Tara couldn't move, no matter how hard she tried. Her boots felt as if they had been filled with durasteel and her head trapped in a vice, forced to watch as the horrifying scene played out in front of them.
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were in a large generator room, lightsabers ignited and twirling about in a fantastic display that put her best efforts to shame. The two were facing off against a demon out of Tara's worst nightmares, a tattooed and horned devil cloaked in black and wielding a lightsaber with two blades.
The three made their way deeper into the room , where Obi-Wan, having fallen several stories after a swift kick from the demon, was trapped and forced to watch as Qui-Gon continued to battle the demon.
But then Tara felt something. She felt herself in Obi-Wan's place, watching helplessly as Qui-Gon fought an increasingly one sided battle against the creature.
And she realized that Qui-Gon's features were changing. His tall personage being replaced by one of shorter stature, his angular, bearded face taking on a softer, more feminine look. His cold blue eyes turning to emerald green. His long distinguished brown hair being replaced with a shortened red coif with the traditional Padawan braid...
Tara gasped as Willow suddenly appeared in Qui-Gon's place, and her heart leapt into her throat.
The demon, knowing the fight was now won, blocked Willow's overhead strike, suddenly slammed his lightsaber against her arms, sending them up and knocking her lightsaber out of her hands. Just as quickly, he spun on his feet and dove the other blade of his weapon directly into the center of Willow's chest.
Tara opened her mouth to scream, but nothing emerged. She felt as if the blade had been driven through her own chest. She had left Willow helpless, and it would haunt her for the rest of her life.
As Willow collapsed to her knees, she turned her head to look at Tara. She returned it. Neither of them blinked for what seemed like an eternity.
"Tara..." she whispered, almost too low to hear, before she collapsed to the ground.
The sound of Willow's voice, louder and full of life, reverberated through her brain. She wondered how it could be that Willow was alive and speaking to her.
And then she opened her eyes to find Willow's face over hers.
"Master, are you alright?"
Tara groaned and made an attempt to get to her feet, only to collapse before she even made it to her knees. She didn't feel as bad as she had before, but she had a dull throbbing behind her eyes that made it difficult to concentrate. She also noticed the distinct smell of bacta, and realized that Willow had used the emergency supply to dab at the small cuts and lacerations Tara had sustained during the fight.
"I'm fine, Willow," she said as she attempted to get to her feet again, this time with Willow's help. As her hand grasped Willow's, she once again felt a surge in the Force, the one that she had been feeling ever since the first time that they had met, but had not grown in vibrancy since the incident onboard the Trade Federation ship. And she could tell that it was growing stronger.
"I'm sorry I disobeyed you, Master," Willow said in a rather clipped voice. "I know you told me to find someplace safe to hide, but I couldn't bear to think of what would happen if you had gotten killed by the AAT. And I know that it was foolish and stupid of me to come back and rescue you, because I know I could have put you in even more danger, and even gotten killed myself, but..."
Tara placed a finger on Willow's lips, ignoring the electric current through the Force that the action brought. "I'm alright, Willow. Nothing else needs to be said about it."
Willow nodded, accepting the mild reproof. Then, without warning, suddenly flung her arms around Tara and gave her a fierce hug. Tara returned the hug, gently at first, then more forcefully, but not too hard as to actually cause either of them any harm. She shut her eyes and concentrated on keeping her healing trance going. It gave her something to do. And helped to keep her thoughts away from thinking about how much she was glad that nobody was watching.
"I was so scared," Willow said, blinking away tears that threatened to break through her Jedi calm and wash over her face.
Tara stroked her hand through Willow's hair. "It's alright, Willow. I'll be OK. I'll be..."
She paused as she noticed the remains of the AAT. What had once been a rather lethal and dangerous weapons platform was now bearing severe scorch marks, its antipersonnel blasters and heavy cannon turret lying in several pieces not too far away. The broken and much abused parts of several droids scattered some distance away from the open hatch, the door of which was doing an effective job of pinning another droid against a nearby tree.
Tara drew herself away from Willow to walk over to the wreckage, gave it a cursory glance and turned back to her red haired Padawan, a rather stern look marring her features.
"Willow?" she asked, trying to keep a hint of amusement out of her voice. After all, Willow may be mischievous and daring, but she had never seen her do anything that would have made Tara think that she was capable of doing something like this.
Willow looked at the ground, shuffling her booted feet. "I'm sorry, Master. It's just that...well, you know, if I hadn't done anything, it would have blasted you across the area. And I'd kinda hate to have such beautiful scenery dirtied."
Tara's brow creased, realizing that Willow's comments bordered on the sort that was forbidden by the Jedi Code. Tara, being a Master for over two years, knew the risk of such attachments. And she had thought that Willow would have known better than to think that way.
And yet, she couldn't feel that, no matter how wrong the feelings were, that if she acted on them, she would not regret it.
Willow must have picked up on Tara's momentary curiosity, and quickly scrambled to explain herself. "I mean...you know." She gestured widely with her arms to the surrounding area. "The forest. Hate to have it mucked up by small little Master Tara chunks."
Tara stared at Willow for a moment, before bursting out into laughter. She couldn't believe that she had made a big deal out of something as insignificant as this. Willow must have thought it was funny as well, as she began to laugh, too.
The laughter continued for several more seconds until a second sound managed to overcome the first. Tara strained to make out the noise, and reached for the small electrobinoculars in her utility belt.
Willow rushed to her side. "What is it, Master?"
Tara scanned the skyline, or at least what she was able to see past the tree line. She lowered the electrobinoculars and made a dash to the edge of the forest, wincing in pain as she did so. Once she reached the edge of the forest, she scanned the sky again just in time to make out a starship streaking towards the heavens. Tara noted its trajectory and realized that the ship had been launched from somewhere in Theed.
That didn't make any sense, though. The Federation army must have reached the city by now, and they wouldn't allow any ship to leave that wasn't one of their own.
As the realization of what she had just figured out came to her, Willow came up from behind. She paused to look up in the sky. "What is it, Master?"
Tara lowered the electrobinoculars, and Willow noticed that her eyes were distant and unfocused. "We've been left behind."
Willow couldn't accept that. "Master Qui-Gon wouldn't leave us behind. Neither would Obi-Wan. They'd try to find us before they..."
"Willow, as far as Master Qui-Gon knows, we're both dead," Tara said. "We haven't been able to reach them ever since we landed. And with the planet now crawling with battle droids and a fleet of battleships in orbit, he's not going to wait around to try and find us. He would find the Queen and try to get a message to Coruscant. The fact that they had to take a ship to get out of here means that the situation must be even worse than we thought."
"It always is," Willow said, gently kicking a pebble near her booted feet. She felt a small grin on her face, and didn't attempt to hide it. "I'm beginning to realize why you often kept me out of these sorts of missions, Master."
Tara smiled gently. "Indeed, Padawan."
The Lapiz Cutter approached the starboard side docking bay of the Droid Control Ship, its landing gear extended. The ship came to a graceful and gentle stop, which was a sharp contrast to the mood of its passengers.
"Lord Sidious will not be pleased by this turn of events," Rune Haako said as he walked beside Nute Gunray, both making their way towards the hanger bay doors.
"I'll deal with Lord Sidious," Gunray grumbled. "He may be displeased, but we have accomplished our mission nevertheless. Naboo has been successfully conquered, and until the Republic agrees to listen to our demands, it shall remain ours."
"I am not sure that I share your optimism for the situation," Haako said as the two Neimoidians made their way through the hanger bay door. "The security holocams from the hanger identified two of the beings who escaped on the Queen's ship were two of the Jedi who found their way off the Profiteer. What's worse, OOM-9 reports that he's been unable to contact BAS-163 regarding the status of the other two Jedi."
Gunray scoffed as they approached the hatch leading to the bridge. "What can two Jedi hope to do against our army?" Inwardly, however, Gunray was frightened by the fact that there were still two Jedi on the surface who could spoil Lord Sidious' plans. He only hoped that he would not find out about the incident.
His optimism lasted as long as it had taken for him and Haako to enter the bridge, where they were greeted by Daultay Dofine, having transferred to the ship following the incident on the Profiteer earlier.
"Viceroy, Lord Sidious has signaled his intentions to speak with you."
Gunray swallowed heavily, then gestured for Haako to join him in the conference room.
The discussion with Sidious had proceeded rather smoothly, Gunray had to admit. The shadowy figure had demanded a status report from Gunray, who readily explained that the invasion had been successfully completed with little losses and no resistance. Sidious seemed to be pleased with this statement.
Then he asked the question Gunray had dreaded.
"And what of Queen Amidala? Has she signed the treaty?"
Gunray tried to come up with an plausible excuse, but his brain seemed to pick that moment to shut down, and he couldn't think of any excuse that Sidious could believe. He thought briefly of what had happened the last time he had lied to Sidious. It was shortly before the blockade, when Hath Monchar had fled to Coruscant with the details for the invasion, hoping to sell them to the highest bidder and perhaps live in luxury on one of the purse worlds of the remainder of his life.
Which, as it had turned out, was rather short indeed. He knew that he could not risk lying to Sidious again, lest he follow in the steps of Monchar.
"She has...disappeared, my lord."
The scowl on Sidious' face, the only part that was visible, seemed to increase in size. "Disappeared?"
Gunray gave a small shake of his head. "Yes, my lord. One ship managed to get past the blockade, despite the best efforts of our gunners to destroy..."
"Be silent, Viceroy," Sidious snapped. "I do not want Queen Amidala dead. At least, not yet. She is crucial to our plans for the future. I want her found and that treaty signed."
Gunray could barely contain his surprise, and risked a glance at Haako, who showed an equal amount of surprise and fear. "But...my lord. It is impossible. The ship...it has jumped into hyperspace. We do know where..."
Suddenly a new figure emerged in the holofield beside Sidious. It too was cloaked in a dark colored robe, but the being was anything but human. In fact, it looked as if it had leapt out of an inferno to grasp Gunray by the throat and strangle the life out of him. Its head was crowned with a ring of horns, it face tattooed in an elaborate manner, and had eyes as cold and hard as the strongest Mandalorian iron.
Eyes that even now bore a hole straight into Gunray, as if doing so could kill the lecherous creature it perceived him, quite rightly, to be.
"And you shall not worry about that, Viceroy," Sidious broke in, amplifying Gunray's fear. "Concern yourself with the situation on the planet. Darth Maul will bring the Queen to you, after which...he will deal with whatever random elements you have left exposed."
The hologram disappeared, and Gunray breathed for what appeared to be the first time in an eternity, turning to face Haako again.
"Two of them?" he struggled. "This is getting out of control. We never wanted this."
Haako shook his head. "There's a lot about this we didn't want. But we have to do the best we can with what we got."
Gunray nodded, punching a control into the console built into the table.
"Prepare the Lapiz Cutter for return to the surface. And signal the Profiteer. Order it to lead the blockade back to Neimoidia. There is no longer any need for it. Naboo is ours."