Bane could feel the hard iron of his shackles cutting into his wrists, and a grim smile played across his lips. The pain indicated that the sedative was wearing off. The dull gray fog that had clouded his thoughts was clearing, leaving his mind sharp and focused.
Once again he could feel the power of the dark side. It was strong in this place; the misery and suffering of centuries hung in the air here. Bane could almost hear the screams of all the countless victims still echoing off the walls.
The memories of the last hour were hazy and confused, but he knew enough. His capture had been orchestrated by Caleb's daughter and the mysterious Iktotchi who had stood at her side during the interrogation. And he owed his release to their other companion.
He didn't know why the dark-skinned woman had injected him after the others had left. Despite his drugged state at the time, he was certain it wasn't an accident or mistake. She had known what she was doing. Who she was and why she had done it, however, were beyond him.
Not that her identity or her reasons mattered in the immediate future. She had given Bane all the help he needed, and soon he would be ready to make his move.
The pain had spread beyond his wrists. His shoulders felt like they were being ripped from his sockets from bearing the brunt of his weight. The deep gashes on his cheek burned, and he could feel the small rivulets of blood creeping along his face and down along the line of his jaw before dripping to the floor.
He lifted his head to make sure the door to his cell was still closed; he wanted to catch his captors by surprise. Then he began to gather the power of the Force. An instant later the cuffs on his wrists and ankles shattered, exploding into a million pieces at a mere thought from Bane.
He fell to the floor, his weary muscles unprepared to support his weight. It took him a moment to gather himself, and then a rush of adrenaline surged through his body and he was back on his feet.
Bane felt naked without his lightsaber, but he wasn't exactly helpless without it. There were plenty of other ways to dispatch his enemies.
Three quick strides brought him to the durasteel door of his cell. He reached out and placed his left palm flat against the surface, then used the Force to blow it outward. It flew across the room, striking and killing one of the guards sitting at a table playing cards.
The remaining five guards scrambled to their feet, grabbing for their weapons. Bane lashed out with the Force. The fury of his attack was muted by the last lingering effects of the drugs in his system, but it was still strong enough to knock them all to the floor and send the table flying into the wall, where it cracked in half.
Bane fell on the guards like an enraged animal, moving so quickly he was nothing but a blur. He brought his boot down on the throat of his nearest opponent, crushing his windpipe. He wrapped his muscular forearm around the next man's neck from behind in a choke hold, braced his other palm against his chin, and wrenched his head to the side, breaking his neck.
The last three opponents were back on their feet, blasters drawn. Bane yanked a short vibroblade from the belt of the man with the broken neck and plunged it into the belly of a woman before she could bring her pistol to bear. She doubled over from the fatal blow, releasing her grip on her weapon.
Bane dropped to the floor and caught it before it hit the ground, ducking under the bolts fired from the remaining two enemies as he rolled onto his back and fired a pair of perfectly placed shots. The guards both toppled over backward, their faces erased by the impact of a blaster bolt at point-blank range.
Another locked durasteel door blocked the only exit. Bane tossed the blaster aside and tore the door off its hinges. Up above, someone triggered the alarm, and a deafening klaxon began to blare.
Beyond the door was a narrow staircase, similarly barricaded at the top. The Dark Lord charged up the steps and threw himself shoulder-first into the door at the top. It burst open from the impact, sending him tumbling into the room beyond.
The four guards up here had been alerted by the blaster shots being fired down below; unlike the first wave they weren't caught off guard by his violent entrance. Weapons already drawn, they opened fire.
But Bane's visceral, primal assault on the squad in the room below had fueled the cycle of rising emotion and mounting dark side power. He met their assault with an explosion of crackling energy that rippled out in a violet wave from his body at the center.
The incoming bolts were absorbed harmlessly into the ionic storm, the blasters themselves melted in the hands of their owners. The stench of burned flesh mingled with their screams of agony and the relentless, hammering song of the alarms, further feeding Bane's power.
Crouched on one knee, he clenched both fists then threw his arms out to either side, fingers splayed wide. The resulting Force wave pummeled the guards, sending them hurtling backward so they bounced off the walls hard enough to leave cracks in the stone.
Bane rose to his feet in the center of the carnage. Half a dozen bodies lay strewn about him, bones shattered, internal organs crushed into pulp. One choked out a pink, frothing spray with his final breath; all the others were still.
To his dismay, he saw neither Caleb's daughter nor the Iktotchi among the dead. He had sensed a few guards fleeing the room as he had charged up the staircase, but he hadn't felt either of those two women among them. He also didn't recognize any of the corpses as the dark-skinned woman who had saved him, though he was-for the moment-less interested in her.
He had found Serra once before. During his first meeting with Caleb, the healer had tried to trick him with a simple illusion to hide his daughter. But Bane had sensed the little girl cowering behind the facade: he had tasted her fear. Yet it was more than that. Like her father, the girl had power that could be sensed through the Force.
You can't hide from me. I will find you.
Calling up the long-buried memory, he reached out with his mind, concentrating on picking out her unmistakable presence.
She's here. Still in the facility. But she's not alone.
His awareness had spread through the halls of the dungeon, whispering over the minds of all who walked the halls. He had sensed Serra, along with several other powerful individuals. Yet there was one in particular that had drawn his attention.
Zannah. What is she doing here?
Was his apprentice somehow involved in his capture? Had she come here to rescue him? Or maybe to stop him from escaping?
Whatever the explanation, Bane knew one thing for certain: He didn't want to face Zannah right now. Not while he was still recovering from the toxins Serra had used to render him helpless, and certainly not without his lightsaber.
She was searching for him; he could feel her reaching out, drawing ever closer. Still, there were ways to counter her efforts: subtle manipulations of the Force could confuse and misdirect her.
Fooling Zannah while tracking Caleb's daughter at the same time was possible in theory, though few individuals had the discipline to maintain the balance between two such mentally intensive tasks. But Bane's will was as strong as his body.
If he was quick, cunning, and careful he had a chance to find his quarry while still getting out of the prison alive.
* * *
Tears of anger, shame, and frustration were streaming down the princess's face. She had held them in check as she had passed the guards, but with nobody around to see her she had finally let them go.
Her plan to avenge her father's death and free herself from the traumatic memories of her childhood had so far failed miserably. She had wanted the Sith Lord to admit he was wrong. She had wanted him to apologize and ask forgiveness for Caleb's death. She had wanted him to beg her for mercy.
She had convinced herself that if this happened it would help her deal with the senseless death of not just her father, but also her husband. She had thought it would help restore some type of meaning to a cruel and random universe. She had hoped it would bring her peace.
But nothing had gone the way she had planned. The prisoner was completely unrepentant. He had twisted everything she had done and said into some perverse justification for what he believed in. He almost made it seem that Caleb's death was right.
And he turned your best friend against you.
As much as the words of the Sith disturbed her, the actions of Lucia had upset her even more. The bodyguard had been the one who hired the Huntress to avenge Gerran's death. But now she seemed determined to oppose Serra's quest to avenge Caleb.
It made no sense to the princess. She had expected Lucia to stand by her during the confrontation, to support her as she faced the demon of her past. To shore up her strength so she could conquer her fears and triumph over his evil. Instead she had defended him.
How could you turn your back on me like that? When I needed you the most?
Serra had fled the interrogation cell to escape the madness, not even paying attention to where she was going. Moving with long, quick strides, she had rushed heedlessly down the maze of halls without any purpose or direction.
She didn't know where she was going or what she was trying to do. She just needed to think. To try to make sense of it all. To be alone.
Only she wasn't alone.
The physical exertion had helped bring her swirling emotions back under control, and after several minutes she began to regain some semblance of composure. The tears stopped and her pace slowed. It was only then she heard the footsteps of someone following a few meters behind her.
She stopped short, bringing up a hand to wipe at her eyes before turning around. She was hoping to see Lucia. Instead, she found herself face-to-face with the Iktotchi assassin.
"Why are you sneaking along behind me?" she demanded.
"If I was sneaking, you wouldn't have heard me," the Huntress replied with her implacable calm. "I was following you, but I made no effort to mask my presence."
"Then why were you following me?"
"I wanted to see what you would do. I'm curious to learn how you will react to your failure."
Serra's lip twitched, but she managed to keep the rest of her face expressionless, mirroring the other woman's emotionless demeanor.
There was no point in denying what had happened; the Iktotchi had witnessed the entire exchange. But the princess wasn't willing to admit defeat.
"I will pick myself up from failure and try again," she declared. "Next time I speak with him I'll be ready for his tricks."
"There won't be a next time," the Huntress replied. "You had him in your power. His very life was in your hands. But you chose to let him live, and now it is too late. His fate and his future have slipped through your grasp. You are powerless once again."
The words were spoken without spite or malice, which made them sting all the more. Serra realized there was something evil about this woman. She wasn't just a hired assassin. She used her ability to sense the future so she could spread suffering and death.
"I don't want you here anymore," Serra told her, her voice firm. "Your job is done and you've already been paid. So go."
"The future is muddied right now," the Iktotchi admitted. "Events teeter on a knife-edge, and I cannot foresee which way they will fall. I want to stay and see what happens when the prisoner breaks free."
"He will never break free!" Serra snapped. "I won't let that happen!"
"You can't stop it. It's already too late," the Huntress replied. "Lucia has betrayed you. I saw it in her eyes when you left. She wants to save the man you want to destroy."
Serra shook her head, but though she wanted to deny it she couldn't speak the words.
She was defending him during the interrogation. Trying to protect him.
"Why didn't you say something earlier?" she asked, perplexed. "Why didn't you warn me?"
"As you said, I have already been paid. My job was to deliver him to you. Nothing more."
"So why are you telling me now?"
The Iktotchi didn't answer, but the first hint of emotion played across her face as the corners of her lips curled up into the hint of a cruel smile. She feeds on the misery of others.
Serra started to say, Lucia would never betray me, but her words were cut off by the sudden clanging of the Stone Prison's alarms.
In that instant she knew everything the Huntress had told her was true. The prisoner had broken free, and Lucia had helped him.
"No!" Serra shouted, clasping her head in her hands as for the second time today her world came crashing down around her. "No!"
The Iktotchi was grinning now, transforming the tattoos on her lower lip into fangs.
"No!" the princess shouted again, her voice rising up over the alarms.
He can't escape. Not now. Not after everything that's happened.
Serra turned and fled down one of the nearby corridors, a last, desperate plan forming in her mind.