The Art of War - Part 13
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 13 - Game Over
The Millennium Falcon was hurtling through hyperspace on its way to Vjun to meet the rest of the Alliance fleet, and on board the old freighter Luke Skywalker was frantically trying to understand the vision that had snuck up on him just after they had left the Coruscant system. It had been the same vision that had been presented to him in the cave on Dagobah, the one that had told him to go and find his mother. Well, he had not, and the vision had changed.
This time, as he was standing at his father's side at the edge of the black valley no one was waiting for them down there. When it began to rain Luke started in surprise, and, looking up he felt his mind balk at the sight of blood pouring down from the sky. He looked up quickly to seek his father's gaze, but found Anakin gone. With a strangled cry Luke fell to his knees to look down into the bowl made up of black, wet stone, which was filling up with gray mist slowly, obscuring his view.
There was no answer, only the wind howling through the mountains. When Luke made to follow Anakin a hand fell on his shoulder, holding him back. Whirling around he stared into his mother's face, seeing her clearly for the first time. Her dark eyes were sad and full of mourning.
"Don't go," she pleaded quietly. "I could not stand to lose you too."
"I have to," he answered, but just as he said those words a terrible feeling of doom enveloped his mind. No. That was wrong. But his father was down there... Turning around he looked down into the valley again.
"Don't go," she repeated and was gone.
Frowning deeply the young Jedi was unsure of what to make of it. Apparently a few factors had changed. Whether for better or worse, he could not tell. The first time he had had this vision his father had journeyed into the valley to reach his wife, or so Luke had thought, but the more steps he had taken toward her, the farther she had gone away.
Suddenly Luke realized that what he had seen back then had been a vision of the past. When his father had chosen to fight Palpatine he had succumbed to the Dark Side deliberately and apparently his choices had appalled his wife then, driving her from him. But why had Anakin believed that he could reach her through darkness at all? It did not make any sense. Except maybe... except if the darkness had existed even before his fall. Luke's mind froze as he remembered something Leia had told him after they had been reunited on board the Falcon. The Emperor had told her that their mother would have been a Sith, had she been Force-sensitive. Had it been her darkness that Anakin had sought to penetrate to get to her again? Had that been the reason for his fall?
Luke wanted to deny it. Father had made it very clear that he had joined Palpatine in order to defeat him with his own means and had failed in that task. Had he lied to his children? Shaking his head Luke thought back on the serious discussions he'd had with his father. Anakin had recognized his own darkness, had sought to fight it, but at some point he had realized that to pull off his gamble he would have to remain as ruthless and cruel as ever. Maybe Luke should have tried to prevent that from happening. Maybe he should have been harder on his father, especially after the incident with Nuron. Perhaps then the young Sith would not have chosen to betray her master and then they might have won.
"Don't blame yourself," a soft voice told him and then Leia wrapped her arms around his shoulders gently.
He looked up at her and for a moment her amber eyes reminded him too much of Mother's. "You can feel it?" he asked, a bit taken aback.
"Of course. You are not the only Force-sensitive around here, brother," she chided him playfully. He smirked at her.
"True." But then he sobered again. "Do you think it was wise to leave? To leave Mother and Father behind?"
"You said it was the right thing to do."
"It did feel right, yes, but now I am not so sure anymore ... Where do we go from here? I cannot believe it is already over."
She let go of him and sat down in a chair opposite from his. "It is not over. We will rejoin our fleet and set up a new plan. After all, we do have some allies now who can really make a difference. Whatever they are, Luke, they are not evil. I can sense it."
"I feel the same way," he answered reluctantly.
"Maybe they can tell us more about Roj Kell. Palpatine said that he was playing the game with him, not Father."
"And you believed it?"
"Not entirely." Shaking her head the princess flashed him a quick smile. "We will win, Luke. I can feel it."
"But at what price?"
The arrival on Wayland had nearly cost him his transport, but he should have known better than to attempt to evade the Star Destroyer orbiting the planet in such a wretched craft. Well. Now he was here and apparently just in time too. Roj Kell was striding through the corridors of the Mount Tantiss complex confidently, but he had to admit that the guards Sidious had sent ahead to prepare his upcoming rebirth were giving him some trouble.
In the back of his mind he could feel the Jedi Master trying to regain control over him, and Yoda was making quite an impressive effort. A shame, really, that by bonding with him the tiny Jedi had rendered the Dark Side neutral, freeing Kell of its restrictions. So far the ancient Sith had had to be very careful in using the Force, especially the Dark Side, since employing too much of it would have cost him his existence. Now though he could feel the Force flow through him again untainted, and balance returning to his mind gradually.
Killing five more of the stormtroopers running to meet him he kept his senses alert as he entered the turbolift that would bring him up into the throne room. He had made a short trip to observe with some satisfaction the destruction the Dark Lord had sown in the cloning facilities of the complex. In his opinion clones were an abomination, artificially created life that was completely dependent on science. It was unnatural and did not fit into his understanding of life and survival at all. The lift car stopped and swiftly he entered the room beyond, crossing the walkway that led to the platform at the far end of the chamber, already searching for any clues as to where he might find the complex's sanctum.
He could pick up the traces of Darth Sidious just faintly, residues of mad glee and violence, plus a great deal of anger and hatred. Roj Kell touched the controls of the holo projectors lovingly. He knew for certain that Wayland was not the only storehouse Sidious had created for his treasures. There were several others spread throughout the galaxy, but Kell knew that it also took quite a deal of strength to cross the distance to anyone of them. Therefore it would be only logical to use the one closest. And Wayland was closest to Coruscant. If everything went according to his plan he had some time left before Sidious would arrive. Until then he had to find the Emperor's private cloning chamber and avoid the troops the Star Destroyer was launching just now. With any luck Karrde would arrive in time to distract them.
Raising his head slowly he let his mind fall deeper into the Force to follow its complex patterns into the past. After a short while he felt another presence join him tentatively. So, apparently the Jedi Master wanted to profit from his knowledge also. Kell sent an invitation along the bond, signaling Yoda that he agreed to his coming along. They would see for how long the Jedi could manage to keep up with his pace. Chuckling softly to himself the ancient Sith dived into the flow, moving faster and faster, until his mind became one with the Force and he could see the Mount Tantiss installation spread out before him in multi-colored layers of past, present and future.
Yoda gripped the arms of his chair hard as he tried to maintain his hold on Roj Kell's presence. It was frustrating that the bonding had not entirely worked out, but that was not the worst. This deep into the Sith Lord's mind the Jedi Master had for the first time a full view of the man's thoughts and logic. Not only was Kell processing the images spread out before both of them at a rate Yoda could not ever hope to achieve, he was also completely ruthlessly following his instincts, caring neither for moral nor common sense. The fact that he did see himself as a tool for the Force, not the other way round, was the only comforting aspect of his conscience, if one were so gracious as to grant Roj Kell one at all. Yoda felt sickened by the lack of any ethical standards, the sight of a mind guided completely by the rules of survival and a deep, festering resentment against being controlled by others. If Exar Kun had managed to teach his apprentice anything, it had been distrus! t and deception. Underneath that though Roj Kell was a wild beast with no desire at all to learn the basics of civilization. True, he was smart enough to use it when it suited his purposes, but he did not see himself as being part of it. For three thousand years he had remained a stranger to what made up a community, wandering restlessly in search for something he had no hopes of ever regaining.
Compared to the ancient Sith, the Emperor was a highly conventional enemy, even if he was more powerful than anyone Yoda had ever faced before. Breaking the connection Yoda slumped back in his chair, his mind void of anything, as he tried to gather his wits again. The task he had chosen for himself was impossible. How could he ever hope to make Kell see reason? He should have let him die after all. What was more though, he should have tried harder to break into his mind. Had he done so he might have been able to prevent the future from happening. Now though it was too late. If Kell succeeded with his plan, the old ways would die and the Jedi Order with them. And if the plan failed, this galaxy would drown in the deadly fire of darkness once more and maybe forever.
"Jix!" he called hoarsely.
A few moments later the Corellian appeared in the doorway. "We are still hours short of reaching Coruscant," he said a bit testily.
"Know that I do," Yoda replied calmly. "Contact you must your fleet and warn them. Search the Grand Admiral will for them. Capture him they must."
"Explain I need once more?"
"No, no," Jix answered and frowned. "Anything else?"
"Rest I will. Do as I told you."
Back on Coruscant Anakin Skywalker was slowly coming to again. He was immensely weakened by the Emperor's latest attack and what was more, his heart was being consumed by worry for Padmé. He had let her down again. Laboriously he heaved himself up on his elbows, but slumped back immediately, his head spinning with lack of oxygen. The damaged lungs refused to support even that sort of exertion and Anakin knew that he could never hope to achieve anything if he could not even stand on his own two feet.
His eyes focused on his right hand, a mass of wires and steel reinforcements, all broken. Damn. Victory was so far out of reach that he wanted to scream out in frustration, if he had not known that it was first useless and second impossible. He could not even take an ordinary breath without feeling dizzy. Again his anger rose like a firestorm and he remembered the times when he had tried to overcome the restrictions his injuries had put on him by focusing his fury. That had been a few months after his fatal duel with Obi-Wan and sometimes he had succeeded. What if he tried that now?
Anger is of the Dark Side. But was there any other way left?
Tentatively he tried to reach the light hovering just out of sight, but to his own surprise his mind flinched back from that attempt immediately, recoiling as if struck by some unseen force. Gritting his teeth Anakin did not even notice, so focused was he on the memories of Padmé's body hitting the wall, her bones breaking, her pale face, her presence fading. I will not lose you again! he howled inwardly, his despair rising from the depths of his heart to create a blank shield against the pain. Funneling through that tunnel, frustration and hatred joined it swiftly, and suddenly rising to his feet was no problem at all.
Swaying gently Anakin steadied himself against the wall with his left hand and took a guarded breath. He held the dizziness at bay carefully before he took a step toward the door. He had to find her, had to get her out of here. The door banged open suddenly, startling him, and immediately he struck at the newcomer, not thinking at all. When he recognized the Noghri standing there, unfazed, his rage exploded in a storm of darkness.
"Chi'in," he hissed, the harsh sound of his own voice grating in his ears like grinding stone.
"Lord Vader, you are alive-" the short warrior breathed, his relief sounding fake to the Dark Lord, who stared at the alien in mad rage.
"You failed," he whispered hoarsely. "You did not protect her."
"Lord Vader, we can discuss this later. Please, come with me."
"No!" Anakin roared and attacked blindly. The memory of Padmé's grief and bitterness gushed through his brain hotly, and he knew that Chi'in's failure had allowed Roj Kell to break her like that. It was his fault, his alone. Fending off his blows the Noghri calmly drew his lightsaber.
"Lord Vader," he began, "this is not the way."
"Not the way! And what do you know? What do you know, Chi'in? You have betrayed me."
"I did not," the other replied tersely. "Cease this foolishness and listen to me."
"He is beyond reason," a new voice inserted coolly before Chi'in hit the far wall hard. Palpatine stepped into the doorway cautiously. "I knew there was someone hiding out here." Struggling to his feet the Noghri crouched low, ready to attack. The Emperor laughed. "Do not bother to protect your master. Your own safety should be your primary concern."
"I serve the Dark Lord, not you," the short warrior replied coldly.
"Too bad he does not want your service any more, isn't it?"
The Sith Master's head snapped around to face the Dark Lord and Anakin's mind nearly broke under the force of the blow that crashed against his mental shields when their eyes met. Stumbling back with a grunt he focused his anger and struck back. Palpatine did not even budge. Instead he advanced on the Sith Lord slowly, ignoring Chi'in completely. The reason for his confidence was revealed very soon when three red-robed guards rushed the Noghri with deadly grace.Tearing his gaze away from the unfolding battle Anakin concentrated on his adversary.
"Your wife will not last the night," Palpatine said softly. "You failed to protect her and now you blame your closest friend for that failure. Look at yourself, what a despicable creature you have become."
"Just like my master," Anakin shot back, his resolve crumbling under the other's accusations.
"Back to defiance, are we. You have not learned nearly enough, Lord Vader. Not enough to defeat me and certainly not enough to defeat the Dark Side. You are mine and always will be."
In the background the grunts and shouts of the guards trying to overwhelm the Noghri turned into frustrated howls of impotent fury. Anakin made his move. Mounting all of his considerable strength he threw himself at the Emperor, ignoring the strange sounds emanating from his artificial lungs, and let his rage take over. Palpatine fought him viciously and if the Dark Lord had believed defeating the man would be easy he was now proven very wrong. There was such vast power as he had never seen before, and it was pouring into him like liquid darkness, erasing his very being as it took over his mind. Pushed backward he was on the defensive, struggling for control, then falling into a bottomless pit of agony, that ended only when he surrendered to the inevitable. Turning his mind inward he felt his muscles slacken and his defenses crumble. There was a brief flash of triumph from Palpatine, then only blinding white light. Anakin opened his eyes wide in astonishment to see Chi'in! bent over him, his lightsaber poised over his throat, ready for a killing blow.
"Surrender or die," the Noghri hissed.
"I surrender," the Dark Lord replied with a weak smile. "You win."
Taking a step back Chi'in gave him a surprised look. "I am glad," he stammered, then shook his head. "What happened?"
Lying on his back Anakin laughed, but the laughter turned into a wheeze almost at once. After a fit of coughing he recovered slightly, then let the short warrior help him up. Of Palpatine nothing was left.
"I am not certain, but I think now I know what I did wrong the first time," he explained weakly.
"Don't bother," Chi'in said drily. "The most important thing is that he's gone. That was, actually quite impressive." He frowned. "But for a second I thought you had gone over completely. I am sorry for losing my faith."
"Well, don't do it again," Anakin joked before he bent over to rest his hands on his knees, his head spinning with fatigue. Very slowly he raised his head again. "My children?"
"Are safe. I sent them off with the others."
"Thank you. Thank you for dragging me back. "
"I did nothing."
Anakin shook his head slowly. "More than you can think. Now all we need to do is take care of Kell."
Opening his eyes Darth Sidious stared into the smiling face of Roj Kell.
"Did I not warn you?" the old man asked softly.
Sidious managed a smile, even though his skin felt as if it were close to being ripped apart. Moving weakly he tried to get a feel for his new body. After the struggle with Vader and the painful transition to the clone his mind was not yet fully his and that was exactly what Kell had counted on. How the old man had managed to get past the guards and into the chamber though was a riddle to be solved later.
"I have been expecting you," Sidious said at last.
"As if," Kell snorted and raised his hands.
"Seriously, you are too late. I always remembered your lessons. And you will not escape me this time."
The short exchange had given him enough breathing space to gather his senses once more and by the time Roj Kell realized that he had just stalled him Sidious had attacked already.
The Jedi Master was only dimly aware of Jix' presence. His mind was occupied too much with staying sane and intact to react to the Corellian's startled voice. Technically Yoda knew that something was happening to Roj Kell, something very bad, but practically he was in too much pain to care. Only gradually did he manage to regain control of his emotions. Leaning into the flow of the Force deeply he built up his strength and fed it to the ancient Sith bit by bit, unsure of were to draw the line. He had no idea how much Kell would be able to handle. But the least he could do was to control his anguish.
Straightening again Roj Kell was half-blind with terrible weakness and he did his best to fight down his natural instincts and accept the gift the Jedi Master was offering him. He did not have any other chance. But he could curse himself later for having misjudged his former student. Sidious was laughing with mad glee as he sent wave after wave of blue lightning at the downed Sith Lord who was already feeling dizzy with the strain of keeping both his brain from overloading and the four heavily armed security droids at bay. They had come out of nowhere and as someone who had never cared much for machinery, he had not sensed them until too late. Now, mounting all of his strength he gritted his teeth in dire anticipation. As for strength he could not ever hope to match Sidious' power if he did not finally give up his fear of regaining some balance and using the light of the Force. He stood up slowly and crashed back against the wall as the next barrage of Force lightning hit! home.
"Too bad that you are only a teacher, Kell. This is getting boring," Sidious hissed viciously.
"Not just a teacher," the old Sith whispered.
"You want to make a stand? How very noble," the Emperor purred. He stopped, surprise emanating from his very core, when Roj Kell struck, attacking not his mind, but something else entirely. The four security droids opened fire on their master without hesitation and when Sidious was too busy crushing their metal bodies to counter him the ancient Sith made his move in earnest. All around them cloning tanks splintered and imploded, destroying their precious contents, and finally there was nowhere left for the Sith Master to turn. Sidious' face turned into a snarl.
"Now we will finish this foolish battle. You are no match for me, Lord Kell. I will show you that I truly am your master."
"One last thing," Kell gasped, fighting his way past the darkness that was almost suffocating him as it sucked all life from the chamber. "Before you fire a weapon be sure that it is not aimed at you."
He turned his head away as the Dark Side claimed its prey, collecting a debtlong overdue that Sidious had failed to pay. It was true, he had warned him not to use the Dark Side so excessively. But that was one of Sidious' major flaws. He enjoyed power too much.
Falling to his knees Roj Kell gasped for air desperately and for a heart-beat he let himself be overwhelmed by weakness in an effort to regain his calm.
His eyes widened in shock when he felt the Jedi Master bully his way past his defenses, taking his chance with surprising determination. Fighting the other, Kell was equally ruthless and called on his fury and indignation to fuel his strength. Finally he managed to push the alien presence out of his mind and increased his mental shields quickly. That had been close. Another moment longer and he would have been completely at Yoda's mercy. Rising to his feet unsteadily the ancient Sith dusted off his cloak and grimaced in disdain. If the Jedi Master sought to prevent his plan from succeeding he had halfway lost already and he knew it too. Which meant that he was getting desperate. Good. In that case he was bound to make mistakes.
Now. To accomplish his own goal Roj Kell needed only to wait until Sedriss gave him a sign. Hopefully the man had not wasted any time. If he had ... No, Sedriss was no fool. He knew what was at stake.
"Where is she?" Anakin roared, his left hand pressed over the exposed machinery in his chest. The medics stared at him fearfully.
"My lord, we were here all the time, no one could have come in and simply-"
"Shut up!" the Dark Lord snarled and turned toward Chi'in. "What do you make of it?"
The Noghri frowned. "A Sith?"
"Nuron or Sedriss. The others are with your children."
Anakin took a deep breath. "Very well. You will search for them. Now."
"You will not join in the hunt?" the Noghri asked, slightly startled.
"No. I have to take care of Thrawn before he can get to the rest of the Alliance fleet. But first I have to undergo a few repairs," he added, his lips curling into a disgusted grimace.
"Then I will leave."
"Chi'in," Anakin sighed.
"Try to be more careful this time, all right?"
The short warrior flashed him a quick smile. "As ordered."
Watching the other leave the Dark Lord dropped down on one of the empty beds in the ward. He gave the medics a long look. "Can you repair it?" he asked at last. One of them nodded.
"It will take some time."
"Two hours. The hand we can replace easily, but the lungs-"
"Just do it. No sedation though. I don't trust you."
"My lord, I would not advise that."
"You think I care? Do as I told you. Now."
As they prepared the operating room Anakin enjoyed a moment of blissful silence. Gradually he let the past events float across his inner vision, wincing at some of it and frowning at the rest. He had been such a fool. But this was not over yet, not at all.
Three hours later there was still no news of Chi'in. Walking towards the throne room the Dark Lord pondered his options. If they could make it so that the Emperor's disappearance was in fact a flight from the invasion forces, namely the Rebel Alliance, they might be able to establish Leia as temporary representative without too much trouble. People knew the princess and some might even sympathize with her. He would be surprised if none remembered the recent attacks on planets suspected of rebellion. And everyone knew what had happened to Alderaan when it had taken too firm a stance against the decisions of the Galactic Senate .That particular institution had been disbanded just before the planet was destroyed, and that for a good reason. Anakin gritted his teeth in remembrance. Back then Tarkin had been in charge. But the man had paid for his cold decisions. Briefly the Dark Lord wondered what prize he would have to pay.
Walking past the red-robed guard he dared them to try and stop him. They were not stupid though. They knew exactly that they stood no chance against him, and that Palpatine was gone. Good. Anakin swiftly strode over to take a seat on the abandoned throne. Immediately the Emperor's councilors scrambled over to bow before him. There were some slick ones he would love to smash into the floor, but he needed them, for a little while longer.
"It seems that we have an emergency," he told them gravely.
"What emergency, my lord?" one of the threesome asked, his voice trembling slightly.
"The rebellion on Coruscant was better planned than expected. The easy victory over their foray party has blunted our defenses. Security posts are under attack all over the planet. Grand Admiral Thrawn has been called back to reestablish order. But he will be too late," Anakin added with a cold smile.
"Of course," he echoed contemptuously. "You spineless, boot-licking fools. The game is over. Now. You will order the guards to stand down their weapons. I want to see you move," he growled and had the satisfaction of sending the trio's leader in a flurry out of the room. "Very good. Let us discuss the terms for the negotiations ahead."
Her eyelids felt as heavy as lead as she tried to open her eyes. It was harder than expected. But Padmé was a fighter. She struggled to sit up when a hand gently pushed her down again. Looking into Nuron's golden eyes the former queen tensed.
"Hush," the Zabrak told her gently and smiled.
"Don't talk. You are safe now."
Padmé tried a disbelieving frown. Leaning closer the young Sith continued in a whisper: "I knew I had to protect you if I wanted to regain your husband's trust. Better to take you into safety than leave you to the Emperor's mercy." She spat the last word, making it clear that she did not believe Palpatine even knew the meaning of the word 'mercy'. Padmé quite agreed with her.
"But you left him there," the queen countered weakly.
"Lord Vader is powerful. He will succeed. And Chi'in will help him."
"I hope so," Padmé sighed.
"Sleep now," Nuron admonished her gently, the smile back in place.
"Yes. One last thing. Where are we going?"
Mara had to admire Needa's skill at evading the stormtroopers that crowded the plasteel domes on Duro by the hundreds. How had he managed? He'd have landed in an escape pod somewhere outside the living domes in the polluted wastelands around the industrial sites that made up most of the planet's surface and yet he had managed to sneak into one of the domes undetected while all around the remaining survivors of his troops had been massacred by the soldiers sent to hunt them down.
For a moment the former Emperor's Hand felt suspicion sneak up on her. What if Needa was a traitor? What if the former Imperial commanders, Needa, Piett and even Vader, had really plotted to trap the Alliance fleet as the newsgrids suggested? Mara wanted to kick herself for thinking that way. If you could not even trust your enemies, then who could you trust? She had heard Thrawn say just that quite laconically after the failed attack on Hoth, and thinking these words now made her smile. Well, one thing was clear: Needa had had help.
Drawing the hood of her cloak deeper into her face she hastened down the walkways, searching. But they had not agreed on any particular meeting place, which was unfortunate. So she had to rely on her instincts or else on Needa's wits. She slowed down cautiously. If she were he, where would she go? A cantina? There were plenty and she did not have much time. What if she called him? She still had his comm frequency, but if it was traced they would both be dead. Snorting softly she took her commlink out of her pocket nevertheless. Well, life was all about risks.
To her surprise Needa answered the call immediately.
"Yeah, it's me," she hissed. "Where are you?"
"Are you alone?"
"If I were, would you know?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," he answered, his voice suddenly overlaying. Spinning around on her heels Mara stared at his haggard face in disbelief.
"I can't believe you snuck up on me like that!" she growled and disconnected the call. She stuffed the commlink back into the pouch and shook her red mane in disgust at herself.
"I was wondering myself why I had suddenly gotten so lucky," he replied wrily and dragged her into the shabby ally he had emerged from. "What are your orders?"
"Thrawn wants you back with him. I think he is about to join the Alliance."
"Are you sure?"
"Do you trust me?"
He frowned deeply. "One of Lord Vader's agents contacted me. He was the one who gave me the tip about the Chimaera."
"What's his name?"
"That's the odd thing. I cannot remember if he gave me his name or not."
Mara felt her mind freeze. "Can you describe him?" she asked urgently.
"There were two. Said agent was of average height, blue eyes, dark hair, dressed in black. The other didn't talk at all. Short, weak built, and yes, the strange thing was that he was wearing glasses."
"Jay Gerran!" Mara hissed under her breath.
Needa blinked at her, then realization dawned on his face. "The spy?"
"Yes. My best guess is that the agent was a Sith. He warped your memory. Listen, Captain, this could be worse than we thought. Gerran asked to meet with Thrawn personally on Coruscant, but Thrawn is luckily on his way to Vjun."
"You think Lord Vader sent this agent to kill the Grand Admiral?"
Mara shook her head. "No, I am positive that Vader did not know about the Chimaera."
"I am not tracking here."
"No wonder. You've been out of touch," she explained with a smile. "Have you heard anything about Roj Kell?"
"Okay. Here's the short version. Kell was Palpatine's master and he wrecked the Relentless with us on board. We managed to get away and relocated to the Chimaera."
"So what you are saying is that this Kell is the only one who knew that you had relocated?"
"I see. Why would he want Thrawn dead?"
"Politics, tactics, it could have many uses. To leave the Navy without leadership, let the Alliance recover, whatever."
"But the Emperor would not allow that to happen."
Mara bit her lower lip hard, remembering the agony and madness that had almost driven her insane when they had hit her on her way into the Duro system. "The Emperor is dead."
"Are you sure?" Needa smirked.
"So what do we do?"
"Return to Coruscant or join Thrawn at Vjun."
"Definitely Coruscant, if we want to get to the assassin before he can get to Thrawn."
"Your call, Captain. Let's go."
Grand Admiral Thrawn stood at the forward viewport on the bridge of the Star Destroyer Chimaera with Captain Palleon standing at his side. Both were looking at the planet up ahead and the activity going on around it. The rebels were evacuating, but they had been caught off-guard.
"Are the Interdictors in position?" Thrawn asked quietly.
"Yes, sir. Group seven is coming in from the night-side and the fighters are ready to launch."
"They are trapped."
The Admiral took a deep breath. "Excellent. Launch fighters at my command. If they are smart they will surrender."
"Orders were to annihilate the fleet."
"No need to remind me, Captain."
"Of course. I am sorry."
"And there's no need for that either." Thrawn gave his second a cool look. "This is a war, Captain. But we will not turn this into a massacre."
The comm console gave alarm. "Incoming call, Admiral. It's from Coruscant," Palleon informed him.
The Grand Admiral frowned. The Emperor? What would he want? "I will take it in my meditation chamber."
Striding from the bridge he reassessed his latest moves, but none of them could have betrayed him. Had Mara been captured? He hoped not.
When he arrived in the dimly lit room the call was already waiting for him. He accepted it and took a step back when the life-size holo snapped into existence. Instead of the Emperor though the image of a stranger almost startled him. What hit him first was the bald, scarred head and the piercing blue eyes . Recovering from his shock the Grand Admiral remembered Jay Gerran's reports about the new Alliance commander and nodded gravely.
"Lord Vader. What a pleasant surprise."
Keeping his features expressionless Thrawn picked his way carefully. "I am happy to see that you have been reinstated as commander," he tried.
"I have no official standing."
"How unfortunate. In that case I will have to return to Coruscant."
The Dark Lord smiled. "Indeed you will. Your mission was successful?"
"Then the situation is secured."
"I am pleased to hear it."
"Palpatine is gone," Vader pressed on. "If we make it publicly known that the Emperor has seemingly abandoned Coruscant people will panic, anticipating an invasion. That is when you come in."
"I see." Thrawn smiled slowly. "And under those circumstances it would be perfectly acceptable for me to come to the capital's rescue. But alas, too late. To save the planet, I would have to bow to the invaders."
"To make it credible there have to be invaders first, Grand Admiral."
"I will do what I can."
"By all means. I suggest you retreat."
"I do not believe this would be convincing."
"Do not underestimate the enemy."
"Never that. What are you getting at?"
"Admiral to the bridge, please!" Captain Palleaon's voice interrupted him suddenly.
"I suppose this is your doing?" Thrawn inquired coolly.
"No, just common sense and some good faith. I would have been very disappoined if Mon Mothma had not thought of using the Executor to scare you off."
Laughing softly Thrawn nodded in acquiescence. "Then I will see you on Coruscant."
"Yes. Make it quick, please. I want this war to end at last."
"We all do."
Jix kept a close watch over the flight controls of their ship as it descended toward the Imperial Palace. Back in the passenger cabin Master Yoda was recovering slowly. He had refused to tell him what had happened though, and Jix was annoyed. Just as bad as Vader, he thought grimly. He had talked to Mon Mothma, relaying the Jedi Master's advice concerning the Grand Admiral, and the Alliance leader had promised to do her best to devise a trap. Not that Jix had any hopes that they would succeed. Thrawn was too good for that. Well, he had his own problems to deal with.
Carefully adjusting the ship's angle he settled it down on the landing pad with a dull thud. He flushed deep red in embarrassment. Okay, let's face it. You'll never make a good pilot. Undoing the flight harness he rose from his seat and went back to check on Yoda. The Jedi Master shot him a heated glare and shook his head in exasperation. Jix merely shrugged before he opened the entry hatch and unholstered his blaster, just in case. To his surprise Chi'in was waiting for them.
"Hey! I hoped I'd never see you again!" the Corellian exclaimed.
"I apologize for disappointing you," the Noghri shot back wrily. "Come on. Lord Vader is waiting for you."
"Good." Heaving a relieved sigh the agent felt his spirits lighten. "You wouldn't by any chance, know if Mara Jade is with him?"
"She contacted us a few hours ago. She will be here tomorrow."
"Yes!" Pumping a fist into the air Jix broke into a wide grin. "Finally."
Chi'in smiled at him. "You missed her?"
"Yes. Although that's none of your business."
"Introduce you want not your friend?" the Jedi Master asked in quiet amusement from where he stood on the shuttle's landing ramp.
"Sure! Master Yoda, meet Chi'in. Chi'in, this is Master Yoda. Chi'in is a Sith," he added helpfully.
Raising his brow Yoda regarded the short warrior in some surprise. "Is that so?"
"If you would follow me," the Noghri told them quietly and turned around to lead the way. Jix noticed the pensive frown on the Jedi Master's wrinkled face as he stood staring at the Sith's back. It lasted only for a moment though. A few minutes later they had reached the throne room via turbo lift.
"Master Yoda." Vader stood in front of the giant holo screen, his hands folded on his back, his expression serious. Unconsciously Jix felt his gaze drawn to the deserted throne on its lonely perch and looked back down at Yoda to see the Jedi Master relax just a fraction. "There is no need to worry," the Dark Lord continued quietly.
"Felt it I did," Yoda replied softly. "Your trials, ended they have."
Shaking his head Vader gestured toward the holo screen, where a single star system was displayed. "Alas, not yet," he answered. "One last thing remains." He grimaced in disdain. "Two, actually, but one has to wait."
"What's the deal?" Jix asked lightly and joined the Dark Lord's side to study the star chart.
"Roj Kell. He is the last that remains of the darkness."
"So we're going after him? To Korriban?"
"Yes. That is his territory and we won't be able to get him to leave it again soon."
"The other, what is it?" Yoda inquired calmly.
"My wife. She has been gravely injured and now she has vanished. There are two possibilities. Either she is safe or else..." Vader drew a deep breath. "Or else Kell has her again."
"Then confront him you should not."
"Why? Master Yoda, he is too dangerous to leave alive, even Palpatine knew that." They stared at each other in silence for a while. "You believe he will use her against me?"
"Certain I am."
The Dark Lord's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What have you two been up to?"
"Picked up an old friend of yours," Jix shrugged. "Unfortunately he dumped us at Kashyyyk."
"You are telling me that you captured Roj Kell and let him escape again?" Vader growled and shot a questioning glance at Yoda. "How?"
"Bond I did with him. Control him I can, if close enough I can get once more."
"Then you will accompany me to Korriban." He closed his eyes briefly. "But first we have to wait for Thrawn."
"He might not be coming," Jix informed his employer glumly.
"What do you mean?"
"Advise I did your friends to capture him."
"I see. They will not succeed. So, I want to hear everything of your hunt. Maybe we can guess at what Kell is planning."
Leia smiled at the radar screen in some satisfaction. For a second it had seemed as if the Grand Admiral's fleet might not take the bait, but the evacuating ships had been too tempting a target. Besides, the Imperials had had no way of determining how many ships should have been left after the rebel attack on Coruscant. Now, with the Executor trapping them against the planet, her heavy lasers punching through their shields easily, the Grand Admiral was on the defensive. So far he'd lost five of his ships to the Alliance fleet and escape was all but impossible. Luke was flying with Rogue Squadron and the Millennium Falcon as back-up to make a difference with the TIEs swarming all over the battle-field. Too bad they did not have enough troops to launch the squadrons left on the Super Star Destroyer. But that seemed hardly necessary. Leia had ordered the Rogues to target the Imperial Interdictor cruisers once they had carved their own ships some breathing space. That way the! Alliance would be free to retreat, regardless to whether Thrawn decided to withdraw the Interdictors himself or not.
Watching the net tighten around the Imperial fleet she nodded to herself grimly. With any luck they would manage to capture the Grand Admiral. The prospect of such a success was incredibly elating, and she almost felt dizzy with joy and anticipation. Therefore when Mon Mothma laid a cautioning hand on her shoulder the princess jumped in surprise.
"We have not won yet," the older woman told her quietly. "But you are doing a great job, Leia. Lord Vader seems to have been a very good teacher."
"That he is," she conceded quietly, wishing that she could tell the Alliance leader the truth. That the Dark Lord was her and Luke's father. And while she was wishing, she also hoped that her parents were both alive and well. Both she and Luke, along with the Sith warriors, had felt an immense disturbance in the Force some hours ago, and Leia could only hope that this was something good.
"Executor, how're things at your end of the stick?" a voice called cheerfully from the comm console.
"Looking good, Millennium Falcon," Leia called back and smiled. "Han, shouldn't you concentrate on flying?"
"He misses you," another voice explained mischievously.
"Cronn! Go back to shooting and stop listening in on us!" Han told the Sith angrily. Chewie added an emphatic roar. There was some laughter before Solo cut the three warriors manning the guns of the freighter off from their conversation. "You think we can capture him alive?"
Leia frowned at the display. "If he does not come up with something very smart very soon he'll have no choice but to surrender." Something caught her eye. "Han, you've got company coming."
"I know, I know. Talk to you later." The connection broke.
"Princess, we've got an anomaly," the ensign at the friend/foe encrypt called out, sounding startled.
"What anomaly?" Leia asked, feeling her skin grow cold in sudden fear. What was Thrawn up to?
"I've got the Dominator on my screens, but," the man frowned, "I've got her twice."
Mon Mothma and the princess shared a troubled glance. "Anything else?" Leia asked quietly.
"The Dominator's sent a shuttle over, supposedly with some injured crewers."
"And they docked when?" she asked in dire anticipation. Her danger sense started screaming at her at the same time a smooth voice from behind her said:
"Ten minutes ago."
Leia whirled around, her eyes widening at the sight of twenty stormtroopers crowding onto the bridge. The black-haired humanoid walking towards her unhurriedly was smiling politely, but his glowing red eyes were unfathomable. Taking a step back, the princess bumped into the comm console and self-consciously opened a channel to all of the Alliance ships.
"Grand Admiral," she said aloud, forcing herself to sound calm. "This is indeed a surprise."
He reached around her and flicked the comm off. "An unpleasant one?" he asked.
"You are too late," she hissed. "They are warned."
"And already retreating. I can see that," the Admiral admitted. "Too bad. Retreating ships are far easier to hit."
Leia's face went white, but then Mon Mothma took over smoothly.
"Grand Admiral, I do not think that such actions will be necessary," she said.
Thrawn did not even turn around. "Stand down your weapons. Now. Recall your fighters."
"I suppose we have no choice," the Alliance leader sighed, but Leia was not finished yet, even though she knew that the skeleton crew manning the Executor would not be able to stand against the stormtroopers.
"The Emperor is dead and we have the support of the population," she claimed, raising her head proudly.
"I am sure you do, princess. Now, please, I hate having to repeat myself."
Leia pressed her lips together tightly, then turned around to address her crew. "You heard him. Cease the attack. This battle is over."
"Thank you," Thrawn told her. "Comm control, please establish a secure channel to Coruscant."
He pushed past Leia to stand beside the Mon Calamari who was frantically typing in code. "Done, sir," she grunted at last.
"Very good. Put me through."
"Executor, you are on receive," a gravelly voice told them calmly.
"I wish to speak to Lord Vader."
"Certainly, Grand Admiral," the voice continued.
"Chi'in? Is that you?" Thrawn asked and Leia saw a slightly bewildered frown appear on his face.
"Yes. It is me," the voice shot back in some amusement. "Lord Vader is on the line for you."
"Thrawn!" Leia' s heart leapt higher at the familiar baritone grating from the speaker. "You surprise me."
"We have that in common then," the Admiral replied wrily. "We will return to Coruscant in two standard days, as far as I can tell from here."
"Two days? I cannot wait that long. Is Leia with you?"
Leia rushed over to the comm. "Lord Vader! I am glad you are alive and well!"
"As am I, Leia." She thought she could see the smile in his tone. "Try to take this lesson to heart. The Grand Admiral is not someone who uses orthodox tactics. He is a real artist when it comes to using the unorthodox."
"I shall try to incorporate that," the Princess answered quietly. "Are you all right?"
"We are. But I will have to leave for Korriban shortly. I fear your mother might have been returned there and I do not want to take any chances with Roj Kell."
"You need a back-up then," Thrawn injected coolly.
"Yes, the Relentless. Jix told me." The Dark Lord sounded incredibly weary. "Unfortunately I cannot afford to lose more ships."
Thrawn smiled. "I understand. But I am certain that the princess is fully capable of bringing this situation to a happy ending."
"No doubt about that. Leia, are you still there?"
"Yes!" she blurted out. "You are allied already?" She threw the Admiral a suspicious glance.
"We are. You can trust him. Return to Coruscant and take over. The remaining councillors won't give you any trouble."
"Thank you," Leia breathed.
"Yes, thank you," Mon Mothma echoed her relief. "Lord Vader, I apologize for ever having doubted your sincerity."
"Apology accepted. I will meet you in a few days. May the Force be with you."
"And with you."
When the call disconnected Leia closed her eyes briefly, feeling peace and serenity settle over her mind as the tension of the battle fled from her. When she opened them again she saw that the fight outside had ended. Apparently the Imperial ships had been ordered to stand down also. Turning her head she met the Grand Admiral's gaze and extended a hand toward him. He took it without hesitation and squeezed it hard.
"To peace and happy endings," she whispered.
Nodding slowly he smiled at her, but before he could reply, blaster fire rang throughout the bridge and then Han and Chewie came charging through, both stopping short at the sight spread out before them. Behind them the three Sith warriors shared a knowing glance. Han's mouth dropped open, but he caught himself again amazingly fast. His forehead furrowed into a questioning frown:
"Are we too late?"
Jix was sulking, but Anakin couldn't care less. So he ignored the Corellian and concentrated on the mission ahead instead. Bent over a detailed map of the valley of the Sith on Korriban, he and Chi'in were discussing the best possible plan of attack. But there were quite a few factors that played against them.
"There are the catacombs too," the Noghri was just pointing out. "He knows them like no other."
"But do we know if they eventually lead back to the surface?"
"If there is another exit I did not find it," Chi'in told him with a shrug. Anakin sighed.
"Great. But a frontal assault would only put Padmé at risk."
"It might still be our only chance. If your master gets close enough though, he might be able to take control of Lord Kell."
"He is not my master," the Dark Lord hissed between gritted teeth. Chi'in looked up at him with a smile.
"And besides, Kell knows his own weaknesses. He will not confront us if he does not have to. To corner him would mean to take more risks."
"Then we will have to separate them first."
"True. So, who is with him?
"Apart from your wife? Possibly Nuron and Sedriss. They are both very good fighters."
"And fools to follow Roj Kell."
"We are agreed on that. So I would suggest two teams and a distraction."
"A distraction? I am not certain if I have any assets left for that."
"How about Karrde?" Jix suggested calmly. "He's out there somewhere, isn't he?"
"You are right. Contact him and see what he says."
The agent raised his eyebrows meaningfully, but left without another word. Once he was gone Anakin shook his head in annoyance. "I hope this will work," he said aloud.
"We all do."
Padmé remembered the heat on Korriban, but in her weakened state she found that she could hardly breathe the humid air. It clung to her clothes and skin, threatening to weigh her down. But Nuron caught her before she could fall and carefully settled her in her arms. The young warrior made for the entrance to the underground fortress swiftly.
"Hang on," she ordered the queen softly. Padmé smiled. On their journey here Nuron had spilled her heart out, telling her what a fool she had been, and how special Luke was to her. There was still some resentment for Anakin, but that would fade. As she was carried through the dark corridors she listened to the sound of water dripping all around her, letting it soothe her nerves. She did not harbor any fond memories of Korriban, but with any luck they would not stay here for long.
Nuron settled her burden down on the bed in what had been Padmé's room when she had been Roj Kell's 'guest', then straightened and heaved a deep breath.
"I will go back to the ship and attempt to raise the Millennium Falcon. Try to relax. When I return the healing will begin."
"Thank you," Padmé said weakly and closed her eyes. The fragrant smell of red blossoms filled her nostrils and she let herself be carried away by it, drifting into slumber and dreams easily. It was some hours later that she woke up again and the silence that permeated the fortress made her feel slightly on edge. What was keeping Nuron? Had she abandoned her after all? Panicking, Padmé tried to rise, but her muscles would not cooperate. With great effort she managed to roll around and drop off the bed. For a long moment she lay there, her chest heaving, and black spots danced merrily in front of her eyes, blinding her. When someone touched her forehead tentatively she felt the dizziness vanish and smiled gratefully.
"Nuron," she whispered and relief poured through her at high speed, filling her entire body with a strange warmth.
"You are welcome."
Padmé froze at the sound of the beautiful voice that caressed her mind with its enchanting melody and hypnotising harmonics. She knew that voice all too well, and the words it had told her still hurt.
"No," she breathed, closing her eyes in despair. A low chuckle filled her ears as gentle hands dragged her upright. Hanging helplessly in the Sith Lord's tight embrace, her feet dangling above the floor, the former queen felt all hope dwindle and disappear. "What did you do to her?" she asked at last, fear filling her to bursting.
"Nothing," Roj Kell answered and she opened her eyes again in surprise.
"What?" she croaked, disbelieving.
His pale green eyes were twinkling with mischievous delight. "She is mine, remember? And look what a pretty gift she has brought her master. Such a good girl."
Padmé tried to free herself, but her weak struggles only seemed to amuse the Sith Lord. "No," she repeated, at a loss of what to say. She had been betrayed. Again.
"But yes, little queen. Your husband is lost to you forever and he knows it. And yet he will come here to attempt to rescue you." Slipping an arm underneath her knee joints, he hoisted her up and turned around to carry her out of the room. "He will be too late. Personal is not the same as important. You are not important. You are nothing to him."
"That is not true," she managed.
"Ah, of course. You are telling yourself that I am not to be trusted, that every word I say is a lie." He snorted softly. "Believe whatever you want, but I know it is the way he feels."
"How could you?"
They had reached the dining hall by then and Padmé found herself being laid out on the rough wooden table. Torches were burning along the walls, adding a barbaric atmosphere to the entire setting. Roj Kell took a place at the head of the table and his hands touched her softly, massaging her temples, and gradually she felt herself relax.
"Let me tell you a story, a true story," he began quietly, and his voice had her spellbound instantly, carrying away her aches and fears with its echoes. "It was a long, long time ago, that a Jedi Master fell in love with a Sith Lord. The Sith had been captured and questioned, but he had not yielded anything to his enemies. On the contrary. Despite the Jedi Master's greatest efforts he retained all of his secrets. The Jedi Master was impressed by his power, and attracted to his looks. She fell in love with him, but denied her feelings to shield herself from harm. Her fellow Jedi were as frustrated at her lack of success as she was with her own feelings. When he lured their troops into disaster, they sentenced him to death. But as it was time for the Sith to die, he managed to escape and took her with him to become his lover and apprentice. For she had intrigued him too, and he wanted her to be his forever."
Pausing for a moment Roj Kell let this sink in and Padmé found herself wishing desperately that he would continue. He did in the end and this time not even his beautiful voice could hide the pain in his tone.
"Six years passed. At the end of the last year the Sith Lord returned from a fierce battle with his own brethren. He knew that they would come for him, that they would use any means available to them to defeat and destroy him. For the Sith feared him, feared his knowledge, just as the Jedi had."
Padmé could feel that fear, could feel it overwhelm her. She shivered slightly in the heat of Korriban.
"But as the Sith Lord returned to his lover he realized that there was just one weakness his enemies could exploit to break him effectively. He looked at the Jedi Master, saw her beauty and strength, her resolve and devotion. It took his breath away to have someone like her by his side, someone he would risk everything for."
Without warning Kell's gentle hands turned into claws as he dug his fingers into her scalp mercilessly. Screaming in surprise and pain Padmé struggled with him, raising her arms weakly to try to fend him off. He held her tightly and when she ceased her fight, too exhausted to go on, her eyes met his, upside down. In that moment he became something less than human.
"Do you want to know how the story ends?" he asked, his voice a low hiss of ill-concealed malice.
Padmé swallowed down her tears. He walked around and bent over her and his hands began caressing her face again gently. Stroking her hair slowly he smiled that predatory smile she had come to fear.
"There was something greater than the love he felt for her, something he knew he could not give up, no matter what. But he knew, if he abandoned her, his foes would use her pain to hurt him, and if she went with him she would be at the greatest danger. Still, he did not want to let her go. What was he to do?"
She shook her head slowly to show him that she did not know while the tears ran down her face freely. Absent-mindedly he wiped the salty drops from her cheeks, a pensive look in his pale eyes. Licking the tears from his fingertips he looked at her suddenly, seemingly startled, as if he had just noticed her, but then the smile was back in place.
"He killed her. Because her life was not as important as the dream he had. A dream of balance and order, of justice and peace. For that dream he had to live on. For that dream he sacrificed her. Just as your husband will sacrifice you."
Sobbing quietly Padmé looked at him through the curtain of tears obscuring her vision. When he bent forward to press a tender kiss on each of her eyelids, she felt her grief bury deeper into her heart and in an instance she knew that he was right. He understood, and in a way he even cared. Padmé was certain that the story he had told her was his own, and it broke her heart how similar his fate was to that of herself and Anakin.
"He will betray you," he whispered as he drew away again. "And you know it."
Jix sat in the co-pilot's chair, brooding. They had not waited for Mara to arrive and he was really angry at Vader for that. Just a few hours! But no, they had had to leave now. Throwing the Dark Lord a mean glare he rose from his seat to join the Jedi Master in the galley. He noticed with some disdain that Chi'in moved to take his seat and lean over to talk to his master quietly.
"I really wonder what those two are cooking together," the agent growled softly and reached for a container full of water.
"Time we do not have much," Yoda told him quietly.
"Are you reading my mind?" the Corellian asked suspiciously. There was no answer, just as expected.
"It would not have made much difference to wait and we'd have Mara with us as reinforcements," he argued, not really caring if Yoda was listening at all.
"Sense I do that the balance is shifting."
"What balance?" Jix snapped. "What are you talking about?"
"Recognize he does not the differences between good and evil. Dangerous that is."
"But you'll take care of him, right?"
"See? No need to worry then," the Corellian snorted and put the container down on the table with a loud thud. Walking back to the cockpit he put his face nose to nose with the Noghri. "Get out of my seat."
"Certainly." Chi'in slipped out of the chair and went through the door, sealing it close behind him.
"Jix, your jealousy is unbearable," Vader told him quietly.
"Jealous? I am jealous? Of him? You wish!"
"I know," the Dark Lord said drily. "If you cannot get my attention your day is spoiled, and if you do not get me riled somehow you'll be miserable. I know you, Jix. Too well," he added darkly. "Listen, I understand that you would rather have stayed behind to meet with Mara, or even have her here with us, but we really have to hurry. The last time I saw my wife she had multiple fractures and some internal injuries. The medics said they did not know if she would make it through the night and now she has vanished. I can sense her, very weakly, but she is still alive. I want to make sure she stays that way. If Mara were in her place I am sure you would understand that urgency too."
"Okay, I apologize," Jix said glumly. "I'll try to put a lid on my impatience."
"Thank you so much. I appreciate that. Really. Think you can keep that up for another day?"
The landing on Coruscant was just as glorious as Leia had hoped it would be. The Alliance fleet, spear-headed by the Executor's imposing bulk, had dropped into the system shortly after the remaining three councillors of Palpatine's court had announced that they would surrender to the rebels and put all their effort into helping them move in. With all that had happened over the past few days, the relief the planet's inhabitants were feeling was almost palpable to Leia and her brother. They had made it! After years of constant struggle they had done it!
The princess smiled warmly at the small assembly that was watching the planet grow bigger in front of the view port. Han wore a big grin on his face and behind him Chewie was radiating pure joy, just as Luke did. Mon Mothma was standing a bit apart, her brown eyes sparkling in delight. At her side the Grand Admiral looked positively relaxed, even though he officially was a prisoner of war. Of course, that was just for show.
The only ones who did not look all too happy were the three Sith lounging at the back of the bridge. But Leia did not mind. Wrapping an arm around Han's waist she leaned her head against his shoulder and let her smile deepen.
"We did it," she whispered.
"You bet," Han replied just as softly and kissed her.
A few hours later the Imperial Palace was positively crowded with the press. Journalists and newsdroids were bustling throughout the administrative complex demanding explanations, while outside crowds of people were cheering the new provisory government under Mon Mothma's lead.
Standing at one of the viewports looking out over the huge plaza in front of the Palace's main entrance Leia was smiling. The noise was not so penetrating up here, but she could still hear the hum of approving voices, could feel the joy emanating from the crowds. They had won. And they had not even had to fight for it this time.
Turning around sharply Leia nodded at the three men seated across from her at the conference table. They stared at her unblinking, but that did not really impress her much. It was an empty gesture of bad losers, a defiance born out of anger and helplessness. Taking her place next to Mon Mothma, the Princess busied herself again with studying the treaties they had worked out together to guarantee a smooth transition of power from the sullen triumvirate to the Alliance leaders.
Looking up she blinked at Han in surprise. So far he had kept very silent, acting as her bodyguard, and he had not left his post by the door ever since they had started this session an hour ago. Now though he seemed agitated, waving for her discreetly to follow him outside. Excusing herself Leia walked over to him and out of the door.
"What is it?"
"Stuff the meeting, princess, we have a problem."
She frowned. "What problem?"
"I just got news that Mara's arrived."
"What? Where has she been?"
"On Duro, apparently."
"To pick up Needa is my best guess."
"He is alive?" Leia asked joyfully. "But that is good news!"
"It is. But the information they carry is not. Security is already heading down to put Thrawn under guard. Mara says there might be an assassin waiting to get his hands on our dear Admiral."
Leia froze for an instance. "All right. You and Mara give security some back-up. Did you try calling his quarters?"
"He's just left the meeting. Maybe he simply hasn't arrived yet."
"And maybe he's dead already."
"Check it out and keep me posted."
He gave her a smart salute and a lop-sided grin. "Yes, ma'am!"
Turning around on his heels he marched away, the perfect caricature of a stormtrooper. Despite the seriousness of the situation Leia smiled. Shaking her head she went back into the meeting to break the news.
Closing the door behind him, the Grand Admiral threw a tired look over his private quarters on Coruscant. He had not really had any use of them over the entire campaign, and it felt strange to return here. This was not his home. Dropping into a chair heavily he frowned and rose again immediately.
The agent was sitting slumped into a chair, his small figure almost entirely hidden by shadows. Thrawn walked over and reached out to touch his face, then moved his hand down to check the pulse. Nothing. Suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck stood up in alarm. Gerran had wanted to warn him about the Sith, hadn't he? And he had apparently not trusted a secure channel. Either that meant that he had not wanted Intelligence to listen in on them or else it had been just a ruse to ...
The faint rustle of clothes was his sole warning. He spun around and ducked low, his blaster already clearing the holster and tracking toward the black shadow closing in on him. Too late he realized that this had just been an illusion, a distraction. Before he could react something pierced his back, and the pain dropped him to his knees in an instance.
"Lord Kell sends his greetings," a voice hissed in his ear and then the Admiral was shoved to the floor unceremoniously. A heart-beat later he had lost consciousness.
"Over there!" Mara yelled and darted after the retreating figure. Following her Luke had a hard time keeping up. She was quick and nimble, and what was more, she knew the Imperial Palace far better than he did. But as immersed in the flow of the Force as he was Luke had no trouble tracing the dark shadow flitting through the darkness ahead. He put more speed into his legs, the handle of his lightsaber clenched tightly in his right hand as he took up the chase. As far as they could tell there was just this one assassin, and from Needa's report they already knew that he was a Sith warrior. Which meant that he was probably just as deadly as Nuron.
"Mara!" Luke called ahead when he could not see her anymore. He knew that she'd had some rudimentary training in the Force, and was an accomplished fighter, but he did not really trust her to stand against a Sith on her own.
"Where did she go?" Han demanded when he finally caught up. Behind him Chewie was brandishing his bow-caster threateningly and echoed his friend's question with a deafening roar.
"I can sense her," the young Jedi replied slowly, lowering his eyelids in concentration. "Upstairs!" he announced suddenly and dashed toward the nearest turbo-lift.
Mara held her blaster close to her body and her eyes were carefully tracking the shadows surrounding her. She had her mind opened to the Force as far as she could go and although that was not much she knew that she could rely on her danger sense to warn her in time. Creeping along the hallways of what had once been the Senatorial Wing of the Palace, back in the days when the Imperial Senate had still existed, she felt strangely uncomfortable. Where the hell had he vanished to? She had caught only a fleeting glimpse of him, and what she had seen matched Needa's description perfectly. A Sith. Well, she had never confronted a Sith before all alone, and look what chances the Relentless' crew had stood against Roj Kell.
Grimacing in disdain, she crouched down suddenly, following her instincts. A faint, rushing noise filled her ears and then a dark shadow somersaulted over her head. She had just enough time to throw herself flat to the floor before a blood-red lightsaber blade stabbed through the air where her head would have been just a second before. Her attacker landed two meters away and came up with a rolling movement to face her again. He was smiling coldly.
"You failed," she informed him quickly, hoping to keep him off balance. "The Grand Admiral is alive."
"Unfortunate. Then I will have to correct that error."
"Everyone is looking for you. You cannot possibly hope to succeed."
"I live to make the impossible happen."
"Then you will die," Mara hissed and took aim. Pushing herself off the floor she got of three shots that he deflected without any problems at all, just as she had known he would, but by then she had crossed half the distance separating them. Mara dropped down on one knee to take aim again when the blaster was torn from her grasp.
"And inventive counter-strike," he told her in quiet amusement.
Gathering all of her strength Mara yanked one of the vases decorating the corridor off its perch and threw it at him. Without turning around he smashed it into bits, raining glass shards all over the soft carpet. She stared at the glittering pieces. Glass. Sharp. Perfect. Back-flipping on her hands she took up a defensive position, daring him to advance. When he took a step toward her she jumped forward and ducked, scything her legs through his ankles. She had caught him by surprise with her second move, but his lightsaber still grazed her shoulder and dropped her to the floor moaning with pain. His furious scream though as he hit the glass was most rewarding. So she had judged the angle right after all. Moving swiftly Mara made a grab for his right hand to wrestle the lightsaber from his grasp. She pressed his palm into the sharp shards and pulled his hand sideways, until he let go, his skin torn and bleeding. Hopefully she had managed to injure some nerves and sinews. R! ising again Mara kicked her boot-tip into his face, trying to knock him out, but his left hand caught her foot and yanked it out from under her. Mara lost her balance and dropped down next to him on her back. Damn. She held the lightsaber in both hands when he rose above her and struck without warning, sending the weapon flying against the far wall.
"Game over," he whispered.
"Not yet." Mara brought her knee up and hit his belly hard. He fell back with a gasp and then suddenly a blinding blue light filled her vision.
"I would advise you to surrender," she heard Luke's voice state calmly. The Sith stared at him over Mara's head, his features strangely contorted in the garish glow of the blade. "I won't tell you again," the Jedi pressed him gently. Propping herself up on her elbows Mara could just make out some more people standing at the back of the cornered assassin. Luke was standing right behind her.
"Jedi," the nameless warrior hissed and rose.
"Correct. Please, don't make this harder on yourself. Mara, get up." When Luke held out his left hand to help her Mara cursed softly at his misplaced gallantry. As expected the Sith made his move. Kicking the lightsaber out of the Jedi's hand he spun on his own axis and came around to hammer his boot into the side of Luke's neck. Mara screamed when the young man flew against the wall and sank to the floor like a sack. Immediately the air filled with blaster fire and Mara let loose another string of colorful curses as she crawled over to the fallen Jedi. She winced at the palor of his face. He needed someone to look after him at once. Risking a glance over her shoulder Mara saw that the Sith had had no chance at escaping the combined crossfire of the security guards and Solo and his Wookiee. He was lying on the carpet motionless, hopefully dead.
"Solo! He needs help!" Mara called and heaved Luke upright. His friend was by their side instantly.
"Damn. This looks bad. Let's get him down to medical."
When Leia stormed into the medical ward of the Imperial Palace she feared the worst. Luke was still unconscious, his neck fixed in a tight bandage to prevent him from moving it around. Apart from that he seemed to be okay. Placing a quick kiss on his forehead she squeezed Han's hand in passing him before she went over to take a look at the Grand Admiral. His pale blue skin seemed to have taken on a shade of gray, but he was alive and recovering. The stab-wound had cost him a lot of blood, but had luckily not damaged his spine or anything else vital.
"Admiral," she breathed. "I would have been very sad to lose you now."
"Thank you, princess," he replied weakly.
Leia sensed Han join her side. She reached out to touch him absent-mindedly, then turned her head to look up at him. "What about the assassin?"
"He is being questioned. Pretty bad injuries, but strangely enough he seems ready to cooperate. He won't be any more trouble." Just then the door to another room opened and Mara strode through grim-faced.
"Any news?" Leia inquired calmly.
"Well," the former Emperor's Hand began and gave Thrawn a pensive look. "It seems kinda strange, but apparently his killing you was supposed to help Lord Vader."
"In what way?" the Grand Admiral asked quietly.
"Well, your death would have meant that Lord Vader would be held responsible for winning the war and since politically you always need someone to present as winner that would have saved his life."
"I am not sure I understand," Leia admitted.
"You see, Lord Kell sent this man, Sedriss, to assassinate Thrawn, but he assumed that Palpatine would have succeeded in breaking your father again. So Thrawn's death would have served as insurance."
"But now the Emperor is dead and Father will have to take full responsibility nevertheless."
"The question is: did Kell know and still not call his assassin off? Or is he out of touch?"
"I don't know. But I suggest we ask him."
Leia felt a sudden premonition. "He is waiting for Father on Korriban."
"I see what you mean, princess," Thrawn injected coolly. "We have to ask ourselves if he will destroy him or try to gain his loyalty. What is it he wants?"
Mara shrugged. "I have no idea. What I do know is that Lord Vader has left with Chi'in, Jix and Master Yoda. If that team doesn't defeat Kell then I guess noone can."
Blinking into the sudden light filling the gloom permeating his tiny cell Tomas Piett tried to shield his eyes with his hands.
"You look a mess, Tomas," a familiar voice told him drily. The Admiral smiled.
"Lorth. You are alive. What a nice surprise."
"Come on. Let's get you out of there. Can you walk?"
"Yes. Where is Lord Vader?"
"On his way to Korriban. He'll be back soon, hopefully."
"Then we have won?"
"Yes. On any level."
"Good." Sighing deeply he let his friend help him up. "It is good to see you again." Momentarily startled he took a step back when Lorth's gray eyes turned icy blue.
"I am also very pleased to see you alive," Needa said softly and smiled.
Withdrawing from the Captain's mind Anakin ignored the disapproving glance Master Yoda gave him. He was just glad that both Needa and Piett had survived. Although it had come as some surprise that the bond he had established with Needa in order to use him as a means of communication had also seemingly protected the man somehow. Well, as for protection, they might need that themselves very soon. They had dropped out of hyperspace half an hour ago and Korriban was slowly coming closer. Its storm-ridden atmosphere was roiling with clouds and stabbed over and over again by lighting. Anakin's anticipation grew with every minute that passed and he tentatively reached out to find Padmé. But all he could sense was darkness.
"Careful you must be," Yoda said suddenly.
"Do not worry. I think I know now how I can handle him."
"Assume you should not too much. Different Lord Kell is from your master."
"You said that before, but in which way is he different? He is evil, the heart of darkness, as the stories claim. How can he be different?"
"The heart, not the core it is, but something else."
"I see. Nevertheless, my task is to flush him out so you can take over. I will gladly watch and learn from you though how to handle a Sith Lord." Anakin did not quite manage to keep the haughtiness out of his tone. The Jedi Master frowned at him.
"Learn you still must, I believe, if think that way you do."
Chastised the Dark Lord looked away. "I shall try to be more humble."
"There is no try," Yoda growled.
"You are right." Rising from his seat in the back of the shuttle, Anakin nodded at the Jedi Master before he went to join the rest of the team in the cockpit. "Jix," he addressed the Corellian sitting in the co-pilot's chair, "I want you in the back and at the hatch the moment we touch down. We have to move fast."
"Sure." The agent scrambled out of his seat and left the cockpit quickly. Chi'in, previously acting as pilot, reliquished the controls to Anakin and changed seats with him.
"All right. Let's get down there and put an end to the game."
Sitting cross-legged on the floor Roj Kell was meditating. He could sense his adversaries come closer, and the probing mind of the Jedi Master was pacing just outside his mental shields, waiting for the tiniest weakness to try and get a hold of him once more. But he would not allow that to happen. Not again. Concentrating on his surroundings he dismissed the presence of the queen seated at the table, watching him attentively. But the other presence, vibrant and full of fear, caught his attention and malicious interest easily. His eyes snapped open to look straight at Nuron, who was balanced on her haunches at the entrance to the cave, her golden gaze studying him just as intently as the queen did. Still, their motives for watching him were quite different. He rose slowly, shedding the long cloak he usually wore, and walked over to drop the heavy garment on the table top. Adjusting the red armor covering his forearms he smiled a bit, but kept a close watch over the young ! warrior out of the corner of his eye. She got to her feet quickly when he turned toward her.
"Your master has returned, it would seem," he informed her, knowing full well that she must have felt the Dark Lord's presence too.
"He is not my master," she replied quietly.
Roj Kell laughed. "No? I see that differently." Striking at her without warning he sent her against the wall hard and blood started spurting from her nostrils when her head rebounded form the rock. The queen gave a delighted laugh and clapped her hands in mock appraisal. Nodding toward her Kell smiled again.
"What did I do wrong?" Nuron asked from where she had dropped to the floor. Wisely enough she did not try to rise again without permission.
"You have indeed learned a lot on Coruscant. Especially the art of deception."
"I did not deceive you."
"That is a lie. When you realized that I was waiting for you on Korriban you decided to play the loyal apprentice once more to save your own life."
"That is not true."
"Another lie." He shook his head sadly. "Nuron, Nuron. You disappoint me. Have I taught you nothing at all?"
"You taught me distrust."
"Of course. That's what I just said. You do not trust me."
Her head came up and those golden eyes pierced into his menacingly. "You twist the truth around, Lord Kell. I was merely trying to protect the queen."
"Protect the queen? Is that so. My lady, did she protect you?"
"No," Padmé answered coldly. "She did not."
"Exactly. On the contrary, Nuron. You betrayed her."
"What!" Jumping to her feet the Zabrak was bristling with outrage.
"Was it not you who deceived her children? You, who threatened her daughter's life? And was it not you, Nuron Sarin, who put her at her husband's mercy?"
"I did not!" Nuron protested.
"He has come to destroy me, Nuron. And he will sacrifice his wife to get to me, because he knows that she is his greatest weakness. But I will not let that happen."
"Lady Vader! I did not betray you!" the young Sith called desperately. But the queen's lips merely twitched in distaste. "My lady! He is the one deceiving you, don't you see?" The Zabrak dropped to her knees in front of the queen and pressed her hands against hers intently. "Please," she added in a whisper.
"That is quite enough, Nuron. Your insolence is intolerable."
Launching herself at him with a wild howl of rage and indignation Nuron tried to get past his defenses, but she was far too upset to succeed. Back-handing her across the face with a well-armored arm Kell broke her nose and jaw easily. She stumbled back, holding her smashed cheek with both hands, and tears were streaming down her eyes, mingling with the blood flowing from her mouth and nose.
"Go back to you unworthy master," he hissed. "You are nothing to me. Go! Get out of my sight."
Shaking her head she stood her ground bravely, but he would not have it. He advanced on Nuron again and slowly but inevitably she took a tentative step back, then another and yet another until she realized that she was indeed too afraid to attack him once more. Whirling around abruptly she fled the room. Roj Kell drew a satisfied breath. Good. There was just one exit to the underground maze of what had once been the Temple of the Dead and he had prepared his defenses months ago. Walking back to join Padmé he reached out to caress her left cheek and to his great amusement she even smiled at his touch.
"They will pay," he whispered. "They will pay for the past." We all will, he added quietly to himself, suddenly somber again. He knew very well that the forces gathered against him were deadly. This time he would not escape. But he would win, as he always did.
When Roj Kell left the chamber Padmé shook her head softly, trying to get through the haze filling her head with doubts and darkness. Her gaze was drawn down to where a knife lay half-hidden in the folds of her skirt. She stared at the weapon dumbly for some time before she realized that Nuron must have placed it there when she had knelt before her. Tugging it into her tunic the queen pressed her lips together tightly, trying to remember what had happened, what had been said. But as she waited for her memories to return she found herself reliving all of her old fears. She thought that she had forgiven Anakin, had believed that the short time they had spent together on Coruscant had cleansed her heart again, but that was not the truth. The truth was that she indeed felt betrayed.
Blinking her eyes against tears of humiliation and denial, she recalled all the things he had said to her and wondered if he had really, truly meant it. If he loved her still. Doubts were nagging at her resolve again and as she remembered the story Roj Kell had told her, Padmé realized that no matter what Anakin tried to tell himself, he had given up everything for his foolish plan. Still, there was no way he could go back to being the man she had fallen in love with. He had willingly made that choice when he took up the fight against Palpatine. Why did you have to play the game? She shook her head sadly, knowing full well that for Anakin his actions still seemed valid. Even if he had hurt her with them. And that was something she could not forgive. That he had not trusted her with his feelings and with his plan. To be shut out like that, even if he had sought to protect her, was an insult to both her vows to him and her duties to her people. He had told her! that he loved her and yet he had not been able to let her carry part of his burden. Who did he think he was?
Rage took hold of her again as she remembered his exact words when she had risked her life on Coruscant to get to him, to give him her strength and love. Palpatine will use you to break me. How could he have been so selfish? All he cared for was his own survival, his continued existence to win this stupid battle against the Emperor.
Shivering slightly Padmé hugged her arms around herself desperately. She was still weak from her injuries, although it was not as bad as it had been. Kell had healed her, hadn't he? Thinking of the tall Sith now she felt a strange warmth fill her heart, as if he were an old friend and not an enemy. She frowned at that. This was wrong. He was wrong. There was something, just out of her grasp, something she should remember, but couldn't.
When Roj Kell returned she raised her head to stare at him numbly. He carefully lay an arm around her shoulders, and suddenly all of her doubts had vanished.
"What is the plan?" she asked with a small smile.
"A simple one," he said quietly. "You only have to die for him and then he will be free once more. You want him to be free, don't you?"
Padmé nodded. "I cannot hold on to him," she whispered, her voice thick with tears.
"You are very brave, little queen, a true warrior." Kissing the crown of her head he touched the back of her neck just over her spine gently. Padmé felt her muscles turn to jelly and her bones to water. Dropping from the chair she sank to the floor, half-blind with sudden fear.
"No!" she whispered weakly, desperate.
Roj Kell knelt down beside her. "Hush now. It will be over soon." The sound of his voice made her cry in relief.
"Please," she begged, "hold me for a while. Just a little bit."
Wrapped in his embrace Padmé found the strength to close her eyes. She imagined that it was Anakin holding her and her heart started to ache fiercely for his touch. Her feelings became overwhelming, throwing her into a storm of love and hate, confusing her. "I am afraid," she admitted quietly, and in an instance the storm had been scattered throughout the darkness that filled her mind like soft velvet.
"But you are strong," he told her softly. "Keep your faith, that is all I ask of you."
Jix frowned at the Dark Lord and the Jedi Master conversing quietly in the back of the ship while he was both guarding the hatch and providing cover for the Noghri, who was rummaging around the X-wing Jix had crashed here on his first trip to Korriban. Incidentally that had also been his first real flying experience as a pilot. Giving a triumphant cry Chi'in hopped off the downed fighter's canopy and darted back to the shuttle.
"Found anything useful?" Jix asked quietly.
"Actually yes. You buried her nose into the ground-"
"Smashed," the Corellian corrected him.
"Yes, smashed, but the guns remain undamaged. At the angle they are directed now we can blast a hole into the stone easily."
"There is a tunnel running underneath the crash-site. With any luck we can blast our way in and catch our quarry by surprise."
"But it would require a distraction first."
"Yes. And I have a feeling that Lord Vader is bent on providing just that," the Noghri replied drily.
"Yeah, probably. Are you gonna tell him?""
"I-" whirling around lightning-quick Chi'in sprinted toward the figure that staggered unsteadily up the ramp leading from the underground fortress to the surface.
Jix' angry shouts had alerted the Dark Lord and the Jedi Master and both joined him now to watch the Noghri escort a slender figure back to the ship. Jix stared at the alien's injured face and it took him a second before he recognized her.
"Nuron," Vader hissed under his breath and went forward to meet the two Sith warriors. Following him Jix kept a steady watch over the fortress' entrance, just in case. When he looked at the Zabrak again she had dropped to the ground and was sobbing quietly. The Dark Lord bent down to raise her head very carefully to meet his gaze. For a moment his jaw muscles clenched in anger, but then his scarred face softened again. "You should not have trusted him."
Shaking her head desperately the young Sith caught his arms when he straightened again. Jix could see the humiliation burn hotly in her golden eyes. But her injuries prevented her from speaking. The Dark Lord freed himself from her grasp gently.
"It is all right, Nuron. I understand why you did what you did. I just hope you have learned from your mistakes."
She hung her head in quiet defeat.
"Master Yoda, please," Vader continued, "I would be very grateful if you could see to her wounds."
"Wait you will for me," the Jedi Master told him sternly.
"No way. We have to act now, I can sense it. Chi'in, Jix, you two are with me. Jix, when do you think the Wilde Karrde will arrive?"
"Should be here any minute," the Corellian replied.
"Good. Master Yoda, send them in after us once they are here. If Nuron is sufficiently recovered then you can join them."
"As you wish," Yoda whispered calmly as he lay a hand soothingly on the injured woman's shoulder. "Careful you must promise me to be though."
"We are always careful," Jix told him with a grin. "Ain't that right?"
The Dark Lord smiled. "And reckless. No more of that, Jix. This is too serious."
"Oh?" he answered in mock surprise. "In that case you'd better listen to Chi'in's brilliant idea. And I mean it's brilliant, especially coming from him."
Ten minutes later Vader had entered the krayt dragon's den and Jix and ChI'in set to work on the X-wing.
Extending his senses beyond the mind half-mad with rage and pain that was spread out before him, Yoda tried to catch a glimpse of Roj Kell. But the old Sith was shielding himself magnificently, despite the bond that should have allowed the Jedi Master to flatten him against the closest wall at a whim. That though would be of the Dark Side, and Kell knew that too. Too bad.
Concentrating again on healing the young Zabrak, Yoda looked at her pain-filled features pensively. He noticed the tattoos on her face, the raised knobs dotting her brow and wondered. A loud boom told him that the Corellian and the Noghri had finally succeeded in their task. Again he listened to the Force to gain any information as to what was going on underground. There was only silence and somehow that silence was more frightening than anything else he had experienced over the past few days. A Jedi knows no fear, he told himself and smiled wrily. Maybe he should have warned Anakin and told him what was awaiting him down there. But he needed to finally trust the Dark Lord to do the right thing. Everything depended on it. Shaking his head in disdain when he caught himself thinking the ancient Sith's thoughts, Yoda looked down into Nuron's golden eyes again.
"The first of your kind you are to serve the Sith?" he asked suddenly. She shook her head very slowly.
"Remember I do another warrior, a Sith. A deadly fighter he was, but slain he was by a fighter even more adept. A Jedi."
"My ... uncle," she whispered through split lips. "Darth Maul."
"Darth Maul," Yoda repeated thoughtfully. "Be still now. Your healing, completed it will be soon."
Anakin was walking the corridors cautiously, using the Force to pick his way among the slippery stones and moss. But he could sense neither Kell nor Padmé. What was worse was the exhaustion he could feel gently press against his inner defenses, nudging him here and there in an effort to tell him that it was time for some rest. He could not rest now.
When Anakin finally could make out some light at the end of the tunnel he was following, he quickened his pace and drew his lightsaber. Turning a corner he strode into the dining hall swiftly, intent on surprising his quarry. The room was lit by torches that flickered across the blood-red tapestries which covered the walls with history. It was hot in there, but then, it was hot everywhere on Korriban. In the distance Anakin thought he could hear thunder, but he realized immediately that this had to be Jix' X-wing at work. By that time though his mind had dismissed his team already. With a soft curse he dropped down next to the small figure lying on the floor at his feet and reached out to touch her shoulder.
"You have come at last," a soft voice intoned from behind him and the Dark Lord cursed himself for having fallen for such an obvious trap. When the Sith's black cloak gently brushed against his left cheek he closed his eyes for a moment, trying to regain some of his strength.
Smiling down at his grim-faced adversary Roj Kell reached out to turn Anakin's head up to face him.
"How much you must have hurt her, Lord Vader. Whatever I told her about you about what you did, she was so eager to believe everything. I had not expected this to be so easy, you see? She is a queen, a politician, after all. But she never saw the true meaning of my words, never inquired too closely. What lies I told her she saw as the truth and I only had to withhold a few facts here and there, crucial facts that would have slanted the whole affair in your favor, of course. A beautiful, strong woman, Lord Vader. But so easily fooled."
Anakin did not move.
"Your plan has failed."
The Dark Lord's eyes were flashing furiously, but he did not reply to this insult. Remember who you are, he heard Obi-Wan's voice whisper in his mind. But this sort of passive resistance had not worked against Palpatine either, hadn't it? Gritting his teeth Anakin chose to ignore Kell completely. Instead he bent forward to take Padmé in his arms tenderly.
"You disappoint me, Lord Vader," the ancient Sith continued. "And I cannot tolerate failure. Not at a time like this."
Anakin smiled and shook his head. "How did I fail then?"
"You came here to destroy me, and yet you have made no move to put your plan into action. Time has run out."
"You want me to kill you?" Looking up he gave Kell a slightly incredulous look. "Why?"
Following the order without thinking Anakin cursed the old man's magical voice. Then he threw a worried glance at Padmé limp form. She was alive, and he could find no injuries on her at all. But she would not wake up. "What did you do to her?"
"That is not the question. Answer me this, Lord Vader: what were your motives for coming here?"
Anakin met the other's pale eyes calmly. "The Emperor is dead and he will not come back again. You are the last remnant of darkness, the last of the Sith."
"I see. To destroy evil where you find it? Such a selfless endeavor." He smiled sardonically. "Will you kill yourself next? Will you kill her?" Extending a hand, palm facing downward, Roj Kell let Padmé's body rise from the floor gently, depositing her on the cleared table. "She is not dead, yet. But I can sense her darkness, just as I can sense yours." Roj Kell gazed at the Dark Lord intently and smiled. "You came here for her, because you did not want to repeat your past mistakes. Is that not so? What you wanted to accomplish here was to find redemption. But it does not work that way, my lord. She cannot give you absolution."
The Dark Lord frowned. "You said you want the Sith to survive. I could hardly allow that to happen, could I?" That had been the reason, hadn't it? And then he realized that he was thinking just like Mon Mothma did. He was thinking in images, without ever considering what lay behind that image. Simplifying things like that was politics. But the essence of politics was deception. Roj Kell was a master of that. Now he had to ask himself what the other man had truly meant.
"No? Why not?" Arching his eyebrows questioningly the old Sith crossed his arms in front of his chest, seemingly completely at ease.
"The Sith started this conflict. Palpatine did. I have told you so over and over again in the hope that you would listen to the real meaning of my words. A shame that you did not."
"This conflict is older than the Republic," Kell spat. "I know exactly who started it. And now you think to destroy the last of your kind?" Kell laughed quietly.
"What do you mean?"
Leaning toward him conspiratively Roj Kell let his eyes narrow into slits of green ice and the skin around his mouth and nose crinkled into something like a friendly snarl. "A very long time ago the Jedi split up over a question of faith -"
"I know all that," Anakin snapped defensively. Why was he so edgy anyway?"
"Do you now." Chuckling softly Roj Kell shook his head and white teeth caught the light of the torches at the corners of his mouth. "Then tell me, Anakin Skywalker: in what way are you different from myself? You realize that there can be no evil without there being good. You know that without outrage, without fear, there is no courage, there is no passion. You use other people's feelings to guide them the way you want them to move."
"I am not like you, no way."
"You are a Sith, Lord Vader. Denying it won't change the truth."
"No. Wake her up." Striding over to stand beside Padmé he ran a hand over her face, trying to understand what Kell had done to her.
The words that crawled along the chamber's walls on spidery whispered legs sent shivers down his spine and made his skin grow cold. "Do you remember what I promised you on Nar Shadaa? That I would kill her, either way. She is not who she once was, Anakin. She has grown. You too died, as a Jedi, a long time ago, and you were reborn a Sith." Roj Kell's enchanting voice seemed to encompass the entire room, filling it with livid shadows and a silent hum that made Anakin shake with dread. "I made her accept her own darkness. Just as you will accept it," the ancient Sith hissed and the Dark Lord could sense him come closer.
Whirling around Anakin prepared for an attack that never came. At least not from the one he had expected. Someone had taken hold of his right sleeve. Looking down over his shoulder he eyed Padmé suspiciously when she slowly opened her eyes to look at him. Her pale face was a mask of cold hatred. Tugging at his arm she made him bend down to meet her dark-eyed gaze. Then she wrapped her hands around his head gently and pressed his forehead against hers. Anakin tried to break away, but she held him tightly:
"Oh no," she whispered, her warm breath caressing his face tenderly. "You cannot escape this time."
"I never should have let you go," he replied resignedly, astounded by her hatred. What had happened to her? Well, the answer to that question was standing right behind him. Anakin pressed his eyes close, for once surrendering to the despair and grief he felt about losing her. He should not have let her go like this. He had caused her so much pain, had caused her to turn to the Dark Side too.
"Anakin," she asked, "why did you come?"
Swallowing hard he locked his eyes with hers. "I wanted to save you. Just that." The tears that started rolling down her pale cheeks seemed to wash away her anger. "I did not want you to be alone. Do you realize how worried I was?" he continued softly.
"What about your fight? Is that not important anymore?" Her voice sounded so weak, so tired.
"You know it is. But you are too. And this battle is over."
"Not yet," Roj Kell said softly.
Jogging after the Noghri warrior, Jix was trying to keep an eye on every corner, every shadow. The corridor they were running along seemed to never want to end, but he simply had to trust Chi'in to know that they were still on the right way. There was only the sound of dripping water, just at the edge of his hearing, that disturbed the eerie silence permeating the underground maze of the fortress. When he nearly slipped on the wet stone, the Corellian cursed quietly.
"How much longer?" he hissed at the gray shadow flitting ahead of him. Chi'in stopped and turned around.
"We are nearly there." The Sith cocked his head to one side, as if listening to something far away. "Careful now. Try to keep your wits together."
"I always do."
Jix did not like the look Chi'in gave him at all. What had he and Vader been talking about anyway? Frowning slightly he resumed the easy pace the Noghri set. Soon afterwards he thought he could hear an argument going on somewhere up front. He recognized the Dark Lord's heated voice immediately.
"If you do not attack I will not defend. It is that easy," Vader growled.
"That is not the point. There will always be greed, people who crave power, who enjoy killing and oppressing the weak. You will not change that. Ever." Roj Kell sounded awfully cold. "Not if you do not take risks. Your choices are simple. Either you turn away or else you interfere. The Jedi did not succeed in keeping order because they were weak, caught up in their own little world of righteousness. You must set an example of strength, without giving yourself away."
"The Sith will never rule, Kell, not if I can help it."
"Then you will lose." The words were almost unintelligible, distorted by what sounded like a ferocious growl. " You are pathetic," the ancient Sith hissed. "You are a fool."
The sound of that voice made Jix' scalp tingle. This did not bode well. Apparently Chi'in had had the same thought. Quickening his pace the Noghri raced ahead, toward the small rectangle of light that fell across the corridor just ahead of them. The Corellian followed him promptly and both arrived just in time to be thrown against the wall when a blast of what felt like an immense explosion hit them hard. Jix thought he had broken at least three ribs when the stars that had been dancing around his head cleared at last. At his side Chi'in gave a low grunt. "Come on!" the Noghri ordered and pushed himself off the ground.
"If you will not accept the truth you will be destroyed," Roj Kell snarled and Jix could see him now, looming over the Dark Lord like an avenging ghost. "I told you so before," the Sith Lord continued viciously, "I will not accept failure at this point. I have had enough of it. Enough, do you hear me?"
"I should have known," Vader hissed and tried to rise to his feet. Another blow rang over his head.
"Defend yourself," Kell ordered coldly.
"Then you will die."
"I don't think so," Jix injected coolly. Roj Kell's head snapped around to frown at the Corellian standing in the doorway.
"Jixton," he said with a mirthless smile. "The loyal bodyguard. And Chi'in. Why am I not surprised?"
Raising his arm Jix took aim and ducked. The shot went wide, deflected by some unseen shield. He should have known. Compressing his lips into a tight line the Corellian threw himself out of the way before the stone behind him shattered in a shower of splintering rock. Laughing out loud Roj Kell shook his head wildly. "I will have to thank Master Yoda after all, it would seem! Now. Chi'in. You are alive. But that will change."
The Noghri had circled around the Dark Lord and the ancient Sith noiselessly during that last exchange, inserting himself between Kell and the small woman that could only be Padmé. Now he straightened up slowly and drew his lightsaber. The red blade ignited instantly, battling the yellow light of the torches.
"Ah," Kell said with a smile. "Since I do not have a weapon, let's make this a fair fight."
He raised his left hand in an impervious gesture and a sudden stormwind blew the torches out. Plunged in nearly total darkness the chamber became a cold grave. Jix felt a shiver run down his spine as he watched the red beam of Chi'in's lightsaber dance seemingly aimlessly through the gloom.
"Jix, are you all right?" He nearly jumped at the sudden sound of a whisper beside him.
"Is that you?" he tried weakly.
The Dark Lord snorted: "Of course. Who did you expect." The Corellian felt the other man stand up.
"What are you doing?" he hissed, trying to be heard over the roar of the lightsaber slicing through air.
"You know what I realized?" Vader asked in quiet amusement.
"The heart of darkness is the light. He's right about that."
The garish white flash that suddenly illuminated the chamber made Jix curse out loud. Could the man not have warned him or something? Throwing an arm across his eyes to shield them against the glare he heard a soft gasp and risked a glance at the brightly lit room.
Completely intent on the Noghri and blinded by the sudden light Roj Kell did not even noticed Padmé coming up behind him until it was too late. And when he finally caught on and turned around to face her Anakin struck at him, slicing through the Sith Lord's mind with a vengeance at the same time that Padmé brought up a knife and buried it to the handle in Roj Kell's chest. Anakin saw the Sith Lord's body stiffen and fall and for a second he regretted that he had not been able to get at Kell himself. Padmé stared at the white-haired Sith sliding to the ground before her for a long moment. But when she raised her head again, the look in her dark eyes was frighteningly cold and for a second Anakin felt his mind freeze in panic.
"Now tell me why," she hissed, holding the knife's handle in a death grip. Her hands were shaking. "Why did you abandon me?"
"I had to. I knew what he was planning and if Palpatine had ever found out you would never have survived."
"Stop!" Padmé yelled at him, then tried to calm herself visibly, "You are telling me that you deliberately used me, used my feelings, to push your foolish little game forward, a game you lost, Anakin." Taking a deep breath she nodded at the man lying motionless at her feet. "He was right," she said. "You lost."
"No, you misunderstand, I only wanted to explain. You asked me why and I-".
The knife fell from her hands, its blade clattering on the stones that were slick with blood. When she spoke again her voice was barely a whisper:
"No more, Anakin. You are only making things worse," she growled and turned her back on him.
"Padmé," Anakin called softly, close to tears. Why had this happened? They had shared so much back on Coruscant and he had though that she would trust him once more. But then, some wounds were far deeper than the eye could see. "I know what has happened to you. And I know that there is a way for you to overcome it. I found it. And you always were the stronger of the two of us, you can do this too. You must find your inner strength again, regain your balance. I beg you, Padmé." Pausing to catch his breath Anakin fought down a wave of sudden nausea, "Please."
Still, there was no answer. He could see her hugging her arms around her slim body, shoulders shaking. She was crying. And before he knew it tears were flowing down his cheeks too.
"Please," he whispered, "Come back to me."
When she whirled around her eyes were even darker than the sky over Korriban. Two long strides brought them face to face and when she reached up as if to touch his face Anakin flinched back instinctively from the anger and hatred emanating from her very soul. Her lips parted slightly and for a second he thought that she might say something, and his mind leapt forward hungrily to hear any words out of her mouth: an accusation, her forgiveness, anything. But they never came. Instead he felt despair flood her mind before a tiny gasp broke the spell and then she turned again to walk away and out of the room. Away from him. Stunned he watched her go, completely exhausted, his mind tumbling. Jix was sitting on his haunches next to the damaged entrance and threw a tired glance at Padmé's retreating form.
Standing very straight and poised for action, the lightsaber deactivated again, Chi'in looked at Anakin pensively. "Maybe I could talk to her," he offered. The Dark Lord shook his head slowly.
"If I cannot bring her back no one can."
Heaving a deep sigh Anakin stepped over the ancient Sith's body, when he noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye. Looking down he cursed softly. Don't tell me he's still alive! Dropping down next to Roj Kell he stared at the white-haired Sith Lord for some time. Pale green eyes half-closed the old man met his gaze calmly.
"Do you want me to finish this?" Chi'in asked.
"No." He reached out, a hand slipping underneath Kell's chin to lift it up ever so slightly. Blood began pouring out of the other's mouth almost immediately and his body jerked as he began coughing pitifully, choking. "No, we won't kill him. We are the good ones, remember? Yoda can deal with him. Come on." Chi'in and Jix at his heels, Anakin left quietly.
Halfway down the hall he felt his knees buckle and almost fell.
"Need an escort?" Jix asked gruffly.
Closing his eyes the ancient Sith exhaled slowly, trying to send the pain away. He had fought so hard for all those years, had tried to push this galaxy in the right direction and had let it all get out of hand. Darth Bane had not managed to bring change and Sidious had only created more chaos. Vader now had been so much more promising. But he was just as weak as his predecessors, never realizing that there was no justice, no faith, no rules, only what you yourself created. It was frustrating for Kell to see that despite his high hopes he had not reached his goal. True, the Dark Lord had achieved balance, as he had proven just now, not giving in to his hatred and anger. Still, that was not what Kell had wanted. Sith or Jedi, it did not matter what they were called. Fact was that the powerful should use their strength to make changes. They should not be afraid to act and instead accept their responsibility. Groaning softly he closed his eyes, but then he felt a cool hand ! touch his forehead gently and he could sense a tickle in the back of his mind that could only mean that Yoda was assessing the damage done. And he was too weak to defend himself against the unwelcome intrusion.
"Even we are, you said," the Jedi Master told him quietly.
"Then leave it at that," Kell replied, coughing up more blood. He could feel the warm liquid drench his clothes already as it spread out from the wound in his chest and flowed from his mouth. What was left for him? Nothing. His death would be just as meaningless as the rebels' victory.
"I cannot," Yoda answered.
"Prepared you are to face your destiny?"
"Always," the ancient Sith replied and forced a smile on his lips. "Are you?"
Yoda nodded gravely. Closing his eyes Roj Kell met the Jedi Master's presence half-way in a gesture of surrender. Cor'dan ha undera do'sh unden luz gha motha. The heart of darkness embraces the light as I embrace life and death. It was the ancient mantra of the Cor'dan, the Heart of Darkness, to remind him of his duties to the Force, duties he had neglected for far too long. Maybe he was about to pay the price now.
But that was the future. Now it was time for the past to die at last.