Cat-a-combs

Sequel to "Centaur of Attention"

Rated PG-13 for violence, stork references, and Metria/Mentia (enough said)

Part I – Night Mare

The Emperor was dead.

Somehow the entire crew of the Death Star knew this, as if their minds had been telepathically bound to the evil monarch's… and that link had been severed by his death. Somehow everyone, from the lowliest soldier in the pecking order to Commander Jerjerrod himself, sensed their master and leader had been slain. Somehow they knew, and they reacted in the crazed manner that panic instills in even the most placid souls.

Somehow, even Jenny Elf knew.

Never mind that she hadn't known that the Emperor even existed before this moment. Never mind that she wasn't even native to this galaxy. Never mind that she had no idea what she was doing here, on the Death Star, a universe away from her home in Xanth.

White-armored men charged past her, resembling overgrown imps to her eyes and almost making her laugh. But a growing sense of dread filled the air and smothered the laugh before it could escape her lips. She had to get out of here now! They were all in danger! She didn't know how she knew that; she just knew that something terrible would happen if she stayed here much longer.

The troopers paid no attention to her as they ran by. She tried to grab one's arm as he passed, but the limb slipped through her fingers as if she'd tried to grab a branch of a slippery-elm tree.

"Sir, please stop!" she shouted. "How do you get out of here?"

He acted as if he couldn't hear her. He didn't even look at her – in fact, he and everyone else seemed to be looking everywhere but at her. It was as if she were invisible.

"Sammy!" she shouted.

Her orange-furred cat yowled in panic as he ran for her, winding his way through the legs of the stampeding crowd. For a moment she feared he'd be trampled, but the soldiers and officers were stepping all around him, their feet not even touching him but landing everywhere except the ground he was occupying. Was this some peculiar kind of magic?

No time to think about that. "Sammy, find a way out of here!"

Sammy bolted, and she ran after him. At least his talent – the ability to find anything but home – still operated here.

/This must be the Galaxy Far, Far Away/ she realized as she followed Sammy. /Luke and Vader's world/ No wonder these white-armored men looked so familiar – the imps of the city of Imp Ire in Xanth were miniature copies of the Imperial stormtroopers.

The hallway opened up into a room bigger than any Jenny had ever seen in her life. Why, the Good Magician's castle could fit inside here with room to spare! And it was full of what looked like metal dragons – and hundreds of frantic people who were willingly feeding themselves to the beasts. It took her a few minutes to get over her shock and realize that the creatures weren't creatures at all, but some sort of flying machines. Starships, she supposed, though they looked nothing like boats…

Sammy approached one of the starships and sat down. So this was the way out. For some reason, none of the Imperials were boarding this ship. She sat down next to the gangplank, hoping someone who knew how to work this flying machine would be along soon…

Sammy meowed loudly, pawing his mistress' leg.

"What is it, Sammy?"

He mewled again and looked beyond her, and she turned around.

/Luke and Vader/

The two men were making their way toward her ship – or trying to. Something seemed to be wrong with Vader's legs, and he had to lean heavily on Luke for support. Her heart leaped. She hadn't seen these men for some time, not since they'd finished playing the game almost two months ago…

But Vader collapsed, as if he were too weak to stand. Luke struggled to pull him to his feet, but to no avail.

With a frightened gasp Jenny ran forward to help. Even though Vader was no longer her Player, she still couldn't stand to see him in pain or trouble. She tried her hardest to help Luke drag his injured father to the vehicle, but every time she tried to grab hold of him she lost her grip. It was as if the world around her were made up solely of illusions.

At last Luke pulled Vader to the base of the ramp leading into the ship, and he knelt beside him in order to catch his breath. Jenny knelt at Vader's other side, anxious. His breathing sounded so labored, and his armor was blotched with char marks. His right hand had been chopped off entirely, and ragged wires jutted from the leather sleeve. When she placed her ear against his chest, she could hear his heart beating erratically. What had happened to hurt him so badly…

Then she remembered with a shock. After Vader and Luke had left Xanth, the Good Magician had explained to them that father and son would meet again, that the Emperor would force them to fight each other… and that Vader would give his life to save Luke and balance the Force.

/No/ she pleaded silently, tears sliding down her cheeks. /Don't let him die. Not after he's done so much to save Xanth and his own world, not after saving his son…/

Vader spoke, struggling to form the words, his voice terribly weak.

"Luke… help me take… this mask off…"

Luke stared, horrified, at his father. "No. You'll die…"

"Nothing can stop that now," Vader replied softly, clinging to Luke's arm with his remaining hand. "Just once… let me look on you… with my own eyes…"

Jenny's breath caught in her throat. Vader knew he was dying, knew that even the mechanical mask couldn't keep him alive much longer. And he wanted to die on his own terms.

Hesitantly Luke reached down and carefully pulled the domed helmet off. Jenny held her breath as he detached the fearsome, snarling mask and gently peeled it away from Vader's face.

She flinched involuntarily. He was hideous. Red-rimmed blue eyes lay sunken in pouches of dark skin within his eye sockets. Angry red scars scrawled across his face and bald scalp, and what skin wasn't scarred was as white as unicorn's hide. She couldn't hold back a sob of pity. Vader had told her he'd been injured by falling into a fiery pit, but she hadn't realized just how badly he'd been hurt.

Luke was staring at his father, his features overwhelmed with sadness, revulsion, and – most of all – sympathy. Despite her tears, Jenny couldn't help but smile. Back in Xanth, Luke hadn't wanted to accept Vader as his father, but now…

"Now go… my son…" Vader gasped, fighting for every breath. "Leave me…"

"No!" Jenny cried, forgetting that neither man could hear her.

"No," Luke pleaded, shaking his head, his eyes full of emotion. "I have to save you…"

"You already have," Vader assured him. A smile formed on his lips, a smile that illuminated his ravaged face and seemed to make him look far less disfigured. "You were right about me… tell… your sister… you were right about me…"

Sister? Luke had a sister? But before she had time to absorb that thought, Vader's eyes drifted out of focus, and his body relaxed.

"No…" Luke whispered.

Jenny stared, powerless to help, powerless to even comfort Luke, as Darth Vader quietly died.

Luke's head bowed as he sobbed, clinging to his father's body, entirely oblivious to the chaos around him.

Jenny's own vision blurred as her eyes overflowed with tears. Why now, just when Luke had gotten his father back? Why did Vader have to die now? He'd just killed the Emperor. He'd just done so much good. And now he was gone. She buried her face in Vader's cloak and wept…

"…Jenny, wake up!"

She raised her head, confused. Someone else could see her here?

"Jenny, another Companion's coming!" Nada Naga, in her lovely human form, said eagerly, shaking the elf girl gently. "Wake up, sleepyhead. Everyone's going to go greet the new arrival."

She looked up at the naga princess, puzzled. "What are you doing here?"

"Same thing you're doing here, silly," Nada replied with a teasing smile. "Participating in the game, waiting for a Player to show up." She gave Jenny a concerned look. "Hey, are you okay, Jenny? You look like you've been crying."

Jenny got to her feet and wiped her nose on her sleeve. "I'm fine. Just a dream."

"I see." Nada looked down at the ground, where the infamous moon-and-upside-down-U of a night mare's hoofprint had been stamped into the earth. "A bad dream, from the looks of it. Was it really that bad?"

"I'll be okay," she assured her.

"If you're sure." She placed a hand on Jenny's back to guide her toward the others. "Let's go meet the new Companion."

Jenny sighed and went to where the other Companions stood. There was nothing she could do about her dream. It would happen – or had already happened – or was happening now. All she could do was offer condolences to Luke when he next came to Xanth… if he ever returned.

Grundy Golem, Marrow Bones, Horace Centaur, and Goody Goblin were also gathered in the meadow where potential Companions met, conversed, and were acquainted with their Players. There was no sign of Demoness Metria. Had she bowed out of the game?

"Where's Metria?" she asked.

"Metria got married, received half a soul, and fell in love, in that order," Marrow Bones informed her. "She and her husband are currently busy trying to get the stork to bring them a child, so she's too busy to participate in the game right now."

"I'm happy for her," Jenny replied with a smile. It had been two months since she and Metria had accompanied Luke and Vader on their quest to Lake Eerie to defeat Darius Dracotaur and save Xanth and the Galaxy Far, Far Away. During that time Jenny had turned sixteen, meaning that even while playing the game she was no longer subject to the Adult Conspiracy. Thus, Marrow's comment was by no means a forbidden topic.

That got her thinking. During her last game, she and her friends had passed through a dreamcatcher, learning each other's heart's desires in the process. Chang and Wara had achieved their desires by getting married, and Luke achieved his when… never mind, she didn't want to think about her dream. And now Metria had just received a soul, part of her heart's desire. That left herself and Vader… but now that Vader was dead, he wouldn't have a chance to experience his heart's desire of being completely healed. That saddened her, but she couldn't do anything about it, so she dismissed the matter.

"Does anyone know who is replacing the demoness?" asked Horace.

"Dunno yet," Grundy replied. "But whoever he, she, or it is, they're late."

Sammy meowed.

"What is it, Sammy?" asked Jenny.

The cat loped to the edge of the clearing, where a large black-and-brown wolf-like dog had just emerged from the undergrowth. Sammy touched noses with the canine before coming back to his mistress, purring happily. Jenny smiled. This was Misty, the brave dog who had aided their group in finding Darius' underground fortress back at Lake Eerie. Was she to be a Companion choice? Her inability to speak might be a drawback, but her loyalty and bravery would more than make up for that.

But tree branches began snapping as something huge moved through the jungle, and an even larger creature stepped into the clearing, sunlight gleaming on jet-black armored scales. A dragon! Jenny stepped back, alarmed. Goody screamed, Nada assumed snake form to fight the creature, and Horace set an arrow to his bow. No beast had ever dared attack the Companions in this meadow before. What was so different now?

Misty barked once, and the dragon bent its head low to touch its muzzle to her nose in a peculiar sort of goodbye kiss. Then the dog disappeared back in the jungle, and the dragon turned its attention to the Companions. It snorted once, folded its wings, reared onto its hind legs… and assumed human form.

Jenny breathed a sigh of relief. This man must be a weredragon – and a Companion choice. Misty must have been required by the game to escort him to the Companion's meadow.

"Welcome, sir," she greeted, curtseying awkwardly. "My name is…"

"Jenny?" the man interrupted, his voice incredulous. "Jenny Elf?"

She looked up, startled. She'd never met a weredragon before now. How could this one suddenly know her name?

The man strode swiftly up to her, never taking his sky-colored eyes off her. He wore dark brown robes that flared after him like trailing wings, and a silvery-handled lightsaber hung from one hip. His gray-blond hair and handsome face looked oddly familiar, like an older version of Luke…

She gasped in happy surprise. Something else the Good Magician had told her came rushing back – after Vader died in the Galaxy Far, Far Away, he would come to live in Xanth.

"Lord Vader!" she cried, throwing her arms around his waist.

He chuckled and returned the embrace. "Anakin," he corrected. "My name is Anakin now, Jenny. Oh stars, I never thought I'd be this happy to see you again!"

"The Good Magician told us you would fight the Emperor," she murmured, her head still buried in his robes, "and that you would… you would die." She didn't mention the dream; he wouldn't want to relive THAT experience.

"I did die," Anakin replied. "But imagine my surprise when I found myself in Xanth, not only very much alive again, but whole and free of the armor." He released Jenny, smiling fondly. "The strange thing was that, while it had been almost a year in our galaxy since I left Xanth, only a week had passed here."

"Time runs differently here," Jenny said with a shrug. "I don't understand why that is."

His smile widened. "I missed you, Jenny. You were much more than my Companion when I played the game – you were a friend."

"I missed you too, Lord Va – I mean Anakin. And I'm glad I could be your friend."

Goody Goblin stepped forward and extended a delicate hand. "Welcome to the game, sir. May I ask your name?"

"Anakin Skywalker," he replied, shaking her hand. "I'm originally from the Star Wars world, but I've come to Xanth to stay."

"I see," she noted. "I didn't know they had weredragons in your world."

"No, I'm human," Anakin replied. "I received a talent the last time I was here, though, one that allows me to shape-shift into any flying animal."

Nada, back in human form, whistled appreciatively. "That's a Magician-class talent!"

Before the discussion could go any further, a deep menacing voice, not unlike Vader's before he'd lost the mask, sounded in everyone's mind.

NOW HEAR THIS, thundered Demon Grossclout, head of the game. IT IS TIME FOR THE SELECTION OF THE FALSE COMPANION.

Jenny cringed. She hated this part – where the demons would randomly select a Companion to be False. She had been lucky so far to avoid being selected, but sooner or later she knew her luck was going to run out.

THE SELECTION IS – NOW.

Jenny braced herself, but no signal came to announce her as the False Companion. She relaxed. Someone like Metria or Grundy might enjoy the experience of duping and double-crossing a Player, but she detested the very thought of it.

Anakin's face showed a touch of relief before he swiftly composed himself. So he wasn't the False Companion either. That left the other five, though she wasn't sure which one it would be. No one but Grossclout and the False Companion was to know which of them was the False one.

"Here comes a Player," Marrow announced.

As Grundy stepped forward to introduce the incoming Player to the game, Jenny turned back to Anakin.

"So why are you a Companion?"

"I owe the creators of this game a lot," he replied. "If I had never come to Xanth, I would never have had a chance to bond with my son. The least I could do in repayment was volunteer to replace Metria as a Companion choice."

She nodded. "The game is an exciting experience, even for the Companions. I'm glad you're here. This should be a great adventure."

"If we're chosen," Anakin reminded her. "The Player may very well opt for the centaur or skeleton instead…"

A screen-shaped image appeared at the far edge of the clearing – the form a Player took on until they could take the necessary steps to enter Xanth. Grundy walked up to the screen and waved enthusiastically; the rest of the Companions kept out of the Player's line of sight but still watched curiously.

"Hello, Player!" Grundy greeted. "I'm Grundy Golem from the land of Xanth…"

"Hi Grundy," came the reply. "Thanks, but I've played before. I won't need an overview."

Jenny knew that voice… and that handsome face.

"Luke," breathed Anakin, his eyes suddenly moist.

Luke was playing the game again! Jenny practically bounced up and down with glee. She would get to see Luke again! Even if he didn't choose her as his Companion, she could still meet up with him sometime during the game, couldn't she?

"Okay, since you're a retread," Grundy replied, unfurling a scroll. "Pick a Companion."

"Oh, I already know who I want…" began Luke.

He froze. His eyes fixed on a particular name on the list, and his mouth opened in disbelief. Jenny knew that Anakin's death had been hard on Luke, so to see his father was alive in Xanth must be quite a shock, albeit not a bad one.

"I was going to pick Jenny Elf," he said quietly, "but I've changed my mind. I'd like Anakin Skywalker as my Companion."

Grundy nodded and stepped aside.

"Go on," Jenny urged, gently nudging Anakin forward.

Anakin stepped into Luke's view, smiling despite the tears that glistened on his cheeks. "Hello, Luke," he said in a voice rough with emotion.

"Father," Luke murmured. "How did you…"

Anakin raised his hand to silence Luke. "We will have plenty of time to talk in Xanth. Come on in. You know what to do."

"Right." Luke's image blurred, then stood out in sharp three-dimensional detail as he completed the first step to entering the game – refocusing the eyes. Then the screen vanished, and Luke was standing in the clearing beside his father – the result of the second step, suspending his disbelief in Xanth. Luke was back in Xanth.

Anakin swept Luke up in a loving embrace. "My son…"

"Father," Luke choked, his arms around Anakin. "How did… why are you… I saw you die a year ago… how can you be…"

So a year had passed in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. By now Luke must have accepted his father as dead and moved on, making this all the more surprising for him.

Anakin chuckled slightly before he replied. "Surely you remember what Wara told us – 'sometimes something bad happens to a good person, and instead of dying that person comes to live in Xanth.'"

Luke buried his face in his father's shoulder. "I missed you."

"And I you."

THIS IS ALL VERY TOUCHING, Grossclout thundered in a nauseated tone, BUT THIS MEADOW IS FOR GAME PURPOSES ONLY. IF YOU WANT TO GET ALL MUSHY, DO IT AWAY FROM HERE. YOU'RE MAKING ME SICK.

Jenny smiled, even though there were tears of her own in her eyes. "Go on, you two," she urged. "Have a father-son adventure. And tell me all about it when you get back."

Luke laughed, released his father, and embraced Jenny. "We will, Jenny. We will."

"Have fun!" she called after the two Skywalkers as they left the meadow. "And be careful!"