Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Zannah expected Bane to come at her aggressively, but even so she was caught off guard by the ferociousness of his attack.

He opened with a series of two-handed overhead chops, using his great height to bring his blade hacking down at her from above. She easily blocked each blow, but the momentum of the crushing impact caused her to stagger back, throwing her off balance.

She recovered quickly, however, spinning out of the way when he followed up with a low, looping swipe meant to hew her off at the knees. She retaliated with a quick jab with the tip of one of her blades toward Bane's face, but he ducked his head to the side and came back with a wide-arcing, single-handed slash at chest level.

Zannah intercepted his blade with one of her own, angling her weapon so that the momentum of Bane's attack was redirected downward, sending the tip of his lightsaber into the dirt. This should have exposed him to a counterthrust, but he was already reacting to her move, driving his entire body forward into Zannah's before she could bring her weapon up.

His weight slammed into her, knocking her back as Bane snapped his neck forward. Zannah threw her head back just in time, and the head-butt that would have smashed her face glanced off her chin instead.

Scrambling to stay on her feet, Zannah raised her weapon back up, spinning the handle so that the twirling blades formed a defensive wall that repelled Bane's next half a dozen blows.

During her years under Bane, they had sparred hundreds of times. During these sessions she had always known he was keeping something in reserve for the day they would inevitably fight for real. Only now did she realize just how much he had been holding back.

He was faster than she could ever have imagined, and he was using new sequences and unfamiliar moves he had never revealed during their practice sessions. But somehow she had survived the initial flurry, and now she knew what to expect.

The next exchange had a more familiar feel. Bane pressed the action with a devastating, complex combination of attacks, but Zannah was able to intercept, parry, or deflect each one. Her defensive style was simple, but performed correctly it was nearly impenetrable.

Recognizing this, Bane backed off and changed tactics. Instead of a savage, relentless pressure meant to overwhelm her, he settled into a pattern of feints and quick thrusts, probing and prodding her defenses in search of a weakness as the two of them settled in for a long battle of attrition.

Zannah had fought him once before, back when he was still encased in his orbalisk armor. She remembered it had been like battling a force of nature: the chitinous parasites covering his entire body had been impervious to lightsaber attacks, allowing him to attack with pure animal rage. She had survived that encounter only by convincing Bane she hadn't betrayed him, and in the end he had let her live.

His style back then had been brutish and simple, though undeniably effective. Now, however, his technique was more advanced. Unable to simply bully his way heedlessly forward, he had developed an unpredictable, seemingly random style. Each time she thought she could anticipate where the next attack was coming from, he changed tactics, disrupting the rhythm of the battle and causing her to give ground.

She was being driven back in a slow retreat, and she realized he was herding her toward the shuttles, hoping to pin her against the metal hull with no place to go. Zannah was content to play along, taking quick, careful steps backward over the soft, sandy terrain as she began to gather her power.

The key was subtlety. She couldn't let Bane sense what she was doing or he would launch into another wild flurry of attacks, forcing her to focus all her energy on keeping him at bay. She had to give him the illusion he was controlling the action, when in fact she was only a few seconds away from unleashing a burst of dark side sorcery that would rip his mind apart.

Bane circled wide trying to come in on her left flank. Zannah simply altered the angle of her retreat, taking several more steps backward to keep him at a safe distance as she swatted away a few token slashes and strikes.

With her attention split between the enemy in front of her and the Sith spell she was preparing to cast Zannah didn't notice how close she was to the freshly dug graves. Her heel caught on the uneven ground as she backed up, throwing her off balance as she fell awkwardly to the ground and landed on her back.

Bane was on her in an instant, his lightsaber slashing viciously, his heavy boots kicking and stomping at her prone body. Zannah thrashed and twisted on the ground, her lightsaber flailing desperately to parry Bane's blade. She felt a sharp crack as the toe of his boot caught her in the ribs, but she rolled with the impact and managed to end up back on her feet.

Her vision was blurred with stars, pain shooting through her left side with each gasp as she tried to catch her breath. Bane didn't let up, coming at her with a frenetic assault. The next few seconds were a blur as Zannah relied purely on instincts honed over twenty years to parry the wave of blows, miraculously keeping him from landing a lethal strike.

Zannah threw herself into a back handspring, flipping head over heels three times in quick succession just to put some space between her and Bane. Before the fourth one she suddenly stopped and went into a crouch, thrusting forward with her lightsaber like a spear to impale her opponent as he charged after her in pursuit:only Bane wasn't there.

Anticipating her move, he had stopped several meters away.

Gritting her teeth against the pain from her broken rib, Zannah rose to her feet. Bane hadn't killed her, but her survival had come with significant cost. She was tired now, the desperate scramble to escape after tripping on the grave had pushed her one step closer to physical exhaustion. She felt the broken rib with each ragged breath, and she sensed that the injury would make it harder for her to pivot and turn, limiting the effectiveness of her defensive maneuvers.

She couldn't wait any longer. She'd wanted to surprise Bane, slowly gather her strength before unleashing it so he wouldn't be able to properly defend against it. But she knew she wouldn't survive another clash of lightsabers.

Opening herself up to the power of the dark side, Zannah reached out and touched the mind of her Master.

* * *

Bane sensed the attack, bracing himself.

He had encouraged Zannah's training in Sith sorcery, knowing she might very well use it against him one day. If it turned out he wasn't strong enough to survive, then he wasn't worthy of being the Dark Lord of the Sith.

That didn't mean he was unprepared, however. Dark side sorcery was complex; it attacked the psyche in ways that were difficult to explain and even more difficult to defend against. Bane had no talent for it, yet he had done his best to study the techniques. What he learned was that the only real counter was the victim's strength of will.

Zannah's assault began as a sharp pain in his skull, like a hot knife stabbing directly into his brain before carving down to slice the two hemispheres in half. Then the knife exploded, sending a million burning shards in every direction. Each one burrowed into his subconscious, seeking out buried fears and nightmares only to rip them free and haul them to the surface.

Bane let out a scream and dropped to his knees. When he stood up the sky was thick with a swarm of flying horrors. Their wings were torn and ragged, leather flaps of skin hanging from exposed bone. Their bodies were small and malformed, their twisted legs ending in long, sharp talons. Their flesh was a sickly yellow: the same color as the faces of the miners who had died on Apatros after being trapped in a gas-filled chamber.

Their features were inhuman, but their burning eyes were unmistakable: each creature was staring at him with the hate-filled gaze of his abusive father. As one, they swooped down on him, their mouths screeching out a cry that sounded like his father's name: hurst, hurst, hurst!

Swinging his lightsaber wildly at the demon flock, Bane crouched low to the ground, his free hand coming up to cover his face and ward off the talons clawing at his eyes. As the swarm enveloped him, he caught a glimpse of Zannah standing a few meters away, her face frozen in a mask of intense concentration.

Bane knew it was a trick; the beasts weren't real. They were just figments of his imagination born from the repressed memories of his childhood, his greatest fears manifested in physical form. But he had conquered these fears long ago. He had turned his fear of his abusive father into anger and hate-the tools that had given him the strength to endure and eventually escape his life on Apatros.

He knew how to defeat these demons, and he struck back. Unleashing a primal scream, he channeled his terror into pure rage and lashed out with the dark side. It tore through the swarm in a burst of searing violet light, utterly obliterating them.

* * *

Zannah watched as Bane huddled against the ground, his lightsaber flailing wildly at invisible ghosts, but she didn't let her concentration falter. Bane's mind was strong; if she let up even for an instant he might break free of the spell.

For a second she thought she had won as Bane let out a shriek, but the burst of energy that followed sent her reeling backward.

Regaining her balance she saw that Bane was on his feet again, and she knew he had resisted the spell. But she still had one more surprise for her Master.

Again she opened herself up to the dark side. This time, however, she didn't attack Bane directly. Instead, she let it flow through her, drawing it from the soil and stone of Ambria itself. She called to power buried for centuries, summoning it up to the surface in wispy tendrils of dark smoke snaking up from the sand.

The thin tendrils crawled along the ground, reaching for one another, twining themselves together into writhing tentacles each several meters long.

Then, in response to her unspoken command, the tentacles rose up and lashed out at her foe.

* * *

Bane saw the strange black mist crawling across the dirt and knew this was no illusion. Somehow Zannah had given substance and corporeality to the dark side, transforming it into half a dozen shadowy, serpent-like minions rising up from the ground.

Suddenly the tendrils flew at him. He slashed out with his lightsaber to chop the closest one in half, but the blade simply passed through the black mist with no effect. Bane threw himself to the side, but the tip of the tentacle still brushed against his left shoulder.

The material of his clothes melted away as if it had been splashed with acid. A chunk of flesh beneath simply dissolved, and Bane screamed in agony.

Once, orbalisks had fused themselves to his body with a burning chemical compound so intense it had nearly driven him mad. Ten years ago they had been removed when Bane's flesh had been literally cooked by a concentrated blast of his own violet lightning. During her interrogation, Serra had pumped him full of a drug that had felt like it was eating him alive from the inside. But the excruciating pain he felt from the mere touch of the dark side tendril was unlike anything Bane had ever experienced before.

The damage was far from life threatening, but it nearly sent Bane into shock. He fell hard to the ground, his jaw slack and his eyes rolling back into his head. His mind was reeling from the brief contact. The pain radiated through every nerve in his body, but what he felt went far beyond any mere physical sensation. It was not the raw heat of the dark side but rather the empty chill of the void itself spreading through him. It touched every synapse in his mind, it clawed at the core of his spirit. In that instant he tasted utter annihilation, and felt the true horror of absolute nothingness.

Somehow he managed to stay conscious, and when the next tentacle coiled in he was able to scramble to his feet and roll out of the way.

His wounded shoulder was still throbbing, but the hollow darkness that had threatened to overwhelm him had faded, allowing him to ignore the pain.

The tendrils were massing for another assault, moving faster as Zannah fed them with a steady stream of power. Bane unleashed violet lightning from his fingers, but when the bolts struck the sinewy black forms they were absorbed with no apparent effect. They were made of pure dark side energy, and there was no way he could harm them.

That left him with only one option-kill Zannah before the tentacles killed him.

He unleashed another lightning blast at his apprentice. She caught the incoming bolts with her lightsaber, rendering them harmless. But her reactions were a fraction slower than normal, and Bane knew it was more than just her injured ribs. The effort to keep the tendrils animated was pushing Zannah's ability to draw on the Force to its limits, leaving her vulnerable in other areas.

Lightsaber in hand, Bane charged toward her. The tendrils flew to intercept him, but Bane ducked, jumped, and dodged, weaving his way under, over, and around them as he bore down on Zannah.

She brought her lightsaber up to defend against his attack, but without the full power of the Force behind them her movements were awkward and clumsy. She parried the blow, but didn't react fast enough as Bane dropped down and took her feet out from under her with a sweep of his leg. As she fell he twisted the handle of his lightsaber so that his blade caught one of hers, wrenching the hilt from her grasp and sending her weapon flying across the camp.

With his foe unarmed and helpless at his feet Bane brought his arm down for the coup de grace, only to have it intercepted mid-swing by one of the dark side tendrils. It wrapped itself around the elbow. Skin, muscle, sinew and bone dissolved instantaneously, severing the limb.

His disembodied forearm and fist tumbled harmlessly to the ground, his lightsaber flicking off as the hilt slid from his suddenly nerveless fingers. The Dark Lord didn't scream this time; the pain was so intense it left him mute as he collapsed to the ground.

Everything went black. Blind and alone, he felt the void closing in. In desperation he reached out with his left hand, clutching Zannah's wrist as she lay on the ground beside him. With his last act, he summoned all his remaining power and invoked the ritual of essence transfer.

Working at the speed of thought, his mind tapped into the currents of the Force, seizing on the power of the dark side, spinning, shaping, and twisting it into the intricate patterns he had ripped from Andeddu's Holocron.

The cold darkness swallowing him up vanished, replaced by a searing burst of crimson light as the power of the ritual was unleashed. Bane was aware of his flesh being utterly consumed by the unimaginable heat, reduced to ashes in a thousandth of a second. But he was no longer a part of his own body. His spirit had discarded it like an old shell in favor of a new one.

Bane was suddenly fully aware of his physical surroundings. He could see with Zannah's eyes, he could hear with her ears. He could feel the intense heat of the ritual's crimson glow through her skin. But Zannah was still there, too. She sensed his assault; he could feel her terror and confusion as if they were his own. And when she screamed in horror he screamed with her.

The black tendrils vanished as her concentration was shattered, disappearing like smoke on the wind. Instinctively, she fought to repel the invader. Bane could feel her pushing him away, rejecting him, trying to drive him out even as he relentlessly tried to force his way in and snuff out her existence.

It became a battle of wills, their two identities locked together inside Zannah's mind, grappling for possession of her body. They teetered on the precipice of the void, Bane seeking to obliterate all trace of her identity while she sought to cast him down into the blackness.

For a moment they seemed to be evenly matched, neither gaining nor giving ground. And then suddenly it was over.