Bane could hear the whine of the Vakyn's engines as the ship sliced through the upper layers of Dxun's atmosphere, protesting as he pushed the vessel to her very limits. Normally the trip from Ruu-san to Onderon's oversized moon would have taken a T-class cruiser like the Valcyn between four and five days. Bane had covered the distance in just over two.
Within hours of leaving Ruusan-and Zannah-behind, he had been cursed with the return of the almost unbearable headaches. And with them had come an unwanted and most unwelcome companion. The spectral shade of Lord Kaan loomed over him in the cockpit for the entire first day of the trip, a visible manifestation of the damage Bane's mind had suffered from the thought bomb. The spirit never spoke, merely watched him with its accusatory gaze, a constant presence on the edges of Bane's awareness.
The ghostly apparition had driven Bane to adopt an irresponsible, even dangerous, pace for the journey. He had pushed the Valcyn far beyond the recommended safety parameters, as if part of him was trying to use the speed of the ship to outrun his own madness. He was desperate to reach Dxun so he could find the tomb of Freedon Nadd and hopefully discover some way to rid himself of the torturous hallucinations.
Kaan had disappeared toward the end of the first day of his journey, only to be replaced by an even worse visitation. It wasn't the founder of the Brotherhood of Darkness that hovered beside him now, but Qordis-the former head of the Sith Academy on Korriban. Pale and semi-translucent, the figure was otherwise an almost perfect replica of what the Sith Lord had looked like at the time of their final meeting, when Bane had killed him. Tall and gaunt, Qordis had skeletal features that seemed more at home on a spirit than they ever had on a being of flesh and blood. Unlike Kaan, however, Qordis actually spoke to him, spewing forth an endless litany of blame, denouncing everything Bane had accomplished.
"You betrayed us" the phantom said, extending a long, thin finger topped with a talon-like nail. Bane didn't need to look at it to know the finger would be adorned with the heavy bejeweled rings Qordis had worn in life. "You destroyed the Brotherhood, you brought victory to the Jedi. And now you flee the scene like a craven thief in the night."
I'm not a coward! Bane thought. There was no point in voicing the words aloud; the vision was all in his mind. Speaking with it would only be a sign that his mental condition was further deteriorating. I did what had to be done. The Brotherhood was an abomination. They had to be destroyed!
"The Brotherhood had knowledge of the dark side. Wisdom that is lost forever because of you."
Bane was growing weary of the all-too-familiar refrain. He'd had this conversation with himself before he decided to destroy Kaan and his followers, and now he was reliving it again and again through the delusions of his wounded mind. Yet he refused to allow any doubts or uncertainties to weaken his resolve; he had done what was necessary.
The Brotherhood had lost its way. They had fallen from the true path of the dark side. AH the study and training Qordis put prospective students through at the Academy was worthless.
"If that was true," the apparition countered, answering his unspoken arguments, "then how do you explain your current mission? Your claim to reject my teachings, yet I was the one who discovered the location of Freedon Nadd's lost tomb."
You didn't discover anything. You re just a hallucination. And Qordis may have stumbled on this information, but he didnt know what to do with it. A true Sith Master would have left Ruusan to seek out Nadd's tomb. Instead he decided to stay and help Kaan play army with the Jedi.
"Excuses and justifications," the spirit replied. "Kaan was a warrior. But you would rather hide from your enemies than fight them."
Bane gritted his teeth as the Valcyn hit the turbulence of Dxun's heavy cloud cover. The ship was still going too fast, forcing him to clutch the steering yoke so hard to keep his craft on course that his knuckles turned white. He heard the creaks and groans as the over-stressed hull sliced through the thick atmosphere.
"You betrayed us " Qordis said again.
Bane swore under his breath, doing his best to ignore the ram-blings of the image conjured up by his own mind. How many times had he heard this exact conversation in the past day? Fifty? A hundred? It was like listening to a busted holoprojector repeating the same message over and over.
"You destroyed the Brotherhood, you brought victory to the Jedi. And now you flee the scene like a craven thief in the night."
"Shut up!" Darth Bane screamed, no longer able to contain his rage. "You're not even real!"
He lashed out with the Force, releasing an explosion of dark side energy inside the cockpit, determined to blast the offending vision into oblivion. Qordis did vanish, but Bane's victory was short-lived. Emergency lights began flashing inside the ship, accompanied by the shrill whooping of a critical failure alarm.
The ship's console had been fried by the burst of power he'd unleashed. Cursing Qordis and his own reckless display of emotion, Bane began a desperate struggle to somehow bring the vessel in for a safe landing. From all around him he could hear the ghostly, mocking laughter of Qordis.
The Valcyn was in free fall, plummeting straight down toward Dxun's heavily forested surface. Bane yanked back on the yoke with all the strength of his massive frame, managing to redirect the ship into a shallower angle of approach. But if he didn't find some way to decelerate, it wasn't going to matter.
He punched at the controls, trying to restart the engine thrusters with one hand while the other still struggled to keep the yoke steady. Getting no response, he closed his eyes and reached out with the Force, digging deep into the burned-out circuits and melted wires of the ship.
His mind raced through the labyrinth of electronics that controlled all the Vakyris systems, reassembling and rerouting them to find a configuration that would restore power to the dead ignition switch. His first attempt resulted in a shower of sparks shooting up from the control panel, but his second effort was rewarded with the roar of the thrusters coming to life.
Bane managed to get the engines into full reverse only a few hundred meters above Dxun's surface. The ship's descent slowed, but didn't even come close to stopping. A split second before the Val-cyn slammed into the forest below, Bane wrapped himself in the Force, creating a protective cocoon he could only hope would be strong enough to survive the unavoidable collision.
The Valcyn hit the treetops at a forty-five-degree angle. The landing gear sheared off on impact, tearing loose with a thunderous crack. Wide gashes appeared in the sides of the ship, the hull hurtling into thick branches and boughs with enough force to tear through the reinforced sheets of metal and peel them away from their frame.
Inside the cockpit Bane was flung against walls and ceiling. He was spun, tossed, and slammed against the sides of the cockpit as the vessel careened through the trees. Even the Force couldn't fully shield him from the devastating crash as the ship carved a kilometer-long swath of burned and broken foliage before slamming into the soft, muddy ground of a swamp and finally coming to rest.
For several seconds Bane didn't move. His ship had been reduced to a smoking pile of scrap, but miraculously he had survived, saved by the dark side energies enveloping his form. He hadn't escaped unscathed, however. His body was covered with painful bruises and contusions, his face and hands cut from fragments of shattered glass that had pierced his protective cocoon; his right bicep was bleeding heavily from a deep five-centimeter gash. His left shoulder had been dislocated and two ribs were broken, but neither had punctured a lung. His right knee was already swelling up, but there didn't seem to be any cartilage or ligament damage. And he tasted blood in his mouth, oozing from the gap where two of his teeth had been knocked out. Fortunately, none of his wounds was life threatening.
Bane rose to his feet slowly, favoring his injured knee. What was left of the Valcyn had come to rest on her side, turning everything in the cockpit at a disorienting ninety-degree angle. Moving gingerly, Bane made his way to the emergency exit hatch, his left arm dangling all but useless from his side. Given the ship's position, her exit hatch was now above him, facing the sky.
Strong as he was, Bane knew he wouldn't be able to pull himself to freedom with only one good arm. A Jedi might have been able to use the Force to heal his wounds, but Bane was a student of the dark side. Even if his ability to call upon the Force hadn't been temporarily exhausted in surviving the crash, healing was not a skill the Sith were familiar with. Before he became a Sith Master, however, Bane had served as a soldier, where he had received basic medical field training.
The Valcyn was equipped with an emergency medpac under the pilot's seat. Inside it were healing stims he could use to treat the worst of his injuries. But when he made his way over to look under the seat, the kit was gone.
Realizing it must have jarred loose during the crash, he rummaged around the cockpit until he found it. The outside of the kit was dented and slightly bent, but otherwise it appeared undamaged. It took him three tries to open the latch with only one good hand. When he finally succeeded, he was relieved to see that several of the health stims had survived intact.
He removed one and injected it directly into his thigh. Within seconds he could feel his body's own natural healing properties beginning to kick into overdrive in response to the healing shot. The blood flowing from his cuts began to clot. More important, the shot helped dull the pain from his swollen knee and broken ribs, allowing him to walk and breathe more freely.
His dislocated shoulder, however, required more direct treatment. Grabbing his injured left wrist with his right hand and gritting his teeth against the pain, Bane pulled with all his might, hoping the shoulder would pop back into place. Thanks to his size and strength, he'd been recruited more than a few times by field medics to help re-socket the dislocated limbs of fellow soldiers during his military days. A simple procedure, it required a tremendous amount of torque to work effectively, and Bane soon discovered he simply couldn't get the leverage he needed to perform the maneuver on himself.
Grunting and sweating from his exertions, he realized he'd have to take more extreme measures. Lowering himself to a sitting position on the floor, he stretched forward and bent his knees so he could grip the wrist of his injured arm securely between his ankles. He took a deep breath, then thrust his legs straight while throwing his torso backward.
He screamed as the shoulder snapped back into the socket with an audible pop. The sudden jolt of pain was excruciating; it took every bit of strength he had left to keep from passing out. As it was he simply lay on his back, pale and shivering from the ordeal. He was rewarded a few seconds later by the pins and needles of sensation rapidly being restored to the fingers of his left hand.
A few minutes and another healing injection later, he was able to use both arms to haul himself up through the exit hatch and clamber down the side of the Valcyn's wreckage to stand, battered but not beaten, on Dxun's surface.
He wasn't surprised to find Qordis waiting there for him.
"You're trapped, Bane," the spirit mocked. "Your ship is destroyed beyond all hope of repair. You won't find another vessel here-there are no intelligent or civilized creatures on Dxun. And you can't wait for a rescue party. Nobody knew you were coming here. Not even your apprentice."
Bane didn't bother replying, but instead made a final check of his gear. He'd grabbed a pack of basic supplies from the ship and strapped it to his back. It contained food rations, glow rods, a handful of health stims, and a simple hunting blade that he slid into his boot. The pack and its contents, plus the lightsaber dangling at his belt, were the only things worth salvaging from the wreckage.
"The jungles of Dxun are filled with deadly predators," the spirit continued. "They will stalk you day and night, and the moment you let your guard down they will strike. And even if you survive the terrors of the jungle, how are you going to get off this world?
"There is no escape," the ghostly Qordis taunted. "You will die here, Bane."
"It's Darth Bane," the big man said with a grim smile. "And I'm not dead yet. Unlike you."
The reply seemed to satisfy whatever part of his subconscious was conjuring up the image, because Qordis abruptly disappeared.
With the distraction gone, Bane was free to examine his environment more closely. The thick forest canopy above blocked out most light; even though it was midday he found himself bathed in twilight. Still, he didn't need his eyes to see clearly.
Reaching out with the Force, he took closer stock of his surroundings. He was in the very heart of the forest; the trees went on for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. And as he probed the surrounding foliage for signs of life, he realized that the apparition had been right about one thing: the forests of Dxun teemed with a host of deadly and voracious beasts. Bane wondered how long it would be before one of the jungle denizens decided to figure out where he fit in on the food chain.
Yet he wasn't afraid. Even before Nadd's tomb had been hidden here, the ancient Sith had been drawn to Dxun. The Jedi had condemned it as a place of evil, but Bane recognized it for what it really was: a world infused with the power of the dark side. He felt strong here, rejuvenated... though he was smart enough to understand that the creatures prowling the wilderness would be drawing on that same power.
And then his mental explorations came across what he was look-ing for. Many kilometers away he sensed a concentration of power. He'd located the source of the dark side energy that permeated the forest around him, radiating power like a beacon emitting a homing signal.
It had to be Nadd's tomb, and now that he was here, Darth Bane felt the place calling to him. Leaving the wreckage of the Valcyn behind, he made his way toward the source. He marched in a perfectly straight line, taking the most direct route possible to his destination, using his lightsaber to hack and hew a path through the thick undergrowth that barred his way
Keeping one corner of his mind focused on following the route to Nadd's tomb, Bane focused the rest of his awareness into a state of hypervigilance. As in most forest ecosystems, the creatures that had evolved on Dxun were masters of their environment. More than a few had quite likely developed the ability to camouflage themselves, blending not only into the branches and trees but into the ever-present hum of the dark side that hung over the forest, as well.
Even with his caution, Bane was almost caught unawares when the attack came. An enormous feline creature dropped down from above, silent save for the faint hiss of its forepaw slashing the air where its prey's throat had been a mere second before.
Bane had sensed the beast at the last possible instant, his Force awareness giving him a precognitive warning that allowed him to duck clear of the lethal claws. Even so, the massive body of the beast slammed into Bane, sending him reeling.
The Dark Lord of the Sith would have died right there had the creature not been momentarily stunned by the unexpected failure of its ambush. The beast's confusion gave Bane the second he needed to roll clear of his enemy and fall into a fighting stance.
With the beast no longer concealed by Dxun's forest, Bane got his first good look at the thing that had nearly killed him. It studied him with luminous green eyes that were definitely feline, though its fur was a metallic gray coat flecked with tiny bronze plates that shimmered as the muscles moved beneath the skin. It stood a meter and a half at the shoulder, easily weighing three hundred kilograms. It had four thick, muscular legs that ended in razor-sharp retractable claws.
But the feature that drew Bane's immediate attention was the serpentine twin tails, each tipped with a deadly barb that dripped glowing green venom.
Bane retreated slowly until his back came up against the gnarled trunk of a tall tree. The nameless monstrosity advanced, then with a low growl that made Bane's skin crawl, it leapt at him again, twin tails whipping wildly. Bane lunged to the side, wanting to gauge his opponent's tactics before he engaged it in direct combat. He saw the front claws slashing and flailing through the suddenly empty air, and he watched as the twin tails arced up over the beast's back to stab at the space he had been standing in a moment before. The barbs slammed into the tree Bane had been backed up against with enough force to split the trunk, injecting their corrosive venom into the wood and leaving two smoking black circles.
The creature landed on all four feet simultaneously and spun to face Bane again before he had a chance to strike at its unprotected flank. Once more it began a slow advance. But this time when it pounced, Bane was ready.
The beast acted on instinct; it was a mindless brute that relied on strength and speed to defeat its enemies. Its methods of attack had evolved over countless generations until they were second nature, and it was inevitable it would use the exact same sequence of movements to bring Bane down a second time.
It came in high, leading with its claws just as he had expected. The natural reaction of most prey would be to retreat from those claws by leaping backward-only to be impaled by the deadly barbed tails lashing forward. Bane, however, ducked down under the claws and then stepped up to meet the creature's attack, his lightsaber held high above his head.
The blade sliced through the beast's underbelly, carving flesh and sinew and bone. Bane twisted the blade as it ran the length of the creature, redirecting it into a slightly diagonal stroke sure to cleave several vital organs. The move was simple, quick, and deadly.
The feline's momentum carried it over Bane's head and it crashed to the ground behind him, its body split open from midchest all the way to its still-twitching tails. The body shuddered once, the tails went motionless, and a milky film spread out to dull its luminous eyes.
Bane's heart was pounding from the thrill of combat. He stepped away from the corpse of his defeated foe, adrenaline still pumping through his veins. With a triumphant laugh, he threw his head back and shouted, "Is that all you've got, Qordis? Is that the best you can do?"
He looked around, half hoping to see the ghostly image of his former Master materialize. But it wasn't Qordis who appeared to him this time.
"You again," Bane said to the spectral image of Lord Kaan. "What do you want?"
Kaan, as usual, didn't speak. Instead the figure turned and walked away into the depths of the forest, its incorporeal form passing effortlessly through the branches and undergrowth. It took Bane a second to realize it was headed in the direction of Nadd's tomb.
"So be it," he muttered, using his lightsaber to hack a path in pursuit.
His illusory guide stayed with him the rest of the way, always just far enough ahead that Bane had to struggle to keep up. It took him nearly four hours of slogging through the jungle to reach his destination-a small clearing in the forest in which no vegetation grew. An irregular pyramid of flat, gray metal rose up to a height of twenty meters from the heart of the clearing.
Bane stopped at the edge. The ground ahead was nothing but dirt and mud; no living organism could nourish in the shadow of Nadd's crypt. Even the plants and trees bordering the clearing were stunted and deformed, corrupted by the dark side power that clung to the remains of the great Sith Master in death. The tomb itself was a disconcerting shape; the walls of the pyramid were set at odd and jarring angles, as if the stone of the crypt had been warped and twisted over the centuries.
There was a single entrance to the structure, a door that had once been sealed but looked as if it had been smashed open many centuries earlier by someone seeking the secrets of Nadd's final resting place. The ghostly figure of Kaan stood by the entrance, beckoning to Bane before disappearing inside.
Bane came forward slowly, senses attuned to any traps that might still be lying in wait. His mind flashed back to the ancient tombs in the Valley of the Sith on Korriban. Just before leaving the Academy, he'd ventured into those dark and dangerous crypts in search of guidance. He'd read accounts of Sith spirits appearing to share the secrets of the dark side with powerful apprentices who sought them out. But all Bane had found on Korriban was dust and bones.
He slid the backpack off his shoulders so it wouldn't encumber him. From inside he took half a dozen glow rods and crammed them into his belt, then left the pack on the ground near the crypt's entrance.
The ceiling inside the pyramid was low, and Bane had to duck as he went in. Using a glow rod for illumination, he found himself inside a small antechamber, with passages leading off in three different directions. Choosing the one on the left, he began his explorations. Room by room he searched the pyramid, finding nothing of value. Several of the chambers showed evidence that another had already been there, and Bane recalled the tales of Exar Kun, a Dark Jedi from a time long forgotten who was also rumored to have located Nadd's final resting place. According to the legends, Kun had emerged with power beyond his wildest imagining. Yet as Bane continued his fruitless explorations, doubt began to creep into his mind. Was it possible that this crypt-like the ones he'd searched on Korriban-was nothing but an empty, worthless tomb?
With mounting frustration he continued his search, winding his way through the passages until he reached an apparently insignificant chamber, almost buried at the very heart of the temple. Both Kaan and Qordis were there waiting for him.
They stood a meter apart, each on one side of a small doorway carved in the back wall. The door was only a meter high, and was blocked by a tightly fitted slab of black stone, giving Bane hope once more. The stone seemed to have been undisturbed by whoever had been here before him. It was possible no one had found this room, hidden at the end of the twisting maze of passages. Or maybe someone had found it but had been unable to move the stone slab. It was even possible that the small entrance had once been hidden by the lost arts of Sith sorcery, and the spell obscuring it had gradually faded over the centuries, making it visible only now.
Glancing quickly at the twin manifestations on either side of the small doorway, Bane crouched down to examine the slab. Its surface was smooth, and it extended only a few centimeters out from the passage, making it impossible to get a firm grip. Of course, there was one other way to move it.
Summoning his strength, Bane reached out with the Force and tried to pull the stone toward him. It barely moved. The stone was heavy, but it was more than sheer mass that held it in place. There was something fighting his power, resisting him. Bane took a deep breath and tilted his head from side to side, loudly cracking his neck as he gathered himself for another attempt.
This time he went deep, plunging into the well of power that dwelled within his core. He reached back into his past, dredging up memories buried deep in his subconscious: memories of his father, Hurst; memories of the beatings; memories of the hatred he bore for the man who had raised him. As he did so, he felt his power building.
It started, as it always did, with a single spark of heat. The spark quickly became a flame, and the flame an inferno. Bane's body trembled with the strain as he fought to contain the power, letting the dark side energy build to a critical mass. He forced himself to endure the unbearable heat as long as he could, then thrust his fist forward, channeling everything inside him toward the stone blocking him from his destiny.
The heavy slab flew across the room and struck the far wall with a heavy thud. A long vertical crack appeared in the wall, though the dark stone block itself was undamaged. Bane dropped to his knees, panting from the exertion. He looked up to see the ghostly watchers still keeping their vigil beside the entrance. With a shake of his head, he crawled to the now-open doorway and peered in.
The room beyond was dark, so Bane pulled one of the glow rods from his belt and tossed it through the opening. It landed on the floor, illuminating the room. From what he could see, it was a circular, high-ceilinged chamber about five meters in diameter. A stone pedestal stood in the very center. Atop it was a small crystal pyramid Bane instantly recognized as a Sith Holocron.
The ancient Masters of the dark side had used Holocrons to store all their wisdom, knowledge, and secrets. A Holocron could contain ancient rituals of devastating power, or the keys to unlocking the magics of ancient Sith sorcerers, or even avatars that simulated the personality of the Holocron's original creator. The information inside was so valuable that for many centuries Holocrons had been the single most valuable tool in passing on the legacy of the great Sith Lords to future generations.
Unfortunately, the art of making Sith Holocrons had been lost several millennia past. And over the years the Jedi had scoured the galaxy to find all the known Sith Holocrons, then hidden them away at their library on Coruscant so no one could delve into their forbidden knowledge. To actually find a Holocron like this, one that might contain the teachings of Freedon Nadd himself, was good fortune beyond anything Bane had even imagined.
Crouching down, he squeezed his massive shoulders through the tight doorway. Not surprisingly, Kaan and Qordis were already waiting for him inside. Bane glanced over at them, then up at the five-meter-high ceiling. By the light of the glow rod he could make out movement, as if a carpet of living creatures was crawling across the surface above his head.
He stood motionless, his ears picking up wet slurping sounds. As his eyes became accustomed to the dim light he was able to make out a colony of strange crustaceans clinging to the roof. They were almost fiat, and somewhat oval in shape-a circular shell that tapered to a point near either end. They varied in size from slightly smaller than a fist to as broad across as a large dinner plate, and their coloring ranged from bronze to a reddish gold. The slurping came as they dragged themselves along the ceiling, crawling over one another and leaving glistening trails of slime in their wake.
As he studied them, one of the creatures fell away from the others and dropped down toward him. Bane swatted it aside disdainfully with one hand, sending its hard shell bouncing and skittering across the cavern floor.
A second later another broke free and tumbled down. Bane ignited his lightsaber and slashed at it. The blow batted the creature away, sending it flipping end-over-end into a far corner of the room. Bane stared in amazement-the lightsaber should have sliced the creature clean through. But his weapon hadn't even left a scratch on its hard, gleaming shell.
Suddenly realizing he was in grave danger, Bane made a lunge for the Holocron. As his hand closed around it, the colony of crustaceans broke free en masse and cascaded down on him in a chitinous swarm. With one hand clutching the Holocron, he swiped at them with his lightsaber and deflected others with the power of the Force. But there were too many to keep them all at bay; it was like trying to ward off raindrops in a storm.
One struck him on the shoulder and latched on, instantly burning through his armor and clothing with an acidic secretion before fastening itself to his skin. Bane felt a thousand tiny teeth burrowing into the thick meat of his back, followed by the searing pain of the acid secretion melting his flesh.
He screamed and slammed his back up against the wall hoping to jar the creature loose, but it held fast. As he struggled to dislodge it, a second struck him square in the chest. He screamed again as the burning acid and tiny teeth dug through clothes, skin, and even his thick pectoral muscles to fasten directly to his breastbone.
Bane staggered under the onslaught of pain, but managed to strike out with the Force. The rest of the creatures were sent hurtling away from him like leaves swept up by a fierce wind; they clacked and clattered as they struck the walls of the room. The brief reprieve gave Bane a chance to drop to his knees and scamper through the cramped opening and back into the small room from which he had originally entered.
Ignoring the agony of the two creatures still attached to him, he reached out with the Force and hoisted the stone block on the far side of the room up into the air. His powers were enhanced by both pain and a desperate urgency, and the block moved easily for him this time, flying across the chamber to plug the entrance before any more of the strange crustaceans could scuttle out after him.
For a second he just lay there panting, clutching the Holocron and trying to ignore the pain coming from the two parasitic organisms feeding on his body. He could hear the rest of the colony on the other side of the wall, the wet gurgles of their grasping mouths mingling with the sharp clacking of their hard shells as they crawled up the walls back to their roosts on the ceiling.
He imagined he heard another sound, as well: the harsh, mocking laughter of Qordis and Kaan echoing off the walls of Freedon Nadd's tomb.