ANON REPLIES:

mlhkvh5 – Hugs! I'm so sorry for leaving you with bated breath. Hopefully me putting up two chapters again will make up for that. I enjoyed writing chapter 15 and I think that can make all the difference, not to mention it's always wonderful to hear that others enjoyed reading it too. Thanks once again for such a wonderful review. You always make me smile and that is hugely appreciated!

NOTES

Note (1) –I have to mention the movies that have been my inspiration for the third world, namely: Serenity, Event Horizon, Cloverfield and I Am Legend.

Note (2) – Also credit to LadyZ on another site for giving me an idea in her last post following chapter sixteen. I'm sure she'll know what I mean.

Note (3) – I'm once again double posting two chapters into one. The reason being is that of all of the chapters I've written, I didn't like 16 so much and wanted to finish with one I did like, so you get chapter 17 too. Don't worry they are both fairly short for me. I hope you enjoy them. HUGS

Chapter Sixteen

Sidious was once again watching a holofeed. Unfortunately, such technology was his only true window into the city and had been ever since his arrival here. The limitation had irked him considerably, but he had to admit that a part of it had been self-imposed. He could have gone out at night, once the sun had gone down, but to have done so might have alerted Anakin and left a trail in the Force for his treacherous apprentice to follow. He had deemed it too risky—not so now.

He watched intently as the two speeder bikes entered the water, ripping through the veil that separated the second and third worlds. He froze the life-size image on the second bike—and the man atop it—the handsome face caught in lines of fierce, burning resolve. Sidious indulged himself by dwelling on the sight, rationalising that even a powerful Dark Lord of the Sith needed to gloat every once in a while.

Darth Vader, once again Anakin Skywalker. Youthful, powerful in the Force, skilled and resourceful, and still pitifully weak—with love.

"You have learned, nothing!" he rasped derisively. "How many times have I proved to you that love weakens you? Many times, over and over did I dedicate tasks to you that would drive that point home, and yet, once again, you've let yourself fall into the same trap—how satisfyingly predictable of you." Fingering the controller in his hand, he prepared to dispel the image, after making one final, satisfied statement, "At least now you are where you belong and can trouble me no longer."

He replaced the image with a current news feed and found utter hysteria. With the rain barrier no longer operating, the whole of the city was under attack and already at crisis point. Only a few emergency services were still operating, desperately trying to keep going in the chaos. A fitting end to what had been a crucial night, Sidious mused. Of course, it was also a fitting beginning to his true plans. Plans that would allow him to return to the living world. All he needed was power—tremendous power—and it would soon be within his grasp. Sidious knew, as did many of his illustrious forebears that the dark side thrived and fed off the horror and terror of others. The most incredible feats had all been accomplished under such conditions, including regenerating a dying body from the grief of a single person. All Sidious needed to do was feed it enough so that he could use it. A whole city, comprised of millions of tormented beings, should do the trick, and then Sidious would be able to tap into the most powerful surge of the dark side since the last of the Sith empires.

He could already feel it begin.

Very, very soon Vader's ridiculous sacrifice will have been entirely in vain.

Sidious' musings were interrupted by the arrival of Lyonides. He turned to find the man making a deep obeisance to him in the barely lit gloom. It didn't even occur to him to feel satisfaction at the transformation from demanding, prideful co-conspirator to obedient servant, he'd expected it. "Report."

"The Falleen witnessed Vader's descent into the third world and have already departed at full speed." Lyonides didn't lift his head even when he went on to add, "The city itself is overrun with Narzgh, who seem to be doing as you commanded, my lord, and not returning to the third world with their victims as they would normally do."

Sidious gave a cackle. "What good would they do me there? The third world, as Vader is about to find out, is a truly Force-forsaken place. I need them here, adding succour to the dark side." The black hood hiding his ravaged visage bobbed as he nodded. "Good. Good. This is excellent news and exactly as I foresaw." Savouring the news, Sidious turned away, pausing to gesture with one clawed hand. "Rise, my friend, and walk with me. I have an urge to feel the fresh night air on my skin tonight."

Lyonides did as he was bidden, rising and saying, "I am pleased that you're pleased, my lord."

Together, they walked leisurely towards the chamber exit. "There have been no problems, I take it?" asked Sidious.

There was infinitesimal pause. "A number of other ships managed to escape before the shields could be activated to prevent it. Unfortunately, this was unavoidable as we needed to allow the Falleen time to leave rather than risk coming under fire."

Sidious flicked an aggravated claw, dismissing the excuse. "How many ships?"

In the enclosed space of the tunnel linking the subterranean aspects of the palace from the main, he could hear Lyonides swallow his terror. "Less than a dozen, my lord—a hundred people at most."

Sidious mulled it over for a moment, letting Lyonides sweat, then said magnanimously, "So be it. As you've pointed out, a few escapees using the window of opportunity presented by the Falleen would have been unavoidable."

He let Lyonides take a shuddering breath of relief, before tacking on, "However, I will be less lenient if you tell me that the necessary adjustments to the barrier have not yet been carried out."

"The adjustment are complete, my lord." Relief at being able to say so suffused Lyonides' voice. "When the sun rises tomorrow, the barrier will block it out completely. Junga Roth will remain in darkness for as long as you deem it necessary."

Ironically, considering Lyonides' statement, a strong light glimmered up ahead, literally the light at the end of the tunnel, but not for Junga Roth. Darth Sidious no longer felt the need to hide.

ooo

Freyrr was flying the Limidian with an even more battered Ceetee rolling around the cockpit and toodling dolefully. The atmosphere was dire and funereal. The Wookiee was no help, unable to restrain herself from giving out long, shattered howls that flooded the cramped cabin with the truly heart-rending sounds of wrenching grief. Not only had they lost two friends to the worst imaginable fate, but they'd been forced to flee a city that was literally being torn apart by demons.

Lorne was in the crew quarters, trying to get an injured Sal to lie still so that his wounds could be treated. Aggravated, he pressed a hand to the man's meaty shoulder when Sal tried once again to rise from the narrow cot. "I can't get these bacta bandages on you if you keep moving around…" he jerked a thumb towards his own chest "…lounge singer remember, not medic."

Sal barely listened, too caught up in the scenes he was replaying in his head. "I should have listened more closely. I should've made him give me the damned details. Kriffin' dreams. He knew…he saw—I told him I'd crash and burn. I warned him not to lay it on me. I'm crap at keeping promises. If I hadn't gotten myself shot by some knuckle-head of a guard, I might have been able to do something."

"So you've said…about a hundred times. Trust me, saying it again won't change anything. It happened. Deal with it. We need to get you patched up and back in the pilot's seat, buckeroo."

That caught Sal's attention enough that he finally lay still so that the gel-coated bandage could be positioned and sealed on his shoulder. "Who's flying the ship now?"

"Freyrr—and I don't think she's in the right frame of mind right now… know what I mean?"

Sal grimaced, catching on. Of all of them, Freyrr had lost the most. Padmé and the Wookiee had been more like family than friends. If Sal riddled with guilt and grief, he didn't want to even imagine how she felt. Grunting in pain, he turned over so that Lorne could put another bacta bandage on the blaster bolt's exit wound. "So, get on with patching me up so that I get can get back to doing what I can do right—flying a damned ship."

Lorne did as requested, none too gently, and over-riding his irascible friend's pained protest with a reminder, "Just remember to head south east, and you owe me a song, buster." Turning to dispose of the packaging, he muttered under his breath, feelingly, "God help us both."

When he turned back, Lorne found a pair of scowling dark eyes watching him from the pillow of the cot. "Tell me about that old man again. Slower this time."

ooo

Instinct made Anakin tense and hold his breath when he broke the surface of the water. Only instead of colliding with solid ground, he found himself pulling free of the drag of the water to fly free and unimpeded up into the air. It was still raining and as black and bleak as deep space. The feel of an icy wind rushing over his skin was unmistakable, as was the unimaginable stench of putrid rot. It didn't take a genius to realise that he'd left Roth behind and was now in the third world.

Blinking to clear his vision, he shifted, moving his centre of gravity to lean over the handlebars again in an effort to reach maximum speed. He didn't bother looking around, focusing purely on the other bike racing ahead of him. The hot flare of the bike's exhaust vents made it easy to keep track of despite the unrelenting darkness.

He was so intent on rescuing Padmè that he didn't notice straight away that something else was missing. When it did finally register, he felt a stronger than ever frisson of panic. Even when drugged to insensibility he'd been able to feel the Force, but not reach it—now, he couldn't even feel it.

Ahead of him, the bike bearing the Narzgh and Padmè dipped, swerved and then disappeared from view. Every other thought flew out of his head. Following, Anakin felt the solid mass of something brushing by on his left. Going with instinct, he banked sharply left the moment that mass disappeared. The other bike came back into view. Relief had no time to form. The dim light thrown off by both bikes revealed what at first appeared to be tunnel walls—yet, there was something about them that was both too uniform, and too unnatural to have been born from any mere formation of rock.

With the exception of the two speeder bikes, the darkness was absolute and nightmarishly oppressive. Unable to tap into the Force, Anakin was doubly blind and without a clue of what horrors might lie ahead. Terror for Padmè, and the unknown, was almost overwhelming—it was a fear unlike any he'd ever felt before, curling at the edges of his mind and gnawing at his insides.

Coming with minutes of dying on Mustafar had not cut him off from the Force, and neither had being less than half a man as Vader. This abrupt end of a comfort he'd enjoyed since birth was truly torturous. He felt like a defenceless child again, or a blind sand grub about to be eaten by a Worrt.

The only way he could deal with it was by concentrating exclusively on the bike in front. He couldn't lose Padmè too. Nothing else mattered, he reminded himself. Nothing. When the Narzgh dodged and weaved, Anakin copied, blind to whatever obstacle was being avoided and praying that he didn't mis-time his manoeuvres. Then the light started to change. A tinge of red appeared overhead, pushing back the darkness enough that Anakin could see that he wasn't in a tunnel at all, but racing though the skeletal remains of a decaying city. Thick towers soared up from below and speared into the now blood-red sky. Anakin had time for one thought—that it looked uncannily like Junga Roth—before the Narzgh began to dive.

At the same moment, a shrieking wailing began that seemed to strike out from every direction, echoing and rebounding into a sickening sensory assault. The hairs on Anakin's body rose up to stand on end as he too went into a dive.

The Narzgh was heading for a landing platform that jutted out from one of the towers. No amount of coaxing for more speed enabled Anakin to catch up and reach the platform before the Narzgh had landed, dismounted and slung a still limp Padmè over its shoulder.

Anakin didn't slow down as he too approached the landing pad. The Narzgh was almost at the entrance to the building. The bike touched down hard, threatening for a moment to careen out of control, raising double arcs of protesting sparks from where the undercarriage met the floor. He leapt from the seat before the bike had come to a complete stop, lunging towards the doorway that was closing before his eyes. Leaping the last few steps and twisting to the side, he just about made it through the gap before the door sealed with a hissing clunk.

Inside the stench of corrupted flesh was a thousand times worse, but worse again was the noise. The screaming hurt his ears. It was as if a million people were having the skin peeled off their bodies inch by agonising inch. It went on and on, each one slightly different in pitch and volume—hoarse screeches, short-mindless bursts, long and drawn out wails—unspeakable pain and fathomless despair given nightmarish voice. It still seemed to be coming from every direction at once. It was so much worse to not be able to see or sense where those tortured souls might be enduring their suffering. Without the Force to aid his senses, he could be surrounded by them and not know it.

Anakin's skin crawled.

With no other choice, he ignited his lightsaber for the illumination it could provide. With the hilt vibrating reassuringly in his hand, he started to run down what looked like an empty corridor. The blue glow from his blade bobbed as he ran, throwing out even more shadows. No matter how he strained to pierce the darkness beyond the reach of the lightsaber, he couldn't see the Narzgh. His heart stuttered while panic slithered through him like a poison serpent.

Where was Padmè?

His answer was a reciprocating red glow flaring to life several meters ahead. The Narzgh moved unnaturally fast and closed the distance. Anakin barely had time to raise his own blade to block the first strike. At the same time, he was fully aware that without the Force to aid him he couldn't risk using his usual fighting styles. Two of the main benefits of using a lightsaber were its lack of weight and speed—the very same reasons that made the weapon so dangerous to non-Force sensitives. It was all too easy to cut off your own limbs, an experience he wasn't eager to repeat.

The Narzgh struck again, faster, harder in a double-strike. Anakin blocked once, and twisting his wrist managed to deflect the second powerful slash before the red blade could slice through his right shoulder. Keeping his own lightsaber in front of his body, Anakin used a two-handed grip to maintain a constant field of defence, at the same time trying not to give ground.

It didn't take him long to realise that this was an unequal fight. Even without the use of the dark side of the Force, the Narzgh was faster and stronger. Motivation was the only point on which both opponents were equal—the Narzgh was fuelled by ruthless, hungry hatred, Anakin by a desperate need to find and save the woman he loved.

The battle was long and brutal and no matter how hard he tried, Anakin was unable to sustain a counterattack that had any hope of giving him victory. The last twenty fours hours had sapped his strength already. He was all but blind in the suffocating gloom, he was tiring and his mere human reflexes were deadly slow.

While Anakin parried a deceivingly long chop aimed at his neck, the Narzgh shifted at the last moment and lashed out with a snap kick that caught his left hip and sent him crashing into the far wall. The collision meant that Anakin's lightsaber scored the wall. The moment the humming plasma touched the oddly bumpy surface, there was a deafening shriek of inhuman agony, and worse, the acrid smell of burning flesh.

It was a repulsive distraction that almost cost him his life. Frozen for two beats with disbelieving shock, he lost the time to dodge out of the way of the descending red lightsaber. He raised his own to block again, but the immense power behind the Narzgh's strike drove him down onto one knee. A second and third downward strike followed. Each time the lightsabers connected, he felt as if the bones in his arms were shattering. There was no escape. Anakin had no leverage to lash out with a kick of his own. He was going to die and he knew it.

The Narzgh too seemed to sense that victory was at hand. Stepping back, it raised the red blade high over its head.

The unmistakable sound of blaster fire surprised both combatants. Caught with its arms raised, the Narzgh jerked as two red bolts slammed into its exposed side, followed by three more in quick succession. This time, Anakin didn't let the distraction stop him from doing what needed doing. Summoning his failing strength with gritted teeth, he shifted the lightsaber hilt into his left hand and swung, amputating the Narzgh just below the knees.

With a mingled, strangled howl of rage and pain, the Narzgh managed to land on the stumps of its knees rather than fall backwards. Refusing to give up, it also tried to carry through with its own killing strike. It lacked power though. Anakin deflected it with ease and then reversed the direction of his own blade to slice off the Narzgh's face from forehead to chin.

Finally defeated, the Narzgh toppled sideways. The hilt of the red lightsaber clattered to the floor out of sight in the dark. Panting, aching all over and shaking with adrenaline overload, Anakin stumbled to his feet and raised his lightsaber, trying to pierce the darkness back the way the Narzgh had first appeared.

"Padmè," he called hoarsely.

An equally unsteady, "Anakin," was the reply he got, and then he saw her.

Her clothing was ripped and stained. The severely styled hair was in ruins and the carefully applied cosmetics that had disguised her face were either gone, smudged or streaked. But, she was alive and she'd never looked more beautiful to him.

It was lucky that she'd lowered the blaster in her hand, because he didn't stop to think, just closed the distance to pull her into a one-armed, emotionally wrought embrace. Tears burned his eyes and then slid down his cheeks when he felt her arm slide around his waist to cling back just as tightly. It was an achingly familiar embrace with the top of her head tucked under his chin and her face nestled into his neck.

"I thought I'd lost you," he whispered in a voice made raspy with remembered despair.

She gave a short, pained laugh. The puff of her breath was warm on his neck. "No more than I thought I'd lost you."

Anakin let his eyes close, drinking in her warmth and scent. The tremors in his gut that his terror for her had caused still hadn't abated. He held her tighter. He half wished that he could meld them together so that she could never be taken from him again. "I had to try and rescue you."

Giving another rueful laugh, Padmè pulled back just enough to look up into his face. "Those were exactly my sentiments too." Tenderly, she reached up to smooth away a tear that had yet to dry on his cheek. "It seems that more than our fates are entwined, Ani."

As if he'd been mind-wiped, Anakin abruptly forgot where they were or the dangers that surrounded them. The softness in her eyes and voice swept everything away but her. With the exception of his pounding heart, it was as if his body went still and silent, waiting in suspended animation. He knew that expression, knew what caused her dark eyes to brighten and deepen in just that way. He recognised that incredible softness for what it was. He'd once basked in the all-consuming passion invoked by that very same emotion—love.

She still loved him!

The knowledge swept over him with the power of a supernova. He didn't even need to hear the words. He could see it—feel it in the way she trembled in his embrace and her heart beat frantically against his ribs.

His own heart wanted to burst. Anakin tried to speak and found he couldn't. Instead, he ducked his head to capture her lips in a kiss that was fraught with all of the feelings he couldn't vocalise. Only when her fingers cupped and stroked his jaw did the kiss gentle, becoming soft and treasuring. This time there was no holding back or denying the urgency of need. Their breath mingled with each lingering brush of lips, relearning taste and texture.

The moment was soon shattered though. Without warning the hair-raising shrieking began again. They leapt apart. Fumbling at her utility belt, Padmè pulled a small palm-sized flashlight free, switched it on and swept it around. "What is that?"

The flashlight was much more efficient at giving off illumination than his lightsaber, so Anakin deactivated his weapon to conserve power. He was shaking and he didn't have a clue if it was adrenaline or their kiss. "I have no idea, but whatever it is, it doesn't sound happy."

They turned a slow circle, searching for a clue. "It?" queried Padmè, shakily. It was hard to hear her over the cacophony. "It doesn't sound like just one thing, but many thousands all screaming at once. I've never heard anything like it. It's horrible."

As he didn't disagree, Anakin said nothing. By this time they'd almost completed the circle, and stopped in tandem when the light fell on the same portion of wall that had come into contact with Anakin's lightsaber. It wasn't the oozing scar that made them freeze. The wall was bulging and stretching, at some points to such an extent that the sharp furrows of five claws could be clearly recognised. The shrieking got louder as if it was actual flesh and bone that was being ripped and shredded.

"Where exactly are we?" asked Padmè in a voice that hinted that she'd already guessed and was praying to be mistaken.

"The third world," answered Anakin bluntly, "And that has to be more Narzgh trying to make themselves a shortcut."

"Through a wall?"

Grabbing her hand, he tugged to get her moving. "Somehow, I don't think it's made of ferrocrete. We need to go."

The last thing Anakin saw before they turned and ran was something suspiciously like blood starting to seep as the fabric of the 'wall' began to come asunder. There was no time for caution. With Anakin leading, they ran full tilt back towards the exit and the speeder bikes. The problem being that there was more than one section of corridor under attack. The flashlight revealed a sickening sight along the whole length of their escape route. There were so many of them. Urgency and dread curdled in his gut.

"We're not going to make it," yelled Padmè over the ear-pounding noise. "They're almost through."

Ahead of them, perhaps a meter before the exit to the landing platform, Anakin saw a bloody, clawed hand erupt through the ceiling. Dozens more followed it almost immediately. They were being pursued from more than one side. Padmè was right, he realised with a sinking heart, they weren't going to make it. They had to get out of this corridor now, even if it meant cutting themselves off from their only means of transport.

It couldn't be helped he decided grimly, they had to be alive to escape.

Reaching out, he snagged Padmè's arm to bring her to a skidding stop and activated his lightsaber. Eyes wide with fear, she opened her mouth to speak, then snapped it shut again when he began to cut his own doorway into the opposite wall. The plasma blade made short work of it, but every second felt like an hour. The stench was indescribable. Once it was finally done, he pushed Padmè through first and then followed.

ooo

With the constant screaming they had no way of knowing how closely they were being pursued. The Narzgh could be right on their heels and the first warning they'd have of it was the slicing rake of those claws piercing their skin. It was a truly terrifying thought. The building or whatever it was seemed to have no purpose except to merely exist. There were no windows and no light except for the flashlight. Sometimes even that meagre light was too much when Padmè would imagine that she could make out faces buried in the walls as she ran past. If she was imagining them.

It wasn't just the walls.

There was a constant danger of stumbling, either because of the uneven floor or sudden slick patches that changed to tacky after a few more steps. Running over them, it was an effort not to think about blood or other bodily fluids. Unfortunately, it was a notion that was difficult to dispel when everything bore a distinctly organic look in the glow from the flashlight. Padmè felt an icy shudder work its way down her spine. It was like being buried alive in a maze created by a psychotic madman. Feeling her own sanity slip, she wished that the screaming would stop just for a moment, even if it meant being at the mercy of her own terrified heartbeat and choppy, panting breaths. Fear writhed like a live thing inside her, impossible to tamp down for more than a millisecond before it roared back to life. A part of her wanted to cover her eyes and ears and simply run, perhaps screaming out her own terror.

Instead, she just kept running.

They hadn't stopped, hadn't dared. Her lungs burned and legs ached, but that was nothing to the sheer unmitigated horror of knowing that they were stuck in the third world with no means of escape. They didn't know where they were or what direction to take. They had no plan, perhaps even no hope.

Stop it! Don't think about it. It won't do you any good. Just keep running.

Padmè was so caught up in the miasma of her own mind that she almost barrelled into Anakin's back when he slowed his pace to a jog. Ahead of them, the gloom was lightened by a red tinge and she noticed for the first time that cold air chaffed her bare arms. Were they finally coming to an exit from this dreadful place? She dared not hope. The disappointment would be unbearable.

By unspoken agreement, they sped up again. The light continued to increase. Padmè could just make out another doorway a few meters ahead, this one jammed open. What was beyond it, she couldn't see yet. Afterwards, she couldn't say what caused her to spin in a circle with the flashlight to check behind them. She caught only a brief flash because she hadn't slowed down, but it was enough to almost stop her heart. Her blood turned to ice. Hundreds of Narzgh were streaking towards them, defying gravity by loping along ceilings, walls and floor in a swarm of slathering hatred.

Chapter Seventeen

"Anakin!"

Anakin was keeping Padmè so close to him that he felt rather than heard her scream of warning. He looked back and what he saw in the flashlights beam went beyond a nightmare. Animated corpses with gouged-out eyes, flayed, burnt skin and howling mouths stretched wide to show their fangs filled his vision. There were more Narzgh than he could keep track of—there wasn't an inch of surface free from the swarming demons. They had perhaps seconds before being overtaken. In the heartbeat it took to realise their danger, he also realised that their only option was to try and outrun it.

Padmè needed no persuading. Adrenaline spiked, oiling muscles and pumping oxygen to smooth out already laboured breathing. Together they sprinted for the exit and the red glow that constituted daylight in this world. As they did, Anakin prayed that it wasn't a dead end or a sheer drop. He didn't want to even think about how many thousands of meters below them the surface of this world might be.

Grimly, he thought it would probably be preferable to plunge that height to their deaths than find themselves at the mercy of demented beasts that had none. At least it would be quick and they'd likely be unconscious when they hit the ground. Fighting the Narzgh so often had meant being close enough to sometimes see into what was left of their minds, and there was no way in this hell that he was going to let that happen to either Padmè or himself …

They burst through the exit and onto a crude skywalk. It was nothing like the smooth silvery skywalks of Junga Roth with their clear transparisteel canopies, but seemingly made up of the same organo-technology as the buildings and open to the elements. Racing across it, Anakin was hit with a desperate plan. He adjusted his pace to fall back, letting Padmè take the lead and ignited his lightsaber. He didn't need to look behind him to know that the Narzgh were closing on them fast. He could almost feel their hot fetid breath on the back of his neck. Worse, now that they were outside the eerie screaming was muted and he could hear the grunts and snarls of the pursuing horde. Icy sweat slid down his spine. He had to time it right. He couldn't be too early, and definitely not too late. Waiting until they were half way across, he spun on his heel, slashing down and around with the blue blade in a wide arc, praying that the bridge would be no more resistant to the super-heated energy that the building they'd just escaped from. It wasn't. The blade went through without trouble.

The skywalk shuddered but held. It had been a calculated risk that had luckily paid off. Still pounding after Padmè, Anakin waited until she was only a meter from the end to repeat the spinning manoeuvre, slicing into the skywalk once again. Just as the lightsaber cleared the last inches of the surreal construction, the closest Narzgh lunged, claws extended to rend cloth and flesh. Not a moment too soon a large chunk of the bridge fell away into the darker abyss below, taking hundreds of yowling demons with it and leaving a gap that would be impossible to jump. Those Narzgh not caught in the impromptu trap howled their frustration at being thwarted. Having taken care of any immediate pursuit, Anakin then sped up to catch up with Padmè.

White-faced, she rose from her crouch at the end of the skywalk where she'd intended to cover him with her blaster if it proved necessary. Her grip on the pistol was so hard that her knuckles were bone-white and still failed to hide the tremors running through her.

"Now what?" she asked when he stopped, panting for breath in front of her. "They'll find another way to get at us. If there aren't more of them in there," she added with a jerk of her head to the second tower that was now their only possible route.

Her voice was hoarse with horror and there was an underlying desperation in her dark eyes that made Anakin's heart clutch. "I don't know." He wished he had a better answer for her, but he couldn't bring himself to lie. He had to force himself not to drop eye contact and so keep hidden his own dread and uncertainty. "All we can do is keep going and find some means of getting back home."

It sounded pathetic even to his own ears…dangerously so. He wanted to make her a promise that he would find a way—the same sort of promise that he'd made so many times in the distant past, but couldn't frame the words. Perhaps because he had made them, and never kept them.

Expression stark, she nodded once, an acknowledgment of his honesty. Anakin only felt worse, because he hadn't yet told her that he had no Force-abilities whatsoever. While they'd been searching through the alien dark for a way out he hadn't been able to block the fear that, in a very real sense, he was less fit to protect her than the rawest recruit—whose skills wouldn't be founded on a binding, living energy field that was completely missing—a fact that leeched away every drop of assurance no matter how hard he tried to shore it up.

One galling thought kept circling his mind. He was nothing without the Force.

When she turned to enter the tower first, Anakin reached out to stop her. She gave him a quizzical look that spoke volumes about her opinion of delays. Anakin opened his mouth, compelled by some nameless impulse to apologise. Once again, the words tumbled on his tongue but didn't pass his lips. 'Padmè, I'm so, so sorry!' His throat closed, compressing with misery, guilt and shame. Their kiss might never have happened—he didn't deserve even those few brief moments of joy. The way he saw it, if she hadn't tried to rescue him from the consequences of his own evil, Padmè wouldn't now be stuck in the third world and suffering this pitiful attempt of his to rescue her in return.

A fist of fear, one of many he'd suffered over the last few days, squeezed his guts. A single Narzgh had defeated him—almost killed him—what chance did they stand against thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands?

Oh yeah, that's wonderful thinking. Very positive. Are you crazy? If you say any of that you'll only make things worse for her. Is that what you want? Are you so ready to give up?

He'd hesitated too long. Padmè frowned up at him. "What is it Anakin?"

"Nothing," he finally said, and tugged her behind him. "I'll go first."

ooo

Dawn in Junga Roth brought no relief from the horrors of the night to the inhabitants of the Core. The barrier that had protected them from attacks by the underworld for so long was now ensuring that their torment was unending. In a bizarre and abrupt reversal of fortune, those in the Outer Rim who had managed to evade the invading Narzgh found themselves temporarily safe under a blazing sun. The general consensus was, however, that sundown would equalise all.

Many of the survivors who had crawled and scrabbled out of hiding places considered the forests outside the city the safer haven now. There was a stampede for the huge perimeter gate. It was pandemonium and the crush of vehicles and wild-eyed, panicking people, merciless. It became a battle of the biggest and strongest against the smallest and weakest, with inevitable results. In the melee, no one noticed an old man garbed in sand-coloured tunic and pants and a flowing brown cloak thread through the edges of the throng. More astonishingly, no one noticed that during the time it took to reach the last of the evacuees his hair had gone from white to reddish-blonde. The blue grey of his eyes remained sharp and intelligent, but the skin of his face smoothed to that of a much younger man.

On his left, dark, brooding and impenetrable, the Core remained locked down tight, keeping victims within rather than locking them out as was usually the case.

The irony wasn't lost on Obonè, but it didn't mitigate the horror she felt for those trapped inside. The evidence of what they would be suffering was all around her. The temple in Whores Hole was serving as an emergency clinic. Having staggered here herself after a narrow escape, she'd ended up as a draftee nurse as her injuries had been far less acute than most. She'd tended to horrific slashes and jagged, gaping bites, all the while crooning softly to her traumatised charges. They didn't seem to notice if every now and then her voice broke. She didn't need medical training to know that many would not make it to nightfall. Darkly, she wondered if perhaps they weren't the lucky ones. More than once, she'd considered following the long straggling line of refugees as they headed into the forest, but found she just couldn't do it. She couldn't banish the knowledge that millions of her city's citizens were facing an unspeakable ordeal. Hellish stories were already circulating of cannibalism, torture, rape and mutilation glimpsed by those fortunate enough to escape to the Outer Rim before it was sealed off and all communication ceased. Obonè had seen a few transmissions herself that would forever give her nightmares. Bile spat up into her mouth as she remembered what had happened to Selona Vere right in front of the camera—dragged out of sight and leaving only a frozen background image of the city under attack, the reporter's frenzied screams had sounded barely human, as if they were being ripped from her throat. The third world had truly been unleashed upon Junga Roth.

Obonè knew that she wasn't the only one wondering how long it would be before it was their turn. They had nowhere to go and no refuge to seek. Help was gone. Padmè and her Jedi were gone … everyone was suffering and dying.

The part of her that was worn down and grieving wondered what would be the point of leaving. It was over anyway. Or soon would be.

Numbly, she lifted a sheet and draped it over the blank, slack face of the last in a long line of patients who had been broken in ways that no creature should ever experience. Once the body was decently covered, she braced her hands on the side of the gurney, letting her bare, bald head bow as if under a great weight.

Minutes later, she still hadn't moved when she caught the tell-tale soft scrape of footfalls behind her. She didn't raise her head or turn to see who it was. "A few of us think its past time to start planning what we do next," said a female voice. "As the only member of the council left we reckon you ought to have some say in it."

More footfalls, more people. As the only member of the council left. The words were like knives in her heart. All the others were gone or captured. All her friends and colleagues were likely dead. Along with some she truly cared for—her family—Saber and Padmè. Pain spasmed and along with it Obonè felt a bone-deep exhaustion drop over her like a ton of ferrocrete.

Still, she kept her head bowed and eyes closed, if for no other reason than to hide the bleakness she felt. When she spoke her tone was carefully civil—too careful. "Thank you for thinking of me, Jazz but I don't have anything useful to add. You all go ahead." Tiredly, she lifted her head enough to gesture at the rows and rows of injured being tended to by overwhelmed and inexperienced carers. "As you see, I have more than enough to keep me busy here."

"The dying are pretty much dead and the injured are slowing to trickle with most folks heading for the forest," reasoned a deep male voice. "Personally, I'm not much of a tree lover and I figure the same goes for you, Councillor or you wouldn't be here. You were in Skywalker's inner circle, we need your input."

It was the wrong button to push. She saw red. "Well that just too bad because I've got nothing to say." Whipping around, she finally faced Jester and his bounty hunters, throwing up an arm so sharply a few of those seasoned hunters took a backwards step. "Except to point out that we may have brought this on." That possibility had been eating at her for hours and it all came pouring out now. With fire in her eyes and her face twisted with self-recrimination she raged on. "Have you considered that in messing with the city's security we paved the way? I knew that plan was plain crazy, but I agreed to it anyway. Maybe we triggered something we shouldn't have done." Her chest was heaving. Guilt closed in on her. Eyeballing the Besalisk, she didn't see a stranger join the group. "What if it was us who shut down the barrier—?"

Hands fisted, she cut off the last because she couldn't bear to finish. Those close enough to have overheard stopped what they were doing, frozen at what they were hearing. Even the air inside the old temple seemed to hold its breath.

Into this silence, the stranger spoke and his voice carried easily. "You had nothing to do with the barrier ceasing to operate or the Narzgh attack. You were betrayed by Petris Lyonides. He, along with a one-time Sith Lord called Darth Sidious, planned it all."

ooo

Lyonides couldn't bear to look, think or feel.

The Premier of Junga Roth was sitting completely naked in an armchair in his luxuriously appointed apartment. He also couldn't bear to wear any clothing, all felt tainted by the putrid stink of what was going on all around his city. In the last few hours he'd taken so many showers that his skin was raw and still he felt…abominable. Every single source of light in the apartment was set on maximum power and the window screens were on full black-out mode, blocking the view. Lyonides couldn't block out the sound though, not when some of it was coming from his holotranceiver.

On his knees, Natar was pleading incoherently. His colourless eyes were bugging out with terror and sweat dripped down his face to darken the neck of his already sodden robes.

"You have to help me. They took my men. I barely got away. You said...you never said…you promised. They're here. You can't leave me like this. Why do they want me? You must have told them not me? I don't understand this…" If possible his voice went an even higher pitch and his eyes were all but wheeling in his head. The pleading morphed to hysterical demand. …I've dedicated my career to you. The things I've done have all been for you. I helped you shore up your power. I helped you kill your father. You owe me!

Lyonides' blank expression didn't change.

"They're trying to get in right now. I can't get them to understand that they should leave me alone—that I'm not like the others." A noise to the right of the recording made Natar jerk his head around to stare with absolute terror at something out of range of the holocam. "They're almost through. You need to call them off. Call them off. Call them off NOW!

That was the last clear word out of Natar's mouth. The rest were garbled, petrified screams of denial and strangled pleading for mercy. Lyonides' fingers twitched spasmodically where they rested on the armrest, but he otherwise showed no reaction to the unspeakable images playing out in front of his reddened and sunken gaze. When it was finally over, he permitted himself to shut those same eyes, if only to lessen the sensation of them having been skewered.

It didn't help. The flashbacks that ran across the back of eyelids were so full of perversion and horror that mere seconds passed before he jerked them open again.

He wanted to get drunk, but even the desire for insensibility couldn't overcome self-preservation. It was the same sense of self-survival at all costs that had induced him to form an arrangement with Sidious, and he felt its effects no less now.

It couldn't matter that he hadn't realised just how bad it would be, that this new deal would be so much worse than the first. Lyonides had realised long ago that he'd gone too far to change his mind—that his very life depended on serving and pleasing a demonised galactic emperor. That realisation had turned him into a true servant of darkness. Everything he'd done, and was still willing to do, boiled down to a single unassailable fact—one thing terrified him more than any Narzgh, and that was dying. Fear closed his throat and his mind skittered away from such thoughts. Madness was preferable and, sitting naked and isolated, he welcomed the insanity brewing in his brain.

Purposefully, he activated the playback function and watched Natar's last few minutes all over again.

ooo

Padmè's skin was crawling.

She tried to tell herself that the sensation of being watched was just her mind playing tricks on her. On the plus side, if it could be called that, was her certainty that a Narzgh wouldn't just sit back and watch their prey from a distance. Such restraint was beyond them. Still the feeling persisted. Anakin's confession about not being able to feel the Force here hadn't helped. That had been a blow of truly galactic proportions and his tortured expression when he told her had given her a glimpse of how lost he felt without it.

Feeling panic rise at that line of thought, Padmè forced her mind back to the present.

The flashlight beam continued to light their way and so far they'd managed to avoid dead-ends, meaning the building wasn't screaming. In fact, it was eerily quiet. So quiet that it would have been silent if not for their breathing and steady jogging. It wasn't the only difference between this and other parts of this surreal and nightmarish city. Padmè could feel that there were differences, she just couldn't pinpoint what those differences might be. It was colder, but she might even be imagining that. She only knew that she was even more spooked than ever.

"Anakin."

"What?" He kept his voice as hushed as hers.

"I'm not complaining, but don't you think it's odd that we haven't encountered any more Narzgh?"

"Very," he conceded shortly, confirming that he felt equally as uneasy.

For some reason the bottom fell out of Padmè's stomach. "We haven't seen one for over an hour. I thought our luck had run out back in that second tower—they had us surrounded and then they just disappeared, falling back without rhyme or reason." She hated not knowing why. "It's as if something or someone scared them off."

Having spoken it out-loud, Padmè realised that she desperately wanted Anakin to tell her that she'd imagined it, that such a scenario was ridiculous—to joke about what could possibly scare a horde of demons.

"I got the same impression, and, if we're right, I hope we don't meet whomever or whatever it was," Anakin returned grimly. "But that's not the only thing that has me wondering. I want to know why there are so few Narzgh. We've seen a few hundred, maybe a thousand tops—where are the rest of them?"

"Perhaps they have some predators of their own?" ventured Padmè, and shivered.

"Another cheerful thought, but I don't buy it. The raids on Roth were at least double the size of what we've encountered so far. It makes no sense that there should be so few of them in their own world."

"It's only been a few hours. Maybe the raid in Roth isn't over yet. They could still be there."

Even as she said she felt icy cold drip through her veins. Those poor people…

She felt rather than saw Anakin's shrug. "Maybe." He didn't sound convinced though.

By mutual, silent consent they both sped up, not liking the idea that thousands more Narzgh might be dropping in on them at any minute.

They rounded a corner, tensing until they had a clear view and found the corridor ahead as empty as the others they'd run down in the last hour. This one had a light source right in the middle though. It was the same red glow as before; after so long in the darkness it seemed brighter than she remembered it.

It was a balcony. Together, they stood and stared down at the cityscape spread out before them. They were still hundreds of meters up from the ground and it was their first opportunity to really study where they were and try and find a way out. So far they'd been passing from building to building, level to level, trying to find their way down to ground level without benefit of turbolifts.

It took a few seconds for Padmè to realise why she felt a nagging sense of familiarity. When it hit her, she blinked, stunned. "Anakin, do you realise what this is?"

He glanced at her with a frown and then back at the view. "No. What?"

In answer, she raised a shaking finger, pointing into the distance. "Does that look like the palace to you? And there, to the right, it's the exact same size and shape as the Temple of Atonement." She pointed further to the left, "And there, I'd swear that's the Library Rotunda and next to it my apartment building."

Anakin's frown dug deeper. "What are you saying?"

Padmè hardly knew how to put it without sounding insane. "This place … this whole city … it's like some deranged, dreadful mirror-image of Roth."

It took him a moment longer to make the same comparisons. Baffled disgust dropped over his features. "I see what you mean. Only instead of being built it almost seems to have been grown, or moulded."

Gingerly, Padmè laid a hand on the enclosure and then swiftly removed it with a shudder. "It's not vegetation though—more like flesh and bone, only icy cold instead of warm."

Like a corpse, she thought and felt sick.

"Whatever it's built from, I've never come across it before."

"Why would the Narzgh build or grow a city that looks so much like ours?" said Padmè. "It makes no sense."

"Maybe reflection is only a part of what allows them to rip through the veil," suggested Anakin. "Perhaps they had to replicate where they want to break through to first."

Opening her mouth to agree that was possible, something else caught her eye, a flash of white that made her jerk her head around and bring the flashlight back up. "Did you see that?"

"See what, where?" Anakin whipped around too.

Heart pounding, Padmè trained the flashlight back on the archway to the corridor. "Just there, I thought I saw someone."

Without preamble, Anakin grabbed her hand and dragged her over to the opposite side of the balcony, inching them both back towards the archway and making very sure that they had the best view possible of both sides of the corridor. "I can't see anything."

The corridor was empty. "No. Neither can I, not anymore."

"No more lingering. We need to go." Keeping hold of her arm, Anakin got them moving again with even greater urgency.

A meter from the end of the corridor, Padmè saw it again—a small, slight figure and a face that was gone again in a flash. "There, did you see that. Gods! It's a child!"

"What!"

Padmè sped up, refusing to wait to explain, "Anakin, it was a child. I saw him. He was right through there. He looked scared."

"Padmè! Stop!" Anakin swore under his breath and caught up with her, yanking her to a standstill before she could hurtle through the door. His face was grimmer than ever. She could feel his frustration at her foolhardiness. "What are you thinking of racing off like that?" he snapped, glaring. "What if there'd been a pack of Narzgh waiting for you?"

"Anakin, the child!"

"Think about it. When was the last time you saw a child?—the living world." Scowling, he shook his head at her. "Younglings don't come here, or even to the second world. Not little ones anyway. You know that."

He was right, but Padmè was certain. She glared right back at him. "I know what I saw Anakin."

He let her go, but those hard blue eyes didn't soften. "Tell me how he could possibly have survived being here?"

"I don't know."

"It's impossible for an adult to survive long in this hell and you know it. A child would have no chance. There's no technology, people, food or water here. It's just a grotesque wasteland pretending to be something more. You must have imagined him. There's no other explanation."

Knowing she was being dangerously stubborn, Padmè still refused to drop her eyes or give in. The boys face was imprinted on her mind. He'd looked about six years old. "We need to make sure."

Seconds ticked by when she was certain Anakin was going to refuse. She wasn't sure how she'd handle it if he did. Finally, he sighed, scrubbed his face and offered a grudging compromise. "Fine, we'll look for him and a way out of here at the same time." Still frowning, he turned away to take the lead, muttering sarcastically, "Force knows I like to be busy, but this is getting ridiculous."

ooo

The lack of food that he'd cited as a reason why a child could never survive here was a real worry for Anakin, for them, and one that made getting out of this hellish city even more imperative. They'd found plenty of bizarre rooms and chambers filled with odd shapes and lumps that might have been some twisted lunatic's idea of furniture, but not a scrap of anything edible. As for water, he was hoping for another downpour when they eventually reached terra-firma.

"Maybe we took the wrong turning back there," fretted Padmè "It's been too long and we haven't seen him."

"We're not backtracking," Anakin replied firmly. He wished he could see her face, but the flashlight was needed to sweep ahead for dangers and stray figures. "I'm sorry Padmè, but perhaps it's time you considered—"

The words died unsaid when he saw a ghostly flash of white ahead that crossed his line of sight for a split-second. Sensing his sudden rigidity, Padmè zigzagged the beam of light in a desperate search. "What is it? Did you see him?"

"I don't know. I saw something up ahead just for a second. There must be a junction there and I saw it or him when he crossed it."

They started to jog faster.

"Did it look like a small child?" persisted Padmè.

Anakin shot her a look of bemusement that she couldn't see in the dark. "No. The figure was way too tall. It must have been a man."

"That's not possible. How can there be two people here?"

Anakin figured he deserved that for his reaction to her 'sighting'. "No idea, but I swear it was too big for a youngling, and definitely not a Narzgh."

They reached the junction and fell silent to search. Hurriedly, Padmè swept the flashlight down all three corridors that fed off the junction. "I don't see anybody. Do you?"

"No—wait!" Anakin took a few steps down the first corridor. He didn't have the flashlight but there was something. He squinted, trying to make it out. "Padmè, I need the light."

She didn't reply and before he could turn around to find out why, a figure appeared only a few feet in front of him. Anakin reared back, eyes growing wide with shock. "Obi-Wan! What—?"

He was dumbfounded. This wasn't the old man he'd killed on the first death star, but his one-time Jedi master, young and yet so wise and unflappable. "Greetings, my friend," Obi-Wan said with a smile and even his voice was a laser bolt into the past. He was dressed in pure white and he seemed to give off a strange glow. Anakin couldn't think why Obi-Wan might be here, but he was aware that down deep inside his heart was singing for joy. A grin formed on his lips and Anakin opened his mouth to return the greeting …

Except he felt a rush of air behind him, right between him and Padmè.

Forgetting Obi-Wan, he spun to find her, only to find his way barred instead. Every drop of blood drained from his head. He slapped his hand against the wall that had appeared out of nowhere, yelling her name, "Padmè!"

He recalled his lightsaber, grabbed it off his utility belt and ignited it in one smooth movement. "PADMÈ!" Anakin braced himself, the glowing blue blade poised over his shoulder to plunge and pierce the damnable wall that was keeping him from his wife.

He didn't get to make the thrust. Something latched onto the lightsaber blade with ferocious strength. Twisting around, but not letting go of the hilt, Anakin stared in shock at the sight of a bare hand holding the energy blade as if it were mere plasto. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. The skin and bone should have been cut through the second contact was made. Speechless, Anakin's gaze jerked upwards and encountered a face from his nightmares.

Obi-Wan's eyes appeared to have been gouged out. Fresh blood was still seeping from each dark socket—yet he was still smiling.

"What the kriff are you?" Anakin asked it, trying to tug his weapon free from that unaccountable grasp. He recognised the trap too late and his terror for Padmè knew no bounds. Whatever this thing was it wasn't Obi-Wan—and he'd been right that it wasn't a Narzgh—it was far more intelligent and evil.

"I'm what you made me," was the brief, rasping reply.

The next moment, Anakin found himself airborne for a brief dizzying flight that ended with him crashing into another wall.

TBC

Note (4) – Sorry for leaving you once again with a cliffie. I'm afraid these scene set in the third world are sort of built around them. Helen ducks missiles

HUGS! I hope you enjoyed the chapters. More should be on the screen soon—ish.