A soft beep from the console alerted Bane that the Triumph was at last approaching its final destination.
The journey to Prakith had taken longer than he had anticipated. Travel into the Deep Core was always dangerous; the densely packed stars and black holes at the galaxy's heart created gravity wells capable of warping the space-time continuum. Under such extreme conditions, hyperspace lanes were unstable, shifting or even collapsing without warning.
The last known route to Prakith had collapsed nearly five hundred years ago, and nobody had bothered to plot a new one since. This happened frequently with worlds in the Deep Core: if they weren't rich in resources or mineral deposits, the dangers of trying to find new hyperspace lanes simply didn't justify the effort.
In the centuries since the collapse of the hyperlanes, Prakith had basically been forgotten by the rest of the Republic. Even travel from nearby systems was risky, and Bane expected to find a planet that had stagnated after being cut off from the rest of society. Interplanetary trade was the lifeblood of galactic culture; without it populations dwindled and technology levels tended to regress to varying degrees.
Prakith's isolation had also allowed the Jedi to effectively purge all mentions of Darth Andeddu and his followers from galactic records, though Prakith itself was still mentioned in a handful of older sources. Bane had compiled all the known sources, including several hopelessly out-of-date navigational charts, in the hope of relocating the lost world.
It wasn't impossible to travel through unmapped hyperlanes, but it was both slow and dangerous. Bane was forced to plot and replot his course multiple times, making hundreds of small jumps, moving from one star to its nearby neighbors, picking and choosing from a list of potential hyperspace routes generated by the Triumph's state-of-the-art nav computer.
Despite being the best program credits could buy, the computer was far from foolproof. It operated on probabilities and theoretical assumptions derived from previously reported data and complex astrogational measurements made on the fly. There was no way to predict the stability or inherent safety of a given route until a ship charted it by going through; as a result each stage of the journey had the potential to end in disaster.
Traveling through uncharted space was more art than science, and Bane relied as much on his instincts as the mathematical calculations of the nav computer. By sticking to shorter jumps he prolonged the journey, but he was able to minimize the risk of the Triumph being torn apart by an unexpected gravity well or being crushed out of existence by a collapsing hyperlane.
This wasn't the first time he had braved the perils of the Deep Core. Ten years ago he had traveled to the lost world of Tython to reclaim the Holocron of Belia Darzu. The fact that he was now going to Prakith to retrieve another Holocron-this one created by Darth Andeddu-didn't strike him as mere coincidence, however.
What the ignorant dismissed as chance or random luck was often the work of the Force. Some chose to call it destiny or fate, though these terms were far too simple to convey the subtle yet far-reaching influence it wielded. The Force was alive; it permeated the very fabric of the universe, flowing through every living creature. An energy that touched and influenced all living things, its currents-both light and dark-ebbed and flowed, shaping the patterns of existence.
Bane had spent a lifetime studying these patterns, and he had come to realize that they could be manipulated and exploited. He had come to understand that as the power of the dark side waned, the talismans created by the ancient Sith tended to become lost. But in time the cycle would turn, and as the power of the dark side waxed full the chance for these lost treasures to be found again would bubble up to the surface. During these windows of opportunity, all that was required was an individual with the wisdom to recognize them and the strength to take action.
Bane had mastered these talents, yet he was unsure if he could say the same of his apprentice. Zannah was smart and cunning, and her powers in the dark side might be even greater than his own. But did she have the vision to guide the Sith through the invisible tides of history as they rose and fell?
He wondered how her investigation on Doan was progressing. He had hoped to return to Ciutric before her, but he had underestimated the difficulty of navigating through the Core. By the time he got back, it was likely she would already be there waiting for him. She would realize he had sent her away as a distraction, and she would be expecting betrayal on his return. The confrontation he had been anticipating would finally come to pass.
The nav console beeped again, and the view outside the cockpit changed from the blinding white field of hyperspace to reveal the Prak system: a small red sun surrounded by five tiny planets. Taking manual control of his vessel, Bane descended on the third-a forbidding world largely covered by active volcanoes, burning lakes of magma, and dark fields of sulfuric ash.
As he entered the atmosphere, the scanners picked up several small cities scattered across the inhospitable surface. The nearest was several hundred kilometers to the north, but Bane turned his ship in the opposite direction, heading for the vast mountain range that ran east-west along the planet's equator.
He didn't know whether Andeddu's cult still existed or not, but from the moment he had come out of hyperspace he had been confident their stronghold still survived. He could feel its presence on the surface of the world-a nexus of dark side energy pulsing like a beacon from the heart of the mountains.
As he drew closer, the ship detected a small settlement on the edge of the range. Surprisingly, an automated landing beacon was emitting a signal on standard channels. That meant there was still an active spaceport, though it was probably used by shuttles traveling from one location on the planet's surface to another, rather than visitors from offworld.
Bane's theory was confirmed when he brought his shuttle in to touch down at the small landing pad on the edge of the settlement. The only other person on site was an old man sitting in a chair outside a small, dilapidated customs booth. He watched curiously as Bane emerged from the ship, but made no effort to rise.
"Don't see too many visitors lately," he said as Bane approached. "You from Gallia?"
From his research, Bane knew that Gallia was one of Prakith's larger cities. The man was assuming he was a native of Prakith; the idea that someone from outside their system would come to visit obviously hadn't even crossed his mind.
"That's right," Bane said, seeing no reason to complicate the situation by revealing the truth. "I flew in from Gallia. I'm looking for information on Darth Andeddu's followers."
The man leaned forward in his chair and spat on the ground. "We don't like to talk about them." He fixed Bane with a suspicious stare, spat again, then sat back in his chair and crossed his arms defiantly. "I got nothing else to say to you. Go back to Gallia. You aren't welcome here."
Bane could have pressed the issue, but he saw no benefit in intimidating or torturing an insignificant, irritable old man. Instead, he turned away and began walking in the direction of the buildings on the horizon. He was confident that someone there would be willing to tell him what he wanted to know.
* * *
A few hours later Bane was back in his shuttle, armed with the information he needed. Despite the old man's declaration, he'd found people were only too eager to share what they knew about the strange, insular cult deep in the neighboring mountains.
It was clear that Andeddu's followers were still active; occasionally some of them even came into the small town in need of supplies. It was also clear that the people in the mountain village regarded their mysterious neighbors with a combination of fear and loathing. Estimates of their numbers ranged from a few dozen to more than a thousand, though Bane suspected the truth was somewhere closer to the low end. Beyond that, everything else fell under the headings of wild speculation or illogical superstition.
Drawn by the unmistakable power of the dark side emanating from his target, Bane dropped the Triumph lower and began to weave in among the tall black peaks. As he flew deeper into the range, he began to notice increased signs of recent seismic activity. Some of the mountains were over twenty kilometers tall but most were half that height, their tops blown off when the molten lava at their core erupted in a shower of smoke and fire.
It wasn't long before the stronghold itself came into view, a towering structure built on the flat plain of a valley hidden deep within the heart of the range. A four-sided, flat-topped pyramid chiseled from black obsidian, the two-hundred-meter tall building was part fortress and part monument to a self-proclaimed god. From the stories of the townspeople, Bane had learned that Andeddu had been worshiped as a deity during his long, long life before being overthrown. Yet even after his betrayal and death, a small cult of devoted followers believed his spirit still existed. They had continued their loyal service, preparing themselves for the day their Master would return.
Prakith's long isolation from the rest of the galaxy had only served to strengthen his followers' resolve. Those who lived in the temple now were described by everyone he spoke to as fanatics, and Bane suspected each would be willing to sacrifice his or her life to protect Andeddu's Holocron.
Bane throttled back his shuttle, searching for a place to touch down. Ribbons of lava crawled down from the surrounding peaks and crisscrossed their way across the valley. The malevolent power emanating from the stronghold kept the deadly streams at bay, but any landing site he chose on the ground would be at risk. He had no intention of acquiring the Holocron, only to return and discover that his ship had disappeared beneath a slow-flowing river of magma.
There was one option: the flat top of the stronghold, no doubt constructed in the first place as a landing site. He would have preferred not to risk alerting anyone inside the pyramid by landing on it, but it seemed he had no choice. There was a time for subtlety, and a time for strength. He circled the pyramid once, then brought the shuttle in for a perfect landing on the landing pad.
Moving quickly, he sprang from the cockpit and raced outside, lightsaber already drawn. Through the Force, he could sense the chambers in the building beneath his feet explode in a flurry of activity as the cultists rallied to meet the unexpected intruder.
He glanced quickly around, taking stock of his surroundings. The roof was square, thirty meters across on each side, with a small hatch built into one corner. At that moment, the hatch burst open and beings he assumed were cultists began to pour out-nearly two dozen in total, all armed with vibroblades and clubs.
Despite their numbers, Bane instantly realized they posed no real threat. Though they worshiped one of the ancient Sith, these were ordinary men and women. The Force did not flow through their veins; they were nothing but fodder. Their fury might be fueled by the dark side energies emanating from the temple, but Bane could just as easily draw upon the same power, letting it build until he unleashed it against his foes.
A decade earlier he would have eagerly engaged them in physical combat, his body pumped full of adrenaline released by the orbalisks that had covered his flesh. Swept up in a mindless rage, he would have carved a bloody swath through their numbers, hacking and slashing at his helpless enemies while relying on the impenetrable shells of the orbalisks to protect him from their blows.
But the orbalisks were gone now. He was no longer invulnerable to physical attacks, yet he was also no longer a slave to the primal bloodlust that used to overwhelm him. Free from the parasitic infestation, he was able to dispatch his enemies using the Force rather than relying solely on brute strength. Bane extinguished his weapon and stood perfectly still, allowing the swarming horde to close in on him as he gathered his strength. He called upon the power of the temple itself, feeding on it to bolster his own abilities as he created a deadly field around his body. It began as a tight circle, but quickly spread outward until it extended to a radius of ten meters, with the Sith Lord at the center. The air within the circumference of the field suddenly became darker, as if the light from the red sun above had been suddenly dimmed.
Cloaked in the shadowy gloom, Bane simply held his ground against the enemy assault. The front ranks of onrushing cultists shrieked in agony as they entered the field, their life essence violently sucked out of their bodies, aging them a thousand years in only a few seconds. Muscles and tendons atrophied instantaneously; their skin withered and shrank, pulling tight across their bones. Eyes and tongues shriveled, turning them into mummified husks before their desiccated flesh crumbled away, leaving only skeletal remains and a few strands of hair.
The effort of creating an aura of pure dark side energy would have quickly exhausted even Bane. However, as his enemies fell he was able to draw their essence into himself, feeding on their energies to revitalize his fading strength and reinforcing the field in preparation for the next wave of victims.
The mass of cultists continued to charge forward. Those in the middle ranks had seen the fate of their companions and tried desperately to stop. But the momentum of those behind swept them forward into the field to suffer the same agonizing death as those who had already fallen.
Only those at the very rear of the crowd were able to see the danger and pull up in time to save themselves. Of the more than twenty cultists who had attacked him, only a handful were able to save themselves. They stood at a safe distance, hovering on the edge of the deadly field with weapons raised, uncertain how to proceed.
Bane ended their confusion by letting the field drop and drawing his lightsaber. His opponents were too slow and too few to challenge him, and their crude vibro-weapons couldn't even parry his glowing blade. Completely helpless against a superior foe, their mindless devotion to Andeddu still compelled them to attack the invader of the sacred temple. Bane cut them down like dogs.
No more cultists emerged from the hatches to attack him, but Bane could sense nearly a hundred more in the temple below him. The ones he had slain on the roof were the warriors, guardians sent up by the priests and attendants still huddled in the rooms and corridors of the pyramid.
The remaining enemies were potentially more dangerous: the priests of Andeddu had no doubt ascended to their positions because of their affinity for the Force. Their training was probably limited, and Bane knew no single one among them was powerful enough to stop him. Together, though, they might have the potential to overwhelm him. However, he didn't intend to give them time to organize so they could attempt to unite their strength.
Moving quickly, Bane strode over to the hatch. Sometime during the battle it had been closed, and he discovered it had been locked from the inside. Letting the Force flow through him, he clipped his lightsaber and crouched down to grip the handle with both hands. Bracing his massive shoulders, he wrenched the metal hatch open, yanking it off its hinges and tossing it aside.
He jumped down the steep staircase revealed below, landing in a sloping corridor that led deeper into Andeddu's stronghold. Igniting his lightsaber again, he moved with long, quick strides as he made his way unerringly through the labyrinthine halls, drawn by the power of Andeddu's Holocron calling to him from the lower chambers.
The interior architecture reminded him of the Sith Academy on Korriban: ancient stone walls, heavy wooden doors, and narrow halls dimly lit by torches sputtering in sconces along the wall. As he marched through the corridors, Bane sensed the occasional presence of one or two individuals on the other side of the doors he passed. Most simply cowered in their rooms, allowing him to continue on unhindered; they could sense his power, and they knew that interfering with his quest would only result in their pointless deaths. Every so often, however, a cultist whose devotion to Andeddu outweighed all sense of self-preservation would spring out to try to stop him.
Bane responded to each of these attacks with brutal efficiency. Some he sliced in two with a single swipe of his lightsaber; with others he used the Force to cleanly snap their necks, never even breaking stride. By the time he reached the central chamber of the stronghold, all pretense of resistance was gone. Anyone still left in the temple had retreated to the lowest chambers, fleeing his wrath.
Here at the heart of the pyramid Andeddu's followers had built a shrine to their Master. Glow lamps in each corner illuminated the room with their eerie green light. The walls were covered with murals depicting images of the God-King unleashing his power against the armies of those who opposed him, and a great stone sarcophagus lay in the center, its lid carved with a relief of the long-dead Sith Lord.
In the Valley of the Dark Lords on Korriban, Bane had searched the ancient burial sites of the Sith who had come before him. Each of these, however, had been empty. Over the centuries the Jedi had stripped away anything of value or dark side power from the world, secreting the treasures away in their Temple on Coruscant for safekeeping.
Here, however, Bane had found what had been lost on Korriban. The isolation that had allowed the Jedi to purge Andeddu from the galactic records had kept his resting place safe from their looting. The sarcophagus on Prakith had been undisturbed for centuries. Inside, the Dark Lord's most prized possession waited to be claimed by one worthy of its secrets.
Entering the room, Bane noticed the cloying smell of sickly-sweet incense in the air. As he approached the sarcophagus, he could feel the scent crawling over him like a fine mist, clinging to his clothes. Finding a grip on one corner of the sarcophagus's lid, he leaned in and shoved. Muscles straining, he used all his great strength to slide it out of the way, the sound of grinding stone echoing in the chamber as the heavy lid grudgingly succumbed to his efforts. Inside, Andeddu's mummified corpse lay on its back, hands clasped around a small crystal pyramid clutched against his chest. Reaching into the casket, Bane seized the pyramid and pulled. For a moment it felt as if the corpse inside was resisting him, its bony fingers refusing to relinquish their grip.
He pulled harder, wrenching the Holocron free from the hold of its dead creator. Then he turned and left the room.
On his way back to his ship, only a few of Andeddu's followers made any effort to stop him; those who did he brushed aside like gnats. He half expected to find a few dozen amassed on the roof against him in a last desperate stand, but except for his shuttle the roof was empty. Apparently wisdom and self-preservation had prevailed over their loyalty to Andeddu.
As it should be, Bane thought to himself. The leaders of the cult had realized a fundamental truth: the strong take what they want, and the weak can do nothing about it. They were not powerful enough to stop him from claiming Andeddu's Holocron, therefore they did not deserve it.
Bane climbed into his shuttle and prepared for liftoff. He couldn't help but think that if any of the cultists had been worthy, he would have left with more than just a Holocron: he would have taken a new apprentice, as well.
As it was, the search for Zannah's replacement would have to wait. He had what he'd come for. It would take many days to traverse the hyperspace routes leading out of the Deep Core, but Bane welcomed the journey. It would give him time to explore the Holocron in greater detail. And if all went as planned, by the time he arrived back home all of Andeddu's secrets would be his.