Many Happy Returns: Chapter Forty-Three
Rating: PG
Iella

"What was that?" Tendra gripped Lando's arm so suddenly he literally jumped, uncertain for a split second whether it was indeed his wife's fingers biting into his flesh or somebody else's. He swung round to find her squinting to the side, angling her head as if straining to hear as well as see. The smoke was clearing gradually, funnelling up through the hole the G-40 had blown in the roof, and yet in places it had formed into strange inverted mushroom shapes that behaved as if rooted to the floor.

Then Lando heard it, a voice raw with the effects of smoke and grief, moaning unintelligibly but definitely moving toward them. He followed Tendra, waving one arm to clear away the greyness while holding the other over his nose, and had barely taken five steps before he almost bumped into her as she stopped abruptly to avoid falling over the small figure that was crawling along the floor.

"Iliana!" Tendra reached out to the hand that was already grasping up at her, and together she and Lando helped the woman to her feet and carried her swinging between them, her arms clutched desperately round their necks, back to the gap in the fog.

"I tried ... to get to him!" she sobbed, her words barely audible in between rasping intakes of breath. "I tried —" her face crinkled into a mask of recalled horror and desolation.

Tendra hugged Iliana against her, and turned to her husband, her expression grim despite the fact she knew the tears prickling at the back of her eyelids were not caused solely by the smoke. "I'll take her," she told him in response to his unspoken query.

"Stay back there. Please?" He held her gaze. "Those Mantrusian women really need someone there — just in case ... you know."

Tendra's lips firmed into a straight line, but she nodded resignedly, and watched the smoke swallow his tall form until all that marked his presence was the sound of coughing. Somewhere nearby an unearthly feline yowling rent the air. Tendra shivered but turned her attention back to the process of helping Iliana to safety.

* * * * *

The yowling turned out to be Purr taking her pent up fear and frustration out on one of the group of Rancors she, Blue and Tab had, quite literally, banged into in their attempt to retrieve Doc and had consequently engaged in battle. Lando, in following the sound through the smoke, was surprised to find himself at the threshold to another room, and it took him a few seconds to realise that he was standing at the same spot that Anakin and Tahiri had been standing when he, Blue and the others had first entered the arena. Whether by accident or design, somehow the door had been demolished, with the result that the battle had now spilled out into the room beyond, and to Lando's great relief he caught sight of several familiar faces.

The Nacht-5 smoke billowed around the entrance, but its potency was being eroded by the forces of convection and dispersed by the volume of clear air it had encountered. Gratefully gulping uncontaminated oxygen into his lungs as he ran, Lando arrived just in time to bring his blaster down hard on the skull of the greasy-haired swooper who he had just seen grab Vehn in a stranglehold.

"Uh — caf break over is it?" the erstwhile pilot gasped, clutching at his bruised throat to check that no irreparable damage had been done.

"Yeah," Lando grunted as he felt a hand grip his ankle, pinning him to the spot. "They're just —" he swivelled as far as he could in an effort to draw a bead on the downed swooper now holding on to him, "brewing up for the second round if you want —"

Something exploded into him screeching like a vornskyr on spice, and an instant later he found he was lying on the floor eye to eye with Vehn.

"It's okay, I'll wait," Vehn wheezed, winded. "Just have a bit of a rest first, I think."

Aware simultaneously of a figure looming above them, albeit a little unsteadily, they twisted round to look up, and found themselves staring into the twin muzzles of an E-11/S.

"Look out!" Lando yelled.

The Rancor with the rifle leered. "Yeah — like I'm gonna fall for that ... urgh!"

Both Lando and Vehn were already rolling clear, so that even if the swooper had managed to get a shot away he would have had to choose a single target. But the choice was taken away from him altogether by Purr springing on to his back and opening his throat with a slash from her clawed nails.

Lando struggled to his feet. "You know I find it quite tiresome when people refuse to take me seriously. Do I look like some kind of clown?"

Vehn eyed him up and down and then applied the same scrutiny to himself, brushing a smattering of fresh blood off one of the Kowakian monkey-lizards on his boxers. "It's beyond me, buddy. Personally I think we're just too gorgeous for our own good."

"Yeah," Lando agreed decisively, turning side on so he could aim a kick at an oncoming Rodian that would send the creature hurtling back on to Chukka's waiting vibroblade. "Yeah. You said it, buddy."

Vehn's reply was pre-empted by a metallic thud, but this time both men knew exactly what to do. Yelling a warning to whoever happened to be in their vicinity, they clamped a hand over their noses and leapt clear just as the Nacht-5 spewed its corrosive contents into the air. And in the chaos that ensued, nobody saw the masked figure creeping through the swirling fog, searching for the unmistakable glow of a lightsaber.

* * * * *

The only good thing that Anakin could say about his current situation was that it vindicated the gruelling hours of practice he had imposed on himself on the Errant Venture, duelling against the droids he had constructed to emulate Yuuzhan Vong warriors. Not only had it taught him to fight without the Force, but it had also increased his stamina, and after the events of the last thirty-six hours, of being drugged, captured, imprisoned and beaten, that stamina was a vital resource. One fact was crystal clear to him, and that was that his opponent was utterly dedicated to victory — and what was more he was technically capable of achieving it, a fact to which his current flurry of chopping strikes and sneaky opportune lashes bore witness. But Anakin was equally determined, and where the warrior was no doubt calling on his gods for strength, Anakin had opened himself to the Force.

And yet, in truth, Anakin would have been the first to admit that his use of the Force — even his perception of it — had undergone some changes, a byproduct of some of the thinking he had done during his mission to rescue Tahiri. So now when he fell into the Force, it wasn't always in the same way he'd been trained by his instructors at the Academy — it wasn't always that complete immersion. And indeed at this moment, although he drew on the strength and empathy of his friends and loved ones to bolster his spirits and strength, and to keep his intentions true, he kept part of his awareness firmly rooted in the here and now. The Force gave him strength and guided the integrity of his movements, but it was those practice routines that allowed him to read his opponent's technique.

From a high block that countered a downward strike from the warrior's amphistaff Anakin plunged his lightsaber down diagonally to protect his right side from a thrust intended to skewer him through his middle. The blade nicked the Yuuzhan Vong weapon as it retreated and a shower of super-heated scales cascaded against his rancor hide top, some of them burning small holes in it. The warrior stepped back and Anakin followed, driving his blade at the line of exposed flesh in the middle of the knee joint in the alien's armour, causing him to twist clear. Anakin pressed his attack, this time driving at his opponent's face, forcing him to retreat again while bringing his rigid staff up in defence. So focused had the warrior been on Anakin that he had failed to keep an eye on his surroundings, or maybe he was finding the eerie shapes the smoke had coalesced into disorienting. Whatever the cause, his last step back brought him with a jolt against the end wall of the corridor along which Anakin had led Rongo and the others earlier in their search for Tag.

Anakin could tell by the look in the Yuuzhan Vong's eyes that he believed he had bumped into a person, for he spun rapidly with a snarl and sprang back down the corridor, staff poised ready to spear the new antagonist. But on realising his mistake the warrior didn't miss a beat, thrusting instead at Anakin who was already in full flight toward him, blade angled for a slice at his throat. With a burning hiss the two weapons clashed, locking Anakin and the warrior in a tussle for supremacy. Fully aware of his weight disadvantage, Anakin steadied himself, at the same time breathing as much oxygen as he could from the clean air in the passageway. Slowly and infinitesimally he forced the amphistaff back, aware of the carved incisors glinting from between the warrior's peeled back lips, and the muscles contorted like blue vines on his arms and sheened with sweat.

But the upholder of Domain Lian's honour was not going to yield ground so easily. Anakin felt him shift back the fraction necessary to adjust his stance, and gradually, like a slow-ticking metronome, the balance between the two began to reverse. Anakin gathered the living energy of the Force and fed it into his determination to stand firm although he knew technically he was standing in the wrong position to counter the superior mass of his opponent. His ears were ringing, not just with the thunderclap beat of his pulse as it responded to the strain, but also from the continuous shrieking of his lambent as it broadcast the proximity of the Yuuzhan Vong. It was just as Anakin saw the staff begin to slide, slowly but inexorably, down the shaft of his blade toward his wrist that he felt a spike in the Force, and all of a sudden it was as if a brilliant sun had burst over a dark horizon in his mind.

Tahiri

Although he could sense the tinge of confusion and the uncomfortable ripples of pain, the fact that she was conscious was like an elixir. He felt her reach out for him, and, with a feeling approaching exultation, he threw his augmented resources into a twisting shove that forced the warrior to spin away to avoid having the lightsaber slice his face in two. Anakin lunged at him blade horizontal with the floor, intending to take advantage of his exposed armpit, but the alien transferred his slightly off-balanced spin into his staff so that it swept in a wild loop just above the ground. For a split second Anakin hovered on the verge of skipping over it, but some instinct told him that this was the moment when he would either seize the initiative or lose it.

It took him a heartbeat to decide; it took him another to windmill his amethyst blade in a gyre that ticked down to slice the staff neatly in half, and a third to bring it back up to its apogee, as the dying weapon skittered helplessly into the wall. For what might have been a few seconds or merely another heartbeat, Anakin caught the warrior's gaze — predatory and determined — as he drew out his coufee. But there was something else there, something almost indefinable, except that if he had to assign a name to it his choice would have hovered somewhere between respect and gratitude. As fleeting as it had appeared the look was subsumed by a more familiar cold-blooded ferocity, allied with a feral growl as the Yuuzhan Vong threw himself at Anakin and aimed a curving swipe at his unprotected left side. The young Jedi spun sideways allowing the blade and the warrior to slip past him harmlessly, and then continued his spin for another ninety degrees to come up behind his opponent, who was already in the process of arresting his momentum and turning round. Anakin allowed him the span of a final heartbeat to catch his gaze side-on one last time, before he sliced off his head.

He stood for a moment exhaling deeply studying the body at his feet, taking in the battle-honed contours of the warrior's limbs and the polished gleam of the still-living armour, the tempered glint of the coufee. Then inhaling a slow calming breath, he shifted his gaze over to the right wall where the warrior's head had ended its roll. The dark eyes stared back from beneath their scarified hoods locked in an expression of vicious, yet at the same time, vehement determination and defiance. Anakin inclined his head and raised his lightsaber in a salute. It was an act for which he had no rational justification, except that it somehow seemed right, and he had the strangest feeling that had the shoe been on the other foot, the warrior would have done the same — although why he felt that way made absolutely no sense to him whatsoever.

He exhaled a second time, but suddenly the combination of relief and depleting adrenalin overwhelmed him, and he collapsed against the wall. It brought home to him yet again the annoying fact that his control of the Force still fell far short of the ideal, and there were still limitations to his endurance no matter how much he practised or how long he trained. He reached out to find Tahiri again, and it was then that he felt a dark presence bearing down on him. Cursing his moment of self-absorption, he pivoted to face the oncoming threat, but he was barely halfway through his turn when he was encased in a radiant pulse of blue light. Confused at his sudden inability to control his limbs he lurched backwards, hitting the wall with his head, at which point the corridor and his world turned black. He didn't hear Tahiri's gasp of horror, or Tag's crow of victory; nor did he hear the faint staticky hum coming from the lambent in his lightsaber.

And of course, neither did anyone else.



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