There was no way of knowing how much time had passed since she blacked out. All Athara knew was that it was hard to come back. The Emperor’s mind covered hers like a thick, oppressive dark shroud, blocking everything beyond the tiny glimmer of her thoughts that struggled against her forced unconsciousness. And it seemed that the more she struggled, the harder the shroud pressed down on her mind, crushing her back into the blackness of oblivion.
But then she wasn’t alone.
At first she thought that, perhaps, it was Qui-gon. He always appeared when she needed his guidance and his support. But it wasn’t. It was different, this presence. Somehow calmer, gentler even, than Qui-gon’s already soothing aura. There was a similar sensation of great wisdom behind the warmth and quiet of this presence. Without words or even recognizable counsel, it urged her to calm herself, to let go. There was something so comforting and familiar about the presence that she didn’t hesitate to trust it and to follow its lead. It made her feel truly safe…it made her feel loved. With the presence’s guidance, she let her panicked agitation and despairing fear melt away as water from sun-warmed ice. As her desperation faded so too did the comforting presence.
As did the shroud of the Emperor’s thoughts.
True consciousness came flooding back to her then. In an instant she was awake. The fear and panic she had barely escaped threatened to overtake her again. She couldn’t move. It was like her mind was disconnected from her body. She was a mind within a lifeless body. No, not lifeless, per se. She was still breathing; her body was still very much alive, but she had no power over it. She couldn’t even properly blink. Though she had somehow managed to maintain the calm that had freed her mind from the Emperor’s oppressive blackout, it was as though his control still extended over her very ability to move.
She hadn’t known it was possible to do such a thing.
He had almost complete control over her. She could feel him in her head. It felt precisely like he was blocking her, trapping her, inside her own mind. Thankfully he hadn’t been able to truly break through her mental shields. She was still in control of her own private thoughts and memories, but she hadn’t been as focused on protecting the rest. It was like he had his fingers pressed inside her skull, blocking the orders she gave her limbs much as a dam stops a stream from flowing. More than that, she could barely touch the Force; he was blocking her from that too. She discovered that when she tried to reach out and discern what was going on around her, only to have her consciousness slapped back.
And now that she was awake, she was horribly, painfully, aware of everything. The floor was cold and hard, driving a deep, splitting ache through her hip and shoulder. The back of her head throbbed where it had been slammed against the durasteel wall and her wrist was twisted awkwardly beneath her body, sending tingling pains up her arm. Her skin itself prickled painfully at the memory of the Force lightning that had sent her slamming into the wall in the first place, a residual ache lingering in her motionless muscles.
More than that she heard everything.
She could hear Luke.
Had her body been her own, she would have been forced to bite back a despondent sob. She understood, now. The Emperor had said he wouldn’t need to kill her as his apprentice would. She had automatically assumed he meant her Master.
He’d been referring to Luke.
She had been so blind. Of course he meant Luke. She’d seen that from the beginning. Vader, though powerful, was damaged both in body and spirit in a way that, though easy for the Emperor to manipulate, kept him from realizing the true depths of his potential the way he might have before he was broken. Luke was young, and immensely powerful in his own right even if he wasn’t quite so strong as his father. She could see why the Emperor had his eye on her Farmboy.
“By now you must know your father can never be turned from the Dark Side. So it will be with you,” Palpatine said around the corner, likely seated again on his throne, a hint of sharpness in his voice. He was still agitated; possibly still from the way she realized she was a threat to him. She wished that she were able to smile. She truly enjoyed that she was able to make him uneasy. It meant he wasn’t as invincible as he would have the Galaxy believe. She could picture the way her Farmboy must be looking at Palpatine. She struggled against Palpatine’s hold over her, trying to throw it off as Luke unknowingly distracted him. The thick, oppressive shroud only seemed to tighten around her.
“You’re wrong,” her Farmboy said softly, the calm confidence in his voice a stark contrast to the Emperor’s tone, “soon I’ll be dead…and you with me.” Athara’s thoughts froze just as her body would have. A faint paralyzing fear wound its way around her heart at those words, and that fear grew with the soft sound of Palpatine’s laughter.
“Perhaps you refer to the imminent attack of your Rebel Fleet,” the Emperor said with mock sympathy, “yes, I assure you we are quite safe from your friends here.” She could only imagine Luke’s shock at the Emperor’s admission. But she didn’t hear evidence of it in his voice when he spoke next.
“Your overconfidence is your weakness.”
“Your faith in your friends is yours,” Palpatine snapped back. Athara bristled at his caustic tone. The shroud shifted, stirred by the anger growing within her. Faintly she could feel how pleased the Emperor was at her ire. She managed to fight it back, but the weight of the Emperor’s thoughts imprisoning her had tightened further still with her surge of anger. Desperately, she tried to calm herself; a near painful process given how the imprisoning mantle of Palpatine’s seemed to hold onto her anger for her, feeding off it.
Something shifted for a brief instant, as though the shroud of Palpatine’s control was being pulled back for a brief, tantalizing moment. At first she couldn’t understand why Palpatine could possibly be doing this, but then she felt her master’s consciousness brush against hers before recoiling quickly in dismay. The brief touch she had with his mind told her that this was more a reminder than a revelation. The Emperor must have revealed that he had her when she’d been unconscious. Palpatine was using her to manipulate Vader, revealing that he had her to show his apprentice there was no use in resisting his will. Then the shroud was back in place, trying to suffocate her spirit the way a blanket of cloth might try to stop her breath. She only struggled harder; she didn’t like being a helpless pawn.
“It is pointless to resist, my son,” Athara was startled from her struggles at the sound of her master’s voice. He sounded tired and…mournful. Athara felt on the verge of crying again at the helplessness she detected in her master’s voice. He didn’t want this, any of this, but he felt he had no choice, and in many ways he didn’t.
She realized in that moment that, despite what she knew had happened at his hands, and the devastating impacts he’d had on her life, her master had also been everything to her, and in placing herself wholly in his care, she had become everything to him. Abruptly she realized he was the closest thing to a father she’d known, and she realized that for that she loved him. She could see that the Master who’d raised her was trapped within the monster who had stolen her true parents from her; the monster that harkened to the Emperor’s beck and call and marveled in devastation, and that Anakin had been trying in the only way he could manage to try to make it up to her. She could also see now just how strong the hold the Emperor had over him was. Even if he only cared half as much for his son as he cared for Athara—a love that, for some reason, the former sith apprentice suddenly didn’t doubt in the slightest—that the Emperor was able to compel him to act as he was nearly broke her.
A surge of hate directed at the Emperor went through her again. In response, the Emperor’s entrapment of her mind only tightened again. What little vision she had through her half-lowered eyelids faded in and out as she struggled against falling back into unconsciousness.
Around the corner from where Athara lay trapped within her own mind, The Emperor was almost gleefully relating how the Alliance had fallen perfectly and predictably into the tangled web of his scheme. But she barely heard it; she had been pulled back under into the darkness of the Emperor’s control.
At first she only began to struggle harder, the instinct to fight her way free overpowering thought at first. But she quickly remembered that fighting and panicking at the Emperor’s hold over her had only grown stronger. In a flash she realized what it was that the presence had been showing her. She fueled the Emperor’s hold over her, or rather, by the remnants of the Dark Side that clung to her fueled it. Her fear, her anger, her hate, all of them gave him the power to imprison her like this. She needed to calm her mind. She needed to shed her anger and her fear as Qui-gon had taught her.
Slowly but surely she managed to calm herself, shedding her aggressive feelings as best she could, and slowly but surely the oppressive weight of the Emperor’s mental shroud lessened. She desperately tried not to think of what was happening beyond the Death Star as the Alliance Fleet had in all likelihood arrived to find that they had been drawn into a trap. And harder still was forcing herself not to think on what was happening around the corner near the Emperor’s Throne. If she let herself think on what Luke was fighting within himself, or the agony she knew her Master likely felt in his powerlessness, she would be lost. Somehow, she managed to keep her thoughts from the two people she cared for most. Soon she was able to pull herself back to some semblance of consciousness, though the effort had nearly exhausted her.
But as she did, a distressingly familiar sensation was moving up through the cool floor beneath her. It took everything she had left in that moment to will herself not to panic at the sensation of the battlestation’s superlaser powering up, sending vibrations through the entire station from its heart all the way to the tower on the northern pole where Athara lay waiting with sick anticipation. The shudder that went through the station with each discharge of the superlaser caused Athara’s breath to hitch. Memory of the destruction of Alderaan flooded through her, choking her senses with the shadows of the terrible screams and the crushing pain of so much death all within the confines of her own mind. In the midst of it, she could feel the Emperor’s delight, something that caused her stomach to turn almost as much as the memories. She could also feel the anger growing within her Farmboy as he watched helpless as the Alliance fleet was being decimated by the Death Star’s functioning primary weapon.
Her eyes shot open as realization crashed through the torturous stream of memory. She could touch the Force again.
The Emperor was almost wholly focused on Luke and the battle before the Death Star that he must not have noticed his hold over her was slipping. Perhaps he hadn’t anticipated that she’d realize his control over her was fueled by her own emotions. More than that, control over her limbs was beginning to come back to her. She was still effectively paralyzed by his control, but she could feel it slowly beginning to fade. She could once more move her fingers, and her lids obeyed her commands again, but beyond that she was still a prisoner, though her lips curled faintly at the realization that, if she remained calm and kept out of the Emperor’s notice, his control would soon fade completely.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, which she was relieved to be able to do again, she tried to reach out through the Force. If she could only touch the mind of either Luke or her Master, she might be able to help. The strength of the anger growing in Luke was troubling her greatly, though she tried not to dwell on it. If she did she knew she would grow angry in her fear, and she’d fall back under the Emperor’s power. Perhaps if she could reach one of them…
But it was useless just yet. The Emperor’s hold over her ability to touch the Force, though waning, was still too strong. She fought back the frustration that tried to bloom in the pit of her stomach. Around the corner the Emperor was talking quietly, goading her Farmboy as the Alliance Fleet was being ripped to shreds before his eyes.
“Good,” he was practically purring he was so pleased, “I can feel your anger.” Behind Palpatine and Luke, Athara could feel her Master looking on. His mind was engulfed in turmoil. Even as a battle of wills was playing out before him, and a battle of starships beyond them, a more desperate battle still was going on within him. She could practically feel Anakin struggling to break free from Vader. What was worse, Vader was winning; Anakin was too beset by pain and fear at what was playing out between his son and his own Master. The Emperor seemed all but oblivious, his attention solely on Luke.
“I am defenseless. Take your weapon! Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey toward the Dark Side will be complete!” Athara held her breath, silently pleading that Luke could hold out against the anger the Emperor was cultivating within him until she could break herself free.
Then she felt the Force flooded to Luke’s call, and the all too familiar sound of a lightsabre igniting filled the tower. Athara jerked, reflexively trying spring into action herself. The hissing crackle of two lightsabres locked against each sent a chill down her spine. She knew what that meant; Vader had drawn his own ruby blade. The air of the tower was suddenly charged. Luke was struggling to rid himself of his negative emotions, while Vader had once again reasserted control over the part of himself that was still Anakin.
Squeezing her eyes shut she focused on clearing her mind completely. Perhaps, if she was able to present the Emperor’s control with nothing to grasp onto, she could shake him off entirely.
Before Palpatine’s throne, Luke and Vader fought, the sound of their clashing and whirling lightsabres resonating through the tower. She knew from past experience sparring with both of them that Luke had become, if not equal to Vader in his skill with his green blade, at least closely enough matched that his father would not find it an easy fight. Indeed, at the very moment Athara had the thought, a cry came from her Master, awkward and unnatural sounding in its projection through his vocorder. She could faintly hear the sound of a large form tumbling to the floor, artificial limbs creating dull metallic thumps as they connected with the durasteel.
“Good,” The Emperor’s delighted laughter sent an involuntary shudder through Athara. “Use your aggressive feelings, boy! Let the hate flow through you!” Instinctively, she curled around herself, flinching away from the menace in the Emperor’s goading voice, not even realizing at first that, though sluggish, her limbs were all but her own again. It took some effort, but she managed to prop herself up, leaning against the wall as she tried to recover some of her strength. Her limbs still ached from the Force lightning Palpatine had used on her and her head was still throbbing, but she pushed all that aside. She had continued on while in worse shape than this in the past.
A flicker through the Force caught her attention again. That Luke had been startled by the Emperor’s enthusiastic encouragement went without saying. Athara had felt his shock when he realized he had been doing precisely as Palpatine had been instructing. With a snap-hiss, she heard his lightsabre deactivate. Again, her body twitched in an uncoordinated effort to leap into action, her apprehension at him lowering his green blade blooming out of her own instincts to protect what she loved. She could feel him relaxing, drawing on his training to clear his mind of anger. Following his lead, she did the same, though it was now more in an effort to regain enough strength so that she could help him. She could hardly bear to stay off to the side. Her own feelings of helplessness were proving almost as dangerous as her fear and anger. She needed to join this fight.
“Obi-wan has taught you well,” Vader said thoughtfully, “as, it would seem, has my apprentice.” Her master’s voice held a measure of satisfaction and pride that Athara hadn’t quite expected. A pleased flicker of her own satisfaction alighted in Athara as he spoke, but it wasn’t enough to erase the nervous anxiety growing in her belly. A flash of something went through Luke as her master spoke as well. Had Athara not known him as well as she did, she might not have been able to place it. It was worry. He had been trying not to think of her, likely for the same reasons she had been doing the same. Neither of them wanted to give the Emperor additional ammunition against them.
But Vader did know about their feelings for each other. She was sure of that. He’d easily discerned her feelings for his son on Bespin. Yet the Emperor didn’t seem to know of her love for Luke, nor his for her. He would have tried to use it against her if he had. Of that Athara was certain.
Luke brushed his worry aside so quickly no one but Athara seemed to pick up on it. She couldn’t help the faint sigh of relief that went through her as she realized that.
“I will not fight you, Father.” The Dark Side swirled around Vader and the Emperor, a cord of energy stretching between them; Athara could feel the Emperor urging Vader onward, and the Dark Lord complied with only a split second of hesitation. She could hear her Master ascending the stairs he had been pushed down only moments before.
“You are unwise to lower your defenses!” As he spoke Athara could practically feel him coiling for an attack a heartbeat before he slashed his ruby blade forward. Thankfully, Luke seemed to sense it too, his own lightsabre activating a split second before Athara supposed Vader’s blade would’ve found its mark. Athara had had enough.
With one hand braced against the gleaming durasteel wall behind her, she managed to clamber to her feet. The Emperor’s grasp over her was all but gone and he had yet to realize she had worked her way free. Her strength was beginning to return far more quickly now. Now it was Athara who was shielding her presence from the others, not Palpatine. She had no desire for the Emperor to realize his mistake; she anticipated that he likely could still reassert his control over her if he so desired as she could still feel the remnants of his presence in her mind. Neither did she want Vader or Luke to sense her just yet. Vader knew she was somewhere on the station, but didn’t seem to know she was so near. Considering how strong the Emperor’s control over him was at the moment, she couldn’t be sure what he would do if he were to realize she was in the tower. And Luke she didn’t want to distract. One wrong move and Vader could kill him. That was something she could not bear to have happen.
A few moments of furious fighting culminated when Luke drew on the Force to propel himself up onto the catwalk above Vader. Athara couldn’t help but applaud that; Force enhanced jumps had always come naturally to him, something that Athara had always envied. Though she was no longer relying quite so heavily on the wall for support, Athara continued to press herself against it, inching forward until she could peer over to where Luke, Vader and the Emperor were. Luke’s back was to her as he stood looking down at his father from the catwalk. It was the first glimpse of her Farmboy Athara had gotten since she left him in the speeder on Tatooine. Her heart was suddenly fluttering in her chest as worry mixed with her feelings for him.
Now wasn’t the time for that, though, and she quickly pushed it aside lest the Emperor catch wind of it. She needed to figure out what to do next. She had the element of surprise, but she had no weapon. She suspected her lightsabre was either still on or near the Emperor’s Throne, but she didn’t know that for sure. For the moment, all she could do was watch and wait for an opportunity. From where he stood above them all, Luke was speaking quietly to his father.
“Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you…the conflict.” Her Farmboy’s voice was low and soothing, and Athara couldn’t help but be impressed with the effect he was having on her Master. He was right of course, and his gentle assured tone seemed to give strength to the remnants of Anakin that still lingered in the Dark Lord.
“There is no conflict,” Vader replied quietly. She didn’t know whom her master was trying to fool. It was blatantly obvious to all that he was still fighting an internal battle against himself. Unfortunately it was also blatantly obvious that at the moment, the good in him was still loosing to the hold of the Dark Side. Luke pressed on, pacing slowly along the length of the catwalk, his voice still soft and confident as he spoke.
“You couldn’t bring yourself to kill me before and I don’t believe you’ll destroy me now.” Vader inched forward, his attention fixed solely on Luke. Athara frowned, not quite sure what he was planning to do.
“You underestimate the power of the Dark Side. If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny.” With a move that was almost to quick for the eye to follow he launched his lightsabre towards Luke, the ruby blade slicing through the support struts that suspended the walkway from the ceiling as Luke dove out of the way.
“No!” the cry was out of her mouth before Athara could stop it, though her hand snapped up to cover her mouth as though that could keep her outburst quiet. The grating metal screams of the collapsing catwalk drowned out most of her yell, but Vader heard her, the fathomless eyes of his mask swiveling to meet hers. She could feel herself beginning to tremble as a mixture of fear and anger threatened to overtake her. In an instant she was leaping forward herself, clearing the gantry and the abyss that separated her from her Farmboy in a single Force-driven leap.
It was a stupidly impulsive move.
No sooner had she charged toward Vader and Luke than the Emperor realized she was free from his control. His face twisted into a feral snarl as his hand swept up. Though no lightning came at her this time, Athara was nonetheless dashed against the wall as a wave of Dark Force energy slammed into her body even as her boots had met the floor. Again the wind was knocked out of her and the force of her impact left her dazed as she slumped against the wall, her head awkwardly pillowed on her arm as her cheek and nose pressed against the cool floor. Distantly she could feel Luke’s shock and fear as he watched her sink motionless to the ground, no matter that he tried desperately to hide it.
His expression calming but losing none of its intensity, Palpatine had turned back to Vader, silently urging him forward as though Athara’s interruption was no more than an annoyance. But even as her vision and thoughts cleared, Athara could feel that Vader was shaken by her appearance. Nevertheless, he did as Palpatine had bid and descended the stairs before disappearing beneath the platform upon which the Emperor stood, a smile returning to his scarred face.
In a fit of desperation, Athara tried to reach out again. Her eyes closed in pain as Vader brushed her aside, intent on ignoring her as the Emperor urged him on. For a brief instant Luke’s consciousness latched on to hers almost desperately, seeking reassurance that she was all right before abruptly cutting her off. Lifting her head, she could see the slow, purposeful way Vader was pacing beneath the platform, his glowing red blade casting ominous shadows about him as he walked.“You cannot hide forever, Luke,” came his deep voice. Athara could barely breathe. She knew that, though everything in him was screaming for him to turn away from this, Vader would kill his son if he were to find him now. An involuntary sob threatened to tear from Athara’s throat as the realization settled in her chest. Though she fought the thought back, she couldn’t help but wonder if she was about to witness her Master murder the man she loved.