Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

Chapter 25

From a distance, Ambria looked beautiful. An orange world with striking violet rings, it was easily the largest habitable planet in the Stenness system. Yet anyone landing on the world would quickly realize that the beauty faded soon after entering the atmosphere.

Many centuries earlier, the failed rituals of a powerful Sith sorceress had inadvertently unleashed a cataclysmic wave of dark side energy across the surface of the world. The sorceress had been destroyed, along with almost all other life on Ambria. What survived was little more than barren rock, and even now plots of fertile ground were few and far between. There were no real cities on Ambria; only a few hardy settlers dwelled on its surface, scattered so far apart they might as well have been living on the planet alone.

The Jedi had once tried to cleanse Ambria of its foul taint, but the power of the dark side had permanently scarred the world. Unable to purify it, they succeeded only in concentrating and confining the dark side in a single source: Lake Natth. The homesteaders brave enough to endure Ambria's desolate environs gave the lake and its poisoned waters a wide, wide berth. Of course Bane had made his camp right on its shores.

Ambria was located on the fringes of the Expansion Region, only a quick hyperspace jump away from Ruusan itself. The evidence of several small battles that had been fought here between Republic and Sith troops during the most recent campaign was everywhere. Fallen weapons and armor littered the stark landscape; burned-out vehicles and damaged swoops were visible from kilometers away on the hard, cold plains. Apart from a few of the local settlers scavenging for parts, nobody had bothered to clean up the remains.

The ringed planet was an insignificant world: too few resources and too few people for the Republic fleets that now controlled the sector to worry about. Bane had heard that a healer of some skill-a man named Caleb-had come to the world once the fighting had ended. An idealistic fool determined to mend the wounds of war; a man not even worthy of Bane's contempt. By now, even that man might have forsaken this world once he'd seen how little salvageable remained here. For all intents and purposes, the world was forgotten.

It was the perfect place to meet Kaan's envoy. A Sith fleet would be quickly detected by the Republic vessels patrolling the region, but a small ship and a skillful pilot could sneak in without any trouble. Bane had no intention of setting up a meeting someplace where Kaan could send an armada to wipe him out.

He waited patiently in his camp for Kaan's emissary to arrive. Occasionally he glanced up at the sky or looked out across the horizon, but he wasn't worried about anyone sneaking up on him. He'd see a ship coming in to land from several kilometers away. And if they came to him in a ground vehicle-like the land crawler sitting on the edge of his camp-he'd hear the grinding of its engines or feel the unmistakable vibrations of its heavy treads as they churned their way over the uneven terrain.

Instead all he heard was the gentle lapping of Lake Natth's dark waters against the shore not five meters from where he sat. And all the while, his mind wrestled with the only question he still had no answer for.

Two there should be; no more, no less. One to embody the power, the other to crave it. Once he had rid the galaxy of the Brotherhood of Darkness, where would he find a worthy apprentice?

The whine of a Buzzard's engines pulled him away from his thoughts. He rose to his feet as the ship dropped from the sky and circled his camp once before touching down a short distance away. When the landing ramp lowered and he saw who came down, he couldn't help but smile.

"Githany," he said, rising to greet her once she had crossed the distance between them. "I was hoping Lord Kaan would send you."

"He didn't send me," she replied. "I asked to come."

Bane's heart began to beat a little quicker. He was glad to see her; her presence awakened a hunger inside him he had almost forgotten existed. Yet he was troubled, too. If anyone could see through his ruse, it was her.

"Did you see the message?" he asked, studying her carefully to gauge her reaction.

"I thought you were over this, Bane. Self-pity and regret are for the weak."

Relieved, he bowed his head to continue his charade. "You're right," he mumbled.

She stepped in closer to him. "You can't fool me, Bane," she whispered, and his muscles tensed in anticipation of what she would do next. "I think you're here for something else."

He held his ground as she leaned in slowly, poised to react at the first hint of threat or danger. He let his guard down only when she brushed her lips softly against his.

Instinctively his hands came up and seized her shoulders, pulling her in closer, pressing her lips and body hard up against his own as he drank her in. She wrapped her arms around his broad shoulders and neck, returning his insistence with her own urgency.

Her heat enveloped them. The kiss seemed to last for all eternity; her scent wrapped around their entwined flesh until he felt he was drowning in it. When she at last broke away he could see the fierce eagerness in her eyes and still taste the sweet fire of her lips. He could taste something else, too.

Poison!

Bedazzled by her kiss, it took him a second to realize what had happened. Whether Githany believed him or not hadn't mattered. She'd asked Kaan to let her come here so she could kill him. For a brief second he was worried . . . until he recognized the faint tricopper taste of rock worrt venom.

He laughed, gasping slightly for air. "Magnificent," he breathed. Secrecy. Guile. Betrayal. Githany may have been corrupted by the Brotherhood's influence, but she still understood what made the dark side strong. Was it possible she could be his one true apprentice, despite her allegiance to the Brotherhood?

She smiled coyly at his compliment. "Through passion we gain strength."

Bane could feel the poison working its way through his system. The effects were subtle. Had his growing strength in the dark side not made his senses hyperaware, he probably wouldn't even have noticed its presence for several hours. Yet once again, Githany had underestimated him.

Rock worrt venom was powerful enough to kill a bantha, but there were far more rare-and lethal-toxins she could have chosen. The dark side flowed through him, thick as the blood in his veins. He was Darth Bane now, a true Dark Lord. He had nothing to fear from her poison.

The fact that she had thought he wouldn't detect it on her lips-the fact that she thought it would even harm him-meant that she must have believed his performance. She suspected he had fallen away from the dark side again; she thought he was weak. He was glad: it made her decision to side with Kaan more forgivable. Maybe there was still hope for her after all. But he had to be sure.

"I'm sorry for abandoning you," he said softly. "I was blinded by dreams of past glory. Naga Sadow, Exar Kun, Darth Revan-I lusted after the power of the great Dark Lords of the past."

"We all crave power," she replied. "That is the nature of the dark side. But there is power in the Brotherhood. Kaan is on the verge of succeeding where all those before him have failed. We are winning on Ruusan, Bane."

Bane shook his head, disappointed. How could she still be so blind? "Kaan may be winning on Ruusan, but his followers are losing everywhere else. His great Sith army has crumbled without its leaders. The Republic has driven them back and reclaimed most of the worlds we conquered. In a few more months the rebellion will be crushed."

"None of that matters if we can wipe out the Jedi," she explained eagerly, her eyes blazing. "The war has taken a heavy toll on the Republic. Once the Jedi are gone, we can easily rally our troops and turn the tide of war. All we have to do is wipe them out, and the ultimate victory will be ours! All we have to do is win on Ruusan!"

"There are other Jedi besides those on Ruusan," he replied.

"A few, but they are scattered in ones and twos across the galaxy. If the Army of Light is destroyed, we can hunt them down at our leisure."

"Do you really believe Kaan will win? He has claimed imminent victory before, then failed to deliver on his promise."

"For one who claims to want to join the Brotherhood," she noted with some suspicion, "you don't seem particularly devoted to the cause."

Bane's arm shot out and grabbed her by the waist, pulling her in close for another savage kiss. She gasped in surprise, then closed her eyes and gave in to the physical pleasure of the moment. This time it was she who finally pulled back with a faint sigh.

"You were right when you said I came back for something else," he said, still holding her close. The treacherous poison on her lips tasted just as sweet the second time.

"The Brotherhood cannot fail," she promised. "The Jedi are on the run, cowering and hiding in the forests."

He let her go and stepped away, turning his back to her. He desperately wanted to believe she was capable of becoming his apprentice once he'd destroyed Kaan and the Brotherhood. But he still wasn't sure. If she truly believed in what the Brotherhood stood for, then there was no hope.

"I just can't accept what Lord Kaan preaches," he confessed. "He says we are all equals, but if all are equal, then none can be strong."

She stepped up behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders, applying gentle pressure until he turned to face her once again. Her expression was one of amusement.

"Do not believe everything Kaan says," she warned, and he could hear the naked ambition in her voice. One to embody the power, the other to crave it. "Once the Jedi are destroyed, many of his followers will discover that some of us are more equal than others."

He swept Githany up in his mighty arms with a joyful roar, spinning her around and around as he gave her another long, hard kiss. This was what he wanted to hear!

When he finally set her down she stumbled back half a step, unsteady after his unexpected outburst. She regained her balance and gave a startled laugh. "I guess you accept," she said with a sly smile on her poison-slicked lips. "You pack up your camp. I'll go ahead to let Kaan know you're coining."

"I can't wait to see the look on his face when you tell him about this meeting," he replied, still pretending he was unaware of the poison raging unchecked through his blood.

"Neither can I," she replied, her voice giving nothing away. "Neither can I."

As the surface of Ambria fell away beneath her and the glorious rings came into view, Githany couldn't help but feel a twinge of regret. The passion she'd awakened in Bane had given him a sudden, surprising strength; she'd felt it in each of his kisses. But it was clear Bane was interested in her, not in joining the Brotherhood of Darkness.

She punched in the coordinates for the jump back to Ruusan and leaned back in her seat. Her head was spinning from the poison that had coated her lips. Not the rock wont venom; that was only there to lull Bane into a false sense of security. But the synox she had mixed in with it-the colorless, odorless, tasteless toxin favored by the infamous assassins of the GenoHaradan-was having an effect despite the antidote she had taken. She had no doubt Bane would soon be feeling much, much worse than she did. A single kiss would have been enough to kill him, and he had received a triple dose.

She was going to miss Bane, she realized. But he was a threat to everything Lord Kaan was working for. She had to side with one or the other, so naturally she had chosen the one with an entire army of Sith at his command.

It was, after all, the nature of the dark side.

Bane watched the Buzzard until it disappeared in the sky before turning his attention to gathering up his camp. He would have to act carefully now. Githany would tell Kaan she'd tried to poison him. When he showed up at the camp still alive things could become . . . difficult.

He could simply stay away and let events run their course. The Jedi on Ruusan would rally, turning the tide of the battle once again. It was a given; Bane was counting on it. Desperate, Kaan would then turn to the gift Bane had sent him. He would unleash the thought bomb, unaware of its true nature. And then every Force-user on Ruusan-Sith and Jedi alike-would be destroyed.

This was the most likely scenario. But Bane had come too far to leave the end of the Brotherhood of Darkness to chance. When Kaan's army faltered this time, there were those in his camp-like Githany-who might turn against him. They could flee Ruusan, scattering before the Jedi. And then Bane would have to deal with each of his rivals separately before he could become the unchallenged leader of the Sith.

Better to be on hand, guiding the events to the outcome he desired. That, however, meant he'd have to come up with a plausible story to explain his desire to join the Brotherhood even after a failed assassination.

He thought about it for nearly an hour, considering and discarding a number of ideas. In the end there was only one reason any of them would believe that he had come back. He had to make them all think he wanted to overthrow Kaan and become the new leader of the Brotherhood.

Bane smiled at the subtle beauty of the plan. Kaan would be suspicious, of course. But all his effort and attention would be focused on holding on to his position. He wouldn't realize his rival's true purpose: to exterminate the Brotherhood completely; to destroy every last Sith on Ruusan.

Plus, there was the added advantage of having another opportunity to convince Githany to join him. Once she understood what he had truly become-and how he had manipulated Kaan and the other so-called Dark Lords-she might actually accept his offer to become his apprentice. At the very least he would get a chance to see her face once she realized her poison had failed to--

"Ungh!" Bane let out a grunt and doubled over as a vicious pain ripped through his stomach. He tried to straighten up, but his body was suddenly racked with a prolonged coughing fit. He raised his hand to cover his mouth, and when he let it fall it was covered in frothy red flecks of blood.

Impossible, he thought, even as another stabbing pain through his guts dropped him to his knees. Revan had shown him how to use the Force to ward off poison and disease. No simple toxin should be able to affect anyone strong enough in the dark side to be a Lord of the Sith.

Another coughing fit paralyzed him until it passed. He reached up to wipe the sweat rolling down his face and felt something warm and sticky on his cheek. A thin trickle of crimson tears was leaking from the corner of his eye.

He rose shakily to his feet, turning his focus inward. The poison was still there. It had spread throughout his entire body, polluting and corrupting his system and damaging his vital organs. He was hemorrhaging internally, bleeding from his eyes and nose.

Githany! He would have laughed if he hadn't been in such unbearable agony. He had been so confident, so arrogant. So convinced she was underestimating him. Instead he had underestimated her. A mistake he vowed never to make again ... if he survived.

He had read enough about synox to recognize the symptoms. If he had detected it immediately, he would have been able to cleanse it from his system, just as he had done with the rock worrt venom that had concealed its presence. But synox was the subtlest of poisons; the insidious toxin had sapped his strength as it had spread unnoticed throughout his body.

Summoning all his resources, he tried to purge the poison from his body, burning it away with the cold fire of the dark side. The poison was too strong ... or rather, he was too weak. The damage was already done. The synox had crippled him, leaving his power a mere shadow of what it had been only hours earlier.

He could dull its effects, slow its progress, and temporarily hold the most lethal symptoms at bay. But he couldn't cure himself. Not now, weakened as he was.

There was power in Lake Natth, but it was power he couldn't draw on. The ancient Jedi had been careful to lock the dark side safely away within its depths. The black, stagnant waters were the only evidence of the power that lay forever trapped beneath its surface.

Desperate to find some other way to survive, he staggered over to the land crawler on the edge of his camp. Ignoring the protests of his suddenly weary limbs, he clambered in behind the wheel and began to drive. He needed a healer. If the one called Caleb was still on this world, Bane had to find him. It was his only chance.

He headed for the nearest battleground, a barren plain several kilometers away where the remains of those who had fought and died still lay strewn about the ground. The rough rumble of the land crawler's treads jarred him with each turn, and he gritted his teeth against the agonizing pain. As he drove, his world became a waking nightmare of darkness and shadow, all tinged with red. He was barely even conscious of where he was going, letting the Force guide him even as he tried to use it to keep his body from succumbing to the effects of Githany's poison.

The fear of death wrapped itself around him, smothering his thoughts. His will began to falter; it would be so easy to just surrender now and let it all end. Just let it all slip away and be at peace .

Snarling, he shook his head, dragging his thoughts back from the brink by repeating the first line of the Sith mantra over and over: Peace is a lie. He reached back into his training as a soldier, taking his fear and transforming it into anger to give him strength.

I am Darth Bane, Dark Lord of the Sith. I will survive. At any cost.

Far ahead-at the very limits of his rapidly fading vision-he saw another vehicle moving slowly across the other side of the battlefield. Settlers. Scavengers, picking through the remains.

He pointed the nose of his land crawler at them, groaning with the effort required to simply turn the wheel. Reaching out with the Force, he tried to touch the spirits of those who had fallen at this site. Only a few months earlier, scores of beings had died here. He tried to drink in what remained of their tortured ends, hoping the agony of their final moments would bolster his own flagging power. But it wasn't enough; their suffering was too distant, the echo of their screams too faint.

Glancing up, he noticed that his vehicle had begun to veer off course, listing hard to one side as his grip on the wheel weakened. His arms were numb and tingling; they had become almost completely unresponsive. He could feel his heart laboring with every beat.

The front tread struck a large rock and the land crawler suddenly turned over, dumping Bane out onto hard dirt and jagged stone. He tried to look up again to locate the people he had seen in the distance, but the effort to raise his head was too much. Exhausted, his world went black.

The heavy whump-whump-whump of a land crawler's treads stirred him back to consciousness. The other vehicle was here. He doubted they would even see him: his body had fallen behind his tipped-over crawler and they had approached from the other side. Even if they did, there was nothing they could do to save him now. Yet there was something he could do to save himself.

The engines cut out and he heard the sound of voices: children's voices. Three young boys scampered down from the back of the land crawler and began to hunt eagerly through the wreckage.

"Mikki!" came the voice of their father, calling after one of his sons. "Don't go too far."

"Look!" one of the boys shouted. "Look what I found!"

The weak must serve the strong. That is the way of the dark side.

"Wow! Is it real? Can I touch it?"

"Let me see, Mikki! Let me see!"

"Settle down, boys," the father said wearily. "Let's take a look."

Bane listened to the crunching of his boots across the small stones as he approached. I am strong. They are weak. They are nothing.

"It's a lightsaber, Father. But there's something weird about the handle. See? It's got a strange hook in it."

He felt the sudden fear that gripped the father's chest like a vise.

Survive. At any cost.

"Throw it away, Mikki! Now!"

Too late.

The lightsaber sprang to life in the boy's hand, spinning in the air and striking him dead on the spot. The father screamed; his brothers tried to run. The blade leapt after the eldest, cutting him down from behind.

Bane, drawing strength from the horror of their deaths, rose to his feet, coming into view like an apparition disgorged from the bowels of the planet.

"Nooo!" the father howled, desperately clutching his youngest son to his chest. "Spare this one, my lord!" he begged, tears streaming down his face. "He's the youngest. The last one I have."

Those weak enough to beg for mercy do not deserve it.

Still too weak to even raise his arms Bane reached out once more with the Force, bringing the lightsaber up to hover over his helpless victims. He waited, letting their horror mount, then plunged the burning blade into the young boy's heart.

The father clutched the corpse to his breast, his tortured laments echoing across the empty battlefield. "Why? Why did you have to kill them?"

Bane feasted on his anguish, gorging himself, feeling the dark side growing stronger in him. The symptoms of the poison receded enough so that he could raise his arm without the muscles trembling. The lightsaber sprang to his hand.

The father cowered before him. "Why did you make me watch? Why did you-"

One quick swipe of the lightsaber cut him off, sending the father to the same tragic fate as his sons.