Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Serra stood as if she was paralyzed, her finger hovering just above the button that would confirm the Stone Prison's self-destruct sequence and initiate the destruction of the facility and everyone in it. She had been standing in this exact position for several minutes, unable to push the button.

Do it! Who cares about Lucia? She betrayed you! Do it!

The princess took a deep breath, then let her hand fall. But instead of hitting CONFIRM, she pressed the key marked CANCEL. There was a soft beep, and the glowing keyboard became dark as it powered down.

She couldn't do it. As much as she didn't want the prisoner to escape, she simply couldn't bring herself to condemn Lucia to death. The older woman had been more than her bodyguard; she had been Serra's confidante and closest friend. Whatever she did, there must have been a reason. And she owed it to her friend to find out what that reason was.

Leaving the small confines of the emergency control room behind her, Serra headed back out into the hall. With the alarms ringing, there was no need to worry about the sound of her footsteps giving away her position. She set off in a brisk jog, making her way back up the long hall toward the cells where the prisoner had been held in search of her friend.

He's looking for you, and he won't need to hear your footsteps to hunt you down. Do you really think you can find Lucia before he finds you?

The princess understood the risk. But she had already lost her husband and her father; she wasn't about to lose her best friend, too. Even if that meant confronting the monster from her nightmares one more time.

Winding her way through the corridors of the complex, she headed back to where the Iktotchi had first told her of Lucia's betrayal. Before she got there, however, she saw a body lying up ahead, crumpled against the wall where the passage bent around a sharp corner.

"No," she whispered under her breath as she broke into a run. "No!"

She recognized Lucia's body long before she crouched down before her. Her arms and legs jutted out at bizarre angles, the bones snapped clean through. These injuries were nothing compared with the trauma that had been inflicted to her face and skull.

As Serra knelt over her friend's corpse she didn't cry any tears, however. Instead of grief, she felt only a strange numbness fall across her mind.

This is your fault. If you hadn't been so set on seeking revenge, if you hadn't brought the prisoner here, none of this would have happened. Lucia would still be alive.

The voice inside her head spoke the truth, but Serra still felt nothing. It was as if her emotions, so damaged by the deaths of Gerran and Caleb, had finally shut down completely.

Then she became aware of a strange high-pitched hum behind the clang of the alarms-not the sound of any lightsaber she had ever heard, and not a sound her ears found comfortable. She rose and walked farther down the hall toward the source of the noise, leaving Lucia's broken body behind her.

As she drew nearer, she began to hear other sounds: grunts of exertion, short exclamations of anger and pain, the heavy thump of feet on the stone floor. She recognized them as the sounds of battle.

No blasters, though.

Reaching the intersection of another corridor, she saw a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye. Turning to the left she saw two figures at the far end of the passage, less than twenty meters away from where she stood. She recognized the prisoner instantly. The second figure she had never seen before, yet she knew who this was.

The blond woman the Huntress spoke of.

They were facing each other, clearly locked in an intense struggle. The prisoner was nearly twice the size of his opponent, but she was clearly the aggressor. The woman was armed with a double-bladed lightsaber, but the prisoner had no weapon as far as Serra could tell. He was backing up warily, his eyes locked on the woman as she approached. She was closing in on him slowly, trying to back him into a corner and cut off his retreat.

Just before she had him pinned, however, a bolt of violet lightning shot forth from his palm. The woman countered by catching the bolt with one of her lightsaber blades. It absorbed the energy, emitting the strange, high-pitched hum Serra had heard earlier.

The two combatants were so focused on each other that neither had noticed Serra. She should have been terrified. She should have turned and fled, running back the way she had come. Yet she felt only the empty calm that had settled over her on discovering Lucia's body.

Without any real sense of urgency, she turned and walked back down the hall to where her friend lay on the floor. Crouching down, she seized the muscular woman by her wrists and began to drag her down the hall, groaning under the strain as she walked backward.

Burdened by the weight, she made her way slowly back to the control room. The muscles in her neck, shoulders, and lower back began to throb almost immediately, but Serra didn't stop. The sensation was muted, as numb and distant as her feelings of grief.

Eventually she reached the control room, but she didn't pause at the self-destruct console. Instead, she dragged Lucia through the door at the back and, with some difficulty, hoisted her into the hold of the small escape shuttle. Then she returned to the keypad and punched in the self-destruct code. This time there was no hesitation before she pushed the CONFIRM button.

The sound of the alarms changed. Instead of the relentless clang-clang-clang warning of an escaped prisoner, it became a long, whooping wail.

Serra knew she had only a few minutes before the first series of explosions would begin, but she couldn't bring herself to leave. Not yet.

Time seemed to stand still as she stood by the console, waiting expectantly, Hours seemed to pass, though in truth it was only a matter of minutes. And then she felt a small tremor beneath her feet:the shock wave from the first detonation in the deepest level of the facility. A few seconds later it was followed by another tremor, and then another after that.

Satisfied, she turned and headed out to the escape shuttle. The destruction of the Stone Prison had begun.

* * *

The Huntress had never faced a more frustrating opponent. Despite the lightsaber in his hand, the man refused to stand and fight. He ducked and ran back and forth between the hulls of the ships, moving from one hiding place to another, always a step ahead of her.

She could have sheathed her vibroblades and drawn the twin blasters tucked inside the folds of her cloak, but she knew it wouldn't do any good. Her adversary was too quick for her to ever get a clear shot, and even if she did he'd probably just slap the bolt away with his lightsaber.

She caught a glimpse of him darting across the aisle between her shuttle and the one parked beside it. She didn't chase him, though: she turned and ran behind her own shuttle, taking a path parallel to his in the hope of cutting him off.

Chewing the ground up with long, effortless strides she raced around the side of the ship, hoping to flank her unsuspecting opponent. Instead she came within a centimeter of being decapitated as his lightsaber came hurtling through the air toward her.

She let herself collapse to the ground, falling awkwardly back and to the side as her legs shot out from under her. The maneuver was ungainly, but it saved her life. The deadly energy blade whistled by her ear, slicing a thumb-sized chunk out of one of her horns before circling back on a tight arc and returning to her opponent's hand.

Ignoring the stinging pain from her horn she scrambled back to her feet, vibroblades ready. But her opponent didn't press his advantage; he disappeared again, vanishing around the nose of the ship.

Her injury wasn't serious; Iktotchi horns contained no vital organs or major arteries. Even if completely severed the wound would not be life threatening, though it would be agonizingly painful. In time the missing chunk would even grow back, leaving no evidence of how close she had come to dying in the hangar.

But she had nearly died. She realized her opponent was cunning; he had wanted her to see him, knowing she'd double around to try and cut him off.

She had underestimated him and he had manipulated her, goading her into a careless mistake. He had set a trap and she had walked right into it. She wouldn't make the same mistake twice.

* * *

Set crouched down behind one of the ships, gasping for breath. To some extent he had been able to resist the Iktotchi's strange ability. He was able to fight through her ability to draw on the Force, but the effort had left him exhausted.

And it still messed you up enough so that she was able to dodge your lightsaber.

The Dark Jedi frowned at the memory of how close he had come to ending this battle, even as he forced himself to get up and get moving again. He couldn't stay in one place for more than a few seconds, not unless he wanted to end up dead. He knew she'd be more careful now; he'd missed his best chance.

The Iktotchi was too quick for him to beat in a straight-up fight:not with her disrupting his connection to the Force and slowing him down. So far he'd managed to avoid a direct confrontation, but he couldn't keep running for much longer. He had a stitch in his side, and his lungs felt like they were going to burst. Unless something happened to change the situation, the outcome was inevitable.

As if in answer to his prayers, there was a sudden change in the sound of the alarms. It only took Set a moment to figure out what had happened, and a new escape plan began to form in his mind.

* * *

The Huntress heard the change in the sound of the alarms, and she knew that they had maybe five minutes before the detonations began, and maybe ten before the entire complex was reduced to rubble.

Her opponent noticed the change as well.

"Hear that?" he called out from somewhere on the other side of the hangar. "This whole place is going to come crashing down around our ears. Why don't we each just hop on one of these shuttles and get out of here before that happens?"

"I still have enough time to find you," she shouted back, slowly heading in the direction of his voice. It sounded like he was near one of the shuttles on the far side of the room. "You're getting tired. Wearing down. You won't last much longer."

"I was afraid you'd say that," he answered as she stepped from behind one of the ships, giving her a clear view of the man she had been chasing.

He was leaning casually against the side of one of the shuttles, near the thrusters at the rear. He glanced toward her but made no attempt to hide. Instead he just stood there, holding his lightsaber casually at his side.

Wary of walking into another trap, the Huntress began a cautious approach. As she took her first step, the silver-haired man pulled his arm back and brought his lightsaber down hard against the shuttle's hull. There was a shower of sparks, and the blade bit a full centimeter into the ship's reinforced exterior plating.

The man pulled his arm back and struck again, hitting precisely the same spot, the glowing blade carving even deeper this time. It was only on the third blow that the Huntress realized what he was doing.

The third chop brought the lightsaber deep enough to sever one of the shuttle's fuel lines. Her opponent flung himself backward and she threw herself to the floor as a stray spark ignited the flammable liquid. Hundreds of tiny metal shards that had once been a fuel cell were sent hurtling through the air. The shuttle bucked once, its tail leaping a full meter off the ground from the force of the blast. A thick cloud of greasy black smoke curled up from the gash the lightsaber had left in the hull.

"Amazing weapons, aren't they?" the man noted as she picked herself up from the ground. "Cut through almost anything."

His face was cut and scraped from flying debris, but somehow-probably through shielding himself with the Force-he had managed to avoid the worst of the explosion. Before she could reply, he had ducked around the corner of the shuttle, disappearing from sight once again.

A few seconds later she heard the unmistakable sound of the lightsaber shearing through metal yet again from the far side of the hangar.

She broke into a run, heading in the direction of the noise. She was only halfway there when another explosion knocked her to the ground. When she got back to her feet she saw that a second shuttle had been disabled.

Knowing his next target, she turned and ran toward the Stalker. She pulled up short when she came around a corner and saw her opponent standing beside her shuttle, his hand moving gently along the hull.

"What are you doing?" the Huntress shouted.

"All I want is to get out of here alive," he explained. "But for some reason you seem intent on killing me."

"You took the first swing at me," she reminded him. "When I caught you about to steal my ship."

"A simple misunderstanding," he said, waving his hand to dismiss her accusations. "There are two shuttles left. You take yours and leave the other one for me, and we never have to see each other again."

"What if I say no?"

"Then I destroy your shuttle and we see if you can stop me before I get to the last one. My guess is you can't, and then we're both stuck here when these walls come crashing down."

"You're a coward," the assassin shot back. "You wouldn't even stand and fight me. Now you expect me to believe you'd sacrifice yourself to trap us both here?"

"I'm a realist," the man explained. "If we fight, I'm dead. If I trap us here, I'm dead. Either way the outcome is the same:but if I destroy the shuttles, then at least I take you with me."

She didn't answer right away. It was possible he was telling the truth: people did desperate things when cornered.

Her thoughts seized on the hooked handle in her belt; he wasn't the only one armed with a lightsaber. She briefly considered trying to use the weapon she'd taken from the Sith Lord's mansion to block the attack if he tried to damage her shuttle, then dismissed the idea. She had no training or experience; she'd never even held a lightsaber until a few days ago. Even if she did, by the time she crossed the distance between them the damage could have been done.

Next, she tried to calculate her odds of getting to the last remaining shuttle before her enemy could disable it. She might be able to beat him there, but as soon as she climbed inside the cockpit he'd be able to run up and wreak havoc on the engines.

Finally, she weighed the possibility that he wouldn't actually go through with his threat. Even when faced with a hopeless situation, few people would have the strength of will to destroy their only chance of escape. There was a very good chance he was bluffing.

But even if he was, what did she gain by calling his bluff?

She didn't know anything about this man: who he was, how he got here, or why he had shown up in the first place. What did she really accomplish by killing him? And what did she lose by letting him go?

The only reason she hadn't left yet was the belief that this was where she would find her destiny. Whether this man lived or died was of no consequence compared with that.

A deep thrumming boom rolled through the cavern. The silver-haired man swayed slightly on his feet.

"We're running out of time," he warned, cocking his arm back and taking aim.

"We have a deal!" she shouted.

"Stay where I can see you," the man warned, backing away from her carefully.

Keeping his eye on her, he scooted over to the other shuttle. He disappeared around the far side of the vessel. She heard him fumbling with the access panel as he sliced the security systems, followed by the unmistakable whoosh of the boarding ramp descending. A few seconds later he reappeared, visible in the cockpit viewport.

The Huntress simply watched, knowing there was nothing she could do. Unlike a lightsaber, neither her vibroblades nor her blasters were capable of inflicting any serious damage on the hull of a shuttle. She momentarily considered drawing the lightsaber and mimicking the trick he had used against her, but even if she was able to damage his vessel, it just meant he would still be here, and she'd have to find some way to get to her own ship before he returned the favor.

The shuttle engines roared to life as it rose up and turned to face the exit, hovering for an instant just below the chamber's high ceiling. She could clearly see the Doan royal crest on the side, as well as the silver-haired man inside the cockpit. He waved to her and flashed a self-satisfied smile, and then the thrusters kicked in and the ship swooped away, flying out of the hangar and disappearing into the night sky.

For the first time in the Huntress's life, someone she had wanted to kill had gotten away. Yet it would be a small price to pay if she managed to find what she was truly looking for.