(1) Credit to Wookieepedia for info on place names, lightsaber styles and GFFA sports.
(2) Also, I've interpreted one of the GFFA sports in a way that uses an item very similar to the 'bludger' of the HPverse. You'll know what I mean when you come across it.
(3) Thanks to YellowDart for the beta!
(4) Signed reviews should have all received a reply. Anon is below:
cwbasset – Thank you for such a truly wonderful review. I'm tickled pink that the story is hooking you so much that rereading offers fresh enjoyment. That is such an incredible compliment- Thank you!
(5) Lastly, (I promise) thank you to all of my readers for the continuing support. This chapter was a swine to write and I hope to heck it doesn't come across that way.
Pain erupted in Anakin's left thigh.
Being bisected hadn't stopped one of the Narzgh from lunging at him and burying its talons into flesh and muscle. Grunting in pain, rivulets of rain running down his face and almost blinding him, Anakin reversed his grip on his lightsaber and brought it arcing dangerously close to his body. The reckless move served a dual purpose; slicing off half of a scorch-blackened face microseconds before its fangs would have pierced his flesh too, as well as severing the supernaturally strong hand at the wrist.
That was too close, he thought, sidestepping the slumping corpse. He was lucky it had been the last of that particular cadre of demons. He also knew it was his own fault. He'd let his guard down and it wasn't the first time. He had too many distractions rattling around his head, and he couldn't get them out. Rather than submit himself to the head-spinning pain he knew he'd suffer when taking out the claws, Anakin chose to let his senses settle first, leaning dizzily against a ferrocrete wall. He let his eyes close, relying on his senses and the Force to warn him of danger. He was tired, as well as distracted, and both could get him killed. He'd covered several kilometres of the Outer Rim already tonight. Instead of the usual vicious mob, the Narzgh were ambushing him in smaller numbers, then scattering and forcing him to give chase. If this was a new strategy for deliberately wearing him down, it was working.
The raid was winding down, but it wasn't finished. Every time he thought that it must be coming to an end, he'd find turn around and find more Narzgh, and the urgent blare of the city's warning siren hadn't yet gone silent.
Was it over now? He doubted it.
More were closing in. He could feel them.
They had to be tracking him, and Anakin wished he knew how.
Behind him stood the dull, rusted bronze tower that had once been the Intercity Exchange library, now serving as a filthy squat for the meanest, most desperate of the city's citizens. Across the street was yet more evidence of better days, a one-time civic building with stone steps leading up from the street. In between lay a fallen, eroded skywalk, left to lie and rot in the rain and sewage—like everything else.
Force! He'd had enough. He was sick of it. Sick and tired of it. Sick of fighting mindless malevolence and hearing the screams of victims he knew he didn't stand a chance of reaching in time. He could tune out everything else, but his ears were ringing with those screams.
He wanted peace and quiet to think. He wanted to tell Padmé he was sorry. He wanted to take back the kiss that had put such shock and horror in her eyes. Kriff! You'd think he'd hit her instead of given into his feelings and kissed her.
He also wanted to know what in Chaos was going on.
A mirthless smile curved his lips at his train of thoughts. He'd always wanted too many things—that was yet another part of the reason why he'd failed as a Jedi.
Stopping is out of the question, he told himself. Not until the Narzgh stopped coming, and not until he found out why, tonight, he'd sensed something that chilled the marrow in his bones.
It wasn't the eyeless faces stretched into monstrous howls—bloody, ruined mouths gaping wide—that made the breath freeze in his lungs: it was the darkness that seemed to have come along for the ride. Tonight, the dark side of the Force, an old friend and a new foe, was boiling with hatred and spreading icy tendrils throughout the Outer Rim. It had been barely noticeable at first, a tickle of warning at the back of his neck—not so now. Sometime during the night, it had fully revealed itself, taunting him and making him wonder if he'd been blind to it before. He'd tried and failed to rake through that dark miasma to trace it to its source, but the shroud was too thick and widespread. Fed by the terror of millions, it was getting noticeably stronger by the hour. Every scream made the dark currents churn harder, swirling tighter.
It unnerved him. It also slashed at his confidence. His promise to Padmé seemed to mock him too. Fate was a concept that he didn't much consider, but tonight, he wondered if he'd tempted it once too often. His instincts were screaming a warning that something catastrophic was about to happen, or be unleashed.
If he was right, he didn't know if he could hold back whatever it was alone.
Even drawing on Force-strength to fuel him, he was tiring. This was his second battle in as many days with little rest between. The raid had already lasted for most of the night, and it felt like days. Weariness dragged at the edges of his mind, sapping his will. His shoulders were on fire with the constant hacking and slashing. The pain in his thigh had settled down to a dull, nagging throb that didn't look to be easing any time soon. The rain only added to the misery, drumming down, pummelling the gory litter of savage battle.
A battle that was about to recommence.
A dozen meters away, scuttling shadows slunk closer, hoping to catch him off-guard. He let them think it. Some of the Narzgh had scaled the walls of nearby buildings, dropping down when forced into the relative open, loping towards the shattered skywalk. The pallid moonlight that they needed to provide the necessary reflection revealed the oozing, open wounds visible on the charred skin. Ironically, Anakin was reminded of the city's temple devotees.
He could smell their putrid stench now. It was time to act.
Gritting his teeth against the expected fresh wave of agony, Anakin yanked out the claws and hurled the severed hand at the face of an oncoming, charging Narzgh. It hit the creature squarely in the face. Snarling, the demon barely recoiled, but the moment of distraction was enough for Anakin to charge forward himself and decapitate it.
The others came on, undeterred. He fought them. Down to two, he cursed when, true to their new tactic, they went into a snarling retreat, forcing him to go after them. A burst of blaster fire from close by made his heart stutter with a rush of fear for whoever was firing that weapon. It was yet another distraction. He'd heard it on and off all night, sometimes in the distance, and sometimes close-by.
It wasn't Padmé, he told himself. It couldn't be. She was safe with the others in the Limidian. She'd agreed to go up in the ship and Sal had sworn he'd keep her safe.
He had to believe that.
He forced himself to clear his mind and focus. You have a job to do. Get on with it. You'll see Padmé later.
The reminder was timely. Tonight, he had a new objective—to capture a Narzgh alive—and he still hadn't figured out a way of incapacitating one without killing it. Slicing off all limbs only seemed to make it prey for its own kind.
These two he was chasing might be his last chance.
So don't foul it up.
He didn't intend to.
The pursuit took him into what had once been a section of the city offering more general leisure facilities than Whores Hole. Signs designed to draw in custom hung dejected and the few holoposters still working were too damaged to do more than feebly flicker. The evidence of waste and crumbling decay was even more advanced here. All commercial entities had moved into the Core decades ago, making anything this district could offer defunct, except as more soulless space for the desperate to starve, hide and die inside. Even now he could feel their misery and fear ooze out of the vein-like cracks in the building walls. Directly ahead was a huge, domed building that dominated the immediate cityscape. A ramp led up to a doorway big enough to fly an imperial gunship through.
At the street-level end of the ramp, the rain had accumulated into a body of water several meters in length and width. The two Narzgh he'd pursued here were crouched around the edge, making no move to rush him or evade. This waiting was different behaviour again. Tense, wary, Anakin approached, suspecting a trap, but unable to detect any other Narzgh close enough to be a threat. It didn't take a genius to guess that the water was the key—it always was with these things.
Ahead of him, the Narzgh still hadn't moved and didn't react when he reactivated his lightsaber. Anakin had the unpleasant idea that what, or who, they were waiting for was the very same thing that had his instincts clamouring.
He ran through scenarios for keeping one alive in his head as he closed the distance. Ten metres. Six metres. Four metres.
That was as close as he got before the water began to whip and churn. He didn't need to reach out with his mind for clues. It wasn't so much a disturbance in the Force as a full body slam. Anakin had to stop himself from recoiling from it. Stunned, he was almost certain he recognised the poisonous presence. Shock blanked his mind but for one single thought.
No! It couldn't be him, could it?
Unfortunately, the answer his numb brain came back with was, why not? Hadn't he been expecting to meet a lightsaber-wielding Narzgh before long? Why not one he knew?
Mesmerised despite himself, Anakin watched the robed figure form and emerge. Water cascaded off the bulky frame as if rushing to escape. Every shred of darkness seemed to converge over the newly arrived Narzgh, making the stormy night appear washed-out and placid in comparison. Having done their bit in luring him here, the other Narzgh scattered like whipped dogs when a gloved hand reached up to pull back the concealing hood.
Seeing the face revealed, Anakin's hand tightened convulsively on the hilt of his lightsaber. Suspicions sparked in his mind—far too many and too devastating to contemplate now. Staring, he sucked in a slow, steadying breath.
He was still recognisable. He was blackened to a large extent, but enough of the distinctive red skin and black tattoos had survived the horrors of the third world. The burning ochre and crimson eyes remained too—they glared their hatred and satisfaction. The Force crackled with it.
Ignoring the departing demons, Anakin kept all of his attention for the newcomer. He knew he'd need it. This was no mere mindless wreck of a being twisted into an abomination. After all, the Zabrak had been an abomination before death. Exhaustion fled. Physical aches were wilfully blocked. Bone deep enmity was harder to ignore. So was the knowledge that the root of that enmity lay back much further than a duel on Kalakar Six. Spectres from the past hovered at the edge of his consciousness. Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan. And Sidious
"Maul," Anakin acknowledged, lightly, although he felt anything but calm. "You have a bad habit of turning up where you're not supposed to be." Tipping his head, he appeared to consider the dead Sith. "I'll have to cure you of that."
Smiling coldly, Maul took the steps he needed to reach drier ground, not towards Anakin, but onto the permacrete ramp behind him, leaving the water between them. "Courageous talk, Jedi, but tell me do you still hate yourself enough to defeat me?"
The title of Jedi was meant as an insult. Their last encounter had been as Sith on Sith—violent, brutal, destructive and murderous. Anakin chose not to acknowledge the gibe. He quirked a brow. "Again, you mean?"
Instead of answering, Maul dropped his outer robe off his shoulders and motioned with the fingers of one gloved hand—a mocking invitation. In the other, he activated his double-bladed lightsaber.
Snap-hiss. Snap-hiss. Blood- red plasma pulsed and blazed.
Adrenaline surged, shooting hotly through Anakin's system. He leapt into the air with his own blue blade shining brightly. Blue and red clashed with the opening strike. Maul blocked with his upper right 'saber and then, swift as a snake, attacked with the lower left. Parrying, Anakin went on a counter-offensive. Speed and immersion in the Force was essential. His world narrowed to this pitted platform only—to this fight. As Vader, Anakin had continued to favour the aggressive, dominant style of Form V Djem So he'd mastered as a Jedi, only transforming it to suit his distinctive needs by incorporating elements from other forms. Now, Anakin used this versatility to keep Maul on the defensive. Even without tapping into Force-rage, he pushed the Narzgh all the way up the ramp with ever swifter, brutal power strokes.
Driven back by the sheer kinetic energy of Anakin's assault, Maul's ruined face twisted with virulent hate as he parried and retreated. Finally, framed in the broken doorway at the top of the ramp, he executed a body-spin, at the same time deflecting Anakin's strike before it could cleave his head in two. Smoothly, he followed up with a snap-kick to the chin that sent Anakin staggering backwards. The move left an opening. Only, he didn't press his advantage. Instead, Maul gave a feral grin, turned and disappeared inside the dome.
Infuriated, Anakin shook his head to clear it of the ringing from the blow, and followed. Resolve hardened his heart and his expression, turning both to stone. So Maul wanted to play games, did he?
Grinding out a curse, Sal Trent manoeuvred the freighter so that it scraped between two jutting spires—just. He was drenched with sweat, and seriously pissed. Still wrestling with the controls, he spared his co-pilot a glare. "Can I just point out that this ship isn't built for street fighting?" he ground out.
"Don't look at me. It wasn't my idea to hang out of a basket under the belly of the ship to take pot-shots at hellbeasts—" Clinging white-knuckled to the console with both hands, Lorne's voice rose with panic, "—Mind that post."
"It's not a basket, it's a maintenance safety harness, and that wasn't a post, it was a com array," Sal shot back, testily. "It'd be a lot easier to navigate if I wasn't having to fly low enough to get blinded by the damned smoke—in case you didn't notice it."
"Well, thank you, Mr Pedantic. How about you just fly the ship, preferably with your eyes open? The smoke isn't as thick as it was—in case you hadn't noticed."
It was true. The rain was finally dampening the fires started by the Narzgh to flush out victims, reducing them to a sullen smoulder.
"Why you—" Sal's growl was cut off by a much more impressive, plaintive one, and it came from the new gunnery compartment. Freyrr sounded no happier than Sal.
Neither of them understood Wookiee. "What's she saying?"
"I have no idea." Lorne stood up, "But, I'm outta here anyway. I think I'll go and see how the princess is doing. I figure I stand a better chance of not going grey watching her shoot things than you fly."
Sal gave him another death glare. "You're gonna pay for that."
"I always do, Sugarplum."
Staggering his way through the bowels of the engineering bay, arms out to steady himself while trying not to snag or push anything crucial as the ship pitched and tossed, Lorne sincerely wished he'd stayed in Caritas. Of course, it had sounded like a good idea at the time. Flying in the air way, way above where any Narzgh could reach had seemed perfectly safe. Unfortunately, the plan changed.
Red eyes rolled in disgust. "Oh, didn't it just."
The freight elevator doors opened just as the Limidian gave a serious jolt, almost pitching Lorne inside, head first. Muttering under his breath, he jammed himself into the corner and jabbed a finger on the control panel, selecting the lower cargo loading room.
A whistling, beeping Ceetee met him at the end of the short, jerky ride down. Behind the droid, Padmé Amidala was sat cross-legged on the cargo room floor. She was still graceful, despite the bulky straps and buckles of the harness. He noticed that the contents of a medpac was spread out by her right hip, a circumstance that was explained when he saw she was patching up a deep, jagged cut on her arm. The gash was deep and sullenly oozing blood. Lorne was almost afraid to ask, but she must have glanced up and seen the direction of his gaze.
"A grappling hook got too close," she explained, spraying on the flexible bandage that would help staunch the flow. "I came up to deal with it in case I lost too much blood."
The fact that she wouldn't meet his gaze told him that he still wasn't forgiven for walking into his apartment and finding her lip-locked with her juicy Jedi of a husband. He didn't blame her; it had been a doozy of an 'oops' moment—and not just for himself.
Gingerly lowering himself to sit next to her, Lorne shuddered at the sudden notion he had of what could've happen to her if she passed out while dangling underneath the ship. "If it got that close, it was too close," he told her, feelingly. "I am so not sticking around when you're explaining that one."
Jerking her head up, Padmé fixed him with a steely stare. "There's no reason for him to find out. It's just a cut. It'll heal."
They both knew the 'him' was Anakin. A definite touchy subject.
Thinking that she'd have a job hiding the fact that she was soaked to the skin, soot-covered and wearing a bandage, Lorne wisely changed the subject. "I still don't get why your furry friend gets to stay in the nice warm gunnery … cockpit, or whatever you call it, while you're stuck out here."
"I'm better at hitting smaller targets and the cannons can only be used when there's no chance of damaging a building," she said, snapping on the snug, padded cuff that would hold the bandage in place. "There are people inside them, remember."
"Which, considering we're in a densely populated area, doesn't give her much to do. I think I figured out why your pal is getting so vocal—she's frustrated."
That earned him a small smile. "We all are. Blasters really don't have much effect. I honestly don't know how much good I've been doing out there." She sighed and scrubbed a palm over her forehead, the elbow resting on one upraised knee. Exhaustion had turned her skin translucent. "At least it seems to be ending. I haven't spotted any Narzgh in the last few minutes." She paused, flicked him a glance and asked, " Have you seen Anakin lately?"
All that was missing was her casually checking her nails. He wasn't fooled by her casual tone, or miss the flush that stained her cheeks enough that she ducked her head, suddenly intent on repacking the medpac with all of the due care of a surgeon with a laser scalpel. "Nope. Not for a while. I think our intrepid pilot is avoiding flying over where he is in case your overly protective ex takes exception to your idea of staying safely out of the way—and us being crazy enough to let you do it."
The hand-held medisensor was unlucky enough to be in her hand when he said it. Due care went out of the proverbial window. She jammed it into its slot hard enough to shatter some circuits. "How many times do I have to say this? Anakin is not my keeper. I don't answer to him."
An imp he would strangle later made him say, "No, but he loves you, and he is the one wearing the shiny, deadly stick-thing attached to his belt twenty-four-seven. It tends to make folks sit up and notice."
His reward was yet another death glare. Slamming the lid of the medpac shut, she rose regally to her feet. Staying where he was, Lorne winced, mentally making a note to have his meddling instincts surgically removed. He held up his hands in conciliation. "Hey, don't shoot the messenger. I can't control what I see."
Brown eyes smiting him, she snapped. "Well, try—"
Luckily for the skin she was about to verbally flay off him, the nearby com pinged and Sal's gruff voice filtered out of the speaker, cutting her off. "I need some more eyes up here. Something weird is going on, and I can't spot our hero anywhere."
Maul was cloaking his Force signature. Frustration that he'd lost the momentum so easily threatened to cloud his thoughts: Anakin pushed it back. After all, it was what Maul wanted, his judgement impaired to the point of rashness. Such a tactic was typical of Dun Möch—a Sith form of combat that aimed to dominate and undermine an opponent's will through doubt, uncertainty and confusion.
Keeping his emotions contained, Anakin searched, knowing that soon enough Maul would reveal himself. For one thing, dawn couldn't be that far off. The dome turned out to be a sports arena. He walked passed smashed ticket dispensers, forlorn concession stands covered in graffiti, gender-oriented freshers, and VIP boxes where the privileged had watched either swoop racing or what looked like some sort of derivative of Galactic shock ball. Ghostly echoes of past noise and crowds made the silence oddly heavy and oppressive. Leaning over the railing of one of those boxes, he looked down at the arena floor. Thanks to the retractable roof of the dome having been left open, the track and playing-field were overgrown with plant life, so much so that it was hard to spot the acceleration pads and automated obstacles that were designed to test a swoop driver to the absolute limit.
The shock ball came out of nowhere.
Anakin ducked, and spinning, watched it crash into the far wall, ricochet off the ceiling with a shower of silica and then head right back at him. Eyes widening, Anakin suddenly recalled the most dangerous aspect of a shock ball. With no other choice, he swung a leg over the railing and jumped, plummeting to the general stands far below.
Strikingly similar to the energy ball used by the Gungans at the battle of Naboo, a shock ball was filled with a form of unstable plasma. The difference was that being hit by one wasn't deadly, just disabling. Unfortunately, the ball was self-propelled, flight capable, incredibly fast, practically indestructible and programmed to chase after anything that moved.
Even cushioned by the Force, Anakin's landing wasn't soft. He landed on his feet, but the moulded plastex seat under him, weakened by decades of weather corrosion, collapsed, taking him with it. Rolling from one level to the next, he absorbed the pain and managed to stop himself by reaching out and latching onto a sturdier seat. Splayed on his side across two levels, he sought to bring his rioting senses back under control.
It was then that he noticed that the whole grounds were suddenly alight with illumination. Obviously, despite being abandoned for seventy years, there was still power. On the far side of the track, a scoreboard hummed into life, announcing in a male-simulated voice that the score was 0:0 with one ball in play.
All Anakin could think was, thank the Force there was only one.
A split-second of warning meant Anakin whipped around and twisted his lower body out of the way just in time to avoid sliced in two by Maul's lightsaber. Jerking his head around, he got a flash of bared fangs and molten eyes. Using a Force-push that Maul resisted, Anakin was able to swing his legs around and up, getting his revenge for the earlier kick to the face. He used the reprieve to reactivate his own 'saber.
Flexing his back, Anakin flipped upright onto his feet. A few feet away, Maul twirled his saberstaff and then attacked with a superfast flurry of alternating, horizontal strikes that was the true power behind a double-bladed weapon. Gritting his teeth, it was all Anakin could do to parry each one, especially since movement was restricted on the decidedly uneven surface of the stands.
There was no talking, only grunting and sweat. The shock ball also did its best to keep things interesting. Leaping from chair to chair, level to level, the combat continued with furious intensity. Blue and red light danced and twirled so fast as to be a blur. Each concentrated on making every slash, chop and swing as savage as possible. Jumping in the air to avoid an ankle-sweep, Anakin aimed high, slashing at Maul's neck. The move was blocked. Executing a misleading half spin, Maul went in low again. This time, Anakin did a full back-flip, gaining time to drag up three of the loosest seats and sending them zipping straight at Maul.
The shock ball got one, Maul slashed another in two, but the third hit its mark. While Maul struggled for balance, Anakin flew at him.
Slash. Parry. Strike. Block. Lashing out with another kick, Anakin sent Maul crashing into the safety barrier that separated the lowest seats from the track. This time they crossed 'sabers and held. Blade-to-blade they strained, snarling faces only inches apart. Anakin was taller, but Maul was heavier: neither could get the advantage long enough to do anything about it.
Eyes glinting hungrily, Maul leaned in and snapped his fangs a hairsbreadth from Anakin's skin.
Stomach rolling in disgust, Anakin ended the futile contest. Abruptly switching to a one-handed grip on his lightsaber, he aimed an open-palm strike at Maul's chin, viciously snapping his head back on his neck so that it collided with the barrier, gritting out, "Did no-one ever teach you not to play with your food?"
His back-spin chop was deflected and then Maul flipped over the barrier to land nimbly on the track itself. Anakin followed. On firm ground, he made an impulsive decision. Bracing his legs apart, he assumed the opening Soresu stance—Obi-Wan's preferred style. The Way of the Mynock. The way of patience and perseverance. The first had never been his strong-suit—bizarrely, now seemed a good time to practice.
"Defence is for cowards and weaklings." Maul mocked, prowling in a wide semi-circle on the cracked and sun-bleached track surface. "You will not slay me with patience—a fact that you proved to your old Jedi master yourself."
Instead of being provoked, Anakin felt a wave of rightness—he could explain the glow flooding inside his belly in no other way. "Obi-Wan defeated you as a padawan. I wouldn't be so quick to crow if I were you."
Leading with a swing from behind his back, Maul's attack was a furious whirlwind of murderous red. Still, he was unable to break through Anakin's swift blocks and parries that left no opening for a strike to penetrate. Again and again, Anakin gave ground, exactly as Obi-Wan had on Mustafar. It didn't matter, there was plenty of ground to give and he had time to gain insights into this twisted, demon version of Sidious' first apprentice.
Until he backed onto an acceleration pad.
It was like standing between two power couplings. Every hair rose on Anakin's body. Judders worked up his legs and he was powerless to control his limbs. Then, he went airborne. He sailed over Maul's head. A net strong enough to catch a racing swoop going at over six hundred kilometres per hour levered up from the ground, and he had no way of avoiding it. Behind him, Maul didn't sense the ground give way beneath his feet until too late—a trap door big enough to swallow a swoop bike sent the Narzgh sliding into the nether-regions of the arena.
Clinging to the webbing of the net with the fingers of one hand, Anakin had a choice, lose track of his foe again, or make the leap. He leapt. Landing, rolling and sliding, he followed Maul seconds before the trap door closed shut again.
They'd been drawn to the glow of light from the arena like a beacon. Sal piloted the Limidian so that it remained stationery over the open roof of the dome. They had an excellent view of the inside. Apart from an initial gasp, Padmé was silent as she watched the duel unfold below. She couldn't talk past the lump of fear in her throat anyway. Not to mention that she was holding her breath.
On her right, a grim-faced Sal muttered a curse. "I wondered when one of those black-hearted maggots was going to show up."
The fight seemed to go on forever, yet the speed of it was breathtaking. By the time Anakin leapt to the track, Padmé's heart was thudding sickly, her belly was in knots and she had half-moon cuts on her palms from digging her nails into her skin. In her mind, she was practically chanting a string of pleas to any power that would listen.
I can't go through this again. I need him to be okay. Please let him be okay.
After a few moments of watching Anakin being driven back, Lorne covered his eyes. "Okay, I can't watch. Tell me when it's over."
Padmé wanted to cover her eyes too and might have if she wasn't locked in place. It was torture to watch. She knew enough to recognise that the two fighters were evenly
matched—meaning it could go either way. Dread squeezed tighter in relentless fist. She was afraid to lose him. She was utterly powerless to help and terrified Anakin might be cut down right in front of her eyes. Just the thought of it shredded her heart. It was also surreal to realise that she'd never truly hated before, until now. She hated the monster in black in that moment with every fibre of her being. Wrapping her arms around her middle, she tried to contain the churning inside. Please don't let Anakin be hurt. Please!
Still with his eyes covered, Lorne offered, "Can't we shoot it or something?"
The question made her jolt. "I've been thinking that too, but I'm terrified of hitting Anakin—they're moving so fast, and what if all we do is distract him at the wrong moment?"
The debate became moot when the net sprang up and caught Anakin. Padmé's heart literally stopped in her chest. Contrarily, the relief she felt when the Narzgh fell down a trap that opened under its feet was so strong it made her dizzy. Her eyes slid shut and the constriction in her chest eased. At last, it was over and he was safe.
Unfortunately, the relief was short-lived.
Disbelievingly, she watched Anakin slide down into the same pit just before it closed. What left her reeling was the certainty that the move could only have been deliberate.
There was a stunned silence. Then, voice thick with incredulity, Sal said what they were all thinking. "What the hell? That kid is certifiable!"
Oddly, Padmé felt calm—icy calm. She knew just what she was going to do.
"Land the ship on the track."
All eyes swung towards Padmé. "Land the ship," she repeated, turning to push past Freyrr. In the pilot's seat, Sal opened his mouth. She whipped around, expression suddenly fierce. "And, don't even try and argue with me. I refuse to stand by and let that thing get Anakin. He might think he's indestructible, but he's wrong—even a Jedi gets tired. We can help, and I don't know about you, but I have to try. Land the ship."
It was pitch-black inside. He fell roughly five metres. Managing to twist himself to land on his feet, Anakin had the errant thought that Obi-Wan would have been proud that he'd kept a hold of his lightsaber.
The protesting creak of metal and whoosh of displaced air had him dropping flat to the floor and rolling. Even so, the crash sounded right by his head and debris rained down on his back and legs. Keeping going, Anakin regained his feet just in time to deflect a stab that would have sunk Maul's lightsaber into his guts.
Reverting back to Form V, Anakin performed a circular sweep that dragged his blade across Maul's. The tish-zung of opposing plasma was deafening. Maul brought up his knee. Anakin brought up his own and blocked it. They separated and then came back together. Walls and equipment were soon lit up by eerie flashing, swirling light as the duel reached new heights of speed and viciousness. Some of that same equipment went flying through the air, aimed at either opponent. Sparks showered the pair as metal found itself rent into fragments by the superheated force contained in a glowing blade.
Spin. Slash. Parry. Right chop. Block. Left chop. Block. Twirl. Slash. Overhead strike. Deflect. Spin. Strike. Strike. Strike. Block. Spin. Twirl. Sweep. Jump. Chop. Kick.
Finding himself about to slam into a wall, Anakin raised a leg, planted it and used the wall as a springboard to flip away.
"You are weak," sneered Maul, tracking him. "Even the feeble powers you held as a cyborg are gone. The dark side has abandoned you. You cannot win. It is inevitable that I will defeat you."
Only the Sith deal in absolutes. The memory came out of nowhere. For the first time it made Anakin smile, albeit ruefully.
"Is that supposed to be an insult? Get your facts straight. The dark side didn't abandon me, I abandoned it. I don't want it. I don't need it." He punctuated each statement with a flurry of slashes that forced the Narzgh back. "And, just so you know—" Anakin's overhead strike was powerful enough to sing up both sets of arms. As Maul blocked, Anakin used the contact to shove him back, "—I don't feel like losing tonight."
When the last words were spoken, Anakin feinted left, spun, switched hands and reversed his grip on his lightsaber. Maul didn't see it coming and Anakin's blade slashed up the Narzgh's front, severing the double-handle of his saberstaff to the right of its middle.
Throwing the useless half away, Maul flew at him, enraged. Being deprived one of half of his weapon in no way made the Narzgh any less dangerous or powerful an opponent.
The battle shifted from chamber to chamber, bay to bay, leaving a trail of smoking, sparking destruction in its wake. At one point, they hit a control panel that tripped an alarm, causing the lights to come on, but flashing red instead of a steady yellow. Anakin was on the defensive again when a door opened behind his back, leading into a narrow, confined corridor. They went through it. Accessways fit only for small droids led off the corridor into other areas, all were dismissed as too cramped. A set of tracks were set into the floor. Searching for the reason for the tracks through the Force, Anakin found the transport cart at the other end of the corridor, and brought it hurtling towards the fight.
The four passenger automated cart shot sparks as it raced towards Maul's unprotected back. Sensing it at the last moment, Maul threw himself to the side. Raising a hand, concentrating fiercely, Anakin brought the cart to a shuddering halt before it reached him, lifted it and hurled it straight at Maul anyway.
Maul raised his hand too. Growling like the animal he was, he called on the dark side to reverse the cart's direction. It halted in-between them, quivering and groaning under the immense, duel pressure. Cracks appeared in the transparasteel windows and the sturdy alloy body began to buckle.
Anakin was sure he could have won that particular contest, if Padmé hadn't suddenly appeared at the same doorway he'd come through only moments ago. He blinked, thinking her an illusion at first. His concentration slipped only a notch, perhaps for a microsecond, but it was enough. Maul's Force-push didn't just shove the cart, but Anakin too. He felt himself fly backwards as if catapulted. In the blink of an eye, he was crashing into an archway built into the corridor to help support it from the weight of the arena above. The impact sent white-hot agony ripping through his body. If he hadn't instinctively cushioned himself it could have knocked him unconscious, or worse. Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of it. The cart was on the same trajectory.
Sprawled on the floor, Anakin was forced to roll again. Purely by accident, he bumped into his lightsaber. The impact had jerked it from his nerveless hand. The silver and black hilt skittered in front of him as he tried to get some distance. With a tremendous crash of rending metal, the cart smashed into the archway, and like Anakin before it, dropped to the floor. It came to rest inches away, blocking the entire corridor at one end.
Heart thundering, ears ringing, Anakin didn't stop to think or feel the pain still streaking through his body. Lunging to his feet, he called his lightsaber to hand and pelted back the way they'd come.
Padmé and Maul were gone.
No! No! NO!
"Padmé!" Her name came out as a desperate, despairing roar that raked the lining of his throat. Calling on every vestige of power at his command, he reached for more speed.
Padmé didn't have time to check that Anakin was all right. As they'd expected, the Narzgh came straight at her the moment it saw her. She wasn't stupid enough to waste time using a blaster. Arms pumping, heart racing, she sprinted back through the maze of still smoking chambers—the very same path of destruction she'd used to find Anakin. In one hand she was desperately clutching a com-link. Behind her, the Narzgh didn't try to silence his pursuit. Under the sounds of her own panting breaths, hammering pulse and thudding feet, she thought she heard Anakin's despairing bellow. There wasn't time to feel sorry for causing him pain either.
Skidding around a corner, the doorway she was aiming for came into view and she locked eyes on it, willing herself to reach it, willing herself to be faster. Freyrr appeared in her line of sight, blaster rife in hand. Padmé didn't even spare the effort to flinch as the red bolts flew past her shoulder. She just hoped the blaster slowed down the Narzgh because it felt as if the thing was breathing down her neck.
As she got closer, Freyrr dropped back, still ominously firing at the monster chasing Padmé. When she reached her, the Wookiee wheeled around and ran with her. Together, they reached the very same drop-trap chamber that Anakin had fallen down into. The trap door was open again and braced to stay that way. A thick cable dangled down from above. Grasping it, Padmé climbed quicker than she'd ever climbed before, praying that the Narzgh wouldn't go after Freyrr instead. She needn't have worried. All too soon she felt the heavy swing of something latching onto the cable underneath her. She didn't dare look down, just scrambled higher, pulling herself up hand-over-hand.
"We're on," she yelled into the com-link.
The jolt of the ship rising so quickly made her slide down a few gut-wrenching inches. Luckily, the cable began to retract too. Blaster fire from below continued to pepper the Narzgh and she could hear Freyrr's battle roars. The belly of the Limidian got bigger and bigger as Padmé was drawn up. Unfortunately, so was the Narzgh. She could almost feel the searing heat of its malevolence crawling up her legs. Bile spat into her throat at the thought.
Come on. Come on. Come on.
She was still wearing the harness she'd used earlier. The com-link almost slipped out of her sweaty hand as she tried to grasp the hook she needed. The plan was for her to get safely attached to the cage rigged up under the lower deck loading hatch. Once that was done, Ceetee would release the cable the Narzgh was holding onto and drop the demon back to ground—having fallen a long, long way. The ship continued to rise sharply into the air. The cable was swinging wildly now and she didn't need to look down to see that the thing was catching up to her—fast.
Panic tried to haze her mind, but she pushed it back. She just needed a little longer—just a little longer, please!
Reaching up, she slammed the anchoring hook home. Before she could call for Ceetee to release the cable, something latched onto her foot with enough strength to crush the bones. She literally felt them snap. Shrieking pain radiated up her leg in sickening waves.
Depressing the link, she screamed, "Ceetee!" It was all she could manage.
Clinging, dangling, agonised, she barely heard the beeps and whistles of the droid. Please, just get it right, Ceetee. The cable started to whip past her face, released as planned. The agony didn't abate though. The grip tightened again, racking up the pain to truly unbearable.
With no other choice, she looked down. She would never forget the face that grinned up at her with such sadistic, gloating pleasure at causing her pain. It was a Narzgh, yes, but she also recognised it—him. It was the tattoos and the horns, but mostly the fiery red and gold eyes that yanked the memory to the fore of her mind. She'd seen him before. This thing had killed Qui-Gon Jinn. He was also no longer holding onto the cable, but onto her. Her entire leg was on fire now and threatening to rip loose from her hip. She watched through a glaze of pain as he activated his lightsaber. And now he was going to kill her. While one part of her mind realised that she had no chance of kicking him free, the other part of Padmé couldn't not try.
She didn't need to. Something unbelievable happened. Streaking down from above, arcs of blue electricity shot past her and hit the Narzgh directly in that terrifying face. She saw blisters form and could smell the flesh burn. Startled, pained, the Narzgh let go. With no cable to latch onto after having involuntarily released Padmé, he then began to plummet, arms wheeling, heading back to the ground far, far below.
"Ceetee," she whispered, realising who had saved her. Going limp, she inhaled a sobbing, relieved breath. A soft, almost crooning series of toodles floated back down from the hatchway. She didn't need an interpreter. The little droid was pleased with himself, but still concerned about her. Mind floating in the aftermath of adrenaline crash, she made a note to thank the droid. Moments later, hands she barely noticed reached down to grasp her. A comforting voice offered soothing words that washed over her unheard while she was pulled safely inside the Limidian.
Before she knew it, she was lying on the floor of the lower cargo hold again. A green face swam in and out of her vision. "Is Anakin all right?" she asked—then fainted.
It had finally stopped raining. The shock ball court was encircled by the racetrack and equally overrun with shrub and weeds. Body numb, emotions raw, Anakin walked towards where Maul had landed—skewered through the sternum on a tall, thin post with a basket at the top. The basket now lay in pieces under Maul's back. Adding a surreal twist, the scoreboard had updated, accompanied by the electronically-jovial announcement advising that the score was now 0:1. Unbelievably, the Narzgh was still alive.
Left-over terror for Padmé was still making his breath gutter and limbs quake, leaving no room for anything else. Standing to the side and looking down at Maul, Anakin felt … nothing.
Black blood pooled under the one-time Sith Lord. The horrific extent of his injury had drained his strength, but not his life. He was trying to snap the post jutting up from his torso between his gloved hands. Left alone, he may well have eventually managed to break the post and pull himself up and free. That couldn't be allowed to happen. Without making a conscious decision, Anakin's lightsaber flared back to life. Two chops was all it took to sever those hands. Flopping back, powerless and defeated, Maul glared his loathing.
"Killing me will not help you," he ground out. "In the end, it will make no difference."
Behind them and at his request, Freyrr was waiting for the Limidian to land, and keeping her distance. The Wookiee hadn't argued when he'd asked for time alone with the Narzgh. She'd seemed to understand. Expression dark and yet strangely blank, Anakin hunkered down close. He wanted a short, private conversation before the others arrived.
"Who sent you after me?" he asked without preamble.
Maul's lip curled back, showing stained fangs. "Myself. I wanted my revenge." His voice was as rough as shards of broken glass. He coughed up blood. "Did you think we didn't know about you?"
"You're lying," Anakin said flatly, frowning. "I felt the strength of the dark side tonight. You were always its servant, not the other way around. Only one man I have ever known had the power to bend it to his will. Is Sidious here? Tell me. You have nothing left to lose."
The red gold eyes, burning with unquenchable hate, didn't even blink. "Think what you will. I will tell you nothing."
"And by saying that much, you have told me enough." Anakin knew that hours of torture would gain him nothing more, so he didn't waste time asking. Tipping back his head, he surveyed the sky above. It was beginning to lighten to grey. He sensed some of the others approach. He didn't need to turn around to know that Padmé wasn't with them. He knew exactly where she was. He could feel the echo of her pain quivering in the Force. Pain inflicted by the beast before him. Hot rage flared in his chest—he snuffed it out. "The sun is rising," he told Maul, pointedly. "Does that bother you?"
For the first time something akin to fear flickered over Maul's face. He struggled to lift his head off the ground. "This duel isn't finished until you kill me, Jedi. Victory is yours. What are you waiting for?"
Shrugging, Anakin rose and dusted his hands. "I'm waiting for dawn," he replied simply. He wondered if Maul could sense the blazing satisfaction he felt at saying it. His smile wasn't pleasant. "I'm looking forward to seeing what it does to you."
He walked away then, ignoring Maul's renewed struggles, and now palpable fear.
Sal and Lorne walked over to meet him. CT-6T6 trundled along beside the pilot. He motioned the droid to join him. "Ceetee, get ready to record this?"
It was over. The sun was a blazing yellow disc rising strongly from the rim of the roof while blue chased grey across the sky. Three humanoid witnesses and one atromech droid were ranged in a semi-circle around the remains. Blackened to tar and mostly ash, the face still bore evidence of a last tormented howl. The body had fared no better. The hands Anakin had severed were little more than small piles of ash with a few twisted bones holding them in shape.
"That was oddly satisfying," reflected Sal. He walked over and poked the toe of a dusty brown boot into what had once been a rib. A concave hollow appeared in a puff of ash.
"Who doesn't love watching a big bad turn shish-kabob?" offered Lorne. So saying, the Pylean aimed a glance back at the Limidian, and beamed. "Here's the heroine of the hour," he said, loudly. "Hey beautiful. Come over here and join us." He waved a negligent hand at Maul. "The shows over, but the reviews are still coming in."
Ceetee swivelled his dome and whistled a greeting. Next to the droid, Anakin uncrossed his arms and turned his head too.
For the sake of his flimsi-thin composure, he didn't dwell long on her pale, smudged face, translucent cast and bandages. He'd always hated seeing her hurt—right now, it also made him angry. Along with the sickening images his fertile imagination had come up with when he'd thought Maul had her, his mind insisted on conjuring up the promise she'd finally given him outside the Limidian—softly, reluctantly spoken, and broken.
Supported by Freyrr, Padmé held herself stiffly and didn't meet his gaze for longer than it took to grimace and avert her eyes. Anakin stiffened, reminded of the last time they'd been this close. The scene played back in his head with crystal clarity. She'd backed away from him with a hand over her mouth and those same eyes wide and distraught. I can't do this. I can't risk it, she'd said. At the time, their kiss had still been warm on his lips. Ice covered the spot now and his heart twisted. He'd been pushing the knowledge away, refusing to think about it, but now it slapped him in the face. He'd recognised the emotions racing through her; shock, horror and fear. She couldn't possibly regret that kiss more he did, he thought, with a trace of savagery—it had served only to remind him of what he'd lost and why, that hope, even unacknowledged, was an illusion, and that a part of her still feared that he could fall back to the dark side.
Other emotions joined the slow simmer of his anger. Despair, pain, and yes, resentment, threatened to overwhelm him.
He turned away. He had to, but not before noting the glaze in her eyes. Obviously, she'd been given the standard pain meds. While dealing with the fallen Maul, the knowledge that he would be able to see to her better later had allowed him to concentrate on the task at hand. His fingers clenched into fists. He still intended to, whether she liked it or not.
Staring at nothing, his jaw went so tight that a muscle ticced. It was her own fault. If she'd listened to him, she wouldn't have got hurt in the first place.
The others were oblivious to his rioting emotions. Freyrr took Padmé over to Lorne. Crooking an inviting elbow, the Pylean asked, "So, have you come to see the crispy critter?"
Threading her other arm through Lorne's, Padmé gave a brisk nod. "I wanted to see the result for myself."
Silently, they left her to soak in the sight of what was left of Darth Maul. She gazed at the charred remains dispassionately for a few seconds. Then a smile broke over her face, as fresh and clear as the new dawn they stood under. "It does work. The sun really does kill them."
Tingling warmth suffused her foot. Lying back on the cot and staring at the ceiling, Padmé tried not to be so ridiculously sensitive to the touch of Anakin's hands on her skin. Risking a glance at his stony profile, she cleared her throat. "You're really good at that."
He didn't lift his head or shift the hands encasing most of her foot. "Not really. I'm not a healer. I can do some of the smaller stuff if I have to. If you'd have broken a bigger bone, I probably wouldn't have been able to do much."
Padmé sighed. He sounded as a stiff as a new recruit. Maybe it was the drugs, or a side effect of Force-healing, but she decided to call him on it. "You're angry with me aren't you?"
He shot her one hard, glittering look, then turned back to what he was doing. "Why would I be angry that you broke your promise?"
They were still on the Limidian and the ship hummed around them. The cramped crew quarters doubled up as an infirmary when necessary. Padmé felt her own temper flare and stoked it. She rose up on her elbows, all the better to fight back. "I kept that stupid promise—one I was against making, I might add—all night. Then you had to dive into a deep, dark hole with that monster. What was I supposed to do, cross my fingers and hope?"
He still didn't look at her, or answer straight away, although his nostrils flared. Padmé got the distinct impression that he was finishing what he wanted to accomplish before replying.
She was right on the money.
Several heartbeats passed. When he did release her foot and step away, he finally looked at her, letting her see the fire in his eyes. His anger seemed to lend him even more height, so that he towered over her. "I was doing fine until you turned up. I've faced him before, and worse, many times. I was handling it. You shouldn't have been there. If you'd just been a second slower…"
He didn't finish, but whirled away, raking a shaking hand through his hair.
Padmé frowned, staring at his back. It unnerved her more than she cared to admit to see him so agitated—over her. She also hadn't known that Anakin had fought Darth Maul before now. She jutted out her chin, not sure why that made any difference. "How was I supposed to know that you'd fought him before? It's not like you've ever given me a list."
"You were supposed to trust me." His voice sounded suffocated, bitten off—like a man fighting for calm. Hands on hips, he swung back to face her.
His glower was intimidating.
Padmé refused to be cowed. She sat up, not even noticing that her foot didn't so much as twinge. "That's easy for you to say when you're not the one standing watch, powerless to help. I've been doing that for years and I'm tired of it." Their duel glares threatened to ignite the space between them. Padmé forced herself to calm. "Besides, it's not about trust. I do trust you. Maybe you should start trusting me. We did what we set out to do."
"You could have died!" he shot back.
"I've died before. That would be nothing new." She shrew up her hands. "All that would happen to me is that I'd be stuck back in the first world when I want to be here, doing something useful. At least I know that I won't end up a slavering beast intent only on maiming and killing."
So much for calm. Before the last words were out, Padmé wished she could take them back. He was rattling her, but it was no excuse. Diplomacy was supposed to be her stock in trade. She saw shock bloom on his face before he jerked his head to the side to hide it. Jerkily, she lifted a hand, unable to reach him anyway—the distance was too great, all of a sudden it felt like a chasm. "Anakin, I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"
"Yes, you did." As easily as that, he shut down, shutting her out. "And you're right. I don't deny it."
Blank-faced, he nodded at her foot. "You still need to wear the cast and stay off that foot for a few days. After that, you should be fine."
Before she could marshal her wits enough to say anything else, he was gone, leaving her alone with only a resounding silence for company. Flopping back to lie the cot, she pressed a thumb and forefinger into stinging eyes.
What had she done? How could she have said that?
Gods! She hadn't even told him the truth, or not all of it. She'd hinted at it, but he'd missed it. The consequences of Anakin dying before redeeming himself hadn't even occurred to her when she'd made that reckless decision to intervene. Just three simple words and he would have known all of it. I love you.