Chapter 48: The Last Twelve At night, the desert became a very different place. The air grew cold and sharp, spawning an icy chill that settled into rock and bone alike, robbing the world of its warmth and making the fine hairs that mapped living flesh prickle and stand on end. Sands that shimmered white-hot when the twin suns blazed overhead became unforgiving lumps of quartz—immutable and cold to the touch—once those dual primaries sank below the jagged horizon. There were no ripples of heat in the distance or cruel liquid mirages undulating just out of reach—only an endless sea of midnight blue dunes almost as black as the cold sky they blended into, their grit-shedding peaks limned in slivers of pale moonlight. Stars wheeled undimmed in the clear night above like glittering gems, their twinkling radiance marred only by faint outlines of vapor contrails crisscrossing through the cosmos, the last evidence of debris which had splashed against the atmosphere and rained down across the planet hours earlier. Tatooine's moons loomed higher still, a trio of glowing, gloom-halved circles that formed a sort of beaded arch amid the dazzling stars. Suspended beside the smallest of these mottled gray sickles lurked a hazy cloud of white nothingness, as though someone had scratched through space to erase a piece of the universe... Jaina Solo let her gaze swing away from the cloud of devastation, her eyes stinging from the cool night air. No one spoke. For a long time, the only sound was the crackling of the fire at the center of their improvised camp and the occasional howl of wind cutting across the dust-choked wasteland. A ring of figures sat around the small fire on large stones, the scattered detritus that dotted the terrain, or in the night-chilled sand itself, staring wordlessly into the flickering flames. There were just over twenty beings in all—the few surviving Jedi, a handful of friends and family members, and two droids. That was it. Firelight danced on grim faces. Some were tear-streaked and sullen, others had bitter eyes puffy from crying—all had the same shell-shocked stare, as though somehow gazing past the flames and the sand into the galaxy's Core, utterly lost in their trauma and grief and too stunned to even begin to make sense of it. Jaina knew this because she felt it too. She was numb and sick, and so hollow inside she could not weep. She sat in a pocket of sand with her knees hugged loosely to her chest and her back pressed against a monolithic slab of obsidian ship wreckage still warm with atmospheric friction. Like the rest of the debris that peppered the desert around them, the durasteel fragment had been part of a warship before it disintegrated and plunged to the surface. Now it slanted up from the ground like a sagging grave stone, half-buried in the subtle rise of a flattened dune. From the blistered paint on its once glossy surface, it was clear to Jaina that the wreckage had come from the hull of a Raithian vessel—perhaps even the Exodus... Jaina's red-rimmed eyes traveled around the loose circle of beings. Her parents sat in the sand a half dozen meters to her right, a nearly full bottle of Whyren's Reserve tilted at Han's feet. Beyond them, Leia's apprentice Baliss Phlora stood like a gratenite statue and the girl Maichen shrank in the shadow's beyond the fire's soft glow. R2-D2 rested on his sand-caked tread nearby and emitted a mournful tone. Beside the little astromech, C-3PO said nothing. Mirax Horn and her two children huddle together at the base of a large sandrock with Kyp Durron. The Jedi Master was swaddled in a thick green blanket, still recovering from hypoxia and hypothermia following his ordeal in Zonama Sekot's cataclysmic wake. Nearer to Jaina's right shoulder were Garrison Shan and Octa Ramis. The man called "Malachor" sat on the carbon-scorched remains of a warbird's thruster housing with his hands pressed together while Octa stood further back, her face hidden in the raised cowl of her olive-green robes. Behind Jaina to her left, was Wedge Antilles, balanced somberly on a rock. Aero Gin lurked in the shadows there, neither a part of their group nor completely severed from it. Adjacent to Jaina, Wrev Caster stood alone, leaning against a two-meter slab of stone that jutted up from the sand, his arms folded and a brooding expression on his face. The Nightsister Ilandra Grim slumped cross-legged in the sand a few paces away, idly picking up handfuls of dust and letting the grains slip through her fingers. Down closer to the fire, Anakin and Tahiri sat shoulder-to-shoulder with their backs resting against a shallow patch of rock crust thrust up from the sand. Jaina's brother was bloodied and bruised, and as weary-looking as Kyp, but otherwise okay. Around Tahiri's neck dangled an amethyst necklace that Jaina had not seen since she'd been taken to Apollyon nearly a year ago, its blood-dappled gem glittering in the dancing firelight. And directly opposite the fire from Jaina, were Luke and Mara Jade Skywalker. Jaina's aunt was perched upon a weathered hunk of fleckrock while Luke actually sat with his back turned to the fire, gazing out into the dark horizon. The distance was notched by a jagged range of purplish mountains and the gauzy outline of a huge mesa that split into a narrow canyon etched in starlit crags. Stone pinnacles rose above the dark mountain peaks and haunted crusted ridges. To the east were more wind-cut mountains of smoothed sandstone and a labyrinthine maze of rust-colored outcroppings that formed stunning arches, moonlit wreathes, impossibly-balanced boulder-stacked pillars, winding tunnels, and shallow caves. The craggy, desiccated terrain beyond led to a series of cliffs and deep gorges overlooking the Mos Eisley spaceport, where the Millennium Falcon and a half dozen other vessels that had brought the survivors to this lonely spot in the middle of the desert were docked. But most of the area around them was made up of sand, the great Dune Sea stretching out for what seemed an impossible journey. The naked ribs of a dewback could be seen sticking up from the crest of one hill, abandoned by the swarm of blood-bloated skeetos and vigilantly circling urusais that had gorged themselves on the flesh they'd picked during the daylight. Plumes of dust curled dimly further out, where a Jawa sandcrawler trundled down a bluish dune. Droves of the greedy little scavengers were slaloming in the moonlight, anxious to retrieve the wealth of new scrap that had rained down across the planet hours earlier. Arrayed atop the dark peak of a dune on the opposite end of the horizon, loomed the crisp silhouettes of six Sand People and a meandering pair of banthas, watching the Jedi from a safe distance. After Tahiri had spoken with them upon their arrival to the isolated patch of desert, Silven's tribe seemed to actually be watching over them, protecting them from any threats that might be lurking in the wreckage-strewn sands, or at least standing ready to warn them should one approach. The fire popped and crackled as its blue cinders collapsed, sending sheaves of glowing embers and flickering motes of ash swirling above the lashing ribbons of orange flame into the cold night sky, where one by one they dimmed and went out, just like... Jaina let the thought trail off, feeling cold and empty again. How long had it been since she had been staring into another campfire on a beach far from Tatooine? Fourteen hours? Twenty? She couldn't be sure. But in that time, everything had changed. Darth Malig had won. The Jedi were destroyed. And all was lost... It didn't seem real somehow. In the year since this war had begun, Jaina had never really thought that they would fail. The Light always triumphed in the end, didn't it? The heroes won and the villains were vanquished, right? Like with the Empire. Like with the Yuuzhan Vong. That was the way it was supposed to be. As cynical and guarded as Jaina could often be, she was surprised to find in the depths of her own soul that she truly believed this. So how had everything gone so terribly wrong? How could Darth Malig have defeated them so completely? How could the Jedi lose the very thing they were fighting so hard to protect? The answer, of course, was that Jaina, and all the others had been wrong. Sometimes the villains did win. Sometimes heroes died. Whatever balance had once governed the Force was gone. It was as if Malig had snuffed out the light in the galaxy as easily as he might have a candle in the night. And the galaxy had fallen into darkness. Jaina shivered. A rustle of movement from the east caught her eye, and she turned to see a lone figure striding into camp. His posture was slightly slumped and his gait staggered by exhaustion or disorientation, but Jaina would have recognized the man's silhouette anywhere. Jagged Fel limped into camp looking as grave as Jaina had ever seen him. His black uniform was sand-blasted and uncharacteristically rumpled, and his hair wind-raked in a way that made him appear more handsome somehow. The sorrow glinting in the Ascendancy leader's jade eye had the same glassy, slightly dazed set to it as the other survivors. As he stepped into the warm glow of the fire, Jag made no attempt to straighten his posture or radiate the air of unflagging dignity that he usually couldn't help but exude. He surveyed the ring of people gathered around the flames without breaking his stride, then marched to where Jaina was seated and dropped gracelessly into the sand beside her. Like the others, he said nothing for a time, drawing his body up into a cross-legged position and staring silently into the dancing flames. "I'm sorry about your friends," he said suddenly without preamble. Jaina nodded. "So am I." They both grew silent again, listening to the steady crackle of the fire. After a time, Jaina could hear her parents speaking softly and Jysella trading comforting words with Valin, but the same mournful silence seemed to hang over the camp like a pall. Finally, Jaina turned to Jag. "What happened to you?" "I was shot," Jag said nonchalantly. "Shot?" "Well, stunned, to be precise." Jaina frowned. "Who did that?" "A loyal soldier... And a very good friend, I suppose—but he's gone now." "I'm sorry." Jag's mouth tightened into a grim smile. "It's my own fault." Silence settled between them again for a few heartbeats before Jaina turned back to him once more. "What are you doing here, Jag?" The Ascendancy and Imperial warships had all fled the system after quickly recovering their escape pods, fearing the Raithians would return to Tatooine while they were still valuable. Most of the smugglers' vessels had similarly jumped out of the binary star system, though a small detachment remained to protect the Errant Venture while Booster Terrik and his crew made hasty repairs to the Star Destroyer's damaged thrusters—just enough to get the warship mended for a hyperspace jump away from Tatooine. Jag said nothing for a time, then offered a slight shrug. "I came to tell you you were right." One of Jaina's eyebrows arched. "What?" Jag hesitated. "About everything, really... I believe I let my grief over my father cloud my judgment, and my desire to see his life's work done cause me to do something very foolish. I wanted revenge—you were right about that—but I also wanted to make certain the Raithians could not achieve what they've come here for... that they could not hurt anyone else." Jaina looked on sadly, unsure of how to respond. Thankfully, Jag continued without prompting, his eye reflecting the flickering flames he stared into. "And the reason I was able to deceive myself, was because I did exactly what I've always been trained for. The Chiss have a strict policy regarding aggression—we never strike first. But when we are attacked, we respond with overwhelming force. We wipe out any threat to our way of life completely. By creating Omega Red, I did exactly what the Chiss would want me to do." Jaina's brow furrowed, surprised by Jag's explanation. "Then why do you think it was wrong?" Jag paused for a moment, seeming to contemplate the question in the dancing fire. "Because I'm not a Chiss, Jaina." The words hung between them for several breaths as Jaina began to understand exactly what the man beside her meant. After a moment, he reached into the pocket of his grit-blanketed uniform and fished out a clouded glass vial. "What's that?" Jaina asked, scrutinizing the seemingly empty bottle in the golden firelight. Jag did not take his eye off it as he held it up to the flickering light and spoke. "Omega Red," he said. "All that's left of it." A flash of intensity shone in Jaina's gaze as she stared at the vial, discerning the faint gray fog within webbed by gauzy ribbons of pale violet. Jag snorted. "The ironic part of all this is that it doesn't even work. All the engineering, everything that was lost, was for nothing." Fixing his gaze upon a fist-sized wedge of dark fleckrock peeking up from the sand in front of him, Jag raised his arm, rearing back to smash the vial against the stone. Jaina reached out and touched his arm. "What are you doing?" Jag looked over his shoulder at her as though it should have been obvious. "Destroying it, of course—what does it look like?" "It's still a pathogen though, Jag, right? Just because it didn't have any effect on the Raithians doesn't mean it won't have an unintended consequence for the life on this planet." Jag shot her a look that seemed to ask just what "life" she could possibly be talking about on a desert waste land, but he relented beneath her touch, lowering his arm. "I suppose you're right... Here, you take it." He slipped the vial into Jaina's hand and closed her fingers around it. "Dispose of it properly the next time you're on a ship." Sensing that Jag simply wanted to rid himself of Omega Red, Jaina nodded and tucked the small vial into a seldom-used pouch on her utility belt. "For what it's worth, I'm proud of you, Jag." "You're the only one, I'm certain." Jaina hesitated. "What will you do now?" "I haven't a clue," he admitted, staring into the fire for another moment before turning to face her again with an earnest expression. "You are a very good friend, Jaina." She tried to smile sadly, but her lips scarcely twitched. "So are you, Jag." On the other side of the fire some five meters away, Leia Organa Solo sat in an unremarkable patch of dust staring into the amber flames and feeling very much the same as her daughter. She was numb with shock and anguish, and despite her best efforts, the former Princess of Alderaan could do nothing to stop haunting visions of her home planet being destroyed so many years ago by the Death Star—of seeing the world burst into an molten orange ball ringed by an expanding shockwave that quaked through the universe, of feeling her knees nearly buckle while Darth Vader's cold, mechanical grip chewed unfeelingly into her shoulder, of staring into the white cloud of obliteration that seemed to hang in space forever afterwards... And that feeling of hopelessness that had consumed her while she was trapped in her cell on the superweapon's detention area—more than anything, that was why Leia was reminded of the tragedy. She had not felt this way since she'd believed Anakin had died on Myrkr. For the first time in many years, the way forward seemed so dark she could not see it. Muted conversations had sprung up around the camp a few moments after Jagged Fel had stumbled into their midst: Mirax Horn speaking in hushed tones to Kyp; Jag murmuring something inaudible to Jaina; Tahiri asking Anakin how he was feeling; a few brief words traded between Wedge and Garrison Shan. To Leia's right, Artoo trilled a sorrowful tone again that only his counterpart could understand. "No," answered C-3PO. "I don't know what's going to happen." Leia's shinning eyes traveled passed the sand-scuffed protocol droid to the outer edge of the fire's orange glow where her twin brother was seated with his back to everyone. Her gaze lingered there, searching for some sign from Luke, uncertain even of what exactly she was hoping to see. At his side, Mara whispered something but it was impossible to tell from the slumped line of the Jedi Master's back whether he had responded or not, continuing to look stoically out at the spine of dark violet mountains spiking across the horizon. "Of all the lousy rocks in the galaxy," Han muttered bitterly, "why the hell did we get stuck on this one again?" Leia drew her gaze back to her husband who was seated in the sand beside her. The former smuggler grabbed the bottle of Corellian whiskey by the neck, lifted it up, then set it down in the sand again without drinking. In the space of two hours since they'd set up camp in the desert, she'd seen Han take all of two miserable sips of the Whyren's Reserve he'd insisted on taking from the Falcon's stores, clearly too numb to even drink. She made no attempt to answer her husband's question, knowing Han was as aware of why they were on Tatooine as she was. Not even waiting for a few rudimentary repairs on the badly maimed Falcon, Han had piloted the limping freighter down to the desert planet as soon as Halo had been destroyed and Leia sensed Anakin's escape pod crashing to Tatooine's surface from the cascading wreckage of the Exodus. They'd found their son and Tahiri after a few moments of frantic searching, and after ensuring the pair was more or less okay in a teary-eyed panic and guilt-laden flare of relief, they decided to leave the Falcon in a docking bay at Mos Eisley spaceport where a pair of local mechanics were restoring the YT-1300's missing vector plates, damaged stabilizers that made the freighter's tortured frame sag unnaturally, and supposedly haggling with a shrewd-looking Jawa for a new shield generator—the fact that Han would even allow a couple of strangers to touch the Falcon was the surest sign Leia knew of that the man was in shock and completely distraught. They had remained on Tatooine simply because there was nowhere else to go. Trying not to draw attention from the locals and avoid the potential dangers that might be lurking on the planet, the Solos, Tahiri, and the rest of the Falcon's passengers had set up camp outside of Mos Eisley. After a few hours, the twin suns were drowned behind the corrugated mountain ridge in bands of red, pink, and violet, and the surviving Jedi slowly trickled into the camp as though responding to some wordless call through the Force, a sort of instinctive pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere that they simply knew to gather at, arriving there without explanation. By the time dusk blanket the desert in its icy darkness, all of them had gathered around the meager fire crackling at the camp's center, watching the flames as though they were the last light left in the galaxy, soon to flicker out. Instead of answering her husband, Leia's brown eyes followed her wandering thoughts, sliding across the crown of flames back to the slightly hunched figure in dark robes there, still staring out into the surrounding emptiness. Han seemed to sense her distraction after the silence stretched a breath too long, his own gaze following her to Luke. He looked from Luke to the somber expression on Leia's drawn features then back again. "Hey, are you sure Ben didn't... I mean, he wasn't—" "No," Leia said flatly. "He wasn't on Halo, Han. Ben was taken..." "But if no one can feel him in the Force, how do you know?" "If he had died, it would feel different." She did not take her eyes off Luke's dark form as she spoke. "We'd know... Someone is either shielding his presence, or has taken him somewhere that we can't sense in the Force." Han hesitated, then asked, "Like Apollyon?" A dark shadow passed over Leia's features at the word, the thought somehow having not yet occurred to her. Was Ben now on his way to the same place his father had been imprisoned for a year? Was that what the Dark Lord wanted with him? Nearly five months later, the name of the Raithian homeworld could still conjure nightmares for Leia and all who'd journeyed there to rescue her twin brother—a dead city of dark, crumbling towers; gloom-filled skies and an unremitting haze of weightless snow and floating ash; few living beings brave enough to peer out of their hiding places, prisoners inside their own dwellings; corpses scattered on debris-strewn streets that refused to decay; and the Dark Side imbued in every particle... Never before had Leia Solo felt the dark side so strong as in the nexus that bled from Apollyon, threatening to corrupt anyone who ventured into its baleful pall. Many seemed to have been driven mad by it—others grown so callous that they were as dangerous as Malig's army. How would a boy of six survive in such a horrid place? What hope would Ben Skywalker have of escaping the darkness? A shiver crawled up Leia's spine, making her shudder in the darkness. It was too terrible a thought to consider for long, and with great effort, she thrust the barrage of dreadful imagery from her mind only to find the other thoughts dwelling there were no more comforting. Something halfway between a growl and an agitated mutter came from Han as he looked away and, this time, actually took a swallow of his Corellian whiskey, staring into the fire as the drink scorched his insides and looking miserable. An uneasy silence resumed between them where Leia knew they were both trying hard not to think the worst and were so lost in their own trance-like reflections that neither of them noticed Maichen approaching until the girl stepped around in front of them. Long shadows obscured most of the teenager's pale features, but Leia could still make out the glinting beads of light reflected in her cold, weary eyes, and dirty blond hair matted from two days hiding in the Falcon's cramped smuggling compartments and grueling hours of Raithian detention aboard the Exodus by the amber glow of the flames at the girl's back. "I'm not a Jedi," she declared. Leia's brow knitted in confusion, a look magnified on her husband's face as he turned from Maichen to Leia to see if she understood the girl's outburst any more clearly than he did and might be willing to interpret what sounded very much like Ewokese at the moment. "... Okay," Han replied, his voice drenched in prodding mockery. "Good to know." "I'm not a Jedi," the girl repeated. "You all believe I am, but I'm not." "Maichen..." Concern blossomed within Leia, and she spoke imploringly now. "We don't understand..." "You think I'm a Jedi because that's what they said when you found me—the Raithians—they were going to kill me because they thought I was one of you, but they were wrong—you're all wrong." More perplexed than ever, Leia opened her mouth to try and encourage the young teen to explain what she was clearly struggling to tell them in a more coherent fashion, when Maichen suddenly continued without prompting. She spoke in a low, conspiratorial voice only Leia and Han could hear, her thick Raithian accent warping many words so that Leia had to strain to decipher their meaning. "When the Raithians caught me on Oscurra, I was carrying one of the Jedi's energy swords—but it wasn't mine, and it wasn't my mother's. I tried to claim that foolishly, in hopes that they would let me keep it, but that only made things worse. As you saw, they were going to feed me to that... that thing." Han nodded, but didn't dare interrupt, no doubt feeling that they were finally getting somewhere. Though Leia had not been there, she had heard how the Raithians were going to sacrifice Maichen to a sea creature the Oscurrans called "Demogorg." Han had somehow managed to rescue her, nearly losing his own life in the process. "My mother had been dead for some time," Maichen went on. "My father long before that, conscripted into the Raithian armies and lost in the waning years of the Dekked Wars. By the time the Raithians arrested me, I had been on my own for at least two years, traveling from spaceport to spaceport, looking for work or things to steal... I was on a planet called Omayn when I saw them—" "Them?" Leia prompted. "The Jedi," Maichen whispered. "They were hiding in a walled community of huts on the outskirts of a mining village there—a small cloister of them. For two days I watched them, making certain I had not mistaken the signs the announcements tell us to look for—" "Announcements?" Han asked. "From the Council of Lords, telling all Raithian citizens how to identify Jedi—we are supposed to always be vigilant." A wave of revulsion swept over Leia, draining what little color remained in her pale face and eliciting another shudder of fear. Garrison Shan had already told them that the Jedi in Raithian space were little more than an underground resistance consisting of autonomous cells with no central command due to the constant threat of discovery. They were hunted tirelessly by the Raithians, forever on the run. But as Maichen spoke, the full scope of that hunt began to take shape in Leia's mind, and in the desperate lives of the Jedi outcasts she saw their own future. So lost in this disquieting thought was Leia that she almost didn't notice at first when Maichen resumed her tale. "Once I was sure of the cloister's identity, I returned to the spaceport and the Raithian outpost there, and reported the traitors' whereabouts for the reward credits offered." There was no hesitation in her words, no trace of remorse, and the girl did not even pause to let Leia and Han digest the crushing enormity of what she was telling them, as though the news she delivered was no less casual than a reminder that the Falcon's food stores needed restocking. "After the troops left, I went back to the cluster of huts and rummaged through the bodies—they leave them there, of course, to send a message—to see if I could scavenge anything of value. That's when I found the light weapon buried in the dust beneath a dead woman. "I took it, thinking I could sell it for credits—something like that is certain to be rare—but then..." She faltered for the first time, so subtly that Leia was sure Han did not catch it. "I couldn't. And then I was arrested for stealing on Oscurra and they found the Jedi weapon in my possession, and assumed I was one of you." The girl stopped there with the assuredness of one who'd reached the natural conclusion of her story, staring down at the Solos with her unreadable blue eyes. Somehow, Leia found her voice amid the horror sucking the breath from her lungs. It was hollow and shaking and sounded as though it had to be dragged from one of the distant vaporator wells on the planet's scorched surface. "Why are you telling us this?" To this, Maichen responded only with grim silence. When she was satisfied the Solos no longer anticipated an answer, she asked the first of two questions that made Leia's insides grow even colder. "Are you going to tell the others?" Leia's gaze shifted to the ring of shadowy silhouettes surrounding the fire, their dour faces lit by a dancing orange glow, and tried to imagine how they might receive such news at the moment. "No," she answered, looking back to Maichen. The girl betrayed neither relief nor disappointment. "Are you going to kill me now?" Tears welled in Leia's dark eyes, but she managed to keep her own expression neutral as her mouth formed a forbidding line. "That's not the way we do things." A rapid flutter of the girl's lashes blinked a gleaming bead from one eye, and she nodded. Then, without another word, she moved to step around Leia and return to where she'd been lurking moments earlier. Before she could retreat, however, Leia caught the girl by one boney wrist and forced her into a warm hug. Maichen jumped involuntarily at the contact, the dropped her arms awkwardly around Leia's back as though she'd once read a manual on hugging. Once their embrace broke, the girl stood, straightened her rumpled tunic, and departed into the dark recesses of the fire's scarlet glow. Leia glanced to her right to find Han staring at her, more baffled than ever. "I hope you can explain to me what all that was about," he grumbled. Leia turned her gaze back to the fire. "I think she feels guilty, Han." Even in the darkness, Luke Skywalker knew this place. The winds had long since brushed away their tracks, leaving rippling wave patterns on each dune like swirling fingerprints, but Luke could find his way along any path here, even with only the opaline starlight to guide him. As the Jedi Master stared out at the dark, jagging horizon, he felt as though he knew every grain of sand and rock that mapped the world's parched terrain. He'd traveled this area thoroughly for the first nineteen years of his life in a landspeeder, a T-16 Skyhopper, and on foot with the blazing suns beating down on his shoulders and a great longing tangled within his heart. Directly ahead, beyond the mountains he now faced, lay a warren of knotted alleys cut deeply through the stone. A dark cleft would appear in the ground on the opposite side, dropping into a dust-choked ravine that made up Sluuce canyon. The canyon rim ended in a great flat expanse of cragged dust upon which one could just make out the town of Anchorhead, where Luke had whiled away so many hours with Biggs and his friends at Tosche Station. And leaving Anchorhead, one would find the flat, featureless desert that seemed to extend forever in every direction until a domed silhouette emerged through the windborne sand—Lars' homestead. Luke's home. The place where he had first known real tragedy. To Luke's left stood a maze of stone pinnacles and the cliff overlooking Mos Eisley. At his back, more desert and a myriad of meaningless landmarks: The Great Mesra Plateau, the Beeda Basin, Arch Canyon, the Needle Mountains, Xelric Draw, Beggar's Canyon, the Ghost Oasis... But at Luke's right—to the West—was the Great Dune Sea, rolling out into the darkness, a seemingly interminable succession of sand hills that more men had lost themselves in than Luke cared to think about. Resting upon a relatively flat peak on a craggy sliver of mountain chained by arching sandrock bridges that defined the edge of the Dune Sea and the Jundland Wastes was a modest synstone dwelling that had once belonged to Obi-Wan Kenobi. This was where it had all started. This was where Luke had begun his journey to reestablish the Jedi Order. How horribly fitting, he decided, that it should end here on Tatooine as well. The chill in the night air grew sharper, and the trickling hiss of a deathly gale casting sand on the rocks masked the heavy silence usually only unburdened by the crackle of flames and occasional pop of embers. Returning to this barren place, and all its familiarity, Luke Skywalker found he was more lost than ever. He could do nothing but stare out into the dust and darkness, out into the crisp cold that spread gooseflesh across his arms and made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, out into a place that suddenly seemed as empty as he felt inside. Whatever understanding might have resided in the Force remained a mystery to him; Luke couldn't have summoned the concentration necessary to meditate even if he wanted to. And he didn't want to—he couldn't even really think about trying to unravel the tragic events of the day and what it truly meant. The wind had been completely knocked out of him by a great blow and he was still reeling from it, still struggling just to recapture his footing. So Luke just stared. His mind, however, was far from numb with shock. A maelstrom of disquieting thoughts whirled within it, tormenting him in its unrelenting vortex and dragging him down spiraling undertows of grief, where he was pummeled by dark eddies of memories, guilt-laden speculation, and bitter currents of self-reproach. While he looked out at the night-cloaked desert, he thought of many things. He thought of Cilghal and Tionne and Streen. He thought of how he'd met each of them, how they'd raised their lightsabers above their heads on the banks of a softly purling stream that snaked through Yavin IV's verdant forest on the day he declared them Jedi Knights. The maelstrom assailed him with a gut-wrenching blur of images and sensations: of Cilghal bent over an injured youngling in the infirmary, healing a training lightsaber sting, of the look of care and concentration in her large fish-like eyes; of Streen's wind-beaten face the day they'd first met on Bespin; of Tionne strumming her golden double viol and lifting her melodious voice throughout the vaulted halls of the praxeum in a ballad of Jedi lore. Cilghal had been perhaps the wisest member of the Order, Tionne undoubtedly its most dedicated. And Streen had possessed a great, stoic inner strength that Luke often marveled at. They had been there from the beginning, rebuilding the Jedi Order with him. His oldest students, his dear friends, gone. He thought of Tresina Lobi and Saba Sebatyne. He thought of Winter Celchu and her husband Tycho. He thought of the Solos Noghri bodyguards Meewalh and Cakhmaim and how their years of loyal service had ended. He thought of Keyan Farlander, of Sannah, of Izal Waz and Wonetun, of Klin-Fa Gi and Uldir Lochett, of Tam Azur-Jamin and Markre Medjev, of Kell and Tyria Tainer and a hundred others: workers and personnel whom kept the Jedi Temple and then Halo operating, many of whom were family and friends of the Order; of students—of children—of people Luke Skywalker had known and loved and whom he knew there would always remain a hole in his broken heart for the space they'd once occupied there. All of them were dead. He thought of how Tionne would have been protecting those children that she'd loved so much in their final moments, the same children her husband had also sacrificed himself for a year ago, and that thought was so profoundly sad that Luke felt his eyes sting with tears and a lump form in his throat so large and painful he knew without a doubt he'd choke if he tried to swallow it. What had been the Jedi Order was dust now, scattered across the desert in fragmented ruins. More than anything, Luke wanted to reach out to them all and tell them how sorry he was. But he knew what he would find if he tried—the Force rarely sent the spirits of the dead back to speak to the living, and almost never for their own comfort. Even Ben Kenobi only returned to guide Luke to bring the Force back into balance—a task he had now undoubtedly failed. All that remained of those who'd perished for Luke to feel would be the ghost echo of their deaths still ringing hauntingly in the Force and the great emptiness where their luminous presences had once blazed. There were only twelve of them now. Twelve fully trained Jedi Knights and Masters in all the galaxy. Just twelve. Luke himself, Mara, Leia, Jaina, Anakin, Kyp Durron, Octa Ramis, Tahiri Veila, Tenel Ka; whom Luke could feel approaching through the icy darkness near Mos Eisley; Garrison Shan, Wrev Caster, and Valin Horn. That was it. All that remained. An Order that had numbered in the hundreds when Luke woke had been demolished to twelve by nightfall. A few apprentices like Baliss Phlora, Jysella Horn, and a handful of students whom had been left on Chiss worlds in the course of their journeys like young Doran and Jesmine Tainer had survived as well, but all were years away from Knighthood. The news that Kyle Katarn and his team had also perished had been one more tragedy in an already nightmarish string. No trace of him or Kirana Ti remained when Luke reached out in search of their familiar presences and he was forced to concede Jaina's discovery was correct. They were all alone now. There were only twelve. The last Jedi. Luke could feel Mara's eyes on him along with the flickering glances of the others gathered around the fire, yet he did not stir from his spot gazing out into the rock-crusted horizon, was in a sense, so lost in thought to be scarcely aware of them. Why had it all happened? He had no answers for them, no hope to lend, nothing to offer save a few trite words and age-exhausted platitudes that sounded hollow even in his own head. When Halo erupted in its blinding white flash, Luke Skywalker had felt something inside himself break and he didn't imagine it would ever be mended. In a single day, Luke felt—he knew—that he had lost everything. "Luke?" Mara said finally, no longer capable of waiting for him to break the morose silence. "It's all gone, Mara." He did not turn his gaze from the crown of mountain spires silhouetted in the distance. "All of it... everything I've ever tried to do... It's all gone." To her credit, she did not attempt to convince him otherwise, instead growing quiet in the elusive warmth of the fire. After another meaningful pause, she looked up at him again, flames dancing in her dark eyes. "We have to find him, Luke." He nodded. "I know." Ben. Malig had taken him. Somewhere out among the glimmering stars in the sky, the Dark Lord of the Sith had their son. He could feel that even if Ben's presence in the Force was hidden from them. And that was perhaps the worst part of it all—that this wasn't over yet. The worst of their suffering was glaring back at them on the horizon with promises that would utterly destroy them. Shifting her weight upon the lump of fleckrock on which she was perched, Mara let her own gaze drift across the abyss with her husband's, tangling in silent understanding and contemplation . Minutes stretched ponderously into an oblivion of sorrow and regret and night without end. Finally, Luke arrived at a decision he'd been circling for some time and interrupted the grave silence again while his gray eyes remained focused in the shadowy distance. "I think it's time I said something." A flash of surprise shone in Mara's weary eyes at the sudden announcement, but she simply arched one brow in response, either in an attempt to coax elaboration from him or because she was content to wait and see matters play out. Whichever it was, she received no immediate answer. Luke rose. At the sight of him stirring, the sparse, anxious murmurs that had haunted the edges of the encampment for the last hour were extinguished so that only the rustle of flames disrupted the night-chilled silence. Luke turned to face the ring of solemn beings encircling the crackling fire. For a moment, the words he had intended to say seemed to vanish on his breath like vapor, and he merely looked upon those last figures huddled around the amber flames, his gaze traveling over each battle-weary face, and was reminded of things both great and terrible: of his feelings for each of them, of the crushing burden that was about to be placed on the shoulders of each, and of the tragic bond that now linked them all. To mask the hesitation of missed heartbeats and the aching lump in his throat, Luke folded his hands in front of him and did his best to adopt the tranquil posture of a Jedi Master. He wanted to tell them how sorry he was about all the horrible things that had happened. He wanted to apologize to each of them for leading them down this black hole—which, of all the things he was unsure of, he was certain of his responsibility for this—or to say a few words in remembrance of all those who'd been lost that day, but the words sounded so hollow, so painfully inadequate and trite that they would be little more than a mockery of his true feelings and of those belonging to the beings congregated at the fire. So Luke resolved instead to say the only things that needed to be said. "Mara and I are going after Ben," he said evenly. "At first light, we're returning to Mos Eisley for the Shadow, then we're leaving this place to find him. If the rest of you wish to find somewhere safe, there will be no hard feelings." Kyp Durron's expression turned puzzled—a look mirrored by many of the faces in the murky light. "What are you saying, Master Skywalker?" His voice sounded dry and raspy, as though the mere act of speaking turned his throat into a fiery chasm of inflammation. "I'm saying I'm not asking anyone to join us. This is something Mara and I have to do. We have to get our son back, and we have to stop Malig. But no one here owes me or the Order anything anymore. If you choose to leave and hide from Malig and the Sith army, you go with my blessing. All of you are skilled enough to conceal your presences in the Force. You may be able to live out your lives in peace somewhere far away from the war, at least for a while. It may take decades for the Raithians' reach to extend into the parts of the Outer Rim or in Unknown Regions controlled by the Chiss. Even then, you may be able to avoid them if you keep your heads down—you'll be able to survive." "And just let the galaxy around us burn?" Jaina questioned, her voice cold with barely contained indignation. Luke stared stoically at her for an eye blink before answering. "It's your choice," he said. His niece was unconvinced. "That's not really a choice at all, is it, Uncle Luke?" "There's always a choice." "Skywalker—your son is dead, or soon will be," Garrison Shan's voice crawled out of the shadows at the edge of the light field, sounding as hard and cynical as it had when Luke had first known him as "Malachor" in the detention cell they'd shared together on Apollyon. "The Raithians don't keep their prisoners alive for long." Ilandra Grim looked up in alarm. "They kill their prisoners? Are you certain? My sisters..." Luke kept his own voice measured and calm, addressing Garrison instead of the troubled Nightsister. "They kept the two of us alive, as I recall." "Just long enough to use us," the other man argued. "No longer. Don't throw your lives away." "I'm sorry—I won't abandon my son to the Sith. And even if what you say is true, Malig must be stopped." A few meters away, Han shifted beside his wife as though unsure whether to speak—a deliberation that lasted only about as long as the Falcon took to leap into hyperspace on its good days. "Is that even possible, kid? I mean, I saw what happened when you stabbed him with that lightsaber. I'm not sure he can die." "Anyone can die, Han. I should think that is more evident than ever tonight," Luke said solemnly. He wondered what might have happened if he had finished Malig off in that moment on Apollyon rather than watching as the Dark Lord healed himself with a tangled wave of dark Force energy. Would he have been able to kill Malig? Would the tragedy of Halo's destruction been avoided? Should he have done it? The Jedi Master was uncertain. He had shown the Sith Lord mercy. Perhaps if he had murdered Malig, he himself would have been lost to the dark well that swirled from Apollyon's depths. Hadn't that been what Malig was trying to provoke? "And how, exactly, do you plan to do this alone?" asked Mirax Horn, her face drawn and pale from the events of the day, which nearly saw her, her daughter Jysella, and her father Booster added to the list of dead with the near destruction of the Errant Venture. "I don't know yet," Luke admitted. "Then think about it for a minute." From the way Garrison squirmed atop the hollowed out thruster he was sitting on it might have still been on fire with heat friction. "If you couldn't stop Malig with a hundred Jedi, what are a dozen Jedi and a couple apprentices going to do?" "I'm not asking anyone to come with us. But this is something Mara and I have to do." "Don't be a fool—" "Hey, take it easy, sleemo," Tahiri interrupted. There was little bite in her voice. "I don't know..." Kyp kept his sunken eyes fixed on Luke even as he appeared to address Tahiri. "It seems like Master Skywalker may be suggesting the same thing as our Raithian friend." Luke did not respond, unsure of what exactly he wanted the outcome of this discussion to be. "We have to think about surviving now," Malachor pressed more calmly. "Go into hiding, rebuild our numbers in secret. In a few generations we may again have enough strength to challenge the Sith." "A few generations?" Leia asked, her regal voice honed by scornful inflections. "And what becomes of the galaxy—to thousands of worlds and trillions of beings—in that time?" "You people aren't seeing the complete holo here. This isn't a short game—it's a long one. We have to think about the future, have to find some place safe to bide our time. It's what we've been doing in Raithian Space for thousands of years." "And where has that gotten you?" Jaina asked. The question drew an icy look from Garrison, but it also shut him up. Luke was beginning to see, though, why Malachor reacted to the setback as he had and why he was so eager to go into hiding—as a Raithian, it was all he had ever known. The scattered Order of Jedi Knights there had no real organization and had never really challenged the Sith openly. They had been hiding from them for thousands of years, just trying to stay alive. To Garrison Shan, this was the natural order of things. "Even if we do go into hiding, what's to stop Malig from finding us?" asked Octa Ramis from the darkness of her cloak's raised hood. "He found us here, even with the ysalamiri bubble to shield our presences." "Yes, if any of you know how the Raithians pulled off that particular trick, I would certainly be interested to hear it," Jag announced. "I know Jedi Veila and Caster made decoy jumps before arriving at the Raithian fleet's hiding place, as did my fleet, so I don't see how they could have tracked our emersion vector back to Tatooine. And Jaina and Anakin surrendered in a stealth ship, utterly untraceable if they wiped the nav computer logs upon arrival, which I'm certain they were smart enough to do." "We haven't been able to determine how the Raithians discovered us yet," Luke said. "It was Fyor Rodan, kid." Han said, his face falling in a look of pure hatred. "I'm sorry, but his meeting with us was a setup. That filthy Hutt-hugger turned us over to the Raithians first chance he got." Kyp looked over his shoulder. "You went to see Rodan?" "Long story." Luke felt his insides grow cold at the news, but shook his head with some effort. "No. I don't see how Rodan could have known Halo's location. Klorne doesn't even know where we're hiding—she contacts us by a network of relay points in the HoloNet. And even if she did know, she wouldn't tell Rodan." "Before it happened, Cilghal commed us," Mara said, speaking for the first time. "She seemed to believe there was a saboteur on board Halo who had damaged the station's communications." "A traitor?" Leia asked. "And before that, the ysalamiri were released," reminded Jysella Horn. "Damn!" Han blurted, punching a fist into the sand. He looked up at Luke. "It was the Squibs. I never should have let those packrats leave knowing where we were hiding—" "It wasn't the Squibs." The rich voice surfaced from the darkness beyond their camp, and even R2-D2's domed head swiveled around to glimpse the intruder with a warble of surprise as she emerged from the shadows. Moonlight bathed the crimson and gold scales of her battledress in silver glimmers and the long braids her copper tresses had been knotted into fluttered upon a whispering night wind, but it was Tenel Ka's eyes Luke noticed first as she glided into the fire's orange glow—the only evidence of her otherwise neutral expression that she had been crying. Leia and Han both hopped up and embraced their daughter-in-law, their relief at her presence scrawled across their anxious faces. From behind the Queen Mother, trailed Lando Calrissian wearing an elegant shimmersilk cape and a mournful expression that looked totally alien where a gambler's smile usually lurked, and Iella Antilles, who had accompanied Lando on his recent trip. Wedge got up from the debris he was sitting on and closed the distance between him and his wife, enfolding her in his arms once he'd reached her. "I'm sorry," Lando said, hugging Han, then Leia. "We just heard..." "Where's Jonah?" Leia asked. "With Tendra and Rion and the Antilles girls on the Lady Luck. I've got a whole cadre of war droids guarding our docking bay—they're safe." Tenel Ka, though, had ignored the question and strode toward the center of the camp, her gray eyes peering through the fire lit darkness toward Luke. "It was Hala Rozess." "What?" Kyp asked. "She came to my dormitory shortly before the attack and told me there was an urgent message awaiting me on my battle dragon—only, there was no such message. Hala wanted me off the space station, which means she knew what was going to happen there." This time Luke didn't just feel cold—he felt as though he needed to sit down, and it took all his considerable will to remain standing. "That was no turbolaser or missile strike that destroyed Halo," Han added gravely. "That was done from the inside." Mara spoke so softly the words were almost to herself. "Hala did it." A great wave of guilt crashed over Luke for not having seen the Zeltron for what she really was—a Sith spy. Like Garrison Shan, Hala had been one of four Jedi Luke and Han had rescued from Apollyon who'd actually survived the escape. She had fought by their side on the way to freedom—Luke had actually seen her kill Raithians. The true depths of Hala's treachery hit Luke like a thundering speeder bus. She had set the ysalamiri loose through the space station after the Order had resolved to remove them following Faybol's death, knowing that the Force-neutral bubble they projected was the only thing protecting her from their Jedi senses. She'd sabotaged Halo's communications before the ambush to make coordination and evacuation more difficult. Then she'd kidnapped Ben and somehow triggered Halo's destruction from the inside... And Luke had let her. Luke had invited her in with open arms. Silence blanketed the camp again like the forbidding calm that crept into the air on the dawn of a great storm, when the dark clouds of the coming tempest were just beginning to gather and loom on the horizon, and the cold dread of it chilled Luke's bones down to the very marrow. The aching stillness that had settled into the survivors was finally broken on the far end of the camp. "If Rozess was a spy," Octa Ramis's husky voice queried, "why would she want to remove you from Halo before the detonation?" Shame burned in Tenel Ka's cheeks, but she managed to keep her chin held high and her eyes from falling to the sand more than once. "Because of Jacen, I believe." "Jacen wouldn't have been a part of this," Jysella Horn said, her words breaking weakly midsentence. "Would he?" "That little bastard was on the Exodus," Wrev said in a cold voice from the dancing shadow's near the camp's edge. "He had to know." Jaina looked as though she wanted to argue, while Leia and Han simply turned pale at the Jedi's bitter words. It was Anakin who finally responded, his tone thoughtful and measured rather than defensive. "We don't really know that," he said. "Malig was on the Exodus too. It's possible he was the one calling the shots and Jacen knew nothing about attacking Halo." "Give me a break," Wrev grumbled. "Malig was there?" Luke asked his nephew, ignoring the other man. "You saw him?" "Jaina and I did," confirmed Anakin with a slight nod. "He spoke to me for some time while I was being held." Luke's interest piqued at the news. "What did he want from you?" Anakin's eyes seemed to grow unfocused and he let his gaze drift back to the flames flickering a meter from him. "Mostly, I think he just wanted me to join him... And one other thing, but I'm not ready to talk about that yet." Kyp, Malachor, and a few others shot Anakin looks of incredulity that the younger Jedi didn't notice or didn't bother to acknowledge, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. "Very well," Luke allowed, respecting that Anakin would share the secret when the time came, if it was something crucial. "But I remember he had no interest in Halo's location," the young man continued, turning back to his uncle. "Malig already knew it by the time we were captured." Giving his nephew a nod of understanding, Luke grew silent again as the entire picture began to coalesce in his mind—all the evidence pointed to Hala. "How it happened is irrelevant right now," Leia said, seeming to want to avoid the subject of the attack and any involvement Jacen might have had all together. "What matters is what we're going to do." "She's right." Either because of the fatigued rasp of his voice or because of the wisdom in his words, Luke was reminded more of Cilghal than Kyp Durron when the normally impulsive Jedi Master spoke in support of Leia. "We could go around and around trying to assign blame for what happened, but we'll always end at the same place—Malig. The question remains, what do we plan to do about that—go into hiding and rebuild, disband completely and accept our loss in favor of survival, or try to stop him?" "It's not a question at all," Malachor spat. "You cannot hope to defeat him with only twelve Jedi." "I daresay Master Skywalker actually agrees with you." Kyp cast a knowing glance in Luke's direction again, but the Jedi leader let no hint of his true feelings betray him. Kyp had sensed it anyway—he knew Luke too well. By presenting them with the choice, Luke had revealed that there was at least a part of him that hoped the survivors would abandon their efforts against the Sith and go into hiding—that they would save themselves from what seemed certain death. "Is that true, Master?" Valin Horn asked, looking up at Luke from where he was crouched in the sand. Luke said nothing. "He knows, but he can't bring himself to say it," Malachor concluded evenly, rising from the carbon-scored engine cowling that had been his throne. "We all know what has to be done. Our only chance—the only chance for the Order's survival—is for us to go into hiding. There is no other way." Tahiri frowned, her jade eyes glimmering sadly as she stared into the fire. "And how many people will suffer and die while we are hiding?" "Those people are going to die no matter what we do. All that would happen if we go after Malig is that there would be twelve more bodies added to the pyre. We change nothing by getting ourselves killed—we may even make things worse." "And what about everyone who died today?" Jaina asked, her dark gaze revealing more sorrow than hostility as she wheeled it upon Malachor. "We just shrug our shoulders and forget why they died? Pretend it didn't matter?" "Do you really think throwing your own life away after theirs will give their deaths meaning?" Garrison implored. "If you want to anchor meaning to it, learn from it and don't let yourself follow their lead. Otherwise, they did die for nothing." The words seemed to strike the camp silent once more, and Luke felt an objection begin to rise up inside him like heat from a caldera that he was still too numb to really verbalize. Sensing that he finally—truly—had the other Jedi's attention, Garrison Shan continued his blunt assessment of the Jedi Order. "Please don't let your grief or your pride cloud your judgment now," the man implored, his voice growing strained by his plea. "There is no honor in foolishness and no real future in martyrdom. The Jedi Order you knew is gone.. It's over." Everything inside of Luke suddenly seemed to rebel upon hearing his own darkest fears spoken aloud, provoking a great upheaval that rose from his insides so powerful and visceral and stirring that it sent a tingling wave up every nerve and brought tears of righteousness to his eyes. The tide seemed to emanate just below his sternum from a deep pit rooted somewhere in his core, thrumming in his chest with an urgent need to erupt. It was as though presenting his doubts to the dancing light of the fire had exposed them for what they truly were: mere shadows, skeletons—untruths—and nothing more. Their only sanctuary was darkness and only real power dwelt in fear of them. In that moment, Luke could sense the wrongness in them all, feel it with absolute certainty, and it screamed within him to resist. "No," he blurted, drawing the startled gazes of everyone encircling the hearth. "It's not over." The words echoed out across the vast empty desert canyons and sheer-faced mountain cliffs, as though the Jedi Master had brought the entire world to a sudden, thunderstruck halt. He paused just to try and cool the fire blazing in his lungs as he looked upon his audience, the outburst still ringing in their ears and raising bumps across bare snatches of flesh that had nothing to do with the night chill. Torrents of aversion still pulsing in his chest, he spoke again. "The Jedi are not gone." After a meaningful stare, Luke let his own gaze slide from Garrison's to each flame-lit face wreathed about him, looking into them as deeply as he ever had. They stared back just as earnestly, their stricken faces and unblinking eyes piercing the gloom in stunned, intensely vulnerable looks mottled by silvery flashes of trembling tears in their unbroken gazes. "A little over thirty years ago, I was on this very planet in a dwelling not far from here, where Ben Kenobi told me that I needed to come with him and train to be a Jedi Knight. He died a few days later, and not long after that, so did Master Yoda, leaving me with the burden of being the last of the Jedi. "When they vanished they passed something on to me I didn't really understand, wasn't even fully aware of until the full weight of it came down on me. I felt as though I had this flame to preserve—the last light in the galaxy—and it had become my burden to carry it through the darkness as its keeper. It seemed very dim then, like the cold or the softest gust of wind would extinguish it. It was such a fragile thing. And the task of keeping it burning when the Force had fallen so far out of balance seemed impossible. How do you keep something like that alive when there is so much darkness? The Emperor and Darth Vader had tried everything to put it out. They purged the galaxy of all the Jedi to do it, and hunted me when they became aware of my existence. They knew that all they had to do was destroy me or persuade me to turn and extinguish the flame myself to get what they wanted. "But I managed to keep the light burning. The Empire fell apart instead, and the darkness ebbed. The light grew stronger. I began to train others in the ways of the Force so that they too could carry the light with me. "Most of those students died today. Master Shan sees that as proof all my efforts were wasted, that in the end, keeping that flame going a few years longer hadn't mattered at all, and I'd be lying if I said I haven't been sitting here for hours thinking the same thing—but we're both wrong. A life doesn't become meaningless when it ends, and neither do our deeds if their promise goes unfulfilled." Emotion drenched the Jedi Master's usually placid voice, a ragged desperation that clawed through the darkness at the beings surrounding the fire like entreating hands meant to seize them by the shoulders and shake them from some nightmarish trance. "Cilghal, Tionne, Master Lobi—everyone we lost today—all of them mattered. Every single day of their lives and what they did with them meant something. They gave their lives to serving the Force and protecting others from harm. Bought years, decades, lifetimes of peace for others. They stood with us, trying to protect the light when they could have hidden. I won't say it doesn't matter what happens as long as we stand, because I am more convinced than ever that how this fight ends means more than almost anything, but it doesn't change what our friends did—what they were. Nothing Malig has done can change that... And nothing we do can diminish that either." The lump in Luke's throat had vanished and his voice emerged stronger now, charged with a kind of electric current one could almost taste on the wind. "They are dead, but not gone. They and their actions are a part of the Force forever, have become as much a part of the energy as they were in life, transformed into it in death, as all living things do—as I will one day, and so will all of you. Perhaps my death will be an act of foolishness when it comes, but it won't be one simply because I died. That is as unavoidable as anything in this universe. I can no more control that than I can reverse the direction of time and bring our friends back to the land of the living. What I can control, is my life and what I do with it while I possess it. And I choose to serve the Force, to live and fight and even die for that light Ben Kenobi and Yoda entrusted to me, to try and keep it burning in the darkness. And I don't see anything foolish about that." He paused for a moment once more, his penetrating gaze falling upon the Jedi that surrounded him. In that instant, their spirits became utterly naked to him. He saw them as they truly were in the Force, the hopes and fears, and the luminous truth of them all. "I'm not asking you to come with me, but I don't want any of you leaving here thinking that all of this hasn't mattered. The light I've been carrying all these years did not go out on Halo—it's still alive, still inside each one of you," Luke said, his tear-beaded eyes traveling over the eleven other Jedi as he spoke. "And right now that light is burning so brightly inside you all that it's dazzling, and no matter how dark this galaxy grows, I don't see how it could ever be extinguished." Flames crackled softly in the stunned silence that followed the Jedi Master's burdensome words, and a listless swarm of glowing embers floated in the smoke-hazed darkness between Luke and the remains of his Order. No one spoke. No one even moved. Kyp's eyes blazed up at Luke; Tenel Ka lifted her chin high; tears streaked Leia's round cheeks in glistening runnels though her dark eyes did not appear to weep; Jaina's gaze had grown fathomless in the fire's amber glow and bleared by a film of tears; even Wrev's eyes seemed to glint in the darkness where he leaned against a stone slab. It was Anakin who stood first, rising from the sand amid the aching stillness and drawing the stares of those around him while keeping his own fixed upon Luke. Determination shone in his gaze like ice in the night, a reflected gleam that did not waver or pale through the darkness or the well of tears in his blue eyes. "I'm coming with you," he said simply, but his words were filled with conviction—not the reckless daring of his youth nor the blind devotion he'd once revered his uncle with—but true understanding and absolute certainty, the words of a young man who fully realized his own destiny. Jaina rose next, followed closely by Leia. "We're with you, Uncle Luke," Jaina said, as though there had never been any question of this—perhaps for Jaina, there hadn't been. Tahiri followed Anakin up wordlessly, and Han pushed himself to his feet beside his wife, taking Leia's hand. "Yeah, you know where we stand, kid." Still standing nearby, Tenel Ka inclined her head elegantly. "As you know that I will be by your side as well." A grunt of exertion sounded down front as Kyp attempted to stand and his legs nearly buckled beneath his frail weight. Jysella moved to help her new Master only to be waved off by Kyp, who insisted on hoisting his weakened body up under his own power on strength of will alone. "Malig has to be stopped," he said, his aura burning with defiance as he stood up straight and faced Luke. At his back, he felt Mara stand. Then Valin and Jysella. Then Baliss Phlora moved into the circle of Jedi. "It is time to go to them and fight," Octa Ramis said. "No more running. No More hiding." Wrev, who was already standing, met Luke's gaze grimly and gave a slight but deliberate nod of his head, making it clear that he was coming with them to fight the evil which had bled so much from them all. Then Luke understood: they wouldn't be turning back. The twelve remaining Jedi would pick themselves up out of the dust where the Sith had left them and walk back into hell together. They would carry the light alone into the darkest part of the galaxy and destroy Malig with it. Seeing the succession of Jedi pledging their lives to this last, impossible fight, Malachor wheeled around in frustration, nearly pulling out shocks of his shaggy blonde hair when he stuck his fists into it. He looked as though he might throw himself back down upon the thruster he had been seated on earlier, but instead continued to pace angrily about the camp in a patch of trampled sand no more than two meters in diameter. "You're all crazy," he seethed, as much to himself as the circle of Jedi he shot daggers at with his gaze one by one, condemning them with his eyes. "Soon, you'll all be dead, and then there really will be no hope." "You may be right," Luke allowed serenely. "But you know as well as anyone what will become of our galaxy if we let Malig and the Sith control it. If we do nothing now, there may be nothing left to save." "And throwing our lives away will change that?" "It might. Will you join us?" The young man shook his head, his lips peeled back in a snarl and his jaws clenching so hard that it looked as though his teeth might shatter. "This is so stupid..." he muttered, turning to pace away from Luke, then spinning back again. "All right. I still think this is crazy and we're all going to die, but if you're going to insist on this, I guess I'm coming with you." For the first time in what felt like a century, Luke almost smiled. He bowed his head in Garrison's direction, feeling his being washed in sudden, inexplicable warmth, like a ray of golden sunlight falling through his bedroom window to wake him with the promise of a new day. Whatever their fate was to be, the Jedi would be meeting it together. Malig's treachery had not managed to break them. Luke knew now that it never would. The Sith could kill them, but they could never destroy them—not really. A wan smile tugged weakly at the corners of his mouth, and Luke saw several of the others smiling back at him through their tears, and knew that they felt it too. "So what do we do now?" Lando asked after a moment, looking apprehensively around the gathering. "I don't know that yet," Luke said. "But we'll—" The words trailed off brusquely on the Jedi Master's breath, lost beneath an unexpected flicker in the Force that grew to a soft, stuttering glow. "Luke?" Mara stepped nearer him. "What is it?" Confusion creasing his brow, Luke looked to the sky in time to see a dark, swift shape darting across the stars on thin streams of blue ion efflux. Almost instantly the glimmering presence flared into something brilliant for a moment in response to Luke's searching touch in the Force, reaching back like an urgent death-grip to snatch at his own aura. The others followed Luke's gaze to the dark canopy of stars immediately, catching sight of the wispy vapor trail slashing through Tatooine's atmosphere as the speck continued to grow larger. Han's eyes narrowed. "What the..." "It's coming toward us!" Valin said. "The Raithians have come back for us!" Threepio shouted, waving his stiff limbs in the air. "We're doomed!" Materializing through the crisscrossing gloom of debris tracery still hanging lazily in the night sky like unfurled banners of smoke, the dark silhouette began to take shape, revealing the body of a light courier vessel with a long, hook-shaped nose that projected from the slender cockpit module and a pair of sleek ion thrusters attached to the sides of the fuselage by a single cross piece anchored to the top of the airframe like a short set of wings. Repulsors droned in the night as the intruder slowed to a hover almost directly above the survivors' camp, awaking a cascade of billowing sand and bending the fire into a wild flapping that whipped like a shredded flag and scattered flurries of glowing ash out across the sapphire dunes. Shielding their eyes against the warm rush of wind and blown motes, many of the others unconsciously backed away from their camp. Luke stood his ground. The vessel pivoted in the air and landed in a cloud of swirling dust ten meters away. Then it just sat there on sagging struts, its metal exterior softly knocking and pinging and hissing vented streams of exhaust. Blast marks pocked the battered hull around the frost-webbed canopy and blistered its familiar black and crimson paint. Swaths of fire damage had consumed the vessel's belly, chewing through the mount of one wing up its dorsal side like a spreading disease. Wherever the ship had been, it was clear it had just barely escaped. No one dared even breathe as they watched it, waiting for something to happen. Finally, a rectangle of pale light appeared in the starship's hull, expanding as its landing ramp lowered to the sand below. Luke started forward, approaching the vessel with Mara trudging through the sand at his side. A slightly hunched figure appeared in the pearlescent light of the open hatchway before they arrived. It staggered down the Raven Claw's ramp, peering through the moonlit gloom at them and cradling one deadened arm. Then Kyle Katarn reached the bottom and promptly pitched forward, collapsing face-first into the sand.