TITLE: Ad Lucem (sequel to Purgatory)
AUTHOR: Helen Taft
SUMMARY: Padmé had warned Anakin that the second world was a dangerous place even without Sidious. They all find this out to their cost when dealing with an adversary that could challenge any Sith Lord for ruthless self-interest and sadism.
Note (1): Don't let the summary and prologue fool you *g* That's all I'm willing to say for now.
Note (2) The title is Latin for 'toward the light'
Note (3) My mind boggled when my muse came up with this the day after I'd finished posting Purgatory, and then insisted I write it! I'm afraid that you only have yourselves to thank after being so fantastic while I was writing Purgatory.
Note (4) Thank you so much to Maggie and mlhkvh5 for their unsigned reviews to Purgatory's epilogue; which obviously I couldn't reply to as the story was finished! XX
Note (5) Obi-Wan fans should be pleased because he's a main a character in this story. At least I hope you are. Along with Ani, Padmé & Obi the other regulars from Purgatory will all be featuring.
Note (6) New readers will need to have read Purgatory to read this one. Sorry folks, but there's just no avoiding that.
Death had finally come for her. Ironically, it had once a prideful boast of hers that she'd conquered death. She'd had reason to believe that claim, or so she'd thought. After all, had there ever been a mistress so assiduously attentive, a priestess as powerful and dedicated to murder, genocide and annihilation? Such vanity was, of course, utterly blind to the one single unalterable truth of the universe; nobody conquered death. Like birth itself, it just happens to you. She who had once single-handedly crushed twelve warlords to rule as queen and then joined a vicious crusade to enslave a galaxy had not met that dark spectre in a blaze a glory, but had simply let herself sicken and die. Why not? Life had been vicious, agonising and cruel, and so had she. When pale blue eyes opened to see what death had dealt her—whatever it would be—she had no expectation of an improvement.
It was dark and something cold and wet was pounding her face and naked body. She licked her lips and tasted water—rain water. She shivered as a bone-deep chill radiated from her icy core, dulling the discomfort of cold, clinging mud and leaves under her back. The pitter-patter of the rain and pure darkness dominated her senses. She could hear nothing and see little. Aching and too cold to move, she blinked, trying to clear her vision. The only improvement was that the blackness morphed into shades of grey and threatening, darker shadows. The Force felt as dead as she was, giving her a wretched void of nothingness when she tried to reach out and discover something of her surroundings. Panic circled, slicing at her with bloody talons. She was naked, defenceless and old. The body that had once been powerfully muscular, and a weapon in and of itself, was now shrivelled and decrepit in comparison. Scorched by an arid desert sun, she'd wasted away year by year until, finally, she'd whittled down to brittle bone.
But not as brittle as her soul.
Worse than the panic was the despair that settled over her like a suffocating shroud. Death was supposed to have been the end—and now she was to be deprived of even that last comforting illusion.
She dredged up the strength to curl on her side and close her eyes. The numbness that came hand-in-hand with despair had leeched away the panic. She sank deeper into that numbness without caring or even relief—such was the way of it. Pride was a past folly and had been wrenched from her decades ago. Without anger and aggression to sustain her she'd become a wretched, superficial shell, and a mere shadow of her former self. Since that time the instinct and desire to survive had long since extinguished. All that she'd been, all that she was now, was ashes and desolation.
There was no reason to move, not even when the guttural snarling and howling started, or the soul-shattering screaming. She didn't twitch a muscle when the bright lights appeared, piercing her skull despite the closed eyelids. All was confusion and madness, but it was distant from her, or maybe it was just that she was distant from it. What did she care? Life and death were meaningless and trying to fight towards either brought only worse pain, deeper suffering. Yelling voices, blaster fire, the scream of engines, screams of people and the unnatural screams of demons. All of it meant nothing!
Until he came. She heard his voice first and the shock of it rocketed through her like a blast of the Force. It was so powerful that her eyes shot open. Twisting onto her back, she stared up at the face looming over hers—the same face that had haunted her dreams for so many years. The breath that she'd sucked in choked in her throat. The moment stretched and time slowed. Impossible! How could this be? He looked the same; as if the war and all of its destruction had been only yesterday. Pain crippled her. Her past rushed into her mind in a blurred staccato of images. Terror arriving on swift wings, spat bile into her mouth. Why was he here? Where was here? The rain had plastered his dark blonde hair to his head and ran in rivulets down his face. Her own head swam, reeling.
Meanwhile, chaos still reigned.
Time sped back up. Terrified figures were darting through the trees that she could now see surrounded her. They were running for their lives. Others adopted defensive positions and covered those fleeing with blasters. In the middle of it all, he stood haloed by a strange, painful white light and bent to hurriedly lay his fingers on the frantic tattoo of her pulse. Fear had her heart guttering in her chest. Her pulse pounded. Would he recognise her? She saw his sympathetic frown at her pitiful state, terrified of recognition, then he turned away to call out in the voice she remembered so clearly, "We've another live one here. I'll get her. You fall back to the ships."
No! She wouldn't go with him—couldn't. He was her nemesis, one of the few she'd failed to eradicate.
She wanted to scream, fight, slap away his hands before they could touch her. Too late. He slid an arm under her shoulders and another under her knees, then lifted her.
Immediately, he began to run, jostling her into a comfortable position before grabbing a com-link. "Anakin," Kenobi yelled urgently into the link. "I'm on my way. I'll be with you in moments. Tell them to be ready to take off immediately."
Hearing that name, the last remnants of sanity fell away from her. Skywalker as well? No! No! No! This couldn't be! Not both of them.
Tell them to be ready to take off immediately.
Anakin agreed with that suggestion completely. The new UV blasters were considerably more effective than the standard particle beam version on the Narzgh, but battles could and still did get hairy. Immersed in the Force, Anakin allowed the unique energy field that connected all beings to guide every slash and strike of his lightsaber, hewing off heads and raking claws with blinding speed. The Narzgh just kept coming though. It was beginning to feel like he was hacking and slashing his way through a stinking, malevolent jungle that just kept closing in, snaking closer and closer. Flanking him and just to the side, Jazz and another four other security officers were helping him cut a swathe through the snarling horde.
They were heading for the Limidian with the last of the new arrivals that they'd managed to save. If he was honest, they were cutting it horribly close, but he hadn't been able to face not trying for everyone he could, so he'd risked encroaching deeper into the demon-infested forest. Anakin had a Bothan draped over one shoulder and Jazz had a female human stumbling along by her side, gripping her elbow to stop her stumbling and slowing them down. Once they got close to the ships it would get easier, he told himself. Not only did Sal's freighter have UV defences, so did the two transports accompanying her. Then there was the further dozen speeder bikes weaving through the dense trees and bathing the forest floor with UV, incinerating Narzgh as they did.
One passed over them now, allowing Anakin and his team to increase speed. The Limidian came into view and to the beleaguered eight trying to reach it the battered freighter was a beautiful sight. Not that they were home free yet. The battle was brutally fierce around the ships as the ravenous, frenzied demons tried to get at the people they contained.
"Kriff! They don't seem to care about getting fried to a cinder," commented a breathless Jazz as they took advantage of a second speeder's aftermath and sprinted for the Limidian's ramp. "They're freakin' mindless."
"Starving," corrected Anakin grimly. Ever since Junga Roth had been closed to them, the Narzgh had become a hundred times more savage. Any new arrivals who happened to have the bad luck to arrive at night, in the forest and during a rain storm were fresh meat to them—limited fresh meat. The Narzgh fought with demented savagery to get at them.
Junga Roth, and Anakin, considered it a duty to fight back just as savagely to save the ones that they could.
Skidding to a halt at the bottom of the loading ramp, Anakin waited for his team to board and dumped the unconscious and bleeding Bothan on Vlad who was the last to sprint up. The freighter's engines were running, meaning they were ready to go as soon as Obi-Wan got back. Six more security teams ringed the three ships, laying down a continuous line of fire at the Narzgh attempting to overrun them. Overhead, the speeders circled tighter, leaving hundreds of shrieking, smoking demons in their wake. Even so, the intensity of the battle ramped up higher and Anakin was kept busy with his lightsaber.
Despite the effectiveness of their weapons, the Narzgh were about to overrun them by sheer force of numbers. They had to get out of here now.
"Come on, Obi-Wan. Move it!" he muttered, reaching out with the Force to find the other Jedi.
What he found had him frowning even as he swung and slashed, decapitating one snarling head and then bisecting another Narzgh through its thorax with the back-swing. He'd sensed two Force signatures of interest in the immediate vicinity. One had been Obi-Wan's, and the other was so faint that it was little more than a distorted, infinitesimal echo. It was such a weak signature that the thought should never have crossed his mind. Yet it did. Anakin wasn't sure why, but for a moment he'd imagined that it had been the Force signature of a Sensitive. That definitely interested him.
Directly ahead of him, Obi-Wan burst through the line of trees, carrying what looked to be a human female, and began slashing a path through the snarling ranks of Narzgh. Almost dizzy with relief, Anakin raised his own lightsaber high and hurled himself into the melee too. They met halfway and back-to-back their twin blue blades created a defensive shield that was also an offensive, courtesy of its sheer ferocious velocity. Still, it seemed to take an eternity to fight their way back to the ships, but they eventually broke through.
Finally, Anakin was able to give the signal to retreat. The defending troops sprinted for the ramps while the speeder bikes did what they could to keep the Narzgh back from the air. They had only seconds. Obi-Wan ran up the boarding ramp first as the Limidian's engines began to roar and the ship broke contact with the surface in an aggressive emergency take-off. Leaping up, Anakin followed Obi-Wan. He pounded up the alloy of the ramp just as it began to retract. Claws scrabbled behind him. Reaching the open hatchway, Anakin spun, thrust out with his lightsaber and twisted it up and to the side, at the same time ducking under the spiked metal ball that whistled towards his skull. The ball of the ancient flail crunched into the hatchway frame and became imbedded. Meanwhile, the claw holding the chain of the flail fell to the ramp—still sizzling from the lightsaber cut that removed it—and the screaming Narzgh toppled away as the ramp disappeared from under it.
Grabbing the chain, Anakin yanked the flail free and tossed it after its erstwhile owner. Then he ducked inside and sealed the hatch.
After six months of more than a few shared adventures, it was no longer to surreal to see Obi-Wan Kenobi striding towards him down the main corridor. On the contrary, it was just right. Having deposited his burden and knowing that they were safely in the air, Obi-Wan was considerably more relaxed. "Well, that certainly turned interesting," he said in a deliberate understatement. "Sal has already been on the intercom complaining about our cutting it so close—that's the abridged version, by the way."
Meaning that Sal, Anakin's friend and fellow pilot, had been cursing a blue streak. Stowing his lightsaber back on his belt, Anakin felt a grin curve his lips and led the way toward the freighter's cockpit. "Don't worry, Master. I'll take the flak for it. I always do."
"He does have a colourful way with words." Obi-Wan smiled ruefully. "Occasionally, I'm even forced to admire the extent of his vocabulary. I know he's certainly extended mine."
Anakin couldn't help but laugh at the idea of Obi-Wan Kenobi cursing worse than a Corellian miner, then sobered when he remembered that odd disturbance in the Force—a disturbance that he planned to get the bottom of. Abruptly, he asked, "Who was that woman you brought on board?"
Obi-Wan showed no surprise at the question. "I have no idea. I found her lying on the forest floor when I was working my way back to the ship." Dryly, he said, "I can only assume that she was too terrified out of her mind to realise that she should have been running for her life."
If she was a sensitive Anakin wasn't prepared to assume anything. He phrased his next question carefully, "Did she seem odd to you?"
Obi-Wan paused just outside the cockpit. "Ah! So, you did feel it too?"
"I'm not sure what I felt," admitted Anakin, crossing his arms over his chest. "What do you make of it?"
"I haven't decided yet, but it bears investigating. As I said, she was rigid with fear. I planned to try and strike up a conversation with her back in the city, perhaps once she was dressed and more comfortable." He paused and then said a little too casually, "I'm hoping that she'll trust me as it was I who found her."
Anakin got the message. Obi-Wan wanted this one left to him. That wasn't what bothered him—it was the delay. Despite the twinge of unease though, he recognised the wisdom and kindness in waiting for the woman to be in a less vulnerable state…however, "I'd like to be present during that discussion," he said, then held up a hand before Obi-Wan could object. "You don't have to say it. I'll behave. I have no reason to wish to intimidate her and I retired my torture droid a long time ago, remember. In fact, I'll stay well in the background so she won't feel overwhelmed." He shrugged. "I simply wish to hear what she has to say first hand. Call me curious."
Instead of conceding, Obi-Wan rocked back on his heels and noted, "You know, you have this habit of dropping the 'master' when we're debating something."
Unfazed, Anakin released the inner hatch and stepped inside the cockpit, saying, "My apologies, Master." The comlink chatter between Sal and Roth's main control washed over the pair as they walked inside. "Put it down to my aversion to hypocrites," he added, then cutting Obi-Wan a glance, his lips twitched when he finished with, "Ask yourself this, would it really be more respectful to ignore your wishes while calling you master?"
Obi-Wan was saved from having to make a reply to that facetious query by Sal, who spotted Anakin and proceeded to vent—colourfully.
At first Anakin had tried scolding her for staying up and waiting for his return. He would worry that the long night would be too much for her considering the duties she had during the day. He'd tried cajoling her and extracting promises, then given in when she'd replied that sleep would be impossible until she knew that he was safe, and being present when the ships returned ensured that she had the earliest intelligence of his safety. Similarly, the medics, administrators, droids and volunteers had learned to accept her presence and make use of her. The rescue ships always went directly to the emergency landing bay at the medical centre so that those who needed treatment could receive it without delay. The uninjured would be given clothes, drink and food and some counselling prior to transport for processing.
Watching the Limidian land, Padmé felt the tension that always flooded her muscles during these missions drain away. When boarding ramp began to lower, she held her breath and waited for that first sight of her husband. She knew exactly what would happen. She had the same reaction every time she set eyes on him; her heart would flip-flop in her chest and her insides would clutch with longing, then melt with love. It was a reaction that she had no control over and would probably never get used to. She marvelled that it had now been twelve months—a full year—since he had come back into her life. In so many ways it felt like mere weeks.
He strode down the ramp with Obi-Wan at his side and came straight toward her. Padmé let out the breath she'd been holding and rode that tell-tale, inevitable reaction with a smile. Their eyes caught and held; a warm caress passing between them, and the only one that would be permitted until they were alone. Duty came first. For now there was work still to be done and comfort and assistance to be offered to those that desperately needed it. Medics were already removing the injured on stretchers and volunteers would go in next to coax those afraid and disoriented into trusting them. The landing bay was a hive of activity and bustle.
"How many did you find?" she asked them when they stopped in front of her.
"Approximately forty," replied Obi-Wan. "We'll know the exact number in a few minutes." Having answered her question, he turned to Anakin and something significant passed between them when he said, "If you'll both excuse me, there's someone I want to check on. I'll keep you informed," he added when Anakin frowned and went to speak. Then with a bow to her, he turned on his heel and strode back to the Limidian.
Padmé had been about to ask what that was all about when Anakin pre-empted her. "We got forty, but at least half that number again were already beyond our help by the time we got close enough to offer any," he told her grimly. Frustration laced his voice. "They're always so spread out and we can't risk spreading our defences too thin to get to them quicker."
"Oh, Anakin, I'm sorry. I know how deeply that bothers you."
A cloud of irritation dropped over his face. "I'm sure it bothers them more."
"It bothers us all," she retorted, although gently.
As suddenly as it had come the cloud lifted. He looked shame-faced. "Of course, I know that. I apologise, I didn't mean to imply otherwise."
As she'd known he would, Anakin walked with her when she went to pick up some of the emergency packs designed for new arrivals, containing a decent set of clothes and other personal items.
Just before they reached the containers, Padmé stopped and laid a hand on his arm. "I worry sometimes that you drive yourself too hard," she admitted bluntly. "We all wish it were otherwise, but there comes a point when we have to accept that we're doing everything we can, and as much as we would like to, we can't save everyone." His face was averted so she squeezed and felt the muscle of his forearm flex under her fingers, then reminded him, "A year ago nobody in Roth was in a position to help, and back then none of these people would have made it. We're making a difference… and that's a good thing."
After a tense pause, he nodded, then gusted out a sigh. "I know we are, Padmé, and you don't have to worry about me," he told her gruffly, meeting her eyes again.
Oh, but she did. She held his gaze, knowing that behind that composed expression the loss of life to the Narzgh would already be eating at him. The last six months had proven one thing to her. He was still her Anakin of old in a lot of ways, and one of those was his inability to savour a triumph for long. She wondered sometimes if his penchant for concentrating on those that he didn't save was a major factor in his immense drive to save more, forcing him to strive to somehow try harder—do better.
Padmé's jaw tightened. And she saw it as her job to make sure that he didn't burn himself out. One way or another.
Anakin raised a hand and touched a finger to her forehead. "I can literally see the wheels turning," he said lightly, making an effort. "What are you thinking about?"
"That you need a rest," she replied, brutally honest. "And, that I'd like my husband to spend a whole night in bed beside me for once."
She deliberately left it at that and grabbing some packs, joined the queue of volunteers waiting for the space to get inside the ships. She didn't look back, knowing that if nothing else, she'd given him something different to brood about. Damn it! So be it. If he was going to obsess she'd rather he did it over something he could actually change!
Perhaps it because she wasn't concentrating wholly on where she was going that Padmé spotted the furtive movement out of the corner of her eye. Turning her head, she saw the terrified scuttle of a crouched, naked woman who was attempting to use an empty med-stretcher as a cover to escape. A glance around showed that no-one else had noticed and that Jazz had grabbed Anakin's attention. On impulse, Padmé didn't raise an alarm, but simply abandoned the queue and followed with one of the packs.