Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER TWENTY

As soon as Lucia was out of sight of the guards watching Des, she broke into a brisk jog. She knew she didn't have much time before he escaped, and she needed to find the princess before that happened. But figuring out where Serra had gone was no easy matter.

Dozens of passages branched off from the main corridor on either side, leading to other cell blocks in the wing, or to completely new areas of the dungeon complex. Fortunately only a small section of the Stone Prison had been reopened. Most of the halls Lucia passed were still dark and deserted: she didn't think the princess would have gone down any of these.

Even so, there was a lot of area to cover. She had started with the administrative office for the maximum-security wing, only to find it empty. After that she had backtracked, moving quickly up and down the halls that were illuminated, occasionally calling out Serra's name in what she hoped came across as a calm, normal voice.

She needed to find her, but she also didn't want to make her suspicious. Lucia had no intention of revealing what she had done. She had helped Des because she felt it was right, but she doubted Serra would understand.

Her hope was that she would be at the princess's side under the guise of a supportive friend when the alarms went off. As her bodyguard, it would make perfect sense for her to whisk Serra away to safety at that time, and her friend would never have to know the truth about how Des escaped.

Unfortunately, the first part of her plan fell apart when she heard the alarms ring out a few minutes later.

She cursed under her breath and broke into a full run. Her plan could still work: if she found Serra she could still convince her to leave without exposing her betrayal. But now she was in a race against Des to see which one of them could find the princess first.

Where could she be?

The clanging alarms made it hard to think. Lucia skidded to a stop, taking a moment to collect her thoughts.

From the corridor off to her right she heard the princess scream out "No!" her voice carrying even over the cacophony of the alarms.

She had to be close! Turning, Lucia ran down the hall in the direction of the sound. She came to another intersection: the corridor branched right, left, and continued straight ahead. Pausing, she listened for another clue, but heard nothing.

Thinking back to the blueprints she had memorized when she had first joined the Royal Guard, she remembered that the corridor on the left led deeper into the dungeon, toward an area that was still closed. That left only two options.

She continued on straight ahead, knowing the hall carried on for about twenty meters before turning sharply and ending in an old guard barracks. The room was on the same power grid as the maximum-security wing, so it would be illuminated. But it wasn't being used: the hired mercenaries had been given lodging in the barracks on the other side of the wing.

Lucia was guessing the princess had gone there to find some privacy as she struggled to deal with her emotions. She guessed wrong. Finding the barracks empty, she was forced to double back and take the other branch, knowing precious seconds had been lost.

Running at a full sprint, she dashed down the hall and around the corner, nearly barreling into the Huntress. The Iktotchi stepped quickly to the side to avoid the collision. At the same time Lucia pulled up short, throwing herself off balance so that she stumbled and fell. Her knee smacked hard into the floor and skidded across the rough stone, tearing a hole in her trousers and scraping away a layer of skin.

"Have you seen the princess?" she asked as she got back to her feet, ignoring the warm blood already welling up from the deep scrapes on her injured knee.

"She knows what you did," the assassin said. "She knows you betrayed her."

The unexpected accusation caught Lucia off guard; she didn't even try to deny it.

"How?"

"I told her."

Lucia was stunned, unable to fathom how her secret had been exposed. And then she remembered the rumors that claimed the Iktotchi could see the future and read minds. She was on the verge of asking why the Huntress would let this happen only to tell Serra of her betrayal after the fact, but then she remembered whom she was dealing with.

She did it to hurt her. She's as much a monster as any Sith.

For a moment she thought about going for her blaster. She wanted to kill the Huntress. She'd be doing the galaxy a favor. But despite her outrage, she knew she had no chance of killing the assassin. Attacking her would result only in Lucia's own death, and it would do nothing to help the princess.

You can still find Serra. Even if she knows what you did, maybe you can still convince her to get away before Des finds her. You can still save her.

"Which way did she go?" she asked, wondering if the Iktotchi would even bother to tell her.

"She ran off that way," the assassin replied, tilting her horned head to indicate the direction. Lucia's mind flashed back to the blueprints of the complex, and she knew where Serra was heading. The princess was still determined to kill Bane. She was going to the control room to detonate the Stone prison's self-destruct sequence.

Not bothering to waste another second on the Huntress she turned and ran off down the corridor in pursuit, her gait clumsy and uneven because of her bloody and rapidly swelling knee.

* * *

The Huntress watched the princess's bodyguard rush off down the hall. She knew what lay at the end; in her visions she had seen the walls of this prison come crashing down in a series of explosions.

For an instant she had thought the bodyguard was going to try to kill her. She was somewhat disappointed when it didn't happen. Yet she knew Lucia's end was inevitable: she had seen it.

She turned and made her way with purposeful strides in the other direction, heading for the main hangar bay: a large cavern where she and the mercenaries had landed their shuttles. There was no point in sticking around, not when she knew the self-destruct sequence was going to be activated in a few minutes. Yet when she reached the hangar, she hesitated.

The prisoner's escape hadn't surprised her. She knew he was not destined to die chained like an animal. She had seen him too many times in her dreams, locked in battle with the blond woman from her visions on Ambria. Her subconscious mind was obsessed with them, and the Huntress suspected she finally knew why.

Her life had become stagnant, hollow. She moved from job to job, but she had no real purpose, no greater goal. Despite her ability to see visions of the future, she had never sought to shape it. She had always felt a greater destiny awaited her, yet she had made no effort to pursue it.

From her pocket, she drew out the lightsaber hilt and the small pyramid she had taken on Ciutric. These were instruments of power; she could feel the importance of them. They had significance and meaning. They had purpose.

She knew the Jedi claimed the light side had triumphed over the dark. They claimed the Sith were extinct. Yet the Huntress also knew this was a lie. The Sith still lived; she had tasted their power. And she had found it intoxicating.

Securing the lightsaber and the pyramid back under her robe, she made her way over to lean against the guardrail of the large metal balcony overlooking the landing pads. From her vantage point she could look out across the tops of the four vessels parked below, giving her a clear view of Doan's night sky through the wide entrance on the cavern's far side.

Two of the ships were unremarkable: shuttles owned by the mercenaries the princess had hired to staff the station. The third was the princess's personal vessel: newer than the others, it bore the blue-and-yellow symbol of House Doan on either side. And then there was her own vessel, the Stalker. Smaller than any of the other ships, its shining black hull and blood-red trim still made it stand out.

After a moment she made her way slowly down the stairs, but when she reached the ground below she didn't board her ship. Instead, she began to wander slowly up and down the aisles between the vessels, idly running her hand across their hulls.

She felt compelled to wait a little while longer. Something important was about to happen, something more than the spectacular implosion of the Stone Prison. She could feel it coming on the currents of the Force. She couldn't quite grasp what the event was-sometimes the future could be as slippery as a fleek eel. But she knew it had something to do with her visions, and she intended to wait around long enough to see this through.

Her destiny depended on it.

* * *

Zannah knew she was getting close. The part of her journey through the Stone Prison's maze of rooms and halls had been conducted in near total darkness. Only the pale green light of her glow stick had guided her-that, and the Force.

She could feel her Master's presence deep inside the complex, drawing her forward. Even so, she made several wrong turns and came across a number of dead ends as she moved silently through the darkness. The layout of the dungeon was intentionally confusing to thwart any efforts to rescue those held captive within its walls.

Yet Zannah had persevered, never giving in to frustration or anger even when she was forced to turn around and go back the way she had come. Eventually, she knew, she would reach her destination.

Up ahead she saw a faint glimmer of light spilling from around a corner, and she knew her patience had been rewarded. Moving forward, she found herself traveling through an illuminated corridor. She had reached the section of the facility that had been reopened; Bane had to be nearby.

Tossing her glow lamp aside, she proceeded forward cautiously, keeping her awareness open to warn her before she ran across any guards even as she continued to home in on the cell where they were holding her Master.

She had gone less than a hundred meters when she felt a sudden and powerful disturbance in the Force. An instant later alarm bells rang out, and Zannah knew what had happened-Bane had escaped!

Her lightsaber ignited with a buzzing hum, and she picked up her pace. She was no longer trying to sense any guards who might be ahead: with Bane on the loose she needed to focus on him. Her Master would be on the move, and she had come too far to lose him now.

The alarms continued to ring out. Zannah ignored them, focusing instead on the flashes of power she felt through the Force, each one a beacon bringing her ever closer to Bane.

She darted down a hall and around a corner. Up ahead she saw a door swinging freely on its hinges.

He's there. In that room or one just beyond it. She could sense his presence, his unmistakable power.

Creeping along the wall she approached the edge of the door, then ducked into a roll and somersaulted through into the room beyond.

The scene inside gave testament to the fact that Bane had been here. The mangled bodies of guards littered the room. A durasteel door hung askew on its hinges, revealing a steep staircase leading down to another room below.

The dark side had been unleashed here only a few minutes ago. She could still feel its lingering power.

She approached the staircase carefully, probing with her mind into the room below. Again, she felt the unmistakable power of her Master.

He's trapped.

She broke off her efforts to track Bane and instead concentrated on using Sith sorcery to mask her own presence as she raced down the stairs. There was no need for her to be silent; with the alarms echoing throughout the prison, there was little chance he would hear her footsteps.

She burst into the lower chamber only to be disappointed yet again. Another pile of dead guards were gathered around the remains of a table, but Bane was nowhere to be found. She had been tracking an echo of his power, and somehow she had missed the real thing.

That's impossible. Unless:

Bane knew she was here! He had tricked her, leaving his imprint on this room to lure her here while he made his escape. But she knew he couldn't have gone far.

She turned to head back up the stairs, then paused for a moment to examine the bodies. One looked as if he had been killed by Bane's bare hands. One was stabbed with a vibroblade. Two others had been shot with a blaster at close range.

Curious, Zannah made her way back to the room above. The bodies here were, quite simply, broken. Limbs twisted at grotesque angles, the bones beneath the skin shattered and splintered.

There was nothing remarkable about how they had died; she had seen Bane use similar tactics many times in the past. Zannah was interested, however, in what was missing. There were no lightsaber wounds.

Bane had been unarmed when he took on these foes. It was possible he had found and reclaimed his lightsaber since then. But if he hadn't-if he was wandering the halls of the prison without it-he was vulnerable. As powerful as Bane was, Zannah believed she was his equal. And without his lightsaber he had virtually no hope of defeating her.

Closing her eyes and blocking out the earsplitting sound of the alarms, she reached out with the Force once more. This time she ignored the powerful dark side imprint Bane had left on the guard rooms. It only took a few seconds for her to pick up his trail again. As she suspected, he was still inside the prison.

I'm coming, Master. And only one of us will leave here alive.

* * *

Set knew he was close. He had left the darkness of the unlit tunnels behind as he had gone deeper and deeper into the Stone Prison, drawn forward by the call of Darth Andeddu's Holocron.

The section of the complex he was in now was lit, though it still seemed deserted. He had expected to run into somebody: a patrol, a guard wandering the halls. Whoever had taken Zannah's Master must have done it with a small team: twenty, maybe thirty people at most.

Despite this, he was bracing for an encounter soon. He had reached a long hall with a closed wooden door at the end. He was certain the Holocron was inside the room beyond, and he fully expected it to be guarded by at least half a dozen armed soldiers.

Gathering himself, he drew his lightsaber and raced down the hallway, leaping toward the door. He hit it square with both feet, knocking the door open as he flew into the room.

Much to Set's surprise, there were no guards waiting for him. The only witnesses to his grand entrance were an old wooden desk and chair. He felt a second of panic when he didn't see the Holocron anywhere in the small office; then he noticed the safe built into the wall.

There was a combination pad, but Set ignored it. Using his lightsaber, he simply cut several long horizontal and vertical slices in the door. The glowing blade carved through the thick metal with ease, reducing the front of the safe to several heavy chunks that fell to the floor.

The Holocron was the only thing inside. Set reached out slowly, trembling slightly as he wrapped his fingers around the obsidian pyramid. He drew it reverently from the safe, cradling it with both hands.

He nearly dropped his prize when alarm bells began to ring throughout the prison.

Whirling to the door he whipped out his lightsaber, his left hand still clutching the Holocron. He dropped into a fighting stance, bracing himself to meet the reinforcements he expected to burst into the room.

For several seconds he didn't move, listening for the sound of running feet or the shouts of soldiers. Hearing nothing, he carefully reached out with the Force-only to find he was still alone.

The alarms were still blaring away, and it took a minute for Set to realize they had nothing to do with him.

They spotted Zannah. Or her Master's escaped.

Extinguishing his lightsaber, he tucked it back into his belt.

Nobody's going to be worrying about you. Not with a couple of Sith Lords wreaking havoc in one of the other wings.

He had what he had come for; it was time to leave Doan. Hopefully he would never have to come back again.

Set still intended to stick with his original plan of stealing one of the other ships, rather than risk running into Zannah by going back to where they had landed her shuttle. He just needed to look around until he found the hangars where the other vessels were being stored.

Shouldn't be too hard. Just stick to the lit halls and keep out of everyone else's way. Let them fight it out while you sneak off with the real prize.

Fortunately, that was something Set was very good at.

* * *

The echoing alarms chased Serra as she ran down the long hall toward the Stone Prison's emergency control room. She punched in the code to the access panel, her fingers stabbing frantically at the keys as she kept glancing over her shoulder, fearing her enemy would appear in the hall behind her at any second.

The panel beeped sharply, and an ACCESS DENIED message popped up on the readout.

"No," she whispered to herself. "No."

When she had married Gerran, he had shared his personal access code with her. As the crown prince, his code was supposed to override every electronic security system in the royal family's estate.

Maybe the king didn't trust you. Maybe he disabled it when Gerran died. No, that couldn't be it. The code had worked on all the other locks here in the Stone Prison. Without it, she would never have been able to reactivate the generators that powered this section of the complex.

She tried to punch the code in again, her fingers trembling with desperate urgency. The alarms overhead were an inescapable reminder that every second she lost made it more and more likely that her prisoner would find a way to escape the dungeon before she destroyed it.

Once again, the harsh beep and ACCESS DENIED message were the only results.

Maybe Gerran's code doesn't work on this door. Maybe only the king is authorized to use the self-destruct sequence.

Slamming her palm against the door in frustration, Serra was unable to hold back the tears any longer. Beaten, she sank slowly to her knees, her face pressed up against the cold metal door.

For several seconds her body was racked by ragged, hitching sobs. Everything had gone wrong. Lucia had betrayed her; the dark man of her dreams was going to escape. Everything she had worked to accomplish had fallen apart.

This isn't like you.

Although she hadn't heard it in more than a decade, she instantly recognized the voice.

"Father?" she said aloud, though of course Caleb was nowhere to be found but inside her own head.

You're stronger than this.

She nodded, not even caring if the voice she was listening to was nothing but a figment of her own imagination. Blocking out the alarms, she took a long, deep breath and carefully analyzed the situation.

It didn't make any sense for the king to be the only one with access to this room. He couldn't be expected to come here in person if there was ever a prison break or a riot. The warden would have access. Probably the guard captain, as well. And if the king trusted any of his servants with the code, he would also have trusted his son.

You're rushing. Making mistakes. Try again. Slowly.

She rose to her feet and began to punch in the code for a third attempt. This time when she felt the panic threatening to possess her fingers, she fought back by calling up the image of her father's face, calm and certain. Taking slow, deep breaths, she took extra care to hit the buttons in the correct sequence. For a second nothing happened; then there was a soft chime and the door swung slowly open. Relief flooded over her, and Serra tried to laugh at her own foolishness in entering the number wrong twice before getting it right. What came out was a strangled croak that bordered on the hysterical, startling her back into silence.

The room inside was small, with a single control panel and another door on the other side. Beyond the second door was a small tunnel that led to a small emergency pod, allowing whoever entered the self-destruct sequence to escape before the prison came crashing down.

She approached the console and examined the controls. It was simple enough: There was a button to initiate the self-destruct sequence, a number pad for her to enter her access code, and another button to confirm the command. There was a CANCEL key on the number pad, but no ABORT button; once the self-destruct was confirmed there was no way to stop it. After that, anybody inside would have less than five minutes to escape before charges wired into the ceiling, walls, and floors detonated in rapid succession, collapsing the entire prison.

This was it: Her last chance to stop the man who had terrorized her as a child. Her last chance to rid the galaxy of a Dark Lord of the Sith. She pressed the INITIATE button down, and the console lit up in response. Next, she punched in her access code, slowly, to make sure there were no mistakes. But when the CODE ACCEPTED-CONFIRM SELF-DESTRUCT SEQUENCE warning popped up on the screen, Serra hesitated.

If she did this, her life on Doan was over. The king had no idea she was using the Stone Prison for her personal vendetta; if she did this her secret would be exposed. The explosions that would destroy the complex would send tremors through the floors of the Royal Manse on the plateau thousands of meters above; everyone would know what had happened.

He would know she had put her personal wants and desires above those of the royal family. Her actions would almost certainly be considered high treason: the best she could hope for would be permanent banishment from the planet.

And what about Lucia? She would probably be killed in the explosions. Although her bodyguard had betrayed her by helping the prisoner to escape, was Serra willing to condemn her friend to death without even giving her a chance to explain her actions?

Unable to make a decision, Serra stood frozen, her finger hovering above the button marked CONFIRM as the alarms continued to ring out.