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Ends of Smoky Days

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Shmi never quite remembered how it happened. She saw bodies – smelled them, first, but it was the sight that burned itself into her mind. She couldn't count them, there were too many, and she was busy being prodded towards the other survivors.

There weren't many. Perhaps thirty or forty in all, two of them earthwalkers of about her own age. They were all her own age, she realised vaguely, shackles clamping about her numb wrists. All girls, too. Young, pretty girls.

The rest were stacked in piles on either side of the road. Occasionally, Shmi recognised her fellow skywalkers, each one accompanied by the corpses of a few massive, pig-like aliens. They hadn't fallen easily: they'd tried to defend their people, had killed dozens of their attackers. It simply – wasn't enough.

Two earthwalkers and Shmi. That was all that remained of the anakyria, the chosen of the Force. She was the last skywalker in the galaxy.

Shmi never saw her mother's body, or her brothers' or grandfather's. She couldn't regret it, not when she saw her sister sprawled across a heap of corpses, dark hair matted with blood and mud, eyes still narrowed in grim determination.

The corpses weren't Alsaraic. They'd died with bugging eyes and hands clutching at their throats, and she didn't need to see Lukia's spread hand to guess what she'd done to them. But even Lukia had died eventually.

Shmi walked on, in such a haze of terror and grief that she didn't see anything before her own eyes. Somebody behind her stumbled, and Shmi's shoulders jerked back.

She could never say why she remembered that.

All thirty-seven of them were herded into a transport of some kind. By the time it reached its destination, a week later, they'd stopped four times and added almost a hundred more girls. They were packed too tightly to avoid one another's eyes, but nobody spoke. They simply lay together, still and terrified under the eyes of – whatever they were.

None of them could hear anything beyond the walls of the transport, but Shmi felt it all: thousands and thousands of voices screaming in the Force, then dying away. She recoiled back, the very air burning her throat and chest, while one of the earthwalkers collapsed against her side and the other choked back a sob.

Shmi didn't know what to do, so she put her arms around them.

I'm sorry. I can't save anyone. I can't make this better.

The first earthwalker, the younger, slipped her arm about Shmi's waist. The elder simply leaned on her shoulder.

I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.

Eventually, the girls were all unloaded from the transport and marched through two tall, blank doors. They were obviously expected; several people came forward to look at them, examining their faces and bodies. One of these, a tall humanoid who seemed to be in charge, argued with their captors for a few minutes. Shmi didn't understand anything that passed between them, but he evidently won the argument, for the – raiders? whatever they were – left almost immediately thereafter.

A few of the girls looked relieved. A rather greater number looked terrified, and Shmi couldn't help but notice that they were the only ones who seemed to actually comprehend what was being said.

The new set of captors conferred among themselves for awhile, then barked out commands in clipped Basic. Shmi and the earthwalkers, automatically falling back on the habits of command, translated for the Alsaraian girls.

“He's putting us in three groups. You and you and you, stand over there – you here in the middle – and you all, over there.”

The last line, which seemed to be composed of the plainest girls, was quickly forced downstairs. The first, which included both earthwalkers, was prodded in the opposite direction, a little more gently. Shmi never saw them again and never knew what happened to them.

Her own group, by far the smallest, was led into the central chamber. People of varying species milled around, talking among themselves, listening to something that passed as music, or grovelling before the large, slug-like creature sprawled across a high dais. Shmi, her fear numbing itself into a sort of dull apprehension, kept her eyes fixed on the floor.

The remaining fifteen were marched before the creature. It spoke in yet another language Shmi didn't understand, waving its – appendages – at two of the girls, who were immediately dragged away. The rest were led out and upstairs, to a long, well-guarded hall.

The humanoid leader scowled at one of the guards. “Here's Gardulla's newest batch. Where do you want me to put them?”

“I'll need names,” said the guard, “for the accounts.”

“Ask 'em yourself. I've got work to do.”

He and his men left. The girls paid no attention, instead fixing their attention on the newest set of wardens. Shmi alone spoke Basic, and she couldn't translate for most of her fellow prisoners, but the guard managed to make himself clear enough.

“Ada Leafbringer.”

“Raina Blackmere.”

“Eos Miller.”

“Laryhi Sungazer.”

For a moment, the horrors of the first day paraded themselves before her eyes: the piles upon piles of corpses, the destruction of her home and family and people, the remnants of her fellow anakyria, defiled and disregarded. Forgotten. She set her jaw and looked at the guard.

“Shmi Skywalker,” she said.