CHAPTER SIX: Unlimited Power

PALPATINE

Windu did not move quickly. Instead, he moved perfectly. Anakin rushed him, full of confusion, hurt, and anger at himself, at Palpatine, at the Order. The bald, dark-skinned Jedi tripped the younger man in passing, spun, and slammed a fist into the back of his skull. Anakin dropped like a sack of wet duracrete and in an instant Windu had his lightsaber. Palpatine blocked the first cut, dodged the second, and jerked back from the third with an inch to spare. The bridge of his nose blistered as azure death swept over his face.

Then, from perfection: chaos.

Windu roared. His elegant, sweeping motions became violence incarnate. His stolen lightsaber carved the air, crackling, and Palpatine scrambled back from the vicious onslaught, out into the antechamber. Windu slashed the door from its hinges. Palpatine blocked an overhead cut that would have opened him from sternum to groin, snarling with exertion as Windu bore down on him, his face a mask of purposeful rage. He's strong. Another blow nearly drove the Chancellor to his knees.

He had never truly considered the possibility that he would die in combat. Even now, as he fought a desperate retreat back into his office, blue wildfire raging all around him, it seemed a remote possibility. Death by the sword was the warrior's provenance, and while he'd made sure he knew enough to wade into red slaughter when called for, Darth Sidious was no warrior. He was a scholar, a statesman, a dragon coiled in manskin whispering poisoned truths to any who would listen. The idea of his life's meteoric trajectory ending with his body spitted by a lightsaber was laughable.

Windu beat him back. Silent and tempestuous, the taller man hacked at Sidious's elegant defenses until he was sweating and bone-tired. The blade drew closer, scorching brocade, burning hair. Sidious cried out in frustrated anger. With a gesture he raised debris up from the floor in a battering storm. Chunks of bronzium, stone, and boma wood whirled around the two men as they dueled. Windu's focus kept the worst of the whirlwind clear, but spinning shards of shrapnel left bloody slashes across his face, his arms, his chest. Windu moved through the storm like a swimmer through clear water. The wreckage of the desk flew at him and he hacked through it, detonating its remainder with a blast of Force energy. A hundred-pound slab of treated wood smashed through the window and high-altitude winds whipped through the office.

Palpatine raged, shrieking with every thrust and cut.

The galaxy had ripped itself apart at his command. Jedi had died. Kings, emperors, margravines, slavers, revolutionaries, and politicians. Whole worlds had burned beneath his uncaring gaze, sacrifices to the greater good that was the reborn Sith Imperium. Peace, prosperity, a hand on the tiller whose owner knew not just the currents of the senate but of the future and the past. Divine reign.

Gods did not die in duels.

Windu's foot connected with the base of his jaw. He staggered back, spitting up blood, and tripped over one of his upended sculptures. The room spun crazily as he slammed to the floor at the window's edge, glass lacerating his palms. He twisted, whipping his lightsaber around to block Windu's overhand slash, but the Jedi disarmed him with artless ease and Palpatine watched in numb horror as his lightsaber flew out into the tearing dark of Coruscant's night. Surely, he thought, surely someone will see. Surely the guards are on their way.

He'd expected more from Anakin. The boy was the Force, embodied it in a way even he, Sidious, whose malevolent influence had blinded the galaxy's Jedi for decades, did not. He was a black hole, sucking at the Force like a hungry beast, worrying at its edges, fraying its weave with jagged teeth, but Anakin was a font of raw might, a titan among callow boys. Now he lay sprawled on the floor amidst the blood and broken glass, as glorious as shit on a boot-heel. After all I gave him. Fury flexed its cankered limbs, fingers squeezing Sidious's heart. All I did for that ungrateful child.

Mace raised Anakin's lightsaber. "Surrender." His voice smoked. It cracked the air like the tolling of some great, broken bell.

Sidious laughed through his mask of blood. "So I can stand trial in some puppet court?" He pushed himself up onto his elbows. "I made this Republic what it is. I undid what generations of Jedi meddling had done to the galaxy. I brought them all together, the billion races, united in war, erasing their divisions in blood and fire.

"Without me this galaxy will crumble into dust."

"You're only a man," said Windu, and there was no more anger in him. The laugh lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes were dark in the shifting shadows of the windblown office. The lightsaber's point dropped half an inch, and Palpatine saw his chance.

Hate was his fuel, and it burned like tainted iridium as he flung his hands up and let the Dark Side rage out of him. His nerves lit up with white-hot brilliance, and the entire office jittered and shook with shadows between blue-white flashes of lightning as agonizing bolts arced and crackled from Palpatine's fingers to Windu. The Jedi cried out in pain, his soul and skin scathed by rotten loathing, but he kept a tight hold on Anakin's lightsaber, and with a twist he interposed it between Palpatine's onslaught and himself.

And then the real agony began.

ANAKIN

He woke to pain. The world sparked and flared around him as he stood, and the vessel he had built for himself was cracking from the inside out. The fire and darkness he had poured into that crucible now suffused his body. Whispers sounded in his ears, exhorting him to wild action, to pointless destruction. The Chancellor's office was a thunderstorm. Windu's robes blazed as he stood webbed in lightning, his voice raised in furious protest, Anakin's lightsaber clutched in his smoking hands. Palpatine, hands outstretched, jerked and twitched in the Jedi's writhing shadow. They were joined by cables of raw hate, and Palpatine was burning from the inside out. His eyes were a cancerous yellow, his skin pasty green and ravaged, his gritted teeth rotten and crooked.

Anakin, said a calm, deep voice from a place hidden deep within the young Jedi. No.

Anakin stood. Neither man saw him stand, and neither man heard him. He called Plo Koon's lightsaber to his hand. His ears rang; blood pounded through him as though driven by a bilge pump. Palpatine collapsed as he watched, falling back against the sill, one arm dangling out into the tearing wind. Smoke rose in wisps from his ruined flesh, his broken nails. Mace, trembling and choking, spotted Anakin from the corner of his eye. "It's not too late," the Jedi Master said. "Anakin, come back with me and we can make this right."

"Please." Palpatine voice was thin and reedy, barely audible over the roaring wind. "Don't let him kill me, Anakin."

"Don't listen to him," said Mace. "The Sith will say anything for power. I've been investigating him for months, delving into his past. The things he's done, Anakin... the bodies he's left in his wake. A plague on Dantooine. Children murdered on Naboo, his family house burned down, the records of his birth destroyed.

"He's not what you think he is."

The old, done man lay limp and broken, inches from the black abyss. "Help me, Anakin."

Mace raised his lightsaber- Anakin's lightsaber -and in that instant he towered like an avenging angel, his robes still smoldering, his dark skin glistening with sweat, his white teeth bared. Blue light washed the Chancellor's face, the bloodied glass on the floor, the papers whirling through the air.

Palpatine closed his eyes.

Anakin moved without thinking, pirouetting neatly on one foot as Plo Koon's lightsaber blazed to radiant life in his hand. The blade cut through Mace's wrist like hot steel through butter. The look of dumb shock on the older Jedi's face sent daggers into Anakin's heart. He recoiled, revulsion at his own act bringing the taste of bile into his mouth. His extinguished lightsaber, still clutched in Mace's hand, hit the floor at his feet. What have I done?

The Chancellor's reptilian eyes snapped open. He raised his hands and suddenly Mace's skeleton flared a brilliant white, visible through skin turned translucent by snarling lightning. Anakin couldn't breathe. The air stank of ozone and cooked flesh. Blisters erupted on Mace's face, his hand. His clothes burst into flame.

"POWER!" cried Palpatine, and in that moment Anakin saw the beast behind the mask, the gloating cruelty in the filmy eyes, the rotten snarl, the sagging skin. "UNLIMITED POWER!"

A surge of power blasted through the room and knocked Mace out into the empty night along with an explosion of papers, splinters, rags, and bloody remains. He plummeted into the dark like a burning brand tossed down a well, his robes whipping around him.

The Chancellor stood, his fingertips still sparking, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Ahhh," he said, the sound grotesque, obscenely satisfied. His eyes found Anakin's and for an instant the old warmth inhabited them, but then it was gone and only the flat, unreadable reptile remained. A hoary old dragon skinned up in manflesh. "We have work to do, Anakin.

"The Temple will know soon that Windu failed."

Anakin was drowning, blood slopping around his neck, pouring into his mouth. He had struggled for long enough, had compromised, sacrificed, sneaked, and cheated. Now his hands were stained so deep and dark that there was nowhere to run, no possibility of concealing his crime. There was nothing to do but dive and pray. "What..." his voice broke. "What do you want of me?"

Palpatine smiled. "Go to the Temple. Take your men, and settle accounts."

A cold, steely unconcern settled over Anakin like a mantle. He took his lightsaber from Mace's twitching hand and returned it to his belt. "The children?" Not mine.

The mauled lips twisted into a grimace. "It is unfortunate, but they are already poisoned with Jedi dogma. We can't take the risk."

"I understand," Anakin said. He inclined his head. "Master." He swept out of the office, signaling the 501st on his comlink as he walked.

No going back now.

MACE

He had been so sure, after Organa had agreed to act as interim Chancellor, that moving against Palpatine was the right course. That certainty had been a clear, hard thing like glass or crystal. Now he fell, burning, and the cold light of the Chancellor's window receded ever further into the heavens. Had his misstep been trusting Skywalker? Volatility and recklessness had defined the boy since his entrance into the Order, but had this been waiting in him all along? This betrayal?

Mace felt himself ebbing from his body. The wind tore at his burning robes, but it soothed his blistered skin. He felt a strong, soft hand on his brow and heard his mother's voice on the wind. What would I have been, if they hadn't taken me from you?

He remembered her voice, and the touch of her lips on his young hands, and her dark, laughing eyes. He remembered her arms around him when the Order's emissaries had come, and the whisper of her words in his ear as she released him to those tall, robed figures.

Love everyone, she said. Let them love you. Don't forget you're strong, and there are people who never will be.

You have to be strong for them.

For me.

He hadn't always kept his vows. He had loved, he had raged, he had given loss and fear rooms in his heart, and he had let his feelings rule him, sometimes. He blinked tears from his eyes before the wind could steal them. Below, lights bloomed in the darkness. He whipped past an airtaxi, the wash of its repulsors pushing him down into the wild abyss of Coruscant.

Had he lived as a Jedi should?

"You lived well," said a voice, and a lined, callused hand took Mace's remaining one.

He exhaled.

Mace Windu hit the duracrete patio of a stylish restaurant in the Betario District near the rotunda's foundations. The patrons wailed and screamed, knocking over their chairs in their haste to scramble away from the ruined corpse that lay wreathed in blood at the center of their golden paradise, dead eyes staring up into the fathomless dark.