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Master Skywalker’s eyes were wrong, Tionne had said.

The whole lonely trajectory to Yavin IV, Mara had tried to convince herself the woman was overreacting. The emergency channel had wailed on her comm when she wasn’t far from the jungle moon where Skywalker had set up his Jedi Academy. When Mara answered, more curious than alarmed, the normally subdued student on the other end had been distraught.

Mara had only met the Rindaoan a couple times, but had placed her confidently into a “practical” category. As the school’s stalwart historian and unanointed den mother, the last thing Mara had expected was the barely suppressed hysteria that came crackling over the light years separating them.

There had to be an explanation.

Considering the possibility of a practical joke—although she doubted Tionne would have sanctioned such a thing—Mara listened, fingers drumming against the pilot’s console. It soon became clear why the students had contacted her instead of Skywalker’s sister or some New Republic-affiliated confidant for assistance.

But if Skywalker had really lost his mind, had some kind of a nervous breakdown, she also probably wasn’t the right person for the job. Mara wasn’t exactly brimming with empathy. Still, he could be called a friend at this point, and she was discreet. If the vaunted Jedi Master needed some sort of intervention, far better for her to get him to one of Karrde’s off-grid psychcenters than back to Coruscant where the story would lead the HoloNews.

The Academy’s future was not truly in question, to Mara’s way of thinking, but there was still resistance to, and criticism of, Skywalker’s methods: how he recruited, the age and number of his students, how he had already publicly discarded some of the old Jedi Order’s tenets (the whole galaxy had seen those holos of him making moon eyes at Gaerial Captison, for Force’s sake—Farmboy was many things but artful was not one of them), and how he’d decided to dedicate himself to teaching a whole passel of apprentices rather than jetting around the universe on diplomatic missions with one fledgling Jedi by his side.

She paused her reflection to check the heading. The flash of warning lights indicated she was already pushing the ship beyond its recommended speed. The Headhunter could handle it; Mara wasn’t worried. She flipped the switch to silence the alerts. The hull creaked a protest of her uncaring dismissal of its limitations. Great, she was hearing things now.

Mara pinched the bridge of her nose, inhaling slowly, listening. Now the ship was silent. Quiet like the star-streaked void it travelled through.

Skywalker still left the Academy at times, for bureaucratic reasons. Perhaps too frequently for his students’ tastes, but, Mara admitted grudgingly, it was usually at Mon Mothma’s explicit request. The old Rebellion leader still wielded a strong influence over the Jedi, and of course he was a pushover for anything his twin requested.

The latest scandal bringing mists of uncertainty into Skywalker’s orbit was the loss of not one but two students. Vague reports about Kyp Durron’s corruption had reached Karrde’s group, fueling rumors that the young man had fallen to the Dark. And everyone knew about the earlier death…

Having two out of twelve apprentices turn to the Dark Side barely out of the gate didn’t speak particularly well to Skywalker’s instructive abilities. As grudgingly high as her opinion was of the man, he’d clearly bitten off more than he could chew, and Mara had changed her mind six times already about going to the praxeum for the weeks she had free this quarter.

She was tempted, she had to acknowledge, by the strange sense of obligation he’d instilled in her with the gift of his old lightsaber. It bothered Mara, the feeling like he wanted something by offering it, no matter what he said. To be fair, Skywalker never pushed, but she felt the gravity of unspoken expectations nonetheless.

Mara palmed her lightsaber—his lightsaber—and circled her thumb slowly around the pommel. Tionne had barely made sense, but she’d begged Mara to come. There was no other word for it.

The ridges of the grip felt somehow reassuring, and Mara looked down at the antiquated weapon between her fingers. The hilt was worn, rubbed down unevenly by sweat, callouses, and time. It wasn’t flashy or impractical. The beveled emitter was almost accidentally elegant. She tossed it to her other hand, then back to the right. It was a good blade, no matter its origins.

At the time, Skywalker’s generosity had warmed her, made her feel a level of acceptance and accomplishment that she tried to deny. But now she questioned his motivations, and her own wisdom in accepting it. Mara had almost decided to return it with an apology, an excuse about having no time to train. Until now, she had resisted, knowing Skywalker well enough to believe he’d refuse. And she didn’t want to insult him. She knew the significance of the presentation at the time, despite his casual manner. It symbolized something—a truce, perhaps. Newfound respect. Whatever it was, it had been given to her like everything else Skywalker did, with sincerity and goodwill.

What have you gotten yourself into, Farmboy?

Mara kicked her boots up on the side of the viewport and leaned back in the captain’s chair of the utilitarian ship, reattaching the hilt to her belt. Reaching for the half-empty, tepid mug of caf, she took a long draught. The starlines were cold and crisp, seeming to stream too slowly. She glanced over the cockpit controls. The hyperdrive was already at its limit. Nothing to do but wait.

Closing her eyes, Mara let her head hit the back of the chair as she replayed the principle points of the conversation in her memory.

72 hours ago, Tionne had lamented, Master Skywalker had been himself—“right as a rib-cat,” a colloquialism Mara had never appreciated. She didn’t mind the creatures—they kept a ship free of pests, if nothing else. In any case, for no remarkable event or reason, Skywalker had left the Academy grounds without explanation two days ago. Tionne made excuses for him, “Going off by himself more often since…well, you know.”

Mara did know, at least one reason.

Gantoris.

Losing a student had almost certainly shaken Luke’s will to teach. After the self-doubt and sadness had passed, he’d apparently managed to see the stupidity of abandoning his students. If he wasn’t there to instruct them in the ways of the Force, they would be even more lost than before he’d enlisted them to his cause.

And, Mara thought, a small smile touching her lips, Skywalker was the very definition of a cockeyed optimist. She had faith in his stubbornness, perhaps more than his methods.

But the scar went deep, and Skywalker, well…he just seemed to feel everything unfiltered, without even trying to temper it. Loss, sorrow, fear, pain, always appeared nakedly in his features, plainly shining in his Force presence. He didn’t often hide from emotions. The smile left her face, and Mara sat up, suddenly weary.

In any case, this time when Skywalker returned to the ancient ziggurat housing his school, he was “different.” Tionne’s voice had broken, indicating the extent of the euphemism. The adjective had been injected with horror, and Mara had patiently waited, knowing more was coming.

She hadn’t been prepared for Tionne’s worrisome summary of the last two standard days. Even before the woman had stopped speaking, Mara had punched up the nav and locked in the course for Yavin IV. Grim alarm worked its way through her mind. What Tionne was describing, even if exaggerated, couldn’t get out without damaging Skywalker’s reputation and the Academy. More importantly, the idiot could hurt somebody. He was stronger than his students, naturally. Of course, they weren’t helpless. Yet this rash of unprovoked incidents and tempestuous behavior…

The good news was the Jedi Master was apparently self-isolating, most of the time. Very good news, since whenever he was in contact with someone, he apparently scared the Force out of them. Kirana Ti swore she saw him slam a chittering woolamander against a tree, smashing its skull open. Streen claimed Luke had threatened him with a lit saber, and Dorsk 81, the clone student, refused to go near his teacher, and wouldn’t say why.

Mara sighed, sitting up and checking the estimated time of arrival before settling back again, draining the rest of the sludgy caf. It hadn’t stopped there.

Most disturbing of all was Tionne’s report that Luke’s R2 unit had disappeared. When questioned, Skywalker was entirely unconcerned, saying it would turn up. Some of the students had started a search, but hadn’t been able to find anything. It was not a detail Mara could see anyone inventing to enrich a story, and ultimately what had made up her mind.

The annoying, rude, bucket of bolts was Skywalker’s best friend in the world, practically grafted to his side. He loved it, Mara thought with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. For him to not be remotely upset at Artoo’s absence was completely out of character, and indicated to her something much worse than a bout of depression or need to vent.

But now she was here. The proximity alert blipped as the ship left hyperspace. Mara welcomed the distraction from her thoughts as she went through the arrival checks and headed into Yavin IV’s atmosphere. Perhaps it was her imagination, but the formerly vital flora flickered desolate, faded shades of green and brown as the transport descended. Had there been a drought?

As the thrusters scorched the jungle floor—the old landing pad already overgrown from whatever supply ship last visited—she saw a familiar silhouette through the viewport.

There’s our problem now.

The primary’s daylight heat was more than enough to keep one’s head warm, but Skywalker had his robe’s hood up. He stood like a ghost at the far edge of the temple property, hundreds of meters from the small group lining the landing pad.

A shiver climbed Mara’s back when she left the cockpit. She felt only slightly ridiculous as she double-checked her lightsaber and blaster before heading down the narrow gangway.

Tionne was waiting, her long silver hair ethereal and lovely as always, along with Kirana Ti and a few other students she didn’t know well. Mara managed a smile, remembering how troubled the woman had been on the comm, and turned her eyes in the direction where she’d spotted their cloaked teacher from the ship.

Where had Skywalker disappeared to? She’d just seen him. Reading the question on Mara’s face, Tionne pointed with her angular chin towards the untamed plants fringing the training grounds.

Squinting against the midday glare, she glimpsed his hooded form vanish into the green chaos beyond.

Skywalker wasn’t just not welcoming her—he was actively avoiding her.

Mara’s fingers twitched at her side, an oppressive weight settling into her bones. The unease she’d felt before landing took root in her stomach, festering like undercooked drejil. Something was definitely not right.

“Mara…” It was the Dathomirian woman who spoke first. “Thank you for coming.”

The gratitude in the words felt horribly misplaced. What could she do that they hadn’t? Skywalker apparently didn’t even wish to see her. And she had even less Jedi training than his students did. Mara blinked, trying to come up with an appropriate response. Her normal toughness deserted her. Maybe this had been a mistake.

“I was planning on it anyway. Just came a little sooner, that’s all.” She forced another smile, trying to put some reassurance into it, and laid a hand on Tionne’s shoulder. The historian looked shell-shocked. “Come on, I could use a caf.” And then I’ll sort this out, she finished silently.

Mara shook her head to clear it, shaking hands and smiling as the other students greeted her carefully, and followed them into the temple.

If any had instead pursued their Master’s figure into the jungle, they would have seen the nebula orchids wither as he passed. His charnel shade cast a spell of dusty death that afflicted all life unfortunate enough to line his path, from pink salamanders drowning in puddles to opaline piranha-beetles falling out of the air.

~~~

Three standard hours later, the huge orange gas giant hung lower in the sky, and Skywalker hadn’t come back.

Much to Tionne’s discomfort, Mara had entered his private quarters, looking for some hint as to the personality shift that the Jedi seemed to have undergone in recent days.

Skywalker’s room wasn’t as spartan as she would have expected. The lived-in, domestic ambiance was aided by the presence of various personal effects set around the space. A child’s drawing of an X-Wing on flimsy was affixed to the stone wall near the window, no doubt one of the Solo children’s efforts, and two ancient texts were set by the bedside atop an battered datapad. A potted plant that looked suspiciously like a funnel flower struggled for life in the corner. A mini holoprojector was propped up on a stone ledge, making Mara wonder if the Jedi Master was in the habit of watching holos in bed. The bed itself was made to military regulation smoothness, somehow austere in a way the rest of the room wasn’t.

She wondered how he was sleeping these days.

The closet was more full than she would have expected as well. Skywalker tended to favor black or Jedi robes, but there was a wide range of casual and formal wear hanging in no particular order in the cramped space. Probably his sister’s influence, Mara thought, not unkindly. The Jedi wasn’t what she would consider a paragon of fashion on a typical day, but at the New Republic galas where she’d run into him, she had to admit he always cleaned up nicely.

She was getting off track. Suddenly, Mara felt a tickle at the back of her neck. She spun around, hand at her hilt, to see Kam Solusar standing there. The tall man stood stiffly, dark circles beneath his brown eyes. Close-cropped white hair covered his scalp with uniform spikiness, making him look more like a Grav-ball Federation sports star than a Jedi trainee.

“Hi Mara,” he said quietly. “Tionne said you’d be here.”

“Investigating,” she answered, feeling slightly defensive. How long had he been watching her? It wasn’t like her to let someone get the jump on her. Why had she been fixated on Skywalker’s wardrobe anyway?

“Right.” Kam smiled, and it wasn’t snide, so Mara relaxed, shoulders loosening along with her hand. “I wanted to tell you something; I haven’t shared with the others. I’m not really sure why, but …”

“It’s fine,” Mara nodded, the unease in her stomach solidifying. “I’m listening.”

Taking a deep breath, Kam shut the door firmly and went to sit on the corner of the unwrinkled bed.

“You know my story? How Luke—Master Skywalker—brought me back from the Dark side?”

Mara did, but couldn’t remember if she was supposed to have the knowledge, so she answered with caution.

“I had heard something to that effect.”

“Well, I know more about the lure of the Dark Side and its hollow promises than anyone else here.” His eyes clouded, the words full of remorse and self-recrimination. “Except maybe Master Skywalker.” Muscled fingers clenched atop his knees, and Kam looked hard at Mara, as if to ask if she was going to add herself to the list.

She stayed silent.

“He’s gone over, Mara. I’m sure of it.”

The hoarse words seemed to catch in his throat and Mara fought to keep her face blank.

“At first, it was just a theory, but…I tried to talk to him and it only convinced me more.”

That was a possibility she hadn’t allowed herself to consider, but Kam was clearly certain. It was unnerving, Mara had to admit, to hear such fear in his voice—more so than Tionne’s near panic on the comm.

“Tell me.” Her own voice was like durasteel, a strange sense of inevitability settling into her chest. If Skywalker had fallen... she wouldn't—couldn't—consider the consequences. Not yet.

“I went to confront him, late yesterday, after...” Kam didn’t finish, seemed to discard the detail as unimportant, and continued, lifting his head to meet her eyes.

“Luke ignored my questions and started talking about the Sith—claiming we must study them, use their techniques as I did before. Praising their knowledge, their history. He said it would make me a stronger Jedi—that learning only one side of the Force would limit us all.”

Mara folded her arms, understanding why the man was shocked, but still not seeing the reason for the dramatic extrapolation. Seeking Sith knowledge was certainly a departure for Skywalker, but could there be a good reason for it? Some sort of rationale, other than turning to the Dark completely?

Kam must have seen the question on her face, as he shook his head, negating any argument she might pose.

“I felt it Mara. I asked him about the dangers, and he laughed. Told me that the Light side of the Force enslaved the Jedi, but the Dark makes servants into masters.”

A chill trickled down her spine, prickly needles of alarm rising on her skin.

“Sounds like the Emperor,” Mara commented, trying to keep her voice steady. The thought of Palpatine, hearing his warped philosophy voiced even second- or third-hand, was enough to make her heartbeat accelerate and throat tighten. She couldn’t imagine those words coming out of Skywalker’s mouth, but the truth of Kam’s statement was visible in the Force, shining and clear.

Still, she tried to remain objective. Luke couldn’t have fallen in only three days. Could he? If his own father hadn’t been able to turn him, how could anything? But Mara wasn’t going to debate the point when Kam was so convinced.

“Then what?” she prompted, tugging at the sleeves of her flight suit like armor against whatever came next.

Kam stood up, tension roiling around him like a wild and violent sea.

“Then nothing. I looked in his eyes and … he wasn’t there. Luke wasn’t there. It was like looking inside a shell. I was afraid, I admit it. Thought if he knew I had seen through him he’d kill me, so I said something stupid and left, like a coward.”

Words seemed to lodge in her throat. She swallowed, hard, forcing them to her lips.

“If you’re right, if he’s gone…” Mara squared her shoulders, trying to articulate conviction she wasn’t sure she had. “He brought you back. He brought Vader back. He can be brought back, too, Kam. Skywalker’s still in there, somewhere.”

And if he couldn’t be brought back, if Skywalker had passed through the same hellgate that bestowed a raving lunatic fiend like C’baoth upon the galaxy, she could at least make sure he was dead before she left Yavin IV. Not long ago she’d been pretty good at the assassination business, after all. Even as Mara contemplated the possibility, she felt fruitless denial build. It couldn’t be. Farmboy probably was wallowing in self-pity and needed a good kick in the ass and maybe a vacation. She could deliver at least fifty percent of that prescription.

Kam nodded, but there was something despairing in the movement.

“I hope you’re right, but I didn’t see him. Or feel him. He’s dangerous, Mara.”

“So am I,” she answered quietly. She could kill Skywalker if necessary. At least, she thought she could. Hadn’t she sort of done it once before? But this…this was different. She was different.

Kam smiled weakly as he opened the door, pausing on the threshold. “That’s why it’s good you’re here. You two…” He trailed off, seeming to lose his train of thought. Mara waited, breath inexplicably catching in her lungs.

But he didn’t complete the sentence.

“When do we leave?”

Mara was stunned by the question—then considered. She had planned to go alone. She didn’t know Kam well enough to know what kind of a relationship he had with Skywalker. If the Jedi Master had some sort of personal or emotional issues…

She pressed her lips together tightly, trying to decide. A one-on-one intervention for a troubled mind would probably go over better than being outnumbered. And she still knew very little about what, if anything, had triggered this. So Mara shook her head.

“I think I should try to talk to him first. Just…” She wasn’t sure how to explain. “Just in case,” she finished lamely.

Kam’s brown eyes searched hers. She could feel his concern, his hesitation. For a moment she thought he would argue, but he just nodded solemnly, as if he’d convinced himself of something. “All right. You have a better chance than any of us. Be careful, Mara.”

“Thanks for telling me, Kam.”

He nodded again, ran a hand over his crewcut, and left as soundlessly as he’d arrived.

Mara sat down in the spot Kam had vacated on the edge of Skywalker’s bed, trying to think, wanting to scream instead.

Luke was stronger than this—he had to be. She couldn’t believe that despair or pain over his lost students would be enough to push him over the edge, to lead him to the Dark. But was she kidding herself? How well did she really know him anyway? A few adventures together here and there, that was all. Maybe Skywalker really had given up, given in. He’d always said the Dark was the easy path.

Focusing on her breathing, using Jedi techniques that Skywalker himself had taught her to refresh her body and calm her mind, Mara grappled for her center. What where the facts? She mustn’t overreact.

Three main points, no conjecture. One, Skywalker was behaving strangely and alarming his students. Two, his astromech was missing and he didn’t seem to care, something clearly out of character. He doted on that rusty blob of grease. Three, he had avoided her upon her arrival, something she also considered out of character, but more explainable, to her mind, than the R2 unit’s disappearance.

Now, another unpleasant fact: Skywalker was stronger than her. She likely couldn’t take him on one-on-one in a fair fight. If he had gone to the Dark side, she’d have to beat him with a sneak attack, retreat, or lose.

The room no longer seemed homey. Skywalker’s absence in the Force—from his personal space—felt aggressive, deliberate. Mara stood quickly, dusting invisible contaminants from her pants. She didn’t want to be here, surrounded by unattended objects that had been made funereal by their owner’s neglect. She rushed to the door.

First, she had to talk to him. See if everyone’s concerns were warranted. She could find him. She would find him. She owed him that much. And if the Jedi Master were truly lost, she would help him find a more permanent peace. She could also do that. She hoped.

Chapter Text

Heading out at sunset wasn’t the best idea, Mara conceded, winding her way through jungle creepers ablaze in the titian light of the dying afternoon. Dark streaks washed the ground like spilled blood from the leafy canopy. She tried to pick up Skywalker’s Force signature amidst the riot of life coloring her senses. It was futile, and after half an hour’s trek she paused, wondering why she couldn’t sense him at all. He was usually so bright, vibrant, warm and above all else, strong.

“Skywalker!”

Mara was unsure if Force telepathy would even work in this crowded sentient and semi-sentient environment. It had never been her strongest suit. Nevertheless, she hollered his name in her mind, calling blindly, asking for acknowledgement, response, or at least a hint to his location.

Time passed, but she continued the search, her own mental voice deafening. The enormous Massassi trees loomed like threatening judges around her, the wind through their leaves murmuring voiceless condemnations. Mara paused, letting the Force flow through her, hoping for a clue. These giants were the sentinels of this moon. They saw everything, had lived through millennia. If only they could uproot and walk, they could guide her to Skywalker.

The breeze picked up, the sough of the Massassi becoming clearer, whining into a higher pitch as the air whipped around her body.

Wretched woman.

Mara snapped her head up to look high above. She’d heard it so clearly. Was someone there? She raised a hand to shield her eyes, squinting. It was maybe overcredulous, to trust her ears. But she trusted the Force.

We wait, we witness, we weep.

With a shudder, she lowered her eyes, pushing the message out of her mind. But how to ignore the trees, now that she’d heard? Mara had always liked their wide branches and blueleaf-encrusted bark, but now she wanted nothing more than to make them disappear. The jungle thickened as she pushed deeper, the moss’ spicy smell stinging in her nostrils. Off in the distance, a howler screeched. The foul whispering oracles grew louder in her ears.

We wound, we weaken, we wither.

Strange tidings continued, rending the air. Low hanging creepers dangled like gibbets along her path. They swayed drunkenly, a dense curtain refusing to be parted. Mara illuminated her lightsaber in frustration, hacking through the vines. They wouldn’t stop her. The howler’s cry grew louder, then abruptly ceased.

She shivered, despite the heat, and stepped into a round clearing. No omens here, no sibilating plants. Deathly silence. Turning her eyes once more to the black sky, she saw nothing. The moons had not yet risen; the stars were hiding their fire. Mara slowly examined the dirty patch where she stood, annoyance growing in her chest. She was no longer sure of her direction without the stars to guide her, and the raveled vines encircled like serpents about to strike.

So the jungle itself was trying to persuade her to abandon him? Mara shook her head, wiping a damp sleeve across her sweaty forehead. Skywalker and arboreal worlds seemed to add up to nothing but trouble, she thought wryly. Why did it seem every time she was dragged into his messes, there was too much dirt, too many trees, and an abundance of stinging bugs around?

She was getting paranoid. The jungle had no malignant ambitions. She was suffering from auditory hallucinations, probably dehydrated, and definitely exhausted. What was more likely, that the trees had spoken to her as whole, prophet-like, or that worry and stress had infected her perception, made monstrous her quest? She just needed to focus. If she couldn’t find Skywalker now, she would simply return to the Academy and wait for him.

The creepers dipped and separated, offering an exit, as if in approval of her contemplated desertion. She was tempted to take it, suspecting it led back to the ancient ziggurat and her ship.

Dammit Luke, where are you? she cursed silently.

A distinctive shimmer, the tiniest, faintest ripple in the Force replied.

It was enough. Mara was off, racing through the jungle vines, trusting her legs more than her eyes. She had felt him, just for a second. The realization made her breathless with relief. He was there. He had responded. Kam had been wrong, at least on some level; there was enough of Luke Skywalker left to answer.

The Force guided her, Mara realized, no longer questioning anything about direction or path as she ran faster. The underbrush seemed to part for her, her feet flying over dirt, moss, and rock, responding to Skywalker’s silent summons. Thought was unnecessary; the power guiding her would take her where she needed to be.

She skidded to a stop at the edge of a shallow, placid lake.

Dominating the landscape was an obsidian temple, presiding over still water on a volcanic plateau. Even from this distance, Mara could feel the overbearing sense of the Dark side beckoning from across the glassy expanse. It called her, the language pure and visceral—power power power—the monument sang with a violent allure, promising everything with its restless thrall.

Closing her eyes, Mara centered herself in the Force. Luke was inside this awful place, she could feel it. She wanted to help him, but everything was unfocused, her senses dulled by the intrenchant atmosphere and fatigued by her trek. She sought balance, stability before progressing. The black summons from the temple must be rejected, the bloody instructions ignored. Its very existence seemed an affront to nature, a cistern of evil constructed by wicked hands.

Mara responded from her heart—I do not crave power or desire domination. You offer nothing I wish to possess—and closed down the lightsaber’s shining blue blade, attaching the weapon to her belt. She would reject even the appearance of aggression. As she evened out her breathing, the message shifted, adapting to her more controlled state of mind.

Safety refuge solace the music in her mind rang out, just as insistently as it had pledged power a moment ago. Her weary eyes snapped open. Was this how it had trapped Skywalker? Promised him what he needed, a balm for the hurt after the loss of Gantoris and Kyp? What had it offered him? Absolution? Oblivion? Comfort?

Mara consciously closed herself to the diseased lure of the temple, tightening her mental shields with a ferocity that felt draining. She wasn’t so easily tempted. Mara valued self-control and independence more than tyrannical covenants sourced in deceit. Malevolence probed and sifted, only to find her psyche armored against it. Spiteful at the resistance, the Dark Force shot daggers in her thoughts. It imagined her wants, vomited lies, guaranteed false glory and corrupted integrity through its supernatural authority.

I’m coming anyway, you disgusting pile of rock, she thought, focusing on the lake at her feet. There had to be a way across. And sure enough, columns rose from the lakebed, cleverly presenting stepping stones. They were concealed just below the water level, so anyone travelling the lake’s surface would have to approach the black temple with eyes downcast. Unconsciously wrapping her right hand around the lightsaber at her hip, Mara picked her way carefully, navigating the stones. The night air felt vile and clotted. The eerie luminescence of Yavin IV’s newly risen sister moons warped and muted the closer she moved to the ebony walls.

Fear stuck deep as water curdled and boiled around her boots. Dread, thick and viscous, coated her mouth when she finally arrived, breathless, before the tall statue marking the entrance. Its features were handsome and hideous, a blackened sun scarring the man’s high forehead, long hair swept behind his ears. He wore the armored robes of a Sith, the cloak secured by pauldrons at his shoulders, legs sheathed in ribbed greaves, and fingers masked by heavy gauntlets.

How could Skywalker have ever sought anything in this dismal place? Mara shook off the thought as unproductive. He was here. He had to be. She couldn’t sense him anymore, but that didn’t mean anything. This temple exuded so much evil, it was unlikely any single life force could overcome its malicious aura.

She had to be strong enough. For both of them. Steeling her nerves, making herself let go of the lightsaber hilt that she clutched in a deathgrip, Mara stepped through the wedge-shaped opening into the polished stone antechamber.

“Skywalker?”

All was silence. Darkness seemed absolute, until her eyes adjusted to the struggling moonlight refracted through trapezoidal slits in the stonework. Glyphs and strange abstract designs etched the walls. They seemed to throb and glow as she stared, mesmerized.

Mara dug her short nails into her palms, hard, to shake the sense of hypnosis, and focused on stretching out with the Force. Nothing.

The air smelled infected, stale. It was difficult to breathe. Everything was wrong in this place.

“Skywalker!”

She called louder, and then remembered what had worked when she’d felt him before.

“Luke!”

Well, it had been worth a try, but still no response.

Slowly, she crossed the cracked floor, eyes scanning for unseen enemies. There weren’t any pockets of emptiness in the Force, only a sensation that things were hidden, lurking. The dim moonlight faded as Mara moved down a windowless corridor.

More writing was here, providing ghostly illumination. She was glad she’d never learned Sith. It seemed certain that reading dread exploits and doom-filled portents would be the furthest thing from helpful. Hurrying past, Mara walked deeper into the catacombs and inner sanctum of the temple. A blanket of night fell heavily over the last chamber. A dead end. She hesitated, debating whether or not to use her lightsaber as a glowrod. It was impossible to see through the pitch.

“Use the Force.”

The voice was calm, clear, and unmistakably Skywalker’s.

Exhaling a sigh, half-relief, half-exasperation, Mara did as instructed. She reached out, finding the Force connections that bound all things, and focused on using her mind’s eye to perceive what had been invisible to limited human sight.

He was seated cross-legged in front of a raised central dais—an altar, she realized. But the muddied glow of his Force presence was entirely different than she remembered—murky, chaotic, and wrong. If not for the movement of his aura, Mara thought she wouldn’t be able to see him at all, the hue black as the gleaming stones. Skywalker seemed an extension of the darkness that enveloped them both.

Slowly, she approached, fingers clenching from the effort of resisting every instinct in her body, to seize, ignite, wield her weapon against the motionless Jedi on the floor.

The sound of footsteps fell loud in the cavernous space, but deadened as soon as they hit the stone. Skywalker lifted his dimpled chin slightly, still hooded. She couldn’t see his eyes, even using the Force. Annoyed, Mara tried again to look with normal sight, adjust somehow to the vacuum of light.

When she stood three paces before him, Mara stopped. She hadn’t planned what to say, how to confront him.

“Meditating?” She tried to sound flippant, but her normally breezy tone fell flat.

“Waiting.”

There was no pause, and the answer rang true to her ears, but Mara found she didn’t trust it. Didn’t trust him. Her fingers flexed again, right shoulder slightly lowering. She could grab her lightsaber quickly if she needed it. But why should she need it? What the hell was going on?

“For what? Sunrise?” she scoffed. “Your students need you, Skywalker. Stop playing Jedi games and let’s get out of here.”

“Waiting for you,” he replied softly. If she didn’t know better, if were anyone except him, she would have thought there was menace lacing the words.

“Well, I’m here,” Mara returned, “and I’m sick of the dark.” She reached for the weapon at her hip.

“You won’t need that,” Skywalker remarked, stretching out his hand. Before she could register what had happened, the hilt slapped into his palm. At the same moment, a faint light rose from the floor, coating the ancient chamber with an eerie luster.

Mara battened down her unease. At least she could see with her eyes now.

“Very funny, Skywalker,” she held out her hand, fingers beckoning. “Give it back.”

“You don’t need it,” he said again, suddenly on his feet. The movement had been so rapid, so fluid, that Mara took a step back. Her left hand went to her waist, inching closer to the holdout blaster at her back.

“Fine,” she sighed, “I was going to return it anyway.”

At the words there was another ripple in the Force, like earlier, when she’d felt his presence in the jungle. Then in her head, a shouted command:

Run Mara!

Her lightsaber had disappeared, into some inner pocket of Skywalker’s cloak, and for the first time she got a look at his shadowed face. Suddenly Mara did want to run, far away, and not stop until she’d left Yavin IV.

Tionne had been right. His eyes were all wrong.

Luke Skywalker, darling of teen holozines and hero of the Rebellion, had those famous baby blue eyes. It wasn’t like you could fail to notice them, after all—the color pure and radiant. Mara never would have admitted it, but she even had mentally renamed that shade “Skywalker Blue.” Just the other day she’d decided against a dress in a similar color at a Cinnagar boutique. It had made her look too pale, despite the pretty tailoring.

The eyes before her now were not the same. That pure blue had been hardened into a polluted cobalt. The red-rimmed irises were shot through with iridescent xanthous veins.

Skywalker looked like a Sith.

She froze only a second at the sight, but it was too long. Her vibroblades, blaster, and daggers whipped out of their cases and holsters, crashing with hurricane-strength Force against the floor. Mara’s heart pounded as they shattered into jagged pieces, then rose and fell again, pulverized. She’d been supremely foolish, lulled into complacency at the idea that she was facing Skywalker—a friend. And now she was unarmed.

And this wasn’t Skywalker.

Chapter Text

As calmly as she could, Mara found her voice.

“Who are you?”

A moment’s silence, then a laugh. Skywalker’s laugh dammit, but with an edge of mockery she’d not have believed him capable.

Taking a step closer, the Jedi gripped the sides of his hood and lowered it. Those contaminated eyes gleamed with mirth, a smile playing at his lips.

Mara had believed it likely Luke had suffered some sort of breakdown, but the problem was much much worse. Disgust crawled over her flesh, seeping into her pores. It wasn’t Skywalker. Something was wearing him, inside him. A counterfeit Luke, some false-faced facsimile of the man she knew. She would kill it, whatever it was. She only had to figure out how.

“I was just trying to come up with a new name when you dropped by, Mara Jade.” The smile widened, full lips thinning into a grin. “What would you think suitable, for a former Jedi?”

She arched an eyebrow, debating her options. The longer he didn’t know her intentions, the safer she was. But without weapons… She tried to backpedal, proud of how her voice didn’t shake.

“You quitting, Farmboy? Going back to racing skyhoppers and terrorizing womp rats instead of saving the galaxy?”

His expression faded into something ugly and impatient. She had been trying to keep it light, but each passing second screamed that she needed to flee—to escape and come back with reinforcements. Whatever had a hold of Skywalker, weapons seemed mandatory.

“Come now, Mara. I’m serious.” Skywalker took a step towards her, and she matched it with one away, like a simple dance.

Run Mara!

She winced at the command in her head again. Luke’s voice. The Real Luke she thought, mind unhelpfully lacking ideas.
The thing possessing Luke’s body sighed then, spreading his hands as if in surrender. The cloak parted, revealing the Jedi’s familiar black clothing beneath.

“I suppose you heard that. He thinks he fights, attempts to struggle. A pitiful, weak effort, really, but your presence here has guaranteed he will not resist for much longer.”

Each word from his lips sounded more and more hateful, raising the temperature of her blood by degrees. Mara couldn’t imagine how anything had done this to Luke. How dare this creature borrow his skin, displace his spirit somehow? It was beyond horror, this unnatural theft. Had he encountered some sort of Sith curse? Alchemy?

“What are you saying?!” She was almost yelling, rage boiling inside her guts. “What have you done?!

The final word echoed, careening around the walls with a crazed repetition. It made no sense, given how her footfalls had been stifled by the same sonic atmosphere. Her pulse raced as he responded with a restless sigh, like the answer should be obvious.

“Essence transfer. I have relocated my spirit to this worthless being you know as Luke Skywalker. He welcomed me, Mara—he was hollow, drained. I poured strength into this form, allowed him to thrive, even learn, by sharing my consciousness.” He sneered, Skywalker’s lips twisting into a scornful moue. “Your pathetic Jedi Master is present and aware, but unable to evict me. Powerless.”

“Exar Kun,” she breathed, the pieces fitting into place.

She should have guessed it. Sith legend claimed that at the moment of death, the soul of the deceased could leap into another entity. The idea had terrified her when she’d first heard it, and still did. Just another reason to make sure you killed quickly and efficiently, before any lingering consciousness could try to appropriate your body. But Exar Kun had been dead for centuries, not seconds. How had he taken over Skywalker?

It was hard to reconcile logic with the insanity of the truth.

Mara took another reflexive step away from his body. The man looked like Skywalker, sounded like him, but didn’t move or talk like him. The Jedi was a prisoner in his own skin, still in there, fighting. Losing. And she, unfortunately, knew nothing about Sith spells or how to help him. Cursing her ignorance and Skywalker’s predicament, Mara stiffened her spine. She had to buy time, figure this out.

The smile on Luke’s face grew, a rictus of delight. His white teeth gleamed in the shadows, the expression feral, predatory.

“You have heard of me. How nice, to not be total strangers.” Luke’s poisoned regard became considering. “That will make this easier.”

Make what easier? was the logical follow-up, but Mara knew whatever it was, it couldn’t be good, and wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

As if on cue in a cliché holohorror, thunder crashed outside. It cracked like doom in the chamber. Teeming rain battered the glassy roof just after, pounding in a disjointed torrent that sounded like damnation to her ears. Mara inhaled deeply, swallowing more of the filthy air that reeked of ozone and disaster.

Exar Kun was diabolical and dangerous, especially disguised as Skywalker, with the Jedi’s abilities and strength to fortify him. Killing him, though, wasn’t an option, not as long as there was a chance to save the host. She needed to know more, investigate further. Tionne may have researched—

“I’ve heard,” she retorted. “I’ve heard that you slaughtered hundreds to cheat death. You were a failed pretender to the Dark. The Sith considered you a historical embarrassment—never a true acolyte.”

Luke waved a careless hand, cancelling her words. “Of course I never was an acolyte. I transcended the Sith. I was a true Master of the Force. Master of the Dark. And Master over Death.”

Her breathing sped up despite all attempts to regulate it, scorching anger threatening to explode. Was it truly better for Skywalker to be possessed rather than fallen? Trapped in his own body, unable to resist or control Exar Kun’s actions? An incomparable violation. She shuddered.

Apparently pleased at her silence, Kun continued.

“It was difficult, I admit, to separate my living essence from my living body, as you have heard. Many sacrificed themselves for my immortality. Fortunately for you, Mara Jade, it is far easier to supplant a soul than surmount death.”

GET OUT MARA!

Skywalker’s revolting eyes narrowed. Before she could react, an invisible hand was choking her. Mara gasped, falling to her knees at the unexpected assault, working to throw off his crippling power using techniques she hadn’t applied in years. But just as suddenly, the crushing pressure against her larynx ceased.

“That was a lesson.” Luke’s voice was gentle, would have been pleasant in any other circumstance. “Warn her, console her, only think her name, and she will die.”

Kun wasn’t talking to her. He’d attacked to keep Skywalker from communicating. The stagnant air seethed as Mara sucked it down oxygen-starved lungs. Her brain felt dull, unwilling to accept reality. She dragged herself up, eyes flashing, pulse pounding.

“So that’s your grand plan?" she rasped. "Take up residence in someone else’s body in hopes that they get so sick of you they leave?”

A small laugh, a perilous sound. Skywalker unhooked the clasp of his robe, the movement horrid for its normality. Mara’s eyes darted towards the exit—the only portal of the inner sanctum. Her skin felt clammy, her weaponless state starting to feel too close to panic.

“I was waiting for you to arrive. Not Luke to leave.”

Don’t say his name, you Sithspawned devil scum, she thought fiercely, irrationally.

“We will destroy him together.”

Those sickly eyes looked her up and down, appraising. Mara’s flesh crawled at the weight of it, feeling like a piece of meat about to be devoured. “I quite like having a body again, however…” he glanced to Luke’s right hand, “…flawed.”

Another flare of rage surged. “I won’t—”

He kept talking, ignoring her as if she hadn’t spoken.

“It’s a relatively simple ritual.” He smiled again, the look at once lecherous and confident on Skywalker’s handsome face. “You may even enjoy yourself…”

Mara felt a nauseating certainty dawn. Letting the cloak spill onto the floor, he turned his back for a fraction of an instant, looking at the altar’s platform behind. She was ready, Force sprinting towards the antechamber outside, and freedom.

She slammed into him hard enough to see stars, and would have been knocked to the ground if Skywalker’s strong hands hadn’t painfully gripped her wrists and yanked her upright. How he beat her to the doorway, blocked her, she would never know. He moved like a ghost.

“It’s useless to resist,” he sighed, everything made worse by the fact that it was Luke’s calm voice delivering the threat. “Pointless to fight.” Mara struggled in his grasp nonetheless. Her skin burned as she twisted, knowing he was right.

“Although, of course, I don’t mind if you try,” he winked, then released her.

With a flick of one hand, she was trapped, trailing behind him, tethered by a Force-wrought invisible chain as Luke glided back to the center of the room.

Her eyes returned to the altar, something cold writhing in her guts.

“What if I refuse? And you have to kill me?”

Luke shrugged. “There are other women here. None perhaps as well-suited, I admit, in your Jedi’s estimation. Tionne—although I am not particularly fond of historians.” His eyes narrowed as if remembering the ancient reason why. “Or Kirana Ti. However her background makes her a less…appealing option.” He peered at her closely, the jaundiced tint to Luke’s eyes more pronounced at this distance. “I’m doing him a favor, really, choosing you.”

Mara kept her face blank, fighting down the rising horror in her gorge.

“They would fight you,” she managed, “and you’d lose.”

“I would vanquish them, as I have you. Everyone is so trusting of their devoted Jedi Master.” He spat the title. “I admit I was a bit disappointed at how easy it was to ensnare you—Luke has such a high opinion of your talents, and here you are, helpless.”

He was right in that case, Mara had to admit. She’d been a naïve fool. She should have taken Kam’s warning more seriously. Sharpening her concentration, she tried to find the Jedi apprentice in the Force, to call for help, but a dark weight blocked her senses. The Sith markings on the walls seemed to glimmer briefly in impediment, an evil barrier to the world outside.

A thought then came to her. Exar Kun could tell when Luke tried to communicate—would he be able to sense her doing the same within the temple? If she was calling to Luke and only Luke, would their mingled consciousness betray her?

She decided to try.

We can beat him, Luke.

There was no verbal answer, but something warm and familiar spiked her sense, giving her strength.

“Well?”

He was staring at her expectantly, eyes wide. Luke’s expression would be almost innocent if it weren’t for the offensive aura surrounding him and repellent glitter of his gaze. Mara hadn’t heard a question, but was positive what her answer should be to anything he asked.

“No.”

The smile returned, threatening, dangerous.

“You believe you can refuse?” He shook his head slowly, the movement condescending and full of menace. “You have two choices, Mara Jade. Death is undeniably one of them. I promise it would not be quick.” The smile broadened. “Nor dignified.”

Mara grimaced, trying to think. He could kill her—he’d already proven it. She couldn’t escape. And if she died, not only would she have failed Luke, she would be condemning another woman to this fate. The bastard was right—with the exception of Kam, perhaps, Luke’s students wouldn’t attack first. By the time they realized what was going on, it would be too late.

“It’s death either way, isn’t it?” she retorted, pointing towards the polished altar. “A blood sacrifice? Some sort of Sith magic?”

She felt Skywalker’s Force sense again, a strike and recoil that left her awareness as quickly as it had arrived. It gave her hope, just a fraction. He was here.

“Nothing quite so dramatic,” her enemy soothed, lips still curved in amusement. “As you can see,” he indicated the altar, “it will be sufficient to conduct the desecration ritual here, in the temple of my imprisonment. After the profane energy reaches its pinnacle, my essence will subsume all else, and your Jedi will be destroyed.”

Luke held a hand palm up in her direction, then ushered her to the central platform. Mara was helpless in the grasp of his power, feet marching relentlessly forward.

“You lie,” she said through gritted teeth. “You’re just looking for an excuse to rape me before you kill me.”

Luke made a tsking sound, accompanying her up the steps. “Your Jedi is more than willing.” Her eyes rounded before she could suppress the reaction, and he caught it.

“I’m privy to his thoughts, remember?” His tone was snide, knowing. Mara wished nothing more than to rip the horrible tongue from his grinning mouth at that moment.

She knew Exar Kun lied. The Dark side always lied. That was its hallmark, its power. In any event, she couldn’t afford to analyze his words—there was no time. Luke was dying somewhere inside his own body, replaced by this hideous creature. A rush of pity for the Jedi struck her. Mara didn’t know how or why this had happened, but if their roles were reversed, she’d rather be dead than used this way.

She swallowed, wanting to mutter something clever and cutting. Shock and numbness robbed her words. Whatever he’d discovered by examining Luke’s mind… She wouldn’t let it distract her. Mara needed emotional distance, and hoped Luke could find the same, wherever he was. Would he have to bear witness through the cracked filter of hijacked eyes, or could he somehow go away, lose himself in his own subconscious for a while?

“You aren’t him,” she countered, lifting her chin in defiance. It was the best she could do, drawing a slight chuckle from the man opposite.

“Yes, woman. I am not him.” His hands moved so quickly she barely had time to process the motion. Lightning fast, her flight suit had been ripped from her shoulders, the halves hanging like rags at her sides.

Every instinct shrieked to fight, to lash out, to struggle. Even knowing he could best her in strength, Mara had never been a silent victim, never let anyone take advantage of her. Could she fight the Dark by drawing upon its power? It was a last resort, but she was out of options.

Mara took a deep breath. Balance and control would not serve her here. She gave in to fury, let it overcome her, felt it thicken her blood with reckless conviction. The scream she unleashed was black as death, her final defense. Mara only hoped the sound would take Kun by surprise, damage his guard long enough for her to strike.

Chapter Text

The cry echoed and was consumed by the upper recesses of the temple as if it were hungry for her ire. Mara didn’t pause. She launched herself at Luke’s body to slam him from the dais, knock him out. She called upon the Force—Light, Dark, it scarcely mattered—for momentum; tumultuous energy swirled as she made her attack.

Instead of Luke’s torso, she smashed into an invisible wall, and was thrown high above him. There was barely time to use the Force to soften her fall before she collided with the floor, winded. Quickly throwing up a hand to ward off his inevitable counterattack, Mara scrambled to her feet, tasting copper and the death of hope.

Luke stood like a vengeful statue across the room, glaring at her. She’d been tossed against the solid wall opposite the altar. A quick glance told her there were no doors here to escape through, nowhere to hide.

“Really, Mara?” he called to her, irritation bubbling beneath his easy tone. She was glad for it, happy she’d managed to penetrate that slick façade.

Luke crossed his arms, shaking his head slowly.

“The hard way, then?”

Before she could protest, he’d lifted her into the air like a plaything, flying her back before him. The Force hold released as he set her down. Mara enjoyed feeling her own muscles obey for the briefest of moments, then Luke backhanded her, knocking her to the ground.

Enraged, Mara spat blood onto the shadowed stone between her fingers. She wouldn’t die, not here, not without doing everything she could to stop this monster. Long fingers curled around her bicep, lifting her to her feet with a graceful movement. He held her close, against his chest, watching her breathe, listening to her fears.

“Get out of my head,” she growled, slamming her shields back up. They’d slipped at impact, an embarrassing lapse. She wanted to tear him to pieces with her bare hands, her own impotence maddening.

Luke smiled indulgently, still holding her, the fingers of his other hand lifting to her face, pushing the hair back from her eyes. His touch was soft, almost tender.

“We can continue to fight, if you like,” he whispered, the words sinking into her ears like ice.

In response, she spun out of his grasp, hand extended as her ignited lightsaber flew out of the discarded cloak, slicing through the cloth. It landed solidly in her hand like an old friend, and Mara raised it to strike. Luke stood impassive, making no move to stop her or lift his own blade to ward off hers.

He stretched out black-sleeved arms, taking only one step back.

“You haven’t thought this through, have you, Mara?”

There was amusement in his tone, a lilting mockery at her offensive stance. Mara tried to close her ears to that voice—Luke’s voice. It was a weapon; she must not let his words penetrate.

“Go on, then!” he taunted. “Show me the temerity of your blade. Ensure the death of his soul. Damn your worthless Jedi with your wrath.”

Each sentence struck like a blow, chilling the marrow in her bones. Mara gripped the hilt tighter, the hum of luminous plasma providing no solace, no protection against this.

“Now,” those incarnadine eyes blazed with contempt, “you begin to understand your folly.” He moved to once more close the distance, and Mara faltered, defensive and uncertain.

“Strike. I will endure, fed by your anger, freed by your fall to the Dark side of the Force.” Luke lifted his palms, turning them before his eyes. “He will not.”

Luke…

There was no answer. Skywalker had taken Exar Kun’s threat seriously. He would not speak to her. A fatal vision invaded her mind—Luke, fallen to attack, but fountains of her own blood instead soaked his body.

Mara screamed in frustration, knowing the demon was right. To give in to her hate and strike would only give Kun a different brand of victory, not defeat him. It was even possible he could leap into her body, possess her as Skywalker’s corpse cooled on the temple floor.

Her wail left him unmoved. Luke crossed his elbows twice, swinging his hands to his sides as if warming up for a sparring session. His head tilted and arms folded, the slightest curve of his lips showing just how unconcerned he was about the lightsaber in her fingers. Then he took another step closer, inches from her now.

Mara stifled all violent impulses with superhuman control. She’d been outmaneuvered from the beginning. Exar Kun had access to Skywalker’s thoughts and memories… He knew she hadn’t been able to kill him before, under the Emperor’s dire imperative. Kun understood what had transpired between them, the strange bond fate had forged. She couldn’t kill Skywalker now, not when he was merely a puppet, just as manipulated as she was.

She couldn’t win.

She couldn’t escape.

This would happen, whether she agreed to it or not. If she didn’t fight, if Kun thought he’d broken her, or better, that she was corrupted by his sorcery, they may have a chance. For Luke’s sake...for the sake of the students, she would give him what he wanted. And maybe, just maybe, while this monster was inside her she would come up with a way to destroy him.

“Let me talk to Skywalker.” The lightsaber extinguished with a hiss.

One broad eyebrow raised. A request Kun clearly hadn’t been anticipating.

“You are in no position to make demands, Mara Jade,” he answered, eyes dipping below her neck, taking in the exposed skin.

“Let me…and I’ll do whatever you want willingly,” she offered, trying to summon calm. “It’ll be easier. I’ll explain…”

Luke shook his head slightly, sandy hair badly in need of a trim falling over his brow. It made her sick at heart, to notice something so trivial in the midst of this horror.

“The Jedi hears everything, sees everything, knows exactly what is happening and what will happen. You may curse, lament, or ‘explain’ to me, and he will hear it.”

Luke…

She thought his name like a prayer, and then felt guilt immediately after. Skywalker couldn’t help her. He hadn’t been able to save himself; any hope of salvation for either of them was up to her now. At least he was still in there somewhere…she believed that. And she would count on him when the time came.

“You try my patience,” Kun said, returning to the altar. Mara followed, inexorably drawn to his side at the top of the steps.

“The Force is both Light and Dark, Mara,” the Sith lord intoned, as if imparting great wisdom, “because opposites are the basis of the universe—of life itself.”

He looked dreamily to the ceiling, to the bizarre writing decorating the junctures at the apex of the temple.

“The essence of the Force is its dualistic principle—Bogan and Ashla.” He caressed the altar’s edge, the words casting a spell in the shadows. “It thus imposes an active and passive dichotomy that must be harnessed by male and female actors.” Luke’s long fingers trailed across the rock, his gaze returning to her face. “This metaphysical rite, the joining and eventual transfiguration of one corporeal vessel into that of another, is no different.”

For the first time, Mara noticed a jagged stone on the north-facing surface of the smooth obsidian. It jutted up into the air like a knife, with gutters carved into the rock emanating outwards, forming what looked like script in the surface.

“A needful partnership—something the old Masters failed to see—so blinded, most unwilling to include women in their ranks. How many would have succeeded if not for misguided sexism?”

Mara flinched as Luke touched her, seizing her hand and dragging it unceremoniously over the fixed stone blade. His skin was tingling, feverish, and she wondered if there was a physical battle taking place inside the Jedi’s body as well as a spiritual one.

“Blood is required,” he explained, as crimson ichor began to flow onto the rock. “Blood of the one to be purged, and then, in keeping with the duality…”

He wiped her dripping fingers along the borders of the altar. The atmosphere charged with evil as the liquid seeped into the carved channels. It was teasing the temple’s thirst; dark power grew and simmered as it drank, wanting more.

“Blood of one that is loved,” he nodded in mock indulgence at her, “that’s you, my dear. And of one who is hated.” He smirked, the expression twisting his features. “That’s me, of course.”

Without pause, Kun impaled Luke’s left hand on the pointed tip of the now-stained lancet. “Two for one, in this case.”

Smearing a wet streak across the length of the altar, Exar Kun squeezed Luke’s wrist, pumping more blood to flow from the open wound, mixing with hers.

“Messy,” Mara commented, trying to buy time, to figure out a way around this. Her heart was pounding, sending more blood gushing to her sliced palm. Mara closed her fist, using pain to center her thoughts. She was being utterly passive, as Exar Kun had said, and was disgusted with her own inaction. There had to be something she could do.

He was going to fuck her on the Sith altar. Coated black with her blood. With Skywalker’s blood. And when “the profane energy reaches its pinnacle,” clearly some preposterous way to refer to orgasm, whatever was left of the Jedi would be destroyed.

Her mind was racing, trying to remember exactly what Kun had said, the information he’d revealed by his stupid lecture. One to be purged, one that was hated…well, couldn’t Exar Kun be purged instead? Surely he hated Luke as much as Luke hated him. Could the Force switch their roles…

Panicked that he would sense her reasoning, Mara reinforced her mental shields, glancing to the creature wearing Luke’s body as he began to disrobe. His eyes trapped hers as he slowly unfastened Luke’s tunic, as if knowing exactly how to heighten her misery. The cloth fell open, revealing a plain undershirt beneath. It too was summarily discarded. The temple’s unsteady illumination flickered, turning his skin golden, his hair bronze. Luke stared at her, a warlike god, the Force eddying around him. Heat rose to her cheeks and Mara gave herself a mental slap. She would not look away, give him the satisfaction of showing discomfort. She had to think. To communicate…

Luke…I’m going to…

What if Exar Kun could hear? And his silence was a trap? Mara clenched her jaw. She would purge that bastard, exorcise his evil spirit. But he couldn’t know, couldn’t have an inkling, or else he might kill her before she could act.

Stay with me.

If Exar Kun could hear that message, he gave no sign. But Luke made no sign either, and Mara could only hope that he understood her message. She had a plan, some semblance of one, anyway, even if the specifics were yet to be determined. Her inability to focus when confronted with a psycho wearing Skywalker’s face made it too difficult to plot or remember what little she knew about Dark side theurgy.

Mara didn’t want to imagine what sort of turmoil Luke’s consciousness was suffering at the moment—it had to be torturous. And what she was asking—that he remain present for what was to come—was certain to add to his trauma, but she needed him. She knew somehow, with the certainty that only the Force could bring, that it was necessary.

It’s just sex. Just sex. The mantra couldn’t staunch the flood of revulsion that flowed like lead through her veins. Avoiding Luke’s gaze, she shrugged out of her torn shirt, leaving her chest wrap in place. Complete nudity hardly seemed required for this, after all, and she wanted to keep something from Kun.

Just sex. Her brain was stuck on repeat, and suddenly, with a stutter of insight, Mara’s plan coalesced. Men were mindless when they climaxed. That was the moment Kun would be vulnerable, insensible to all else. Unfortunately, it was also when his magic was supposedly completing the destruction of Skywalker’s soul.

Her revelation was cut short by a potent energy throbbing angrily in the chamber. It felt tangible, weighted, and she looked to her assailant, afraid of what had triggered the change in the air.

His breathing was loud, labored, hands tugging at Luke’s belt buckle. Mara’s eyes narrowed, watching as the man across from her paused, fingers clenching, unclenching.

Skywalker’s fighting, she realized. The first visual evidence she had that not only was Luke still present, but also not entirely subdued inside himself. The chamber’s iniquitous energy solidified, grew toxic. She held her breath, afraid to make a sound, ready to assist. Was this the better time to strike? When he was—

Her hopes disintegrated as the belt was yanked out of its loops, a growl leaving Luke’s throat. The moment had been infinitesimal, she realized, but felt significant nonetheless.

Quickly Mara averted her eyes from his bare torso, undoing her own buckle, letting the utility belt settle gently on the floor. The useless lightsaber seemed to underscore the reality of her situation, and Mara felt the lump in her throat grow larger.

The fact that Kun hadn’t taken it back proved how confident he was in her compliance. Secretly, she unhooked the hilt from its clasp, making sure it was unencumbered. If the worst should pass, and her plan for exorcism failed, Mara swore on all the Stalbringion hells that she would set Skywalker’s reanimated corpse on the length of its blade. She would not leave here alive if Kun wasn’t dead.

Luke is still fighting him. The thought was electrifying, making her feel less alone in this nightmare. Stoicly, Mara slid her flight suit down her hips. The waistband caught on her heel as she stepped out, almost tripping. She balanced automatically, with her injured hand on the altar, sucking in a breath as it stung against the damp stone.

Before she could stand upright, Luke was naked at her side.

His cock lay half-erect against his thigh. Straightening to her full height, Mara met his monstrous yellow-shot gaze. It was as if he was rotting from the inside out.

Why Luke? The question pierced her heart before she could strangle it. Any form but this…anyone but you…

A single tear beaded at the edge of Luke’s left eye as she looked into his face. Her own vision threatened to blur, grief swelling in her chest. They had to hide this weakness. Neither of them could afford its price. Deflect. Distract.

Glancing down between his legs, Mara sneered, conjuring strength she didn’t feel from someplace long since buried.

“Do I disgust you?” he asked.

Yes she wanted to spit, but smothered the word. It was too late for hatred. It hadn’t helped before, and if she gave in to the Dark, perhaps Exar Kun would decide she made a better vessel than Skywalker to inhabit. Focus, Mara.

“Do you have to, for this to work?” she jerked her head towards the bloodsoaked altar.

He laughed, and she hated him for daring to abduct Skywalker’s laugh too, that sound that she had always privately liked and now was ruined forever.

“No,” he smirked, right hand sliding possessively to her waist. “Curious.”

She made herself hold his stare, feeling nauseous. “Curious? Why wouldn’t you disgust me, Kun?”

The back of Luke’s left hand, rough and wet, grazed her cheek. Every muscle in her body stiffened against his touch.

“He feels strongly for you, Mara. It’s why I chose you.” His hand flipped, the blood-sticky palm cradling her chin. “Hard to believe such…affection is one-sided.”

His lies didn’t matter, Mara told herself, the important thing was to survive this, distract Kun long enough to shove him out of Luke to his own annihilation. Somehow. They would do it together.

Clamping down on the vitriol she wanted to spew at him, Mara tried to focus on anything that was still Skywalker. Something that would make this bearable, that wouldn’t feel like a betrayal of all that mattered. Everything was off, though, even the lines on his face, the shadow of stubble on his cheeks. The entire scenario couldn’t be perfumed into anything remotely acceptable. Luke’s athletic body had been tainted, a walking shadow of itself. The hands touching her belonged to the wraith resident within, not the man she knew. Mara’s blood ran cold.

She couldn’t lose him.

The slightest squeeze, a brief pressure at her back.

Mara looked into those putrid eyes and saw anger, cruel and grotesque. Yes, that pressure had been Skywalker. A silent act of solidarity. He was still here, staying as she had asked. It gave her the strength she needed.

“You’re not him,” Mara repeated, her voice steeped in disdain. Then before she could change her mind, she leaned forward and sealed her lips to Luke’s.

Chapter Text

Mara felt Kun’s surprise at the kiss, but he quickly recovered, thrusting his tongue against hers, ravaging her mouth as he spun her against the altar’s edge. The hard rock dug into her flesh. Wetness stained the backs of her thighs.

He’s in there somewhere.

The thought was a talisman she clung to, struggling not to recoil, fighting against every instinct in her body. Luke’s hands slid gracelessly down her ribs, ripping away the last remnant of clothing around her chest. But rather than linger on her breasts, he continued the descent, lifting under her thighs and pushing her ass back onto the crimson-washed altar.

“Life,” he hissed, climbing on top of her. The word sounded like a curse, dripping with venom. His breath was cold, raising goosebumps on her skin.

Mara closed her eyes, seeking distance, then quickly snapped them back open. Without sight, everything was too acute—the treacly fluid at her back, the smell of his reeking power, the plague of his stolen hands.

His fingers were at her wrists, pinning her, although she wasn’t struggling. Luke’s teeth scraped along her throat, nipping. She bit back a whimper. How had it come to this?

Too many abhorrent sensations collided at once. Mara felt like she’d been turned inside out, adrift and unseamed. She was covered in congealing blood, gouts of it still spurting from his palm. Nothing was safe—the man who had saved her countless times was about to violate her.

She winced at the injustice of her own thought. It wasn’t him.

If only she could do this without Skywalker’s touch, without feeling the raking of his calloused fingers on her flesh, the soft texture of his lips against her ear, breath heavy and uneven.

“Open your legs,” he commanded, and she did, without allowing herself to consider what was coming. She pushed her wrists up against his hold on her, and blissfully, he let go.

Stay with me, Luke.

She needed him, strange as it seemed. They were both being fucked against their will. She understood that, wanted Luke to know she understood that.

Another spike to her sense, not as warm or welcoming as last time, scalding and full of bitterness. He was there. Still conscious. Still powerless.

A word, a curse in a language she didn’t know. Then another, frothing with rage. Roughly, Luke pushed off her, kneeling back on his heels, fisting his flagging erection. Mara propped herself up, the stone abrasive against her elbows. She thinned her lips, keeping the satisfaction off her face as best she could.

Not entirely powerless, then, she mentally corrected her earlier thought.

She waited, wondering when he’d be most weak, most distracted, and able to be evicted from the thieved body he inhabited. Skywalker was clearly not playing nice, and Mara admired the ingenuity of his maneuver, even as she tamped down any expectation of success.

His lips pouted in annoyance, eyes glaring at her with undisguised contempt.

“Apparently the Jedi’s appetite for you is softened by fear,” he said, stroking harder. His legs tensed, his hand stopped. He murmured then, the words coming rapid and threatening. It took Mara a moment to realize they were not intended for her ears.

“I swear she will know your blackest desire, the ways you have dreamt of abusing her, and learn there is no limit to depravity or torment.”

Skywalker’s cock still refused to cooperate. Mara’s eyes widened at the furious look on his face.

“Very well.” Luke gestured to her, the Force encircling her like a web. “Your champion apparently believes you want for hard use, Mara.” He used his power to raise her to a sitting position as his hips lifted to the desired height. Her blood-drenched arms hung limply as her mouth paralleled his cock.

“Stop using the Force,” she managed to gasp through his hold, misery rooting deeper in her breast. “I’ll do it.”

But Skywalker had surrendered, his erection no longer held hostage. Head bowed, his hand released its vise. He gave her a smug look at the full length that now jutted up, almost touching her lips.

She didn’t care. As far as Mara was concerned, another point to Skywalker. He was demonstrating he wasn’t entirely complacent, and he would stay with her. Hope, strange and infirm, settled where seconds ago there had been fear.

“You’re mine,” he snarled, the malice in the affirmation chilling. “My instrument to use.” He kissed her again, lips blistering like ice against hers. “I will dismantle you, unmake you, and rebirth you as my slave.”

Shoving her flat against the altar, he lay once more atop her as he spoke. Mara barely had a moment to register his cock, hard and smooth against her leg. She wasn’t ready, but that wasn’t going to stop Kun.

The temple’s ethereal illumination flickered and winked out as he slammed inside her in one savage push. Mara’s hands fisted against well-muscled shoulders at the intrusion. Drawing upon the Force, she tried to bear it, make herself air. Her body no longer felt attached; this was all happening somewhere else, to someone else. The burning between her legs, the frenzied push of his cock stretching her was like a phantom pain, not real.

Maybe this is all a dream, Mara wondered. Rough fingers twisted in her hair, wrenching her lips back for another brutal kiss.

“Wonoksh Qyâsik nun,” he whispered against her mouth, the phrase full of wicked promise that she didn’t understand.

“I’m going to kill you,” she whispered back, bringing a malevolent grin to Luke’s saliva-slicked lips. In the darkness, it was little more than a flash of white, but she felt it in her bones. He repaid the threat with a vicious thrust, making her cry out.

Mara’s hands gripped his sides reflexively, hanging on as he sped up. She could feel Luke’s muscles move, the planes of his back flexing beneath her fingers as his hips rose and fell. Blood was sticky on her skin, matting her hair, clinging as the force of his fucking pushed her higher up the altar. The metallic scent of it coated her nostrils, mingling with sweat and something worse, a rank, evil stench. Her head moved closer to the edge, to the sharp rock that protruded from the surface.

“No you won’t,” he breathed, gripping her hips and pulling her harder onto his cock. The words brought her back to herself, and suddenly everything was terribly real, raw and futile.

This wasn’t a dream. Luke’s cock was inside her, his hands were bruising her and everything hurt, especially the pain in her chest, like someone had taken her lungs and wrung them out, suffocating her from within.

“Part of you wants this, Mara Jade,” he said, reaching between her legs. Mortified, she pushed up on her elbows, trying to get away from him. With the Force, he froze her in place. “Perhaps you secretly crave the honor of serving me.”

He began to stroke her clit, alternating between light flicks and hard rubbing. Quite literally petrified, Mara could only suffer his touch, feel her nerves respond to it. When she thought she would faint, the Force hold released. One hand squeezed her throat as he fucked her harder, with fingers and cock. She writhed against him, cursing, wrapping her hands around the wrist at her neck. This wasn’t part of the plan. She needed him to come in an oblivious daze; her own orgasm would feel like treachery.

Stay with me, she thought again, pleading. No response, no sense of Skywalker’s presence. Mara had never felt so alone in her life.

Bending over her again, those rancid eyes bore into hers, claiming victory over her body as she twitched and felt the escalating approach of her climax. She couldn’t look away, trapped by his stare as her hips bucked and cunt seized around his cock.

“Perhaps…” she gasped, collapsing back onto the unforgiving rock as he began to slide back and forth inside her once more.

“You wished to be conquered,” he panted in her ear. “Pledge yourself to me.”

His cock dragged painfully in her cunt, her poor lubrication already exhausted by the ferocity of his thrusts. Mara suppressed her hope at his words. Kun thought she could be seduced and suborned by a thick cock and a forced orgasm? Good, if he was that stupid, all the better to lower his guard.

“Will you pledge yourself to me, as well?” she made herself purr, hands sliding down his lean chest, tracing the waves of muscles, smoothing along the hardness of Luke’s sun-tempered skin.

“I pledge myself only to knowledge,” he replied, tilting his head and further slowing his tempo inside her. Kun seemed to believe her interest, shoving to the hilt with a moan, his hand gliding from her neck to grip one breast. “No mortal will claim me.”

“But that knowledge?” Mara ignored his foul touch, forcing a provocative smile. Subterfuge came easier now, her shields impenetrable. The performance kept her from thinking about the fact that he was still rocking inside her and that Skywalker was listening to all this, no doubt wondering if she’d lost her mind. “Will you share it with me?”

“You are too weak for a sorceress,” he leered, driving deeper, drawing a groan from her lips, her nails digging into his prominent shoulderblades. “But not without ambition. You could be of use.”

“Use like this?” she sighed, hands moving to the hipbones between her thighs, pulling him closer.

He grunted, a noncommittal sound, then bent over her. His lips settled at the tip of one nipple, biting and sucking. Mara arched into his mouth, hands running through Luke’s sweat-dipped hair, and wrapped her legs around his back. He responded with a bite, hard and sharp at the inside of her breast.

Choking back the cry of pain, Mara pulled his head up and captured his lips with hers. When he drew back she nodded.

“I will serve.”

His lips twisted, resolved into a triumphant smile. As she watched, the tainted amber of his eyes began to shine, almost phosphorescent. The dark of Luke’s irises seemed to bleed, veins of yellow bursting to life. Mara wished she were sightless, to sear this horror from her memory. She was losing Skywalker; she felt it without knowing how. The realization that he was almost gone was debilitating, a deadly grief that swam too close to despair. Not after all this. Not now.

Their blood and sweat mingled, life and the desire for life inseparable and persevering. His hard chest covered hers, his heartbeat dauntless and resolute against her flesh. Luke’s heart. Mara’s entire body began to tremble, but Kun, nearing his climax, didn’t notice.

He crashed into her again, ramming her backwards up the slippery altar. Mara braced herself, her legs falling away from Luke’s hips and fingers seeking purchase on the slick stone. His hands moved to her waist, holding her in place as his thrusts increased in speed and force. Her own heart felt like stone, tears brewing behind her eyes. She had to blunt this sadness, turn it into courage. If her plan failed, she would kill him, like she had promised.

“Zhol kash dinora,” he roared to the heavens, muscles contracting, fingers digging into her sides.

NOW! Mara yelled with all the mental force she had, as her heels came up to Luke’s chest, shoving him out of her. He slipped, eyes rounded in surprise, and tumbled down the stone steps of the dais. Mara continued to push with everything she had, not knowing how to accomplish a Force exorcism, trying to ignore the violent crack that had accompanied Skywalker’s fall.

He had to have survived. He had to be all right. There was no alternative.

The effect was immediate. A horrible, shapeless specter, like a ghoul escaped from the legions of hell, launched itself in her direction. Unthinking, she raised her fingers, and Force lightning lanced out, a manifestation of pure and unbridled rage. Mara heard an inhuman screech as the blue electricity danced and cackled, trapping the ghost, and realized it was coming from her own throat.

Mara.

Luke’s presence in the Force. Strong. Alive. She dared not look away, eyes riveted to the imprisoned phantom being electrocuted by her power. But he was suddenly there, setting her lightsaber beside her, his already in hand.

“I’m going to draw it in, and then we strike.” His voice sounded rough, unused.

She glanced at Luke out of the corner of her eye and barely recognized him.

He wore only blood. It spattered his face, poured from a gash above his eye, marked the rest of him in mottled browns and reds. She probably looked the same. Mara nodded. They had to move quickly.

Sudden terror pummeled her senses. What if she had made a mistake, and it was Luke’s spirit in her web instead?

He felt her fear, and countered it. Luke’s power washed over her. It was steady and controlled, soothing, but edged in concern.

“I’m here, Mara.” A telepathic nudge. It’s me.

He lifted his left hand, forcing the trapped cloud closer, igniting his lightsaber with his right. When the black demon that was the disembodied Sith was near, Mara grabbed her lightsaber with still crackling fingers and swung as hard as she could. Luke’s lightsaber’s green clashed against her blue in the center of the floating shadow, sparking a brilliant storm inside its cloudy guts. The ghost fragmented soundlessly into nothingness above the altar.

The burning of ozone cut through the stench of blood and sex. Mara slid off the altar, eyes wild and confused. It disappeared, but was he dead? Really, truly dead? Her face was still blanched with fear as she turned to face Luke. He gave a solemn nod, turning off his plasma blade.

“He’s gone.”

With a strangled sob, she sank to her knees, giving in silently to the agony she’d been refusing to acknowledge. She could feel hesitation and shame emanating from the man above her, his desire to comfort. It felt like Skywalker.

Wiping at tears, Mara waved a hand to bring him closer. Luke bent down, but she couldn’t see his face well enough. She needed to see his eyes, she thought desperately, fingers tacky with blood clutching the still-deadly hilt at her side. She remembered her vow—she would murder him if she had to.

He knelt then, in front of her. Mara lifted her chin, biting her lower lip to keep it from trembling. She searched Luke’s eyes. They were more red than blue. Very red. Bloodshot, she realized, with relief. But they were his. She managed a small smile.

“Skywalker blue.” Her voice was raw and hoarse as she turned off her lightsaber.

He blinked, then seemed to understand.

“Mara green,” he said softly.

It took her a second, and then she snorted, feeling almost like herself again. “Good to know that the…” she wiggled her fingers, “didn’t turn them Sith yellow.”

“Mara.” His voice was serious. “I—”

She cut him off with a slash of a blood-speckled hand.

“This never happened.” She felt his shock like a punch.

“Can I at least say thank you?” he asked, that trademark sincerity right back where it belonged.

Mara pushed herself to her feet, tried to walk, and failed.

“A healing trance,” Skywalker said, his voice shaking. “Just a brief one.”

“Later,” she answered, ignoring his offered arm and clumsily descending the stairs. “You need one too,” she added, looking at his head. “Actually, a medcenter would probably be better in your case.”

“I’m so sorry, Mara,” he whispered. The pain in his voice staggered her, and she almost stumbled at the bottom step.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied firmly, reaching for the shredded flight suit. She was so sore it hurt to talk, much less move, but Mara resolved not to show it. “I’m going to go back to my ship for a sonic and sleep. And you’re going to find your annoying R2 unit.”

His expression darkened, bloodied hands pausing in their task of fastening his tunic. “I know where he is,” Luke said in a harder tone. “And yeah, I’ll get him.”

“Good,” Mara replied, wishing the Force could magically repair rips in fabric. Her flight suit was a total loss. Without a word, Luke handed her his slashed-up cloak—marginally better—and she pulled it on over the torn rags.

He’d seen how difficult it was to move.

“Please, Mara,” Luke pleaded, holding up a hand.

Too tired to argue, she nodded, accepting a wave of healing energy. It spread like sunlight through her chest, stomach, pelvis, absorbed in seconds. She couldn’t be angry, although she tried to summon irritation at his interference. Walking just got a whole lot easier, in any case. He’d gotten stronger since last they met.

The trek back to the landing pad was uneventful. The thunderstorm had ended, clinging soil churned black, sucking their boots into the jungle floor. It made the trip harder, but Mara refused to show discomfort.

Luke threw up a Force cloak to camouflage their presence when they arrived at the training grounds. No students would see them. He had a talent for that trick, one she wouldn’t mind learning at some point. At her ship’s ramp, he paused, still looking like he’d escaped a gore pit.

“Mara—” His voice was low, and she didn’t need to hear what he wanted to say.

“You look like hell, Luke,” she interrupted softly.

“You saved me.”

“You’re welcome, all right?” she sighed, turning up the ramp.

“Will you stay?” The question was so earnest it hurt. And the honest answer was she didn’t know—but didn’t think she could.

Mara fully intended to put this behind them, and maybe the best way was to stay. But she didn’t feel capable of making that promise right now. She knew Skywalker wasn’t to blame, and maybe that was the conversation he wanted to have—something else she didn’t feel capable of.

Holding on to the ramp support, Mara turned back to face him. A light breeze ruffled through the hair on one side of his head, where dried blood hadn’t clumped it together.

“I want to... I do. But maybe not this time.” She shook her head slightly. “I’m glad Tionne called me. I’m glad…” she fought for breath, trying to get the words out. “I’m glad you thought of me. And…you’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” A small smile, hearing his unspoken question. “We’ll be fine, too.” She flicked a hand at him, shooing him away. “Give Artoo my best, all right?”

“He’ll think I let you fly with a concussion if I tell him that,” Luke grinned, and she laughed, surprising herself.

“Good night Luke. Welcome back.”

He wanted to hug her goodbye. His desire, and the knowledge of it, washed over her like a supplication as she finished speaking. Luke was a hugger, as was his sister, and she had sort of gotten used to it, but only after witnessing just how indiscriminate and effusive the Skywalkers were with their affection. That was her answer, then. She could prove to herself, and to him, that Exar Kun hadn’t poisoned their relationship. She didn’t really blame him for what had happened, wasn’t afraid to touch him. Or be touched by him. They both were damaged, but would heal. His guilt served no one.

All it would take was a hug.

Mara took a deep breath. It was no big deal. It shouldn’t be. She just wasn’t a hugger that was all.

Luke was still at the bottom of the landing ramp, hope bursting from his aura. His Force signature was no longer shadowed, shining even brighter than she remembered.

“Come on, then,” she sighed.

He walked slowly up the ramp, like she was a skittish rugger that might escape if he made any sudden movements. When he stood before her, shorter than usual due to the incline, she pushed away the memory of those sickly eyes, unable to suppress a tiny shiver.

“Mara—”

“Shut up and hug me, Skywalker.”

He did, folding her into his arms like she was fragile and precious. Although Mara had thought she was humoring him, offering this embrace as therapy or absolution, she sank into it like a lifeline. Luke’s power and devotion wrapped around her, infused with a strange sense of awe. Awe at her strength, her love for him. She couldn’t argue, didn’t care that neither of them were perfectly shielding. She just accepted the comfort, gratitude, and tenderness of his emotions. His muscles were solid, tightening as she melted into his warmth, letting her head rest beneath his collarbone. His chin lowered to her hair, his hands gentle against her skin.

Being held like this was enough, Mara thought with relief. Enough to wipe away drops of blood, banish nightmarish demons, and erase worst fears that had almost come to pass.

She hadn’t lost him. He was here, and she was in his arms, and for now, it was enough.