Chancellor Valorum will see you now," the Twi'lek assistant said from behind her desk.
Seeing Farfalla rise, Johun did the same, tugging awkwardly to reposition the unfamiliar ceremonial robes his new Master had insisted he wear for the meeting. Johun had protested that his wardrobe had nothing to do with who he was or why they were here, but Farfalla had merely replied, "On Coruscant, appearance matters."
Johun had never been to Coruscant before-or any of the other Core Worlds, for that matter. He'd been born and raised on Sermeria, an agriworld in the Expansion Region between the Inner and Mid Rims of the galaxy. His family had worked a farm a few kilometers outside of Addolis, one small cog in the great Sermerian agricultural complex that produced an overabundance of food and sold it to more developed worlds that lacked enough arable land to support their own populations.
He'd left Sermeria at the age of ten to begin his Jedi training. In the decade since he had accompanied General Hoth to dozens of worlds, though his former Master had preferred to stay on the Outer Rim, far from the politicians and urban culture of the Republic's capital. The planets they visited tended to be less developed rural worlds, much like Sermeria itself. As a result, Johun had never seen anything even remotely resembling the planetwide metropolis that was Galactic City.
On their initial approach to the world, Farfalla had tried to point out to him the location of important structures, like the Senate's Great Rotunda and the Jedi Temple. But to Johun's provincial eye everything blended into one unbroken ocean of permacrete, dura-steel, and brightly colored flashing lights.
Upon landing, they had disembarked and boarded an airspeeder that had whisked them off toward their meeting with Chancellor Val-orum. Johun had simply sat and gawked at the spectacle as they raced along the skylane, their speeder weaving in and out among skyrises so tall, the ground wasn't even visible beneath them. Occasionally they would dive down or swoop back up as their journey led them under and over pedestrian walkways, hovering billboards, and even other vehicles.
By the end of the trip, Johun's already bedazzled senses had been completely overwhelmed by the constant stream of traffic and the mind-boggling numbers of people who chose to live and work on Coruscant. The overall impression he took away from the experience was a sickening blur of motion set against a deafening cacophony of sound... all too much for a simple farm boy to handle.
Farfalla, on the other hand, was in his element. Johun had noticed his new mentor coming to life when they touched down, as if he were feeding on the energy of the great metropolis. The frantic pace and the madding crowds seemed to revitalize Valenthyne, the city washing away the weariness of a long military campaign on a dreary little frontier world. Farfalla even looked different here; set against the vibrant, cosmopolitan backdrop of the galactic capital, the clothes that had seemed so vain and garish back on Ruusan now looked to be the height of fashion and style.
Even at the center of the halls of power, Farfalla looked completely at ease. He gave a gracious bow of acknowledgment to the Chancellor's assistant, eliciting a flirtatious smile from the young woman, then moved with a confident yet purposeful stride through the doorway into Valorum's inner sanctum. Johun gave a bow of his own, stiff and forced, then scurried off after him.
The Chancellor's office was less ornate and more functional than Johun had expected. The walls, carpet, and furnishing were all a deep, dark brown, giving the room an air of significance. There was a large window in one wall, though much to the young Jedi's relief the coverings had been drawn for this meeting. In the center of the room were half a dozen comfortable-looking chairs set around a circular conference table; several monitors lined the walls, flickering with updates from various HoloNet news programs.
Tarsus Valorum was seated behind a large desk facing the doorway, and he rose to greet them. He was a tall man in his early fifties, though he looked ten years younger. He had dark hair; bright, piercing eyes; a straight, slightly pointed nose; and an almost perfectly square chin-a face many had called "honest and determined." It was these traits, along with his exemplary record of public service, that had led to Valorum being appointed the first non-Jedi Chancellor in over four centuries.
Johun had heard rumors that Farfalla had actually been the one in line for the position but had declined it, so that he could join the Army of Light on Ruusan. The young man wondered if his Master approved of the man who had been chosen to replace him.
"Master Valenthyne," Valorum said, clasping Farfalla's hand in an efficient, well-practiced gesture of welcome. "Thank you for coming on such short notice."
"You didn't leave me a lot of options, Your Excellency" Valenthyne noted.
"I apologize for that" the Chancellor replied, even as he turned and extended his hand to Johun. "And this must be your apprentice," he said, taking note of the long braid that marked the young man as one who had not yet completed his initial Jedi training.
"I am Padawan Johun Othone, Your Excellency."
Valorum's grip was firm but not overpowering-the perfect politician's handshake. He pumped Johun's arm twice, then pulled his hand free and indicated the chairs around the conference table.
"Please, noble Jedi. Make yourselves comfortable."
Farfalla took the end seat on the near side of the table. Johun sat down in the chair directly across from him, leaving the Chancellor the lone seat at the head of the table, between the two Jedi. Once everyone was in position it was Farfalla who initiated the discussion, turning slightly to better face Valorum.
"The message you sent me was most unexpected, Your Excellency. And the timing was somewhat inconvenient. We are still dealing with the aftermath of the thought bomb on Ruusan."
"I understand your position, Master Valenthyne. But you must also appreciate mine. News of the Brotherhood's defeat has reached the HoloNet. As far as the public is concerned, the war is over. And the Senate is eager to put this unpleasantness behind us."
"As are the Jedi," Farfalla replied. "But this motion you plan to put forward-the so-called Ruusan Reformation-calls for some rather extreme measures."
"That is why I brought you here to discuss the recommendations before we vote on them," Valorum answered." I wanted you to understand why this has to be done."
Johun had not seen the details of the message Farfalla had received, nor had his Master spoken of it to him during their journey to Coruscant. As a result, he was having difficulty piercing their political double-talk. Fortunately, Farfalla chose to cut through the diplomatic niceties and address the issue directly in his next response.
"Do you realize the ramifications of what you are asking, Tarsus? Your proposal calls for the Jedi to renounce their military ranks and completely disband all our military, naval, and starfighter forces. You are asking us to destroy the Army of Light!"
"The Army of Light was created as a reaction to the Brotherhood of Darkness" Valorum countered. "With the Brotherhood gone, it no longer serves a purpose."
Johun couldn't believe what he was hearing. "Its purpose is to protect the Republic!" he burst out, unable to contain himself.
"Protect it from who?" the Chancellor challenged, snapping his head around to address him. "The Sith are gone."
"The Sith are never truly gone," Johun said darkly
"And therein lies the problem," Valorum replied. "Over the past four centuries we have seen the Jedi declare war on the agents of the dark side time and time again. It is a struggle that never ends. And with each conflict, more civilians are swept up in your web of war. Innocent beings die as armies align with you or your enemies. Worlds loyal to the Republic break away, fracturing a once united galaxy. It is time to put a stop to this cycle of madness."
Farfalla held up his hand, cutting Johun off before the young man could say anything else. He waited for Valorum to turn his attention away from the Padawan, then asked, "Tarsus, do you really believe the changes you have proposed will do that?"
"I do, Master Valenthyne." There was undeniable conviction in his Voice. "There are many good people who fear the Jedi and what they are capable of. They see the Jedi as instigators of war. You claim your actions are guided by the Force, but to those who cannot feel its presence it appears as if your order is not accountable to anyone or anything."
"And so you want the Jedi to answer to you." Farfalla sighed. "The Chancellor and the Senate "
"I want you to answer to the elected officials who represent the citizens of the Republic," Valorum declared. Then he added, "This is not an attempt to grab power for myself. The Jedi Council will still oversee your order. But they will do so under the supervision of the Senate's Judicial Department. It is the only way we can heal the scars left by your wars against the Sith.
"The Republic is crumbling," he continued. "For the past thousand years it has slowly been decaying and rotting away. A rebirth is the only way to reverse this process.
"Many of the measures proposed in the Ruusan Reformation are symbolic, but there is power in that symbolism. This will be the beginning of a new era for the Republic. We will enter a new age of prosperity and peace.
"Let the Jedi show their commitment to this peace. Cast aside the trappings of war and assume your rightful place as counselors and advisers. Instead of this endless battle to hold back the dark side, you should help to guide us toward the light."
Valorum finished his speech and looked expectantly at Farfalla. Johun held his breath, waiting for his Master's outburst of righteous indignation. He wanted to watch as Valenthyne expertly and eloquently refuted the Chancellor's arguments. He couldn't wait to witness the impassioned defense of all that the Jedi stood for and believed in that would justify everything General Hoth had done.
"I will speak to the Jedi Council and see that our order complies with your demands, Your Excellency" Farfalla said, his voice heavy.
"And I will send the order to begin the dissolution of the Army of Light as soon as the Senate passes your proposal."
Johun's draw dropped, but he was too stunned to say anything.
"Your cooperation is greatly appreciated, Master Valenthyne," Valorum replied, rising to his feet. "Now if you will excuse me, I must call the Senate to session."
At first it seemed as if he was about to escort them from the room. But when he glanced at Johun, he obviously sensed the young man was not quite ready to let the matter rest. The Chancellor hesitated, giving him a chance to speak.
Johun, however, remained stubbornly silent, Valorum exchanged a brief look with Farfalla, then nodded in deference to the Jedi Master.
"Please see yourselves out when you are ready," the Chancellor said, before giving them each a cordial nod and leaving them alone in the room.
"How could you?" Johun demanded angrily the moment Valorum was gone, leaning across the table toward Farfalla.
The older man sighed and leaned backward, his hands clasped together and his fingers forming a steeple just below his chin.
"I know this is difficult to understand, Johun. But the Chancellor was right. Everything he said was true."
"General Hoth would never agree to this!" Johun spat at him.
"No," Farfalla admitted. "He never could understand the value of compromise. That was his great fault."
"And what's yours?" Johun shouted, slamming his fist on the table and jumping up so swiftly he knocked over his chair. "Betraying the memory of your friends?"
"Watch your anger," Farfalla said softly.
Johun froze, then felt his face flushing in shame and embarrass-ment. He took several deep, cleansing breaths-a Jedi ritual to calm and focus the mind. Once he had his emotions under control he turned and righted his chair, then took his seat again.
"I'm sorry, Master Valenthyne," he said, struggling to keep his voice even. "But this feels as if we are dishonoring him."
"Your Master was a man of great strength and steadfast conviction," Farfalla assured him, still sitting with his steepled hands clasped beneath his chin. "No other could have led us through our time of crisis. But the galaxy does not exist in a state of perpetual crisis.
"The Jedi are the sworn servants of the Republic" he continued. "We will fight to defend it in times of war, but when war is over we must be willing to set aside our weapons and become ambassadors of peace."
The younger man shook his head. "This still doesn't feel right."
"Since the earliest days of your training, you have known nothing but war," Farfalla reminded him. "It can be difficult for you to remember that violence should only be used when all other methods have failed.
"But you must always remind yourself that a Jedi values wisdom and enlightenment over all else. The great truths we seek are often difficult to find, and sometimes it is easier to seek out an enemy to do battle with ... especially when we hunger to avenge those who have fallen. This is one of the ways even good people can fall to the dark side."
"I'm sorry, Master," Johun whispered. The words seemed to catch in his throat, even though his apology was sincere.
"You are still a Padawan. You are not expected to possess the wisdom of a Master," Farfalla consoled him. "That is why I brought you here: so that you could learn."
"I will do my best" Johun vowed.
"That is all I can ever ask," his Master replied.
Thanks to the Holocron he had discovered in Nadd's tomb, Bane now knew that the strange crustaceans that had attached themselves to him were called orbalisks. He had also discovered, through his own trial and error, that they could not be removed.
In the moments after his escape from the orbalisk chamber, he'd tried prying the one on his chest loose with the hunting knife from his boot, to no avail. Failing that, he had tried to dig it out by carving away the surrounding flesh. He'd drawn the knife across his chest in a long, straight line, feeling the agony of the blade slicing deep enough to cut through skin and muscle. And then he'd watched in amazement as the wound healed itself almost instantly, the creature having somehow caused his tissue to regenerate.
Bane had tried the Force next, probing deep inside to better understand what was happening to him. He could sense the creatures feeding on his power, gorging themselves on the dark side energies coursing through every fiber and cell of his being. But though they were parasites, they were also giving something back. As they fed, they pumped a constant stream of chemicals into his body. The alien fluids burned like acid as they were absorbed into his circulatory system; it felt as if every drop of blood were boiling ... but the benefits were too powerful to be ignored. In addition to his miraculous healing abilities, he felt stronger than he ever had. His senses were keener, his reflexes quicker. And on his chest and back where the creatures had latched on, their virtually impenetrable shells would serve as armor plates capable of withstanding even a direct strike from a lightsaber.
The relationship, he had finally realized, was symbiotic-as long as he could endure the constant searing pain of the alien fluids being absorbed and metabolized in his bloodstream. A small price to pay,
Bane had decided before turning his attention to the Holocron. Sitting cross-legged on the hard floor of the antechamber inside Nadd's crypt, he reached out tentatively with the dark side and brushed his hand against the small, crystal pyramid. Responding to his caress, it began to glow.
For the next four days and nights he lost himself in the secrets of the ancient artifact. As he suspected, it had been created by Freedon Nadd. Bane delved into the Holocron's secrets with the aid of the gatekeeper: a miniature hologrammic projection of the long-dead Sith Master responsible for its creation. The gatekeeper guided and directed his studies, serving as a virtual mentor to those who sought out Nadd's lost secrets inside the sinister pyramid.
Though Nadd had been human, his avatar was the image of a man who had succumbed to the physical corruption that sometimes affected those who delved too deeply into the power of the dark side. His skin was pallid, the flesh withered and sunken, and his eyes were glowing yellow orbs devoid of iris or pupil. Despite this, he still appeared as a formidable warrior: broad-shouldered, clad in heavy battle armor and the helm that had doubled as his crown when he had proclaimed himself king over the nearby world of Onderon.
Through the gatekeeper, Bane learned of the Dark Master's experiments with the orbalisks, and his only partly successful efforts to control their power. He discovered not only what they were called, but also all the details of their ecology. Some of the information merely confirmed what he already knew: once attached to a host the orbalisks could not be removed. But he also learned that, in addition to boosting a host's physical abilities, it was possible to tap into the parasites' ability to feed on the dark side to greatly increase one's own command of the Force.
However, Nadd's research also warned of several dangerous side effects of infestation that went beyond the constant physical pain.
Should one of the organisms somehow be killed, it would release rapidly increasing levels of toxins, killing its host in a matter of days. The orbalisks would also grow over time, slowly spreading until they covered his entire body from head to toe. Fortunately, along with this disturbing revelation, Bane discovered blueprints for a special helmet and face guard designed to keep the parasites from growing over his eyes, nose, and mouth while he slept.
But the orbalisk research was only the beginning. Freedon Nadd had been a Jedi who turned to the dark side as the apprentice of Naga Sadow, the former ruler of the ancient Sith Empire. Sadow's power had been so great, it had allowed him to survive for six centuries, fueled by the energies of the dark side. As his apprentice, Nadd had absorbed all his knowledge and teachings, transferring them into the Holocron before murdering Sadow and taking his place.
Not surprisingly, most of the information inside the Holocron was hidden, locked away in the depths of its crystalline structure where it could be accessed only through time, meditation, and careful study. It would take many months, maybe even years, before Bane could lay claim to its greatest secrets. And right now there were more immediate concerns he needed to deal with.
Storing the Holocron safely away, he ventured forth from the crypt to find a way to escape the surface of Dxun. The specters of Kaan and Qordis were waiting for him outside.
"You are trapped here " Qordis said, falling immediately into his litany of failure and despair. "What good is the Holocron if you can never leave this moon?"
Bane reached inward to call upon the dark side, drawing it not only from himself but also from the orbalisks fastened to his chest and back. Feeling an incredible surge of power beyond any he had known before, he released it in a burst of energy. The hallucinations that had plagued his wounded mind ever since the detonation of the thought bomb vanished, instantly and utterly annihilated by his newfound power. He was stronger now than he ever had been, and he knew the visions of the dead Sith would haunt him no more.
Liberated from his tormentors, he still had to find a way off of Dxun. When he stared up into the sky he could see Onderon looming large above him, the planet so close to its moon that their atmospheres had occasionally passed through each other in centuries past. For a brief window of time, this had allowed the great flying beasts of Dxun to migrate to the other world, where some had been tamed and trained to become the fearsome mounts of Onderon's fabled beast-rider clans.
Staring up at the world that was almost near enough to touch, Bane could sense Zannah's imminent arrival there. Soon she would touch down on the dangerous and often deadly planet, and if her Master wasn't there with her, it was unlikely she would survive.
As he continued to gaze up he noticed an enormous winged creature circling high above, hunting for food. At the same time, the hunter noticed him. Folding its wide leathery wings tight against its body, it dropped into a dive headed straight for Bane.
He regarded the creature with a cool, analytical precision as it plummeted toward him. From the Holocron he knew it was called a drexl, one of the reptilian predators that ruled the skies of Dxun. Their appearance resembled that of a winged lizard: scaled, violet skin; a long, thick tail; and heavily muscled body and legs. A blunt, oversized head sat atop an extended, sinewy neck. It had tiny avian eyes; a flat, pushed-in snout; and a wide jaw full of jagged yellow teeth. Bane estimated this particular specimen to be ten meters in length from nose to tail with a wingspan of nearly twenty meters - a full-grown male easily large enough to suit his needs.
An instant before the beast swooped in to snatch him up with its razor-sharp talons, he reached out with the Force and touched the drexl's mind, attempting to dominate the brute's will with his own. He had done this once before, to a rancor on the dying world of Lehon. But the drexl's mind was stronger than he anticipated, and the beast shrugged off his efforts as it let loose a bloodcurdling shriek and slammed into him.
One of the drexl's feet lunged forward to impale him with its enormous claws, only to be deflected by the impenetrable orbalisk carapace on his chest. Instead of being skewered and carried away, Bane was sent flying backward by the momentum of the creature's dive. He hit the ground and rolled several times before springing back to his feet, uninjured thanks to his newfound physical prowess. He saw the drexl swooping back up toward the sky, readying itself for a second attempt to dive down and seize its prey. Bane reached out to touch its mind again, bringing his will down with the crushing force of the sledgehammers he'd used in the mining tunnels of Apa-tros.
The drexl's body shuddered under the impact of his mental assault, and it screamed a piercing cry of protest that split the sky and reverberated over the treetops. This time, however, Bane succeeded in his efforts to subjugate the beast's thoughts to his own.
It circled twice more before coming in to land beside him. At an unspoken command from its new Master, it crouched and allowed Bane to climb atop its back. An instant later it spread its wings and took to the air, climbing higher and higher.
Bane pushed his mount, urging it into the uppermost reaches of the breathable atmosphere. Above them the nearby world of Onderon grew in size until it completely filled the horizon. Only a few hundred kilometers separated Dxun from its neighbor, an insignifi-cant sliver of distance on the scale of worlds and solar systems. Already he could feel the faint gravitational pull of Onderon trying to draw them in, the larger planet's mass battling for dominance with that of its slightly smaller satellite. Driven by Bane's relentless will, the drexl pumped its wings furiously, gaining speed and elevation with every beat.
Bane began to summon the Force, letting it build until the last possible instant. Then, gathering the dark side around him and his mount like a protective cloak, he spurred the drexl forward, and a second later they broke free of Dxun's atmosphere and plunged into the frozen vacuum of space that separated him from Onderon and freedom.