Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Set had always prided himself on being able to extricate himself from virtually any predicament. He had a knack for working himself free from a bind, and a natural talent for finding the outs in any situation. So he wasn't surprised when, after less than ten minutes, he managed to stumble across the prison's main landing bay.

It was much larger than the secondary entrance he and Zannah had arrived at. The alarms that had been all but deafening inside the cramped corridors were merely thunderous here in the massive chamber.

Set was perched atop a large metal balcony overlooking the room. Below he could see four vessels, spaced about ten meters apart. All of them appeared to be unguarded. Pleased with himself, he tapped the Holocron he had tucked away inside his vest pocket as he studied his options.

Just like a buffet: plenty to choose from.

Two of the ships were standard, run-of-the-mill passenger shuttles, their hulls weathered and dented. He quickly dismissed them as unworthy of stealing. The third was the largest of the group, and appeared to be in mint condition. It was also marked with the crest of the royal family.

Set smiled. There was something appealing about the idea of escaping Doan in a shuttle owned by the ruler of the planet. It definitely had a certain flair. And then he saw the fourth vessel.

We have a winner.

The smallest of the lot, the ship was sleek and stylish, with red trim and a black hull. The perfect vehicle for a man of Set's discriminating taste.

Eager to escape, the Dark Jedi made his way down the staircase and across the hangar, his lightsaber clutched in his right hand. When he reached his chosen shuttle, he let out a low whistle of appreciation and reached up to stroke the smooth, dark hull.

"Look but don't touch," a soft female voice whispered in his ear.

Set snapped his hand back and whirled around, his lightsaber springing to life as he slashed at the empty air behind him.

Just out of range of his attack stood an Iktotchi in a black cloak. Her hood was thrown back to reveal the long curved horns that curled down along her neck and under her chin. Black tattoos marked her lower lip, and her small, pointed teeth were bared in an eager grin.

Set wasn't normally one to shy away from a fight, not if he thought he could win. But there was something unsettling about this red-skinned opponent. It was practically impossible to sneak up on a Jedi, yet Set hadn't felt her presence until she'd spoken.

Careful. That probably isn't the only trick up her sleeve.

"Nice ship," he said, extinguishing his lightsaber and letting his hand fall casually to his side. "How many credits did that set you back?"

As soon as the words were out of his mouth he pounced toward her, his reignited lightsaber carving a deadly figure-eight pattern meant to disembowel his unsuspecting foe even as she answered his question.

The Iktotchi wasn't fooled. Instead of replying to his query, she took a quick step back and to the side, nimbly avoiding his attack.

"Too slow," she admonished.

The two adversaries turned to face each other again, and Set paused to consider the situation. He had Andeddu's Holocron; all he needed now was a ship and he was home free. But standing between him and escape was an unknown, though obviously skilled, opponent. She didn't appear to be armed, but she could easily have blades, blasters, or any number of other weapons hidden in the folds of her cloak. He decided it might be a good idea to try to talk his way out of the situation.

"My name is Medd Tandar," he lied, trying to project an air of noble self-importance into his voice. "I'm here on behalf of the Council of First Knowledge. Step aside in the name of the Jedi Order."

"You're no Jedi," she replied.

"Not anymore," Set confessed. "But I used to be."

He sliced the air half a dozen times with his lightsaber. He spun around, the humming blade dancing and twirling, before ending the demonstration with a back flip.

The Iktotchi was obviously unimpressed by his display of martial prowess, and Set realized he wasn't going to intimidate her into backing down.

"The Jedi teach you any useful tricks?"

"A few," Set replied, thrusting out with the Force.

A wave of raw energy rippled out toward his enemy, but Set knew instantly something was very wrong. Instead of the exhilarating rush of power he normally felt, there was a cramping ache in the pit of his stomach that caused him to double over.

The concussive wave that should have sent the Iktotchi flying twenty meters was reduced to nothing more than a hard shove. It hit her full in the chest, but she simply absorbed the impact by falling into a backward roll that ended with her still on her feet.

A pair of short vibroblades appeared in her hands while Set staggered backward, clutching at his stomach and trying not to throw up.

With horror, he realized she was disrupting his ability to draw on the Force. He'd seen this talent mentioned in a number of ancient texts, but he'd never encountered it himself:and he didn't know how to counter it. His only option was to try to fight through.

Gritting his teeth, he stood up straight. Feeding on the pain and his mounting anger, he tried once more to summon up the power of the dark side. He felt a small surge in response to his efforts, but it was a thin trickle rather than the flood he had been hoping for. Still, it was better than nothing.

The Iktotchi lunged in with her twin blades, and Set staggered awkwardly out of the way, barely avoiding her attack. She moved faster than any opponent he had ever faced. Or maybe her ability to interfere with the Force was just making him slower than he'd ever been. In either case, the outcome was the same:and it wasn't good for Set.

He ducked his head and darted under the nose of the black-and-red shuttle to the far side, knowing his best chance of survival would be to keep ten tons of metal between the two of them.

He couldn't see her anymore, but by concentrating he was just barely able to sense her position. The effort made his head spin; it was like trying to see with mud in his eyes.

She was stalking him slowly, cautiously creeping around the tail end of the ship. And in that moment Set realized his opponent had no formal training in the ways of the Force. She was operating on instinct. She had never been taught the most basic skills-like how to sense the location of opponents even when they were out of sight.

Set turned and made a dash for one of the other vessels, reaching his new hiding place just before she emerged from behind the black shuttle's thrusters. Crouching down to peer beneath the belly of the ship he was using for cover, he could see her turning her head from side to side, trying to figure out where he had gone.

"I love a good chase," she called out, her lips curling into a feral smile. "That's why they call me the Huntress."

This isn't going to end well.

* * *

Bane could still feel the lingering effects of the drugs in his system. He'd done what he could to burn them away with the fire of the dark side, but the Sith were not as adept as the Jedi at cleansing their systems of impurities. The last dregs of the chemicals would simply have to break down naturally over time.

Until then he would be at less than full strength. A fraction slower in thoughts and actions, less adept at wielding the power of the Force. And he was still without his lightsaber.

Despite all this, he was confident victory was only minutes away. The alarms were still ringing throughout the dungeon, but he knew there would be no guards rushing in to answer their call. The few mercenaries who had survived his attack were in full retreat, leaving Caleb's daughter defenseless.

Sometimes vengeance needed to be cold and calculating. There were times when it was better to be careful, patient. But sometimes retribution could not be deferred. Sometimes action needed to be fueled by anger and hate; it needed to burn with the heat of animal emotion.

Peace is a lie; there is only passion. Through passion I gain strength. Through strength I gain power.

He could sense he was closing in on Serra's location. His stride quickened as he marched purposefully down the empty corridors toward his revenge.

Through power I gain victory. Through victory my chains are broken.

He had been careless, weak. He had allowed himself to be captured. He had let himself become a victim. For that he had suffered. But now he was strong again. Now it was someone else's turn to suffer.

"Des!" a voice from behind him shouted out over the alarms.

The mention of the name he had left behind twenty years ago caused the Sith Lord to stop dead in his tracks. He turned slowly, and found himself face-to-face with the dark-skinned woman who had aided his escape.

She was breathing hard, as if she had been running. Her pants were torn over the left knee; the edges of the rip were bloody. Her face was a mixture of conflicting emotions: fear, desperation, and hope.

"Do you remember me, Des? It's Lucia."

For a second Bane simply stared in confusion at the woman standing before him. Then he began to think back to his youth. To a time when he was not Darth Bane, Lord of the Sith, but rather Des, a simple miner from Apatros.

The memories were buried deep, but they were still there. The weekly beatings from Hurst, his father. Long, grueling shifts digging cortosis from the rock while choking on clouds of dust stirred up by his hydraulic jack. His escape from the misery of Apatros, and his assignment to the Gloom Walkers.

It was like trying to recall a dream upon waking. These were scenes from someone else's life; they didn't feel real to him. But as he cast his mind back, other memories began to surface: long nights sitting watch on Trandosha, forced marches through the forests of Kashyyyk.

Stirring up the ghosts of the past brought back the face of Ulabore, the cruel and incompetent commanding officer who had inadvertently turned Des over to the Sith and set him on the path of his true destiny. But there were other faces, too-the men and women of his unit, his brothers-and sisters-in-arms. He remembered the blue eyes and cocksure grin of Adanar, his best friend. And he remembered a wide-eyed junior trooper, a young sniper named Lucia.

Bane had intelligence and foresight. He had the wisdom and vision to redefine the Sith Order so that it could begin its long, slow ascent to galactic domination. He had schemed and planned for nearly every conceivable situation he might one day find himself in. Yet he had never prepared himself for this.

He knew many of the former soldiers who served in Kaan's armies had become mercenaries and bodyguards, but he had never considered the possibility of ever running into someone who had known him before his transformation through the dark side. After joining the Sith, he hadn't allowed himself to wonder or care about what had happened to the people from his past. He had needed to learn to survive alone, to rely on nobody but himself. Attachment to family and friends was a weakness, a chain to bind and drag you down.

Now someone from the life he had worked so hard to forget was standing between him and his revenge. She was an obstacle in his way, one to be easily overcome. He knew he could cast her aside as easily as he had disposed of the guards outside his cell.

Instead, he asked, "Why did you help me?"

"We served together in the Gloom Walkers," she answered, as if that explained everything.

"I know who you are," he told her.

She hesitated, as if she expected him to say more. When he didn't, she continued to speak.

"You saved my life on Phaseera. You saved all our lives. And not just then. You were there in every battle we fought, watching over us. Protecting us."

"I was a fool back then."

"No! You were a hero. I owe you my life a dozen times over. How could I not help you?"

At first he thought she was a sentimental idiot, blinded by irrational nobility and spouting foolish drivel. But then he realized what was really going on, and it all began to make sense. She had released him hoping to win his favor. She was after something. That was why she had betrayed Caleb's daughter-for her own personal gain.

"What do you want?" he demanded, the alarms a constant reminder that time was running short.

"I want:please:I'm begging you:let Serra live."

Her request made no sense. Lucia's actions were the only reason Serra's life was in danger.

"Why? What use is her life to me?"

The woman didn't answer right away. She was searching for something to offer, but in the end she had nothing.

"Look into your heart, Des. Think back on the man you used to be. I know you turned to the dark side to survive. Becoming a Sith was the only way you could survive. Please, Des; I know part of what you used to be still lives inside you."

"My name is not Des," he said, his voice rising as he stood up to his full height so that he towered over Lucia. "I am Darth Bane, Dark Lord of the Sith. I feel neither pity nor gratitude nor remorse. And Caleb's daughter must pay for what she did to me."

"I won't let you do this," she declared, spreading her stance wide and bracing herself before him.

"You can't stop me," he warned her. "You can't save her by sacrificing yourself. Are you willing to throw your life away for no purpose?"

Lucia didn't budge. "I already said I owe you my life. If you want to take it now, that is your right."

Bane's mind flashed back to his first encounter with Caleb on Ambria. The healer had stood before him as Lucia did now, utterly defiant despite the knowledge he was no match for a Sith Lord. Yet Caleb had known he had something Bane needed; Lucia could make no such claim. There was nothing to stop him from extinguishing her life in a single instant.

He began to gather the dark side, the power slowly building. But before he could unleash it he was hit by a wall of thunderous force rolling out from a corridor to his left. Instinctively he threw up a defensive shield, absorbing the blow. Despite this, he was slammed against the opposite wall, knocking the breath from his lungs.

Lucia was not so fortunate. Unable to call upon the Force to protect herself, she was sent careering down the corridor, flipping and twisting. Her skull smashed against the stone half a dozen times as her body ricocheted off the walls and ceiling, reducing it to a bloody, misshapen mess. Her corpse finally tumbled to a stop thirty meters away where the hall made an abrupt ninety-degree turn.

Bane was back on his feet in an instant, turning to face his foe. "You couldn't bring yourself to kill her," Zannah said, her voice filled with contempt. "You've become weak. No wonder you tried to violate the Rule of Two."

She was standing with her double-bladed lightsaber drawn, the hilt grasped firmly in her hand. Her arm was extended, holding the weapon out in front of her, the twin blades horizontal to the floor. It was a defensive posture, one meant to guard against a sudden attack from an armed opponent. He realized Zannah didn't know that he hadn't found his lightsaber yet.

"I have lived by the principles of the Rule of Two ever since I created it," Bane replied. "Everything I have done has been in accordance with its teachings."

Zannah shook her head.

"I know you went to Prakith. I know you went after Andeddu's Holocron. I know you were searching for the secret of eternal life."

"I did that out of necessity. I taught you everything I knew about the dark side. I waited years for you to challenge me. But you were content to toil in my shadow, to remain an apprentice until the ravages of age robbed me of my power."

All thoughts of Lucia were gone, swept away along with the memories of his past life. The only thing he cared about was this confrontation, for he knew the fate of the Sith hinged on the outcome.

"You are unworthy of becoming the Master, Zannah. That was why I went to Prakith."

"No," Zannah said, her voice calm and cold. "You won't turn this back on me. You said you were training me so that I would one day succeed you. You said it was my destiny to become the Master.

"Now you want to live forever. You want to cling to the mantle of Dark Lord of the Sith and deny me what is mine!"

"That mantle must be earned," Bane countered. "You wanted to wait, to take it by default."

"You taught me patience," she reminded him. "You taught me to bide my time."

"Not in this!" Bane shouted. "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!"

"That is why I am here," Zannah said with a grim smile. "I have found an apprentice of my own. I am ready to embrace my destiny."

"Do you really believe you can defeat me?"

Bane let his right hand drop to his hip, feinting as if he was preparing to draw his lightsaber. His only chance to survive was to somehow trick her into backing down.

Zannah's eyes flickered, drawn by the subtle motion. He kept his hand open, his massive palm completely covering the place where she would normally be able to see the hilt of his lightsaber clipped to his belt. With his mind he tried to project an image of his hook-handled weapon resting just beneath his empty fingers.

His apprentice didn't move. She stayed in her defensive stance, her brow furrowing as she weighed her chances. Then her gaze fell on Bane's left hand, quivering ever so slightly with one of the uncontrollable tremors.

"You allowed yourself to be captured by mercenaries," she said, slowly twirling her weapon and taking a confident step forward.

Bane held his ground, clenching the fingers of his left hand so that they dug into the palm, stilling the tremor.

"You couldn't bring yourself to kill the woman who stood in your way."

She took another step toward him, casually tossing her lightsaber from one hand to the other. Had Bane been armed, it would have been the perfect opening to launch a sudden attack.

When he failed to do so, she tilted her head back and laughed.

"You even let yourself get trapped in these halls without your lightsaber."

She took another step forward and Bane responded by taking several steps back.

The double-bladed lightsaber began to pick up speed, slicing the air in quick, circular patterns.

She had one final thing to say before she launched herself at him.

"Your time is over, Bane."