Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

Chapter 31

The scene that greeted General Hoth as his army came upon the battlefield was as unexpected as it was welcome. He had braced himself for a vision of grim and bloody slaughter, fierce combat with neither side giving nor asking quarter. He had imagined the corpses of the dead would be strewn about, trampled beneath the feet of those still fighting desperately to hang on to their lives. He had come expecting to see a war.

Instead he was witness to something so unbelievable his initial reaction was one of suspicion. Was it a trick? A trap? His fears were quickly allayed when he recognized the familiar and smiling faces of other Jedi all around him.

As he surveyed the aftermath of the last battle of Ruusan, his own face broke into a smile. There were only a handful of dead, and from their dress it was clear that few of them had served in the Army of Light. Most of the enemy had been taken prisoner: they were sitting calmly on the ground in large groups, surrounded by armed Jedi. Yet even though the Jedi were keeping close watch on their captured foes, they were laughing and joking with one another.

He reached out with the Force, and he felt wave after wave of relief and joy washing out from Farfalla's troops. The soldiers under his command were quick to feel it, too. Seeing the obvious victory, they broke ranks and ran cheering and laughing down to join their fellows in celebration. Hoth resisted the urge to shout out a command to regroup and simply let them go.

The endless war was over!

But as he walked through the milling throngs, accepting the salutes and congratulations of his followers, he realized something was wrong. The battlefield was full of placid, unarmed Sith ... but he saw not a single Dark Lord among their numbers.

The sight of Master Farfalla running at full speed toward him from the far side of the field did little to soothe his unease.

"General," Farfalla said, sliding to a stop and gasping for breath. He snapped off a quick salute. The lack of his typical over-the-top bow further fueled Hoth's mounting concern.

"I must have taken longer to assemble my forces than I thought," the general joked, hoping his disquiet was simply misplaced paranoia. "It seems you've already won the war."

Farfalla shook his head. "The war isn't over. Not yet. Kaan and the Brotherhood-the true Sith-have taken refuge in the caves. They're going to unleash some kind of Sith weapon. Something called a thought bomb."

A thought bomb? Hoth had heard mention of such a weapon long ago, studying at the feet of his Master back at the Jedi Temple on Coruscant. According to legendary accounts, the ancient Sith had the ability to forge the dark side into a concentrated sphere of power and then unleash its energy in a single, devastating blast. All those sensitive to the Force-Sith and Jedi alike-would be consumed by the explosion, their spirits trapped in the great vacuum created at the epicenter of the detonation.

"Is Kaan mad?" he said aloud, though the very question was answer enough.

"We have to evacuate, General," Farfalla insisted. "Get everyone away as fast as possible."

"No," Hoth answered. "That won't work. If we retreat, Kaan and the Brotherhood will escape. It won't take them long to rally support and begin this war all over again."

"But what about the thought bomb?" Valenthyne demanded.

"If Kaan has such a weapon," the general explained grimly, "then he will use it. If not here, then somewhere else. Maybe in the Core Worlds. Maybe on Coruscant itself. I can't allow that.

"Kaan wants to witness my death. I have to go into the cave to face him. I have to force him to detonate the bomb here on Ruusan. It's the only way to truly end this."

Farfalla dropped to one knee. "Then I will go by your side, General. As will all who follow me."

Reaching out with his strong, weathered hands, General Hoth took Farfalla by the shoulders and hauled him to his feet. "No, my friend," he said with a sigh, "you cannot walk this journey with me."

When the other started to protest he held up a hand for silence and continued. "When Kaan unleashes his weapon, all within that cave will die. The Sith will be wiped out, but I won't let that happen to our entire order. The galaxy will have need of Jedi to rebuild once this war is over. You and the other Masters must live so that you may guide them and defend the Republic as we have done since its foundation."

There was no real argument against the wisdom of his words, and after a moment's deliberation Master Farfalla dropped his head in mute acceptance. When he looked up again there were tears in his eyes.

"Surely you're not going in alone?" he protested.

"I wish I could," Hoth replied. "But if I do the Dark Lords will simply take me down with their lightsabers. That would solve nothing. Kaan has to see that his only choice is to surrender or . .." He left the thought unspoken.

"You'll need enough Jedi to convince the Brotherhood that a physical battle would be hopeless. At least a hundred. Any less and he won't detonate the thought bomb."

Hoth nodded. "Nobody will be ordered to go in with me. Ask for volunteers. And make sure they understand none of us will ever be coming out."

Despite the danger, virtually every single member of the Army of Light volunteered for the mission. General Hoth realized that he shouldn't have been surprised. After all, these were Jedi, willing to sacrifice everything-even their lives-for the greater good. In the end he did what he knew he would have to do all along: he himself chose who would accompany him to certain death.

He selected exactly ninety-nine others to go with him. The decision was agonizingly difficult. If he took less, the Sith might be able to fight their way out of the cave and escape, only to detonate their thought bomb somewhere else. But the more he took, the more Jedi lives he might be needlessly throwing away.

Choosing who would go with him was even more difficult. Those Jedi who had served at his side the longest, the ones who had joined the Army of Light at the very beginning of the campaign, were those he knew best. He knew how much they had already given in this war, and these were the ones he least wanted to lead to their doom. Yet these were the ones with the most right to stand by his side when the end finally came, and when all was said and done that was how he made his selection. Those with the most seniority would go with him; the others would fall back with Lord Farfalla.

The hundred Jedi-the ninety-nine chosen plus Hoth himself-stood anxiously at the entrance of the tunnels. The sky above was growing dark as night fell and ominous storm clouds rolled in. Still, the general did not give the command to advance. He wanted to give Farfalla and the others enough time to get clear. If it had been possible, he would have ordered all those not going into the cave to leave Ruusan. But there wasn't time. They would simply have to get as far away as possible, then hope they were beyond the range of Kaan's thought bomb.

As the first drops of rain began to fall, he realized he could wait no longer, and he gave the command to advance. They marched in an orderly fashion into the tunnel, down into the caverns far beneath the planet's surface.

The first thing Hoth noticed as they descended was how cold the tunnel quickly became, as if all the heat had been sucked away. The next thing he felt was the tension in the air. It actually pulsed with vast, unimaginable power just barely held in check; the power of the dark side. He didn't allow himself to think about what would happen when that power was released.

They advanced slowly, wary of traps or an ambush. They found none. In fact, they saw no sign of the Sith at all until they reached the large central cavern at the heart of the tunnel system.

General Hoth led the way, a glow rod in one hand and his drawn lightsaber in the other. As he stepped into the cavern, his glow rod suddenly flickered and went very dim. Even the illumination from his lightsaber seemed to die, becoming the thinnest sliver of incandescence.

As his eyes grew accustomed to the heavy shadows he was able to pick out the shapes of the Sith Lords, standing in a circle on the far side of the cave. They faced inward, their hands raised to its center. They stood without moving, their mouths hanging open, their features slack, their eyes blank. Cautiously, he approached the still forms, wondering if they were alive, dead, or trapped in some nightmare state in between.

Drawing closer he could make out a single figure standing in the center of the circle: Lord Kaan. He hadn't seen him at first; the middle of the ring was darker than the rest of the cave. There seemed to be a black cloud hovering above him, tendrils of inky darkness extending down to wrap and twist around him in a sinister embrace.

One look at the leader of the Brotherhood and any hope the general had of convincing Lord Kaan to listen to reason died. The Sith Lord's face was pale and taut; his features were stretched as if his skin had become too tight for his skull. A thin layer of ice coated his hair and lashes. His expression was one of cruel arrogance, and his left eye trembled and twitched uncontrollably. He stared straight ahead with a frozen intensity, unblinking and unmoving as Hoth and his Jedi slowly filled the cavern.

Only after all the Jedi were inside did he speak. "Welcome, Lord Hoth." His voice was tight and strained.

"Are you trying to scare me, Kaan?" Hoth asked, stepping forward. "I do not fear death," he continued. "I do not mind dying. I would not mind all the Jedi dying if it meant the end of the Sith."

Kaan turned his head quickly from one side to the other, his eyes darting back and forth across the cave as if he were counting the Jedi who stood before him. His lip curled into a sneer, and he raised his hands up.

The general made his move, lunging forward to try to end Kaan's life before he could unleash his ultimate weapon. He wasn't quick enough. The Dark Lord clapped his hands together sharply-and the thought bomb exploded.

In an instant every living soul in the cave was snuffed out of existence. Clothing, flesh, and bone were vaporized. The stalactites, the stalagmites, even the massive stone columns were reduced to clouds of dust. The rumbling echo of the blast rolled down every tunnel, crevice, and fissure leading out of the cavern as the destructive wave of energy began to spread.

Githany was trapped in the labyrinth of subterranean passages. In fleeing Kaan's ritual she had lost her bearings, and now she wandered aimlessly down kilometer after kilometer of natural tunnels as she searched in vain for an exit to the surface.

In the dim light of her glow rod she saw a small opening on her left and followed it for many meters before it came to a dead end. Shouting out a curse, she turned and made her way back again.

She was furious. Furious at Kaan for bringing the Brotherhood to the brink of destruction. Furious at herself for following him there. And furious at Bane. There was no doubt in her mind that he had somehow orchestrated all this. He had manipulated Kaan and the rest of the Brotherhood, driving them toward their own destruction. Yet that betrayal wasn't what enraged her. Bane had abandoned her. He'd cast her aside with the others, leaving her to die while he went off to rebuild the Sith.

Ahead of her the tunnel branched in two directions. She paused, drawing on the Force to heighten her senses in the hope she might find some hint as to which path to take. At first there was nothing. Then she caught the faintest whisper of a breeze coming from the tunnel on the left. The air smelled fresh and clean: it led to the surface!

As she raced up the passage, her frustration and rage fell away. She was going to survive! The uneven ground began to slope sharply upward, and she could see a hint of natural light far in the distance. She redoubled her efforts, and her thoughts turned to how she would exact her revenge.

She would have to be subtle and cunning. She had underestimated Bane too many times in the past. This time she would be patient, not striking until she was certain the moment was right.

The first step was to find him and offer to be his apprentice. There was no doubt in her mind he would accept. He needed someone to serve him; it was the way of the dark side. She would learn at his feet, subjugating herself to his will. It might take years, maybe decades, but in time he would teach her everything he knew. Only then, after all his secrets were hers, would she turn on him. She would become the Master and take an apprentice of her own.

Escape was less than fifty meters away when Githany felt the first effects of the thought bomb. It began with a trembling in the ground. Her initial instinct was fear of a groundquake or cave-in that would bury her beneath tons of dirt and stones within sight of the surface. But when she felt the power of the dark side rushing up the passage toward her, she realized she was about to suffer a far more horrible fate. Those at the epicenter of the blast had been vaporized. Caught on the fringes of the thought bomb's radius, Githany was not so lucky. The wave of pure dark side energy swept over her an instant later. It tore through her like some terrible wind, sucking the essence of life from her body and ripping her spirit from its corporeal shell. Her flesh withered and shrank, her beautiful features mummified before she even had time to scream. And then, as quickly as it had come, the wave had passed. For one frozen moment her lifeless husk stood in perfect balance, before it toppled and struck the ground, disintegrating into ash.

On the surface many kilometers away, Farfalla and the other Jedi felt the ground shake, and they knew their general was no more. A moment later their minds erupted with the tortured screams of the Jedi and Sith caught up in the blast, their life-force ripped away and sucked into the vacuum at the heart of the blast.

Many of the Jedi wept in anguish, understanding how great the sacrifice of their fallen comrades had been. The spirits of the dead were bound for all eternity, forever frozen in stasis.

Master Valenthyne Farfalla, now the leader of what remained of the Army of Light, felt the sorrow as deeply as any of them. But this was not the time for grief. With General Hoth's passing, the burden of command was his to bear, and there were things that still needed to be done.

"Captain Haduran, assemble a team," he ordered. "We're going to search the area in and around the tunnels for survivors." He knew no living creature could have withstood the power of the thought bomb, but it was possible a few of the Sith might have fled before the detonation. After all that had been sacrificed, he had no intention of letting any of the Brotherhood escape.

The captain gave him a quick salute and turned to go. Just before he left Farfalla added, "And have your troops keep an eye out for the bouncers. The last Sith ritual drove them to madness. Who knows what this one did to them."

"And if we spot them, sir?"

"Shoot to kill."

Many kilometers in the opposite direction, Darth Bane also felt the reverberations of the blast. He sensed the wave of dark side energy pass over him, strong enough to leave him shivering even at this distance. Once it was gone he reached out with the Force to seek out any who might have escaped. As he expected, he felt nothing. They were all gone: Kaan, Kopecz, Githany ... all of them.

The Brotherhood of Darkness had been purged. As far as the Jedi knew, the Sith were now extinct. Bane intended to keep it that way.

He was the only Dark Lord of the Sith, the last of his kind. The burden of rebuilding the order would fall to him. But this time he would do it right. Instead of many there would be only two: one Master and one apprentice. One to embody the power, and one to crave it.

To survive, the Sith had to vanish, becoming creatures of myth, legend, and nightmares. Hidden from the eyes of the Jedi, they could seek out the lost secrets of the dark side until its full power was theirs to command. Only then-once victory over their enemies was certain-would they tear aside the veil of shadows and reveal themselves.

The path ahead would be long and difficult. It might take years or decades before they could strike at the light once more. Perhaps even centuries. But Bane was patient; he understood what was to come and what must be done. Though he himself might not live to see the triumph of the dark side, those who followed him would carry on his legacy. Someday in the distant future, the Republic would fall and the Jedi would perish, and the entire galaxy would bow down to a Dark Lord of the Sith. It was inevitable; it was the way of the dark side.

Satisfied that his work on Ruusan was done, he began the long hike to where he had hidden his ship. He knew the remaining Jedi would come looking for survivors, but by the time they arrived he would be long gone.

Still, one thing troubled him. In order for all this to come to pass he had to find a suitable apprentice. One strong in the Force, but not yet tainted by the teachings of the Jedi. Somewhere he needed to find a child worthy of becoming heir to all the power of the dark side.