The Art of War - Part 12
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
Chapter 12 - Dying Ground
On board the Star Destroyer Chimaera Mara Jade was standing at the Grand Admiral's side as both watched the Relentless' death throes in space above Nar Shadaa. They had been able to evacuate everyone except for those who had died in the battle against Roj Kell. But there still was no trace of Jix, a fact that had Mara worried immensely. The recording spun to an end and the Admiral turned the projector off pensively. Turning toward Mara, he regarded her for what seemed an eternity.
"What do you make of it?" he asked finally.
"Pretty impressive," she answered with a shrug.
"Yes. But why did he not kill us? He had ample opportunity, after all."
"What do you suggest, sir?"
"I wonder how our survival might benefit him."
Mara grimaced, remembering Roj Kell's last words to her. "He said I should keep an eye on Vader."
"We all will have to do that, I fear," Thrawn countered drily. "We will reach Coruscant in a few hours and until then I want a full assessment of our troops and that of the rebels."
"I will work on it."
Suddenly the comm pinged and Mara went to answer it. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Thrawn raise his eyebrows questioningly at her. She ignored his surprise.
"Admiral, there is someone on the line for you."
"This is Jade, Captain Palleon, just a moment."
She stepped aside to let the Grand Admiral pass. "What news?"
"A call," Palleon repeated. "It is encrypted."
"Let me see the code."
The string of symbols and numbers came up on the transmission screen. Mara heard Thrawn curse softly. "Bad?" she asked quietly.
"We shall see. This is Jay Gerran's code. Captain, put it through."
The screen wavered slightly before the small agent's face appeared, and the Admiral's brow furrowed into a deep frown. "Where are you?" he snapped unceremoniously.
"On my way to Coruscant, sir."
"Report." Mara had never before heard such an icy tone in Thrawn's usually so smooth voice.
"We discovered the betrayal of one of Lord Vader's agents on Wayland and proceeded to Nar Shadaa."
"What did you do on Wayland?" Thrawn interrupted him.
"There is an old storehouse-"
"I know that. What did you do?"
"Lord Vader destroyed the cloning equipment there."
"How unfortunate. I guess that means he was not serious on that offer after all." Now the Admiral sounded amused. "Continue."
"Yes, sir. Lord Vader talked about someone called Kell and about warning you."
"I see. You went to Nar Shadaa?"
"Yes. We teamed up with Solo and some of his smuggler buddies to hunt down this Kell. We were separated."
"Good. Anything else?"
"What is that?"
"There is some additional information, but I would prefer to tell you in person. It concerns the Sith. "
Mara saw Thrawn's eyes narrow a fraction. "The Sith? Very well. Then I will see you on Coruscant, Gerran."
The connection broke. "And why do you not trust a secure channel any longer?" the Grand Admiral whispered at the blank screen.
"Do you think he might know something about Kell's plan?" Mara asked.
"Maybe. We shall see, won't we?"
Han landed the Millennium Falcon on a clearing that admittedly had been awfully hard to find in the midst of the swamps that seemed to cover the entire planet. He could feel the ground give slightly underneath the heavy ship and for a moment he feared that the freighter's landing struts would get trapped in the morass. To his great relief though the movement stopped pretty soon. At his side Chewbacca exhaled slowly and Han could feel the tension leave his muscles too.
"Well. Looks like we are here." The ship's engines powered down gradually and finally the Falcon fell silent. Unstrapping from his seat, Han turned around to smile at their single passenger. "All right. And now?"
"We go and look for Yoda," Padmé told him and rose. "If you would be so good as to lower the landing ramp?"
Following the slim figure dressed in a dark red combat uniform, the Corellian could not help but feel himself reminded of Leia. So far he had suspected that most of her snooty demeanor was partly due to her upbringing and her father's influence. Now though he suspected that it was hereditary. Not that Padmé was arrogant, but Han's natural aversion to authority raised its bristly head every time the former queen acted as if she was in charge. Of course, the Corellian had to admit that she probably was in charge. His lips twitched in wry amusement. Somehow life had been far easier before he had been thrown together with the Skywalkers.
"Chewie! You coming?"
There was an affirmative roar and then the giant Wookiee was walking at his side as they made their way to the entry hatch where Padmé was already waiting for them. Han unlocked the hatch and drew his blaster, just in case. As he stalked down the ramp Padmé raised her voice again.
"This might be interpreted as hostility," she admonished him quietly.
"Hey, lady, the guy's a Jedi Master. I don't think he'd be frightened by that thing. This is just in case we stumble across some unexpected visitors."
"Good. I am pleased to see that you are such a cautious man, Han."
"Yeah, we live and learn," he mumbled, guiltily thinking back on all the times he had charged into danger without taking precautions.
She smiled at his comment before she stepped down the ramp to join him on the murky ground. Wiping a stray strand of dark hair from her forehead she took a look around. "This reminds me of Naboo, actually. It is just a little bit - darker."
"Great. Come on and let's go and find this Yoda."
As it was it did not take as long as he had suspected. When his comm chimed suddenly, Han stared at it in surprise. "What the-" Answering the call he jerked back from the receiver as a flood of chirps and hoots washed over him non-stop. "Artoo!" The chatter continued, but Han cut it short immediately. Turning toward Chewie he asked the Wookiee to go back to the ship and get a transmitter that would allow them to home in on Luke's X-wing.
"Artoo?" Padmé asked, slightly taken aback.
"Luke's astromech," Han explained. It's been stranded here for quite some time and I had completely forgotten about it. Maybe Artoo has picked up Yoda's presence somehow."
After an hour-long march the trio had finally reached the moss-covered starfighter. Immediately Han and Chewie began freeing the small droid and got it down from his lonely perch. Plugging Artoo into a translator Han nodded at the rounded dome and asked: "If you've seen a Jedi Master you better tell us now." He squinted at the translation scrolling over the screen. "So there was someone? And do you know where they went?" Straightening again he gave the others a lop-sided grin. "We got a direction. That's something at least."
Following the Corellian and his copilot, Padmé picked her way carefully among the low bushes and roots that covered treacherous puddles and morass. The swamp was filled with thick clouds of mist and the lonely calls of some creatures could be heard throughout the forest. She was not sure what she would tell Yoda once they met. It had been so long ... And yet, her anger was rekindled again when she reminded herself that the Jedi Master, as Head of the Council at that time, should have taken steps in preventing this disaster. The Jedi never dared to explore the entire complexity of the Force. They declared there to be two sides, one good, one evil. Very pragmatic and so deceitful at the same time. Without their knowing it, they had sealed their own fate. Recalling Roj Kell's words now seemed like a betrayal of all she had fought for in the past. But Padmé could not help herself: he was right. And what was it Chi'in had said? That he would do anything in! his power to restore the balance.
Maybe that was the key.
"Hey, Your Highness! We found something!"
Startled out of her musings Padmé noticed that she had fallen back quite some distance from the rest. Hurrying to catch up she noticed the small hut nestled underneath the protective cover of gnarled trees and nodded.
"This is it," she said.
"Okay," Han said slowly. "And where is our Jedi Master?"
"Out, probably," she replied a tiny bit testily.
"Eh? This place does not look as if it would get any more entertaining."
"Distraction I seek not," a reedy voice told the Corellian calmly.
Solo's reaction was truly amusing and Padmé covered her mouth to hide a wide smile when he whirled around, saw no one, looked around in bewilderment and finally spotted the small, green-skinned reptilian alien sitting on the ground just a few paces away.
"There you are!" he exclaimed. "I didn't remember you to be so short."
"Size doesn't matter," Padmé told Han as she strode past him and gave him a wink. He shot her a helpless grin.
"Yeah, I guess."
Bowing slightly the former queen sought the Jedi Master's gaze. "Greetings, Master Yoda. It is good to see you again."
He did not answer for quite some time, but she saw his large, moss-green eyes study her intently. In the end he leaned on his walking stick and walked toward her slowly. "Much darkness has come over our galaxy. And still it plagues us."
"The Emperor is alive," she informed him and as expected he stopped short, surprised.
"Alive," he whispered, then shook his head. "Unfortunate this is. Your husband, in grave danger he is."
"I know. That is why I am here to seek your council. Apparently my children have fallen into Palpatine's hands and Anakin is on his way to try and save them."
Yoda sighed. "Ah, headstrong always he has been. Foolish, foolish," he added with a shake of his head.
"Can you help us?"
He made a strange sound in his throat that might have been a groan. "The darkness, unleashed it has been and doubt I do that the Emperor, the source he is. Different this is. More dangerous. Much more deadly. Prepared I have to be for that, if fail your husband should."
"He will fail, Master, if we do not intervene."
"Choices we all must make, my friend."
"Then I will go to Coruscant."
"What!" Han exclaimed. "Are you mad? Meaning no disrespect, but that is suicide!"
"Why don't you accompany me then?" she retorted coolly. "If a Jedi Master is too afraid to act then maybe an old woman will manage."
"You are not old, Padmé."
She gave Han another smile. "Such a charming young man. I almost envy Leia." He blushed at that, but sobered again immediately.
"Seriously. What do you think you can accomplish there?"
"Team up with Chi'in, make a difference."
"Underestimate her you should not, Han Solo," Yoda said with a smile. "Full of surprises she is."
"Great. At least we don't have Kell to worry about anymore."
"Kell?" The Jedi Master's long, pointed ears stood up with excitement. "Roj Kell?"
Han frowned at him. "Yes. Why? You know him?"
"Met we have."
Yoda watched the queen's face turn an angry red and he could sense her fury like a red-hot fire, ready to burn him alive.
"You knew?" she hissed and took a threatening step toward him. "You knew and you did not destroy him? How could you have been so careless!"
Inclining his head he sighed deeply. "Surprise me he did back then with his knowledge. Exceptional he is, like nothing that seen I have before." He raised his head to regard her calmly. "Destruction not always it is the solution. I am a Jedi."
Padmé pressed her lips together tightly in quiet acceptance of her misguided reasoning. She of all people had to know better.
"And he's a Sith," Han reminded him coolly.
"More than that, Solo," Yoda countered. "Know you do where he is now you do?"
"No. Chi'in claimed he'd be with Thrawn, but last we saw of the Grand Admiral's ship it was being turned into a wreck. " The Corellian stopped himself short. "You think that could have been Kell?"
"Not like him it seems, but maybe... This Chi'in, who is that?"
"A friend," Padmé inserted hastily. "Why do you ask about Kell? Could he help us now?"
Yoda laughed at that mirthlessly. "Help? Doubt that I do. Although..." Pursing his lips thoughtfully he shook his head again. "Your fleet, where is it now?"
"What is left is stationed at Vjun," Han explained grimly.
"Take me there you will." Yoda noticed the impatience flashing across Padmé's face with increasing concern. But if Roj Kell was really back, he had to ask himself why the ancient Sith had not challenged the Emperor to one of his games before. This seemed so unlike him. There were quite a few answers to this question, he knew, but the Jedi Master already had his suspicions. Looking up at the former queen, he narrowed his eyes questioningly. "Meet him you did. Tell me you must of that encounter."
Once she was finished Yoda was silent for a long time. So it was as he had suspected. Roj Kell had indeed challenged the Emperor. Apparently he had lost the fight and there could be just one reason why Palpatine had kept him alive: he knew more about Kell than the official records did. Which must have sparked a great deal of resentment on the ancient Sith's part. Yet instead of being bitter and lashing out at his enemies, he had lectured both Anakin and Padmé on balance, and again Yoda found Kell's insight astounding. What was it about him?
Suddenly the truth hit him. Force! This was even worse than he had anticipated. He was almost certain that everyone who had ever met Roj Kell must have been intrigued both by his philosophy and his resourcefulness. Just as he himself had been when he had come across the old man nearly 700 years ago.
Back then the Jedi Master had been challenged to a philosophical riddle. "What is the Dark Side?" Kell had asked him. What indeed. It was clear to him now that the ancient Sith was the source of the immense dark energy he could sense. From everything he knew about the man, this seemed very strange, for Kell never let himself get out of control. Many historians had even gone as far as to claim that indeed his self-control was his greatest power.
To his knowledge there had been only three Jedi who had ever stumbled across Roj Kell and lived to tell of their encounters: Master Jeldo, a Ho'Din who had been the first to comment on the Sith Lord's amazing skill at deception and manipulation when Kell had been captured on Dantooine and taken to Coruscant for questioning two thousand years ago. The second was a Hortek Jedi Master by the name of Kattewa. Kattewa had noted that the count of midichlorians found in the Sith Lord's blood was surprisingly low and he had suggested that using others' emotions in his favor was actually one of the fields where Kell excelled. As last in this illustrious round, Yoda found that what made the ancient Sith so special was his vast knowledge and the contradictory feelings concerning his brethren. Why it all came together now he did not know though. Something must have happened that... something to do with balance. He gave Padmé a sharp look.
"Master Yoda," she tried, her uneasiness grown into dread. "What do you make of it?"
"Tell you I must something important before leave we do," he began quietly. "Ancient the game is that your husband plays with Palpatine. Learned it Anakin has from both you and the Emperor. But suspect I do that Palpatine, learn he did from Roj Kell."
"Then Kell was his master?"
"So if you know Kell, can you give us a clue?"
He smiled at Padmé. "What is it you plan?"
"I will go to Coruscant to meet with Chi'in. Han, you will take Master Yoda to Vjun. This cannot wait." She shook her head vehemently when the Corellian opened his mouth to protest. "No, I have made my choice."
"We just have one ship," Solo told her slyly. "You'll have to come with us."
"Wrong. I will take Luke's X-wing. Now, Master Jedi, is there anything that might help us?"
"Wiser Anakin has grown and understood he has, I believe, what Lord Kell has been teaching him. When confront him you do remember this: kindness is your weapon, understanding your shield. Your heart you know better than Palpatine. Make use of that knowledge."
She bowed quickly before she gave Solo a regretful look. "I have to go. May the Force be with all of us."
Seeing Coruscant spread out before him, a glittering world full of light amidst a sea of darkness, Anakin Skywalker could not suppress his feelings. What evil awaited him here he had met before, but he knew that it was his own actions that would doom him. This time though he would be more careful. So much was at stake, more than he had anticipated.
It seemed strangely careless to let him pass the scavenged carcasses of what remained of General Dodonna's fleet and yet this could also be fully intentional, to let him see the futility of his move. He had heard the news when he had had to stop over at Kommenor to refill the tanks of his ship. So the attack had failed completely. Lorth Needa was reported dead, General Dodonna missing and no word so far of either Tomas Piett or the survivors of the rebel strike on Coruscant itself. Had he underestimated Thrawn? Probably. Still, the truth was that he had not been aware of who had been controlling the game all along. The Emperor had had ample opportunity to observe the warlords without tipping his hand and Anakin even suspected that some of his own tactics had benefited the Sith Master and had led to this catastrophe. There was no way back and none forth that would not play into Palpatine's hands somehow.
Swallowing down the bitter taste of defeat, he resolved to stay calm. He hated being used and it was time that he freed himself of these invisible bonds. His primary goal had to be saving his children, but Anakin knew that this would not be easy, if not even impossible. So he had to find something to attack that Palpatine did not expect, while pretending his concern to be elsewhere. A slow smile spread on his lips. Was attack even necessary? Not really. With the strategy he had been using so far, he could act completely defensively and let Palpatine make the moves. Chuckling softly to himself the Dark Lord shook his head in amusement.
Now let us see who has the stronger assets in this game.
Landing the ship unmolested on one of the top-priority landing pads atop the Imperial Palace, Anakin noticed the red-robed guards waiting for him first. No stormtroopers? He smiled at that. That Palpatine had sent the elite Royal Guard instead of the usual stormtroopers to receive him was telling in itself. The guardsmen's presence signalled Palpatine's new-found respect for his opponent. One Anakin did not really care for.
Disembarking from the ship he nodded at the ten guards, who did not even bother to say anything. They simply took him in their midst to escort him toward the throne room. Walking along the Dark Lord studied his surroundings attentively. There was a strange feeling in the air, one of foreboding, a feeling he thought exceptionally confusing in this place. But it was hardly comparable to what was emanating from the throne room. If the Emperor's darkness would have had any form the entire Palace would have been shrouded in a destructive whirlwind. One of the guards up front opened the huge double-doors and then the whole group went into the gloomy chamber, where evil was waiting for them.
Anakin Skywalker strode ahead unafraid, but he was careful not to meet Palpatine's eyes. Five paces away from where the first step led up to the raised dais on which the Emperor's throne was perched, he dropped to his knees and bowed deeply, his forehead almost touching the floor. He tried hard to ignore the low chuckle that lifted into the stale air softly.
"This is ridiculous, Lord Vader," Palpatine admonished him coldly. "Especially since you have exceeded my expectations by miles. Guards, leave us."
Anakin did not reply and listened to the guardsmen's footsteps die away into the distance.
"No answer from my proud apprentice?"
"Very well," the Emperor growled. "If you want to play the honorable warrior, please yourself."
That hurt. But Anakin refused to let himself be distracted. Palpatine held all the aces, but with a great deal of luck and very careful manipulation the Dark Lord could perhaps turn them against him. First though he needed more information about the Sith Master's plans, before he could work on destroying them. He picked up the soft clicking sound of approaching steps and then he could sense his opponent uncomfortably close, his long, black cloak brushing against Anakin's forehead.
"I know why you have returned. You had no choice anymore. A shame, that it was you yourself who devised this clever trap. You pretended there was a fight going on between you and the Rebel Command, a disagreement that you believed Thrawn would want to use to his advantage. A move that would have only put him in your hands, of course. A masterpiece, Lord Vader, keeping the deserted Imperial ships separate from the Rebels' own vessels. Such a multi-facetted deception it was. Somehow I believe that in the end you did lose your own way in the maze of your plan. How unfortunate."
Gritting his teeth the Dark Lord refrained from rising to the challenge. Let him do the talking, let him betray himself.
"As for Wayland..." The Emperor sighed deeply. "That was your gravest mistake. Had you realized the possibilities earlier... But of what use could that have been to you? I will tell you, since you seem to prefer to remain silent. You thought you had killed me here on Coruscant, when in reality I simply moved on to take another body, a clone. Does it all begin to make sense now? I must admit that I was tempted to destroy you immediately, but that would not have been any challenge at all, would it?"
Using a calming technique Anakin remembered Obi-Wan's cautioning words. Surrender your pride! He should have known that this would be much harder than anticipated. Besides, Palpatine knew him far too well.
"And your misguided sense of duty... Ridiculous! To leave your troops and try to force the Grand Admiral to surrender. How did you ever hope to accomplish that at all anyway? And then, what was more, you tried to undo your past mistakes in making your daughter what you wanted her mother to be. Training her in the art of war, her, a diplomat and furthermore so endearingly righteous. What you did not see at all was that you were making her a reflection of yourself. Do you remember? You were just like her when I took you as my apprentice."
"Don't you dare," Anakin hissed, unable to control his fury any longer.
"Could it be that there is still some fire left here? You almost had me worried," Palatine snorted, the contempt in his tone lashing painfully across the Dark Lord's mental shields. "Now get up. You are getting pathetic." When there was still no reaction the Sith Master dropped down in front of Anakin to cup his chin in both his hands and brutally draw his face up to meet his gaze. "You have lost," he whispered. "Accept it."
For a long moment their eyes met.
Then Palpatine let go again and rose abruptly. "Well!" he said. "I must congratulate you on your devious plan to destroy the Rebel Alliance!" He grinned openly at Anakin's perplexed expression. "You see, my friend, I know you. You have not told anyone about your plans, leaving even your allies wondering if your loyalty was for real. And it could all have worked out so well.... A shame."
"What?" Jumping to his feet the Dark Lord shook his head in disbelief. "You cannot be serious!"
"No? But we had all this planned! My disappearance, the rebels' small victories to lull them into a false sense of security, your apparent desertion, the Grand Admiral's intervention... A brilliant plan, Lord Vader. Truly worthy of my disciple."
Anakin clenched his hands into fists in helpless anger. "You are mad," he managed.
"Not at all. It is actually a very good explanation and people will accept it gladly too. Unfortunately we will have to take a few additional measures. For one, I will have to have Admiral Piett executed for his failure. He really did blunder badly, don't you think? Letting himself get captured... And then, of course, we need to reward someone too. But that is for later." He gave Anakin a long look. "You have lost your edge, my friend. Any reason for that that I should know about? Ah! Of course! Your children! How could I forget?"
"Bastard," the Dark Lord hissed viciously.
"Ah, don't despair. I should be grateful that you have given me such wonderful new apprentices to succeed you."
"If you even look at them you are dead."
"Of course. And now that we are agreed, let us proceed with something more pleasant. Your punishment."
Luke gritted his teeth against the storm of darkness that hit him completely unexpectedly. What had happened? Pain, anger and fear dominated the sea of emotions that crashed down over his head mercilessly. He could almost feel it as clearly as if it were his own. Suddenly tears sprang to his eyes when he realized what this must mean. Father had indeed returned to Coruscant. And now the Emperor would kill him.
Turning toward the door he found himself stopped short by Nuron. She held him firmly, her golden eyes unblinking.
"Don't go," was all she said.
They had been talking again, and Luke had high hopes for redeeming the young warrior, if he could just convince her that she was very special to him, and that Palpatine was using her just like any other before him.
"He is my father. I have to help him."
"If you do that I will kill you."
"Why? I am not your enemy. Nuron, and I do not understand why you would even consider Palpatine as your master."
"Lord Vader has betrayed him. For that he is being punished. And rightly so."
Luke gave her a very pointed look. "Nuron, my father was you master, right? He is the Dark Lord, and I expect that you would not deny that he is a brilliant strategist and powerful Sith. Right?"
She nodded, and the young Jedi took a deep breath. "Good. And despite all those skills the Emperor still considers him his apprentice. Doesn't that bother you?" He held his breath expectantly.
Nuron hesitated and he could see her confusion flicker across her yellow gaze. "If he were worthy he would have killed his master," she said a bit testily.
"He did, Nuron. Remember?"
Exhaling slowly Luke prayed that he had used the right logic and not just invited her to kill Anakin to prove herself. What he wanted her to realize was the difference between true mastery and the desire for merely dominating others. Her forehead creased into a frown, and with the three small knobs dotting her brow that gave her an even fiercer look.
"So what you are telling me is that the Emperor has cheated?"
To his relief she had not called him ' master' this time. He cocked his head to one side, studying her intently, trying to create a more intimate atmosphere, one of trust and caring. "In a sense. My father uses deception too, true, but not the way the Emperor does. He always leaves his opponents a way out. Only a few are smart enough to take it though."
Nuron's shoulders slumped just a fraction, but then she straightened again, her golden eyes boring into Luke's head. "I will think about this," she told him briskly and left.
Seated on her cot Leia was wondering if she was ever going to see a living soul again. For days now she had been locked up in this small cell, with no contact to anyone except the security droids. To her relief she had been able to pick up Luke's presence again and so far he seemed to be all right. Now though everything was changing. She had sensed the darkness approach her time and again, her bitterness over having lost her team, her friends, and maybe her brother. There was no telling what kind of trouble Han had run into either. And she hated not knowing what was going on. All in all she decided that she had to be very careful indeed.
When suddenly the door slid open she was eager to see who was calling. Two red-robed guards stood in the entrance and one beckoned her to leave her cell. She complied without a word, wondering what this was about.
What awaited her in the Emperor's throne room though made her choke with fear and dread. Apart from more guards Palpatine was standing amidst his councilors, but when she entered he turned around to give her a cold smile.
"Ah, there she is. Very good. Prepare the recording."
One of the guards shoved Leia forward, until she stood a little behind the Emperor. A bright light lit up suddenly, blinding her.
"We are ready, Your Majesty."
It took only a few moments and then everything was over again. Slightly bewildered Leia shook her head, trying to understand what had happened at all. A recording? What recording?
"You seem surprised, my dear," she heard Palpatine whisper before he took her left arm and led her over to his throne, where he sat her down unceremoniously. When she tried to rise again his hands pushed her down once more. "No. You will stay. And watch."
Leia felt her uneasiness increase by an incredible margin and the Emperor's close presence fueled her fear even more. In an instance though the huge holoscreen came to life and the princess almost forgot to breathe. She saw herself standing behind Palpatine, not the younger version who was now looming over her, but his alter ego, shriveled skin forming a benevolent smile while his hood hid sickly yellow eyes. More shocking than this though was Darth Vader flanking his master like a dutiful bodyguard. It was a rendering, had to be, but it looked frighteningly real. And then the Palpatine on screen began to speak.
"A great triumph for order and justice had been won by none other than my trusted second, Lord Vader, against the unruly forces that threatened to destroy the peace we have had so hard to fight for.
Only three days ago an attempt to seize the government has been thwarted thanks to Lord Vader's excellent timing. I can safely announce that this rebellion is over once and for all."
She let the rest of the announcement drone over her head disinterestedly, too devastated even to notice the Emperor's quiet laughter. This was a disaster. Not only had Palpatine managed to paint the Alliance as complete and utter fools with nothing but childish rebellion in mind, but he had also severed what little trust Mon Mothma had had in Father. If they learned about this so-called brilliant deception they would gladly believe it. Especially with the strike against Coruscant blunted just after Father had left to supposedly meet with Thrawn. Had he really intended to meet with the Grand Admiral, they must then ask themselves, or had he traveled straight to Coruscant to rejoin his master and deceive them? The sometimes cold-hearted tactics, especially the fake attacks on civilian worlds, would lead them to just one conclusion: that he had indeed betrayed them, from the very beginning. That Leia had been presented as helpless prisoner would only serve to deepen their ha! tred.
"And the best thing is that it has been your father himself, who has handed me this little propaganda tool. Unintentionally, of course."
"Where is he now?" she managed at last.
"Thinking about his mistakes, I hope," Palpatine replied softly. "No, little princess, he is not dead. Yet. I can feel your curiosity. You wonder why?" Leia nodded. There was no sense pretending, after all. "Very well," he explained. "In a game there are always two players who control the board, am I right?"
"Undoubtedly you assumed that it were in fact your father and the Grand Admiral who were pulling the strings on either side. And there you are mistaken." Straightening from his hunched position he walked around the throne to stare at the now inactivate screen. "My adversary is good, a master at the game, and what is more, he has taught me everything I know about it."
"You want to confront him?"
"Ah, you see, there lies the problem. He is not someone who lets others dictate his actions. But somehow I sense that this time he will have no choice. Undoubtedly he expects Lord Vader to try and destroy me. For that he will come, if only to observe. And then I can strike."
"Why not strike now?"
"He has gone to ground. I hear that the Grand Admiral was almost killed trying to ensnare him on Nar Shadaa."
"A shame your friend did not succeed there," Leia said bluntly.
"Thrawn will return to Coruscant very soon to renew his allegiance to me. And then he will finish your friends, wherever they may be hiding." Turning toward her Palpatine smiled brightly. "All of them, princess."
Leia hung her head, her determination gone in an instance, shattered by the terrible truth. Slumped in the over-sized throne she only wanted to crawl somewhere dark and forget about her part in bringing this catastrophe to be. Suddenly a vision flashed across her inner eye, the memory of a dream long forgotten. Was this how her mother had been broken? By blaming her for her husband's fall? Had she lost her friends too, as she had lost her family to the need for survival? She had had to give her children to strangers to raise, had to watch Anakin turn into a killer, a traitor to the Jedi Order. But she was not her mother.
Raising her head slowly Leia met Palpatine's gaze, forcing herself to remain calm and composed.
"A deception is only as good as its initiator. If you cannot keep control of it, it will destroy you."
"You think so? And who would destroy me? You?" He laughed out loud. "No. I am in control. Now and for ever."
Settling the Millennium Falcon into the landing slots on board the star cruiser Destiny, Han was very quick to power the ship down and leave the cockpit. On their way to port they had seen a lot of activity going on around Vjun, and that could only mean bad news. He, Chewie and Master Yoda were directed to the warship's debriefing room where Alliance Command was already waiting for their report.
"Captain Solo," Mon Mothma greeted him with a nod. "Chewbacca. Yoda?" She gave the tiny alien a startled look, then rose from her seat to give him a respectful bow. "Master Yoda! This is indeed a pleasant surprise!"
"Thank you. Talk we must at once."
"You are right. But first I must show you something that was broadcast over the holonet just a few hours ago."
The room fell dark and the newcomers had barely time to take their seats before the recording started. Han sat watching with his mouth hanging open, and when the lights went on again he could see grim faces all around.
"Unfortunate this is," the Jedi Master stated regretfully.
"Unfortunate does not even begin to describe it," the Alliance leader countered drily. "We do not have one single commander who could stand against either Lord Vader or else the Grand Admiral. And we will have to evacuate immediately. But first, what to do about all this?"
Yoda shook his head slowly. "A warrior I am not, but help you I will, if possible. So, sentenced you have him already?"
"I realize that this is a lot to ask, but if you went to Coruscant-"
"For what? Change, come it must from the heart, not the point of a sword."
She nodded gravely. "You are right," Mon Mothma sighed. "But all of our assets have been taken from us. I do not see any light that could guide us, apart from you."
"Untrue this is. Your assets, moved they have been to where they should be."
"Are you serious?"
"Yes. But right you are too. Someone to counter the darkness we need. Who know does the rules of survival."
"You know someone like that?"
Han groaned, already guessing at who the Jedi Master might mean. Just then the door burst open and a startled guard was thrown into the room as Wrenga Jixton rushed inside, looking the worst for wear.
"We have a problem," he announced.
Han gave him a sour look. "You don't say."
"There's a Sith Lord loose and he's already wrecked Thrawn's flagship."
"Good!" Han cheered.
"Not good," Yoda injected. "Talk you do about Roj Kell?"
"Yeah," Jix frowned at the alien. "Who're you?" Then apparently the somber mood hit him too. "What happened?"
They told him. Two hours later he and Master Yoda left for destination unknown to recruit a decidedly devious strategist for their cause. Han wished them good luck before he and Chewbacca took the Falcon out and headed for Coruscant. They had to move fast now to make a difference and he would be damned if he would leave Leia in that despot's clutches. Besides, Padmé and her Sith bodyguard might need some assistance too.
Lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling of his prison Anakin Skywalker was seething with a fire fueled by hatred and humiliation. He had gotten himself caught, never realizing the truth, always pushing it away, telling himself that he need not concern himself with it just then. Now though he could not turn away from it anymore. All of his schemes and plans had evaporated like mist in the morning suns of Tatooine in the face of Palpatine's reasoning. The Sith Master had turned his own allies against him in the matter of a heart-beat and he had not even had to lift a finger to do it, that Anakin had made sure of himself. All the time he had known that his hand must remain unseen to keep the Alliance form being tainted by his darkness. But he had been foolish to assume that his deeds would not condemn them. He was responsible for their deaths, for Needa's sacrifice, for Piett's imminent execution, even for Nuron's betrayal. It had been his fault, his ambition, his pride, that had brought certain doom to his own children. All the while he had deluded himself, telling himself that he was walking the line between darkness and light, while in reality each step he took had brought him closer to the Dark Side. He had chosen wrong again.
He pounded the floor with his right hand in impotent anger. How could you have been so foolish? To return to Coruscant, charging straight into Palpatine's trap like an idiot. He had believed that he had had the game under control while it had been Palpatine who had used him like a puppet on a string in his own scheme. And even when he had learned of the twins' capture he had believed himself to be invincible. But he was not. That was what he had to learn the hard way.
It was a lesson he could not afford though. Not now. Everything hung in the balance and the scales were tipping toward disaster rapidly. If he could not do something, everything he had lived for would be lost. Remembering Roj Kell's words he tried to calm himself once more. No, there was a way back. Had to be. But what was he to do? The Alliance would not trust him any longer and Palpatine held his life in his hands. There was no escape. Closing his eyes in dismay he took a deep breath and gave himself over to the pain he had held at bay for so long. He had lost. Everything.
As the walls he had erected to shield himself against Palpatine's darkness crumbled he let his fury flow freely in an effort to let it bleed from his mind and finding the light again.
Skirting the edges of the Dark Lord's awareness, Darth Sidious carefully fueled the other's anger with memories Lord Vader had buried in the deepest depths of his heart to erase his weaknesses. The Sith Master supplied the images Anakin Skywalker thought long forgotten, rekindling the fire that had broken the former Jedi Knight before. And this time the danger was even more real, with the twins in his grasp and his allies turned into foes. He knew that Vader had been surprised by his precise analysis of his scheme that had left no room for any deception or evasive action. Sidious created a cocoon of despair that shrouded his one-time apprentice like an invisible blanket, one that seemed natural in his situation and one the man would never realize was there until if was far too late. Still, one last piece was missing to make this trap perfect. But the Emperor had a suspicion that this would change very soon.
"Your Majesty, we have picked up a transmission from the surface, encoded."
"You have traced the source?" Sidious asked quietly without turning around to face his aide.
"Yes, Your Majesty. And we have identified the man who sent the transmission. General Dodonna, of the Rebel Alliance."
"Very good. He would not have known that we allowed him to escape. I can just about guess at what he transmitted to his friends. You have the target?"
"Vjun, Your Majesty."
"Of course. Clever, that. Well, Dodonna's usefulness has ended. Have him eliminated at once."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Another thing. The Grand Admiral will arrive in approximately two standard hours."
"Excellent. Bring him to me immediately upon his arrival."
So, everything was in place. Thrawn would finish the rebellion and until then the Sith Master would have regained control over his most deadly weapon. Soon, very soon.
It had been ages that she had last been to Coruscant and to come here at a time like this should have shaken her to the bone. But Padmé was strangely calm. She felt needed in a way she had not felt in years. Smiling a bit she remembered the curious sensation of wearing her son's flight suit and helmet. It was a kind of intimacy that she had missed as a mother, and now that Luke was grown it seemed almost uncomfortable, but in another way also elating. As if somehow she had still managed to capture some of the things she should have shared with him during his childhood and missed.
Artoo had guided her through the unfamiliar flight controls of the X-wing, and the moves had started to come back on their own once she had had to navigate space around Coruscant. No one had bothered her, a fact she found slightly unsettling. Luke's ship should be known throughout the Navy, shouldn't it? But the only ships that had come close to her had been an ancient Sjuvan freighter and a slim starfighter whose type she had not recognized. They had come in on the same entrance vector she had taken and vanished into the underground of Coruscant, amidst busy lanes she had not dared to venture into. She was a good pilot, but badly out of practice.
Now, dressed in her dark-red uniform and wrapped in a drab brown cloak, she had drawn the garment's hood deep into her face. Just in case. Her disguise seemed to be working though. She was jostled and bumped around like anyone else walking the less spectacular streets of the capital. A light drizzle filled the air and Padmé kept her head down carefully, imitating the other passersby. Therefore she did not harbor the least suspicion when a short figure stumbled into her. He mumbled an apology, his small, clawed hands patting her arms apologetically. Padmé stepped back, torn between disgust and surprise. And then she noticed the leather wrapped around his wrists and the black tunic flashing from underneath his robe.
"Do you need help?" she asked quickly.
Nodding, he let her guide him toward a quiet corner where he dropped down on his haunches and drew back the hood of his cloak a fraction, just enough for her to recognize the prominent jaw and sharp teeth. "You are hard to find," Chi'in admitted, his voice tinged with amusement.
"I had a lot of practice there," Padmé answered with a smile. "Are you alone?"
He shook his head. "No. I am no fool, my lady."
"I am sorry." Chastised, she cast her eyes down, then gave him a questioning glance.
"He is suffering," Chi'in whispered. "But he is strong, very strong."
"Can we be quick enough?"
"Do we have another choice?"
Two hours later they met up with the rest of his team and, seeing them, Padmé had the nasty suspicion that the Sjuvan and its companion had not turned up by chance, but had in fact escorted her safely down to the surface. Naas Deron was grinning at her openly, but Puket and Cronn wore more somber expressions. All three wore nondescript clothing, but one could easily see their warrior training in their stance. Four deadly allies. What better back-up could she have? Padmé smiled at them gratefully.
"I am so thankful for your assistance."
"We haven't won yet," Naas Deron admonished her, but a sharp gesture from his master made him fade into the background again. They had come together in a small alley and all four of them knew that they could be detected at any moment. But Chi'in was handling their situation magnificently. While he explained their plan of attack to Padmé, Cronn and Puket stood watch.
"Since we cannot spare anyone to stage a distraction we will have to go in there now. We have two possibilities. Lady Vader," he took her hands urgently, "we cannot split up. The danger is too great. You have to choose."
"Or else your husband. Yes."
Padmé squeezed hard, oblivious to the sharp claws digging into her flesh. What was she to do? But in reality she knew that there had always been just one choice.
"Save my children," she whispered and pressed a hand on the Noghri's forehead affectionately. "Please." Wiping away her tears she turned away.
"My lady! You cannot go there alone!"
Padmé looked back at him over her shoulder, her dark eyes full of determination. "I can and I will. Do not try to hold me back."
She stepped into the gloom gingerly, but the door slamming shut behind her took the decision of whether to advance or retreat from her with a cruel finality. There was not much light in the tiny room, but she could just make out a crumpled form lying next to the single bunk. Anakin. His bald head, scarred and pasty-white, reflected the light like a star or moon in the darkness surrounding him. For a long moment Padmé just stood there, watching him, and she found that he had never looked more beautiful. There was a calm serenity to his aura that exuded from his very core, a brightness that had withstood everything Palpatine had thrown at him so far, one even she could see without the aid of the Force. She held her breath, trying to not disturb his rest. But even her own heartbeat seemed too loud in her ears. When she stepped up to him and dropped down next to his sleeping form, Padmé reached out slowly to trace the length of his jaw until her fingers rested l! ightly against his scarred cheek.
Padmé sighed deeply, shaking her head in dismay. Anakin, she called softly in her mind, willing him to wake up. When he refused to do so she leaned closer, brushing a hand over his closed eyes, wishing he would only look at her. "Anakin," she whispered softly, knowing that he could not hear her. But then, suddenly, silent tears began flowing from his eyes, over his face, covering it with a wet tattoo. Padmé stared at him, transfixed, then wrapped her arms around his torso affectionately and pressed her lips into the curve where his left shoulder met his neck.
She had seen him stand his ground against Roj Kell on Nar Shadaa, as always in control and willing to risk everything. That man had been a stranger to her. Now though, as he lay there sleeping in her arms she remembered him as he had been before he became a warrior. Why did he not wake up? Had Palpatine managed to break him after all? For a moment her eyelids fluttered as despair overcame her senses. When he raised his head muzzily, woken from his deep slumber, her heart leapt higher. Looking deep into his eyes Padmé found that she could walk those blue glaciers forever without ever tiring of the sight, that there was no end to their depths. And indeed, he was so much more than met the eye.
"Did you miss me?" she asked, her voice muffled against his clothing.
"How did you get here?"
"Simple. I knocked at the door and told them that I wanted to see you."
"You are out of your mind, Padmé."
"Yes. I married you. Clear sign of insanity in the early stage," she quipped and pulled his face up to kiss him. They held each other for a long time and Padmé realized just how much she had missed being this close to him. Finally though he disengaged from her embrace, his face very earnest.
"Why did you take this risk?"
"Because I did not want to leave you alone again."
"Palpatine will use you to break me."
"He can certainly try."
"No," she put a hand on his mouth to silence him and was delighted when he kissed her palm tenderly. "You and me are together. There is nothing that could part us now."
Anakin sighed. "You are right." Stroking her left cheek slowly he smiled at her. "You are my strength, my power, all that I need. And I love you."
"I thought I would never hear you say that again," she whispered and closed her eyes when his lips touched hers once more.
"That is quite enough." Walking into the room Palpatine made an impatient gesture and immediately five red-clad guards followed him and crowded into the small cell.
Anakin half-rose from his seat, but to his surprise Padmé pushed him down again and shook her head. She stood up proudly, unafraid, and again he could not but admire her courage. In that Leia was so much like her. But what did she think she was doing? Anakin felt his heart clench and his stomach churn. He was afraid. Afraid for her.
A malicious smile appeared on the Emperor's lips and he nodded toward the former queen slowly. Only then did the Dark Lord notice that Palpatine had decayed over the past days. His youth was faltering, and he was using a walking cane to support himself. Looking up sharply Anakin frowned. So fast? What was going on?
"General Dodonna has undoubtedly confirmed the Alliance Command's suspicions concerning your betrayal, Lord Vader."
"He is here?"
"Not anymore. He had to leave quite - urgently."
Compressing his lips tightly Anakin let his frown deepen and rose. But before he could join Padmé, two of the guards blocked his way. He raised his eyebrows contemptuously, preparing to push past them, when the hard knob of Palpatine's cane came down hard on his right elbow.
"Don't even think about it," the man told him coldly. "You think you can play the hero? No way. Your reputation is ruined and even if you should get out of here alive your deeds will still come back to destroy you. So you see, resistance is futile."
"Empty threats, Palpatine. What do you really want?"
The Emperor crossed his hands on his back and smiled coldly. "You know, Lord Vader, you remind me of an old friend. Roj Kell also has a knack for annoying others no end."
"Especially you, I take it. So what have you planned to do about him?"
"Let me tell you something about Lord Kell. He is the only being who has seen the rise and fall of the Sith and the Jedi. His knowledge knows no limits, but his power does. Do you remember the prophecy about the Chosen One?"
"How could I forget?"
"How indeed. If you succeed in your predestined task, he will perish. So you see, he will do anything to prevent your success. Balance is not something he can afford and I most certainly do not crave balance. No matter what he does, Kell will play into my hands, because he has to."
"What are you trying to tell me?"
"You will die, no doubt about that, whether at my hands or his will not matter. But this game is between me and him. And I will emerge victorious."
"You will not succeed."
"Look who is resorting to empty threats now," the Emperor purred. "You have been betrayed and you have lost. There is no escape for you. Ever."
Anakin stared at him, his eyes blinded by the truth. What bothered him more though was that Palpatine had used almost the exact words that Roj Kell had used on Nar Shadaa, trying to get the Dark Lord to join him. In sudden revelation his eyes flicked over to look at Padmé and saw realization dawn on her face too. Instinctively she tried to get away, but a giant fist picked her up from the floor and smashed her tiny body against the doorframe. The sound of cracking bones made Anakin feel sick to his stomach.
"No!" he screamed, his brain frozen with icy dread for precious seconds.
Launching himself forward he felt tears spring to his eyes when Palpatine brought his cane up and the sharp, metal-reinforced end caught the Dark Lord's chest, boring through his skin and into the artificial lungs effortlessly. Withdrawing the weapon the Emperor smiled. Anakin stumbled and fell to his knees just a few paces away from his wife. Her eyes were closed and blood was running down her left temple. He could not see her breathe. "Padmé," he whispered and reached out to touch her dry, white lips. The blow that shattered his right hand came as a complete surprise. Staring at the torn skin and broken circuitry Anakin felt the memories smash back into his heart, tearing it apart with sharp claws of guilt and fear. His own wheezing hung awfully loud in his ears.
"You are mine, Skywalker. My creation. Don't you see? You will not escape your destiny."
"No," Anakin repeated, but this time in a whisper.
"Come on. Fight me. Maybe you can still save her."
"I will not."
Striding past him Palpatine bent down brusquely, his breath caressing Anakin's numb cheeks. "Coward," he hissed and brought the cane down on the woman lying helplessly before him once more.
Moving in a lightning flash Anakin intercepted the blow, feeling his right shoulder-blade break under it. But he could accept the pain as long as Padmé survived. Anakin gritted his teeth. It was awfully hard to find his focus through the red haze of agony. "If you want me dead, why am I still alive? There is something else on your mind."
"You are right, Lord Vader. There is indeed something. But tell me, why do you choose to play the role of the valiant knight?" Leaning forward Palpatine let the corners of his mouth curl into something resembling a smile. "It does not suit you," he hissed.
"We all choose the masks we wear, but the question is what lies underneath. You are awfully simple to read, Your Majesty," Anakin hissed. "You hide nothing at all."
"Then why not get down to the real thing?"
"You want to kill me?
"No. I want to break you."
"Again. I see." The Dark Lord rose again slowly and straightened up to meet the Emperor's furious gaze. "Here I am. Try your worst."
"With the greatest pleasure."
Overseeing the pair of medics who laid the queen's body on a stretcher to carry her out of the tiny room, Darth Sidious threw a pensive glance at the other recumbent figure lying in one corner of the cell. The brighter the light, the deeper the fall into darkness. His master had lectured him on that a long time ago, and it had worked here too. By giving his captive the tiniest glimpse of light he increased his hopes of escape, making the disappointment over his failure all the more painful. The method required patience and control, but the Sith Master had both now. He would make the Dark Lord try to reach the light while in reality each try would drag him deeper into the Dark Side. The delicious thing about this was that Anakin Skywalker remembered the first time he had been broken, and was still helpless once more, despite his experience. It is the past that defeats us, Roj Kell had told his student sternly when he had failed to grasp a lesson because he ha! d used a pattern that had worked in a similar situation, but that he should have known would fail at the task at hand. He had been right. Unfortunately the old man was right about a lot of things.
Pursing his lips thoughtfully the Emperor caressed the bloodied handle of his walking cane. He could feel the excesses take their toll on his body as he used more and more of his power to control the Dark Lord and fight his defenses. Soon now he would need to take another clone body, but before that he had to succeed in breaking Vader to his will again. To do so he would have to redirect the other's hatred at his former allies, at his enemies, at Roj Kell.
"Keep me posted on her recovery," he told the medics when they straightened from their task.
"Yes, sir," one of them answered and worked the control on the repulsor sled to get it moving. Steering it out of the room he closed the door behind him quietly.
Darth Sidious took five quick strides until he had reached his quarry's side once more. The Dark Lord did not stir and he could sense that he was still unconscious. His breathing came ragged through the crippled machinery that had once been artificial lungs and now was not much more than wrecked circuitry. Not lethal, but extremely weakening, even for a Jedi as adept as Anakin Skywalker was. With the lack of oxygen his brain would fight his will in an effort to save his body from withering away. Another struggle that would nag at the man's resolve and doom him eventually.
Rising from his crouch slowly, the Sith Master smiled. Good. Now for the remaining rebels. The Grand Admiral was undoubtedly waiting for him already.
It had been four hours since he had been told to see the Emperor. He had been made to wait for four hours. Not that he did not have the patience, but these were dire circumstances. There was an urgency even he could feel and in all his years as a warrior the Grand Admiral had come to trust his hunches. On a similar hunch he had ordered Mara to stay aboard the Chimaera. Surprisingly no one had commented on that. He wondered briefly what the Emperor would do to her if she ever dared to come under his eyes again. She had betrayed her master, joined the enemy even. But Thrawn vowed to himself that he would not let her come to any harm. She was an excellent asset and one of the best aides he had ever had under his command, apart from Tomas Piett. What was more, she had remained true to her word when she had told him that she was on his side back on Hoth. His comm interrupted his musings and he self-consciously cupped a hand over the mike to dampen the volume.
"Admiral," it was Mara, her voice sounding terse. "There's been another call. Can you speak freely?"
"All right. The probes you ordered to Duro and Gyndine confirmed the news. The rebel fleet at Duro has been completely annihilated. But apparently the retrieval teams haven't been very thorough. At least one of the rebels survived."
"They undoubtedly launched escape pods. Who is the survivor?"
The Grand Admiral hissed his annoyance. "I hadn't been told that."
"Maybe that means that no one else knows either."
"Maybe. He called you?"
"I wonder how he knew where to reach you."
"I have no idea, yet."
He smiled at the determination in her voice. "Very good. You will go to Duro and pick him up. Then proceed to Vjun and meet the Chimaera there."
"You think the Emperor will send you there?"
"Without a doubt."
"You have your orders, Jade. Carry them out."
Breaking the connection Thrawn eyed the red-robed guard nearing him cautiously. "Admiral, the Emperor will see you now."
"Thank you," he answered and followed the man briskly.
They entered the throne room together and then the Grand Admiral walked up to the steps leading to the throne itself on his own. Bowing deeply he was very conscious of more guards standing watch behind him. Palpatine was studying him intently, his formerly youthful features already sagging with age. It was unsettling to see that the clone was decaying so quickly.
"Ah, my friend. Rise, please."
Thrawn complied and met the other's gaze. "Your orders?"
"You will wipe out the remaining rebel ships and their troops. Currently they are hiding at Vjun, but I am convinced that they will not stay there for much longer. You will hunt them down."
"Good." There was a lengthy pause. "Where do you stand, Admiral?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know exactly what I mean. Lord Vader chose to betray me, as did Mara Jade. I want to know if you are still loyal to me."
"I would hardly have returned if I were anything but loyal," Thrawn replied, slightly appalled.
"Lord Vader also returned."
"You do not want to know what I did to him?"
"That information is of no importance to my task ahead."
"A clever answer. You are right. It does not concern you. Very well. I would be most disappointed if you lied to me. You know that."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Mara Jade is with you?"
He had expected this. "I sent her on a mission just a few moments ago."
"So I have noticed. Let me give you some advice, Admiral. Do not seek to change other people's destinies. It is laudable that you want to protect her. As I understand it she has served you well. But she betrayed me. And for that she will pay."
"I hope so, Admiral. Now, let me not keep you."
"With permission," the Grand Admiral said quietly and turned around to leave. Keeping his mind carefully blank he returned to the landing pad where his shuttle was still waiting for him. Two hours later the Chimaera had left the system on its way to Vjun.
"I am not certain if this was a wise move," Lorth Needa told his companions with a frown. He did not trust the Grand Admiral, and Mara even less, but he knew that he would have to take the risk. After all, he did not really have anything to lose. By pure chance he had managed to escape his hunters on Duro, until he had run into the two men who were keeping him company right now. The taller of the pair, dressed completely in black, his dark hair hanging into his face to almost hide icy blue eyes was definitely the more dangerous of the two. The other, small, with short-cut black hair and old-fashioned glasses perched on the bridge of his nose, had been very silent so far. Needa gave the man another scrutinizing look that the other returned blankly.
"Lord Vader knows what he is doing," the taller man replied coolly." He has anticipated that this might happen. Everything hinges on the Grand Admiral now."
"You are right." Saying those words felt strangely satisfactory. As if a great weight had just been lifted from his shoulders.
"Of course I am. Now. You will wait here for this Jade to pick you up. We will move on to Coruscant."
"Yes. Good luck to you."
They nodded at him, then turned around to leave, but the Captain could not shed a frown. Something was screaming at him to gain his attention, but his mind felt too fuzzy to pay it any heed. Strange. He could not even remember their names.
"Are you sure this is the right place?"
Jix' right hand was hovering over the handle of his blaster while his eyes kept tracking the shadows. He had seen first-hand what Roj Kell was capable of and somehow this controlled fury was so much more frightening than Vader's occasional temper tantrums. Shifting his gaze toward the tiny alien walking ahead of him he told himself that with the Jedi Master around they both had a reasonable chance at surviving. He still did not understand why Yoda had been so certain about Debelan. It felt strange being back here again, where everything had started. The Dark Lord's decision to betray the Emperor seemed like a half-forgotten memory, things had happened so fast since then. But Jix had always lived fast.
When the Jedi Master suddenly stopped, leaning heavily on his walking stick, his eyes fixed ahead and to the right, the Corellian tensed ever so slightly. And then he saw him too. Half hidden by one of the great pillars someone was watching them calmly. Unholstering his blaster Jix switched it off safety cautiously, his eyes still locked on the old man's black-clad figure. In the gloom he fancied a mocking smile on Roj Kell's lips, but when Master Yoda started walking toward their quarry, Jix was once more completely focused on the task ahead.
As they came closer, circling the pillar at a respectful distance, the ancient Sith's eyes alone followed them. And when he came into their view fully the Corellian realized why: the stone seemed to be the only thing that was keeping Kell upright. So it was true what Yoda has said: Roj Kell was dying. He frowned at the old man. This was the first time he had ever come up close to another Sith Lord apart from Darth Vader. And there could not have been a starker contrast. The only similarity was their height. As tall as the Dark Lord, Roj Kell was much leaner, almost haggard, and, of course, a lot older. A great deal older, if what Master Yoda had told him about the man was true. Closing his pale eyes briefly the old man sank to the floor, his back against the cool stone wall, his legs crossed neatly in front of him.
"So you have found me," he stated calmly, his voice sending shivers down Jix' spine as it filled the vast silence of the chamber with an eerie melody and unsettling echoes. Unconsciously his arm dropped to hang loosely at his side, the weapon held in his hand completely forgotten. Staring at Roj Kell the Corellian found that he could not move at all, as if his mind and body had been frozen in place. Master Yoda though did not seemed to be fazed by the magic of this voice at all. Taking a few steps closer to the Sith the Jedi Master cocked his head to the left and looked at the other pensively.
"A long time think I did what to do with you if ever meet again we should," Yoda began, his voice sounding awfully small and brittle.
Kell shrugged. "Really? Have you also thought about what I told you back then?"
"The darkness and the light."
"Yes." Leaning forward to meet the tiny alien's eyes the tall Sith smiled coldly. "It is both, Master Yoda. That is true balance. A balance you could never achieve."
Jix raised his eyebrows in surprise. To hear those words out of a Sith's mouth was truly astounding.
Heaving a sigh, Roj Kell extended a hand toward his opponent and nodded very slowly. "Come closer. I know you are not afraid of me." He could feel the pressure increasing so very subtly and yet so deadly. The light was raging against his mental shields like a wild ocean spurred on by an unrelenting storm. Soon now there would be nothing to hold on to anymore.
The Jedi Master raised his head ever so slightly. "The Jedi, sentence you they did to die a long time ago. Hesitate I do to carry out that sentence."
A tiny smile crept onto the ancient Sith's lips as he pondered this ridiculous comment. Finally the smile turned into a malicious snarl. "Don't hesitate, Master Yoda. Because, you see, I never will."
In response to this threat Jixton moved to hover protectively at the Jedi's side. As if he could be of any use in the alien's defense. It was intriguing though that Vader's agent was now assisting the Jedi Master. Cautioning the Corellian with a sharp gesture Yoda returned Kell's gaze steadily.
"Misunderstand you do, I believe, my motives," he said.
"And what if?"
"Rethink you must your choices."
"Why? Ultimately they were mine to make. Do not think I did not consider the consequences." He could hardly hear his own words anymore over the buzzing noises that filled his head. It was so hard to focus now, so tiring.
"Regret them you do. I can feel it."
"A bad conscience? No, Master Yoda. You are the only one with regrets here. You scold yourself for having missed your chance at killing me. Do you blame yourself now, for having let me survive? For having allowed me to create the monster that destroyed the Jedi?"
Stiffening slightly Yoda paused for a moment before he nodded in acquiescence. "Truth you speak. And yet a lie it is too. Care you did not and unpunished you could not hope to remain."
"So you will punish me now? How charming. But you will have to catch me first."
The moment before the battle began Yoda let out an annoyed gasp. He had not expected this to be easy, but when Kell's smile faded on his lips and his eyes closed again, he struck without thinking. There was no chance of breaking through the ancient Sith's mental defenses, that he knew, so he had to catch him when he left their protection to join the flow of the Force. If he could corner him there he would win.
For a moment Yoda was close to panicking, when he could not feel Kell's presence anymore, but then, just at the edge of his awareness, he thought he could sense something move. Yoda froze. He was going to attack! In hindsight it seemed the obvious choice, an element of surprise. Still, as he prepared to defend himself the presence skipped away again, rapidly vanishing out of his grasp. Lashing out almost desperately the Jedi Master brushed past the ancient one's awareness ever so slightly and could feel some surprise at his speedy response. Following Kell's presence he was racing the thin border between darkness and light, between doom and fulfillment. Strangely enough the other seemed to hesitate to seek cover inside chaos again. And the Jedi Master finally understood. About the balance, about the ancient Sith's words. Focusing more power on his target he sent a small prayer to the Force, hoping that he was doing the right thing in keeping Kell from leaving the board bef! ore the game was over.
Forgive me you must.
He severed the connection before it could overwhelm him and opened his eyes again slowly. Jix was poised for action, his blaster trained on the Sith Lord. Lying on his side Kell was shivering slightly while Yoda monitored his emotions as discreetly as he could, under these circumstances.
Being dragged back into his own body before he could cross the border toward eternal oblivion, Roj Kell found himself thrown into an icy hailstorm of shock and dread. This was not happening! Fighting all the way he tried to hold on to his anger, but the light pouring past his mental shields made it impossible for him to maintain the fury that would at least have allowed him to strike at Yoda. Instead he felt himself carried along helplessly. In a mind-shattering instance he knew that he had lost this fight so completely that he would not even be granted a chance to bow out in grace. No, he was truly caught and this time no deception would be able to disguise his game. The Jedi Master's white-hot presence bolstered the flow of the Force pouring through Kell fully for the first time in three thousand years, but he did not want that sort of assistance, even though he knew that without it he would perish for certain. He tried one last time to break free again, but he should n! ot have bothered.
Coming to with a loud gasp he needed a moment before he could see clearly again, and found himself staring right down the barrel of Jixton's blaster. Beyond the Corellian he could see Yoda look at him curiously. Moving very slowly Roj Kell raised his head to meet his adversary's gaze.
"You should have let me go," he whispered. Yoda shook his head.
"Wonder you did not why not kill you I did all those years ago?"
"Actually, no," Kell wheezed and managed a smile. But his entire body felt numb, as if he had been burned inside out.
"Different you were, someone special."
"Special? I am nothing special."
"So modest. I know differently. No Sith you are," Yoda stated quietly.
"I am Sith!" Roj Kell roared and his indignation hit the Jedi Master full force. But there had been a hint of something more. Anger, despair and a deep loneliness. "Damn you, Jedi," he added in a hiss between gritted teeth. "You have twisted this around so much that even I cannot remember the truth anymore."
"Not much difference there is between you and me."
"Seek to guide others we both do. A different path you have chosen though."
Kell stared at him in disbelief. "I do not understand."
"Balance you teach, yet lost you have it a long time ago yourself." This time there definitely was a reaction, and a very strong one too. Mostly hurt and even more regret. Yoda fought against the flood of images that lanced toward him, but the bond he had established with the ancient Sith was hard to control.
"It was a sacrifice I made to survive."
"Give up you did life in turn. And life, what is it if not survival?"
"I never gave up life," Kell replied coldly and Yoda sensed that he had just made a mistake. Heaving himself upright, the ancient Sith rose to his full height. "And don't try to tell me that I have wasted three thousand years."
Yoda brought up his hands defensively, wincing at the sudden roaring fire that blossomed in Kell's mind. "Agree you will that accomplish you did not what achieve you wanted."
"And what did I want to achieve?" the ancient Sith growled. "Can you tell me, maybe?"
Examining the maze of thoughts and emotions spread out before him, Yoda admitted defeat. This was too complex an answer to ponder right now. And they did not have the time either. "Know best you do what I mean," he said quickly. "But choose you cannot anymore."
"No. If balance truly is the essence of life, of the Force, as survival is a balance between life and death, turn away you cannot from our plight."
"You need my help." Roj Kell barked a short, disbelieving laugh. Then he shook his head with malicious joy. "I am honored. So far the Jedi never cared for my lessons."
"Important this is, more important than anything before."
Again the Sith Lord's emotions leapt over the thin border separating them and turned the Jedi Master's heart to ice. "You have no idea," the ancient one whispered, "what is important and what is not."
"So help you will not?"
Roj Kell shrugged and his lips twitched in a mirthless smile. "You have just taken my life from me. Since you saved it once I suppose this was your right. We are even now."
Yoda gave the other a quizzical glance. "Your decision?"
Jix pressed his lips together in annoyance. He did not have a clue what had just happened, all he did know was that they were wasting their time. Propping his hands on his hips he cleared his throat to get the Jedi Master's attention.
"Listen," he began. "we did not come here to swap old stories." He almost flinched when Yoda and Kell turned their heads toward him in unison, two pairs of eyes drilling into his head, one dark and luminous, the other dead and icy cold.
"Right you are," Yoda sighed, then looked up at the Sith once more. "Please," he said, and for a moment even Jix felt the importance of this moment. The expression that crossed Roj Kell's face was one of utter amazement, then his shoulders slumped ever so slightly.
"I will help you. But my way. Do not force me to follow your path, Master Yoda. You do not understand nearly enough for that."
The Jedi Master quirked a small smile and nodded. "Agreed we are then. Come."
Following the pair Jix felt strangely on edge. This all seemed so unreal. He could not believe that he was out here instead of doing something, like beating the crap out of some stormtroopers. Maybe he should have gone to Coruscant with Solo. Unfortunately the Jedi Master could be very persuasive. Why he had chosen Jix to accompany him was another riddle the Corellian vowed to solve.
Raising his head he frowned at the Jedi Master's back. It looked as if the tiny alien had acquired a disproportionally large shadow that followed him at a distance of about two meters as if led on an invisible leash. A menacing shadow with long stark-white hair and pale green eyes that looked blind, seemingly seeing nothing at all. Jix could easily tell that the Sith Lord was uncomfortable with the situation, even though he tried to hide that discomfort. But in the way he moved the Corellian could see his hesitation and resentment. They would have to keep a sharp eye on him.
The temple on Debelan still bore the marks of a battle from quite some months back, and Jix remembered his surprise at Vader's behavior back then. Of course some things had become clear when the Dark Lord had revealed his relationship to the princess, but looking back now the Corellian realized that she had just been the initiator of waking something long dormant in the Dark Lord's soul. Maybe now it had been Yoda's turn to act as motivator for Roj Kell. Although Jix was not certain in what way the old man could help them.
"You realize that he will expect a strike at Coruscant," the ancient one said suddenly.
"Know that I do," Yoda answered calmly.
"So what is your plan? Confront him openly?"
"Ah. Noble. And what is my part in this petty scheme of yours?"
"Approve you do not?" Stopping again Yoda turned around to face Kell down.
"Frankly, no," the other told him bluntly. "This is not our fight. In fact, we should not interfere now."
"What!" Jix found himself shouting. "If we don't act now he will die! And Palpatine will certainly not waste his time in destroying the rest of us."
"So you are looking to Lord Vader for protection?"
"No," the agent snapped, irritated at the old man's cool composure, as if nothing of this mattered at all. "But he is the pivotal figure in this game. "
"True. And that is where the attacks will concentrate on now. The question is, where does Vader think he will get his strength from to endure this and what is the Emperor overlooking that we could use in our favor?"
"And what is that?" Jix asked, slightly exasperated. Why was Yoda keeping so silent anyway?
"That we can ponder on our voyage to Wayland, don't you think?"
"We are not going to Wayland," he told Kell icily.
"Then I take it you have taken care of the clones there?"
The Corellian's face went rigid. "What?"
"Should Palpatine be destroyed, and I guess we all are aiming toward that happening, we should not leave him a chance to come back again, don't you think?"
"But we are stretched as it is. If we do not go to Coruscant now Vader will die."
"He is just a pawn, Jixton, why don't you realize that? An important one, granted, but everyone is expendable in a war. Has to be. Else you'd lose your flexibility."
"Everyone except the battle-master," Jix countered.
"And that he is not anymore. There is just one left."
"Exactly. I will need all the facts before I can come up with a real plan of action."
"On their own they are, true," the Jedi Master said suddenly and Jix cursed himself for letting himself get carried away and not realizing that Yoda was also there.
"Then what do we do? Wayland or Coruscant?" he asked, shooting Roj Kell a suspicious glance.
"Contact you can no one to go there?"
"Karrde, maybe. He's got nothing on his plate right now."
"Then send them there," Kell insisted. "Destroy the clones, just to be on the safe side."
"What about Thrawn?"
"I have taken care of him already."
Somehow Jix found this reassurance not in the least comforting.
Leia had never seen the alien, who stood in the doorway, before. All she could tell that he was male and a Falleen. She squinted at his black robes and the lightsaber in his hands. A Sith? Unfortunately he was blocking the only exit and there was nothing in her room that could have been fashioned into a weapon. So she would need to do this the diplomatic way.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"My name is Cronn," he answered softly. "I want to help you. Please follow me."
"Why should I trust you?"
"It is not as if you had any choice. The others will free your brother."
That caught her attention. "Others?"
"Yes. Your mother is with us." She could sense something then, a slight hint of hesitation. What was wrong? "Now, please, we need to hurry."
"Okay then. Let's go."
He did not wait for her, but simply turned around to leave. Darting out of the room Leia shot a suspicious glance at their surroundings. Cronn was walking ahead cautiously, not looking back to see if she was following. Assuming his precise gait Leia sharpened her senses and concentrated on the feel of the Force around her. She could not pick up any deception from the Falleen, only a calm, deadly purpose. Leia quickly closed the distance between them. If he was true to his word he would protect her and she would, for now, help him in any way she could. It was approximately twenty minutes later that they came across the second team. She was delighted to see Luke wedged in between a petite Twi'lek female and a tall human male. He was smiling at her. Rushing up to him Leia embraced her brother tightly.
"I am so glad," she whispered.
"Who's your friend?" he asked, just as softly.
"His name is Cronn. Yours?"
"Deron and Puket. They are Sith," he sounded a bit disbelieving.
"And where is Mother?"
Turning around to face the Falleen Leia growled softly. "So you lied to me."
He put his hands up in a defensive gesture. "No lie, princess. She is here, just not with us. Chi'in has left to find her."
"Who is this Chi'in?"
"My master," the human explained and pushed past Luke. "We need to pull out, Cronn. Now."
"What about Father? I mean Lord Vader," Leia added when she only met blank stares.
"Lord Vader is not our concern right now. You are." Grabbing her right arm firmly Cronn dragged her after him, despite her protests. She turned her head to see Luke being pushed forward by Deron, with the Twi'lek bringing up the rear. When the Falleen stopped again suddenly though her gaze was drawn back to the front. She felt her heart grow heavy at seeing Nuron stand there, her blood-red blade ignited and her features grim and determined.
"You will not take them," she hissed and set herself in a defensive stance.
Immediately Cronn let go of the princess and readied his own weapon. From behind her Leia could hear the snap-hiss of two additional blades lighting up. Then Luke lay a hand gently on the Falleen's shoulder, cautioning him.
"Nuron, please. Do not choose wrong again," he told the Zabrak worriedly.
"I did not choose wrong," Nuron spat at him.
"Traitor!" someone exclaimed and Leia shot a glance back to stare at Deron coldly. But the bulky man pushed her aside brutally as he came forward to confront Nuron. The young warrior shifted her stance subtly, so that the tip of her blade pointed in a thirty degree angle at the other.
"You are the traitors," she countered. "You betrayed the Sith when you decided to follow Chi'in on this cowardly mission."
"Nuron," a soft voice called from the shadows.
She whirled around, stopping her blade just short of decapitating a short, gray-skinned alien who had appeared seemingly out of thin air. Leia noticed that his lightsaber dangled from his belt uselessly. Spreading his arms slowly he raised his head higher, meeting Nuron's gaze calmly. The princess sensed the violence rising from Deron at the same time that Luke stepped up to the human warrior and lay a hand on his arm. "Don't," he mouthed at him. Subsiding once more Deron joined the Twi'lek and Falleen quietly to stand back.
"You are a traitor, Chi'in," Nuron repeated, the strain in her voice unmistakable. Leia frowned at that, unsure of what was going on between the two of them.
"Nuron, you are making a mistake."
"No. I will kill you now." It sounded like an apology. Or a plea for help.
The short warrior exhaled slowly. "Do what you must, Nuron. But know this: strike me down now and you will have lost everything that you have always wanted to achieve."
"What do I want?" Nuron asked, her voice thick with tears, and Leia could feel her heart ache in understanding. "Can you tell me?"
Leia felt a shiver run down her spine at the soft sound of her brother's voice. He walked past her slowly, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, his face open and alert. The Zabrak female took a step to the left, assuming a position that would allow her to defend herself against both Luke and Chi'in.
"What do you want, Skywalker?" Nuron growled.
Luke gave the short alien standing opposite from him a curt nod. "Please. Take Leia and leave."
"As you wish," Chi'in answered at last and waved at the three remaining warriors. They trotted past the Skywalker twins and shot dark looks at Nuron.
"Leia, you too."
"Are you sure?" she asked quietly, but his determination filled her to bursting and was answer enough. He simply nodded. "Good luck," she concluded. She felt someone take her hand and looked down at Chi'in tiredly before she followed him down the corridor.
Looking into Nuron's golden eyes Luke felt her anguish so clearly that he could barely stand it. Deep loneliness and loss were mixed with a longing so strong that it almost overwhelmed him. A wish to belong, to be someone, to achieve something grand, to become a legend as her master was. No, not Palpatine, but the Dark Lord. Reaching out Luke brushed the red blade aside, protecting his hand with a Force shield. She did not try to prevent it. The young Jedi took a step toward her, knowing full well that he was intruding on her private space. Still she did not move.
"You are someone special, Nuron. Why can't you see that? You do not need a master to tell you you are just that."
"How do you know?" she asked quietly.
He took her left hand and sensed her right grip the handle of her lightsaber tighter. Guiding her he put her palm over his heart. "Can't you feel it? When I look at you I see someone shining with an inner light, someone who had me spellbound the first moment I met her."
"Is that true?"
"You are incredible, Nuron."
She smiled at that and raised her eyebrows meaningfully. "But I am real."
"Yes. Ain't I lucky?"
"You are making fun of me," she accused him, but he just smiled.
"Not at all. Come with us, Nuron."
She shook her head. "I cannot."
"I can sense it. I have to stay."
"Luke, do not fear for me. I understand what you are telling me, I really do. I trust you. Please, you must trust me too."
Inclining his head he let his forehead rest against hers, feeling the raised knobs underneath her skin and instinctively pressed against them harder, trying to make her feel his trust. She sighed deeply, then pushed him away.
"I trust you, Nuron," Luke said at last.
"Thank you," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. "You know how much that means to me."
"I guess I do, at that," he conceded.
"Go now. Go to your friends. Make me proud."
"I will. Take care, Nuron. I love you."
Han Solo was bouncing on his toes nervously, scanning the first line of defense of the Imperial Palace.
They had arrived just yesterday, but so far they had neither found Padmé and Chi'in, nor a chance at getting into the heavily fortified building. Suddenly Chewie growled softly at his side.
"What?" Han whispered.
Chewie pointed. And indeed, over there five shadows moved quickly, bypassing the guards without any trouble.
"Let's go and meet them," the Corellian suggested and darted forward. He was almost certain that anyone fleeing from the Imperial Palace could only be an ally. With any luck it was Padmé and the twins with some back-up. As it was he had been right on target concerning Luke and Leia. His face split into a wide grin at seeing his beloved again. She squeaked in surprise when he caught hold of her and lifted her high, crushing her to him desperately. The sound of lightsabers humming startled him out of that glorious feeling almost instantly. Chewie roared an angry challenge.
"No! They are friends," Han heard Luke call loudly. He put Leia down again, smiling at her flushed face.
"You are so beautiful," he whispered in her ear, but his eyes were scrutinizing the three strangers surrounding them. "Okay," he announced. "Let's get out of here. Where is Padmé?"
They looked at each other a little bit sheepishly. "One of us went back for her," the human announced. "And if anyone can get her out it is him."
"But she's not here," Han said sweetly. "So what do we do? Get out of here or wait for them?"
Luke pursed his lips pensively. "We leave," he announced. "We have to make a difference with the fleet."
Watching the Jedi Master and the Sith Lord move around the ship was like watching some strange kind of dance. Jix noticed with some amusement that Kell tried to keep as far away from Yoda as possible, but somehow he never went further than about five meters from the Jedi. Yoda in turn kept a sharp watch over his captive, leaving him almost no room for escaping his tight scrutiny. They had contacted Karrde and sent him on his way immediately after boarding their small shuttle, then had set course for Coruscant. But the Corellian was anxious to see for himself if the Sith Lord's predictions were on target. Kell had told them that the voyage to Coruscant was a waste of time, but he would not say just where they should have gone to instead. He had also stressed quite pointedly that the Emperor was expecting them and that even Yoda would have a hard time standing against the Navy and the Imperial ground forces. Jix had especially liked the Jedi Master's reply to that pa! rticular challenge. A warrior I am not.
"Why can't you just pry that location from his mind?" he asked Yoda quietly while they watched Kell through the open door of the galley as he was studying some star charts in the cockpit intently.
"Reveal he does not what is on his mind."
"I thought you had bonded with him," Jix tried, waving a spoon to emphasize his point. "You said you'd have him under control."
"Easy it is not to read his thoughts. Too convoluted they are." He looked up, his large, moss-green eyes tired. "Exhausting it is to watch."
Jix swallowed a reply. He understood that the Jedi Master was as exposed to the Sith Lord's mind as the other was to his. And the Corellian did not doubt a second that what was going on in that Sith's head was pretty gloomy and vicious. Three thousand years of evil certainly took a pretty strong character to deal with and he did not envy Yoda in the least.
"But if he does not reveal his plan we could end up in a giant trap, just like Vader did. That was Kell's doing too. And he is right. What can we possibly accomplish on Coruscant?""
"Another suggestion you have?"
"I guess we'll have to get rid of Palpatine, but our fleet is still lost." He shook his head grimly. "And I do not believe that Thrawn will suddenly turn into a good guy and switch sides."
"Mistaken you are, I think."
"Well, I don't. This is too risky."
"Jixton!" Kell shouted suddenly, never raising his head from the charts.
"What's up?" the Corellian called back.
"Are you a good pilot?"
"Why do you wanna know?" Suddenly his mind felt very cold indeed and at his side the Jedi Master tensed.
"For what?" Setting down the bowl of stew he had been eating Jix slowly let his right hand drop down to hover over his blaster. He threw a questioning look at Yoda, but the alien's gaze was fixed straight at the Sith's back. Walking up to Kell Jix drew his weapon and set it on stun. He bent over the old man's shoulder carefully to look at the map that was displayed on the screen before him. "What are you doing anyway?"
"Coruscant. I am trying to think of a way to make this operation work, but it would be nice to know where everyone is right at the moment."
"I could call Solo," Jix suggested.
"Yes. Do that. Ask him what his current position and status is and if the others are with him. Maybe Chi'in has succeeded."
"Maybe." When Jix had heard that the Noghri had left for Coruscant to bail the Dark Lord out he had been deeply hurt and envious too. But that had passed. Chances were that the Sith had also fallen into the Emperor's trap. As Mara had. Punching in the Millennium Falcon's comm code he waited some agonizing moments before the call was accepted. "Solo!" he called immediately. "It's Jix. Who's with you?"
"Really," Han replied coldly. "And how do I know it's you?"
"Cut the crap, bantha-head, we don't have time for this!"
"Okay. It is your charming self. Let's see. Me, Chewie, the twins, plus a bunch of Sith."
Jix heaved a sigh of relief. "What about the others?"
"Nothing from Vader, Padmé or Chi'in."
"All right, I-"
"Captain Solo, could you be a bit more precise on which Sith are there with you?" Kell interrupted him smoothly.
"Who's this?" Han asked suspiciously.
"Don't mind him. Just answer the question," Jix snorted and threw an angry look at the ancient Sith.
"All right. Let's see. There's Cronn, Puket and Deron. Should there be more?"
"Should there be?" Jix asked Kell quietly.
"Thank you, Captain Solo, that is all. Don't wait for us."
Breaking the connection Roj Kell let his hands dance over the ship's control board so fast that Jix had no way of foreseeing what happened next. With a loud thud the vessel lurched and seemed to stop before it reverted into realspace.
"What in Sith's hells are you doing?" the Corellian roared and immediately brought his blaster up. But he did not get a chance to shoot. Kell's left hand hit his temple hard and sent him flying against the bulkhead. Lying dazed on the deck he stared as the Sith Lord rose gracefully and turned to face the Jedi Master appearing in the doorway. Yoda's lips were drawn back in a silent hiss, revealing a row of sharp teeth and somehow he managed to appear incredibly menacing despite his small height. The look in his eyes sent shivers down Jix' spine, but Roj Kell merely shook his head.
"I do not think that you can hold me back," he told the Jedi Master calmly.
"Your plan, what is it?"
"Coruscant is not my chosen battle-ground. If it is yours, by all means, go there. But I am leaving."
"Where to?" Jix managed and tried to rise.
"You can feel the darkness, Master Yoda, can you not? Do you want to know what is causing it?"
"What is?" Jix asked and propped himself up on his hands. Now he only had to get his blaster. Hunting around for it with his eyes he groaned when he found it lying in the far corner of the cockpit, with Kell unfortunately standing in the way. Maybe if he was quick enough... His eyes went wide when something gave the weapon a nudge and sent it spinning toward him. It stopped short before reaching him though.
"Palpatine is trying to break Vader again. He is going to his limits and he will not be able to stand the strain much longer." The blaster was crushed in an invisible fist and Jix cursed loudly. " Go to Coruscant, Jedi, and gather your forces there," Kell told his adversary coldly. "Then we will see if you can beat me."
Jix was not sure what happened next, but then, it was not his concern anymore. He thought he could see some blinding light, and then he lost consciousness.
Launching the ship's single escape pod, Roj Kell worked the controls quickly to adjust his course. Let Yoda figure out what he had meant. Fact was that at the level Sidious was consuming the Dark Side his clone would not last more than a few days longer. And chances were that Karrde would arrive too late on Wayland. Kell knew that he had to reach that planet before things could get out of control. If Sidious was smart he would take Padmé Naberrie with him to keep Vader in line. A shame he had already lost Thrawn.
Taking a deep breath the ancient Sith sent soothing thoughts along the bond that still held him to the Jedi Master in an effort to assist in his healing. In hurting Yoda he had weakened himself, and that was not a distraction he could afford now. What the Jedi could not have known, of course, was that Roj Kell was an expert when it came to bonding with someone or something. He knew a hundred variants of establishing a bond and numerous defenses against it too. True, this bond he had not been able to avert completely, but it was much weaker than the Jedi Master would have wished for. Well, that was not Kell's concern.
Sedriss would by now have reached Coruscant and was ready to take care of the Grand Admiral, when the time was right. But before that could happen the Dark Lord had to make his move. Knowing his former student though, the ancient Sith had no doubts that Sidious would push him in the right direction. Smiling a bit he contemplated his close encounter with the Jedi Master. Again he had to admit that Yoda was indeed intimidating, even if the Jedi did not understand fully what was going on.
Moving his pawns carefully was essential. There were too many double-crossings already. If Sedriss had succeeded in contacting Mara Jade, the former Hand would not stay idle. She was the one who could influence Thrawn and once his job was done he would be history. Nuron had not left with the Skywalker twins. Either that meant she was dead or else something more had happened to her than anticipated. Briefly an image of Khameir Sarin, Sidious' first apprentice, flashed across his inner vision. A Zabrak, like Nuron and actually kin of hers. Funny, wasn't it, how the past managed to always creep up on the present.
But the past would end soon and a new future would be forged in blood and fire.