Hello, everyone! I am so sorry about the wait. This story isn't over. This chapter just spent an extended period of time in developmental hell. On top of that, family stuff happened and... well... you get the picture. Anyways, it's good to be back and I can't wait to hear what ya'll think. So, without further ado, I give you chapter 6...


(Light Freighter Ghost: one day later)

No one knew what to expect when they pulled out of hyperspace, and this certainly wasn't it. Scattered among the debris and floating bodies were Imperial and Alliance warships, coupled with massive ships that no one could hope to identify. Ezra opened his voice to speak. Before he could, however, it was the ship-to-ship comm that made a sound.

"This is a Sentry 1 to unidentified ship. Identify yourself." commanded the voice.

As he spoke, a foreign, frigate-sized warship suddenly materialized along their portside.

Hera stammered. "Since when do we-"

"We don't," Rex answered as he punched the talk button. "This is light freighter 'Ghost', to Sentry 1. Stand down. We were recalled by the Home One."

As he spoke, the clone's aging raced from button to button across the co-pilot controls. It ended with him confirming that the Home One was not one of the destroyed ships and the transmission of their ID and proper clearance codes.

"Welcome home, Ghost. You are cleared to proceed along the following flight path," the voice finally said before the comm line was cut.

The crew let out a breath they didn't know they were holding. It seemed things had changed, but how much remained to be seen.

(CAS Shadow of Intent )

The Arbiter stared out of the front viewport with tired eyes. The years had not been kind to him. It was by sheer stubbornness alone that he had agreed to this venture in the first place. There would be no rest until the last of the destructive Forerunner installations were destroyed. ONI may have represented the height of dishonor, but they were skilled at the craft of gathering intelligence, better than his own intelligence gatherers. It was their slinking spies and hidden ships that kept humanity alive for over thirty years of war. If they said that there was a Halo ring in this galaxy, he had little reason to believe otherwise.

However, the rest of this… the Rebels… the Imperial splinter group… The unstable alliance and constant maneuvering for power reminded him too much of the Covenant. His mandibles clenched, and his eyes narrowed into a look of contempt at the thought. This alliance would collapse under its own weight, just like the Covenant before it. It may not happen now. It may not even happen soon. Regardless, the end results would be ugly for everyone involved. The Arbiter just hoped he wouldn't be left to pick up the pieces this time.

The Arbiter returned to the present as a Sangheili officer in gold armor came up beside him.

"Arbiter, they've landed in the main hangar," he reported.

"Very good, Shipmaster. Bring them to the bridge. The general has seen enough detention blocks for now," the Arbiter ordered.

"It will be done," the officer acknowledged.

With that, he stepped away and left the Arbiter alone with his thoughts again. It was soon after that the blast doors to the bridge hissed open. The Arbiter listened to the chorus of heavy footsteps. The Arbiter waited until the bridge was silent to turn around. The rhythmic hiss-puff of Vader's respirator added rhythm to the Sangheili's movements. At the front, flanked by two Sangheili minors, was the general in charge of the Yaga minor shipyards. Behind him was Admiral Piett and Vader.

"Come forward. Time is a precious commodity," the Arbiter commanded.

"A change of scenery isn't going to loosen my lips," the general sneered as he marched forward.

The Arbiter ignored him as he received a data card from Vader. He took this and inserted it into the bridge holo table. As he plugged it in, he visually picked apart the officer. He was an older man with white hair ringing a bald head. His features were worn and tired. Yet he stood tall with shoulders set back and chin held high. The final thing the Arbiter noticed was a distinct lack of restraints on the man. This was a subtle detail that was born from hours of argument and planning.

"Perhaps it is time that we changed the topic of this discussion," Vader began.

The general didn't answer as a series of holographic images appeared.

"These are the technical details of a second death star being constructed over the planet Endor," Vader explained before pressing the datapad into the man's hands. "It also contains a draft of the Emperor's military reconstruction order that will be going out shortly."

The general listened with increasing alarm as Admiral Piett went through the particulars of each new revelation. Next to him, the Arbiter observed the conversation with a renewed sense of understanding. Vader never meant to win this war on his own. He intended to turn the entire Empire against one man.

"Clever," he muttered.

"This is impossible," the man scoffed. "This guts half of the military command structure… death stars… 'Operation Cinder'... Bantha crap is what this is."

His disbelief failed to reach his darting eyes.

"If it was, we wouldn't be having this discussion. I do not base my actions on hear-say," Vader countered as he dropped another datapad on the holo table.

The general scooped the datapad up and began reading. The Arbiter did not know what was on the pad. However, it was clear that the contents were of interest to the general. He wiped the sweat from his brow and scrolled through the materials with reckless abandon.

"The Emperor is not interested in the safety or security of the Empire. He seeks nothing but personal power," Admiral Piett declared.

Two other datapads were set on the table.

"More light reading," Vader announced, "You will have plenty of uninterrupted time to consider your place in the galaxy. Read. Comprehend. Decide what is truly worth dying for."

With that, he waved over the two Sangheili minors. The Arbiter gave a nod of confirmation to the duo as the general scooped up the datapads.

"Take the prisoner to the detention deck. He is to be regularly provided with food and water. Ensure that he remains otherwise undisturbed," the Arbiter commanded.

"It will be done," the two guards answered in unison.

With that, the officer was escorted off the bridge. The doors hissed shut, and the Arbiter turned to the remaining Imperials.

"We have slaughtered his people and destroyed his facility. What is the point of attempting to turn him? He has no ships to command and no soldiers to fight with," the Arbiter asked with the Sangheili equivalent of an annoyed sigh.

"In the long run, those reasons are exactly why he must be turned first. If he can be brought to our side, anyone else in the Imperial military is vulnerable. More immediately, he was the general in charge of the biggest shipyard in the outer rim. He hears things. He sees things. His information could be the difference between winning and losing this war," Admiral Piett explained.

"Very well. You will be informed of any notable changes," the Arbiter accepted.

With the conversation clearly over, Darth Vader and Piett marched off the bridge.

(UNSC Infinity )

The doctors stared at the technical readouts and medical reports with varying degrees of disgust and confusion. No one spoke as they took notes. Sideways glances were traded, and unspoken thoughts shared. At the front of the pack was an aging woman with ice-cold eyes, silver hair, and only one arm. She did not wince. She did not twist her face in a look of disgust. The woman simply took in the details with computer-like detachment.

"Doctor, can you do it or not?" Admiral Hood demanded.

Doctor Halsey looked up from her datapad.

"It wouldn't be the first accident to happen on the operating table," she answered quickly.

"No," Admiral Hood said, refusing the suggestion with a shake of his head. "Like it or not, he is one of the only people holding this operation together. We'll get to him after we have dealt with the more immediate problems."

Agent Dare had pitched the same idea to Admiral Hood twelve hours ago. He had rejected the plan, and clearly, she had decided to go the democratic route and stir up outside support for the idea.

Dr. Halsey accepted the response and moved to explain the operation itself. "It'll be a legitimately, dangerous operation. There isn't a single part of him that went untouched in that battle. A conservative estimate has ninety-eight his outer skin burned beyond repair. His head was split open when he dropped to the ground. One lung is completely collapsed while the other one is severely damaged from smoke inhalation and fire. He is missing all of the lower parts of his limbs… On top of that, we'll have to deal with the untold level of damage his suit has done over the years. This includes-"

"Doctor, the short version please," Admiral Hood cut in.

"In short, everything he damaged has been created in a lab by us. However, it was not all successfully made for one person. There is no promise that Vader's body will accept every cloned organ and limb. Also, there is no one here or anywhere that Roland could find, that has operated on a patient this injured. People in his present condition die in the field, just like he should have. We have no literature to help establish a treatment plan beyond 'pump his body full of morphine and stop the bleeding,'" summarized another doctor.

Admiral Hood considered the information. He knew that this would be a hard task to undertake. Truth be told, he had hoped that Dr. Halsey would label it an impossible task- a prognosis that he could easily take back to Vader. However, he was not given that determination.

Admiral Hood stood in the center of the room with his feet planted stubbornly in place. His face was drawn up into a frown, while his age lines showed. For several seconds, the officer didn't move or speak as he weighed his options. Vader had already sniffed out each of the alliance's lies and sent the message that he was aware of those being fed to him by the UNSC and Swords of Sanghellios. This would not be a lie that the admiral or any other officer could slide past Vader. However, they could still tell him no. There was nothing except their own pragmatic nature and subconscious fears preventing them from doing so.

"Consider it this way, Admiral. You are essentially building a new suit of armor for the Arbiter. However, the Schism has not happened yet, and we do not yet know which side of the battle line we will fall on," Dr. Halsey offered.

Admiral Hood nodded as he considered the thought. The doctor was not wrong. In any other scenario, that man would be nothing more than just one more monster that needed to be put down. However, now was not the time or the place.

"Begin preparing for the surgery. Apparently, Vader is leaving the fleet for a few days. I do not know why, nor do I care. Use the time to prepare for the operation," he commanded.

With this order, Admiral Hood spun around on his left heel and marched out of the laboratory. With Halsey leading the team of doctors, there was no reason to expand on his orders. She was more than capable of leading them to a final result.

The march back to the bridge was a comforting experience. He watched as men and women flowed around him. They would stop long enough to snap a quick salute and then continue on with their tasks. Watching them work reminded him why he was here. The Admiral was not in this galaxy to be a peacekeeper. Nor was he here to simply destroy another nation. They were an obstacle. Were they not in his way, he would be content to leave them to their own devices. He was here to destroy the last Halo ring. With its destruction, the galaxy could move on. The last relic of the Human-Covenant war would be gone. Humanity could begin its ascent to the Forerunner's Mantle.

Admiral Hood returned the salute of two sentries and marched onto the Infinity's bridge. He was immediately greeted by Captain Lasky and the holographic form of Roland. The two met him at the holo table, with the Captain issuing orders along the way.

"Admiral, the last of the prowlers, just entered slipspace. It'll take them some time to reach the core, though," Captain Lasky reported.

His voice was calm and level. However, the Admiral's experienced ears picked up the faint hint of anticipation. The man was just as anxious to get underway as he was.

"One of them picked up a light freighter on the way out," Roland added as he marked the sighting on the map, "Home One confirmed that it was the Ghost , one of their ships and the last one expected to arrive here."

"Good. I assume Vader knows that we won't be here when he returns from this excursion of his," Admiral Hood answered.

"According to Admiral Piett, he is well aware of the fact. He is also expected to be out of contact for a while," Captain Lasky confirmed.

"There's also the matter of Agent Dare. She's dug up a lot of information. However, she does seem to be trying to undermine some of the leadership," Roland warned.

Admiral Hood's face hardened. If it was bad enough for an AI to notice, then it was becoming a severe problem.

"I know. It's mainly two people that she's interested in. I'll deal with it when she returns," Admiral Hood said before adding, "Has she found anything useful in the meantime?"

"She was able to confirm Vader's destination. It's a planet known as Korriban… supposedly a place of significant value to the Sith and the closest thing to hell that the Jedi believed in," Captain Lasky answered.

Admiral Hood's eyes narrowed with suspicion. He did not like any of what this suggested.

"Has anyone been able to figure out what his plan is?" Admiral Hood quizzed.

"No, sir. No one in the Imperial command chain seems to know what's going on, and their network doesn't seem to have any information on the matter," Roland answered, "Agent Dare will give you the specifics in a couple hours. Still, Vader's lines of communication seem to be airtight."

"Alright. In the meantime, we need to finish preparing for our exit from the system. I want us to be ready to leave by the end of this rotation," Admiral Hood concluded.

"Yes, sir," man and machine both answered.

(Deep Core region)

The air was cold and stale. The lights flickered, and the crumbling floor made a distinct crunching sound as the stormtroopers marched down the passage. No one spoke a word as they stared down their blaster sights. Not a shot had been fired, and everyone was familiar with the grey labyrinth by now. This time, however, it was different. The blood-painted walls and green-tinted air made that very clear. The sergeant froze. Even without the hand signal, everyone else knew to freeze.

"Door ahead," the sergeant called out as he turned to face the squad. "Lepall. Tek. Watch the rear. Everyone, stack up and stay frosty. This isn't friendly territory anymore."

Before the words had finished exiting the sergeant's mouth, everyone was moving. Men in bleach white armor lined up along the side of the door. Their weapons pointed forward and down. Their eyes locked on the door as they fell into the shooting equivalent of a loose fighting stance. In front, the sergeant stopped just short of the door sensor. He raised three fingers.

3… Muscles tensed .

2… Boots dug into the ground for maximum grip.

1… One last calming breath flooded the lungs.

Execute.

The door snapped open as the sergeant lunged forward. With blasters raised, the ten-man squad rushed in. However, there was nothing to greet them. The room was a large circle with chest-high walls, and massive beams crisscrossing the space. It was excellent for those that had to establish defensive positions. It also meant that several men were needed to clear the room with any kind of efficiency.

Through means that the sergeant didn't care to understand, the engineers had tapped into the ring's power supply grid and established a series of communication relays. These were set up at depths where ground communications began to fail. They acted to boost the signal and ensure that crews excavating the lower tunnels could still maintain contact with the map room's command and control center.

"Clear," called one trooper.

"Clear," confirmed two others.

"How's our six?" the sergeant quizzed.

"All quiet," Tek answered.

"For now," Lepall added nervously.

The sergeant didn't respond as he examined the room. Blood and blaster scoring painted the walls, while shards of glass sparkled in the light. Sticking out from a beam, the sergeant could make out a bloody hand. The grey fabric running down the arm revealed its owner to be a Navy officer. Morbid curiosity led the sergeant to give it a gentle kick. He felt his stomach roll as it spun back out of view.

"Equipment looks intact… beat up but usable," reported a trooper.

"Get it working then. I don't like how isolated we are," the sergeant commanded.

"Yes, sir."

With that, the trooper waved over a specialist, and the two began working the controls. As the duo worked, the sergeant opened his own radio channel. He didn't need to report back to the map room. He simply needed to report to his commanding officer on the surface.

"This is Echo 1 to Overwatch. Do you read?" he called.

"Echo 1, go... barely hear you," crackled a voice.

The sergeant inwardly groaned and condensed his report down to as few words as possible. This was going to be painful until they got that relay going.

"Relay 2 is secure. Room clear. No friendly or hostile forces were engaged," he slowly announced. "We suspect multiple deaths. There is a lot of blood, but no bodies."

Static filled the channel as the sergeant nervously paced the room. It would take a moment for them to process what he said through the static. No one on this mission was operating with the latest and greatest communications equipment.

"Understood… no word from Echo 2… Possible small arms fire… sector 3," answered a static-filled voice.

The sergeant's head snapped to the right. Centered in his field of view was a broken door. Twin slabs of metal bigger around than his arm were bent outward and lying on the floor. Between them, he could see the broken and bent remains of the locking mechanism. His gut and head immediately started screaming.

"Overwatch. Did you say possible small arms fire in sector three?" the sergeant quizzed as he produced a holographic map of the area.

Sector three encompassed a series of rooms and about two miles up from the excavation site. Due to their severely damaged state, the passages had been deemed too far gone to dig through. Now that unexplored tract of land represented a possible hole right in the middle of the Imperial line. Echo 3 secured a series of below-ground landing pads on the other side, while Echo 1 secured the relay, and Echo 2 kept the two linked. At the same time, another detachment was being sent down to determine the dig crews' status.

"Confirmed… coming your direction," the voice answered.

"Say again? What is coming our direction?" the sergeant demanded.

"Unknown… unresponsive," the voice crackled.

He swore and spun around to the two working on the relay.

"Come on, Tora. I don't have all day," he barked.

Tora didn't look up as he replied.

"I'm trying. It does not want to boost the signal, and I don't know-"

He was cut off by the sound of blaster fire. It was a distant sound carried on an unnatural breeze. Yet it's high pitched scream was burned into the conscience of every man and woman there. There was no mistaking the source of that sound. Every trooper froze, and every eye turned toward the broken door. A few seconds later, there was another blaster shot followed by a second and third follow-up shot. Not waiting for the encore, the sergeant jumped into action.

His voice cut through the room as men were set up around the opening. The sergeant found a good position in the middle of the group and leveled his weapon at the door. The only two not redeployed were the two working on the relay. With his eyes glued to the door, he changed comm channels.

"Echo 1 to Echo 2 do you copy?" he called.

The only response was static.

"Echo 1 to Echo 2 do you copy?" the sergeant demanded.

This time the concern masked as annoyance nipped at his voice. He scowled at the black void before turning to Tora and his partner.

"Whoever hit this place managed to mess with things so that the relay acts as a jammer," Tora explained without prompting.

"Push the wrong buttons and apply a little brute force, and suddenly your signal amplifier becomes a signal jammer," explained his partner as she crimped a couple wires together.

With that action, the sergeant's helmet comm came to life. The sound of panicked voices flooded his ears.

"This is Overwatch to all teams. We have been engaged by an unidentified force. Our position is unsustainable. We are pulling back to Iron Ridge. Check-in upon receipt of this message," commanded a second voice.

"This is Echo 2 to any Imperial forces, please respond," pleaded another voice.

"This is Echo 1 to Echo 2, go," the sergeant ordered.

The command channel could wait until he knew his own tactical situation.

"Reinforcements never arrived... Something ambushed us soon after arrival… We tried to pull back to Echo 3's position but were cut off," the man reported between tired gasps.

Even through the distorted audio, it was clear that the trooper had been running long and hard. Heavy breathing broke up his words, while the faint sound of pounding footsteps could be heard.

"How many of you are left?" he demanded.

"Two. Me and Private Tomell," reported the stormtrooper.

"Where's the rest?" he demanded.

"Dead… eaten," the trooper replied.

The rest of the squad traded nervous looks while the sergeant felt his unease grow. Something had gone horribly wrong horribly fast.

"Where are you?" the sergeant demanded.

"I don't know. We got turned around," the trooper answered, with panic gnawing at his voice.

"There are only two above-ground exits from this area, and they're about a kilometer apart. Remember what the briefing said, 'In the case of an emergency, upward motion is your salvation.' Get to the surface and then rendezvous with us at the north entrance. We'll go from there," he ordered.

"Yes, sir."

As the sergeant spoke, he motioned for his squad to form up. They had a long march ahead of them. As the men walked to the center of the room. Tek's motion tracker chirped. Next was Tora's.

"Sergeant!"

"I see it," he replied.

A line of red sat at the edge of everyone's tracker. Something had slipped around behind them. There were two ways out, and both now appeared to be cut off. The sergeant set his jaw and clutched his blaster. It mattered little what was down that passage. Their current position was looking more and more like a death sentence.

"Let's give our new friends a warm welcome," he called out.

Bravado poured out as he marched through the passage, his blaster ready to fire at anything that proved hostile. However, nothing could prepare him for what came next.

First came the slithering. It started a faint sound carried on the breeze. It made their skin crawl, and their eyes wander. It seemed to be coming from every direction at once. This whispers grew louder with every passing second until they were maddeningly loud. Suddenly, the entire passage came alive as slimy green balls of flesh and tentacles came pouring through the door like water.

"Open fire!" the sergeant yelled.

The quiver in his voice was drowned out by the scream of his carbine. Furious, red blaster bolts flew towards their attackers. The squid-like beings exploded, and fleshy tissue painted the walls while a green-tinted mist filled the air. The squad never broke pace as they pushed through the wave of alien monsters. They made their way down the passage and through the door. Their armor was tinted green, and the air was heavy with smoke and the acrid smell of smoldering metal, but everyone was alive. As they rounded the corner, an ear-piercing scream cut through the squad. The cause was the green horror clinging to Tek's chest plate.

"Get it off! Get it off!" he screamed.

Pain and panic leaked from Tek's voice as his blaster hit the floor. He flailed around, desperately trying to pry the creature off. Two other squadmates rushed to his aid as blood began to stream down his white armor. Through the tangle of arms and tentacles, the sergeant could see blood leaking out from a crack in Tek's armor. The ordeal ended with a blaster shot. Unable to peel the alien off, one of the troopers resorted to shooting it. The attacker exploded into a fine mist, and Tek stumbled backward, clutching the hole in his chest.

The squad medic shoved everyone out of the way and went to work. His hands were little more than a blur as he worked to patch the wound. A bloody cough racked Tek's body. He let out a moan of pain, and another trooper peeled off his helmet. Tek immediately coughed a second time. This one was weak and came out more like a gasp than a cough. His breath grew shallow and ragged as the life slowly drained from his eyes. Within a minute, they were little more than glass orbs. A few seconds later, his body went limp, and the medic swore.

"Tek's gone," he reported clinically.

The sergeant nodded and keyed up his command frequency. As he did so, he motioned for the squad to form up. The loss of one of their own hurt, but they needed to keep moving before those things came back.

"This is Echo 1 to Command, we've been engaged. The relay is active, but our position is unsustainable. Echo 3 is MIA, and Echo 2 has been wiped out," he announced through his helmet.

"This is Command. All teams are to rally at Iron Ridge. Imperial forces have been engaged on all fronts," answered a clipped voice. "We must consolidate our forces and push back the enemy. The relay is no longer a concern."

The sergeant gave an affirmative answer before turning to face the rest of his squad. "Command's given the order to fall back to the Iron Ridge. Apparently, other detachments have been engaged by what attacked us. We don't have much time before they come back. Move out!"

(Imperial Shuttle: Somewhere in Hyperspace)

Vader looked up from his lightsaber. The air chilled, and an unnatural breeze made what was left of his skin crawl. He closed his eyes and reached deep into the Force. He heard screams and blaster fire… Nothing new yet. That's when he heard it. It was a low growl. Images of green and brown flashed through his view. Twisted and mutilated bodies stumbled in and out of sight. There was all manner of creatures from Twi-leks, to Rodians, to humans, and more. Their arms were like tentacles while their faces were frozen in horror and agony. Slimy appendages protruded from the most unnatural of places while bones were broken and twisted beyond recognition. In the Force, he could feel their torment. He felt them cry out into the Force as they were subjected to abuse and injury that would have killed any normal being. Their perpetual suffering translated into a chorus of guttural screams and ghostly howls. The Darkside wrapped around him like a cold, wet blanket. However, there was no invigoration. It squeezed tightly around him until the simple act of breathing was nearly impossible. It pulled every ounce of energy from his system.

"Peace is a lie," the mysterious voice boomed. "The Jedi… The Sith… they all offered salvation from a doomed existence. Yet, in their own efforts to find meaning, they only found their lives needlessly wasted. In this suffering can we find strength. Yet, only as one can our salvation come. There is no light or dark. There is only the Force."

Then, as suddenly as they came, the images vanished. The words faded away, and the Sith Lord was left staring at the grey deployment bay he had initially been in. He took a couple breaths as his mind processed what he had heard. Fear and hatred were his allies. Yet, here, the weight of the pain and terror threatened to overwhelm Vader. This was far from the tightly controlled emotions of the Sith. These beings, whoever they were, were the embodiment of chaos.

Darth Vader clutched the armrests as he fought to center himself in his set. His breathing slowed, and he was finally able to process what he had just seen. The Sith's mental gears turned as he picked apart every word and image for meaning. Whoever this being was, knew about the Sith and the Jedi. He knew of their code and their beliefs. The words spoken in the vision made that much clear.

He barely noticed his son staring intently from across the bay as he marched into the cockpit. Upon sitting in the pilot's seat, he punched in a series of codes and frequencies. Almost instantly, he was rewarded with Admiral Piett.

"Yes, my-"

"Admiral, there is a third side to this war. Use any and all intelligence resources available to our fleet. I want information on every Darkside cult that you can find," Vader demanded. "I want to know who they are, where they are, and what military threat they pose. Look closely at those that might have connections to the Imperial military."

Admiral Piett's eyes widened at the request. Having been born and raised in the outer rim, he knew precisely what Vader was asking about.

"I-I don't understand," the Admiral struggled to answer.

Vader could feel the fear building within the man. Admiral Piett didn't understand what the order had to do with their campaign. However, he knew enough. Admiral Piett had heard the stories, just as Vader had experienced them. The Sith were not the only dangerous force users in the galaxy, and just like Vader, Admiral Piett did not want to believe that they were a wildcard in this operation.

"Someone else has plans for the Empire. I will not kill one disturbed ruler only to have another take its place," Vader declared.

Having regained his rigid composer, Admiral Piett spoke. "Our resources will be limited. It would be wise to tap into Alliance resources."

"Do what you must, Admiral. I expect answers," Vader agreed.

"Yes, my lord."

Vader pressed a button, and the admiral's image disappeared. He felt his son approach him and turned to look at him. For a moment, only his respirator could be heard before Luke opened his mouth.

"What did you see?" he asked worriedly.

"Our next enemy," Vader answered matter-of-factly.

Luke scowled.

His annoyance was evident as he demanded, "What do you mean?"

"There was a tremor in the Force. Someone else is preparing to strike," Vader revealed.

Luke frowned. He had felt something in the Force. However, it had not been sure what it was. More questions formed in his head. However, before he could, his father spoke.

"You came to Bespin. Tell me what you saw," he ordered.

Luke tilted his head. Vader knew of the white walls and spherical shaft. He had also been the cause of Han's carbon frozen body and witnessed Lando's betrayal. Why did he need to relive the details?

"You will find that the future is not as malleable as you would have it to be," Vader explained. "Beware of premonitions. They can save your life, but they never tell the whole story."

Suddenly Luke understood. Vader wanted to know what brought Luke to Bespin. No distress signals had been sent out from the Millenium Falcon. As a result, he must have learned his friends' troubles through the Force.

"They told me enough. Because of the visions, I was able to protect Leia," he argued.

"She was safe enough. I knew of Lando's impending betrayal long before you arrived," Vader shot back. "What you did was unnecessary and dangerous. Had anyone else been in charge, you and several key Alliance leaders would be dead right now."

Luke's face burned red. Vader could train him in lightsaber and Force techniques as long as he was willing, but Luke would not be lectured on right and wrong decisions by a callous murderer such as him.

"What I did was necessary," Luke barked.

"No. Your actions were impulsive and dangerous," Vader retorted.

As he spoke, he let some of his emotions bleed into the Force. Before they arrived on Korriban, he needed his son to understand the dangers of seeing the future.

"The future is unpredictable, and knowledge of it is dangerous. Often, when we try to change the future, we bring about the harm we were trying to prevent. This was a lesson I was forced to learn. You will learn it as well. Things such as 'destiny' and 'fate' are worthless; used by others to control you. Only you can dictate your actions. The Force can guide or show you options, but it cannot make the choices for you," he elaborated.

Any protests died in Luke's throat as Vader boomed his declaration. The air chilled, and Luke could almost feel the man's black suit suck the light from the cockpit. Anger and turmoil swirled around him. Luke forced himself to look into his father's black, lifeless eyes.

"That is why you betrayed the Jedi. You saw the future," he realized.

It was as though someone had just handed the kid the missing piece to a horrific puzzle. Darth Vader's voice turned deathly quiet as he traveled back in time.

"Yes. In doing so, I caused the very future I had worked so hard to prevent. Your mother was dead, and my children were gone forever," Vader confirmed.

"Why- How- What about the Jedi? You devoted your life to them. Couldn't they help you?" Luke stammered.

Surely, someone such as Old Ben wouldn't have just let him suffer as his own fear consumed him.

Oh, to be so young and innocent, Vader thought as he shook his head.

"It was never that simple. I was a member of the order, but I was never one of them," the Sith explained, "I was alone when it mattered most."

Of course, he knew better. Looking back, he could tell that some had accepted him into the fold with open arms and accepting hearts. However, they were too few and far between to truly matter. By the time of his fall, most of these people were either dead or flung out into the deep, dark reaches of the outer rim where they could not help. Vader allowed a wry smile under his helmet as he guided the ship out of hyperspace. In the end, it had not been the Jedi or Sith that had accepted him with open arms. It had been the clones… the ones who had been forced to fight in the pointless war had accepted him as an equal.

"Readouts say that this is a dead world," Luke noted as they approached the orange and red planet.

"There is no rest for the dead here, only horrors waiting to be unleashed," Vader responded as they entered the atmosphere. "Make no mistake; we will not be alone down here."

Luke accepted the warning without a word as they descended into a large valley. The ship sat down on a bed of rock and sand. The engines shut down with a whine and left the duo with a tense silence. Vader gave his son one last appraising look before exiting the cockpit and dropping the deployment ramp.

A cold wind cut through the ship, carrying the Dark side with it. Luke's hair stood on end as chills crawled across his body. He felt himself remembering his experience with the cave on Dagobah. The Jedi-in-training froze next to the ship's weapon locker. He turned to see his father staring intently at him from the bottom of the ramp. Luke opened his mouth to speak, only to see the Sith disappear around the ship's side. The message was clear. To be armed or not, was Luke's decision alone. He grabbed an E-11 out of the locker, snatched his pack off the floor, and jogged down the ramp.

At the bottom of the ramp, Vader took a series of deep breaths as the Dark side pressed into him. So much power caused the skin under his suit to tingle. His senses heightened, and he could feel his depleted energy stores rapidly replenish. He could grasp the power that was otherwise lost to him, but he refused to be consumed by it, calling upon his years of experience to keep himself disciplined and focused. This was no pleasure trip. The sun was setting, and the duo had a lot of ground to cover.

"There's a storm coming," Luke observed as he came up beside Vader.

Vader nodded but made no other move to address the matter. The incoming sandstorm was the least of the Sith's worries at the moment. Luke glanced nervously over his shoulder, yet he let the matter drop. Vader, of all people, should know how to proceed from here.

"You feel it, do you not?" Darth Vader quizzed.

His deep voice carried a level of severity that demanded attention.

"The Dark side is strong here," Luke answered.

"Yes," Vader began walking as he elaborated. "This is a planet of horrors and forbidden knowledge. Some will come as martial threats and violent traps. However, the most dangerous threats are the ones you take in with you."

"Sounds familiar," Luke grumbled as he gazed at the statues silhouetted against the fiery red sunset.

"This is not Dagobah," Vader told him firmly, almost warningly. "You will either face these dangers and rise, or you will die. If the temples consume you, then you will be lost, and I will kill you."

"What do you mean by 'consume'?" Luke asked as he turned to Vader.

"The Darkside will show you things. It will whisper promises of a better future and show you what could have been. The experience is maddening as a force user tries to bridge the gap between promises and reality. Some get so absorbed in chasing these phantom promises that they get lost in the temple complex. They starve to death mere yards from the door, too physically weak to continue. Those that make it out are nothing more than crazed, delusional parodies of themselves," the Sith explained.

His voice was flat and matter-of-fact. It was almost as though he was explaining the proper use of a lightsaber, not discussing the horrors Luke was about to face. However, the warning was not lost on Luke. This was no Dagobah. There would be no second chances here.

Luke muttered a response, and they began their march. The trek across the open wasteland was reminiscent of the days Luke had spent tending between the vaporizers back on his uncle's farm. The wind blew hard. The younger skywalker could make out the shapes of crumbled walls and towering statues through the swirling dust. He looked down and saw that they were not traveling across an unbroken desert as he had first suspected. Instead, they were going down the remains of a stone pathway.

The path wound its way up to the top of a nearby ridge. By this point, the howling wind had silenced any conversation that the duo had. Luke pulled a set of goggles over his eyes and scarf high over his face. At the same time, his eyes began darting across the landscape. The sand was a brutal and unforgiving foe. More than once, Luke had run across Tusken raiders half-buried in sand with their exposed skin blasted off by the wind. He did not wish for a similar fate on this rock.

"There is shelter further ahead," Vader announced.

Luke simply grunted as he fought the wind for control of his body. As the minutes drug on, the Sith slowly disappeared behind a wall of sand. The Force told Luke that his father was only a few feet ahead. However, he was nowhere to be seen. Luke explained away the phenomenon as a byproduct of the sand and wind. For what felt like hours, he marched up one hill and down the other. At some point, the stone turned to weathered durasteel and back as he crossed what he suspected was a bridge.

Then, as though appearing out of nowhere, a set of stone walls shot up from either side. The wind died, and the sand hung in the air. Luke made his way past the entryway and activated his lightsaber for light. As he circled the room, he began to notice that he was alone. Even when he traded his lightsaber for a brighter glow rod, his father was nowhere to be found. With horror, Luke realized that he was no longer feeling his father's turbulent aura.

Trepidation and fear welled up inside him as he stared at the walls. Robed figures of stone stared at him while runes etched the walls, while a layer of dust hung in the air. The sound of his breathing seemed to echo through the cavernous space. A cold draft from deep within told Luke that this structure descended further than what he was seeing. Luke's hand drifted towards his lightsaber as he began to follow the draft. As the natural light began to fade, Luke paused. He ignited his blade and did a small circle.

The Force told him that he wasn't safe. His instincts told him to keep moving. However, his head reminded him of his father's words. This was a planet that specialized in madness. Careless adventuring was a bad idea. Luke cast one more glance at the cracked and faceless statues before replacing his blade and retreating towards the front entryway. He would wait out the storm and then keep moving. Luke settled down against the front right corner of the room, with his back against the wall. He had a clear view of both the main entrance and the other known exits from the room.

Luke pulled the cloth from his face and set to work, pounding the sand out of his gear. Sand fell like snow as he scratched his head and shook his hair. He dumped small mountains of dirt from his boots and dug his nails into his raw and irritated skin.

What little light remained soon disappeared, leaving Luke with the warm light of his glow rod to beat back the oppressive darkness. In the dim light, Luke worked intently to clean off his goggles. He worked the rag in furious little circles. Luke periodically paused and blew them off. After repeating the process a few times, he placed the goggles around his neck and began the same process with the optic on his E-11. As he worked, Luke felt his eyes grow heavy. It had been a long day and a hard march. He yawned and looked at his chrono.

"Who's team am I on anyway?" he muttered as he read the time.

He was exhausted, but, more than that, he was confused. Luke hated the Empire with every fiber of his being. He hated his father for what he had done and the people he had murdered. Yet, here he was. He was learning from his father. He was following him on missions. Hell, he had said yes to this whole thing and didn't even understand what he was after. At some point, the blind pursuit of knowledge about the Force had to give way to rational thought and goals. Luke knew this and could only hope he hadn't gone too far this time.

Luke shrugged and listened to the howl of the wind. If his previous experience was anything to go off of, he had at least another four hours before this storm settled down. With nothing safer to do, Luke laid his blaster on his lap, crossed his arms over the weapon, and closed his eyes. He wouldn't find any peace in this place but knew if he didn't try to get rest now, he wouldn't get much, if any, later on. With those thoughts swimming through his mind, he fell into an uneasy sleep, wary of what his father had planned for him when he woke up.

∫∆πµπ∆∫

Darth Vader stood inside the entrance to the library. His helmet did an excellent job of hiding his current aggravation and concern. His son had managed to get lost when all he had to do was follow a path and stay close. He clenched his fists as he considered the complications that were likely to develop. The fact that he could feel the faint Force aura of his son was of little comfort. The boy was about three miles away, right in the middle of the sprawling tomb and catacomb complex.

Darth Vader spun around and took two steps out into the blowing sand. There, he froze. Finding Luke in the storm would take time. It also carried a considerable risk to both of them. As much as he didn't want to admit it, Vader was at a higher risk in those tombs then Luke was. His emotional vulnerabilities and psychological scars ran much deeper than his son's. Vader put his parental instincts on the back burner with a low growl and turned to the task at hand. He had much to do and little time. Plus, the unguided experience would be good training for Luke. At least, that's what he told himself as he made his way back into the building.