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Amid the Shadow

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AMID THE SHADOW

Chapter I

 

He could hear her screaming.  Dying.  Her voice reared, like a screeching stallion, in his head—ricocheting off the inside dome of his skull, echoing ceaselessly, driving him insane.  It wouldn’t stop.  Not in sleep.  Not while he was awake.  Always there.  Always.  Stalking him like an obsession—every step, every heartbeat—like a demon, possessing him.  Never letting him rest. 

A high pitched yell. 

A black glove.  A hand made of lifeless durasteel instead of flesh.  A metal finger, trembling as it traced blurred black lines on the blurry screen of a datapad.  ...the Sith were obsessed with the notion of immortality and sought it militantly through unnatural practices and manipulation of the Dark Side of the Force.  However, all their endeavors were futile.

What?!  No!  That’s not right!  Darth Plagueis the Wise did learn how to prevent death!  Maybe not utter immortality, like the Sith desired, but Plagueis could save people who would otherwise have died.  Chancellor Palpatine told Anakin himself. 

He had such a knowledge of the Dark Side, he could even keep the ones he cared about from dying.

He could hear the voice of his trusted advisor and friend even now, more clearly than ever.  Chancellor Palpatine was almost like a grandfather to him.  When Anakin was accepted into the Jedi Order at the age of 9, he was no better than an orphan.  Lightyears away from the only home he knew, taken from his mother, the Jedi Master who saved him from slavery—the man he thought could have been like a father—killed, his new teacher serious and strict and only training him because he promised his master he would.  That first year (maybe longer), the child was terrified Obi-Wan would send him back.  He felt so alone, even when he was by his master’s side.  Yet, the Chancellor was always there for him.  When he arrived on Coruscant, Palpatine offered him—instead of an expression of stone and eyes of silent judgment, like the Jedi—a kindly smile and a gentle, wrinkled hand of friendship.  Palpatine would not have told Anakin of this Sith legend unless he was certain it would not mislead him and convinced it would help him.  Yes, such a power did exist, and there were those in the galaxy who had mastered it: Darth Palgueis, the apprentice who killed him.  This power could be learned.  Just... not from a Jedi. 

Anakin flicked his finger across the screen, moving several articles forward.  Shadow pooled around the edges of the datapad and gathered like black ink on the surface of the table.  There wasn’t much light in this vast hall of the Jedi Archives.  Most of them had gone out.  It occurred to him how quiet it was—like a tomb, empty of all save the corpse.  Silence rang in his ears.  Persistent, piercing, sharp, like nails going into his skull.  He glanced over his shoulder. 

The Archives towered around him—a massive, hallow space like the inside of an abandoned cathedral, once great but now filled only with darkness.  Row upon row of shelves, crammed with dully-glowing blue and white files, rose up on either sides of him, as if he was in the center of a canyon about to cave in.  On top of that, a stone balcony, another level, which supported more shelves, more files; beyond that a final floor where only Jedi Masters were permitted to enter, more files, the files they would not want anyone to see, the files Anakin would need. 

Anakin’s eyes lethargically revolved around the Archives.  An empty hall, empty isles between silent shelves, empty tables, empty chairs.  Beyond the tall cathedral windows at the far end of the hall was a black void.  Every light was extinguished except for the small lamp on the lonely table where Anakin sat and the misty glow from the shelves.  When had all the others disappeared?  He did not even realize they were gone.  What time was it?  He had no idea.  Time did not mean much anymore.  Morning, night, hours, days, they all ran together in a befuddled blur of surreal reality.  Sometimes, he still expected to open his eyes and wake from this nightmare. 

Anakin sighed and turned back to the words in front of him.  He stared down at the screen.  He blinked at the letters, as his mind struggled to interpret them.  A list of all the acknowledged Sith Lords.  He labored his gaze down the screen. 

Darth Bane. 

Darth Zannah.

Darth Cognus.

Darth Millennial....

His eyes burned.  His eyelids felt like they were packed with durasteel.  Every time he blinked, it was more difficult pry his eyes back open.  His head throbbed with pain and dizziness.  His entire body felt weak. 

A male humanoid, whose name remains unknown to the Jedi Order.

That could be Darth Plagueis!

A male Devaronian, whose name remains unknown to the Jedi Order. 

...or that could be Darth Plagueis.... He did not think the Chancellor specified if Plagueis was human, humanoid, Devaronian, or any of over a million other possibilities....

Darth Vectivus.

Darth Gravid.

Someone screamed. 

Anakin’s heart lurched into his throat—then it was thrashing wildly like a terrified creature caged in his chest.  His neck snapped up, as his eyes darted around him.  There was no one.  But knew it was her; he heard her scream!  It sounded like she was right night to him!  

“Anakin, help me!” 

He was suddenly on his feet.  “Padmé!” Anakin cried into the empty Archives.  His own voice ricocheted back off the walls and hit him in the face.  He was already lunging forward to a blind dash through the Archives. 

“Ani, help me!  Help me!  Help—”  She screamed.  Long, shrill, terrified, agonized.  Then she was groaning, grinding her teeth, her voice fading, weakening, moaning as her breath failed her and her life faded. 

“PADMÉ, WHERE ARE YOU!?” Anakin wailed, as he stumbled in drunken circles in a desperate effort to find her.  Terror choked him, tears burned his eyes.  “WHERE ARE YOU!?”  He screamed again.  His voice cracked in terror, breaking like glass. 

A voice answered him, but it was not Padmé’s. 

“Save your energy.”

What?  Anakin spun around, now utterly at loss.  Obi-Wan.

“I can’t,” Padmé managed a tremble whisper.  “I... can’t.”

“Don’t give up, Padmé!”

Oh, my Force...  Anakin’s head swirled in a maelstrom of sudden understanding, confusion, and terror.  He stumbled a few steps backward, as if receiving a fist to the face or a blaster-bolt to the heart.   He bent forward, his hands grabbing at his head, his fingers twisting up and tangling in his long bronze hair, gritting his teeth, closing his eyes, covering his ears—anything in his power to block out the voices!  He staggered back to his chair and collapsed.  He leaned forward on the table, burying his head in his arms.  To no avail. 

“I’m sorry,” Padmé whispered with her final breath.

“No, Padmé!  PADMÉ!” Anakin’s own voice screamed in his skull, horror-stricken and devastated.  “No!  NO!  I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!  SHE’S NOT DEAD!” 

“I’m sorry,” another voice answered.  Dark, cold, cruel—like the icy breath of winter, as if this voice belonged to Death, himself.  Just to hear such a hideous voice, his skin prickled with goosebumps and the hair on the back of his neck stood up. “You’re too late,” the shadow answered pitlessly. “You cannot save her.  You failed her.  You killed her.”

“No,” Anakin denied.  It wasn’t true.  He would not believe it—he could not!  “No!” he screamed, fury erupting in his soul like fire from the mounts of Mustafar.  “NO!”

 “Anakin.”

He looked up abruptly.  Another pair of eyes stared back at him.  Anakin flinched, startled by this sudden presence.  He had not heard anyone approach.  The man seemed to materialize, like a ghost, out from the very shadow.  A moment later, however, alarm melted into relief.  Anakin would have recognized those crystal blue-green eyes anywhere, that red-gold hair, the familiar beard, the invariably serious expression.  Anakin’s tense muscles relaxed slightly.  He sighed. 

“Obi-Wan,” he tried to answer casually.  He surprised himself when his voice came out weak and nervous, shaking like a dried-out leaf whose feeble grip will soon yield to the wind.  He then realized his whole body was shaking.  His insides shivered—as if he soul, itself, was trembling.

Obi-Wan stared at Anakin, his eyebrows furrowed in a deep frown, his eyes brimming with worry.  Anakin looked back at him and met his eyes, trying act like nothing was wrong, waiting for Obi-Wan to say something.  “Are you alright?” the Jedi asked softly after a long silence. 

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Anakin attempted with an unconvincing shrug.  “Why wouldn’t I be?" 

“You look horrible,” Obi-Wan answered in blunt, brutal honesty. 

Judging from appearance alone, Obi-Wan might have thought Anakin a patient in a medical center, hooked up to heart monitors, IVs, oxygen tanks, and life-support, the unfortunate kind of patient the healers are not sure they can heal.  His face was pale and overshadowed by an almost-grey hue, which unnervingly resembled the way color fades from the flesh just before death takes its victim.  Anakin’s skin was blanched of color and lined with illness and exhaustion.  Dismal bags hung beneath his eyes.  His eyes—usually so bright and vibrant, teeming with energy and passion—were dark and dull... as if the fire inside of them finally burned out, the candle seized and smothered by the pitiless tyrant of time, who dictates life.  And death.  In all the years he knew him, trained him, raised him, loved him, Obi-Wan had never seen Anakin quite like this. 

Anakin forced a weary smile, which he struggled to hold on his lips.  “Thanks, Master,” he replied with his best effort to forge sarcasm and lightheartedness.  “Means a lot.”

Obi-Wan did not smile.  His stone expression did not soften in the slightest.  He knew nothing in the galaxy better than he knew Anakin.  He saw through him easier than clear water. “I’m not an idiot, Anakin,” Obi-Wan said frankly.  “I know you better than this.” 

“I’m fine,” Anakin swore again.  “Really.  I’m just...”  He racked his brain for a believable excuse.  “...I’m just tired.” 

Obi-Wan looked at Anakin incredulously, not buying a word.  Anakin held his gaze for a few seconds.  That was as long as he could endure.  His eyes flickered away.  He stared at the tabletop instead of Obi-Wan, because he could not look him in the eye and lie to him.  They both knew the truth.  There was no sense in denying it any longer.  Anakin stared at the glassy table in silence.  Waiting for Obi-Wan to demand the truth. 

Obi-Wan let out a heavy sigh.  “I brought you some soup,” he said quietly.   Anakin looked up.  For the first time, he noticed the food-tray Obi-Wan held in his hands.  On top of it rested a bowl of soup, a silver spoon, a slice of bread, and a tall glass of water.  Obi-Wan stepped closer and set the tray down in front of Anakin.  

Anakin stared at the food.  He looked back at his friend, and a small but sincere smile appeared on his dry lips.  “Thanks, Obi-Wan,” he sighed.  “You didn’t have to do that.”

“When is the last time you ate?” Obi-Wan asked.  He sat down in a chair beside Anakin.   

How long had it been?  Anakin hadn’t even thought about food.  He had not eaten or drank or slept since the first nightmare about Padmé—that horrible vision that tortured him like a demon, possessing him, never leaving him, never letting him rest—and that was, what? three, four, maybe five nights ago...  It was hard to say exactly how long.  It all seemed one long, inexplicable, horrible dream. 

“Not in a while,” Anakin answered uncertainly.

“And when is the last time you slept?”

Anakin forced a weak smile.  “It’s been a few days, Master.”

“I thought so,” said Obi-Wan with a curt nod.  He frowned and gestured to the food on Anakin’s tray.  “Well, go ahead and eat.  And drink some water, for Force’s sake.  You’re going to pass out from either dehydration or exhaustion, or both.”  

Anakin reached for the glass—he had to grasp it with unusual effort in order to get a steady grip—and raised it to his lips.  Not until the cold, clean water touched his cracking, bleeding lips and soothed his sore, parched throat did he realize how truly thirsty he was.  He emptied half the glass in only a few swallows. 

“You should eat,” Obi-Wan said again, as he watched the young Jedi set down the glass.  “It’ll revive your strength.”   

Anakin had no appetite.  His stomach was empty, and yet he still felt perpetually sick, like he would vomit.  The thought of ingesting anything—of adding food on top of the anxiety roiling restlessly in his gut—added to his nausea.  But—for Obi-Wan—he picked up the spoon and started picking at the soup. 

Silence fell over them.  The Archives around them seemed to watch them, listen.  Obi-Wan watched wordlessly, a frown of concern still present on his brow, as Anakin sifted through the soup with his spoon and unenthusiastically forced himself to swallow what he could.  “It’s late,” Obi-Wan commented at length, puncturing the silence. 

“What time is it?” Anakin asked, glancing at Obi-Wan. 

“Past 4:00 in the morning,” Obi-Wan answered dryly.  He rubbed his eyes.  It then occurred to Anakin that Obi-Wan looked fatigued and drained himself.  However, if Anakin looked in a mirror and compared the two of them, he might not have thought so.

“Why are you up so late?” he said with a frown.  It was not like Obi-Wan to stay up all night, unless it was to for a mission or some important Jedi-related work.  But now Obi-Wan did not seem to be working on anything.  He was simply sitting here with Anakin... to spend time with him?  That seemed unlikely. 

“I was looking for you,” the Jedi replied simply.  “I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while, Anakin, but the Council has kept me busy.  And you have been rather difficult to locate these last few days.”

Anakin managed a faint smile.  “What did you want to talk about, Master?”

Obi-Wan eyes shifted.  An uneasiness was suddenly visible in his eyes; a silent tension arose between them. 

Oh, no, thought Anakin.  What does he know? 

“Finish eating,” Obi-Wan said quietly.  He still was not looking at Anakin.  “We’ll talk when you’re done.”

Anakin stared at Obi-Wan, his heart increasing its pace.  “Why can’t we talk now?”

Obi-Wan glanced up at him.  “I’d rather us be someplace more solitary, where there is no chance of someone overhearing us.” 

Anakin looked away and managed a nod.  He stared at the soup in his bow, nervously stirring it with his spoon.  His stomached churned.  The Achieves were empty.  There was no one here except him and Obi-Wan.  Yet, Obi-Wan would not speak to him here, despite their obvious solitude?  It was possible someone could wander in and overhear them, and there were also the security holograms to think about—two things he was sure Obi-Wan had never cared to avoid before.  Even when he informed Anakin of his mission to spy on Chancellor Palpatine, he had done so in the open, in front of others, where they could have been overheard by any passerby and where they were in clear sight of the holograms....  What could Obi-Wan possibly say to him now that was more important, more secretive than that?  Anakin thought he had an idea....

“You didn’t get this from the open Archives,” Obi-Wan muttered, noticing the file Anakin had been reading. 

“What?”  Anakin looked up, as Obi-Wan pulled the datapad toward him and read the text on the screen. 

“A list of Sith Lords,” Obi-Wan observed.  “You got this from the restricted area, didn’t you?  How?  Only Masters are aloud to go in there.” 

Anakin forced a weary laugh.  “You know me, Master.  I always find a way to get something when I want it.”

Obi-Wan looked up from the datapad.  “Why do you want to read the history of the Sith?”

“You know,” he muttered, dropping his gaze to stare at his soup again.  He took a bite to buy himself a few seconds to think.  “I’m looking for anything that might help us catch this ‘Darth Sidious,’ if there even is a Darth Sidious.”  He took another bite.

“Hm,” Obi-Wan grunted in reply.  From his reaction, it did not seem he was convinced by Anakin’s explanation.  Still, he did not press him.  He waited, mostly in silence, until Anakin had finished eating.  “So...” Anakin began nervously, after he swallowed every crumb of bread and scrapped the last smear of soup from the bottom of his bowl.  He forced down every bite, but as long as he was eating he had an excuse avoid this conversation with Obi-Wan.  He did not think the conversation would be a pleasant one.

He put down his spoon and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.  He released a tense sigh.  He looked up and met Obi-Wan’s eyes.  “What did you want to talk to me about, Master?”  His voice was soft, shy, afraid, as it was so often when he first began as a padawan. 

Obi-Wan rose from his chair.  “Let’s go on the balcony,” he said evenly.  “It’s a nice night.”   

Anakin nodded.  Feeling slightly detached, as if his mind was no longer in control of his body, he rose on unsteady legs and followed his master through the dark, deserted Archives.  Their footsteps echoed off the stone walls and lofty shelves around them.  Anakin could hear nothing else except his own heart as is panicked in his chest and pounded in his temples. 

They stepped out onto the balcony.  The cool, crisp air of a summer night bushed past Anakin’s face, the soft breeze rustling his long hair and caressing his sweat-dampened skin.  Beyond the railing, the lights of Coruscant blinked and winked at him like a sky of colorful stars and planets and celestial beings.  Streaks of color, dashes through the dark sky—comments, asteroids—impatient speeders navigating crisscross traffic lanes.  Anakin blinked back at them, as his vision blurred—his mind swirled with dizziness—and gradually adjusted to the dark lighting.  He inhaled deeply.  The pure, clean taste of the air entered Anakin’s nose and lungs.  It was refreshing, like a cold drink of water.  It seemed to revive him a little, helped clear his head.    

Obi-Wan closed the doors behind them.  He took a deep breath and turned to face Anakin.  Anakin was not looking at him.  He stood at the edge of the balcony, gazing out at the vibrant city.  There was so much movement in Coruscant—the city never seemed to sleep.  Yet, the chaos seemed so far away from the Temple, the noise of zooming speeders, blaring horns, shouting citizens muted.  Peaceful silence, calm, soothed the balcony.  They were alone under the light of four crescent moons. 

Obi-Wan took his place beside Anakin and leaned against the railing.  He watched the city lights paint a neon portrait beneath a deep blue sky of planets and stars.  He and Qui-Gon used to stand on this very balcony, sometimes at night just like this.  Sometimes, they would discuss their missions, or meditate, or seek insight on the Force. Or, sometimes, they would simply sit here to spend time together, to gaze in wonder at the stars.  

He sighed.  “Anakin,” he began slowly.  He tore his eyes away from the stars, his mind away from the past, and turned to the young Jedi beside him.  Anakin nervously met his master’s eyes.  Obi-Wan could feel the knight’s anxiety thrashing around inside his own stomach—their Force-bond, stronger than most, allowed them not only to sense but to feel each other’s emotions.  ...Although, Obi-Wan would have been lying to himself to say he was not anxious as well. 

“Anakin, we need to talk,” Obi-Wan said heavily.  There was no more pretending, not more avoiding this.  The time had come to be honest with each other, to speak the unspoken, to expose secret, to face the truth.  “We trust each other, yes?”

“Of course, we trust each other, Master,” Anakin answered, but, even as he said it, he sounded uncertain.  A seed a doubt was panted in Anakin’s mind long ago, and since then it had grown, like roots, sinking deeper, embedding itself firmer in his braid.  The Council did not trust him, the Council would not make him a master, the Council excluded him in their plans and decisions, the Council did not trust the Senate, the Council did not trust the Chancellor, even Obi-Wan asked Anakin to spy on the Chancellor! to break the Code, to be dishonest, to do the wrong thing....      

“There is no ‘of course,’ anymore, Anakin,” Obi-Wan said with a sigh.  “The Dark Side clouds our perception, and it is becoming more and more difficult to put faith in anything, or anyone.  Even people within the Order—within the Council, in fact—are afraid to trust each other nowadays.”  Obi-Wan looked Anakin in the eye.  “However, I would trust you, Anakin, with my life.  And I hope you can trust me.”

Anakin looked back at Obi-Wan—eyes like green-blue pounds, wherein he saw familiarity, the warmth and friendship he knew since his childhood, protection, security, sincerity, trust.  Yes, Anakin trusted this Jedi, this man, his brother.  “I do trust you, Obi-Wan,” Anakin realized.  His voice was softer, but, this time, it was also stronger.

Obi-Wan let his breath out.  His tense muscles relax ever so slightly.  “Good,” he sighed, as the first barrier between them was conquered and eliminated.  Now the path was cleared, and he was free to proceed... which would be even harder.

“So, um, what...” Anakin started reluctantly, grudgingly, forcing the words out through gritted teeth.  “...What do you want to talk about?”   

Obi-Wan hesitated for only a moment.  “I saw Padmé this morning.”

Anakin’s intestines twisted into a painful knot in his gut.  His vocal chords did the same in his throat.  Padmé mentioned that Obi-Wan had stopped by her apartment that morning—looking for Anakin.  

Oh, Force...  Does he know?

He swallowed with difficulty.  “...Senator Amidala?” he attempted to sound indifferent, as if this comment meant nothing to him. 

“Anakin, please.”  Obi-Wan’s eyes locked with Anakin’s.  “I know you’re the father.”