Thank you so much to everyone who has kept up with this story and posted a review. It really does mean so much to know that people are enjoying the chapters and want more. As usual all signed in replies should have received a reply. Helen X

Anon replies are below:

Maggie – Thank you so much. I'm tickled pink that Purgatory is your first star wars fanfic and that it has caught your imagination. I hope the last few chapters continue to entertain and intrigue you.

Note (1) – Savuud Thimram and Byss are both courtesy of Wookieepedia

Note (2) - Doc is heavily inspired by BSG's excellent Doc Cottle.

Note (3) – There is a tiny reference to a planet called Tythe that I've taken from the novel 'Labyrinth of Evil' by James Luceno.

Chapter Nineteen

The emperor had begun construction on the Imperial Citadel directly after the end of the Clone Wars. The black and red tower rose from the sprawling morass of Throne City on the deep-core planet of Byss. It was here that he had performed so many of his dark side experiments, both on the unfortunate populace, as well as creatures created in breeding centres buried deep in the bowels of the sub-levels. Once his throne room and military command centre were in place, Emperor Palpatine had Sith alchemical laboratories built, sitting alongside libraries filled with Jedi and Sith artefacts, tomes and holocrons.

In essence, the citadel was a humming, efficient temple to the dark side of the Force. All that was missing thought Savuud Thimram was the emperor himself. It had been almost four months since the report of Palpatine's demise at Endor. Sate Pestage had taken over the suddenly floundering galactic empire, but his abilities were sadly lacking. Walking swiftly towards the Throne Room, Thimram shook his head at the acknowledgement, very sadly lacking.

It was such a pity that the emperor's cloning facilities had not been able to bear fruit before his death. Once again Thrimram shook his heavy, head-dressed head. All that effort wasted, he sighed to himself. A human of short stature and with wizened features, he was unprepossessing figure, an unfortunate state of affairs that he attempted to rectify by wearing elaborate floor-length robes and headgear.

The gleaming red doors to the throne room swished apart. Inside, all was exactly as the emperor had last left it. Nothing in the cavernous, circular and domed room had been dismantled. Not surprisingly, the spineless Pestage had not had the courage to take on the numerous Dark Side Adepts that lived and worked on Byss. Thimram was just such an Adept and something inexorable was compelling him to leave his bed and his comfortable quarters and come here—to a dead emperor's seat of power.

Glossy metallic black stairs rose from the antechamber to another level. At the top, the throne drew the eye, but to reach it you had to walk down a long processional aisle that made any visitor feel as if they were crawling towards the emperor seated at its pinnacle. In addition to the mammoth black throne, a display screen of truly epic proportions dominated the room.

Tonight, Thimram had eyes only for the throne, though, and the cloaked figure it contained. He was afraid that if he blinked the figure would disappear, like a mirage or a dream. The closer he got, the less solid the shrouded man seemed, and yet Thrimram could feel the pure and utter darkness surrounding him—he could almost taste the malevolence of his emperor. It was enough. Dark satisfaction filled him.

"Master!" he breathed and scurried forward to kneel at the base. "You have returned to us."

"Not quite," rasped the familiar voice, piercing Thrimram with disappointment. "I am a mere shade, an insubstantial spirit that is still bound to another place, however with your help that will soon change. I have called you here as my most capable Adept. I hope my trust in you is not misplaced, Thimram?"

He bowed lower, to the point that the box-like frame of his headdress threatened to fall off his head. "The emperor must know that I am always at his command. What is it that I must do to assist your return, my Master?"

"There is a holocron in my personal library. I will give you the code that will unlock the container holding it. This holocron contains instructions on how to create a vortex of a particular kind. It requires a sacrifice—a human sacrifice in this case. This step is crucial. Pick someone and begin immediately. Once the vortex is sufficiently stable, I will be able to create a bridge between the living and the dead, allowing me to return to you and all of my loyal subjects."

Thimram felt no qualms about murder, just curiosity about what he was being asked to participate in. Truthfully, he said, "I will begin immediately, my master."

"See that you do. Time is of the essence."

o~o~o

He had no secrets left.

She knew it all. Anakin didn't feel cleansed. He felt empty and utterly divorced from everything around him. A vacuum. He should have been agonising over how easy it had been to let the rage wipe out his terror and anguish, energising him to do what he had to do to achieve his objective, but he didn't—couldn't—regret the choice. They'd needed to get out of the third world, and only Vader could help him achieve that. It didn't matter if Padmè hated him now, he told himself, ruthlessly ignoring the instant lance of pain. At least she was safe. Still, it had been a dangerous thing to do, especially for him; perhaps more so because it had worked.

He was prepared to bet that Sidious hadn't counted on either of them making it out again. Inside him, the vacuum of his emotions was rent by a spark that flared to a flame of anger.

At the same time fingers snapped in front of his face. "Hey! You zoning out on me?"

Called back to the present, Anakin blinked and heard Sal drawl, "He does that a lot. You get used to it."

With an effort, Anakin locked onto grey eyes almost hidden behind bushy, white eyebrows. "You were saying?"

"I was saying that I don't know what in Chaos you two did to get out of there, but it played hell on your bodies … literally." The gravelly, no-nonsense voice of the human doctor continued. "You had second degree burns all over your body. I haven't seen blisters like that since the cataclysm of Tythe back in the old days—"

"That's what you get for breaking through a veil between worlds. I'm fine now," interrupted Anakin. He bent down to tug on his boots so he wouldn't have to look anyone else in the eye.

He had on fresh clothing, courtesy of Sal, with the difference in height made up by the difference in girth. Padmè's utility belt cinched in what his extra four inches in height didn't. The crew quarters of the Limidian had been turned into a makeshift med-centre complete with a pair of ancient-looking bacta tanks. The tanks belonged to the white-haired, white-coated and crotchety old man called simply, 'Doc'. Space was at a premium and Sal and Lorne were waiting by the door. He could feel them looking at him. Worse, he could feel their worry like aggravating pinpricks on his skin. That concern made everything so much worse, because reassurance was beyond him. He did not want to discuss the third world, what they'd found there or how they'd gotten out. He didn't want to even think about it.

"Yeah, well, a few hours in my bacta composite seem to have done what weeks would for anyone else," conceded Doc with a perplexed, irritable frown. He crossed his arms over his white coat and settled a gimlet-eyed stare on Anakin. "In fact, I wouldn't mind knowing the secret so I can do the same for the girl and maybe get the hell out of here faster."

The girl.

Anakin's gaze was instantly drawn to the still active bacta tank. Padmè floated inside it with a breathing mask connecting her to an oxygen tank and other tubes and catheters attached to her body. The monitor on the tank beeped and flashed and the hiss of oxygen made an audible counterpoint. His heart squeezed at the sight of her. She still looked so pale and her dark hair was an ethereal cloud floating around her delicate face. He loved her do much. How could he have not done everything to save her? His eyes and throat burned. "You're sure she's going to be okay?"

He was tense enough to snap while he waited for the answer—even though he'd asked it a dozen times already since coming back to consciousness.

"I isolated the venom or whatever the heck it was and found it was already breaking down." Doc shrugged. "Other than that I didn't have to do a damned thing. I don't understand it myself." He didn't quail under Anakin's pointed stare, but he did continue, "My best guess is that its ability to kill is tied into a victim being physically present in that hell-hole. All that's left now is repairing the damage that was done while it was active. Another day or so and she'll be as good as new."

Anakin relaxed a fraction. He offered a short, decisive nod. "I owe you a great deal. I won't forget it."

Unimpressed, Doc jerked a thumb towards the two lurking in the doorway, "Don't thank me. Thank your friends. If they'd given me a choice I'd still be enjoying my homebrew and pirate holos in peace and privacy." Under snowy white hair, his scowl deepened. "For the record, I don't do rescues and house calls."

Prompted in such a way, Anakin finally had to look at his friends. Sal jerked a shoulder. "We found him after Lorne read me. We didn't have a clue why, but he insisted we had to pick this guy up first."

"And hasn't it been fun," interjected Lorne with a speaking glance and a tone that was as dry as dust. "Doc here, despite his undeniably healing touch, has the personality of a chronically constipated rhino. Believe me when I tell you that he makes Sal seem the essence of serenity in comparison."

"Hence me taking myself off from idiot people and finding a nice place to play hermit in," snapped back Doc, throwing a filthy look at the pilot and Pylean. "Not to mention—if you're going to hijack a man you should be prepared for him to be feeling pissy about it."

"Yeah. But, there's pissy and then there's pissy," gibbed Sal, but he didn't get to finish.

"Out" said Doc loudly and baldly, overriding him. "Visiting time's over."

Sal only needed to take three steps into the room to go nose-to-nose with the old man. "Hey!" He stabbed his own chest with an irate thumb. "My ship, remember. Nobody orders me around on my own ship."

"I do when I have a patient and work to do. Get over it," said Doc witheringly, and included Anakin when he repeated, "Go on, all of you scat. This dump isn't big enough to swing a romp rat in. I need space. Out."

Sal looked ready to explode. Anakin stood before the other man could reach critical mass. "We'll be in the crew rec room. I expect to be kept informed of Padmè's condition. I want to know the moment there's any change."

Having issued his own orders and after receiving a reluctant nod of acknowledgement, Anakin strode out, knowing the other two would follow. He waited until they were inside what passed as the recreation room on the Limidian to speak. "I know you both have questions, but they're going to have to wait."

His tone was cold and abrupt, a direct contrast to the anger burning stronger by the second in his chest, but he simply wasn't capable of injecting any warmth into it. He could still smell the stench of corpses on his skin—his insides felt slicked with it.

He stopped at the battered holochess table and crossed his arms. "From the moment I got back here, I've felt things in the Force that I've never felt before." He couldn't possibly explain to them the dark void he could feel ravaging Roth, draining it of life far more surely than any Narzgh ever could, so he didn't even try, preferring to keep it simple. "Something truly monstrous is happening in Roth. Even as Vader, I've never known the dark side to be so strong and encompassing." He saw Sal flinch at the mention of his past persona and ignored it. "I've tried, but I can't pierce it and I don't have the time to meditate in the hope of peeling it away enough for a glimpse." His gaze shifted to the Pylean. "I need you to read me."

He didn't say he needed to find out who was causing it—he already knew—Sidious was behind all of this. The presence of his old master was no longer hidden, but pulsing like a malevolent beacon. It was he who had arranged for Padmè to be abducted into the third world, knowing full well that Anakin would go after her. Lyonides had been a mere puppet with Sidious pulling the strings. Hidden by his crossed arms, Anakin's fingers curled into fists.

Red eyes widened. "What now?"

"Yes. Now." Anakin started to pace. "It may already be too late, I don't know. But I do know that there's no time to waste. Sidious has master-minded everything from the beginning and managed to stay hidden and undetected for most of it." Fury surged, but it was self-directed and coated with frustration. He'd let Sidious and Lyonides give him the run-around for far too long. "All Sith Lords are devious, ruthless, manipulative and cunning," he continued, "but none more so than this man. He was my master for over twenty years. I know him. It's imperative that we find out what it is that he wants. He has a plan, he always does."

"Excuse me for being Captain Obvious here, but he's a Narzgh," pointed out Sal. "They always want the same thing—the rest of us in hell with them."

"You've just made your first fatal mistake in underestimating him," shot back Anakin, harshly. "He is no more just a Narzgh than he was just an emperor. He is the most powerful Sith Lord to have ever existed, and we don't merely need to come up with a plan to foil him, but counter-scenarios for all of the alternate plans that he'll have as back-ups. He is nothing if not thorough, and improvising is a particular skill of his. If we want to beat him, then we have to box him in—contain him—and to do that I need information."

o~o~o

The original builders of Junga Roth had built a labyrinthine series of underground tunnels under their city. Most were no longer in use after the Lyonides family had spread false reports that the Narzgh had used them to invade the city all of those decades ago. Taking full advantage of that same paranoia, Jester the Besalisk had upgraded many for his complex and then been smart enough to seal them so that any wandering and brave citizens team wouldn't stumble across them.

In theory, the plan was simple. The man they needed to rescue was being held deep beneath the palace, in a part of the structure that predated the existing building. They were going to use the tunnels to reach the place where Zarc Wess was being held captive. If they were successful in freeing him, he would then be taken directly to the barrier generator to make whatever modifications were required. Unfortunately, the tunnels did not lead to the barrier—meaning that they would have to travel a good distance through the city streets.

Streets swarming with Narzgh. It was suicidal.

Everything was moving terrifyingly fast for Obonè. Still reeling from Kenobi's revelations, she'd been drawn into a meeting were they'd come up with their desperate plan. From there it had been straight into picking the individual team members and then diving into preparation mode. The whole process was crazily rushed and yet they had no time for slowing down and thinking it out.

What was there to think about, she asked herself. This would either work or it wouldn't. A shudder worked its way down her spine accompanied by a wave of cold nausea. All around her it was controlled mayhem as the two ten-people teams were being briefly trained and kitted out.

Tension locked the muscles in her shoulders and cramped those in her gut. Twenty people that she was responsible for sending out to die, or worse. It dumbfounded her that only a few days ago, the most pressing decision she'd had to make was whether to petition the employment minister to fund a job skills training programme for the Outer Rim.

Dear gods!

Numb inside, she watched the team members, getting in the way as they packed their gear, prepped their weapons, programmed the scout droid and numerous other activities. Data and power cables snaked everywhere and utility droids were trundling along loading and unloading supplies. Some of the people she knew, such as Jazz, but many were strangers to her; ruthless strangers of various species who held the fate of Roth in their hands. The noise level was busy and industrious with too many jokes that were laughed at too hard. She wasn't the only one feeling tension.

After finally noticing the strange looks being cast her way, Obonè realised that she was viewed as an interloper, so turned and left with no clear idea of where she was heading. She had a choice: resume nursing duties—made redundant by Jester's medical droids—help the ongoing effort to provide reassurance, food and bedding to the other survivors, or return to the command centre and stand about feeling equally useless. She chose to be busy for the hour or so spare before the final predawn briefing.

She hadn't gone two steps before a voice said over her right shoulder, "Bounty hunters aren't renowned for their ability to work as a team." There was an amused pause, "neither are they used to being worried over."

Obonè turned to look into the far too knowing blue-grey eyes of Obi-Wan Kenobi. "Jester runs a tight ship and I'm banking on that including his employees." She looked away again. "Besides, I'd feel a whole lot worse about sending untrained fighters into the Core."

"A fair point," the Jedi conceded. "Where are you headed?"

Sensing that they hadn't met by chance, Obonè decided to lie. "I hadn't quite decided."

"In that case I'll walk with you." He left a delicate pause. "If you don't mind the company?"

An appropriately polite response formed on the tip of her tongue, only to replaced at the last moment by a blunt query, "What's on your mind Master Jedi?"

He deflected her with ease and his usual perfect civility mixed with wry, self-directed amusement. "Oh, this and that. I find there's always something worth mulling over."

The tunnels were busy. Even though most of the survivors not affiliated with Jester had been confined to non-essential areas of the sprawling complex, they had to thread their way through a bottleneck of sentients at the intersection of four more tunnels.

Kenobi took the left tunnel, the only one that appeared all but deserted. It was cold and Obonè crossed her arms to ward it off and retain body heat. "Is Jester certain that the poison is instant and painless?" she asked.

She'd forgotten that he'd protested the issue of the pills, and was abruptly reminded when she saw the distaste Kenobi didn't try to hide. "I'm reliably informed that it is so, yes. Let's hope that no one becomes desperate enough to try it out."

"Personally, I'd take a quick death to what the Narzgh are doing to people—which is precisely the reason the pills are being issued," she pointed out. "No one will be instructed to use them. The idea is that it would be voluntary."

"Oh, I'm not disputing that. It's just that when I was being sent out on dangerous missions, I preferred to focus on the objective rather than the numerous dangers." Dryly, he added, "I've always found that creating a positive mind-frame can make a big difference, to myself, and any troops under my command."

All of a sudden his unruffled composure aggravated her beyond bearing, making her snap, "It would make a big difference to everyone's state of mind if they knew that a Jedi was going along too."

"Which brings me to what I wanted to talk to you about," said Kenobi with a slight grimace. "Forgive my prevaricating before, but I didn't want to be overheard."

Her heart leapt with hope. "You've changed your mind? You'll go on the rescue?"

"Unfortunately, not, no. I have to leave now. I'd hoped to stay longer, but …" he trailed off.

"You're leaving now!" she couldn't believe what she was hearing and came to a dead stop. "Just like that and before the final briefing?"

"My mission is complete. You've been warned about what it is you're facing and you have a viable plan. That is as much as I am authorised to do." Sympathy, remorse and regret briefly chased one another over his face. "I'm sorry, I really am. I wish it were otherwise."

Obonè was too flabbergasted to appreciate his regret. "I don't understand any of this." Anger flared, hot and sharp. Throwing up her arms, she whirled away, only to spin back. "If you people are so omnipotent as to be able to see what's going on or going to happen, why can't you do anything about it? In fact while we're on the topic, why did you let it go so far?"

The accusation behind the furious questions seemed to hover in the air between them. Ridiculously, she felt betrayed. He might have only been there for less than a day, but there was something so utterly noble about him that was impossible to resist. He'd offered them hope.

"We are far from omnipotent, Obonè," said Kenobi, the calm to her storm. "Our ability to view what is happening in worlds other than our own is real, but mostly limited to the present. Think of it as dreaming that you're watching a scene through a window while it's being enacted on the other side. None of us predicted this until it was almost too late. The future is fluid and forever changing and we can only hazard guesses. At least half of the time, we get it wrong, which is precisely why we cannot interfere directly in a matter as potentially catastrophic as this one. If the possible consequences weren't so awful, I would be allowed to do more—" He spread his hands helplessly "—but as it is…we dare not."

"I don't buy that."

"Unfortunately, it's the truth," he returned gently. "We haven't been keeping things from you."

"Maybe, but there's another reason why you're in such a rush to leave." Obonè was suddenly certain of it.

Kenobi acknowledged her perception with a smile. "And you'll find out what it is in a very short while. However, it is also true that I've been recalled and I don't have much time. There are fresh concerns that my presence might muddy certain waters and my arguments to the contrary have fallen on deaf ears. I must go."

"You're still not making any sense."

"I know, but you'll understand soon." Reaching out, he clasped her hands briefly in his own. "I sought you out because I didn't want to leave without saying farewell and good luck."

There seemed to be nothing more to be said and with a heavy heart, Obonè watched the Jedi retrace his steps and disappear.

o~o~o

E-1VE, shortened to Eve by her masters, was rattled and irritated, or as close to experiencing those emotions as a protocol droid could come. Or any droid for that matter, she told herself huffily. It was a matter of pride to her that she could imitate the idiosyncrasies of her creators nearly as well as they could. Except, of course, for logic, time management, dedication to a task and not vacillating on priorities.

She'd been busy. More importantly, she'd been close to completing her translation programme for the rare Monalimaki language, only to be interrupted and pulled away to undertake a menial chore more suited to a mere service droid. Protocol droids didn't do deliveries. It was obscene, and infuriating.

For Stars sake! What was it to her if a sentry needed his com-link replaced due to a malfunction?

Stuff and nonsense.

If she could have, Eve would have heaved an aggrieved sigh.

Even her servos sounded agitated as she rounded the last corner. The moment she did, she noted that the two Twi'lek sentries were sprawled unconscious on the tunnel floor with a cloaked figure standing over them. Eve's survival protocols kicked in immediately, and freezing on the spot, she raised her hands with a high-pitched cry of dismay, "oh my".

Twin blasters were aimed directly at her alloy-plated thorax, held by a pair of dubious-looking characters, one of which resembled a tower of rippling fur. Even more bizarrely, a mangy and rusted astromech droid was just visible behind the trio.

"Take me to the Besalisk," commanded the cloaked one in a tone that brooked no opposition.

Still with her arms cautiously raised, Eve didn't hesitate to voice her willingness to comply. "Certainly, if you insist."

Protocol droids were not built for speed. The menacing trio and their scruffy droid were soon surrounding Eve as she led them through the tunnels. Their oppressive silence prohibited her own more cordial sub-routines and although she formulated several friendly conversational gambits, she ended up discarding them. Worse, try as she might, Eve could find no opportunity for alerting any of the passers-by that she was being coerced into guiding the intruders to her master.

Jester, she deduced with a sinking feeling in her abdominal motor, was not going to be impressed.

She had some hope when they approached the 'beating heart' of Jester's underground and illicit kingdom—the operational centre. Two more guards were standing on either side of the blast-proof door, giving every appearance of competent vigilance coupled with the usual willingness of the criminal element to erupt into violence. For once, Eve was fully prepared to appreciate such deplorable aggression.

The hope was short-lived. The cloaked man—she'd noticed that he had human hands—raised one of those hands and spoke in a low, authoritative voice, "We're expected. You will let us pass unchallenged."

Eve did a double take when the guards obediently stepped aside and actually keyed in the code to unlock the sealed door. It swished aside and they stepped through into the glaringly bright and crowded room beyond.

It was like walking into a wall of noise. Dozens of sentients from numerous species were seated in a sunken, circular briefing area, and all were talking at once and trying to be heard over each other. In the centre was a meter high holomap of the forgotten and disused underground of Junga Roth.

Standing just before the holomap was a heavy-set and dark-skinned human female dressed in flowing white from head to toe. Her voice rose easily over the cacophony. "He warned us that he would not be able to lead the mission. He did not mislead us."

"But we assumed …"

"… terrible news … "

"Typical … kriff needs … Jedi …"

Once again the female's voice was clearly audible over the anger, outrage and nerves. "This moaning and bickering is useless and we don't have time for it. We can't change what's happened, but we can try and make it better. Let's be honest, we have no real choice. It's up to us now."

In the simmering quiet that followed, Eve shuffled forward and raised her right arm for attention. "Pardon me for interrupting your meeting, Master Jester, but I think that you should know that you have some unexpected guests." With some trepidation, she gestured to the two humans, the Wookiee and the droid who were ranged behind her in a semicircle.

All eyes swung their way, making Eve wish that she had a physiology to gulp. There were certain types of attention that she preferred to avoid, and this definitely seemed like one of them.

The silence was deafening for a full second.

Then the woman said in a bewildered tone, "Freyrr? Sal? I thought you'd gone for good?"

In answer, the cloaked man drew back his hood to reveal dark blonde hair, and said, "We're back."

Startled, Eve actually stumbled back a step when the entire assemblage erupted in a clamorous roar.

o~o~o

It was funny, mused Lorne woozily. He could drink a tanker-load of alcohol and not even get tipsy, but give him a few glasses of milk and he was three parts cut. His non-human constitution reacted to it in the same way as a man does to rot-gut whisky. Luckily for him, he reflected, the Limidian had a decent stock of the white stuff.

He'd needed to get drunk. After reading Anakin it had been an absolute necessity.

So much for minimum safe distance, he thought with a spine-cracking shudder.

The deck of the freighter undulated under him so that Lorne stumbled and crashed into one of the walls. He overcompensated, bounced too hard and did the same on the other side just outside the crew quarters where Padmè was floating in that weird jello-type stuff.

Propped up on the wall with his long legs tangled, he raised his fingers to his lips and shushed himself, loudly. It took several attempts to get his legs co-ordinated enough to support him.

Finally standing on his own two feet and having made enough noise to raise the dead, he turned—and gave a piercing shriek at coming face-to-face with a white-haired and glowering gargoyle.

"What the kriff do you think you're doing?" growled Doc. "I have a patient who needs peace and quiet."

"And you nearly had a second one sneaking up on me like that," Lorne protested, swaying hard enough that if the wall hadn't been there to prop him up again, he would have ended up on his ass. Then a question occurred to him. "Can she actually hear anything in there?" he asked, cocking his head and then wishing he hadn't.

Instead of answering Doc's glower darkened and his lip curled in derision. He crossed his arms. "You're drunk."

"You betcha." Lorne saluted him with the empty cup, "And I plan on staying that way for the foreseeable future."

"Wanna tell me why?"

"Oh the usual," said Lorne airily. "Worlds ending, dimensions collapsing, demons running amok, and the good guys skirting so close to the line that they make the big bads look all sweetness'n'light in comparison." He waved a hand. "Y'know, the usual."

He was so drunk that he had to blink and stare before he realised that the figure coming up behind Doc wasn't a hallucination. "What have you seen, Lorne?" asked Padmè bluntly. Dark eyes in a pale face seemed to drill right into him.

o~o~o

There had been no time for in-depth explanations or indulging in relief. Anakin, Sal, and Freyrr had joined the briefing and outlined their own ideas for entering the Core and getting to the barrier. In the end, the final plan had morphed into an amalgamation of both.

Two hours later, the large, ball-shaped scout droid took point, searching the tunnels for Narzgh or other life forms before the two teams risked passing from one dilapidated tunnel into another. There was no power, meaning they had to supply their own illumination and prise apart sealed sections with hydraulic pressure clamps. Looking at the walls and ceilings, Anakin wondered uneasily if the greatest danger wasn't the structural integrity of the tunnels rather than the Narzgh. They'd made good progress for the first hour and soon passed deep into the Core. Above their heads, the city should have been enjoying the first warming rays of dawn instead of a second day of murder and mutilation.

Unfortunately, they'd had to take a detour around a collapsed part of tunnel located approximately under the security and enforcement sector of Roth. If they had the location correct, the collapse had probably been caused during the construction of Natar's notorious sub-level security HQ and detention centre. Either way the detour had cost them another hour.

The gauntlet holotransmitter strapped to Anakin's wrist displayed a miniature version of the holomap seen at the briefing, and it showed that they were finally approaching the palace. A hope supported by the fact that they'd also reached a seal that was unmarred, gave the appearance of being in perfect working order, and was supplied with power. No one spoke or broke the silence in any way. At this point, surprise and secrecy was absolutely essential. The tension racked up by incremental degrees—you could practically taste the surge of adrenaline. The scout droid was already connected to the data interface socket and working on cracking the code.

The seal opened with a hiss and they filed cautiously inside. Anakin took the lead with only the scout droid floating ahead. The dark side of the Force was suffocatingly strong now. The very air seemed saturated with evil, and an immense, impenetrable power. That power called to him as he crept along with his lightsaber gripped in his left hand. Old promises, visions and temptations teased the edges of his mind. He was whole again. Just imagine the power he would wield. The things he could do would have no limit. Never again would he be subjected to pain, torment and uncertainty. He would eclipse Sidious utterly and the threat now hanging over everyone, alive or dead, would be gone. The third world would remain as it was now and Luke and Leia, along with billions of others in the living universe, would never know its atrocities.

As for Roth, the people he cared about and strangers alike would never have to fear for their safety with such an all-powerful ruler protecting them.

It was so obvious. He could make it all just go away. All he had to do was reach out and accept.

Someone nudged his elbow. "Hey!" hissed a voice. "You okay? You've just stopped."

Anakin blinked, feeling as if he was surfacing from a dream. Looking into Sal's concerned, pitted face, he felt a weight lift off his mind and reluctantly withdraw. Everyone was looking at him. Force! What had he been thinking? A tremor ran down the length of his spine. He shook his head to dispel a sudden dizziness. "I'm fine. There's nothing wrong. Let's go."

A tall, blue-skinned Chiss whom Anakin had heard referred to as 'Vlad' tapped him on the shoulder before they could move off and showed him the datapad that was being used to record and analyse the data from the scout droid.

There were five battle droids up ahead, and in a chamber beyond, the heat signature of a single humanoid. While the information was passed along to everyone, Anakin sucked in a slow deep breath. So, Obi-Wan had been right about the location of Wess and the fact that Sidious would not trust either human or Narzgh guards. Fine. Great. But it didn't change the fact that Anakin was hurt, and yes, suspicious about his obvious avoidance of him. He hadn't wanted to believe it when Obonè and other others had told him about the Jedi who'd appeared out of nowhere to help them. Obi-Wan had been there! Why hadn't he waited and given Anakin the information personally? It made no sense. Was he so little trusted? Did Obi-Wan's speech all those months ago about faith and redemption mean so little? Had Lyonides been right about that at least? He didn't know anymore. From the moment they'd escaped the third world everything had become blurred. Wherever he looked he could see only darkness, pain and suffering. Padmè was hurt and probably despised him, Obi-Wan obviously didn't trust him, and Sidious had lured him into hell and then taken over Roth, subjecting the people Anakin had wanted to protect to unimaginable horrors.

Injustice, anger, shame and insult burned in his belly.

Put it aside, he told himself grimly, and get on with freeing Wess. Everything else must wait.

"Let's go. I want both teams in a stealth pattern following behind me."

TBC

Note (4) – Take a deep breath. The next chapter is going to be heavy on the action!