The Art of War
Disclaimer: All characters, locations and concepts Star Wars belong to George Lucas. This story was written for fun and is not an attempt to make profit or infringe copyrights. The original ideas contained in this story belong to the author.
The storm blew hot gales over the slick, black stone of the world of the dead and the rain, falling almost horizontal, whipped at the solitary figure that stood amidst the elemental onslaught seemingly unconcerned. Looking up into the dark clouds, the alien eyes betrayed no emotion at all. But there was a lot to be seen up there. Change was coming, they all could feel it. And not so long ago the Lords had met on Coruscant and the Head of the Council had returned in a foul mood.
"It is time, Chi'in," a voice said suddenly, floating over the roar of the storm easily.
The watcher turned around to bow to the tall human regarding him with some curiosity. "My lord," he answered non-committally.
"You do not need to continue your watch. He will return, or he won't. It is that easy."
"What time has come then?"
"We are facing a crossroads, Chi'in. We shall see what path fate will take us."
The alien kept silent. But he could well guess what the other meant. Still, he had the nagging feeling that there was much more to the other's words than he could know. Something ancient and final. Pale green eyes were watching him steadily, piercing into his head without mercy. Bowing again the alien slipped past the tall man to find some shelter. Only a fool would stay out in the storm when it was raging like that. Before he vanished into what looked like the entrance to some cave though the small figure turned around once more - and stared. The giant clouds had reached the mountain range and where pouring down the craggy black cliffs like a tidal wave to loom over the small valley in an angry shroud of doom. On the ground mist was rising off the polished stone and the alien's dark eyes followed it to the single, black silhouette standing out against the gray horizon. In a matter of moments it had vanished between heaven and earth, swallowed by the storm. Shaking himself uncomfortably the alien hurried inside at last.
Assuming Chi'in's place the ancient Sith stood silently, watching the clouds rage overhead. They were chasing each other, whether in play or flight was not definable. Roj Kell smiled up at the storm. There was a feeling in the air that made him feel elated, in a way, even though he knew what must be coming. But this would be like nothing he had ever faced before. Ages ago he had been a master at adapting to new circumstances, always on the verge of changing his course of action, should it become necessary. Now though his wings had been clipped and there was nowhere to turn or run. A single course had been plotted and he was obliged to follow for the time being.
The smile vanished ever so slowly. Even if the Dark Lord chose to accept the challenge to come, his own role would be predetermined in the game. But, knowing Lord Vader, the man would play on more than one level-just as his opponent would. Although Kell had told Chi'in that fate would lead the way, he himself did not believe in it. In his experience life was what you made it. If you were not your own master, your destiny would be determined by others.
Growling softly he shook his head. During his lifetime he had always avoided to become someone else's servant, but that had changed a few decades ago. For years he had been working on a plan to reverse his fate once more, but only now the pieces had fallen into place at last. Lord Vader was finally ready to shed the bonds to his master and emerge like a firebird out of the storm the Emperor had so foolishly created, never realizing the consequences. But Palpatine had forgotten one thing: the strength he relied on was solely due to the Dark Lord. Should he decide to oppose him, the Empire would fall and set him free again.
Chapter 1 - Animosities
Leia Organa knew something was wrong when the sentinel came charging back into camp early, stumbling towards where she was seated, breathless and exhausted. She rose quickly, scanning the swamp for enemies, but there was nothing to be seen. They had arrived only a few days earlier, one of the rebel teams searching for a new base after the near-disaster at Yavin 4. Leia turned back to the other members of her team, who were gathering around her to hear the sentinel's report. The young Mon Calamari, Bekan, shook himself and took a deep breath:
"There are Imps on the planet, princess," he wheezed at her.
"Where?" she asked curtly, hiding her shock and fear behind a business-like expression.
"A few miles. There's an old temple or something they are investigating."
"Did they see you?"
Leia nodded at him then addressed everyone, saying: "We can't be sure of that and we will break camp immediately. I want us to get another hiding place and tonight a team will snoop around that temple to see what they are planning."
The others looked at her blankly for a moment, then complied. They were good people, unafraid and never tiring. She didn't want to put them into danger if she didn't need to, but she also wanted to know why Imperial soldiers were investigating an old ruin on this forsaken planet.
That night she and five team members made their long and strenuous way back to the old campsite. It was undisturbed, so the Imps very likely hadn't found it yet. Or else they were trying to make them feel safe. Whichever it was, the small team didn't go very near the site but instead kept going, searching for the temple in the dense undergrowth of the swamp.
"Douse the lights!" Leia hissed quietly, when she heard the first noises from the Imperial camp.
Motioning her troops forward, they stalked silently around the camp and to the other side of the temple, were only darkness was waiting. "Did you see?" Bekan whispered, "That campsite looked as if it was erected on some kind of landing pad." The princess nodded. She had noticed that fact also and was wondering. Perhaps the temple was an Imperial base, in which case they should leave immediately. But then why would the soldiers camp outside? No, there must be something else behind this.
"Let's try and see if we can find another entry to the temple," she ordered and they set to work. It was Bekan again, who found the airduct halfway up the temple. Crawling very slowly and carefully through pitch-black darkness, the rebels all felt a bit uneasy. Finally Leia allowed them to turn on their torchlights, sure that the light could not be noticed from the outside of the temple anymore. They spent what seemed like hours on their hands and knees, working their way deeper into the structure. Finally the channel gave way to a large chamber.
The floor of the high-ceilinged room was one giant basin of dark brown water, bordered by a small gangway which led all the way around to the other side, where they could just make out what looked like an exit.
Leia took the lead again, motioning for them to get to the exit as silently as possible.
Then the shooting started. The sounds of battle echoed through the temple, freezing the rebels in place. "Back!" Leia hissed. The others turned around, running over the slippery gangway, some slipping and falling into the water. Leia's chest clenched with fear. She had been foolish to lead them here, this was all feeling very wrong. And the noises and cries were getting closer. Then the first white-clad stormtroopers were seeking shelter behind the giant pillars supporting the chamber entry, suddenly noticing the rebels and opening fire on them too. Leia and the others stood their ground, returning the fire. But they were badly out-numbered.
"Get out!" Leia screamed at her troops, while she and Bekan were covering them. More stormtroopers were pressing into the chamber and finally Leia realized that they were retreating before another enemy, and seemingly they had nowhere to go but this very chamber.
"Look!" Bekan suddenly shouted, pointing. Then Leia saw him too. Amidst the stormtroopers stood her greatest enemy, Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. Her brow furrowing in concentration she aimed her blaster rifle at his head, concentrating deeply. Then a deafening roar filled her ears and the shock wave emanated by a huge explosion took her off her feet, sending her flying into the cold water.
Under water she could see a huge fireball lancing into the chamber, before she resurfaced again into complete darkness. The sounds of stones sliding and falling into the water was loudest, louder even than the continued shooting. Another explosion rocked the chamber, the sudden explosion blinding her temporarily. Rail guns, she thought, trying to shield her eyes against the heat and shrapnel. Then a final detonation hit the wall right behind her. She was thrown forward, hard onto the water's inky surface. Shocked, she fought to get back up to the surface, panicking when more and more stones and tiles were streaming past her, seemingly trying to take her with them to the bottomless depth of the great basin.
Finally her head broke the surface again and she inhaled deeply. What hit her first was the utter silence and darkness. Whatever had happened was now finally over. Leia swam towards what she thought must be the opposite edge of the basin and heaved herself onto the broken gangway. She cut her hands on the sharp edges, but didn't care. Exhausted, she lay there breathing hard, her mind reeling.
Then she heard the bone-chilling sound of a mechanical respirator from across the chamber. Vader. He was alive and worse, he was much too close to her. Quickly fumbling for her spare blaster secured at her belt, Leia pointed it vaguely at the direction she thought he was. Straining her ears she tried to hear if he was moving.
Suddenly small waves began slapping against the gangway, ripples caused by someone or something swimming across the basin. Leia froze, but kept silent and still, trying to determine where he was headed by the sound of his respirator. To her left, the scraping sound of someone heaving himself up the gangway was audible. Leia quickly changed her aim. But strangely, the sounds didn't continue. She imagined Vader waiting in the darkness, watching her, waiting for her to panic. Then the scraping returned and she could hear the sound of water falling back into the basin. Stone shards crunching under the soles of his boots, he came slowly closer, his breathing measured, but curiously fast. "Don't come closer!" she shouted at him, hoping that her blaster wasn't aimed completely wrong.
"Come now, princess, you can't even see me," he answered and still came forward.
Shooting blindly, she crouched low, trying to get a more secure position on the slippery ground. But within seconds he was by her side and simply took the weapon from her hands. In dismay she heard it hit the water surface, lost to her now. "Bastard," she hissed at him, turning towards where he must be standing and loosing her hold. With a scream she slipped from the gangway, but Vader caught her left arm and drew her towards him. Leia tried to break away, battering him with her free hand, but to no effect. Vader simply turned her around, crossing her arms on her back and pressed her much smaller body against the broken wall. "Keep still," he ordered sharply, "you are injured."
"And what do you care?" she breathed at him angrily, facing the wall. How bad was the injury? She wondered.
"I want to get you back to Coruscant in one piece and alive, princess. That's why I care. So shut up now."
Leia shuddered with revulsion when he ran his hands over her back. A strange but wondrous feeling filled her for a few moments. She felt peace settle over her, calming and soothing. Then Vader took his hands away and grabbed Leia's arm again. Dragging her behind him he made his way to the chamber entrance. Leia felt like protesting again, but knew that it was a futile gesture. Upon reaching the fallen in entrance, Vader helped her crawl over the rocks and stones, making sure she didn't fall.
Leia was a bit disturbed by his actions, apart from being his prisoner, that was. "What about my troops?" she asked finally, following him through the still pitch-black temple interior.
"Those who haven't died in the chamber very likely were shot by our attackers."
"And your troops?"
"Who did attack you?"
"That is none of your business," came the short reply. It was then that Leia had enough.
She broke free of his grasp and stopped. "You are telling me that there is an enemy out there who has wiped out both our troops, but you won't tell me who it is. Perhaps I can help you! We have to work together, don't you see?" Leia imagined Vader's impassive masked gaze lingering on her in the darkness.
Finally he answered: "Your offer has been noted, princess, but I can and will take matters in my own hands." He paused for a second or two, then, almost tenderly, told her; "Princess, even if I took your offer seriously, the shrapnel has injured your eyes. You are blind and couldn't help me in any case." Leia took a deep breath.
"Why didn't you heal the blindness too, then?"
"It is not a lethal injury and besides, blinded you are helpless and that gives me an advantage."
"One too many," she mumbled sullenly and stalked past him, fumbling for a handy wall to guide her.
She heard a noise behind her that might have been a snort, then he followed her. On their way through the maze-like tunnels he helped her without a word, guiding her hand when necessary and catching her when she fell. Leia tried to ignore him as much as she could and bit her lip each time he aided her to prevent herself from thanking him. It was a silent trip. Silent, and on her part charged with angry feelings. She had her reasons to be mad at Vader, that was for sure. So why did he have to help her and make maintaining her anger and hatred harder for her? It wasn't fair. Nothing was fair. This whole mission was a complete failure and Leia was afraid of what would happen to her next. She thought back on the events aboard the Death Star, shivering in the dark with the memory of her torture at Vader's hands. Trying to get further away from him she quickened her pace, stumbling forward blindly.
Finally she could smell fresh air and that heightened her spirits considerably.
"Be careful!" Vader called from behind her, "there could still be enemy troops around!" But Leia didn't listen. She made a final dash for the temple's entrance and let herself fall to her knees on the moist, soft grass, touching it with her hands, tears streaming down her cheeks. I really am blind! she thought in horror and again fear gripped her in a vice-like embrace.
Then she heard voices and Vader came charging up from behind, sweeping her from the ground and running for cover, as if she weighed nothing. The sound of blaster fire filled the air around them, drowning out all other noises of the swamp. Leia felt awfully helpless, unable to see, having to trust her greatest enemy with her life. But she did want to live badly.
Abruptly Vader stopped in his tracks and put her down. Fumbling around to get an impression of her surroundings, Leia accidentally touched Vader's suit and quickly took her hands away again as if burned. Only belatedly did she realize that she had felt something warm and wet. "You are injured too," she whispered, but he didn't hear her anymore, stalking around their pursuers to take them by surprise. Crouching low in her hiding place Leia heard the sounds of battle rise again, heard the deep hum of Vader's lightsaber. For a moment she wished being able to see him fight. Then suddenly all fire ceased. Leia froze.
Darth Vader lay motionless on his back and waited, with the swamp very slowly swallowing his heavy body. He heard and felt the attackers close in slowly, warily and finally one of them came into his field of vision, blaster in hand and aimed straight at him. As the man came closer, Vader waited even longer, until more of the man's companions were gathered around them. Then he lashed out with the Force, breaking the man's wrist, forcing his hand around so the blaster muzzle was aimed at the agonized face of the attacker. Then he pressed the fire button and blew the other's head away. Vader leaped straight up, jumping over the shocked assembly and began his deadly dance again, cutting them down with his lightsaber, not caring what particular limb he severed, just intent on incapacitating them all.
Eventually the carnage ceased and he stood silently, scanning the area for more attackers. There were none for the moment, but they would find them soon enough. Looking back towards the temple, now half-hidden by the swamp, he confirmed that there were no ships in the vicinity. Meaning that whoever was with this group was off for supplies or similar. Now Vader would have to contact his troops aboard the three Star Destroyers in orbit immediately. And he did so.
Making his way back to the princess he appraised her huddled form for a moment. She did seem so small and fragile, but in truth she was stronger than many cared to believe. He had experienced that strength first-hand aboard the Death Star, where she had not yielded to any torture he could devise, betraying none of the secrets she held regarding the Rebels. But he had found out other things while probing her mind. Things that made him stop the torture with a guilty, sickening feeling. She had looked up at him accusingly and with contempt when she woke up after falling unconscious on him the moment her pain ceased. Vader had sat by her side all the time, watching her, taking in her features, trying to find any trace of his wife in her. And had found so many.
Yes, Leia Organa was his child. His daughter. And, furthermore, she was his enemy. A complicated relationship, not easily solved. He had hurt her so much already and the truth of her parentage would surely shatter her resolve. But then, he had underestimated her strength once before... With her being helpless and dependent on him he might have a chance to gain her trust. She was strong in the Force, he had felt it, and there was nearly no limit to what she could accomplish if only he got the chance to train her.
She looked up at him now again, or at least to where she thought his head was, her face questioning. "You didn't tell me you were injured too," she accused him, sounding for all the world like a little child, betrayed by her parent. If she only knew...
"I had forgotten about it," Vader replied truthfully. There had been more important things on his mind, but the fatigue was finally getting to him. "I have alerted my troops on the ships in orbit around this world."
Her head came up, and she did look truly startled: "Then you knew we were here."
"Well, apparently your navigator didn't sweep the system very thoroughly upon your entry. We knew you were here, yes." And he's paid for that mistake with his life. Poor Bekan.
"So what will happen now?"
He settled down on the ground beside her and looked up to the blue morning sky just visible through the dense foliage. "With any luck my troops will find us before the pirates do."
"Pirates? Those were pirates?"
Sensing that Vader didn't want to share more information on that subject with her Leia asked instead: "And how will they find us?"
"My troops can home in on the comm frequency installed in my helmet. They should be here in a few hours." They were silent for awhile, but there was something on her mind. "What is it?" he asked her quietly, already sensing the request. She took a deep breath, then her mouth tightened. Obviously she was uncomfortable with what she was about to say.
"I was wondering if, now that we are in more danger than we thought, healing my blindness might not be to our mutual advantage."
"Why should I grant you any advantage?"
"I could help you. They almost got you back there, am I right?" His silence was answer enough. "It is not as if I could run away, even if I wanted to."
He sighed: "True, princess, very true." Suddenly he cocked his head to the left, listening. "They are back," he whispered.
"So?" Now there was a certain degree of urgency in her tone.
Vader already had a plan. His original mission had been to find some artefacts in the temple on Debelan. His master apparently had a great interest in finding out more about the ancient Sith, even though the Dark Lord thought that this was a pointless effort and a waste of time besides to make him go of all people. Still, the presence of the pirates had come as some surprise. If someone else was researching the Sith they must be paying very well to have such a large group do the dirty work for them. His head came up suddenly. The pirates weren't far now, escape certainly impossible. Time was the key here and unfortunately it also was the one thing they didn't have right now. Bending towards the princess he took her head in both hands and concentrated. Healing her would weaken him more now, an unfortunate side-effect, but if Leia cooperated, which he sincerely hoped, they could turn this around somehow.
When he was finished she blinked her eyes a few times, smiled and impulsively threw her arms around his shoulders, crying. He was taken aback by that reaction, since she had shown him only fear and hatred so far. Perhaps that was a good sign. Leia took her arms away again and wiped at her cheeks, clearly embarrassed.
"We have to get moving," he told her calmly and stood. Holding out his hand for her, the princess took his offer after a few moments hesitation and climbed to her feet. Her overall blood-stained, torn and dirty, she still looked beautiful.
Leia regarded Darth Vader without fear for the first time in years. Of course, when she was a child and knew nothing of the atrocities he committed on a daily basis, she had not really feared or hated him. But not much later that had changed. Now though, he had shown her another side of him, compassionate and vulnerable. Although he fought hard to keep up the appearance of a cold, business-like warlord, his concern for her was nearly palpable.
"We have to go," he repeated and began walking towards the denser underbrush to their left. Leia followed.
"There they are!" someone shouted behind them. Leia turned back, but Vader was by her side in an instant and grabbed her arm, urging her to run. They ran side by side for the first ten meters or so, then his longer legs put him in the lead. After a few more meters he stopped and, when she ran past him, ordered her to so seek cover and play blind. Leia didn't look back then, but hunted around for a suitable hiding-place. She finally found an overgrown depression and pressed herself into the thorny thicket, cursing her long hair, as it got tangled in the twigs. For the third time in 12 hours the noises of battle rang throughout the swamp.
When the princess heard a group of pirates searching the undergrowth, coming closer every the second, it was all she could do to not bolt and run.
Play blind, Vader had told her. Apparently he hadn't seen any chance for them to escape this time. Accepting her situation for now, Leia waited.
"Hey! Over here!"
Someone standing not two meters away called out, "I've got the woman!" Rough hands took her arms and dragged her out from under the bushes, the thorny twigs tearing at her hair. It was hard to pretend not to notice the mean gleam in her captor's eyes. He was not an ugly man, but his expression made him so. Even harder was not noticing Vader's motionless body lying twisted on the ground, when the man dragged her back into the clearing, now accompanied by five others. Looking past the group assembled around the fallen warlord, her throat felt dry and swollen.
They made her kneel at Vader's side and she continued staring straight forward, her face expressionless. But there had been enough time to see that the pirates knew about the homing beacon. The black helmet had been smashed with something heavy and Vader's naked face betrayed the agony he must be feeling. His eyes were pressed close, lips drawn back and sweat beaded his forehead. Leia was shocked by his appearance. What did you expect? His skin was pasty white and purple scars were slashed across his face. The princess swallowed hard. What am I supposed to do now?
A new voice broke through to her: "Well, well, well. Who do we have here? The princess of Alderaan herself! Too bad that there's no Alderaan anymore." Leia vaguely looked into the direction of the voice's source and only half-noticed the man's features. He was short and stocky, dark-haired and tanned. "I am Mallassan," he introduced himself. Leia didn't say anything. Mallassan waited for a few seconds, but when she still kept silent he clapped his hands, addressing the other pirates: "Come on boys, let's pack it up. There are Imps on their way down here and we don't want them to find any traces, do we?" In passing he kicked the broken black helmet into the bushes, "Pick him up, someone, if he can't walk." The man who had found her drew Leia to her feet again, and bound her hands.
Two others tried to get Vader upright, straining under the weight of his body. He opened his eyes, pressing his lips together, trying to stand on his own. Somehow he did manage and threw a glance towards her. They are blue. Leia noticed when she met his gaze briefly. One of his captors bound Vader's hands behind his back and roughly shoved him forward. The Dark Lord stumbled, but caught himself before he lost his balance. I just hope he's just playing at being weak, Leia thought, as she watched him as inconspicuous as possible walk past her slowly and tense. She had no idea how she could get them out of this mess alone.
The pirates' hiding-place was a huge system of caves. There were caves full of piled food supplies, caves stocked with machines of any sort. Even a ship hangar housing three freighter-sized ships and a few smaller ones. Leia and Vader were led past all those. When finally Vader's strength gave out they had fortunately reached their destination already. This cave was small, with only one entrance. Breathing with difficulty, Vader straightened himself against a rough stone wall and stared the pirates down unafraid, his blue eyes unblinking.
Leia realized that without the respirator he couldn't get enough oxygen into his damaged lungs to breathe properly.
"I want two of you to guard them," Mallassan told his gang.
"Only two?" One of the pirates asked doubtfully, casting a questioning glance sideways at Vader. Mallassan only laughed out aloud:
"The princess is blind and our precious Dark Lord is only putting up a show, believe me. Without the respirator he is as weak as a kitten. So stop worrying and get to work."
When Mallassan and the others, save the two assigned guards, had left, Leia knelt down, touching the floor with both hands to guide her to the next wall and sat, only a meter or so away from where Vader still stood. He was eyeing the entrance warily, as if waiting for something. The two guards shifted their feet uneasily under his steady gaze. But in the end the Sith dropped to the floor, crossed his legs and leaned back against the wall.
You are doing well so far.
Leia nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard his voice in her head.
Better than you,she shot back. How bad are your injuries?
A few holes. But nothing I cannot hold together for now. Unfortunately I cannot do anything else besides. Don't worry. My troops can find us nevertheless. Caves are such an obvious hiding place.
But the pirates have us as hostages.
Yes. We can work around that when the time has come.
Whatever that might mean.
The rest of the day was spent in silence on both sides. Leia and Vader tried to regain their strength as best they could. The guards changed a few times, but nothing important happened. Leia must have fallen asleep at some point, because she was roughly woken by someone pulling her upright and gagging her. Surprised, she tried to fight that someone at first, then subsided. At the cave entrance Vader already stood, bound and gagged too, looking at her calmly.
Mallassan stood by his side, one hand placed on the Dark Lord's right shoulder, as if he were a hunting trophy. Vader ignored him completely. Then both he and the princess were led very silently along the maze, back to the main entrance. More pirates where assembled there, weapons in hand and very still. The reason for that gathering made Leia's hairs stand on end. Just inside the entrance stormtroopers were examining the walls, but apparently they didn't see the pirates or the prisoners. Play blind! she reminded herself and made as if she were trying to listen to what was happening, frowning in concentration, since officially she could see neither the stormtroopers nor pirates . She secretly wondered what Vader's reaction was but he stood a few paces behind her and it would be a fatal move to turn around only to get a glimpse at his face.
Suddenly she heard something and turned around, following the noise. Vader half lay on the ground, unconscious, his fall cushioned by two pirates hands, with Mallassan standing over him, a small weapon that looked like a blaster in hand. Leia could only guess that Vader had tried to contact his troops via mind-link and Mallassan had anticipated that and had stunned the Sith. Leia tried not to stare, instead cocked her head to one side, listening again. When the stormtroopers finally left, the scraping of their boots on stone clearly audible, the princess turned towards the entrance again. There they went, their only chance of escape.
But back in their little cave, with Vader lying on the floor, the gags removed and only the two guards left with them, Leia saw the Dark Lord smile.
What is so funny?
When your enemy sees one obvious threat, it is always wise to bring another pawn into play.
And that's what you did?
Oh, yes. The best there is,he added and rolled onto his back.
Well, my choice of rescuers would have been Han and Luke. They were the ones who got me off the Death Star,Leia told him, now really wishing those two where here.
Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, she answered before she could stop herself, suddenly realizing that she told Vader far too much. There were a few moments of silence.
Luke Skywalker?He repeated, sounding incredulous.
Something fundamental had changed, Leia could feel it. Fear gripped her again, as she watched Vader closely.
Luke Skywalker. Who would have thought? His sudden laughter startled the princess and the guards alike. Two children! Both force-sensitive and strong too, if Leia was any measure. He sobered abruptly. Did Palpatine know about them? He thought back on the happenings on the Death Star, his duel with Obi-Wan. There had been a blonde youth, clad in white. And Obi-Wan had looked straight at the boy before he let himself be cut down. That must have been him, Luke Skywalker. Why did the Jedi let him keep his father's name but not Leia? Well, she had been adopted by the royal house of Alderaan, living a public life. So many questions.
On the one hand he was pleasantly surprised, on the other deeply hurt at not having known, not having been told that he had two children. But then, this new element which had entered his life so suddenly had other implications too. His children knew their father as their enemy, and if it ever became public that they were Vader's children, he himself would become vulnerable through them. And vulnerability was not something he could afford. So there was only one solution to all this: his son and daughter would never learn the truth. Or maybe much later. Perhaps if they survived. No. He would not let them be harmed. Never again. There had to be another solution after all.
The sun shone brightly down on the planet of Coruscant, but none of its light reached the inside of Lord Vader's fortress. Which was just as well with the man sitting at a certain set of communications controls, shrouded in shadow. He was of average height, middle-aged, with gray streaking his long black hair tied back in a pony-tail at the base of his neck. His muscular form was half-slouched over the chair facing the controls as he worked in concentration, siphoning all information he could get on the planet Debelan and the pirate base recently found there, from the Coruscant Main Frame.
Having spent two hours already with talking to his underground contacts, he now was gathering additional information that might be helpful to his mission. Only one problem remained though: the question of transport to Debelan still lacked an answer. But Wrenga Jixton knew he would find it on Nar Shadaa. Getting a transport from the smugglers' moon should be easy. His orders had been clear: Come alone and let no one know where you are going. Destroy all evidence. And make it quick. Leaning back in his chair Jix smiled to himself. This was going to be easy.
"Well, I have been thinking on what to do with you two," Mallassan said thoughtfully, smoothing back his oily black hair with one hand. Leia and Vader were both facing him, though Leia avoided his eyes for obvious reasons. "The Empire will pay pretty much for you, princess, I'm sure," the pirate captain continued and earned himself a contemptuous laugh from Vader.
"If you think that you are a fool," the Dark Lord explained calmly, smiling darkly.
"And why would that be?" Shrugging, Vader continued to smile, but kept silent.
"I have some plans for you too, milord."
"Wanna know what it is?"
"Not really, but I am sure you will tell me nonetheless."
Leia listened to their little game thoughtfully. Her companion still seemed weak. Still he breathed with difficulty and since the pirates had done nothing for his injuries he had to concentrate on those too. Nevertheless he toyed with the pirate captain, obviously taking pleasure from this game although he was on the losing side of it. Leia didn't understand. Was he never afraid? When Mallassan moved over to Vader she turned in their direction. Standing over the seated Dark Lord and making the other crane his neck to face him, Mallassan smiled:
"You know, there are loads of people with enough money who don't like you at all."
"The entire Imperial Court, I would imagine."
"Exactly. So I thought we could sell you piecemeal to them. No traces, you see?"
Leia's face paled, shocked. But the Sith only laughed again, finding the proposition overtly amusing: "What, like: take two arms and get an ear for free?" He grinned at Mallassan.
"Something like that," the other replied, a bit more uneasy now.
"Sounds intriguing. There's a small flaw in that plan though."
"Let me guess, you would not like that at all?"
Pursing his lips pensively, Vader thought about that for a second, then brightened again: "No, it's not that."
Very suddenly, Mallassan was shoved against the next wall, his head bouncing off the hard stone and blood started spurting from his nose. "Damn!" he cursed, feeling his skull and staring murder at the Sith lord. The two guards came forward, blasters raised, but Vader crushed the weapons in their hands, trapping a finger or two and leaving them both howling on the floor. It seemed that only the princess saw the sudden shadow cross the Dark Lord's face. His display had weakened him considerably and he was near to passing out again. She silently shook her head.
"You won't live long enough, Mallassan," Vader whispered dangerously at the pirate's retreating back.
Are you mad? They will kill you for sure now!
Let them try.
I can see how weak you are!
I really don't know what it is you see here,he answered slyly.
What do you mean?
Vader didn't answer, but instead turned his head to listen to the sounds echoing down the halls. They did not have to wait long until Mallassan returned with four other pirates by his side. Vader's level, nearly arrogant gaze clearly upset the pirate captain. "You've gone too far, Vader," he hissed viciously, raising his blaster, and came forward. He pressed the weapon's muzzle to Vader's unprotected neck and grinned madly at him. "But I would not want to damage the merchandise too badly," he added and squeezed the fire button. Leia turned her head away. She heard Vader choke, then a loud thump told her that Mallassan had let his guard down and had been thrown across the room again. Finally there was silence. Leia saw the other pirates stare and followed their gaze. Vader was leaning against the wall, completely calm, blue eyes, open and a smile on his lips. Then he slowly started to fade away.
Mallassan had climbed to his feet again, just in time to see the Dark Lord vanish, armor and all. "What in Sith's hell happened?!" He screamed at his men, furious and clearly afraid. Blinking her eyes, Leia could not believe what she had seen. Luke had told her that Ben Kenobi had faded like that when he died, but had left his clothes behind. Vader had not. What did it mean? Was he alive? Or had his presence here only been an illusion? She frowned deeply, not knowing what to believe.
Leia Organa felt alone. Two days had passed since Vader had vanished and nothing had happened. From what she could hear the Star Destroyers had left Debelan and the pirates were planning the evacuation of this particular base. Mallassan hadn't paid her any visits after the Dark Lord's death and she was grateful for that. She had stopped pretending to be blind and had enjoyed the pirates' surprise for a while. Now though she tired of all this. She wanted to do something. Wanted to be free again.
Wrenga Jixton had finally found what he needed on Nar Shadaa and the pirate gang's courier had taken his surprise visit rather well. Both were seated in the cockpit now, with Jix in the co-pilot's seat.
"So, that Mallassan, what kind of character is he?" The pirate didn't turn his eyes away from the streaming star lines of hyperspace.
"He won't be pleased at seeing you."
"Most people aren't. Even my employer hates my dropping by occasionally. Especially if I turn up uninvited."
"He must be either incredibly dim or incredibly tolerant."
Jix nearly choked on his own laughter.
"Well," he wheezed finally, "he is neither. Perhaps I can introduce him to you."
"I really am looking forward to that," the other replied sarcastically.
"So, why do you want to get to Debelan?" The pirate asked after a while.
"Well, since I'm going to kill you anyway I suppose telling you can't hurt."
"I have to rescue a princess."
"I hadn't thought about it that way, but since you mention it...."
The landing on Debelan was uneventful. The pilot had selected the clearing in front of what had to be the temple Jix had read about in the reports on the pirates.
"Are you going to kill me now?" The pirate courier asked, his voice wavering slightly.
The other man turned around, appraising him for awhile, then drew his blaster: "You know, it really is a shame, but I cannot take any chances. Sorry." After the sound of a single blaster shot had died away, the noises of the swamp filled the air again.
Wrenga Jixton gathered his gear together, backpack, spare power cells, and a second blaster, then left the ship, sealing it behind him. The air was moist and warm and, judging by the light, it would be raining soon. Jix scanned the landing pad thoroughly and immediately spotted the traces of blood on the gray duracrete.
Kneeling next to the red splatters, he followed the traces they had left towards the undergrowth. Whoever had been injured here had been able to make it into the swamp. Not far from the temple the signs of a battle caught his attention, upturned earth and blood, down-trodden grass and scorched marks from what could only have been a lightsaber. So. Vader had been here. The Dark Lord's orders had been specific. That Jix was to come and get him and someone else. The fact that the Star Destroyers had already left Debelan told the agent that his employer wanted this mission to be kept very secret indeed. Following the traces of the two fugitives, he found their second resting place easily.
Here too, a battle had taken place. But something had changed. The grass seemed less scuffed, there were no scorch marks. One of the fugitives had made for the swamp. The other... Jix' head came up abruptly and he took to scanning the clearing's edges more closely.
"I have been expecting you."
Freezing in place, Jix cursed his own stupidity. He knew how much Vader loved playing that little trick on him. The Sith had done so often enough and with pleasure. Turning around slowly he grinned broadly at the Dark Lord:
"You won't get me next time."
"An empty threat, Jix, and you know it."
"Yeah, yeah, you're right. So, where's the princess?"
The other man kept silent for awhile, then turned around and started walking towards the swamp forest. "Hey!" Jix called after him, "How about a debriefing, some information!? Do you want to walk in there just like that?" When the black-clad figure still didn't answer he added to himself: "And he probably would." Raising his voice he shouted: "I won't bail you out again, you know!"
Uh-uh, that had been a mistake. Vader stopped and turned sharply. "A piece of advice, Jix: don't push it." Grumbling a bit, Jix tempered his good mood and followed the Dark Lord in silence. He was never allowed to have fun, when Vader was around. It was just not fair. And then it started to rain.
They had been walking for four hours, fighting their way through the swamp, with Vader having more difficulties, since the mud was dragging his weight down more easily than the much lighter Jix. Something else must be bothering him, for he stopped next to a fallen tree and seated himself elegantly. Standing a little apart, Jix crossed his arms in front of him and frowned deeply.
"What is it, Jix?" the Sith asked finally, when the other's silence got on his nerves. Unfolding his arms again and jumping on the fallen tree, shaking it and the Dark Lord around, Jix walked down the length of fallen wood balancing himself with his out-stretched arms, until Vader nudged him off and into the mud unceremoniously. "Get to the point."
"All right!" Jix picked himself up again and took a seat next to his employer: "You want to keep this so secret you ordered your troops off despite being injured. Why?"
"I don't tell you everything, Jix."
"That's right. But perhaps you could enlighten me as to what has happened here?"
"Well, that was clear enough. And how is the princess?"
"You know Jix, I warned you before."
"And you know how I think about those threats."
"Unfortunately I do. But the fact that you don't fear me does not give you any right to be disrespectful."
"I just want to help."
"Maybe you really do. Although I find that hard to believe. But since we are all alone here and you have no listening devices on you, let me put things straight. I know I can trust you because your price of failure is high indeed. And when this mission is accomplished I will give you another task: you will infiltrate the Rebellion and keep an eye on two particular rebels: Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker."
"The princess?" Jix interrupted, "But I thought we would get her out and take her back to Coruscant."
"Did you now. No, we won't take her back to Coruscant. You will take her to the Rebels."
"If she sees me together with you my cover is blown before I have even started that next mission."
"She won't remember."
"Aah! And what am I to accomplish in that other mission?"
"Keep an eye on those two, protect them when necessary, and additionally you will pass vital information on to me."
"In exchange I will give you information you will pass on to the princess."
"What?! Are you talking about treason?"
"If I did, it would not be your problem, Jix."
"You're right, of course. What is your plan?"
Leia was asleep when a sudden sound woke her up. A man was standing over her, his long hair tied back in a pony-tail, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously.
"Hi," he said. Shaking her sleepy head she looked around, searching for any clue as to who this man was. "I am Jix," he explained, smiling. "I was sent by my favorite Uncle." He was actually grinning now.
"Tall guy, dresses in black, has some breathing difficulties."
"You mean Darth Vader is your uncle?" Leia exclaimed, truly surprised.
Another voice answered her: "Just a little joke between the two of us, princess."
The Dark Lord's imposing form filled the cave entrance, blocking out the light. She smiled at his masked face, uncomprehending:
"I thought you were dead."
"An illusion, Leia, nothing more."
"You never were really there, right?"
He nodded: "True. I needed some peace and quiet to heal my wounds first. Then I contacted Jix, as you know."
Looking around she let Jix help her to rise. When he set to unbinding her, she addressed Vader again:
"What happens now? I gather the pirates are taken care of?"
"Jix will get you back to your friends."
"I don't understand," she wondered, rubbing her sore wrists and hands, "first you take me prisoner and now you are letting me go. What is your plan, Lord Vader?"
He moved so quickly that she hardly saw him cross the distance to her. Even Jix jumped, startled.
"I want to protect you, princess, and your brother. You two are very powerful, your father's children, and very much like him too. Especially yourself. I hope your path will be different from his though."
"My brother?" she whispered, wondering. "Luke said you killed his father."
Then, gathering herself together, she stood tall, facing him down. "Why should I believe one word you are saying is true?" Leia demanded harshly.
He took a step back then, and addressed Jix, who thoughtfully looked from one speaker to the other. "Jix, I place my children's lives in you hands. If you fail me, your fate will be worse than even you can imagine. You are committed now, just like I am."
Leia's mouth was agape, but she couldn't utter one word.
"Just what I said, Jix. You know what you have to do."
Vader threw one last glance at his daughter and just after he had left the small cave, she dropped to the floor, feeling dizzy. Jix bent down to pick her up. "What happened?" she whispered. "Let's just get you out of here," he answered, carrying her in his arms and already wondering where he was going to get a ship with an astromech droid to do the flying on this forsaken planet. When they had reached the small hangar there was no sign of Vader anywhere, but one of the smaller fighters was missing.
The princess had regained her strength and took the lead. Must be a family trait, Jix thought sourly.But she could fly and she knew where to find the Rebels. Convincing her that he was a freelance courier would be easy and, knowing her, she would be all too happy recruiting him. No problem there at all. Leaning back in the co-pilot's chair he thought back on what Vader had revealed to him. The man was an enigma, even after all those years Jix had known him. And the game he was about to start was dangerous, more dangerous than any mission he had sent his most trusted agent on so far. For once Jix was glad not to be the one entering the snake pit.