There were fifteen minutes left. Luke tore his eyes from the chrono and growled a few choice words under his breath.
?What could possibly be taking so long?? he snapped, glancing at the young brunette sitting in the corner.
?Stop whining,? she replied lazily, examining her fingernails.
?Why are we even here? We obviously weren?t needed.?
The girl let out a little sigh. ?You?re unusually anxious today.? She looked up at him in a detached manner, as though she were inspecting an insect that had to be crushed.
Luke glared at her and began to pace back and forth across the antechamber. His companion?s brown eyes flashed victoriously.
?So the Emperor?s little Hand is leaving after all??
Luke stopped and took several angry breaths. ?That has nothing to do with this, Leia, and you know it.?
She shrugged and resumed the careful study of her nails. ?Either way, you?re pathetic.?
The young man closed his eyes, but all he could see was her. He tried to tear the image from his mind, not because he wanted to, but because the longer he kept it there, the more likely it was that Leia would pick up on the true depth of his yearning. The last thing he needed was for her to jeopardize his tenuous position with the Sith Lords.
The door to the conference room opened, and Darth Vader stepped through, his nightmarish mask aimed in Luke?s direction. Luke tried to dampen his emotions, but he had the sinking feeling it was too late. Across the room, Leia smiled with dark satisfaction.
Vader looked from Luke to Leia. Without a word, he started walking to the far door. Luke and Leia exchanged a curious glance before quickly falling into step behind the Sith.
Luke checked his chrono and gritted his teeth. Ten minutes. Didn?t anyone understand how important his time was? If he didn?t get back to the palace before those ten minutes were up?
No. I have to see her again.
He blinked twice and focused on the hem of Vader?s cloak as they reached the landing pad where their shuttle awaited. The Sith Lord was subtly probing his mind, trying to follow the path of Luke?s previous emotions to their source, but Luke could feel him, and he responded forcefully to Vader?s intrusion.
You don?t ever get to touch my thoughts, old man.
As they climbed the ramp, Vader paused and glanced over his shoulder. The steady hiss of his respirator seemed to drown out the noise of traffic as he stared down at Luke. Then he turned away.
Six minutes left.
He dreamed about her every night.
She stood in front of a tall window at the end of a dimly lit corridor, her slender body wrapped in a shimmering white ball gown. Her red hair fell in loose ringlets across her shoulders and down her bare back, drawing his eyes to the smooth curve of her spine. It made him remember how badly he has wanted to touch her, from the moment he first saw her. The sight of her was like a stab in the gut, sending white hot tendrils of pain lancing through his body. He had to have her.
She looked at him over her right shoulder and extended her hand. As he reached for it, his skin erupted in flames, scorching his nerves as he opened his mouth to scream. She pulled away in horror, watching as the flames poured from his mouth. He stumbled toward her, unable to speak through that fire that was consuming his tongue.
She lifted the skirt of her gown, revealing her right leg and a small sheath from which she extracted a vibroblade. The weapon?s electric glow cast a faint light across her face, adding an unnatural spark to her green eyes. Before he could react, she let out a war cry and plunged the blade into his heart.
He tried to remove the blade, but it only sank deeper into his chest. As he fell to his knees at her feet, he grabbed the virgin fabric of her dress, leaving smears of blood where his fingers touched. She yanked the cloth from his hands and lifted her left hand to the ceiling. Something slapped into her open palm ? he couldn?t see what. The fire was burning out his eyes, blinding him with heat, with rage, with lust.
He collapsed on the ground and felt something cool touch his forehead. Raising his eyes, he saw the faint outline of a blaster in her hands. He groaned and grasped desperately at the air, trying to touch her.
Every night she fired, and then he woke up.
?You?re too late.?
Luke didn?t look behind him. His eyes were locked on the distant pinprick of silver that was her ship. Rage shot through him, rage like that of a cornered beast staring down its tormentor. He spun around, ready to lash out.
The red beam of Leia?s lightsaber sizzled to life a centimeter from his chin. Startled, Luke stumbled backward, igniting his own weapon.
?Unwise, young learner,? she mocked. ?You disappoint me.? She flourished her saber before deactivating it and clipping it to her belt.
?I hate you.?
Her lips twisted in a smirk. ?Good. You?ll never become Lord Vader?s apprentice otherwise.? She spun on her heel and walked away.
Luke shut down his weapon and watched her stride purposefully down the hall. ?I?m the best choice by far,? he called after her, ?and the Emperor knows it.?
?Only Vader?s opinion matters,? she replied without looking back.
He folded his arms tight across his chest and snarled, studying Leia?s steps. Who did she think she was? He was the chosen apprentice. Not Horn or Katarn or anyone else. And definitely not this spoiled one-time princess.
I hate you, his mind whispered.
I know, she whispered back.
?Something is troubling you, my son.?
Luke lifted his head to meet the Emperor?s gaze. Yellow eyes peered back at him from beneath a black cowl. Luke wondered if he had been born with those eyes or if they were a gift from the dark side. As much as he wanted to become Darth Vader?s Sith apprentice, he did not relish the thought of having those burning yellow eyes.
?It?s nothing, master. I haven?t been sleeping well.?
The Emperor?s lips twisted into a grimace that might once have been a smile. ?Why not??
Luke wondered how much he should tell the old man. It was nearly impossible to lie to him. ?I have these dreams.? Already he could feel the hypnotic pull that always preceded his master?s intrusion. If he didn?t yield enough, the Emperor would break him.
?What do you dream of, young Starkiller??
Luke swallowed the moisture in his throat. ?Burning.?
He half expected the Emperor to laugh and reassure him that dreams were nonsense, but the Sith just stared at him curiously. And then he asked a strange question.
?Do you burn to death??
Luke shook his head. ?No, master. I just burn.?
The Emperor leaned back in his throne. ?There is something else on your mind. Tell me.?
?Master, I think you should get rid of Lord Vader.?
Few beings, he knew, had the ability to truly surprise the Emperor. Luke had the feeling he?d just joined their ranks.
?Why would I want to do that? Lord Vader is far more powerful than anyone else who might replace him.?
?I could become even more powerful.?
?Yes,? the Emperor murmured thoughtfully. ?I believe you could.?
Luke felt his heart beat faster at the Emperor?s words. He struggled to maintain an air of seriousness. ?I could, my lord, if??
?Not yet,? the Sith interrupted. ?You have skill and ambition, but you severely lack experience. Prove your loyalty and your worth, and perhaps one day you will stand at my side.?
Luke bowed his head. ?Yes, my lord.?
?Now go. I expect you and the others to be present tonight.?
?As you wish.?
The Emperor was known to hold formal gatherings at the palace every now and then, inviting his moffs, governors, generals ? basically the biggest boot-lickers in the Empire. Luke hated such occasions. Most of the other adepts shared his opinion.
Luke cocked his head to the side, following the sound of Katarn?s voice. He was pulling two drinks off of a serving droid?s tray and heading in Luke?s direction.
Katarn stepped over to Luke?s side and handed him one of the drinks. ?As much as I loathe the old man, you gotta admit he throws a good party.?
Luke took a small sip and made no attempt to hide his distaste. ?You?re acting like one of his pathetic servants. You?re a chosen adept. Have some pride.?
Katarn smirked and took a loud gulp from his glass. ?Listen, runt, I didn?t come over here to listen to a lecture. If I wanted that I could have talked to Horn.? He gestured with his free hand, indicating a sullen-looking boy on the other side of the room.
Luke rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and shook his head. ?I?m not a runt,? he muttered more to himself than to his companion. He smiled despite himself.
Katarn finished off his drink and set the glass on a passing tray. ?You?re right, if anyone?s the runt, it?s Horn. You?d never know it by the way he talks, though. Bossiest little??
?Excuse me,? Luke interrupted, pushing through the crowd of evening gowns and formal attire to reach the flash of red hair he?d just seen leaving the ballroom. He stepped out into a wide corridor where a few couples were quietly flirting. Luke darted past them, reaching out with senses beyond sight, beyond hearing.
There. A single beating heart, moving out into the gardens. He approached the open doors, feeling the cool night air rush across his skin. She was standing next to a fountain, her back to him. Red hair, darker than he remembered, was elegantly braided and coiled on top of her head. She wore a green dress that hugged her body before flowing away at the knee, flowing like the water she was moving with her fingers. He watched the ripples float away and disappear.
Luke approached her slowly, and when he was within a few meters he realized her fingers weren?t touching the water at all. She turned on him, her green eyes curious and a bit amused.
She was exquisite, to be sure, but she wasn?t the one he sought.
Her features were similar, but there was something sharper about her appearance, something that made him feel like she was a predator and he was her prey. Luke put on his most gracious smile and extended his right arm. ?I don?t believe we?ve had the pleasure.?
?We haven?t.? She placed a smooth hand in his and allowed him to press his lips to it. ?Lady Rasia.?
?Luke Starkiller.? He released her hand and pretended not to notice the circles she?d been making in the water. ?You must be married to someone very important to be a guest tonight.?
?Not married, no. My father is a colonel.? Her eyes were unusually calm as she stared back at him. Usually the women he talked to showed signs of fear. Then again, none of them had been Force-users. He doubted her father was a colonel.
?Ah, there you are! Lady Rasia!?
Luke spun around as a short, blond-haired man in a captain?s uniform came strolling into the garden. He held two drinks in his hands.
Lady Rasia smiled politely at Luke and swept past him to join the captain. ?You brought my drink! How wonderful of you.? She glanced at Luke one last time before leaving with her companion.
Now alone, he went to the edge of the fountain and stared down at the clear pool of water. The person looking back at him had shaggy, dark blond hair and blue eyes that showed signs of fatigue. ?Who are you?? he whispered to the reflection, not sure why he had asked that question.
?Luke Starkiller, one of the chosen adepts.?
Luke put his hands on the fountain?s edge and tried hard not to dig his nails into the stone. ?Come to torment me, Organa??
?My, my, so formal tonight.? Leia?s reflection appeared in the water next to his. Brown eyes met blue. ?You?re still upset about the Emperor?s Hand??
?Why would I care what happens to any of those weaklings??
?But she?s not just any weakling, Luke, and you know that.?
?Do I?? He turned away from the fountain and studied her face. She glanced at him sidelong, continuing to focus her attention on the cascading water.
?If you want her so badly, why don?t you go after her??
Luke leaned one elbow against the stone and pressed his thumbs together. Why didn?t he? Because he wasn?t even supposed to know who she was? Because he wasn?t allowed to leave the palace without expressed permission?
Leia smiled knowingly. ?I see. You?re afraid of what the Sith will do if they find out.?
?I?m not afraid,? he insisted steadily.
She looked up at him, and this time there was something almost sad in her expression. ?You will be.?
Luke felt a chill across his nerves as Leia turned and walked away. He was about to shout after her, to say something just so she would stay and explain what she meant, but she beat him to it.
Korriban. That?s where she?s gone.
He watched dumbfounded as Leia disappeared into the palace.
3. The Nature of Demons
Tonight the dream was different.
She was still wearing the white gown, but this time she was in a desert, trying to climb a massive dune. He raced after her, calling for her to slow down. He reached the top of the dune right behind her, but when he tried to grab her arm, she pulled out a new weapon.
The snap-hiss of a lightsaber was unmistakable. She whirled on him, her magenta blade burning as intensely as the two suns overhead.
He reached for his own saber, only to find that it was gone.
She swung at him, forcing him backward down the sandy slope. He lost his footing and fell onto his side, beginning to roll down the dune. When he came to a stop at the bottom, he looked up to see her bent over him, blocking out some of the light.
?Why did he do this to me?? she asked, her voice cracking.
I don?t know, but please don?t leave me.
He lifted his hand to touch her face, so near he could see the little droplets of sweat making trails down her neck. There was a brilliant, blinding flash of light, and then she was gone.
He pulled himself to his knees and ran his hands over the scorching sand. Set me on fire, he ordered to the sand. Burn me now
Burn me forever. .
He awoke with beads of sweat all over his skin. The twin suns of that desert planet had burned her image even deeper into his brain. All he could think of, all he could feel, was that he had to be with her.
?Why did he do this to me??
He wanted to find the answer to that question. He wanted to take her in his arms and promise to end her suffering.
She could end my suffering.
I didn?t always want to be this way, did I?
Her eyes followed him into his waking life. They were so strange, so complicated. In them he had seen pain, defiance, helplessness, confusion, rage. He had seen courage and cold indifference.
He had never really seen them. She was only a ghost, something that haunted him in his dreams and whispered lies that he believed upon waking.
?Take control of your demons or they will take control of you.?
Those had been Darth Vader?s words, rumbled softly to someone else, someone Luke hadn?t been able to see at the time because he was eight years old, hiding in the closet. He remembered thinking it was strange and frightening, a demon giving advice about demons.
And then there was Leia Organa, who had been his fiercest rival ever since he could remember. Why was she trying to help him? Or was the mention of Korriban merely a ploy, a ruse that would get him offworld long enough for her to solidify her position with the Sith Lords? The more he thought about it, the more likely the second explanation seemed. And yet there was something about Leia?s actions that rang a deeper chord, touching on something so elusive he wasn?t even sure it was real. Despite his brain and his instincts and everything that told him Korriban was a trick, he felt the truth of her words.
There was only one thing left to do. Luke pulled out his comlink and flipped it on. ?Artoo,? he whispered, calling on the little droid that headed Darth Vader?s astromech team. If anyone could take him to the Sith planet, R2-D2 could. ?I need a favor.?
As if sensing the need for discretion, Artoo replied in a series of quiet beeps and trills that Luke was still surprised he could understand.
?You owe me, buddy. After that little stunt you pulled over Commenor, you?re lucky Vader didn?t turn you into scrap.?
Artoo whistled indignantly.
?That?s because I told him it was my idea. Now are you going to help me or not??
The droid gave a short groan of resignation. Luke smiled and began collecting his gear with his free hand.
?Thatta boy, Artoo. I?ll be there in ten minutes.?
Darth Vader?s hangar was located high on the western face of the palace. Luke had clearance to be in that area, but it was still highly unusual for an adept to be creeping around that part of the palace at night. He passed a maintenance droid dusting off a gold bust. The robot considered him for half a second before returning to its job.
Luke was struck by the darkness in this wing of the palace. The only light in the corridor was the neon glow of Imperial Center?s nightlife, streaming through the tall windows. But even that light was faint, since this part of the structure towered over much of the capitol. Like Vader, it stood aloof from the rest of the world, detached in a way that was both enviable and frightening.
A gentle breeze tousled his hair, and he felt something whisper across the back of his mind. Luke emerged from the shadows and approached the open doors that were letting the air in. As he reached the doors, he realized that they led to a balcony and that the balcony was occupied.
There was little mistaking the small figure that was leaning into the wind. Her long, dark hair was loose, and she was wearing a simple, pale blue robe. Luke pulled his presence back, wondering if Leia had sensed him. Satisfied that she had not, he extended his senses out to where she was standing.
For the most part, her voice was carried away by the wind, but Luke picked up a few words.
??not sure if I can?much longer before?my mind?not strong??
He wondered for a moment who she was talking to, when one of the shadows trembled and moved. Luke had to physically clamp a hand over his mouth to keep from projecting his shock into the Force.
The silhouette of Darth Vader was unmistakable.
The Sith Lord joined Leia at the edge of the balcony. He didn?t lean into the wind, as she did. He didn?t bow his head or rest his hands on the rail. He just stood there, hands clasped behind his back, breathing mechanically, in and out.
And then he did something Luke never expected to see.
He lifted his gloved left hand and placed it on Leia?s shoulder.
She looked up at Vader, but other than that she remained still. Luke sensed the tension in her body fade a little.
The face of his chrono lit up, calling Luke back to his mission. He was already late to the hangar. If he stayed here much longer he would definitely be discovered.
Taking one last look at the odd pair on the balcony, Luke retreated into the shadows and continued on his way to Vader?s hangar.
Nights were cold on Korriban.
She hugged her cloak to her body, leaning against one of the giant, abandoned stones that littered the canyon. Her rucksack had torn on a jagged rock during her escape, dumping at least one third of her supplies. Down to only a few days? rations, she knew she wouldn?t last long, especially if they were hunting for her.
She should have stayed on the ship or gone to the old academy in Dreshdae, as her master had instructed her. But the voices had been very persistent. They invaded her mind whenever they saw fit, probing with such ferocity that it nearly toppled the mental shielding her master had erected. In her normal state, she might have been able to ignore the voices long enough to complete her mission. But she was not in her normal state and would not be anytime soon. And now she might die because of it.
Something howled in the distance, a blood-curdling, paralyzing cry that shot up her spine like a stun bolt. Her fingers curled over the hand grip of her blaster, but other than that small motion she remained still, listening carefully for another cry. She was standing downwind, so if she was being hunted by smell, it would take longer to find her.
If she was being hunted through the Force, however, she was in trouble.
Come to me, a voice whispered across the wind. It was much deeper than the one that had lured her into the tomb.
Come to me.
She pulled her blaster out of her cloak and switched the setting to kill. ?Not a chance,? she muttered, peering out from behind the stone.
You will join us, Mara Jade.
You will join us or die.
Earlier That Day
The planet was much lighter than she?d expected. The sun beat down upon vast canyons and towering crags, subjecting the entire surface to its brutal illumination. Mara shielded her eyes against the glare with one hand and rifled through her rucksack with the other. She pulled out a pocket holoproj and turned her back to the sun, activating the device. A tiny, blue-static image of the Emperor appeared.
?I trust your journey was uneventful?? His voice seemed to echo off the canyon walls.
Mara nodded. ?Yes, my lord. I have reached the planet.?
?Good. You may enter the remains of the academy in Dreshdae or stay on the ship until I send further instructions.?
?As you wish it, my lord.?
He cut the transmission abruptly, and Mara tucked the holoproj back into her bag. She felt a sudden uneasiness, as though someone ? or something ? was watching her. Brushing the feeling aside, she pulled out her datapad and began searching for a land route to the ancient academy.
4. Almost Normal
?How we doing, Artoo??
The droid whistled unhappily that they would be doing better if Luke would leave the flying to him. Luke grinned at this and twisted his head to look out at the disgruntled robot.
?If you were flying, we?d be dropping out of hyperspace and heading back to Imperial Center. I think I?ll keep it on manual for a while.?
The droid chirped something quite rude and fell silent. Luke laughed and checked the nav console. Six hours until they reached Korriban. He could manage that long. If he could survive almost two decades of training under the Sith Lords, he could certainly stay awake long enough to reach the woman he loved.
You don?t even know what love is, said a mocking voice in his head. As much as he wanted to imagine that it was Leia?s voice, he knew it was a distorted version of his own.
Shut up, he scolded himself. He tried to fix his eyes on the starlines around the cockpit, but that only made him dizzy. He closed his eyes.
I am worthy. He repeated the mantra over and over in his mind, as if doing so would make it true.
I am worthy of being a Sith. I am worthy of love.
I am worthy of the Emperor?s Hand.
But the mocking voice returned. You will never be good enough.
Eleven Years Ago
?Get up, stupid child.?
Luke whimpered and pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. It was so hard not to cry, but he knew if he did he would be punished even more. He quickly rubbed his eyes against the sleeve of his tunic and stood up.
?You are a weak little brat. Get out of my sight.?
?I?m sorry, Mast??
?I said, get out. I have wasted enough time on you.?
Luke turned and stumbled toward the door, tears blurring his vision. He ran to the equipment room, not for any special reason, but mostly because right now he couldn?t remember how to get back to his room. His master was right ? he really was stupid.
Inside the equipment room, Luke collapsed on the floor and tucked his knees under his chin. He hated it here. His master was mean, and his other master? well he was just scary, and Luke didn?t like him at all. The other kids were always picking on him, and they all liked perfect Leia better than they liked him. Luke took the edge of his sleeve in his mouth and began to suck on it.
He didn?t understand why he could feel some things before they happened, but he still knew that someone was about to come through the door of the equipment room. Luke looked about frantically for some way to escape. He spotted the closet and crawled over to it, leaving the door open just enough so that he could see what happened outside.
Darth Vader, his other master, entered the room. Luke heard someone crying, and for a second he thought it might be him. Luke clamped a hand over his mouth, but he could still hear the whimpering.
The giant Sith Lord turned toward the source of the whimpers, but Luke could not see who it was. He couldn?t hear very well either because they were too far away. The other person was muttering something. Darth Vader walked out of Luke?s view, but he heard him say something in a deep voice that rumbled in Luke?s ears.
?Take control of your demons or they will take control of you.?
The crying stopped, and Luke listened for a response. There was none.
How weird. He had always thought Darth Vader must be some kind of demon, like the ones Luke sometimes dreamed about. He wondered who he was talking to out there.
Luke stayed in the closet until long after the Sith left. He fell asleep in there and was punished the next morning.
The planet Korriban filled the canopy, and Luke felt his abdomen grow hot in anticipation. ?All right, Artoo, let?s see what you can do.?
Artoo whistled indignantly.
?To redeem yourself for Commenor. Come on, are you telling me you can?t land the ship??
Luke read the response over the monitor and smiled. ?My, aren?t we grumpy today. I thought you wanted to do some flying??
The droid screamed a response. Luke winced and shut off the cabin comm unit.
?All right, all right. Lazy droid.?
He angled the ship toward Korriban?s atmosphere, and as he drew closer he saw a world dominated by mountainous terrain. Interesting place to send an Emperor?s Hand.
He located the capital city, Dreshdae, which he knew had been vacated sometime after the Clone Wars. His scanners weren?t picking up much active technology. There were a couple of ships down there. One of them was certainly the Hand?s. The rest might well be antiques, for all he knew.
?Artoo, let?s set her down in that canyon, away from the city.?
Thankfully, the droid complied, helping to steer his ship toward the correct spot. The vessel settled down on the rocky ground without any trouble, and Luke let out a breath he hadn?t realized he was holding.
This is it.
He opened the canopy and vaulted over the edge, landing softly on the ground. He looked up at Artoo as he shouldered the little bag of supplies he?d brought. ?You stay with the ship.?
For once, the droid seemed happy to comply.
Luke looked off in the direction of the sun and realized it was already beginning its descent toward the horizon. He had to get moving if he wanted to find her before dark.
The planet felt dead for the most part. As he stretched out with his feelings, he sensed something apart from that deadness. It was a spark of life, somewhere in the direction of the vast canyon before him. He stared out at the valley in awe as he realized what it was he was looking at.
Enormous statues and elaborate structures lined the canyon walls. Rows of tombs stretched to the horizon. He had learned about this place in his studies, but the only way he had ever hoped to see it was to become the Sith apprentice. Somehow, in his haste to follow the Emperor?s Hand, the true importance of Korriban had slipped his mind altogether. And yet, the spark of life he had felt was calling to him too loudly to be ignored. Luke adjusted the bag on his shoulder and began to climb down the canyon walls.
He would find her. Nothing could stop him now. He was in the land of his forebears.
He was in the Valley of the Dark Lords.
Luke stared down at the inscription outside of the tomb. It was written in an older form of Basic, but after the first few words he realized it was a passage he?d been drilled on many times over the years.
Peace is a lie. There is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
He wondered if the ancient Sith Lords had considered love to be a form of passion. He had never been taught to use romantic passion in his training. When he returned to Imperial Center, could he just claim that since he was pursuing his object of his desires, he was only adding to his strength?
Luke shook his head. Something didn?t sound right about that, but he wasn?t sure what. Maybe it was the fact that he was still disobeying by leaving the capital. Maybe it was because he had never once seen the Emperor or Darth Vader display any emotion that could be described as love. Interest and respect, yes. Admiration, maybe. But never love.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Luke frowned as the inscription ended. He studied the tablet for a moment, kneeling in the dirt. After a few more seconds of scrutiny, he wiped away a thick layer of dust, revealing the last two lines.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
Those last words had always struck him as strange. It seemed to imply that all but the Sith Master were in bondage. On some level, he supposed it was true, but there was a part of him that rebelled at the idea. Maybe it was that part of him that had caused him to come here.
He examined the footprints in the dirt. Whoever had come through here recently had not stopped to look at any of the tombs. The tombs themselves were, for the most part, blocked off by debris. Many of the grand structures that lined the canyon walls were in ruin. No, the latest visitor to the Valley of the Dark Lords hadn?t stayed long.
Luke squinted at the tablet before looking up the horizon. The sun was gone from the sky, but some of its pale light remained, coloring the sky in shades of blue and lavender. Luke spared one last glance at the tomb and the tablet before continuing down the wide pathway between the monuments.
Mara sat in the cave, examining the holoproj she?d been foolish enough to drop. Of the numerous items that had fallen from her rucksack the day before, this was the only one she had spared a second to recover. It had nearly cost her her life.
And the damn thing was broken.
The outside was only dented, but the inside was a mess. The circuit board had dislodged and completely shattered the focusing mirrors. After a few more minutes of tinkering, Mara threw the device over her shoulder in disgust.
A shriek echoed through the cave, and Mara jumped to her feet, blaster in hand. She turned in the direction of the sound and crept forward, keeping her weapon raised to her right shoulder. As she came to the mouth of the cave, she could see that it was nearly dark; the sun had already dipped below the horizon. She picked the smashed holoproj up off the ground and tucked it into her jacket pocket. Wouldn?t do to leave any clues for her pursuer.
Another shriek split the night, and Mara ducked instinctively as something large flew over her head. Mara rounded on the creature, aiming her blaster to take a shot.
It was some kind of bat-like creature with no visible eyes, long razor-like teeth, and the ugliest mug she?d ever seen on anything that flew. She fired off a shot as it swooped back over her. The laser didn?t slow it down much, and it turned to come after her again.
?Fine,? she muttered, drawing her lightsaber with her left hand. As the creature dove at her, she pivoted to the left and swept upward with her blade. The magenta beam passed neatly through the creature, cutting it into two pieces that thudded to the ground. Both pieces convulsed for a few seconds before going still.
Mara returned her blaster to its holster and shifted her saber to her right hand. The air around her suddenly seemed to crackle with a dark frenzy, and warning spikes shot up her spine. Though the sky was growing steadily darker, the ground where she stood seemed to be bathed in an even deeper shadow. Mara looked up and discovered the source of the shadow.
At least two dozen of those winged creatures were circling overhead. Mara held her lightsaber up like a shield, and every single one of the creatures plunged toward her.
The hunter had returned to its tomb, waiting for dawn, waiting for the monsters to crawl back to their lairs. There was no reason to fight them off. If the hunter could not have the girl, those dark creatures could feed on her blood.
The hunter felt the surge in vicious, mindless joy that always came when the monsters attacked. It was the promise of food, the promise of blood. This time the blood was rich in the Force. The monsters would enjoy a special treat tonight, one they had probably not indulged in since the time of their ancestors. The hunter smiled at the thought of a tradition renewed.
Tomorrow the hunter would leave the cave and make sure the girl was dead. If she was not, then the hunter would continue its pursuit. One way or another, the hunter would win.
The disturbance was sudden and overwhelming, striking Luke as he plodded through the immense valley. Where before there had been a not-quite-peaceful silence in the Force, there was now a loud, unrelenting delirium. Spurred on by the agitation in the air, Luke began to run down the wide path, his focus on the little trail that led out of the canyon toward what looked like a series of caves. He reached out mentally, trying to gain a clearer picture of what was pouring this chaos into the Force. He saw a flash of leathery brown skin, a piercing magenta light, and green eyes.
Luke growled wordlessly and demanded more power from his legs, sprinting toward the caves and praying it was not too late.
He entered the caves with his eyes closed, trusting the Force to guide him through the darkness. It was hard ? he had always had trouble letting go of his other senses. But he felt the Force more clearly here, and he obeyed its whispers. He plowed through the caves without incident, without hesitation, only to realize there was more than one set of caves.
Luke opened his eyes and found himself standing on the edge of a precipice. To his right was a natural bridge that connected this ledge to the next series of caves. On the other side was a flock of hideous winged creatures circling around one figure.
The Emperor?s Hand.
Luke ran across the narrow bridge, igniting his lightsaber in the process. With a war cry that might have disturbed even Leia, he plunged into the middle of the fray, his crimson blade skewering and slicing through the monsters. He caught a glimpse of magenta before it was swallowed up by the creatures? brown wings. Luke hacked the heads off of two of them as they passed on either side of him.
The rest of the monsters broke off their attack and descended on their fallen companions. Luke took a step back and watched as the remaining eight creatures fed on their dead. His face twisted in a grimace as the stench met his nostrils. He looked up to see the Emperor?s Hand staring back at him, her green eyes livid. Without a word she turned and fled into the cave. Luke skirted the feeding animals and chased after her into the darkness.
Love hadn?t existed for Luke until the day he and Katarn had accidentally stumbled upon a pair of dancers returning from the guest wing of the palace. It was pure chance. If they had waited for Horn like they promised, Luke might never have seen her. He certainly wouldn?t have felt her probing him through the Force.
She stole his very breath, she was so beautiful. Normally he would have left Katarn behind to make a fool of himself, but Luke hadn?t been able to stop himself from staring into the girl?s bright green eyes. Her red-gold hair was pulled back in an elaborate braid, laced with fine gold bands. Over her dancing outfit she wore a sheer violet cloak that made her skin shimmer as she moved. Luke knew then that he had to have her or die.
The other dancer tried to flirt with Katarn, but the green-eyed girl pulled her by the arm, leaving the two adepts in gaping silence.
He felt her still, in the Force, trying to shield herself. She was quite good at it, but he still felt the power of the Force in her.
Adepts and Hands were kept separate for a reason, he was told. She was forbidden.
He would love her anyway.
Wind whistled past his ears as he stumbled through the dark cave, drunk with desire, with the promise of fulfillment. He held his saber out as a light, guiding him to his prize.
He doubled back as she jumped out at him, lightsaber angled toward his neck. With a startled cry, he raised his left hand and shoved. She went flying backward into the rocky wall before dropping to the ground. Her lightsaber deactivated and tumbled from her hand, rolling toward him for a moment before coming to a stop.
Luke lowered his hand slowly, taking in what had just happened. The heady pleasure of the chase was gone, replaced by surprise and wariness. He approached her carefully, keeping his lightsaber ignited between him and the Hand. She stirred and shook her head, pushing herself onto her hands and knees.
?It?s all right,? Luke assured, leaning forward to see if she was hurt. ?I?m here to rescue you.?
?Well, you?re doing a great job.? She leaned back on her heels, rubbing one hand on the back of her head and the other over her stomach. ?I fail to see how giving me a concussion helps the situation.?
Luke frowned. She was entirely missing the point. ?I saved you from those things.?
?I was just fine without you,? she retorted, picking up her lightsaber. ?I don?t recall asking you to jump in.?
As she stood up, Luke took a cautious step back. ?Are you all right??
She removed her hand from her head and stared at him suspiciously. ?Who in the blazes are you? How did you even know I was here??
Luke swallowed hard. He hadn?t realized she would be so stubborn. Things were not going quite as he had imagined.
?I?m Luke Starkiller,? he said, offering a hand. She eyed it skeptically.
?Right,? she replied disdainfully. ?Starkiller? You wouldn?t happen to have a holotransceiver of some kind, would you?
?Um.? Luke reached into his pocket for his comlink only to find it missing. ?I did.?
She rolled her eyes and muttered something in a language he didn?t recognize.
?I?m sorry,? he said, searching his other pockets. ?I must have dropped it in the fight. I could go look for it.?
?If you want to be meat for the other monsters out there, it makes no difference to me.? She turned and walked deeper into the cave, pulling out a glowrod to light the way.
?What other monsters??
She didn?t reply. He followed after her until they reached an elaborate doorway carved into the rock. She sat down on a blanket that was spread out just outside of the doorway. Luke stood in front of the archway and stared in wonder.
?Another tomb?? he asked.
?I haven?t been inside.?
He looked over to see her opening a small ration bar. She took a bite and met his gaze, glaring all the while. With her free hand she pulled out a lighter and lowered it over a ring of stones. She had already piled kindling on top of the remains of a fire, and it was this that she lit. Luke watched as the fire grew, casting its warm light across the cave and the tomb.
Luke attempted a smile. ?It?s a very impressive entrance.?
?Uh-huh,? she said between bites. Though she had stopped watching him, he could tell her entire body was on alert. Maybe he should try a different tactic.
He ran his fingers over the carvings in the stone. ?These are Sith runes,? he informed her. He drew back his hand in surprise, then pressed them against the characters as he interpreted them.
?What?? The Hand?s voice was like ice as she snapped her head toward him. ?What did you say??
?This tomb,? Luke answered evenly. ?It belongs to an ancient Sith??
A bloodcurdling howl echoed through the cave, silencing Luke. He turned slowly from the runes and took a step toward the sound.
?I heard that sound yesterday, before I found these caves,? the Hand said gravely. ?It was just before nightfall.? She shook her head. ?Don?t worry, it?s nowhere near us.?
Luke took another step toward the sound, mesmerized as it echoed once more off the walls of the cave. ?I feel like??
?Feel like what??
He blinked his eyes and looked down at her. The fire crackled loudly between them. ?Nothing.?
Her eyes narrowed. ?I wouldn?t recommend leaving now. Even with a lightsaber this planet is dangerous at night.?
?I thought you wanted to get rid of me.?
She set her ration bar in her lap. ?Listen, Starkiller, I won?t have your death on my conscience. Just keep your distance and we?ll be fine.?
?I thought you didn?t care if I became meat for the monsters.? She threw him a rude gesture as he continued. ?Besides, I?d feel safer here by the fire.? With you.
A hint of his thoughts must have leaked into the Force, because she was really studying him now. ?I?ve seen you before,? she said after a moment. ?In the palace.?
Luke?s cheeks reddened. ?Yes.?
?You?re one of the Emperor?s adepts.?
She managed to make those words sound like a curse. ?Yes,? he replied, wincing slightly.
She sighed and wiped her hands on her pants. ?I suppose you know who I am, then.? She gave him a pointed look with those green eyes.
?You?re an Emperor?s Hand.?
?The Emperor?s Hand, Starkiller. An extension of the Emperor?s will. While you adepts play with your lightsabers inside the palace, I travel across the galaxy in service to my master.? She folded her arms across her chest and smirked at him. ?I am Mara Jade.?
Mara. He finally had a name. Now probably wasn?t the best time to tell her there were other Hands, though. ?I?m impressed,? he said softly. ?And I don?t play with lightsabers, whatever you may think.?
She waved his response away and picked up her ration bar. ?Why did you come here? Surely the Emperor didn?t send you.?
?No, he didn?t.? Luke took a deep, steadying breath. He could tell her now and have her chase him from the cave. Or he could lie and buy himself some more time. ?I wanted to see the tombs.?
Mara laughed mirthlessly and took another bite of her ration bar. ?You don?t want to go in these tombs, believe me.?
?Why should I??
She fixed him with another one of those looks that said he was trying every shred of her patience. He liked how it made her look.
?Okay, sorry. But I?m not afraid of whatever?s in those tombs. Those Sith are dead. I?m the living heir of their legacy.?
Mara snorted. ?You adepts are all alike. Arrogant braggarts.? She closed the wrapper of her ration bar and began to tuck it back in her rucksack when she stopped. ?You hungry?? she asked, holding out the remaining bar.
Luke shrugged. ?I?m fine. I don?t want to take your food.?
She rolled her eyes and tossed the package at him. ?That?s for killing those creatures. Just eat, and don?t look at me like that.? She blew out an annoyed breath and rolled over on her side, away from him.
Luke frowned. His skin prickled as if from a cold wind. For a moment he thought it had come from the tomb, but when he didn?t feel it again, he dismissed the idea. On the other side of the fire, Mara readjusted and bent her left arm under her head for support. Luke leaned up against a wall and began to eat the leftover ration bar. He noticed a tiny tremor in the Force and was startled to find himself genuinely worried.
?Are you sure I didn?t hurt you earlier??
?Starkiller, if you want to live through the night, leave me alone.?
Eight Years Ago
?I?ve seen you sleep.?
Luke frowned at her over his spoon. ?No you haven?t.?
Leia nodded somberly. ?I have. In my head.?
Luke put the spoon in his mouth, gulping down porridge that was already too cold. She pretended not to notice him gag it down. ?I don?t believe you,? he declared loudly, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. ?I think you?re lying.?
She glanced over to his right where Kyle and Corran were sitting silently, watching them. Kyle nodded his head at Luke and smirked at Leia. Luke felt his face grow hot at the older boy?s approval. He had waited so long for this.
But Leia didn?t back down or draw inside herself. Instead she leaned forward and whispered in Luke?s ear.
?I see you cry for your mother. You don?t even know who she is.?
Luke slammed his fists on the table and stood up, shoving his face close to hers. ?Take that back.?
?Whoa there, easy, Starkiller,? Kyle said with a laugh. ?We haven?t even finished breakfast.?
Leia stared unflinching into his eyes. I see you cry.
I?ll kill you.
You will try.
Leia smiled at him, a peculiar little smile that he had never understood the meaning of. Maybe it was mocking him. How dare she mock him? So what if she knew who her parents were? So what if she happened to remember them? Everyone knew they were Rebel traitors, the worst kind of scum. If he could have killed her with a look he would have done it right there.
?You?ll pay for that, Organa,? he hissed, placing special emphasis on her treacherous family name.
Leia shrugged. ?Perhaps.? Then she walked away.
He watched Mara?s shoulders sway with each breath. She was much smaller lying there than she had been while awake. He crawled slowly across the cave and sat down at her side, staring at her tightly-bound red hair. He reached out to touch her shoulder, but something stopped him. Just this morning he had been so consumed by his desire for her that he had flown halfway across the galaxy to see her. He would have given anything to touch her, to hold her. As one of the chosen adepts, there was little that was denied him. And now here she was, centimeters away, and he couldn?t give in.
Luke shook his head and returned to his side of the cave. He leaned against the wall and gently smacked the back of his head against it. ?Stupid,? he muttered in disgust. ?Weak, stupid?? He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. After five seconds, he exhaled forcefully and allowed himself to sink into a slightly more comfortable position. Within a few minutes, he was asleep.
As soon as Starkiller began to snore, Mara opened her eyes. It had been difficult to conceal that she was awake, especially when he had approached her like that, getting close enough that she could feel his breath across her skin. Another minute or two of that and she would have had him in a headlock.
Mara remained still, letting her gaze wander about the cave. The dying fire cast pale tendrils of light across the walls. The aggressiveness of those tendrils sent a shiver through Mara?s spine, and she reached instinctively for her abdomen.
?It?s okay,? she whispered softly. ?Everything?s going to be all right.? The words were mostly for her benefit; there was something oddly reassuring about talking to the thing that was growing inside of her.
It?s not a thing, she reminded herself. It?s a baby.
It was still hard to believe, but she was more accepting of it now than she had been back when her master had given her the news.
Mara extended her senses across and beyond the cave. Everything was quiet. She could feel distant hints of violence and aggression, but for once they were directed elsewhere, perhaps at each other. She hadn?t planned on sleeping tonight, but after two straight days of vigilance, she could feel her body giving in.
Good night, little one, she whispered through the Force, touching the tiny lifeform as gently as she knew how. Mara wrapped one arm around her midsection and closed her eyes.
The hunter smiled. Dawn was approaching.
It was dark inside the cave when Mara woke. She turned over onto her other side and pulled a glowrod from her pocket. Starkiller was slumped against the opposite wall, still snoring gently. A cold wind blew across their little camp, pricking at Mara?s skin. She rubbed her arms and shoulders as she stood up to stretch.
She snapped her head around and held the glowrod up against the darkness. There was nothing there except the entrance to that damn tomb. Blowing out a tired breath, Mara stepped over to the carvings Starkiller had been reading the night before.
She couldn?t decipher the ancient runes, but even if she could, she doubted she would ever trust anything they said. The Sith were ambitious and dangerous. She knew her master valued their skills, but she didn?t understand why he let them have so much power.
Mara ran her fingers over the runes, and as she did so, she saw a small globe of white light appear inside the tomb.
Enter, Mara Jade.
This time she was sure it was not her imagination. The globe of light began to sway, growing smaller and smaller as it retreated into the tomb.
She stood frozen to the spot, remembering the voice that had beckoned her into the other tomb. She couldn?t follow it. She shouldn?t? she shouldn?t go in.
Mara reached for the light, and the tomb?s outer stone door opened. She stepped across the threshold and followed the light into the chamber.
?This is Lord Vader, my child. He will instruct you in the art of dueling.?
The little girl looked up at the Emperor, her eyes wide. ?But I already learned how to duel, Master.?
The Emperor laughed and placed a gentle hand on her head. ?You have not learned this, my dear.? He looked across the room at the black shadow-creature and nodded. ?Lord Vader??
Mara watched her younger self in awe, wondering how it was that she could physically witness a moment from her past, a moment that had happened a decade ago.
Darth Vader reached for his lightsaber. With the press of a button, the crimson blade came to life.
The little girl?s mouth formed an O as she stared at the red beam. ?What is it?? she whispered.
?That, my dear, is a lightsaber.?
Mara blinked several times. I must be dreaming.
The scene melted, and another appeared in its place.
I?m definitely dreaming.
The girl had aged about two years, and she was kneeling before the Emperor, looking thoroughly chastised.
?You must not interact with any of the adepts, do you understand??
?The Sith are not like us, Mara. Do not forget that.?
?I won?t, Master.?
?If I didn?t control them, they would be a great threat to the galaxy. A careful balance must be maintained.?
Younger Mara lifted her head and nodded. ?I understand, Master, but the adepts??
?Are Sith-in-training. A necessary evil. They are the price I pay for Lord Vader?s service. You are not to go near them, and that is all I shall say on the subject.?
Mara studied her younger self as the girl stood and bowed to her master. She didn?t remember being that skinny.
Mara spun around at the sound of Darth Vader?s voice. The scene had changed once again. She was standing in the Emperor?s throne room. This time, however, there was no other Mara. Vader was speaking to her.
?Emperor?s Hand, it is time.?
?Time for what?? Mara stared past Vader at the shadowy throne where the Emperor was seated. For the first time since she was a little girl, the sight of her master sent a chill through her.
?Mara, my dear,? the Emperor said softly, rising from his seat. ?You have been trained and molded for a single purpose: to serve as an extension of my will. Now you must mete out punishment to our greatest enemy.?
Mara looked back and forth between Vader and her master. ?This isn?t real. I don?t understand what?s happening.?
The Emperor waved his hand, and the doors opened to reveal two stormtroopers dragging in a hooded prisoner. The soldiers came forward and dropped the prisoner at Mara?s feet. She could not tell who was under the hood.
?Who is this person?? she asked.
The Emperor smiled. ?All that matters is that this person is an enemy of the Empire and must be executed.?
Mara shook her head. ?No, this is a dream. I?m not an executioner.?
The Emperor walked slowly down the steps, his eyes glittering under his cowl. ?This traitor is too dangerous to be left alive. You must do it, Mara.?
The stormtroopers lowered the prisoner?s hood, and Luke Starkiller stared up at her. She took a step back, unable to look away. ?I can?t,? she pleaded. Blue eyes, she thought absently, wondering why she hadn?t noticed before now.
The Emperor?s smile faded, replaced by a vicious snarl. ?Do it!? He raised his hand toward her, and tiny bursts of lightning crackled from his fingertips. ?Do it, or I will take back the child I gave you!?
Mara twisted away from the lightning and tripped over the prisoner. On her way down, she saw a flash of red and knew that Vader?s lightsaber was about to slice through her body. She raised her hands defensively, realizing too late that she had lost her control over the Force. She shut her eyes and braced herself.
Open your eyes, Mara.
The voice was completely unfamiliar. Without understanding why, she did as it told her.
Something sizzled overhead, and Mara looked up to see Starkiller standing over her, his lightsaber ignited. ?Are you all right?? he asked.
?Sure,? she replied, trying to figure out whether she was sleeping, dead, or just having another really bad day. She glanced at the floor where the Emperor?s prisoner had been, but she saw only stone. So it was a vision after all.
?Are you sure you?re all right??
Mara rose to her feet and dusted off her clothes. ?Don?t I look all right??
?A little dazed, maybe. Did you not see that creature coming at you??
?What are you talking about?? She picked up the glowrod and examined it.
?The tuk?ata,? he replied incredulously, staring at her as if she?d sprouted an extra limb. ?A Sith hound used to guard the tombs. You really didn?t see anything??
Mara eyed him suspiciously. ?I saw the throne room. Are you saying you didn?t??
?No, I just felt that you were in trouble.? He averted his eyes. ?When I got here I saw the tuk?ata about to attack.? He looked off into the darkness. ?It won?t bother us again.?
She noticed that her arms were shaking a little. She crossed them tightly over her chest so Starkiller wouldn?t notice. It was humiliating enough that she?d nearly been killed while having some stupid vision. And then there was that strange voice. She was so sick of all these voices ? it felt like she was losing her mind.
Starkiller deactivated his lightsaber and hooked it to his belt. ?At least you?re okay.?
Mara nodded silently, barely able to see him in the dark. The glowrod must have been damaged when she fell; it was losing power.
?Starkiller?? she said hesitantly. She could feel him staring back at her, probably with that same anxious expression she?d noticed when they met the day before.
?Yes?? His voice was much too soft to belong to a future Sith Lord. Maybe that was what made him so dangerous.
Just say it.
She saw his lips quirk in a wry grin. ?You?re welcome, Mara.? Then something about his presence stiffened, like a rope being pulled taut. ?Why don?t you get your stuff together so we can get out of this cave??
Mara felt a stirring of the dark energies that had drawn her in, and she knew with sudden certainty that those energies had been after her baby. They might even have been directed at her by her pursuer.
Or maybe this was what the Emperor wanted. He had said that Korriban was an ideal place to stay during the pregnancy. She assumed there would be power here, but nothing like this cave or those bat creatures or the deranged man who had chased her from the other tomb. Did the Emperor know about these dangers? Had he sent her anyway?
She didn?t want any more of Korriban?s darkness. Mara nodded at Starkiller. ?Are you coming??
?I?ll be out soon,? he said earnestly.
?Right.? Mara wrapped the Force protectively around her womb. Then she turned away and ran.
Luke watched Mara for a moment as she jogged off in the direction of the tomb?s entrance. Again he was struck by how petite she was.
He continued to watch Mara?s backside, his lips quirking into a wry grin. ?Hello, Leia.?
Luke turned his head and met the girl?s brown eyes. She was wearing dark gray trousers and a black sleeveless shirt. Her skin radiated a faint blue light.
?You ready, Starkiller?? She raised her arms and spread her legs, settling into a combat stance.
Luke shook his head. ?You?re not even real.?
The vision before him shifted, and when Leia smiled up at him, he found himself looking at a slightly younger version of her.
?Now you see it,? she murmured darkly. ?You ready??
Luke closed his eyes and remembered.
Four Years Ago
Luke held his blade at Leia?s neck with one hand while he wiped his brow with the other. He tried to regulate his breathing as he looked over at the Sith Lords. His eyes met the Emperor?s. ?My lord??
The Emperor waved a hand at him, and Luke immediately deactivated his saber and took a few steps away from Leia. The Emperor nodded at Darth Vader. The Dark Lord?s respirator hissed in the silence as he approached the sparring circle.
?Explain yourself.? Vader?s tone sent a chill through Luke?s body.
Leia rolled onto her hands and knees. ?He defeated me, my lord.? She shifted into a kneeling position, her head bowed low.
?You let him.?
Luke?s eyes went wide. Something hot and ugly reared its head inside of him.
?I did not, my lord, I swear it.? Leia?s voice was quiet but steady.
Leia did so.
The Dark Lord towered over the girl. She stared up at him, her eyes bright with fatigue. Luke exchanged a quick glance with Katarn and Horn as they all held their breath.
Vader bent his helmet toward Leia and said in a dangerously low voice: ?You lie.?
?No, my lo??
Vader backhanded her across the face, knocking her to the other side of the mat. Horn?s eyes widened, and he made a motion as if to go to her. Katarn put an arm out in front of Horn, his eyes never leaving the girl on the floor. Luke folded his arms across his chest and glanced over at the Emperor. The old man?s yellow eyes were glittering darkly.
?Get up,? Vader rumbled dispassionately.
Leia looked up at him, her eyes burning.
And then she smiled.
?Thank you, Lord Vader,? the Emperor called out. ?Now, my dear, I would like you to fight young Starkiller again.? His lips twitched as though he were holding in a smile. ?The right way.?
?Yes, Highness,? Leia replied, rubbing her jaw as she stood. Her eyes found Luke?s.
?You ready, Starkiller??
Luke opened his eyes and stared at Leia?s specter. He could feel Mara outside the tomb, gathering her belongings. She seemed badly shaken.
?No, Leia,? he addressed the vision. ?I will not fight you.?
The apparition seemed annoyed. ?You must fight me, Luke. Our master wishes it.?
Luke remembered what had happened after Leia got back up. He remembered how his shame had turned to anger, his anger to rage. He remembered the Emperor forcing them to continue the fight even after he?d disarmed her. He remembered the naked fear in Katarn and Horn?s eyes as the medical droid carried Leia away on a repulsorsled.
?I wonder sometimes,? he said wearily, ?if we could ever have been friends.?
The false Leia shook her head. ?As long as we both pursue the same goal, it can never be.?
?I won?t give up. Neither will you.?
?The dark path is a lonely one.? She gave him a sad, knowing smile. ?And you?re still afraid.?
Luke blew out a disgusted breath. ?You?re not even the real Leia. You?re just a vision.?
?I am more real than you know.?
Outside the cave, Luke sensed a flash of concern coming from Mara. ?It doesn?t matter now,? he replied dismissively, turning his back on Leia as he began to run toward the entrance. He could feel the dark energies of the tomb swirling angrily around him, but he pressed forward.
Foolish boy, the tomb whispered. So weak.
Luke emerged from the tomb to find Mara pulling her bag onto her shoulder. She adjusted the strap and looked over at him expectantly.
Luke exhaled forcefully, trying for once in his life to expel the darkness from his body. The tomb had been saturated with it; he had never felt anything like it. And Leia was right, if not in the way she had imagined.
He was afraid.
But Mara was enough to make him face his fears.
She took a step toward him. ?Starkiller??
Luke couldn?t help the grin that came to his face. Was she actually worried about him? Maybe he would get through to her after all.
?I?m fine,? he replied. ?I?m ready.? He almost asked her if she wanted him to carry her bag, but he thought better of it. Her experience in the tomb must have been equally difficult, and in their brief time together he had figured out that she preferred to deal with her problems alone.
Mara led the way through the series of caves until they came to the edge of the valley. Luke stepped to her side and looked out over the Valley of the Dark Lords. The sun peeked above the horizon, hitting the tops of the Sith statues. The work of his predecessors didn?t seem quite as impressive this morning.
Mara pulled out a small datapad and held it up in the air.
?Tracker. It was dark when I entered the valley, and in the confusion I lost my direction. This will tell me where my ship is.?
?Confusion of what??
Mara dropped the hand that held the device and let out a frustrated sigh. ?It?s gone.?
?Your ship? How??
?He must have destroyed it.? Mara tucked the tracker into her jacket and folded her arms across her chest. ?Damn,? she muttered. ?Now what??
Luke gazed across the canyon. ?Come with me.?
?My ship fits two. You can ride with me.?
?No,? Mara said, shaking her head. ?You?re an adept. When we get back to the capital, we?d??
?What? We?d be in trouble? If you don?t come with me, you?ll be dead.?
Mara looked away. Despite his frustration, Luke wanted to pull her into his arms. How did she manage to look so tough and so vulnerable at the same time? Maybe it was something only he could see.
?Mara,? he said, gentler this time. ?What happened here? Who is chasing you??
She looked over her shoulder, her eyes bright with unshed tears. ?I don?t know who he is.? She took a deep breath and narrowed her eyes. The tears receded. ?I know he?s dangerous,? she finished gruffly.
Luke looked down at his feet. A gentle breeze ruffled his hair, blowing a few strands across his face. ?You act like you don?t need my help, but I know you do.?
?Please, just listen! I?m here for you, Mara. Only for you. So why don?t you let me help??
She closed her mouth and stared up at him, her green eyes alight with fury. He couldn?t tell whether she was going to punch him or just take off without him.
She let out a long breath, and the fire in her eyes faded just a little.
?Okay, Starkiller,? she said slowly, spreading her hands in a conciliatory gesture. ?We?ll do it your way. Lead on.?
The hunter stepped over the ashes of a small fire and examined the runes carved into the wall. This was the girl?s hideout, but the girl was gone. And now a new presence had arrived on Korriban, one that struck the hunter like an old tune half-remembered. It called to him.
?You are distracted.?
The hunter looked away from the runes, but there was nothing in the cave but air. He grinned and pulled a pyramidal device from his cloak.
?It seems I missed a tomb all those years ago.? The hunter ran long, calloused fingers over the runes. ??Here lies Ludo Kressh, the true Dark Lord of the Sith.??
A spirit-like figure rose from the device. Silver-blue light radiated across the walls of the cave as a woman?s face took shape. ?The servant of your enemy is near.?
?Are you sure the shyracks didn?t get her??
?She is alive. If she escapes, there is nothing I can do to help you.?
?I destroyed her ship.?
?There are others.?
The hunter growled. ?I?ll catch her soon enough.?
Mara Jade, the hunter called. Come to me. Join us, and live.
You and your child.
Join us, and live.
You and your child.
Mara tightened her grip on her blaster as she followed a step behind Starkiller.
?You okay?? he asked, turning to look at her. She really hated that he was picking up on her distress. It wasn?t like she was broadcasting it.
?I?m fine,? she snapped, biting her lip after Starkiller had faced forward. Cool it, Jade, she told herself. This isn?t his fault.
?We?re almost there. See that ridge?? Starkiller pointed at a line of jagged walls at the end of the canyon. ?The ship?s just beyond it.?
Mara felt the midday sun on her back as she came up to Starkiller?s side and looked in the direction he was pointing. ?How can we be sure it hasn?t been destroyed, like mine??
Starkiller shrugged his shoulders. ?We can?t.? Then he kept on walking.
Mara glared at his back and followed.
Luke held his arms out for balance as he slowly made his way down the craggy surface of the ridge. They were on what was once a flight of stairs. Now it was little more than a treacherous indent in the canyon wall. Mara was navigating the steps with relative ease, to his mild annoyance. She was certainly graceful, and for a moment he allowed himself to wonder what other areas that skill might affect?
?Where is this ship of yours? You said it was over the ridge.?
Luke grappled for the last moments of his daydream, but it floated away like smoke on the wind. ?It?s just around here,? he replied, turning to look at her.
She had one hand on the canyon wall, and several loose strands of hair had fallen across her face. The wind ruffled her shirt and blew her hair to one side. She readjusted the rucksack on her shoulder and looked up into Luke?s eyes.
For one second, he forgot how to breathe.
Mara seemed to have noticed. Her eyebrows furrowed slightly when he didn?t look away.
Before either of them could say anything, a howl echoed off of the canyon walls. It was the same bloodcurdling cry they had heard the night before when they were in the caves. Luke felt paralyzed, not by fear, but by recognition. He couldn?t place it, couldn?t pin it down, but he knew that sound from somewhere far back in his memory.
?Starkiller?? Mara said urgently, stepping down next to him. She waved the hilt of her lightsaber in front of his face. ?If we?re going to leave, I think now would be a good time.?
Luke absently reached for her arm, but she ducked away from his hand and glared.
?Don?t try it,? she warned, shaking the saber hilt at him. ?I mean it.? Her voice trembled, and he realized that she was afraid.
?What is that sound?? he whispered. It was hypnotic, in its own way. He was drawn to it.
Mara jumped down a few steps and looked back at him, her eyes wide. ?That?s the sound I heard right before that crazy man tried to kill me. Come on!? She turned and sprinted down the steps.
Luke shook his head and ran after her, trying to clear the monstrous call from his head. It continued to reverberate off the walls, howling in his ears, in his soul, as if it was calling to the darkness within him. He leapt out into the air and used the Force to bring him down lightly on the canyon floor. Peeking out from around a jagged rock was his ship. He chased after Mara, who had an impressive lead on him. She was nearly there when he felt something go wrong.
The ship lifted into air and launched itself toward Mara, as if it had been flung. Luke sent a wave of Force energy at Mara, but she had already ducked down to avoid being hit. Luke threw himself onto the ground as the ship flew overhead and crashed into the ridge. The vessel erupted in flame, sending plumes of thick smoke high into the air. He wondered, briefly, if Artoo had been aboard.
Luke pushed himself up onto his feet and staggered over to where Mara lay on the ground. She rolled onto her side and peered over Luke?s shoulder at the burning wreckage.
?Part of your plan?? she asked evenly, as if she had not almost been crushed by an unmanned ship.
Luke opened his mouth to answer, but before he could speak he heard a deep, rumbling laugh. He and Mara turned toward the source of the laughter.
A tall figure appeared where the ship had been. It was swathed in black robes, and its face was hidden beneath a voluminous hood.
?Hello, Mara Jade,? the figure said with dark delight, reaching out to Mara with both hands. ?I?ve been waiting for you.?
10. Call of the Dragon
?Sorry about the ship, but you see, I can?t let you leave here.?
Luke climbed to his feet and stepped in front of Mara. ?Who are you?? he demanded.
The figure lowered the hood, revealing a man?s heavily-tattooed face. ?Who I am is of no importance.? He ran his hands over his graying hair, which was pulled back in a long braid. When he brought his hands back up, there was a lightsaber in each one. He ignited them both and crossed the emerald-colored blades in front of his chest. ?Have you made your decision, Jade??
Luke glanced back at Mara, who was standing with her saber in her hand. ?What decision? What?s he talking about??
Mara looked past him and activated her weapon. ?What?s in it for me?? she shouted across the distance.
The man smirked. ?I?d let you live, for starters. Then you would become my apprentice.? He extended his arms so that both sabers pointed diagonally toward the ground. ?Join me, Mara Jade, and together we can make this a better galaxy.?
Mara snorted. ?I already have a master, and he?s the one bringing peace to the galaxy. Not you.?
The man rolled his wrists, spinning the colored beams in twin arcs. ?Foolish child. Blinded by your precious Emperor.?
Luke interposed himself between Mara and the saber-wielding stranger. ?Enough. If you?ve come to fight, then you can fight me.?
?Starkiller, don?t,? Mara said from behind him. ?It?s me he wants.?
?I?m going to have to kill him anyway,? Luke responded coldly. ?Might as well take care of it now.? He took a step forward and drew his lightsaber, angling the blood-red beam at the other man?s heart.
?Brave of you, boy.? The man considered Luke for a moment, then smiled. ?You must be another of Palpatine?s projects. Don?t worry; I will deal with you in turn.?
?You will deal with me now,? Luke growled, drawing on the darkness that radiated from the planet. He remembered that day, four years ago, when he had given in completely to his rage and nearly killed Leia. Intoxicating though it was, he had always been too afraid to ever call on that rage again.
Now he reached hungrily for the black energy that had permeated the tomb, wrapping himself in its shadow. It was more power than he was ready for, more power than he could safely control, but he had to do it, or Mara would die.
The planet seemed to groan with its efforts to feed Luke?s fury. He called on every painful memory, every injustice ever committed against him, every nightmare that had chased him through the years. Tears pricked at his eyes, but he blinked them away and began to circle the stranger.
The stranger?s eyes widened as he lifted his weapons up in front of him. There was uncertainty in his gaze. ?What is your name, boy??
?Luke Starkiller,? he spat. ?Not that it will matter when you?re dead.?
The other man chuckled and shook his head. ?Another desert rat, swept far away by an unfortunate twist of fate.? He smiled darkly. ?The galaxy is much smaller than we think. How long have you been a slave to Palpatine??
?I am no man?s slave,? Luke snarled.
?I see. You don?t remember.? The man stretched his arms out, sabers pointed toward the sky. ?Perhaps you will remember this.? And when he opened his mouth next, a horrible, frightful howl echoed forth.
Luke?s arms wavered as he stood transfixed by the sound. He never would have guessed it was human.
The stranger grinned. ?You do remember.?
?The dragons, Luke Starkiller. The ones whose screams pierced the night. The ones no man ever hunted alone.?
Those words unlocked a flash of memory, the brief sensation of running across soft ground, staring up at a clear night sky, a million stars winking back at him. A deafening roar, a blue light that split the darkness, and a man?s bearded face.
?Are you afraid??
He closes his eyes and huddles against the bearded man, shaking his head.
?It?s all right to be afraid, young Luke. We all have something that scares us.?
?What are you scared of, sir?? He opens his eyes and looks up at his rescuer.
The bearded man stares up at the stars, but he doesn?t answer.
Luke wrenched himself from his memories and planted himself firmly in the present. ?That?s a nice trick,? he said softly, a wicked smile creeping across his face. ?But I?m not afraid of monsters.? He raised his lightsaber to his right shoulder and charged.
As soon as Starkiller and the mysterious Force-user clashed, Mara knew who would be the victor. Despite the Sith adept?s raw power, despite his bravado, he was still just a boy who had grown up in the relative safety of the Imperial Palace. Whoever this other man was, he was stronger, more experienced, and better armed.
She had only one option.
Mara lunged forward, thumbing her lightsaber to life as she vaulted through the air.
Starkiller raised his left hand and sent a wave of energy at her, knocking her off her feet. The stranger grinned and took advantage of the distraction, shoving Starkiller backward with both his sabers. Starkiller launched himself into a high back flip, landing several meters away from his opponent.
Mara picked herself up and sucked in a deep breath. ?Idiot,? she growled, reactivating her weapon.
?Mara, stay back!?
?You go to hell, Starkiller,? she snapped. ?We?ll fight him together.? She stepped over to his side and raised her lightsaber.
The stranger spun his sabers in a slow circle and laughed. ?Maybe I?ll just let you two kill each other.?
Mara?s eyes narrowed. ?Listen, Starkiller,? she whispered. ?You can?t fight him alone.?
?I don?t care. I?m not putting my life in your hands. We fight together.?
Starkiller kept his eyes locked on the tattooed stranger as he nodded his head. ?Fine.? He activated his weapon and raised it with both hands. ?Stubborn girl.?
Mara raised her lightsaber, noting how smoothly and naturally he shifted in order to accommodate a partner. Before she could respond, the stranger surged toward them, both blades held high.
Starkiller blocked an overhead slice while Mara ducked a sweeping blow. She balanced herself on one hand and kicked out at the stranger?s legs. He jumped into the air, giving Mara time to stand up as Starkiller parried and pressed his attack.
They were on either side of the tattooed man now, each of them blocking and parrying, trying to wear their enemy down. He moved with preternatural speed, able to fend them off even when they were both lunging forward, striking with all of their strength. The man held both blades horizontal and spun in a half circle, viciously batting away his attackers while he switched sides.
?You?re looking tired, Jade,? he said, swinging the left hand saber in a low scoop that caught her weapon and knocked it from her hands. He ended the motion with a quick stab, but Mara had already rolled away, reaching for her lightsaber. Temporarily freed from his second opponent, the stranger twirled to block Starkiller?s powerful lunge.
Mara flipped into the air and came down on their enemy from above, drawing his other lightsaber away from Starkiller. ?Don?t count me out just yet,? she said darkly, batting his saber away as she landed.
Mara tried an upward cut that would have split the man groin to chin, but he blocked it easily while stopping a sideswipe from Starkiller. Then he met Mara?s eyes and smiled.
The stranger snapped his wrist up and forced Starkiller?s lightsaber into the air, kicking out with his right leg in the same motion. His foot connected with Starkiller?s chest, sending the Sith adept rolling over backwards in the dust. He spun toward Mara with the free saber, battering her weapon with it before leaning in and elbowing her hard across the side of her head.
Mara felt her lightsaber leave her hand, and then there was only darkness.
Luke scrambled forward, raising his lightsaber before he had even gotten off of the ground. The tattooed man turned and smiled at him. ?Finally,? he muttered.
Their sabers connected with a crackle of electricity. Luke slammed his weapon against the stranger?s, pushing him away from Mara?s still form. He growled as he drove the older man back into one of the canyon walls.
Using both his sabers to block, the man was seemingly pinned against the rocks. ?Do you think your anger will save you, boy?? He leaned into the block, the sinews in his muscles bulging grotesquely as he tried to push Luke away. ?I have braved this world for years. What makes you think you can defeat me??
Luke glared at him through the crimson and emerald light. ?If she dies, no place in the galaxy will be safe for you.?
The stranger roared and exploded forward, driving Luke away from the canyon wall. ?I?ve been hunted for a long time, and still I survive.?
Luke took several quick steps away from his opponent and let out a frustrated breath. The two men circled one another, watching each other carefully while they rested.
The stranger smiled, his tattoos stretching across aged skin. ?You think you?re different from all the rest, but you?ll see. Palpatine will betray you just like he betrayed me.? The man laughed, but his eyes were dark.
Luke?s eyes narrowed. ?What are you talking about??
?I would have thought he?d be bragging about it for years to come.? The man?s voice was hard and bitter.
Luke tightened his grip on his lightsaber and stopped circling. ?Who?? He knew it was a distraction, but there was something about the way this man spoke, as if he had seen things too horrible to imagine.
The man stopped moving as well. He lowered his lightsabers and stared at Luke. A fire seemed to blossom in those eyes.
?The so-called Emperor, boy. The man who destroyed my people, my way of life.? He shook his head and leered at Luke. ?But we?re not here to talk about me. We?re here to fight.?
He vaulted into the air, coming at Luke with both sabers held like spears. Luke sidestepped and swung his blade through the air, catching the man in the shoulder. His opponent howled, but it lacked any real evidence of pain.
?You?ll have to do better than that, Luke Starkiller. I can do this all day.?
And then Luke saw it. Mara?s lightsaber lying about three meters from her body. If he could just keep this guy talking and facing away from Mara?
?I have trouble believing that you could be any kind of threat to the Emperor,? Luke sneered. He wrapped mental fingers around the hilt and lifted it a few centimeters into the air.
?Not now, boy. Not as I am. But soon, I will be ready.? He launched a brutal assault, pressing Luke backward.
Luke flipped away from his opponent and settled into a more solid defensive stance. ?What do you mean?? The lightsaber was floating slowly along the ground toward them.
The man shook his head. ?Enough talk!?
Luke forced himself not to look at Mara?s lightsaber. He raised his own blade up high. ?If I?m going to die, why not tell me??
The man came at him again, spinning forward to create a pinwheel of deadly energy. His sabers battered at Luke?s defenses. The Sith adept crouched down and scissor-kicked the man?s legs, causing him to fumble.
?I was a Jedi Knight,? the man roared, slicing sideways with one saber while he brought the other up to defend. ?My name was A?Sharad Hett. Palpatine murdered my kind, hunting down all who escaped the initial purge.?
Luke nearly lost his hold on Mara?s lightsaber. ?A Jedi Knight?? He had heard of the Jedi when he was younger, but up until now he had thought they were a myth.
Hett?s sabers clashed with Luke?s again, and he pressed them toward the younger man. ?Yes, boy. I was a Jedi, and I had a name. I have shed both those skins. I was the hunted, but now I am the hunter.?
Luke shoved Hett?s sabers away and lunged forward with his. Lunge, duck, block, parry. They twirled around each other, kicking up dirt and dust. Mara?s lightsaber hovered near Hett?s knees.
Just as he was about to activate the saber, Hett slipped through his defense and, with a fierce snap of his wrists, sent Luke?s lightsaber flying away from him. Luke fell onto his back and tried to scramble away. Hett held his sabers on either side of Luke?s head and smiled.
?Before you kill me, answer me this,? Luke said quickly, holding up a stopping hand.
Hett looked at him like he was a foolish child. ?What now, boy??
Mara?s lightsaber activated right next to Hett?s left elbow, shearing off the lower part of his arm. As Hett screamed out in agony, Luke leapt to his feet and called both his and Mara?s lightsabers to his hands. He charged the injured man, deftly knocking away his other lightsaber.
Instead of making a run for it, Hett roared and raised his right arm. Luke felt a wall of energy slam into him, carrying him several meters across the canyon. By the time he got up, he saw Hett scrambling up the canyon wall.
Luke chased after him, but he stopped short as the ground began to shake. He looked up and saw Hett standing with his good arm stretched out toward one of the higher walls. He pulled his arm back as if tugging a rope, and part of the ridge began to shift and crumble. Boulders tumbled down into the canyon, blocking Luke from following after Hett.
?You have won today, Starkiller, but I will have my revenge!? He punctuated his vow with the call of the dragon.
Instead of climbing the rocks and hunting down the wounded man, Luke turned and ran toward the spot where Mara had fallen. He knelt down at her side, examining her for injuries.
He wasn?t a medic, and he had no way of knowing how badly she was hurt until she woke up. Luke stood and held out his hands toward Mara, using the Force to lift her gently into the air and to keep her spine from moving. He floated her a few meters over to a small niche in the canyon wall and laid her down.
He could feel her presence in the Force. It wasn?t as strong as usual, but for now it was steady and calm. Something told him she would be fine; he just needed to wait for her to wake.
Luke settled down on a rock and watched Mara as the sun started its slow path down toward the horizon.
She was sitting against a rock, tied to it with thick ropes that burned her skin when she moved. She recognized the entrance to the tomb, the one she had entered when she first arrived on Korriban. The rock that held her prisoner rested just outside the entrance. As she struggled against her bonds, she half expected one of those tuk?ata creatures to come out from the depths of the tomb and tear her apart.
Something warm dripped into her eyes and down her nose. As it passed her lips, she tasted it with the tip of her tongue.
And then something emerged from the tomb, something so wrapped in shadow that she couldn?t make out what it was. Maybe it had been lured by the scent of her blood. She cursed herself for being so helpless, for allowing herself to be injured, even though she could not for the life of her remember how it had happened.
The shadow leaned forward, peering into her eyes. She squinted up at it through the blood and realized she was looking into Luke Starkiller?s eyes.
?What?s the matter, Mara?? he asked sweetly, extending his hand.
She tried to clear the blood by rubbing her shoulder against her eye. ?Get me out of this, Starkiller.?
He walked behind the rock and untied the ropes. They fell around her, coiling at her feet like serpents ready to strike. She eyed them warily.
Starkiller came out from behind the rock and smiled. ?You?re free.? The leering grin on his face said otherwise.
She tried to move away from him, but the ropes tangled around her legs, holding her in place. Starkiller approached her slowly, his eyes roaming over her in a way that made her senses rebel.
She reached instinctively for her abdomen. ?Don?t come any closer.?
His lips twisted into a frown. ?It?s okay, Mara. Touch me, and we?ll fall together.?
She stared at his outstretched hand as the serpent-ropes climbed her thighs, wrapping around her waist. ?No!? she screamed, trying to rip them away, to protect her child.
?We belong together. Just take my hand.?
She woke up screaming.
Artoo whistled an affirmative as he rolled over to the rock where Luke sat.
?I?m impressed, Artoo. I thought you were a goner when that madman destroyed the ship.?
The droid chirped defiantly, his dome swiveling back and forth.
Luke chuckled and placed a hand on top of the little robot?s dome. ?Well, I?m glad.?
A strangled cry echoed off the canyon walls. Luke turned from examining Artoo and saw that it was Mara making that horrible sound. Her eyes were open but unfocused.
He ran and dropped to his knees at her side. She sat up quickly and sucked in a deep breath, holding her palms against her forehead. Luke stayed back and let her bring her breathing under control. She closed her eyes and took in a few more gulps of air. Finally, she opened her eyes and stared directly into his.
?What?s happened?? she asked steadily. Her voice was carefully controlled, but the look on her face betrayed her anxiety. Luke reached out to touch her shoulder, but she shied away from him.
?You were unconscious,? Luke explained as he raised his hands defensively. ?I moved you so we wouldn?t be out in the open.?
Mara rubbed her arms and wrists as if trying to wipe something away. Her eyes darted about suspiciously. ?How???
?I didn?t touch you, if that?s what you?re worried about.? He couldn?t hide his resentment. Frankly, he didn?t care right now. He ignored the dirty look she shot him. ?I levitated you.?
Her gaze softened just a little. ?I didn?t??
?Listen, we?d better get to Dreshdae and find some way off this planet before that guy recovers.?
Mara held his gaze for a moment. His heart pulsed just a little quicker as he wrestled with his emotions.
She looked around for her rucksack and raised a hand to call it over. ?Did you kill him??
Luke stared over her head at the wall of boulders. ?No, but he won?t be able to hold two lightsabers anymore, that?s for sure.?
?Best news I?ve heard since I got here.? She stood slowly, testing her balance. Then she pulled out her tracker and pressed a few buttons. ?Dreshdae it is. Let?s go, before that lunatic decides he wants revenge.? She dusted off her clothes and gestured toward a narrow pass leading out of the canyon. ?After you, Starkiller.?
?Why exactly am I leading, again??
?Because I?d rather keep you in front where I can see you.?
?No trust, huh??
?Not even after I saved your life??
She looked at him strangely, as if she was seeing a different person. The expression on her face told him it wasn?t a good thing in this instance.
?Okay, fine, I?ll go first.? Luke walked ahead of her, surveying the trail. ?So much for gratitude,? he muttered.
Luke led the way through the pass, crossing over another high ridge before he finally spotted Dreshdae. The city jutted out of the side of a jagged mountain at the far end of the Valley of the Dark Lords. Mara came over to his side and held up her tracker.
Artoo whistled that he was perfectly capable of locating and identifying the city.
?Yep, that?s it.? Mara, who didn?t seem to understand Artoo?s binary language, tucked the tracker into her jacket pocket.
Luke shrugged at the droid and began the slow climb down the ridge. Once they reached flat ground, it wasn?t long before they came to Dreshdae?s outer wall. Luke, Mara, and Artoo crossed a short bridge and approached the ramp that led to the city?s main entrance.
?Let?s hope they?ve got some space-worthy ships in there,? Luke said as he keyed the doors open. He looked back at Mara and shrugged. ?Otherwise we?ll be spending even more time here together.?
Mara grimaced, but he wasn?t sure if it was a joke or if she really did dread the thought of staying here with him.
Then she let out a pained cry and started to fall.
Three Months Ago
?Do you have any other questions, my child??
Mara looked up into the Emperor?s wrinkled face and shook her head. ?No, my lord. I am ready to serve you.?
The Emperor smiled. ?This will be a very important mission, the most important mission of all. Succeed, and we will no longer need the Sith. A new line of Force-sensitives will be born, a line rooted in justice and peace.?
?This child represents a bright future for our Empire. Remember that.?
?I will, Master.?
?You were always a special child, Mara. Make me proud.?
The blood rushed to her brain, leaving her lightheaded, breathless, unanchored. She reached out with one hand to catch herself as she stumbled to her knees. The other hand cradled her stomach, shielding it from impact.
She gasped for breath, sucking in the dead air. Starkiller kneeled on the ground next to her and reached out to support her, but she held up a stopping hand.
?No!? she shrieked, remembering the nightmare-vision. She would not be party to anyone?s fall. Not even his.
?you have been trained and molded for a single purpose?
?Don?t touch me,? Mara ordered, trying to stop the memories, the Emperor?s voice, anything and everything that could reach inside and hurt her child.
?serve as an extension?
?a special child?
?the most important mission of all?
?Mara, please,? Starkiller insisted, drawing closer. ?Let me help you up.?
She squeezed her eyelids shut, as if doing so would drown him out. She didn?t need his help. She needed to get away from this place, away from the darkness in him. From the darkness in herself.
?an extension of my will?
A vision opened up before her of the Emperor?s throne room. Disjointed sensory details flashed through her brain: the smell of burnt flesh, blue-white electricity crackling through the air, the hum of multiple lightsabers, six red-robed Imperial guards lying dead on the floor.
Two figures approaching the throne, a small one she didn?t recognize and a large one that she did.
YOU WILL KILL?
Mara scraped her nails along the ground, grinding them into the dirt. ?No,? she whispered fiercely, trying desperately to hold back tears. ?I won?t do it.? She thought of the child growing inside her, and an image filled her thoughts, a vision of a little copper-haired boy tumbling in a sea of grass. He raised his palms to the sky and laughed. She shook her head and the vision retreated, leaving an emptiness that quickly filled with righteous anger.
YOU WILL KILL DARTH VADER.
I won?t do it!
YOU WILL KILL LEIA ORGANA.
Get out of my head!
Mara screamed, and then the pressure on her mind lifted suddenly and with a finality that could only mean one thing.
Emperor Palpatine was dead.
Four Years Ago
No one saw her when they carried the girl off to the medical center. She was hiding in a shadowy corner, spying on the adepts while they practiced.
It was a brutal fight. She had never seen anything like it. Long ago, she had wanted to be friends with these people ? these Sith. They were children, like her. She didn?t have anyone else to talk to, no one her age to back her up. Most of the time, she was fine being alone. But sometimes, she wanted a friend.
The Sith girl had been so bloodied and battered, it was a miracle she wasn?t dead. Mara was quite certain now that she would rather be alone the rest of her life than spend one minute with any of those adepts. Especially the blond one, the one who had nearly beaten the girl to death.
Mara peered into the training room, and she noticed something odd. Her master was standing next to Lord Vader, and for just one moment, she was sure she saw him smile. It was a cold smile, and in the time it took Mara to blink, it was gone.
The blond adept looked stunned, but there was an eagerness in his presence that sickened Mara. She wasn?t very skilled in the ways of the Force, but she knew evil when she sensed it. And there was something very evil lurking in that boy.
The Emperor was dead. And all she could think of was how the life she knew was gone, destroyed in a flash of brilliant crimson light while she languished on the other side of the galaxy. She thought of all the things she was promised, of all the things she would never receive.
He said he would tell her, upon her return, who the father of her child was. Now she would never know.
It didn?t bother her in the way she thought it should. She wasn?t overly sentimental, although the idea of giving birth and caring for a baby was starting to appeal to her. However, in her usual pragmatic fashion, she was more concerned with what kinds of traits the child would inherit and if there was a possibility that those traits might be perfect gateways to the darkness she had sensed in herself, in Starkiller, and on this miserable planet.
She hadn?t seen until now how much evil there was in her life.
Why did he do this to me?
?Mara, are you okay??
She was so sick of Starkiller?s constant worrying. As the Emperor?s Hand, she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself.
Her skin prickled as she realized the enormity of what had happened. The Emperor ? her master ? had been brutally murdered by the Sith. There was no reason to think Starkiller wasn?t involved in the plot as well. If he found out that the Emperor was dead, would he decide to turn on her? Her master?s blanket of protection was gone.
?Nothing,? Mara replied, picking herself up off the ground for what seemed like the fifth time so far. ?I guess I still haven?t recovered from earlier.?
?Can you walk??
?Of course I can.? She glanced up at Dreshdae?s outer wall before looking through the open entrance. ?Come on, we?ve wasted enough time.?
Mara walked through the entrance, her senses carefully attuned to Starkiller?s movement. If he tried anything, she would be ready.
The city looked like it had once been a bustling ? albeit dark ? hub of activity in this lonely part of the galaxy. Luke wondered what it must have been like to live in Dreshdae during the golden age of the Sith.
Now the streets lay quiet, and some of the buildings were in serious disrepair.
?I wonder what happened here,? Luke said, his gaze wandering over the buildings.
?The Commerce Guild pulled out sometime after the Clone Wars. Guess they finally realized it was bad business to set up shop on a barely-inhabited planet.?
?Maybe our tattooed friend had something to do with it.?
?That?s a possibility.? Mara held a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun. ?Why don?t you look for a comm station while I check for ships over there?? She jerked her thumb toward a row of low-roofed buildings at the end of the street.
Luke squinted at the buildings. ?Sure, I guess. Meet you back here in twenty minutes??
Mara nodded. ?Sounds good.?
Luke waved and turned away. The last thing he saw was the dusty ground rushing toward his face. Then there was only black.
Mara?s boots pounded in the dust as she ran toward the building her datapad had identified as a hangar. It didn?t matter if the only ship there was a hundred years old. She was getting off this planet now.
I killed him, part of her brain screamed. The more rational part assured her that the well-placed kick had only knocked Starkiller unconscious. She wasn?t sure which scenario she preferred. Dead, he would weigh on her conscience. Alive, he would probably hunt her down and kill her.
And without the Emperor, would her security clearance be any good? Would she have any shelter on her homeworld?
Force, what had happened?
Get to the ship. Get offworld. Find out what?s going on out there. The clipped mental commands helped put her thoughts in order. Survival first. Survival was always first. She would hide if she had to. She was not without resources. She was the Emperor?s Hand, damn it, and that counted for something.
Mara growled under her breath. It was that stupid little R2 unit. It?s wailing and screaming had rattled her nerves. Well, she was not going to feel guilty for leaving a Sith adept behind. Not after those visions. Especially not after what Vader and Organa had done.
The double doors to the hangar were closed, the keypad ripped from the wall. Mara took a step back and raised her hand. Using the Force, she wrenched the doors from their old-fashioned hinges and threw them aside. Dirt kicked up into the air, clouding her vision. Mara coughed as she went through the opening and began searching for a space-worthy vessel.
A quick glance around the hangar revealed only three ships, all roughly two decades old. Mara recognized a Loronar B-7 light freighter, a Cutlass-9 patrol fighter, and another small transport of a design she didn?t recognize. The Cutlass was small, armed, and fast. More importantly, it had a hyperdrive.
Hurry, Mara! Run!
It was the voice from the tomb, the one that had pulled her out of the vision by telling her to open her eyes. She realized now that the voice had a Coruscanti accent not unlike many of Imperial Center?s inhabitants.
Who are you?
But there was no answer. Only the intense spiking of her danger sense and the feeling that she should get off this planet now.
Mara climbed onto the nose of the Cutlass and popped the canopy. As she tossed her bag into the fighter, she felt Starkiller start to stir. She jumped down into the seat and started the ship?s power sequence, keeping one eye on the entrance to the hangar.
She should have known better than to ally, even briefly, with a Sith.
It was an electric shock from Artoo that finally woke him up. Luke cracked one eye open and saw the little droid staring down at him, the lights on his dome flashing urgently.
?What happened?? Luke mumbled, rubbing the back of his head.
Artoo whistled angrily, spinning his dome back and forth.
?What?? Luke shouted. He crawled to his feet, using Artoo for support. ?Where did she go??
The droid moaned and wobbled on its two legs. Luke felt his insides go hot, as if a fire had blossomed in his heart and spread through his veins.
?Come on,? he growled, running toward the building Artoo had indicated. After all this time, he was not going to lose her.
An engine roared in the distance, and Luke tried to ignore the pounding in his skull as he surged forward. Dust kicked up into the air, and over the top of the building, Luke saw the silver glint of a starship.
?No! Mara!? He stretched his fingers uselessly toward the ship and fell to his knees. Within seconds, the ship was gone, along with Mara.
He stared at the spot where the ship had disappeared into the sky.
Artoo rolled over to his side and moaned softly.
?She left us,? he whispered, his voice breaking. He turned to Artoo and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. The little droid let out the electronic equivalent of a sigh.
Luke looked back up at the sky and clawed his fingernails through the dirt.
?She left us.?
He could feel the heat rising inside of him, overpowering his sorrow, his shame. He did not deserve this. He was a Sith adept, one of the most powerful beings in the galaxy. He did not deserve to be tossed aside like some worthless piece of scrap. How could she?
How could she?
?Artoo,? he said through gritted teeth. ?You find a ship in there with hyperdrive and get it started. If you have to make repairs, do it.? He stood up and roughly wiped the dirt from his knees. ?We?re going home.?
The Cutlass roared to life and leapt off the ground, shooting into the air with surprising speed. Mara pulled back on the yoke and hit the thrusters. The ship?s climb toward the atmosphere wasn?t exactly smooth, but it was much better than she had hoped for.
Through the Force she felt a surge of remorse coming from the surface. She tried to ignore it.
Once she was clear of Korriban, Mara pulled up a nav chart and started thinking about where she should go. The Sith?s betrayal made it almost certain that Mara?s old clearances would be revoked. If Starkiller ever made it off Korriban, he might be angry enough to try hunting her down. She couldn?t rely on the Empire to protect her from his wrath, not when his people now controlled the Empire.
Much of her gear had been lost. She had only limited rations with her. Everything else was gone. And she had to get far away from the Core, at least for now.
She clenched her teeth as a new voice invaded her mind. If she wasn?t already going insane, all of this unwanted telepathy would surely drive her there.
Mara, the voice repeated. Do not be afraid. And then it listed a string of numbers she knew to be coordinates.
This is ridiculous, she told herself. Through the Force, she felt the baby stir.
Do not be afraid. Come.
There was something oddly reassuring about this new voice. The baby stirred again.
Okay, okay, she told the voice. I?ll do it.
Mara reached down and placed a hand on her abdomen. We?re going to be all right, kid. Then she punched in the coordinates and watched the stars become thin lines against the swirling backdrop of hyperspace.
13. The Way of the Sith
?This one is perfect, Artoo,? Luke said, trying to speak over the whine of the engines. He climbed up the side of the transport and dropped into the seat. It was a model he didn?t recognize, but right now all he cared about was that it could fly.
?Did you run all the diagnostics??
Artoo beeped indignantly.
?Right, just thought I?d check.?
He strapped himself into the pilot?s seat and looked over at Artoo. The droid had plugged himself into the computer console. ?This time, you can do the flying.?
Artoo squealed in protest, but he did as he was told. Moments later, they were soaring through space. Korriban was just a ball of dust in the otherwise perfect beauty of space.
Luke leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. Several days ago he had left home thinking he could convince Mara to love him. He was going back empty-handed. Perhaps someday, when he became the Emperor?s apprentice, he would ask his master for Mara?s hand. Maybe then he would finally have her love.
He tried to push down the resentment and anger that had threatened to consume him after she left. It was the same ugly beast that had surfaced in him years ago when he nearly killed Leia. He couldn?t unleash that power on Mara, no matter what. He loved her, and you didn?t hurt the people you loved.
Luke rolled onto his side and cracked open an eye, watching Artoo talk to the ship. ?Everything under control??
Artoo?s reply was a relatively pleasant ?yes?.
Satisfied, Luke closed his eyes once more and fell fast asleep.
It was the first dream he?d had since leaving the palace.
He was standing at the end of a long, dark corridor. At the other end, he saw a lone window. Moonlight pooled on the floor beneath the window, illuminating a raised platform. As he walked slowly toward the platform, he saw the there was a person lying on it. The figure was draped in flowing white cloth, but from the curves he could see it was a small woman.
He began to jog toward the platform, his heart beating faster as he thought of who it might be. The corridor seemed to shrink around him, enveloping him in darkness even as he tried to reach the light at the end. Finally, he came to the edge of the platform, which was raised up several steps so that he could no longer see who was on top of it. Inscribed along the side was an ancient language, runes that he recognized.
It was a Sith altar. And the ritual sacrifice was already lying there.
As he climbed the steps up to the altar, he saw her beautiful red-gold hair spilling over the edge. A few more steps, and he saw her perfect face. She looked so peaceful with her eyes closed. He had never really known peace, not even with her.
And then, as he reached the top step, he realized someone else was on the altar.
It was her.
The thought of her brought bile to his mouth. The demon inside wanted to pull his beloved from the platform and burn this other woman, make her suffer as she had made him suffer.
But they were both chained to the altar, and they were also chained to each other. They lay atop a bed of kindling. He could save neither, but if he destroyed one, he destroyed his love.
The other woman was also asleep, her long brown hair splayed across the stone, tangled with the red hair of his beloved. He wanted to kill her, sacrifice her to the ancient Sith, be rid of her forever. For one moment, he considered it. He might be able to save the one he loved and still destroy his tormentor.
He reached for his lightsaber, holding it near the kindling.
Brown eyes opened suddenly and locked with his. She reached out her hand and grabbed his wrist, setting his skin on fire with her touch. As he started to burn, he fell to his knees, screaming past the fire that poured into his throat.
The chains fell to the side of the altar, and both women climbed off of it. They stared down at him, their faces contorted in horror. He extended a hand to his beloved, but she backed away.
He crawled forward, pleading silently with his love. She had to save him from the flames.
The other woman, the vile one, pulled a vibroblade from her sleeve and handed it to his beloved. She took it and stared down at him, uncertainty in her green eyes.
He knew she would do it. She should do it. He closed his eyes and spread his arms wide as his only love plunged the blade into his heart.
The other woman stepped in front of his beloved. She held his lightsaber out and ignited it, raising it over her right shoulder.
She swung it toward his neck, and he woke up.
Luke rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands as his ship reverted to realspace over Imperial Center. There would be hell to pay, he knew, but none of it would be as painful as Mara?s betrayal. He would take the punishment, become stronger, and then he would claim what was rightfully his. Even if he had to follow her to the edge of the galaxy and beyond.
The comm light flashed, and Luke opened up a channel.
?Unidentified vessel, you are entering restricted space. Power down and prepare to be boarded. Failure to comply will result in termination.?
?Negative, this is Luke Starkiller. My clearance is Aurek-Vev-Senth-Three-Nine-Seven-Zero-Seven.?
There was a pause on the other end. Luke smiled and began to steer his ship away from the patrol line.
?Apologies, sir. The Emperor has requested that you land on his personal platform.?
Luke?s raised both eyebrows and leaned back into his seat. ?Thank you for your assistance.? He closed the comm and put a hand over his mouth, studying the planet below.
So the Emperor knew he was gone, and now he wanted to hand out Luke?s punishment in person.
Luke glanced over at Artoo, who was busy chirping at the computer, and scowled.
?At least someone?s happy.?
The city-planet loomed closer, and Luke couldn?t shake the feeling that he was in for more than just the usual punishment.
He expected to be met by the Emperor?s red-robed Imperial Guards. Instead, eight stormtroopers marched onto the platform, each of them carrying their standard-issue blaster rifles at chest level. Luke kept an eye on them as he climbed out of his ship and jumped to the platform.
One of the troopers snapped a salute. ?Welcome home, sir.? He gestured toward the palace. ?His Excellency would like a word with you before you return to your quarters.?
Luke nodded and followed the troopers, reaching forward with his senses for any sign of danger. The stormtroopers had seemed a little nervous, but he couldn?t determine if it was because there was something wrong or if they just knew he was in trouble.
The door to the palace slid open, and Luke found himself in a part of the Emperor?s suite that he had never seen. Not that he was terribly surprised ? the old man had more secrets than Luke had hairs on his head. They had entered a short corridor, and at the end were three doors, each leading off in different directions.
?Right through there, sir,? said the lead trooper, indicating the middle door.
Luke walked forward and waited while the trooper entered the access code. The door opened to reveal four more stormtroopers, each holding one corner of a large cage. Inside the cage was a furry, lizard-like creature Luke had never seen before.
Then he felt it.
As the Force left him, two of the stormtroopers shoved him forward with their blasters. He caught himself on his hands and knees and stared up in disbelief at the caged creature that had somehow stripped him of the Force. The stormtroopers pushed him flat to the ground and trained each of their eight blasters on him. One of them removed his lightsaber from his belt.
?How dare you,? Luke snarled, craning his neck to look at the lead trooper. ?I demand to see the Emperor!?
?You won?t find Palpatine here,? a voice called out. Luke peered beyond the cage, into the darkness.
She emerged from the shadows, a ghost-like figure in her simple white dress. There were dark circles under her eyes, and on the left side of her neck, Luke saw a spider?s web of thin, shiny scars that had not been there when he left.
?You seem surprised to see me here, Luke.? She raised one brow, the corners of her mouth turning upward in a slightly puzzled, slightly amused look. ?Do you like my ysalamir?? She indicated the creature in the cage.
Luke felt the barrels of three weapons on his back. ?Where is the Emperor??
Leia stepped into the lighted part of the corridor, though Luke noticed she kept to the edge, away from the cage. ?He?s gone,? she said, eyeing the ysalamir. Her gaze returned to Luke, and she gave him a smile so filled with joy that he could hardly believe she was the Leia he?d grown up with. ?Palpatine is dead, and I killed him.?
There was nothing that could have prepared Luke for those words. He tried to convince himself that it was a lie, but even without the Force he could sense the truth in her words. He had never loved or cared for the old man, but it was still hard to accept that he was never coming back. It was harder still for Luke to realize how easily manipulated he had been. Korriban was a trap, a convenient way of getting him out of the picture while Leia made her move. And Luke had walked right into it.
Leia waved a hand at the stormtroopers, and they stepped away from Luke. He pushed up onto his knees and then rose to his feet, watching the soldiers from the corners of his eyes.
?You lied to me,? he accused.
?I didn?t lie to you. She was exactly where I said she would be.?
?You tricked me into leaving!?
Leia smiled again, darker this time. ?Treachery is the way of the Sith.?
He hated her, not because of what she?d done, but because she had used him, had made him just another pawn in her schemes. In the end, he hadn?t really mattered at all. The fate of the Empire had been decided while he was light-years away.
She was the true Sith.
Luke felt a wisp of cool wind across his skin as another door slid open at the end of the corridor. Then he heard the choked, hissing sound that had followed him through so many nightmares.
Darth Vader stepped out of the darkness and leveled his masked gaze on Luke. ?You did not tell me he had arrived.?
?Apologies, my lord. We were just finishing up here.? Leia took a step backward to join Vader. She lowered her chin just a little and smiled at Luke, that same knowing smile that had always bothered him. Without the Force, he could do nothing to wipe it right from her pretty face.
The Dark Lord folded his arms across his massive chest, the sound of the respirator pounding against Luke?s eardrums. ?I will deal with him,? Vader rumbled, remaining motionless.
Leia?s brown eyes flashed triumphantly. ?As you wish, Father.?
Everything inside Luke went cold at those words.
He heard the blood rushing through his ears, could feel it pumping rapidly through his heart, but it was like an icy river, freezing every thought and emotion. Several seconds passed before he was able to process what he had just heard.
Luke gazed up at Vader, unable to understand how this creature could have produced a child, how that child could have been Leia, how all his plans to surpass Vader and become the Emperor?s apprentice could have been smashed by one little word.
Father. Darth Vader was Leia?s father.
And then, without anything changing, it made all the sense in the galaxy. He had been too proud and too blind to see it.
Leia?s eyes met his, and they stared at each other for an interminable moment. ?Now you understand,? she said softly. With a nod to Vader, she turned her back on Luke and walked away.
14. A New Hope
He was beaten first, by the guards. He was tortured next, by a droid. When all of that was finished, they took the ysalamiri away and left him with Darth Vader.
Luke wasn?t sure how long the Dark Lord had stood over him, trying to break into his mind. He had long since stopped moving, but as much as he wanted to pass out, he could not let Vader in. There was still someone out there, someone who might become another of Vader?s victims if Luke did not protect her. She had betrayed him, but he would not do the same.
The cell was empty now. He reached out for the Force, fumbling about like a frightened child in the dark. There was nothing. If he could not sense them, then they would not be able to detect his thoughts or his emotions. Luke crawled over to the wall and huddled up against it, wrapping his arms around his legs.
The thought of that name burned a hole in his heart, a hole that was at once painful and satisfying. He wished he could have touched her, just once.
He closed his eyes, recalling her face, imagining what it would have been like to kiss her lips. She might have grown to love him, in time.
Someone banged against the cell door, jolting Luke from his pathetic thoughts. He tried to pull his mind back together, tried to stop whimpering in the corner about how wretched his life suddenly was. He had trained to be a Sith, and there was nothing on the other side of that door that he couldn?t handle. Mara?s safety, wherever she was, depended on him.
The Force returned to him in an explosion of clarity. He flexed the muscles in his hands, waiting for Vader?s return.
I?m ready for you, old man. Let?s go.
The door slid open, and a white helmet rolled into the cell. It stopped at Luke?s feet, and he stared down at it incredulously.
?I hope you?re worth all this trouble.?
Luke tilted his head back and stared up at the person who had just walked through the door. It took him a second to adjust to the bright light?
?Lady Rasia?? Luke gaped at the red-haired girl from the ball.
?Come on, we don?t have much time,? she ordered. ?Get up.? She reached out a hand, and Luke took it.
?I don?t understand,? he said as she helped him stand.
?Neither do I, but this was my final order.? She looked up and down the corridor and motioned for Luke to follow.
?It?s Brie, okay? Shira Brie. Now let?s go.?
She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him down the corridor as the detention center alarms began to blare.
The flight was long, and Mara breathed a sigh of relief when she dropped out of hyperspace and saw an actual planet in her viewport. Her scopes didn?t pick up any cities, so she just headed toward the part of the planet that felt right.
Once the ship had landed, Mara took a moment to collect her gear. Then she opened the canopy and stepped out into a thick mist. She surveyed the landscape, wrinkling her nose at the unusual swamp smell. ?This,? she muttered as she shouldered her bag, ?will take some getting used to.?
A snap echoed off to the left, and Mara swung around and pulled out her blaster.
She found herself looking down at a short, sickly-green creature dressed in threadbare robes.
?Sorry,? Mara said, slipping the blaster back into its holster. ?You startled me.?
The creature leaned with both arms on a crooked wooden stick, peering up at her with sleepy eyes. She found herself staring back, mesmerized.
?I?m looking for someone,? she said at last, breaking the brief spell.
?Found someone, you have, I would say,? it responded solemnly.
The raspy voice struck a chord in Mara. ?You were the one who gave me the coordinates.?
The creature nodded gravely. ?Come with me, young Mara. Much to talk about, we have.?
Mara turned and closed the ship?s canopy before following the creature into the murky darkness.
Original cover by Pallas-Athena. HTML formatting copyright 2010 TheForce.Net LLC.