Happy New Year! I hope you all had a great holiday and beginning to 2009.

ANON REPLY - mlhkvh5 - Yay I'm so delighted that the story is continuing to grab you, and that you caught onto the fact that Obi-Wan didn't want to leave but was given no choice. I hope that the new chapter is equally as enthralling for you. XX

GENERAL NOTE: I have to admit that I'm finding writing the end chapters of this story a real pig, mainly because my muse has gone AWOL *sigh* BUT, I refuse to risk leaving it for a while in the hope that it comes back, because from bitter experience I know that the longer I leave it the less I'll be able to connect with the story—and I refuse to write the longest fic I've ever written (my usual is only about a third of this size) and then abandon it right at the very end. I just hope my lack of muse isn't affecting the read quality for you. *blush*

On a related topic I have to say that I hugely appreciate all of those readers that have consistently given me the encouragement to continue. I know for a fact that this fic wouldn't be where it is without you! Seriously, writing in a vacuum sucks, so big, big thanks with chocolate whipped cream on top. *g*

Okay, on with the story…

Chapter Twenty

Darth Vader, the proverbial man-in-black, may be getting ready for a come-back gig. Minus the breathing apparatus.

They were in the impromptu infirmary and Doc had left them alone to talk. Sobering quickly, Lorne was perched on one of the beds with a dry-ice bag pressed to his forehead. He was looking remarkably pale for a being whose complexion was bright green. Even his twin horns seemed to be drooping.

His statement had dropped with the power of an Ion cannon.

"Are you sure about what you saw?" asked Padmè, reeling. It was difficult to get the words out passed the lump in her throat. Her mind was whirling and she felt as if her body was encased in ice, immovable except for a lurching stomach. This must be how it feels to have every one of your worst nightmares become real she realised sickly.

"Heck, no!" replied Lorne a little testily. "I keep telling you folks…" Stopping, he sighed, and then explained in a trying-to-be-patient tone. "Mostly I just see auras with a few scattered glimpses of past, present andpossible future—a bit like after dinner mints—y'know, the hard, pebbly kind that nobody wants? None of it's cast in stone, princess."

"Did you tell Anakin?" she asked doggedly, "Warn him of what might happen?"

"Yes, I did," said Lorne, still in that patient voice. He dropped the ice bag and his grim red gaze latched onto hers. "Not that he listened. I gotta tell you, his whole aura reeked of got-nothing-to-lose, and in my experience, that kind of 'tude can get you into all kinds of trouble—as well as anyone else who happens to be unlucky enough to be in the vicinity."

The ice dug deeper, splintering into her heart. Anakin felt as if he had nothing to lose. Oh gods! She could recall all too clearly the last time he'd been in such a mind frame. Speech was impossible. She could only stare numbly at Lorne.

Those red eyes didn't leave her face. "I mean, fair enough, he could be reacting to the whole end-of-life-as-we-know-it scenario, but I was getting another vibe too. I don't suppose something happened in the third world that might explain this sudden switch from 'hero striving to live in the light' to 'I don't give a crap so long as the job gets done'"?

Overwrought, Padmè threw up her hands. "Lots of things happened. How do I even begin to pin it down?" The ice was gone and a dreadful jittery panic had taken its place. What was Anakin planning, thinking to run off and ignore such a warning? He should have waited and let them talk it through.

After an assessing pause, Lorne patted the cot next to him in invitation. "How about you just give me the highlights and we'll go from there."

Padmè sat, hardly noticing that she did so. "There were things that happened. It was horrible, worse than I can possibly explain, but I lied to you just then. I do have an idea what might have caused Anakin to become …" she couldn't say dark so settled for "… withdrawn."

Lorne waved her on.

"Near the end we met some creatures. We'd been trying to find a way out when they lured us into an ambush of sorts. They took the shapes of people we cared about and taunted us. They said that Anakin didn't have what it took to escape in him—not anymore. It was a reference to his past—to Vader—I know it was. It made me wonder if it isn't the Narzgh's hatred that gives them the power to tear through the veil and get to us here."

"Makes sense, and so does Vader finding it as easy as a revolving door," quipped Lorne, catching onto what she was saying.

"Exactly, and now I'm afraid that Anakin must have found a way to tap back into that. How else did he get us back here?"

"And, keeping with door analogies…that was one we really didn't want Mr Tall-Blonde'n'Brooding opening up again, huh."

"Exactly, and that's not all. Earlier on I gave myself away. I let my guard down and he saw that I still loved him—we kissed—and then we were running for our lives with no chance to talk."

"And?" Lorne prompted.

"And I got sick. I was dying. Anakin refused to let me just slip away." Tears pricked her eyes and she hugged her arms around herself. "He…he told me things, terrible things that would get through no matter how far gone I was…I think he was hoping to make me angry enough to fight to live."

"Looks like it worked."

The tears splashed onto her cheeks and almost angrily she dashed them away. "It did, but I don't know if I can forgive him for the things he told me he did, and he has to realise that. Anakin isn't stupid and he knows me. It's why I've been trying so hard not to give away the fact that I still have strong feelings for him—that I love him—because…"

"Because he can't handle the risk of losing the love of someone who means so much to him?" finished Lorne when she faltered. He grimaced. "That sounds great in theory, princess, but there's a flaw. His love for you doesn't depend on you loving him back. You are literally his sun, moon and stars." Drooping even further, he heaved a sigh, closing his eyes to massage his aching forehead. "Still, both of those things coming on top of a universe-ending crisis does go a long way to explaining why our hero-in-retraining has gone all Captain Reckless on us. On the same day he finds out that he could have his hearts desire—aka you—he loses it again only hours later. To save you he had to ruin his own chances at happiness. Not good. I bet he'd like to kick fates' ass—or whoever gave it a nudge along."

o~o~o

The two cloaked figures kept to the sidewalk of the deserted streets of the Outer Rim. Despite this caution there was no furtiveness in the way they walked. They didn't stick purely to the shadows or slip from building to building and street corner to street corner, or use the abandoned market and vendor stalls as additional cover. Rather, they walked quickly and with an obvious destination in mind. For the most part they were as silent as the eerily empty city quadrants they were passing through. The blazing orb of the rising sun was growing warmer by the second, but there was only the hurrying pair to greet it.

"How's your head?" asked Padmè.

"Still attached," Lorne replied morosely.

Padmè got the distinct impression that he bit back an adjoining unfortunately. "I know just how you feel," she offered with a wan smile. She wasn't kidding. Her own head was splitting but she had reason to be grateful for the distraction. Blocking out his voice was easy when you add in the unrelenting thump between her temples.

If only she could do something similar for her heart.

It didn't stop the images though—images Anakin had deliberately planted into her head.

He was trying to stop you from slipping away. He saved you.

She knew that, but it didn't stop her feeling horror and revulsion. Logically, she also knew that Vader had done worse than torturing and hunting down their children like animals. He'd spread murder and mayhem across a thousands worlds in the name of the emperor and she'd forgiven him, but she been telling Lorne the truth back on the Limidian. She didn't know if she could forgive him for Luke and Leia, and that too was ripping her emotions into shreds. Okay, they'd been adults, but to her they were their children and the last time she'd seen they'd been tiny babies. He'd actually tortured Leia! She still loved Anakin, and she always would—she could admit that now—but she didn't know if this latest series of revelations would drive a fatal, immovable wedge between them. She just didn't know!

From the moment she'd regained consciousness, she'd felt as if she were being torn apart by the raging conflict in her heart. It was all too fresh, too raw. And now was not the time to analyse and make decisions. Once again her personal life was having to settle for coming a distant second to life itself.

Anakin had saved her and it was time to return the favour, either that or Junga Roth might just need saving from him too. Who knew better than she than an unstable, vengeful Anakin could be cataclysmic? As it had when Lorne had first spelled out to her what he'd gleaned while Anakin was singing her blood froze. It was a concept that was simply too unutterably appalling to contemplate. It was also heartbreaking to recall that mere days ago she'd been all but convinced that Anakin had completely shed Vader, only to be potentially proved wrong. The dark spectre of his Sith past would probably always mar everything, an immovable stain that would either recede or rush to the fore depending on his emotions. Perhaps they would both need to come to terms with that fact, and act accordingly.

Even supposing they survived and she could forgive him, could she risk this happening again in the future? Life, even in the after-life and especially in the second world, was tenuous. Life here was supposed to be transient. The second world was a stop-over on the way to a final destination. She was the exception not the rule.

When she realised the despairing direction her thoughts had taken, Padmè yanked them back. It didn't matter. First they had to survive this crisis before she could hypothesise about another.

She had to concentrate on today.

Lorne said that his visions or whatever they were weren't definite, just possible, but Padmè couldn't afford to dismiss any risk that could result in the return of Darth Vader. None of them could. Sucking in a slow, calming breath and unclenching her fists, she vowed that she'd find Sidious herself first if she had to—and step one to accomplishing that was being in the right place at the right time.

"We're almost there," puffed Lorne, more to himself than Padmè.

She refocused her attention to their immediate surroundings. He was right. The huge dome of the sports arena they'd been using to outfit various small craft with UV weapons was only a few blocks away now, and already the dominant feature of the cityscape. They'd decided against Padmè flying the Limidian into the open-sky arena. It was all too likely that Lyonides had been aware of what was going on there and they didn't want to run the risk that he was having the skies monitored for traffic. Why forewarn? A few more minutes of brisk walking brought them to the ramp that led to the massive entrance. Padmè and Lorne had barely stepped inside though when they found themselves surrounded by grim-faced sentients who were aiming blaster rifles at them with deadly purpose.

"Halt. This is a restricted area. Identify yourselves."

Padmè lowered her hood and looked confidently into the eyes of the nearest. "My name is Padmè Amidala and I want to talk to whoever is in charge here."

o~o~o

Jester had been ruminating on the past, and the fact that he'd forgotten just how much he loved tinkering with machinery; then the message had come through that he should expect some unexpected company in the form of Councillor Amidala and an unknown escort. Using his middle two arms to pull his bulk from under a lightly armoured skiff, Jester chuckled and scratched an itch on his wattle with the tip of a servodriver. "Well, if today ain't the day for surprise company, huh."

With difficulty he rose, aware of an increase in the charged atmosphere of the others working with him in the arena. He knew the cause. Here was the second of only two people to have ever escaped and returned from the third world. Truth to tell, he was actually glad of the warning. Jester had been mightily embarrassed to find himself cheering along with the rest when Skywalker had strode in on the briefing, and he didn't want a repeat. A man in his position had a certain reputation to uphold.

Hot damn if that hadn't been a moment for cheering, though, he thought, making allowances for himself. Not to mention it had been a huge boost just when they'd needed it.

Jester had time to briefly dust himself off before Padmè Amidala was walking across the dirty sand to reach him. He scrutinised her from the top of severely pulled back dark hair to the tip of brown knee-high boots, but could detect no real change in her. A trifle unwillingly, his respect for human females, and this one in particular, increased a hundred-fold. Next to her was a tall, green-skinned humanoid with a bizarre set of red horns on his forehead and a pair of red eyes to match. This had to be that Lorne guy, Jazz had mentioned, he realised, amused and curious. He waved away the quartet of guards that were surrounding the odd pair.

"Good mornin' to you, Councillor," he greeted her with all of his considerable charm. "You're a sight for sore eyes, especially considering the last time we saw you was on the holonet and while being dragged into hell."

"It's nice to see you too, Jester, but please I have to ask that we dispense with the small talk. We're here because we want to man one of the craft going into the Core." Before he could even reply, she tipped up a regal chin and amended the request to a demand, "Actually, make that intend to be in one of them."

To give himself time, Jester took to scratching at his crest with the same servodriver. "Well now, before I accede to your persuasive argument, Councillor, perhaps I should mention that it's likely to be a suicide run."

She didn't so much as blink. "What part of any of this plan isn't suicidal?"

o~o~o

Anakin used the Force to increase his speed as well as cushion his footfalls so that they remained silent. They were no longer using their glow rods in an effort to maximise any element of surprise. The enclosed feeling of the tunnels coupled with the darkness was an eerie reminder of the third world. The big difference was that the Force was palpable here. The sheer condensed power if it staggered him, and tempted him. Nearby and somewhere overhead, Sidious was drawing on the dark side in an unimaginable measure. It seeped into every crack and every pore, into every one of his thoughts—a dead, black presence that chilled the heart if you let it.

He had once wielded its power and its taste was familiar.

Lorne's warnings intruded and Anakin blocked them. There was no choice. Sidious has to be stopped he told himself grimly, and then amended it to, No! Not has to be stopped … will be stopped, by me!

Once again, the man he'd called friend and then master had tried to use Padmè against him. The first time Palpatine had cost him his family as well as his soul, and this time possibly every hope of Anakin winning Padmè's love again. The wrenching agony of that realisation was horrendous, but Anakin was used to almost unceasing pain. As Vader he'd more or less become conditioned to pain and he wouldn't let it deter him now; any more than he'd let his doubts and agonies impinge on his actions as Vader. No matter what it was never going to happen again. Sidious was never ever again going to lay a hand on Anakin's family—he was going to see to it, personally.

Grief and pain, shame and guilt had no place in his psyche now. The fiery passion of zeal was forcefully extinguished. It was cold, but it was a chill that Anakin welcomed. His anguish over Padmè now despising him was locked away to cripple him at another time and when it no longer mattered. Mental discipline was a legacy of Vader that he was grateful to be able to use now. Gritting his jaw, he reminded himself that whatever had gone on before was over and done with and couldn't be changed, and whatever might happen in the future was useless conjecture. Until Sidious had been dealt with there could be no redemption, no friendship, nor love, reconciliation or forgiveness. Anakin had realised all of this within moments of opening his eyes onboard the Limidian. Everything else must give way to this single objective. It was the only way.

He could see the faint glow of illumination up ahead. They knew courtesy of the holomap that this tunnel ended in a circular antechamber and that Wess was likely being held in a sealed chamber leading off it. Anakin motioned for the others to drop back while he went ahead. Silently, they obeyed.

He didn't try and mask his approach, instead picking up speed again. It wasn't long before he was running towards a welcoming barrage of red energy bolts. They'd detected him. Recklessness shimmered in his blood.

Five droids shouldn't have been much of an obstacle. As he approached, easily deflecting their cannon bolts, Anakin visualised how he would take them down. Confidence suffused him and it was second nature to use the Force to increase his speed, strength and agility. The chamber was small enough that all five droids were grouped in a tight formation. Before the droids could assimilate the risk, he would be right in the middle of them. He would spin and his lightsaber would flash and burn, slicing off reinforced alloy limbs and deeply sunken heads in a matter of seconds.

Easy.

His blood was up and his system charged. He was so assured of his imagined scenario that he missed the first trickle of warning that feathered over his mind. Two steps away from the end of the tunnel, he bent his knees, prepared to begin the flip that would take him sailing over the droids heads and right into their midst. The second warning was more of a blast and it almost staggered him. It was impossible to ignore. At the last possible microsecond, Anakin managed to twist so that his impetus changed direction and instead of leaping into the antechamber, he half climbed the encircling tunnel wall, flipped, and landed back on his feet.

Confused, his focus slipped and he let a cannon bolt slide past his guard to burn a hole in the outer edge of Sal's jacket sleeve. It also sizzled across his right bicep and made him hiss in pain. Instinct brought his lightsaber back into defensive play to deflect more blaster bolts.

That was when he noticed how none of his own team's return fire was getting through to the droids. A shield. They had a shield, he realised dumbly. Worse, the shield wasn't deflecting their shots but obliterating them. If he hadn't managed to stop himself, he would probably have disintegrated the instant he crossed the shield threshold.

He wasn't the only one to notice their lack of success, and the implication.

"We're kriffing target practice. They can shoot at us but we can't shoot back." Anakin didn't recognise the deep and yet distinctly female voice, but he appreciated the frustration.

She was right. They were stuck in what had become a shooting gallery. No matter how many he deflected, the tunnel was thick with deadly red bolts and Anakin could hear the people behind him getting picked off by those that got passed him. Their own scout droid was too slow to take evasive action and took a direct hit; it exploded in a shower of sparks and debris. Cursing audibly, Sal and the others hugged the sides of the tunnel and uselessly tried to return fire. They were pinned down and unable to advance. It was only a matter of time before they would have to make a choice—retreat or die.

Wess had even less of a choice. As Anakin watched one of the droids detached from the rest and strode purposefully over to the door they were guarding. He knew why. It made perfect sense that Sidious would have ordered Wess executed if a rescue attempt was made. It was one of those little details that his old master would not overlook. As Vader, he would have done the same.

In a matter of moments their entire plan would be in ruins, and all he could do was watch, powerless to do anything.

The consequences of losing Wess would be catastrophic. If the Narzgh in the Core weren't destroyed their chances of victory over such insurmountable odds were little more than zero. Sidious would win. Life to a large extent would come to an end. Luke, Leia and Padmè would suffer unimaginably. Anakin's fresh rage was a tidal wave that swept all before it.

"NO!"

His bellow was full of furious denial, and without thinking, he raised his hand and channelled his wrath through that single, concentrated focal point. Power leapt from his fingertips and the ceiling over the droid's heads started to crack in every direction. A spider's web of fissures opened, accompanied by the resounding sound of splintering rock and over-stressed metal. All five droids, including the one about to step through the unsealed doorway, halted and looked up—just as the entire ceiling of the antechamber collapsed in on them.

o~o~o

Sidious could not recall ever having felt fear. Not his own at least. Yet it was such an intensely powerful emotion. Fear swept all before it, it was stronger than anger, and far more powerful than hatred and passion all combined. Only grief came close to matching its soul destroying grip. Add the complete absence of hope to fear and grief and the results were unfathomable by the feeble minds of most sentients. Not so Darth Sidious.

The dark side of the Force was so bloated with the terror and pain of Junga Roth's citizen's that Sidious felt as if he was walking, moving and breathing in a physical entity—a dense, heaving mass of energy that offered incredible, limitless power in one hand, but blinded and deafened with the other. To open oneself up to it was to be bombarded with the torment of millions, to have your mind raped with a thousand horrors—in essence, chaos in its purest form.

It was sublime! It was glorious! But it came at a high price, including control and the ability sense anything beyond the roiling mass he was attempting to use.

When his mangled, perverted spirit had returned to his body, he'd found his physical form to have degenerated alarmingly during the separation. The hands he was using to shape the newer, bigger vortex were even more skeletal than before. The face caught in the unnatural glow of that same vortex was covered with so little flesh that the mottled grey skin appeared stretched over the bones. Only the burning yellow of his eyes remained unchanged.

Fury entered those eyes when the interruption came.

Ponderous, rhythmic marching steps heralded the arrival of two super battle droids. "What is it?" Sidious snapped, not bothering to turn around. The ritual was barely started and the vortex highly unstable. This was no time to be distracted.

"Sir, a few minutes ago we received a report from the units in sector U1 that intruders were approaching. Those units have since gone offline."

"Meaning that they've been destroyed," spat Sidious.

The red glow of the droid's sensors dimmed as it computed probabilities and reached the same conclusion. "Yes, sir."

U1 was the designator given by the droids to the location of the cell holding Zarc Wess. Sidious felt another surge of frustration at his current inability to see beyond his immediate environs. It had to be an attempt by the scum of the Outer Rim to rescue their pathetic city, he reasoned. Such unexpected and foolish bravery was annoying, but he could not imagine how they possibly expected to prevail against such odds. Besides which, Wess' mind was utterly broken: he would be useless to anyone. Still … caution demanded some measures be taken. "Deploy reinforcements to the barrier control room, immediately," he snapped. "And, I want additional units stationed here at the palace."

"Yes, sir!"

Another thought occurred and Sidious finally turned his head, amber gaze burning with a sudden possibility. "Also inform the Narzgh guard that I wish a message relayed to the rest. There are other tunnels than the few I used, and, if memory serves me, some lead close to the barrier generator. I want those exits to be put under heavy guard."

"I'll relay your order, sir."

"Good. Now leave me."

o~o~o

The very air was laden with choking dust, ozone, scorched metal, acrid smoke and sweat. The five hulking super battle droids were entirely submerged and buried in rubble. The shield generator had been destroyed along with them.

"Well, that was efficient," commented Sal dryly, wiping his sleeve across his forehead to swipe off an oozing trickle of blood. He hadn't ducked low enough when the scout droid had gone bye-bye. "Are you sure you need the rest of us?" he called up as Anakin clambered over the rock and debris that now rose to mid torso.

Squatting, Anakin peered into the darkness of the chamber that he hoped contained Wess. "Droids are easy. The hard part is going to be getting passed a few thousand Narzgh. I doubt you'll be bored."

"Let's hope our little party here didn't disturb the neighbours," said one of the bounty hunters, a female. It was what they were all thinking and fearing. Her casual tone defied the nerves and urgency that was building in all of them. "I still think we should have tried an EMP grenade. They usually work on droids."

"Not these. I've come across similar models before and they're built to withstand any and all external interference." Having closed that particular topic, Anakin rose, re-igniting his lightsaber and ducked into the chamber with a terse instruction tossed over his shoulder to the others, "Wait here for me."

Inside, the noxious stench of rotting flesh was gag-worthy, and didn't bode well. Thanks largely to the blue glow of his lightsaber, the smell of death in the chamber was easily explained. Corpses dangled from chains in intervals around the filthy walls. They were in various stages of decomposition from only a few strips of flesh still clinging to the bones, to just starting to decay. In all cases it was difficult to determine if the horrific damage was pre or post mortem.

Anakin didn't turn when he heard the sounds of someone else sliding down into the chamber. "Poor bastards," muttered Sal, not even trying to hide the shudder that tracked down his spine. He peered around the dark, dank gloom. "You found Zarc yet?"

"Just," said Anakin. "He's here." He hunkered down before a pile of rags in the far corner.

The rags didn't move or twitch. The first time Anakin had seen Wess the one-time technician had already been verging on emaciation. Jammed into the corner with his knees drawn up, he now looked as corpse-like as his cell-mates. If the skinny chest rose and fell with breath, the movement was miniscule enough to be undetectable. Red-rimmed eyes didn't blink or flicker or show any reaction to the presence of others. Wess gave the appearance of a man who'd retreated so far into himself that there was no return. He was as good as dead.

Mid-curse, Sal crouched down beside Anakin and clicked his fingers before the vacant face. "Zarc! Hey Zarc, buddy. Wake up. C'mon. You in there?"

Nothing. No response.

Already grimy, sweaty and bloody, Sal scrubbed his face and shared a dark look with Anakin. "Crap! Don't tell me this whole thing has been a waste of time."

As he was struggling not to give into the same dark thoughts, Anakin shook his head. "No, I don't think so, but we don't have time to hang around and find out. We'll take him with us and decide how to rouse him when we get to the barrier control room."

Between them, they got the man out and over the rubble. Back in the tunnel, it only took a few moments to administer a stimulant and wrap the frail, limp figure in the silvery, plastifoil thermal blanket. Freyrr lifted the wasted man as easily as if he were a child.

The others were silent and antsy. Anakin could feel their disquiet over the state of their rescuee. While drawing up their plans no-one had stopped to consider the physical or mental condition of Wess. Anakin wanted to curse but kept them behind his teeth. They'd barely begun and already morale was shredding. It was definitely time to go.

~o~

Once again, Anakin took point. With the scout droid destroyed the only warning they would get of danger would be his Force-enhanced perceptions. It was only a few meters further in that those perceptions started to quiver. He stopped outside another sealed door and stiffened. Anakin could feel Sidious' presence so strongly it was as if his old master was seated inside and waiting for him. Hatred unfurled in his gut like poison serpents. The impression was so strong that even the urgency of getting to the surface before they were discovered didn't stop him from reaching out to the door mechanism to open it.

When the doors parted, Anakin's own face met his gaze.

It was a frozen life-sized holoimage of him moments before he made the desperate dive to follow Padmè into the third world.

Joining him in the doorway, Sal whistled when he saw the extent of the technology in the chamber. "Whoever stayed here liked his toys."

"It was Sidious. This is where he must have been hiding out."

"How can you tell?"

"I just can."

The others gathered in the doorway, but like Anakin and Sal, they didn't step inside. All eyes locked on the paused image—the start of it all. "Only a complete laserbrain would be dumb enough to chase a demon back to hell, and then follow it."

It was the female again and there was an equal mixture of derision and respect on her hard, bronze face. Anakin didn't disagree with her assessment and kept his reply simple. "It wasn't the Narzgh I was interested in."

The others were looking at him too and he could sense their unease. He had good reason to know that bounty hunters were a hardened, ruthless bunch with a distinct inability to trust. With everything that had happened, his denouement as Vader had been swept aside. Now it hovered between them as they paused to mull over what type of man could have gone to hell and then returned—only the Narzgh were able to rip apart the veil between the two worlds.

He had no answer to give them. Briefly, he wondered if that was the real reason why he'd been sent to the second world instead of being consigned to the third, as Vader surely deserved. Perhaps someone somewhere had known that Vader would have clawed his way out of that hell anyway—just like Sidious.

Was he merely the lesser of two evils?

"Did you really think that you could redeem yourself? Get back all that you lost because you threw it away?

Reaching out again, he resealed the door and turned away. "Let's go."

o~o~o

The surface point they'd picked was the sublevel of a droid manufacturing plant deep into the utility and industrial sector known simply as UTILIND. Not only was it the closest one to the barrier generator, but it also benefited from being mostly automated. The theory being that less humans would mean less Narzgh to prey on them. Once out of the tunnels, the surviving team members spread out, creeping soundlessly between snaking production lines filled with partially built droids. There was no power, hence no lighting, but, thanks to the light from their glow rods, they could see that the décor was stark white: walls, floor and ceiling.

With the power off the turbolifts weren't working. Over to the right, Vlad signalled that he'd found a stairwell. Anakin passed the message on and they all cautiously made their way over. If the tension in the tunnels had been high, it was nothing to the state of alert they were suffering now. The silence hummed with that tension. They were in the hot zone and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of the enemy. Anakin could smell the sweat of fear that lay heavy in the air as they moved up from one level to the next. Nine flights of stairs later, they reached the ground floor. The stairs opened onto a circular reception area that was as sleekly sterile as the production areas several floors below it. Or had been.

The reception had been manned by humans. The sweeping arc of a gleaming reception desk was smeared with blood and puddles of effluvia lay drying on the floor under a trio of naked bodies hanging by tensile silver threads from the ceiling. The artwork they replaced lay shattered in a thousand glass fragments under their dangling feet. The eyes had been pecked clean from the sockets and their mouths were gaping in silent, agonised screams—and that was just the face.

Expecting to see such horrific sights was no preparation for actually seeing it. Nobody said a word as they skirted the gruesome display with their gazes firmly averted. Anakin concentrated on what he could sense coming from beyond the battered and twisted doors that had obviously been forced open from the outside—malevolence and mindless terror fogged almost everything else. Almost.

Skin prickling, Anakin crouched only half a meter from the doors and raised his hand with his fingers spread, bringing the teams to a halt. Everyone froze. "They're outside. They know we're here." His tone was low but it carried enough to be heard by all. "They're waiting for us."

Even way down below in the sub-levels they'd been able to hear the cannon fire. "Let's hope our air support makes it through the automated defences," said Sal feelingly.

o~o~o

Padmè had chosen a closed canopy speeder. It was a fast, sleek beauty that was reminiscent of a Jedi starfighter. Her hands on the controls were steady, competent and more than a little reckless. She didn't need a thousand credit therapist to tell her why she'd chosen a craft with such a strong visual connection with both her own and Anakin's past. Not that she had time or the inclination to analyse it herself now. Cannon fire streaked past close enough to dazzle and blind.

It only took a few minutes to get from the Outer Rim to the UTILIND sector and they'd lost two of the others already to the auto defence system. Junga Roth contained a dozen defence towers all topped by a turret and turbolaser. The turbolasers were powerful, but slow and clumsy against small targets despite its automated track and fire system. If the city came under attack fighters would normally be scrambled to cover this deficiency. This defence system had done such a good job of protecting the city in the past that the Falleen ship was the first planet-borne attack for almost a century.

Now it was being used against Roth's own citizens who were trying to save it from going to hell.

In the unnatural darkness the explosions caused when the lasers hit a target or missed and caught a building lit up the sky. Padmè and the other speeders jigged and juked down aerial alleyways created by the city's tallest towers. The close calls were too numerous to count. Prayers were mumbled through tight lips and sweat popped out on Padmè's skin when the closest turret spat more death. She had to roll, overshooting the turret and then braked hard right to avoid the crisscrossing laser of the northeast turret.

Despite the tight life or death manoeuvring, her voice was brisk when she spoke into the comm link. It was important to her that no-one listening would be able to tell just how much of a wreck she felt. "The Starserver droid factory is directly ahead. Activate your power cells now and form up in a standard 'V' formation. First sweep will commence in ten seconds. Remember, DO NOT waste power and keep an eye on your energy gauges."

"Ten…"

Next to Padmè a remarkably pasty-looking Lorne unclenched his hands from the front console he'd been bracing himself against and flipped the switch that activated their own power cell, muttering, "I hope these are frisky bunny batteries, princess, 'cause I don't fancy our chances if we run out of juice."

The first six speeders formed with Padmè on the left tip. "Nine, eight, seven, six…"

She flicked her eyes at Lorne with a desperate question in their depths. Reading it easily, he scoured the street below and ahead of them and answered her, "I don't see them yet, but that doesn't mean they aren't close. It's black as pitch down there—hell, I could be missing a rock festival in full swing it's so dark. They sent the signal."

Yes, the teams had sent the signal when they were getting close to the exit point. She'd been telling herself the same thing but had hoped for some visual confirmation for added reassurance.

"Three, two, one. Fire them up!"

Six bright beams of UV light cut a swathe through the darkness and swept along the wide walkway fronting the droid factory.

o~o~o

After the unremitting darkness of the tunnels and the unceasing night that blanketed the Core, the intense UV light was blinding. The transparisteel front of the droid plant was no protection against the sudden blaze of white light; it was like a physical blow to the eyeballs. Slamming his eyelids shut in instinctive defence, Anakin raised his free hand as a shield and risked opening them again. The UV light swept by leaving shrieking columns of fire in its wake. The Narzgh that had been lying in wait had been caught by the UV and literally hundreds of them were now stumbling around in agony from the consuming flames.

It took a heartbeat to sink in. The plan was working and they were just squatting there!

Anakin surged to his feet, yelling, "Move, Move, Move! Time to go."

With his lightsaber gripped in his left hand, he charged through the exit in the lead. The bright blue of his blade claimed is first kill before he'd taken two steps. Still licked with hungry flame the Narzgh's head hit the ground, and on the same swing, Anakin bisected a second. Sal and Freyrr, with the Wookiee hindered by having to carry Wess, were directly behind him. The other four followed on their heels.

Battle commenced. There were too many Narzgh to have all been caught in the first fly-by and they swarmed, howling, towards the twenty strong group. All but Anakin were armed with heavy-duty, repeating blaster rifles, modified to hold a miniature version of the UV lamps. Blaster fire peppered into the oncoming wall of blackened, corrupted flesh, but it was the sizzling agony of the UV beams that caused the demons to falter. Anakin was kept busy with his lightsaber. There were too many for finesse, he was simply hacking and slashing at a speed that even the Narzgh struggled to keep up with. Still, claws raked his clothes and slashed at his face and neck. They were better armed than the Narzgh but were vastly outnumbered. For every ten he cut down another twenty took their place.

Anakin heard a human scream and felt his heart sink. He had to force himself not to check who it was that had fallen, afraid that it would be Sal.

The second fly-by came not a moment too soon. One second they were fighting in pitch blackness and the next they were bathed in light so intense that everything turned white. The Narzgh around them began to shriek and scream, scrabbling to escape as their skin melted and flesh burned.

"Run!" Anakin bellowed. No one needed telling twice.

They pelted down the steps and towards the courtyard that fronted the manufacturing plant. With all of the burning corpses littering the area, illumination was no longer a problem even once the speeders had passed. They'd memorised the route and reached the two meter long subway that would bring them out into a warren of ground-level open-air walkways that mapped the city's largest power plant like veins in a body. The barrier generator was located on the north west annex of the power plant.

Skidding to a halt on the near side of the subway, Anakin let the others pass him, counting the survivors and relieved that both Sal and Freyrr were among them. Seven had made it. They'd lost almost two third of their original number, but there was no time for sorrow. More Narzgh were streaming after them, swarming, slithering and loping after their escaping prey. About to follow behind the Chiss who was limping but otherwise whole, Anakin's eyes widened when he felt a sonic boom and saw a speeder—obviously hit by the continuing cannon fire and trailing smoke—streaking through the dark sky and heading right for them.

Cursing, he lunged into the subway and reached deep inside for every drop of speed. Vlad, slowed by his injury, was in his way so he simply picked him up under his armpits and took the Chiss with him.

The burning speeder chased them down the subway, a fiery inferno that bounced along behind them, bringing heat and flame to lick warningly at their backs. Anakin and Vlad just made it to the end in time to dive to the right as the speeder roared past. A meter away, the speeder finally crashed into one of the power plant's heat dispersal towers and exploded. Using the Force, Anakin managed to shield them both from the resulting shockwave while smoking, red-hot debris rained all around them.

Once he was sure it was safe, Anakin regained his feet and staggered when his head swam. His ears were still ringing and he shook his head to try and clear it. A quick glance at the speeder confirmed that the pilot was toast and beyond all hope of help. He reached down and helped the Chiss to his feet. "We need to get moving and catch up with the others."

"I'll slow you down. You go on ahead," Vlad said through gritted teeth as he hobbled beside him. Sweat ran in rivulets down his chiselled and blue-skinned face and dripped from sodden black hair.

Instead of answering, Anakin threaded his left arm through the humanoid's and around his back, both supporting and lifting him, saying, "The Narzgh won't be long behind us. If it hurts just suck it up. Pain is better than death."

Their speed increased significantly with Anakin taking most of Vlad's weight. Ignoring the Chiss' groans and calling on the Force with almost as much abandon as Sidious, Anakin got them both to the muster point a block away from the barrier generator. The survivors of their two teams were waiting for them, along with a barrage of blaster bolts coming from the stairwell that lead, via a defence bunker, to the barrier control room.

The others were hunkered down and plastered behind whatever cover they could find. Anakin and Vlad flung themselves behind the dubious safety of a permacrete building that jutted out of the walkway. Sal, battered and bloodied, but alive, looked immensely relieved to see Anakin.

"Droids," he confirmed grimly, "Lots of them and, considering they're where we want to go, I don't think dropping the building on top of their metal heads is an option."

"Whatever move we're going to make has to be soon." Anakin jutted his chin at the distant bright beams of light that were getting closer and closer. The speeders were still doing their job of keeping the demons hopping in a literal sense. "The Narzgh are on their way."

"Figures," sighed Sal, "And, just to keep the bad news coming—Zarc's coming around and he ain't making much sense. I don't think Freyrr's furry face is exactly soothing his mind, y'know."

Anakin spared only a brief glance at the agitated bundle of silver restrained in the enormous arms of the Wookiee. "I'll worry about him when we get to the barrier control room. First we have to get in there."

"Good point. Any particular strategies coming to mind?"

Anakin flashed the pilot a feral grin. "One or two."

o~o~o

The speeders were no longer being harried by the cannons now that they were deep into the UTILIND sector of the city. Padmè guessed that whoever was in charge didn't want to risk the barrier generator getting damaged, a reminder that destroying it would be an option if plan A failed. For that very reason she'd scrutinised the plans contained within Ceetee's memory banks. If it came to last resorts then she knew exactly where to aim her speeder for maximum damage. For now though, she kept up her sweeps and nagged Lorne to keep his eyes peeled for Anakin as well as monitoring their energy gauge.

No matter how busy and distracted she was though, she needed to know that Anakin was alright.

On her left, Lorne suddenly shifted and pressed his face to the canopy viewer. "Whoa! I think I've just hit the jackpot. There's a flashing blue stick at 11'o'clock. That's got to be our boy. Looks like he did make it through the subway okay."

"Eleven a what?"

Lorne sliced her an impatient glance, "Never mind. He's there." So saying he jabbed a finger in the direction he wanted her to look. "And, judging by the blizzard of red flashes, I reckon he's got more than Narzgh trouble heaping his overfull plate."

o~o~o

The walkway was thick with blaster bolts from both sides with a single man dodging from scant cover to scant cover and seemingly oblivious of being in danger. One side was trying to kill him and the other desperately attempting to provide cover fire. "That is one crazy, reckless sonofabantha," said Jazz. "If this is his idea of strategy then I'd hate to see his version of flying by the seat of his pants."

"Strategy my ass!" growled Sal. Sweat was stinging his eyes but he couldn't even spare the time to wipe it away. He was far too busy trying to keep a certain lunatic friend alive. It wasn't easy considering that every time he downed one of the metal monsters another two would take its place. The barrier control room was obviously infested with the damned things—not a happy thought.

Narzgh and droids equalled a rock and a hard place, and time was running out way too fast.

They were inching their way closer too, but at a good distance behind Anakin. Vlad had his blaster rifle fitting snugly into his shoulder. Firing with a calm precision that belied the flurry of red laser bolts peppering all around them, he said, "You've got to hand it to him though. He's almost there."

The Chiss bounty hunter wasn't wrong. The blaster fire from the bunker abruptly ceased as the droids made a tactical decision of their own and retreated inside, sealing the door behind them. Breaking into a sprint, Sal watched as Anakin reached the bunker, stepped over droid carcasses scattered in front of the entrance, ripped off the door control panel on one side and began to fiddle. It took only moments for the door security to be overridden and slide apart again. Instantly a fresh flurry of laser fire erupted from inside, forcing Sal and the others to dive to the ground to avoid being hit.

Sprawled on his front, Sal opened his mouth to yell just as Anakin sucked in a deep breath, crouched low and then lunged inside the bunker. Alone. The kriffing idiot!

"Let's move!" Scrambling to his feet, Sal sprinted, along with others, for the bunker.

The first thing they saw was that Anakin was battling with a lightsaber-wielding Narzgh whilst fending off laser bolts from the remaining droids. The second was that the Narzgh had once been female. With their arrival, the droids were forced to switch their attention and once again, Sal found himself in an up close and personal firefight with two meter tall, metal monoliths.

He had to be as crazy as Anakin he realised.

Hunkering down behind a control console, Sal waited for a pause in the barrage to risk popping his head up and returning fire. The first droid was so damned close that he could feel the heat of his blaster fire melt alloy and circuits. Then the freakin' thing fell almost on top of him. The others were equally as busy. He risked a glance at Anakin just as his friend fended off a decapitated droid head that had been catapulted at him by an unseen force. The clash of the two lightsabers was the scariest light show that Sal had ever seen.

o~o~o

The vortex was massive and already sucking in loose debris. The size of it was the reason behind Sidious choosing a different location to last time. He'd suspected that trying to create a second wormhole in the same place too soon would risk it being unstable. Indulging his penchant for height, he'd chosen the decorative and useless observation tower of the palace. Ignoring the buffetting his body was receiving from the vortex, he forced it to begin stabilising. He was already receiving impressions from the Living. Soon, Thimram would begin his own little project and then Sidious would be able to make the necessary wormhole to create a bridge. Soon. Very, very soon.

The second interruption had rage roaring through his veins. Despite this his voice was as cold as ice. "I said I was not to be disturbed."

"Forgive the intrusion, but I think you may need to hear this." The words were precise and a contrast to the rough, almost guttural rasp of the voice that spoke them. "The intruders have now reached the barrier control room and the latest droid report indicates that they are proving to be a serious threat. Our kind are being driven back by the use of UV weapons and are finding it difficult to engage them. The intruders may very well breach our security and reach the barrier."

Sidious stiffened and he swivelled his head to view the ruined visage gazing passively back at him. This creature's presence troubled him, especially now. Yet, no matter how deep he probed he could not find so much as glimmer of the person the Narzgh had once been. "There is something else," he realised. "What are you not telling me?"

"More than one source is reporting that these intruders include a Jedi amongst their number."

"That is not possible. Skywalker has already been taken care of."

The blackened, deformed head dipped an acknowledgement. "As you say, but perhaps the situation has changed."

"Impossible," Sidious repeated, but the news had awakened a deep sense of unease. Vader would have had the necessary strength to escape the third world, but not this weak, mewling version that craved redemption. Still … a Jedi! "Blow the bunker," he snapped. "If they can't get to the barrier then they are no longer a threat. Do not delay. Have it done now."

"As you wish."

The Narzgh turned with a swish of a dark, concealing cloak and strode swiftly to the observation chamber exit. Outside in the antechamber, he was met with a trio of super battle droids.

"What are our new orders?" demanded one of the droids.

"There are no new orders," grated the Narzgh. "Your existing instructions to defend the palace and this tower still stand. Return to your positions."

Like mindless recruits doing drills, they turned to do as they were bidden. Of course, the droids were too stupid to realise that he was lying. The thing that had once been Sar Dooku would have smiled if he had any lips left to form such an expression. He strode over to the turbo lift and mulled over his betrayal. Sidious realising that he had been disobeyed did not concern him. The Sith lord was far too consumed with this attempt to return to the living, and that ambition blinded him. Dooku was content to wait for the battle to come to him. He had waited a long time for a day of reckoning—on two fronts—and it appeared to him to have finally arrived.

Let Skywalker return the barrier to its original purpose, he mused. The palace had been built to keep out the inconvenient heat of the sun. There were many places where direct sunlight did not reach and he, Dooku, would be waiting when the old master and replacement apprentice met once again.

TBC