Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

The Stone Prison's escape shuttle was small in size and lacked the luxuries of the princess's personal ship, but it had been fitted with a Class Five hyperdrive and was well provisioned for interstellar travel. Theoretically, if there was ever a need to activate the dungeon's self-destruct sequence, there was also a strong possibility that key members of the royal family or their staff might be forced to flee Doan.

In Serra's case this was actually true. She could only imagine the political fallout she had caused. The king's father had decommissioned the Stone Prison; officially it was still inactive. Its destruction would lead to a host of questions as to what exactly was going on in the complex beneath the royal family's estate. Any investigations would turn up nothing, of course: the demolition charges had been carefully engineered to inflict maximum structural damage. Any proposed recovery operation would prove too expensive and impractical. Whatever secrets the Stone Prison held would be buried forever.

That wouldn't stop the rumors and speculation, though. The miners already mistrusted the nobility; discovering the infamous dungeons had been reopened-even temporarily-would stir up bad blood and reopen old wounds. Sympathy and recruitment for the rebels would increase.

Her own disappearance would add to the confusion, but in the long run it would be better if she just disappeared. She had sworn loyalty to House Doan and she had betrayed them, bringing trouble and misfortune down on Gerran's kin. If the king and everyone else believed she was dead, sealed away forever beneath ten thousand tons of rock, it would be easier for them to clean up the mess she had left behind.

Unable to return to her home on Doan, she had charted a course for the only other place in the galaxy she had ever known happiness. However, as she brought the shuttle in to land on the edge of her father's camp on Ambria, it wasn't joy she was feeling.

In the space of only a few short months it seemed as if she had lost everything. Alone, confused, and racked by guilt, she had come here in the hope of finding peace:for herself, and for her friend.

It was early evening; the last light of day was just fading over the horizon as she unloaded Lucia's body. Laying her friend gently on the ground, she returned to the shuttle and found a small shovel tucked away in the supplies at the back.

The sandy ground was soft, making her chore far easier than it would have been on most other worlds. Even so, it took her more than an hour of steady digging before the grave was complete. As best she could, she lowered Lucia's body into the hole she had dug, then picked up the shovel and buried her friend.

The desert heat had faded quickly with the setting of the sun, and once her exertions were over, the chill made Serra shiver. But the physical activity had been cathartic. The numbness that had clouded her thoughts and emotions had faded.

A light breeze kicked up, and she shivered. Instead of going to the shuttle, however, she crossed the camp and sought shelter in her father's old, abandoned shack.

Inside, she huddled in a corner and closed her eyes. She could still feel her father's presence here. Even though he was gone, being in this place made it easy to call up memories: his face, his voice. She was able to draw solace from them, as if her father's quiet strength and wisdom were somehow being passed from the place he had lived nearly all of his adult life into her.

It was only now that she realized how wrong she had been. Caleb had always warned her about the evils of the dark side, yet when the time came she had ignored his words. And everything that had gone wrong-all the blood that now stained her hands-could be traced back to her own hatred and desire for revenge.

It had begun with Gerran's death. Instead of grieving and moving on, she had clung to her sorrow until it transformed into bitter anger that consumed her every waking moment. In desperation, Lucia had hired an assassin to seek revenge on her behalf in the hopes it could somehow save her friend from the darkness that had enveloped her. Instead, she had unwittingly set in motion the wheels of Serra's downfall.

The Huntress had slain the Jedi Medd Tandar. This led to the involvement of the Council and the king. When Lucia confessed her actions to Serra, she should have been horrified. Her father would have been. She should have told the king about the assassin, leaving Lucia's name out of it to protect her friend. She could have averted all the suffering that was to come with one simple act of honesty. Instead, she chose to deceive him, hoarding the secret and reveling in the terrible crime committed on her behalf.

That lie had resulted in her trip to Coruscant, where she had learned about her father's fate. Looking back, she had no doubt Caleb had given his life rather than submit to the will of the dark side. But instead of honoring his memory and following his example, she let her grief twist and pervert her sense of justice. Yet again she let anger and hate rule her actions, and Lucia was sent out to hire the Huntress for a second job.

When the dark man of her dreams was captured, Serra was given yet another chance to turn away from the abyss. She could have turned him over to the authorities. Instead she chose to imprison and torture him.

By this point she had sunk so far into the pit of darkness that even Lucia had sensed her corruption. Her friend had tried to warn her. She had recognized what Serra was turning into. But now Lucia was dead, as well.

Anger, revenge, deception, cruelty, hate: these were the ways of the dark side. Ever since Gerran's death Serra had allowed them to dominate her life, drawing her farther and farther down the path. And it was only now, cowering alone in the corner of a hut in the middle of the desert, that she understood the true price. The dark side destroys. It can't bring peace or closure; it only brings misery and death.

Caleb had understood this. He had tried to teach her. But she had failed him, and it had cost her everything.

"I'm sorry, Father," she whispered, reaching up to wipe a tear from her eye. "Now I understand."

What was done could not be undone. She would have to live with the burden of her crimes. But going forward she would not allow herself to be seduced by the dark side again. Whatever fate awaited her, whatever consequence or punishment befell her, she would accept it with stoic calm and quiet strength.

I am still my father's daughter.

* * *

Bane was well aware how close he had come to dying at Zannah's hand in the Stone Prison. Yet he was still alive, proof of his enduring strength and power. He had gone in a prisoner, but he had emerged more powerful than when he had entered. Andeddu's Holocron may have been lost, most likely buried forever in the dungeon's collapse, but he had already claimed its most precious knowledge: the secret of essence transfer. And though his apprentice was still alive, he might just have found her replacement.

He studied the Iktotchi carefully as she worked the shuttle's controls, making subtle adjustments to keep them on course as they left the calm vacuum of space and descended into the turbulence of Ambria's atmosphere.

She had told him her name was the Huntress, and that she had spent the past five years as a freelance assassin, honing her ability to identify and exploit weakness in her targets. It was hard to argue with the results; in her brief encounters with Bane she had already demonstrated both notable ambition and incredible potential. Her achievements were even more impressive when one considered that she had never been given any formal training in the ways of the Force. Everything she did came from natural ability. Pure instinct. Raw power.

Her ability to disrupt the Force in others only gave further testament to her strength. She had never been trained in this rare and difficult technique; she simply unleashed it against her enemies through sheer force of will: crude but effective.

However, it was her other talent that truly intrigued the Dark Lord.

"How did you track me to Ciutric?" he asked as the shuttle dropped down toward the planet's desert surface.

"My visions," the Huntress explained. "If I concentrate, they allow me to see images: people, places. Sometimes I catch glimpses of the future, though they do not always come true."

"The future is never static," Bane told her. "It is constantly shaped by the Force:and those with the power to control the Force."

"Sometimes I also see visions of the past. Memories of what was. I saw you here on Ambria. With a young blond woman."

"My apprentice."

"She still lives?"

"For now."

On the horizon they could see the first light of Ambria's sun stretching out toward them. As the bright yellow beams fell across the nose of the shuttle, Bane couldn't help but wonder how far the Iktotchi's abilities could extend if she was given proper instruction and guidance.

He had the wisdom to interpret events and foresee their most likely outcome, but he rarely experienced true visions of the future. He was able to manipulate the galaxy around him, driving it inexorably toward a time in which all bowed down to the Sith, but it was a struggle to keep everything on course. His long-term plans to wipe out the Jedi and rule the galaxy were in a constant state of flux, reacting to unexpected and completely unforeseeable events that altered the social and political landscape.

Each time this happened, Bane had to retreat and regroup until he was able to evaluate and properly react to the changes¬. But if the Huntress could learn to properly harness her power, the Sith would no longer be limited only to reacting. They could anticipate and predict these random changes, preparing for them long before they happened.

And there was an even greater possibility. Bane knew fate was not preordained. There were many possible futures, and the Force allowed her to see only examples of what might be. If she could learn to sort through her visions, separating out the various divergent time lines, was it possible she could actually control them, too? Could she one day have the power to alter the future simply by thinking about it? Could she use the power of the Force to shape the very fabric of existence and make her chosen visions become reality?

"In the hangar you said you were waiting for me," Bane noted, anxious to get a better understanding of her talent. "Your visions told you I was coming?"

"Not exactly. I had a sense of:something. I could feel the significance of the moment, though I didn't know what would happen. My instincts told me it would be to my benefit to wait."

Bane nodded. "Are your instincts ever wrong?"

"Rarely."

"Is that why we're here on Ambria? Your visions-your instincts-told you Caleb's daughter would come here?"

"The princess met me here when she hired me to find you," the assassin replied. "This place haunts her. I didn't need a vision to know this was where she would run."

The Dark Lord smiled. She was smart as well as powerful.

A few minutes later the ship touched down on the edge of Caleb's camp, landing beside a small escape shuttle.

Disembarking from the craft, Bane was reminded of the power trapped within Ambria's surface. The Force had once devastated this world before its power was trapped by an ancient Jedi Master in the depths of Lake Natth. Now the planet was a nexus of both dark and light side power.

He noticed a freshly dug grave a few meters off to one side, but he didn't give it a second glance. The dead were of no consequence to him.

With long, purposeful steps he made his way across the camp toward the dilapidated shack. The Huntress followed at his side, matching him stride for stride.

Before he reached his destination, however, the princess emerged from the hut to confront him. She was unarmed and alone, but unlike their last meeting in the prison cell, he didn't sense any fear in her this time. There was a sense of serenity about her, a tranquility that reminded Bane of his first meeting with her father.

Bane's own mood had changed as well. He was no longer driven by an unquenchable desire for bloody vengeance. In the Stone Prison he had needed to draw strength from his anger to survive and defeat his enemies. Here, however, he was in no danger. Afforded the luxury of careful consideration, he had realized that there was no need to kill her:not if he could make use of her skills.

They stood face-to-face, staring at each other, neither speaking. In the end, it was Serra who broke the silence.

"Did you see the grave when you landed? I buried Lucia there last night."

When Bane didn't respond, she slowly reached up and wiped a single tear away from her eye before continuing.

"She saved your life. Don't you even care that she's dead?"

"The dead have no value to the living," he told her.

"She was your friend."

"Whatever she was is gone. Now she is nothing but decaying flesh and bone."

"She didn't deserve this. Her death was:pointless."

"Your father's death was pointless," Bane said. "He had a valuable skill; twice he saved my life when no other could have healed me. Had it been my choice I would have left him alive in case I ever needed his services a third time."

"He would have never helped you by choice," Serra countered. There was no anger in her voice, though her words had the steely ring of truth.

"But he did help me," Bane reminded her. "He was useful. I could have a use for you as well, if you share his talent."

"My father taught me everything he knew," she admitted. "But, like him, I will never help a monster like you."

She turned to address the Iktotchi standing silently by Bane's side.

"If you follow this man he will destroy you," she warned. "I've seen the rewards given to those who walk the path of the dark side."

"The dark side will give me power," the Huntress replied confidently. "It will guide me to my destiny."

"Only a fool believes that," the princess replied. "Look at me. I gave in to my hate. I let it consume me. My desire for revenge cost me everything and everyone I care about."

"The dark side will devour those who lack the power to control it," Bane agreed. "It's a fierce storm of emotion that annihilates anything in its path. It lays waste to the weak and unworthy.

"But those who are strong," he added, "can ride the storm winds to unfathomable heights. They can unlock their true potential; they can sever the chains that bind them; they can dominate the world around them. Only those with the power to control the dark side can ever truly be free."

"No," Serra replied, gently shaking her head. "I don't believe that. The dark side is evil. You are evil. And I will never serve you."

There was a quiet defiance in her words, and Bane sensed nothing he could say or do would ever persuade her. For a brief moment he considered attempting the ritual of essence transfer, then quickly dismissed the idea. The ritual would consume his physical form, and if he failed to possess her body his spirit would be trapped forever in the void. Her will was as strong as her father's, and he didn't know if he was powerful enough to overcome it.

He didn't need to do this now. He still had several years before his current body failed completely. It was better to wait and try to find a technician to create a clone body. That, or find someone younger and more innocent.

"She is of no use to us, Master," the Iktotchi noted, an eager gleam in her eye. "May I kill her for you?"

He nodded, and the Huntress stepped forward, advancing slowly on the other woman. Bane sensed the assassin liked to savor the kill, reveling in the fear and pain of her victims. But Serra made no move to defend herself. She didn't try to run, or beg for mercy. Instead, she stood perfectly still, willing to meet her fate with mute acceptance.

Recognizing she would get no satisfaction from Caleb's daughter, the assassin ended Serra's life.