UNSIGNED REVIEW REPLIES

MAGGIE – Thank you so much. It's a huge relief to me to know that you don't think the story has suffered with my muse issues *g*

KIBU2U – Wow! You completely made day with such a lovely review. Thank you, thank you for taking the time to let me know how much you're enjoying the story. It really does make a huge difference to read a review that someone has taken the time to post—it's sort of like great Italian coffee for the muse, lol.

In fact, I want to give another general, warm shout-out to my reviewers and the support you've offered after I posted about my muse problem. You can thank yourselves for the speed I managed to write this chapter. HUGS!

CHAPTER NOTES:

(1) Just to warn you that I've deliberately veered off accepted format for story writing in this chapter. I've done this because (I hope) that having a montage of different POV adds some pace and a sense of urgency to this penultimate chapter. I'm just praying that it doesn't make you dizzy, lol.

(2) Credit to Wookieepedia for the information on thermal grenades and lightsaber techniques such as Djem So, Shien and Makashi.

(3) I also have to give a nod to the novelisation of ROTS by Matthew Stover for some inspiration for the lightsaber scene.

(4) YAY! There is only one more post to go after this one I hope, including the final chapter, a substantial epilogue and some further mini epilogues if my muse co-operates.

Chapter Twenty One

It was like watching a fluid, acrobatic and yet vicious dance. Such noisy petty lights thought Wess to himself. The swirling, twirling, clashing blue and red lights were so bright that he had to blink. There were other lights, streaks of red that he ignored along with the frantic yells. The stink of fried flesh, melted circuits and icy sweat hit the back of his throat. The sweat was probably his own he realised dimly. He'd sweated blood more than once recently. Rather than remember any of that, he locked his eyes on the tall, lean man fighting the Narzgh. Zarc knew him, he was sure he did. He wracked his broken mind for the name to go with the familiar figure. The memory of bright blue eyes in a grim, young face flashed briefly. A pretty boy to go with the pretty light. Not so the Narzgh. Beauty and the beast in a battle to the death. He giggled at the thought, rocking back and forth in his silver wrapper.

Zarc Wess was tucked into a corner with a huge, brown-furred Wookiee squatting in front of him. In some tiny portion of his brain he realised that he was in a pitch battle, but he couldn't find it in him to care overmuch. Anything was better than where he'd been. Besides, he wanted to watch beauty cleave the beast clean in two.

Back and forth, slash, slash, twirl, chop, kick. So fast, it was all so fast. Wess couldn't take his eyes off them. He'd never seen anything like it. Unbelievably, the slighter human was more than holding his own. There no pauses and no mercy. Bizarrely, the fury of the fight that pulsed so perceptibly through the bunker was absent from the youthful features of the man. He simply blocked, countered and attacked with a smooth power that was utterly mesmerising. The blessedly black pit of nothingness in Zarc's mind yawed temptingly wide, but he resisted the lure of numb peace in favour of watching this incredible spectacle. What was pretty boy's name? He searched his splintered memory. The name, he knew it. He just had to find it. The answer floated up from the murk of his subconscious and he snatched at it—Skywalker. That was it!

Skywalker had wanted to know about the rain barrier too. A streak of pure gut-clenching fear shot through Wess. He mustn't think about the barrier—couldn't. His hands crept up to cover his ears and he rocked harder. It wasn't his fault. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. A sob burned in his throat and his eyes welled up. He'd tried not to tell, but the pain and fear had gotten to be too much. Don't think about it. Watch Skywalker kill the Narzgh. Zarc locked bony arms around bony knees and rocked faster and faster, chanting silently. Kill it. Kill it. Kill it.

o~o~o

Fighting to be heard over the sounds of heated battle, a voice came over multiple com links. "This is Sun Leader to both ground teams. Over. Be warned that your position is about to be overrun. Thousands of Narzgh are headed straight for you and coming from multiple directions. We're out of power so we can't help you. You only have minutes. Over.

The voice was female and the warning was repeated twice more and with increasing urgency. That voice was oddly familiar too. Zarc's view of the strange duel-of-light was suddenly blocked by Sal Trent as the pilot recklessly broke cover to fire a triple blast at the last of the droids. The droid toppled just as the voice issued the warning for the third time. Panting and grime-covered, Sal snatched his com-link off his belt and snarled into it, "Kriffing great. We finally manage to get here and then run out of time! Over and out."

On the far side of the bunker, a length of waist-thick and still sparking conduit ripped free and lashed itself at Skywalker who was standing half way up the stairs to the upper floor. Zarc held his breath as Skywalker sliced the conduit in two, ducked under the fiery ends and raised his hand towards the snarling Narzgh, palm flat and purposeful. There was a good half a meter between the two combatants, yet the Narzgh flew backwards as if propelled by an immensely powerful hand. It crashed into a control console hard enough to crush the reinforced permaplas and, before it could recover, was hit by a hail of blaster fire.

Being peppered by energy bolts that would have cut a humanoid to ribbons only seemed to anger it. Skywalker made a graceful leap to the ground and renewed his assault. The light swords clashed three times while the Narzgh was still off balance—then Skywalker twisted his grip and reversed his sword's direction. The red light vanished as a clawed hand was severed at the wrist, accompanied by the maddened howl of the now defenceless demon. The howl was silenced in the next instant as its head went sailing through the air.

After the cacophony of battle, the silence of victory was surreally shocking and lasted two beats before Sal broke it. "In case you missed it in the melee. That was Padmè. She says we've only got minutes left to fix the barrier."

A strange, arrested expression crossed Skywalker's face and he froze, then his jaw tightened to white and a muscle began to tick. His blue eyes blazed as he stared at Sal. "Padmè?" he repeated, harshly.

"Yeah," said Sal, with a grimace. "Hey! Don't look at me. I'm as clueless as you on that one. However, can we celebrate sleeping beauty waking up later? Right now we need to concentrate on the imminent danger she's predicting."

As if on queue all eyes swung Zarc's way and finally it dawned on him why he'd been rescued and brought there. The barrier. It was always the barrier.

"Get him up to the control room," instructed Skywalker to the Wookiee, "We'll follow behind you." There was a muted roar and the next moment Zarc found himself elevated to a height that was far greater than his usual even when standing, and rushed towards the stairs.

o~o~o

The defence bunker was directly attached to the control room of the barrier. The complex also housed most of the generator plant and so was a sprawling, intricate maze. It was also only two levels high—hence the lack of turbolift. Skywalker stood back to let the others follow the immense figure of the Wookiee up the stairs, obviously intending to take up the rear.

Hardly understanding the impulse herself, Jazz remained where she was. As did Vlad and the two Durosian brothers called Zhug—she forgot their first names. "You go on up," she told Skywalker bluntly. "We'll buy you some more time from down here."

She was light-headed with exhaustion and aching all over, and was in no mood for sentimentality. When she saw Skywalker's brows snap together she guessed he was going to argue. To save time and effort she cut him dead. "You know it makes sense, and if you can't see it then we're all dead anyway. You've got to get that barrier reconfigured," she reminded him. "And, the only way those sonsabantha's can get to you is through this dump. We can delay them—maybe give you a minute or two extra—time you're wasting right now." Hefting the heavy FG-11 repeating blaster she favoured, Jazz cocked her hip and quirked a challenging brow. "So, I recommend that you move your butt up there and leave us to it."

For a fraction of a second his eyes brightened and a smile tugged at full lips. Not for the first time, Jazz found it freakin' unbelievable that the scourge of the galaxy was so damned pretty and young.

Then his frown cleared and he merely nodded before turning away and mounted the stairs two at a time.

Vlad and the Zhurg brothers were looking at her with a waiting air when she turned to them. "Let's lock it down as tight as we can. The longer it takes them to get in the better. We'll use anything not bolted down as a barricade and then find some cover."

Jazz went over to the door control herself, sought and found the lockout code for the outside panel, then started hauling debris to build up a physical barricade. The droid parts came in damned useful. While she worked, fear tried to take a hold and that pissed her off more than anything else. In life she'd never felt fear, but then she'd only ever been looking after herself. This throwing herself into the path of certain death was new—like the fear. Her lips compressed and a muscle ticked in her jaw. Screw it! Maybe it was time to stop treading water. Maybe, it was time to find out if she'd done enough to cancel out the ruthless, cold-hearted bitch she'd been. If nothing else, a little self-sacrifice could only help. Dryly, she wondered if self sacrifice still counted if it was done for self-serving reasons. She gave a mental shrug. Dying was the only way to get that answer.

"Move out the way a moment," said Vlad in a strained voice. "Let me jam this in and then I think we're as ready as we're going to be." He'd used his vibroblade to slice off some air ducting. It wasn't the flexible kind, but made of blast proof heavy-duty plexisteel. If it was positioned right, it would help support the rest of the barricade.

"Good one." Jazz nodded her approval of his initiative and stood back to survey their handiwork with her hands on her hips. "At least they won't be able to just walk in."

o~o~o

"We don't have time for this!" Hunkering down, Anakin grabbed Wess' lower face in his hand, forcing those skittering eyes to focus on him. "It doesn't matter that you've been through hell, so have others. Thousands have died and more will soon join them if you don't do your job and fix the barrier."

Whimpering, Wess cringed tighter into a foetal ball on the metal grating of the control room. He looked pathetic, useless and broken. Anakin reached deep inside for patience, releasing his grip and softening the harshness of his voice. "You once told me that you wanted the screaming in your head to stop, well now's your chance—and the screaming isn't just in your head, but everyone's. You're the only one with the knowledge to do this quickly. I don't have time to try and figure it out." He tried one last appeal. "You can end this nightmare and kill most of the Narzgh in one fell swoop."

"You'll be a hero," cajoled Sal from the technician's other side.

"The Narzgh die in sunlight. It's why they needed the barrier changed. Let's give them sun and end this," added Anakin.

"Before they get here and end us," muttered Sal, earning a glare from Anakin.

Wess' stubble-covered head lifted and some of the glaze left his eyes. One thing had got through and it was as if a switch had been flicked in his mind—bringing along a hint of sanity. "All Narzgh will die?" he croaked. The sound of his own voice sent a quiver through that emaciated frame. He sought Anakin's face, searching. "You sure 'bout that?"

Anakin knew that some of the Narzgh would find shade from direct sunlight, but their numbers would still be greatly reduced. However, now wasn't the time for the time to quibble over details. "I'm sure," he said, injecting confidence into his reply.

After a pause while he mulled it over, Wess tried to straighten and only slumped harder when his wasted body failed to support him. "Help me up," he said. "I like dead Narzgh."

Sal and Anakin hooked an arm under each of Wess' and together all three men rose.

Wess' red-rimmed gaze skimmed knowledgably over the power generation and control plant that stretched for a whole block. "You'll have to do everything I say in the exact sequence I tell you."

Freyrr took Anakin's place as support so that he could step away. "Fire away, and get it right. We'll only get the one shot at this."

"To reconfigure the settings, we have shut off the safety protocols that prevent tampering at each of the six control panels. Then reprogram them through specific rerouting procedures in the correct sequence, shut down and then restart."

Anakin blinked at the lucidity of that explanation, then realised that for Wess anything to do with this technology was as ingrained as the need to breathe. "Where are the control panels?"

Wess nodded to a small, sealed container about the size of a human head directly in front of them. "There's your first one, and it'll be locked."

"Physical locks aren't a problem," said Anakin. He moved directly to the panel and waved a hand to demonstrate. The panel cover slid back instantly.

o~o~o

Jazz hated waiting, always had and always would. Every second seemed to stretch into an hour. When the unmistakable sounds of blasters hitting the sealed door finally came, she was almost relieved—almost. Even she wasn't crazy enough to be glad that the Narzgh had come'a'knockin'.

"Here they come, and it sounds like the demonslime have got their claws on some weaponry." Rolling her shoulders to loosen them, Jazz adjusted her rifle and checked her sights. "Wait until they come through to start shooting. We don't want to give them any help."

Nearby, Vlad picked up his com-link to signal Skywalker and the others. "Our unwelcome visitors have arrived and started knocking," he said into it, finishing off dryly, "So, you might want to get your jets on."

The tension in the little bunker had already been high, but it went stratospheric when smoking black circles started to form in the dull grey of the door.

"They're not using standard blasters," said Vlad. "No way would such a small energy weapon get through reinforced alloy so quick. They've got themselves some serious artillery there."

Jazz agreed with a grunt. One minute tops and then they'd be in deep poodoo.

The barrage from outside seemed to intensify further. It became difficult to track the swiftly expanding deterioration that soon became super-heated holes. Plasma discharge, scorched metal and the rank stench of demon was soon chokingly strong. Jazz had to wipe at streaming eyes before charging up the UV attachment on her rifle. She tried not to notice that the gauge at the lamps base suggested she was critically low on charge.

A blackened arm raked through the largest hole, ignoring the burning sizzle of its own flesh on the red-hot ring. Jazz held her fire, as did the others. It was only seconds until the accumulated holes became one large enough for the first Narzgh to scramble through and charge. Jazz let it have it—UV and a few blaster bolts for good measure.

It went down writhing in agony and screaming inhumanly. The only thing being that this particular demon had brought a few thousand pals along to share in the fun. Jazz kriffing hoped that barrier was nearly fixed! Peeling back her own lips in an impressive snarl, she got to her feet and kept her finger pressed down on the trigger. What in Chaos was the use of cover when they were about to be mowed down by the damned things? Vlad and the two Zhurgs joined her.

o~o~o

After Vlad's report, Wess had been propped up sufficiently so that he could support himself, allowing Sal and Freyrr to assume defensive positions at the top of the access stairwell. Sweat popped out on Anakin's skin at the sounds that filtered up from the bunker one meagre level below them. Wess' voice was so strangled with terror as he gave instructions that Anakin feared the Tec's mind was going to snap on them again—before they got the barrier settings changed. He was on the fifth control panel now and the frustrating thing was that each one required individual programming to allow for minute angle differentials. Keying in the final code, he whirled to the last panel and slammed the cover aside with a too powerful Force-Push.

"Careful!" shrieked Wess. "This technology is delicate."

A long, hair-raising and wailing scream from the bunker rent the air. "Just give me the codes," snapped Anakin. At the top of the stairwell, Freyrr and Sal found themselves suddenly busy as a seething mass of ravenous hatred came boiling up from the bunker below. "We got company," yelled Sal.

Wess reeled off the codes and Anakin keyed them in with his fingers flying blurringly fast over the keys. Once the tamper-inhibitors were removed, they went straight into the reprogramming. Halfway through, Anakin heard the unmistakable sound of a body slithering across a hard floor and looked down. Wess was dragging himself across the floor with his hands, inch by agonising inch. The one-time genius technician was breathless as he gave Anakin the final code. Tension ravaged Anakin as he keyed it in. "Now what!"

Close by, they heard a wild, unmistakably Wookiee roar that held the distinct notes of a reckless battle-cry. The intensity of the battle raging within a few feet was energising to say the least. Wess had finally managed to reach his destination and hauled himself up. He pointed to a lever that was just out of his reach. "Pull that down and above it is a covered button. Depress that after the lever."

Sal stumbled into view just to their right, yelling hoarsely and firing back the way he'd come. There was no sign of Freyrr.

Body humming with fraught tension, Anakin followed Wess' instructions. "Is that it?"

Slumping tiredly, Wess nodded. "That's it. Now we wait and see if it worked."

"Screw waiting!" Anakin's lightsaber was in his hand and activated before he'd finished speaking. Three strides took him past Sal and headed straight for the Narzgh streaming up from the stairwell.

o~o~o

The third world was a wasteland, a true hell, and the second was a mere echo of life—not like the living universe. Tremors of anticipation afflicted the deformed limbs of the figure silhouetted against the large, gleaming circle of unnatural light it faced. The wormhole was complete and the bridge between the living and the dead nearly so. Sidious could already feel the pulsing vitality created by the sheer mass of living, growing organisms—could almost taste it.

The giddy clamour of his inhuman senses sent his thoughts whirling.

He was minutes away from achieving what no one else had ever done, returning as a physical being from the netherworlds. Every sentient who set eyes on him would quake with fear and know that they faced a being that even death could not defeat. Sidious was more powerful dead than he had been alive. Once again he would prove the Jedi to be craven fools, and all thanks to their 'chosen one'. In attempting to tear him down, Vader had in fact provided the opportunity for Sidious to build himself up even stronger. He was no longer just Sith, but Sith-Narzgh. He would hold the power of life and death in a way never before dreamed of, even by the Sith lords.

No pathetic upstart of a Jedi would ever dare challenge him again. His power would be unparalleled. Sidious would be able to shape the galaxy—no the universe—to his own personal design. There would be no more mercy, concessions or false benevolence, that decision was already made. Billions of species would bend to his will without compromise or he would deal with them personally. His hunger for that ambition to be realised surprised even Sidious. It hummed in his blood like a physical entity.

Meanwhile, greater and heavier pieces of debris were being sucked inexorably towards the wormhole, so much so that Sidious was forced to shield himself from collisions. He was so immersed in the birth pains of his bridge to life, power and glory that he failed to notice the first cold nip of warning. Not until that warning started to snap and crackle around the edges of consciousness.

Such strong intuitions could not be ignored. Sidious' concentration slipped. With no other choice, he reluctantly pulled away from his phenomenal creation and reached out with the Force, trying to locate the source of the disturbance. He didn't have to look far.

The top of the tower was a transparisteel dome and it was this incredible view of the city that had drawn the Sith Lord to this location. The view now caused his eyes to go wide with shock. Like the inexorable onrush of a tsunami, light was flooding towards the palace—racing towards him with the speed of a supernova—and every bit as deadly. Sunlight. The instinct to survive speared through the shock. Abandoning the wormhole, Sidious flew towards the small, discreet bank of controls that was positioned between the turbolift and the central ventilation shaft.

o~o~o

It was killing her to put on a serene confident mask. Waiting with only scant, limited reports to provide clues as to the progress of the mission was a torment like nothing Obonè had ever suffered before. Jester had left hours ago and left her in charge of his operational centre, or, more likely, kept her there to stop her getting underfoot at the arena. The son of a bantha!

The reports had been so sparse that they'd resorted to monitoring the com chatter as the hours passed. So many dead thought Obonè despairingly. Of the seventeen speeders sent out to defend the ground teams, only four had survived, and gods knew how many of the two ground teams were still alive. How can they possibly win this? There had been some tiny relief in hearing that a few team members had made it to the barrier generator, but then Padmè's warning had come! That was when true despair had set in. How could there possibly be enough time to do what had to be done, supposing anyone lived to do it?

Yet, they need to win this. There can be no second place—no compromise. Obi-Wan had been clear on that.

Obonè was so wrapped up in her dark thoughts that the technician trying to gain her attention had to call her twice. "M'am, you really need to hear this."

"Hear what?"

"We're getting an oral transmission from Jester at the arena, M'am."

Obonè's stomach plunged and she felt herself start to sway. It was over. Please, no! Please, please, no!

"Identify yourself," she demanded.

"This is Jester. You can quit your worryin'. The barrier is back to normal. I repeat. The barrier is back to normal. Narzgh are fryin' all over the Core and I'm told it's a fine and pretty sight."

A storm of cheers and wild clapping greeted the news. Some got up to find and hug friends and comrades. In the midst of all the celebrating, Obonè stood stock still. After so many hours of having every hope shredded to nothing, she couldn't take it in. Was this a dream? Her mind attempting to give her one last moment of peace before hell took over? Shakily, she leaned over to make a reply, "Jester, this Obonè. Are you sure about the barrier?"

"Absolutely, I have eyes in the sky and they're telling me what's what. They damn well did it!"

Thanks gods! She closed her eyes. "Do we know who lived?"

"I don't have that information yet, but I'll know more soon. We're going to do a scan of the UTILIND sector to see if we can pick up any survivors. That's was their last known position. Skywalker was plannin' to go on up the palace, and we don't know if he's survived to do it. We need to find out. This ain't over," he warned her.

o~o~o

After so long in the darkness, Padmè had been both dazzled and blinded when the sun had suddenly burst through. It was as if a curtain had been suddenly swept back to reveal the colourful and bright scenery it was hiding. The golden warmth of the sun had swept over the landscape almost faster than the eye could see. She'd expected to feel relief and joy if this moment came to pass, but she felt nothing of the kind and she couldn't join in with Lorne's unabashed cheer of celebration. Every thought was consumed with one question. Where were Anakin and the others? Had they made it?

Her hands shook as she guided the speeder lower and lower, until they were skimming dangerously close to the surface. She hoped that the shaking in her hands was the only outward sign of the maelstrom of her emotions. For the first time, she'd been certain that Anakin was going to die and the overwhelming grief had been crippling—a part of Padmè had even wondered if she would be able to live with it if he'd given his life for the mission. A little hysterically, she realised that, finally, she had an inkling of what might have driven Anakin all of those decades ago.

Please let them be alive, she prayed.

"Do you see them?" she asked Lorne, her voice tight with tension. She banked back around and performed a second sweep of the walkway and structures ringing the barrier generator. Unfortunately, the haze of smoke caused by multitudes of incinerated demons made visibility hazy and awkward at best. In every direction as far as the eye could see, the city streets resembled a battlefield scattered with charred remains and the ashes of the dead. More ash floated up on the breeze and threatened to choke up the speeder's air filters.

Padmè didn't care. She needed to see Anakin, Freyrr and Sal—needed to know they were safe.

"Nothing, yet, but I'm looking sweet cheeks. Don't fret, I'll holler the moment I see something."

The seconds ticked by, then, true to his word, Lorne let out a yell and pointed. "There! I see them—the terrible trio and a few others." He did a celebratory seat-of-his-pants-jig in his seat. "They just came out. They look a little worse for wear, but our brooding hero's luck has held."

"I see them too. Thank the gods they're okay." She laughed but there was no amusement in the too high sound. Overcome, her face crumpled before she managed to gain enough control to smooth it out again. He was alive! Freyrr and Sal too. Oh gods! Oh gods! The relief Padmè now felt was almost as bad as the grief, and brought with it a heartrending epiphany that made her feel the worst a fool alive for ever doubting the truth. She didn't need to analyse her feelings anymore. She loved Anakin and could forgive him anything—but, she couldn't be with him.

No love, not even theirs, was worth even the smallest risk of him losing his soul a second time.

Tears slipped unheeded down her cheeks. She could, however, save him from himself this once. It was time to head for the palace. There was still Sidious to contend with and she was determined to reach him first. It was more important than ever. The constriction in her chest only tightened, and got tighter still when she steered away from the scene, and Anakin. She didn't reconsider though and throttled back for more speed. She'd gotten a glimpse of him and that was going to have to be enough.

Next to her, Lorne's expression went from joyful to bemused. "Erm. Where are we going, princess?" He jerked a thumb back the way they'd come. "Your beloved's back that'a'way."

"I have an appointment to keep," she told him. She refused to meet his gaze. "When we get there you can stay in the speeder. In fact, it would probably be safest for you if you did."

o~o~o

Sidious was already beginning to smoulder and smoke when he managed to set the shields to maximum and activate them, effectively blocking out the sun. Darkness returned to the tower, but it wasn't enough. The wormhole began to decay, shrinking and guttering in mid-air. Several frantic minutes later, he realised that there was nothing he could do to stabilise it. The power of the dark side was already waning without the enervating terror of a million-strong populace to tap into. Against all odds, against all reason, he realised that the barrier must have been reset, and as easily as that the Narzgh had been defeated. He had been defeated.

His howl of unadulterated fury was accompanied by a lash of dark side power so strong that cracks appeared in the shielded, domed ceiling overhead—reminding him of Vader's reaction after being informed of Amidala's death. The comparison was a dash of icy water, returning his mind to sanity and reason.

Now was not the time to lose control.

Panting, Sidious whirled to pace, thinking furiously. He was slipping he mused darkly. He had allowed passion to enter the equation instead of using pure, cold logic. It was the demon in him, he realised, and a catastrophic mistake made a hundred times worse by his deteriorated ability to foretell the future—a mistake that he must come back from. There had to be some way of reversing this loss of fortune! He wasn't done yet, not by far.

The unmistakable signal of an incoming holotransmission interrupted him and Sidious spun on his heel to return to the console and the transmission grid. He had already made numerous attempts to communicate with the droids, without success. Perhaps they were trying to contact him? Breathing raggedly, he reached out to accept the communication.

Seeing the holo-image of the demon that had once been his Sith apprentice, Lord Tyranus, made Sidious' amber eyes narrow to slits. "Ah, now I begin to understand," he rasped. "Revenge, Dooku?"

"If you wish to call it such. I prefer the term reckoning myself."

"You fool," Sidious hissed. Fury had his claws tightening, digging into the permaplast of the console he was gripping. "Look at what you've done. I told you to destroy that bunker. If you had we would not now be decimated to a mere few and trapped in whatever dark holes we can find."

"The fate of the rest of our kind does not concern me. I decided it was not in my best interests for you to achieve your aims, so I neglected to relay the order that the bunker be destroyed. I've waited a long time for this reunion, master!"

"I would congratulate you," sneered Sidious, infuriated. "Except that by betraying me you have destroyed yourself. You have gone insane, my old friend."

"Not quite," disagreed Dooku. "Although that is the natural state of the demons we now are. It has taken all my strength and reserves, but I have not lost my mind as has happened to most others. I retained a sliver of sense of self, enough to remember—all of it. You surprise me. I would have expected you to foretell my betrayal or at least expect such a move. After all, I learned treachery by your hand."

Sidious dismissed the past with a snarl. "Skywalker—"

"Survives," interrupted Dooku. "And will undoubtedly seek you out. You cannot escape. As you are aware, the observation tower is surrounded by open ground with no cover."

Sidious was well aware of that inconvenient fact, and now reeling from the knowledge that Skywalker had indeed escaped the third world. His mind raced over all of the possibilities and ramifications. One thing was clear, Anakin Skywalker was more powerful that he had given him credit for. Perhaps close to reaching the potential that had been denied him after he'd sustained his injuries on Mustafar. That was not good news. The most powerful Jedi to have ever lived was now combined with the experience of a feared Dark Lord of the Sith. By comparison, Yoda and Mace Windu had experienced only a mere taste of the dark side before returning to the light, and they had been formidable enough. The risk he'd had posed had been the reason that Sidious had moved only when he was sure that Skywalker was gone for good. Unease morphed into definite alarm. With difficulty, Sidious kept his countenance and smiled, saying, "How uncharacteristically generous of you to defer your own needs and wants." Tutting, he made a show of shaking his head in gentle astonishment. "Come, old friend, why hand your revenge over to another? Come up and face me yourself. Surely the greatest and most celebrated duellist of his time is not afraid to face me?"

His carefully phrased insults were dismissed with the flick of a claw. "Save your goading, my lord. Look at what I have become. Do you really believe that the little pride I have left will respond to such ridiculous taunts? Besides, there is no need to rush. Skywalker will find me before he finds you and the winner of that meeting will then seek you. Rest assured of a visit by a former protégé very soon." With a bow that held an echo of his former grace, Dooku ended the transmission and disappeared.

o~o~o

The charred remains of the Narzgh gave the cityscape outside the bunker a surreal, nightmarish quality. Smoke and ash created a thick, choking smog. The air quality was so bad that Anakin created a Force-bubble around the small group of survivors to allow them to breathe freely. However, there was little he could do about the obstacle course that the walkway had become. The sheer scale and speed of the holocaust meant it was impossible to avoid wading through hot ash or crushing brittle, blackened bone underfoot.

The moment the Limidian's ramp had lowered enough, Anakin strode on-board, relinquishing a wounded Jazz to the medical droids and their hover stretchers, who stood waiting at the top. Doc was nowhere in sight. He then wasted no time in heading for the cockpit.

"Greetings, Master Jedi. Good to see you!" Jester held his upper two arms up in welcome and a grin split his wide, avian face. "The last we heard you were about to be overrun. Colour me relieved to find that report was a mite pessimistic." The Besalisk's considerable bulk was jammed into the pilot's chair, which he'd swivelled to face the exit.

Ceetee was there too and rocking excitedly from side to side, the little astromech droid let out a series of whistles and razzes to voice his joy at seeing Anakin.

Anakin waited until he'd buckled himself into the navigator's seat to reply, "The report was accurate. We just got lucky."

Anxious to find out who had flown his beloved ship, Sal hadn't wasted much time in coming up to the cockpit either. Having heard Jester's statement, he chimed in too, "Yup! With the sun at their backs, the besiegers became the besieged. We whupped their collective asses."

"After they'd whooped ours," Anakin reminded the pilot grimly. With difficulty, he met Jester's gaze to report, "We lost most of the teams. Of your people only Jazz and Vlad survived. Freyrr is wounded too. They're all in the infirmary."

Jester's expression turned reflective for a moment, before returning to more pragmatic lines. "They all knew going in that the mission was little more than a suicide run. At least you got the job done and they died clean. The Narzgh wouldn't have had the time to start playing."

"No, they wouldn't," Anakin agreed, "and we need to keep that momentum going. The barrier was only phase one. We still have to take the palace. If I know Sidious he'll have his troops regrouping and droids don't have a problem with sunlight."

"Well sure, and I recalled as much, which we why we dropped by to pick you up." Jester hoisted himself up from the pilot chair. "I've got some additional troops holed up in your crew quarters to provide backup until you get inside the palace. I think I'll just go along and give 'em one of my famous pep talks."

"Jester, before you go. Do you know where Padmè is?" Anakin had waited until Sal had taken the newly vacated pilot's seat to ask the question.

On his way out, Jester hesitated.

Sal suddenly found an obscure, little used—possibly broken—gauge on his far right of intense interest. Even Ceetee froze, with only the lights of his front PSI flashing red and green.

"Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about," Anakin warned, softly. "She was there flying one of the speeders. I heard her on the com link. We all did. It's funny, but I don't remember that being a part of the plan."

He tried to keep the temper out of his voice but Anakin's thin layer of composure was strained past all limits. Worry, frustration, shock, grief, and anger where all churning away, eating away at his control. Unlike Obi-Wan he'd never mastered the trick of putting his emotions aside to be meditated away later, and he couldn't hoard them like Vader. Meaning he didn't know what the hell to do with them.

Chaos take it! He'd just lost most of his team and while he hadn't known many of them personally, they'd been his simply because they'd fought beside him. In the middle of all of that he'd found out about Padmè not only being awake, but flying a speeder that was little more than target practice for a dozen or more ion cannons. Worse, he had to put all of his feelings aside to continue with the mission—until now. She shouldn't have been anywhere near there.

"Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought I made it clear that I wanted her kept out of this?"

The dangerously soft tone didn't even faze the Besalisk. Ruefully, he shook his head. "Son, when you get to my age—which is considerably older than you—you get to know when a person is willing to be put off and when she isn't. I got that loud and clear today off your wife. I'd apologise, but it's called self-preservation and I never apologise for that. As for where she is, I honestly don't have the foggiest notion. She, along with her green-skinned friend, didn't report in with the others. If that ticks you off, I suggest you take it up with her after you find her."

Finishing with a brief shrug, Jester ambled out. After a pause, Sal cleared his throat and aimed for matter-of-fact to cover his discomfort with the charged atmosphere. "So, we're off to the palace, huh?"

It was an effort, but Anakin managed to master and rein in his still simmering temper. Jester was right, he wasn't responsible for keeping Padmè safe, that was Anakin's job and he was screwing it up royally. It was no one else's fault that he constantly underestimated her. He'd just have to find Padmè, and Lorne, once he'd dealt with Sidious. "As fast as you can get me there," he answered Sal shortly, "but, you don't need to stick around. Once I'm on the ground I want you to get yourself, and the wounded, out to safety."

Busy with a quick pre-take-off check, Sal sliced him a look that managed to be both hard and bland. "There's no need to insult me just because you're pissed."

Raking a hand through his hair, Anakin gusted out a sigh that did little to vent his aggravation. "I'm not trying to insult you—"

"Well, you are, and forget it. Put it this way, the last time I let you go off on your own we ended up having to mount a kriffin' rescue." The engine of the Limidian whined as they lifted off from the ground. Sal didn't miss a beat. "Unlike you I learn from my mistakes. We're all going, and the wounded can stay on the ship with the shields up."

Outside the cockpit, the smoke and smog cleared as the freighter rose above it and into a clear blue sky. Anakin stared at his friend, debating pushing it before he discarded the idea. He didn't have the patience, or the time to argue further. "Fine," he snapped. "Just bear in mind that I won't be able to babysit you. I have to get to Sidious."

"I can take care of myself—in case you hadn't noticed I've been doing it a while now. Anyway, look at this way. The Narzgh are either dead or cowering in the shadows. As a gambling man I'd have to say those are way better odds than we had this morning."

"Good point."

~o~

It was only a short hop from the UTILIND sector to the palace and so the flight took only minutes. When they got there, they found they had a welcoming committee in the form of a contingent of droids. Using an emergency landing pattern, Sal got the freighter safely on the ground and kept the shields up, then headed for the starboard gunnery. When he got there though, Freyrr, swathed in crisp white medibandages, was already blasting away with the laser cannon and roaring her approval at the carnage she was wreaking on the droids guarding the palace.

"Well, I can see you're having fun?" Sal asked, grinning. He had to yell to be heard over the combined noise of cannon and Wookiee. "I'll leave you to it. Save some of 'em for the rest of us though, huh." Turning to go, he whirled back for a last verbal shot accompanied by a pointed index finger, "And no friendly fire incidences, okay!"

The grating of the Limidian's corridor floors banged under his feet as he raced for the ramp. Anakin was already outside and so were most of Jester's men. A blaster in each hand, Sal tagged along with the last of them. Thanks to the Limidian's laser cannons most of the droids were little more than fragments of scrap, but it was still dicey sprinting across the open ground to the same obscure access that he and Padmè had used during Anakin's trial. Pleased to be useful and off the confines of the ship, Ceetee had once again used his code-breaking skills and the door was open. The sounds of blaster fire had Sal ducking cautiously inside and joining Jester who was crouched on the left side. There, he took careful aim at the nearest droid. Chunks of permecrete showered his head at the volleys of return fire. "You know, I don't think I've had a single peaceful day since I met Skywalker," he informed the Besalisk.

"You don't surprise me," was the dry reply. Jester took aim with two pistols and a carbine rifle—courtesy of having four hands. "In fact, now you mention it, neither have I."

The next half an hour was slow going but they managed to advance deep inside, past the hanger bay and into the palace itself. They didn't have to go far before finding evidence of bloody mayhem and wanton destruction. In an effort not to be distracted, no one looked fully at the mangled bodies they were forced to pass by or step over. It wasn't just droids but some surviving Narzgh that caused them problems. Blasters were as useless as ever against the demons, but the UV attachments came in extremely handy. They'd just arrived outside the audience chamber when Sal heard a shouted warning, "They've got thermal grenades!"

Sal got a mental image of a little sphere and big, atomising boom. Oh crap! Hearing a tell-tale clatter on the marblelite floor, he managed to launch himself across the corridor.

His ribs exploded with pain when he landed on them and the boom behind him had Sal frantically covering his head with his hands. Sprawled on the floor, he simultaneously became aware of two things; he still had all of his limbs and associated body parts, and blaster bolts were peppering the floor and getting closer to his head. On a burst of adrenaline, Sal rolled out of range and towards one of the blasters that had skittered out of his hand when he'd hit the deck. Spitting out dust, he looked down the corridor and saw a Narzgh striding towards them. In its bony, blackened hand it held a red-bladed lightsaber.

The sun had passed its zenith and the corridor was now fully shaded. Double crap!

Scrambling to his feet, Sal took aim but before he could discharge the UV lamp, the Narzgh hooked a right and disappeared from sight, taking the same intersecting corridor that Anakin had taken only moments earlier.

o~o~o

The grip of the dark side that had felt so inexorable only hours earlier was waning, but it was still present. Anakin could sense his old master. Sidious was using his powers to attempt to shield himself, but could not hide himself entirely from one who had served him for so long. The Sith Lord was close. "Try as you might, you cannot hide from me for long, master, warned Anakin in a low growl. "Rest assured that I will find you!" He knew that while the words would not reach Sidious, the intent would.

Reaching the top flight of stairs that led to Lyonides' old apartment, Anakin felt a frisson of warning, a disturbance in the Force that was entirely different than Sidious—yet oddly familiar too. The warning brought more than awareness, it brought knowledge. There was a second Sith in the palace, he realised, another old foe from his past. Halting and tipping back his head, Anakin closed his eyes and opened his mind, sifting through the impossibly intricate layers of energy that weaved around him. Like Sidious, this entity tried to elude the search, but with considerably less success. When the answer came to him Anakin's eyes flew open again. "Dooku!"

There was no hesitation or second thoughts. Stepping back to the ancient-styled, polished banister, Anakin vaulted over it and let himself plummet between the two floors. Despite the height and speed of his descent, he landed gracefully on the tiles of the ground floor atrium, perfectly balanced—as if he had merely stepped off a low wall. Two meters away, a fully cloaked and cowled figure stood waiting for him—expecting him. With its ornately coloured and transparent ceiling, the atrium was bright, but without so much as a chink of direct sunlight. The Narzgh was safe from combustion. The creature's face was hidden from view, but visual confirmation was unnecessary. Anakin knew without a doubt that the Narzgh he was facing had once been a great Jedi, then a ruthless and wily Sith Lord—and finally a victim—of him. Twenty three years earlier, it had been Anakin Skywalker who had sent Count Dooku to the torment of the third world, by murdering him.

Guilt tightened the muscles of his shoulders as Anakin adopted a simple, defensive stance. Deliberately, he held his lightsaber across and close to his body rather than a recognisable lightsaber form. There was no need to appear overtly hostile. "Where is Sidious, Count?"

"You will find him, I have no doubt," returned Dooku, in a rasp that was utterly unlike the modulated and proudly noble voice he had once used. "If you manage to get passed me!" The snap-hiss of Dooku's lightsaber was a direct and pointed challenge.

Anakin was unsurprised and uncomfortable. He had not sought, and did not want, this particular duel, so he did his best to avoid it. He kept his gaze level and tone even. "You probably feel differently, but my argument is not with you, Dooku. Despite what you are now, this once I will spare you. Leave and I will not pursue you—consider it recompense for the wrong I did you in the past."

In reply to that generous offer, Dooku laughed and the awful grating sound echoed in the cavernous chamber. "I see your arrogance has not decreased, Skywalker. Obviously you've failed to consider that I have an entirely different recompense in mind."

Revenge. Anakin could feel Dooku's thirst for it pulsing in the Force. A large part of him understood that thirst. Understood almost too well.

Realising that there was nothing he could say that would sway Dooku, Anakin resigned himself to a fight. With expert smoothness he moved into the opening stance of Shien—he needed this duel over fast. "So be it, but I wish you'd taken up my offer, as will you when I defeat you."

The pulsing red of Dooku's blade was held at low guard, the distinctive Makashi stance. "You're overconfident, as always. I hope you have a new strategy, Skywalker. Using the same ploy as last time simply won't do."

"Just for you, Dooku, I'll keep it interesting and vary it a little. I know how you hate to be bored."

"Thank you. That's very considerate of you."

The verbal sparring was over. Without any signal, other than a simultaneous gathering of energy in the Force, the two duellists sprang forward and the lightsabers engaged.

Dropping back and feinting to the left, Dooku spun and aimed a series of lightening fast cuts at Anakin's upper torso. Anakin's blade was a blur of blue speed as he parried and then went on the offensive. Knowing that using the classical moves of any particular lightsaber form would give a master bladesman such as Dooku the advantage, he kept his style fluid. Instead of using only the raw power of Djem So, Anakin kept his word and merged that power with the precision of Dooku's own Makashi. Instead of slashes and overhead chops, Anakin used thrusts and cuts with such speed and proficiency that he could easily sense his opponents surprise and uneasiness. Then, he changed again with a high, spinning kick that caught Dooku unawares and knocked the Narzgh off balance, following up with his favoured power blows that prevented the other from launching a counter attack.

Dooku was forced to retreat with a snarl.

"You know, you're making this too easy," Anakin taunted, following.

Dooku responded by dropping, spinning and lashing out with an ankle sweep, returning the favour and forcing Anakin back. Then the Narzgh was gone, shooting high over his head in a combined Force-leap and roll. Anakin swept his blade up behind his head to parry a chop aimed at his nape, then smoothly pivoted to block a thrust that would have skewered his guts. Only to fall prey to a snap-kick to his chin that had him seeing stars and landing on his back in a sprawl on the bottom few stairs. Anakin slapped aside a thrust to his heart and lashed out with his own foot, catching the demon in the thigh and sending him staggering back. The infinitesimal reprieve allowed Anakin to push himself back to his feet and retreat up the stairs, using height and greater leverage to his advantage.

It was wholly different from their last duel. Ironically, their roles were reversed. This time it was Anakin who was calm and composed, and Dooku who was brimming with rage. A little dryly, Anakin hoped that this didn't mean that the result would also be reversed.

The tempo of the fight increased as they fought their way up to the next level. The flash of red and blue was faster than the eye could follow. Swift strikes were countered with even swifter parries. The timing of both was faultless. Neither was able to force the other into a corner that would help end the duel. Dooku's rage in no way affected his mastery of the elegancy and precision of Form II. What the Sith Lord didn't know was that Vader had extensively studied the form, as the fluid sweeping style suited the limitations of his armour, and incorporated it into his own specialised variant of Form V—along with others. Maul at least had had some inkling of Vader's enforced versatility.

Deliberately, Anakin kept up his unpredictability.

Adopting a similar strategy, Dooku used a Force-push to operate one of the door controls off the first floor landing, spinning away from Anakin's attack to retreat through it. About to follow, Anakin was swept up by a sudden and overwhelming certainty that he needed to be somewhere else now! That he was running out of time. Unbidden, Padmè's face filled his vision and his heart stuttered and then stilled with terror. He shook his head to clear it and then his surroundings came rushing back.

Padmè was in the palace, he knew it. He had to end this duel and find her.

Shaken and distracted, Anakin abandoned caution when he followed Dooku into a small, intimate, and dark theatre.

An incredible, crushing forced wrapped itself around his arms and ribcage and lifted Anakin into the air. Caught in a Force-bind and helpless to move, he could only hang there as Dooku's red blade slashed towards his neck.

Ironically it was another Narzgh that saved him. The door they'd come through led to a private box. The demon came hurtling out of the relative gloom of one corner with a mindless howl, aiming straight for Anakin. It distracted Dooku enough that Anakin was able to the break the bind at the last possible moment. Bringing up his lightsaber to parry away the deadly cut, Anakin flicked his blade back down the red lightsaber and its hilt, slicing off three of the claws gripping the curved alloy. Hissing in pain, Dooku nevertheless managed to call his weapon to his other hand, but not in time to renew his assault—of Anakin. The Narzgh that had interrupted them found itself tasting both lightsabers mid-charge, being abruptly sliced at both the pelvis and the neck.

The dismembered body flopped to the floor between them.

"Count Dooku," said Anakin, taking advantage of the pause. "I don't have time for this so I'll give you a second and final chance. Stop this now. Leave the city and go into the forest, then, when it rains, return to the third world. It's the best offer I can make you."

Black blood dripped unheeded to the floor, mingling with that of the other demon. "I would rather be destroyed than return there."

"In that case, I'll have to oblige you." With that, Anakin reached deep inside himself, tapping into a well of tremendous Force energy that he had been struggling to find the courage to touch, and unleashed pure Djem So. He had no other choice.

Even if used by a skilled, unwounded duellist the elegance and precision of Makashi would still have been no match for the sheer kinetic power of Anakin's increasingly savage strikes and ferocious chops. There was no rage, just immense drive, incredible willpower and unmitigated physical domination. He gave no quarter and left no opportunity for parries or ripostes. Blue energy lashed and whirled faster and harder. It didn't matter to Anakin that there was hardly any room to manoeuvre, he didn't need it. Weakened and limited to the use of one hand, Dooku could only block and slant every blow aside as they rained down in him. In a matter of seconds, the Narzgh was forced over to the edge of the box and its four meter drop to the stage underneath. He chose to drop. Sidestepping an overhead chop that, despite his block, got close enough to singe through his cloak and into flesh, Dooku stepped up and back-leaped away into the darkness.

Leaving Anakin to vent his frustration with a bellowed curse. Blue eyes blazing and breathing hard, he watched as the Narzgh fled over the stage, up two flights of stairs and disappeared through another doorway. Anakin was just considering whether Dooku had in fact decided to accept his offer of a limited amnesty, when he heard a distant, terrified scream. That he couldn't ignore. Cursing more virulently, Anakin dropped to the stage too and followed yet again.

~o~

The door led to a covered, shady walkway that overlooked and ran the length of a sunny courtyard three storey's below them. The abrupt change of light conditions was disorienting, but not enough to hide the terrified face of the woman held up off her feet by Dooku's uninjured left hand. Filthy from whatever hiding place she'd crawled out from, she was being held against the Narzgh's cloaked form and facing Anakin. Dooku's cloak hood had fallen back, revealing his ghastly features. There was barely any trace of the once refined, white-haired man. Only a few wisps of white hair remained on the burned and blackened skull. Instead of ears, there were holes and he retained only a single eye to glare across the shaded distance.

Anakin approached slowly and one step at a time. "Let her go."

Dooku ignored the demand, and his struggling prisoner. "I have come to the realisation that I can't chance being defeated by you for a second time, as galling as that is for me to admit. I thought it was a risk that I was willing to take, but I was wrong." What might have been a smile lifted the ragged flesh around his fangs. "It seems I do I have my pride after all. You are indeed powerful, Skywalker. More so even than last time."

"I'm glad you think so, now let her go."

As a warning to come no nearer, Dooku swung the petrified woman away from him and dangled her over the drop. All he said was, "I haven't finished."

Anakin stopped. "So finish."

"As I was saying, I will not return to the third world. You cannot imagine what it is to spend decades there. As a Sith Lord, I believed that the power of the dark side was limitless and easily eclipsed the light. I was a fool. Darkness is merely nothingness without the light to act as a contrast, a balance if you will. The third world is proof of that. There is no Force. No dark side. No power. It is pure darkness, pure nothingness and pure chaos. As such, anything that exists there will eventually lose every shred of self and sanity." Dooku raised his other deformed and clawed hand to view the bloody stumps—all that remained of three fingers—with indifference. "When there is nothing else even pain can be a comfort."

Anakin felt his gorge rise at the picture painted by that last statement. "If you have a point, get to it. You're choking her."

"I will not suffer defeat, will not return to hell and cannot exist here with the barrier having reverted to its former purpose. There is no escape for me, except self-destruction."

It occurred to Anakin to wonder what happened to a Narzgh who died. Was there a fourth world? "Go right ahead. I won't try and stop you."

"However, that leaves Sidious. He used me like a pawn, a lure to draw you in—the apprentice he truly wanted. That knowledge has been like acid burning into my soul for over two decades. I have had no peace from it, even if it has kept me from complete degradation."

"Tell me where he is and I'll deal with him for both of us." After he found Padmè, Anakin amended silently.

"Perhaps that is the way it is meant to be," conceded Dooku. With a flick of his wrist, the Narzgh contemptuously tossed the sobbing woman towards Anakin, who cushioned her landing and caught her.

"Try the observation tower. He should still be there…trapped by the sun." Dooku gave a grating laugh that held no amusement. "I'm disappointed not be there at his end, but I have learned to recognise when I'm defeated. A word of warning, Skywalker. Don't dally or your wife will get there before you."