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Mission on Mimban: Temple of Pomojema

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Artoo whistled excitedly from the open turret. Luke rushed to the front viewport, careful not to jostle Halla in the pilot’s seat. Their vehicle pushed through the taller growth into a clearing surrounding the black volcanic stone structure. It spread out before them, wider than it was tall. Vines and creeper plants clung to nooks and crannies in the stone block stacks that formed the dome. As they moved closer, Luke saw the powdery remains of the stones against the walls. The entrance into the complex was still visible, but the ten-meter-high curved archway had collapsed and had half filled the passageway with a rubble pile.

Halla made sure the vehicle was completely inside the clearing before she came to a stop, but Luke moved from viewport to viewport checking the different vantage points. Mara shifted to the front viewport. “Luke, that place is dangerous. Don’t you feel it?”

“This whole planet is dangerous.” The last viewport showed the same empty clearing. “But I don’t feel Vader and there’s no other vehicles. We beat him here!”

“Take it easy, Luke-boy,” Halla said cautiously. “We can’t be certain of that.”

“I can. I’m certain.” The oppressive weight and searing flame that had warned him when they were with the Coway was gone. “Mara can confirm it too, if she stops worrying about the temple.” He opened the Troop Transport’s hatch. “Let’s go get that crystal before he gets here.”

“And that’s what the second-in-command of our squadron calls ‘Tatooine cocky.’” Mara’s voice carried out of the vehicle as Luke jumped off the ramp onto the crumbled stone with tufts of grass growing through the time worn cracks. Back when this temple was in use, the builders had paved the approach. Hin and Kee followed him out chattering about the smells in this location. The fog swirled around them, not so thick to block out the black stones of the temple nor the closest trees.

Artoo whistled for attention up in the turret on the roof. “You better stay with the transport,” Luke told him. “I don’t think you can roll over that debris.” Artoo warbled a confirmation sadly and Luke promised himself to make sure the droid got a lubricant bath once they got off Mimban.

Artoo guarding their vehicle, Mara and Halla finally climbing out of it, Hin and Kee chattering about finding the treasure; Luke trotted to the entrance and scrambled up the pile of rubble. It wasn’t a sheer climb and the top was stable. He stopped there to look at the interior.

“It’s light inside,” he told the others who had finally reached the rubble pile. He squinted at the mass of stones above. “Part of the roof has caved in too, but it looks solid enough.”

“Go ahead, boy.” Halla urged as Hin and Kee helped her up the rubble. “The sooner the Kaiburr is got, the sooner we can leave.”

“That’s all right,” he said. He wasn’t impatient, not really. It was just more prudent to move quickly. Now that they had actually gained the temple, he wasn’t about to steal the old woman’s dream. So he waited for the others. Mara gave him a look when she stopped by his side but she didn’t follow it with any words or thoughts, only straightened the strap of the E-11 blaster rifle over her chest. They headed down nearly in sync so the Yuzzem could get Halla over the top. Soon they all stood on the cracked stone floor of the ancient structure.

The domed roof soared meters above their heads except for the two places where it had fallen in. Piles of broken stones lay splattered beneath each ragged hole. But they admitted enough light so the group didn’t need to use glow rods.

Lianas and other parasitic plants extended their tenacious embrace over the stone walls that kept the fog out. They stretched across the floor and around the towering obsidian pillars to get their leaves closer to the light. The pillars supporting the roof boasted intricate carved patterns and design, whose meaning none now alive could understand.

They crossed the floor, heading to the colossal statue that was seated against the dark wall on the far side. A vaguely humanoid being seated on a carved throne. Leathery wings which might have been vestigial swept out in two inspiring arcs to either side of the figure. Enormous claws thrust from feet and arms, the later clasping the ends of the armrests of the throne. It had no face below slanted eyes—only a mass of carved tentacles.

“Pomojema, god of Kaiburr,” Halla whispered. “It almost seems familiar, somehow.” She chuckled nervously. “That’s crazy, of course.”

“He looks like a Quarren to me.” Mara said bluntly.

“They don’t have wings,” Luke said. “A Quarren works for Jabba back on Tatooine.”

Halla pointed ahead with a trembling hand. “It’s there… I knew it, I knew it!”

A red light, barely visible past the sunbeams, pulsed in the center of the gray stone chest of the statue.

“The crystal,” Mara said reverently.

Luke spotted movement to the left of the stone figure. It was a dark shadow and there was no telling how far the darkness stretched. Mara’s arm shot up and blocked Halla’s forward progress nearly as quickly as Luke’s blocked Hin and Kee.

The creature was the same size as a full-grown dewback, but this lizard’s head was surrounded by a horned frill making it appear wider than the gentle omnivore Luke was familiar with. The mouth that stretched from frill end to frill end was filled with sharp pointed teeth as it opened. Small yellow eyes blinked at them. It moved forward with a bow-legged gait on legs nearly as big as the tree trunks outside. And it headed straight for them.

Halla fired her laser pistol first. The creature’s green scaly hide absorbed the blast and its yellow eyes didn’t even flinch. Their group retreated slowly, but the creature’s progress continued.

“Bu’nas’a ibic osi’kyr,” Mara muttered in the language she went to whenever she grew angry. She let it flow out of her as she focused on the creature and pulled the blaster rifle off her back. She set her feet, aimed the rifle, and fired in one smooth motion.

The green blast actually gouged the horned frill above its head, leaving a red burn that oozed blood. It didn’t stop, just blinked away the blood running into its eyes and sped up.

“Scatter!” Luke ordered. He pulled his lightsaber off his belt and activated it.

The yellow eyes focused on the blue blade as Luke waved it in the air.

Mara shoved Halla further to the right as Luke danced left. The creature veered toward him. The women and the Yuzzem might get a better shot or could reach the crystal. He focused on the carnivore in front of him. It hesitated within snapping distance. Luke lunged forward. The endpoint of the blade punctured a small hole in the center of its wide lower jaw.

A low, outraged moan emerged from the belly of the creature. Jaws parted to reveal a gullet high and wide enough to dance in. And something moved inside.

The Force prodded Luke and he threw himself to his left and rolled back up to his feet.

The creature’s long pink tongue exploded outward and pulverized the black boulder which had been just behind him. It spat out chunks of rocks after its tongue retracted.

Mara found a new angle to fire onto the creature’s massive side. It stopped moving forward, but its tail slashed through the air harder. Kee leaped into the air and grabbed that green scimitar-like appendage. “Kee, no!” Mara yelled.

The tail whipped out of Kee’s grapple and knocked the Yuzzem back into the air. Mara stretched out her hand and the Force to wrap around Kee.

Luke shifted further left and reached out himself, adding to Mara’s grip of Kee. His velocity was halting, he wouldn’t flatten against the stone wall or potentially go through the stone wall. The Force’s ever present tingle of danger rose to a near clawing down his spine. He turned his awareness back to the creature.

Its tail sailed through the air. Luke had no time to dodge back out of range. Before he could swing the lightsaber to intercept, the whip-like end connected with his left forearm. The black sleeve covering it split along with his skin. He heard two wet cracks and then pain rushed up his arm. “Fierfek!” he screamed as his legs wobbled beneath him. He dropped to a knee. It seemed more stable.

Mara screamed back, a wordless cry of pain as she cradled her left arm against her body and the blaster rifle dangled from its strap around her. Luke scrambled for his mental shields because they needed Mara on her feet with her blaster rifle between them and the dangers of Mimban. Her cry broke off as she realized what the bond had shared between them and raised her own shields.

The creature’s yellow eyes pierced through the gloom and focused on Luke’s crouched form. Its mouth dropped open and its thick tongue shot out again.

Luke thrust his lightsaber out. The blue-white blade seemed an inadequate sentinel against the creature’s bulk. The pink pseudopod’s tip struck the blade and sizzled.

The creature let out a throaty yelp as its tongue retracted. Those yellow eyes narrowed as it stepped forward again.

Luke tucked his injured arm against his chest as he straightened his legs. He needed to stop the bleeding. But the creature took another step straight toward him. Mara shot it again. It ignored every bloody burn to its hide.

The creature hopped right in front Luke. Fierfek, dewbacks couldn’t jump! All the distance between he and the creature vanished and he ducked under its head. The horizontal jaws snapped shut but he wasn’t between them. The point of his lightsaber cut a black line across the underside of its jaw as he stumbled away. His left shoulder banged into one of the thick pillars supporting the roof, and he managed to roll away from slamming his injured arm into it. One of the gaps in that soaring ceiling shone directly above. The pile of rocks from the ceiling blocked off retreating to the left.

The creature tested its jaws as it turned toward Luke. Saliva gleamed blue under the lightsaber’s light. The sharp teeth looked ready to rend the rest of his flesh.

Luke glanced at the ceiling, then the creature’s progress, and tightened his grip on his lightsaber. They were out of options. He swung the lightsaber at the pillar’s base. The energy beam cut through the black stone like an X-Wing through atmosphere. Rumbling and crackling started immediately.

“Run!” He sprinted to the left, heading toward the entrance as best he could without jostling his arm too badly.

The creature jerked its head around following Luke’s progress before lumbering after him.

Cracks in the ceiling overhead spread, multiplied, joined, and the pillar crumbled. A section of the roof as wide as the existing gap dropped on top of the creature. Luke stopped running out of range of the rock dust and panted as he looked back.

There was no sign of the front end of the beast, only gigantic blocks of curved and carved stone burying it. Twitching hind legs clawed futilely at the stone floor while the massive tail smashed against the ground. By the time Mara reached his side, all movements had stopped.

“Luke, your arm.” She was unhurt, even as she focused her horrified face on his arm.

He looked over the rest of the temple. Kee was flat on his back meters away. Hin loped after Halla who was running as fast as she could for the statue of Pomojema. Well, the sooner they got the crystal and got out of here, the better. As long as the creature didn’t crawl back out of the rocks. “What happened to Kee?”

Mara looked up at his face. “I think he hit his head when we both dropped him. His life signs feel stable to me, but we need to treat your arm now. Let’s go back to the transport.”

He shook his head. “You go get the medkit. Kee might need it too. I’m going to make sure this thing is dead.” He stressed the last word; he didn’t slur it. And he strode toward the visible portion of the creature’s hindquarters.

“Oh don’t be a di’kut!” Mara snapped behind him. “Just use the Force!”

He could do that, but it wasn’t as satisfying as sinking the blue-white blade of the lightsaber into the dark green flesh up to the hilt. What was left of the creature didn’t stir.

Satisfied, he turned to go back to Mara and glanced down at his injured arm. He noticed the pain throbbing in the forearm now and it was still bleeding and swelling under the remains of the sleeve. Mara was right; he needed the medkit. Her arms were crossed over her chest. She was going to fuss about this for hours.

Something rumbled overhead and it didn’t sound like thunder. The sun streamed in through the gap and the mist. But dust was raining down from the gap.

Mara’s arms dropped as she screamed “LUKE!”

He ran from the edges of the widening hole in the ceiling. But the stones were already brushing against his body. He wrapped the Force around his injured arm, hoping that would protect it against this onslaught. Then the temple and Mara’s red-gold hair vanished in the black shower and his spinning through it once he was knocked off balance.

He blinked away the dust as the world stopped spinning to the tune of Mara still screaming his name. Or maybe the echo of the stones in his ears just sounded like her voice. He was on his back covered in stones of various size, and full of pain. He blinked again and Mara’s face was above him.

Her green eyes pinched with worry. “Luke?”

“You were right,” he said slowly as he got his wind back. “So let’s skip the yelling.”

“Farmboy.” Her fingers gently brushed the fragments off his face and chest, pausing to shift his swollen left forearm. She waited for his inhaled groan to subside. “You didn’t hurt that worse, thank the Force. Let’s get you up.”

She shifted all the rocks off his left leg and he could bend that knee and ankle. But she couldn’t budge the massive block which had struck the temple floor and then tumbled to rest on his right thigh and calf. Luke wiggled his right toes. “It’s not pressing on me with its full weight. If it was I wouldn’t have a leg to pull free now.”

“Great thing to concentrate on, Farmboy.” She shifted her stance and pushed against the block again.

“Go to the transport, get the medkit. By the time you’re finished splinting my arm, Hin and Halla will be done and we can wake up Kee too.”

She gave up pushing on it. “This is not how I would have had you stay put, but I’m willing to take advantage of it.”

“And do what, schutta? Kill him at last?” A deep bass voice called out from the entrance.

Both Luke and Mara’s heads jerked in the direction. The black armored figured waited at the top of the rubble pile as the fog swirled behind his black cape. Luke felt cold wash over him and sink into his bones as the searing flame surged back into his awareness. How had Vader arrived without either of them sensing him? Now the respirator breathing filled the temple.

Vader stepped off the five-meter-tall mound of rubble and used the Force to float to the floor inside. “You have been quite the impediment to this insignificant world, child. That can be useful for our purposes.” The cape settled along his black clad arms as he settled. “But imagine what you can accomplish with proper guidance.”

Luke pushed up with his right arm. He wouldn’t meet death flat on his back, especially not in front of an enemy who didn’t take him seriously. Mara braced him without a word. “Your guidance?”

“Adiik, it is your destiny.” Vader continued walking toward them. “The Rebellion is oblivious to the corruption and inefficiency of the Old Republic that they revere. Obi-Wan has never been strong enough to do what is necessary. But you, Luke, you can change the course of the galaxy. The Emperor fears you.”

Because of who his father was, Luke thought bitterly, not because of anything Luke had accomplished. He raised his chin, ignoring the battered mess he presented. “He should. I will do everything I can to break his stranglehold on the galaxy. To break what you created.”

Vader stopped, tilting his helmet, and swept the unblinking eye-shields over both Luke and Mara. “Things are never what they seem at a glance. You will understand that later.”

Luke’s right hand curled into a fist. “I’m not going with you.”

“There is no other choice, adiik.”

Mara swiveled behind Luke’s back. She grabbed the lightsaber hilt and activated it as she rose to her feet between him and Vader. “You will not take his choices from him.”

Vader freed his lightsaber hilt from his belt in a smooth motion. “What does the Emperor’s Hand know of choice? You are here to worm your way under his guard to kill him for your Master.” The deep voice sneered the last word.

“The only one here serving Palpatine is you.” She held the blue lightsaber in a much tighter guard than Luke ever did.

“You are a blind, foolish girl. You never lifted your eyes from Sidious’ shadow to possibly see the truth.”

Luke stared at Mara’s back, feeling through the bond her self-loathing claw her trust in her judgment and leave it oozing. Her entire body was freezing with rigidity that would cost her in a fight; she had warned him of that time and time again. There hadn’t been time since they crashed onto the fog-bound world to practice the katas.

He didn’t want her to fight a monster from her past, but he couldn’t watch her lose from just words like this either. “Palpatine lied to you from the beginning, Mara. He abused your trust and loyalty.” He sent the last to the taut wire threading them together because Vader didn’t deserve to hear it. I trust you to save me.

Her body relaxed. Don’t break anything else while I’m busy.

The red blade emerged with a snap-hiss, but Vader did not raise it into the air. “Has Obi-Wan taught you how to duel, di’kutla Gaan? Sidious never thought you capable of learning it.”

“My name is Mara Jade and Palpatine no longer controls my fate.” She lunged straight at Vader with the tip of the saber directed at his black mass. Simultaneously, the Dark Lord brought his own beam up to parry hers.

But Mara performed a spinning, twisting arc in the air just like how she had danced with the Coway and brought her lightsaber down in a slashing flare of blue light. Energy flashed as it contacted Vader’s armored breath mask. Only superhuman reflexes jerking his whole body back enabled him to avoid the full effect of the blow. She landed on her feet facing her opponent.

“Kacmhate.” The contempt he had aimed at Mara was finally vanquished from his mechanized voice. “Obi-Wan has managed to hone something within you. This will be a challenge after all.” The red blade spun to create a circle in front of Vader’s blinking life support panel. “I am looking forward to extending your education. One can do some interesting things with a lightsaber. I’ll do my best to show you all of them if you’ll cooperate by not passing out.” His lightsaber curled in, around, down.

Mara barely managed to deflect the blow as she backpedaled. Again he advanced, swung; again she deflected the cut. They dueled on, with Vader steadily pressing his attack. It required every bit of skill and strength Mara possessed for her to defend herself. There was nothing to spare for an assault of her own as they crossed the stone floor.

Luke tried to wrap the Force around the block pinning his leg, but the pain throbbing from his arm made it hard to concentrate. He glanced to the statue wall of the temple. The pulsing red light was blocked by something person sized. Halla or Hin must have climbed up the statue and reached it. He couldn’t do anything to help them either. He pushed his right hand against the stone and it still refused to move. He looked back at Mara’s fight.

Vader cut down, Mara brought her lightsaber up yet once more to parry, but at the last instant Vader changed his swing. The tip of the energy beam slashed across her midsection, slicing through her miner’s suit to leave a black burn across her middle. The pain cut across Luke’s stomach too and he gasped as she hissed in pain and skittered back from the black giant. Vader stalked after her, showing no signs of exertion.

The sound of running feet over the stone floor drew everyone’s attention. Kee charged with a howl.

“KEE, NO!” Luke and Mara screamed in unison as the Yuzzem leaped. Vader who swung his lightsaber to intercept the furry mass heading straight for him.

Mara jerked a hand out and shoved with the Force. Kee’s trajectory changed as he went sideways away from Mara and Vader. The red lightsaber slashed through a furry right arm.

Kee’s howl of rage climbed into a wail of pain. He landed on the stone floor away from Vader and Mara, but his legs buckled until he sat on the floor.

Mara shifted her stance sideways until she stood between Kee and Vader.

Vader only matched her movements but made no move toward the injured Yuzzem or Luke. “You saved that creature’s life.” The deep voice sounded curious.

Mara glared. “He deserves to live free. Not that you’d understand that.”

“Something the traitorous Rebellion taught you?”

“Luke taught me.” She said it so matter-of-factly. Luke’s heart beat harder when he heard that from her lips. She believed it finally, that all lives deserved that. He was so proud of her.

Vader didn’t respond with words, but swung his lightsaber again. Mara parried the blow, but her arms shook from the effort. Vader pulled back, heading towards Luke.

She followed him, increasing the arc of her swing. Without straining, he blocked it completely and kept the blades from locking together, moving to cut at her again. She blocked that slice, but the force of the blow sent her tumbling, rolling to the ground.

Vader followed relentlessly as she crawled away to regain her feet. His saber drew a long black gash down the back of her left leg.

Luke screamed as he felt his skin and tendon split on his leg not trapped under the stone. Mara screamed but continued moving. She rolled over somehow and ended up standing. She pulled her shields up with her body, and Luke tried as well but his felt flimsy compared to hers. “Leave her alone!” He yelled at the Sith Lord as he pushed the pain away.

Somebody fell against Luke’s back and then Halla was sliding to the floor to his right while she heaved in air. “Luke-boy, here.” She ran something hard and bright against his right arm until he turned his hand to cup it above his injured left. She propped him up as he stared down at the pulsing red faceted crystal slightly larger than his hand. It felt warm. He looked back up to the duel.

Vader stalked Mara again, threatening her with false cuts and thrusts that she tried to block feebly while limping on her damaged leg. “Sidious drilled tenacity into you well. I suppose he had enough practice learning how with all the Hands he trained before.”

She did not fall to that old pain and jerked back from Vader’s downward swing. The foot of her injured leg came down on broken rocks and she slipped back with a cry. The lightsaber hilt tumbled from her hand and deactivated.

Halla gripped Luke’s right arm. “Do something!”

Vader stood over Mara. “You lasted much longer than I thought you would. But I do owe you a death.”

“No!” Luke screamed. To lose Mara like Biggs, like Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen, gone in an instant never knowing how much they meant to him. To lose her determination and her grace before she had truly lived in freedom yet? “No!”

Hin crouched down behind Luke and growled as well.

Vader turned his helmet in their direction. “I’ll be with you as soon as I have dealt with this sandscorpion in your hut.” He lifted his red lightsaber above Mara’s prone form.

“NO!” Power washed over Luke and a deeper connection with the Force. He gripped the crystal tighter and shoved that hand out toward Vader and put all that power behind the shove. The red glow flowed out from Luke and slammed into the black armored figure. It carried him through the air in a tumbling somersault into the dark hole in the wall the creature had crawled out of. The red glow slammed into the wall above. Stones rained down covering the entrance.

Luke felt Vader’s astonishment blot out the Dark Lord’s ever-present rage, but he ignored it to gape at the translucent woman standing over Mara in Vader’s place.

She wore a skin-tight, possibly white jumpsuit. A purple light surrounded her and gave her clothing a lilac tint. But she also had a light colored cape arranged in a wrap-pattern around her neck that Luke had never seen before. Her dark hair was pulled back in a massive bun behind her head. He saw that as she swiveled her head taking in the entire temple.

Mara gathered her elbows under herself and pushed away. Luke, who is she?

I don’t know. His surprise at the woman’s almost holographic presence didn’t dint the relief he had that Mara was thinking and moving.

The woman looked at all of them again and then down at her weapon-less hands. “Well. This was unexpected.”

She was the absolute opposite of Vader in every conceivable way. So Luke blurted out the first thing that occurred to him. “Are you an angel?”

The strange woman looked at him and laughed. She covered her mouth as she got the watery sound under control. “Oh you Tatooine boys know how to make a girl feel special,” she said at last. She looked like she was about to step towards him, but Mara was in the way so she stopped. “Oh Luke. This could have gone so much better, but it’s worth it to see you again.”

“Worth it?” His arm throbbed along with the phantom burns on his stomach and leg. “Kee and Mara injured; they almost died. Vader almost killed them. Seeing me is worth that?”

You could see the stone wall and clinging vines through the woman’s face, but her distressed expression was still clear. “That is unfortunate. It disposes you to distrust us.”

Hin chuffed at Luke as he came around to the right side of the stone block. {Meet your enemies on your feet.} He curled his long, hairy arms around the stone and rolled it up off Luke’s leg.

Luke scrambled back as soon as he had room to move it and Halla helped him up to his feet. “Always a good idea. Thanks, Hin.” The Yuzzem let the block fall as he straightened to his full height.

Mara struggled onto her feet, listing so not to put much weight on her burnt left leg. Luke, she’s connected to Vader. Do you see it?

Now that he looked for it, he saw a glowing blue thread stretching from the woman’s purplish glow that went through the rockfall. And a red thread stretched from the crystal he held to her as well. What the hell was going on with the Force in this temple?

I see it, he told Mara as he stepped toward her, keeping the strange woman in sight. Halla stayed at Luke’s right side, ready to grab him if he fell. He glanced up at Hin. “Go check on Kee.”

Hin barked affirmatively and loped toward his fallen friend.

The translucent woman kept her arms at her sides, even through Luke had the feeling she wanted to hug him as she stared at him. He sighed as he reached Mara. She was pulling on the Force to stand up. They needed to go before Vader pushed the rocks away and attacked again. “I don’t trust Vader and I don’t trust you.” He finally told the glowing woman.

Her dark eyes winced with pain before she schooled her features to neutral. “We want to know you, Luke. We have the same goal. Palpatine’s reign as Emperor must end. We can work together for that.”

Luke shook his head. “No, we can’t. Not when your means to the end is trying to kill my friends.” He nudged Halla to help Mara, and the old woman moved to the younger one’s left side. He waited to see if he needed to mentally yell at Mara to accept the aid, but the red-gold haired woman sagged against Halla’s shoulder as the older woman’s arm wrapped around her waist.

He refocused on the strange woman’s face again. Her neutral expression now had a studying him slant. “Loyalty is your strength as well,” she said.

“Yes, I’m loyal to those who have earned it.” He didn’t have a clue as to who she was comparing him to. And he was fairly certain his growing woozy feeling was from his injured arm. “Let’s go.”

“It’s more than mere loyalty between you and Mara Jade.” The challenge in the translucent woman’s voice stopped his turn toward the entrance. Her eyebrows were raised in challenge. He saw Leia in that expression and boy was that disconcerting. Maybe a rock had hit his head and he missed noticing it with all the other rocks hitting him.

But he wasn’t about to explain how his heart froze mid-beat when it looked like Vader was about to stab Mara with the lightsaber or how it had pounded when she danced with the Coway to Leia much less this stranger connected to Vader. “And you’re a delaying tactic so Vader can catch us all.”

Her teasing smirk crumpled into visible sadness. “No, Luke. That’s not what this is. I’m not trying to trick you. Neither of us are trying to trick you.”

“No, of course not.” Vader just wanted to kill everyone but him and then carry him out hoisted over a black-armored shoulder. Luke shook his head. Halla had gotten Mara turned around to face the entrance, but they hadn’t started hobbling toward it yet. He looked back at the translucent woman.

She had taken a step closer and transmuted her sadness to imploring. “You can leave, Luke. We will not stop you from leaving. But what will it take for you to trust us?”

Go back in time and not murder my father, he thought making sure it echoed only against his mental shields. He let it go before his exhaustion made the shields crack. Focus on what can really happen. “Stop killing my friends every time we meet. Just stop personally killing my friends.”

Her eyebrows knitted together. “None of your friends died on the Death Star.”

The pain lanced through him again, the pain that hadn’t lessened in two months, the pain that scalded his hand every time he touched the Honored Fallen medal. “Biggs. Vader shot Biggs Darklighter in the trench during the battle.” Rage was so close to the surface; Mara was twisting in Halla’s grip to come back to comfort him. He took a deep breath and let the rage go. “Yes, we all made the decision to be out in that fight for our respective sides, but he died. My storm-brother died not knowing he was more than that.” He took another deep breath and actually focused on her translucent expression.

Her hands pressed against her mouth in horror as something like tears in a corporeal human glimmered in her eyes. “Luke, oh, Luke.”

Her sympathy shouldn’t touch him, but it did. Maybe a scab was finally forming over that emotional scar and it would eventually feel like Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s loss did. “He’s not the first loved one I have lost, just no more murder. Come after me, not my friends.”

Halla’s inhale was as loud as Vader’s respirator. “Luke-boy,” she called out.

“Oh shavit,” came from Mara. Her dread levels were creeping back up along with her self-reproach.

Luke turned to see what had stopped them in their tracks, expecting to see a stormtrooper squad and all of them sporting black on their right forearms. A reptilian humanoid with blue scaly skin a little taller than a Jawa stood between their group and the entrance holding an E-11 blaster rifle on them. Its head was more spherical than the Coway or the Mimbanities Luke had seen and its rounded snout had a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth.

Hin growled as Kee leaned against him. {I will shred that little thing.}

“Don’t attack, Him,” Luke ordered. “Mara?”

She fought with her dread by hypothesizing on their chances. The mental gist Luke got was they depended on reinforcements for Vader’s side. “That is one of Vader’s Death Commandos,” she said out loud. “They’re nigh unstoppable and worship Vader.”

There was a rush of pride from the Commando felt through the Force because his expression did not change. Luke glanced over his shoulder at the translucent woman in white. “No tricks, huh?”

“I did not lie to you, Luke.” She moved with soundless steps over the stone floor, drawing up even with Luke. The blue glimmering line lengthened between her form and the rock fall as the red glow from the crystal grew shorter as she got closer. “Kasim of clan Baikh’vair, do you know who I am?”

Astonishment rippled with fear from the unfamiliar alien and his arms dropped to his sides as he squeaked wordlessly. The hand with the rifle managed to keep hold of it but his other hand splayed out, ready to catch himself if he fell as his eyes riveted on the translucent woman. “Maitrakh Vader’ush,” he said in a soft and gravelly voice.

Her stance shift slightly and her chin tilted higher, just like Leia’s did when she had to act the Princess. “Good, you do recognize me.”

“You are not a recording now?” Kasim said in Basic.

“In this place, I have a voice for everyone.” The woman glanced at the rest of them. “Part of the magic of the Ary’ush.”

That was not a euphemism for the Force that Ben had taught them. Luke frowned, but Mara spoke to him mentally. Ary’ush is what they call Vader, and that’s the only word I know in their language. I should have learned it.

I doubt they would have given you any pointers, Luke assured her.

Maitrakh Vader’ush—and that sounded more like a title than a name to Luke—waved her luminous hand at Luke. “Skywalker and his party are free to leave. Take the shuttle, Luke.”

“What?” came from both Luke and Kasim.

Her irritated expression still reminded him of Leia being regal but now it had a touch of Aunt Beru being right. “It has better medical supplies on board. And it has a hyperdrive, a class one hyperdrive. We can leave this planet by announcing ourselves. Take the shuttle and spare yourselves the grand larceny charge.”

Luke nodded. “Fine, we will. Let’s go.” We’ll ditch it in the next system, he told Mara’s sharp mental jab. That’ll take care of any trackers on it.

Mara’s objection faded as she nodded. Kasim put the blaster rifle back in both his hands and tucked it against his chest as he stepped out of their way. Luke lingered to take the rear as the other injured moved ahead. His head was beginning to spin just thinking about climbing over the rubble with one arm.

“Luke.” The Maitrakh Vader’ush had moved in front of him again. “May the blessing of Shiraya light your path and the Goddess of Safety secure your future.”

Neither of those deities sound familiar to Luke, but he hadn’t done much study of how other planets mythologized the Force. Still her dark eyes bored into him, she must feel it was important. “Thank you,” he finally answered.

Her smile was luminous and heartbreaking. “It’s time to let me go.” She nodded down at his chest.

He looked down. The Kaiburr crystal glowed more steadily than it had from its spot on the wall. “Oh.” He eased the Force connected to him from the crystal. The red glow between it and the woman faded and the faceted stone returned to its pulsing.

The woman’s glow shifted to blue and then she retracted, vanishing into the blue tendril that disappeared behind the rockfall.

Kasim mewled something in his language. Luke kept an eye on him but Kasim didn’t move as Luke headed to the entrance.

Before he had a chance to think about how he was supposed to climb the rubble pile now, Hin appeared over the top and vaulted down to the stone floor. He scooped the human up chiding that it was time to go before more Imperials showed up. Luke leaned against the broad, furry chest. Hin had a point and he wasn’t going to argue with the Yuzzem. The fog swirled around them as Hin carried him across the grass land clearing. The Lambda shuttle was docked behind the side of the temple where they couldn’t spot it from the transport. The repulsorlift generators were already whining.

Hin didn’t set Luke down after he charged up the entry ramp under the cockpit, but brought him to Halla sitting at an entertainment table in the right corner of the main hold. “Put him here,” she told Hin. The entry ramp sealed and Hin headed into the cockpit.

Halla buckled the seat restraint around Luke’s lap. Kee was in one of the two bunks on the opposite side of the hold. “Artoo?” Luke turned to Halla. “We can’t leave Artoo.”

“Your droid is in the cockpit with Mara. We didn’t leave it.” Halla ran a medisensor over his bleeding arm. “You can take off now!” she shouted at the cockpit.

Mara didn’t shout back, but Halla didn’t seem to care as she pulled out a hypospray from the medkit. She pressed it against his neck and injected. “What?” He managed to ask.

“Just a pain killer, Luke-boy. We’ll see if you need something to help you sleep after you get cleaned up.” A set of scissors emerged from the medkit. “Hold still for me.” She cut the damaged sleeve open all the way through the collar.

He lifted his forearm onto the pile of gauze on the table. The throbbing hadn’t lessened, but his awareness of it had dulled. The swelling had spread down into his hand and his skin color looked wrong or maybe that was just from the blood coating it.

Halla tsked as she poured a disinfectant over the still oozing wound. Luke gritted his teeth and squeezed the crystal as his nerves fired from the sting. She followed that with bacta gel around the edges and then layered bacta bandages on top, getting them tight to his skin without squeezing his forearm too badly. She rotated his arm so his thumb pointed upward and then slipped the stabilizer around his forearm. It cuffed him tightly and the pressure eased the throb.

“Feeling better, yet?” Halla asked.

“I don’t know.” Luke answered honestly. The sublights fell away and the hum of the hyperdrive took over. “I feel filthy.” He set the crystal gingerly on the table.

“Luckily, we got a ‘fresher. Let’s get you into the sonic shower.” The old woman helped him into the small chamber across from Kee’s bunk.

He stared at his haggard face in the utilitarian mirror provided. He needed to sleep; how long had it been since his last nap? Before the Coway? Get clean first, Aunt Beru never let him go to bed dirty.

The knock of the door surprised him. Halla had a stack of black cloth. “Found clean clothes. Looks like they’ll fit you.”

His nose wrinkled. “Imperial?”

“Civilian actually.” She set them on a small shelf. “Let me help you with that.” She quickly freed his right arm from the miner suit and left him again.

He managed to get out of the rest of it with his one working hand and got into the sonic. It was a much fancier unit than the one they had had on the Lars homestead. Even better than the units the Darklighters had at theirs. The grime and sweat evaporated quickly and it almost felt like the ultrasonic vibrations gave his muscles a little massage too. The new clothes were black ship-knits and the softest material Luke had ever touched in his life. Perfect for sleeping in. He pulled on the basics, trousers, and sleeveless undertunic. They all fit perfectly.

He left the refresher and headed to the unoccupied bunk, pausing to look in the open storage compartment between the two bunks. It held several all black outfits all sized to fit him. Vader wanted to make up for the fact that nobody gave him back his things on the Death Star by buying new clothes when the Sith Lord took him prisoner again? Luke gave up on trying to figure it out and just thanked the Force for clean clothes.

He climbed into the bunk and it felt so good to lay back. Halla had piled more fabric on the entertainment table. It reminded him of Aunt Beru’s sewing pile.

Halla bustled past the bunks, heading into the cockpit. “Come on, Mara-girl. Your turn for a sonic.”

“Don’t touch anything, Hin. Please. Artoo is flying right now.”

Hin growled yes at her, but Mara kept glancing over her shoulder as she leaned on Halla and hobbled to the refresher. Luke frowned as Halla left her there to snatch the clothing off the table. He felt Mara’s worry but she was keeping what she worried about to herself. Maybe he should ask Him to not sit in the cockpit.

Halla moved from the refresher door to the wall between it and the entertainment table. “You still awake, Luke-boy?”

“So far.”

She brought over a drink bulb. “Chug that down. They didn’t stock supplies for the autochef.”

It was some kind of protein drink. The flavor could use some help. But his arm needed the food to heal, so he chugged the thick liquid down. Halla took the container once he was finished. He stared at the bunk’s ceiling and continued to swallow to get the taste off his tongue.

Mara opened the refresher door. “Halla? I can’t get the bacta bandages down my leg.”

She stopped cleaning the entertainment table and bustled straight to Mara. “You patched your stomach? Come lay down. I’ll get your leg.”

Luke blinked as she limped out of the refresher. The black undertunic that fit him was baggy on her, and the black trousers were cinched in at her waist with a belt and stopped in a jagged cut at her mid-thigh. He had never seen that much skin exposed on anyone’s legs before. The girls who wore shorter skirts on Tatooine made sure they hit the knee and wore knee-high boots to protect from the sand. Mara’s skin below the waist was paler than his. He wanted to reach out and feel if it was as soft as it looked.

“You have seen my legs before, Farmboy.” Mara snapped and her unvocalized worry reverberated in that snap.

“Not like they are now.” But he dragged his expression up to her unhappy face and Halla’s unimpressed one. She had taken her hair loose from the tight braid that had held all her hair against her scalp that she had pulled it into when it was wet. Now her red-gold hair sported sharp kinks instead of curls. He shoved over closer to the bunk wall. “Come lay down.”

She frowned as she glanced at the cockpit. “I have to fly. You can’t, not with your arm.”

“Artoo’s on the scomp link?” he asked. She nodded. “He’ll alert us. Come rest until we have to deal with sublights.”

Mara didn’t answer but she didn’t fight as Halla helped her to the bunk. She winced as she bent her left leg to crawl in. Luke felt the painful pull separating the charred skin and oozing wetness in his own leg, reached up without thinking, wrapped his right arm around her, and drew her down to rest on his chest. She settled against him without protest, but she didn’t relax.

Concern radiated from Halla while she shifted Mara’s leg. “By the Force, how did you sit on it that long, Mara-girl?” She turned back to the refresher.

Mara’s worry spike again, only this time Luke felt her self-reproach batter it down.

He rested his arm across her back careful not to catch her hair and squeezed her exposed shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing.”

She wouldn’t be acting like this over nothing. But he didn’t know what he could be blaming herself for. “Mara, are you berating yourself for getting hurt by Vader?” His voice rose with incredulousness. She had held her own against Vader and considering how much dueling practice they have had in the last two months since training began and how little they had done on Mimban since they crashed, she couldn’t be angry at herself over her performance.

“Not that. It’s stupid.” Her hand on her chest curled into a fist.

Halla set the medkit onto the bunk within her reach. “I’m gonna put all this bacta salve on your leg plus the bacta bandages.”

Mara stiffened more despite Luke not knowing how that was possible. Worry and a trickle of fear and loss leaked out from her tired shields. She needed a dose of the painkiller next as long as it didn’t affect her piloting.

Luke hugged Mara tighter as Halla slathered the bacta salve down Mara’s leg. What was making her afraid? They had a plan for Imperial trackers.

She burrowed her face against his chest. Her mental wail escaped into the bond with the physical pain of pressure against the burn. Dancing is gone! I can’t dance with a ruined leg!

“Mara!” Luke had meant to sound accusatory, but Mara didn’t need much help tipping into a shame spiral.

I’m alive. It doesn’t matter. Pain means living so it doesn’t matter. I’ll never dance again. I’m alive and it doesn’t matter that I can’t!

“It does matter,” Luke said firmly. Halla looked up at them shrewdly putting together what she couldn’t hear in the Force, but she didn’t say anything. “You love to dance,” he continued, “And it was beautiful. And nobody is taking something you love away from you.”

Mara’s inhale rattled her chest. “You can’t promise that.”

“If the right now bacta doesn’t fix your leg, Too-Onebee will. And if he can’t, we’ll find a specialist who can.”

Halla adhered the first bacta bandage to the beginning of the burn just under the hem of the cut trousers. “You’re talking a lot of credits, Luke-boy. How you gonna pay for it?”

“I’m an outlaw Rebel and a Jedi, remember? I’ll make them take care of Mara. She deserves it.” He craned his neck and planted a kiss on the crown of her head. You saved me, and I will save you. Always.

Her fist uncurled and she snaked that arm around his chest to hug him tightly.