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The return trip from Prakith to Ciutric IV was taking even longer than the original journey. It should have been quicker, of course; Bane had already plotted the hyperspace routes that would lead him back out of the Deep Core. But in the hours he had spent on the volcanic world acquiring the Holocron from Andeddu's followers, several of the lanes he had used for the inbound flight had shifted and become unstable.

Two had already collapsed, forcing him to recalculate his journey. Statistically, the chances of this happening in such a short time span were astronomically small. However, statistics often fell by the wayside when events were influenced by the Force. There were too many accounts of those who had come into possession of powerful Sith artifacts falling victim to grim misfortune to dismiss the tales as mere coincidence.

Many believed the talismans of the dark side carried a curse; others claimed they were somehow alive, as if the inanimate materials used to make a ring, amulet, or Holocron could somehow achieve sentience. Those ignorant enough to believe in such superstition might have claimed that Andeddu's Holocron was fighting Bane. They would have declared the collapsing hyperspace routes were evidence of Andeddu's vengeful spirit trapped within the crystal pyramid seeking to destroy the thief who had defiled his sacred temple.

Bane knew there was no inherent malevolence in the Holocron; it was merely a tool, a repository of knowledge. Yet he also understood how far reaching the effects of the Force could be. A storm of violence swirled around items imbued with the magic of the ancient Sith; the strong could ride the storm to even greater heights, the weak would be swept up in its wake and destroyed.

Andeddu's Holocron was a talisman of undeniable power; Bane could feel the waves of dark side energy radiating from it. It was possible the fragile matrix of the Deep Core's space-time continuum had been subtly altered by these waves during his outbound journey, destabilizing the hyperlanes. He plotted a course of nearly one hundred brief jumps, minimizing the danger by spending as much of the journey in realspace as possible. It would take him nearly twice as long to get home, but it was better to be cautious than risk having his ship instantaneously crushed into a pinpoint singularity by the sudden collapse of a weakened hyperspace corridor.

Fortunately, he had a way to help him pass the time.

"Essence transfer is the secret of eternal life," the hologram told him.

Bane was sitting cross-legged on the floor of his ship, the Holocron resting on the ground in front of him. A three-dimensional image of Darth Andeddu, twenty centimeters tall, was projected just above the apex of the four-sided pyramid.

"The physical body will always weaken and fail, yet it is nothing but a shell or vessel," the hologram continued. "When it is time, it is possible to transfer your consciousness-your spirit-into a new vessel:as I have done with this Holocron."

Bane understood that the projection speaking to him was not the dead spirit of the ancient Sith Lord; it was only a simulated personality known as a gatekeeper. Every Holocron had one. A virtual guide programmed with the personality traits of the original creator, the gatekeeper served as a guardian of the information stored within the artifact.

The appearance of the gatekeeper often mirrored that of the Holocron's creator:or at least, the image the creator wanted others to see. Bane remembered how the gatekeeper of Belia Darzu's Holocron would often change appearance, reflecting her changeling heritage.

His own Holocron projected an image of Bane still clad in his orbalisk armor. Although the parasites had proven impractical in real life, the horrific appearance of his body covered by the infestation was more visually impressive and intimidating. It also hinted at the sacrifices one must make to embrace the true power of the dark side-a valuable lesson for any who would follow his teachings.

More importantly, the orbalisks masked his appearance and concealed his true identity. Should the Holocron ever fall into the hands of the Jedi while he was still alive, they would be unable to recognize him from the gatekeeper's image:an even greater consideration now that he was on the cusp of learning the secrets of eternal life. But first, he had to overcome the small but imposing figure who now stood before him.

Andeddu had chosen to represent himself as a heavily armored man bathed in a fiery glow of red and orange. Atop his head rested a tall, flat headdress reminiscent of a high priest, encircled by a thin gold crown inset with gems. His face was sunken and drawn, almost skeletal.

For the past four days Bane had played the gatekeeper's games in an attempt to unlock the secrets of eternal life. He had delved deep into Andeddu's Holocron, accomplishing in less than a week what would have taken others months or even years. He had suffered through the tedious lessons; he had listened to the tiresome philosophical rants of the holographic image. He had learned nothing new about the Force, though the gatekeeper's words had revealed much about Darth Andeddu's personality and beliefs.

Like many of the ancient Sith, he was cruel, arrogant, self-centered, and shortsighted. His lessons mirrored those of Bane's instructors at the Sith Academy on Korriban; lessons Bane had rejected decades ago as flawed. He had moved beyond their teachings. His understanding of the dark side had evolved. In creating the Rule of Two, he had ushered in a new era for the Sith. He had transcended the limited understanding of men like Andeddu, and he was done listening to the gatekeeper's ignorant litany.

"Show me the ritual of essence transfer," Bane demanded.

"The ritual is fraught with danger," the gatekeeper warned. "Attempting it will cause the current vessel to be destroyed; your body will be consumed by the power of the dark side."

Bane clenched his teeth in exasperation. He had heard these warnings at least a dozen times before.

"Choose your new vessel carefully. If you select a living being, be warned that their own spirit will fight you as you try to possess their body. If their will is strong, you will fail and your consciousness will be cast into the void, doomed to an eternity of suffering and torment."

The mention of the void always made Bane think of the thought bomb, and the hundreds of Sith and Jedi spirits trapped forever by its detonation. It reminded him of what he had accomplished; it reminded him of who he was.

"I am not some student cowering in fear before the unimaginable power of the dark side," Bane snapped at the hologram. "I am the Dark Lord of the Sith."

"Your title means nothing to me," the gatekeeper sneered. "I decide who is worthy to learn my secrets, and you are not yet ready. Perhaps you will never be."

Over the past few days Bane had come to this point too many times. He wasn't about to let the gatekeeper thwart him yet again.

Bane snatched the Holocron up from the floor with his right hand, ignoring the all-too-familiar trembling in his left. There was another way to get the knowledge he sought, but it was a path fraught with peril.

In the construction of his own Holocron, Bane had developed an intimate knowledge of how the talismans worked. Each was unique, a repository of everything its creator had learned during his or her long life. But there were similarities that were common to them all, including the one he now studied.

Andeddu's Holocron was a four-sided pyramid made of smooth, dark crystal. Arcane glyphs of gold and red were etched into each face, the mystic symbols focusing and channeling the power of the dark side. Inside was an intricate matrix of crystal lattices and vertices. The fine, interwoven filaments formed a data system capable of storing near infinite amounts of knowledge, as well as providing a framework for the cognitive networks required to create the gatekeeper's appearance and personality.

The entire system was controlled by the capstone, a single piece of black crystal perched atop the apex of the pyramid. Imbued with incredible power, the capstone stabilized the matrix structure, allowing the individual pieces of data to be accessed instantaneously by the gatekeeper.

However, it was possible to circumvent the gatekeeper:but only by one strong enough to survive the attempt. If Bane's will faltered, or if the power of Andeddu's Holocron was more than he could handle, then his mind would be destroyed. His identity would be devoured by the talisman, leaving his body a mindless husk. It was a desperate gamble, but there was no other way to get what he needed. Not in time to help him against Zannah.

"If you will not give me what I want," he shouted at the gatekeeper, "then I will take it!"

Reaching out with the Force, he plunged his awareness into the depths of the pyramid's inner workings as the gatekeeper let loose a howl of impotent rage. Thrusting his consciousness directly into the capstone, Bane let his will invade the small four-sided talisman just as he himself had invaded the stronghold of Andeddu's cult back on Prakith.

For a brief instant he could feel the burning inferno of power trapped within threatening to consume his identity. Bane welcomed the pain, feeding on it and transforming it along with all the frustration and anger he had built up over the past four days into a raging, swirling storm of dark side energy. Then, bit by bit, he began to impose order on the chaos, bending it to his will.

Using the Force, Bane began to make subtle adjustments to the Holocron's crystal matrix. He began to manipulate the arrangement of the filaments, twisting, turning, and shifting them with subtle, immeasurable adjustments as he worked his way deeper and deeper into the data in pursuit of what he sought. In many ways it was like slicing a secure computer network, only a million times more complex.

With each adjustment, the gatekeeper's image flickered and cried out, but Bane was oblivious to the simulation's artificial suffering. For several hours he continued his work, his body perspiring heavily, until he finally found what he sought: the ritual of essence transference; Andeddu's secret of eternal life.

With one final push of the Force, he reached out with his mind and seized what he had been searching for. With the aid of the gatekeeper the information would have taken weeks to absorb and learn. Bane, however, had gone right to the source. The knowledge streamed directly from the Holocron into his mind, raw and unfiltered. Thousands of images flooded his consciousness, an explosion of sights, sounds, and thoughts that caused him to drop the Holocron to the floor, breaking the connection.

The gatekeeper's image vanished, leaving Bane alone in the ship, still sitting cross-legged on the floor. He was slumped forward, his breath coming in heavy gasps. His clothes were soaked in sweat; his body shivered with exhaustion.

Slowly, he got to his feet and made his way over to the pilot's seat. He walked with the stumbling gait of a man drunk on Mandalorian wine, resting his hand on the wall for support. His head was swimming, lost in the secrets he had wrenched from the Holocron's depths.

As he collapsed into the seat the control console began to beep softly. It took him several seconds to realize the latest hyperspace jump on his return journey was reaching an end:though there were still many more jumps to go.

He needed to plot a course for the next leg of the trip, but he was in no state to contemplate that right now. Not while his addled mind was still wrestling with what he had learned. He needed time to process the information from the Holocron, to wrap his head around it. To analyze and compartmentalize all the facts, arranging them into some semblance of rational thought. Bane reached out and activated the autopilot, content to let the ship drift slowly through space while he recovered. Then he closed his eyes and let the darkness of sleep envelop him.