Artorias is burning.
Red flags stream in the air, stamped black with what seems like a stylized depiction of a sarlacc's gaping maw— or of a sun. Dozens of obsidian suns, then, exploding on blood-colored canvas over the inexorable snow-white tide of stormtrooper battalions as they march into the capital. The second sky of a Resurgent-class Star Destroyer casts the field of combat in its shadow, vomiting TIE/fo space superiority fighters, Atmospheric Assault Landers, and vicious, whirling droidekas whose glinting lasers mow down Artorian troops and civilians alike.
In response to the tug at the edges of his consciousness, Valin Horn's blue lightsaber slants at his flank just in time to catch a blaster bolt, which ricochets off the beam at an angle that sends it hurtling straight towards the person who had given the warning— who now holds up a hand and stops the projectile in mid-air, mere centimeters before impact.
Valin shrugs. Sorry.
His comrade rolls her hazel eyes and flicks the bolt at the nearest droideka, which clatters to the ground in a burst of sparks and is immediately trampled on by a throng of panicked civilians rushing to get as far away as possible from the war zone that the marketplace has become.
A TIE swoops down low, its barrage of artillery forcing the two Jedi to separate. Valin's comrade ducks behind an overturned fruit stall, only to be lunged at by a male riot control stormtrooper wielding a Z6 baton. She blocks while still on her knees; her lightsaber hisses against the baton's plasma-resistant vanes.
Deciding to use the stormtrooper's momentum against him, she extinguishes her blade and he's suddenly pushing against something that is no longer there. He topples over, but she surges down and then forward, reigniting her weapon once the hilt jams into his stomach. He collapses against her, speared through the middle by a blaze of sapphire.
The Jedi shoves off the deadweight and gets to her feet, observing the smoke-veiled buildings, the laser-streaked sky, and the debris-strewn ground. She shakes her head slightly, blowing out a puff of air through her lips.
"This is not how I thought this day was going to go," mutters Rey.
Four standard hours ago, she'd been cruising at sublight on the Moldy Crow with Valin and Kyle Katarn, when they picked up a distress signal from a nearby exploration vessel. However, by the time they reached the coordinates, the Pythea was already space dust, and the First Order fleet that it had so haplessly run into was sinking into the atmosphere of the blue-and-green globe of Artorias.
"One of my men— Dulac— turned out to be a double agent," the planet's king had explained to the three Jedi as his soldiers hurried to mount the palace's defenses. "He disabled our comm interlink, so we were unable to contact the Republic when the invasion began."
Rey had bitten back the snide voice in her head that said, The Republic wouldn't have helped, anyway. No matter how you begged. Artorias is a small, strategically inconsequential world in the Outer Rim, with little to offer in the way of resources that can't be extracted from somewhere else.
Her cynicism is unbecoming of a Jedi, which is no surprise considering that she'd gotten most of it from him. He'd been burgeoning into quite the political dissident, before he betrayed her and his vows.
Any sign of them? Valin asks through the mental link forged by battle meditation.
Negative. Rey scrambles to help an old man stand up before the stampeding crowd can subject him to the same fate as that droideka. "His Majesty has sounded the retreat," she tells him over a cacophony of screams and explosions. "You have to get to the beach. Do you understand?"
The man's faded gray eyes widen at the sight of her brown cloak and the lightsaber cinched to her belt. "M-master Jedi," he stammers, touching a wizened hand to his forelock.
"Nah. Still just a Knight." It's always the old people, she reflects. The ones who remember Mace Windu, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and the rest of them. She gently nudges the man in the direction of the shore. "Off you go. A Resistance ship is coming to evacuate you."
Rey. Valin broadcasts an image of the marketplace corner to the east. I found them.
She takes off, elbowing her way through the civilians, cutting down the enemy units in her path. When she finally spots Valin's head of shaggy chestnut hair, he's fending off six stormtroopers while two women draped in gems and silks cling to each other behind him.
Rey sends out a wave of Malacia that turns the stormtroopers' inner equilibrium against them. They fall on their hands and knees, the flow of their own blood and breath rendering them cripplingly nauseous.
("And it's not a Dark Side power because?" he'd quizzed her.
"The opponent is incapacitated with no damage to the body and no permanent side effects," she'd promptly replied.)
But she does hope, with a trace of vindictive relish, that the bucket-heads are retching inside their masks.
"Nice," Valin drawls. "That won't keep them down for long, though. We have to get out of here."
"Really? You don't want to do a bit of shopping first?" she quips, even as she turns to the younger of the two women. "Right, then. Follow me—"
Her heart leaps into her throat and she has to blink away a sudden well of tears, because the narrow, aristocratic face that stares back at her is so poignantly familiar. The blonde updo, the lips, the chin, and the smattering of freckles across the bridge of the nose are feminine, but the ocean-blue eyes are the same.
"Your Highness," Rey says to Kaye Galfridian, "I knew your brother." One year ago, I held him in my arms as he died.
"Where is my husband?" The older woman's terse question jolts Rey back to the present. "Is he safe?"
Valin nods. "King Caled is at the palace, Your Majesty. He instructed us to find you and bring you to the beach."
"Evacuation," murmurs Queen Nina. "All is lost, then."
"The royal family is the blood of Artorias. While you live, so does the nation." Valin's diplomatic reply is followed by a row of stalls disintegrating beneath another TIE strafing run. "Couldn't have asked for a better exit cue, myself. Let's go."
Kaye daintily bends down to retrieve a couple of blasters from the stormtroopers moaning on the ground. She tosses one to her stepmother, who catches it and grimaces even as she disengages the safety with ease. "I haven't shot anyone since my coronation."
"It's like learning to ride a speeder bike," Kaye says. "You never forget."
The group makes a run for it, the Jedi deflecting enemy lasers while the royals provide cover fire. However, it's not long before Rey stops in her tracks at the distinctive sound of a plasma beam flaring into existence a few meters away.
She turns around and sees a whirl of red light making quick work of a troop of Artorian soldiers, moving almost too fast for the naked eye to catch. The last man falls, and a slender, unmistakably female figure clad in black leather armor is standing still amidst a circle of dead bodies. The figure's mask shields her face from view, but it cuts off in a band around the forehead in order to grant full range of motion to the aquamarine-hued lekku rising into the air like serpents. There's no doubt as to who she is.
For a brief moment, Rey's vision goes dim with fury.
"Not worth it!" Valin's tugging at her arm, even though his own bitterness is stirring the currents of the Force. "We have orders from Master Katarn—"
"Then follow them." She wrenches free of his grip. "I'll meet you on the shore."
"Rey, stop!" he shouts, but she's already charging, lightsaber drawn and teeth bared in a snarl.
"So not how I thought this day was going to go," Valin sighs, before hurrying Kaye and Nina off to safety.
There is an inferno roaring through Rey's bloodstream, a whirlwind of fire that emanates from her gut and pounds in her ears. She fears that she will burn up before she even reaches her target, but, no, the Twi'lek is turning to her against a backdrop of smoke and lasers and their lightsabers are clashing, scrape of blue on red.
"Where is he?" Rey screams over the intersected beams. "Where is he, Alema?"
"Not here." The black mask is expressionless, but there is a warped smile in Alema Rar's artificially-modulated voice. "The Knights of Ren do delegate, you know."
Rey kicks her in the stomach and she sprawls to the ground. "You fight dirty, little Jedi," she pants, clutching at her midriff.
"Naturally," Rey growls. "I lived on Jakku, remember?"
"I remember. And I also told you, once before, that scavenging is not much different from slavery," remarks the Twi'lek who had once danced in chains in the spice warrens of Kala'uun. "We have more in common than you think."
"I am nothing like you."
"Oh, I don't know," purrs Alema, leaping to her feet as lithe as a cat. "We share the same taste in men, after all."
It's bait. Rey knows that she's being baited. The opponent wants to rattle her composure to pave the way for a fatal misstep. It's the oldest trick in the holobook, and she shouldn't fall for it.
But what good is logic against a pain that cuts bone-deep, against a shadow that has been lurking in the bottom of her heart and is now rearing its ugly head, washing over her like black water?
She pounces. Alema meets her in the air, their blades slashing like two cyclones of light that have inadvertently collided, their bodies rotating after every blow in order to strike again. This is the Two Suns maneuver of the Ataru form of lightsaber combat, and Alema's surprise is palpable when they fall back to earth across from each other, both breathing heavily and sporting shallow cuts on their shoulders and thighs.
"I see someone has tired of Soresu."
Rey smirks. "You never forget your first love." To prove it, she sinks into the Resilience opening stance— right elbow pulled back to angle her blade forward, off-hand held up in challenge, one leg braced in front of the other.
("A most boring form," he'd sighed.
"You don't know what you're talking about," she'd retorted.)
"Come on, Alema," Rey taunts. "Form III versus Form IV on an open field, what do you say? Who knows— you might get lucky." She hardly recognizes the venomous anticipation in her own voice. Who is this girl bristling for a fight, so eager to draw blood?
She's counting on Alema's pride to override her common sense— Ataru works better in enclosed spaces and is such a kinetic style that it can't be sustained for long periods of time, whereas Soresu had been developed for wide battlefields like this flattened marketplace, and its defense-oriented moves are capable of drawing out a fight for hours— but, ironically, the Twi'lek seems to have learned prudence in the years since she defected from the Jedi Order.
"I will tell Lord Ren that you send your regards," she says in a measured tone, extinguishing her lightsaber and tapping it to her belt. "He'll be tickled to hear that his desert rat is all grown up."
Alema steps back and— disappears, insinuating herself into the chaos like a wisp of smoke. Rey's horribly tempted to weave through the crowd as well, track her down, end this, but the sound of a fresh explosion pierces the dark haze clouding her mind and lets clarity come seeping in.
Personal isn't the same as important, Luke Skywalker had told her once. Not for a Jedi. She can either get revenge on Alema or do her part in facilitating the evacuation process, and it shouldn't even be a choice.
Looking at the crumbling buildings, though, and at the tattered flags and the soot-stained faces running away from their homes and weeping over the dead...
This is personal, too. In the hallways of the past, a golden-haired prince is tangling with Sith hounds and Leviathans, is criss-crossing his blade in the Makashi salute, is telling her to let him go as the floor of a shattered temple runs slick with his blood. She owes it to the memory of Finn Galfridian to help his people.
Its tapered silhouette dotted with spindly communications arrays and the cylindrical protrusions of sensor units, the EF76 Nebulon-B escort frigate looms over the pristine white shore like a giant gray hive— an illusion enhanced by the T-70 X-wing fighters swarming around it, prepared to repel any First Order units that might break through the Artorians' inland defenses.
Despite its impressive size, the frigate is ancient— a relic left over from the days of the Rebel Alliance. Kyle Katarn doesn't miss Rey's bemused expression when she hurries to his side as he oversees the civilians boarding the ramp.
"Have some respect, young Knight," he tells her wryly. "The Redemption is a war hero. She survived the Ison Corridor ambush, Eidoloni, Kothlis, and the Warspite's jump-and-drop attack on medical ships after the Battle of Brigia. And she limped it magnificently out of Endor, too."
"Yes, Master, she certainly looks very historical," Rey comments. "I'm half-convinced she'll fall apart if you blow on her hard enough."
Katarn shrugs one broad shoulder. "She was the only frigate that General Organa could send at such short notice."
"Did the royal family make it onboard all right?"
"Queen Nina and Princess Kaye, yes. King Caled has elected to stay behind with his troops. Currently, they are buying us time to finish evac; once we leave, His Majesty will retreat to the underwater shelter on the floor of the Great Sea and establish a resistance cell there."
Rey blinks. "He's crazy."
"He's Finn Galfridian's father." Katarn's battle-scarred features soften with a rueful smile. "It runs in the veins."
"We can't just leave them here—"
"There is nothing we can do, except hope that the Republic will come to its senses and deploy a liberation force to this system."
"The royal family is the blood of Artorias," Rey echoes Valin's words from the marketplace. "Caled has a duty to his people!"
"Yes— to reclaim their homeworld," Katarn says calmly, "while the blood of Artorias lives on his daughter. Now do you understand?"
Rey subsides with an irate glare at the Redemption and her X-wing escorts, for lack of anything else to glare at. She recognizes the markings of Black Squadron, but fails to see Black One. "Master, where's Poe?"
"Commander Dameron has been deployed elsewhere."
She waits patiently for the specifics, only to scowl upon realizing that the brown-bearded man standing next to her does not intend to divulge anymore information. It's frustrating how the Masters still tend to keep their own counsel even after everything that has happened, as if she and the other Knights were mere children waving glowing sticks around.
But she does not pursue this line of thought, because that way lies the darkness that he had succumbed to. He has always been more prone to questioning this path than the rest of us, Eryl Besa had told her once, during their first and last mission together, beneath the Corbos moon.
Eryl, who had died in the Siege, along with Finn Galfridian and so many others.
Rey does not have long to prod at this ever-present knot of grief, because soon the last wave of refugees has disappeared into the Redemption. Once the frigate's repulsorlifts are stirring up particles of sand and splashes of blue-green water, she and Katarn make their way further down the shore, where Valin is finishing up pre-flight checks on the Moldy Crow.
Strapped to her seat in the passenger compartment as the HWK-290 light freighter slants into the air, Rey peers out the viewport and watches smoke rise from the city's rooftops, mushrooming into black clouds amidst the emerald swirl of surrounding forests, which are in turn encircled by membranes of white sand and sapphire seas.
Artorias is burning. She's looking at the physical manifestation of what had once rendered this world's prince so helpless, the image that had been fed into his mind by a Dark Lord of the Sith.
"Exar Kun predicted this would happen," Rey mumbles under her breath. Just like he predicted I would die in battle.
Valin glances over from across the narrow aisle, where his lanky frame somehow manages to exude the impression of being elegantly sprawled despite the fact that he's buckled up just as tightly as Rey is, in preparation for the punch through atmosphere and into the black. "Don't think about it, kid," he advises. "Don't give that bastard the satisfaction. You defeated him, fair and square."
It wasn't just me who struck the final blow, Rey wants to correct. I had help from—
Something in her chest clenches, as if to forestall the brush of the name through her mind. According to Resistance intel, he has another name now, one that Alema had confirmed. It had fallen like a death-knell from the Twi'lek's masked lips, extinguishing the last spark of foolish hope that the events of this past year have been nothing more than a bad dream.
"Did you get her?" Valin suddenly asks.
"No," Rey admits.
He turns his gaze to the viewport, his sharp jaw clenching at the sight of the endless seas unfurled below him. He'd been on a mission in Wild Space when the attack on the Praxeum took not only Eryl and Finn, but also Tekli, Ulaha Kore, and Ganner Rhysode; they'd followed in Numa Rar's footsteps and become one with the Force. Raynar Thul is still serving the terms of his banishment for killing Numa, while Alema and the man who now styles himself Kylo Ren have thrown in their lot with the First Order.
For all intents and purposes, Valin is the only one left out of the original Jedi Knights. Sometimes, Rey muses that, if they were keeping score, then he has lost much, much more than she has.
"Why isn't that SSD attacking?" he wonders out loud. "Surely its sensors must have detected us and the Resistance frigate even from the opposite end of the island."
"I suppose they're letting us get away so we can spread the word," Katarn grunts from the pilot seat. "This invasion is a— a flex of muscle, so to speak. They're probably counting on the Republic being unwilling to divert manpower from the Osarian-Rhommamool conflict."
Rey snorts. "Of course those sleazy politicians on Hosnian Prime would want to focus on that. It's disrupting trade routes along the Corellian Run. Meanwhile, they get nothing if they liberate Artorias."
"Sure, it's a small planet, but it's also a foothold in the Outer Rim," says Katarn. "I'll swing by Dac on my way to Hosnian Prime— perhaps Master Cilghal can use her considerable diplomatic skills to persuade the Senate into taking action." He glances at Rey and Valin over his shoulder. "I'll drop the two of you off at home first, though."
Ossus is not home, Rey thinks mutinously. Not like Yavin 4 was.
But she says nothing. She keeps her own counsel as the Crow coasts through the skies and shudders into the atmosphere, before the view beyond the transparisteel fills with the silvery obsidian of realspace and then dissolves into starlines.
There are times when Rey wishes that she had been awake for it— that she'd witnessed the exact moment Ben Solo embraced the darkness and let the stormtroopers ferry him into the black shuttle. Perhaps seeing that for herself would have made it easier for her to let him go.
Instead, she's stuck in her last memory of him as a Jedi— that soft haze of him kissing her forehead and murmuring words of love while the light of the setting sun enfolded them both in the temple on the jungle moon. She'd seen him again after that, of course— her vision of him in a chamber surrounded by blood-red Sith holocrons, and then the night that they had stared at each other amidst the monsoon and the ruins of the academy, when he in his helmed regalia had destroyed everything she held dear.
That's who he is now, she tries to remind herself. Kylo Ren is no longer the boy you knew.
But still she dreams of the valley where she died. Where he used Darth Vader's amulet to bring her back to life, surrounded by mining tech and the monstrous, electrocuted remains of the two Leviathans. She dreams of the way he said goodbye, with a tenderness that he had rarely shown her during the twelve years they grew up together.
Twelve years. She'd once thought they would have more time than that.
She also dreams of lightning and of rain, and of her own blade humming above her shoulder while she wept. I name you the Sword of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker had solemnly pronounced. Yours is a restless life, and never shall you know peace, though you shall be blessed for the peace that you bring others.
What kind of vows were those? It had sounded more like a punishment. But it's not like she can ask Luke for clarification— for he, too, has disappeared.
A raspy voice is saying her name and long, warm fingers are curved around her shoulder, gently shaking her awake. She opens her eyes to the sight of messy dark hair haloed by starlight, and a wild flare blazes through the sleep-fogged corridors of her mind.
"Ben?" she whispers. The name leaves her lips so plaintively, with so much hope.
Rey feels all the blood drain from her face once she realizes her mistake. Fully awake now, she straightens up in her seat while his hand drops back to his side. "We're about to make planetfall," he mumbles, and she is mortified by the pity that she hears in his voice.
She manages a brisk nod, and an even brisker tone. "Thanks for waking me up."
"No problem." He flashes her an uncertain smile before he returns to his seat.
The Crow is now fast advancing upon Ossus, which is in the middle of its day cycle. Gilded gold by twin suns, the planet still bears the scars left by the chemical and electrical storms that had swept through it when the Cron Cluster went supernova thousands of years ago— but it had rallied over time, with patches of lush greenery now breaking up the swirls of desolate, irradiated desert.
Life finds a way. All things heal, Rey tells herself as the ship makes its descent. She wishes that it wasn't so difficult to believe.