Darth Bane, the reigning Dark Lord of the Sith, kicked the covers from his bed and swung his feet over the edge, resting them on the cold marble floor. He tilted his head from side to side; straining to work out the knots in his heavily muscled neck and shoulders.
He finally rose with an audible grunt. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled slowly, reaching his arms up high above his head as he stretched to his full two-meter height. He could feel the sharp pop-pop-pop of each individual vertebra along his spine loosening as he extended himself until his fingertips brushed against the ceiling.
Satisfied, he lowered his arms and scooped up his lightsaber from the ornate nightstand at the side of the bed. The curved handle felt reassuring in his grip. Familiar. Solid. Yet holding it couldn't stop his free hand from trembling ever so slightly. Scowling, he clenched his left hand into a fist, the fingers digging into the flesh of his palm-a crude but effective way to tame the tremor.
Moving silently, he slipped from the bedchamber out into the hallways of the mansion he now called home. Luminous tapestries covered the walls and colorful, hand-woven rugs lined the corridors as he made his way past room after room, each decorated with custom-made furniture, rare objets d'art, and other unmistakable signs of wealth. It took him almost a full minute to traverse the length of the building and reach the back door that led out to the open-air grounds surrounding his estate.
Barefoot and naked from the waist up, he shivered and glanced down at the abstract mosaic of the stone courtyard illuminated in the light of Ciutric IV's twin moons. Goose bumps crawled across his flesh, but he ignored the night's chill as he ignited his lightsaber and began to practice the aggressive forms of Djem So.
His muscles groaned in protest, his joints clicking and grinding as he moved carefully through a variety of sequences. Slash. Feint. Thrust. The soles of his feet slapped softly against the surface of the courtyard stones, a sporadic rhythm marking the progress of every advance and retreat against his imaginary opponent.
The last vestiges of sleep and fatigue clung stubbornly to his body, spurring the tiny voice inside that urged him to abandon his training and return to the comfort of his bed. Bane drowned it out by silently reciting the opening line of the Sith Code: Peace is a lie; there is only passion.
Ten standard years had passed since he had lost his orbalisk armor. Ten years since his body had been burned almost beyond recognition by the devastating power of Force lightning unleashed from his own hand. Ten years since the healer Caleb had brought him back from the brink of death and Zannah, his apprentice, had slaughtered Caleb and the Jedi who had come to find them.
Thanks to Zannah's manipulations, the Jedi now believed the Sith to be extinct. Bane and his apprentice had spent the decade since those events perpetuating that myth: living in the shadows, gathering resources, and harboring their strength for the day they would strike back against the Jedi. On that glorious day the Sith would reveal themselves, even as they wiped their enemies from existence.
Bane knew he might never live to see that day. He was in his mid-forties now, and the first faint scars of time and age had begun to leave their marks on his body. Yet he had dedicated himself to the idea that one day, even if it took centuries, the Sith-his Sith-would rule the galaxy.
As he continued to ignore the aches and pains that inevitably accompanied the first half of his nightly regime, Bane's movements began to pick up speed. The air hissed and crackled as it was split time and time again by the crimson blade that had become an extension of his indomitable will.
He still cut an imposing figure. The powerful muscles built up during a youth spent working the mines on Apatros rippled beneath his skin, flexing with each slash and strike of his lightsaber. But a tiny sliver of the brute strength he once possessed had been whittled away.
He leapt high in the air, his lightsaber arcing above his head before chopping straight down in a blow powerful enough to cleave an enemy in two. His feet hit the hard surface of the courtyard stones with a sharp, sudden smack as he landed. Bane still moved with fierce grace and terrifying intensity. His lightsaber still flickered with blinding speed as he performed his martial drills, yet it was the merest fraction slower than it had once been.
The aging process was subtle, but inescapable. Bane accepted this; what he lost in strength and speed he could easily compensate for with wisdom, knowledge, and experience. But it was not age that was to blame for the involuntary tremor that sometimes afflicted his left hand.
A shadow passed over one of the twin moons; a dark cloud heavy with the threat of a fierce storm. Bane paused, briefly considering cutting his ritual short to avoid the impending downpour. But his muscles were warm now, and the blood was pumping furiously through his veins. The minor aches and pains were gone, banished by the adrenaline rush of intense physical training. Now was no time to quit.
Feeling a blast of cold wind blow in, he crouched low and opened himself up to the Force, letting it flow through him. Drawing on it to extend his awareness out to encompass each individual bead of rain as it fell from the sky, he resolved not to let a single drop touch his exposed flesh.
He could sense the power of the dark side building inside him. It began, as it always did, with a faint spark, a tiny flicker of light and heat. Muscles tense and coiled in anticipation, he fed the spark, fueling it with his own passion, letting his anger and fury transform the flame into an inferno waiting to be unleashed.
As the first fat drops splattered onto the patio stones around him, Bane exploded into action. Abandoning the overpowering style of Djem So, he shifted to the quicker sequences of Soresu, his lightsaber tracing tight circles above his head in a series of movements designed to intercept enemy blaster bolts.
The wind rose to a howling gale, and the scattered drops quickly became a downpour. His body and mind united as one, he channeled the infinite power of the Force against the driving rain. Tiny clouds of hissing steam formed as his blade picked off the descending drops while Bane twisted, twirled, and contorted his body to evade those few that managed to slip through his defenses.
For the next ten minutes he battled the pelting storm, reveling in the power of the dark side. And then, as suddenly as it had begun, the tempest was gone, the dark cloud scurrying away on the breeze. Breathing hard, Bane extinguished his lightsaber. His skin was sheened in sweat, but not a single drop of rain had touched his bare flesh.
Sudden storms were an almost nightly occurrence on Ciutric, particularly here in the lush forest on the outskirts of the capital city of Daplona. Yet this minor inconvenience was easily tolerated when set against all the advantages the planet had to offer.
Located on the Outer Rim, far from the seat of galactic power and far from the prying eyes of the Jedi Council, Ciutric had the good fortune to exist at the nexus of several hyperspace trading routes. Vessels stopped at the planet frequently, giving rise to a small but highly profitable industrial society centered on trade and shipping.
More importantly to Bane, the constant flow of visitors from regions scattered across the galaxy gave him easy access to contacts and information, allowing him to build up a network of informants and agents that he could personally oversee.
This would have been impossible had his body still been covered with the orbalisks-a host of chitinous parasites that fed upon his flesh in exchange for the strength and protection they afforded. His living armor had made him nearly invincible in one-on-one combat, yet its monstrous appearance had forced him to remain hidden from the eyes of the galaxy.
Back then, his plans to build up wealth, influence, and political power had been crippled by his physical deformity. Forced into a life of isolation lest the Jedi become aware of his existence, he had worked only through emissaries and go-betweens. He had relied on Zannah to be his eyes and ears. All the information he received was funneled through her; every goal and task was accomplished by her hand. As a result, Bane had been forced to act more cautiously, slowing his efforts and delaying his plans.
Things were different now. He was still a fearsome figure to behold, but no more so than any mercenary, bounty hunter, or retired soldier. Clad in the typical garb of their adopted homeworld, he was remarkable more for his height than anything else-noticeable, but hardly unique. He was able to mingle with the crowds, interact with those who possessed information, and forge relationships with valuable political allies.
He no longer had to remain hidden, for now he was able to conceal his true self behind an assumed identity. To this end, Bane had purchased a small estate a few minutes outside Daplona. Adopting the guise of siblings Sepp and Allia Omek, wealthy import-export merchants, he and Zannah had carefully cultivated their new identities in the planet's influential social, political, and economic circles.
Their estate was close enough to the city to give them easy access to everything Ciutric had to offer, yet isolated enough to allow Zannah to continue her lessons in the ways of the Sith. Stagnation and complacency were the seeds that would lead to the ultimate destruction of the Jedi; as the Dark Lord, Bane had to be vigilant against allowing his own Order to fall into the same trap. It was necessary not just to train his apprentice, but also to continue to increase his own skills and knowledge.
A cool zephyr wafted across the courtyard, chilling Bane's sweat-soaked body. His physical training was done for the evening; now it was time for the truly important work to begin.
A few dozen strides brought him to the small annex at the rear of the estate. The door was locked, sealed by a coded security system. Punching in the digits, he gently pushed the door open and stepped into the building that served as his private library.
The interior consisted of a single square room, five meters on each side, lit only by a single soft light hanging from the ceiling. The walls were lined by shelves overflowing with the scrolls, tomes, and manuscripts he had assembled over the years: the teachings of the ancient Sith. In the center of the room stood a large podium and a small pedestal. On the pedestal rested the Dark Lord's greatest treasure: his Holocron.
A four-sided crystal pyramid small enough to be held in the palm, the Holocron contained the sum of all Bane's knowledge and understanding. Everything he had learned about the ways of the dark side-all his teachings, all his philosophies-had been transferred into the Holocron, recorded for all eternity. It was his legacy, a way to share an entire lifetime of wisdom with those who would follow him in the line of Sith Masters.
The Holocron would pass to Zannah on his death, providing she could one day prove herself strong enough to wrest the mantle of Dark Lord away from him. Bane was no longer certain that day would come.
The Sith had existed in one form or another for thousands of years. Throughout their existence they had waged an endless war against the Jedi:and one another. Time and time again the followers of the dark side had been thwarted by their own rivalries and internal power struggles.
A common theme resonated across the long history of the Sith Order. Any great leader would inevitably be overthrown by an alliance of his or her followers. Lacking a strong leader the lesser Sith would quickly turn against one another, further weakening the Order.
Of all the Sith Masters, only Bane had understood the inescapable futility of this cycle. And only he had been strong enough to break it. Under his leadership the Sith had been reborn. Now they numbered only two-one Master and one apprentice; one to embody the power of the dark side, the other to crave it.
Thus would the Sith line always flow from the strongest, the one most worthy. Bane's Rule of Two ensured that the power of both Master and apprentice would grow from generation to generation until the Sith were finally able to exterminate the Jedi and usher in a new galactic age.
That was why Bane had chosen Zannah as his apprentice: she had the potential to one day surpass even his own abilities. On that day she would usurp him as the Dark Lord of the Sith and choose an apprentice of her own. Bane would die, but the Sith would live on.
Or so he had once believed. Yet now there was doubt in his mind. Two decades had passed since he had plucked the ten-year-old girl from the battlefields of Ruusan, yet Zannah still seemed content merely to serve. She had embraced his lessons and had shown an incredible affinity for the Force. Over the years Bane had tracked her progress carefully, and he could no longer say with certainty which one of them would survive a confrontation between them. But her reluctance to challenge him had left her Master wondering if Zannah lacked the fierce ambition necessary to become the Dark Lord of the Sith.
Stepping into the library, he reached out with his left hand to close the door behind him. As he did so, he noticed the all-too-familiar trembling in his fingers. He snatched his hand back involuntarily, clenching it once more into a fist as he kicked the door shut.
Age was beginning to take its toll on Bane, but it was nothing compared with the toll already wrought upon his body by decades of drawing upon the dark side of the Force. He couldn't help but smile at the grim irony: through the dark side he had access to near-infinite power, but it was power that came with¬ a terrible cost. Flesh and bone lacked the strength to withstand the unfathomable energy unleashed by the Force. The unquenchable fire of the dark side was consuming him, devouring him bit by bit. After decades of focusing and channeling its power, his body was beginning to break down.
His condition was exacerbated by the lingering effects of the orbalisk armor that had been killing him even as it gifted him with incredible strength and speed.
The parasites had pushed his body well beyond its natural limits, aging him prematurely and intensifying the degeneration wrought by the power of the dark side. The orbalisks were gone now, but their damage could not be undone.
The first outward manifestations of his failing health had been subtle: his eyes had become sunken and drawn, his skin a touch more pale and pockmarked than was normal for his age. The last year, however, had seen more pronounced deterioration, culminating with the involuntary tremor that seized his left hand with increasing frequency.
And there was nothing he could do about it. The Jedi could draw upon the light side to heal injury and disease. But the dark side was a weapon; the sick and frail did not deserve to be cured. Only the strong were worthy of survival.
He had tried to conceal the tremor from his apprentice, but Zannah was too quick, too cunning, to have missed such an obvious mark of weakness in her Master.
Bane had expected the tremor to be the catalyst Zannah needed to challenge him. Yet even now, with his body showing undeniable evidence of his growing vulnerability, she seemed content to maintain the status quo. Whether she acted out of fear, indecision, or perhaps even compassion for her Master, Bane didn't know-but none of these traits was acceptable in one chosen to carryon his legacy.
There was another potential explanation, of course-yet it was the most troubling of all. It was possible Zannah had noticed his deteriorating physical abilities and had simply decided to wait. In five years his body would be a ruined husk, and she could dispatch him with virtually no risk.
In most circumstances Bane would have admired this strategy, but in this case it flew in the face of the most fundamental tenet of the Rule of Two. An apprentice had to earn the title of Dark Lord, wresting it from the Master in a confrontation that pushed them both to the edge of their abilities. If Zannah intended to challenge him only after he was crippled by illness and infirmity, then she was unfit to be his heir. Yet Bane was not willing to initiate their confrontation himself. If he fell, the Sith would be ruled by a Master who did not accept or understand the key principle upon which the new Order had been founded. If he was victorious, he would be left without an apprentice, and his failing body would give out long before he could find and properly train another.
There was only one solution: Bane needed to find a way to extend his life. He had to find a way to restore and rejuvenate his body:or replace it. A year ago he would have thought such a thing to be impossible. Now he knew better.
From one of the shelves he took down a thick tome, its leather cover pockmarked, the pages yellow and cracked with age. Moving carefully, he set it down on the podium, opening it to the page he had marked the night before.
Like most of the volumes on the shelves of his library, this one had been purchased from a private collector. The galaxy might believe the Sith to be extinct, but the dark side still exerted an inexorable pull on the psyches of men and women across every species, and a black market of illegal Sith paraphernalia flourished among those with wealth and power.
The attempts of the Jedi to locate and confiscate anything that could be linked to the Sith had only succeeded in driving up the prices and forcing collectors to work through middle-beings to preserve their anonymity.
This suited Bane perfectly. He had been able to assemble and expand his library without fear of drawing attention to himself: he was just another Sith fetishist, another anonymous collector obsessed with the dark side, willing to spend a small fortune to possess banned manuscripts and artifacts.
Most of what he had acquired was of little use: amulets or other trinkets of negligible power; secondhand copies of histories he had memorized long ago during his studies on Korriban; incomplete works written in indecipherable, long-dead languages. But on occasion he had been lucky enough to come across a treasure of real value.
The worn, tattered book before him was one such treasure. One of his agents had purchased it several months earlier-an event too fortuitous to be attributed to chance. The Force worked in mysterious ways, and Bane believed the book had been meant to come into his possession-the answer to his problem.
Like most of his collection, it was a historical account of one of the ancient Sith. Most of the pages contained names, dates, and other information that had no practical use for Bane. However, there was a small section that made a brief reference to a man named Darth Andeddu. Andeddu, the account claimed, had lived for centuries, using the dark side of the Force to extend his life and maintain his body well beyond its natural span.
In the typical fashion of the Sith before Bane's reformations, Andeddu's reign came to a violent end when he was betrayed and overthrown by his own followers. Yet his Holocron, the repository of his greatest secrets-including the secret of near-eternal life-was never found.
That was all: less than two pages in total. In the brief passage there was no mention of where or when Andeddu had lived. No mention of what had become of his followers after he was overthrown. Yet the very lack of information was what made the piece so compelling.
Why were there so few details? Why had he not come across references to Darth Andeddu in all his previous years of study?
There was only one explanation that made any sense: The Jedi had managed to purge him from the galactic record. Over the centuries they had collected every datapad, holodisk, and written work that mentioned Darth Andeddu and spirited them away to the Jedi Archives, burying them forever in order to keep his secrets hidden.
But despite their efforts, this one reference in an old, forgotten, and otherwise insignificant manuscript had survived to make its way into Bane's hands. For the past two months, ever since this tome had come into his possession, the Dark Lord had ended his nightly martial training with a visit to the library to ponder the mystery of Andeddu's missing Holocron. Cross-referencing the manuscript before him with the vast wealth of knowledge scattered across a thousand other volumes in his collection, he had struggled to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, only to fail time and time again.
Yet he refused to give up his search. Everything he had worked for, everything he had built depended on it. He would discover the location of Andeddu's Holocron. He would unlock the secret of eternal life to give him time to find and train another apprentice.
Without it, he would wither away and die. Zannah would claim the title of Dark Lord through default, making a mockery of the Rule of Two and leaving the fate of the Order in the hands of an unworthy Master.
If he failed to find Andeddu's Holocron, the Sith were doomed.