Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The Huntress brought her shuttle in low over the desert wastelands that covered the majority of Ambria's surface. Though she had received no formal training, she was highly attuned to the Force, allowing her to feel it rising up from the sun-baked dirt as her ship skimmed across the surface.

Thousands of years ago Ambria had been a world of verdant forests, brimming with life and the power of the Force. But the lush vegetation had been devastated when a Sith sorceress tried-and failed-to bend the entire planet to her will through a powerful ritual. Unable to control the violent energies of the dark side, she was destroyed by her own spell:as was the landscape of the entire planet.

For centuries the corruption of the failed ritual influenced all life on Ambria, transforming the once beautiful world into a nightmare of stunted, poisonous vegetation and twisted, mutated beasts. Eventually the dark side energies released by the Sith sorceress were trapped in a great lake near the planet's equator by a Jedi Master named Thon, but the damage was too widespread for the world to ever be completely healed.

The Iktotchi knew all this not because she had studied the planet's history, however. Her connection to the Force allowed her to see things; it gave her glimpses of the past, present, and even possible futures. The ability was common to all Iktotchi in varying degrees, but the Huntress's talent went far beyond that of the rest of her species. Most Iktotchi would get nothing more than a subtle sense of danger when an impending threat was coming, or a general feeling of whether a new acquaintance might be friend or foe. On occasion they would be granted precognitive dreams, but even these were little more than random images that meant little without content.

With her, however, it was different. Over the years she had developed her skills so that she could control and direct the visions that flashed through her mind. When she concentrated on a specific person or place, she would get a rush of visual and emotional stimuli that she could often assemble into something useful and coherent.

She had meditated for several hours in preparation for her journey to Ambria, calling on the Force while thinking about her destination. In return, she had witnessed scenes plucked from the planet's history: the Sith sorceress as she was consumed by her failed spell; the Jedi Master's struggle to trap the dark side in Lake Natth.

But not all her visions were as clear, particularly those dealing with the shifting probabilities of the future. Her arrival and meeting with the princess from Doan had only been revealed in vague impressions. She was confident she wasn't walking into a trap. More importantly, she had the sense that somehow this meeting was going to have a profound influence on the rest of her life. For better or for worse she couldn't say, but she was certain the journey to Ambria would set her on a new path:and the Huntress was never one to shy away from her destiny.

The location for the meeting was a small abandoned camp located deep in the heart of Ambria's impassable desert. As it drew nearer, the shuttle's sensors indicated that another ship was already waiting on the ground. Readings indicated a single life-form on board; as promised, the princess had come alone.

The Huntress landed, shut down the engines, and made her way from the climate-controlled comfort of her shuttle out into the dry, suffocating heat of Ambria's midday sun. The princess was standing at the edge of the camp, facing away from her and lost in thought.

The camp itself wasn't much to look at; it was nothing but a small, dilapidated hut and an old cooking pot suspended over a ring of stones and charcoal. But despite the modest surroundings, the Huntress could feel this was a place of power: a nexus for both the light and dark sides of the Force. Despite the heat, the Iktotchi shivered. Great and terrible things had happened here; events that would one day shape the course of galactic history.

The princess-Serra, the assassin recalled-turned to face her.

"I'm glad you came" was all she said.

The Huntress sensed something dark and powerful in the other woman, a strength of will and a hatred nurtured over many years.

"Your bodyguard said you wished to hire me?"

The princess nodded. "They say you can track anyone. No matter where they hide, you can find them. They say you can see across time and space."

The statement wasn't precisely accurate, but the Huntress saw no need to explain the subtle intricacies of her talent to this woman.

"I have never failed a mission."

Serra smiled. "There was a man here. Many years ago. I don't know his name. I don't know where he is now. But I want you to find him. Can you do this?"

She didn't answer right away. Instead, she closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. She felt the Force gathering; it swirled around her like a rising storm, carrying the dust of memory imprinted on the campsite.

The captured memories encircled her; images flooded her mind. She saw a child, dressed in a frayed and tattered tunic; she saw the child blossom into a young woman; she saw the woman leave Ambria, only to return many years later as a princess.

"You grew up here," she whispered as she continued to probe even deeper.

Sometimes the history of a place was faint, washed away by the passage of mundane events and insignificant people. Here the memories were strong, preserved by isolation and trapped in the currents of the Force that permeated the camp.

"I see a man. Tall and thin. Dark hair. Brown skin."

"My father," Serra explained. "His name was Caleb."

"He was a healer. Wise. Strong. A man who commanded respect."

She didn't say this to please the princess; the Huntress never cared what her clients thought of her as long as they paid.

"There is another man," Serra told her. "He came to my father for help during the New Sith Wars. Tall and muscular. Bald. He was:evil."

Evil. Reaching out with the Force required intense focus and deep mental concentration. Even so, the Iktotchi couldn't help but notice the other woman's hesitation.

The Huntress had no use for words like evil, or good, or even justice. She killed those she was hired to kill; she gave no thought of whether they deserved their fate. Still, she found the princess's choice of labels odd. She was an assassin. She killed for profit. Was this any more evil than the man Serra spoke of? And what about the princess herself? She wanted to hire someone to take the life of another; did that make her evil?

She did not speak her thoughts aloud, however. They had no relevance to what she was doing. Instead she pushed deeper into the well of memories, submersing herself in them in search of the man Serra had described.

Hundreds of faces flashed before her. Male. Female. Human, Twi'lek, Cerean, Ithorian. Soldiers serving the Jedi, and even those serving the Sith. Caleb had healed them all. The only ones he turned away were the leaders of the armies. He saw himself a servant of the common folk. The Jedi Masters and the Sith Lords he always refused to help, with one notable exception.

The Huntress could see him now: a Sith Lord in black armor; the curved hilt of a lightsaber clipped to his belt as he towered over the healer. They were locked in a battle of wills, the big man dying from some illness she couldn't discern. Even though they were decades removed from the encounter, the Iktotchi sensed the raw power of the dark side emanating from him. It was like nothing she had seen or felt before, both terrifying and exhilarating.

"I see him," she told the princess. I see what he did to you.

"My father always said he would return. That was why he sent me away. Made me change my name."

"Your father was right."

Now that she had seen him in her visions, it was easy to skim the passing years looking for the imprint of the Sith Lord. Through the maelstrom of images, she easily picked out his next visit to the camp. Yet again, he arrived in need of the healer's aid. This time, however, he did not come alone.

"There are others with him. A young woman. A young man."

"What happened?" the princess asked, her voice trembling slightly.

A series of shocking and violent images assailed the Iktotchi's senses. She saw the healer's decapitated body, his limbs hacked from his torso and arranged in a gruesome display near the fire pit. Inside the cabin the young man crouched in a corner, a babbling idiot driven mad by the horrors that had been visited upon him. The other two-the young woman and the Sith Lord-were harder to see, though she sensed they were still there. Something concealed them; some power or spell cloaked their presence.

When she tried to pierce the veil something pushed back, snapping her out of her meditative trance and severing her connection with the past. She fell to her knees with a cry of anguish, clutching at her temples, her mind reeling.

Serra was at her side in an instant, crouching over her. "What happened? What did you see?"

The Huntress didn't speak right away. She had heard of this happening to others, but she'd never experienced it herself. It wasn't the images of Caleb's gruesome death that had caused her to recoil. It had been sorcery, Sith magic. A spell of concealment had hidden the Sith Lord and the young woman from the Jedi who had discovered the healer's body. The memories still carried the echo of the spell upon them; even after a decade it had been potent enough to momentarily overwhelm her.

How can one individual command such power?

"Tell me what you saw," the princess demanded, rising to her feet.

"Your father's death," the Huntress replied, also rising to her feet.

"He was there? The man in the black armor?"

"Yes. I think so. It wasn't clear."

"He was there," the princess said with certainty. "He was responsible for my father's death."

"There was another with him," the Huntress said. "A young blond woman."

"I only care about the man in black. Can you find him?"

"If he still lives, I will find him," the Huntress assured her. She knew she would dream about the Sith Lord tonight, and for many nights to come. Her sleep would be filled with pictures and images from his daily life. She would see how many suns rose in the sky each morning on whatever world he called home; she would see their color and their size. Whatever moons and stars marked the night sky would be revealed to her. Familiar landmarks would bubble up from her sleeping subconscious night after night. She would cross-reference these with a database containing descriptions of all the systems and worlds in the known galaxy, narrowing her search down until she had his exact location.

It might take days, or possibly even weeks, but in the end she always found her prey. This time, however, she wasn't certain what the outcome would be. She had killed a Jedi on Doan, but this encounter would be far more dangerous. The lingering remnants of the Sith spell had been enough to thwart her efforts to peer into the past. How much stronger would the creator of that spell be in person? And who had cast the spell? The Sith Lord? Or the young woman with him?

She still intended to take the job, of course. But she was smart enough to understand that her odds of success would increase if she wasn't acting alone.

"This man is powerful," the Huntress admitted. "I don't know if I will be able to kill him without help."

"I don't want you to kill him," the princess replied. "I want you to capture him. I want you to bring him to me alive."

The assassin's lips twisted up in an angry sneer. "I'm not a bounty hunter."

"I'll pay ten times your normal price. And I'll hire mercenaries to help you. As many as you want."

"Even if we capture him, how are we supposed to keep him prisoner while we bring him back to you? Normal restraints can't hold someone who has the power to call upon the Force."

"Leave that to me," the princess replied, pushing past the Iktotchi and heading toward the small hut on the other side of the camp.

Curious, the assassin followed her.

Only a few meters on either side, the hut was little more than a crate with a doorway. On the floor inside, buried under a layer of sand that had blown in from the encroaching desert, were a tattered old curtain and a threadbare rug.

The curtain looked as if it had been torn down. The rug, on the other hand, was still spread out across the far corner of the hut, though its fibers were caked with dirt.

With the Iktotchi watching from just outside the doorway, the princess pulled the carpet aside, revealing a trapdoor built into the floor. A small ladder led down to a tiny chamber below. "My father built this cellar to store the tools of his trade," Serra explained, climbing carefully down the ladder.

The Huntress entered the hut to get a better view, approaching the trapdoor and peering down into the darkness below. She heard a sharp crack as the princess ignited a glow lamp to dispel the gloom.

From her vantage point the assassin could just make out a series of shelves built into the cellar walls, each lined with jars, satchels, and other small containers. The princess rummaged through them quickly until she found what she was looking for: a nondescript bottle of a pale yellow liquid that she tucked into the folds of her clothes before making her way back up the ladder.

"Do you know what senflax is?" she asked once she was back aboveground.

The assassin only shrugged in response.

"It's a neurotoxin extracted from a rare plant found only in the jungles of Cadannia."

"What use could a healer have for poisons?" she wanted to know.

"It's not really a poison. Senflax is more like a sedative. One that allows the patient to stay conscious while numbing all pain and sensation. It disrupts the nerves of the primary muscles, paralyzing them, but it won't cause the heart, lungs, or other vital organs to shut down no matter how large the dose."

"Even a paralyzed Sith Lord can kill with his mind," the Huntress warned.

"Senflax also clouds the mind. It makes it impossible for the patient to focus or collect his thoughts; it takes away any semblance of free will. He can give simple answers to direct questions, but otherwise he is completely helpless.

"I saw my father give it to a pilot who had been badly burned in a chemical explosion," she continued, her eyes growing distant as she slipped back into the memories of her youth. "His friends brought him here, but by the time they arrived he had been driven mad with pain. The senflax took the pain away while leaving the pilot still able to answer questions about what chemicals he had been transporting so that my father would best know how to treat him."

"You're certain the neurotoxin will still work after all this time?"

The Huntress was aware that most people would have inquired about the fate of the injured pilot, but she wasn't most people. The only thing she cared about was the job she still wasn't sure she was going to accept.

"It should be fine as long as the bottle was sealed," Serra confirmed. "Once we get back to my ship I can test it for potency."

"Do you know how to prepare it properly?" the assassin demanded. "How to administer it? How quickly it takes effect and how long it will last?"

"I am my father's daughter," the princess proudly declared. "He taught me everything he knew about healing and medicine."

What would he say if he knew you were using his knowledge to seek revenge for his death? the Huntress silently wondered.

"I can show you how to use the senflax to keep the prisoner under your control," Serra continued. "So, will you take the job?"

The Iktotchi took her time before answering. It wasn't the money that intrigued her. It was the challenge; the knowledge that she would be pitting herself against a foe more powerful than any she had faced before. She couldn't see the outcome of the mission; too many conflicting forces were at work for the future to be clear. Yet she sensed that this was the moment she had been training for her entire life.

"I'd need at least ten well-trained warriors under my command," she said, speaking slowly.

"I'll give you twenty."

"Then we have a deal," the Iktotchi replied, her faint smile making the dark lines tattooed on her lower lip curl up like an animal baring its fangs.