Thank you for the reviews. Signed reviews should have received a reply (please let me know if that isn't the case), and ANON is below:

ANON REPLIES

mlhkvh5 – Honestly, hun, there is no need to thank me, I've been having a great time writing it and a lot of that is down to the wonderful support I've had from readers such as yourself. Thank you! Hugs.

Note (1) There is a tongue-in-cheek quote from The Exorcist (I think it was the second one) in this chapter.

Note (2) There is some scientific jargon in this that I won't even pretend would make sense to a real scientist. Also, I'm owning up to some inspiration from the TV show Stargate (another old fandom of mine).

Note (3) Out of all the movies I've already referenced as inspiration for the third world, 'Event Horizon' takes the lead in this chapter.

Note (4) We are coming to the final run of this story now. I just thought you might like to know. Thanks to everyone for sticking it out so far.

Chapter Eighteen

Padmè beat her fists against the wall that had just appeared out of nowhere and blocked off the corridor that Anakin had taken, yelling, "Anakin! Anakin!" Then logic wormed its way through the panic and she went still. Anakin had his lightsaber. All he needed to do was cut through. Of course that meant that she needed to move or risk being impaled. She tucked herself into the far left, trying to quiet her breathing so that she could hear something other than her own panicked pants. With an ear pressed to the cool clammy surface, she strained to catch any sound from the other side. For a moment, she thought she heard a voice, but, she couldn't be sure she hadn't imagined it.

What was taking him so long?

When a small, cold hand slipped inside hers, she yelped and flung herself away so hard that she slipped and landed in a half sprawl. With her wildly beating heart in her mouth, Padmè swung the flashlight to illuminate where she'd just been standing, aiming her blaster for good measure.

Standing in the pale beam was the boy. The blaster, held in a trembling hand, was instantly lowered.

Wide-eyed, she took in his appearance. She'd been right about his age, but more shocking than that was that he bore an uncanny resemblance to the precocious child Anakin had been when she first met him. This boy was shorter and his cheeks were rounder, but that was the extent of the difference. She couldn't stop staring and he stared right back.

"Hello," Padmè forced herself to say, failing to still the tremble in her voice. "You startled me."

He cocked his head as if curious about the cadence of her accent. "Hello," he mimicked. There was no fear on his face or in his voice. He looked merely … interested.

"We've been trying to find you." Padmè told him. "We didn't mean to scare you and make you run off."

A part of her wanted him to admit that they'd scared him into running, but the need for company or safety had made him change his mind and seek them out instead—in other words, anything like a normal, childish reaction. This close there was something off about him.

Anakin's certainty returned to haunt her. Younglings don't come here, or even to the second world. Not little ones anyway. You know that … Tell me how he could possibly have survived …

The boy made no reply, just continued to stare, unblinking.

Where's Anakin? He should have been able to get through the wall by now. Unease cranked up to definite worry, not helped by a kernel of suspicion that she couldn't even bring herself to acknowledge. Feeling oddly vulnerable, Padmè pushed herself up to a crouch, moving slowly so as not to startle the boy. Her mouth was dry and she tried to moisten it before speaking. "Can you tell me your name?"

Rosy lips curled up in a sweet smile. "That's easy. My name is Luke."

"Luke?" repeated Padmè numbly.

As easily as that, she felt pole-axed by a sudden sweeping pain that stole her breath and made her heart lurch sickly in her chest. No! This couldn't be true. How was it possible that a child who looked as if he must be Anakin's son could also share the same name as their son? Her son.

Everything felt wrong. Horribly wrong. What had she done? "Are you sure your name is Luke?"

Another head-cock and those bright blue eyes turned innocently quizzical. "I think so. That's the name I took from your mind."

That last statement didn't sink in fast enough. In the space of a blink, the sweet cherubic face transformed. The eye sockets became black, bottomless pits. Veins mapped no longer smooth skin, and worst of all, the boy-creature cracked open an inhuman jaw to reveal jagged, multi-layered fangs. The hissing growl it emitted made every hair on her body rise.

Padmè brought up the blaster, but she wasn't quick enough. The pistol was ripped out of her grasp before she could let loose a single shot. She felt a burning pain in her scalp as her hair was grabbed and her head yanked back with tremendous strength. Seeing those fangs flash towards her neck, she instinctively blocked. The fangs sank into the flesh of her forearm accompanied by an agonising burn that choked a scream from her throat. The pain was so bad that she didn't notice immediately that the thing biting her had been hauled off.

"Padmè! Get up. Now!" a familiar voice barked urgently.

Dazed, she stared at a dishevelled, battered looking Anakin. He grabbed her uninjured arm and yanked her upright and back on her feet. She still had hold of the flashlight. Movement behind Anakin drew her eyes and she saw someone she'd never expected to ever see again—Obi-Wan Kenobi. A grotesquely disfigured Obi-Wan who was stepping calmly through the hole that Anakin had created in the wall.

They didn't wait to see more. Anakin propelled her down the corridor only a short distance before cutting another opening. They went through it together.

And lost their footing together.

Powerless to stop themselves, they went into an uncontrolled slide down a chute-like structure. Anakin's grip on her arm was almost painful in an attempt not to become separated again, but it was nothing to the agony in her other one. The bite felt as if it had been seared with an invasive acid. She could feel Anakin kick out and twist his body in an attempt to halt or slow down their descent, but the chute was coated with a slick substance that made such desperate manoeuvrings for control utterly useless. Keeping a death-grip on the flashlight, Padmè realised they had no choice but to wait and see where they ended up.

It seemed to go on and on. The end came suddenly and without warning. There was a long terrifying second of freefall and then they hit a surface. It was hard enough to wind but not break bones. It was also damp, strangely malleable and coated in that same slick substance as the chute. Also, the stench was indescribable. The landing had been hard enough that Padmè had lost the flashlight. Luckily it hadn't switched off and she crawled over the lumpy, uneven surface to retrieve it. Cradling her injured arm, and trying to ignore the fact that she felt dizzy and her stomach was roiling, she swept it around, taking in Anakin and their surroundings. At first she saw nothing except more walls made of the same organic construction material. The chamber was huge and the flashlight's beam couldn't reach high enough to illuminate a ceiling.

Then she pointed it down to see what it was they'd landed on. It took a moment to believe something so unutterably horrifying, when it did sink in she lost her battle not to vomit.

Bodies. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Mutilated, gnawed on, and half digested.

Bent double, Padmè gagged on a second wave of nausea, trying to suck in air to steady her whirling head. As if it was somehow connected, the bite on her arm throbbed harder, threatening to crush bones under the waves of pain. Anakin called her name and she ignored him. She blinked, trying to clear her vision. The tactic worked. Not two ft away and almost by her own feet, she saw a face, vaguely female, with a tear sliding down a waxy cheek from a single eye. The right side of the face appeared to have fused into the spine of her nearest neighbour. What remained of her mouth was open in a silent scream. She wasn't the only one.

Some of them were still alive. Maybe all of them.

It was too much—the last straw. Padmè couldn't breathe because of the steel bands around her chest, choking her. A black haze swallowed her mind. Staggering upright, she reeled back.

"Steady." Too late, Anakin's arm came around her middle to support and comfort her. Instead of being comforted, Padmè fought him with rasping sobs and gasped demands to let her go. She slapped at him and kicked at him. She didn't want hands on her. She wanted OUT. A part of her knew she was being hysterical and didn't care. Comfort was impossible. There was no escaping what surrounded you. She had to get out of this place or go completely insane. She didn't notice the pain in her arm or that it was rising to burn along her shoulder.

Anakin refused to let go and pulled her in to a tight, encompassing embrace with her face hidden in his shoulder. With his legs braced, he was able to absorb her frenzied attempts to break free with relative ease. The horror in her mind blocked his gentle croons.

The silent battle raged for several seconds.

Giving in, Padmè went lax, exhausted enough to allow him to support her weight. In the aftermath of the storm, her throat was burning and she was wracked with shudders, a reaction not helped by the icy sweat that coated her body. Wide-palmed hands ran soothingly up and down her spine. She clung to him now, words pouring out of her mouth in a stream of horror. "We're standing on them. They're everywhere. Look at them, they're still moving."

"I know. Shush. Easy now. There's nothing we can do for them. I wish there was but there isn't."

"They're turning the same colour as the walls, did you see. That's what this terrible place is made of—people—and the screaming … they must be still alive … still able to feel."

Anakin's arms tightened still more and his chin rasped the top of her head. "Don't think about it. We can't help them, but we can help ourselves. We need to find a way out."

Padmè heard the quiver in his otherwise steady voice. Only someone who knew him well would be able to detect it. Illogically, it steadied her too. The black panic reluctantly receded, chased away by body heat, strong arms and shame. The shame grew as she thought back over her behaviour. She was shocked at herself. It wasn't like her to panic like that, not for any reason. For an instant, she wondered if the bite was something to do with it. It wasn't a reassuring thought. Shaking that new worry off, she took in one last deep lungful of his scent for extra comfort and then nudged him back, saying huskily, "You're right. I'm sorry. I lost control."

Then she heard a child's giggle.

"Perfectly understandable," said Obi-Wan's voice out of the darkness. "You are, after all, only human."

Anakin's lightsaber ignited with a snap-hiss. Padmè swung the flashlight to find the body the voice belonged to, at the same time taking the blaster that Anakin handed to her. The figure of the man held in the beam of light was back to being whole and unmarred, as was the child standing next to him. The man's hand rested on the boy's blonde head. There was no sign at all of how they'd gotten in.

"You're a persistent one, aren't you? I can't say I admire that about you," said Anakin.

"And you're a feisty one. A mindset I do admire."

"I bet. Alright, I'll ask this again. What are you?" asked Anakin, "and don't tell me I made you. I think I would have remembered something like that."

Obi-Wan smiled. "Ahhh, but it's true in a sense. I picked this form from those contained within your mind. I confess that there were so many to choose from that I was spoiled for choice. However, I knew that you would trust this image and seek to follow—perfect for what I had in mind."

Padmè remembered the boy—she refused to think of him as Luke—saying something similar. It also hit her why the thing masquerading as her son had taken on the appearance of a child-Anakin—she'd only ever seen Luke as a baby. "That doesn't answer the question," she pointed out. "What are you?"

It spread its hands—Obi-Wan's hands. "We don't have a name. We just are. We were the first to arrive back when there was merely nothingness. We filled it, built it, and fed it." It looked at Padmè. "There is no escape no matter how sweet the soul. Death just makes tenure here permanent, endless and pitiless." His head swivelled to take in Anakin, "You don't have what it takes to leave either, not anymore."

"We'll see about that. You said we?" queried Anakin, hefting his lightsaber higher, illuminating the nightmare surrounding them, under them. "How many of you are there?"

The smile widened. "We are legion."

As if on cue, more figures began emerging. The boy clapped his hands in glee. It was nothing like the Narzgh's frenzied attempts to break through. The skin of the chamber walls seemed to just stretch and stretch until it looked at breaking point—then features would fluidly emerge: head, shoulders and body, and, with a single step, become separated from the unmarred wall.

Padmè didn't wait, she began firing. She'd had enough. She'd had more than enough. If there was point where you could feel no more fear or horror, then she'd reached it. Fury filled her veins now. The bolts seemed to just pass through the entities and hit the walls. Like a switch had been flipped, the screaming started again, deafening them. The chamber shuddered as more bolts hit the walls. Underneath their feet, the piles of bodies heaved as if in protest. Padmè staggered as her balance failed under the shifting mass. Anakin caught her hand and dragged her over to the far wall, shouting an instruction for her to concentrate her fire on the chamber itself. He began attacking the walls with his lightsaber, creating huge slashes and causing gaping bloody gashes to appear. Without warning, a viscous fluid began to rise from underneath them, surging up between the bodies.

Padmè was too busy to wonder why.

With the chamber under attack, the shrieking got higher and louder. The entire area started to shake and quake with increasingly powerful judders. The creatures lunged at them, their faces transformed into living nightmares, but were hampered by the rising fluid that had risen impossibly swiftly to waist height. Anakin braced himself with his lightsaber held in a defensive stance. Padmè kept the trigger held down and red bolts flew across the chamber in a horizontal shower.

Then, with a sucking sound loud enough to rise over the screams, the 'surface' beneath them gave way entirely. A massive whirlpool formed and Anakin and Padmè were sucked under as if they'd stepped into a violent slipstream.

o~o~o

It wasn't the palace audience chamber, but the small, enclosed prayer room in the old temple held enough left-over grace to sooth some of the frayed nerves of its current occupants. There were no windows, but sunlight was caught and spread by a domed skylight over their heads. Carved wooden benches snugly encircled the room, covered in cushions that had been hand-stitched long enough ago to have faded with time. Tenku, who had managed the temple refuge before her sudden disappearance two weeks earlier, had had the sense to leave this room alone as a place of quiet reflection. It wasn't quiet now though. Every inch was crammed with people of various races who were neither dignitaries nor those in authority. If nothing else, this crisis had brought a kind of terrible equality to Junga Roth. With Jesters' bulk on one side of her and Jazz on the other, Obonè gazed consideringly at the man standing in the middle of the room.

Obi-Wan Kenobi stood with his hands folded in front of his robes and cloaked in an air of utter calmness. He appeared completely unfazed at being the centre of so much curiosity, and suspicion.

"Mr Kenobi—"

"Please, call me Obi-Wan, or Ben. I'll happily answer to both." The request was accompanied by a charming smile and a respectful bow.

Obonè inclined her head in agreement and then got to the point. "I've heard the name Obi-Wan Kenobi before, on two separate occasions in point of fact."

"Indeed, and may I take it from your tone that neither were particularly complimentary references?" asked Obi-Wan ruefully.

"Padmè Amidala mentioned such a man, a Jedi who defeated Darth Vader in a duel," answered Obonè, bluntly. "The second reference was made by Petris Lyonides during the trial of Anakin Skywalker for atrocities committed as Darth Vader. Both the timing of the first, and detail supplied by Lyonides, suggests that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a white-haired old man." She quirked a brow. "You Jedi do seem to age remarkably well. You look no older than early thirties."

The smile made a return. "Why thank you. I'll take that as a compliment. However, to answer your question, I can tell you that Padmè was telling you the truth and Lyonides was lying." Unprompted, he went on to say, "Padmè is an old friend, while I have never had any contact with the Premier of your fine city."

"It ain't so fine now," Jazz pointed out. She leaned forward with her elbows on her leather-covered knees. Her military style boots were planted apart, emphasising her don't-give-a-poodoo attitude. "If you've never met Lyonides, how did he know about you?" Suspicion was ripe in her tone, hardly a surprise to anyone who knew her.

"Sadly, that's all too easy to explain," replied Obi-Wan. True to his word, sadness entered his eyes. "Tenku was a friend of mine." There were mutters at the name. Many people had known Tenku and all were concerned over her inexplicable disappearance. Obi-Wan addressed them all, "It was this friendship that brought her to the attention of Sidious and Lyonides. Suspicious of his visit here so soon after arriving, they arranged for her secret arrest and then tortured information out of her regarding myself and Anakin."

"Tenku's gone?" a young girl asked shakily.

"I'm afraid so, yes," was the gentle reply. "But, I'm sure it'll console you to know that she's gone to a better place."

"If you're a Jedi, what are you doing here?" piped up another voice. "Jedi don't come to the second world. It's either the first or the third world for you force-wielders—there's no middle ground." It was Gar Ha'lar, a Bothan with a known aversion to humans. He was glaring at Kenobi with his equine ears flattened to his furry head.

"I think you have us semi-confused with the Sith," countered Kenobi with another bow to take out any sting. "And you're forgetting the exception that is Anakin Skywalker. However, I do take your point. Think of me as merely visiting on a temporary basis."

"So, you are from the first world?" said Obonè.

"I am, yes."

"Are you here to help us?" someone called out hopefully. Once more mutters raced around the encircling listeners.

Here Kenobi hesitated, then spoke with each word carefully chosen, "I'm here to assist you as far as I can. Unfortunately, I can only act indirectly—" He grimaced "—there are circumstances that make anything more … well, let's just say it could have serious consequences."

"And what kind of indirect assistance did you have in mind?" asked Jester in his customary slow drawl.

"Information initially. As you will be aware by now, the barrier has been altered so that it now filters out the sun, keeping the Narzgh safe and allowing them—with assistance from an increasingly powerful Sidious—to remain in the second world." Here, Kenobi spread his hands. "Of course, what has been altered may be unaltered."

There was a stunned silence. Obonè broke it, "You expect us to find a way to break into the Core, somehow sneak past all of the Narzgh without being detected and then attempt to revert the barrier back to its original function?"

"Actually, no," replied Kenobi apologetically. "I'm suggesting that you find a way to break into the Core, and then rescue the man who gave Lyonides the technical expertise to change the barrier in the first place. He will know what to do to fix things."

"Are you crazy?"

Kenobi smiled, "I'm not generally thought to be so, no. Reckless plans such as what I've just outlined were more usually Anakin's forte." He turned sombre. "I urge you to consider very carefully the advantage of having every Narzgh currently in Roth die a sudden and fiery death. For my part, I can see it as being the turning point between saving the city and leaving it to rot. The decision is yours."

o~o~o

The office has once belonged to the Finance Minister Bac Gon. Sidious had chosen it because of the décor—black and red with a distinctly modern flavour and no frills or sops to sentimentality. It was hardly a surprise. There were few races, he had found, that were less sentimental than the Munns whose single deity was currency. Black marble tiles were impregnated with miniscule iridescent lights that actually anticipated an occupant's next step. The bold red walls were set off by unadorned windows and a glossy black operations console complete with a matched hoverchair. The chair itself was so technology enriched that was reminiscent of his throne as galactic emperor.

Sidious felt right at home. Besides, it wasn't as if he'd evicted the previous occupant. He'd been so impressed with the décor and ambience that he'd honoured the Munn by adding him to it. He made a marvellous still-life that livened up the left wall. Evisceration had bleached the grey-skinned Munn even further, a wonderful contrast to the gaping purple-hued of his sagging mouth.

Still, artwork aside…

Darth Sidious was being forced to a very inconvenient conclusion. Too much of the dark side of the Force could actually hamper his ability to foresee the future.

The benefit of course was that for the second time in his existence, he was about to accomplish something that no other Dark Lord of the Sith had managed—the first being the annihilation of the Jedi Order, and now, to return from the netherworlds in a substantial form. After such a feat, he mused, no one would dare question his power and he would rule supreme. It was worrying to have his vision so limited Sidious went on to admit to himself, but the trade off was acceptable. It wasn't all bad news either, on the contrary. In every other respect he could feel his power rising hourly. Everything was going to plan and, with Skywalker out of the way, he felt assured of it remaining so. In fact, given that he expected his plans to come to fruition within the next few days, it was time to tie up some loose ends. Sidious had promises to keep.

His current 'guest' was a reminder of one such promise. Tapping his claws thoughtfully together, Sidious gazed pensively over the expanse of his desk at the monstrosity gracing his office with its presence. A demanding presence that expected the deal it had made to be honoured. Ideally, Sidious would tap into the Force and check that the timing was right to fulfil the promise—a promise that was the cause of great anticipation and yet, contrarily, also great vexation—but that wasn't an option. Still, a decision had to be made.

Making it, he leant over and activated his holotransmission grid. After several moments, Lyonides appeared on bended knee. "My lord, what is your command?"

"I require your presence in my office, Premier. Do not delay." It seemed prudent to suggest a reason for such an order and Sidious was amused that he didn't even have to lie. "A situation has arisen that needs both of our attention."

Finished with that small task, he turned his attention back to his guest, bestowing a smile that had once fooled millions into believing it was benevolent rather malevolent. "Patience, my friend. You will have your reunion very, very soon."

It would also be an auspicious time to complete stage one, Sidious decided. Excitement unfurled in his gut.

o~o~o

Anakin had been clutching at straws when he'd started attacking the chamber walls. If lightsabers had no effect on those things, he hadn't held out much hope for a blaster. What had given him a sliver of hope had been the instant reaction of the chamber to being damaged. Even so, he hadn't expected to be flushed.

His lungs were burning like twin fires by the time the crashing, crushing, dragging whirl was over and he broke the surface. The first lungful of air was scarcely less painful. Starved of air long enough, the human body shuts down all thought in favour of instinct. With his mouth wide open, Anakin's chest heaved as his lungs clawed in oxygen. It felt as if the air was too thin and he simply couldn't get enough of it to survive. Choking and flailing, his body tried again and again, until at last, reason returned. That was when he finally noted the red sky above him and that he could stand up, or could have done if his legs had been strong enough to support him.

His next thought was of Padmè. The pressure and number of bodies had made it impossible not to become separated. Desperation gave him the strength to wade through the nightmare flotsam of co-joined corpses. He eventually found her clinging on to the edge of the trench. She was pale and shaking, but breathing. The sheer strength of his relief drained him to the point of collapse. Too exhausted and battered to lower himself gracefully, he managed to fall next to her and saw her eyelids flutter and then open.

"Anakin," she croaked, and that was as much as she managed.

He opened his mouth to speak, but could only form a groan, then he too passed out.

When he came too again, he was shivering, his skin felt raw and he had no idea if hours or minutes had passed. Above him, the sky was darkening to an even murkier red. Next to him, Padmè remained unconscious.

They were still lying half draped over the edge of a rough rock trench. A few meters to their right, he saw the huge boundary wall that he now knew mimicked that of Junga Roth. They'd been expelled to the edge of the city and just beyond. A glance over his shoulder showed that the trench had all but drained, leaving behind a litter of horror. For the sake of his sanity, Anakin didn't dwell too long on the bodies. At least they were now spared being digested into the fabric of Roth's evil twin.

Which reminded him that they couldn't stay here. They were still far too close to the city.

Gently, he tried to shake Padmè awake.

Under his hand her arm was rigid and he could feel the chill of her skin even through the tattered remains of her clothes. Horror sent a shock-wave through him.

She was so pale that her skin appeared translucent and the dark smudges under her eyes were stark in comparison. When he felt for the pulse in her neck, Anakin swore that his own heart stopped until he finally found the thin, thready pulse. He wanted to move her, but he didn't dare until he knew what was wrong. She could have hit her head or hurt her body at any point during their turbulent exit from the chamber. Nightmare images of spinal injuries and internal fractures circled feverishly through his brain. It was remarkably easy to forget how fragile the human body really was without technology to protect it.

How was he to know what was wrong? What was he to do? She needed a healer or a medical tech, and all she had was him. "Padmè! Padmè! Wake up! Please, wake up. Force! Don't do this to me. C'mon, Padmè!" He tried to rouse her with his voice while he ran his hands over her from the shoulders down, and then down her legs. Her utility belt was similar to the one he usually wore and got in the way, so he carefully removed it. He found nothing until he repeated the clumsy exam, this time going from her feet and back up to her shoulders. When his hand skimmed up her left forearm, Padmè gave out a deep, pained moan and her eyelids flickered.

The stained shimmersilk of her sleeve ripped easily apart. What he found had him swearing. The whole forearm was swollen and bruised, so much so that it was difficult at first to spot the bite mark. The bite had broken the skin in multiple places within the raw, circular wound. Worse, it was seeping a watery, mud-coloured substance that he'd never seen before.

"Kriff! What in Chaos—"

"Anakin" she murmured.

She sounded so weak that his throat closed as if someone was choking him. Her hand was like ice cradled in his. "I'm here, my love. You're fine. We're both fine. We got out."

She smiled weakly. "I know. Good trick."

It took a moment to connect her meaning. "It was just a guess."

"A lucky one," she muttered and her eyes started to drift shut again.

"Don't close your eyes. Padmè, look at me." Panicking, Anakin squeezed her hand and wormed his arm under her shoulders. Her head lolled back and her eyes were mere slits. Her breath rattled in her chest and scared him so much that he started shake.

A horrifying feeling of Déjà vu swept over him and for a moment he was nineteen again and watching his beloved mother die while he was helpless to do anything. Pain drilled into every nerve, ripping into his soul. He was still powerless, helpless, and useless.

"NO! Padmè. No!" His hoarse denial was more like a moaned prayer. "Don't leave me."

"Can't help … Tired."

Death just makes tenure here permanent, endless and pitiless.

No. no. no. no. He had to get her back to the second world. He had to save her.

Tears slid down Anakin's face unnoticed. His fingers danced over the elegant arch of her brows, down the side of her cheek by her ear. "You can sleep later, I promise. That thing's bite must have venom in it. We have to get out so I can find an antidote."

A single tear shimmered on a dark lash and then dropped. "Can't …You get out."

And leave her. An angel in hell.

"NO!" This time it was a roar. Fury swamped him and with nothing to aim it at, it blasted through his system without check or outlet. He welcomed it. Surging to his feet, Anakin snatched up the discarded utility belt and tied it around his own waist, then bent down and scooped Padmè up in his arms. "I'm not leaving you so don't even say it. We're getting out and I don't care how I do it."

She felt horribly delicate in his arms and that only infuriated him further. He loved her. Just like he'd loved his mother, Obi-Wan, and his unborn children, and then lost them all, but not this time. Not like this. He wasn't consigning her to hell, or letting her do it. He'd damn himself again first.

In a way, the barren landscape suited his mood. It wasn't flat. There were hills, crags, gorges and canyons that lay like mouldering, skeletal remains on the surface of this bleak, stagnant world. For a while Anakin followed the trench and breathed in the stench of decay, letting it revolt him. Just like the endless sharp rocks underfoot, Anakin refused to soften. Among other things, his years as Vader had made him an expert at nourishing rage and making it blacker. When Padmè began drift out of consciousness, he shook her awake, and when even that started to fail, he told her the things that he'd so recently dreaded her ever finding out. The worse, the better he decided grimly. Ironically, even Sidious hadn't known it all, but Padmè soon would. He didn't care if she hated him afterwards, not if it stopped her fading away now.

Who knew better than he that anger and hatred could help you hold on to even the most tenuous thread of life?

He walked, carrying Padmè and going into detail of his torture of the young senator Leia Organa, of how he'd done everything in his power to break her. Ruthlessly clamping down on his wife's struggles, he went onto his pursuit of Luke and the methods he'd employed—of friends killed and duelling Luke and taking his hand. Then there was another encounter with Leia when he'd slashed her repeatedly with his lightsaber to punish Luke. He told her without apology or repentance. He told it as Vader. There was more, so much more, and it all slipped out like poison until Anakin's voice was little more than a croak—things that no mother could forgive a stranger doing to her children, never mind their father.

At least Padmè lived. It started to rain, a driving deluge that stung the skin, and that too was ignored except for the anger it could cause for the aggravation. At least it washed away the stink and rot of the dead.

The nameless monster wearing Obi-Wan's face had told him that there was no escape from the third world, that he didn't have what it took, not anymore. Anakin knew better.

Luke may have persuaded him to let go of his hatred of others, but his trial under Lyonides had shown him that there was one that still festered—self-hatred. Maul had spotted it over a decade ago.

What can you hate enough to destroy me?

Myself!

Anakin figured that it was more than enough to rip through the veils between worlds.

The ground was rising steadily now. The gorge had given way to a series of canyons. Anakin headed for the highest point while rainwater rushed in the valley between and formed a river, a blood-red river given the red sky above. At one point, a rocky ledge overhung the rushing water by at least a dozen meters. Here, Anakin stopped and stepped to the very edge of the ledge. In his arms, a waxy-pale Padmè was breathing shallowly. He stepped off the edge.

o~o~o

Blood got everywhere Sidious had found during his own experiments in pain and revenge. It was amazing how much a human being carried around in their veins. Lyonides had been no exception. He'd also owned a loud pair of lungs. Had being the operative word. The thing that had once been Silas Lyonides now squatted amongst the remains of his son. As Sidious had told both father and son, he always kept his promises; Petris now had a simpler life—or afterlife as the case may be—and Silas had been allowed to consume it.

That no longer concerned the dark lord of the Sith. He had a vortex to control. The turbulent, spinning flow of dark energies was literally being shaped by his will. In moments it filled half of the room. Closing his eyes and lifted his ruined face to the ceiling, Sidious plumbed the depths of his black soul for power, siphoning more from every corner of the Core, soaked as it was in terror and agony. The power rippled in his bones and crackled over his skin. It took enormous effort to rein it in and control it. At the peak of that quest for power, and just when Sidious was sure he could not longer contain it, the wormhole engaged with an enormously destructive backwash.

The palace itself trembled for several moments after the wormhole stabilised. Undaunted, Sidious approached the languidly rippling surface and reached out a hand to touch the fluid mercury-like surface. It was icy to the touch.

"First contact," he rasped, "and really quite beautiful, but not, I suspect, as beautiful as the one that will come after—the one that will take me back, body and soul."

o~o~o

"Are you sure this is the right one? In case you didn't notice, this isn't the only river valley in the area."

"Hey!" Lorne was insulted, not helped by nerves. "This is my best guess. I saw high, rocky slopes, not too many trees and that weird rock formation shaped like a you-know-what. Visions don't come with a digital map and big fat 'X', y'know?"

"Alright. Alright. Don't bite my head off." Having snarled back for forms sake, Sal confessed, "I didn't like the look of those refugees we passed over a few times, and I feel like a sitting duck just hovering here."

"If we land—assuming we can find a clearing big enough to land—those refugees will probably swarm on board and kill us all. I'm getting big hungry vibes of them. They see this rust-bucket of yours as salvation."

"They ain't taking my ship," growled Sal. He maintained a dignified silence on the subject of her being a rust-bucket.

In the co-pilots seat, Lorne rolled his eyes. "So don't land and all they can do is drool from a distance."

"They could take pot shots at her if they've got blaster rifles."

"They're not going to shoot down a ship they want to fly off in themselves. That would come under the heading 'cutting off your nose to spite your face'."

"They could take pot shots at Freyrr. She's sort of exposed down there."

"What kind of an idiot is going to take pot shots at a Wookiee?"

"Okay," conceded Sal, "Good point."

There was perhaps a minute of blessed silence, then, "Aren't we a bit early in the day? It's still evening with at least an hour left before sundown. The Narzgh don't start popping out until way after dark."

"Possibly to avoid being fried and blowing away in a puff of charred ash," shot back Lorne. "You might'a noticed that our fave couple don't go flame-grilled in direct sunlight. They don't need to wait until nightfall."

Another minute ticked by.

"So, you're absolutely sure this is the right spot?"

"Yes!"

Before the argument could begin again, they both saw something that jerked them back to the cockpit viewscreen.

"Whoa! What was that?"

Lurching forward, Sal slapped a hand on the comms console. "Freyrr, did you see that, over?"

The cockpit comms speakers seemed to erupt with one loud, long roar in the affirmative.

Forgetting himself, Sal practically put his nose to the screen. "It's them. Damn! It's gotta be them. I know it."

Lorne agreed. "I'll be down with Freyrr. I'll guide you to them over the link."

He'd never moved so fast in his life as he did to get down to the lower hold and the same engineering access hatch that Padmè had once used as a base for Narzgh target practice. Now Freyrr was there, ready to use her enormously long and powerful arms to scoop up Anakin and Padmè if they showed up as per Lorne's vision.

She was already pretty voluble and pointing at some spot in the distance when Lorne got down on his knees and climbed out with her. He considered it a squeeze for a good cause.

The Limidian moved, skimming so close to the river that both Lorne and Freyrr were in danger of getting soaked. Neither noticed nor cared.

What Lorne saw had both of his hearts skipping and broke a huge grin over his mouth. Two heads bobbing in the water, one dark and one dark blonde. He brought the comm-link up to speak. "Well, Hallelujah, boys and girls. I see them." However, the closer the ship got though, the smaller was Lorne's grin. "Sal, it looks like their day trip to Demonsrus wasn't all sun, sea and frolics. You'd better tell the Doc and have him do the final prep for that bacta tank of his."

o~o~o

Night had fallen in Junga Roth and, as suggested by the Jedi Kenobi, the Narzgh were too busy with the millions already trapped within the Core to worry about chasing the few who'd remained behind in the Outer Rim. It seems they were safe enough for now. Even so, the survivors and injured had been moved to Jester's maze of underground warehouses and illegal nightclubs. It was a strictly modern and utilitarian set-up. Security was tight, the energy supply was independent to the rest of the city, entrances were concealed and all parts of the complex were interconnected by well-maintained tunnels. In fact, the complex bore a closer resemblance to a starship than an underground hub of illegal commerce belonging to a crime lord. The Besalisk was nothing if not paranoid, efficient and organised.

Scrubbed, re-robed and with a fresh turban on her head, Obonè cornered Kenobi in the tunnel leading between the new makeshift armoury and Jester's centre of operations. Falling into step beside him, she got straight to the point.

"What didn't you tell us back in the temple?"

He didn't appear surprised at her sudden appearance at his side, or her question. Amusement glowed in blue grey eyes when he said, "Probably quite a bit given my age and occasionally colourful history. Did you have something specific in mind."

"As a matter of fact I do. A number of things, actually. First, there's your connection with Padmè Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, it confuses me." She shot him a piercing looking, trying to see past the calm exterior to the man underneath. "You say that Padmè is an old friend of yours, and yet you were the one who almost killed her husband. How does that work?"

His expression didn't betray any emotion, but his pace did slow. "Anakin and I were Jedi together. In fact, he was my padawan learner, a Jedi version of an apprentice. I knew and cared for them both. My duel with Vader after Anakin turned broke me almost as much as it broke him." Now it was his turn to bestow a sharp, knowing glance. "You don't have to worry about me being a potential threat to either of them … should they make it back."

"Do you think they'll make it back?" Just an hour before she hadn't dared hope, but now hope was rearing up and refusing to be denied. It was almost as painful as no hope at all. Obonè held her breath waiting for an answer.

Kenobi sighed, shaking his head. "I wish I could give you a definite answer, but I can't. Seeing into the future is a dicey business at the best of times and impossible in the third world."

"Then give me your opinion."

"I can't. That would be irresponsible of me—I"

"Please!"

Obonè halted, forcing him to stop too out of politeness. She didn't try and hide the plea in her eyes. As a politician, she knew full well that vulnerability could be a valuable tool.

His second sigh was heavier and gustier. "I can't make you any promises, but I know Anakin. He has an aversion to failing, no matter how the odds are stacked against him. In the past, that aversion—or stubbornness, if you will—has got him out of almost as much trouble as it's got him into bother in the first place. I'm hopeful, and that's all I will say."

"Alright." Obonè nodded. "It's better than nothing."

They got moving again to avoid causing a log-jam. The tunnels had not been built with chit-chat in mind.

"You have another question. I can feel it. You may as well get it off your chest." Having issued the rueful invitation, Kenobi added a disclaimer, "I can't promise to answer, though."

They were nearing the control room and the corridor was getting even busier with more and more people passing them. Luckily, the tunnel widened to allow for a greater flow of foot-traffic. Obonè slowed to a crawl and lowered her voice. "I've known Lyonides for years, so I know his objectives and ambitions, but this Sidious is a complete stranger to me—what's his plan? What does he want? Why is he doing what he's doing?"

"He wants to return to the plane of the living and he will stop at nothing to achieve that aim."

"But that's impossible. Everyone knows that. Dead is dead."

"Normally I would agree with you, but Darth Sidious is not a normal Sith, or even a normal Narzgh. He has managed to exceed even the very worst expectations anyone has ever had of him. He has a plan, and it might just work."

"Do you know what that plan is?"

"I do, and it's close to being accomplished." Kenobi stopped again, this time forcing Obonè to follow suit. "Let me explain something to you. Horror, terror, pain and suffering are all powerful conductors of dark side energies. The more suffering there is and the more prolonged it lasts, the stronger is the surge of the dark side of the Force. Sidious has brought about an unprecedented surge of those energies to make himself powerful on a scale that you cannot possibly imagine. At its peak he will create a vortex that he will use to open a wormhole. That wormhole will, with a little help from some dark acolytes in the living universe, create a bridge that is traversable by a physical body. The process is already begun."

Feeling sick to her stomach, Obonè mulled it over, trying to understand. "He's basically going to try and turn the process of death on its head."

"Exactly."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"You shouldn't. If it's not closed properly eventually the wormhole could expand and erase all barriers, with consequences that frankly don't bear thinking about. I firmly believe that even Sidious before he died would have balked at the risk, but he's also a Narzgh now, and it is the nature of that beast to want to bring all beings down to their level."

Inside Obonè the nausea turned to ice. "You're telling me that if he pulls it off, the third world will expand?"

"I'm telling you that it could become the sum total of all existence, living or dead, and releasing horrors that were never meant to be released."

It was an effort but Obonè managed to work up enough spit to moisten her mouth and speak, "Why didn't you mention any of this in the meeting?"

"You weren't ready. You were all still in shock, not in the least organised and resistant to even the idea of finding a way into the Core. Now that you are getting organised, it's time that you know the stakes. I suggest you use your influence to make sure that a team is assembled. In my opinion, Zarc Wess will be crucial to any attempt to thwart Sidious."

TBC