As the turbolift descended into the bowels of the Imperial Palace, the air seemed to take on an eerie chill. There was a strange thrumming energy, something old and powerful... and dark.
The sour taste of it was like sweet liquor to Palpatine's senses and he drank it in, greedily, relishing the way it buzzed and hummed on his skin, a taste of the power that was his alone to direct and command, his alone to wield.
The lift stopped at its destination. The shaft bottomed out even further below, but the present floor was the only one with enough space hollowed out to fit his current prized possession. The doors swished open and Palpatine proceeded down the hall, hands clasped casually in his sleeves in front of him.
The end of the hall opened to a massive chamber, the ceiling disappearing into distant darkness far above. Illuminated with several freestanding floodlights was a towering body of stone. The slabs were ancient, marked with decades of wind and rain, the painted markings that climbed up their faces faded into a dull reddish-brown from age.
The great gate of the Lothal Jedi Temple. Masterfully transported all the way from the backwater Outer Rim planet it had been recovered at.
Palpatine smirked a bit to himself, still pleased at how seamless the transfer had been, how very carefully his architects had transferred the gateway into his sanctum, achingly aware of how precious every small brick was.
He proceeded into the chamber. The archway of the Temple entrance enveloped him, slowly, the walls rising up on either side of him. Even now, the gateway resisted him, crying out through the Force at his intrusion, a ringing, discordant noise in his head.
He ignored it as he came to a stop, meters away from the point that separated him from the thin veil at the end of the hall, the portal into the world between worlds and the inner structure of the Force itself.
He turned his yellow eyes up towards the top of the archway before him.
Metal was grafted to the stone above the opening, spikes dug into the rock, clinging to the surface like some kind of parasitic leech. Glowing lights hummed at its edges. It pulsed and breathed almost like a living thing, artificial heartbeats echoing through the Force. It was a fiendish device of his own design, crafted from arcane Sith alchemy, created for one purpose, and one purpose only:
To hold the limp human figure currently dangling within its restraints.
Palpatine's mouth cracked with a cruel smile, watching as the small figure stirred from its fitful rest, blinking, coming to reluctant awareness.
"Hello Bridger," came his sneering greeting, the hands inside his sleeves tightening with anticipation. "I am sorry to wake you." His voice was like a horrible mockery of grandfatherly concern, harsh and biting. "But it seems I am in need of your... services once again."
The battered, exhausted boy pinched his eyes tighter before opening them, the vibrant blues shooting a hateful, defiant glare.
Palpatine's mouth puckered in displeasure.
The boy kept his head up, despite everything inside him begging to fall back down.
It had been three weeks since Ezra's capture. Three weeks of pain, and torment, and despair. The scout trooper armor had been forcibly stripped off him long ago, and the thin internal bodysuit provided no protection from the kinds of horror and pain the Emperor was capable of inflicting.
He knew that. He knew he didn't have a prayer of breaking free from this horrible thing the Emperor had him strapped in, this metal monstrosity that gripped his wrists and legs in a solid durasteel grasp, held him immobile just above the doorway that continually drew energy from him, holding it half-open in an awkward limbo, siphoning the strength from him.
He hung loose and boneless in the device. Creeping electric burns crawled up his arms, stopping in spidery light splinters of scar tissue on the edges of his face. Testaments to what he had endured since falling into Palpatine's hands.
His throat had long since gone raw. He couldn't speak now, even if he wanted to. His chest ached every time he breathed. His limbs were numb and disconnected from him. Sweat had plastered his short hair, growing steadily longer as the weeks went on, to his pale forehead. He could feel the grip of the Sith sorcery moving through the rig like a constant cold presence, a shroud of dark oppressive ether, keeping him alive and aware, never allowing him to truly rest, artificially sustaining itself through his own body.
He hadn't eaten or slept in days. His face was haggard, his body thin and weak from the torture and dehydration and the device draining him to power itself.
Exhaustion was deep in every bone. His silent, impotent glare was all the fight that was left to him, all that stood between Palpatine and his ultimate victory, as the Sith Lord slowly turned himself into a physical god each time he plunged into the space between spaces, the portal only Ezra could open.
His weak show of resistance didn't even phase the man.
The malice around the Emperor seemed to grown darker and colder, almost bored. He lifted his hands from beneath the sleeves of his dark robes, and Sith Lightning sparked between his gnarled gray fingers, arcing up to pierce through Ezra.
The young Jedi gasped and gave a short, pained shriek, seizing up as electric rivulets of pure Dark Side energy sliced through him, igniting fire and ice all along his nerve endings, a white-hot agony so intense he could barely breathe.
Ezra slumped even limper in the restraints, sagging, gasping helplessly as the tingling pain rang through him, sharp and lingering and horribly familiar, eyes down at the earthen floor.
The Emperor's withering glare was a physical weight upon him.
"Your pitiful resistance grows tiresome," he spat. The look on his face was sour, full of simmering icy fury. "Open the portal, boy. Do not make me break you again."
Ezra bit back a sob, the horrible reminder of Palpatine's cruel tortures flaring fresh to his memory. It didn't matter how much he fought it. Palpatine always got his way in the end. Always inflicted just enough pain, said just the right thing, to crumple his meager defiance into dust. He could never hold out, not against the sadism and fury of the Emperor's wrath.
...But it made him feel marginally better to at least try.
"D... do what you want... to me..." he mumbled, his voice hoarse and weak, barely audible. "I... I won't let you..."
"Oh?" came the Emperor's reply, cruelly upturned. The man's malicious smirk burned through Ezra like a knife. "You won't let me?" Ezra's heart clanged with dread at the expression on the Sith's wrinkled face. "Like you did before? When you let me right in?" The sharp features twisted gleefully. "When you let me kill Ahsoka Tano?"
Ezra's eyes squeezed closed, his chest clenching with guilt. He bit his lip so hard it turned white, as his mind was turned forcefully to the past, towards the mistake the Emperor was talking about, the one terrible moment that had doomed everyone, everything. He tried not to drift off but he couldn't help it, the scene played vividly in his head like he was experiencing it all over again, his lungs squeezing with apologies and hot shame, his gaze slanting to the side.
He hesitated only a moment, before he acted.
Disregarding Ahsoka's warning, he reached in through the portal, towards the image of the flame-wreathed Kanan.
"Ezra, no! " Ahsoka cried, hand darting up to stop him, but too late, it was too late, his hand was inside, the surface of the portal was shimmering around his elbow.
Something latched on tightly to his wrist.
Startled, Ezra gasped, flinching back, watching with horror as the image in the portal changed from the scene atop the fuel pod, from Kanan's steadfast silhouette, to a darkened room glimmering with blue flames, a hideous hooded face staring back at him, looming, yellow eyes alight with glee and triumph.
Horrified, Ezra tried to yank back, but the grip on his wrist was firm, squeezing, ivory skeletal fingers clasped tight around him, cold as ice.
He stepped back, pulling away desperately, his horror mounting as some thing came through the portal with him.
A foot stepped onto the pathway, dark robes rustling after it. His arm withdrew from the portal, a gray hand following, gripping him harshly. The hellish face rippled through the surface, euphoric with exhilaration.
Ezra's throat was frozen on a scream, his body locking up as the waves of dark energy flowing off the man slammed into him, the Force shrieking danger in his ears. Terror rang through him, clanging inside his head and body and he couldn't move, paralyzed by the fear and horror of what had just happened.
The Emperor—for it could only have been him, no one else could be such a black hole of cold and darkness in the Force—cracked a pleased smile.
"Thank you, Bridger," he crooned almost soothingly.
His fingers crushed Ezra's wrist in their cruel grip, drawing a pained cry from the boy as his knees gave out and he collapsed to the pathway.
"You've been most helpful," the Emperor finished, savoring the words like they were a poisoned knife slicing through Ezra's ribs, stabbing him straight in the heart, and Ezra inhaled a desperate, sobbing wheeze, clutching his arm to his chest and curling up as the Sith Lord released his hold.
There was a saber ignition in the muted void. "Get away from him!" Ahsoka yelled, taking a lunging step forward.
The Emperor's arms were up before Ezra could blink; he heard a discharge of static and a cry of pain and alarm and turned his head in time to be freshly horrified by the sight of Ahsoka toppling off the white walkway, her body still sparking.
She dropped into the unknown void below.
"No!" he cried. "Ahsoka!"
His shout echoed hollowly.
She was gone. The void swallowed her up as though she had never been.
His heart and face clenching, Ezra felt involuntary hot tears dripping down his face. He cowered under the shadow of the Emperor, sobbing, gasping with heaving gulps, his twisted arm pressed tight to his body and covered by his other hand. Frantic, fragmented, incoherent thoughts battered inside his head and his stomach sank heavily with congealed dread, a pounding sense of grief and wrongwrongwrong.
Ahsoka... Ahsoka was... again, and he'd... he'd just...
He wasn't even given time to mourn. Spindly gray fingers dug into his hair and gripped hard, pulled his head up. Ezra's blurry, tear-filled vision filled with the face of the monster from the portal, the wrinkled expression now hard and harsh as the yellow bloodshot eyes sneered down at him.
"Ezra Bridger," came a hissing, snake-like rasp. "Mine, at last!"
Tears blurred his eyes in the present too. Ezra blinked around them, unable to focus.
Ahsoka was dead.
Sabine was dead—killed by Hydan's men the moment Palpatine had what he wanted.
Hera and Zeb and the others were as good as dead—he knew Thrawn had been sent back to Lothal to deal with the remaining Rebel resistance.
He had spent the last three weeks in unrelenting despair feeling the galaxy darken around him, swallowing up all light and hope, every time Palpatine forced him to open the portal.
All his fault. All his fault, so he had to... even just a little...
An invisible grip tightened suddenly around his neck. Ezra's eyes blinked hard and flickered down in panic.
The Emperor was just standing there in the same position, hands folded calmly, but Ezra could feel his gnarly hands digging into his throat, pressing into his jaw painfully.
A hitched choke sounded from him, and then desperate, strangled gags.
No! No please! Please please don't, not again! he begged mentally towards the Sith's presence, his trapped hands trying to pull frantically from their metal restraints, the edges digging against his wrists.
The last time Palpatine had crushed his throat it had taken the rig two and a half hours to restore his trachea, Ezra holding in painful breathlessness the whole time, straining through dead lungs and only staying conscious by virtue of the Sith spell keeping him alive.
Palpatine kept his Force Grip firmly in place, his hand slowly raising to increase the pressure. "The rig can only heal so much, Bridger," he warned. "And I do not have to keep that function active."
Fresh panic and terror blossomed in Ezra's chest, his breath gargling. His horrified mind tried to comprehend those two hours of hellish undeath stretched out longer, recoiling, his back squirming against the rig.
"But I will," Palpatine said. His eyes narrowed darkly. "So long as you remain compliant and useful," he finished with a growl.
Fresh tears dropped from Ezra's eyes, a helpless little sound squeaking through him. His remaining resistance wilted; he stopped struggling and just waited for the Emperor to release his hold.
The Dark Side fingers slipped down and pinched one of Ezra's ribs deftly, breaking it, before withdrawing from around his throat.
Ezra first free breath was an agonized scream, short and shrill, the sharp pain in his side shrieking through his senses.
He heaved carefully, even that slight movement sending twinges from his broken rib. He wanted to sob; his face was already streaked with hot tears that wouldn't stop falling.
But, keenly aware of the impatient Sith Lord in front of him, Ezra just reached back weakly behind him through the Force.
The control set in the side wall lit up with a yellow glow, and the veil shimmered.
Palpatine's face spread with a smirk.
He said nothing further to Ezra, already striding forward through the opening.
Ezra panted and watched him pass through the archway underneath.
The Temple recoiled. Hot, burning energy surged through the keystone, through the rig, through him, and Ezra moaned and twitched as it coursed up his body to his head, blazing inside his skull with shrieking, screaming pain and voices, voices, a cacophony of voices in the Force. The stone shuddered, and the pit of his stomach turned over and he could feel it, he could feel reality warping and twisting, the fabric of the universe rend and tear as it was reshaped. The void of stars tilted and shook, paths collapsing and dissolving. Pinpoints of light went out. Gates dissipated.
Death and darkness rang out, the ground and air rumbling. Ezra thought he could hear a keening wail as the chaos subsided, the Dark Side surging even stronger and more potently.
It seemed like a horrible eternity before Palpatine emerged from the veil, triumphant. Sparking, staticky power seemed to fritz off him through the Force, the cells of his body a little less solid, a little more incorporeal. The Dark Side weaved in and around and through him like an amorphous, physical thing, eldritch in form, writhing and incomprehensible.
The man turned up a look at Ezra, shaking and panting in the rig, shivers running down his gaunt, emaciated body.
"Until I require you again, my boy," he said in casual, dismissive farewell.
Ezra's breath hitched and fresh, dry sobbing wracked through him. He hung limp and hurting in the restraints, a pitiful sight.
The Emperor departed. The lift chimed from a distance and the floodlights were switched off, plunging the chamber into abject, lonely darkness.
The sole occupant of the room was left once more to his own guilt-ridden, hopeless thoughts.
A slow burning crept up his side. The energy moving through the rig curled around him, slowly, painfully, knitting bone back together.
But not fully. Not all the way.
Ezra could feel his endurance waning. The torture, the lack of food and sleep, it was wearing on him. His weakening body could no longer provide enough energy for the spell to heal him. Soon, it wouldn't be enough to keep the portal open.
He was on borrowed time.
While it was some comfort that his ordeal wouldn't last much longer, he knew what Palpatine would do once he realized the unfortunate fact that his key no longer worked in the door.
Dispose of him.
If he was lucky, it'd be quick.
He hadn't been lucky in weeks.
And... there was something he had... to try to do... before the end. Something that Palpatine would definitely kill him for.
If he survived. If he was even... him... at the other end of it.
Ezra breathed softly in the near-total darkness. A chill draft tickled on the back of his neck. He inhaled and exhaled, gathering strength.
He reached out to the Force, letting his mind and body fall away.
Its sharp, strained, broken edges scraped against him, crying out with distress.
I'm sorry, he thought. I'm so sorry. I know I messed up. Please... he called, begging and plaintive. Please let me fix it. Help me.
The Force slipped around him, embraced him like a lost child, a sliver of Light finding him even in this centerpoint of darkness.
Ezra shuddered, and focused.
Kanan's voice echoed to him from the void, calm, gentle instructions feeding to his memory. Ezra slipped deeper into meditation, his pain numbing.
The whispers and echoes of the world between worlds flickered in his ears, in his mind, dancing around him.
Ezra drifted in and out of the starlit void. One inhale and his body twinged, he was hanging from the rig, left in the darkness, another inhale and stars cascaded around him and glimmered in the black sky, humming and murmuring voices filled his head.
He strained softly after one in particular, and focused.
Her voice started separating out from the others, calling out to him like he'd heard before, even through the ruin and chaos of Palpatine's visits.
"Ezra! Ezra!" The syllables hissed frantically, echoing and repeating over each other.
His chest tightened, breathlessly.
"Ezra, listen to me! You have to undo this!"
He nodded, grimly, minutely, trying to keep focus. Help me, he begged. Show me how.
The whispers drew closer. Soft, encouraging voices reached out for him. He felt something like a pull on his arm and he was drifting down, down, the stars slowly turning, his essence floating somewhere between time and space.
Invisible warm hands on his shoulders, on his back. Jedi masters from past and present, guiding him forward. The sensation of their words overlapping, a soft murmuring music. Ezra absorbed it dizzily.
Kanan forgave him, told him it was okay to let go.
Depa brushed the dried tears on his cheek away.
Master Windu fed knowledge into his mind, voice steady like a teacher's, describing without words a technique to touch and unravel the tangled strands of time.
He found the center of it shortly, the buzzing, discordant wrong cancer in the formless fabric. Palpatine's meddling was a hideous blight, swallowing up the white-lined pathways. It was a cold pool of swirling darkness.
The Sith spell keeping him alive gripped tighter to him, resistant. Ezra almost blinked back into the temple chamber for a half-second, the pain inside him flaring and electric.
But with a quiet shot of determination he slipped behind the veil again, stretching out his mental hand to touch the surface of the aberration.
The Force rang through him, giving him the strength.
The corruption shrieked, surging Dark Side lightning through the portal and into the rig. Ezra could feel his heart jolting, stabbing horribly, but pushed through.
It wasn't enough to just sever Palpatine's connection to the world between worlds. To lock the portal and deprive him of access to it. He had to reverse the changes Palpatine had made. Erase them. Erase all of this.
The Alliance was broken. Palpatine hadn't told him, but Ezra could feel it. The Emperor's victory was all but complete.
Here, in this moment, with all the life left to him, only Ezra could prevent that. A child of the Force, chosen by the Lothal Temple, the only person granted permission to enter.
He'd opened the door. And only he could shut it.
Ezra clenched his physical eyes tightly and concentrated hard, shoving through the lancing tendrils of the corrupted pathways. Cold claws stabbed into his skin, pulling his body apart.
He touched the glasslike surface of the corruption's core, splayed a palm across it. With the whispering urges in his ears and the stars in the void pausing and holding their breath, he pressed.
The strain scraped on his hand and mind and splintered through his body as the warring forces of Light and Dark fought through him. The Dark Side rent him. The Light held him together just long enough.
It hurt to breathe, to move, to think.
His heartbeat was erratic, his lungs unable to draw air. The shatterpoint in space and time creaked like groaning crystal.
Then it broke.
A loud white CRACK! sounded in the void as Ezra pulled apart the center of the broken timeline, splitting the aberration in half and allowing the Force to flood in and course-correct. Rushing, howling wind screamed in the void, the stars were knocked about and sent spinning, spiraling, pathways unraveled from the tangle. A shrieking filled his head and a crushing ice cold fist closed around his heart, squeezing him; the rig was frying him, taking the last remains of his lifeforce, pain exploded through him as time unwound.
From far away he heard Palpatine's furious, wrathful yell, but it was too late, the temple was pulling apart in the Force, everything was pulling apart, rearranging. The rig was gone and so was the pain and there was nothing but buffeting winds, and gentle whispers, and Kanan and Ahsoka's ephemeral embrace as his own existence began to erase.
Ezra exhaled and let his essence dissolve, desperately hoping and praying that when he opened his eyes again, saw his hand reaching for that portal, that he would choose differently.