Make your own free website on Tripod.com

Palpatine found it difficult to recall with any real clarity the events leading up to his final physical death. His insanity had been responsible for that failing. Mercifully, he had regained his sanity along with his consciousness in this empty world of swirling, reddish-gray mists. He knew it was crucial that he remember. Without understanding how he had come here, Palpatine had no hope of discovering a way out and back to his life. Yes, a return to life...he wanted that very much. A chance to complete his Dark Empire and to have his revenge upon Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia. Memory had never been a problem for him before. What he could not recall on his own, he drew out with a small exercise of the power of the Force. But now...that was denied to him. That thing which defined him more than anything else--his mastery of the dark side--was gone. He was still recovering from the shock of finding himself unable to sense or use the Force. It had been with him since his childhood. It was impossible that it could be gone now, yet it was. Palpatine was powerless, alone, frail, and defenseless. It galled him. But the former Emperor refused to see himself as helpless. He still had his strong will, and he was determined to understand his situation. If he could not use the Force to remember what had happened to him, he knew of other more primitive techniques. Stiffly, he settled his greatly aged body to the gray desert sands. Assuming a meditative posture, he cleared his mind and concentrated. The first thing that came to him was that there had been a child. He had wanted the child, wanted it so he could save himself. The child's name had been...Anakin. No, that confused him. Anakin had been Vader's name before he turned. Palpatine cursed impotently. Frustrated, he knew meditation was futile with his emotions in such turmoil. If the Force had been with him, meditating in rage would have worked...but not here. No, he would simply have to start from the beginning in his mind and work through it as best he could, one step at a time. His last perfectly lucid memory was of his awful defeat aboard the Eclipse, at the hands of the Skywalkers. The very name, Luke Skywalker, sent a shiver of hatred through Palpatine's decrepit form. That man had destroyed everything. No punishment imaginable would be enough for him. The plans for the creation of the Dark Empire had been coming along so well before Luke had come onto the scene. Six years after his defeat at Endor, Palpatine had been ready on Byss with his reclaimed dark side mastery, the Eclipse, a vast fleet, and his World Devastators. Then he had sent a special Force Storm to collect Luke Skywalker, his old enemy. Sate Pestage had once advised his Master that Luke should be made into an ally, and Palpatine had debated the troubling idea with him. In the end, the Emperor had based his decision on two things. He wanted to take away the New Republic's symbol of hope, and he missed having a servant like Darth Vader. Years ago, he had experienced a vision of Luke kneeling to him willingly. When Luke arrived on Byss, the vision finally came to pass. Luke's admitted plan was to find a way to defeat the dark side from within, but Palpatine had known he could not. Luke had knelt anyway and said, "My father's destiny is my own." But the words "my father's destiny" held more than one meaning. It meant servitude to the dark side, yes, but it also meant the betrayal and murder of the Emperor, with the help of a blood relative. Luke had personally invaded the cloning laboratory and cut down Palpatine's clones with a lightsaber. He had also helped his sister to escape Byss with a Holocron she had stolen from Palpatine's very bedchamber. Vader had never rebelled like that until the end. The enraged Emperor had forced Luke into submission. Palpatine and a tightly controlled Luke had gone after Leia Organa together in the Eclipse, in order to recover the Holocron, and to claim Leia's unborn child. Yes...the child. It did have something to do with how he had arrived here, he knew it. He had wanted the child...as a new body for himself. Yes. That was it. The clones had always been a flawed solution to the problem of mortality. As mere copies of himself, they were one step removed from the protecting energies of the Force, and they suffered an accelerated rate of decay when he drew on the power of the dark side. For a long time, he had searched for another way. At one point, he had been convinced that he could fabricate a new body from pure dark side energy, but that idea had never borne fruit. Finally, upon learning of Leia's unborn child, he had realized he could take it, raise it in the power of the dark side, and make it an extension of his will. At the appropriate age, he could displace the personality within, and take the body for his own. On the Eclipse, however, Leia had somehow resisted him. She had drawn her brother back to the light, and together, they had severed Palpatine's control over his Force Storm. The chaotic energies had devoured his great flagship. He had been faced with death, unable to escape his own creation. It was a painful memory, but at least it was clear. Palpatine's ability to survive death had been based on transferring his life essence into one of his own clones. But that ability was limited by distance from his clone body. Ideally, he would have initiated the transfer by himself, inside his citadel on Byss, near the cloning lab. This would have limited the duration of his exposure to the terrifying chaos that awaited powerful servants of the dark side after death. But when the Eclipse was destroyed with Palpatine on board, the Emperor's clones were half a galaxy away on Byss. The dangerous journey his spirit had to make threatened to destroy it. Once before, he had been in such a dire situation, when the Death Star had exploded over Endor. Then, Palpatine had survived the explosion by mentally connecting with Mara Jade and transferring his essence into her mind. The experience had diminished his power, putting him on a road to recovery that took years, but the desperate plan had worked. Sate Pestage had brought Mara to Byss, and in close proximity to his clones at last, the Emperor had left her and was reborn. Thinking of Mara Jade and Sate Pestage emotionally distracted Palpatine from his organized recollection. He found that every time he thought of Pestage, there was a pang of regret. Four years ago, the old man had died, the victim of an attempted coup by several dark side adepts. Pestage had been the only man who Palpatine had allowed to become close to him. It was reasonably certain that Pestage had been the biological father of the boy, Espaa, who became Palpatine. It was only after Pestage was dead, however, that the Emperor discovered that the man had meant something to him personally. Pestage's loss had opened Palpatine to a new world of anger, and unlocked the power of Force Storms. There was some small irony in the fact that those same Storms had killed Palpatine over Pinnacle Moon. Pestage had always wanted so much to keep his son alive, and had died fighting an adept, Urn Zelotes, who wanted his son dead. Palpatine sighed. Regrets were useless. Pestage was gone forever. Even though the old man had been cloned, the replacement had never satisfied the Emperor. It was just not the same thing...a mere empty shell. Pestage had totally lacked Force sensitivity, and there had been no way for him to preserve his life essence, as his Master had. And then there was Mara Jade, the former Emperor's Hand. As much as he wished Pestage was alive, he wanted Jade dead. He had given her a mission to kill Luke Skywalker. If she had followed orders, Palpatine would not have been in his current situation. However, not only had she failed, but she had joined the Rebels as well! The reborn Emperor had kept track of her from Byss while he regained his dark side power and built up his military forces. After years of living on the fringe of galactic society, Mara finally found Luke during the return of Grand Admiral Thrawn. She should have killed Luke then, but Skywalker had once again turned an enemy into an ally. In the end, Mara had helped Luke to defeat Thrawn and C'Baoth. Palpatine did not see Mara turning against Thrawn as a betrayal of the Empire. After all, Palpatine was the Empire, and he had never meant for Thrawn to succeed anyway. The Grand Admiral was just a distraction for the Rebels while the Emperor gathered forces far beyond those Thrawn was allowed to have. But Mara's failure to kill Skywalker...that was a betrayal. The assassination order for that cursed Jedi had been a direct command! No one disobeyed a direct order from the Emperor and lived. Palpatine had wanted Mara dead, but the woman had wisely dropped out of sight as soon as the Emperor reborn had revealed himself. Once, Palpatine could have located her through the Force, using the mental link that they shared. But that link had vanished along with Mara's Force sensitivity when the Emperor had placed his essence within her mind after Endor. Thus Mara had escaped his wrath entirely. Palpatine scowled. What was he thinking? She was nothing to him now. Neither she nor Sate Pestage was any part of his current problem. He wrenched his thoughts back to the matter at hand. How had he arrived in this place...wherever it was? A dusty, empty desert, with silence as his only companion. A world where the Force was gone. All right. He had been on the Eclipse. And the Eclipse had been destroyed. His spirit had been forced to find its way back to Byss, by traveling through a nether-realm where the ravenous chaos of the dark side wanted to claim him forever as payment for all the power it had given him in life. How long had the journey taken? How far had he been forced to go? He had no answers to these questions. Time and distance were very different in that realm. He had only been able to focus on his will to reach his goal, the clones on Byss. Using the skills of Life Transfer which he had taken from the Holocron of Ashka and Vantos Boda, he had defied the forces of dissolution and struggled to regain life. The battle for life had been profoundly traumatic, and for the first time ever, the outcome had been truly in doubt. He was unsure now if he would have won it on his own, for there had been help where he had not expected it. Help from the spirits of the past Dark Lords of the Sith! The Sith Lords had entombed their bodies on the mausoleum world of Korriban, trapping their essences in temples of Sith Sorcery. They were able to roam the dark side realm beyond death without being consumed there. At the crisis point of his struggle to return to Byss, Palpatine had been found by some of these Dark Lords. They had offered to save him by guiding him to his destination. They even claimed that they had done so once before, after Endor. Palpatine had no recollection of that, but neither did he have a choice about trusting the spirits. The Sith had shown him the way to reach his clones, guiding him through the madness and terror that obscured all pathways. They had taken him to Byss, and opened the way for Palpatine to enter a new, young body. Luke Skywalker had not destroyed all of the clones. Palpatine would never have kept them in one vulnerable location...not after Urn Zelotes' treachery. Deep below the chamber Luke ravaged, there was another collection of waiting clones. As Palpatine inhabited one, he knew he had won again. Except...that he hadn't. The clone he had entered was flawed. Before long, his scientists told him, it would begin to fill up with necrosis, and finally die. As punishment for this failure, the Constable of Homunculi, Rollo Mon, had been executed along with his coworkers. They had not had enough time to study the clone and realize that its decay would also cause the Emperor to go slowly insane. Unsuspecting, Palpatine had turned his attention to the Rebel Alliance, confident that if his body died, he could take another. Now, as he considered the matter, it became clear that he had been betrayed, and not only by his scientists. The Sith spirits had been his true enemy. Of all the remaining clones they could have guided him to, they chose the defective one, the one that meant his death. Why had they wanted to destroy him in this way? The reason, he realized, was simply for revenge for what he had done to them. Decades ago, Palpatine had been taken by the remnants of the Sith as a boy. They had thought that he was prophesied to lead them to greatness once again. For a while, he learned all he could about the dark side from them. But Palpatine was then chosen by the dark side itself to be its greatest servant. He surpassed the Sith, and found he had little need for such a pathetic collection of outcasts, hiding from history in their dusty monastery. He left them with empty promises, and went away to enter galactic politics. Eventually, a use for the Sith presented itself. Palpatine had wanted to destroy the Jedi as an obstacle to his rise. The Sith seemed like a useful weapon to him. He had set up Darth Vader as the supposed fulfillment of that old Sith prophecy, and then he had used the revitalized Sith against their ancient Jedi foe. The long exile had weakened the power of the Sith, and in the resulting battles, the Sith had been wiped out. Their Dark Lord, Darth Vader, had become the Emperor's servant, and was charged with completing the eradication of the weakened Jedi order. Palpatine saw this state of affairs as the proper order of things, but he admitted that the ancient Sith Lords might well have felt differently. Now he strongly suspected that it was their long-delayed revenge to guide him into a defective clone. It suggested that Palpatine might have been able to reach a healthy clone without their help...or perhaps not. Perhaps the Sith Lords hadn't wanted him to die right away. Perhaps they had wanted to enjoy the spectacle of an insane and desperate Emperor before he met his final fate. And what a spectacle it had been. The slow loss of his sanity meant that many of the more recent events were unclear in his memory, but those that he did recall were enough to fill him with shame and rage for his foolish decisions. No doubt the Sith had enjoyed their revenge. If Palpatine had his way, he would enjoy his even more. Upon returning to life, he would take the Sovereign-class Star Destroyer Eclipse II and lay waste to the entire planet of Korriban. But only after having his revenge on Luke Skywalker and his sister. Palpatine breathed slowly, trying to calm himself. The hard part was now at hand...remembering what had happened while he was insane. Although he had returned to Byss, he had allowed his survival to remain a secret for a while, hoping to flush out any traitors who would feel free to act in his absence. That had been his first mistake. Two of his dark adepts did betray him, and before they died, they destroyed all of his remaining healthy clones. From that moment, he had been trapped in the one fateful necrotic body. Yet, neither he nor his followers recognized his madness. That did not happen until later, after he had revealed to Luke Skywalker that he was still alive. But surely, the insanity must already have been growing. Palpatine was not making rational decisions. He had toyed with Skywalker, sending a series of incompetent dark side warriors after him, instead of simply using another Force Storm. As the Emperor's reason leaked away, he made even more mistakes. Remembering them was like reliving a nightmare. Nothing made sense about it to him now, but at the time, he thought he was controlling everything like a master puppeteer. He had a vague memory of infusing several randomly chosen servants with the power of the dark side, and then expecting them to be able to defeat a Jedi Master. And there was a weapon as well, some sort of hyperspace missile launcher, which didn't seem to be able to destroy anything he really wanted it to. What had that been all about? Palpatine cursed again. This wasn't working. He had to find some sort of focus amidst the clutter of these nonsensical images. Whatever he had been doing, it must have been related to survival. His body had been dying, so he must have been trying to find a solution for that problem. He concentrated, and a brief image of a primitive shaman frozen in stone flitted across his mind, and was gone. Madness! Then another image came to him. A glowing, round stone. He seized on that and coaxed his mind to fill in the details. He had been looking at a stone. It had a name...the Sith oracle stone! He had been on Korriban, the tomb world of the Sith! It was coming back to him at last. He had gone to Korriban to ask...no, to command the Sith spirits to halt his body's decay. The memory brought a deep chagrin with it. If the Sith had already betrayed him, why would they have helped him at all? How they must have laughed at his plight. How they must have mocked him as they refused to help. Instead, they had shown him, in the oracle stone, the location of Leia Organa's child! In his madness, he had still desired it, and the Sith had gleefully pointed the way to his doom. Then he remembered that he had gone to Onderon after the child, personally, without the protection of his forces...into the hands of his well prepared enemies. Grabbing up handfuls of soft sand on either side of him, he flung it angrily as he raged at himself. What had he been thinking? What could he have hoped to gain? His plan for the child would have been useless! His body had been dying! He had needed a solution right away, not in a decade when the child had grown up! Of course, he thought with disgust as he slumped forward, he had not been thinking. He had been insane. With suddenly perverse ease, the memories flowed clearly. He had found Leia and the child in an old fortress, but Luke Skywalker had been there with his group of Jedi. Skywalker had demanded his surrender. He had brought a cage...a cage for the Galactic Emperor! The decay of his body made it impossible for him to fight them all. He saw himself goading the smuggler, Solo, into killing his useless, dying body for him. Just as he would have entered one of his own clones, he tried to take over the body of Leia's child. It would have been the worst mistake of all. Inhabiting the mind of Mara Jade had once diminished his power in the dark side. If he had existed in the mind of an baby, he would have been helpless...a prisoner at the mercy of the child's vengeful parents. An infant in a Force cage. He shuddered. Luke's Jedi companion, Empatojayos Brand, had actually done Palpatine a favor by stopping him. The cyborg Jedi had taken the Emperor into himself, holding his spirit prisoner. The Emperor had fought Brand, but to no avail. The Jedi had known exactly what to do. Palpatine wondered if Brand had learned what he needed from the stolen Holocron, the same recording device which had yielded the secret of Life Transfer to the Emperor so long ago. Brand had been mortally wounded by the Emperor, and he was dying. He vowed that the Emperor would never return, that the Force and all the Jedi who came before would make sure of that. Then he took Palpatine's essence with him into death. The fallen Emperor hunched over in misery. He knew how he had arrived here now. He was full of anger and remorse at his defeat, and finally remembering what had happened brought him no peace. He had failed utterly, and he had deserved death. But he had always assumed that his death would mean endless madness and terror in a realm belonging to the hungry entropy of the dark side. This fate had been revealed to him during his early studies with the Sith, and all of his efforts to prolong his life had been for the purpose of avoiding it. Now it had come to pass, but it was somehow nothing like he had expected. To his perception, he was physically and mentally intact, though he was as aged as he had been when Vader had betrayed him on the Death Star. He was clothed in his usual black robes, and he was seated on an empty plain of soft sands. Sickly colored mists prevented him from seeing very far in any direction, but as far as he could tell, he was still totally alone. Every shred of his power in the Force was gone. So why was it so different from what he had expected? Stubbornly, he began to reason it out. His presence here had to be related to the manner of his death. There was no other explanation. He had crossed over while imprisoned by a Jedi, a light side adept. He could have been pulled along to wherever it was that Jedi spirits go. It followed that this was some sort of light side realm. It also explained why he was powerless to call on the dark side. Nevertheless, he did not have to admit to a final defeat. In a way, it was a victory to have avoided being claimed by the endless chaos of the dark side. He was still himself, and until it was proven otherwise, there was still hope. Palpatine straightened from his despairing slouch, forced his frail limbs to pick himself up, and dusted himself off. Then he began to walk across the sands into the red and gray mists. As it had so many times in the past, his indomitable will held his head high and drove him on into the unknown. * * * Palpatine wandered for what seemed to him like a day, an endless day without any change in his surroundings. The powdery sands provided poor traction to his booted feet, and made his progress laborious. His thick black hooded robes weighed down his every movement. The mists swirled all around, denying him any sense of progress. He had no way to know if he was not, in fact, going in circles and getting nowhere. But he did not physically weaken, tire, or hunger. Only his spirit was in danger of exhausting its determination. Despite his earlier stubborn pride, after a day in this dusty limbo, he had to acknowledge some doubt. What if he never escaped this place? What if the Sith lore had been wrong about the nature of his fate after death, and this was what the dark side had in store for him all along? What if he was still insane, but only thought that he was not? He might even be still alive, but totally mad somewhere. Just as these horrible thoughts began to slither into his mind, the fallen Emperor's feet discerned a change in the terrain. Instead of continuing as a flat plain, the ground had begun to slope upwards. Palpatine's yellow eyes regained a spark of life, and he thrust the thoughts of despair away. His pace quickened, and as he walked, he felt the slope increase even more. His progress was hampered by the sliding sand, but step by step, Palpatine proceeded with his ascent. Once again, any measurement of the passage of time eluded him. Finally, with a bleak smile of satisfaction, Palpatine reached the top. He stepped up and out of the red-gray mists and onto hard, pebbly ground dotted with large stones lying randomly about. Turning back, he saw the region he had come from. It was an immense bowl-shaped depression, he realized, extending farther than he could see in the hazy air. Like a city sized soup bowl, it was full of the heavy mist. The foggy substance swirled lazily into the distance, and clung to his feet as well, as if reluctant to let him go. His new environment was free of the mist. He could see for a fair distance where the ground was flat. In another direction, hills rose out of the plain. These were craggy and uninviting, but it would probably be necessary to determine what secrets they might hide. After so long a period with only the shuffling of his soft boots in soft sand to listen to, the sound of a shifting boulder made him leap with startlement. He spun in the direction of the sound, and was shocked to see two figures standing nearby next to a heap of stones. They were youthful humans, with pale skin and long black hair. They appeared to be twins, but one was shorter than the other. Both of them wore blue outfits padded with gray, white belts, and red scarves. As soon as Palpatine faced them, they assumed a defensive posture which marked them as trained Jedi Knights. "Denin!" said the shorter Jedi in a female voice. "It's him! It's the Emperor, just like Lord Brand said!" "Be careful Vila," said the taller male Jedi. "We're not sure if he's powerless." "Nonsense," said Vila. "He can't have any power here. Lord Brand said so. He's just an old man now. Watch." The one called Vila held out her arms and gathered something invisible. All at once, a dozen large stones swiftly rose by themselves and hurtled through the air to plow into the ground in a rough semicircle around Palpatine. A shower of dirt and smaller stones pelted the former Emperor, sending him lurching backwards in dismay. "Who are you?" screamed Palpatine. "How dare you do that to me?" His fists balled tightly, he began to advance on the two Jedi. They glanced at each other as he stumbled during his approach. They did not seem afraid. "We could destroy him right here, right now," insisted Vila. "I can't sense any of the Force in him. Brand was right." "No, Vila," said Denin. "It's not our right. I know the Emperor's troops destroyed our home after his death, but we're not the only ones who suffered. The Jedi Legion is full of those who were victims of this old man. He killed some of them personally. They all want revenge." Palpatine had halted to listen, stunned at what he was hearing. As the two Jedi continued their conversation, they simply turned their backs on Palpatine and started to walk away. That gesture of disdain left Palpatine speechless. "Our job," said Denin, "is to go back and tell Lord Brand that the Emperor is here. It's up to Brand to decide when and how to destroy him. The other Jedi will want their say as well. But don't worry. The Emperor, and his old servant, will pay for what they did. The Jedi Legion will see to that. Besides...it's not as if there's any hurry now." Vila thought for a moment as she walked. Then she laughed sharply. "Yes, you're right. No hurry at all. Let the old man sweat it out for a while. It's not as if there's any place for him to go..." As Denin and Vila strode off, Palpatine tried to follow them. But as always, when his aging was afflicting him, his physical abilities were poor. It was not long before he was left far behind, and he gave up the pursuit. His heart was pounding, but not with exertion. What he felt was fear. Fear that the Jedi might turn around and come back. Fear that they might not, until they returned with a legion of Jedi to destroy him. A little while ago, this world had seemed like an empty prison. Now it felt like an enormous trap. And the Jedi had said there was no place for him to go. In life, he could have used any of a long list of swift powers to crush the two Jedi ruthlessly. But here, those powers were denied to him. Two Jedi were actually a threat to his existence. Defenseless as he was, a legion of Jedi equipped with the Force would be simple overkill. Evidently, that was the way they wanted it. Palpatine stared into the distance at the dwindling figures until he could no longer see them. When they finally vanished in the haze, he suddenly became aware that he had to leave this place. The two Jedi had been waiting for him; they had known he was coming. And, they would be back with many more like themselves. When that happened, he needed to be elsewhere. Turning in the opposite direction from Vila and Denin, Palpatine began to trek towards the rocky hills. So what if the Jedi had said there was no escape. Perhaps he could hide from them until he found a way. One thing was for certain. He was never going to surrender to the Jedi order which he had once vanquished. Not in any lifetime. * * * The jagged hills proved to be a challenge for Palpatine to navigate, and his progress was slow. He evaluated every cave and crevice that he encountered as a possible hiding place, but none seemed deep enough, or concealing enough. His fear of the Jedi Legion goaded him on, however, searching for mind-numbing hours for a refuge. It was moments after he had rejected a small rock overhang which had looked like a cave from a distance, that Palpatine encountered another stranger. He looked up at a ridge he knew he had to climb, and saw someone standing there, darkly silhouetted against the silvery sky. At once, he froze, thinking that the Jedi Legion had found him already. But there was no way he could not have been seen by the shadowed figure. Then the stranger spoke in a smooth, mature voice which was full of dignity. "You must come with me, if you wish to survive." Palpatine stared at the newcomer, unable to make out any details. "Show yourself," he rasped impatiently. "Come closer so I can see you." The figure seemed to hesitate, then descended from the ridge to approach Palpatine. As the man came into better lighting, Palpatine could see that he was fairly tall and solidly built. He was dressed like a Jedi, with gray robes open in the front, over a cream colored tunic. He looked to be late middle aged, with a receding hairline and thin, neatly combed gray hair. The man's face was round, his features broad and generous. There were many deep lines and wrinkles, especially under the darkly browed blue eyes. His expression was serious, and his gaze seemed somehow haunted. "Who are you?" demanded Palpatine. He didn't remember seeing this man before in his life. "What do you want?" "I'm here to help you," the man said hesitantly. Up close, Palpatine detected a slight slur in the man's voice. He also thought that perhaps the stranger was afraid of him. Good. It was about time someone here treated him with the respect he deserved. "We can help each other," the man said. "We both have the same enemy: the Jedi Legion. Perhaps if we work together, there would be a better chance of defeating them." "Do you know of a place where I can hide?" Palpatine asked bluntly, searching the man's face intently. There was, he decided now, something familiar about it, but identification eluded him. "I have a place of refuge," the man said. "My companions are there now. They sent me to bring you back there to safety. Will you follow me?" Palpatine hesitated. This was too much of a coincidence. How had this man known he was a fugitive from the Jedi? How had he found Palpatine at all? The lingering sense of familiarity to the man suggested that he might be one of the Jedi Palpatine had personally killed. He could easily be one of the Jedi Legion, come to lead Palpatine into a final trap. But for what purpose? The two Jedi he had met earlier had implied that all of the Jedi were going to come after him at once, not just one man. And why would they need to trap him? He was defenseless. Perhaps this man was telling the truth. He decided to play for time by changing the subject. "Do you know what this place, this world is?" asked Palpatine. The man seemed unperturbed by Palpatine's failure to answer his question. With a patient air, he replied, "It is a realm of the light side of the Force. The Jedi come here when they meet their deaths. Some of them linger here, but others move on to a higher plane, where great battles against evil are fought. You were never supposed to be here...but now that you are...we must do something about it before the Jedi find you and destroy you. If they do that, you will cease to exist, totally and forever. I am offering you a chance to avoid that." Palpatine was still unwilling to follow the man. "You told me that the Jedi are your enemies too," he said softly. "Are you not a Jedi yourself? What have you done to deserve their wrath?" The man was silent. "I will not follow you if you do not share this information with me. You know who I am, I think," Palpatine said craftily. "Yes...the Emperor Palpatine. I think anyone would agree that the Jedi have reason to hate me, as I hate them. Now, I am nearly at their mercy. If the situation was reversed, I know I would slaughter them without hesitation. I know what they will do to me. There will be much pain and humiliation for me before the end. But I am not yet captured. Caution is my only defense. Before I go with you, you must give me a reason to believe that what you say is true." The man remained silent for a long moment, but Palpatine only waited. Finally, the man spoke. "I will give you a reason which you can believe in," he said gravely. "The Jedi hunt for the Emperor Palpatine, yes, but they also hunt for his former servant. Their revenge will be terrible upon the man who was once Darth Vader." The world seemed to fall away from Palpatine's feet. In one reeling instant, he identified the man before him. "You," was all he could say. His eyes blazed, and his ragged teeth clenched. "Yes, it is me," said the man simply. "It is so good to see you...Master." The last word emerged so laden with rueful sarcasm that Palpatine flinched. Then Anakin Skywalker crossed his arms on his broad chest and offered Palpatine a smile from the depths of hell. * * * The two of them made their way through the rough hills in tense mutual silence for a long stretch. Anakin seemed healthy and strong for his age, and the terrain offered him little challenge. Palpatine had a far more difficult time, but Anakin offered an unquestioning helping hand each time it was necessary to cross a gap or climb a steep slope. Anakin seemed to be enjoying the silence. He must have known his former Master's thoughts and emotions would be seething. Anakin had obviously had time to prepare mentally for their encounter, but for Palpatine, it was all quite a shock. He imagined that each time Anakin helped him cross a dangerous crevasse, the former Sith Lord must be glorying in the reversal of roles. Now Anakin was the one in charge. Now Anakin held the power of life or death for Palpatine. The record of the past did not argue favorably for Anakin using that power in a way that would be beneficial to Palpatine. When they clambered up onto a small plateau and paused to check for pursuit, the tension simply became too great. Anakin suddenly turned on the former Emperor. "All right," he said. "Go ahead and say it. I can feel your anger. Go ahead and say what you're thinking." Palpatine scowled and pointed one twisted, shriveled finger at Anakin. "You killed me," he grated, infusing the accusation with the vitriol of the dark side he knew so well. "Yes," said Anakin, "I did. But you survived, didn't you." "You betrayed me at Endor! You chose your son over me!" It was as if Palpatine's anger drew out Anakin's. An unmistakable echo of Lord Darth Vader could be heard in his reply. "You betrayed me long before that, my old Master! Do you not remember what you did to the Sith order? You arranged it so that I was not at their side when they went to their destruction! I became Dark Lord over no one! And your Empire was never what you promised it would be. You lured me in with a vision of an ordered galaxy, but your real plans concerned only chaos. In the end, there would have been nothing left for either of us to rule over but shattered planets!" "These are all lies, Lord Vader-" "No!" Anakin interrupted, pointing one finger directly at Palpatine. "That is no longer my name, old man. If you use it again, I will give you to the Jedi Legion myself. I am not proud of what I was." "You mean, what I made you," sneered Palpatine. "No. That is only another lie. The responsibility for what I did with my life was my own, and belonged to no one else. Not even you. You may have thought I was your slave. Indeed, you held my life in your hands. I had to obey you, or else die. What you did to the Sith, and what you tried to do to my son, was for the same reason. It was so I would be left with nothing of my own.&> Transfer interrupted! . No one but my Master, the Emperor Palpatine. But a part of me was always free. It was that part of me that killed you at Endor. And I would do it again, the same as before." "I should have seen it coming," said Palpatine bitterly. "Yes, maybe you should have. My son was right about you. Your overconfidence was your weakness." Palpatine's lips tightened as he glared at Anakin. Then he cocked his head and smiled ironically. "Ah...but in spite of everything, we had such a long time together, did we not? So many years as Master and servant. We accomplished great things, you and I. The destruction of the Jedi, the creation of an Empire. You served me well, Lord...Anakin. I had good reason to be confident in you. Did you understand, my servant, that knowing you were mine to do with as I wished was one of my true enjoyments in life? An Emperor has so few real pleasures. And so little time to enjoy them." Anakin frowned, but restrained his own anger. "Mock me all you wish. It changes nothing. Look at the end result of things in the galaxy. You are dead. Your Empire is replaced with a New Republic. My daughter is one of its leaders. My son has recreated the Jedi order, and he will be a Master teaching new students. What did you leave behind you that was permanent? Nothing but death and destroyed lives, mine among them." Palpatine's face darkened as he withdrew deeper into the shadows of his oversized black hooded robe. "Don't be a fool, Anakin Skywalker. I leave behind the dark side of the Force, and that is eternal. It is a great injustice that neither a man nor his accomplishments can live forever...although I made a very good attempt. But I was the greatest Master of the dark side who ever lived. So long as the Force exists, the memory of what I was will live!" Anakin was silent as they stared at each other. Finally, he said quietly, "It's not the legacy I would choose." Of course not, thought Palpatine. One does not choose such a legacy. One is chosen for it, as I was chosen by the dark side. He had only scorn for the things Anakin was proud of. And why was Anakin speaking as if history was over? There was still a chance...there was always still a chance. To return and destroy the New Republic and the new Jedi. To continue his own story, which was not yet ended, but merely interrupted. "We should join the others in the cave," said Anakin. "I do not see any pursuers, but they cannot be far behind." He seemed to be dismissing the argument. p; "How far away is the cave," asked Palpatine sullenly. "Not far. In fact, we're already there," said Anakin. He crossed to the other side of the plateau and pointed to a half-hidden man-sized hole in the ground. "That's a cave?" said Palpatine doubtfully. "There's a huge sinkhole below. This is just the way in. I'm afraid you'll have to jump a little ways, but there is a slope to slide down to the bottom." Anakin gathered his robes, sat down with his legs in the hole, and pushed off to drop in feet first. Palpatine heard a clatter of pebbles as Anakin landed somewhere within. He walked to the hole and peered into the darkness, but could see nothing. Briefly, he considered simply taking his chances and walking away on his own. But he found that he desired the safety of numbers more than he mistrusted his old servant. Also, Palpatine resented the reversal that left him weaker than Anakin. He decided to stay by Anakin's side and wait for a chance to hurt him and reassert his rightful dominance. He sat down at the edge of the hole, and with a final look at the silver sky, pushed off and dropped in. He fell for a short distance and landed heavily on a steep slope covered with round stones. Helplessly, he slid down into the darkness, battered by tumbling rocks all the way. Painfully, he landed on a level stone floor, sprawled without dignity at the feet of Anakin Skywalker. As he gathered his robes into a semblance of order, he dimly saw Anakin hold up his hand. A brightly glowing ball of light appeared above his open palm, illuminating the cave to its farthest corners. Belatedly, Palpatine realized he had not asked who Anakin's companions were. In the new light, he had his first look at them. At Anakin's left side was another old man who wore similar Jedi robes, brown where Anakin's were gray. Next to this white-bearded Jedi was a tiny green-skinned alien with long pointed ears protruding from his wrinkled, bald head. Palpatine knew them both at once. "So, you have brought him," said Obi-Wan Kenobi. "As much as I hate to admit it," said Anakin, "this old despot is our last hope." "A great pity it is," said Yoda, frowning, "that there is not another." * * * Empatojayos Brand floated in front of the ranks of his Jedi Legion. Behind him were the hills into which the Emperor Palpatine had fled. Brand was a cyborg, and the only remaining human parts of him that were visible were his eyes and nose. Below his nose there was only a round droid body with mechanical arms. This survival suit was a reminder of his years as King of the Ganathan people, as well as of the day when Vader had hunted him and destroyed his ship and his body. Now that he had departed the physical world, the suit was purely a mental construct, entirely his choice to wear. He could represent himself in his young, undamaged body if he wanted to, but the droid body suited him after so long. It contained most of the history of his life, and he did not want to give it up. Levitating just as he had before his death, Brand addressed the hundreds of Jedi before him. He was proud to be their leader. They revered him for his great deed in removing the Emperor from the galaxy forever. But Brand knew that in the crowd were Jedi much greater than himself. It was to his great honor that they had chosen to follow him. He looked over the ranks, pausing to make eye contact with those he knew well, or those he had come to know here, after his death. He saw Jem and Rayf from Ossus, two young warriors who had perished in the final struggles against Palpatine. There, too, were the twins, Denin and Vila, who had done their work so well in their role as scouts. Brand saw the aged, insect-faced creature known as Jedidiah, who had won Brand's admiration with his tale of sacrificing his own life for Luke Skywalker's. It reminded Brand of his own sacrifice in the Fortress of Modon Kira on Onderon. Then there was Dev Sibwarra, the young man who had helped save Luke during the Battle of Bakura. Brand knew some of these beings had, like him, encountered Luke Skywalker during their lives. They had played a small role in the rise of the only remaining Jedi Master, whose light would lead a new generation of students to serve the Force. But these were just a minority of the Jedi gathered here. Most of the Jedi had died before Luke Skywalker had ever learned about his destiny. But Brand had something in common with them, too. They were victims of the Emperor's Purge, slain by Palpatine's heavily armed assassins, by his puppet Sith Lord, or by the dark Emperor himself. They had remained here in this realm to watch the fate of the galaxy after their murders, hoping against hope to see the disaster somehow redeemed. And now, they had a chance to do something none of them had ever expected. They had the opportunity to decide the final fate of the Emperor, their destroyer. "Fellow Jedi!" cried Brand. "The Emperor Palpatine is indeed in this realm, as I told you he would be. When I died, I imprisoned his very essence and carried it with me as I crossed over. I was separated from him, but I knew in my heart that he would still come here. Now we have found him! Denin and Vila have seen him with their own eyes, as he emerged from the Bowl of the Mists. Now he is finally ours to deal with. We have our plan, and all the players are in position. Are all of you ready to play your roles in bringing about the Emperor's end?" Hundreds of voices, human and a multitude of other species, cried out in affirmation. "Are all of you ready to do what we have agreed to do?" cried Brand. "It will be difficult for some of you. I know how you feel. But we are Jedi! This is, and forever will be, our way! Are all of you with me?" Again, every voice shouted agreement. Although Brand's mouth was gone, he smiled in his heart. Then he turned and began to lead his army into the hills, in search of the Emperor. * * * "What are you two doing here?!" Palpatine snarled at Obi-Wan and Yoda. "Didn't the Jedi Legion want you?" Kenobi let out a troubled sigh. "Yoda and I are here," he said tiredly, "because of our loyalty to Anakin. We cannot stand by and let the other Jedi destroy him for his crimes as Darth Vader. Such a punishment is too extreme. He was my student and my friend before he was Vader. I can do nothing less than stand by him now." "So...you are all fugitives from the Jedi," said Palpatine slowly, a leering smile forming on his wasted face, "because you are protecting Darth Vader from the hungry mob, which cries out for his blood." Anakin scowled and took a step towards Palpatine. "I warned you not to call me by that name again," he nearly shouted. Palpatine faced Anakin squarely, not backing down from the taller man. "And what will you do to me, a defenseless old man? I am in a nest of my old enemies, with another army of foes at the doorstep. Will you kill me again, my old servant? Are you strong enough to finish the job? And what does it matter to me? I can die here, or I can die out there! But perhaps it matters to you! I have been brought here for a reason. You need me for something, though you are loath to tell me what it is." Palpatine grinned with all of his rotted teeth, gazing into the furious face of Anakin. "Well then...as you can see, I am your faithful servant." His grin turned swiftly into a frown. "You should enjoy it while you can." "Emperor," rasped Yoda in a serious, commanding voice, "have you not taken enough satisfaction from his pain in your lifetime? More serious matters there are to concern us. Fugitives are we...and so are you. If your own life matters to you, then do not mock Anakin for helping you." Palpatine glared at Yoda. "In my Empire," he stated, "you would not have been allowed on the streets of Imperial City without a human master. I do not take orders from tiny little alien creatures." Yoda only stared at him with a hint of pity in his ancient eyes. Frustrated, Palpatine pointed at Anakin, who was standing rigidly nearby. "Explain to me then, little Jedi Master," he demanded, "why you are here with this Dark Jedi, and your fellow Masters are out there hunting him? Do you know better than they about Jedi justice? Why are you willing to die to protect the Dark Lord of the Sith?" Kenobi stepped in at that moment. "Anakin redeemed himself at the end of his life. Before he died, he threw off the influence of the dark side in order to save his son. In saving Luke Skywalker's life, he accomplished a great deed for the light side of the Force. The other Jedi cannot see beyond the darkness of his deeds as Darth Vader. They treat Anakin's redemption as merely a technical conversion to the light. It is not enough to earn their forgiveness. But for us-" "I want to hear the Jedi Master's own answer," interrupted Palpatine firmly. Yoda looked at Kenobi. Their eyes met for a few seconds, then Yoda faced Palpatine again. "When Luke went to face his father," Yoda said with great dignity, "Obi-Wan feared that lost was our last hope. Told him I did, that there was another...Luke's sister. But...wrong was I. There was yet another hope...Luke's father. Never did you fully destroy Anakin Skywalker. Kept him by your side, you did. And so you kept your death by your side, Emperor. Among us, Anakin is welcome, for though we looked for it not, to our aid did he come." "So," said Palpatine with disgust. "Everyone is happy. Do you expect me to believe that? Is there no anger between you? Are you really the peaceful Jedi you claim to be? I don't think so." Palpatine allowed his voice to drip with sarcasm and mockery. "Obi-Wan Kenobi...have you truly forgiven your beloved student for killing you in cold blood aboard the Death Star? I watched the entire duel myself through the Force. When you were weak and surrounded, your student cut you down. Your friend did not hesitate for a moment." Palpatine laughed harshly. "But didn't he hurt you even more by deserting your teachings for mine?" Palpatine paused to enjoy the troubled look on Kenobi's face. "Oh...but I am sure these are old wounds, long since healed." Palpatine watched his companions' faces carefully. Anakin was looking pained, and he hesitantly searched Kenobi's face for reassurance. Kenobi seemed to have none to offer. With evident discomfort, he looked away and did not meet Anakin's eyes. The growing pain and guilt soothed Palpatine. He had always enjoyed the pain of others. With the power of the dark side, he had been able to feed on it. But even blind to the Force, he was clearly able to see the obvious conflicts in this volatile little group. Swiftly, he pressed his advantage. "Anakin," he said with sour softness. "You cannot tell me that you have forgiven your first Master. When I was your Master, you confided in me how much you hated him. Yes...your hate was deep, so deep. You told me of how he fought you on Horuz, how he wounded you so terribly with his lightsaber. Is that what a friend and a teacher does? He left you a seared ruin, crippled and dying...he left you for me to save. And then..." Palpatine lowered his voice to a whisper. "Then he stole your children from you. He gave them to other men to raise. You never had a chance with them. They were hidden from you and turned against you." Palpatine could see that he had struck a nerve with that last comment. Anakin's face sagged, and he seemed to age ten years in a moment. Unable to face Palpatine, he spoke to the stone walls of the cave. His voice was uneven, and the ball of light he held seemed to dim slightly. "My son...found the good in me. And my daughter forgave me." "But was that enough to make up for what was stolen from you?" Palpatine pressed. There was no answer. Then Yoda spoke up again, very quietly. "Anger is of the dark side. And serve it we do not." The former Emperor suddenly spat out his disdain. "Bah! You are all so pathetic! Too weak even to face your own anger. You never understood the value of anger, Kenobi, Yoda. It lives in you, but you are afraid to face it! You act as if Vader does not deserve your anger, after everything he did to the galaxy, to the Jedi order! You...are...fools! You deserve to be destroyed by those Jedi out there. At least, they know what to do with their anger! At least, when they destroy me, I will die at the hands of people who I can understand. People who hate me the way I hate them. Yes...the way I hate you!" Palpatine turned on Yoda. "If I still had the power of the dark side within me, I would destroy you for training Luke Skywalker!" Yoda remained impassive. Pointing one clawed finger at Palpatine, he calmly answered, "You had the power, but destroy me you could not. You are no longer the Emperor. Your boasts," he shook his head, "are empty." "You survived by hiding like a coward," Palpatine shot back. "Just like Kenobi." Facing the tense Obi-Wan, he continued his verbal assault. "When my Purge swept the galaxy clean of the Jedi scum, you cowered on Tatooine, nursing Skywalker. I only wish you had stayed hidden. You interference cost me greatly. You helped Skywalker to destroy my Death Star. And the other child you secreted away, Leia, stole my Holocron and tricked me into releasing her brother! But you do not dwell on your successes, do you, my old enemy? You only think about your failures. You blamed yourself for Anakin's so-called fall, and you spent years trying to make up for your so-called mistake. I have nothing but disdain for your guilt and angst. Anakin's awakening to the true power was not your failure! It was my achievement!" Kenobi refused to be drawn into an argument. He looked at Palpatine's fierce expression with a vague loathing evident on his own face. "You think you are so very different from me," said Palpatine sharply. "But you are not. Tell me you never hated me for taking him away from you. Tell me you did not enjoy your part in the destruction of my battle station. Tell me you took no satisfaction in that revenge. That you had no shred of anger in your heart as you prepared Luke Skywalker as a weapon against me. That you did not feel a cold satisfaction when your plan succeeded, and I was annihilated with the second Death Star, hurled into the core shaft for the sake of your student. Tell me that you have never felt as I do...and I will tell you that you lie." Kenobi's gaze was very hard as he answered coldly, "Don't you think we know what you are trying to do? We understand you all too well. Even here, when we are all in danger, you strike out at those who would help you, for the sole purpose of doing harm. We expected this from you, and we will not let you divide us. You only have power over us here if we let you. And that is not going to happen. Once, we underestimated your cunning. It will never happen again." Palpatine fell silent. He realized suddenly that he had erred. When he had tried to turn Anakin and Kenobi against each other, he had almost succeeded. But when he had attacked them himself, he had only reminded them that he was their mutual enemy. For now, he had failed to hurt them. But there was still time to try again. Perhaps Obi-Wan and Anakin were too strong. Yoda seemed to be the weakest of the three. Not only was he a nonhuman, he was small and extremely old as well. Maybe, if he waited for the right moment... Palpatine turned and walked into the shadows of the cave, signaling his temporary surrender. There he found a large flat stone to stretch out on. Gathering his robes together, he lay down with his back to the Jedi. Yes, he needed to bide his time. He had a priceless opportunity here. He might soon die at the hands of the Jedi Legion, but before the end, he would repay his greatest enemies for what they had done to him. A pity young Skywalker was not here as well. But Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Anakin were fine substitutes. Perhaps he could betray them when they counted on him to give whatever help of his they coveted. It would almost be worth it to be executed by the Jedi, knowing that three of his most hated opponents were dying with him. He needed only to wait. An opportunity would present itself. They think I am helpless, he thought. They will find that it is they who are mistaken...about everything. * * * By lying still and listening quietly to the conversation of the others, Palpatine learned several useful things about his new environment. Anakin and his companions had been hiding in this cave for several days. It was one of several places of refuge that they had found in the hills. Because the Jedi Legion hunted them relentlessly, they were forced to change their location often. In each hiding place, one of them kept watch while the other two slept. Palpatine had not felt the need for sleep yet, but from the others, he gathered that once a being became acclimated to this new realm, it was necessary to rest periodically. This need followed the cyclic darkening of the alien sky. But the darkest it ever got was a sort of gloomy dusk. This did not stop the Jedi Legion from searching. Presently, Yoda and Kenobi settled down to rest in sandy areas of the cave. Anakin came over to Palpatine and unceremoniously took him by the arms to haul him to his feet. Palpatine endured the indignity without comment. Anakin's time would come. "You will keep watch with me," ordered Anakin. Without another word, he strode gracefully across the stone floor and began to climb a natural stone stairway. He lit the way with his Force-created ball of light. When he disappeared up around a bend, he took the light with him. For a moment, the cave was alive with shadows, then it was plunged into darkness. Palpatine cursed to himself as he gave in and followed, stumbling across the cave floor in the blackness. He found the opening of the stairway by feel, and slowly climbed it until he found Anakin sitting at the top. The former Sith Lord had doused his light, but there was a dim illumination coming in from the sky. This was another entrance to the cave, but it was fully covered by a pile of boulders. Gaps between the stones had been left so that a watchman could look through. Palpatine stepped into the small room and checked one of the gaps. The view of the surrounding hills was excellent due to the elevation. "Find a place to sit or stand," said Anakin. "It's going to be a long watch." "Are they out there?" asked Palpatine quietly. "I don't know," said Anakin. "They're Jedi...we're Jedi...we all know how to hide from each other very effectively. Both sides can neutralize any use of the Force to search. It's sort of ironic, but it really comes down to them physically looking for us." "Have they located you before?" "They have come very, very close...but...no." "Anakin," said Palpatine after a while, "there is something I have been meaning to ask." "Ask, if you must," he said stiffly. "Where are your scars, old friend? Where are the marks that the dark side left on you? I still carry them, yet you do not." Anakin looked at Palpatine in the gloom. "Is that all?" he murmured. "I can answer that easily enough. This is not the same kind of universe that we lived in before. The rules are different. Time is different here, and thoughts have power. The way you appear outwardly is based on the way you see yourself inwardly. You can change the way you look by concentrating. You don't have to look like the diseased individual that you are, but I cannot deny that your face is the perfect reflection of your soul." Palpatine frowned deeply. "I suppose that it is only fair that you speak to me as frankly as I spoke to you earlier. But you may wish to restrain your derision of your former Master. The time may come when I can once again make you pay for every word of disobedience." Anakin stared out into the quiet silver dusk. "That time is finished," he said simply. After a pause, he added, "We should be quiet. There's no sense making it any easier for the hunters." Palpatine stared at Anakin for a while, but the Jedi only peered steadily through the rocks. Then the fallen Emperor settled down at his own gap in the boulders, and contemplated Anakin's words as he gazed over the shadowy hills. If what Anakin said was true, then it was possible to rid himself of his age-ravaged frame, just as if he were transferring into a youthful clone body on Byss. There was, of course, only one way to find out. He closed his eyes and began to concentrate. Before, on Byss, he would burst free of his shriveled, cast off shell, and awaken in a strong, new, glorious body. When he looked into a mirror, he was always pleased with the results. He remembered the pale golden skin tone which echoed the color of his bright yellow eyes. He saw his clear, unlined face, lean and aristocratic in form. His forehead was high, and his head was crowned with a soft, well-groomed crew-cut of blonde hair with a widow's peak. Beneath his long straight nose, there was a sensuous mouth and a strong chin. The overall impression had been one of seductive power. It had been powerfully attractive to his concubines in any case. The one thing that did not change was the piercing, disturbing quality of his yellow eyes. It was an unheard of color for humans, but no one had ever dared to suggest publicly that the Emperor might have had alien blood in his family tree. To Palpatine, their source was unimportant. He simply enjoyed the way they made people uneasy. And so, he had the image of his young clone firmly in his mind. It had not been his real appearance at age thirty, but the science of cloning had enabled him to make all of the aesthetic modifications he desired. He opened his eyes. At first, he thought that nothing had changed. His roomy black robes were still the same. Then he slid his hands out of his sleeves. They were smooth and young. He smiled, and he could feel the difference in his face. It had worked. The youthful Palpatine met the aged Anakin's eyes in the dimness. "Well done," said Anakin. "It matches your ego." Whatever reply Palpatine might have made was lost as Anakin hissed, "Shhhh! I saw something moving down the slope. We may have to leave in a hurry. Go and wake the others. Tell them the Jedi Legion may be close." Palpatine stood, and moving much more vigorously than before, he quietly felt his way back down into the darkness. Halfway down the stairs, he realized that an opportunity to hurt his enemies was upon him. He was out of sight of Anakin, and Kenobi and Yoda were asleep. He continued downwards as quietly as he could. Quickly, he decided that Yoda should be his target. He gave little thought to Yoda's reputation as a Jedi Master; he was only a Master of the weaker light side. Besides, Force or no Force, the ugly creature would be defenseless while asleep. The diminutive alien had earned Palpatine's wrath. How dare the little thing suggest that the Emperor could not have destroyed him? One blast of Force lightning could have reduced the pacifistic lizard to a green smoking stain on the ground. Or, if he had wanted to be thorough, a single shot from the Death Star could have annihilated whatever planet the alien had been hiding on. Sadly, he had neither weapon on hand at the moment. But primitive weapons worked just as well. There were large stones on the ground, were there not? That was just the thing to crush a wizened green head into a ruin of blood, pulped brains, and jagged shards of bone. The Jedi Legion might soon be upon them, but they would find that the Emperor Palpatine still knew how to deal with those who dared to defy him. As he died, Palpatine would be able to hold the image of Luke Skywalker's murdered Master in his thoughts. And who was to say he could not take one or two of the Jedi Legion by surprise, and send more enemies ahead of him into oblivion? Palpatine reached the bottom of the stairs, and padded quietly to the center of the cave. His eyes adjusted to the faint light from above, and he spotted a stone twice as big as his head, not far from where he stood. With his new young form, he should just be able to lift it. He wrapped his hands securely around the stone, and raised it from the cave floor. A few pebbles clattered, and he froze, but neither Kenobi nor Yoda stirred. Then he took careful, soft steps until he was standing over the sleeping Jedi Master. It's been a long time since we last met, Yoda, he thought. Was it on the Senate floor, perhaps? For the longest time, you were working to train Jedi, and what did it get you? You knew what I was, and still I destroyed all your students. All except one. And that one destroyed me. Were you proud of your young Skywalker for that? Are you dreaming of him now? Foolish little creature. You kind does not challenge me and survive. I told you I would kill you for training Skywalker, and now I am going to keep my promise. If only Luke were here to see this. Perhaps someday I will be able to tell him about it. And now, old Master...you will die... Palpatine raised the heavy stone high, and hurled it down at the sleeping Yoda's head. But the stone did not come down. Stubbornly, impossibly, it hung in the air, its position firmly fixed. Palpatine pulled on it with all his strength, but the stone did not budge. He had no effect on it whatsoever. Wildly, he looked down at Yoda. The Jedi Master was awake, lying on his back looking up at Palpatine. Calmly, Yoda spoke in his gravelly voice. "Strong is your anger," he said, "but not that strong. You do not attack me alone, Emperor, for my ally is the Force. A strong and vigilant ally it is, as you should know." Palpatine continued to pull on the stone, frantic, his handsome face consumed with rage. Suddenly, the stone lifted even higher, while he held tightly to it. For a moment, his feet began to leave the ground, and he was forced to let go of his weapon. The stone turned gracefully in the air, and moved into a position above Palpatine's head. He gasped as it lowered towards his upturned face. Without warning, it was hurled at him. Leaping backwards, he avoided the missile, but landed painfully on the cave floor. The stone impacted heavily and split apart as it crashed where Palpatine had stood. Yoda stood, his face serene, and watched as Palpatine gathered the tatters of his dignity. For a long moment, the former Emperor was speechless. Then he gritted his teeth and snarled, "I'm not afraid of you!" Yoda's eyelids lowered, and his ears folded down slowly. Tiny sharp teeth showed in his mouth. The combination somehow made the tiny creature look menacing. "Ehhhh... you should be," said Yoda. "You should be." "What's going on here?!" demanded Anakin, running out of the stairway. "Nothing I cannot handle," said Yoda. "I sent Palpatine down here to tell you the Jedi Legion is close. One of their scouts is in the area. We have to get out of here before they find this cave." Kenobi appeared next to him, awake and alert. "We must go at once," he said. "Follow me, all of you, to the back door. Quickly!" Anakin took Yoda onto his broad shoulders, and hurried after Kenobi. Palpatine, growling to himself about his humiliation, nevertheless swiftly followed. Obi-Wan led them into a tunnel at the back of the cave. After a short winding distance, it opened into a narrow ravine. They ran along this passage until the walls fell away on either side. The fugitives came out of a cliff side onto a broad slope leading towards the plains below. Palpatine realized they were completely exposed. As if to accompany his realization, a cry split the clear air. High above, and behind them on the plateau, a lone figure stood against the sky. Waving its arms, it cried out in a voice sure to carry an impressive distance. "Jedi!! Jedi!! Vader!! Palpatine!! They are here!! Jedi!! To me!!" Palpatine caught up to Kenobi as they ran. "You imbecile!" he screamed. "They have found us! Why did we come out into the open? Why did we not hide?!" "We had no choice!" Kenobi thundered. "Would you prefer we had been trapped like vermin in that hole? This was the only way out! Besides, this was the plan all along! Now that we have you, we don't have to hide any more. We only need to lead the Legion to the trap we have prepared for them." "What trap?!" Palpatine shouted. "What am I supposed to do to help, you wretched Jedi fool? I don't have any power in the Force at all! What can I do against so many Jedi? You are insane--yes, that's it! I am fleeing with a pack of psychotic fools to the slaughter!" "And you are a raving paranoid sadistic tyrant," roared Kenobi, "but your worst fault is that you will never shut up and listen!! There is a plan, and you can help. In fact, only you can do what must be done!" "Here they come!" Yoda called. Riding on Anakin's shoulders, he was able to look at the cliff behind them. Palpatine felt a thrill of fear. No! He couldn't be captured! Their head start had to be enough. Their group was small and swift, and the exit from the plateau was through the cave and tunnel. A large group of pursuers would be delayed while getting through there, for they could only come one at a time. Then Palpatine risked a look behind him, and learned that he was horribly wrong. The Jedi were not entering the cave and leaving through the ravine. They had assembled at the top of the cliff, several hundred strong. Now, rank after rank was leaping from the cliff's edge, and floating to the ground far below. The Force carried each one to a gentle landing. Among the descending Jedi, Palpatine picked out a being shaped like a sphere with short arms. It was Empatojayos Brand. The Jedi who had killed him, come to finish the job. Palpatine averted his eyes and forced himself to run faster. Again, he came alongside Kenobi. "If you have a plan, old man, you had better tell me what it is! Or we're finished! The Jedi are coming down that cliff like a waterfall. They'll overtake us like a river, and soon!" "We're almost where we need to be!" Kenobi yelled. "We need them to be close behind." Obi-Wan's eyes flashed at his old foe. "We didn't tell you what your role is before, because we knew you would betray us if you had any choice. Now, you truly have no choice, Palpatine! Help us, or be killed yourself!" Kenobi pointed to the plain ahead. "Once we get down there, we are going to be able to destroy the Jedi Legion." "You would kill your fellow Jedi just to save yourselves?" Palpatine taunted. "That doesn't make you much of a Jedi, does it? So, you are like me after all!" "They are no longer Jedi!" Kenobi shouted angrily. "They would kill Anakin, one of their own, and betray everything the Jedi stand for! They have turned to the dark side in their hearts, and they are lost. They deserve to die. But we are not going to be the executioners. You will be our tool with which to destroy them. You are going to kill them all." Palpatine couldn't believe what he was hearing. "I am! With what?!" he laughed hysterically as an incredulous fear rose up inside him. "My bare hands? Stones don't work very well! Oh," he said loudly, his old sarcasm suddenly emerging, "now where did I leave my lightsaber? Oh no...back in the cave! You don't still have yours, do you?" Kenobi ignored him. "This realm intersects with an opposite realm of the dark side. Down there near the portal, a servant of evil can use the dark side's power. But only there. Here is your chance to show us how strong you really are, great Emperor. Can you handle a few hundred Jedi? Will you do it to save your old enemies?" 9A9A9A"> Palpatine was stunned. He had never expected this! Here was the ultimate chance he had been waiting for! The power of the dark side...his again. His fear and hatred, feeding into a vast destructive source, and unleashing the might to summon a Force Storm. His sudden dark joy was too much to contain, and he laughed out loud again, but this time with triumph. "And what is to stop me from destroying you, and Anakin, and Yoda, as soon as I am finished with Brand and his army?" As he asked the painfully obvious question, he anticipated the foolish answer he would get. "We will continue on, away from the portal," Kenobi said. "You will stay behind and attack the Legion as they catch up to you. We will be out of range by that time. Once you have defeated our enemies, we will go our separate ways." Yes! It was as he suspected. His ignorant ally knew nothing of the power of Force Storms. Palpatine had discovered them after Kenobi and the rest had died! The true range and destructive scope of Palpatine's power would come as a rude surprise indeed! There would be no place for anyone to hide. Briefly, he wondered if the whole plan might be a trick to leave him behind to be killed while the others escaped. Perhaps there was no portal, and no dark side power. But that made no sense. Palpatine would merely be the first to die in that case. Once they had captured Palpatine, the Jedi Legion would not just stop their pursuit of Darth Vader! And if Kenobi had wanted to turn Palpatine over to the Legion, they could have simply not helped him earlier. No, it could not be a simple betrayal of him. All at once, Palpatine felt something deep inside which told him Kenobi's words were true! It was as if he contained a cold furnace, chill and dusty from neglect. Suddenly, a familiar energy began to burn in his vital center. His eyes were drawn to the silvery sky. High above, there was a small black hole marring the shining expanse. Around this void there was a slowly revolving whirlpool in the fabric of the heavens. As the sea of silver turned and twisted around the hole, the ebony opening seemed to grow larger. Struck with vertigo, Palpatine felt as if he was standing upside down on the sky himself, looking down at a great smooth ocean which was draining slowly into a bottomless pit. It was a portal to a realm of the dark side. Instinctively, he knew that beyond it was the nether world of endless madness which he had always feared. It was close...so close to him! And he could feel its hunger. It wanted him, wanted to claim him, to take what belonged to it. All those years, he had used its power for his own needs and purposes. This realm had always waited to be paid back. First, it had taken his youth and vitality, ensuring that he would eventually die and lose his very essence to its hunger. Palpatine had cheated it, again and again, living on in his clones and avoiding his fate. Now, he could feel it pulling at him. It had never been enough that he had fed it with the fear and anger of a tormented galaxy. That was just part of his servitude. No, the price it demanded was personal. The dark side consumed its greatest servants in the end. Palpatine came to a point directly under the vortex, slowed, and stopped. He didn't notice Anakin, Yoda, and Kenobi race past him and continue running away down the plain. He wasn't aware of the sounds of the Jedi Legion as it drew closer. He only had eyes for the hypnotic portal. The sky spun on and on, circling it. The pitch black void continued to expand, and now lightning danced high in the sky around it. He felt the call of his Master, but he also realized he did not have to go. He could stay here if he wanted to. He had the power again. He could remain and destroy the Jedi Legion, serving the dark side as he had done before. He could kill Anakin and the others. And then what? Did he have to go to his death and enter the portal? No! Surely there was another way! Perhaps he could punch a hole through space and time, and return to the galaxy he had been torn from. The dark side could wait for its payment. It could wait forever as far as he was concerned. And then, could the dark side truly be called his Master? Or would it be his servant at last? What mattered was that the power was his now! And it was time to put this pack of yapping Jedi dogs in its place. Palpatine spread his arms. A cold wind began to blow around him as he gathered energy into himself. Easily, his own words as recorded in the Book of Anger came back to him. Anger, concentrated by will in the vital center of the body creates a portal through which vast energies are released--the energies of the dark side of the Force. Standing watch with the mind, in my meditation of anger, I have slain my enemies through great distances, through the dark side power that permeates the galaxy. Using this knowledge, I can unleash the dark side energies that are all around us, even to shatter the fabric of space itself. In this way, I have created storms. He had recorded those words after his victory over Urn Zelotes and the other adepts who had stood against him on Byss. To defeat them, he had created a Force Storm large enough to destroy a city. By the time he had faced Luke and Leia over Pinnacle Moon, he had been able to summon a Force Storm capable of swallowing a fleet of starships. Standing below the open portal to the dark side realm, he had access to the power in its most pure form. The Jedi Legion, which was forming a great circle around him, didn't have any chance at all. Palpatine laughed at the Jedi as they surrounded him. He heard them speaking, but he did not register their words. Nothing they said could matter. They would soon be dead. High above, the enormous whirlpool in the sky seemed to respond to his call. It seemed to him that it spun faster, and began to shape itself into a funnel, with the narrow end dipping down from the heavens towards him. At the center, the black portal into chaos pulsed and thundered. A great rumbling sound had begun to grow, and the ground trembled. The wind whipped his robes about, and lightning split the air again and again. "I am the Emperor Palpatine!" he cried. "The greatest Master of the dark side who ever lived! Hear me now, Jedi! I am your doom, now and forever!" * * * Empatojayos Brand was astonished at the spectacle before him. His Jedi followers had surrounded the Emperor as planned, forming a great ring of beings linked hand in hand. Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Brand's own Master, Yoda, had doubled back and joined the circle. But the center of the circle held the makings of a natural disaster. The level of noise was daunting, what with the rumbling of the portal, the trembling of the ground, and the searing lightning strikes. In the middle of it all, Palpatine stood with his arms raised and his hood thrown back. He looked like one of the youthful clones described by Luke Skywalker. But as Brand watched, Palpatine's appearance changed. His face melted back into the horribly withered old man's visage Brand had seen on Onderon. The Emperor laughed at Brand and the other Jedi, a harsh mocking laugh full of stabbing scorn. Brand wondered how Yoda had ever managed to spend time with this monster up close. To answer the Emperor's laugh, Brand spoke out loudly and clearly to the assembled Jedi. "My fellow Jedi! This is a moment of greatness, which will be remembered forever in the light side of the Force! We have before us the enemy who destroyed us in life. We have the power to destroy him in turn. But that is not the Jedi way. We are Jedi! We serve the light! We do not destroy--we preserve and we redeem. We have been given an extraordinary chance to live by our ideals today! We can redeem and reclaim our most potent foe! Remember the Jedi code!" "There is no emotion; there is peace." "There is no ignorance; there is knowledge." "There is no passion; there is serenity." "There is no death; there is the Force." Hundreds of voices repeated the Jedi code back to Brand. The voice he heard next to him was the high, clear voice of the woman who had conceived this bold plan. Without her, it would not have been tried. But her persuasion, her truth, and her goodness had shown them all the way. As she spoke the words, "There is no death; there is the Force," Brand's heart soared. But the raging Emperor offered a hateful counterpoint. "I am the Emperor Palpatine! The greatest Master of the dark side who ever lived!" How it must pain her to see him like this, Brand thought. Her bravery must be immense. "Hear me now, Jedi!" shouted Palpatine. "I am your doom, now and forever!" At those defiant words, the woman at Brand's side released his mechanical hand and held up her slender arm. She gestured, and a spear of dazzling light appeared in her hand, pulsing as brightly as a lightsaber blade. Following her example, each Jedi in the circle let go and summoned a brilliant spear. The heavens above the Emperor poured downwards towards the exultant dark side Master. The whirling portal drew close to him. Violent lightning struck the ground in a rough circle around him. Even brighter than the lightning were the light spears of the Jedi. As one, they lowered their spears and leveled them at the black robed figure in the center of the circle. Then they advanced. * * * The ring of fiery spears finally caught Palpatine's attention. The power of the dark side raged within him, and he longed to release it against his attackers. First, an energy shield against the spears, then a wave of Force lightning to drive them all back. Finally, the Force Storm to descend and savage them. But nothing was happening. The dark side was not answering his commands. All it seemed to want to do was to claim him. The Jedi continued to advance until he was at the points of more than two hundred spears. The shining weapons were very long, and their collective light nearly blinded him. But he could still see the forms of the Jedi holding them. Among the Jedi attackers were Kenobi, Anakin, and Yoda! Impossible! Was everything they had told him a lie? Had he really been fooled so utterly? He had only a moment to fix his hateful gaze on Anakin before the spear points moved forward and entered him. Every part of him was pierced, but he knew at once they were not natural spears. They did not slice his flesh. They slid into him without a single cut. The spirit weapons were not even tools of destruction! They were instruments of healing! They attacked Palpatine's darkness. Impaled on so many lances of light, he was lit up from within. His body became translucent and revealed the conflicting forces inside him. The light spears treated the darkness as an infection to be rooted out and destroyed with complete thoroughness. The energies of the dark side broke upon those spears, fragmented, and were cast out like escaping wraiths. Above Palpatine, the great black vortex spun. As his dark side power was cut away, it rose like fire and smoke into the lightning-ringed whirlpool. The dark realm fed ravenously, absorbing and reclaiming every shred of the shadow that flew free of its former servant. Palpatine had often wondered if the dark side was a sentient, living energy, or merely an aspect of the galactic energy field. He had never been able to learn the answer. Nor could the assembled Jedi discern its true nature. All they could understand was that it took back the darkness which they carved away, and took it back with frightening strength. The vortex continued to hurl down lightning bolts. Some of the Jedi were struck and fell away, their spears vanishing as they collapsed. But there were more than enough remaining to complete the task. For Palpatine, the experience was profoundly painful. Layers of his very soul were being sliced away. He no longer saw the Jedi surrounding him. Vivid visions came to him, depicting the parts of him that were being lost... ...he saw himself holding his lightsaber at the throat of a beaten Luke Skywalker, then the scene burned away, and even the memory of it was gone. ...he saw himself laughing as the adept's city of Velarium was ripped apart by his first Force Storm. Then that, too, fled and was consumed. ...he saw himself unleashing the Force lightning that would have killed Luke Skywalker on the second Death Star. Then it was gone. It had never existed. ...he saw himself awash in the power of the dark side after the destruction of the planet Alderaan...but that event, too, departed forever. ...he saw himself with the Holocron of Ashka Boda, willing his death and making his first transition into a clone body...and the experience itself was taken from him. ...he saw himself directing the Purge of the Jedi from the Palace on Coruscant. The spears amputated that part of his life, too. ...he saw himself declaring himself the Emperor of the Galaxy. The memory was sheared mercilessly away. ...he saw himself using the Force to lower the helmet onto the head of a kneeling Darth Vader. Gone, cut away. ...he saw himself engineering the fall of the Republic as President of the Senate. Extinguished. ...he saw himself learning the secrets of the dark side from the remnants of the Sith order. Lost. ...and at last he saw himself as a boy, taken from his father by the Sith and chosen by the dark side to be its greatest servant. The last of the darkness to depart into the portal was that which had been bestowed long ago on that day of choosing. This final memory was the last thing Palpatine saw. The portal descended, and his body was surrounded by a tornado like storm of darkness. The force of it threw back the surrounding Jedi and blew many of them off their feet. The whirlwind spun tightly, dizzyingly around him, swallowing him completely. Then it began to climb upwards again. The vortex began to slow. The lightning bolts ceased to rain down. Gradually, the ground stopped shaking. The aching void in the sky began to shrink. Slowly, the black circle diminished until it was the size of a pinpoint, present, but no longer visible. The silver sky had returned to normal, and beneath it, draped in robes far too large for him, was a young boy. He was a pale child, with a serious face. He had a head full of messy, light colored hair, and his unusual yellow eyes cast about in bewilderment. The woman at Brand's side stepped from the circle then, and approached the boy with her arms outstretched. Tears fell freely down her face, and she looked overwhelmed with passionate relief. Kneeling before the confused and frightened child, she held out her arms to embrace him. Trembling, he fell into her embrace. "Oh, Espaa," she wept. "We did it...we saved you. Espaa...I'm your mother, Gemsaa." "Mother?" said Espaa Pestage. "You are my mother! But I thought you were dead. How can this be?" "There is no death, my son. There is the Force. I'm here now...that's all that matters. I will never leave you again, Espaa, so long as you need me. I promise you that." Gemsaa Pestage held her son tightly to her and wept unashamedly as the assembled Jedi looked on in awe. * * * "Are you sure he remembers nothing?" Brand asked Anakin. "His mother probed his thoughts. He doesn't know who he used to be. All he remembers is his life with his father after his mother died giving birth to him." Anakin shook his head. "It's a miracle. Gemsaa is a brilliant healer. If she hadn't died, I think her son's life would have been very different. And so would the fate of the galaxy. I wonder sometimes, Brand. Does the Force control our destinies? If it does, why did it heap so much pain and evil on one man, starting with the death of his mother? Or was it all some ghastly cosmic mistake?" "A mistake?" said Brand doubtfully. "If so, it has been corrected here today. And thanks are not only due to Gemsaa. I do not think I could have put up with Palpatine at such close quarters as you did, with Obi-Wan and my Master." "I was already used to him," Anakin said ruefully. "But it was a burden. I won't argue with that...Still, to me it was a chance to complete my own redemption." "You did your work perfectly, all three of you. The Emperor was totally convinced by your story. He fully expected to destroy all of us. For a moment, even I almost believed that he could." "I knew him so well," said Anakin. "That's all. I knew how to bring out and manipulate his deepest character traits. Fear for his own survival. Paranoia. The desire for revenge. The need for power. He did the rest by himself." "Such a healing has never before been accomplished among the Jedi. And it could only have happened here, where our very forms can change, and where there was a place to send what we took away from him forever. I am still in awe that I witnessed it. Come with me, Anakin, I want to see the results for myself." They approached the little group on the plateau hesitantly, but Gemsaa saw them and waved them closer. Anakin marveled at how simply beautiful she looked with her son. They both had the same hair color, a subtle brownish blonde that glistened in the silvery light from above. Gemsaa held Espaa without possessiveness, and he seemed to belong in her arms. Anakin sat down next to a pensive Yoda and nodded at his satisfied looking old Master, Obi-Wan. Brand floated at his other side, completing their small circle. Espaa looked at Anakin with a reserved greeting expression. Anakin could detect no hint of recognition in the boy's eyes, and he sighed with relief. "Espaa," said Gemsaa, "this is Anakin, a powerful Jedi, and Brand, his friend and also a great Jedi. They are going to be your teachers too, along with myself, Yoda, and Obi-Wan. Together, we will teach you all you need to know about the Force, to prepare you for what lies ahead." Espaa smiled nervously at the newcomers. Then he turned back to the comfort of his mother. "I'm so glad to have you back. Father told me all about you. He missed you so much when you went away. But...now I miss my father. I want him to be here, too. Where is he, mother? Why isn't he here?" Gemsaa smiled sadly, and a few more tears brimmed in her large brown eyes. "I miss him too, Espaa. I loved your father very much. He was a good man. I'm glad you remember him. He loved you, more than anyone else in...well, in the whole galaxy. He stayed by your side and took care of you all the days of his life. But he was old, and he died. Sate Pestage wasn't like you and I. He wasn't touched by the Force and called upon to do special things like we were. When he died, he didn't come to a special place like this one. He joined with the All instead. He became a part of the Force. I can feel him, and he is always with me. I'll teach you to be able to feel it, too." "What am I supposed to do?" asked Espaa. "What special things?" "Beyond this world, Espaa, there are others. More worlds full of light and darkness. We have battles to fight there, and broken spirits to heal. The Force needs to work through us, to make sure evil doesn't destroy those worlds. It needs us to heal them instead." "Will we all be going? Will you? Will my teachers?" Espaa looked worried. Gemsaa stroked his hair. "Don't fear. You need never fear. You will not be alone. I will be with you, and so will your other teachers, for as long as we can." "When are we going?" "Well, it's going to be a long time before we go. We have a lot to teach you first. Some of the Jedi you saw earlier will be moving on, however. They are badly needed where they are going." "When I know everything, then will we go?" "I don't know if you'll ever know everything, Espaa. But you'll know all you need. And Master Yoda told me we'll be waiting for someone, someone important. I think he'll be here by the time your training is done, but for now, he still has very important work to do, at a place called Yavin Four." "Who is he?" asked Espaa Pestage. "Will I like him?" "I think you will," said Gemsaa. "You met him once before, but you don't remember it. He remembers you, though, and he's going to be very surprised to see you."