Serra sat alone in the small, windowless office, trying to gather her courage. The only furnishings were a simple desk and the chair she currently occupied. The unadorned walls were a depressing shade of brown, their stone surface rough and unfinished. A small safe had been built into the rock wall, and a single door led out into the hall beyond.
The princess wasn't naive. She understood that the room reflected the opinion most offworlders had of Doan; they saw it as an ugly, grimy pit. She knew that those who lived in the strip mines on the planet's surface felt the same. But she had seen the planet's true beauty.
Built on the plateaus atop the rock columns towering high above the choking clouds of dust and pollution, the cities of the nobility were blessed with bright blue skies nearly every day of the year. Each morning the rising sun reflected off the burnished spires of castles built on plateaus hundreds of kilometers to the east, lighting them up like candles in the gray of the early dawn. In the evening the sand-storms rolling across the desert seemed to dance on the horizon, alive with flickering bursts of color as the setting sun flashed off quartz chips caught up in their swirling embrace.
Even after all these years, it could still take her breath away:just as it had when she first came to Doan. After leaving her father's camp on Ambria she had traveled the worlds of the Outer Rim, using what he had taught her to help the less fortunate and establishing her reputation as a skilled healer. When the crown prince contracted a mysterious illness, the king had hired her to tend to his son.
She had instantly recognized the symptoms of Idolian fever, a deadly but treatable infection. For three months she nursed him slowly back to health, and by the time Gerran recovered the two of them were in love.
You saved his life then. But you didn't have the power to save him from the terrorists. If you were stronger, he might still be alive.
Serra shook her head in momentary confusion. The thought had been in her own voice, but it had somehow seemed alien:as if someone else was speaking inside her head.
Except for herself, the office was clearly empty. The door was closed, and with the sparse furnishing there was no place for someone to hide. She cast a wary glance at the small, four-sided pyramid sitting on the edge of the desk.
It had been stashed away almost carelessly in a small duffel bag the mercenaries had brought back to her. Serra's connection to the Force was strong enough for her to feel the power inside the artifact, trapped beneath the surface, just waiting to be released.
Why didn't the Iktotchi claim this for herself? She should have sensed its power, too-even hidden inside the bag. Something else must have drawn her attention. Picking up the pyramid and holding it at arm's length, she crossed the room to the wall safe. Punching in the combination, she unlocked it and placed the pyramid inside then closed the door, sealing it safely away. The man in the dungeon was a Sith Lord; anything he possessed was an instrument of the dark side. Serra wasn't interested in exploring its power; she was only interested in him.
He had arrived three days ago, yet she still had not gone to speak with him. As per her instructions, he had been kept drugged and helpless the entire time. Now she knew she couldn't put it off any longer; it was time to go face her demons. Her face set in grim determination, she left the office and marched through the twisting halls of Doan's infamous Stone Prison, heading for the interrogation cells.
When she had first learned about the vast dungeon complex built into the rock several kilometers below the castle, Serra had been horrified. Historically, the nobility had used the Stone Prison to make political opponents vanish. Trapped at the heart of a rock column several kilometers high and hundreds of meters in diameter, any prisoners inside would be shielded from detection by scanners. A person could disappear forever in the underground labyrinth, spending the rest of their years in shackles, tortured for information or simple sadistic pleasure without any hope of salvation.
In the event a rescue was somehow attempted, the entire complex was rigged so it could be collapsed with a series of explosions that would kill not only the prisoners but their would-be saviors as well. The carefully engineered detonator charges would activate in a precisely timed sequence, destroying the dungeon room by room while allowing the guards time to escape. The Royal Manse and other buildings on the surface thousands of meters above would suffer only a few mild-though unmistakable-tremors as the entire complex below was reduced to rubble.
Gerran had still been alive when Serra learned all this. He had explained that the Stone Prison hadn't been used in over forty years; it was a relic of a more brutal and repressive era. In response to public pressure brought to bear by the Senate, it had been closed down. It wasn't even staffed any longer. Yet at the urging of his betrothed, he swore that once he was king he would have the infamous dungeon permanently sealed: a gesture to symbolize the new relationships he wished to forge between the nobles and the miners.
But Gerran was dead now, just like her father. And she was the one who had hired mercenaries to capture her enemy and bury him forever inside the Stone Prison's cold, dark cells. She couldn't help but wonder what they would think of what she had done. What would they say if they were here right now?
Serra pushed the thought from her mind. They weren't here. Her father and her husband were both gone, forever taken from her. And she was left to deal with the Sith Lord alone.
It took her nearly ten minutes to make her way from the office through the maze of passages and rooms to where the prisoner was being held. Although the corridors she traveled were illuminated by pale lights in the ceiling, many of the halls led off into darkness-her mercenaries had only reopened one small section of the complex. The rest of it was still deserted.
The man she was going to see was being held in one of the maximum-security cells, accessible only by a single staircase guarded by locked durasteel doors at the top and bottom. The mercenaries standing guard on the other side of the door at the top unlocked it at her approach, and she quickly made her way down the steep stairs.
The door at the bottom similarly opened for her, revealing a small ten-meter-by-ten-meter guard station. Another locked durasteel door on the far wall led into the prisoner's cell; a small viewing window had been built into the door. There were two tables in the room. The larger stood off to the side of the door Serra had just entered. The smaller was on wheels; measuring only a meter by half a meter, it had been pushed against the wall beside the cell door.
Six of the soldiers she had sent to apprehend the prisoner were here, along with Lucia and the Huntress. The guards were seated in chairs around the larger table, playing cards. The two women were on opposite ends of the room, distancing themselves from those at the table and each other. Lucia was leaning against the wall for support, while the Huntress sat on the stone floor, her legs crossed, hands in her lap and her eyes closed. It looked as if she might have been meditating.
As Serra entered, the guards jumped up to stand at attention, as did Lucia. The Huntress opened her eyes and looked up at the princess, but otherwise made no move. Serra wasn't even sure what the assassin was still doing here; she had already been paid for her services. But for some reason she had chosen to stay, as if she had some vested interest in the outcome of events.
The princess shook her head. She had more important things she needed to worry about than the assassin.
"The prisoner is still sedated?" she asked.
"Yes, ma'am," one of the guards replied. "He was given another dose an hour ago."
She nodded and made her way over to the wheeled table in the corner. Atop the table were nearly three dozen hypodermic needles, color-coded by label according to their contents. Serra had prepared each of the needles herself. The ones marked with a green sticker contained senflax; they needed to keep the prisoner drugged at all times to prevent him from escaping. The others-red, black, and yellow-were filled with various compounds she would need during her interrogation.
From the corner of her eye she saw Lucia making her way from the wall toward her. Once at her side, her friend spoke in a whisper soft enough that only she would be able to hear.
"This isn't like you. Why are you doing this?"
"You wouldn't understand," she replied just as quietly.
"Hiring this assassin was one thing," Lucia continued, her voice rising only slightly with carefully held-in-check emotion. "But hiring mercenaries to secretly reopen the Stone Prison? What if the king finds out?"
"He won't," Serra assured her. "This has nothing to do with Gerran, or Doan."
The dark-skinned woman refused to let it go. "Holding someone for torture and interrogation? It's not right. You know that."
"He's a Sith. Not a soldier like you were. A Dark Lord. He doesn't deserve your pity. Or mine."
Lucia shook her head and turned away, but not before Serra clearly saw the frustration and disappointment in her face.
"Open the door," the princess called out to the guards. "I want to speak with the prisoner. Alone."
At her words the Huntress sprang to her feet, causing Lucia to step forward protectively.
"I want to come with you," the Iktotchi explained.
"Why?" Serra demanded, suddenly suspicious.
"Who else could have captured him for you?" she replied, avoiding the question. "Have I not earned the right?"
"If she goes, I go, too," Lucia insisted, crossing her arms.
Serra could have refused them. But deep inside she still didn't want to face the monster from her past alone. And what harm was there now if they learned her secrets? She had concealed her true identity all these years only because her father feared retribution from this man. With him as her prisoner, she had no reason left to hide.
"The three of us, then," she conceded, grabbing the little table and wheeling it into position to bring it inside with them. "Lock the door behind us," she instructed the guards.
* * *
Lucia was worried about the princess. Ever since their visit to the Jedi Temple she had sensed something different about her, but she had never suspected she was capable of going to such extreme lengths. She hadn't known mercenaries had been hired to reopen the Stone Prison; if she had, she would have tried to talk Serra out of such a foolish and dangerous plan. The princess must have known she would object, however, and so she hadn't told Lucia what was happening until after the prisoner was safely secured in his cell.
She had known about the dungeons, of course. As part of the princess's official security detail, she needed to memorize every possible entrance and exit to the castle. Up until three days ago, however, she had only ever seen blueprints. Coming face-to-face with the Stone Prison was an entirely different experience.
As soon as she stepped off the long turbolift ride down from the surface she had sensed the evil of this place. The stale air had an underlying stench of death. Too many dark and unspeakable things had happened here over the centuries.
Since then Lucia had kept a careful eye on her friend. She could see something eating away at her, and she feared the unholy gloom of the Stone Prison would only make things worse. The princess was obsessed with the man in the dungeon, yet at the same time she was unable to face him. Lucia knew it had something to do with her past, but when she had tried to broach the subject the princess had refused to discuss it.
Left with no other options, she had been forced to wait for Serra to make the next move. Now that she was about to face the prisoner for the first time, Lucia was determined to be at her side. She might not understand what her friend was going through, and she might not agree with what she was doing, but she was still going to be there in case the princess needed her.
As the three women entered the cell, Lucia was surprised at how much smaller it was than the room on the other side of the door: just three meters square. The cell was dimly lit, the only illumination coming from a single sputtering light overhead. The prisoner was restrained against the far wall. His arms were extended out to either side above, his hands shackled by chains dangling from iron rings set into the ceiling. His legs were similarly splayed, his ankles cuffed to the wall behind him.
Because of the drug he was unable to stand erect; his weight sagged forward, pulling the chains supporting him tight and putting incredible strain on his wrists and shoulders. The pain in his joints would have been excruciating, were it not for the numbing effects of the senflax coursing through his system. His head was slumped down, his paralyzed muscles making it impossible for him to look up as they entered.
Serra selected a needle with a red label from the table and injected it directly into the carotid artery running up the side of his thick neck. An instant later his head snapped up and back in reaction to the powerful stimulant.
Seeing his face, Lucia gasped in surprise. The other two glanced at her momentarily, but when she shook her head they dismissed her reaction as unimportant and returned their attention to the man in chains.
It had been more than twenty years, but Lucia had recognized him instantly. Des had been her commanding officer-her leader, her hero. Without him none of the Gloom Walkers would have survived the war. He had saved their lives on Kashyyyk. He saved them again on Trandosha. Time after time he had brought them through impossible situations against overwhelming odds, right up until their final mission together on Phaseera. And then Lieutenant Ulabore had ordered the enforcers-the Sith military police-to arrest him.
She had never heard from Des again; like the rest of the unit she assumed he had been executed for disobeying orders and striking a superior officer. And even though she had believed him to be dead, she had vowed she would never forget the face of the man who had once meant everything to her.
When she saw him hanging from the shackles in the cell, she hadn't been able to contain her gasp of surprise. Fortunately neither the princess nor the Huntress had realized why she had gasped, and Lucia recovered enough to avoid another outburst. But though she managed to keep her emotions from showing on the surface, inside her world had exploded.
She doubted whether Des had recognized her. He was drugged, for one thing. And she was only one face among many in the unit. He was the leader they all looked up to; he was the one they idolized. In the Gloom Walkers, she was just a low-ranking sniper, one of a dozen junior troopers in the squad. Did she really expect he'd remember her after all this time?
Not that it mattered; she didn't dare say anything with Serra and the Huntress standing right there. The princess was obsessed with the prisoner; she was gripped by some madness that had driven her to previously unthinkable acts. If she discovered that Lucia and Des knew each other, there was no telling what she would do. Or what she might order the Iktotchi to do.
And so Lucia was forced to just stand there, helpless to do anything to help Des. Just like the day the enforcers had dragged him away.
* * *
Serra instantly recognized the face from her nightmares. He was older, but his features were unmistakable: the bald head; the thick, heavy brow; the cruel set of his eyes and jaw.
Beside her Lucia gasped loudly as the prisoner fixed the three women with his cold, merciless gaze. Serra glanced over and saw a strange expression on the ex-soldier's face; something had obviously upset her.
Lucia was the bravest person the princess had ever met, yet she was clearly distraught. Was it possible she was actually afraid of this man, even while he was chained? Or did she feel sympathy for him? She knew Lucia disapproved of what she was doing. Did her friend think she was a monster now? Or was it something else?
Her friend's unexpected reaction unsettled Serra, and she fought the instinct to turn and flee from the man in the cell. She had nothing to fear from her prisoner this time. This time he was the victim, not her.
No matter what Lucia thinks, I have to do this.
"Do you know who I am?" she demanded.
His answer came slowly. The stimulant she had given him only countered the physical effect of the senflax; the toxin still clouded his mind, dulling his focus and concentration.
"An enemy from my past."
The words were slightly slurred, and it was impossible to read anything into the flat, emotionless tone. She couldn't tell if he actually recognized her, or if he was just making a generalization based on the fact that she had taken him prisoner.
"My name is Serra. Caleb was my father," she told him. She wanted him to know. She wanted him to understand who had done this to him.
"Is this revenge for him," he asked after a long moment, the senflax making his mind lethargic, "or for what I did to you?"
"Both," she replied, picking up a needle marked with a black sticker. Again, she injected it into his neck. This time, however, the effects were markedly different.
His eyes rolled back in his head and his teeth slammed shut, narrowly missing his tongue. Then his body began to convulse, causing his chains to rattle madly.
Lucia turned away in disgust, unable to watch. The Huntress leaned in closer, enthralled by his chemical-induced torment. Serra let the seizure continue for a full ten seconds before injecting him with one of the yellow needles to counter the effects.
"Do you see the kind of punishment I can inflict on you?" she asked. "Now do you understand what it is like to be at the helpless mercy of another?"
He didn't answer right away. His breathing was ragged, his face and bare scalp covered in sweat from the pain he had just endured. A spastic tremble had seized his left hand, causing it to twitch and flex madly in its iron cuff.
"You have no lessons to teach me," he gasped. "I understand suffering in ways you will never comprehend."
"Why did you kill my father?" Serra asked, picking up another black needle and holding it up for him to see.
"Caleb did not die by my hand."
She stabbed the needle into his neck, inducing another seizure. She let this one continue nearly twice as long before administering the antidote. She expected him to pass out from the pain, but somehow he managed to stay conscious.
"Lies will be punished," she warned him.
"I did not kill your father," he insisted, though his voice was so weak she could barely hear him. "I told you that I saw another in my visions," the Huntress reminded her. "A young woman with blond hair. Perhaps she was the killer."
Serra glared at the Iktotchi before turning her attention back to the man in chains.
"Is this true?"
He didn't answer, though a cunning smile played at the corner of his lips.
"Tell me what happened to my father!" Serra shouted, slapping him across the face. Her nails raked his cheek, slicing the flesh with four long, deep furrows. Blood welled up quickly into the wounds and began to run down toward his chin.
Bane didn't answer, however. Jaw clenched, Serra reached down to grab another of the black needles, but Lucia seized her wrist.
"He didn't kill your father!" the bodyguard shouted. "Why are you still doing this?"
Serra yanked her wrist free angrily. "He may not have done the deed, but he's the reason my father is dead," she insisted. She turned back to the prisoner. "Do you deny that?"
"Caleb was weak," the man muttered. "When he ceased to be of use, he was destroyed. This is the way of the dark side."
Serra picked the needle up from the table.
"This won't bring your father back," Lucia pleaded.
"I want him to see what it's like to be helpless and afraid," Serra hissed. "I want him to know what it's like to be a victim. I want him to understand that what he did to my father-to me-was wrong!"
"The weak will always be victims," the prisoner said, his voice growing stronger. "That is the way of the universe. The strong take what they want, and the weak suffer at their hands. That is their fate; it is inevitable. Only the strong survive, because only the strong deserve to."
"You only believe that because you don't know what it's like to suffer!" the princess shot back at him.
"I know what it means to suffer," he replied, his words no longer thick and slurred. "I used to be a victim. But I refused to accept my lot in life. I made myself strong."
As he spoke, drops of blood from the gashes on his cheek fell from his chin and splashed to the floor.
"Those who are victims have no one to blame but themselves. They do not deserve pity; they are victims because of their own failures and weaknesses."
"But it didn't matter how strong you were!" Lucia said, suddenly jumping into the discussion. "Don't you see that? You still ended up as a prisoner!"
"Had I been stronger I would not have been captured," he countered, a fierce light burning in his eyes. "If I am not strong enough to escape, I will continue to suffer until I die. But if I am strong enough to escape..."
Serra slammed the black needle down and grabbed one of the green, injecting him with another dose of senflax.
"You will never leave this dungeon alive," she promised as her victim slipped back under the influence of the drug, his eyes glazing over as his head lolled forward again.
Even drugged and chained, he's still cunning enough to be dangerous.
Caught up in arguing with him, she had almost missed the signs of the senflax wearing off. She had thought it would be hours before he needed another shot, but she had underestimated the effects of the other drugs she had been pumping into his system. She'd have to be more careful in the future.
"Right now I am weak," the man mumbled with his head staring down at the floor, refusing to give up. "Powerless. You inflict suffering on me because you are strong enough to do so. Your actions prove the truth of what I believe."
Serra shook her head angrily. "No. My father taught me to help those in need. The strong should raise the weak up, not trample them down. He believed in that, and so do I!"
Somehow the prisoner managed to lift his head, fixing her with his bleary-eyed stare.
"Your father's beliefs got him killed."
The princess raised her hand to slap him again, then froze, struggling to control the flood of grief and rage that threatened to overwhelm her.
"You're not thinking straight," Lucia said softly, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You need to calm down."
Her friend was right. He was inside her head. She needed to get out of the room and regroup. The last shot she'd given him would keep him helpless for at least another hour. Time enough for her to collect her thoughts before facing him again.
Lowering her hand, she turned her back on him without saying a word, leaving the Huntress and Lucia alone with him in the cell.