Peace had returned to Azeroth as much as it ever would, and calm had spread for nearly a decade by the time Mara was called to an audience with Ysera. Truthfully, she had nearly forgotten about her request. There had been so many years of fighting. Part of her had even grown content to accept that she had died and been raised into a new life: Mara Jade was dead, and Mara Skywalker would never exist. But she could be Mara Netherwalker of the Ebon Blade, and that was good enough.
The emerald dragon guards stood a little straighter as she entered, the air around her going suddenly chill. To her surprise, they did not ask for her weapon – neither her runeblade, nor her lightsaber. The lush greenery at her feet crunched, covered over with sudden frost left in her wake, as she stepped up to the large dais. The great dragon raised her head and gave a cat-like yawn seemingly designed to display her teeth. Although she didn't open her eyes, it was quite clear she was staring Mara down as the death knight stood silent before her.
"Ah, you are here already." The dragon's tone was pleasantly surprised, as if she had dozed off and was pleased to see Mara so quickly.
"So I am."
Another long yawn, tongue unfurling like a red banner. Mara did not flinch. "You will be pleased to know," the dreaming dragon said, "that after years of searching, Nozdormu has finally worked with me to fulfill the promise that the Dragonqueen made you."
Slowly, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, heavy plate armor grinding like a beetle's carapace. If happiness had not been dragged from her and slaughtered, the death knight likely would have sounded pleased. "I can… go home, then?"
"In a sense. The universes have weakened enough that it is possible, but only for a short time," the dragon continued, sounding almost apologetic. "You already know the magic that sustains you does not exist, there – not unless I accompany you, and even then, only for a short time. All dreams come to an end. Provided, of course, you succeed in your task –"
"I am ready," she said quickly.
"Already?" The dragon gave a small laugh. "I haven't even told you what your task is. No matter. The truth of it is that Nozdormu has hunted for a universe the same yet different; you continue living up until this moment. The timeline must be preserved in that neither survives this battle, but –"
Her eyes, glowing the same flat ice-blue common to all death knights, narrowed. Her armor gave a heavy clank as she shifted again. Although Mara said nothing, her meaning was clear: Get on with it. It was a bold impertinence that one would only expect from the woman who had come from the same strange, distant universe as the Lifebinder's champion.
"This is who you are to kill," Ysera explained with another small yawn, gesturing to the thin shimmering frame of magic which revealed a young man's face (scuffed and bleeding as it was).
"And who is he?"
The death knight considered this for only a moment before nodding yes curtly. It was all the answer the dragon needed to gently tease open the tear between the universes, even as she yawned and rubbed at her eyes in her elven form. For a long moment the death knight simply stood, breathing in the air of Kavan as if she could taste the Force running through the universe instead of the steady hum of magic. It was there enough for her to be satisfied, and she slowly stepped forward to examine the rubble, and the body there.
With something almost like tenderness, the death knight crouched down to grip the dead woman's chin, tilting her head. It was as if she was staring into a mirror, or a bad parody of one. Mara Netherwalker considered Mara Jade Skywalker's face, noting the laugh-lines around her eyes, the red hair that was still full and lush instead of brittle and stringy, the cheeks that still had color (even if it was fading), the flesh that was still whole. Self-consciously, the death knight reached up to pet at her own cheek where tattered remains of muscles couldn't quite cover the stark bone-white of her jaw.
And behind her, Ysera clasped her hands, adjusting her dress, looking like the very incarnation of the night elf goddess Elune – though a sleepy incarnation, from the way she yawned, eyes closed. "If it is any comfort," she said softly, "she – you, in this universe – died relatively peacefully."
With the same probing touch, the death knight ran her hand along her breastplate, where the armor disguised the remains of the wound that had brought about her first death. There was a distinct envy there, as much as her ice-hardened heart could feel anything at all, though she hid it well. Her claw-like finger (the flesh having worn off long ago, leaving only the bone to be sharpened) ran across the body's face, again tracing the wrinkles there. "Was I happy?"
"Yes, very much so. You – she – married Luke Skywalker, and bore him a child, Ben. And you were a warrior of renown in your own right," Ysera explained in a gentle murmur.
"Good." She stood up slowly, her armor seeming to do all the speaking for her as it clattered. "That's all I needed to know." Mutely, she walked forward until she found one of the few signs showing the directions in the tunnels. The buzz and thrum of her lightsaber seemed more right here than it ever had on Azeroth, even as it cut through the metal sign to leave only one exposed pole.
"You can have all the time you need, for this task," Ysera said gently.
"I'll only need fifteen minutes."
Very carefully, Ysera barely opened her eyes, the tiniest slits glowing brightly. But she nodded in assent, watching the death knight lurch forward with grim determination.
And Darth Caedus wondered what was on the edge of his sense of the Force, something blindingly bright that he couldn't make out, as if he was staring into the sun.
The steady cadence of her armor was all that she needed to announce her presence. As the Saronite plates of her armor slammed against one another with each heavy step, the sound echoed up the tunnels. It was as sure a sound of death as a tolling funeral bell, or the mechanical wheezing of Vader. The Saronite whispered for her, the very metal imbued with such darkness that all she needed to do was keep walking.
And Darth Caedus heard the noise, and limped as quickly as he could while searching for the exit to the maze of tunnels.
At some point she decided that it wasn't sporting to use both her runeblade and her lightsaber. The blade slithered back into the hilt, and she tucked it into her belt, where it struck against her armor to add to the noise. Not content with that, she reached out, running the runeblade along the rock face of the tunnel. The metal and stone screamed against one another, kicking up the occasional spark. And the death knight walked on.
And Darth Caedus wondered why suddenly it was so very cold.
The sound was so close that he knew it was a matter of fighting, even if he calmly told himself it was just the delusions of a guilty conscience, something that he could will away with the power of the Dark Side. But when he saw her, his eyes widened. "But – I killed you –"
"A better man than you killed me," she said simply, because in her mind, he deserved no further explanation even as he spluttered and froze in fear. And she decided that she would certainly use her lightsaber, because he wasn't good enough for mercy – just a pathetic young whelp.
The battle was decided before it began, the odds so very uneven although she was the only one to realize it from the start. She had been fighting for two lifetimes, and already knew all of the tricks of the Force he was going to use. But Darth Caedus could not have predicted how the frosty chill seemed freeze his blood in his veins, or how the bony hands of the dead clawed their way up at her command to paw at his feet and make him stumble. It was not anything the universe he knew had ever seen before: it was plague, it was corruption, it was an abomination.
Darth Caedus died long before Jacen Solo did. Although his tears were freezing on his face from the cold, he begged desperately, trying to appeal to her in any way he could. Begging his aunt actually made her pause, even as the ghouls continued to hold him down. But she gave a wheezing bark of a laugh, another stringy bit of desiccated muscle snapping at her exposed jaw. It was a minor victory, as her expression had been flat and calm during the fight, and she had not answered him until that point.
"I'm not your aunt," the death knight said simply.
He stopped begging, but didn't stop screaming. And she continued to laugh bitterly as she gutted him, letting the runeblade greedily drink his blood. And she drew out his intestines after the cold of the blade made them stick there, flourishing, as if she were pulling out a fine pearl necklace to show off. The Scourge had taught her cruelty; every duel between Jedi and Sith was polite on some base way because of the way lightsaber wounds self-cauterized. It was clean and bloodless. But Undeath was soaked in blood, and she showed him what that meant, as she cut out his heart and made him stare at it, in his last dying breaths, clenching it in her fist to wring out the blood onto his face as if it were a sponge.
She didn't choose her runeblade over her lightsaber out of continued discourtesy, but instead chose it for the slick squelch of it cutting through the meat and bone of his neck. His crimson-covered face was still gaping in horror as she seized it by the hair and dragged his head back with her.
"You're early," Ysera said with a small yawn, sounding almost amused. "Only ten minutes, not fifteen."
Mara didn't respond, instead shoving the head onto the pike made from a signpost. She looked at it for a few moments before seeming satisfied, and going to stare down the wall beside it. Aurebesh was hard to remember, after so many years of Gutterspeak and Common and even Orcish. But slowly she clawed out each clumsy capital letter into the dirt of the tunnel wall:
I HAVE KILLED MY KILLER
Ysera did not try to rush her as she wrestled with how to sign it. Initials were vague, and this universe did not know Mara Netherwalker and did not care to. But the woman lying dead nearby was ambiguously Mara Skywalker and Mara Jade – and the death knight was neither of those. She finally settled on scrawling MARA as her signature, hoping it would be clear enough, before giving the disguised dragon a curt nod.
"Did this bring you the peace that you hoped for?" Ysera asked gently, smiling, eyes closed as ever. "To return to your universe, even if for a short while?"
She stared at the woman's corpse for a moment more, the dull and aching envy clawing at her, before answering truthfully: "No."
Even Ysera did not have words of further comfort at the ready. But a steady chirping came from the corpse, a comlink frantically beeping. "Your husband," Ysera explained quietly. "He hopes that you – she – he hopes that his wife is not truly dead."
And she reached out to take it, though the dragon gave a small humming negative sound. Frowning, she stared Ysera down, challenging, fists clenching.
"You know the rules of dreams, Netherwalker," she said gently. "If you answer, the dream will end." It was true – there was a universal framework to dreams, and the death knight knew that it was a rule, just as how the dream of falling always ended just when the dreamer collided with the ground.
But, greedily, she scrambled for the comlink anyway.
She had been given many long years to think of what to say. The words, well-practiced, were already at her lips. Lifebinder, Dragonqueen's Champion, Farmboy – she was willing to try, and she had been foolish to say no; she was willing to try, even if Undeath had robbed her of so much; she was willing to try for his sake.
She never heard the small beep of active transmission. Kavan was gone, and Ysera with it, replaced by a familiar ice and wind. The weight of the comlink in her hand crumbled, the powdery snow swept through her fingers onto the wind. The dreaming dragon had been right to enforce her rules, and she knew this well. As the cold struck her face, the bitter envy slowly seeped out of her. There was simply numb emptiness, a bleak lacking she was keenly aware of.
And somewhere in the distance there was a shout. So Mara Netherwalker turned and joined the battle, as she knew she was destined to.