Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER SIX

Set Harth had been on Doan for two days. He was determined not to still be here by the end of the third. In part, he wanted to be gone before any more Jedi showed up to investigate Medd's death, or to try and claim the artifacts the Cerean had come for in the first place. But beyond that, Set was just sick of being surrounded by miners.

They were all beginning to look the same: squat and stout, their common thickness a result of generations spent at hard manual labor. Their skin was brown and weathered, not to mention caked with the dust and grime that hung over everything. They all had the same hair-short and dark-and they all wore the same clothes, drab and ratty. Even their features all looked the same: grim and sullen, despondent and broken by a lifetime of grinding in the quarries.

To say he didn't fit in was the epitome of understatement. Set was thin and wiry, with long, silver hair flowing down over his shoulders. His skin was creamy white and unblemished by the elements; his handsome features conveyed a mischievous charm and just a touch of arrogance. And, unlike the miners, Set dressed with style.

He wore a tailor-fitted combat suit, the material a shade somewhere between black and violet. The lightweight outfit gave him full mobility, yet was also durable enough to afford some protection if, as so often happened around Set, events took a violent turn. Atop this he wore a pale yellow vest; both the combat suit and vest were sleeveless to leave his arms bare. A fashionable violet band of woven veda cloth encircled each ripped bicep, and his boots, belt, and fingerless gloves were made from the finest Corellian leather.

Typically he also carried a GSI-24D disruptor pistol holstered on his right thigh and a conventional blaster strapped to his left. Here on Doan, however, disruptors were banned, so he had tucked both weapons-along with his lightsaber-into the various pockets lining the inside of his vest.

It was obvious he didn't belong with the rest of the crowd in the cantina, but Set wasn't trying to blend in. It was common knowledge that mercenaries could find high-paying jobs here on Doan. Set figured anyone who saw him would assume he was just one more soldier-of-fortune hoping to cash in on the escalating violence between the rebels and the nobility.

They'd be wrong, of course. Set was here hoping to cash in, but it had nothing to do with Doan's inevitable civil war. Less than a week ago his former colleague Medd Tandar had been on this world, and there was only one reason he would ever come to a pit like this.

Master Obba sent you here to find some dark side talisman, didn't he? Only you got more than you bargained for. Always suspected you were soft.

Whatever Medd had come in search of, he had died before retrieving it. That meant the item was still here, just waiting for someone to claim it. Someone like Set.

For the past two days he had traveled the scarred surface of Doan, moving from one cantina, barracks, or work site to another. At each stop he asked questions, trying to find someone-anyone-who knew something about the Cerean who had been killed along with the rebel leaders. More importantly, he needed to find someone who knew what Medd had been looking for.

To anyone who asked, he explained that he was interested because he was a collector of rare artifacts. But the people here were wary. Some of them suspected he was working for the royal family. It wasn't easy to get the answers he needed. Still, over the years Set had learned that everyone had their price:or their breaking point.

His investigations had led him here, to this nameless cantina owned by a Rodian bartender named Quano, one of only a handful of nonhumans who chose to try to make a living on Doan.

Eager to get away from the blowing dust clouds rolling across the surface, Set pushed open the door and entered the cantina. He immediately began to regret his decision. It was clear that the crowd in this particular establishment comprised the lowest dregs of Doan mining society. Most of the people here were bent and twisted; the hard-timers, hunchbacked and half crippled by a lifetime of digging up ore for the profit of others. Their clothes weren't just shabby, but filthy, and the acrid stench of sweat and unwashed bodies nearly brought tears to his eyes. Exactly the kind of people Set would expect to find in a Rodian's bar.

The furniture was as wretched and broken-down as the clientele: glasses disfigured by chips and cracks; discolored tabletops tottering on three rickety legs; rusting stools that looked as if they would crumble if given one good kick. Against the far wall was a long, wide bar covered by a slap-dash coat of peeling paint that did little to hide the rotting wood beneath. The row of bottles perched on the shelf behind the bar were covered in a thick layer of dirt and grime, but Set didn't need to read the labels to guess they were all brands that readily sacrificed quality for price.

He noticed two heavyset thugs loitering on either side of the door and quickly sized them up: typical goons-big, strong, and stupid. He could tell from the awkward way they stood that each had a small pistol jammed down the front of his respective belt.

Leaning against the wall behind the bar was the green-skinned proprietor himself, his arms crossed in front of his chest. His insect-like eyes glared at Set from across the room, his tapir-like snout twisted into what the former Jedi could only assume was meant to be a sneer.

Ignoring the uninviting greeting, Set made his way slowly toward the Rodian. Two dozen eyes gave him the once-over as he passed the bar, their collective gaze cold, appraising, and ultimately uncaring as the owners turned their attention back to the brackish sludge swirling around in their mugs.

"Bar for miners only," Quano muttered in heavily accented Galactic Basic once Set was close enough to rest an elbow on the bar. "You not drink. Go away."

Set reached out and casually dropped a pair of hundred-credit chips on the counter. The Rodian tried to act nonchalant, but Set could sense that he was suddenly holding his breath.

"I was hoping we could have a little chat," Set told him, getting right to the point. "Alone."

In a flash the chips disappeared and Quano was standing on top of the bar.

"Cantina closed!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Time to go! Back to work! Everybody out!"

Most of the crowd rose grudgingly from their seats, muttering darkly as they shuffled to the door. One stubborn soul stayed sitting, doing his best to keep his wobbly chair from being knocked over by the other patrons heading for the exit. The bartender clapped his hands together twice, and the bouncers by the door quickly moved in.

They grabbed the man, each one seizing an arm, and yanked him from the chair. Too drunk to even struggle, the customer hung like deadweight between the two hulking brutes, his feet dragging limply on the floor as they forcibly ushered him out. Upon reaching the exit, the bouncers rocked their human cargo back and forth several times in a surprising display of coordinated effort, building momentum before hurling him through the doorway and onto the hard ground outside. It would have been a lie for Set to say he wasn't impressed by the distance they achieved.

With the last customer gone, one of the bouncers slammed the door and latched it shut. Then they both turned to face Set, grinning as they resumed leaning against the wall on either side of the room's only exit.

Set couldn't help but admire the Rodian's utter and complete lack of subtlety. Most proprietors would have invited Set into a back room to chat rather than shutting down their entire establishment for only two hundred credits. Judging by the general decor, however, the establishment was barely profitable.

Not that Set really cared. He wasn't trying to keep a low profile. He was used to leaving memorable stories in his wake; if anyone ever came to investigate he would be long gone, so what did it matter if he had another tale to add to his legend? Over time the details would inevitably become exaggerated, and one day people would marvel at how Set had been so wealthy that he had paid thousands of credits to shut down an entire cantina just so he could speak to the owner.

"Nobody bother us now," Quano said from behind him, hopping back down onto the floor. "You want drink?"

"I'm a collector interested in rare artifacts," Set replied, ignoring the question and cutting right to the chase. He wanted to spend as little time here as possible. "Rings. Amulets. That kind of thing."

Quano shrugged. "Why you tell Quano?"

"Word around the camp is you sometimes have these kinds of items for sale."

The cupped antennae on the bartender's head twitched ever so slightly. "Maybe," he whispered, leaning forward so Set could hear him. "Miner finds things. Him wants to sell it offworld. Maybe Quano help him."

"Then this is your lucky day," Set replied, somehow managing to flash a dazzling smile despite the pungent aroma of alien pheromones wafting off the Rodian. "Like I said-I'm a collector. A wealthy collector."

Quano cast a quick glance around the empty room, almost as if he expected someone to be listening in on their conversation. Set recognized it as a nervous reflex developed after years of making shady deals in public places.

"What you interested in?"

"I think you know what I'm looking for. The same thing as the last collector who came here. The Cerean."

"Him not collector. Him Jedi. You Jedi, too?"

Set sighed. This was going to drive the price up. Never did understand the value of keeping a low profile, did you, Medd?

"Do I look like a Jedi?"

The Rodian tilted his head from one side to the other before answering. "No. Look more like bounty hunter."

"Does it really matter? I want to buy what you're selling. And I've got plenty of credits:if you've got the merchandise."

"Stuff not here. Quano just middle-being. Miner have it."

"Can you take me to whoever has it?"

Quano shook his head. "Miner change his mind. Not for sale no more."

"Everyone has a price. I'm a wealthy man. If you take me to him, I'm sure we can come to some agreement."

Another shake of the head. "Last time Quano take someone to meet miners, everyone end up dead. Too risky."

"I'm willing to take that chance." The Rodian snorted. "Quano not care about risk for you. Miners say if Quano show up again, they kill him."

"They don't have to know you were involved," Set promised. "Just show me where to find them. I'll make it worth your while."

To emphasize his point he produced his small drawstring purse, reached in, and pulled out an entire handful of high-value chips. He held them up for Quano to look at before letting them spill through his fingers back into the satchel.

The Rodian's tongue poked out and swirled around his snout, his reluctance to take Set to the miners doing battle with his greed.

"You pay one-no, two-thousand, yes?"

"Seven hundred. Or I go find someone else who can help me."

"Okay, deal," the bartender blurted out, unwilling to barter for fear he might let a small fortune slip through his fingers.

To seal the deal, he extended his hand. Gritting his teeth Set returned the gesture. He clasped the other's palm for one quick shake then pulled back, mildly repulsed by the feel of the Rodian's scaly skin against his own.

"You have drink to celebrate," Quano declared. "On the house."

"Pass," Set replied.

"You got credits with you, right?" the bartender wanted to know. "You pay now, right?"

Set nodded. "I'll pay you as soon as we go."

"We go now. Quano just grab something first."

As the Rodian ducked back behind the bar, Set realized there was something off about his voice. Too eager.

So it's going to be like that, is it?

Slipping his hand into his vest, the Dark Jedi whipped out his lightsaber. He ignited it as Quano popped back up into view, just in time to deflect the bolt from the blaster pistol that was now pointing at him. The Rodian let out a shriek of surprise and disappeared back behind the cover of the bar.

He'd dealt with Quano's type before. Set would have been perfectly content to honor the terms of their agreement, but the Rodian had obviously come up with a different plan. Why risk your life and take someone to a hidden base for seven hundred credits when you can murder him in cold blood and take all his money instead?

Set respected the sentiment; after all, he lived by similar self-serving principles. But the bartender had made an unforgivable error by trying to use those principles against a Dark Jedi.

Keeping one eye on the bar, Set turned to face the two burly miners guarding the door. They had probably been expecting Quano's betrayal, but they were caught completely off guard by the failure of his plan. Now the grins had fallen from their faces, and they were clumsily scrambling to draw their own weapons.

Why are the big ones always so kriffing slow?

Set could have stopped them any number of ways: He could have used the Force to yank their weapons from their grasp, or unleashed a wave that would send the guards flying across the room. Given how long it was taking them; he could have leapt forward and sliced them both in half with his lightsaber before they ever fired a shot. Instead, he chose to simply hold his ground, waiting for the inevitable barrage of blasterfire.

His adversaries didn't disappoint him. Set easily caught the first round of bolts with his shimmering blade, sending them ricocheting harmlessly away. At this point a smart opponent would have made a break for the door. Quano's two thugs, on the other hand, simply kept firing, too dumb to realize the sheer futility of their attacks.

Set picked off a few more shots before growing bored with the game. Using the Force to anticipate the precise location of the next two incoming bolts, he angled his lightsaber so that they deflected straight back toward their point of origin.

The first miner was hit in the chest, the other in the stomach. Both died instantly.

Killing his enemies with their own blaster bolts was a longstanding tradition for Set. There were occasions when he needed to keep a low profile, and lightsabers tended to leave very distinctive wound patterns. This wasn't one of those times, but why pass up a chance to keep his skills sharp?

All this time, Quano hadn't reappeared. Set was unsurprised.

"Might as well come out. Don't make me come get you."

The Rodian's green head slowly rose up into view. He was still holding his blaster, pointing it at Set. But his hands were trembling so much he couldn't even keep the barrel steady.

Set shook his head. "If you're going to kill somebody so you can steal their credits, at least go after an easy target."

"You liar," Quano replied, his voice rising defensively. "You said you no Jedi."

With a flick of his wrist, Set used the Force to slap the pistol from Quano's hand. Another gesture lifted the helpless bartender off the ground and yanked him across the room, where he landed in a crumpled ball at Set's feet.

Reaching down to seize one of the Rodian's antennae, Set used it to pull his whimpering victim up to his knees. His free hand brought the blade of his still-ignited lightsaber to within a few centimeters of Quano's scaly face.

"Let's get one thing clear. I'm not a Jedi."

To emphasize his point, he flicked his blade, caressing it against the Rodian's cheek for a fraction of a second. The sizzle of smoldering flesh was drowned out by Quano's scream.

"No kill, no kill!" he blubbered.

The damage was minor; a burn that would heal within a week while leaving only a faint scar. But Set was satisfied his point had been made. Shutting off his lightsaber, he released his grip on the antenna and took a step back, giving Quano room to stand.

The Rodian stayed on his knees, his hand reached up gingerly to examine his wound.

"Now why would I want to kill you?" Set asked him. "You're the only one who can take me to the miners and their talismans. Until I have them in my hands, I'll do everything I can to keep you alive."

"What happen after you get them?" Quano asked, suspicious.

Set flashed him his most charming smile. "At that point, we'll just have to play it by ear."

* * *

Set could hear the voices of the miners echoing down the tunnel. He estimated they were only a few hundred meters away; from the tone of the echoes he suspected they were in a large, high-roofed cavern.

They live like vermin, huddled in underground warrens, afraid for their lives. Pathetic.

Ahead, his unwilling guide suddenly stopped and turned to look back at him. It wasn't easy to read a Rodian's expression, but it was clear what Quano was asking: I brought you this far-can I go now?

Set simply shook his head and pointed farther down the tunnel. Shoulders sagging, Quano continued to shuffle forward.

They were close enough now that Set could actually make out what the miners were saying to one another.

"You can't be serious!" a deep-voiced man shouted. "The nobles murdered Gelba! We have to make them pay!"

"If they got Gelba, they can get anyone," another man protested. "I think we should lay low for a while. Let things simmer down."

"I agree," a woman chimed in. "I know Gelba was your friend, Draado. But you're talking madness!"

Set could see light from the entrance to the cavern spilling around a bend in the tunnel just up ahead. Quano crept around the corner silently and crouched behind a rock that gave him a clear view of their quarry. He might have been a coward, Set noted as he moved up to join him, but he had a natural talent for sneaking and spying.

From their vantage point he could clearly see the cave. It was dotted with dozens of large stalagmites protruding up like ugly brown spires from the floor. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, looking ominously like the teeth of some ancient stone monster waiting to chomp down on the people below.

He counted an even dozen miners gathered in a loose semi-circle near the center of the chamber. All of them were armed, just like the four guards he had dispatched at the tunnel's entrance not ten minutes earlier. A few of the miners were sitting on short, flat-topped rock formations. Others paced nervously back and forth. One leaned against a nearby stalagmite. Two men and a woman appeared to be engaged in a heated argument. Four others were standing guard on the edges of the group, blaster rifles drawn while they nervously scanned the cavern's entrance, as if trying to pierce the shadows in anticipation of an attack.

Whoever killed Medd and your friends made you paranoid.

"With Gelba gone, I call the shots," a bearded man was saying to one of the women. "And I say Gelba's death calls for blood!"

"Draado," Quano whispered, speaking so softly Set had to lean in to hear it. "Him one who dig up stuff you want."

Looking closer, Set noticed an amulet draped around Draado's neck, and he caught the glint of a ring on his finger-the only jewelry he had seen on any of the miners since he'd set foot on this destitute world.

"You want to start a war that will get us all killed," one of the men objected.

"At least we'll take a few of the nobles with us!" Draado snapped back.

Draado was standing less than ten meters from where Set was hiding, close enough that he could sense the power emanating from the talismans. The amulet seemed to call out to him; the ring beckoned with its dark heat.

"What happened to you, Draado?" the woman asked. "You always used to be the one who said we could get what we want without violence and bloodshed."

"I've changed. Now I see the truth." Draado pounded his chest for emphasis as he spoke, his fist striking the amulet. "The nobles won't respect us until they learn to fear us," he insisted, turning to look at everyone scattered about the cavern. "We need to make them scared for their very lives. We need to strike terror into their hearts!"

Clearly Draado was under the influence of the talismans; they were corrupting his mind and his thoughts. The power of the dark side had taken hold of him.

No wonder Quano said he wouldn't want to sell them.

The Dark Jedi considered his options. Bargaining with the miners was out of the question; Draado would never willingly give up his newfound treasures. Given the tension in the room and the itchy trigger fingers on the guards, it was pretty clear that any attempt to negotiate would probably end up in a fire fight no matter what he did.

He drew out his twin pistols and took a deep breath, bracing for the confrontation. He needed the target practice anyway.

Leaping from his hiding place, he charged into the cavern with guns blazing. He dropped all four of the rifle-carrying guards before anyone had a chance to react. With the Force guiding his hand, he easily picked them off with four clean shots as he sprinted toward the cover of a large stalagmite on the far side of the cavern.

He skidded in behind it just as the miners began to return fire. They peppered his hiding place, sending up fine clouds of dust as the bolts disintegrated small chips from the stone. Poking his head out, Set fired twice more, reducing the number of opponents to six before ducking back behind the safety of the stalagmite.

The sound of enemy blasterfire reverberated off the walls of the cavern. Set smiled, enjoying the glorious clamor of battle. Halfway done already. This might be easier than I thought.

Behind him, he sensed Quano making a break for freedom back up the tunnel. Set could have taken him out with a single shot in the back, but he decided to let him go. He always preferred to leave someone behind to tell the tale of his exploits, anyway.

A sharp crack suddenly echoed across the cavern. Glancing up, Set saw one of the large stalactites from the ceiling plunging down to impale him. He rolled out of the way at the last instant, the deadly rock spear exploding into fragments as it hit the unyielding cavern floor. He ducked his head as the shower of jagged stone shards washed over him, scoring the exposed skin of his neck and bare arms with hundreds of superficial, stinging cuts.

Blasterfire opened up again, but Set was already on his feet. Darting and weaving erratically, he managed to sidestep the shots as he made a mad dash for cover behind another of the prominent rock formations.

Momentarily safe, he took a second to catch his breath, glancing up to make sure another potentially deadly stalactite wasn't poised above him. He had no doubt who had fired the shots that had dislodged the last one. He'd gotten sloppy, underestimating Draado and the talismans.

It wasn't necessary to be trained in the ways of the Force to benefit from its power. It heightened the senses, made an individual quicker to react and anticipate. What some saw as expertise with a weapon or luck in battle was often really a manifestation of the Force. Even if he wasn't aware of it, Draado was drawing on the power of the dark side. And that made him dangerous.

Putting his pistols away, Set unclipped his lightsaber. Playtime's over.

Leaning out from behind his rock, igniting his lightsaber, he hurled it with a sidearm throw, sending it spinning horizontally on a wide, looping trajectory. It circled the room once, easily slicing through stalactites and miners before returning to Set's waiting grasp.

It had taken Set years to fully master the devastating power of the lightsaber throw, but the attack was virtually unstoppable. Five of his remaining opponents had been caught in the lethal arc it traced around the room. Only Draado had been quick enough to duck out of the way, saved by the power of the talismans he wore. But even with these artifacts, he was no match for a former Jedi Knight.

Set simply stood up and reached out with his free hand in Draado's direction, his fingers forming into a claw. The miner dropped his blaster, his hands flying up to his throat as he gasped for breath.

Set crossed the room, increasing the pressure on his helpless victim's windpipe. Draado collapsed to his knees, his face turning purple. The Dark Jedi stood above him, watching coldly as his life was slowly choked away.

When the miner's struggles finally stopped, Set bent down and stripped him of both the amulet and the ring. He resisted the temptation to put them on right away. From his apprenticeship under Master Obba he had learned that it was wise to study the artifacts of the dark side carefully before using them-their power often came with a cost.

He had what he came for, and he was eager to get off this civilization-forsaken world and back to the luxury of his home on Nal Hutta. Besides, the longer he stayed on Doan, the greater the chance he would run into another Jedi sent to investigate Medd's death. If he left now all they'd find would be the sniveling bartender he'd left behind, and he wouldn't be able to tell them anything they couldn't figure out for themselves.

So long, Quano. You better hope we never meet again.

As he made his way back up the long, winding tunnel toward the surface-the amulet and the ring firmly in his possession-he couldn't help but wonder if the Rodian would ever appreciate just how lucky he was.