Darovit lay huddled on the cold cavern floor, bathed in the eerie light emanating from the egg-shaped silver orb hovering in the center of the underground chamber. He hadn't moved for nearly two hours, paralyzed with the wonder and horror of it all. It was as if time had no meaning here at the epicenter of the thought bomb; as if Darovit himself were now suspended between life and death, trapped like the tormented spirits of Kaan's followers and the Jedi who had dared to face them.
Eventually, however, his shock began to fade. Slowly sanity crept back in, dragging the reality of the physical world with it. The air in the cave was damp and chilled; his body was shivering almost uncontrollably. His nose was running, and he reached up to wipe it away with a shaking hand, his fingers clumsy with the numbing cold.
"Come on, Tomcat," he said to himself. "Time to get moving. Up and at 'em."
With a great effort he managed to get to his feet, then fell back down with a cry as his calves and thighs cramped beneath him. The pain helped break the last lingering vestiges of the spell he was under, snapping him back to the present and focusing his mind on the here and now.
Frantically he massaged each of his legs, trying to restore the blood flow. He was anxious to leave this place now, desperate to get away from the evil presence of the silently pulsing bomb. Glancing up at it made his skin crawl, yet as repulsive as it was, he found it strangely compelling.
"Don't look at it," he berated himself in a sharp whisper, redoubling his efforts to ease the pain and tightness in his lower limbs. After another minute he dared to stand up again. Pins and needles shot through the soles of his feet, and his knees buckled briefly, but he stayed standing.
He looked from side to side, scanning the cavern by the light of the orb. There were at least half a dozen entrances leading out from the chamber, and Darovit swore when he realized he had no idea which would lead him back up to the surface.
"You can't stay here," he muttered.
Picking a tunnel at random, he made his way with slow, uneasy steps out of the cavern. The darkness quickly enveloped him once he entered the passage, until he drew out the lightsaber the Sith had given him. Using the faint glow of its ruby blade, he was able to pick his way along the uneven terrain.
It didn't take him long to realize he'd made the wrong choice. He remembered the sharp incline he had tumbled down on his arrival, but the floor here was relatively flat. It would have been a simple matter to head back and take one of the other exits. But the thought of returning to the main chamber-and the orb of trapped spirits-prevented him from turning around.
"This tunnel's gotta come out somewhere," he told himself. "Just follow it to the surface."
The plan sounded simple, but it became more complicated when he reached a fork in the passage. He hesitated for several moments, studying the branch heading off to his left and then the one heading off to his right. Neither offered any clue as to which-if either- would lead him to freedom. With a resigned sigh and a shake of the head, he chose the one on the left.
Forty minutes and three more branches later he was regretting his decision. He couldn't go back to the cavern now even if he'd wanted to; he had become hopelessly turned around in the subterranean labyrinth. His stomach grumbled, and the realization that he might never find his way out began to creep into the corners of his mind.
He pushed on, his pace increasing with his rising panic. He was running now, his eyes darting from side to side, hoping that the dim illumination of the lightsaber's blade would reveal something- anything-that might show him the way. He darted down another side tunnel, stumbling along in his haste until he tripped and fell.
As he threw his hands forward to break his fall, the lightsaber flew from his grasp. It scored a gash along the wall, then bounced away from him across the uneven floor, extinguishing itself and casting all into total darkness.
Darovit had hit the ground hard. He lay facedown in the utter blackness of the tunnel, surrendering to the hopeless despair that crashed in on him. There was no point in going on; he would never find his way out. Better to just die here, forgotten and alone.
He rolled over onto his back, blind eyes staring up at the ceiling. And then he heard a sound. It was faint but unmistakable. A voice coming from a great distance, cutting through the oppressive silence.
Now you re hearing things, Tomcat, he thought. But a second later he heard it again, echoing through the tunnel. Someone else was down here!
He didn't know if it was a Jedi come to witness the fate of his fallen comrades, a minion of the Sith who had fled the final battle, or someone allied with a completely different group. He had no idea if whoever it was would welcome him, take him prisoner, or kill him on sight. But he didn't care. Even the fear of going back to the chamber and the unnatural, unholy silver orb didn't hold him back this time. Anything was better than dying of exposure or starvation in these dark tunnels beneath the planet's surface.
Crawling forward through the gloom, he felt around with his hands until his fingers closed around the hilt of the lightsaber. He thrust it triumphantly up in the air as it ignited, allowing him to see once more.
He had no way of knowing how far away the owner of the voice was. The acoustics of the tunnel were strange and unfamiliar. Sounds and echoes were unnaturally distorted as they bounced across the irregular stone walls of the underground maze. But he was certain the voice had come from somewhere up ahead, in the direction he had been going.
With the glowing blade to guide him, he moved with an eager confidence. Every minute or so he would catch another snatch of conversation coming to him from somewhere up ahead. He could tell there were two speakers now, each with a distinct voice: one a deep bass, the other a much higher pitch. Each time he heard the voices, they were slightly louder, and he knew he was headed in the right direction.
He noticed that the darkness of the tunnel was fading; he no longer needed his lightsaber to see his surroundings. But it wasn't the yellow light of the sun streaming in as he neared the surface; it was a cold silver glow. With a start he realized he had somehow circled back and was once more approaching the chamber of the thought bomb. Whoever the voices belonged to-friend or foe-he'd find them there.
The chamber was close, so close he could make out the words the next time the voices spoke.
"The Sith are only two now-one Master and one apprentice " the deeper one said. "There will be no others."
"What happens if I fail?" the other replied.
Sounds like a woman, Darovit thought, too focused on following the voices to pay much attention to the actual words. No, not a woman, he corrected himself a second later. A girl
"Will you destroy me, too?" the girl asked.
With a shock, Darovit realized that he knew the voice! He didn't know how it was possible, but there was no doubt in his mind who this was.
"Rain!" he shouted, breaking into a run to meet the cousin he had thought was dead. "Rain, you're alive!"
* * *
The trip to the cave was quick and uneventful. Bane had noticed a few shell-shocked survivors of the final battle of Ruusan staring at him and Zannah as they roared past on their swoop, but he paid them little heed. He doubted any of them would recognize him for what he truly was. And even if they did, their tales of a surviving Sith Lord racing past them with a young girl in tow would seem as ludicrous and unreliable as the accounts of the mercenaries he had let escape back at Kaan's camp.
He brought the swoop to a stop outside the dark and forbidding tunnel that would lead them down to the chamber of the thought bomb. Small pebbles crunched loudly beneath the hard soles of his heavy black boots as he dismounted. Zannah was too small to simply step off the vehicle, but she leapt down from her seat without any sign of fear or hesitation, landing nimbly on the ground beside him.
Neither of them spoke as they made the descent, their way lit by one of the glow rods Bane had found in the supplies back at the Sith camp. The air grew colder and Zannah shivered beside him, but she didn't complain. They moved quickly down the rough-hewn passage; even so it took nearly twenty minutes for them to reach their destination due to the length of the tunnel. And for the first time Darth Bane actually saw what his manipulations of Kaan and his followers had wrought.
The pale, glowing orb floating in the center of the chamber was nearly four meters tall. It pulsed with raw power; it made the flesh on Bane's neck crawl and the hair on his arms stand on end. Dark veins of shadow swirled on the shimmering metallic surface in slow, hypnotic rhythms. There was something grotesquely compelling about it, something fascinating yet repulsive at the same time.
Beside him Zannah gasped, drawing a sharp breath in wonder then releasing it in a slow hiss of fear. He glanced down at her, but she didn't return his gaze-her wide eyes were transfixed by the remnants of the thought bomb. Turning his attention back to the orb, Bane stepped forward into the chamber. Zannah took a single step to follow him, then held back.
Approaching the globe, he reached out with his bare hand and pressed it firmly against the surface. It seared his palm with cold fire, but he was oblivious to the pain, enthralled by the object's mesmerizing call. Beneath his touch the dark swirling shadows within coalesced into a single mass. The thoughts of those trapped inside rushed up to meet him: faint whispers in the dark recesses of his mind, the words unintelligible but full of hate and despair.
Instinctively Bane's consciousness recoiled. He resisted, fighting the urge to pull his hand back. Instead he thrust his awareness forward, penetrating the surface of the orb to plunge into the unfathomable depths of its black heart. The hateful whispers erupted into shrieks of torment. But these were not the screams of sentient beings: they were bestial howls of primal, mindless fury. The identities of those the thought bomb had consumed-Lord Kaan, General Hoth, all their Sith and Jedi followers-had been destroyed, ripped apart by the thought bomb's explosion. Only torn bits remained, broken pieces of what once had been spirits, no longer capable of conscious thought, wailing in the shared suffering of their eternal madness.
They swarmed over Bane's consciousness, cleaving to his still-whole identity like parasites attaching themselves to a fresh host. The keening spirits enveloped him, clutching and clawing at his sanity as they tried to drag him down with them into their dark abyss.
Bane tore free with contemptuous ease, shredding the already frail and tattered spirits as he cast them aside, and let his mind drift back to the surface. An instant later he was free, leaving behind the prison from which the others would never escape.
He let his hand drop from the oblong sphere as he took a step back, satisfied at what he had learned. There were no ghosts haunting him; Kaan was no more. Not in any real sense. The figure he had seen at the Sith camp had been nothing but a delusion conjured up by his own wounded psyche.
"Are they trapped in there?" Zannah asked. She was staring at Bane with an expression of both awe and terror.
"Trapped. Dead. It makes no difference" he answered with a shrug. "Kaan and the Brotherhood are gone. They got what they deserved."
"Were they weak?"
Bane didn't answer right away. Kaan had been many things- ambitious, charismatic, stubborn, and in the end a fool-but he had never been weak.
"Kaan was a traitor," he said at last. "He led the Brotherhood away from the teachings of the ancient Sith. He turned his back on the very essence of the dark side."
Zannah didn't reply, but she looked up at him expectantly. The role of mentor was a new one for Bane; he was a man of action, not words. He wasn't used to taking the time to share his wisdom with another desperate to learn it. But he was smart enough to understand that the lessons would have far more meaning if his apprentice could figure out some of the answers for herself.
"Why did you choose to become my apprentice?" he asked, challenging her. "Why did you choose the way of the dark side?"
"Power," she replied quickly.
"Power is only a means to an end," Bane admonished her. "It is not an end in itself. What do you need power for?"
The girl furrowed her brow. Her Master already recognized this expression as a sign she was struggling to come up with an answer.
"Through power I gain victory," she said when she finally spoke, reciting the final lines of the Sith Code she had learned only a few hours earlier. From her tone it was clear she was trying to work through her limited understanding of the dark side to arrive at the answer Bane wanted.
"Through victory my chains are broken ..." she continued, slowly searching for an answer just beyond her reach. A second later she exclaimed, "Freedom! The dark side sets us free!"
Bane nodded his approval. "The ledi shackle themselves in chains of obedience: obedience to the Jedi Council; obedience to their Masters; obedience to the Republic. Those who follow the light side even believe they must submit themselves to the Force. They are merely instruments of its will, slaves to a greater good.
"Those who follow the dark side see the truth of their enslavement. We recognize the chains that bind us and hold us back. We believe in the power of the individual to break these chains. That is the path to greatness. Only if we are free can we reach our full potential.
"The belief that an individual must not bow down before anyone or anything is the dark side's greatest strength " Bane continued. "But it is also our ultimate weakness. The struggle to rise above those around you is often violent, and in the past the Sith were constantly at one anothers' throats."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Zannah interjected, "The strong will survive and the weak will die."
"Weak does not mean stupid," Bane countered. "There were those with less power, but more cunning. Several apprentices would band together to take down a powerful Master, hoping to elevate their own position among the Sith. Then they would turn on one another, making and breaking alliances until only one remained-a new Master, but one weaker than the original. This survivor would then be taken down in turn by another band of lesser Sith, further weakening our Order.
"Kaan recognized this. But his solution was far worse than the problem. Kaan declared all the followers of the dark side-all the members of the Sith Order-as equals in the Brotherhood of Darkness. In doing so, he betrayed us all."
"Equality is a lie" Bane told her. "A myth to appease the masses. Simply look around and you will see the lie for what it is! There are those with power, those with the strength and will to lead. And there are those meant to follow-those incapable of anything but servitude and a meager, worthless existence.
"Equality is a perversion of the natural order!" he continued, his voice rising as he shared the fundamental truth that lay at the core of his beliefs. "It binds the strong to the weak. They become anchors that drag the exceptional down to mediocrity. Individuals destined and deserving of greatness have it denied them. They suffer for the sake of keeping them even with their inferiors.
"Equality is a chain, like obedience. Like fear or uncertainty or self-doubt. The dark side will break these chains. But Kaan could not see this. He did not grasp the true power of the dark side. The Brotherhood of Darkness was nothing but a twisted reflection of the Jedi Order, a dark parody of the very thing we stood against. Under Kaan the Sith had become an abomination."
"And that's why you killed him," Zannah said, thinking the lesson had come to an end.
"That is why I manipulated Kaan into killing himself," Bane corrected. "Remember: power alone is not enough. Patience. Cunning. Secrecy. These are the tools we will use to bring down the Jedi. The Sith are only two now-one Master and one apprentice. There will be no others."
Zannah nodded, though something still seemed to be troubling her. "What happens if I fail?" she asked, glancing toward the thought bomb. "Will you destroy me, too?"
Bane's answer was cut off by a shout coming from one of the nearby passages.
"Rain! Rain, you're alive!"
A boy sprinted out of the shadows, no more than a year or two older than Zannah. He had dark hair and wore the black armor of the Sith. A lightsaber hilt was clutched tightly in his right hand. Despite these warrior's trappings, it was immediately obvious to Bane that this child posed no threat. The Force was barely alive in him. The power that burned so brightly inside Zannah was nothing but a dying ember of gray ash in this one.
"Tomcat!" Zannah shouted, her face lighting up with joy. She took a step forward, extending her arms as if she wanted to hug him. Then, as if suddenly remembering the presence of her Sith Master, she pulled up short and clutched her hands to her chest.
Oblivious, the boy kept coming. He didn't register her sudden change in mood; he hadn't even noticed the two-meter-tall figure looming in the shadows behind her. There was something pathetic about him, a desperate loneliness in his voice and his eyes that turned Bane's stomach.
"I'm so glad, Rain," the boy gasped as he skidded to a stop in front of Zannah, reaching forward to hug her. "So glad you're-"
She stepped back and shook her head, causing his words to catch in his throat. The happiness in his face vanished, replaced by a look of hurt bewilderment.
"I... I am not Rain," Bane's apprentice said, rejecting her childhood nickname and all it symbolized. "I am Zannah."
"Zannah?" A look of confusion crept across the boy's face. "Your real name? But why?"
Fumbling for answers, he finally tore his gaze away from the young girl and noticed Bane standing motionless in the background. His bewilderment became comprehension, and quickly turned into righteous rage.
"You!" he shouted, pointing an accusing finger at Bane. Then, as if suddenly remembering the weapon in his hand, he ignited his lightsaber. "You stay away from her!" he screamed. "I will fight you!"
The boy knew he was overmatched. He knew he had no chance to win a battle against a Dark Lord of the Sith. Yet he chose to stay and fight anyway-the actions of a complete and utter fool.
Darth Bane regarded his doomed adversary with contemptuous indifference. This boy was nothing to him-an inconsequential speck he would wipe away. If the boy wanted the vain and empty glory of a so-called courageous death, Bane would grant it.
He dropped his hand casually to his lightsaber, but before he could ignite his weapon, Zannah reacted. Just as she had done when she had broken the necks of the unfortunate Jedi who had accidentally killed her friend, the girl unleashed a wave of unstoppable dark side energy. She acted on pure instinct, drawing on her natural affinity for the Force with no forethought, preparation, or even training.
It happened so quickly Bane never even had a chance to put up his guard . . . but the attack wasn't directed at him. The right hand of the boy she had called Tomcat-her cousin and childhood friend-disintegrated. With a mere thought she obliterated everything below his wrist: flesh, bone and tendon vanished in a bloody explosion, leaving only a ragged stump.
With nothing left to grip it, the hilt of his lightsaber clattered to the floor, the blade extinguished. Howling in pain, the boy fell to his knees, clutching his mutilated limb to his chest. Small spurts of blood pumped out of the wound and splattered onto the cavern floor.
The Master glared down at his apprentice. "Why?" he demanded.
"Because there would be no use or purpose in his death," she answered, echoing his own explanation for letting two of the mercenaries survive.
Bane was smart enough to recognize what was happening. Zan-nah was trying to save her cousin's life. He knew that the emotions driving her-sentimentality, mercy, compassion-were weaknesses from which she must learn to free herself. But he didn't expect his apprentice to learn the ways of the dark side in a single day.
He looked down at the injured boy crumpled on the ground. The blood spurting from his stump had slowed; the blast that had taken his hand had also partially cauterized the wound. The flow was further stanched by dust and grime from the cavern floor as he rolled back and forth at Zannah's feet. Tears poured from his eyes and mucus ran from his nose to clog his mouth and throat, turning his cries into thick, blubbery whimpers. She regarded him with a cold and calculating eye, feigning disinterest.
The risks from letting this wretched creature live were small, Bane decided. Like the mercenaries, no one would believe his tales of surviving an encounter with a Sith Master. It was obvious that Zannah wanted the boy alive. But she hadn't begged or bargained for his life. Instead she had taken charge of the situation, unleashing the dark side and then defending her actions with Bane's own teachings. She had shown not only her power, but also her intelligence and cunning. It was important to reward such behavior-to encourage her when she displayed the gifts and talents that would allow her to one day take the mantle of Dark Lord from her Master's shoulders. More important than ending the life of one miserable, insignificant boy. "Leave him " Bane said, turning on his heel. "He is nothing to us." Zannah quickly fell into step beside him as they made their way from the chamber and began the long, slow climb through the tunnels back to Ruusan's surface. Bane noted with satisfaction that even though Tomcat's pitiful sobs echoed after them, his apprentice never once glanced back.