We should have force pikes for this job," Captain Jedder grumbled. "They've got twice the juice of these kriffing stun rifles."
"Force pikes can kill if you're not careful," the Huntress reminded him, though she was only half paying attention to the conversation. "The princess wants him taken alive. Besides, you'd never get close enough to use them."
They were inside the mansion of Sepp Omek, though the Huntress doubted that was the man's real name. Not that it mattered. She hadn't needed a name to track him here to the estate on Ciutric IV. The Sith Lord had covered his tracks well, hiding his true identity behind layers of middle-beings and go-betweens and making it virtually impossible for anyone to connect him to the events on Ambria through normal methods. But all his careful preparations couldn't guard against the Iktotchi's unique powers. Guided by the images in her dreams and her infallible instincts the Huntress had found her quarry, as she always did.
"How long till he gets here?" Captain Jedder wanted to know.
"Soon," she replied. "Tell your team to get into position."
Her visions had shown her the house would be empty when they arrived, just as they had shown her that the owner would be returning this very same night.
"Can you be more specific?" Jedder asked. "Twenty minutes? An hour? Two?"
"It doesn't work that way," she muttered absently, her eyes picking out locations for them to set their trap.
She had already scouted out the estate in detail, committing every room to memory as she had gone through and disabled every alarm and anti-intruder system on the grounds. She had even managed to slice her way past the security panel on the small building at the rear of the grounds. At first she had thought it might be some kind of arsenal or weapons bunker, but once she managed to open the door she realized it was a library. Instead of datapads or holodisks, however, the shelves had groaned under the weight of ancient leather-bound books and scrolls of yellowed parchment.
There was something else inside the building that had given her pause, however. Resting on a pedestal near the back of the library was a small, four-sided crystal pyramid. The Huntress had no need to steal from her victims; she had ignored the priceless works of art and other valuables scattered around the mansion. But there was something oddly compelling about this piece. Unsure what it could be, she had somehow felt drawn to it, and she'd slipped it into one of the pockets beneath her robe before continuing her investigation of the grounds.
Once she was done she had signaled for Jedder and the others that it was safe to come in and begin their preparations.
"Something wrong?" the captain asked.
"No," she replied, annoyed at herself for getting distracted. "Just looking for places to set your team up."
This job was unlike any the Huntress had ever taken before. It wasn't simply the mercenaries she was working with, or the fact she was supposed to take her victim alive. Ever since she had visited the small camp on Ambria, the tall, bald man and the blond woman had haunted her dreams. Some of what she had seen had helped lead her here to Ciutric, but there were other images, too: bewildering, troubling visions that she was unable to decipher.
She had been witness to dozens of battles between the pair. She had watched the man kill the woman, yet she had also seen the woman kill the man. She understood these were visions of the future, each a possible reality that might or might not come to pass. Usually when she caught glimpses of the future, however, there was purpose or meaning behind them. The visions would help direct and guide her actions. Yet this seemingly random collage of images did nothing but confuse her, and so she had done her best to ignore them and focus on the job she had been hired for.
The princess had offered her twenty well-trained mercenaries for the job, and she had been as good as her word: twelve men and eight women, all with prior military experience, had accompanied the Huntress to the world.
She had also sent along Captain Jedder, a senior member of the Doan Royal Guard. The Doan noble houses had a long history of supplementing their numbers with hired soldiers for particularly dangerous missions, and Jedder had handpicked this particular team from crews he had worked with in the past.
Technically, the mercs answered to Jedder, though he, in turn, answered to the Huntress. That was fine by her. Mercenaries had been known to cut and run if things went bad on a job, but if they had worked with the captain in the past they were more likely to stick with the battle plan right to the end.
The front entrance to the mansion was open and spacious. The door opened onto a large foyer, which flowed into an oversized sitting room furnished with two couches and a large glass table. A spiral staircase led off to one side, curling up to a balcony that overlooked the sitting room.
"We should try to take him here, when he first comes in," she said. "He'll sense that something is wrong right away, so we need to hit him fast."
"Set up a pair of sonic detonators on either side of the door," Jedder said into his radio. Instantly two of the soldiers ran over to comply with his orders.
"I fought against the Sith, you know," Jedder told her as the Huntress turned slowly in place, scoping out the rest of the room. "Twenty years ago. During the war. I was barely more than a kid."
"That's probably why the princess sent you along," the Iktotchi replied absently.
"I'm surprised she didn't send Lucia with us," Jedder noted. "She fought for the Sith during the war. Probably knows their tactics better than anyone."
She cares for Lucia, the Huntress thought. She knows how dangerous this mission will be. She's not expendable like the rest of us.
Out loud she told him, "Position two of your team with the stun rifles up on that balcony at the top of the stairs. That should give them a clear shot down here into the foyer."
"I wish we had carbonite guns," Jedder lamented. "Freeze him solid."
The Huntress had already considered and discarded that idea.
"Same problem as the force pikes. You have to get in too close for them to be effective. And the carbonite will only freeze him for a few minutes. What are we supposed to do when he thaws out?"
"The tangle guns aren't any better," he countered. "A lightsaber will slice through the webbing like it was made of flimsi."
"They aren't meant to hold him," the Iktotchi explained. "They only have to slow him down long enough for me to administer the senflax."
She held up a long, thin blade to illustrate her point. The edge was coated with the potent neurotoxin. According to the princess, any wound deep enough to draw blood would get the poison into his system.
"After the toxin is introduced, we'll have to keep the pressure on," she reminded the captain. "If we even give him a chance to breathe, he'll recognize that the drug is in his system. He might have some way to counter it with the Force."
"How long after you cut him before that stuff starts to take effect?"
"Thirty, maybe forty seconds." Assuming Serra knows what she's talking about.
"That's a long time for a bunch of soldiers to go toe-to-toe with a Sith."
There really wasn't anything she could say to reassure him, so she didn't bother with an answer.
"Make sure your unit remembers that this is a two-stage attack," she told him. "The first stage needs to distract him long enough to give me an opening. After that, hit him with everything we've got."
"Can you really see the future?" the captain asked after passing on her instructions to the team.
"Sometimes. The future is always in motion. It's not always clear."
"Are we going to get out of this alive?"
"Some of us might," she replied, not mentioning the vision she had of Jedder's broken body lying lifeless on the mansion's marble floor.
* * *
When Bane returned to Ciutric, he was surprised to find Zannah's ship still gone, but he was grateful that she wouldn't be waiting for him back at the mansion. He was in no shape to do battle with her now; he was even too tired to come up with a lie to explain his absence without raising her suspicions. Yet as his airspeeder approached his mansion on the horizon, he knew that even if Zannah had been waiting for him, his journey would still have been worthwhile. Andeddu's knowledge was his now; over the past few days his brain had processed the raw information he had stolen to the point of full comprehension. He fully understood the ritual of essence transfer; he had learned the techniques that would allow him to move his consciousness from his own failing body into another. He just needed to select an appropriate victim.
Finding a new body to inhabit was the most difficult part of the ritual. He needed someone physically strong enough to withstand the massive quantities of dark side energy he would call on over the coming years, but at the same time he needed someone mentally vulnerable enough for him to overpower their will. The best candidate would be an engineered clone body, an empty shell with no thoughts or identity of its own. But creating a suitable clone could take years, and Bane wasn't convinced he had that much time left.
He would have to try to possess the body of a living victim:a very dangerous course of action. He would only have one chance: no matter the outcome, his own body would be destroyed in the process. And if his target possessed a will strong enough to resist his assault, the attempt would fail, banishing his spirit to the void for all eternity.
He brought the airspeeder in for a landing and climbed from the vehicle, pausing only to grab his travel pack-a simple duffel bag with the Holocron tucked safely away inside. With slow, heavy steps he approached the front door of the mansion.
Has to be someone young. Under thirty.
He opened the door and stepped inside, letting it swing shut behind him.
Naive and inexperienced. Maybe-He froze. Someone else was in the mansion. He could feel the intruders everywhere: hiding around corners in the hallways, crouched on the stairs, ducking behind the furniture, perched on the balcony above.
All this flashed through Bane's mind in less than a tenth of a second-just enough time for it to register before the sonic detonators on either side of him went off.
Their earsplitting shriek staggered Bane, causing him to stumble forward into the room and away from the door and possible escape. His hands instinctively flew up and clutched at his ears, his travel pack dropping to the floor. And then the enemy fell upon him.
They poured out like a swarm of insects, bursting into view from every side. Four soldiers armed with stun rifles sent a barrage of bolts raining down from the balcony; Bane-still reeling from the sonic detonators-barely had enough time throw up a protective barrier to shield him from the assault.
As he did so, he felt something fighting him. Some power was trying to block his ability to call upon the Force to shield himself. It wasn't strong enough to stop him, but it did hinder his efforts just enough so that a flicker of energy passed through the barrier.
His muscles seized as he was hit; his back arched and his arms and head were thrown back. Every nerve in Bane's body lit up as if it were on fire. The pain lasted only an instant, but it was enough to knock him to the floor in a crumpled heap.
He didn't stay down, however. He sprang back to his feet, simultaneously drawing his lightsaber with his right hand as he sent a blast of lightning out from the fingertips of his left. The violet bolts should have incinerated all four of his targets on the balcony, yet again the strange power interfering with his ability to draw upon the Force hindered his efforts.
Three of the victims were electrocuted, dying before they even had a chance to scream. The fourth, however, managed to throw herself back from the balcony's edge, evading the deadly attack.
Bane never got a chance to finish her off. A pair of soldiers emerged from a hallway on the left, and three more appeared from the hall on the right. They opened fire with tangle guns, sending out long streams of sticky, synthetic webbing.
The soldiers were smart; they coordinated their efforts. Two fired at his feet, looking to glue him to the floor. The others aimed for the chest and torso, looking to pin his arms to his sides with the viscous strings. But Bane wasn't about to let himself become immobilized.
Leaping up, he grabbed onto the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, holding himself with his free hand. Swinging his legs to build momentum, he launched himself up over the railing and onto the balcony, giving him the advantage of higher ground.
He came down with a heavy thud, the inexplicable power that still impeded his connection to the Force robbing him of a graceful landing. The bodies of the three dead soldiers were scattered about him. To his right were the stairs leading back down to the foyer; straight ahead was a long hall leading to another wing of the mansion.
A female Iktotchi stood at the far end of the hall, a long, thin knife held in each hand. She grinned at Bane, and in that moment he knew who was interfering with his ability to use the Force.
She broke into a run, charging down the hall toward him. Bane dropped into a fighting crouch to meet her attack, knowing her knives were no match for his lightsaber. It was only then that he noticed the flash grenades lying by the dead bodies at his feet.
They exploded with a burst of intense light and chemical smoke that blinded Bane. Disoriented, he fell back against the balcony's railing. An instant later he felt the sole of the Iktotchi's boots strike him hard in the chest, sending him tumbling backward over the banister to the marble floor four meters below.
He hit the ground hard enough to knock the breath from his body, leaving him gasping for air. The impact jarred his lightsaber from his grip, sending it skittering across the floor. An instant later his prone form was enveloped by the webbing from the tangle guns, pinning him to the ground.
Blind and immobilized, Darth Bane's fury saved him. Years of training allowed him to focus all his pain and rage in one single instant, drawing on it so he could unleash the full power of the dark side. Once again he felt the Iktotchi's barrier opposing his efforts, but this time he tore through it like it wasn't even there.
For a moment it was as if the world around him was frozen in place. Though his eyes were still suffering the effects of the flash grenade, the Force rushing through his body gave him an otherworldly awareness of his surroundings-the scene was burned into his brain in exquisite detail.
The soldiers were scattered about the foyer, scrambling to take up new positions in preparation for the next stage of the battle. They were well trained, but he could still sense their fear: they knew the fight was far from over. The Iktotchi had leapt over the railing in pursuit of him. She hung poised in the air above him, her twin blades held out to the either side as she braced for landing. Bane could even see himself lying on the floor, buried beneath a thick, wet blanket of rapidly drying chemical adhesive.
The frozen tableau lasted only a fraction of an instant, but it told the Dark Lord everything he needed to know. And then the instant was gone, and everything became a blur of motion again.
The Iktotchi landed just as Bane unleashed a wave of crackling electricity that burned away the webbing of the tangle guns. She dropped to one knee and tried to stab her knives into him as he lay on the floor, but through the Force Bane saw her coming. He managed to roll aside, escaping with only a long, deep cut along one of his forearms as he scrambled back to his feet.
In response to his call, his lightsaber flew up from the floor and into his waiting hand, but the Iktotchi was already retreating. Now that he was no longer helpless, she was eager to fall back and let others step in.
Several more flash grenades exploded around him, but Bane was unaffected; he was no longer relying on his physical sight to guide him. Fresh streams of webbing arced across the room toward him, but this time he incinerated them while they were still in the air. Half a dozen concussion grenades tossed in from every side clattered on the floor at his feet. As they exploded, Bane simply enveloped himself in the Force, creating a protective cocoon that absorbed the impact and left him standing completely unharmed.
Two men popped up from behind a nearby couch and fired at him from point-blank range with their stun guns. Bane slapped the incoming bolts away with his lightsaber, then thrust out a hand to send the couch slamming straight back into the wall, crushing the men who had been using it for cover.
Then he was on the move, bearing down on two of the soldiers carrying tangle guns. He sliced them both in half horizontally with a single blow from his lightsaber, carving a perfect line just above their belts. Another volley of stun bolts came too late to save them; Bane was already gone.
A single flip and he was back on the balcony again, face-to-face with the Iktotchi.
"You can't escape," he told her.
"I wasn't trying to," she hissed back at him, lunging forward with her knives.
She was quicker than Bane expected, coming in low and fast. He didn't have time to simply chop her down; instead he had to spin out of the way.
He tried to take one of her arms with his lightsaber on a counterthrust as she slipped past, but the Iktotchi anticipated his move and managed to contort her body so that his blade caught nothing but air.
They had switched positions from their first engagement; she was now the one standing with her back to the balcony railing. Bane thrust out with the Force, the impact sending her hurtling backward over the railing as her kick had done to him less than a minute earlier.
Somehow the Iktotchi managed to turn in the air so that she landed on her feet. Because of this, she was able to spring to safety when Bane sent a blast of lightning hurtling down toward her. Instead of her charred corpse, it left only a smoking circle on the floor.
Soldiers were firing their stun guns at him again from the stairwell. Bane didn't even bother to strike back at them; he simply dodged their attack by vaulting over the railing and dropping back down to the floor below. The soldiers were nothing to him; it was the Iktotchi he was interested in now. She was the only opponent who posed any real threat. Eliminate her and he could deal with the soldiers at his leisure.
He landed on the floor in a crouch, absorbing the impact. And then everything went black.
* * *
The Huntress couldn't say how long it had been since she'd carved her senflax-coated blade through the flesh of the Sith Lord's forearm, but the neurotoxin had to take effect soon.
Jedder was dead, crushed against the wall by a piece of flying furniture. At least five other soldiers were already down, too. The Sith Lord was focusing his efforts on her.
The Iktotchi knew she couldn't beat him. He was too strong. The tricks she had used against the Jedi had slowed him down at first, but now they had no effect at all. The senflax was her only hope of surviving.
She saw the Sith leaping down from the balcony, coming after her. He hit the floor, turned toward her, and collapsed. The big man lay on his side, eyes open and seeming to stare right at her. The pupils were bloodshot from the chemicals in the flash grenades.
The Huntress waited until he blinked. Then, seeing no other signs of movement, she held up her hand and shouted, "Cease fire! Cease fire!"
She thought briefly that his paralysis might be a trick, then discarded the notion. The Sith didn't need subterfuge to win the battle; it was obvious he had them overmatched. The only explanation was that Serra's drug had finally worked its magic. According to the instructions she had been given, they had four hours before they needed to administer the next dose.
With Jedder dead, the hired soldiers were staring at her, waiting for their next orders. The Huntress closed her eyes and reached out with her mind, seeking guidance. Someone else was coming: the blond woman from the camp on Ambria.
"You three go bring the airspeeders around to the front of the house," the Huntress barked. "The rest of you gather up the bodies. Don't leave anything behind that could link this to the princess."
The survivors hustled to follow her commands.
She didn't bother to tell them to hurry; they were already moving as fast as they could, eager to get away from this place where so many of their comrades-in-arms had fallen.
On an impulse, she bent down and retrieved the now extinguished lightsaber from where it lay on the floor beside the fallen Sith. She turned the curved handle over, inspecting it carefully.
She ignited the weapon and was surprised by its weightlessness.
"What about this?" one of the soldiers asked, holding up the duffel bag the Sith had dropped in the first few seconds of the attack.
"Take it with us," she said absently, not even bothering to look over. "Give it to the princess."
Infatuated with her new toy, she made a few slow, experimental swings with the unfamiliar weapon before extinguishing it and secreting it away in one of the pockets inside her robe, just as she had done with the strange crystal pyramid from the library out back.
Five minutes later they had the prisoner and their casualties in the back of the speeders, and they were heading to the drop shuttle that would take them back to Doan.