No excuse except real life, sucky inspiration, and I humbly beg forgiveness for the insanely long wait for anyone still out there.
This chapter dedicated to Lady Eivel, who flattered me insanely with her penname change, and furrylittlebantha, who continues to be a source of both inspiration and motivation for me (read her work, it's awesome!)
And to all of you who have stuck around despite my absence. Thanks so much for reading!
The Souls of Demons
"The Falcon, score one hundred and twenty seven, junkyard mine, zero."
Han Solo's face was smug even from where Anakin was sitting, and the former Jedi had to grit his teeth to keep back the smart retort that kept trying to slip through his lips. The Falcon's captain seemed to think that Anakin should be impressed by his 'score,' which he had been updating them all with since the first mine had exploded with Chewbacca's well-aimed laser pulse.
The worst part of it all was that Anakin was impressed – it wouldn't have been easy to navigate through the labyrinthine path they were passing through in order to reach Rakaell, even for him. Not that he couldn't have – if he had been allowed to do anything other than stand uselessly by and watch the others work he could have shown Han his own prowess at the helm.
The Rebel pilot flashed an insufferable grin at his father-in-law as he tossed a compliment back over his shoulder. "Nice shooting, Chewie!"
The Wookiee's undulating call let them know the compliment was appreciated.
Behind them, Leia was
watching the sensor controls intently. "I think we're through.
Proximity detectors don't show any more stationary explosives in
our immediate vicinity…I know our range is practically nil this
close to a trinary sun system, but I think we might have just slipped
Han leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head. There was an arrogant satisfaction on his face.
"Great," he said, "What did I tell you? No problems."
"Speak for yourself," said Leia, blinking. Anakin couldn't help but notice how tired she looked as she rubbed her eyes. "I've been staring at this thing for six hours. I think my optic nerves are fried."
"Well, the view outside's not gonna help, I can tell you that," Han muttered, swinging the ship towards the planet's atmosphere. "Ugly little dustball, isn't it?"
As much as Anakin hated to agree with his son-in-law, he couldn't help it. Rakaell was an astonishingly ugly planet, and as they started to move closer to it an uncomfortable thought came to him…what the planet really reminded him of was a disturbing blend of the dry sands of Tatooine and the volcanic lakes of Mustafar. It was impossible not to feel an intense dislike for it.
There was the sound of soft footfalls, and Anakin glanced back to see Dena entering the cockpit.
"Han, I hate to tell you this," she began unhappily, "but I don't think there's any way to get the comsystems back online. The cable's shot, and you don't have any replacements. I've tried everything I can think of to enhance the integrity of the signal, but it's just not carrying one."
"Strip the ends of the cable and try to wire it to the dataport manually," Han said, leaning forward, the arrogant look instantly gone from his face and replaced by grim seriousness, "and reset the power levels to 150 percent. That should get us signal integrity."
Dena looked at him as if he were insane.
"Yeah, for about two seconds," the Twi'lek said bluntly, "before it completely fries the entire dataport control board, and possibly any system board near it – you could conceivably have to replace every circuit in the comm. A cable can be replaced in about two minutes and is practically free. Replacing the control board and surrounding systems could take weeks."
"But they can be replaced," Han said, wincing. "I hate to deliberately damage the old girl, but she's tough. She'll recover."
"It would still only give us two, maybe three seconds of use."
"Which is long enough to send out a comm message," Han said, turning back to his controls. "We don't need it to work for long, just long enough to get one message out to Lando."
"Dena, just do it!" Han said with frustration in his voice. Anakin could see Dena open her mouth briefly to protest again, but she seemed to think better of it and sighed.
"All right, you're the captain," she said, turning to leave the room. "I'll let you know when it's done."
"Thank you," Han said in a grudging tone.
Leia sighed, massaging her shoulder. Anakin could sense her fatigue easily, but even if he hadn't been able to he would have been able to tell how tired she was. It was etched into every feature of her face. She had been pushing herself every day for weeks, pushing far harder than was good for her on any level. The stress of traversing the minefield seemed to have had her cross the line into utter exhaustion.
"Leia, you need to take a break," he said gently. His daughter looked up at him in surprise.
"I'm all right," she said, shaking her head and turning back to the sensors. "I don't want to risk a mine exploding just as we think we're home free. I don't think there are any more, but I don't know for sure."
"You're no good to me asleep on the job, sweetheart," Han said, his voice gentler than his words were. "Take a break."
Anakin could see her reluctance. "Leia, you need to rest. I'll take over the sensors for a while."
"No, he won't," Han said, and inside Anakin felt a well of frustration that had been dug solely by his son-in-law fill again. "But we're through the mines. It's fine. Pilot sensors will be all right from here on in."
"Leia's right, Captain Solo," Anakin said, trying not to let his irritation get out of control. "It's better that we assume the minefield could extend right to the atmosphere. I can-"
"No, you can't," Han broke in pleasantly, "and Leia, get out of my cockpit. Rest."
"I'm fine, really," protested Leia. Anakin shook his head even as she spoke, trying to keep his breathing even and calm. He had little success.
"Leia, I've been standing here doing nothing for six hours while the rest of you were so tightly wound that even a Jedi Master would have been near to snapping," he said, and as he continued he couldn't help the fact that his voice was rising or that his hand had clenched into a fist at his side. "I can monitor the sensors just as well as any of you can– better, actually, because I'm not exhausted."
"Save your strength for that hell planet, pops, you're not touching my ship."
"Captain Solo, this is ridiculous," Anakin's exasperation was impossible to hide, and even harder to keep from turning into outright anger. He was only peripherally aware that he had taken an involuntary step towards Han, and that the fist that had clenched was now rising. "My daughter is tired, but it's obvious she's uncomfortable with no one watching the precision sensors. I'm not used to feeling useless, and I can help."
"My wife can go back to our cabin and rest without your help," Han said forcefully, "I'll call Chewbacca back in here to watch the sensors."
Anakin's eyebrows shot up. He smiled thinly and gave a mildly exaggerated shrug, turning towards the gunner-pod. "Fine then, I'll go man the quad-laser-"
"Like hell you will!" Han exploded, flying to his feet.
Later on, Anakin knew that the only reason his fist never connected with Han Solo's face was because Leia's half-shrieking protest sounded so much like Padmé's voice on Mustafar that he actually stumbled away from her, for one terrible moment thinking that it was his wife he was hearing.
"Gods, can't you two even get along when you're AGREEING about something?" Leia cried, the accompanying exhaustion in her voice not at all related to her fatigue. "Or had you forgotten that this fight is about me?"
Anakin wondered if the guilt that instantly filled him at her words was as obvious in his face as it was on her husband's. He opened his mouth to apologize but Leia's voice ran right over him.
"The two of you are going to drive me mad!" She turned to face her husband, he anger obvious in her tightly held features. "Han, I'm sick and tired of you acting like a schoolyard bully every time Anakin tries to touch your favorite toy. I don't care if you don't like him. He is trying to help me, even you can't deny that forever, and it's ridiculous that you continue to treat him as if he's some sort of prisoner on board this ship…he's not. I'm not asking you to forgive him for what he's done. I don't even know if I have. But you are going to have to accept the fact that he is here, and all these childish temper tantrums you insist on having are not going to change that. So you might as well stop having them."
Anakin's brief feeling of vindication evaporated as his daughter turned her furious gaze to him. "And you, Anakin! You may look like you've just seen your twentieth life-day, but we all know you haven't. For the love of Alderaan, act your age! Whether or not he's behaving like a stubborn brat, the Falcon is still Han's ship, and you need to respect that. If he doesn't want your help that's his choice. You can't blame him for not trusting you, after all. I know you're frustrated with the situation, but you're not the only one. Show a little class, for crying out loud."
Anakin saw a hot stain of embarrassment on Han Solo's face across from him, and he knew a mirror of that flush was on his own face. His cheeks were burning, and he shuffled back and forth from foot to foot for a moment, studying his boots as if they were the most fascinating things in the galaxy for almost ten seconds before he realized what he was doing.
I'm acting like a daysworn padawan, he thought with mild disgust. The thought made his face flush even more, and though he raised his eyes to meet Leia's he couldn't quite wipe the blush from his features. "Leia-"
"No, Anakin, I don't want to hear it," Leia's voice silenced him instantly. No sooner had she finished admonishing him did her eyes flicker over to her husband. "Not you either, Han."
Han's jaw snapped shut, and he glanced at Anakin for a brief moment, a rueful half-smile on his face. Anakin was surprised to feel an answering grin on his own face, but not half as surprised as Han seemed to be when the rebel realized he was actually commiserating with Anakin, of all people. A scowl covered the grin so fast that Anakin nearly laughed.
Leia's absolutely right…we're behaving like a couple of schoolchildren, he thought wryly.
"Now," Leia said sternly, "we are going to be landing within the hour, even moving at the bogsnail's pace we've kept so far. I am certain that I am not going to die of exhaustion in that small amount of time, so I'm going to sit back down and do my job. I can get some sleep once we're on the surface."
There was an irritated call from the gunner-pod. "No, Chewie, you need to hang in there a little longer yet!" Leia called in response. She looked at her husband with raised eyebrows. "Well, are you going to fly this junk heap or not? I'm sure Anakin would be happy to take over if-"
Han moved into the pilot's seat so quickly Anakin had to bite his tongue to hold back a laugh and Leia sighed in exasperation. "All right then. Let's get this ship planetside, shall we?"
The next few minutes were silent, neither Han nor Leia saying a word that didn't relate to what they were doing. Anakin, hovering behind his daughter, only got a sharp comment about 'reading over her shoulder' when he tried to assist Leia with the sensors. His anger had evaporated, but the sense of frustration was certainly still there as the minutes crept by with an infuriating slowness.
"We're going to be entering the atmosphere in about two minutes," said Han, his eyes flickering over Anakin briefly before landing on his wife, "and will you look at that. Still no mines."
He just can't help it, can he? Anakin thought with amusement only mildly colored by annoyance.
"It looks like your instincts were right, Han," Leia said, and then the tone of her voice changed, a tinge of confusion coloring it. "Hang on a moment…something's coming up on sensors."
"Another mine?" Anakin asked, despite himself a touch of childish superiority trickling into him. He pressed his lips together, a dry smile coming of its own accord.
Looks like I can't help it, either, he thought self-deprecatingly.
Next to him, Leia was shaking her head slowly. "I'm not sure yet, but I don't think so. The signature's not right…I'm having trouble…HAN INCOMING-"
Leia's voice was cut off even as it ignited with a frantic alarm, her warning just a fraction of a second too late. Anakin stumbled as the noise from the explosion tore through the air, deafening him. He thrust his hand out, desperately trying to grab some sort of handhold as the ship rocked violently to the right, but it became clear quickly that stopping himself was going to be impossible. The Falcon flipped once, and Anakin felt himself ricochet across the cockpit like an uncontrolled speeder bouncing off the sheer red cliffs of Tattoine's racetracks. He struck the wall with the palm of his hand, his arm extended and locking just before the impact. A jarring pain sizzled its way up Anakin's arm, traveling from his wrist all the way to his shoulder as if it were a white-hot electric current that used the bones of his body as it's conductor. He stifled a cry of pain.
"Aft stabilizers are out!" Han shouted in front of him. The rebel captain was still seated, kept firmly in his chair by one arm thrown over the navigational console, allowing him to grip the edge of the control board so tightly the knuckles had gone bone-white. "Power overload in the-"
There was another ear-splitting screeching of durasteel warping under superheated stress and a phosphorescent flash lit up the cockpit with an almost impossible white light, half-blinding Anakin. His eyes squinted shut, the reaction too slow to protect him much and in the viewport in front of him he could barely make out the outlines of a piece of something metallic and vaguely resembling some part of the Falcon passing swiftly across his view, spinning wildly on its axis as it whipped through space and into the vast blackness beyond their view.
We probably needed that, Anakin thought crazily as it vanished out of sight.
There was a rapid series of popping! noises, and Anakin saw through almost fully slitted eyes that the sublight engine control's indicator lights had burst with the explosion's backlash. They spewed fountains of angry black smoke into the air, filling the small cockpit with the smell of electricity and charred plasticene. Anakin raised his arm, knowing if was a futile effort but automatically moving anyways, trying to ward off the stinging rainfall of blue-silver sparks that showered him from too many shattered circuit boards to count. He stumbled back as he did so, his head striking the wall so hard that blackness covered his vision, a dark drape being thrown over his mind that blanketed his consciousness almost instantly.
For one terrible moment he felt as if he were going to lose his tenuous grip on reality, but then a muffled cry of hoarse pain pierced the descending fog and he threw the black draping off as if it were a too-heavy cloak and demanded his mind to swim back to consciousness. As he did, Anakin realized that he was no longer colliding with the bulkheads around him- instead he found himself gripping a hanging cable, swinging along with its motion as the world began to come back into focus.
"Han, both stabilizers are completely inoperational. We're not going to be able to stop." Leia's voice held a note of panic. In the viewport, Rakaell bobbed and spun as if it were the planet that was spinning out of control and not the Millennium Falcon. "We can't just cut power to the engines, either. We're already caught in the planet's gravity field."
"Tell me something I don't know, Leia!" Han shouted back at her, his voice tight and harsh. "That planet's not getting closer because of any screen magnification, you know!"
Anakin's eyes flashed at Han, narrowing at the heat his son-in-law directed towards Leia. It hadn't been her fault she had missed the mine. If he had only been allowed to help, Anakin might have been able to catch sight of the explosive early enough to have avoided it. But this arrogant, infuriating rebel, this reprobate pirate… "Did you catch that on pilot sensors, Captain? It's not Leia's fault you missed that mine! I told you-"
"That was no damn mine, that was a blasted ground defense missile!" Han snarled at him with volcanic heat.
"What?" Anakin asked, disbelieving. There wasn't any ground defense on the planet – though he'd never personally been there, he remembered reviewing the security installation shortly after the Jedi Purge, and defense towers had never been constructed on the surface. It had been determined that the minefield was easily deterrent enough.
"A ground defense missile!" Han shot back in that same coarse voice, the words ground out through tightly gritted teeth. "I think you forgot to mention those!"
Han ignored him, his focus on the ship's controls, but his expression didn't waver – tight ridges creased his forehead and his lips stayed pulled back, making him bare his teeth like some sort of feral animal and letting a sound that was something between a growl and a sob fight its way out of his son-in-law's throat. That sound was brief and not loud, and even as a terribly sickening (and horribly familiar) stench assaulted his senses Anakin finally understood.
Han's coarse tone with Leia earlier hadn't been due to anger, but to pain. The rebel must have been injured when the ship had been struck, and Anakin's anger vanished instantly, knowing that for him to allow it to show in his voice Han must have been in quite a lot of pain indeed. His stomach sank inside him, and even as he looked over Anakin knew what must have exploded just moments before.
One glance confirmed his suspicions. The entire surface of the navicomm was covered in sooty scorch-marks, the lights that usually dotted the board either dead or obliterated. The explosion had burst the durasteel panel in several places, making the charred, jagged edges of razor-sharp metal bloom up from it like deadly flowers tipped with blood already searing in the heat. A small flame still flickered from one rebellious wire that thrashed back and forth over the stabilizer controls, dancing over the obliterated console gleefully. The navicomm console itself was plainly useless, that much was immediately clear, meaning that any course the ship took from there on in would have to be guided by human senses alone. Alongside the pilot's main control board, the co-pilot's lights stayed dark and dead, a few of them showing scars from the explosion but the damage nowhere near the extent of the opposite side.
Anakin's mind assimilated all this in an instant, noting the damage and automatically filing it away with a precise eye, but that its importance paled as his eyes went to the Falcon's captain. Anakin felt bile rose in his throat, his stomach knotting as he realized what had made the Rebel general's voice as painfully harsh as it had.
The skin covering almost two-thirds of Han's arm was covered in a mass of blackened blisters, and the rebel general's hand looked nearly useless, hanging at his side with the fingers curled into an involuntary fist of pain. Deep gashes ran alongside the underside of his forearm, the wounds red and angry-looking but bloodless – they had been cauterized the instant the console had exploded under his grip. Though in a way this was a good thing, as it would prevent the potentially deadly blood loss such injuries were almost certain to produce, the pain must have been incredible. How Han was still managing to focus on the ship was astounding. Anakin felt an almost physical pang of sympathy shoot through him like a bolt of cold lightning.
"I didn't know about any ground defense," Anakin said honestly, moving towards Han, his feet staggering with the still-rocky movement of the ship. "You have to believe me – I didn't know. But that doesn't matter now – what matters is getting us to the surface in one piece. You're hurt, and the pilot's console is completely dead. You're not going to be able to fly the ship like this."
"Han?" Leia started to turn towards them, her voice rising in concern. "Are you-"
"Keep your eyes on the sensors, Leia, I'm fine!" Han shouted quickly, shifting in his seat so that the injured limb was hidden from her sight. "Cut my arm a little is all. I've gotten worse in bar fights. But that missile nearly made us nothing but one more space-carcass for the salvage crews, and I'd rather marry a Hutt than let some low-life scavengers pick over my ship. If there's one missile, it's got friends, and the Falcon's had enough of a beating today. I need you to keep those pretty eyes glued to the sensors, sweetheart, and make damn sure we see the next one coming."
The strain in Han Solo's voice was extreme, almost pleading. "Leia, please!"
Anakin almost thought she was going to ignore him, but then Leia swung back to the controls, moving quickly but her reluctance to do so obvious despite that. She could tell something wasn't right with Han's reaction, Anakin knew, but taking time to find out what was a luxury she didn't have. The ship had steadied only enough to keep them mostly upright, letting the occupants of the cockpit remain more or less in one place, but it was far from stabilized. Anakin shifted his gaze downwards, moving towards the co-pilot's seat, his hands already reaching for the switch that would shift main control over to the secondary console. "Cut power to the navicomm, Captain. I'll take over main controls, and if you-"
Han's good hand clamped over his with a strength that surprised Anakin, considering the rebel's condition. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Anakin blinked. Surely he sees he can't fly the ship like that! "I can't fly this ship without shifting the controls, Captain, and with the navicomm out it's going to be hard enough to level us out. I can land without the navicomm, but not if I only have partial control of the piloting console."
"Forget it, pops, I'm-"
By the gods of every planet in the galaxy, this has got to stop, Anakin thought.
"Captain Solo, there's no time for this," he interrupted, his voice cutting off the other man's cleanly, and he spun Han's seat around to face him. The sharp hiss of pain his son-in-law made almost made Anakin wince, but there wasn't time for sympathy any more than there was for their useless bickering. His eyes locked with Han's grimly, and when he spoke his voice was just loud enough to reach Han's ears over the noise in the cockpit, but not quite loud enough to travel to Leia's a few paces away. Anakin's lowered voice had become deadly serious. "You can't respond fast enough right now, and you know that. If another missile homes in on us, you won't be able to respond as quickly as I can. The ship can't take another hit like that – if it does, we're all dead. So just let go of your anger for one moment and let me take over piloting…you can go right back to hating me once we're safely on the surface. Just let me get us there in as close to one piece as I can…please, Captain."
They stared at each other for a very short moment, and then Han's hand released the clamp that connected the navicomm to ship's main power. The dancing wire skittered once more over the blackened console and then wilted as the electrical fuel that had given it life vanished. The co-pilot's console began to light up, a few controls spitting sparks angrily as they were brought to life but most of them flashing obediently as they came online.
"Thank you," Anakin said, sinking into the co-pilot's seat and his fingers positioning themselves almost automatically over the controls. Anakin thought it was that please that made Captain Solo shift the controls over almost as much as the fact that the accomplished freighter pilot knew very well that he couldn't dodge missiles with one hand useless. His eyes stayed trained on Anakin, the former Jedi knowing their intense gaze continued to follow him even as the controls came alive under his fingers. He tried to tune his son-in-law out as he ran his eyes over the Falcon's controls, familiarizing himself in its layout as best he could with a three-second evaluation. "Watch the starboard maneuvering thrusters," said Han softly as Anakin noted the data Leia sent him from the sensor console showed another missile was already making its way towards them. "They're a little touchy."
"Thank you," Anakin said, his eyes not leaving the viewport. Even damaged as it was, the Falcon responded to his commands deftly, and Anakin felt his opinion of his son-in-law edge upward another notch almost involuntarily. The Millennium Falcon might look like just another 'junk heap' but it certainly didn't handle like one.
A flash of warning from within the Force made Anakin drop the ship's nose down sharply, and a missile exploded just over them, it's detonator activated by the edge of the engine's wake. The freighter rocked hard, but Anakin thought he had avoided most of the blast. But the Force could only warn them so much.
"Leia, did you pick up where those missiles are coming from?" Anakin asked, glancing briefly over at his daughter. He noticed that Han had shifted back into a position where Leia's quick look towards them could not show the princess how badly her husband was hurt.
"No," she said, turning back to her screen. "Nothing...I can't get a lock on anything."
"I need more than that, Leia!" Anakin said, his words emphasized by another console behind him igniting in a shower of sparks.
"I know, Anakin!" Leia snapped. "I'm trying!"
Beside him, Han made a strangled sound of pain as Anakin was forced to guide the ship into a controlled roll, the movement as smooth as he could make it but not quite enough to keep the general's badly injured arm from grazing the control panel. Leia shot one quick, worried look over her shoulder and Anakin caught the pointed stare her husband gave her in return.
"I'm fine, Leia," Han said, answering her unasked question. The tightness in his voice sounded more like irritation than pain now, though Anakin knew it had to be a façade that Han was putting on for his daughter's sake. "Just keep your eyes glued to the sensors, sweetheart. Don't worry, I'll let you play doctor later. Promise."
Leia replied to that comment with an unladylike snort. "You wish."
Anakin could help but credit Han's strength as his son-in-law managed a harsh but amused chuckle. "Don't I."
Another missile exploding far too close to them for Anakin's taste brought the short-lived banter to a standstill, and he braced himself for impact as an incandescent starburst whited out the viewport. That one had been too close. He dove the ship downwards towards Rakaell's surface. "Leia, I need to know where those are coming from!"
"Anakin, I am trying!" she shouted back, her frustration making her voice climb several notches. "I told you, I can't get a lock! There's some sort of interference…"
"It's the radiation from the trinary sun system," Han said, covering the pain in his voice by speaking through clenched teeth. "The Falcon's shielding is failing."
"We're entering the atmosphere," Anakin said, cutting power to the aft stabilizers. The ship bucked violently as it exited the vacuum of space but Anakin didn't dare reactivate the stabilizers – with one out he couldn't risk sending the ship into an uncontrolled spin. "That should protect us from most of the radiation. What's the repulsor jet status?"
"Repulsor jets at half power," Han said, flipping a switch awkwardly with his left hand. "It's gonna be a bumpy landing."
"Radiation levels dropping," Leia said, craning her neck upwards to check the readouts. "…sensor integrity up to forty percent…got it! Anakin, I'm sending the coordinates to your console...looks like there's some sort of planetary defense installation near a large mountain, probably in the foothills. We should be on it in less than a minute."
"Chewie, coming up on target!" Han called out to the Wookie in the gunner-pod below them. The faded, distant quality to the Rebel's voice made Anakin look at him sharply. His son-in-law's face was ashen and beads of sweat dotted his forehead. Even more worrying to Anakin was the way Han's eyes had gone glassy, staring at the control board in front of him as if he didn't really see it.
He's going into shock.
There wasn't time to act on his concern. The ship's proximity alert sounded with a loud electronic screech of warning.
"Almost in range, Chewie, be ready for…" Leia's voice trailed off. "…for the love of…it's immense."
Anakin didn't need to ask what she was talking about. The defense towers were dwarfed by the sheer red rock face behind them, the rust-colored dust that swirled off it as windstorms scoured its surface echoing phantom flames in the distance. The towers sat at its base, evenly spaced, looking like the malevolent darker siblings of the lighthouses used by sailors long ago, in some past decade that had been lost to time.
Those have to be guarding the Temple…but where is it?
They were headed straight towards the foot of the mountain, where logic told Anakin the near-forgotten temple had to be, but the only structures his instruments were showing him were the defense towers themselves. The only other thing was that damned burning mountain, a monstrosity blotting out all but the very top of Rakaell's third sun, jutting out of the ground as if some sort of crazed fire-god was slowly attempting to birth itself from the rocky red ground of the planet. Neither his sensors nor the information Leia was feeding him from her console showed any other structures around them for hundreds of kilometers. So if the temple wasn't in the mountain's seemingly non-existent foothills, it a had to be inside the mountain…at least, that was the only viable answer Anakin could come up with. The readouts had shown him that a vast network of caves honeycombed the mountain, connected to each other by thin winding tunnels that all seemed to lead to some sort of cavern in its depths.
Anakin couldn't see a way to breach any of it, not the caves or the tunnels or the cavern, all of these buried so deep beneath the behemoth's surface that it would take an Imperial mining team weeks to burrow into the hard iron of its body. A wide cave at the foot seemed to be the only possible entrance, it's nearly perfect rectangular mouth opening as if it were a gateway into hell itself. But as they continued to draw nearer to that opening something about it continued to gnaw at Anakin, something that was wrong about his conclusions that crystallized in one mind-shattering instant. A jolt of shock galvanized him as his brain lit upon the answer he was looking for.
The temple wasn't in the mountain…the temple was the mountain.
Even as the thought hit him he knew that it had to be true, his eyes confirming his thoughts as they continued to race closer. Massive stone columns flanked the entrance to what Anakin now knew was a gateway rather than a cave, the elaborate carvings that etched them obviously marking this place as a structure that had been created by a sentient hand and not something natural at all. The gaping maw of the mammoth Temple almost swallowed the defense towers that seemed to be spitting insignificant sparks in front of it.
A hundred Jedi Temples could fit inside there, Anakin thought with no small amount of awe, his hands hovering over the controls, and still have room to spare.
Leia's clipped voice penetrated his stunned mind, and Anakin tried to push that profoundly disturbing thought out of his head. He needed to focus.
"Attempting evasive maneuvers," he answered, his fingers moving almost without thought across the Falcon's controls in a staccato dance of controlled desperation. The defense towers were dangerously close now, asserting their presence with a fury as if to spite Anakin's earlier denial of their existence. Another buffet of explosives whizzed them, and as Anakin bobbed the Falcon back and forth amongst them he felt the engines sputter and fire several times, and suddenly knew their time was running out. They had to be venting plasma, the engines finally starting give out after having only barely survived the obvious breach. It was only a matter of time before they failed. Anakin could only hope Han's pride in the Falcon was justified – it was going to take a miracle to get them through this.
Anakin steeled himself, for a moment flashing back to pod-racing on the surface of Tatooine as a child, the same dark and dangerous excitement that had thrilled him then coursing through him now. He tapped a control on his board, watching the power indicators on his control board fill as everything not devoted to life support or weapons was rerouted to the engines with something that was not unlike anticipation. "We're only going to have one shot at this….ready…now!"
A series of sharp detonations deafened Anakin as he zig-zagged through the chain of defense towers at a breakneck speed, avoiding the towers themselves by only the narrowest of margins while trying to keep in close enough range for Chewbacca's continuing quad-laser pulses to destroy them.
The furious tempo of weapons fire was almost measured, telling Anakin the Wookiee's shots were hitting their targets with unerring accuracy. The tempo finally died as the last tower died in a fiery protest, Chewbacca's call of victory sounding far away against the ringing in his ears.
"We're clear," Leia said, the words ending in a sort of half-laugh of shocked relief. "Defense towers all seem to be disabled."
"Good." Despite how his head screamed at him, Anakin felt a tense sort of relief touch him as he guided the Falcon into a wide, sweeping arc, heading towards the foot of the mountain once more. The ship was shuddering around them as if it was on the edge of simply shaking itself to pieces all around them. It was going to be a bumpy landing, and with that though his eyes lighted on the Falcon's increasingly fading captain in the seat beside him. Han's good hand was still on the controls in front of him but the fingers were slack against them, and he stared out the viewport with vacant eyes, his head starting to loll against his shoulder.
He needed medical attention now. "Leia, Han's going to need-"
There was no need to ask her what made her voice cry out in shocked horror. He already knew the answer. His fingers splayed out over the controls as that same shock sent a physical jolt through him, for a brief moment all thoughts but one simply abandoning him.
The Force was gone.
"Anakin look out!"
It was a split second before he responded, but it was a second that he didn't have, and even as he tried to make the ships overtaxed engines pull out of the Falcon's nosedive he knew it wasn't going to be enough. They were going to crash, and absurdly the only thing Anakin could think of was that Han was never going to let him live this down.
END OF PART 20
I'm not entirely happy with it, but well, there it is...thoughts? Let me know what you think!
I'm posting this then immediately going to work on the next part...I didn't realize how long I'd gone without updating til I got several letters telling me it was one year from the last update. Seriously didn't think it'd been that long, but it has, and I said to myself, "Stop tinkering and POST IT ALREADY! You can always edit it later if you desperately hate it."
And since I have regular conversations with my own inner voice (whom I suspect sometimes is not me at all) I replied, "Okay, okay! But I'm not taking the blame if people hate it 'cause its poorly written!"
Yeah. I know. I'm arguing with myself and telling myself I'd blame myself instead of myself if it was bad. Don't ask.
So anyways, here it is in all its tattered glory, though I still admit to not being happy with it. But I have to ask, what you guys think!
As always, thanks for reading!