Chapter 22

When Zannah first reached Bane's side, she was sure her Master was dead. The lightning had reduced his clothes to ash, and his gloves and boots had melted away. The flesh of his face and hands was charred and burned, covered with blisters that oozed a runny yellow pus. Several of the parasites on his chest and stomach hadn't survived, their brown shells turned black and brittle by the lightning's electrical charge. Wisps of still-smoldering smoke crept out from beneath their shells, bringing with it a sickly stench that made Zannah's stomach churn.

Then she saw Bane's chest rise and fall, his breaths so shallow and faint she had almost missed them. He must have slipped into unconsciousness as his body went into shock from the unbearable pain. She paused, half expecting to see his seared skin and tissue begin to regenerate, but his injuries exceeded even the ability of the orbalisks to heal him, and nothing happened.

The sound of a door opening made her turn her head, glancing up to see Darovit emerging from his hiding place. He looked around at the carnage in the room, then saw Zannah crouched over her Master.

"Is he... ?" He left the question hanging in the air.

"He's alive," she said angrily, rising to her feet.

Darovit slowly walked over to her side, cradling Belia's Holocron and the datacard against his sternum with his good hand. Zannah reached out and snatched them away when he drew close. He didn't seem to notice, his eyes transfixed by the charred husk at her feet that was somehow still alive,

"Get the lightsabers," she commanded. "We're leaving."

Darovit had the good sense not to question her orders, but went to gather the weapons of the fallen Jedi: trophies of the Sith triumph on Tython.

Zannah stuffed the Holocron and datacard away in the pockets of her clothing, then took a deep breath to focus her mind. She reached out with the Force and lifted Bane's body off the ground, levitating it at waist height.

She carried her Master this way from the fortress and outside, Darovit following closely behind her. She briefly considered which ship they should use to take them from Tython, then settled on the Loranda. In addition to being larger, it was also equipped with a full medical bay.

"Open the cargo bay," she ordered, nodding her head in the direction of the vessel.

Darovit raced ahead and did as she instructed, while Zannah slowly lifted her Master up and into the ship.

Once aboard they hooked Bane up to a bacta pump. His injuries probably required complete submersion in a bacta tank for several days, but she didn't have access to those kind of facilities. A bacta pump was the next best thing; it injected a heavy dose of the fluid directly into his veins, circulating it through the body, then filtering it out, only to repeat the process.

"He's stable," Darovit said. "But he won't be for long. When an orbalisk dies it poisons the host."

"You read the information on the disk," she said. "Get them off him."

"Even if I did it wouldn't help," Darovit told her, relaying what he had learned from the disk. "It's too late. The orbalisks release toxins into the host's tissue the instant they die. It breaks down the cells at a microscopic level. He'll be dead in a matter of days."

"You're a kriffing healer!" she shouted. "Help him!"

"I can't, Zannah," he said softly. "Not here. We don't have the proper equipment or supplies. And even if we did, there's nothing I can do. Once the orbalisk toxin enters the host, there's no way to stop its progress."

You cant die yet, Zannah thought bitterly, chewing on her lip. There's so much more you have to teach me!

Her Master's power was still far greater than her own. She had the potential to surpass Bane-he had told her so himself-but right now he still possessed a strength she could only aspire to. There were secrets he had not yet shared with her, keys to unlocking even greater power than she now possessed. If he died, that knowledge was lost. It was possible she might one day succeed in discovering it on her own; with Bane as her Master, success was assured.

But what he still had to teach her went far beyond her ability to harness the energies of the dark side. For the past decade she had been focused only on learning to control her own power. Over that same time, her Master had begun to assemble the pieces that would one day allow the Sith to rise up and rule the galaxy.

He'd created a vast network of spies and informants, but Zannah had no idea as to its true extent, or even how to contact them. He had put into motion a hundred long-range plans to slowly build their strength while weakening the Republic. Yet she was only just now beginning to understand the scope and complexity of his political machinations.

Bane was a visionary, able to see far into the future. He understood how to exploit the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the Republic. He knew how to draw the eyes of the Jedi away from the dark side, while at the same time leading them down the first steps of the long road that would end in their complete annihilation. He could manipulate people, organizations, and governments, planting seeds that would lay dormant for years-even decades-before they burst forth.

If he died now, everything he had put into place over the last ten years died with him. Zannah would have to start at the beginning. She would have to find and train an apprentice, even as she was still learning the full extent of her own abilities. She would be stumbling blindly forward, beset by enemies on all sides. It was almost impossible to imagine she wouldn't make a mistake that would lead to her downfall... and the extinction of the Sith.

She couldn't allow that to happen. For the sake of their order, she had to keep him alive. And though Darovit might not have the knowledge and power to heal her Master, she knew someone who did. Someone who had saved his life once before.

"Make sure he lives," she said to Darovit, an implied threat in her tone.

Leaving the medical bay, she marched to the cockpit and sat down behind the controls. She punched in a course for Ambria, but she wasn't heading back to their camp. She was going to see a man called Caleb.

* * *

Though Caleb's camp was less than a hundred kilometers from their own on Ambria, Zannah had never met him. She knew him only from the tales of her Master. Bane had told her the healer was strong in the Force, but he didn't draw on it the same way the Sith or Jedi did. Light side and dark side had no meaning for him; his was the power of nature.

Her Master's words hadn't made sense at the time, but as they came in to land near the tiny, dilapidated shack Caleb called home, she began to understand. There was power in this place; it called to her, but in a strange and unfamiliar language.

She could smell it in the air when the cargo doors of their ship opened, and she could feel it beneath her feet when she jumped down from the ship. With each step she took, the ground seemed to vibrate, humming with a sound too quiet to hear, but deep enough that she could feel it in the back of her teeth.

Darovit walked behind her, manipulating the controls that guided the Lomnda's medical gurney. It floated along beside him, supporting Bane's still-unconscious form. As he had been when Zannah brought him forth from Belia's stronghold, her Master was once again being unceremoniously transported like cargo hovering a meter above the ground. This time, however, he was supported by re-pulsorlifts rather than the Force.

"This place is amazing," Darovit breathed. "I've never felt anything like this before. So ... raw."

Zannah recalled that, even though he lacked the power of the Jedi or Sith, her cousin was also attuned to the Force. She briefly wondered if it was possible that he shared the same type of talent as Caleb, then decided it made no difference why she was here. Four days had passed since they'd left Tython, and Bane had grown steadily weaker. If they didn't find help for him here, her Master would die.

Judging from her first glance, she didn't hold out much hope for his salvation. As was common on Ambria, they were surrounded on all sides by a desolate, arid wasteland stretching out as far as the eye could see. The only features of the landscape, other than a few scattered rock outcroppings, were Caleb's shack and fire pit. The camp appeared to be deserted.

The shack was small, a few meters on each side. The walls were angled at forty-five degrees, meeting at a peak in the center, making the structure resemble a crudely built pyramid. Where or how Caleb had acquired the wood was impossible to say, but it was obvious he hadn't replaced it anytime recently. The timber was faded and bleached by years in the sun, and though it wouldn't rot in Ambria's dry climate, hundreds of long vertical cracks had formed in the grain as the moisture was leached away. On the wall facing the fire pit was a small doorway leading into the hut. A tattered blanket hung down across it, fluttering slightly in the desert wind.

The fire pit was nothing more than a small circle of round stones, scorched and blackened from years of smoke and flame. A metal stand supported a large iron pot over the center of the circle for cooking, though the pot was empty and the fire was cold.

Zannah remembered from Bane's tale how Caleb had plunged his own hand into the pot when it was filled with boiling soup, scalding himself to prove to her Master he feared no pain and couldn't be threatened or intimidated.

Ten years ago the healer had initially refused to heal her Master, though ultimately Bane had compelled him by threatening the life of Caleb's daughter. Zannah wondered if, should they find him, he would refuse to help Bane again.

"Hello?" Darovit called out, his voice sounding small in the emptiness all around them. "Hello?"

Zannah moved slowly to the ramshackle hut and drew back the blanket in the door. The only thing inside was a small sleeping mat in the corner. She stepped back from the door, peering out at the empty wastelands around the camp to see if there was anywhere else Caleb might have gone. Darovit mimicked her actions, then offered up the only logical conclusion.

"Nobody's here."

It wasn't just Caleb that was missing, Zannah had to admit. Where were the medicines the healer would use to cure those who sought his aid? Where were the basic supplies-food, water, fuel for the fire-he would need to survive?

She recalled that Caleb had come to Ambria to escape the war between the Jedi and the Sith. Unfortunately for him, the war had eventually followed him even to this remote world. Yet the healer had maintained a steadfast neutrality during the conflict, refusing to aid followers of either the dark side or the light; only Bane had successfully compelled him to make an exception to his rule. Maybe with the end of the war, he had renounced his solitary ways and returned to the world of his birth, reintegrating himself into galactic society. It was just one of several possibilities that would explain his disappearance.

He could have died. It had been ten years since Bane had visited the camp, and though Caleb couldn't be that old, it was possible something had happened to him in the ensuing decade. Ambria could be a harsh and dangerous world; the healer might have been slain and devoured by the hssiss, the fearsome carnivorous lizards that sometimes emerged from the depths of Lake Natth to feed.

The planet had its share of sentient predators, too. The handful of people who still lived on the world survived by picking through the remains of the battles that had once raged over its surface and in the skies above, finding damaged items and old technology they could restore and sell offworld. Most of the junkers, as they were called, were simple folk just trying to get by. But a few had become desperate criminals, willing to kill over anything of value-like Caleb's missing collection of medicine and supplies.

Or maybe the healer had fallen victim to some disease or affliction even he couldn't cure. If he had died of natural causes, it wouldn't take long until the various desert scavengers carried off the last of his remains, leaving behind no evidence of what had happened.

It was clear there was no help to be found here, but there was no point in going anywhere else. Bane had a day, at most, before the orbalisk toxins reached lethal levels in the tissues of his body. Zannah simply stood there, unable to even think what she should do next. And then she remembered another detail from her Master's tale.

Caleb had tried to conceal his daughter from Bane. Her Master had easily discovered her cowering inside the shack; there was no other place to hide in the small camp. At least, there hadn't been ten years ago,

"Wait here," she said to Darovit, leaving him to watch over Bane on his gurney.

She went back into the shack, kicking the sleeping mat aside to reveal a small trapdoor in the floor. She used the Force to fling it open, and was rewarded with the sight of a man staring up at her from a small cellar.

His expression wasn't one of fear, nor even anger. Not exactly. He looked more like he was weary; as if he knew his discovery was going to lead to a long and tedious exchange.

"Out" Zannah said, stepping back and dropping her hand to the handle of her lightsaber.

Without a word, he climbed up the cellar's small ladder until he stood beside her inside the shack. He looked to be in his late forties, a thin man of average height. He had straight black hair that hung down to his shoulders, and his skin was brown and leathery from a decade of exposure to Ambria's burning sun. There was nothing about his appearance to suggest he was a man of power or importance, yet Zannah could sense his calm inner strength.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked him.

"I've known ever since you and your Master built your camp on this world," he said quietly.

"And you know why I'm here?"

"I sensed you coming. That was why I hid."

She peeked down into the cellar, noting that it contained a number of small shelves lined with bottles, bags, jars, and pouches that held the medicines and healing compounds he used in his vocation. There were also a number of ration kits piled in one corner, along with a handful of small, square supply containers.

"When did you build that?" she asked, curious.

"Shortly after my previous encounter with your Master," he answered. "I feared he would one day come back, and I wanted a place for my daughter to hide."

The man suddenly smiled at her, though there was no joy or mirth in the expression.

"But now my daughter has grown," he told her. "She has left this world, never to return. And you have no power over me."

"Are you saying you will not help my Master?" Zannah asked, not even bothering to put a threat into her voice.

"There is nothing you can do to compel me this time," he replied, and she sensed a deep satisfaction in his tone. She realized he had been preparing for this day for over ten years.

"The war between the Jedi and Sith is over," Zannah told him. "My Master is no longer a soldier. He is just an ordinary man who needs your help."

The man smiled again, flashing his teeth in a feral grin. "Your Master will never be ordinary. Though soon enough he will be dead."

One glance down at the man's hand, permanently scarred by the burns he had given himself plunging it into the boiling soup, made Zannah dismiss any ideas of using torture to change his mind. And she knew that any attempt to dominate his mind with the Force would fail; his will was too strong for her to bend it to her needs. "I can give you credits. You'll be richer than you can possibly imagine."

He waved his hands around at the austere little shack. "What use are credits to a man like me?"

"What about your daughter?" Zannah countered. "Think of how much easier her life could be."

"Even if I wanted to let my child take your blood payment, I could never find a way to get it to her. For her own protection, I insisted she change her name when she left this world. I do not know what she is called now; I do not know where she has gone."

Zannah chewed her lip, then tried something desperate. "If you do not help my Master I will hunt your daughter down. I will find her, torture her, and kill her," she vowed, carefully hitting each word for emphasis. "But first I will make her watch as I torture and kill every other person she cares about."

Caleb smirked, amused at her empty threat. "Go, then. Seek her out and leave me alone. We both know you will never find her."

Again, he had her. With no name and not even a physical description, it would be impossible to track down one woman who could be on any of a million Republic worlds.

Scowling, Zannah glanced once more down at his scarred hand. It stood as mute testament to the fact she couldn't break him through raw physical pain, no matter how brutal. But with no other options left, she decided to try anyway.

She reached out with the Force and picked Caleb up. His feet dangled only a few centimeters off the floor, yet his head brushed against the shack's low, slanted roof. She began to squeeze, applying pressure directly to his internal organs, slowly crushing them as she inflicted an agonizing pain few beings had ever experienced. She was careful to leave his lungs alone, however-allowing him enough air to breath and speak.

"You know how to make this end," she said coldly. "Say you will heal my Master."

He grunted and gasped in pain, but shook his head.

"Zannah! What are you doing?"

Darovit had come into the shack, curious as to what was taking her so long. Now he stood in the doorway, staring in horror at the scene.

"Stop it!" he shouted at her. "You're killing him! Put him down!"

With a sharp growl of frustration she released her grip, letting Caleb fall to the floor. Darovit rushed to his side to see if he was okay, but the older man shook his head and waved him away. He rose to his hands and knees, then settled back onto his heels, his hands resting on his thighs as he took slow, deep breaths.

Darovit turned on her. "What did you do that for?" he demanded angrily.

"He refused to help us," she said, her voice more defensive than she meant it to be.

"I will not release that monster on the galaxy a second time," Caleb declared, his teeth still clenched against the lingering effects of Zannah's torture. "There is nothing you can do to make me save him."

Zannah dropped to one knee beside him. "I can use my powers to conjure up your worst nightmares and bring them to life before your eyes," she whispered. "I can drive you mad with fear, shred your sanity, and leave you a raving lunatic for the rest of your life."

Darovit just stared at her, shocked by her words. Caleb only smiled his infuriating smile.

"If you do," the healer calmly replied, "your Master will still die." Zannah chewed her lip, glaring at him. Then she leapt to her feet and stormed out of the cabin, leaving Darovit and Caleb alone.