Prepare for reentry turbulence," Irtanna warned them from the pilot's seat of their shuttle. With a crew of only five, she had no need to use the shipboard intercom. She simply spoke loud enough for everyone aboard to hear.
Although the Envoy-class shuttle carried only a handful of passengers, she was capable of comfortably transporting four times that many. The ship had been absorbed into the Jedi fleet sometime during the last few weeks of the Ruusan campaign, donated by an anonymous benefactor from Coruscant who had been charmed by Farfalla's urgent plea for resources to support the war effort. Christened the Star-Wake, she was a product of Tallaan Shipyards, a basic transport vessel capable of both suborbital flight and interstellar travel, thanks to her Class Twelve hyperdrive.
The fact that she had been pressed into service was proof of just how desperate the Army of Light had become... Envoy-class shuttles were known for being practical and affordable, making them a favorite choice of independent merchants and wealthy recreational travelers. Their most distinguishing feature was an easy-to-use navigation and autopilot system, allowing users to plot and engage hyperdrive routes to hundreds of known worlds across the Republic with a simple push of a button. Unfortunately they lacked heavy shielding or any significant armament, and were neither particularly fast nor maneuverable.
Johun would have preferred something in a more military vein; he doubted the autonav would be any use should a Sith Buzzard suddenly appear on the horizon. Logically, he knew this was highly unlikely. Every Buzzard in Kaan's fleet had been accounted for: either shot down, captured by the Army of Light, or seen fleeing the system at the tail end of the final battle. But scores of danger-filled flights through enemy-controlled airspace in the months before their ultimate victory had trained his mind to be on constant alert when approaching the planet's surface. From the way Irtanna was white-knuckling the shuttle's steering column, he knew he wasn't alone in his irrational fears.
There was the faintest bump as they passed from the cold vacuum of space into the upper layers of Ruusan's atmosphere and began their descent. Irtanna worked the controls with a confident hand, making subtle adjustments to their course as Johun studied the scanners skimming the ground below them, looking for signs of life. Four other craft were visible on the ship's monitors. Like the Star-Wake, each was crewed by a four- to six-person rescue team sent by Farfalla to help clean up the aftermath of the war.
"We've got movement on the ground," Johun called out as unidentified blips popped up on his screen. "Transmitting coordinates."
"Give me details," Irtanna ordered, banking the shuttle around in a wide arc that brought them in line with the people on the ground.
"Two walkers on foot" Johun informed her. "Can't tell if they're friendly from up here."
"Taking us down," Irtanna replied.
Locating and helping injured survivors was the team's first priority; providing reconnaissance reports to Fleet Command came second, and accepting the willing surrender of enemy troops was a distant third.
The shuttle nose dipped, and the acceleration pushed Johun back into his seat as they dived in to get a closer look at the figures. Irtanna took them in low and fast, a military maneuver that pushed the civilian vessel to her limits.
"I've got a visual," Johun reported as a pair of tiny, indistinct shapes on the ground became visible through the shuttle's cockpit viewpoint.
Bordon lifted himself up out of his seat and leaned forward over the back of Johun's chair to get a view as the shuttle plunged toward the rapidly growing figures. As it drew closer the details came into focus: a man and a woman, each wearing light armor and running hard.
The roar of the rapidly descending shuttle's engines caused the two on the ground to stop running and turn back to look up at them. An instant later they threw themselves face-first to the dirt as the shuttle swooped in less than ten meters from the ground and buzzed them.
Cursing under her breath as she struggled with the clumsy controls, Irtanna veered around sharply and brought them in to land less than fifty meters away from their quarry. Through the window Johun saw the pair slowly climb back to their feet as the pilot cut the engines. The woman said something to the man, who nodded in agreement. Then they raised their hands and began marching slowly toward the vessel.
They were dressed like members of Kaan's Brotherhood. But Johun didn't feel the presence of the dark side about them.
"Minions of the Sith," he said. "Mercenaries, probably."
"Could be a trap," Bordon warned. "Kriffihg mercenaries have no honor."
"I don't think so," Johun replied. If there was any danger here, he would have felt some kind of disturbance in the Force. "I think they just want to surrender."
"Slag-sucking scum," Bordon spat. "Fire the engines up and run them over!"
"No!" Johun exclaimed when he saw Irtanna reaching for the ignition switch. "We need to question them," he reminded her. "See what they know."
"Then what?" Bordon demanded darkly.
"Then we take them to Farfalla and lock them up with the rest of the prisoners."
Bordon slammed his hand against the cockpit wall. "These schutta-spawn came to my world-my home-to kill my people for profit!"
"They'd cut our throats without a second thought if they had the upper hand," Irtanna agreed.
"We're not like them," Johun said. "We don't kill prisoners."
"My wife died fighting munk-whelps like these!" Bordon shouted. "Now you want to show them mercy?"
"Hate leads to the dark side," Johun replied, reciting the wisdom of the Jedi. But the words lacked power coming from the mouth of a nineteen-year-old Padawan, and even as he said them he knew how empty they sounded.
Bordon threw his hands up in frustration, then let himself fall back angrily into his seat, "Is that why you're here?" he grumbled in Disgust. "To keep us in line? To make sure we don't stray from your Precious light-side ways? Is that why Farfalla sent you along?"
He didn't send me. I came on my own, Johun thought. He turned in his seat to look back at Bordon, who stared intently at the floor, refusing to meet his gaze. His two sons, however, glared at the young Jedi with venom in their eyes. He understood their anger. The Sith had brought war to Ruusan, a war that had taken everything they knew and cared about: their homes, their livelihoods . . . and, of course, their mother.
What Bordon and his sons didn't see was that these nameless soldiers couldn't be held responsible for all the horrors and tragedies that had brought their world crashing down. Whatever their crimes, these two didn't deserve to be made accountable for the actions of Kaan and his Brotherhood. It was the Sith Masters, the followers of the dark side, who were truly to blame. Yet as he looked into the boys' hate-filled stares, he knew there was no hope of making them understand. Not while all that they had suffered was still fresh in their minds.
Johun had come to Ruusan to hunt down any members of the Brotherhood who might have survived the thought bomb. He intended to continue the work of General Hoth-his Master and mentor-and eliminate the Lords of the Sith, ending the threat of the dark side forever. Now, however, he recognized a greater mission: He had to save Bordon and his sons from themselves.
These were honest, decent people. But driven by hate and anger, they would butcher their helpless foes in cold blood if he didn't stop them. Johun knew that once their anger faded, the memory of their bloody vengeance would haunt them. Guilt and self-loathing would eat away at Bordon and his boys until it eventually destroyed them. Johun wasn't about to let that happen.
Turning his attention back to Irtanna, he saw hate in her eyes as well. However, hers was a cold, calculated emotion-a professional soldier regarding an enemy. He recognized she wouldn't kill prisoners on her own, but she also wouldn't do anything to stop the others. And he knew what he had to do.
"This isn't why Farfalla sent you," he reminded the pilot in a low voice. "You're supposed to be helping the survivors."
Irtanna eyed him suspiciously but didn't say anything. Johun was reluctant to use the Force to bend her will to his own again. Subconsciously she might be more aware of his interference a second time and more likely to resist. Besides, it was important that she truly believe in what he was telling her. Compelling her obedience was a temporary solution, and one that could ultimately cause her to resent or mistrust him and the rest of the Jedi.
"Let me out and I'll take the mercenaries into custody," Johun said, offering up a plan. "Contact the fleet, and they'll send another ship to pick up the three of us."
The words weren't easy for him to say. He'd defied Farfalla-a Jedi Master-to come to this world. The last thing he wanted was to leave Ruusan now, so soon after arriving. Yet he was willing to make that sacrifice if it would prevent Bordon and his sons from giving in to their rash and reckless emotions. It was his duty as a Jedi to protect their lives, even if it meant abandoning his own personal crusade.
"You and the others should take the shuttle and head south to the battlefield" he continued. "Go help the injured. That's what you're here for."
Irtanna hesitated, then gave a curt nod of acknowledgment. Johun was barely more than a boy; the long thin braid in his hair clearly marked that he had not yet completed his Padawan training. But he was still a member of the Jedi Order. That counted for a lot among the Republic troops. He'd been relying on that to help her see the wisdom of his words.
Confident that Irtanna would keep Bordon and his sons out of trouble, Johun got up from his chair and made his way to the rear of the Star-Wake, He did his best to ignore the accusing eyes of the two angry young men as he waited for the shuttle's exit hatch to open. When it finally did, he leapt out and landed nimbly on the ground, then made his way quickly toward the pair standing patiently nearby, their hands still raised high above their heads. Once he was clear of the vessel, the engines roared to life and the ship lifted into the air and took off... much to the dismay of the two mercenaries.
"Where are they going?" the woman demanded, her voice a high-pitched squeak of panic. "No! They can't leave us here!"
Her arms dropped back to her sides, as did her companion's. For a second Johun worried that they might make a move for their weapons, but then he realized they were too distraught over the Star-Wakes exit to even think about attacking him.
"Don't let them go!" the man shouted, turning away from Johun to watch as the craft flew off and out of sight, then whirling back to implore the young Jedi once more. "Make them turn around! Tell them to come back!" There was a desperate urgency in his voice that mirrored the tone of his companion.
"Don't worry," the young Jedi assured them. "Another ship is on the way."
"We can't stay here," the woman insisted. "There's no time. He'll find us. He'll find us!"
"It's okay," Johun explained, holding up a calming hand. "I can protect you. I'm a Jedi."
The woman raised an eyebrow and gave him a skeptical glance. The slight young man widened his stance, placed his hands on his hips, and thrust out his chest, hoping it would make him appear noble and impressive. He tried to project the image of confident self-assurance he'd often admired in Hoth and the other Masters.
The man grabbed Johun by the arm, tugging it like a child clinging to his mother's apron. "We have to get off this planet," he said, the words coming out in a terrified whisper. "We have to go now!"
Johun shook free of the man's grasp with only minor difficulty. There was something unsettling about this whole encounter. From the way these two were dressed, it was clear they were experienced soldiers for hire. He suspected they were deserters from the recent battle-minions of the Sith who had fled the instant the Army of Light had broken their ranks. But their flight would have been an act of opportunistic preservation rather than fear or cowardice. Still, these combat veterans, accustomed to facing death and bloodshed, were acting like traumatized villagers after a slaver raid.
"Even if you are a Jedi, you can't save us," the woman muttered with a slow shake of her head. "You can't protect us from him."
"Who?" Johun wanted to know. "Who are you talking about?"
The man glanced around quickly, as if he was afraid someone might be listening. "A Dark Lord of the Sith," he hissed.
"One of the Brotherhood?" Johun asked, barely able to contain his eagerness. "Are you saying a Sith Master survived the thought bomb?"
The man nodded. "He killed Lergan and Hansh. Fried them with lightning from his fingers."
I knew it! Johun thought triumphantly. I knew it!
"He had a lightsaber, too," the woman added. "Sliced Pad and Derrin wide open." She hesitated for a moment, shuddering at the memory. "Rell got his head cut clean off."
Johun was about to ask for more details, but the sound of a rapidly approaching ship momentarily distracted him. He glanced up to see a Bivouac troop transport swooping in for a landing. Seconds after it touched down, three Republic soldiers jumped out, weapons at the ready. He recognized the senior officer in the trio:
Major Orten Ledes, one of the highest-ranking non-Jedi in the Army of Light's Second Legion.
"These the prisoners?" the major asked gruffly, pointing his blaster rifle at the mercenaries.
Johun nodded. Ledes gave a tilt of his head, and his subordinates moved in quickly to slap restraints on the enemy soldiers. Neither made any attempt to resist. Once their wrists were secured they were frisked and stripped of their weapons, then marched off toward the vessel. The whole encounter was conducted with the efficiency and competence that were the hallmarks of all troops serving under Major Ledes's command.
"You picked up Irtanna's message?" Johun asked as he watched the Sith minions being led away.
"We were in the area" the officer replied. "Farfalla sent me to come get you."
Something in his tone caught the young Jedi's attention. "Am I in trouble?"
The officer shrugged. "Hard to say. You Jedi tend to keep a tight rein on your emotions. But I bet the general wasn't too happy when he found out you disobeyed a direct order and snuck down here."
"Don't worry," Johun replied confidently. "He'll change his tune when he hears what those prisoners have to tell him."
* * *
Bane throttled back the swoop bike's engine as they approached the small clearing that served as the Valcyn's landing site. Originally presented as a gift to Lord Qordis, the vessel had been commandeered by Bane when he left the Academy on Korriban to seek out the knowledge of the ancient Sith. Qordis had never dared to try to take it back, and his cowardice had simply confirmed Bane's decision to abandon his studies and turn his back on the Brotherhood.
He brought the swoop to a stop twenty meters from the ship. Zan-nah released her grip on his waist and jumped off, then stood staring at the vessel.
Bane wasn't paying attention to her; the last ten minutes he'd had trouble focusing on anything but the pain carving up his skull. He'd hoped delving into the depths of the shimmering orb left behind by the thought bomb might somehow relieve the headaches, but if anything they'd gotten worse since their visit to the cave.
At least he'd been able to confirm that Kaan was truly dead. That made it easier for him to dismiss the ghostly form that materialized just then on the far side of the clearing. Pale beneath the late-afternoon sun, it was undeniably the image of the man who had founded the Brotherhood of Darkness.
Bane knew it was nothing but a hallucination, yet there was something compelling about the figure as it crossed the clearing to stop a meter or so away from the ship. The spirit turned and fixed him with a steady gaze, then reached out a beckoning hand.
"She's beautiful," Zannah breathed. Darth Bane snapped his head around in surprise. But his apprentice was staring raptly at the Valcyn herself. When Bane turned his attention back to where Kaan had been standing, the specter had vanished once again.
"I never thought I'd be leaving Ruusan in a ship like this," Zannah said.
"You aren't," Bane said as he stepped off the swoop. There was nothing he could do about the hallucinations other than act as if they didn't exist.
The young girl turned to look back at him, confused. "We're not taking your ship?"
"I am," her Master replied. "But you must find your own way off this world."
It took a moment for his words to register with the girl. When they did, her expression became one of utter shock. "I... I can't come with you?"
The big man shook his head. Spurred on by Zannah's discovery of the ancient tome in the Sith camp, he'd come up with a plan. He was heading to Dxun, Onderon's oversized moon, to seek out the lost tomb of Freedon Nadd. But he had other ideas for his apprentice,
"But . . . why not? What did I do?" the young girl choked out, clearly on the verge of tears. "Why are you leaving me?"
"This is part of your training," Bane explained. "To understand the dark side you must suffer through hardship and struggle,"
"You don't have to abandon me to make me suffer," she countered. "Take me with you."
"The strength of the dark side lies with the power of the individual" he reminded her. "The Force comes from within. You must learn to draw on it yourself. I will not always be there to teach you."
"But you said there were always two," Zannah insisted. "One to embody the power, the other to crave it!"
She learned quickly, and Bane was pleased to see she had already committed so many of his lessons to memory. But reciting the words meant nothing if she didn't understand the truth behind them.
"Why do you follow me?" he asked, posing a question to lead her down the path of wisdom.
Zannah thought about her answer for several seconds, carefully considering everything he had already taught her. "To unleash my full potential," she said at last, "To learn the ways of the dark side."
Bane nodded. "And when I no longer have anything to teach you? What will happen then?"
Her brow furrowed in concentration, but this time the answer wouldn't come. "I don't know," she finally admitted.
"There will come a time when your training ends" he told her. "There will come a day when you have learned all the lessons, when all my knowledge of the dark side will be yours. On that day you will challenge me for the title of Master, and only one of us will survive the encounter."
The girl's eyes opened wide. Then they narrowed as she focused intently on what he was saying.
"You have the potential to surpass me," he continued. "If you achieve your potential I will cease to be of use to you. You will need to find new sources of knowledge. You will have to seek out a new apprentice so that you may pass on the secrets of the Sith Order to another.
"When your power eclipses mine I will become expendable. This is the Rule of Two: one Master and one apprentice. When you are ready to claim the mantle of Dark Lord as your own, you must do so by eliminating me.
"The confrontation is inevitable," he concluded. "It is the only way the Sith can survive. It is the way of the dark side."
Zannah didn't say anything. From her expression Bane saw she was still struggling to comprehend why her Master would train her knowing that she would ultimately betray him. But she didn't need to understand. Not yet. Right now she needed only to obey him.
"Make your way to Onderon," Bane instructed her. "I will meet you there in ten standard days." After I find Nadd's tomb on Dxun.
"How am I supposed to get there?" she protested.
"You are the chosen one, the anointed heir to the legacy of our order. You will find a way."
"And if I don't?"
"Then you will have proven yourself unworthy of being my successor, and I will seek out another apprentice."
There was nothing more to say. Bane turned his back on her and headed for his ship. Zannah merely watched him go, not speaking. As he walked away, he could feel her anger building, becoming a raging inferno of hate as he climbed into the cockpit. The heat of her fury brought a grim smile to Bane's lips as he fired up the engines.
The Vakyn took to the air, leaving Zannah behind-a tiny figure on the planet's surface staring after the ship, standing motionless as if she had been carved from cold, hard stone.