimson blade of Bane's thrown lightsaber. As if the fallen head were a signal, the rigid limbs of the decapitated corpse went suddenly limp, and it fell over sideways.
Bane extinguished his lightsaber, the blade vanishing with a sharp hiss. For a brief instant he reveled in his victory, drinking in the last lingering remnants of his victims1 emotions, drawing power from their fear and suffering. And then the moment was gone, fleeing like those who had escaped his wrath. He could have pursued them, but as much as he yearned to taste their panic, he understood the purpose of letting them live.
"You let them get away."
He spun around in surprise to see Zannah standing just inside the perimeter of the camp. Engrossed in the slaughter, he hadn't sensed her approach. Either that, or his young apprentice had taken pains to shield her presence from him.
Don't underestimate her, Bane reminded himself. She has the power to one day surpass you.
"You let them get away" Zannah repeated. She didn't sound angry, or disappointed, or even pleased. She just seemed puzzled.
"I told you to wait for me," Bane admonished her. "Why did you disobey?"
She didn't answer right away, weighing her words carefully until she could find an answer that would appease her Master. "1 wanted to see the true power of the dark side," she admitted finally. "Can you teach me to... ?" She trailed off, unable to find the words to describe what she had just witnessed. Instead she simply waved her hand, indicating the totality of the carnage he had unleashed.
"You will learn," Bane assured her, attaching the hooked handle of his lightsaber back onto his belt.
She didn't smile, but there was an eager expression in her gaze, a hunger her Master knew well. He'd seen the same raw ambition in the eyes of Githany, his former lover and one of Kaan's doomed followers. He knew that if Zannah did not learn to temper and control her ambition, it would lead her down a path of destruction, just as it had with Githany.
"Prowess in combat is the simplest display of the dark side's power," her Master cautioned her. "Brutal and quick, it serves a purpose. Yet it is often less effective than subtlety and cunning. Ultimately letting those mercenaries live may prove more useful than killing them."
"But they were weak," his apprentice protested, throwing his own teachings back at him. "They deserved to die!"
"Few beings in the galaxy ever get what they truly deserve," he noted, choosing his words with care. The dark side was not easily understood; even be was still learning to work his way through its complexities and contradictions. He had to be careful not to overwhelm his young apprentice, yet it was important that she grasp the essence of what he had done here. "Our mission is not to bring death to all those unfit to live. We answer to a greater calling. All I have done on Ruusan, and all that we will do from this day forward, must serve our true purpose: the preservation of our Order and the survival of the Sith."
After a moment's consideration, Zannah shook her head. "I'm sorry, Master" she admitted, "I still don't get why you didn't just kill them."
"As servants of the dark side we revel in the vanquishing of our enemies. We draw power from their suffering, but we must balance this against greater gains. We must recognize that killing for sadistic pleasure-killing without reason, need, or purpose-is the act of a fool."
A frown of confusion crossed the young girl's face. "What purpose is there in letting scum like that live?"
"The Jedi believe the Order of the Sith died here on Ruusan," he explained patiently. "There are followers of the dark side on many other worlds: the Marauders of Honoghr and Gamorr, the Shadow Assassins of Ryloth and Umbara. But those with the greatest power-all those individuals with the potential to become true Sith Masters-had gathered together in Kaan's Brotherhood. As one they followed him into this war, and as one they followed him into death.
"But there will be those who doubt the totality of the Sith extinction. There will always be whispers that the Sith survive, hints and rumors that somewhere in the galaxy a Dark Lord lives. And if the Jedi ever find proof of our existence, they will be relentless in hunting us down."
He paused to let the implications of his last statement sink in before continuing. "We cannot live in isolation, cut off from the rest of the galaxy while cowering in fear. We must work to grow our power; we will need to interact with individuals of many species across many worlds. It is inevitable that some among them will recognize us for what we are, no matter our disguise. Eventually word of our existence will reach the ears of the Jedi."
Zannah was studying him closely, absorbing every word, seeking enlightenment in the murky logic of the dark side.
"Since we cannot hide the fact of our survival," Bane continued, "we must obscure it with half-truths. We must encourage the rumors, spreading them so thick they blind our enemies until they cannot separate myth from reality."
A glimmer of understanding illuminated Zannah's face. "A rumor is only as reliable as its source!" she exclaimed.
Bane nodded in satisfaction. "The survivors will spread the tale, but who will believe the likes of them? Everyone will know they are self-serving mercenaries who fled the final battle to save themselves, then came to loot the camp of their former allies. They will be spit upon as traitors and thieves. Nobody who hears their story will believe it, and the truth will be dismissed as a worthless rumor.
"And if there are any other witnesses to our presence on Ruusan " Bane added, spinning out the final thread of the convoluted tapestry of deception, "their accounts are now less likely to be believed. They will be tainted by their similarity to the so-called lies spewing from the mouths of cowardly looters."
"No use or purpose in their deaths" Zannah muttered, half to herself. She didn't say anything else, seemingly lost in thought as she mulled over all that she had been told.
Bane turned his attention away from his apprentice and focused on the items the looters had gathered in the center of the camp. He was the last of the Sith. If there was anything here of value, then by rights it should belong to him.
Most of what they had collected held no interest for Bane. Some of
Kaan's Brotherhood had hoarded items of immense value, believing that the greed and envy they inspired in others could feed the power of the dark side. The mercenaries had grabbed these trinkets-ornate rings and necklaces fashioned from precious metals and set with glittering stones; ceremonial daggers and knives, their hilts inlaid with gleaming gems; intricately carved masks and small statues of remarkable skill shaped from rare and delicate materials-and thrown them haphazardly in a pile.
Surveying the invaluable treasures that were worthless to his purpose, Bane felt another jolt of pain at the back of his head. In the same instant he saw a figure flicker at the corner of his right eye, then vanish from his field of vision.
He snapped his head around in the direction of the movement, but saw nothing. It hadn't been Zannah; this figure was much taller. He reached out with the Force, but felt only himself and his apprentice within the perimeter of the camp.
"What's the matter?" she asked, noting his sudden unease. "Is someone coming?"
"It's nothing," Bane replied. Was it nothing? he wondered. Or is this another side effect of the thought bomb?
Zannah made her way over to where he was standing, her eye drawn by the sun reflecting off the jewelry dumped on the ground. "What's this?" she asked, stooping to dig out something almost completely buried at the bottom of the pile.
She emerged with a thin, leather-bound manuscript. She turned it over curiously, examining it from all angles until Bane extended his hand. In response, she came dutifully forward and presented him with her find.
He recognized the style of the manuscript. There had been several similar volumes in the library at the Brotherhood's Academy on Kor-riban, though Bane had never seen this particular work before. The volume was thin, a few dozen pages at most, and the cover inscribed with arcane words traced in blood-red ink. Bane recognized the language. He had become familiar with the tongue of the ancient Sith during his studies at the Academy, turning to the wisdom of Masters long dead rather than trusting the fools who sought to instruct him in the tarnished "New Sith" philosophy of the Brotherhood.
He opened the volume and found that the same bloodred ink had been used to fill the pages with delicate script and elaborate illustrations. As with the words on the cover, the language inside was that of the ancient Sith. However, the margins of each page were filled with handwritten notes in Galactic Basic. He recognized the handwriting as that of Qordis, the former head of the Academy on Korriban and one of the many so-called Sith Lords serving under Kaan. Unlike the rest of the Brotherhood of Darkness, however, Qordis hadn't perished in the thought bomb's blast. He'd actually died several hours earlier when Bane had used the Force to crush the life out of his former teacher.
Why did Qordis bring this manuscript with him to Korriban? Bane wondered. Qordis had always been more concerned with hoarding wealth than studying the ancient texts. He wore only the finest silks and most expensive jewelry; each of the long, cruel fingers on both hands had been adorned with rings of incredible value. Even his tent on Korriban had been decorated with rare woven tapestries and ornate rugs. If he had carried this manuscript with him all the way from the Academy, Bane realized, it must contain knowledge of tremendous value
"What's it say?" Zannah asked, but Bane paid her no attention.
He flipped quickly through the manuscript, skimming both the original text and Qordis's notes. It seemed to be a compilation of the history and teachings of Freedon Nadd, a great Sith Master who had lived over three thousand standard years ago. Bane had read previous accounts of Nadd, but this one had something the other versions lacked: the location of his final resting place!
For many centuries the tomb of Freedon Nadd had been lost, hidden by the Jedi so that the followers of the dark side could not seek to gain guidance or power from the Sith artifacts sealed inside. But on the last page of the manuscript Qordis had made one final note, underlined for emphasis: Seek the tomb on Dxun.
How Qordis had come by this information signified little to Bane; all that mattered was that he now knew the location, too. The war on Ruusan had prevented Qordis from attempting to find Nadd's tomb on Dxun. Now that the war was over, there was nothing to keep Bane from making the journey and claiming Nadd's legacy as his own. But first he had to get off Ruusan.
The all-too-familiar jolt of pain shot through his skull, and once again he caught the flicker of a figure from the corner of his eye. This time the image seemed to sustain itself for nearly a full second. Tall, broad-shouldered, and clad in the robes of the Sith, it was a figure Bane recognized-Lord Kaan! And then, as before, it vanished,
Is this real? Was it possible that the leader of the Brotherhood of Darkness had, in some form, survived the thought bomb? Was it possible his spirit now haunted the world of his death?
He closed the volume and looked down at Zannah. She gave no indication that she had seen or sensed anything. Just a trick of the mind, Bane thought. It was the only explanation that made sense. Zannah would have felt the manifestation of a dark side spirit so close by, yet she had been oblivious.
The realization brought him an odd mix of relief and concern. When he had seen Kaan looming beside him, Bane had thought for an instant-just an instant-that he had failed in his quest to destroy the Brotherhood. But the affirmation of his mission's success was tempered by the awareness that the thought bomb had done even more damage than he'd first suspected. Hopefully the delusions and agonizing headaches were only temporary.
Zannah was still staring up at him, barely able to contain the flood of questions she had about what he had discovered inside the pages of the treasure she had found. Her expression of expectant curiosity turned to disappointment when he slid the manuscript into the folds of his clothes without offering any explanation. In time Bane would share all his knowledge, present and future, with her. But until he had a chance to explore Nadd's tomb himself, he was reluctant to tell anyone-even his apprentice-of its existence.
"Are you ready to leave this world?" he asked.
"I'm sick of this place," she answered, a hint of bitterness in her voice. "Things have gone bad ever since I got here."
"Your cousins," Bane asked, remembering a remark she had made earlier about the two boys with whom she had first arrived. "Do you miss them?"
"What's the point?" she replied with a shrug. "Tomcat and Bug are dead. Why waste time thinking about them?"
Her words were indifferent, but Bane recognized her callousness as a defense mechanism. Beneath the surface he could feel her passions burning: She was angry and resentful over their deaths; she blamed the Jedi for what happened, and she would never forgive them. Her rage would always be a part of her, simmering below the surface. It would serve her well in the years to come.
"Come with me," Bane said, reaching a decision.
He led her over to an abandoned swoop bike near one of the tents. He climbed aboard, and she clambered up onto the seat behind him. Her slim arms wrapped tightly around his waist as the swoop's engine roared to life and it lifted up into the air.
"Why are we taking the swoop?" she asked, shouting into his ear to be heard above the thrusters.
"We will travel faster this way. Time grows short," Bane called back over his shoulder. "Soon the Jedi will return to claim their dead and seek out the survivors of Kaan's army. But there is still one last lesson you must learn before we go."
He didn't say any more; some things could not be explained, but had to be witnessed to be understood. Zannah needed to see the remains of the thought bomb. She needed to see the true scope of Kaan's madness. She needed to grasp the finality of what Bane had accomplished here. And he needed to assure himself that the figure he had seen was nothing more than an aftereffect of his exposure to the thought bomb. He wanted to see with his own eyes undeniable proof that Kaan was truly destroyed.