A/N: Here we are, the slightly overdue Chapter 20. I do hope that everyone had a very merry Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanza, or whatever), and I now offer this chapter as a belated Christmas gift from me to you. Sorry... no refunds or exchanges.
Chapter 20: Speeder Bikes and Savage Bears
The Tydirium at last pulled out of hyperspace and into the Endor system. There, just outside the atmosphere of Endor's forest moon, was the menacing Death Star II… but it wasn't alone. It was accompanied by Darth Vader's massive flagship, the Executor, as well as a pair of Imperial-class Star Destroyers.
To say that Han Solo was not nervous would be untrue. Still, he kept a steady hand and a cool head as he slowly maneuvered the Tydirium toward the forest moon. "If they don't go for this," Han muttered, "we're gonna have to get outta here pretty quick, Chewie."
No sooner had Chewbacca let out a growl of acknowledgement than did the Tydirium's comlink crackle to life. "We have you on our screen now." said the voice of an Imperial controller in a flat monotone. "Please identify."
Han leaned forward in his seat and tried to sound as professional as he could. "Shuttle Tydirium requesting deactivation of the deflector shield."
"Shuttle Tydirium," the controller stated, "transmit the clearance code for shield passage."
Han heaved a sigh. "Transmission commencing."
"Now we find out if that code was worth the price we paid." Leia muttered.
"Nice to see you have so much confidence." Riku retorted.
Han looked back to his friends in the cockpit and said with a much certainty as he could muster, "It'll work. It'll work."
Until now, Luke and Mickey had sat in silence during the slow, anxious ride. However, after a brief pause in the conversation, Luke blurted out, "Vader's on that ship."
"Now don't get jittery, Luke." Han warned. "There are a lot o' command ships."
"No." Mickey said firmly. "I feel it too: darkness. Comin' from that ship… and even more from the Death Star."
Han didn't like to admit it, but Luke and Mickey were probably right. They usually were. As a precautionary measure, he told Chewbacca, "Keep your distance, Chewie—but don't look like you're trying to keep your distance."
Chewbacca growled, wondering just how he was supposed to pull that off.
"I don't know!" Han snapped defensively. "Fly casual!"
Suddenly, the ship's comlink activated once more. "Shuttle Tydirium," the voice of the Imperial controller barked, "what is your cargo and destination?"
Han took a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself before answering, "Parts and technical crew for the forest moon."
The comlink deactivated, and again there was silence.
Luke's face suddenly grew pale. He could sense Darth Vader aboard the Executor, but now he could also feel that Vader sensed him. "I'm endangering the mission." he murmured. "I shouldn't have come."
"I dunno, Luke." Mickey assured him. "Maybe you'll save us. If you're Darth Vader's son, maybe that'll keep 'im from attacking the ship."
"It's your imaginations, guys." Han told them both. "Come on, let's keep a little optimism here." But as the comlink stayed silent and the Tydirium drew closer to the Executor, even Han's optimism began to fade. "They're not goin' for it, Chewie."
And then, a miracle: the comlink crackled to life once again, and the Imperial controller informed everyone, "Shuttle Tydirium, deactivation of the shield will commence immediately. Follow your present course."
Relief washed over the face of every man, woman, droid, and Wookiee aboard. "Okay!" Han declared, leaning back in his seat with renewed confidence. "I told you it was gonna work. No problem!"
Luke still seemed troubled as he looked out the cockpit window, staring at the massive Executor. Darth Vader had let him and his friends go… but for what purpose? Was it indeed because Vader was a good man at heart, and could not bear to destroy his own son? Or was it because the Dark Lord of the Sith had an even more sinister plan in mind?
Either way, thinking about it was enough to send a shiver down Luke's spine.
The topography of the forest moon of Endor was exactly as its name suggested: forest. Though home to sizable deserts and grassy plains, Endor's moon was covered almost entirely with mighty pine and redwood trees. The Death Star II's deflector shield generator was located deep within this woody labyrinth, and it was here that the first stage of the Rebel Alliance's strategy was to be carried out.
Han Solo touched the Tydirium down a good distance from the shield generator so as to avoid meeting too many Imperials at once. Han Solo had exchanged his black vest for a green duster more suitable for forest camouflage. Luke, Leia, and the commandos under Han Solo's command wore green helmets and fatigues, and all but Luke wielded a blaster rifle. Riku, Mickey, Taran, Donald, and Goofy remained in their usual, less camouflage-oriented ensembles (much to the chagrin of the rest of the Rebels). Donald and Goofy gripped their weapons tightly, but the Keybearers did not yet call their blades. Now was not the proper time.
As Han and his motley band of warriors trudged through the forest, they soon discovered that finding the shield generator would not be as easy as they had thought. The enormous trees grew so close together that it was usually impossible to see more than a few feet ahead.
It was not long before Han and his team reached the crest of a hill near where the Tydirium lay hidden. Near the top, Han gestured for everyone to halt. As the commandos all assumed crouching positions, C-3PO—from his position at the very back of the procession—muttered to R2-D2, "Oh, I told you it was dangerous here!"
Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, Mickey, Riku, and Taran followed Han up to the very top of the hill. Upon the hill lay a fallen tree covered in moss, a perfect place for the companions to hide and survey the area. And what they saw was not comforting.
Below, two Imperial scout troopers milled about on foot. Outfitted with lighter, more flexible armor than Stormtroopers, scout troopers were specially equipped to handle operations that required stealth or speed as opposed to brute force. Their helmets were equipped with powerful macrobinoculars so that they could see in nearly any situation, and rectangular visors shielded the scout troopers' eyes from the glare of sunlight.
Next to the scout troopers was a pair of 74-Z class speeder bikes—small brown vehicles designed for reconnaissance and battlefield situations that required a good deal of speed. Ventrally located blaster cannons provided the craft with enough firepower to make it a tangible threat, and not one that the Rebels wished to engage.
"Should we try and go around?" Leia whispered.
"It'll take time." Luke warned. Time was not something that the Rebels had to spare, but risking detection might spoil the entire operation. It was a hazardous task either way, but choosing the lesser of two evils had become an ordinary thing for Luke and his friends.
"There are only two of them." Taran pointed out. "Surely we are a match for them."
"Hold it, Taran." Riku cautioned. "Regular soldiers don't give off enough darkness for me to smell. I have no idea how many there might be hiding somewhere."
"I don't think we have a lot o' choice." King Mickey sighed. "We gotta get past 'em somehow, and fast."
"This whole party will be for nothing if they see us." Han pointed out. "Chewie and I'll take care of this—you stay here."
Everyone looked at Han skeptically. He was more of a "charge in with guns blazing" kind of guy, and stealth was definitely not his strong point. "Quietly." Luke said firmly. "There might be more of them out there."
"Hey," Han assured him with a wink, "it's me."
"Somehow, I don't feel any better." Riku muttered.
Everyone watched with bated breath as Han and Chewbacca slowly made their way down the hill under the cover of the trees. They were actually doing well for themselves, and Han managed to creep up mere feet behind the first scout trooper. Slowly, he closed in, taking one step… two… three…
A twig broke under Han's booted heel. The scout trooper whipped around and delivered a powerful slap to Han's jaw. Han was sent reeling backward onto the ground. "Go for help!" the scout trooper shouted to his partner. "Go!"
"Great!" Luke muttered as the second scout trooper sprinted toward his speeder bike. "Come on!"
Riku, Mickey, and Taran all summoned their keyblades. Riku and Mickey leaped gracefully over the felled tree and into the unfolding skirmish, but Taran had to follow Luke and Leia as they took the long way around. Chewbacca leaped out from behind a nearby tree and aimed his Wookiee bowcaster at the escaping speeder bike. His first shot narrowly missed the scout trooper, but the second flew straight into the speeder bike's engine. The speeder bike slammed into a log, sending the scout trooper flying over the handlebars and onto the hard, unforgiving ground.
Han was up in a flash, and was already engaging the first scout trooper. Riku and Taran started toward him, but they were stopped by the sound of Mickey Mouse's voice. "Look over there!"
Indeed, Mickey's sensitive ears had detected another pair of scout troopers in the trees only a few yards away. "Two more of them!" Leia shouted, rushing toward the nearby speeder bike that had belonged to the scout trooper Han was engaging.
"I see them—wait! Leia!" Luke shouted, but it was too late to slow the princess down now. Luke had barely enough time to hop onto the back of the speeder bike before Leia grasped the accelerator.
Mickey Mouse knew that this would be his last chance. He gathered all of his strength and leaped into the air, landing gracefully on the very rear of the bike as it accelerated forward. Behind him, he could hear Han shout, "Hey! Wait!"
Mickey shook his head, though by now Han was too far away to see. Riku and Taran were there to keep an eye on things; right now, Mickey's duty was to help Luke and Leia—something easier said than done. The speeder bike was capable of reaching five hundred kilometers per hour; it wasn't going quite that fast, but it was breaking four hundred by the time the two scout troopers came into view once again. Luke clung tightly to Leia's waist as they raced on, weaving through trees and dodging boulders. Mickey's small stature forced him to stand on the speeder bike's rear, but he kept his left hand firmly on Luke's shoulder to support himself. His right hand held his keyblade at the ready.
As they gained upon the two fleeing scout troopers, Luke shouted to Leia, "Quick! Jam their comlink! Center switch!"
But even as Leia flicked the switch, the scout troopers accelerated until they were almost out of sight. "Move closer!" Luke called, and Leia squeezed the throttle for all she was worth. The craft zoomed forward at top speed, easily catching up to the scout troopers. But then, Luke had an idea.
One of the scout troopers had fallen a bit behind the other, and looked as though it was trying to catch up. "Get alongside that one!"
As Leia brought her speeder bike directly beside the scout trooper's, Mickey finally realized what Luke had in mind. Although the scout trooper was easily within striking distance of Mickey's keyblade, his death would have meant forfeiting the bike. That wasn't what Luke wanted at all.
Now, the scout trooper was starting to play dirty. He rammed the side of his bike against Leia's, attempting to knock her and her two passengers off. But when the scout trooper reared back for a more forceful bump, Luke seized the opportunity. He leaped from Leia's bike onto the scout trooper's, grabbing hold of the scout trooper's helmet as he did so. With the helmet in his grasp, Luke twisted hard; the sudden jerk caused the scout to fall off his speeder bike, slamming into a nearby tree with bone-shattering impact as the bikes passed.
Luke now had a speeder bike all to himself.
As Mickey moved to a more advantageous position on the bike he and Leia shared, two more bike-mounted scout troopers burst forth from the forest undergrowth. Unlike the previous scouts, however, these troopers had no intention of escaping.
The two new scouts raced after Luke and Leia, remaining a fair distance behind them. One of the scouts fired his speeder's laser cannon at Leia; his aim was true, and it would have destroyed Leia's engine if Mickey hadn't deflected the blast with his keyblade.
Luke looked back at the two scout troopers behind him, then at the one that remained ahead. "You take that one!" Luke called to Leia, indicating the one in front of them. "I'll take these two!"
Luke slammed hard on his brakes, causing the two scout troopers chasing him to suddenly zoom past. Taking advantage of their confusion, Luke set his sights on one of the scout troopers and fired his cannon. The blast hit the side of the scout trooper's bike and forced it to careen into a nearby tree in a spectacular explosion.
Meanwhile, the other scout trooper had managed to gain on Leia and Mickey's bike. Mickey trusted Leia to get the one ahead, but the one behind was going to be a problem. After deflecting two shots from the scout's cannon, Mickey decided that he wouldn't give the trooper the chance to fire a third. Mickey raised his keyblade into the air and cast a Thundaja spell. Lightning ripped through the sky and struck the scout trooper's bike, blowing it up in a fiery conflagration. However, Luke had been forced to brake hard to avoid getting caught in the blast; Leia and Mickey zoomed so far ahead of him that he was no longer visible among the trees.
Leia was still in hot pursuit of the scout trooper in front of her. Still, after a few moments of fruitlessly trying to bob and weave through the forest to get a clear shot, the princess decided it was time for a new tactic. "Hold on!" she called to Mickey as she pulled back on the speeder bike's handlebars. Mickey had just enough time to dismiss his keyblade and put his arms around Leia's waist before the speeder bike rose up into the air. Flying above the boulders and felled trees in her path, Leia was able to gain ground on the scout trooper until she was almost directly above him. She smirked as she saw the scout trooper glance behind him, no doubt thinking he'd lost his pursuer.
He couldn't have been more wrong.
Leia leaned forward, causing her speeder bike to swoop down upon her unsuspecting target. She fired a shot or two from her blaster cannon, but the scout trooper had already regained his bearings; he easily dodged everything Leia threw at her.
Leia's bike came to a stop just above the ground, and now ran directly alongside the scout trooper. Leia put as much distance between her bike and the scout's as she could, intending to ram him at the nearest opportunity. Before she could do so, however, the trooper reached for a holster in his boot and removed from it a small blaster pistol.
Mickey let out a gasp and tried to summon his keyblade, but he could not move quickly enough. The scout trooper aimed a single, precise shot at the engine of Leia's bike. Knowing that such a hit was fatal to even the best of speeder bikes, Leia let out a yelp and leaped from the damaged vehicle, with King Mickey following close behind. The two landed just far enough from the bike to watch it careen into a tree a few feet ahead and erupt into a blossom of flame.
As soon as Mickey was on his feet, he looked on as the scout trooper sped along his merry way. A bit angry and very determined not to let the scout trooper inform anyone of the Rebels' presence on Endor, King Mickey thrust out his left hand. A Gravija spell appeared just beneath the scout trooper's bike and pulled it to the ground with such force that it immediately shattered into a thousand flaming bits of shrapnel. The scout trooper, needless to say, did not survive.
With that final threat gone, King Mickey looked back to see Princess Leia still lying upon the ground. She gave Mickey one quick glance before she lost consciousness. That bike chase had taken its toll, and the nasty fall at the end hadn't helped matters.
King Mickey smiled warmly and sat down beside Leia. The others would come searching for them soon enough, he knew, and he could keep watch until then. He had little choice—his friends were counting on him. And so, King Mickey Mouse settled into the soft grass near Leia and began to wait…
Riku was bored.
Riku, Taran, Han, ad Chewbacca still stood at the base of the hill where the initial conflict with the scout troopers had begun. Now, the Rebel commandos (along with Donald, Goofy, C-3PO, and R2-D2) had also positioned themselves around the area; the Rebels remained on high alert, but the duck, dog, and droids seemed just as bored as Riku was.
Riku felt a bit misused, having to sit and wait while Mickey got to help Luke and Leia. Still, if Han's last plan was of any indication, the man definitely needed someone to look after him. And since Riku was usually the one to baby-sit everyone else, he was probably best-qualified for the job. In fact, compared to some people, Riku was handling his boredom rather well.
"Aww!" Donald groaned, his bill drawn into a weary frown. "What are we gonna do?"
"Not much left to do, Donald." Riku told his feathered friend. "We can't do this without the king—or Luke and Leia."
"Well, if they're not back in ten minutes," Han said impatiently, "I'm goin' after 'em."
No sooner had the words escaped Han's lips than did a low tootle issue from R2-D2's dome. "Oh," C-3PO translated, "General Solo! Somebody's coming!"
Han and most of his comrades took cover in the undergrowth, prepared to strike at a moment's notice. Riku, on the other hand, stood directly in the center of the forest clearing, the Way to the Dawn keyblade appearing in his hand. Things were about to liven up, one way or another…
Suddenly, Han's voice broke through the silence with a shout. "Luke!"
Sure enough, Luke Skywalker came trotting into view, looking tired and out of breath. With a wry smile, Riku dismissed his keyblade. Though he was glad to have Luke back safely, he'd secretly been looking forward to a little action.
Han Solo had none of these things on his mind, it seemed. As soon as he'd clambered out of his hiding place, his first question was, "Where's Leia?"
Luke's eyes widened. "She didn't come back?"
"I thought she was with you." Han answered gravely.
"We got separated!" Luke offered in his own defense. "We better go look for her."
Han whipped around and pointed to the lead commando, Major Bren Derlin. "Take the squad ahead." he ordered. "We'll meet at the shield generator at 0300."
"Come on, Artoo." Luke told his little astromech droid. "We'll need your scanners."
"What are we doing, Master Riku?" Taran asked eagerly, looking up at his master.
Riku shook his head. "I'm going with Han and Luke. You're gonna watch out for Donald and Goofy as they go with the commandos."
Taran was awestruck. Had he really heard what he'd thought he heard? Was Riku really expecting him to do this without his master's guidance? If it were indeed true, then it would be the first time Taran had ever been on a mission without Riku.
"But Master," Taran pleaded, his mouth still agape, "why?"
"We want a Keybearer on every front, if we can help it." Riku explained. "Besides, you know Donald and Goofy better than any of these commandos—you know how to keep them out of trouble."
Upon hearing this, Donald let out an indignant quack. "Hey! Who keeps who outta trouble?"
Goofy put a hand on his short-tempered friend's shoulder. "Y'know, Donald, I think Riku's right."
"Aww, phooey!" Donald grumbled, but he said nothing more.
Riku looked Taran squarely in the eye. "This is your chance to prove yourself—the chance to see what you can do with everything me and Mickey taught you." With a grin, Riku added as an afterthought, "And when you get back to Prydain, this'll be your chance to tell Eilonwy all about how great you did without old Master Riku bringing you down."
Taran's face turned a deep red. "Well… I suppose that's true…"
"You'll be fine." Riku assured him. "Now we gotta go."
And so Han, Luke, Riku, Chewbacca, and the two droids trekked deeper into the forests of Endor's moon. "Don't worry, Master Luke!" C-3PO called from the rear of the procession. "We know what to do!" To R2-D2, he added disdainfully, "And you said it was pretty here! Ugh!"
As soon as the six companions were out of sight, Major Bren Derlin led the commandos in the opposite direction; Taran cast a wistful glance behind him as he followed. He wasn't ready for this… he wasn't prepared for the burden of being the only Keybearer in a group.
This will not end well. Taran thought as he marched on. Not well at all.
Deep within the forests of Endor's moon, stalking about like a hungry predator searching for its next kill, a savage hunter was on the prowl. He carried a crude but deadly spear in his hand, and the sunlight glinted in his dark eyes. He smelled something nearby, and he had every intention of investigating.
The mighty hunter's name was Wicket, and he was an Ewok.
Ewoks, like Wicket, were creatures that stood just under a meter tall, and they resembled nothing so much as walking teddy bears. Their faces were characterized by small, wet noses and large, perfectly round eyes. Wicket wore an orange hood over his brown-furred body; atop the hood, little slots had been cut out to accommodate Wicket's fuzzy round ears. Their tubby little bodies were attached to thick arms and legs
However, though Ewoks were cute and cuddly at a glance, they were not to be trifled with. The average Ewok was strong enough to overpower a grown man, and the Ewoks' skills with simple weapons were unparalleled. They were very close to the forest around them, and didn't take kindly to being disturbed. That was why Wicket was out exploring now, trying to get a better idea of what he and his kind were up against.
Wicket soon came across the wreckage of a downed speeder bike and moved in to investigate. Near the wreckage, he spotted two figures: one of them was a human female clad in green, who seemed to be unconscious; the other was a creature unlike any Wicket had ever seen. It had enormous, round ears as black as pitch, and its long, stringy tail swayed a bit in the light forest breeze, indicating that the creature was quite relaxed.
Wicket didn't trust this creature at all.
Wicket moved into position behind the big-eared creature and readied his spear, hoping to catch it unawares. But when Wicket thrust his weapon at the creature's head, the spearhead met only empty air.
King Mickey Mouse had sensed the danger and leaped out of striking distance in the nick of time. He flipped over Wicket's head and landed just a few feet behind him. When Wicket turned around to try to engage the creature a second time, Mickey did not raise a hand against him. He could see that this Ewok was not evil—only a bit frightened. And why not? Mickey could imagine that Wicket had never seen anything like him before.
King Mickey smiled gently as he spoke to the Ewok. "Uh… hey there, little fella." The greeting may have seemed a bit strange, since Mickey and Wicket were the same height (including Mickey's ears), but it seemed appropriate just the same. Wicket's small body and large eyes made him appear very cute, even to Mickey, and the words "little fella" captured this sentiment quite plainly.
Wicket cocked his head to one side, and a small chittering noise escaped his lips. Apparently, he didn't quite know what to make of Mickey. He looked strange and spoke a language Wicket did not understand, but he seemed friendly enough. He hadn't yet tried to shoot him, like those evil warriors in white Wicket had seen, so that was a definite plus.
"I'm not gonna hurt ya." Mickey promised, slowly approaching. "I'm a friend!" Mickey knew that Wicket didn't speak his language, so he tried to convey his intent with the tone of his voice and the gestures of his hands.
Wicket seemed to understand that. The tone, the body movements… Mickey's very presence seemed to indicate warmth and friendship. Wicket lowered his weapon and allowed Mickey to come near.
"See?" Mickey chuckled. "We're pals already. Now let's go wake Leia up so she can meet you too."
Wicket followed Mickey as he slowly made his way to where Leia's unmoving form still lay. Again seeing Mickey's intent through his voice and gestures, Wicket decided to help his new friend out. To wake Leia up, he quickly jabbed her with his spear.
Leia let out a gasp and shot bolt upright. "Cut it out!" she cried, not knowing to whom she spoke until after the words had passed her lips.
Wicket didn't take kindly to being shouted at. He gripped his spear tightly and pointed its business end at Leia, letting out a low growl as he did so.
Leia sighed and gave a small smile. She had heard of the Ewoks before, of what savage and primitive hunters they all were… but nowhere had anyone mentioned how adorable they were. Wicket tilted his head curiously to one side, as he'd done with Mickey; however, he kept his spear firmly trained on Leia.
Leia groaned and rose to her feet. She hadn't landed as gracefully from her fall as King Mickey had from his, and her sides still ached. "Easy, Leia." Mickey warned her. "He's a little skittish."
"I've noticed." Leia remarked dryly. Wicket didn't like her tone, and he chattered at her in his own language to tell her that. He growled and waved his spear in a threatening manner as Leia moved to sit down upon a nearby log. "I'm not gonna hurt you." she assured the little Ewok.
Wicket still didn't look certain of that, but he moved warily to stand upon the log beside her. It was an improvement, at least.
"Well," Leia remarked, "looks like we're stuck here."
"But we don't really know where here is." Mickey explained to Wicket, also moving to join Leia on the log. He looked hopefully into Wicket's eyes and asked, "Think you can help?"
Leia patted the space on the log beside her. "Come on. Sit down."
Leia's voice had softened a bit, but it was still not as gentle as Mickey's. Wicket growled at Leia and pointed his spear at her again, looking from her to Mickey and back again.
"Aww, it's all right." Mickey urged him. "She's my friend too."
Wicket shot a questioning look at Mickey, as though he were questioning Mickey's odd taste in friends, and still looked reluctant to move.
"I promise I won't hurt you," Leia entreated, "now come here."
Leia's tone had been a bit sharper than Wicket liked, and he growled at her with renewed apprehension.
Leia finally decided that, since she couldn't get through to the Ewok Mickey's way, she would try another method: through his stomach. "All right." she said at last, reaching into one of her pockets. "Want something to eat?" From the pocket, she removed a piece of one of the ration bars she carried with her. She held this out to Wicket, hoping for the best.
Wicket seemed distrustful at first, but after mulling it over for a moment, he decided the risk was worth taking if there was food involved. He lowered his spear and moved closer to Leia, standing beside her on the log. "That's right." Leia encouraged him with a smile. "Come on."
As soon as Wicket reached Leia, he quickly snatched the bit of ration bar with one hand, still gripping his spear with the other. He put the bar to his button nose and sniffed it a little, making sure it wasn't poisoned, then took a nibble. Finding it to his liking, he plopped down right next to Leia and quietly munched on his snack.
King Mickey smiled as he sat down on Leia's other side. Wicket finally trusted them both now, it seemed, which meant he might be inclined to help them find their way.
Now that everyone was being peaceable, Leia took the opportunity to remove her helmet. Thinking that Leia might be producing a deadly weapon from atop her head, Wicket leaped down from the log and growled, dropping his half-eaten ration bar so that he might hold his spear with both hands. "Uh-oh!" Mickey gasped.
Leia held out the helmet for Wicket to see. "Look! It's a hat. It's not gonna hurt you—look."
Wicket stared blankly at the "hat" for a moment, unsure of what to make of it. At last, he clambered back onto the log and took the helmet, just to make sure it wasn't a threat. Before he could get a good look, though, he suddenly dropped the helmet and clutched at his spear, whipping around to gaze into the forest as he did so.
"What is it?" Leia asked confusedly.
"I think he smells danger." Mickey explained, taking note of the way Wicket was looking and sniffing about. "And not just your hat this time."
Suddenly, a blaster bolt erupted from among the trees and smashed into the log where everyone was sitting. Wicket and Leia instinctively took cover behind the log, but King Mickey stood fast. His keyblade appeared in his hand in a flash of light, and his ears perked up. When a second blaster bolt came, Mickey easily batted it aside. Behind him, Wicket crawled underneath the log for safety, while Leia poked her head back out—in her hand was a blaster pistol, cocked and ready to fire. Something was out there, all right… and it wasn't friendly.
A scout trooper had emerged from the forest and pointed his blaster at Leia. King Mickey whipped about so quickly that he nearly lopped off the scout trooper's head, but he knew better than to do so just yet. Judging from those last two blaster shots, there were others nearby.
"Come on!" the scout trooper barked at Leia, hand reaching to confiscate her weapon. "Get up!"
Now that Leia was disarmed, the scout trooper kept his blaster trained on Mickey. Each could have killed the other with the squeeze of a trigger or the slash of a keyblade, but neither king nor scout moved. Both of them only stood there in silence, each seemingly waiting for some unspoken signal.
Just as Mickey had predicted, a second scout trooper emerged from the undergrowth a moment later. "Go get your ride." the first scout trooper told the second. "Take them back to base."
"Yes, sir!" the scout trooper nodded, vanishing into the forest again.
Mickey still bided his time. It seemed that they were wanted alive, so no violence would take place unless either Mickey or Leia provoked it. Leia couldn't do much without a weapon, and Mickey wanted both scout troopers together before he tried anything. And so they waited a bit longer.
Suddenly, a low thump met Mickey's ears. Wicket had tapped the scout trooper's leg with his spear, and the scout looked down with a surprised cry of, "What the—"
That was as far as he got before Leia struck him with a good-sized hunk of wood she'd found on the forest floor. As the scout trooper fell, Leia began searching for her confiscated blaster. Mickey turned his gaze in the opposite direction. That other scout trooper was due back any second…
As soon as the second scout burst into view, mounted on his speeder bike, King Mickey thrust out his palm and cast a Firaja spell at him. A flaming sphere the size of a basketball slammed into the side of the scout's speeder bike, causing it to explode on impact. The bike belonging to the other scout trooper was caught in the blast, and it too erupted in a blossom of fire.
Leia and Mickey nodded to each other as the explosions died down, and Wicket poked his fuzzy head from underneath the log. "Great teamwork, fellas!" Mickey congratulated his friends, but the danger was not quite over. More scout troopers stationed nearby may have heard the commotion. Mickey, Leia, and Wicket needed to be good and gone by the time they arrived.
"Come on." Leia told her companions. "Let's get outta here."
However, as Leia began to trek deeper into the forest, Wicket tugged at her wrist and pointed in the opposite direction. "I think he wants to go that way." Mickey said with a laugh. "We should probably listen."
Leia silently agreed and allowed Wicket to lead the way. Thus, they set forth through the trees, wondering where Wicket might be taking them and whether they would be able to reunite with their friends.
Through it all, no one bothered to recall that Leia's helmet still lay abandoned on the forest floor, right where Wicket had dropped it.
On the Death Star II, Darth Vader slowly entered Emperor Palpatine's throne room for the second time that day. Palpatine's Imperial dignitaries were gone, which left the room even colder and emptier than before.
Vader didn't mind the emptiness. He was long used to that.
Emperor Palpatine was gazing out the throne room's massive window, his throne swiveled so that its back faced the door. But even though Vader couldn't see Palpatine's face, he could sense that the emperor was not happy.
Palpatine did not bother turning around as he spat, "I told you to remain on the command ship."
Darth Vader wasn't going to be dismissed that easily. "A small Rebel force has penetrated the shield and landed on Endor."
This time, Palpatine did face Vader. As his throne swiveled around so that the emperor could get a better view, the look on his face was one of annoyance. "Yes, I know." he retorted. "I also know that several Keybearers accompanied them."
Darth Vader was surprised that Palpatine had suddenly taken so much interest in the Keybearers, but that was not why he had come. With certainty that surprised even Palpatine, Vader said, "My son is with them."
"Are you sure?" Palpatine questioned, his voice betraying his curiosity.
Darth Vader still sounded quite sure as he stated, "I have felt him, my master."
Palpatine paused for a moment before finally answering, "Strange that I have not. I wonder if your feelings on this matter are clear, Lord Vader."
Darth Vader suspected, as Palpatine must have, that his close connection to his son enabled him to sense his presence more easily. And he could not deny that he had wondered… only occasionally… if he could indeed choose to put his own flesh and blood through everything the emperor intended. Still, he did his best to remind himself that it would be for the best. "They are clear, my master."
"You have shown a great deal of mercy in recent months, Lord Vader." Palpatine reminded him. "You failed to kill either Luke or Sora during your duel on Bespin, and you allowed the Rebels to land on Endor without incident. I am aware that many of the Keybearers were once your friends, and that your connection to young Skywalker is strong."
"My time with the Keybearers is long past." Darth Vader assured his master. "And I will do whatever is necessary to see that my son is turned."
"Then you must go to the sanctuary moon and wait for him." Palpatine instructed him.
Darth Vader sounded surprised. "He will come to me?"
Now, it was Palpatine's turn to be certain. "I have foreseen it. His compassion for you will be his undoing. He will come to you, and then you will bring him before me… as well as the allies that are sure to join him."
This news seemed to lighten Vader's mood. He was very close to being reunited with his son… he could feel it deep within his cold, ironclad heart. "As you wish, my master." he said with more enthusiasm than he'd shown in a long time.
Palpatine swiveled his throne so that he could gaze out the window again. Everything was falling into place. The Rebellion would be crushed and the Keybearers would be eliminated… then Luke, in his grief, would turn to the dark side of the Force.
All was proceeding according to plan.
A/N: El fin. The end... of this chapter, anyway.
A gentle reminder: PLEASE REVIEW! We have, thanks to profound efforts of readers like you, exceeded our goal of 200 reviews. As Shadow of an Empire slowly draws to a close, I believe that, with effort, we might reach 250 before the end. But even if we don't, I remain thankful to everyone who supplies me with the much-needed feedback that pushes me forward.
Until next time, Lord Moldybutt signing off.