The room was shrouded in shadows. Deep and brooding.
A maelstrom of black thoughts swirled around the figure slouched in the high-backed chair facing the tinted transparisteel. Fingers absently thrummed the armrest and the constant motion outside the window went unnoticed. Nostrils flared with impatience.
Sudden stillness overtook body and mind as the door hissed open. He sensed the two men step into the dark room. Their nervousness radiated outward, sharpening his hunger. He flicked his finger and the door swished closed, the clunk of the locking mechanism echoing through the room. Silence followed, filling and intensifying the darkness. Satisfaction brushed his mind as an audible swallow pierced the stifling quiet.
The voice was hushed. "My lord?"
The inquiry went unanswered. The labored breathing of both men filtered through his mind as their trepidation grew taut, transforming, at last, into shards of fear that cut through their composure. One shifted.
He swooped across the room, a swift and silent shadow. With a thought, the lights flared to full brightness. Both men startled, the left one stumbling back a step. He let his black-cloaked image and shadowed eyes imprint upon their quaking minds. Dispassionately, he lifted his right hand, pinching finger and thumb together. The one that had stumbled now gagged, clutching at his throat as he fought for air. He sank to his knees, eyes bulging, pleading. Finally, he slumped lifeless at the dark lord's feet.
Anakin stared at the still form. Ever since his master had taught him what the mewling Council had refused to, he'd known he was capable of killing with a thought, but he'd never done it before. It should have felt more ... satisfying. A bitter taste filled his mouth. Was this the right path? He quashed the thought and wheeled away, his cloak whirling around his knees, as a vortex of anger sucked at his thoughts. He paced back and forth, barely aware of the other man, still standing, petrified by fear. Black emotion built into blinding fury. Anakin spun and struck out with the Force, slamming the man against the door. He slumped to the floor with a moan, only to be seized by an invisible hand and jerked to his feet like a marionette.
Stepping close, Anakin spoke, his voice rasping and mechanical in his own ears. "You were her bodyguards."
The man's gaze shifted down, then back up. "Y-yes, my lord."
"Yet, you let Kenobi stroll into the palace and just whisk her away."
"We, we don't know who ..."
Rage flashed red. "I know who! No one else would dare. Light years away and his smell clogs my mind. It was Kenobi!"
"Yes, sir," the guard whispered.
Inhaling a measure of calm, Anakin said, "Tell me." He turned away and massaged his temples.
A slight quiver edged the man's words. "We had taken the day shift. The queen had attended some public functions that we felt needed our presence. Captain Panaka had offered to stand the night watch."
"Is this normal?" Anakin rubbed his dry and aching eyes.
"Yes, sir. Panaka often personally guards his queen. His loyalty is unswerving."
"And yet my wife was snatched from under the man's nose."
"H-he had been drugged after being defeated in battle."
"Are you sure he wasn't in league with Kenobi?"
"We questioned him at length."
"He knows the Jedi. Did he identify him?" Anakin pivoted and glared at the man.
Throat convulsing, the guard shook his head. "He was ..."
The guard nodded. "He said that it was dark, that he couldn't be sure."
"He lies!" Anakin paced forward. The guard pressed himself against the door as fear flared in his eyes. Anakin glared, anger contorting his handsome features. After a moment, the red curtain lifted and he schooled his features to blandness. The guard's breath leaked out with a quiet hiss.
"What leads did you uncover?" Anakin asked.
The guard rubbed his neck. "N-no leads, sir. Just one dead sentry. It's like a phantom spirited her away. We, we suspect some Gungans may have aided ..."
Glowering, Anakin reached out and wrapped his fingers in the guard's collar, twisting and tightening it. Though the man was barely shorter than he was, Anakin lifted him off the floor, his muscles tensing as the man's eyes rounded. He whispered, "Suspect? I'm not interested in suspicions, Major. I want knowledge. Do you actually know anything?"
As he grasped Anakin's wrist with both hands, the guard shook his head, his voice barely audible. "P-please. I'll find --"
"Nothing," snarled the dark lord. His grip tightened as he reached through the Force. With a snap, the man's body went limp.
Anakin threw the body to the floor and stalked over to the wall of transparisteel. He glared into the Coruscant night, as if Kenobi were out there, just beyond his knowing, taunting him.
He whispered, "You are a coward, Obi-Wan. Skulking behind my back, stealing the only good and beautiful thing in my life." He closed his eyes, the memory of Padm?'s touch caressing his mind, leaving a wistful trail. In their efforts to strip him of his past and rebuild him in their image, the Council had denied him access to family and friends. Kenobi had been party to that, not even letting him to go to his mother when she needed him. But he had defied them all when he had wed Padm?. And now ... now Kenobi was trying to deny him his future, just as he had the day of the wedding.
"This marriage, the timing is all wrong, Anakin. Please reconsider. Postpone it. I have a --" A bad case of jealousy is what you have, Obi-Wan. I have a chance for real happiness, for a family with the woman I love. Force! I can't believe you want me to turn my back on that. You really hate it, don't you? That I might have something you don't. "Stop twisting my words. You're my friend. I want you to be happy. It's just that --" Yes, I know. It has to be in a way you approve. In a way the Council approves.
The Force churned in the heavy silence. Anakin groped through it, searching for peace -- that inner calm that the older Jedi had always exuded, and that Anakin had usually found to be ... elusive. Like now. But where it had once tickled his fingertips and whispered through his mind, it now echoed across a widening gap. The core of his being was shrinking further and further inwards, surrounded by a seemingly unbreachable chasm. It was there. Within sight. Within hearing. Out of touch. If only. If only ...
He shunted the vague regret aside as indignation rose to fill the void. "Did you think this utter darkness would suffocate me? Fool. It only makes me stronger. No one takes what is mine, Kenobi. No one."
Anakin struck out blindly. The chair flew across the room, crashing into a pedestal and shattering a priceless Anobian sculpture -- the only ornament gracing the stark room. He stared at the jagged pieces, chest heaving.
"I will find her, Obi-Wan. And you will pay for this."
A quiet thought intruded. His new master beckoned. Anakin stood for a long moment, hand pressed across his eyes, until his outward composure was restored.
On his way out of his quarters, Anakin paused at the comm unit and toggled it on. "Have security come clean up my reception area." After a slight hesitation, the order was acknowledged. He stepped over the two bodies and swept down the hallway, his cloak billowing around him like gathering storm clouds.
Anakin halted before the tall throne room doors, newly installed, complete with Imperial seal. A symbol that was already embedding in the galaxy's collective consciousness. Soon the rebels would be crushed and the order fully established. The Sith order. They were only two, but they had the ability to make ten thousand quake. Anakin closed his eyes and inhaled the heady aroma of power -- the deadly sweet nectar that, once tasted, could never be refused. The Jedi were all fools, adhering to their weakling Code -- 'Serve, never rule.' -- then bowing to a Council that ruled with an iron fist. They deserved their fate. And the Council would pay for their lack of vision. Anakin scowled. But first, there was the issue of Kenobi ...
The doors slid into the walls. The emperor's presence crashed over Anakin, threatening, as it always did, to overwhelm him. He shored up his mind with the Force and paced down the long approach to the throne, passing intermittent Imperial body guards in their flowing red robes. Useless creatures.
The throne sat silhouetted against a huge bay of windows that formed a semi-circle behind it. The Eye of Palpatine, or so the palace staff called it. From here, all the key nodes of power were within sight. The Senate. Military headquarters. The Temple. But it was from this room that the true source of dominion radiated outwards, bending all others to its will.
Anakin dropped to one knee before the dais and bowed his head, intoning the required greeting. "What is thy bidding, my master?"
A moment of silence followed, in which Anakin felt the Emperor probing the edges of his mind. Finally, Palpatine said, "I sensed a disturbance, Lord Vader. Tell me."
"It was nothing, Eminence. A personal matter."
The well-modulated voice took on a hard edge. "Tell me."
Head still bowed, Anakin replied, "I have been investigating my wife's disappearance. What you sensed was my hatred over what Kenobi has done."
"Do you have any proof, yet, that it was Kenobi?"
Clenching and unclenching his jaw, Anakin said, "I need no proof."
A deep chortle stabbed into Anakin's mind. The Emperor demanded, "Show me your anger."
Lifting his gaze, Anakin stared into the deeply shadowed eyes, then nodded. He brought Obi-Wan's face to mind and poured forth all the venom, all the anger, all the hurt, that was eating away at his being. Palpatine's eyes widened; he tilted his face up and an expression that Anakin could only call ecstasy, bathed his features. When Anakin cut off the flow, Palpatine sat back in his throne, looking sated, while Anakin merely felt ... empty. But perhaps that was better than feeling like he was going to explode.
The Emperor's voice was only a whisper, yet it seemed to boom through the cavernous room. "And now, I sense you wish to continue your hunt for your old master."
"Yes, my lord."
"This is a delicate time for us. We must continue to consolidate our power. We have won the Senate, the bureaucrats are well in hand, but now we must eliminate our detractors."
Anakin remained silent. He couldn't do this. Couldn't stop the search. With every day, the trail -- what little there was -- would grow colder. Already, weeks had been lost. He had to find Padm?. Had to. Anakin fought to quell his anger. He hated the way it so often ruled him. But the way it swelled his strength was exhilarating -- he only had to work at controlling that anger, channeling it, using it to defeat his enemies.
"Not to worry, my young apprentice," the Emperor said with a knowing smile. "You will be given opportunity to continue your mission. I have reports from my spy network that a suspicious-looking man, in the company of a beautiful woman, was spotted on Indu San, the day after I ascended to the throne."
"The day I dealt with the Temple denizens," Anakin commented.
"Precisely. I have business in that sector that requires your personal attention. I see no reason why you cannot re-route to Indu San on your return and make some inquiries."
Anakin's head dropped. "Thank you, Master."
Invisible fingers grasped and lifted Anakin's chin. Palpatine's gaze glowed blackly. "Make very sure you focus your anger where it belongs, Lord Vader."
Nostrils flaring slightly, Anakin replied, "Of course, my lord. Rest assured, Kenobi will feel the full force of my wrath."
The unseen hold released him. Palpatine dismissed him with a wave. Anakin rose to his feet and bowed deeply. The Emperor's quiet chuckling pursued him out of the throne room.
Obroa-Skai. Anakin stared at the blue and green planet growing in the viewscreen.
Impatience skittered along his nerves. Along with the vague feeling that he was wasting more time. Why would Kenobi have come to such a populated planet? If he was ever here. All Anakin was going on was the word of one Imperial trooper from Indu San. The woman had told the trooper they were headed to Obroa-Skai to seek medical treatment at the university. Had that been Padm?? If the man -- presumably Kenobi -- was incapacitated the way the soldier had described, why hadn't she tried to escape? Why hadn't she asked the soldier to return her to safety? To him? What lies had Kenobi poured into her mind?
Narrowing his eyes, Anakin searched through the Force for any lingering trace of his old master.
Anakin blinked. The newness of the title still jarred, making it sound slightly foreign. Padm?'s voice whispered in his mind, 'Anakin? Anakin.' He clenched his jaw as the voice demanding his attention seemed to transform into the Emperor's strident tones, drowning out Padm?'s gentle call. He straightened, clasped his hands behind his back, and slowly turned to face the commander of the Star Destroyer.
The commander tugged at his collar. "You asked to be informed when your shuttle was ready for boarding."
Arching one eyebrow, Anakin allowed the discomfort of the captain to graze his senses. After a moment, he inclined his head. "So I did."
As he brushed past the commander, he caught the expression of visible relief from the corner of his eye, and bit back a smile. To fear someone is to give them power. The smile collapsed inward. But did fear equal respect?
He strode through the long corridors of his mind as he made his way to the shuttle. All he had wanted during his years at the Temple, was to belong, was to be ... respected. Instead, he'd mostly been shunned, whispered about, even feared. The Chosen One. Well, he had been chosen -- by Palpatine. Now they had reason to fear him.
Anakin ordered the flight crew out of the shuttle and settled into the pilot's chair. He ran his hands over the controls and inhaled the dusty scent of metal and electronics, relishing the subtle vibrations of power under his fingertips. He lifted off smoothly and shot out of the landing bay. As vacuum wrapped around his ship, something akin to happiness skimmed the edges of his awareness. By the Force, he loved flying. It was the closest he ever came to total freedom. Nothing but a precision machine keeping him from death -- that and his own reactions.
'They have pod-racing on Malastare. Very fast. Very dangerous.' I'm the only human who can do it. 'You must have Jedi reflexes if you race pods.'
A scowl creased Anakin's forehead. It had been a long time since those voices had intruded upon his thoughts. The shuttle entered the atmosphere, and suddenly Anakin smiled. He jerked the ship into a sharp spiraling descent, pulling out of the corkscrew to loop-de-loop. The shuttle screamed over the university before circling to land at the spaceport.
As Anakin strode down the landing ramp, a scrawny bald man in a dark green uniform with red piping scurried toward him. The man tripped to a stop before Anakin, wheezing from the short run.
"Renald Meecy, port master, at your service. You must be Lord Vader." The man paused to gulp in some air. "Shameful. Positively shameful that your pilot would put you through such, such dangerous aerobatics. I sincerely hope that you reprimanded him quite severely."
Raising an eyebrow, Anakin glared at the little man. "I was my own pilot." He swept past the gaping Meecy, glad to let his long strides carry him away from the annoying fellow. But it was not meant to be. Barely a dozen steps later Meecy reappeared at his side, red-faced, half running to keep up.
"Your flying is quite masterful, Lord Vader. Rarely have I seen such a wondrous display of exceeding skill." His breath whistling in and out filled the silence to the terminal.
Halting, Anakin pivoted to face the port master. "Where are your landing logs to be found?"
"Of course, of course. Your ship's commander informed me of the reason for your visit, so I took the liberty of preparing a room for your comfort."
Anakin raised a hand for silence. "Just take me there."
"Yes, of course. I realize you must be quite busy ..."
Anakin narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms; Meecy startled like an eopie, suddenly spinning and hurrying away without looking to see if his dark visitor was following.
Two hours later, a headache of stellar proportions was throbbing behind Anakin's eyes. Hundreds of data chips, neatly stacked on the desk he'd been provided, mocked his efforts at uncovering anything useful. Anakin picked up another disc and started to insert it in the reader. Suddenly he swept everything to the floor, sending discs flying across the room like shrapnel.
Meecy appeared at his elbow, buzzing about like a sand gnat. "Oh, dear. This task must be quite tiring. Perhaps you would like some refreshment, Lord Vader? May I suggest ...?"
"No." Anakin stood quickly, his chair crashing to the floor to punctuate his statement. "You don't have what I'm looking for."
"But, but, I'm sure we can ..."
"Enough!" Anakin glowered at the surprised man. "Your fawning pomposity is amazing, Port Master Meecy. Really quite extraordinary, ."
Confusion passed over the man's face. His voice was subdued. "Ah. Thank you." He blinked. "I think."
A sneer tugged at one corner of Anakin's mouth. "I'll show myself out."
The day was warm and becoming overcast. Feeling the need to walk and clear his mind, Anakin headed away from the space port. The city hummed with the same self-importance reflected in the port master. Beings of every sort and shape swarmed the streets, ebbing to and from the university, the lifeblood of the planet. Imperial presence was very low-key here. The few white-clad troopers visible, stood like islands in the stream, as everyone flowed around them, looking the other way, thinking, no doubt, that political machinations had nothing to do with them. As he drifted toward the university, Anakin mused over the tendency of scholars to see knowledge as the goal, when in fact, it was merely a tool to achieve the greater goal of power. Only through attaining power could real change be affected.
Lost in his reverie, he passed a dozen streets and found himself in the heart of the campus, surrounded by conical towers interspersed with shorter mushroom-shaped buildings. Across a grassy square, a simple rectangular building caught his eye. He wove amongst clumps of students and halted, hesitating before the circular entry that protruded from the building. His gaze fastened on the carved letters above the doorway. Jedi Studies Building. Only fools would even care to study the lore and history of the Jedi, as he had once cared. He glared at his traitorous feet as they carried him up the gentle slope leading to glass doors.
Attention still focused down, Anakin floated to the middle of a starburst design in the tiled floor and stopped. He shivered. The day was pleasant; why did he suddenly feel cold?
Almost expecting Kenobi to be standing across from him, Anakin slowly lifted his gaze. No Kenobi -- in fact, the place was momentarily empty. The foyer was round, with large glass windows. Before him were bronze doors leading into the building proper. Right down to the tiles beneath his feet, the room was designed to look like the Jedi Council chambers. Coherent thought fled.
'Much fear I sense.' ... 'Clouded the boy's future is.'
'The Council is right, Padawan.' But,Master, I didn't mean ... 'No argument, Anakin. You must learn control.'
Confusion swirled in the young man, just as it had in the boy. It darkened to resentment. Why had the Council sought to control him so completely? They had accused him of being ruled by fear. Had they been the fearful ones? The resentment built as Anakin turned around, faces springing clearly to mind, the cold hammering his thoughts to numbness. And the icy memory of his own master, standing beside him, yet never once defending him, never once shielding him ...
Never? Rarely. Resentment flared into anger. Anakin pivoted on his heel, turning faster and faster as a conflagration of fury burned through his mind, each memory of the council chambers adding fuel to the fire. The first time he had ever tasted hate had been in that room. But by then, he'd learned to shield his emotions so thickly, they were never discovered. And safe within their shield they had taken root and grown. Until they could not be contained.
Anakin raised his hands, and a shout of primal rage poured forth. The windows shattered outwards. Scattered screams and cries of alarm barely impacted his awareness. He stormed out of the foyer and wheeled around. He stretched out his hand and focused intently on the entry. The stone walls began to tremble, then shake. With a rumble, the structure collapsed in on itself, a cloud of dust rising and dissipating as Anakin stared at the pile of rubble. Fearful murmuring surrounded but did not touch him. He felt stares beaming down on him from the Jedi Studies building and jerked his head up. There was at least one Jedi inside.
Flipping his comlink open, Anakin hailed the ship. The captain responded immediately, and Anakin continued, "Zero in on my link and determine the exact coordinates." He waited until the captain affirmed his location. "Good. There is a building ten meters due east. Got it?" A short pause. "Good. Destroy it."
"Sir?" The incredulous reply sounded loudly over the link.
"You heard me, Commander. The ship should be almost directly overhead, if I recall your orbit correctly. Consider this precision target practice."
"But what of any people inside?"
Anakin's gaze skimmed the windows fronting the building. "Notify the university if you want. But that building will be a slag heap in five minutes. Understood?" He cut the connection without waiting for an answer.
A window on the third floor opened and a brown-robed figure leaned out. Anakin narrowed his eyes. The unknown Jedi called out, "This is a place of peace and study, Skywalker-called-Vader. Why do you cast your pall of darkness over Obroa-Skai?"
"I seek Obi-Wan Kenobi," Anakin replied. "Tell me his whereabouts and I might spare your life."
"If I knew, I would still remain silent."
"You've made your choice, Jedi." Anakin tucked his comlink into his belt. "Have a nice day."
He turned and walked away. The sun broke through the clouds and dazzled the square, making his black-robed figure seem a shadow. The crowd that had gathered began to buzz and jostle as his words were repeated and, finally, understood. He passed through with ease, beings scattering out of his path and scrambling toward nearby buildings. He was almost a block away when the sizzle split the sky. The explosion rocked the campus. Waves of fear and horror rolled out from the point of impact with the billows of dust and showers of debris.
Anakin ignored the mounting chaos as he strolled back to his shuttle. He focused his thoughts upwards and outwards. Did you feel that, Kenobi? Your turn is coming.
As always, the night sky was a haze, the stars obscured by the glow of billions of planetary lights. Anakin stared at the spot where the faint constellation of Naboo would be if the sky were clear; the spot where Padm? would be if she hadn't been hidden amongst those unseen stars. Where was she? Where would Kenobi hide her?
The desire to find Padm? was consuming him; the need to see her again was eating away at his composure. 'I love you so much, Ani. I would be lost without you.' He could see her eyes fluttering closed as she lifted her face to his. You are my own sweet love, Padm?. He could taste her honeyed lips as he savored her, then consumed her. Just the thought made him hunger once more. She was his. Her love was his. The family they would have was his. Hatred leapt in his breast. Blast Kenobi for taking that from him! Anakin shivered as the darkness shrouding his soul seemed to vibrate with laughter. Invisible fingers stroked and twisted his thoughts, finally coaxing a wan smile. The very darkness he hated would give him the power to destroy his tormentor.
"Here you are, my young apprentice." Palpatine joined him on the balcony.
Anakin inclined his head, but did not reply. He felt a ripple of displeasure.
"Was the destruction on Obroa-Skai really necessary?" The emperor asked.
Anakin shrugged. "No. But there is one less Jedi in the galaxy." He barely heard the small chuckle.
"Had Kenobi been there?"
Anakin sensed that the emperor already knew the answer. "No. I have no idea where to search from here. It's like he's disappeared into a black hole."
Turning, Anakin peered down at his master. "You have an idea."
"Kenobi was ever a creature of the Council."
"True," he whispered. 'The Council is right, Padawan. You will not defy them in this.' But ... 'No buts.' Anakin closed his ears to the memories, and suddenly remembered rumors flooded his mind -- rumors that had insinuated that the Council had told Obi-Wan to let ... No! He loved Qui-Gon as much as I did. More. Even he would never do that. Would he?
Returning his gaze to the night sky, Anakin nodded and said, "Find the Council and I find Kenobi. But who remains? Half the Council is dead, including Windu. Word says that Yoda is, as well. Beyond those two, Kenobi mentioned very few ..." His head dropped and he clenched the rail. "I don't have the time to chase phantom leads, Master. I have the sense that if I don't find her soon, a ... a window of opportunity will close. Forever."
"Yes. There is something else at work here. We must proceed with caution."
"You suspect a trap?"
Fear skittered through Anakin's thoughts. "Kenobi wouldn't harm Padm?. He wouldn't dare."
"I don't think harm was ever his intention."
Anakin searched the Emperor's shadowed gaze. "Meaning .... what?" No answer came. Anakin's thoughts started to spin. Many times Palpatine had suggested that he believed Kenobi had wanted the happiness Anakin had found. Did he just want a similar happiness, or Anakin's own happiness? His breathing turned shallow. "You think, you think Kenobi ... wants Padm?? My Padm??"
"Some emotions are very easy to read, my young apprentice. And looks can be equally revealing."
A picture rose in his mind, of Kenobi helping Padm? to her feet. Had his touch lingered too long? Had his eyes caressed her face, her figure?
Slamming his fists against the railing, Anakin bent over until his vision cleared. He spoke through clenched teeth. "If Kenobi has touched her ... he will cry out for death a thousand times before I'm through with him."
A soft snort pulled his gaze back to Palpatine. Anakin scowled. "What?"
The Emperor's eyes shone black in the night. "Why was Kenobi able to snatch her away from Naboo so easily? And why is it that she didn't try to escape from him when she had the chance on Indu San?"
Palpatine melted into the darkened palace, leaving Anakin gaping, his mind awash with disbelief.
The whelp had given it away, looking repeatedly to the hills. His quarry would not escape. The incline sharpened and Anakin slowed slightly. His breathing came harder, as the oxygen filter strapped to his chest labored to keep up with his demands. It was a suffocating necessity, having the breathing mask strapped over his face.
That life of any kind could exist in the oxygen-poor environment of Dorin was amazing; that a sentient lifeform could was a miracle.
The hillside was barren except for the tawny stubble coating it. Nothing could hide here. As Anakin topped the rise, an emerald lake came into view. Yellow diamonds of light danced across the ripples. Black boulders dotted the shoreline. Anakin narrowed his eyes, irritated at how the visor just barely distorted his view, making the air seem thick, objects hazy. But perhaps the poison atmosphere itself was doing that.
Regardless, it didn't hinder the flow of the Force, and the object of his search was easy to locate, even with shields up and the Force under tight control. Anakin veered right, to a field of a dozen boulders edging the lake. As he neared the shore, he spotted the figure, perched atop a smaller rock and leaning against a larger one that butted up to the first. The figure didn't move as he approached.
"I sensed you when you first entered the village."
Anakin halted two meters away and planted his hands on his hips. He regarded the Jedi for a moment, then said, "Yet you didn't run. Are you brave or foolish, Plo Koon?"
The Kel Dor crossed his legs and leaned forward, arms resting loosely on his knees. "You know where the path of fear leads, yet, you think I should be afraid. You don't seek me, so why should I express fear?"
Scanning the enlarged ears, eyes and nose that gave the Jedi a slightly insectoid look, Anakin replied, "Ah, yes. The famous Kel Dor extrasensory perception. They claim it makes you a great warrior. I wouldn't know. All I ever knew of it was you probing my mind while I stood before the Council."
"You developed a remarkable talent for hiding your emotions, young Skywalker. Once or twice I thought I sensed anger or hate, but only ever the smallest touch, and then it would be gone, as if it had never been."
"Would you like to feel it now?"
"I can shield myself. It would be useless to try to weaken me through such tactics."
Anakin sat on a rock, almost at the Jedi's feet, and looked up. "Why would I attack if I'm not here for you?"
"Evil does not always need a reason."
Leaning forward to brush sand off his black boots, Anakin forced the rising ire to retreat.
"You anger easily," Plo said.
Ignoring the needling comment, Anakin stared across the lake to the higher hills beyond. "Who do I come for, if not you? Flushing out a member of the Jedi Council is reason enough to travel to the edge of the Corporate Sector."
"You seek your master, of course."
"Kenobi is not my master." With icy calm, Anakin tossed a pebble into the water. "Are you hiding him?"
"No. Though I would, if he asked."
"Where is he?"
"Far from here, I would imagine. Or closer than we could ever guess."
Anakin turned to see a slight smile crinkling the Kel Dor's eyes. This was getting him nowhere fast. A week to get here. For what? To listen to this self-satisfied drivel? The trail was fading with every day. Who was he kidding? The trail didn't exist.
"Frustration is the blade tip of anger," Plo said.
"Do you have any idea how irritating that is?"
The Kel Dor's gaze drifted away. "My good friend, Qui-Gon, used to say the exact same thing. Only his tone was always teasing and full of light."
Anakin fell silent. His thoughts reeled, spinning wildly before finally coming together. "Tell me about the mission that killed Qui-Gon."
Surprise laced Plo's reply. "You were there. You know much more of the details than I."
"No, I mean the Council briefing. Did you brief Kenobi separately for the mission? Did you give him special instructions?"
"Ah. You speak of that foolish rumor that said we had told Obi-Wan to pull back and let Qui-Gon be killed by the Sith creature."
"Qui-Gon was a dear friend. Such a question cannot be dignified with an answer."
"Maybe it was just Yoda. Maybe Yoda ordered Kenobi ..."
"Enough! This is foolish talk, young Skywalker. There was no briefing. It was a private commission. The Council was informed it was happening. We had no say in the matter. Why should this concern you? Why do you seek to lay false crimes at Obi-Wan's feet?"
"I'm sure you can feel the reason."
"I can feel your hate for him. But that does not tell me the reason for such hate."
"I have my reasons." Anakin stood and began pacing in front of the Kel Dor, his breathing sounding loudly through the mask that protected him from the deadly atmosphere. He halted suddenly, sending a spray of sand up the side of the boulder Plo sat upon. "If not the Council, then who commissioned Qui-Gon?"
Plo Koon regarded him with a solemn expression.
Anakin folded his arms. "What do you fear? Qui-Gon is dead. And besides, surely you can tell I loved him, too?"
"Qui-Gon became far too important in your mind, young Skywalker. Had he lived, he would be horrified at the way you have deified him. Obi-Wan never stood a chance at gaining your respect, when you measured each act by what you thought Qui-Gon would have done."
Nostrils flaring, Anakin said, "You spoke with Kenobi."
"We had occasion to do so."
"You know nothing of what I went through."
"Perhaps more than you realize."
Anakin spun away, frustration building again. Why was he wasting his time here? He tugged at the tube running from mask to filter. What was here that was niggling on the edge of his knowing? Why was the memory of Qui-Gon's death haunting him right now? Was it just because he had been friends with this Kel Dor?
Sudden sadness pressed upon Anakin, and he sank to the sand, perched on knees and toes, in a typical Jedi position of rest. His chin sagged to his chest. The Kel Dor dropped to the ground in front of him and mirrored his pose. Anakin could see the slim fingers curling over the Kel Dor's knees. He stared at the grey fingernails for a long moment, then slowly raised his chin to meet the intense green gaze.
"Please, Plo Koon. Who sent Qui-Gon to his death? Who started me down this path?"
"A friend sent Qui-Gon on that fateful mission. No one desired his death, young Skywalker. No one except the Sith."
Pain filled the plea. "Who?"
The Kel Dor sighed. "Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan went to Naboo at the request of the Chancellor. As I said, a friend. I was the one to take the news of Qui-Gon's death to Finis. It crushed him. He wrongly blamed himself. I'm sure it is the reason he left the Senate outright."
The Force swirled thickly. Anakin searched the Kel Dor's face as darkness whispered. Find the Council and you find Kenobi. He smiled beneath his oxygen mask. Of course. Ex-chancellor Finis Valorum, friend of the Council. And perhaps not such a weakling, after all, if he dared to harbor Kenobi.
Rising smoothly to his feet, Anakin flexed his black-gloved hand as he looked down at the Jedi Master. He bowed, "Thank you, Plo Koon."
"The Force be with you, young Skywalker."
"Don't you hate me?"
"No. Though I wish we might have come to know each other under different circumstances."
Anakin inclined his head and turned away. He spun, his red blade slicing downwards. Plo Koon was already somersaulting backwards. As he popped to his feet, his yellow blade sprang to life.
The warriors circled each other warily, edging away from the lake shore onto solid ground. Anakin tested his opponent's defenses; each parry was blocked. Anakin pressed the attack. Thrust. Parry. Lunge. Every move was smoothly deflected. Anger began to build. He streamed the emotion into his onslaught. The blows came harder, faster.
The blades locked together, sizzling and spitting orange sparks. Sweat trickled down Anakin's nose as he stared into the Kel Dor's eyes. The red blade began to gain supremacy, pressing the yellow one closer to Plo's face. Still those implacable eyes showed no emotion but acceptance. Hatred flared; potency surged. Anakin thrust Plo away from him and followed with a quick series of strikes.
Anakin leapt and dove over Plo Koon, flipping and rebounding off a boulder. His toe clipped the Kel Dor's shoulder. Plo staggered a step. Anakin thrust. The yellow blade barely deflected the attack. Hammering the Kel Dor with fierce blows, Anakin poured out his black emotions in a constant stream. The strength of the attack increased.
Plo Koon backed away, his reactions slowing slightly. Thrust right. Parry left. Strike. Strike. Plo's heel sank in the sand and he stumbled. Anakin spun and lunged, almost surprised when his blade bit flesh. One-handed, Plo tried to block the next blow. It glanced off his thigh. The Kel Dor hissed. Cutting upwards, Anakin knocked the lightsaber from Plo's hand. He shifted and buried his own blade in Plo's mid-section. With a blank expression, Plo Koon fell back.
Switching off his blade, Anakin stared at the downed warrior. Had he been younger, Plo Koon might have prevailed. The sound of Anakin's own breathing filled the oxygen mask, drowning out the whisper of regret. He dropped to one knee and searched the Kel Dor's face. How could acceptance still fill his eyes? What could grant such peace?
A sigh escaped Plo's lips. He blinked and focused on Anakin. "Why?"
Anakin sneered beneath the mask. "Does evil need a reason?"
"But I felt the good in you," Plo whispered.
"Kenobi stole the only good in my life. Now, thanks to you, I can get her back."
"You have no need." Plo took a gasping breath. "Look deep within. You already have ... that which will save you." He shuddered and slumped into the sand.
Anakin jumped to his feet. He spun and strode away without looking back. Dread trembled along his limbs. He had no desire to see another body disappear before his eyes.
The fear transformed to anger. What did the Kel Dor know of what he needed? Nothing. What did he know of what lay deep inside? Nothing. His last words had been an attempt to sew uncertainty. Typical Jedi deceitfulness. Just like Kenobi.
Determination lengthened Anakin's strides. Exultation sang along his nerves. It was all he could do to not rip off the breathing mask and shout his victory.
I have you now, Kenobi.
Anakin stepped over the body into the atrium. The quietly gurgling streams and tall tropical plants muffled the sound of blaster fire deeper in the building. Anakin pushed his black cloak back and planted his fists on his hips. He let the serene setting dull the sharp edge of his impatience. A full month the Emperor had kept him on Coruscant, his anxiety building every second. All so he could play toady. He had known the Emperor had gloated over his chaffing, all the while knowing the stranglehold of darkness would make him obey his master's bidding, no matter the cost.
Palpatine had taken pleasure in mocking him, pointing out, at every opportunity, that it was a fool's errand to pursue a woman who had chosen another. But he was wrong. He had to be. Anakin squeezed his eyes shut. The thought of wrapping Padm? in his embrace was all that was keeping him sane. He needed to hear her say that she was his. Force help him, he needed to look into hers eyes and know it would all work out. A smile flitted across his lips. And it would work out, now that Kenobi was within his reach.
Inhaling deadly calm, Anakin turned and bounded up the curving staircase. He swept past a collection of rare and beautiful pottery, the hem of his cloak slapping the evenly spaced pedestals. Reaching out with the Force, he opened the ebony doors blocking his way and swooped into a large office.
Anakin ignored the inviting atmosphere to stare at the man seated behind a large tan and blue marble desk. Finis Valorum leaned back, fingers steepled, as he returned the look with his own clear blue gaze. After a moment of strained silence, the ex-chancellor rose and brushed his deep green robe.
Valorum said, "Search all you want. She is not here."
With a bellow of rage, Anakin charged, leaping the desk. He spun, grabbed Valorum by the collar and slammed him against the wall. Air whooshed out of the old man's lungs. He paled, but held Anakin's gaze.
A whisper is all Anakin could manage. "Padm? was here? You kept my wife prisoner?" He tightened his hold.
"No," Valorum rasped. "I would never agree to that. She stayed of her own free will."
Valorum slumped against the wall when suddenly released. Anakin glared for a moment, then pivoted and stared out the large windows, clenching and unclenching his fists. He had come searching for Kenobi, but had found Padm?'s trail instead. "Tell me."
"There is nothing to tell. Two nights ago a Jedi showed up in the middle of the night and whisked her away."
Two nights? Master, why did you delay me? Why? "Was it Kenobi?"
"No. A female. I didn't know her."
"But Kenobi brought her here."
Anakin spun and narrowed his eyes. "And you kept her."
"I gave refuge to a frightened woman. Nothing more."
Fighting to stay calm, Anakin bit out, "Where?"
Confusion furrowed Vallorum's brow.
Anakin scowled. "Where did she stay?"
"You mean her quarters? Why --"
"Tell me." Menace laced the words.
"Next floor up. Mine are directly above this office. Her, her rooms were three doors down on the left." Valorum pointed. "A turbolift stands directly outside the doors, on the right. But there's nothing ..."
Anakin was already moving. He pounded the lift door, waiting for it to open. He pressed his hand over his eyes as the lift moved upwards. He squeezed out of the opening door and ran, bursting into the quarter's sitting room.
A perfume of sadness and longing enveloped Anakin, carbon-freezing him. He closed his eyes and inhaled the mesmerizing scent of ... Padm?. Anakin groaned and fell to his knees, the faint sense of Padm?'s presence caressing every pore, every nerve and fiber of his being. He doubled over as the pain of missing her, of wanting her, crashed over him in wave after wave. The agony crested, ebbing slowly.
The desire to be near her in any way, drove Anakin to his feet. He circled the room, touching everything, brushing his fingers along the backs of chairs, picking up small objects, lingering over those he sensed she'd handled. Engulfed by a haze of memories, he floated through the bedroom door, his feet carrying him to a closet. He opened the door and Padm?'s perfume rolled over him. Groaning again, he buried his face in a handful of clothes. His shoulders shook as he fought to regain control.
Stumbling away from the closet, Anakin lurched to the window and threw it open, inhaling spicy air that drove Padm?'s smell from his mind. He slowly turned, his gaze skipping around the muted yellow and blue room, finally coming to rest on the bed. He sat on the edge and rested his hand on one of the pillows. It had been plumped and patted, but he could still sense the indent her head would have made. His gaze skittered to the other pillow and back, dark thoughts suddenly fogging his mind. No. Padm? loves me. She's mine.
His gaze roved over her bedside table. A hairbrush. A chrono. A tiny blaster -- the one she had always kept tucked under her pillow. Anakin smiled. He reached out and touched the corner of the table, his hand dropping to linger on the handle of the single drawer.
It opened to reveal a few blank papers, one crumpled note that he laid aside, and a blood-stained cloth. Anakin frowned and picked up the bit of toweling, scanning it with the Force. His nostrils flared as he crushed the cloth in his grip. Kenobi's blood. The Jedi's stench filled the room. Padm?'s room. Anakin tucked the cloth under his belt and retrieved the note. He smoothed it out and held it up to the light.
'Anakin. I hope you never find this note, for it means you have found ...' Padm?'s handwriting trailed off into illegibility.
The note slipped from his grasp. Anakin sat unmoving, disbelief numbing his mind. He cringed in horror at the thoughts pounding at his sanity. She loved him so much she'd kept a bit of cloth with his blood on it? She loved him? Kenobi? And she didn't want to be found? Incredulity churned into pain-soaked rage.
Lunging to his feet, he knocked over the table. He spun and heaved the bed over on its side. The bed where they'd held each other, where they'd kissed, where Kenobi had brushed Padm?'s shift from her shoulders and buried his face in her neck, where he'd lost himself in her sweetness ... With a howl, Anakin whipped out his lightsaber, hacking at the bed until it was a pile of unrecognizable chunks.
Still his rage hungered. Anakin sliced and scored everything within reach, moving on only when the smoldering clothing in the closet set off a sprinkler system in the room. He staggered to the sitting room and proceeded to dismember every piece of furniture. He stood in the middle of the chaos and loosed his pain in a string of banshee wails.
Anakin groped his way out the door and down the hall to the turbolift, then crashed back into Valorum's office. The old man wheeled around from where he'd been looking out the window. Concern and fear clouded the blue gaze.
Black and menacing, Anakin stalked toward Valorum, each step punctuated by a single word. "How often did he visit?"
Valorum blinked. "Who?"
"Kenobi. How ... often?"
A second of silence. "Never."
"Liar!" Anakin lunged and seized the old man's arm.
"I'm not lying. No one came except the one who took her. If anyone else did, it was without my knowledge."
Pulling the blood-stained cloth from under his belt, Anakin shook it. "Explain this."
"Kenobi's blood. In her room."
Seething, Anakin studied the blank look as it turned to knowing. He tightened his grip.
Valorum swallowed. "The day, the day Kenobi brought her, he had an accident. Knocked over some glassware. Cut his hand on the pieces. I gave him the cloth to stop the bleeding. I didn't know she'd kept it. I'd forgotten all about it."
His hand dropped and his gaze grew distant. An eerie calm settled over the brooding young man. Anakin whispered,"She, she found rest here. I sensed it."
Valorum's voice came as if from a great distance. "I tried to make her feel welcome. I always liked the queen. She grew very dear to me in the short time she was here."
Anakin's narrow gaze flashed back to Valorum. "You aided a Jedi. You helped Kenobi."
The blue eyes cleared. "Kill me, if you must. Just make it quick."
"If you insist."
Anakin pinched finger and thumb together. Valorum started to choke, grasping at his neck to loosen invisible fingers. Anakin's resolve faltered and he released his victim. Valorum fell to all fours, gagging as he struggled for air.
"Your kindness to her is your salvation, old man."
In the glaring sunshine, just outside Finis Valorum's home, Anakin halted and looked up into the shocking blue sky. How could it be so bright and clear when his soul was so dark? Sadness etched furrows deep into his mind. How has it come to this, Padm?? Anger flowed into the crevices. You will lose your lover to my blade. I hope you know that.
Anakin toggled his comlink. "Time for some more target practice, Captain. Recall our men first, then level this structure."
As the shuttle lifted off the ground, Anakin surveyed the smoking rubble with satisfaction. A movement on the hill above the destroyed building caught his eye. A green robe. Blackness thundered through his mind. Had the captain warned Valorum? He would pay for his insolence. He squeezed his eyes shut as fury mounted, piling higher and higher.
An image branded itself on the inside of his eyelids: Kenobi brushing his nose across Padm?'s cheek, claiming her lips with his own.
The armrest snapped under his grip.
Beings and droids alike scurried out of the dark lord's path. Those that didn't were pushed aside by a wedge of anger that preceeded him like the phalanx of an invading army. His footsteps clanged harshly. He stretched his hand out and the huge doors blocking his way slammed into the walls with a force that made them shudder.
Anakin's black cloak flapped wildly as his long strides ate up the distance across the cavernous and ostentatious throne room. He jerked to a stop as he collided with an invisible wall stronger than his own. He glared at Palpatine, not caring that his fury shone laser-bright in his eyes.
Abruptly Anakin said, "I missed her by two days."
"Who?" Palpatine sneered. "You mean Valorum was hiding that little harlot instead of Kenobi?"
"My wife is no harlot," Anakin ground out.
Palpatine leaned forward. "The two people who claimed to love you more than any others betrayed you, my young apprentice. Completely and ... most intimately. So what do you call the woman who shared her favors with your own Jedi master, your mentor, your friend?"
"Stop it!" Anakin began to pace. "I would have Padm? beside me now, if not for your insistence that I dance attendance upon you. I would know the truth." He spun and pointed a shaking finger at Palpatine. "You kept me from that truth."
"You don't want the truth. You only want the girl. She is nothing to us."
"No! She is mine! You have no right to keep her from me."
Pain crashed into his mind, driving Anakin to his knees. He gripped his head in his hands and rocked silently as agony swept his anger aside. The roaring in his ears subsided and he stilled. Echoes of pain lingered before finally dissipating to leave a chilling void.
The emperor's voice was cold. "You are mine. And you do as I say. I will not tolerate insolence." Darkness thickened the moment of silence. "So, tell me what you would do, if your Padm? was here now."
Anakin took two deep calming breaths. "I'd look in her eyes and know the truth."
"Fool. You'd smell Kenobi's scent lingering on her shimmersilk skin and see her swollen, freshly-kissed lips, and your anger would crush her." Anakin moaned as Palpatine continued, "Is that what you want to do? Kill her?"
"No," whispered Anakin. "No." Force help me, I love her. Even now.
"If you don't want to kill her, I suggest you stop trying to find her. Death is the only possible conclusion to that search, young apprentice. Though I do wonder what petty intrigue made the Force swirl around her. But, no matter. Her fate is of no concern to me." Palpatine paused. His voice became oily smooth. "Of course, that needn't stop you from pursuing the one who seduced her."
Anakin squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment, only to be tormented by the image of Padm? and Obi-Wan locked in a tight embrace. He jumped to his feet and clenched his fists. "I have every intention of killing Kenobi for what he has done. I don't need to be goaded to it. Why are you so insistent he die at my hand?"
"He is the one remaining link to your past. If you truly wish to fulfill your destiny at my side, you must severe that link."
"It is severed."
"No. So long as Kenobi lives, there is the chance that your past will rise up to undermine all you have worked so hard to gain. When Kenobi dies, our power will be unmatched and our victory complete. I have forseen it."
Yoda's quiet voice whispered through Anakin's thoughts, 'Always in motion, is the future.' Anakin shunted aside the Jedi master's words and turned from the emperor's gloating face to stare into the Coruscant night. Lights trickled and flowed in a web of constant movement, streaking the darkness with an eerie neon glow. Far down a broad avenue, the abandoned Temple spires jutted upwards, silhouetted by the lines of light. What price would he pay to be free from his past? Completely free. Obi-Wan's visage filled his mind. No matter what Plo Koon had said, there had been a time when he would have followed Obi-Wan to the edges of the galaxy and beyond. He would have given anything ... But not Padm?. Never Padm?. Again, his mind pictured Kenobi holding and kissing his wife. That betrayal was a vibro-blade piercing his ribs. Again, anger began to build until his limbs trembled with it. With great effort, he stoked and banked the rising rage, wrapped his being in icy calm, then met his Sith master's gaze.
Palpatine's eyes glittered darkly.
Anakin dropped to one knee. "You shall have your victory, Master."
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