Coruscant. Breathing in its lush air, pregnant with the foul taste of corruption and intrigue, Darth Vader felt a tiny smile creep onto his lips. He had not been here in quite some time and he had not missed this prison at all. Why should he? Everything that had held him here was gone. His family, his people. Palpatine. The memory alone rekindled his fury and as his right hand curled into a fist he directed all his anger effectively on one point. With a tiny sigh the power currents feeding Coruscant's great body died. The Dark Lord smiled. Picking up his pace he swept into the darkened hallways of the Imperial Palace, unseen by panicking executives and save from prying electronic eyes. Of course this also meant that he could not use anything mechanical. In theory, that was.
Since all turbolifts had been rendered useless he used the great ventilation shafts of the palace to gain access into the lower areas. They had their own power generators for emergencies like this one. Naturally they also had a lot more guards. Kicking in the fencing seperating him from a brightly lit hallway Darth Vader dropped into the high security complex. He took a look around and reached out with his mind to get a feel on the place. Finding his target did not prove too difficult and as he walked forward measuredly his ears picked up the distant wail of a siren. More alarms began to sound and he knew that the Rebel Alliance had taken their chance. Good.
It had not been too difficult to get this vital information to the Rebel High Command and although he had been unsure about wether they would be inclined to believe their luck he had not really cared. After all, he did not need their help in this. Dispatching of the guards running to intercept him easily Darth Vader finally dropped into one of the chairs in front of a tall monitor. The main frame. Typing in his codes he waited for the system to acknowledge him. It did in the end and he proceeded, searching for Palpatine's secret files concerning the Sith. When, after some time, he finally found them, he could not but read them. Maybe it was just morbid curiousity, but reading those files blinded his eyes with a red haze of hatred. Despite that he forced himself to read on. Palpatine had had this planned for a long time. And he himself had been so naive back then, so foolish. Ruefully he thought back on Exar Kun's words. He was a fool in many things, he knew, but that would not prevent him from at least paying his debts to his people.
Finally, with bombs already detonating in the building above, he prepared the files' transfer. Another explosion rocked the building and the ceiling very slowly started to cave in. Darth Vader frowned. This deep down the danger of being crushed, should the palace collapse, was very high indeed, but the Rebels would be fools to let this precious source of information go to waste. Still, he could not stay here forever. Hastily deleting the files the Dark Lord straightened from his work station and shut down everything. In the heat of battle and conquest noone would care for his presence. And even if they knew that he was here, the Rebel and Imperial troops had each other to deal with. Darth Vader made his way back into the upper levels deftly, highly concentrated to not get near any of the more intensive fighting throughout the building. Actually he was impressed by the speed with which the Rebels pushed the offensive. A bit too fast maybe.
To his great surprise soldiers came running towards him as he entered the third level above the gound, not shooting blindly as Imperial troops might, but highly disciplined and very alert. Blending into the wall Darth Vader let them pass him. But before they had rounded the far corner one man at the end of the column turned around and frowned. Unseen the Dark Lord scrutinized the other's face and almost immediately his memory supplied a connection: Skywalker's friend, X-Wing pilot and above all Force-sensitive. As the man started walking back into the hallway, ignoring the impatient calls of his comrades, Darth Vader was unsure wether this made him very courageous or extremely stupid. "Anyone here?" the Rebel called softly, his eyes constanly searching and tracking. Finally he stopped, staring out of one of the hallway's viewport. Vader followed his gaze and almost laughed when he saw his own face reflected there, next to the other man's. Of course. The fact that sentients could not see him did not automatically mean that he was invisible.
"We seem to have reached an impasse," the rebel told him lightly, but the Dark Lord simply shook his head:
"No. I rather believe that you have reached a dead end, my friend."
Corran Horn mentally kicked himself for that stupid comment. Here he was, trapped in a deserted hallway with that damn Sith and he had no way of calling for help. Actually, he realized, he had no chance of surviving at all. That was, if Vader had not suddenly gotten all kind and sentimental. Fat chance of that ever happening! Watching quietly he saw the Dark Lord detach himself from the wall and walk towards him. Corran tried very hard not to think of anything at all. I am not here, I am not here, he was telling himself over and over again, hoping against hope that this might distract the other. And when Vader suddenly looked at him in surprise Corran knew that he had won. Dropping to his left knee he brought his blaster rifle to bear and started firing even before the target lock reached the Sith. The Dark Lord reacted immediately, but instead of moving out of the way he bent towards Corran and snatched the weapon out of his hands. Corran's mouth dropped open and he remained on the floor, completely shocked. When the Dark Lord's gloved hands reached out to take his head into his hands he started shivering with a sudden cold.
"Impressive," he heard Vader murmur softly and then he smiled!
"Yeah, sometimes I even surprise myself," Corran shot back hoarsely and tried to jerk his head away. But the other held him tight.
"What is your name?"
"Horn. Corran Horn."
"I have never met a Jedi called Horn."
"Yeah, did you ask all of them for their names before killing them?"
"I did not have too, Horn. I knew them all."
Corran swallowed hard: "You knew them?"
"Courage and temper. An intriguing combination, Horn. You would make a nice gift for an old friend of mine," Vader told him and chuckled softly.
"But he would have to teach you manners first."
"Nah, my wife already tried that. It doesn't work."
This time the Dark Lord broke into a roaring laughter. Letting go of Corran abruptly he took a few steps back and turned away. The awful sound of breaking metal told Corran that his blaster rifle had not survived. But I have! he told himself, truly amazed. Just the he heard the pounding of boots as part of his unit rounded the corner. "What happened?" one of them asked, incredulous. Picking himself up from the floor Corran dusted his clothes off and stared down at his shaking hands. "Nothing," he replied, "But tell the fleet that they should keep their eyes open for any ship trying to leave." The comm officer nodded at him: "Consider it done. And what are we going to do?" Turning around Corran gave him a brittle smile: "Let's go hunting."
The next morning saw Coruscant firmly in the hands of the Rebel Alliance. Here and there the fighting went on, but the majority of the planet had turned decidedly more peaceful. Corran had been up all night and helped in securing the Imperial Palace. He had not found Vader again. And that was just fine with him. No Sith, no worries. Now, stepping off the shuttle which had brought him up aboard the Liberator he was looking forward to some rest. "Hey, Wedge," he called over at the dark-haired man standing with a group of officers not far away on the deck. Wedge Antilles turned around in surprise:
"Corran. Back so soon? I thought you had a Dark Lord to hunt?"
"Apparently he has decided to lie low for now," Corran sighed and brushed a hand over his eyes tiredly.
"Not as low as you might wish." Turning around quickly Corran nodded at General Rieekan, who strode towards the small group purposefully: "Fighting just has been reported in the South of the city. There are only Imperial troops involved."
Wedge frowned: "And they are fighting who?"
The general gave him a tight smile:" That is what you will investigate. Commander Antilles, I want you to take Rogue Squadron over there and check it out."
"At once, sir."
They flew in low and Corran was actually grateful for the sudden surge of adrenaline when a stray laser bolt splayed over his shields harmlessly. But at least it did wake him up. Just as the General had told them there were only white-clad strom troopers assembled in the small square underneath. No, not a square, Corran realized, it was a courtyard. Looking around over the city his breath caught in his throat. Of course. "Rogue Leader, I think we will have to do some house-breaking." Over his head-comm he heard Wedge chuckle. "Alright," the commander told them finally. "Let's go help our dear neighbours."
They landed their ships on the flat roof of the fortress and Corran immediately spotted the torn circuitry of what once had been the alarm systems of the great building. Following Wedge and his comrades over the roof he risked a glance over the edge down into the courtyard. Dead and badly mutilated bodies littered the grey flagtiles and white armour flashed almost everywhere. But he could just make out the black blur mowing mercilessly through the rows of troopers, blue blades flashing. "Wedge, we better hurry!" he called ahead hoarsely and trotted after the others. They pounded down the outer stairs, trying to keep their eyes on possible dangers, but the Imperials were too intent on staying alive to pay much attention to the Squadron moving in.
"Move back!" Wedge bellowed suddenly, his voice rising over the din of screams and curses. The troopers, well-trained to obey orders, retreated towards one end of the courtyard, and waited uneasily for another command.
Wedge, shaking his head, led his small contingent down into the yard, obviously hunting around for any officer. But Corran's eyes were fixed solely on the tall warlord standing at the opposite wall of the yard. He did not know why but somehow he felt himself drawn to Vader and started walking forward, until the Dark Lord moved towards him a few steps, holding his lightsaber in a cautious guard between them. In an instant the Corellian pilot took in the feral gleam in the other's blue gaze and the distinctly absent expression on his pale face. He's in some sort of trance, Corran realized, his eyes flying open wide in surprise. With a small scream the truth hit him and he scurried back towards the squadron, waving at Wedge to get his attention: "Get out of here!" Corran started shouting when he could breath properly again. Turning around once he saw Vader bare his teeth in a silent snarl: "Now!" Corran yelled and finally the spell broke.
Luke was watching Master Yoda closely when the ancient Jedi Master's head came up suddenly, a displeased expression on his face. He gave his apprentice a short, questioning glance, but apparenty Luke was not aware of what was going on. The immense flow of power connecting three planets and focusing on a fourth was all but lost on him. Well, maybe that was for the best. There was no telling what Luke would do should he find out what Vader had done. Not that he himself liked it either. He had already told the Dark Lord that he would not let him die senselessly and what he was doing now felt as if the Sith was going to push the limits and even go beyond. Foolish, foolish. And reckless. What he was planning was too much for him to handle alone and Yoda was certain that Vader would come to seek his help. Which he could not grant him, under no circumstances. The Jedi were guardians of life, true, but he would not risk the Sith to rise again either. It was difficult to decide which was right and which wrong, but Yoda knew that they could only survive if they managed to work together. Looking over at Luke again he shook his head sadly. Those two together... Well, eventually they would lay their differences to rest. At least that was what he hoped.
Corran was running for his life, hard on the heels of the last storm troopers. Behind them an angry roar filled the courtyard, then something slammed into the wall, and by the sound of it it was cracking it in several spots. "Go, go, go!" he shouted, not so much in concern for the Imps as for himself. When he had finally managed to get into his X-wing he heaved a deep sigh.
"Corran, do you know what was going on there?" Wedge asked suddenly over his head-comm.
"He's gone mad, is what I think. We better let him leave if he tries to."
"I am not sure if Command will sanction that."
"Then let Command deal with him. Corran out."
Despite the trance Darth Vader was very aware of what was going on around him. He could feel the power of the Darkness fill him to bursting and a profound, serene peace enveloped his mind gradually. The killing was at an end. Gyndine, Carida and Coruscant - all three planets had been seleceted for the only reason that they formed a triangle pointing towards Yavin 4, the moon he had chosen for the ritual. Now was the time to leave.
Mara Jade was bent over her commpad and stared at the message flashing on her screen. It was encoded, but unfortunately she knew that code very well. On one hand she was curious, on the other she was certain that this message meant trouble. She should never have tried to hack into the mainframe. Finally, after a long time staring out of her ship's viewport Mara decided to take the risk. After all, she had also taken a risk leaving Coruscant in the middle of the rebel attack. Working her way through the code Mara sat for hours until she had managed half of the message. It apparently consisted of a package of files. Hesitating again she decided to let the program run on its own for now while she took a break. Walking out of the cockpit into the galley she prepared a hot drink for herself and made her way to her cabin. Curling up on the small bunk she heaved a deep sigh. The Emperor's death had shocked her at first, until she realized that she had lost more with him than just her employer and mentor. The Empire was losing and she would be damned if she got crushed when it fell. She liked to see herself as a survivor and she would make it through this too. For the time being she was drifting, true, unsure of where to go, but she had a feeling that she might want to try Nar Shadaa.
When suddenly her ship lurched with a heavy thud, making her spill her drink over herself and the bed-sheets Mara cursed heart-felt before racing into the cockpit. Staring out of the viewport, her mouth hanging open, she could not believe at first what she was seeing. She had accidentially stumbled into a battle. In the distance a Star Destroyer and an Interdictor Cruiser were facing a small fleet of transports and two corvettes. "Shit," Mara whispered, groaning inwardly. She dropped into her seat at the controls and turned her ship around carefully, keeping an eye on the radar showing her the cone of the interdiction field that had ripped her ship out of hyperspace. And knew that she would never make it when the familiar dots of TIE fighters appeared on the radar. They were with her in seconds and tried to herd her back towards the Star Destroyer. Mara knew better than to pick a fight with them. Not with more and more streaking towards her with each passing moment. And what was so bad about this anyway?
Maybe this was her second chance. Maybe everything would be alright again. She laughed mirthlessly. Yeah, right.
"Stand down your weapons," a harsh voice ordered her over the comm.
Complying grim-faced Mara leaned back and let the Star Destroyer's tractor beam do the work for her. This was madness. She had no idea what was waiting for her on board. But for now she really had no choice. Well. Choices could be made and remade at any time.
He had never been to Dagobah before and there had been several reasons for that. One of them was waiting for him in the large clearing he had made his landing-site. The ancient Jedi Master was bent over his ever-present walking stick, his huge, moss-green eyes unfathomable.
Walking towards him slowly Darth Vader tried to convey to his opponent a sense of peace. Not that he had to do much for it. He was completely calm. On the surface at least.
"Meet again we do," Yoda said finally, giving him a short nod.
"Indeed. I think you know why I am here, don't you?" Again a nod.
Following the Jedi Master in a respectful distance the Dark Lord let his senses grow accustomed to the overwhelming presence of life force on the planet. It was a power not unlike that of Yavin 4, but different too. Darker, deeper. It was hard to describe. Yoda led him to his very humble homestead, a small hut made out of wood and mud. Vader was astounded. And the Jedi noticed it too. An amused smile formed on his lips as he shook his head slowly:
"Unexpected this is?"
"Yes. Frankly I had expected something grander, more like the Jedi Temple on Coruscant."
"Hard to build alone, for myself alone," Yoda reminded him ironically and the Dark Lord knew exactly that he did mean something else entirely.
"I will not make any excuse for my actions, Master Yoda. You knew what was coming at you."
"Really. And did you?"
That shut him up. Of course he had not been aware of Palpatine's scheming. Else this would never have happened. After a lengthy silence he decided to try his luck nevertheless:
"I need your help."
"Yes. Felt it I did. Foolish it is. Risky."
"But we can-"
"Help you I will not."
"Will not," Vader repeated slowly. What had he expected? "I see."
"No reason for a dispute this must become," Yoda said suddenly, warily.
"No. You are right. Not with you. I understand, I think. But I must ask you not to interfere."
"Lord Vader. Know the ancient saying you do, told you often enough I have. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate-"
"Leads to suffering," the Dark Lord interrupted him coldy. "I know all that. And I do not care. I will do this with or without you."
"Then ask you to leave I must."
But Darth Vader did not answer.
Turning around Yoda saw Luke standing there, looking bewildered.
"Was that Vader?"
The master nodded slowly, heaving a deep sigh. When his student raced past him, intent on catching up with the Dark Lord, he stopped him short easily.
"Stay you will."
To his own amazement Luke complied. Dropping to the muddy ground he looked at the ancient Jedi tiredly: "I know that you two are harbouring some secret. You might as well tell me now."
Yoda shook his head: "Not my place it is."
"Master, what did he want from you?"
"Your help?" Luke seemed surprised. "But why?"
"He-." Closing his eyes Yoda hesitated. When he opened them again they were full of sadness: "Desperate he is. For reasons that need concern you not."
"Master, please," the young Jedi practically begged. He had had enough of all this. All he wanted was some clarity. Why was his master inclined to pity Vader when at the same time he refused to give him his assistance? Why had Vader come to his enemy at all? Finally the ancient alien seemed to have made up his mind. He shook his head again, with determination this time:
"Foolish he is and angry. Go to him you will."
"Go to him? Me? Why?"
"The source of his anger you are, Luke. Make your peace you must."
"But why did you let him go just now?"
"The time, not right it was."
"I do not understand..."
"You will, Luke. You will."
The young Jedi left the same evening, heading for Yavin 4. Technically Yoda was well aware that he had betrayed the Dark Lord's trust. But he could also feel that Vader was consumed slowly by his own hatred. Sending Luke now would catch him off-guard and maybe Luke would have a chance to make him listen. Yoda had been able to rid the boy of his own anger concerning his father's death. But even though he was quite certain that Luke had not forgiven the Sith yet he could not defend Vader either. That he had to do himself. And he sincerely hoped that his apprentice would not be too late to give them both that chance of peace.
Mara stepped out of her ship onto the polished deck of the great warship's hangar tentatively. A contingent of storm troopers was waiting for her, not unexpectedly. She had sent over her codes to the Star Destroyer's commander before landing and the reaction she had anticipated had not come to pass. Unfortunately. It was frustrating, really, to not being taken seriously. The troopers led her towards the bridge and Mara tried to appear cool and composed. In reality she was scanning her suroundings closely. Not many soldiers were about, and with the battle still going on she could understand that well. Rounding a corner she found herself on the lower bridge and froze. The man bent over the battle display was familiar. His powerful body clad in an olive uniform he made up for his lack of height by an overwhelming arrogance. Former governor Torlok of Corulag raised his head to smile at her coldly.
"The Emperor's Hand herself. An honour," he said, straightening fully. Mara did not care to return his smile. He hesitated before he continued: "And what brings you out this far from the Core?"
"The same reason why you are here: the Rebellion, what else?"
"Of course. I heard that Coruscant had fallen."
"Yet you were not there."
"Noone could anticipate that they would dare attack the capital so soon."
He shook his head and there was a sly glitter in his eyes: "They had some help, I believe."
That got Mara's attention: "What kind of help?"
"It is just a suspicion."
Suddenly she remembered the files she had intercepted, the ones with that very special code.
She groaned inwardly. Everything pointed in one direction, it seemed. But why? Torlok nodded grimly, seeing that she understood:
"There were attacks on Gyndine and Carida. Someone, a single person reportedly, wiped out the majority of the troops stationed there. Do you know who I mean?"
She simply nodded. Vader. Of course. That still did not answer the question of what drove him though. The way Mara remembered him he had been absolutely loyal to Palpatine. On the other hand her master had not told her everything. Another memory surfaced: a funeral. Vader's wife. She had killed herself shortly after the battle of Hoth. A victory for her husband and yet she had chosen to take her life. He had cried over her dead body and Mara had been astounded at the sudden emotional outburst of the usually so very cold Sith. Was there a connection maybe?
"I have been able to glean some files from the mainframe. They are - special," she explained finally. His head came up sharply:
"Special? In what way?"
"The Emperor's personal journals, or part of them, at least," she added, keeping in mind the relative small size of the message.
"Good. Very good. Then we shall get to work immediately. If we can find out why he is doing this we might be able to direct this madness elsewhere."
"At the rebels?"
Stalking the silent hallways of the Great Temple on Yavin 4 the Dark Lord had made it very clear that he did not wish to be disturbed by anyone, especially not by Exar Kun. And so the spectre kept his distance, even though Darth Vader could feel him lurking not far away, waiting. Immersed in his dark broodings he did not realize where he was going until he had reached th temple's roof. He stood underneath the starlit nightsky, surveying the jungle laid out before him, listening to the calls of the creatures hunting out there in the dense undergrowth of the forest.
With the Jedi Master's help he would have been able to turn the Shanda ritual another way, turn its destructive power into something else. But that chance was gone now. He thought back on his last discussion with Exar Kun, on how the ancient Sith had lectured him on the ritual. It was meant for battle, and the circumstances he found himself in now where different from what was seen as the ritual's traditional setting. Very much so. But he had nothing to lose. Setting his mouth in a tight line he decided to wait no longer.
Exar Kun was hovering next to the dais, and if he had been anyone else he would have been hopping from one foot to the other. But, being a Sith Lord, he simply wore his disapproval plain on his dark face. Darth Vader ignored him completely. He had made the last adjustments to the ritual device and now stood back to study his handiwork for the last time. The sleek construct hung over the single stone slab like a raptor, its fifteen talons ready to sink into its victim's flesh.
"You will not change your mind then?" Exar Kun asked finally, his voice hard and angry.
"No," the other replied and turned away to seek his place in the middle of the Great Hall. The spectre followed him but remained in a respectful distance.
"You know that I do not approve."
"And who asked for your opinion?" the Dark Lord shot back and settled down on the cold floor to meditate. It was imperative that he enter the ritual sphere cleansed of all distracting thoughts and emotions. Kun folded his arms in front of his chest and frowned:
"I cannot believe that you are giving this chance away for the dead. They have no use for your sacrifice. They do not care."
Taking a deep breath the other man closed his eyes: "I made this promise to myself. And additionally, it is my duty. I have studied the Sith lore, something you seem to have forgotten over the milennia. There is a code of honour for us, you know?"
Exar Kun snorted in disgust: "Honour! Lord Vader, honour is all good and well as long as one is alive. Dead, it is not worth anything. I wish you would realize that at last."
"I know what you mean, believe me. But there truly is nothing I could gain that would be worth more to me than what I have lost. Can you understand that? I doubt it, so spare me an answer and a lie. Just leave me alone."
"As you wish," Exar Kun sighed finally and vanished.
Exhaling slowly Darth Vader let go of his anger at Kun's lack of understanding, and instead opened his mind wide, listening to the echoes of the Force surrounding him, letting them lull him into a peaceful trance. For a long time he again let the reasons for his decision pass his inner eye and they still made as much sense to him as they had back on Endor. He had lost his family and he had lost his people. All of his life had been dedicated to them and now that they were gone he felt empty and useless. Kun had repeatedly tried to convince him that he could fill this emptiness with sweet revenge and he had, for a while. But he could still feel the wound where his connection to the Sith had been partly severed. And he longed to set them free, to cross the distance and join them again. Forever.
Rising slowly he walked towards the sacrificial dais and lay down on its cold surface, feeling the touch of stone underneath him. "Activate," he told the control unit calmly, then closed his eyes. The whirr of servo-motors filled the chamber with a low humming noise and Darth Vader felt the cool blades reach for him almost tenderly. The first cut came as a surprise, but not long after he had gotten used to the rythm between cuts and rests. It was, he thought, like a complicated melody and he was straining to anticipate each move, to join the flow more deeply and to focus his thoughts on a greater level. Finally his mind transcended the body and the Dark Lord reveled in the breath-taking sight of the universe, reading the patterns of the stars like letters to a grand poem telling the beginning and the end.
He could hear the Darkness humming with the silent song of eternity, saw the Light dwarfed by the night encompassing everything, marking the passing of years and decades. The life of Light was short, seconds only, threatened to be overwhelmed by Darkness at any time. And the most beautiful harmonics of the song were lost on the Light, as it feared the untold secrets hiding in the gloom of Darkness. Blinded by its own being the Light fell prey to weakness and retreated into the safety of ignorance. So much knowledge, Darth Vader thought, sighing inwardly.
"Too much for you, perhaps?" Exar Kun's voice cut cruelly into his trance and broke his concentration. With a scream the Dark Lord came awake, but was clear-headed enough not to try and rise. "Careful, careful," Kun mocked him and smiled cruelly at the other's pain. "You!" Darth Vader hissed and turned his head slowly, "How dare you disturb me now!" The other shrugged: "There are intruders breaking into the temple. They are headed this way." The Dark Lord's eyes widened in surprise as his shaking mind caught the presence of strangers not too far away. "Deactivate," he snapped at the unit and immediately the blades retreated. Rising slowly Darth Vader shook his head groggily. "You might want to put on some clothes," Kun reminded him pleasantly. Vader snorted something, then wiped the blood off his face.
For a while he tried to gather his senses, then moved over to pick up his long cloak. That should suffice for now. But Kun was shaking his head: "If you think about fighting them now think again. You are far too weak. Look at you." It was true. The dizziness holding his head prisoner spoke volumes. "How far..." he began slowly, but suddenly his tongue felt too heavy to speak. "Halfway through, by my estimate. Not life-threatening yet, but close. Go. Hide. And don't let them catch you." Growling under his breath Darth Vader realized that he really had no choice. It took a supreme effort to dress himself, and his hands were shaking as he ripped his cloak to pieces to wrap long bandages around the deeper wounds to staunch the bleeding. He was losing too much time he knew, and when he looked up towards the entrance his frown deepened. Too late to run.
Luke Skywalker stood frozen in place and simply stared. He could feel the team gather behind him and Corran at his side. He had picked them up on his way to Yavin, well aware that he could not face the Dark Lord alone. Now though he realized that bringing them here might have been a grave mistake. All eyes were fixed on the tall man standing at the far end of the chamber on bare feet in a spreading pool of blood. Darth Vader was dressed in his usual black uniform and make-shift bandages bore testimony to his cloak's fate. Two cuts were slashed down his face, bloody stripes running from his hairline straight down over the inner corners of his eyes where they angled diagonically outward to end abruptly halfway across his cheeks. Luke could easily guess that the source of the Dark Lord's injuries was the strange construct erected over the dais on the platform behind him. Its sharp blades were gleaming underneath a coating of blood.
"Yuck! Look at that, will ya!" Corran exclaimed in disgust, breaking the spell. Luke started at the sound of his voice and threw his friend a hard glance. Corran simply shrugged and raised his blaster rifle at the Dark Lord's chest. Walking forward slowly he gave the sign for a mutual advance on the Sith. Vader had not moved at all. He was simply waiting, his mouth drawn in a grim line.
"Lord Vader!" Luke called and waited for the other to acknowledge him. The Dark Lord gave him a pained smile: "We meet again, Skywalker. Didn't I warn you? You and your friend." Here he gave Corran a meaningful stare. The Corellian simply shrugged. "And what do you propose to do? You are injured." Vader laughed silently. "But far from defenseless," he answered and coughed labouriously. Luke winced when he wiped a tiny trickle of blood from his mouth. It was this gesture that shook them all off balance and the Dark Lord made his move instantly.
Lashing out with the Force he slammed a wall of air into the team, sending them flying. All except Luke, who had had shielded himself beforehand. Breaking into a run immediately he lunged at the Dark Lord. Vader met him half-way, closing his hands around the young Jedi's neck. Boosting himself up Luke grabbed the other's bandaged wrists and squeezed hard, flipped over the other's head and drew him along. When the Sith crashed onto the stone dais Luke thought at first that he had broken his back. Vader had his eyes closed tightly, seemingly in great pain. Taking his chance Luke threw himself bodily over the other man, holding him down. "Come on, give up. You cannot win this," he hissed between clenched teeth, trying to fend off the other's attacks at the same time. Suddenly Vader ceased his struggles and for an endless moment two pairs of blue eyes met. Then the Dark Lord's face turned into an ugly mask of fury. "Activate!" he snarled and pushed Luke upward with all the strength left to him.
Corran picked himself up slowly, and shook his head to losen his daze. But when he looked up he saw Luke already moving towards Vader, tackling him. The Dark Lord bounced hard onto the stone platform and Luke tried to hold him down. By then Corran was already running towards them, intent on helping his friend. But to his horror the construct's blades suddenly moved into a complicated pattern and stabbed down, one by one, as Vader levered himself off the dais, using Luke's body as a living shield. "Watch out!" Corran hollered, but too late. Luke's scream rang throughout the great chamber as the blades reached him. Bringing his rifle to bear Corran's expert eye spotted the construct's control unit immediately and one shot destroyed it, stopping the knifes in mid-cut. With a thump Luke dropped back to the platform, his body limp. He did not move at all. "Luke!" Corran shouted in dismay and hurried over to his friend's side, nearly slipping in the pool of blood. Jumping onto the dais he stood over Luke protectively, his eyes searching for the Dark Lord who must be hiding behind the stone platform. But there was noone in sight.
Closing his eyes tightly Darth Vader tried not to breathe at all. He did not look up when Corran Horn jumped onto the dais and he kept his mind blank as to not give himself away to Skywalker, who unfortunately was still alive. "Hey, Sikes," Horn called, "See if you can get the memory chip out of the control unit. Then we can blast this damn thing." Lying helpless on the cold floor tiles Vader bit his lower lip in frustration, trembling with rage and fatigue. He had worked so hard for that device! But if he died now nothing would have been gained. Nothing. So he kept silent and waited some more.
After destroying the ritual device the Rebel team went searching the chamber for quite some time, but they could not find him at all. Finally they retreated again, undoubtedly to search the rest of the temple. "I owe you," Vader told Exar Kun grimly as he pushed himself up on his elbows, shaking his head dizzily. The spectre flowed out of the wall into the chamber, hovering above the fallen Dark Lord like an avenging ghost. And in a sense he was. "I told you that this was foolishness," Kun snorted. "Just shut up," Vader replied angrily and took a deep breath. "Get up," Kun commanded coldly after a while." No need to have you die of a blood infection now." Turning away the spectre did not wait for the Dark Lord who was getting to his feet unsteadily.
They made an odd pair walking down the now deserted corridors of the temple towards the turbolift which took them down to the deepest level. The stone underneath Vader's feet turned colder and he started shivering. Steadying himself against the wall he tried to focus on keeping upright and walking on. Still, he felt as if he would never make it. Finally Exar Kun stopped, studying the younger Sith speculatively: "You will survive. Just relax now. And think about what I have told you."
They had reached the entrance to a low cave filled with a sharp, sulphurous scent. Nearby water could be heard slapping softly against the rough stone. Steam was rising off the dark pool's surface as the stars shone brightly through a crevice overhead. Darth Vader stared at the water grimly. Then, undressing slowly, he closed his eyes, trying to relax, just as the other Sith had ordered. Finally he slipped into the pool, suppressing a pained scream when the scalding heat closed over his open wounds. The water would disinfect them, he knew, but would also leave some ugly scars. He smiled. No. Not ugly at all.
For a long, long time the Dark Lord let his body float in the pool's warm embrace, forgetting everything around him for a while, even Exar Kun, who patiently stood watch over him. Instead he let his thoughts flow freely, chasing themselves across his mind, and reflecting in the distant stars. Kun was right. He had been foolish. He could not bring his people back, and his own death would not change their fate. Still guilt wreaked his consciousness, reminding him of his failure to protect those he had loved. The thought of Andra, and Nomi, dead in his arms. Skywalker. He would pay after all. He and his friends.
Agitated by the thought of his revenge Darth Vader grabbed the edge of the pool, heaving himself out of the water. There was too much to do. He could not allow himself to rest now. And he could heal as he went along. Reaching out for his clothes Vader suddenly found his way blocked by Exar Kun. The Dark Lord took a step back, frowning at the spectre whose dark face bore a fascinated expression of childish wonder. Kun reached out slowly to trace the long gash running from Vader's mid-riff straight up towards and over the right collar-bone to vanish around the Dark Lord's right shoulder. Parallel to the scar smaller ones curved softly across his right breast in a delicate pattern, reached out to snake over his right arm and down to his wrist.
When Exar Kun touched him Darth Vader flinched back from the ghost's deadly coldness, but rallied himself immediately. "The beginning," the ancient Sith Lord whispered in awe. Almost timidly his spectral fingers brushed along the two scars running up both sides of Vader's neck, and the single one along the breast-bone. Looking down he studied the calligraphy cut across the other's left leg, climbing up in a glorious maze of scriptures until it ended in another long scar running up to the left side of the Dark Lord's ribcage.
"And the end," he added, smiling in satisfaction. "A shame. I would have loved to know all of the poem's words."
Darth Vader snorted contemptously. "Had you been willing and courageous enough you now would have all the knowledge the Darkness has to offer."
"And I would be dead," Kun replied amiably, "As you would be now."