Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Zannah wasn't used to being the aggressor. In all the times she and Bane had sparred he had been the one pressing the action. Her lightsaber style was built on a foundation of parries and counterstrikes, hiding behind her virtually impenetrable defense while waiting for her opponent to make a mistake.

This confrontation was completely different. Yet even though Bane had no lightsaber, that didn't mean he was helpless. Zannah knew she couldn't simply rush in: despite his bulk, Bane was incredibly quick and agile. He had also learned close-quarters pit-fighting tactics during his days as a miner and soldier. She had to be wary of letting him get close enough to grapple her; she couldn't let him get the opportunity to use his size and strength against her.

There was also his incredible command of the Force to contend with. Simple tactics like pushing an opponent from across the room were impractical against any foe with proper training. Both she and Bane knew how to surround themselves with an invisible field of energy that absorbed or repelled the most basic tricks taught to any Jedi or Sith. But Bane could unleash devastating bolts of dark side lightning from his hands almost at will.

As long as she was careful, she was able to avoid them or intercept them with her lightsaber. This caution, however, allowed her Master to keep her off balance just enough to stay alive.

The pair were entwined in an intricate dance. She swept in low, spinning and twirling her lightsaber. He leapt up high, planting his feet on the wall at his side and pushing off hard, sending himself into a tumbling roll just beyond the reach of her blade's arc.

Back on his feet, he sprang backward as Zannah stabbed her blade straight forward, keeping just out of range. She pursued him down the length of the hall, jabbing and thrusting her weapon and sending the Dark Lord into a full retreat. Bane fought back with short, concentrated bursts of lightning, aiming at her boots to disrupt her footwork and keep her off balance.

Zannah took quick stuttering steps to avoid the attack and keep him from gaining a reprieve. Bane feinted as if he was going to fall back to the right, then lunged forward, flipping over her head and reaching down with a huge hand to seize her wrist.

She ducked out of the way, lashing out with a kick as he landed behind her. Bane spun, grabbed her ankle, and wrenched the boot to the side, trying to snap the bone. Zannah rolled with the violent motion, her entire body spinning along a horizontal plane. At the same time she brought her lightsaber back up over her shoulder to slice Bane's arm off at the elbow, but caught only air as he released his hold and fell back once more.

She had him cornered against the wall with nowhere to go. As she moved in for the kill another burst of lightning came toward her. She caught it with her lightsaber, but the impact drove her backward a step, giving Bane just enough room to duck down beneath her coup de grace and scramble clear of the wall. They had switched positions, each facing the opposite way as they began the dance yet again. The ebb and flow of their battle fell into a rhythm of feints and counters, their dance keeping time to the clanging alarms as she forced him back up the hall she had chased him down only moments before.

Zannah suspected if their positions were reversed, Bane might have ended the confrontation already. Yet she knew her victory was inevitable. Her Master was in an impossible situation. He needed to do everything exactly right just to keep her at bay for another pass. He had no margin for error, and even the Dark Lord of the Sith couldn't sustain perfection forever. The only way she could lose would be to make a careless mistake.

The best Bane could hope for was to try to frustrate her with his elusiveness. But Zannah understood patience. She had waited twenty years for this moment, and she was content to play their battle out as long as necessary.

They reached the end of the hall, and Zannah thought she had Bane trapped. This time she used her lightsaber to slap aside the violet bolts of lightning rather than trying to absorb them and stumbling back. Bane still had one more trick up his sleeve, however.

She was less than a meter away, her blade already slashing in for the killing blow, when she felt all the hair on the back of her neck rise. A shimmering purple cocoon of dark side energy enveloped Bane, a fragile shell holding back a storm of pure power.

She tried to pull back but it was too late. As her blade bit into the cocoon the energy was released in a sudden burst that sent both of them flying backward. Bane slammed hard into the wall against his back and crumpled to the ground. Zannah was tossed ten meters farther, landing hard on the stone floor.

They rose to their feet at the same time, neither seriously injured. But yet again Bane had managed to thwart her attack and work himself out of a corner.

Zannah merely shrugged and began another slow, relentless advance. She paused for a moment when the sound of the alarms changed.

She knew almost instantly what had happened. They had only a few minutes to escape before the explosions buried them alive.

There were two options: break off the battle and run for the ship, or throw caution to the wind and take one last reckless charge at her Master. She couldn't let Bane get away. She had to end this now!

As she gathered herself to charge, Bane fired off another bolt of lightning. She ducked to the side and it whizzed past her ear, striking the wall and sending up a shower of dust and stone flecks.

Despite missing her the first time, Bane followed it up with another blast on the exact same trajectory. Turning her head to follow the course of the misguided bolt, Zannah saw where the first had hit the wall. The stone had been disintegrated in a fist-sized hole, revealing something that looked like bright red plastic beneath it.

She recognized it as the casing of a demolition charge just in time to throw herself backward, using the Force to shield herself from the worst of the explosion. She was thrown clear as the entire wall blew out, sending huge chunks of stone spewing into the passage. The ceiling was shredded, tearing loose massive blocks that tumbled to the ground.

Choking on the cloud of dust and smoke, Zannah picked herself up. The passage in front of her was completely blocked by rubble and debris from the blast. She could feel Bane on the other side of the rocks; he had survived the blast, just as she had. But now they were separated by tons of impassable stone.

She walked slowly over to the collapsed section of the hallway and placed a hand on the edge of one of the massive stones blocking her way. Even using the Force, it would take hours to clear a path. There was no way to deny the truth: she had him, and she had let him get away.

The vibrations of another explosion, this one far away in some deep chamber of the dungeon, rumbled up through the floor, reminding her she was out of time. Cursing her missed opportunity, she turned and ran back the way she had come, racing for her ship.

Overhead, the evacuation alarms continued to wail.

* * *

Bane had hoped his apprentice would be caught off guard by his unexpected tactic. There was a small chance she would actually be killed by the explosion, buried under the collapsing rock. But as he picked himself up in the aftermath, he could sense she was still alive. Despite the fact she had been trying to kill him, the knowledge brought him a small measure of satisfaction. He had trained her well.

The primary goal of the explosion hadn't been to kill her, anyway. The desperate ploy was actually Bane's last chance to escape a battle he knew he couldn't win. In that he had been successful:though if he wanted to survive he still had to find a way out of the prison before the whole place came crashing down.

He had no real sense of where he was in the labyrinthine dungeon. Before Zannah found him, he had been following Caleb's daughter, letting the Force guide him with no real conscious thought as to the path he was taking.

Reaching out with his mind, he sensed that the princess was gone now. But Bane had slaughtered more than a dozen guards during his escape; they had to have shuttles somewhere in the facility. And even if he didn't know where to find them, he knew he could trust in the Force.

He broke into a run, darting left and right down passages as they opened up without any thought or hesitation, doing his best to ignore the incessant howls of the evacuation alarms.

Throughout his life, even before he had known who and what he was, he had been guided by the Force. During his military career he had led a charmed life, somehow leading the Gloom Walkers virtually unscathed through some of the war's bloodiest campaigns. He had simply considered himself lucky, or blessed with good instincts.

He skidded around a corner, his boots losing traction for a second. At the same time, he felt the shock wave of a massive explosion rippling up from chambers somewhere far below. He fought for his balance and managed to keep his feet, accelerating down the next hall.

It was impossible to tell if he was going in the right direction; the unadorned stone walls looked the same in every passage. He felt the reverberations of a second distant explosion, reminding him that he was running out of time. Yet the slope of the corridor was leading him upward, which encouraged him.

It was only after he had began his training at the Sith Academy on Korriban that he realized his incredible run of fortune had actually been a manifestation of the Force. Even before he was aware of its power it had acted through him, shaping the events of his life by guiding and directing his choices and actions.

Learning to harness that power-to take control of his destiny, rather than to let it keep controlling him-had allowed him to ascend to his current position. The Force had become a tool; its power was his to command and bend to his will.

But here, only minutes away from complete annihilation, Bane allowed himself to revert to the ways of his youth. Focusing on trying to find a way out would require effort and concentration that would only slow him down. He couldn't think and plan; he had to react and hope.

He wheeled around another corner, sprinted down a short hall, and charged out onto a steel balcony overlooking a massive, high-roofed chamber. He arrived just in time to see a shuttle with the Doan royal crest rising up and flying away. For an instant he thought the princess might be on board. However, when he reached out he felt a very different presence piloting the craft:someone with a powerful connection to the dark side. Bane couldn't allow his attention to be drawn by the mysterious individual escaping in the shuttle, however: he had a far more pressing problem.

From his vantage point atop the balcony he could clearly see the Iktotchi who had led the ambush against him back at his mansion. She was dressed in the same black cloak, and she was standing beside a black-and-red shuttle.

She had been looking at the escaping vehicle, but as it sped away she turned to face Bane. Seeing him, an expression of satisfaction flickered across her features.

"I have been waiting for you!" she called out to him.

The last time they had fought she had bested him; this time he was unarmed and drained from his battle with Zannah. Yet he was still confident he could defeat her. Without the advantage of surprise and twenty mercenaries backing her up, she was no match for him one-on-one. And if she cut him with her poisoned blades again, he'd be ready to burn away the toxin before it overwhelmed his system.

Bane grabbed the railing of the balcony and pulled himself over, ignoring the tremor caused by another explosion from inside the facility.

His feet were already moving as he hit the floor below, driving him toward his foe. To his surprise, the Iktotchi didn't retreat as he bore down on her. She didn't even draw her weapons. Instead, she dropped to one knee and bowed her head, holding her hands out palms up as if presenting him with an offering.

The unexpected reaction caused him to pull up short a few meters from her. At this distance he could clearly see she was holding the hooked handle of his missing lightsaber and what appeared to be his own Holocron in her hands.

"A gift, my lord," she said, tilting her head to look up at him.

"You tried to kill me," Bane said warily, not taking his eyes off her.

"I was hired to capture you," she corrected. "It was just a job. Now that job is finished."

Reaching out, Bane took the hilt from her hand. His fingers slipped around the familiar curved grip, and he ignited the blade.

The Iktotchi rose to her feet but showed no fear.

"Why are you still here?" Bane asked.

"I knew you had broken free," she explained. "I hoped you might come here during your escape."

"You had a premonition I would find you?" Bane was aware the Iktotchi were supposed to have precognitive abilities, but he had only the vaguest idea of how powerful or accurate their visions might be.

"Night after night I have seen you in my visions," she answered. "Our destinies are intertwined."

"What if your destiny is to die at my hand?" he asked, raising up his blade.

"Neither of us is fated to die in this place, my lord."

As if in opposition to her words, another explosion from inside the facility rocked the chamber.

"What do you want from me?"

"Let me study under you," she implored, seemingly oblivious to the rapidly mounting danger from the collapsing prison. "Instruct me in the dark side. Teach me the ways of the Sith."

"Do you realize what you are asking?" Bane demanded.

"My existence has no meaning," the Iktotchi explained. "You can give my life purpose. You can guide me to my destiny."

"What can you offer me in return?"

"Loyalty. Devotion. A shuttle to escape this prison before it collapses. And Caleb's daughter."

The next explosion was close enough that they could actually hear it echoing from down the hall.

"I accept," Bane said, extinguishing his lightsaber after a moment's consideration.

Less than a minute later they were aboard the Iktotchi's shuttle, leaving the Stone Prison and the final, violent throes of its destruction behind them.

* * *

Zannah was retracing her steps, following the long route back through the dungeon and up to the small hangar where she hoped Set and her shuttle would still be waiting for her. Her entire body was infused with the Force, her legs propelling her along so fast the wind caused her hair to stream out behind her.

As she ran she could feel the tremors rising up from deep within the dungeon, each blast a little nearer than the one before it. The explosion Bane had caused had been a single charge set off by his crackling bolt of lightning. These explosions were far more powerful: eight or ten charges in close proximity all detonating at the same time, collapsing not a small stretch of corridor but rather an entire section of the facility.

By the time she crossed from the lit halls of the reopened areas of the dungeon into the darkened passages of the unused wing where she had first come in, the explosions were close enough for her to hear them as well as feel the vibrations through the floor. They were coming more frequently now, too. Instead of every ten seconds, they pounded out in a steady rhythm.

She plunged into the blackness, not even bothering with a glow stick. Her breath was ragged and irregular, but her stride never faltered. Every muscle and nerve in her body was tingling with the power of the Force, her senses heightened to supernatural levels. She didn't need to see to find her way: like a bat she could hear the alarms echoing off the walls, floor, and ceiling, painting a sonar image of her surroundings. The rumbling boom-boom-boom of the charges rang out in counterpoint to the wail of the alarms.

When she burst into the hangar where her shuttle waited, she was surprised by two things. The first was how bright the lights from her shuttle seemed after the total darkness of the subterranean passages she had been racing through. The second was that Set Harth was missing.

She'd always suspected he might cut and run, but she couldn't think of a reason Set would disappear but still leave her shuttle behind. She didn't have time to worry about it now, however. She heard the roar of another explosion, this one so close it actually made the walls of the hangar shake.

Jumping into the shuttle she fired it up as another detonation caused the entire vessel to rock back and forth on its struts. Fighting not to be thrown from the pilot's chair, Zannah pulled back on the stick and the ship rose up off the ground. Banking sharply, she turned it toward the entrance and jammed her fist down on the thrusters.

The Victory sprang forward, hurtling through the cavern's mouth as the final explosion set off the charges built into the hangar walls, collapsing the entire structure behind her.

Safely away, Zannah punched in a trajectory and activated the autopilot, letting the ship skim across Doan's surface as she tried to catch her breath. The mad dash to freedom had left her both mentally and physically exhausted. Her body was covered in sweat, and the muscles of her thighs and calves were quivering as she slumped in her seat, threatening to cramp up at any second.

She had survived, but she could hardly call the mission a success. She had let Bane slip through her fingers, and she had no doubt her Master had found a way to escape the Stone Prison's destruction just as she had. On top of that, she had lost her apprentice.

She didn't know if Set had escaped or if he had perished in the blast, and she had no easy way to find out. The connection she had forged with Bane over twenty years was strong enough to stretch across the breadth of the galaxy: she would feel his death no matter where or when it happened. Set had only been her apprentice for a few days. She would sense him if he was in close proximity, as she would any individual who possessed a powerful affinity for the Force, but there was no special bond between them.

But Set was the least of her problems. Bane was still out there, and as soon as he found another lightsaber he'd come looking for her:unless she found him first.

The problem was, Zannah had no idea where to begin her search.