Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Zannah's fingers hesitated over the Victory's nav panel as she pondered her next destination. Ever since escaping the Stone Prison, she had kept the shuttle in a low-level orbit around Doan.

She didn't want to go back to Ciutric. Bane was still alive and she needed to find him, but she didn't think he'd be returning to their home anytime soon.

For a time she had considered heading to Set's estate on Nar Shaddaa. If he was dead, he certainly couldn't object if she used his place as a temporary base while she set out to hunt down her Master. And if he happened to be there when she arrived-if he had somehow escaped the dungeon's collapse-then Zannah had plenty of questions for him.

However, the more she thought about confronting the man she had chosen as her apprentice, the less the idea appealed to her. Looking back, it was clear to her that Set had been a mistake. Overeager to assume the role of Dark Lord, she had convinced herself that he was an acceptable choice. Desperate to find an apprentice of her own, she had ignored his obvious flaws.

Set was a dangerous man-one she suspected she might have to deal with later on if she discovered he was still alive-but he wasn't fit to be a Sith. His affinity for the Force was strong, and he willingly embraced many of the dark side's more self-serving aspects. But he lacked discipline. He was consumed by worldly wants and desires that clouded his greater vision. Worst of all, he clearly lacked ambition.

Zannah had lured him into her service with a combination of threats to his life and promises of power. But she had been deceiving herself as much as Set. It was obvious he had no real desire to rule the galaxy. He was content with his lot in life, and was unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to turn himself into something more. And for some reason, she had been unable to see it. Maybe she was afraid to look. Maybe Set reminded her too much of herself.

The words Bane had thrown at her when she accused him of violating the Rule of Two still rang in her mind.

I waited years for you to challenge me. But you were content to toil in my shadow.

Was he right? Was it possible that on some level she was afraid of taking on the responsibility of Sith Master? No. She had tried to kill him.

Tried and failed, even though Bane didn't have his lightsaber. Was it possible she hadn't really been trying to beat him? Had some small part of her subconscious mind held her back just enough so that Bane could survive until he saw his chance to escape?

No. That's what he wants me to think.

Bane's words had been a ploy. He was trying to undermine her confidence, looking for any edge that would let him survive. But he was wrong. Zannah had truly wanted to kill him in the halls of the dungeon. And yet somehow he still managed to live.

Zannah was forced to admit that there was another, even more disturbing, possibility. Was Bane simply stronger than her? If she couldn't defeat him when he was unarmed, what chance would she have once he reclaimed his lightsaber?

No. That didn't make sense, either. Bane may have escaped with his life, but her Master did not win that battle. Her lightsaber had given her a huge advantage; it had forced Bane to be on the defensive. So why hadn't she been able to finish him?

She had obviously made a tactical error. But what was it?

The question gnawed at her as she sat back in her seat and crossed her arms, the nav computer still awaiting its next destination. She bit down on her lip, concentrating. The answer was there; she just had to figure it out.

In her mind she replayed the scenario, analyzing it over and over again. She had been patient, careful. Because of this her Master had been able to keep her at bay despite her advantage. But if she had been more aggressive during the duel, she would have opened herself up to a potentially lethal counterattack.

Was that the answer? Did she have to risk defeat to claim victory?

Zannah shook her head. That wasn't it. Bane had taught her that risk should always be minimized. Gambles relied on luck. Take enough chances and sooner or later luck will turn against you, even with the Force on your side.

And then it came to her. She had tried to defeat him using brute force; she had fought the battle on his terms.

She would never be Bane's equal in physical strength. He would always be superior to her in martial skill. So why had she tried to defeat him in lightsaber combat, when her true talents lay elsewhere?

She had fallen into his trap. He had pretended to have a weapon, knowing she would see through his bluff. Bane had wanted her to focus on his missing lightsaber above all else. He was goading her into battle.

Using her lightsaber to defeat an unarmed opponent was the simplest, most obvious path to victory:one Bane had expertly led her down. But the most obvious path was rarely the best one.

Bane didn't fear her blades. There was only one thing she possessed that he was wary of: Sith sorcery. Zannah could do things with the Force that Bane couldn't even attempt. She could attack the minds of her opponents, turning their own thoughts and dreams against them.

During her apprenticeship, Bane had encouraged her in her studies of the magical arts. He had given her ancient texts filled with arcane rituals, urging her to expand her knowledge and push the boundaries of her talent. He had directed her training so that she could achieve her full potential. But he did not realize just how far she had come.

In addition to the tomes her Master had provided, Zannah had sought out her own sources of hidden Sith knowledge over the years. Practicing in secret, she had progressed far beyond Bane's expectations, learning new spells to unleash the dark side in ways he had never even imagined.

Next time we meet, Master, I will show you just how powerful I have become.

She had a feeling that meeting would be soon. Bane was out there, somewhere. Plotting and planning for their next encounter. If she didn't find him soon, Zannah knew, then he would find her.

* * *

Night was falling by the time the Huntress returned to the camp. Bane had ordered her to bury Serra's body-not out of a sense of respect or honor, but simply to keep away scavengers and remove the corpse before it began to decay. To her credit, the Iktotchi hadn't protested or questioned his command: she either understood the need or trusted his judgment.

While she was gone, Bane had collected kindling from a small woodpile at the back of the hut and started a fire to ward off the chill. The Iktotchi now stood before him, the glow of the flames transforming her red skin to a bright, sinister orange.

"You said you want me to teach you," he noted, crouching down to stir the fire with a stick. He held it in his left hand, his grip tight to keep the tremor from returning.

"I want to learn the ways of the Sith."

"If you are to become my apprentice, you must cast away the chains of your old life. You must sever all ties to family and friends."

"I have none."

"You will not be able to return to your home; you must be willing to leave behind all your worldly possessions."

"Wealth and material goods mean nothing to me," she replied. "I crave only power and purpose. With power, anything you want or need can simply be taken. With purpose, your life has meaning."

Bane nodded approvingly, stirring the fire once more before continuing.

"If you become my apprentice, who you were will cease to exist. You must be reborn in the ways of the dark side."

"I'm ready, my lord." There was no mistaking the eagerness in her voice.

"Then choose a new name for yourself, as a symbol of your new and greater existence."

"Cognus," she said after a moment's consideration.

Bane was impressed. She understood that power rested not in her blades or her bloodlust, but in her knowledge, wisdom, and ability to see the future.

"A good name," he said, setting the stick down and rising to his full height. As he did so, the Iktotchi dropped to one knee before him and bowed her head.

"From this day forward you are Darth Cognus of the Sith," he said.

"I am ready to begin my training," Cognus replied, still down on one knee before him.

"Not yet," he said, walking past her and heading to the shuttles on the far side of the camp. "There is still one important matter to take care of."

Cognus jumped up to follow him. "Your old apprentice?" she guessed.

Or was it a guess?

Bane stopped and turned back toward her. "Have you seen what will happen between me and my apprentice?"

"Ever since I came to this world to meet the princess I have dreamed of you both," Cognus admitted. "But the meaning is unclear."

"Tell me what you've seen," Bane ordered.

"The details are always changing. Different locations, different worlds, different times of the day or night. At times I see her dead at your feet, other times she is the victor. I have tried to make sense of it, but there are too many contradictions."

"The future of the Sith is precariously balanced between Zannah and myself," Bane explained. "Whoever survives our confrontation will control the destiny of the Sith, but our strength is too evenly matched for you to foresee the outcome."

The Iktotchi didn't reply, pondering his words in silence.

Bane left her alone to think on her first lesson, continuing on to her vessel. He passed the twin graves without a second glance.

Climbing inside the shuttle, he set the commtransmitter to the frequency of Zannah's personal shuttle and sent out a coded distress signal.

* * *

Zannah had drifted off into a restless sleep, only to be awakened by a slow, steady beep from her control console. Examining the source, she saw it was a long-range distress call. Instead of being broadcast across multiple band lengths, however, this one was coming in on the Victory's private channel. Only one person besides her knew that frequency.

Curious, she decoded the message. It comprised only four words: Ambria. The healer's camp.

Her first thought was that Bane was setting a trap for her, trying to lure her in. But the more she thought about it, the less likely that seemed. It was obvious who the message was from. If he was setting a trap, why reveal himself like this when it would only put her on her guard?

Maybe he just wanted this to end. Before drifting off to sleep, Zannah had been thinking about what he said to her before their confrontation in the halls of the Stone Prison.

Only the strongest has the right to rule the Sith! The title of Dark Lord must be seized, wrenched from the all-powerful grasp of the Master!

If Bane still believed in the Rule of Two-if he still believed it was the key to the survival and eventual dominance of the Sith-then this message was a challenge, an invitation to his apprentice to come to Ambria and end what they had begun in the Stone Prison.

She had to admit, it was better than wasting years chasing each other across the galaxy, setting traps and plotting each other's destruction. Bane had reinvented the Sith so that their resources and efforts would be focused against their enemies rather than each other. When the apprentice challenged the Master it was meant to be decided in a single confrontation: quick, clean, and final.

Now, however, the Order had been fractured. They were no longer Master and apprentice, but competing rivals for the mantle of Sith Lord. They were effectively at war, and as long as they both lived, the Sith would be divided. Was it so hard to believe that, for the sake of the Order, Bane wanted to end it with a duel on Ambria? If Bane still honored the Rule he had created, then the message could be taken at face value.

But what about Andeddu's Holocron?

She had initially thought he was seeking eternal life so that he could defy the Rule of Two by living forever. Now she wasn't so certain. Would immortality really be a violation of the Rule's underlying principles? The secrets inside the Holocron might keep Bane from aging, but she didn't think they could protect him from falling in battle. If she was strong enough to defeat him, she would still earn her place as Master, just as Bane had intended when he first found her as a young girl on Ruusan. Now she wondered if the Holocron was just a safeguard to keep the Order strong. Perhaps Bane saw it as a way to protect against an unworthy candidate ascending to the Sith throne simply because the Master became weak and infirm with age.

Zannah leaned forward and plotted in a course for Ambria, wondering what had made Bane choose the healer's camp as the location of their final encounter.

The world was steeped in the energies of the dark side; for the first decade of her apprenticeship Bane and Zannah had dwelled there near the shores of Lake Natth. But he wasn't calling her back to their camp; he was waiting for her at Caleb's.

Two times the Dark Lord had nearly died there. Did that have anything to do with his choice of location? Or was there some other explanation?

It was still possible she was about to walk into a trap. Ambria was a sparsely inhabited world. It would be easy to make preparations there without drawing unwanted attention.

Yet her instincts told her that wasn't what Bane was plotting. And if her instincts were wrong about something as important as this, then she deserved whatever was waiting for her.

Either way, she reasoned as the ship made the jump into hyperspace, this will all be over soon.

* * *

Night had passed on Ambria, giving way to the scorching heat of day. With the rising of the sun, Bane and Cognus had retreated inside the shelter of the hut. There the Dark Lord had sat cross-legged on the floor, meditating and gathering his strength in preparation for Zannah's arrival.

"She'll probably show up with an army at her heels," the Iktotchi warned.

Bane shook his head.

"She knows she must face me alone."

"I don't understand."

"The Sith used to be as plentiful as the Jedi. Unlike the Jedi, however, those who served sought to tear their leaders down. Their ambition was natural; this is the way of the dark side. It is what drives us, gives us strength. Yet it can also destroy us if not properly controlled.

"Under the old ways, a powerful leader would be brought down by the combined strength of many lesser Sith working together. It was inevitable, a cycle that repeated over and over. And each time, the Order as a whole grew weaker.

"The strongest were killed, and the weak tore the Sith apart with their petty wars of succession. Meanwhile, the Jedi remained united, confident in the knowledge their enemies were too busy fighting one another to ever defeat them."

"You discovered a way to break this cycle," Cognus chimed in.

"Now everything we do is guided by the Rule of Two," Bane explained. "One Master, one apprentice. This assures that the Master will only fall to a worthy successor.

"Zannah knows that if she is to rule in my place, she must prove she is more powerful by defeating me herself."

Cognus nodded. "I understand, Master. I will not interfere when she arrives."

As if on cue, the sound of a shuttle's engines roared through the camp. The two of them rose to their feet and stepped out into the desert heat just as Zannah's ship touched down.

She emerged a few seconds later. As Bane had predicted, she was alone.

He marched forward to meet her, Cognus hanging back near the entrance to the hut. He stopped in the center of the camp. Zannah took her stand halfway between the shuttles and where Bane now stood, eyeing the Iktotchi in the background suspiciously.

"She will not interfere," Bane assured her.

"Who is she?"

"A new apprentice."

"She has sworn allegiance to you?"

"She is loyal to the Sith," Bane explained.

"I want to learn the ways of the dark side," Cognus called out to Zannah. "I want to serve under a true Sith Master. If you defeat Bane, I will swear my loyalty to you."

Zannah tilted her head to the side, studying the Iktotchi carefully before nodding her agreement to the offer.

"Who lies in the graves?" she asked, turning her attention back to Bane.

"Caleb's daughter and her bodyguard," he replied. "She was the one who imprisoned me. She fled here when the Stone Prison was destroyed."

He felt no need to explain in any further detail. Zannah didn't need to know who Lucia was, or her connection to Bane.

"I wondered why you chose this place to meet," Zannah muttered. "I thought it might have some symbolic meaning for you."

Bane shook his head.

"The last time we were here you were too weak to even stand," his apprentice reminded him. "You were helpless, and you thought I had betrayed you to the Jedi.

"You said you would rather die than be a prisoner for the rest of your life. You wanted me to take your life. But I refused."

"You knew I still had things to teach you," Bane recalled. "You swore you would not kill me until you had learned all my secrets."

"That day is here," Zannah informed him, igniting the twin blades of her lightsaber.

Bane drew out his own weapon in response, the shimmering blade rising up from the curved hilt with a low hum.

The two combatants dropped into fighting stances and began to circle slowly.

"I have surpassed you, Bane," Zannah warned him. "Now I am the Master."

"Then prove it."

He lunged toward her, and the battle began.