Title: "Black Knight" Author(s): vader_incarnate Timeframe: during Dark Empire, follows "Black Pawn" Characters: Luke Skywalker, Mara Jade, Reborn Emperor Genre: Drama. Angst. Romance. Inappropriately timed banter. Summary: But even though his face was right, his eyes were wrong. They weren't the pure blue of summer skies, but xanthous gold and rimmed in fiery red. Sith eyes. Luke Skywalker had Sith eyes. (Sequel to "Black Pawn." Read that one first.) Notes: Two things I really enjoy about the new canon: the concept of bleeding a kyber crystal, and that Force ghosts aren't limited in coming back to within a few years of their deaths. (And a third minor thing: Palpatine's carefully almond shaped manicure.) Everything else I could take or leave, mostly the latter. Many thanks to ViariSkywalker for her beta! She didn't bother to put away her blaster this time and went in blazing, sprinting forward with a heavy blaster pistol in each hand. The pistols had been specially modified to override safety controls and put out maximum power with each shot, consuming nearly a fifth of the blaster pack with each discharge - so she'd only have five, or if she was very lucky six, shots per blaster, but Mara figured that she'd have her best chance if she went in heavy. She aimed for his body, left first then right, allowing each hand to whip backwards with the recoil before taking a moment to aim the next toward center mass, and again and again. Just one hit would pack enough firepower to bring down a small rancor. Even so she was about eighty percent certain that it wouldn't do any good, and sure enough he sensed her coming in and whirled in time to calmly bat the blaster bolts aside - blaster bolts with enough power behind them to blow through a half a meter of durasteel. They careened to the sides: shattering wood and stone and porcelain and glass, shredding linens and upholstery, blasting the fine artwork and pottery and furniture into shards and debris. A fine cloud of the smaller particles was already starting to coalesce, darkening the already dark room as the haze blocked out the ambient light from the massive window. Ten shots, and the left was empty and she threw the useless blaster at him, swearing, just to have it casually caught and thrown to the side. But the right miraculously had one more charge left, and she took one extra second to bring both hands to the grip and aim this one last extra shot straight between his eyes - And his face was right. Everyone knew Luke's face - earnest eyes, easy smile, dimpled cleft on the chin. Everyone knew Luke's face, and she knew it better than most: the different degrees of his smiles and the set of his jaw when he had decided on a particularly stupid course of action and the way sometimes his eyes crinkled into a smile even though his mouth didn't because he was trying to suppress a laugh. But even though his face was right, his eyes were wrong. They weren't the pure blue of summer skies, but xanthous gold and rimmed in fiery red. Sith eyes. Luke Skywalker had Sith eyes. The shock hit her like a concussive blast, but Mara had been trained since childhood by the best marksmen in the galaxy, and her shot flew true - until he ignited a crimson lightsaber and deflected it, sending it instead flying into an ambient bookshelf where heavy leather bound tomes exploded into a shower of confetti. Mara snarled a curse, reaching for a new blaster pack, and he laughed. It was Luke's laugh, even though it shouldn't have been. Luke's laugh - but it had an extra edge to it, an alien edge of malice that didn't belong - but maybe that was in her head? She didn't know if she should trust her heart or her senses; if she could trust her heart or her senses. And she didn't have time to second guess. "I think that's enough," he scoffed, and with a wave of his hand, the blaster and pack flew away from her hands - along with the holdouts and spares she had at her back and in her boots, and every vibroblade, knife, and dagger she had stored in sheaths and cases all over her flightsuit. He even found the hypodermic needle she'd hidden in her braid, the fine garrote with which she'd bound it. There were admittedly a lot, and the small armory hovered between them in a slowly rotating sphere for a few seconds before he raised his hand to send it shooting up out of her reach towards the high ceiling - and clenched his fist to smash it together, the durasteel fusing and warping and melting in the heat of the contained explosion from the blaster pack detonations. Mara was already going for her lightsaber, but he dropped the twisted lump of metal unceremoniously, turning his hand towards her, and an obedient current of the Force sent the unignited hilt shooting across the distance to slap into his palm with an echo of finality. Five steps later and she leapt up, fist cocked and pulled back and about to crack through his cheekbone - before he wrenched it away with a quick circular right block and sent her flying back into a column with a surge of scarlet lightning. Mara had been on the receiving end of Sith lightning before. It had been the Emperor's preferred method of enforcing discipline and of showing displeasure, and she knew the differences in severity: Luke's attack had been meant more to warn than to harm, more a jolt than a blast. But though she had known what the sudden imbalance in the Force had meant, the only thing it could have meant - that Luke had fully turned and fully embraced the Darkness - it was still a wildly unpleasant shock. It was lightning, but it felt like drowning. Like being punched in the solar plexus and then engulfed in an icy wave with all the air knocked out of her lungs, and she struggled to surface, to draw breath. She kicked up to the surface instinctively, almost surprised to realize that no, there wasn't a wave, there wasn't water, she wasn't drowning - but then she met his lambent golden eyes and suddenly she was drowning - not physically but in a sudden, overwhelming wave of agonized despair. She didn't have time for that. The Force roiled, Dark and cold, and Mara could feel his fury howling through. She had thought it like Vader's, the last time she'd seen him: a river of resentful rage underneath his veil of Jedi serenity. But the veil was gone now as if burned away, and the river had grown, wider and deeper and stronger. Hardly a river anymore but an ocean. For all his strength, Vader - she was quickly realizing with mounting dismay - had been diminished by whatever battle had left him clinging to life in his suit. His son had no such impairment. He stalked forward, and she got quickly up to her feet, ready to launch herself forward again, but he carelessly flicked his hand, and she found herself trapped by an invisible Force-wrought chain, hands and feet immobile. As hard as she strained, she couldn't move forward - except for her head, and as he stepped into range she spat angrily into his face. Luke batted the spit away with the same casual contemptuousness as he'd deflected the blaster bolts, a disdainful smile flitting across his lips. "Anything else?" he asked - and made a gratifyingly ungainly duck to his left as one of the durasteel dinner knives from the table behind him flew through and past the spot where his head had been an instant earlier, lodging firmly into an adjacent wall. Three more knives followed in rapid succession, but he dodged each of these easily, and after that she was out of knives but was quite willing to start with the forks and spoons, but - Now properly enraged, Luke shot out his hand, fingers spread - and the cutlery flew arcing outwards in a wide metal fan that sent them shooting rapidly to all corners of the vast room. She heard them skitter and clank as they hit the floor, thud and clatter as they lodged into and glanced off of walls, all of them flying far out of her reach. He brought both hands together and took a step forward before thrusting his arms sharply outwards and pivoting in a tight circle, long cloak swirling with him - and a wave of Dark power rippled out like a sonic boom, like a thermal detonator had exploded from him. The surge was stronger than any display of Force power she'd felt from him before: an avalanche of Dark, chaotic energy that burst forth in a wave of unsparing destruction with Luke at its center. And the world fell apart. Everything that wasn't bolted to the ground careened outwards, caught in the blast, the leading edge rippling and sweeping outwards with a speed approaching terminal velocity. Wood and porcelain disintegrated, metal buckled, and stone crumbled in the face of his will. The great window from which he had admired the sunset - the great thick window, fifteen centimeters of naval-grade transparisteel interlaced with a thin lattice of durasteel for strength, and protection enough to take a few shots from a turbolaser - shattered like fragile glass, splintering and cracking and falling out into the cityscape below. And she flew back, too. Mara's head slammed backwards against a column, caught in the blastwave and ricocheting hard against marble, and she blacked out. She lost several seconds, or several minutes. When she came to, she found that she had collapsed to the floor in a heap. Hearing returned first, but her ears were full of an aimless buzzing - the back of her skull throbbed, and she suspected she'd sustained at least a light concussion. Byss' darkness was more than physical, and Mara felt it as a weight pressing relentlessly down on her chest, making it almost impossible to breathe, as if the planet's atmosphere itself was soupy, thick, and viscous, as if her lungs had been taken from her chest and wrung out to suffocate her from within. Her mental shields has collapsed when she'd been unconscious, and she willed them back, slamming a wall into place and pushing the insistent darkness behind it, until it was reduced to a static thrum at the periphery of her consciousness: omnipresent but quiet enough that she could concentrate, and breathe. She opened her eyes slowly and groggily to take measure of the wreckage. The dust was beginning to settle in what had once been an obscenely opulent room full of luxurious furnishings. But what she hadn't blasted into bits during her initial charge had been quite thoroughly mauled during Luke's - her mind flailed for a word for the destruction, settled on one - counterattack. The misshapen ball of her ruined weapons lay abandoned and forgotten near the window, useless to her now. The floor, some exotic species of expensive dark wood, had been scarred by the heavy furniture forcefully dragged over it and pitted by the deflected blaster bolts. Twisted wreckage was all that remained of the furniture - except, disconcertingly, for a single sad ruby brocade armchair that had tipped over but otherwise escaped unscathed. Books lay scattered and opened in various piles and disarray - one of them she recognized. The one the Emperor had been writing before Endor, evidently finished now: The Creation of Monsters. There was no fire roaring merrily in the hearth this time, no warm dinner awaiting her arrival - or, if there had been, it had been thoroughly destroyed. There would be no pretensions of gentility and hospitality: this was a ravaged battlefield, without time or space for mercy. The window was gone, and a light breeze blew through the hole in the wall where it had once been, opening the tower to the night sky. It was midnight or close to it, but the distant light of the stars did nothing to warm the room. Byss' eerie azure dwarf afforded the planet a strange climate, and she could see the clouds of her exhalation in the frosty air, her breath condensing and freezing in the notably chilly temperature. But this cold was not entirely natural; the Dark side was strong here, and she felt its icy presence more than physically. But the Darkness had a nexus, and she could feel him shining at the periphery of her thoughts, waiting. He had always shone like a beacon in the Force, and now his signature hadn't been dimmed so much as inverted - a flame so cold that it burned, fairly blistering the tendrils of her careful mental touch. For a moment, her mind summoned an image of this new Sith at war: armor slick with gore, saber the color of freshly spilled blood, golden eyes aflame. Lightning spilling from his fingers and hatred from his soul. The figure stole the breath from her lungs before she could fiercely push it away. He was still wearing the scarred black battle armor and the same cloak she'd seen him wearing last, but the sense of it had changed. Not dirtied physically, but still seemingly oily and tainted; with a feeling of being blood soaked, while remaining pristinely clean. His aura held a shade of unnatural malevolence, a predatory hunger, and every instinct she had howled: Danger. Run. Well, it was a little late for that now. He was none the worse for wear after this confrontation, though just a bit fuzzy around the edges, and the falling debris had left both his hair and his monochrome black armor faintly grayed from dust. He stood carefully out of range of any attack she might summon, and watched her studiously. There was a small smile pulling on the edges of his lips, and though he was shielding, Mara could feel a tinge of satisfaction emanating from his presence. More than satisfaction: delight, perhaps. That was incongruent with her expectation, and she quietly admonished herself before recalibrating; Luke wasn't his father, after all, and she had no business expecting Vader's dour demeanor to be echoed by his son, no matter their other similarities. She'd wager her stake in Karrde's business that Vader had never felt anything approaching delight in his miserable mechanical existence, or been subject to anything so pleasant as a good mood. Mara groaned softly, and pushed herself up with her hands, sitting up and stretching her neck out to the side to test it and hearing a faintly rewarding click for her trouble. She brought a ginger, tentative hand to the base of her skull, feeling a slight bloody dampness. Her hair had fallen free of its braid without the wire of the garotte to hold it in place, and she brushed it out of her face. "You seem unduly chipper," she observed sourly, sending Luke a baleful look. Luke's expression widened into a grin - the charming, sunlit Farmboy smile that had won the heart of the galaxy. It was jarring to see that familiar smile paired with those gleaming golden eyes. "Can you blame me?" he asked lightly."Here I was thinking I'd have to come and smoke you out, and instead you drop right into my lap." His words were far too casual and far too bright for someone who'd just leveled the room with the sheer power of his will and rage, and Mara found herself caught wrong-footed, completely unsure how to respond. She'd been prepared for anything, she'd thought - but not this. Not a Luke who acted like nothing had changed between them, even though everything had. "I'm just honestly so glad to see you," he continued, with so much of Luke's characteristic earnest sincerity evident in his face and tone that Mara could only stare in gaping, wide-eyed confusion. Expectation failed her, instinct failed her, bravado failed her - and Mara pivoted finally to honesty. "This is too much," she said flatly, while shakily attempting to use the marble column at her back to pull herself to standing. She slipped, let loose a multilingual string of curses, and sat back down hard. "You can't be real. You can't be standing here in the Emperor's secret Dark side stronghold surrounded by all this self-generated wreckage and seriously tell me you're happy to see me. Not after I just came running in here trying to kill you." He laughed - and like his smile, it was painfully familiar, painfully sincere, painfully Luke. "Mara, please. We both know you weren't really trying to kill me. If you were actually trying, you'd have done a much better job." She could hardly argue with that, and she didn't bother, choosing instead to maintain her silence while she reassessed and recalibrated her assumptions yet again, her thoughts skittering wildly in an attempt to reassemble a passable psychological profile from her shattered expectations and the disconcerting dichotomy between his familiar exterior and foreboding Force presence. "You have to admit the knives were an unexpected touch, though," she managed to quip, a few seconds too late. She again attempted to rise to her feet, though more slowly this time, her legs wobbling slightly and her hands reflexively checking pockets for weapons she already knew weren't there. The absence of the familiar weight of her lightsaber at her hip hurt the most, and she cast a quick glance in his direction, searching for it. She could feel it nearby; he'd clipped it to his own belt, and it sat there next to his, with an idle hand absently caressing the hilts. Luke arched a sardonic eyebrow. "But really, if that was a rescue attempt - that was the sorriest attempt at a rescue I've ever had the misfortune to be a part of, from either end. And I say that as someone who once ended up trapped in a trash compactor." "Hey," Mara objected automatically, having finally regained a bit of her conversational footing, "it was going fine until you had your little temper tantrum." "That's an uncharacteristically broad definition of 'fine,' Mara, and I think both of us know that you're not the type of person to settle for just fine." "Honestly, Farmboy, it seems increasingly like I'm going to be the one in need of a rescue. Don't suppose you've seen a lost Jedi wandering around?" Something deep within his eyes flickered with the heat and danger of a live wire, and his smile shrank, the Hero of the Rebellion grin retreating and leaving in its wake a faintly predatory smirk that was thankfully far less reminiscent of the man she had known before. "Can't say that I have," he responded dryly, his tone remaining deceptively breezy. "I think I lost the right to call myself a Jedi around the time I started shooting lightning from my fingers." "Yeah that does seem like it would be a problem," she agreed. Mara shifted her feet slightly, started circling clockwise in hopes of getting back toward the door. It was impossible to know how long she'd been unconscious, and thus impossible to know how long it had been since she'd entered the room; it bothered her more than she cared to admit. She was too dizzy to move quickly, and that would only get worse if she had to fight him - again, and after their last duel had gone so poorly, with him fighting with only one good hand. "But I'm sure he's here somewhere. He always has a tendency to muster up a rescue at the least likely moment." "You seem to be under the mistaken impression," Luke countered gently, almost sadly, "that there are two different people at play here, Mara. The Jedi and the Sith, and that the former will save you from the latter. But it's only me, and it's always been only me." "You're not Luke anymore," she spat, letting the manufactured congeniality evaporate to reveal her true irritation. "The piss yellow eyes give it away. Unless you have an unfortunate case of jaundice, in which case I can only offer my condolences." He took the jibe in stride. "Or maybe I am who Luke has always been, and has always been meant to be, and everything else has been a prelude to the larger story. A bright light that hid a great dark that has always quietly grown and flourished in the deepest depths of a hero's psyche." "The Luke I know - the Jedi Knight, the Hero of Endor - would rather die than serve the Emperor." Mara had first met Luke in the jungles of Myrkr, where they had both been handicapped by the presence of ysalamiri and unable to feel the Force. But even then, she'd always been able to read his emotions; he wore his heart firmly on his sleeve, and his face revealed each and every fleeting emotion with the security of an unencrypted transmission. She had been trained to read faces from an early age, and though she'd initially attributed his openness to Outer Rim naivete, she had eventually come to realize that the earnest honesty was in fact a cornerstone of his personality. Even now, flickering through her awareness more quickly than she could sense even with the Force, a distant, clinical part of her mind noted the minute shifts in his expression: eyes narrowing, jaw tightening, mouth twisting, shoulders tensing. But all that was gone in a flash, and he resummoned the mocking smile. It was an alien expression on Luke's face, and she was struck suddenly with the realization that it didn't remind her so much of Vader as it did of Palpatine. "Brave words when I can taste your fear bleeding into the Force and see it shining in your eyes," Luke chided mildly. His tone was nearly serene, but she could feel the molten rage of his presence flaring in the Force. She'd hit a nerve. "Can I tell you a secret?" he asked. He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper that she had to lean in to hear clearly, his smile twisting into something not just mocking but cruel. "Fear tastes different now, in the Darkness, with the way it flavors the Force. And yours - you keep it under such tight control, Mara, but I can still sense it. It's almost floral, and tangy. Like a sparkling citrus wine." That was disturbing in a way Mara didn't want to think about too deeply, but she knew that was what he had intended. That he was lashing out all the more viciously because he'd been wounded. His smile widened knowingly. "Ah - there's a bit more now. It's delicious." "Just tell me your Sith name before I start calling you Darth Nepotism," Mara snapped. He laughed, full-throated and unfettered, and almost the same as ever. Mara noted that the allusion to his father didn't seem to stir the same ire it had the last time she'd been here, and filed that observation away for later. "You sensed the change, then. The shift in the balance of the Force. But you can keep calling me Luke if you like, or Farmboy. Or does that make you uncomfortable?" They both knew that it did, and they both knew she would never admit it. "I guess I could just keep calling you 'Palpatine's pawn,' since that seems as descriptive a name as any other." The familiar impish grin returned, wide and broad and showing too many teeth. "I'm the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet now. Surely that merits at least a promotion to black knight." "Congratulations on the promotion," she sneered acerbically. He bowed slightly in acknowledgement, twitching his cloak into a dramatic flourish with his gloved left hand. "Thank you," he answered, with mock solemnity. "But to answer your question - no, the Emperor hasn't chosen a Sith name for me yet. There are ... certain steps remaining, to complete my training. 'Lord Skywalker' is the title in the meantime." "I'm hardly an etiquette expert, but that title seems like a downgrade from the generalship the Republic had for you. In the moral high ground if nothing else." "Maybe in title, but not in power," he countered. Luke's gaze drifted dreamily into the middle distance, as he looked toward her without really seeing her. The Darkness in the Force seemed to swirl, alive with anticipation; it was an easy power, asking only to be used without conscience, but it craved blood - and in the shadows of his eyes she caught a beautiful and terrible promise of fire and ash, of slaughter and suffering. "The Emperor has taught me ... so much," he said softly, almost a sigh. "He's shown me so much. The corruption and ineptitude of the Republic. The hypocrisy of the Jedi path." His eyes suddenly focused again, and his wistful smile instead became hungry and widened a fractional degree. "The power and possibility offered by the Dark side." "Never took you for a power-hungry monster, Skywalker." A series of unidentifiable emotions once again flickered rapidly across his face, and his eyes hardened infinitesimally. "'Monster' seems like an unfairly strong word," he protested with a tranquility that didn't match the sudden chill in the Force, "when I'm doing all this for the betterment of the galaxy." Irritation bubbled faintly under the surface of his tone, and Mara was glad for it, that she had punctured his easy façade. "I'm sure that the Emperor had your father believing the same thing once. I know I believed it. Didn't make any of it right or good, though." Her head hurt, and her heart ached; the former she could still blame on the concussion, but not the latter. Luke laughed again, almost indulgently, and the temperature dropped another few degrees. A gust blew in from the shattered window, stirring the dust into tiny tornadoes and sending a billowing cloud of particles and debris flying to darken the air. "Of course it's not right or good. But fortunately I've never been under that particular illusion. All people crave power, Mara - as a catalyst for change, or for an improvement in their circumstances, if not for the sake of power itself. It's the most natural and predictable thing in the universe." He was still between her and the door, and they'd been in this position before. Mara didn't think she'd be able to make the same escape as the last time, though. The window, maybe? The window was already shattered - he'd done the hard part - and he'd taken her weapons, but could she find a rope to get closer to the ground? Sixteen stories of sheer black rock would make for a difficult fall. She traced his aura in the Force, struck again by how much his presence there recalled his father's despite their exterior differences. A murderous rage simmered eagerly just below the surface, searching for any outlet to be unleashed. But Vader had had decades to hone his power, and his son had had only weeks - surely there was a weakness there she could exploit, if she could find it. His aura was so like Vader's, and so unlike Luke's, and against her will, her mind summoned up the memory in comparison. Luke had been warm, kind - an omnipresent flame in the darkness. It was painful and chilling to confront the reality of what he had become. "Though there is beauty in the hope and promise of a bright new day, so too is there beauty in the setting sun and the fading light," he reminded her softly. His tone was Luke's, the one he had used when dispensing pearls of shiny Jedi wisdom. "You can mourn what was, but don't let that get in the way of seeing and embracing what is now newly possible." Golden eyes glimmered briefly in the darkness. "We're both too old to be afraid of the Dark, Mara." She snorted. "Kriff off, Farmboy. Only narcissists quote themselves." Mara slowly started circling again, thankful that her headache had mostly subsided, and angling herself across from the door. She found herself in front of the window, silhouetted by the planetary nightfall. He pivoted to follow her movements, watching her meticulously. She'd have to charge him, catch him off guard somehow. White teeth flashed. "Are we going to duel again?" Luke asked lightly, his hand resting on the hilts of the two sabers. The Darkness fairly writhed at the possibility, the promise of violence and blood on the verge of becoming fulfilled, and shadows slithered from the corners of the room to curl at his feet in active anticipation. "After all, it ended so well last time." It hadn't ended well last time, and the only thing that had saved her was a trick that wouldn't work again. "I'm willing to give it another round, if you are," Mara retorted brightly, matching his breezy tone and continuing her painfully slow progress towards the door. "And if you'd be so kind as to return my lightsaber." The Sith laughed, low and mocking, and not Luke's laugh. It was a cold and twisted thing, a discordant and menacing sound. "You must know it's pointless to fight, Mara. Although," and here, he actually had the audacity to wink, "I don't mind if you try." Mara grit her teeth, seething in silent irritation. He was too strong, too well practiced, too careful, and he knew it; she wouldn't make it past him. Not to mention, he had both their lightsabers where she was uncharacteristically and completely unarmed. Any window of opportunity she had had to escape was narrowing quickly, if it remained at all. "I don't need a lightsaber," Mara promised with a confidence she didn't feel. "I am going to knock you out with my bare hands and haul you home by your ear, Skywalker, and let your sister give you the thorough tongue-lashing you deserve." Luke's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "My sister?" he echoed, his smile faltering slightly. "You don't -" He cut himself off quickly, shaking his head. Something in his expression hardened, as if he'd made a decision, though his tone remained light. "But you would have had a hard time dragging me home by the ear if you'd managed to hit me with your blasters. Or if you'd managed to send a knife through my head." She shrugged easily. "I was about eighty percent sure you'd dodge. And if you didn't, a dead Sith to take back wouldn't be a bad consolation prize." Luke ignored the jibe, zeroing in on the percentage, as she should have known he would. It was always too easy to get caught up in the banter with him, to give away a little too much. Even now. "But eighty percent sure I'd dodge leaves only a twenty percent chance I wouldn't. And those odds are too low for a planned assassination." He raised an eyebrow. "For you, at least," he allowed. "I'm sure other assassins might take those odds." She snorted, allowing an only somewhat manufactured note of pride for her former profession. "Really, really bad assassins. Maybe a desperate bounty hunter." A ghost of a smile. "And you're not a really bad assassin, or a desperate bounty hunter. So if you're not here for my rescue, and you're not here for an assassination, where does that leave us?" Mara didn't answer, as he must have known she wouldn't, and to her surprise Luke paced away, retreating to the window to gaze out at the night sky. That left the door unblocked, but he didn't seem to mind - and indeed, she wasn't sure that it would matter. But she took a few steps in that direction regardless, the promise of escape tantalizingly close. "Or maybe a rescue, still," he mused thoughtfully. He was silhouetted against the dark sky, a silken shadow set against the stars. "But not mine. But if not mine, then why here? Why not directly to the holding cells, and avoid me entirely? You knew you had no chance of winning here, and you're not suicidal." She glowered, stung despite herself. "I could easily have killed you last time, Farmboy." "And you should have," Luke agreed readily, eyes up and outwards on the countless stars. "You won't get a chance like that again. I was the last Jedi - and now, a Dark Lord of the Sith. No power can match mine." It should have been empty bravado, unparalleled hubris. And from anyone else it would have been. But from Luke - with his presence gleaming like a black star, luminescent in the darkness, so cold that it burned - it felt like truth, the statement of a simple fact. Luke turned back to her, face considering. "But assassination isn't what you came for, this time. And you also didn't come here to launch a rescue that should have started in the detention block. So that means - you're the distraction. And a very effective one, too." She didn't answer, but she let her eyes flicker towards the door and took another step in its direction. Mara didn't know where the rescue team was, had studiously and purposefully not learned their plans - knowing that the night might end with her in the detention block herself, and under interrogation. If he read her intention or her body language, he didn't respond, just standing and waiting and watching with a confident, predatory smirk. "But I suppose the real question is - are you the distraction for Karrde's rescue?" Gold eyes glittered in the darkness, and Luke's smile widened wickedly as he paused to assess her reaction. "Or for Leia's?" Mara froze, heart in her chest. She hadn't even known that Leia was a candidate for rescue. Last she had heard from her, Leia and Han were safely ensconced with their twins in New Alderaan. There had been a rumor that they'd been spotted on Nar Shaddaa, and there was a warrant from the Hutts, but surely Leia wouldn't come to Byss, not after Mara had warned her - Actually, no. Leia would absolutely try to come save her wayward brother especially after Mara had warned her, and with no one but her husband, her protocol droid, and a Wookiee for backup. Luke - the Sith - laughed, sensing her consternation. It was a sound without humor, cold as Hoth and cruel as winter. "You didn't know?" he purred with faux concern. "Seems like the good guys are having trouble coordinating their rescue missions without a pet Jedi around to help." There was a distinct note of contempt in the epithet, and she immediately saw Palpatine's influence, poisoning Luke's view of the Order and the Republic to which he'd devoted his life. Luke had never been a pet Jedi - but it benefited his Sith Master to make him believe that he had. There had been a persistent rumor whispered in the halls of the Imperial Palace, about what it meant to be a Sith Lord. About paying a price for the power of the Sith. About a necessary sacrifice. "Where is she?" Mara demanded sharply. "Luke, what have you done? If you've hurt her -" The rage ripped through him like a sheet of flame, terrifying in its intensity, so present it verged on becoming a physical thing. It lashed through the Force like the roll of thunder, battering her mental shields and crushing the ambient Light around them until there was nothing but a wall of hate and smoke. She instinctively raised her arm in a uselessly defensive gesture. Just once, Mara had provoked Lord Vader into a homicidal rage, and this felt chillingly reminiscent of that. She had been aboard the Executor, on the hunt for an Imperial traitor, and on what the Dark Lord had seen as a collision course with his hunt for his Rebel son. She'd survived, through luck and guile. But Luke was not his father. He didn't have Vader's physical weaknesses to exploit: no optical scanners to confuse, no clunky prosthetics to slow him down. "I would never hurt her," he growled, eyes blazing like magma set in a face. His words were clipped and angry, each syllable bitten off as precisely as if cut off by a blade, and he shot a hand towards her, fingers splayed. Mara reflexively tried to dodge, but the Force quickly bound her in place at his command. She tried to push it off, straining her mind and muscles against invisible tethers, but his power was too great. Any lingering reminders of the Jedi he had been before had dissipated, evaporating cleanly away, and it had never been more clear that he was Vader's son; he seemed to have become taller and broader in his fury, and his aura in the Force glowed with tightly leashed menace. Luke gestured sharply downwards with his hand as he stalked forwards, and Mara stifled a gasp as her legs buckled at the unexpected strength. The Force pulled her down, tendrils of power bending her irresistibly to her knees; her hands were forced behind her back, held there by another thread. Despite her strength, his was greater, and his borrowed power was slick, oily, tainted. She had the sense, distantly, that he was still holding back, that his true strength if he called upon it, would be - unknowable. Luke stopped in front of her, silently considering, and Mara noted with a spike of alarm that he'd unclipped his lightsaber. No, she realized as she saw it up close for the first time - it was Vader's lightsaber. She recognized the black accented silver cylinder and its angled emitter, as he brought his father's weapon even closer to her face. Luke used the tip of the emitter to tilt her chin uncomfortably upwards until she was forced to meet his gleaming eyes. "I would never hurt her," he repeated, softly this time - a voice that would have been pleasant in almost any other circumstance. It was a bold assertion that stood in stark contrast to the lightsaber held steadily at her throat. "Everything I've done, everything I've sacrificed has been for her - and her Republic." To her own surprise, Mara felt a treacherous, terrified trickle of wetness start at the edge of her eyes, and a small tear escaped, meandering a slow path down her cheek that she was unable to wipe away. Her unexpected and uncharacteristic tears seemed only to incense him further, the Force fairly freezing the marrow in her bones, and his hand on Vader's lightsaber twitched. But Mara had known better than to go into this particular battle with only physical weapons and had armed herself accordingly. She summoned her weapon of last resort and, defiantly meeting his smoldering golden eyes through the veil of her tears, she pushed - - and a chubby hand grasps your leg. "Ubby?" a little voice inquires. She pulls herself to standing, wobbling worryingly and using your knee as a handhold. She takes an experimental step, setting her feet at a precariously acute angle, then whaps at your leg a few times with her unoccupied hand. Testing it for stability, maybe? "Ubby," you agree, without quite knowing what you're agreeing to. You very carefully avoid moving your leg, afraid to disrupt Jaina's tenuous grasp and afraid that you'll betray this disconcertingly trusting toddler in her already pre-doomed battle against the forces of gravity. You apply the same force of will to the task of not-moving-your-leg as you do to everything else you have ever put your mind to, your calves nearly spasming at the effort. "Up. She wants you to pick her up," Leia translates helpfully. The senator-turned-Rebel-turned-senator is standing by the other twin, trying to entice him into sampling the orange paste on her spoon, but Jacen is already in the process of nodding off, just ever-so-slowly blinking at the food as his head tips forward. His head is proportionally much too large, but you suppose that's the way human children are generally shaped; nevertheless, it feels faintly alarming to watch the bulbous head tilt forwards, without knowing if the tiny neck muscles are up to the task of supporting it, much less raising it up again. But even as you watch, he jerks his head up and musters up enough interest to open his mouth for one bite before returning to his drowsy observation of the proceedings. "Nuh-uh. Nope. She doesn't want that, she just thinks she does," you counter quickly. You have no idea how to hold a child. You thought that you did, a few minutes ago and after watching the children being passed from parent to parent with the casual ease of long practice. But ... that head. So bulbously disproportionate. You have too much knowledge about what happens when heads and necks are inappropriately handled. You yourself have inappropriately handled too many heads and necks to count, and you cannot quite quash the absolute terror at the thought of what would happen if you somehow accidentally manage to do it again. You have far more experience snapping necks than holding children. "Ubby!" the toddler demands this time, imperious. Two hands on your knee now, and an urgent pulling bounce. In the Force, the child shines bright with uncomplicated trust, with - well, you were thinking childlike naiveté, but that's probably her right as a literal child. A beat, and then her lip starts to quiver ominously. "You're going to make her sad,'' Han warns. "And then that's going to make all of us sad." Outvoted, you carefully extricate your leg from the tiny arms and, mimicking what you've seen from the others, you hoist the girl up by her armpits. You're surprised by her lack of density; you'd been expecting her to be heavier, and your muscles had been primed to lift something heavier, so you accidentally send her shooting up a little too quickly and a little too high before you're able to compensate. She loves it and laughs, uncomplicated glee blossoming in the Force with the strength of a tiny, proportional star. "Gan gan gan!" she chants, and you need no translation to recognize that she wants you to toss her into the air again. Instead, you hold her carefully by your face, inspecting. Her little legs instinctively clamp around your waist, stabilizing your hold and allowing you to rest her weight upon your hip. She must sense some of your curiosity through the Force, because she sends a clumsily inquisitive query of her own reaching out to your mind - and also a chubby hand towards your nose. She grabs your nose and pulls it. Her hand is ... wet? It doesn't bother you as much as it should. "Tell me," Leia says, and the sadness in her voice is enough to pull your attention away from the stubby drool-soaked fingers now entangling themselves into your hair. "Tell me about Luke -" So like Vader, so unlike Luke - but the key to Lord Vader's humanity had always been his family. Luke stumbled back as if burned, and Mara quickly spun to sweep his leg. But his panicked, instinctive retreat had already put him out of her reach, and when her attack made no contact she sprang quickly to her feet, the invisible chains tethering her in place having fallen away as if they were never there at all. He had only one prosthetic, and it wasn't clunky like Vader's; but it was the hand holding the lightsaber, and that was the only one that mattered. Mara reached into the Force and narrowed her perception to the circuits in his hand. Prosthetic hands were complicated things, needed to be complicated to ensure that the living biological nerves connected properly to the electrical interfaces. But in the Force, the right connections called out to her as obviously as a flashing arrow, and she flicked them - and his fingers sprang open to release their grip on the hilt of his saber. She spared a moment for surprise - sun and stars above, I can't believe that worked - but she called the hilt to her hand before it could fall to the ground, and it flew into her palm with a satisfying smack. And then she thumbed it on and nearly blacked out all over again. It screamed. The scarlet kyber crystal writhed and screamed into her mind, corrupted and broken and keening with pain. Mara belatedly reinforced her mental shields, but the sheer proximity and volume battered brutally against them. She had expected the quiet, powerful hum of a healthy crystal like the one in hers, thrumming melodiously with the Force in her chest. And though Mara understood academically what it meant to bleed a crystal, she hadn't been ready for this - She shut it off quickly, nearly dropping the hilt in relief as the kyber's wail was abruptly silenced - but the Force wasn't silent at all, and she realized abruptly that he was screaming into it, too. Luke had collapsed to his knees, chest heaving, and the Force swirled about him in a maelstrom that reflected his turmoil. He raised his fists to his head, clutched at his hair with frenzied hands, and she could feel him scrabbling furiously for calm. The Force writhed. It felt like it was trying to tear itself apart - the Dark side contorting ferociously, enraged that its newest acolyte would dare the sacrilege of attempting to reach for the Light. In the physical realm, seemingly in response to the violence in the Force, an icy wind howled, blowing up dust clouds and scattering books and fragments of wood and glass. A fork danced a quick circle around her boot, blown in from whatever corner it had previously been banished. The wind was picking up strength as Luke's struggle continued. He was whispering the Jedi Code, a frantic recitation that seemed to stem more from reflex than belief, but the words - there is no emotion there is peace, there is no ignorance there is knowledge - that rapidly tumbled over his tongue did little to calm either the storm within him or the whirlwind around him. Mara's first impulse was to run. She didn't wholly understand what was happening, but she didn't need to - he was distracted, and she should use the opportunity to escape, either to help the rescue party or warn them and get off the planet if they'd already succeeded. Her second was to kill him now, when she had the chance. She had the screaming red lightsaber, though it wasn't her first choice, or she could take her own off his belt in his distracted state. Or the drop - the window had already been broken; all she had to do was push. It might have been a kindness. Luke, in his right mind, might have wanted it. Mara did neither. She walked towards him, and hesitantly put a hand on his shoulder. And with little more than instinct to guide her, she closed her eyes and opened herself to the Force. It was all a metaphor; her brain was just trying to translate the inconceivably vast energies of the Force into something a limited sentient mind could understand, but it seemed real enough - real in a way more solid that reality. The Dark side was strong on Byss, and though Mara had waded through it before, she was out of her depth. Luke was submerged to a depth she hadn't thought possible, but still flailing and fighting to get to the surface. She reached, and he reached back with the fervor not of a drowning man reaching for air but a damned man reaching for salvation. The corruption of the Dark side resisted. It pulled him down, like the tentacle of an unthinkably immense cephalopod had wrapped around his ankle and was fighting to keep him submerged in the icy, inky water. The nature of the Darkness was selfish, and it wouldn't release its acolyte willingly. But Mara was selfish, too, and stubborn enough to fight for him; she held on. And when he surfaced, she was prepared for an explosion like matter and antimatter colliding, two inverses meeting and then erupting into a burst of unknowable cosmic energy. It wasn't as dramatic as she hoped. He surfaced, gasping for breath, and she fell away. He was still submerged up to his neck and steadily treading water, adrift in an endlessly deep ocean with no shore in sight - but at least he could breathe. But that was the metaphor, and she opened her eyes to face the reality - again, not as dramatic as she'd expected. It felt like something momentous had happened, and it felt like that should be reflected in the room somehow - but after the explosion earlier, this was little further damage that could be done. The now-dying wind had blown the dust up again, and the debris and shards of the room's furnishings had kicked up a fine cloud that shrouded her sight in a gloomy shade of gray. The sad, lonely armchair had tipped over, and two forks had been reunited with each other, blown back near their point of origin by the gale. Luke was still kneeling, balled up so tight he was almost in a fetal position with his head in his hands, and he looked exhausted. Wrung out like he hadn't slept in weeks and was on the verge of collapse. Instinctively, feeling his hurt and his pain, Mara sent him a thread of comfort - and he grasped it, pulled it, stretched it out and wove it together with his own threads of gratitude and relief, until he'd assembled a mantle of faintly glowing reassurance that he draped over them, a temporary veil of peace. "How old are they now?" he asked, in a very small voice. "I think - I think I've lost track of time." Mara knelt down next to him, gave his shoulder a firm squeeze, not knowing what else to do. "About ten months. Crawling. Jaina is close to walking, and she can manage pretty well if someone is holding her hand. Jacen isn't so interested in independent locomotion yet, mostly likes to sit and watch. We joke that he's the thoughtful one." A choked laugh that might also have been a sob, and through the Force, a grief as sharp as a dagger. "They sound wonderful." "They need their mother, Farmboy. And their uncle," she said, as gently as she could. He shook his head in a fierce denial. "No, not their uncle. Not like this. I'm poisoned. I'd only taint them, too. They don't deserve that." "All the more reason to come back." "I can't. I don't know how." His eyes were still closed, and without seeing the gold in them, it was so easy to slip and forget. "The Dark side is strong here," Luke admitted softly. "I thought I could resist, that I was strong enough - but I can't. I can feel myself bleeding and dripping away, and soon there won't be anything of Luke Skywalker left at all. Just ... this." A bark of laughter, almost embarrassed. "And it's so cold here. I miss being warm. I - gods above, but I miss Tatooine." She knew he didn't mean the weather. Byss' cold had little to do with the planet's climate, and his longing for Tatooine had little to do with its heat. Mara searched her memory for the phrase he'd used to describe his homeworld last time, landed on it: "A wretched hive of scum and villainy." "A dirty Force-forsaken dustball," he agreed, and let out another strained laugh. He reached up and grasped her hand on his shoulder suddenly, eyes shooting up to meet hers with an urgent question. "I've always been determined, right?" Mara nodded hesitantly, and he closed his eyes again, sitting back gratefully on his haunches. He kept hold of her hand, gave it a hard squeeze. "I thought so. That I've always been determined. But I don't think I've ever been ruthless the way I am here, the way I am now. Vader's presence is strong here, too, and I used to be able to tell where he ended and I began, but now I can't anymore; we bleed together, at the edges of my identity. I remember how I didn't used to be like this - but it's like watching a holovid, like the memories are just a story lived by someone else, and sometimes I can't - I can't remember why I'm doing this anymore. I can see the path forward so clearly, but I can't remember why, can’t remember my motivations. If I'm doing this to save the galaxy, or to rule over its ashes. Or - sometimes I can, but it's an effort." He laughed, running a quick and harried hand through his hair. "I saved my father from this. Do you remember that? It feels like a lifetime ago. A lifetime lived by someone else. He said - Vader said that this was my destiny. To fall, to turn, to serve the Emperor. And for nearly a decade, I thought he was wrong. But look where I am now. I guess Vader was right all along." Her heart lurched. "Luke -" "That's not who I am anymore," he interrupted quickly. He laughed again, a little too wildly. "Actually, what my father said was, 'that name no longer has any meaning for me,' but since I've just given you a delightful monologue cataloging my inner turmoil, I guess we both know that's not true." He delivered the line in an ominously menacing baritone, a passable-enough impersonation of Vader's voice, and Mara smothered a snort in amusement and surprise. He grinned in response. "Though the two of us knowing it wasn't true didn't stop Vader from expressing that particular sentiment, I guess." Mara pursed her lips. "I'm hardly going to call you 'Lord Skywalker,' that's just stupid." Luke started to rise to his feet. Mara quickly extracted her hand from his, standing and retreating a few careful steps back, feet set in a ready position, but he wasn't looking for a fight and didn't approach her. Instead, he strode directly to where her hastily recruited knives had been embedded in the wall, flicking one of them thoughtfully and watching it as it vibrated back and forth, thrumming softly. "You'd think that I wouldn't underestimate your ability to use cutlery as an improvised weapon, after you stabbed me last time," he mused. Mara smirked despite - despite everything. "You've had a lot of things going on. Maybe you haven't had time to internalize the lesson." He glanced towards her, smiling briefly, and gave another knife a hard flick. The two knives oscillated out of synch with each other, an eerily warbling symphony. "That's an uncommonly charitable interpretation. Thank you." "You know," she began lightly, "between Force choking me last time and leveling this whole room this time, you exhibit some severe anger management problems when I stab you, did you notice that?" His lips quirked at a private joke. "Well from my point of view, you're the one exhibiting some severe 'trying to stab me' problems." This conversation had gotten a little too surreal, and Mara attempted to snap it back to the present, pressing reality. "You - we? - we need to leave. We have to get you out of here. You can't just stay here, sinking further and further into the Darkness. Luke, you can't -" "Not who I am anymore," he reminded her gently, and he turned to give her his full attention. Gold eyes glimmered in the darkness, glinting with Dark power and Dark knowledge and half-remembered warmth. He offered a soft smile, perhaps meant to be reassuring. "I'm so sorry, Mara. More sorry than I can say. But I can't leave, until I've killed the Emperor and ensured that he won't be able to resurrect. Or else this will all have been for nothing." Mara persisted, undaunted. "Then help me rescue Leia, we need to get her out of here before -" He interrupted her pitch, waving a hand dismissively. "Leia's fine. I already let her go. She took Artoo with her - they're on the way back to Pinnacle Base now with the master control codes for the World Devastators. It's over." He hesitated, then amended the statement. "Or at least this phase of the war is over. I ... well honestly, I'm not sure what I'm going to do next. I might still decide to burn down the Republic. Or save it. It changes hour by hour." She paused, attempting to digest this. "There's absolutely no way Leia would have left without you." Luke shrugged easily. He flicked another knife, setting it to warble discordantly with the others. "She wouldn't have, but I tricked her. Sent a Force projection up onto the Falcon. She thought I was with them. Treachery is the way of the Sith." Her mind whirled through the implications. "You said that she was still here. That I had to rescue her. That you needed to sacrifice her to become a true Sith." He gave her a faintly condescending look. "I didn't say any of that. I implied, and you assumed. But even if I did - I'm a Sith Lord. Surely some baseline level of deceit is to be expected." She had no argument against that. But another question was bothering her. "If Leia's gone, why is Karrde still here?" His eyes focused suddenly at the reminder that someone might still be in imminent danger, snapping into the present moment and out of his resigned and wistful reverie. "Karrde was never my prisoner. It was the Emperor's order. He was rounding up everyone he could find with any connection to Myrkr, and Karrde got caught up in that. Your relationship with him - I don't know if it came up, if the Emperor even knew about it." "Myrkr," she repeated. If the Reborn Emperor was looking for people with a connection to Myrkr, that could only mean - "He's trying to suppress knowledge of the ysalamiri." Mara's brain was quick and precise and analytical and profoundly grateful to be torn away from complicated, murky questions of salvation and damnation, and instead pivoted quickly to consider the implications of the Reborn Emperor's newly revealed fears. "He can't allow people to know about the ysalamiri because they'd disrupt his connection with the Force, and without that -" "He'd be helpless," Luke finished for her, amber eyes gleaming brightly with renewed predatory intensity. "And he wouldn't be able to reach through the Force to complete the essence transfer to a new body if he dies. If someone were to kill him, he wouldn't be able to resurrect." The ambient Darkness, which had been almost quiescent, rippled with his anticipation, the air suddenly sharp again at the promise of freshly spilled blood. The river of rage within his presence pulsed, no longer dormant but eager. Mara shivered, even knowing that this time his feelings were not directed at her. She felt him grasp it, consideringly - but instead of submerging himself in it, inhaling the power, he seemed to dismiss it. Not permanently, but set aside and reserved for later. Instead, a ghost of a smile danced across his face. "Hey," he said gently. "Like I'd kidnap Karrde after seeing the lengths you went to when we had to go get him back from Thrawn." She snorted. "You've made a lot of questionable decisions lately, and we just finished talking about how you hadn't learned the lesson about cutlery as an improvised weapon. How was I supposed to know if you'd internalized this lesson?" "Questionable is an undeservedly kind way to put it," Luke said, grinning. "Who's leading the rescue party?" Mara hesitated only a moment before making her own questionable decision and answering honestly. "Horn, and he has a smattering of Rogue Squadron with him. And I recruited Kyle Katarn." "A good team," he acknowledged. "I take back what I said about the good guys not being able to coordinate rescue missions without a Jedi. How did you get stuck with distraction duty?" "Couldn't put up with the bickering. I'm more accustomed to working alone, so I volunteered," she answered lightly. Because I didn't want to chance one of the other budding Force sensitives killing your fallen ass while I still hoped you could come back, she didn't say. Luke barked a laugh. "It's not bickering, it's strategizing," he argued gamely. "Sometimes it's useful to have input from more than one team member, and maybe you don't exactly agree on the specifics, but -" "At minimum, it's both," she snapped, bickering. Luke closed his eyes, shook his head, and took a step back. And when he opened his eyes - He was the old Luke again - Farmboy, Rebel, Jedi. His eyes were still gold, but something infinitesimal had shifted. It was like a mask had fallen. Or had one been put on? But he was the old Luke because he was wearing that particular expression Luke wore when he was about to do something monumentally stupid. That particular set of his jaw that meant he was about to sacrifice himself for the fate of the universe, again. "You need to go, Mara," Luke said firmly. "Now. Go, help them with Karrde's rescue, and get out of here. Take my shuttle. Karrde is aboard the Eclipse; use my authorization code, and they'll allow you in, and off, without question. Free everyone you can. I'll do what I can to help you from here." Mara's brain, though quick and precise and analytical, had not yet managed to process this abrupt turn of events, and she could only stammer, "Go? Now? Luke, what -" He grinned reassuringly, and if he wanted to correct her use of his given name, he gave no sign. His eyes fairly twinkled with warmth and humor. "Hey, they made me the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet for some reason. Might as well use that to do some good." He reached into his cloak, plucked something off his belt, and handed her a lightsaber; she'd nearly forgotten that he had her lightsaber, Anakin Skywalker's blade. Her overwhelmed brain still hadn't quite caught up with the reality of the situation, and some dormant and oddly courteous subroutine, no doubt developed during childhood etiquette classes, took over and handed Vader's lightsaber back to him in trade because it seemed like the polite thing to do. "Go down to the shuttle bay. Hurry." He clasped a hand to her shoulder and squeezed it in a wordless farewell. I'll do what I can to help you from here, he'd said, and Mara finally processed the implications of that statement. "What about you?" He'd been wearing his Hero of the Rebellion grin, the one that inspired squadrons of pilots to climb into metal tubes to go hurtling through space and to try to defeat an unbeatable Empire - but now it faltered slightly. "I'm not leaving, I told you." That was not acceptable, and Mara dug her heels in, grinding her teeth. She was not going to leave him again, not now that she knew how difficult this was for him, how much he'd been struggling to stay afloat. "You said the Dark side is strong here. That you're losing yourself. You can't - you can't just stay." The remnants of his smile evaporated, and he frowned, expression darkening. Few people would have caught the ever-so-slight tightening of his jawline, as he prepared to set his own formidable stubbornness against hers. "I need to, to ensure that the Emperor doesn't resurrect." "You're moving the goalposts, Farmboy. Last time you told me it would be until you had the control codes for the World Devastators." A flicker of something akin to guilt flashed across his face, then shifted with lightning swiftness to defiant resolve. He knew. He knew he was slipping, and he was staying anyway. Was it really for the noble purpose of decisively destroying the Emperor? Or were the seductive, sibilant promises of power too insistent to ignore? Did it matter? "Things have changed," he said simply. "I'm not leaving, Mara." This argument would get them nowhere. "I'll help you," she finally offered. "Just tell me what needs to be done." He snorted derisively. "You'll help me?" There was a resentful shade of Darkness in the question, disbelief tinged with despair, and his feral golden eyes glinted dangerously. "That's what I wanted from you last time. Why didn't you help me then? Why help now, when I've fallen and it's too late for me?" "It's not too late, you can still -" He raised an accusatory finger, pointing it sharply into her face - the gesture so reminiscent of Vader that it cut her off far more effectively than his words. "Do not tell me there's still good in me," he growled. "I will not be able to handle it." She could feel the intensity of his warning, could hear the plea hidden within it, but her eyes were transfixed by his raised arm - or, more accurately, the bare skin she could suddenly see where his sleeve had fallen to his elbow, and the angry, raised red pattern streaking down his forearm to disappear into the fabric of his tunic. Mara had been on the receiving end of Sith lightning before in all its intensities, and she knew the differences in severity. It had been the Emperor's preferred method for enforcing discipline and showing displeasure, and she knew what its gruesome aftermath looked like when written on human flesh, before it could be healed away by bacta. This was fresh, and the raised welts were livid - it spoke to a prolonged and painful session, a reprimand that bordered on torture. That perhaps had crossed well over that line. "Luke," she said, and her voice sounded distant to her own ears, "your arm is covered in lightning scars. And I'm guessing it's not just your arm." He froze for a moment then retreated two quick steps back, withdrawing the accusatory finger and twitching the sleeve of his tunic down to cover his arm again. He reached over with his right hand, the prosthetic, to tug the sleeve down even further, and Mara belatedly realized his gloved hand was switched: that he was wearing a single glove on his left hand, not to cover his prosthetic as was his occasional habit, but to hide the evidence of the Emperor's ire. "Oh. I forgot," he said nonchalantly, with a feigned indifference that contrasted sharply with the blush that had started in his cheeks and was rising quickly to color his ears. Mara shook her head slowly, her mind having already made the connection. "It was your punishment, wasn't it," she asked. But he wouldn't answer, and she didn't need him to; she knew, with a guilty, bone-deep certainty. This was her fault, the punishment was her fault, and she should have planned for this, should have known what the fallout would be. "When the Emperor found out that I'd escaped. There was no way you could have hidden the aftermath of the thermal detonators in the stairwell and lift, I should have predicted -" But Luke had drawn his own conclusion. "The only way you could have recognized the lightning pattern," he interrupted, his darkening expression echoed in the sudden chill in the Force, "is if he'd done this to you, too." Darkness flooded into the Force, summoned by the heat of his rage. It was the twin to the emotion that had ripped through him earlier, when she'd accused him of hurting Leia, and Mara instinctively recoiled from it and the memory of it, though she knew that this time it wasn't directed at her. There was a shadow of Vader in his fury, but she also caught a glimpse of something new and wholly Luke: dark and terrible but also beautiful, a darkness worthy of worship and despair that would envelop a galaxy that would never be able to resist. "Well," Luke said finally, the unnatural lightness of his tone belying the violence she sensed seething beneath the surface, the river no longer dormant but simmering and ready to boil over. He sent her a strained, rictus smile that didn't reach his eyes, as if he'd forgotten how to properly make the expression but still knew that he was expected to. "If I hadn't been already planning to destroy him, this might have been the thing to tip the scales." Mara swallowed, suddenly unsure. "He's done worse things," she objected, not quite certain what she was objecting to, or why. She should be protesting the implicit vengeance in his statement, that revenge wasn't the Jedi way. Or should she be pushing back on the idea that she was some damsel in need of protection or vengeance in the first place? "I'm not - I'm not an innocent, Luke. I've ... I've killed people. A lot of people. I'm not his victim." She hadn't thought it possible, but the tide of his fury rose even higher, the storm held at bay only by a thread of his will that itself seemed frayed to the verge of snapping. "Mara," Luke said, with preternatural calm, "you don't have to be innocent to still be his victim. And what he did to you -" Luke cut himself off, closing his eyes and shaking his head furiously, trying with only moderate success to leash the increasingly dangerous storm that raged inside him. It took - it took longer than it should have, and it didn't fully retreat so much as subside, pushed down but still present, but when he looked up again his calm seemed marginally more natural, less manufactured. "Sorry," he said, with a ghost of a smile that seemed almost like the old Luke's. "I guess that's a sore spot." Mara didn't know what to say. She'd never known anyone to feel so passionately upset about the details of her treatment at the hands of the Emperor before, and Luke's reaction left her conflicted and confused. It felt oddly - comforting? - to be the object of someone's fierce protective instinct, though she didn't need it or deserve it. But the sheer heat of his fury was frightening, and counter to her desired outcome of extracting him from the Emperor's clutches in the first place. "You should get a bacta treatment, when you can," she offered, finally. "The scars fade easily. Unless you're looking to collect more scars to add to your battle hardened warrior persona." Luke grinned, falling back into their habitual banter. It had always been too easy to banter with him. "Haven't had time, but I'll keep that in mind. I've been too busy plotting treason. And well - placing the needs of the many ahead of those of the few. That's like the first rule of being a Jedi, right?" Mara snorted. "If that's a nicer way of saying 'selflessness to the point of self-destruction,' then sure. But I'm also pretty sure the second one is 'don't fall to the Dark Side and become a Sith Lord.' But maybe that one's so obvious no one thought to put it in the rulebook." "In retrospect Master Yoda might have covered that, but I've never been good with rules," he shrugged. "Might have been too busy plotting treason at that time, too. It's apparently a hobby of mine." The conversation had once again grown too surreal, and Mara again tried to impress upon him the necessity of escape. "We have to go, Luke. Together. I can't leave you here like this." "You left me here like this just fine last time," he noted, not unfairly. "You were trying to kill me or turn me last time!" "Would it make you leave any faster if I told you part of me - a large part of me - wouldn't be fully opposed to turning you now?" he snapped irritably. "It's not safe to be here. I'm not safe." He grasped her hands together in both of his, meeting her eyes with a desperately pleading look. "Please go, Mara. I'm begging you to please, please go." "Luke, let me help you," Mara demanded, trying again. "Whatever it is you're doing, you don't need to do it yourself." "You'll regret this," he promised darkly. Twilight shadows lurked in his eyes, spoken and unspoken dangers. But Mara seized the opening eagerly. "I regret a lot of things," she countered. "This probably won't even crack the top ten." Luke sighed in irritation. "You'll regret this more than most. You need to leave. You should never have come in the first place, and the sooner you leave the happier the outcome will be. Look - this is me, Jedi Knight Luke kriffin' Skywalker, and I'm here to save you one last time, but you need to listen to me. You can't even imagine how difficult this is - the Dark side is selfish and demanding, and I'm trying so hard to save you from myself, but you need to leave. Please." "Make me," she challenged stubbornly. "Believe me, I'm tempted," he assured her. The Darkness roiled as he seemed to consider the prospect, shadows circling the darkened room in anticipation of another confrontation. "I should knock you out and drag you aboard the shuttle myself. I should -" "As if you could knock me out," she hissed. She pulled back, wrenched her hands out of his and put them up, ready to fight. He'd given back her lightsaber, and though she didn't want to repeat the fiasco of their last duel, she was willing to try if that meant she could find a way to circumvent his cursed instinct toward noble self-sacrifice. And especially for someone who had to keep reminding her that he was in fact a Sith Lord, it was a very Jedi instinct. He cast a weary, dismissive glance at her raised fists before looking back at her face with a sardonic eyebrow. "Mara," he sighed, "the idea of hand-to-hand combat becomes very different when one party can shoot lighting out of his fingertips." "Might almost make us evenly matched," she retorted brightly. "Almost." Luke laughed, exasperated. "You're impossible," he accused, and ran a harried hand through his already thoroughly mussed hair. "It's what you love about me," Mara quipped easily. He turned to her, golden eyes suddenly laser focused. "It is," he acknowledged. "That, and other things. But that's exactly why you should leave. I can't protect you, and the way I feel about you - it should be pure, it should be sacred, but in the Darkness, nothing is. And if you stay, I don't know -" He cut himself off, sighing. "Mara, do you have any idea what I want to do with you?" She knew. She had no illusions about this. He'd shown her the last time she had come to save him, had pressed his visions upon her as a distraction, and then he'd shown her further: hunger, possession, conquest. And that had been weeks ago, practically an eternity, when his eyes were still blue and his saber still green, though his presence had already been saturated with the corruption of the Dark side. But that wasn't all she knew, and now - now she had seen him struggle against the Darkness, had helped him surface to breathe, and she knew beyond certainty that as long as he was fighting, there was still hope. Luke had held faith in her when she didn't have enough in herself; it was time to return the favor. "I think I have some idea," Mara said. She took three quick steps forwards, closing the distance between them, and pulled his head down to kiss him. He was fire to touch, but she kissed him slowly. Startled, Luke tried to pull away, but she tightened her hold, wrapped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer, until his arms slid around her waist and his lips began to move against hers. Surprise flared brightly in the Force, so powerful it punctured his mental shields, and she sent back a thread of confident reassurance in response. The circle of his arms tightened, his hands settling on her hips and then pulling her closer, and she clutched at his cloak as she deepened the kiss. The cloak was rough under her fingertips - armorweave, another layer of protection - a stark contrast with the softness of his lips and tongue. Once she was sure he wouldn't pull away, she released her grasp and instead let her hands meander - tracing the invisible seam of his prosthetic, along the leanly muscled arms entwined around her, up his shoulders, skimming his neck, mapping the angle of his jaw, threading through his hair. The fabric of his tunic wasn't so thick that she couldn't feel the evidence of the Emperor's lightning under it, and she carefully pressed fingers and palms against the lines of the raised tissue, trying to will them into healing, imbuing her touch with silent sorrow and apology. He melted into her hands, leaned into the tactile sensation like he was starving for contact, and Mara distantly realized that he was; he'd left the loving circle of friends and family and had been here on Byss without a friendly touch or face for weeks. The Dark path he had chosen was a lonely one. An unguarded thought floated over from his mind, soft and wondering, gentle as a leaf drifting on a summer breeze - stars, Mara. You're so warm. And though he'd told her specifically not to tell him that there was still good in him, she told him anyway: compelling her fingers, her lips, her touch to convey the faith and certainty of her belief without words, and beyond words. He pulled away, and she let out a brief groan of disappointment until soft lips touched upon the pulse point at the juncture of her neck and shoulder and she felt him lightly sucking on her skin. The groan was quickly transmuted into a whimper, and Luke chuckled, warm and low, before fluttering a series of light kisses along her neck and jaw that left her knees wobbling and weak. Luke returned his attention to her lips, and though his kisses were tender, they weren't gentle, and they still held a touch of hunger. He drew his fingers through her hair, letting the strands glide smoothly between his fingertips, and the touch was electrifying; it sent exhilarating, sparkling webs of energy through her scalp, down her spine, radiating outwards to her fingers and toes. It lasted forever but wasn't long enough, but when he drew back and leaned his forehead against hers, Mara found that she didn't snap back into the present as quickly as she was accustomed, but lingered with him in the glowing, comforting warmth for a few extra moments - and then she stepped back, literally, a quick, small retreat while she waited for his response. "You're not a bad kisser, Mara Jade," he drawled, and paused, seemingly considering his next words. His lashes fluttered slowly open to reveal sunlit amber eyes. "But it's ... uncharacteristically hopeful of you to think I'm going to follow you back to the Light for want of a good kiss." She groaned in embarrassment, buried her face in her hands briefly, nearly crying again - from relief, not terror. It was a pleasant contrast. "Unreasonable hopefulness is your calling card, Skywalker. You rubbed off on me. But stars above, how did you know I said that?" He laughed, low and rich, and put a gentle hand under her chin and tilted her face up to meet his eyes. And yes, they were golden Sith eyes rimmed in fiery red, but they were also Luke's - expressive and earnest and bemused. He drew a reverent hand through her hair again and tucked a few stray strands behind her ear. "I watched the security holo afterwards." He hesitated, smile fading. "I'm so sorry, Mara. I can't tell you how sorry I am. I -" She shushed him. "Tell me later. Tell me when we're on the way - to Tatooine. We'll get you to Tatooine, Farmboy." His eyebrows shot straight up, nearly vertical, and his eyes blew wide like golden saucers. "You hate Tatooine," he reminded her. "You said if you never see its suns again, whether sunrise, sunset -" "I know what I said! But I'm giving you the once in a lifetime opportunity to change my mind. And in any case, it's better than here. Let's go bring down an empire. Together." Luke grinned. "You make fine Rebel scum, Mara." "And after that, we'll leave. We'll get you off this planet, away from his influence, and out of this - suffocatingly Dark presence. Promise me, Luke." He pulled her in for another kiss - not lingering as the last had been, but still sweet and sure. A kiss that tasted like a promise. It was quick but left them both gasping, and he met her eyes with fierce golden intensity. "Mara, I swear this to you. I promise that I will leave Byss with you once the Emperor is dead. And I will go with you anywhere in the galaxy that your heart desires. I swear it on - " Luke paused, looking suddenly embarrassed. "I usually say 'my honor as a Jedi,' here, but I don't think that works anymore." It didn't, and she suppressed a shiver at the reminder, but they'd sort that out later. "Good enough. Let's go." Striding down the corridors of the Imperial stronghold had a disconcerting feeling of coming home that Mara didn't care to interrogate too closely. The citadel hadn't been intended to be a perfect replica of the Imperial Palace on Coruscant, but the architect had clearly intended an homage. The Emperor's interior design tastes ran towards neoclassical Naboo with soaring colonnades and intricate carvings: a deliberate rejection of the ascetic aesthetics of the Jedi Grand Temple upon the ruins of which the Imperial Palace had been built. It called to mind too many similar nights from her past, being summoned into the Emperor's presence. She pushed that thought away. When they reached the wing leading to the cloning chambers, Luke brazenly palmed his hand against the control pad to open the door and made as if to stroll nonchalantly into the hall before she pulled him back. "Skywalker," she hissed urgently. "What in the hells are you doing?" He turned, blinking at her in confusion. "Are we going to defeat the Emperor or not?" "You - you were a Rebel. A guerrilla fighter. How can you possibly think it's a good idea to loudly waltz in there wearing a dramatic black cloak and clanking battle armor?" "With a lightsaber," he added helpfully, grinning at her gape. He shrugged. "Direct confrontation has been historically successful in my attempts to confront Sith Lords in the past, and I have a good feeling about this. But you're not one to throw stones - you came running in with two heavy blaster pistols to take out a Sith Apprentice not even an hour ago. That was hardly subtle." Mara ticked off her arguments on her fingers. "Okay first of all, that's absolutely not true, your success rate is at best fifty percent because Vader chopped off your hand. Don't look at me like that, we both know it's true. Secondly, I was deliberately aiming to be a distraction and I have handily completed my mission, because look: no rogue Sith Apprentices stabbing rescue parties. And third of all, Darth Farmboy -" "Did you just -" "- we have no idea what sort of guards or battle droids or terrible alchemical Sith creations are guarding him or even if he's there at all, and sparing a few minutes in your vengeful murder quest for worthwhile reconnaissance is a completely reasonable tradeoff." His eyebrows had slowly been climbing into his hairline as she completed her rebuttal. "Please never call me that again. But fine, let's do it your way. I'll keep watch here." She nodded decisively, squashing the thread of surprise that he hadn't argued further. "Okay. I'll go in first and scout." "And I'll stand here with my vengeful murder quest paused, with my dramatic black cloak and clanking battle armor and lightsaber." And if her impromptu nickname was a stain on the dignity of the Sith, no doubt he would burst a blood vessel if she told him to stop pouting. "And not to belabor the point, but it's more of a vengeful justice quest." "Maybe you can sew some pockets into the cloak while you're waiting," she quipped as she ducked into the hallway. The halls were wide and spacious but lined with dark wood floors and paneling that made the space nevertheless feel faintly claustrophobic. Mara stuck to the shadows as she moved down them and kept her lightsaber ready in her hand, quietly cursing and mourning the loss of her holdout blasters. "Skywalker, you owe me," she breathed sotto voce, the words barely given voice but instead silently shaped with lips and tongue. "You broke my second favorite vibroblade, and you will pay." The first door yielded nothing useful, and the second was a medical storage closet. She spared a moment to search through the boxes for a knife or blade - anything that would be better in close quarters combat or stealth attack than a lightsaber. Luckily, she was able to find a scalpel quickly, and she slipped it into one of her belt sheaths before moving on. Mara continued carefully along, checking each door thoroughly as she went. There were no guards, no battle droids, no terrible alchemical Sith creations. But there wasn't medical staff or maintenance either - no one at all. Her uneasiness grew with every unpopulated room she passed. She had an increasingly bad feeling about this. The cloning chambers were at the end of the hallway - she knew from the humming, at first a low, faint mechanical buzzing she barely noticed but growing ever louder as she approached until it became an inescapable thrum that reverberated through her chest. The door here was already open, an eerie azure light spilling from the room - reflected bacta, perhaps? Mara stood by the door, scalpel held ready, and resisted the urge to peer around the corner but instead reached out to see what she would find in the Force - Death. She found death, and a hole in reality. But not in reality, just in the Force - ysalamiri. How could that be possible? Luke had said that the Emperor was trying to exterminate knowledge of the ysalamiri, had rounded up and imprisoned everyone with a connection to Myrkr. Was it possible that this had been in response to something, rather than preemptive? Belatedly, she realized that Luke hadn't given her a timeline on the Emperor's plans; Karrde had been kidnapped weeks ago, around the same time as her initial journey to Byss. There was more than enough time for someone to obtain and bring the ysalamiri here. But who would have been able to gain access to the cloning chamber to put the creatures in the perfect place to prevent resurrection, and who would have the knowledge? The Emperor had no shortage of enemies, but few of those would be able to infiltrate the inner sanctum of his cloning chambers. One obvious candidate immediately sprang to mind - Luke - but surely he would have mentioned that earlier. She spared a thought to retrieving him from his post before dismissing the idea; the presence of the ysalamiri was unexpected, but nothing she couldn't handle, and she didn't sense anything imminently dangerous. There was nothing left to do but see for herself. Again, she reflexively checked pockets and holsters for weapons she already knew weren't there, and again she quietly pledged to make Luke replace each and every one. She ducked around the corner with the scalpel held in her left hand and the lightsaber hilt in her right and entered. The floor was blanketed in bodies - identical, naked carcasses, spilling out from the dozens of cylinders that had been methodically slashed open by a lightsaber. The cylinders lined the walls from floor to ceiling, and each one had been systematically destroyed, and the clones inside destroyed just as thoroughly: haphazardly left to lie where they had fallen but each with a matching cauterized hole over the heart. And in the middle of the room, where the ysalamiri bubble yawned like a gaping chasm to her Force sense, was a man. Mara initially mistook him for a pile of cloth, until she heard the rattle of the ankle chain: a simple metal band that had been wrapped around his foot and fastened to a ring welded into the floor. A circle had been crudely carved into the floor with a lightsaber, scarring the duracrete: a ring that marked the edges of the ysalamiri's influence, perhaps, or just the limits of the prisoner's reach while chained. The rattle of the chain revealed that he was pulling at it feebly but almost rhythmically, though she could detect no obvious movement from his body. The Emperor had always favored flowing robes, but his presence had always been grand enough to fill them. Now, though, he lay diminished, almost swallowed up entirely in the swaths of black fabric. He looked like a frail old man. A frail old man with sickly, jaundiced yellow eyes. She had never seen him without a hood or some sort of head covering before, and it was an unexpected shock to realize that he was bald, with dark liver spots freckled across his disconcertingly smooth head. His face was wrinkled and worn, and that much was familiar; that face belonging to her guardian and protector and tormentor and Master - The fury took her by surprise, a heat as sudden and violent as a thermonuclear blast that exploded from somewhere deep within herself that she had locked away and forgotten. A putrid hatred unfurled grasping tendrils, clawing its way out of the abyss in which she'd kept it forgotten and imprisoned. Since childhood, for as long as she could remember, she had always had a habit of dismissing her own emotions. When the Emperor reprimanded her, or punished her, or was casually cruel, she had conditioned herself to believe that he was right and she was wrong; he was the Emperor, and she merely his Hand, an extension of his will. Any latent anger at being abused she'd shoved aside, and any that had developed since his death and her new realization that he had been manipulating her for years had been quietly stored to deal with later. She would always have later. Mara hadn't been prepared for this. The knot of feelings was too complicated to be untangled except with a lightsaber. The sight of his face, once so loved and now so hated - The heat of her rage called the Darkness, and it descended upon the room like a stormcloud, freezing the marrow in her bones. Its presence on Byss was inescapable, and she had nearly gotten used to its hovering omnipresence - but this time it came to her and called to her, and not Luke. It sang to her, a sweetly sibilant song; not a promise of power, but of vengeance. Within the ring, the Emperor stirred. He surely couldn't sense the shift in the Force in the bubble of the ysalamiri's presence, but still he raised his head to look, his sickly yellow eyes widening with something like surprise. He moaned, and reached out claw-like fingers that scrabbled uselessly against the cold duracrete floors. "Maaaa - maaaaa - " "He recognizes you. That's almost sweet," said a voice from just behind her. She stifled a surprised scream, but it was only Luke. She turned to face him - dramatic black cape and clanking battle armor and lightsaber and all, he had somehow entered the chamber without her noticing, and he was idly toeing one of the cloned corpses with his boot. He seemed startlingly at ease in the carnage - like he belonged, like there was no more fitting place for him than standing amidst a carpet of corpses. She noted, then tried to quash, a rising tide of alarm, but then remembered the specter of this new Sith she'd imagined earlier: slick with gore, crimson saber, eyes aflame. That's how it must have looked when he - "Farmboy, who did this?" she asked. He looked up and met her gaze with a slow, knowing smile. A smile that could cut glass. "Well I did, of course. But you already knew that." The thing was, she had known. She'd known as soon as she'd seen the lightsaber lesions on the cloning cylinders, the circle carved in the duracrete, but she'd somehow subconsciously dismissed the knowledge, compartmentalized it so she wouldn't have to think about the implications just yet. "You might have mentioned it," she said instead, mind whirling. "You didn't ask. But I told you - direct confrontation has been a historically successful approach for me. Especially once I had the ysalamiri in place; the rest of it was just housekeeping." Housekeeping, he called it, and she thought of the identical cauterized circles in each of the clones' chests: murder methodically dispensed with surgical precision. An insistent dread gnawed at her bones. A rustle from the bundle of cloth on the ground, a rattle from the chain, and again the Emperor tried to speak. His voice was a low, weak moan. "Maaaa - maaaaa - " "I'm pretty sure he's trying to say your name - but he's having a hard time because I ripped out his tongue." His sentence was so casual in its delivery that it took her several extra seconds to process the meaning. The scalpel dropped from her suddenly nerveless fingers, its metallic chatter ringing jarringly through the quiet room. "You - you ripped out the Emperor's tongue," she echoed hollowly, and felt a sharp prickle of panic along her spine. The violence of the act, so carelessly stated, was horrific; the implications might be worse. Gold eyes widened in a pantomime of innocence. Who, me? Would I do that? "A clone of the Emperor," he clarified coyly, as if that mattered. "I've never been very good at keeping a master for long," he admitted when she remained silent. Dark humor sparkled in his voice, but the innocent act was quickly abandoned as his lips curled in contempt. "Much less a mad clone who was never fit to bear the mantle and knowledge of the Sith. Though I suppose I should thank the creature for safeguarding them for me since Endor." No, no, no. This was too much. It couldn't be possible. She could only continue to gape at him in horrified silence, and he pretended to take that as a request to elaborate. "I pulled it right out. It was a wet, squirming thing, and it made sort of a slurping pop! sound once I'd gotten it. It was honestly harder to keep him from bleeding out afterwards than to tear it out in the first place." His eyes glimmered. "But we both know that his tongue was an even sharper weapon than his mastery of the Dark side." "No," she said - aloud this time, a simple and useless denial. And he laughed. It was still Luke's laugh, even though it shouldn't have been. Mara's mind whirled, and a series of connections snapped into place as she realized - he'd been telling her all along. Treachery is the way of the Sith. I implied, and you assumed. I'm a Sith Lord, surely some baseline level of deceit is to be expected. It's not safe to be here. I'm not safe. This is me, Jedi Knight Luke kriffin' Skywalker, here to save you one last time. Uncharacteristically hopeful of you to assume I'll follow you back to the Light for want of a good kiss. She had thought deception and deviousness beyond him, that his primary skill was with a blade. But he'd been honest, and she'd deceived herself. She had always been good at lying to herself. A broad smile bloomed on his face as he sensed the revelation. It was not the smile that had won the Galactic Civil War, but a dark and twisted mockery. "You see it now. The problem was - you insisted on thinking that this was the story of my redemption when, since the beginning, it's been the story of your fall." "You think this will make me turn," she said slowly, realization dawning. Inky dread was slowly blossoming at the periphery of her consciousness, gradually displacing the initial shock. "You think I'm going to kill him, and - and then join you." "Am I wrong?" he challenged. The abyssal, smoldering hatred in his presence flared, directed at the prone figure before them: not for what the Emperor had done to him or his family or the galaxy writ large, but only to her. "He stole you from your family - stole your childhood, your innocence, your life." Luke's lips curled into a savage snarl. "And you're not yet so lost to the weaker side of the Force that you would deny yourself the pleasure of vengeance." The pleasure of vengeance, he said, and the Darkness thrummed at the prospect, calling to the rage she'd always previously managed to keep trapped in her heart. "Vengeance isn't justice," she protested. And despite everything, it still felt viscerally wrong to argue Jedi philosophy with Luke Skywalker. A flicker of an emotion she couldn't quite name flashed across his face with the quickness and fury of a lightning storm, and he frowned, nonplussed, but then waved a dismissive hand. "Jedi semantics. Revenge is the foundation of justice. But it hardly matters. All that matters is what you choose from here." He shook his head, agitated, but after a moment resumed the thread of his argument with a taunting smile, all the more vicious for having been wounded. "Skywalker told you to leave. I begged you to leave. But of course you wouldn't - poor little lost Mara, whose obstinate, desperate loyalty has always offered the path to her undoing." A small portion of her bristled at the jibe, but her mind was still spinning too fast to see an exit. She needed to keep him talking. "Why?" "I knew you would come back. Mara Jade: loyal to a fault. Loyal to people, not causes. To the Emperor, not the Remnant. To Karrde, not the Smuggler's Alliance. To Luke Skywalker, not the Republic. You wouldn't leave Skywalker here, you wouldn't leave me here, if you could possibly help it." The coldest, most analytical part of her mind that the Emperor himself had fostered through long training was still turning and spinning and calculating while the rest of her floundered in emotional turmoil, and she thought, clinically, Luke has always been empathetic and understanding, but with the corruption of the Dark side those traits are harnessed instead for manipulation. "So the trap was baited," he continued. "But it wasn't enough that you would come. I needed to unlock that anger you push below the surface and tell yourself you don't have. But I've sensed it. How you push your emotions away: not releasing them, but saving them behind a locked and guarded door. Not healing, but festering and left to rot. Like my feelings for my father and the deceit of the Jedi and the corruption in the Republic - as my Master showed me." My Master, he'd said, and it was the first time in her recollection that he'd used that title for the Emperor. But he'd learned Sidious' lessons well. "And then I found the key." He raised his eyebrows, paused significantly, and sent her a self-satisfied smile. "You said it would be ... reductively sexist to assume you'd join me in the Dark for want of a good kiss. But perhaps I've found a better incentive." Mara shook her head slowly, a wordless denial even though the Darkness that he had named sang to her, rippling and roiling and dancing with the fury that the sight of the humbled Emperor had been unlocked in her heart. "I won't do it," she said. It sounded weak to her own ears, but gathered strength and conviction as she continued. "I'll - I'll leave. You offered me that choice, and now I want to take it." He nodded, seemingly having anticipated this. "I won't stop you. But leave now, and this is what will happen." He paused, and in the shadows of his eyes she saw the promise of cities falling and burning, the ruins of Coruscant red as if painted with blood, the galaxy crumbling to ash. She didn't know if the Republic could survive the fall of another Skywalker. "I will kill him myself, and claim the mantle of Sith Master. I will consolidate my fleet. And then I will seize the Empire that should have been mine since Endor." He didn't say, And I will hunt you to the very edge of the universe, but he didn't have to; she remembered Vader's pursuit of his Rebel son after Yavin. Because Luke had always been determined but his new self had become ruthless and obsessed. Burn everything, so long as you burn with me, he'd said. She had no indication he didn't still mean it. When she didn't answer, Luke's eyes crinkled even though his mouth didn't shift, in that way it did when he was suppressing a laugh. He had her trapped as surely as if she were the one chained to the floor, and they both knew it. "Or, stay here," he offered, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. "Kill him. Join with me." He hesitated, as if searching for words, then grinned - a sunlit, winning smile. "Curb my ... baser impulses, with your counsel and wisdom." A sudden surge of anger, not at the Emperor, but the apprentice who had taken his Master's lessons to heart. "That's the deal he offered you, isn't it," she said flatly. It wasn't a question; she already knew the answer. "The opportunity to defeat the Darkness from within." He smirked. "Why fix something that isn't broken?" So - maybe hadn't learned the Emperor's lessons as well as he thought. The trap had been constructed by Sidious and designed for Luke Skywalker - not Mara Jade. And though they perhaps shared a similar sense of obstinate loyalty, an inescapable trap for Luke would not be inescapable for her. Because Luke had been captured by the Emperor's Force storm on Coruscant and had come willingly but unprepared. But Mara had been trained since childhood by the most gifted schemer in the galaxy - and even when everything went wrong, she was never wholly unprepared. Blessedly, an alarm sounded from a computer terminal. And then another, and another, one at a time but then all at once - and dozens of lights and sirens abruptly awakened in an insistent flurry of red and white swirls in the cloning chamber and also, she could see, in the previously empty and silent corridor. They would be going off all over the citadel. "That would be the rescue party," Mara said lightly. She wanted to collapse with relief but masked it with a self-assured bravado she distinctly didn't feel. Luke frowned, obviously surprised but quickly processing this abrupt twist in his plans. His hand drifted absently to the hilt of Vader's lightsaber at his belt as he assessed the likely danger. "They're supposed to be on the Eclipse," he said slowly. "Rescuing Karrde." "That's the other rescue party." "You said -" "Did I, though?" Mara interrupted. She danced a quick step back, shifted her feet into a ready position, prepared once again to fight. "Or did I imply, and you assume?" Luke's eyes crinkled with rueful amusement, exasperation alloyed with respect, though he didn't quite smile. "Treachery is the way of the Sith. But he trained you, too." Mara shrugged, once again with a nonchalance she didn't feel. "The Sith word is arrak. The game -" "- should not commence without a perfect, precise knowledge of who will win," he finished for her. "Plans within plans, and contingencies within contingencies. You would have made a formidable Sith Apprentice, Mara." She noted the past tense and let her hand stray down to her own lightsaber. "So what's it going to be, my lord? Are you ready to take out your Rogues?" Mara watched him make his decision, as thoughts and feelings and hesitations flickered across his open and honest face. She watched as his jawline hardened, and as his fingers tightened around the grip of the lightsaber. "Goodbye, Luke," Mara said simply - and in a single smooth and rapid movement brought up her right leg to kick him squarely in the chest. It was a powerful sidekick straight to his sternum, and it caught him off guard. He stumbled back into the circle that had been scored by the lightsaber blade - and into the sphere of the ysalamiri's influence. His presence in the Force winked out like a snuffed candle, subsumed by the bubble. Three things happened almost simultaneously. Mara inhaled sharply as - something, a previously unnoticed weight on her mind, instantly cleared. Nothing had changed save that Luke's Force presence was now absent, but a cloud of gloom she hadn't noticed had been slowly coalescing like a rotten miasma in the cloning chamber suddenly evaporated, and she realized with a flash of understanding that Luke had been imperceptibly generating it. She didn't know if had been deliberate or passive; where Luke had once effortlessly inspired soaring hope, perhaps in the corruption of the Darkness he would now unconsciously project crushing despair. Luke's eyes widened in surprise - and abruptly reset to pure, clear blue. As soon as he had stepped back into the bubble, the alien gold of his irises disappeared, extinguished like a doused fire. The Dark side was strong on Byss, but it was non-existent within the circle of the ysalamiris' influence, and Luke hadn't been drawing on it for long enough that the physical effects had become permanent as they had with the Emperor. And lastly, as she'd predicted, Sidious' claw-like hand snapped out to grab his wayward apprentice by the ankle and yank him down, pulling the already off balance Luke onto the ground beside him. Luke teetered precariously, arms windmilling comically as he attempted to regain his balance; but in the end, he fell. Luke looked sharply up at her, big blue eyes shining with betrayal and hurt - but he only had a moment to spare before his attention was wrenched away and the Emperor's hands closed around his throat in an attempt to throttle his treacherous apprentice, this final monster of his own creation. The Reborn Emperor was frail and weakened and diminished, but he was fueled by a furious will to survive that had leveled star systems, and even unarmed and chained down in a purely physical fight, he could never be underestimated. Mara couldn't feel either combatant through the Force, but she had never needed the Force to read Luke's expression. Blue eyes that had once held the warmth of summer skies froze over into chips of ice, and his fist crunched sickeningly into the Emperor's unprotected face with the irresistible strength of a fallen star. The Dark side was strong on Byss, but not within the circle of the ysalamiris' influence - and the only Darkness that fueled Luke there was what he had brought inside with him, what had already been lurking in his soul. It was more than enough. Mara didn't wait to watch. She ran. She didn't watch while Luke bludgeoned Sidious to death with the hilt of Vader's lightsaber - but she was listening as she ran, and she noted as the dull crack of metal on bone gave way to a wet squelching once jaw and teeth and cheekbone and eye socket had shattered and caved, the distinctive sound echoing and reverberating eerily in the empty corridor. She ran faster. She didn't watch, but her mind helpfully painted a vivid picture for her: the rictus of Luke's broad Farmboy smile splattered with a fine spray of hot, vivid arterial blood. That blood mingling with the sweat of his brow as the repetition of the motion - swing, and crack, and swing, and crack, and swing - sped up to keep pace with a furiously realized catharsis. The pointed tip of the emitter cutting unnoticed into the synthflesh of his right hand as he grasped the hilt too tightly and pummeled the blunt cylinder into the wet and gritty remnants of the Emperor's skull with mundane and simple human strength for far longer than necessary. Mara didn't watch, but she saw, and the images chased after her even after she'd made her rendezvous with the rescue party and after they'd made their narrow escape. But she didn't know if these images were birthed from her fears and her imagination - or if they were visions, a gift or curse or warning from the Force, to bear witness to Luke Skywalker's final fall and the rise of a new black king. To be concluded in "Black King."