He was cold, everywhere except his right hand, which was hot and throbbing. The winds below the strange city in the clouds were grasping his hair and clothes, calling him to join their play, to let go again. To fall. (No. I am-)
He opened his eyes and looked down, into the swirling mist below. He was alone. Ben wasn’t coming, had warned him about that, but Leia… She had heard him, of that he was sure, but instead of help he received only a scrambled mix of feelings, of escaping and chasing at the same time, of pursuit, of desperate, burning love… Not for him, apparently. A small part of him hoped that meant she was busy rescuing Han, but the pain and exhaustion and wrenching, soul deep sorrow robbed him of his usual generosity. If she was busy saving Han, she had to leave him behind (and isn’t that the story of his life?).
No help was coming.
He shivered harder, feeling the oppressive Darkness reaching for him, embracing him and leaving its seeds behind his eyes, in his clenched, bloodied teeth. Darkness and coldness and a scorching, hungry possessiveness, that was his opponent, his (so longed for!) father. The enemy his teachers were training him to kill.
How was it possible?
It was a small though, small and quiet like a weeping of an abandoned child, and just as old. It had always been with him, ever since he could understand that every child had a family when he had had only relatives, ever since he had been called an orphan and laughed at. That small, lost though: why didn’t he have parents? How could they just leave him there (amid the harsh, scalding sands, in indifferent space where planets should be, lost among the dying swamps-) alone?
How did that happen?
It rang through him again, old and powerful. How did this happen? How did a Jedi Knight become a Sith Lord? How did a dear friend and a cunning warrior become this burning darkness? (Oh, Ben, such lies, so many lies!) How did a freed slave become the Emperor’s right hand, his enforcer over the enslaved galaxy? He had heard so many tales about his father, from his Aunt (rarely from his Uncle), from Ben, from older Rebels still remembering the dashing hero of the Clone Wars, all of them describing someone a son could be proud of, and not all of the stories could be lies, some of them must, simply must have been true… So how did this happen?
And in this hour, bleeding and alone but for the Force, lost and desolate and denied help, Luke Skywalker knew better than to beg for aid. The universe didn’t work like that. He simply closed his eyes and asked for understanding, if salvation was beyond his reach. Closed his eyes, trusted the Force and-
The first thing he was aware of was pain, in his hand, in his head, in his muscles… and somewhere deeper, beyond his bones. The Force sang with his agony, amplifying it and sending it back, cold and merciless, and he was too weak, too stunned to rein it in. He screamed.
Then hands were on him, humanoid hands and cold droids’ limbs, holding him down, restraining, loud voices talking, incomprehensive noise. Someone forcibly opened his right eye, a blinding light piercing him to the very core, sending fresh waves of agony into his brain, too much, it was too much- He tried to move away, too struggle free, but they were holding him too tightly, metal restrains joining hard hands, immobilising him, he couldn’t move, couldn’t escape and the light and the noise were shredding his skin, he couldn’t- couldn’t- there was nothing left-
Nothing but the Force.
He roared his defiance, his pain, taking it and sending it out like a blast, like a fierce wind, a breath of a krayt dragon, unstoppable, and finally, finally the hands were gone, the light was gone, the noise dying down to groans and screech of compressing durasteel. Still he couldn’t move, the metal restrains at his wrists, his ankles, around his chest, he couldn’t breathe, a cold collar around his neck, constricting- He screamed again, seeing the shackles in his mind and tearing them away from himself, destroying, sending them into the walls, into the people that had just begin to raise, the air suddenly rich with screams, not his own, with scent of blood-
He could move.
He rolled onto his side, his ribs grinding together, his knee not moving properly, but now the Force was moving through him, with him, obeying his commands, sure and cool like a stream, a roaring river, powerful and lethal. He got onto his knees, forehead against firm surface, and tried to get his hands under himself, but something was wrong with his right hand, something not even the Force could solve. He opened his eyes, angled his head to see what-
His right hand wasn’t there.
He stared at the blackened stump. His right hand wasn’t there, his arm ended at his wrist, where the sharp pain was coming from, some form of dressing hanging from one side, apparently not finished, not covering the black, cauterised edges-
His right hand wasn’t there.
A sudden pinch in his back, a quiet noise. Someone at his back, swatted like a mynock in an instant, but too late, he hadn’t noticed the thread in his shock until too late, and now, now-
Now he fell into darkness and knew no more.
He drifted. At times, he was submerged in the inky blackness, colder than any night on Tatooine, colder than the open space, than the death of millions… At other times he was drifting, almost surfacing, almost there- and there would be loud, disbelieving noises, a feeling of panic in the Force, and he would be pulled into the darkness again, down, down, where there was nothing...
He was getting close, he could feel it, his awareness returning, the outside world getting closer, clearer, and this time there were no noises, no fear, no one to oppose him, he would make it, he would-
He laid still. With an enormous effort of will, he laid still and kept his breathing deep and rhythmical, his frame relaxed, his face slack. It was a trick all Rebel fighters were taught (if they lived long enough) in case of capture and possible interrogation. It had taken him ages to master it, but he had, with Leia’s whispered recollections of her time at the Death Star ringing in his ears, he had, and now it would help him, give him time to orient himself, to reach out with the Force to know what his closed eyes couldn’t see.
His body, mostly healed save for the missing right hand (don’t think about it, don’t lose your concentration, later-), laid on a narrow, soft surface, no binders anywhere on him, no shackles, no drugs in his system. Further, a small room, two exits, both locked, filtered, odourless air, no sound from outside getting in (no sounds getting out?). No faint vibrations of hyperspace flight, no subtle pull of a false gravity, so probably not a Star Destroyer, no (medical, interrogation?) droids present, no organic life-forms either, except-
Except a human male standing between him and one of the exists, radiating calm and trying to appear nonthreatening, blazing in the Force.
In a flash, he was upright and away, in the corner of the room furthest from the man, the Force drawn around him tight like a shield, his knees lightly bend, his shoulders snapping with tension, light on the balls of his feet, ready for anything, for fight, for pain, for snap of the red lightsabre (for this is your destiny, my-), for-
The man hadn’t moved, hadn’t outwardly reacted at all. The Force around him remained calm, passive, not the cold raging inferno Luke had been expecting. The man-
The man was not Darth Vader.
Luke took a deep breath, then another, adrenaline making his vision swim alarmingly. He studied the stranger without relaxing his defensive stance, taking in the brown and sand-coloured robes (unsettlingly familiar), no visible weapons, the caramel skin and light hair, deep wrinkles on a narrow face. Non-threatening. Another breath, another long look, finally beginning to think, not just react, noticing things beyond the obvious: no visible weapons, seeming relaxed, but his stance was subtly balanced, ready to move in an instant, his hands in plain view but free. His back was to the door, beyond which many life-forms seemed to be mingling, possibly awaiting orders. So, not outwardly aggressive, but ready. The Force around the man was deep and calm, in a very deliberate way, almost smoothing, subtly influencing. Influencing Luke.
With a shudder he abruptly remembered (too late!) to shield, to make himself small and insignificant in the Force, the very first thing master Yoda had taught him, the most vital one in a galaxy dominated by the Sith. A long blink, the last deep breath tasting the Force and he was gone, his presence hidden, his perception of the Force basic and passive, his signature as common and easy to overlook as a small bat on Dagobah or any other young man in a crowd. Hidden. Safe.
Of course, by then it was already too late. The stranger had felt him just as surely as he had felt the stranger, but at least now he wouldn’t be able to use the Force to read or influence Luke. Hopefully.
Long minutes passed with the man observing Luke and Luke getting his bearing, slowly uncurling from his huddled stance, testing the strength of his muscles (not good), scanning his surroundings (no viable weapons or means of escape), looking anywhere but at his right hand, trying to think. The man didn’t look or feel like an Imperial, but that meant nothing, the Alliance had many enemies and even more opportunistic bounty-hunters tailing after them (and the reward for Luke was staggeringly high, with a surprising, deeply worrying “alive only” addendum. At least now he knew why-). But his Force presence, not dark, but not hidden either… How…
“Greetings, young one,” the man eventually broke the silence. “There is no reason to be alarmed. No one here intends you any harm.”
His voice was as serene as his presence, Basic spoken with a smooth, lilting voice, his Coruscanti accent noticeable. Luke had only ever heard Mon Mothma speak like that, culture and sureness (and entitlement, he sometimes couldn’t help but add) dripping from every rounded syllable. He didn’t respond, didn’t react at all.
After a long pause the stranger continued:
“I am Jedi Master Ahimga Nesh’d. I am here to help you, in any way I can.”
A Jedi Master? What…
Again, he didn’t react, this time more out of shock than anything else. A Jedi Master? Still alive? So strong, blazing in the Force, not hiding in some remote corner of the galaxy? Admitting to the fact?!
The man (Master Nesh’d?) waited another long moment, then spoke again, this time in a series of clicks and rolling words that Luke recognised as Mando’a. A few minutes of silence, then another language and Luke knew enough of Corellian to comprehend that the stranger was repeating his earlier words, apparently believing Luke hadn’t understood him.
A deep wave of relief almost knocked Luke down on his knees.
His shields were working. He had never had the chance to test them beyond Master Yoda’s examinations, hadn’t even tried against Vader, not when he was willingly walking into a trap, and now, remaining opaque to this force-sensitive man (could he actually be a Jedi Master?) was a welcome confirmation. The stranger couldn’t read him, couldn’t feel his comprehension in the Force. He was speaking again, this time in a hissing language Luke didn’t recognise, so he didn’t even know which language Luke spoke…
He didn’t know who Luke is.
Not an Imperial, then. Nor a bounty hunter either, probably not a smuggler nor an informant, not someone interested in galactic politics at all. Once the Empire had his name and face both had been widely publicised, accompanied by the lengthy list of his crimes (starting with joining the Rebellion and destroying the Death Star, ah, excuse him, an Imperial research station manned entirely by civilians) and the astronomical bounty on his capture. Being part of any undercover missions after that was right on impossible; everyone knew who he was. Well. Apparently, everyone except for this supposed Jedi Master.
What was going on?
Only one way to find out.
Jedi Master Nesh’d was deeply troubled. He kept his face impassive with force of long habit, his senses calm, but watching this strange young man, barely more than a youngling, huddle and tense and wield the Force with ruthless, half-mad vehemence, he felt deeply, profoundly troubled.
Another long silence, and he was going to run out of languages he spoke with any efficiency soon. Where had this wild youth came from?
“I speak Basic,” came a hoarse whisper. The child winced and swallowed, his discomfort obvious.
“That’s good news, indeed,” he allowed, wondering why the admission was so long coming. Patience, he reminded himself. He nodded to the table by the far wall. “There is some water and light food rations here, if you care for anything. I understand you have been unconscious for a long time, you must be thirsty.”
The child tiled his had but didn’t look, made no move to take any of the offered water. His eyes were dark and wary.
“How long was I here?”
Nesh’d considered forcing the issue, for the raspy whisper was almost painful to listen to, but decided against it. He could feel there would be bigger battles coming soon.
“Ten standard days, as I have been informed.”
Another strained silence. The child kept clenching and unclenching his left fist, perhaps unconsciously, his right hand carefully kept back.
“Why was I kept under for so long? My… injuries surely hadn’t been that severe.”
Nesh’d instantly noticed the distinction, the subtle accusation. Careful now, the Force all but whispered to him. Be careful how you deal with this injured rancor hatchling.
“It seems we have different definitions of severe, young one,” he replied, glancing meaningfully at the bandaged stump.
Wrong thing to say, he realised instantly. The child didn’t answer the unasked question, as Nesh’d had hoped. Instead he stilled for a second, then moved slightly, taking a minuscule step forward, posture tensing and bending anew, angling to the left, no longer purely defensive. The air seemed to turn colder, and through the child’s Force signature remained maddeningly obscure, some old, nearly forgotten instinct warned Nesh’d of danger.
Which was patently ridiculous. The child was still exhausted, deeply hurt, barely staying upright and missing his right hand, and he posed no possible threat to an experienced Jedi Master. Yet the feeling persisted, sending a cold shudder down his spine, almost like-
The Dark Side.
He took an involuntary step backward, studying the child again, all senses strained to any hint of Force presence… Nothing. But he had felt him earlier and no, the child was no Sith, not even the apprentice, powerful and guarded as he undoubtedly was. Even so, the Darkness seemed to cling to him, pooling in his eyes, along his sinewy arms, jealous and eager.
Troubling indeed. What had happened to this child?
“Forgive me,” he started again. Patience, he must have patience. “You are quite correct, your injuries, while serious, had not demanded such a prolonged period of unconsciousness. However, I understand that upon being discovered and provided treatment, you became violent and injured the first response team. After that, they felt it was in everyone’s best interest to keep you insensible until suitable precautions could be taken.”
“And are you?” the child seemed almost… amused and resigned at the same time. What an odd combination. “Are you the suitable precaution?”
“I should hope,” he spoke slowly, wary of misstepping again “that your initial reaction was merely a result of shock and not malice, and that no such precautions will be necessary now.”
The child was silent for a discouragingly long moment, then uttered a deep sigh and slowly moved back to the narrow med-bed, leaning upon it, obviously already tired by their short conversation. The pallor of his face was alarmingly grey along the edges, his lips compressed into a thin line of exhaustion. Still, his eyes remained trained on Nesh’d, sharp as ever.
“Are they alright?” he asked abruptly. “I haven’t done any permanent damage, have I?”
He appeared quite genuine in his inquiry, and Nesh’d felt himself relax at long last. No, troubled and frankly alarming as the youth was, he was no Sith.
“You need not worry yourself,” he assured, “all of them will recover with time and care.”
Quite a lot of both in some cases, but the child was obviously burdened enough, no sense in heaping more upon these bruised shoulders.
“Why are you here, then? If not to…” the child waved his left arm feebly, apparently not willing to voice the unpleasant alternative.
“To help you, as I have told you already,” he took a few slow steps towards the child, stopping at once when he abruptly moved away, swaying alarmingly on his feet. Stubborn. “But I believe that’s quite enough for today, you are still fatigued and need more rest.”
“Why are you here?” a slight lift of his chin as the child entirely ignored his comment. “How are you here? Am I supposed to believe that you just miraculously happened to be here when you were needed?”
“The will of the Force may seem miraculous indeed,” he allowed a warm amusement to colour his tone and the child blushed, catching the gentle rebuke. He grew sombre quickly. “But you must realize that whatever happened to you had caused deep ripples in the Force, a disturbance unlike any I have ever felt. It was powerful enough to be felt in Nebiosa system, where I was at the time, to be felt in Coruscant, and probably even further through the galaxy. I was nearest to it, to you, and so I was send to investigate.”
“Send by who?”
“The Jedi High Council, of course.”
“Of course” the child’s voice was truly faint now, and Nesh’d took another involuntary step forward. This has gone on long enough.
“While the Council is most interested in hearing your tale, it can wait for another day,” he said while slowly moving around the med-bed, hoping that- yes, the child took a few steps away from him, closer to the bed and support it offered. “You still have much recuperating before you, and I am not going anywhere. Rest, child.”
“Don’t call me that!” the rebuke was instantaneous, almost violent. The wisps of Darkness clinging to the child pulsed, greedy.
He replied slowly, saddened anew at the child’s pain, wondering what laid in his past that such a simple name could provoke so strong a reaction. What experience, what loss had tainted him so?
“When you are as old as I am, I am afraid that all not grey and bend with age will seem young to you, as well. And-” he couldn’t help but add, with little hope “you have not given me your name, young one.”
The child froze, weight leaning against the med-bed, arms tense, head bend so that the unkept hair and shadows obscured his face from Nesh’d. In the sudden silence something unfurled in the Force, something old, old and great and monstrous. Nesh’s knew, with sudden, frightening clarity, that here was a moment of truth, of change, of things being decided by one to affect all. The galaxy held its breath.
“My name. My name…” the laugh that escaped the child was a truly horrible sound. He lifted his head slightly, an almost proud gesture, and there was a terrible gentleness in his eyes. Slowly, he smiled.
Nesh’d had to avert his eyes.
“You may call me Lukka. Lukka Ekkreth.”