Author's Note: Hey everybody, sorry about the long update time, I've been having a lot of things going on in my life, not all of them good. That being said, I just want to thank that special woman (you know who you are) for promising to stick with me to the end.

I've also recently been sucked into the Mass Effect series, why I haven't played the games sooner I have no idea. I've gotten so absorbed in fact, that I've decided to try my hand at a Halo/Mass Effect crossover. It's called "The Infinity Effect" and you can just click on my profile and scroll down to find My Stories if that's something that piques your interest.

Special shoutouts to my excellent betas JonHarper and Sharnorasian Empire for their help on the chapter, as always.

Enjoy.

Disclaimer: I own nothing, but all original content is mine.


Chapter 22: Bespin

Bespin Upper Atmosphere

Fifty-Four Kilometers Northeast from Cloud City

"Check your jets!"

Ten Rangers of First Platoon, C Company, Second Ranger Battalion stood up from their seats in one motion into two lines of five men each. Armor plating rustled, weapons clanked, and the footsteps from hard metal boots resonated throughout the floor of the Pelican.

Captain John H. Miller checked the chrome metal jetpack of the Ranger in front of him, Private Reiben, with his eyes and his hands for any defections or signs of possible malfunctions. Satisfied that he didn't find any, he slapped Rieben on the shoulder three times. Reiben did the same process for the Ranger in front of him, and so on.

Miller looked to his right to Staff Sergeant Horvath, and he nodded behind the clear visor of his enclosed helmet. Horvath turned to allow Miller to check his jetpack, and the Sergeant returned the favor.

With a whirring of hydraulics, the bay door of the Pelican began to retract, revealing the black ablative-ceramic back of the Lynx that was attached to the magnetic clamps of the back of the UNSC Dropship. A strong wind whistled into the bay and buffeted the Rangers, swaying them a little but nothing more, as they all had solid grips on ceiling handholds.

The Pelican intercom crackled to life. "Ten seconds!" yelled the pilot, the strain of not only trying to keep the aircraft steady in the varying winds, but also keeping her bird in formation with the other three Pelicans showing in her voice.

Miller switched on his radio with the blink of an eye, transmitting to the rest of the forty-man platoon, the crews in the Lynxes, and the three Spartan-IVs of Crimson team.

"You've been briefed! I expect the best, because you are the best! Now what do we do?!"

"RANGERS LEAD THE WAY!" was the booming response.

"Damn right!" The light in the troop bay went from red to green. The Lynx detached from its magnetic clamps and plummeted through the air, the Pelican briefly lurching up due to the loss of weight.

"GO! GO! GO!" yelled Miller.

The ten Rangers ran forward, leaping off of the ledge of the bay into the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of the Bespin sky.

In his peripheral vision, and shown on his HUD sensors, Miller saw thirty other Rangers as they exited their Pelicans at the same time that his squad did. He never saw the Spartans of Crimson Team, concluding that they had already triggered their active camouflage.

Approximately a hundred meters below him was the falling Lynx from his Pelican, his HUD outlining it in pulsating green. Miller assigned it with an objective marker and pointed his body towards it, pressing his arms to his body and his legs together in order to become as streamlined as he could.

The rest of his squad did the same, and the Rangers slowly started closing the distance between them and their Lynx. This action was replicated with the other three squads as well.

As they got closer, Miller eyed his target, a metal handhold that stuck out of the side of the Lynx, one of ten the armored personnel carrier sported, four on either side, and two on the back.

The second he got within distance he grabbed it, and Miller didn't need to look to know that the rest of his squad had done the same for their handholds.

The whole situation might have seemed insane to most, four armored vehicles arranged in a square formation plummeting through the air with ten men hanging off each, but to the Rangers this was just another day at the office.

The Rangers fell in silence, only making course corrections by shifting their body weight when their HUDs told them to realign. Miller knew that in order for this mission to succeed, they had to be on top of their game.

Their 'landing zone' was a sixty by sixty meter courtyard, part of the complex of the Imperial Moff that was their target. The courtyard was surrounded on three sides by a uniform ring of two story buildings, the left side serving as the Moff's guards' barracks, the right as the armor and mess hall, and the front containing their main objective: the power generators.

As the wind whistled around him in his free fall, Miller went over the plan one more time. When Captain Eclipse had first gathered Miller and Tarkov together and told them that the Imperial Moff's palace compound had to be assaulted, one thing had stood out to all of them: the compounds anti-aircraft guns. Tarkov had deemed the mission extremely risky in the first place, trying to land two platoons of ODSTs on a target the size of a couple city blocks from low orbit, but with the addition of anti-aircraft guns the ODST Colonel called it a suicide mission.

However, in Thunder's analysis of the compound, the Hera's Wrath AI determined that there was a blind spot in the anti-aircraft guns fields of fire, right above the central courtyard that Miller's Rangers were plummeting towards now. Also, intense electronic jamming from the Hera's Wrath made it further more difficult for Imperial sensors to spot the descending Rangers. Working in unison they gave as much cover as the Rangers needed to do their job. But in order for Tarkov's ODSTs to assault the Imperial Palace across the sky bridge, those guns needed to be taken offline.

Miller's proposed plan had been ambitious, free fall from high atmosphere, threading the proverbial needle in the AA guns' field of fire, touch down in the courtyard and eliminate any Imperial forces, and disable the power generator that powered the guns. Miller's Rangers would clear the barracks, the armory, and the mess hall, running interference for the Spartan-IVs of Crimson Team as they neutralized the generator. The Lynxes would take care of any light vehicles they might encounter, suppress any Imperial forces that might try to cross the skybridge and retake the Guard complex, and add to the initial shock-and-awe of the operation.

Miller snapped back to the present when his earpiece beeped: the signal that they were one minute from touch down. Inwardly, he was proud of his Rangers. This maneuver that they were doing was one of the most difficult that the Rangers had attempted. Come to think of it, he couldn't think of an instance where it had been used in a combat scenario other than training sims. Each Ranger-Lynx grouping was less than three meters from each other, with Crimson Team being wedged in the middle. There was absolutely no room for error, Miller wasn't risking any of his personnel drifting into the line of the AA guns' fire.

As they got closer, a countdown appeared in Miller's HUD. Thirty seconds until they activated their jetpacks, or in the case of the Lynxes, their jet boosters, to slow their descent. It wouldn't be a slow, casual descent either, it would be at the minimum threshold of survivability in order to ensure the maximum amount of shock-and-awe.

Miller couldn't see the complex yet, weather scans had confirmed a solid cloud covering two hundred meters above their target's altitude. They would have to trust their instruments, and even though the Rangers had some of the best tech in the UNSC, Miller still had the slightest tinge of a worry in his gut.

The seconds counted down. Miller didn't need to say anything, their equipment would automatically activate upon the termination of the countdown. No room for error.

At the two second mark, the forty rangers of First Platoon changed their body position from the classic spread-eagle free fall position to one where their feet were pointed towards the ground and their bodies were straight. They also let go of the Lynxes, separating from the armored vehicles by only a few inches.

At a single precise moment, forty Ranger jetpacks activated, as well as the jet boosters of the four Lynxes.

Miller's stomach flew into his throat as the intense deceleration compressed his body, and he gritted his teeth. The formation broke through the cloud cover, and the compound briefly came into Miller's view. The one thing that he noticed immediately was that there was a large formation of Stormtroopers in the main parade square, most likely practicing some form of drill. He also thought he saw the silhouette of a couple of AT-STs in the corners.

Miller's boots hit the ground, sending a jarring shockwave running up his legs and causing his knees to buckle slightly.

The Stormtrooper formation was about fourty meters away, and at the front an unarmored officer pointed at the Rangers and motioning for the troopers to turn around.

They didn't get a chance though. The front two Lynxes of the square formation ripped into the tightly-packed Imperial troopers with their 30mm autocannons and their coaxial machine guns, tearing the soldiers apart into bloody shreds. The two Lynxes in the back quickly found the two AT-STs that were loitering in the corners and just now mobilizing, then each put a hypersonic Gauss round through their cockpits, followed by a barrage of cannon fire. The two Imperial vehicles crashed to the ground, burning.

Miller snapped his Assault Rifle off of the magnetic clamps on his chest and fired a burst downrange, but quickly turned to the left to his main objective: clearing the Moff's Stormtrooper guard barracks.

"First and Second squads, on me!" Miller yelled, turning to face the barracks. It was a stark, void building from the outside: two stories, no windows, but a metal double door in the bottom center.

The Ranger Captain rushed to the front wall of the barracks, along with twenty other Rangers, his helmet's internal sound dampeners muffling the boom of autocannons. The two squads slammed into either side of the door and began planting breaching explosives on the walls.

"Fire in the hole!" yelled Private Rieben, as he activated the detonator.

Where the wall had just been was now a cloud of smoke and debris, and Miller rushed into the new hole right behind the shotgun-toting Rieben.

Miller's VISR activated to compensate for the smoke, and about thirty figures were outlined in red in his HUD. Most were in various stages of surprise, whether it be getting out of bed, strapping on the first piece of armor, or reaching for nearby weapons.

The Rangers didn't waste any time, laying into the Imperials with their small arms. Miller sent a three round burst into the chest of an Imperial still stumbling backwards from the initial breaching explosion, bursts of blood and bone spraying out onto the floor behind him.

A blaster bolt whizzed past his head, and Miller snapped his rifle in the direction it came in, seeing an Imperial near the back of the room with a raised blaster pistol. He was about to pull the trigger of his rifle when the upper section of the hostile's chest just... disappeared. Out of the corner of his eye Miller could see Jackson racking another round into his sniper rifle.

The gunfire in the immediate room ceased, with all of the Imperials now dead.

"Second Squad, clear the top floor! Jackson, go with them, get a vantage point on the roof! First Squad with me, back outside! Move!" ordered Miller.

First Squad exited out the blast holes they had created seconds before back into the large courtyard/parade ground, weapons raised and stances low.

The four Lynxes had repositioned themselves so that they were facing the skybridge and the Moff's palace, and were sending occasional bursts of autocannon fire downrange. Miller highlighted a chest-high wall near one of the Lynxes in his HUD, and the squad moved quickly towards it.

"Captain, the mess hall and armory are both clear of hostiles. We've got two wounded, one badly. She took a blasterbolt to the upper thigh," radioed Lieutenant Rodriguez over the squad leader comm channel.

As First Squad made it to the wall, Miller replied, "Acknowledged Lieutenant, I'm sending a Lynx back to your position to load the wounded into. Keep half of Fourth Squad in the buildings, and take the rest to join us at the bridge.

"Captain! Jacobs here, top floor of the barracks is clear of Imperials. One fatality sir, Jenkins jumped on a thermal det meant for me. Always was a crazy bastard..."

Miller frowned. Jenkins had joined up with C Company just before all this new-galaxy shit started happening, and from the reports Miller had been getting from Lieutenant Jacobs, Second Squad's leader, he was a good soldier and well liked amongst the platoon.

But this was war, and people died. The time for mourning and remembrance would come later.

"Roger. Keep half your squad inside, and get the rest to defensive positions overlooking the palace and the bridge," ordered Miller.

Opening up his own squad channel, he said, "What's your status Jackson?"

"I'm in a good position, jus' bolting on my bipod sir," was the sniper's response.

"Good. Acquire targets and fire at will," Miller said, closing the link.

Miller peeked over the side of the wall, looking at the skybridge attaching the guard compound to the Moff's palace. The place looked like a death trap.

Three holed, smoking husks of AT-STs lay destroyed near the middle portion of the bridge, no doubt the handiwork of the Lynxes.

He didn't see any Stormtroopers, aside from six or so bodies near the AT-STs. They were probably hunkering down and waiting for a new plan of action, if Miller had to guess.

"All set up Captain," said Jackson, "Thermal scans are showing a lot of Imperials behind cover, I bet I could nail one of the bastards through the little sheet of metal they think they're safe behi – wait – "

Miller heard the tell-tale whoosh of a rocket being fired, followed not a quarter of a second later by the supersonic boom of Jackson's rifle.

"RPG!" someone yelled, using the moniker that had been given to any type of shoulder-launched rocket since the 21st century, and everybody dove for the deck.

The Imperial missile accelerated, slamming right into the front on a Lynx. The anti-tank munition hit at just the right angle to pierce through the APC's forward armor plating, then detonated inside the crew compartment. The Lynx exploded, sending shards of hull and unfired munitions spraying in all directions. The two Lynxes besides it absorbed most of the shockwave, but not all of it.

Miller felt a sharp, sudden pain in his left thigh, and looked down to see a piece of shrapnel embedded in his leg. He grunted as his armor automatically sealed off the region and applied biofoam to the edges of the wound.

"Captain, the Imperials are advancing! They're using the AT-STs for cover!" yelled Jackson.

"Dammit! Saber Four, get back to the bridge to plug the hole left by Saber Three! Crimson Team, what's your status?"

The Rangers popped out of cover and sent lead screaming down the bridge, accompanied by autocannons and the occasional Gauss round. Jackson's rifle cracked again.

Behind Miller, in the direction of the guard compound, there was another explosion.

"Power generators offline sir, rejoining the line at the bridge," was the response of Crimson-One.

"Copy that," said Miller. Besides him, Caparzo popped over the top of the wall and hefted a SAW up to his shoulder, letting loose a buzz of rounds towards some unseen target.

With a few quick blinks, Miller opened a channel to the Hera's Wrath, currently in atmosphere providing fire support for the main assault on Cloud City's Imperial garrison.

"Hera's Wrath, this is Ranger-Actual. AA guns are offline, Helljumpers are clear; I repeat, Helljumpers are clear. Be advised, we've got what appears to be an oversized platoon with heavy weapons attacking our position, we're already down one Lynx and have one wounded that needs immediate stabilization."

"Ranger-Actual, this is Hera's Wrath, we're diverting to your location to launch ODSTs. A Falcon is being dispatched to EVAC the priority wounded. Out."

Miller opened a platoon-wide channel. "Alright, hunker down and hold the line until the ODSTs drop in and break the Imperial defenses! Stay in cover and time your shots! Sabers One, Two, and Four, give suppressing fire, and snipers, watch out for heavy weapons!"

The Lynx's autocannons continued to boom away in five-round bursts, accompanied by another crack from Jackson's rifle and scattered small arms fire. Blaster bolts streaked overhead, either hitting the low wall the Rangers were using for cover or flying into a part of the guard complex.

Miller popped up, sighted a white-armored Stormtrooper 100 meters distant and sent ten rounds in his direction, rewarded by a head jerking backwards and a small mist of blood.

He winced at a lance of pain that shot up his leg when he knelt back into cover, but his attention was captured by a mass of shimmering air rapidly moving up to the wall.

The Spartan-IV de-cloaked next to Miller, and his HUD labeled him as Crimson-One.

"Sir, what's the status with our second wave?" asked the armored figure.

"Tarkov and his ODSTs are on the way, Spartan," replied Miller.

Crimson-One nodded. "Orders?"

"Help with the bridge defense right now. Once Tarkov's platoon touches down, feel free to cross and join them in clearing out the Moff's palace. We'll stay here and secure the guard compound, provide an avenue of retreat in case something goes wrong."

"Sir," the Spartan acknowledged before he re-cloaked and stealthed away.

Just then, the intensity of the Imperial blasterfire picked up.

"Captain! They're making another push!" radioed Jackson.

"Ranger-Actual this is Hera's Wrath, Helljumpers are away; I say again, Helljumpers are away."

Miller thought fast. "Rangers! Grenade volley to the other side of the bridge!"

He wasn't talking about handheld grenades, but rather the ones fired from M319 Individual Grenade Launchers. He unslung the launcher from is position on his lower back beneath his jetpack and put it to his shoulder, along with six other Rangers.

They aimed their grenade launchers over the lip of their cover, not exposing themselves, their HUDs automatically configuring the launcher to the correct range.

"Fire!" yelled Miller, and seven thumps could be heard along the line. The 40mm grenades whistled through the air, arcing over the Imperial's cover and detonating within their lines.

The hostile blasterfire immediately slackened, and Miller broke open his launcher to load another round. Right when he clicked the launcher closed, something streaked out of the clouds.

Miller snapped his head up, and saw the first of sixty HEV pods fall through the sky and impact on the ground on the other side of the bridge. However, one pod was off course, hitting the top of one of the disabled AA towers and spiraling off the side of the palace, plummeting towards the center of the gas giant.

Poor bastard... thought Miller.

"Rangers, hold fire!"


Bespin, Imperial Moff Palace Compound

Fifty-Four Kilometers Northeast from Cloud City

Tarkov's pod hit the 'ground', sending violent shockwaves throughout his body. He gritted his teeth, and instinctively reached for the Battle Rifle clamped near his handhold. As he grabbed his rifle with one hand, he slammed the pods door release button with his other.

The 'door' launched forward as the explosive bolts detonated, and Tarkov leapt out like he had done hundreds of times before.

His veteran eyes took in the scene in front of him instantly. His pod had landed with the door facing the bridge, and thus, around twenty Stormtroopers hunkered down behind the wreckage of some AT-STs. There were bodies on the floor in various states of dismemberment, and some of the living troopers began to turn around.

Tarkov quickly shouldered his Battle Rifle and put a three round burst into a trooper who was raising his blasterifle in his direction. The Imperial's chest armor shattered as the hypersonic rounds penetrated it, and the trooper crumpled to the ground. The two troopers to either side of him fell too, and out of the corner of his vision Tarkov could see other ODSTs coming up beside him.

One ODST threw a grenade, the small explosive bouncing once before landing in a group of four. The grenade detonated, turning the four Stormtroopers into bloody pulps. There was a hail of gunfire and the rest of the troopers were cut down. Tarkov turned his head to the left and saw seven ODSTs, smoke wafting out of rifle barrels.

He turned towards the direction of the palace and started jogging, followed by more black-armored soldiers. Throughout the palace courtyard Stormtroopers littered the ground, the shock and brutality of their sudden appearance eliminating any outside resistance.

He saw two ODSTs down, one getting attended to by a corpsman, the other with a blackened and melted faceplate. Tarkov shook his head.

The Platoon had been briefed. First and Second Squads would clear the palace, while Third and Fourth would secure the courtyards and immediate entrances to the Moff's compound.

As they approached the main entrance, a lavishly etched wooden double-door, three-figures seemingly materialized out of thin air.

One of the red-armored Spartans walked up to Tarkov. "Sir, the survivability of your troops during the breaching would increase if we took point," he said.

As much as Tarkov didn't want to admit it, they were right. Their advanced armor and heightened reflexes would give them the edge against any defenses that they came across. If Crimson wanted to take the most dangerous position in a breaching, he wouldn't complain. He would take a Spartan casualty over one of his ODSTs any day.

Tarkov nodded at the Spartan, and two of Crimson team aligned themselves facing the doors. As one, they lifted their legs and delivered a pair of powerful kicks that sent the decorated door splintering off its hinges.

The Spartans rushed in, closely followed by Tarkov and his two squads of ODSTs.

Tarkov followed the path of destruction that Crimson Team carved through the sloppy defenses and makeshift barriers the Imperials had hastily erected, leaving nothing but bodies and spent shell casings in their wake.

They followed the nav-point all the way to the back of the palace, up to the third story, and up a flight of stairs into a brightly colored hallway. Tarkov's boots sunk into the soft carpet as he ran, and he sneered at the overly-posh decorations.

The group reached a door, and Crimson Team took kneeling positions around it.

"Colonel, thermal is painting two figures inside." one said over the comm.

Tarkov nodded, signaling two ODST privates to form up on him. He kicked open the door and burst into the room, rifle raised. It was well-furnished, with lavish carpets, expensive looking chairs, hanging banners, a large back window, and a central wooden desk. Tarkov immediately noticed two unarmored guards lying on the floor, dead, a neat blaster hole in the center of each of their heads. A man in extravagant looking clothes was slumped over the desk, and someone was pacing back and forth behind it, a hand on their chin.

The pacer looked up at Tarkov and the two ODSTs that had followed him in, and the Colonel saw that their contact was a Bothan.

The Bothan's facial fur rippled, and he looked the ODSTs up and down. "I assume you're the 'extraction team' that was sent. I was told you wouldn't be Alliance personnel."

Tarkov blinked and brought up an image in his HUD, the profile of their inside contact. The picture was superimposed over the Bothan's face, then highlighted green. "Borsk Fey'lya?"

The Bothan nodded, and Tarkov lowed his rifle. He nodded his head in the direction of the unconscious man.

"Stunned, not dead. I assure you that Moff Ardus Kaine is unharmed," said the mole.

Tarkov nodded, dialing up a comm channel. "Hera's Wrath, this is Jumper-Actual. VIP is secured, requesting extraction."


Cloud City

Vader picked himself up from the pile of rubble he was laying in – formerly a wall he had been slammed into – in an incredibly surprising, and incredibly powerful, tsunami of Force energy from one of the armored 'Spartans' that had engaged him. When he had read Imperial Intelligence's assessment of the Spartans, he had initially drew a parallel to the Dark Trooper project, but he had been incorrect in that regard. These 'Spartans' were dangerous, as was no doubt evidenced by their multitude of impressive victories over Imperial forces. But for now he needed to stay focused.

No sooner than he had regained his footing did Luke Skywalker sprint around a corner, and upon seeing Vader, charge at him, eyes full of determination. He launched a flurry of strikes at Vader, the Dark Lord quickly but expertly deflecting them. Vader at once recognized the somewhat crude technique as a mirror of his own: Form V of Lightsaber Combat, Djem-So, an aggressive technique that used power and channeled defensive blows into offensive strikes. He had favored the form in his youth and it seemed his son had as well. Despite the power of his assaults Vader could easily see the flaws in the boy's attacks and found himself disappointed; he needed to end this quickly so that he could begin turning his son to the Dark Side.

Counterattacking, Vader aimed a powerful blow at Luke's neck – but it was a feint. As Luke maneuvered his saber to parry Vader's attack, the Dark Lord re-angled his saber in a direction that would have struck Luke's leg, disabling him–

– If it wasn't for a blast of solid Force energy sending Vader sliding back on his heels. Vader snapped his eyes down the hallway and saw two new figures, one who he recognized as his former apprentice, Starkiller, the other an intimidatingly large alien that he had not seen before. He knew that the alien was what was called a 'Sangheili', he had read that much in the intelligence reports, but he had never seen one in person, and definitely not one barreling towards him with two sparking blue swords in its hands.

Vader sent a Force push at the alien that would have sent a Wookie sprawling, but to his surprise the Sangheili did nothing but square its shoulders and growl with displeasure.

In a second, all three were on him.

The Dark Side stirred around and within him like a malevolent tornado, and Vader answered its beckon to come forth and unleash its power. He drew upon that power, feeding off his rage like a super-conducting loop of energy. Sidestepping a vicious-looking overhand blow from the Sangheili, Vader sent a spear of Force energy towards his former apprentice. Galen split the wave with a Force-imbued saber, sending it to either side of him, and with his other saber slashed laterally across Vader's chest.

Sapphire blue struck crimson red as Vader's blade met one of Galen's, but Vader had to hastily step back and divert his sword arm to counter a sweeping diagonal strike from Skywalker. The back of Vader's neck tingled, and he twisted out of the way just in time to avoid a powerful stab from one of the Arbiter's energy swords. The Dark Lord's cape, however, did not fare as well as the rest of him, the contained plasma slicing the black fabric to tatters.

Between the aggressive, energetic strikes from Skywalker, the measured yet chaotic slashes of Starkiller, and the slow but immensely powerful blows from the Sangheili, Vader was quickly losing ground. He realized that raw power would not win him this day; he had to outsmart and outfight his opponents, something he hadn't had to do in a very long time. But his enemies left him little choice if his plans were to come to fruition, and he would not be denied. Frantically parrying the multitude of strikes arrayed against him from his three opponents, the basics of a plan began to form in his mind to isolate his son. It was time to even the odds.

Vader darted to the side to avoid an overhand blow from Luke, then deftly stepped towards the young Jedi. He extended a hand and delivered an open-palmed strike to Luke's midsection, which combined with a surge of Force energy, sent the young Jedi sprawling into a wall, dazed.

Out of the corners of his vision, Vader could see that he had backed just past the threshold of a doorway, and searching out in the Force he grasped the ceiling panels that were right above and in front of Galen. The Sith pulled them down, the heavy metal plating shearing off and clanging to the ground, forcing Galen to jump back to avoid being crushed, now cut off from aiding his two allies.

Luke was just jumping back to his feet, but the Arbiter was still in position, and he surged after Vader.

Vader quickly backed through the doorway into the other room, closely followed by the surprisingly nimble Sangheili. His eyes darted around for a door control, which he found in the form of a small panel. The black-armored figure raised his hand and sent a surge of telekinetic power into the panel, causing it to explode, but more importantly also causing the door to the chamber to hiss shut and lock.

Now that he was alone with the Sangheili, Vader attempted to buy some time to bolster his depleting stamina with Force energy by peppering the alien with surges of telekinetic waves.

There was an effect, but it was muted. The creature seemed somehow resistant to the power of the Force, a prospect Vader found deeply disturbing. The alien also seemed to have another form of defense, evidenced by a shimmering white field that enveloped the Sangheili as the rippling waves of Force energy made contact, the energy dancing across the surface then quickly dispersing.

"It will take more than magic tricks to harm me, Dark Demon," said the alien in a darkly humorous, deep voice.

Indeed, Vader thought.

The Sangheili lunged at Vader, the Sith Lord rushing to meet him, and the two clashed in a tidal wave of red and sparking blue-white. They circled each other exchanging strikes, the Arbiter blocking Vader's quick and nimble strikes with one sword while the other other counterattacked with slow, yet powerful blows of his own. Neither showed any signs of weakness, each waiting for the other to make a mistake.

Pressing the attack, the Arbiter made a quick horizontal slash with both swords, which Vader expertly dodged, but then brought both of his arms down in a powerful overhand strike.

Tapping deeper into the Dark Side of the Force, Vader summoned a massive surge of Force energy reinforced his own saber so that it caught the Arbiter's blades, and caused them to stop jarringly.

Not wasting his brief advantage Vader formed his right hand into a sort of spear, then with inhuman strength and speed struck right in the upper portion of the Sangheili's chest.

The Arbiter's already drained shields failed, his intricately decorated armor plating shattered, and tough, weathered skin was gouged open from the force of the blow.

Vader grabbed the first thing he felt, crushing it in his fist, then quickly withdrew his hand.

The Arbiter gasped in shock, his swords deactivating and clattering to the floor. He staggered back and crumpled to his knees, putting a hand to the wound in his chest. Dark purple-black blood flowed like a raging river between his three fingers, coating the cracked plates of his armor and pooling on the floor.

The Sangheili looked up towards the Dark Lord, grasping in his hand the thin, tube-like form of one of his hearts. Some part of Thel's mind knew that he could theoretically survive for a short period of time operating on one heart, but with the massive amount of blood loss that was sure to result from his recently-inflicted wound, his chances of survival were low.

The door behind him bent inward, yet amazingly held, but Vader continued to look upon his crippled adversary with morbid fascination, somehow still remarkably alive.

Thel chuckled darkly, blood spitting out of his mouth. "Were it so easy."

In a monumental display of strength, willpower, and plain stubbornness, Thel surged to his feet and lunged at Vader.

Taken by surprise, Vader tried to jump back, but was too late. With his vision blackening around the edges, the Arbiter primed a plasma grenade and palmed it onto Vader's left forearm. The Sangheili, satisfied at his last act of defiance, staggered away from the Sith Lord and collapsed to the ground.

Vader, still frantically backpedalling, was acting on the pure, animistic fear brought on by having a grenade attached to his arm. The Force screamed in warning, urging him to take immediate action. He knew that if he didn't act instantly, he would die. Lightning quick, Vader brought his lightsaber blade and swung at his arm, just below where the grenade was attached. He grimaced as his lightsaber took a chunk out of his arm, the neural simulators sending a fire through his limb. He then flung the grenade away from him, but it detonated not a meter away from him.

The Sith Lord tried to raise a protective Force barrier but was only partially successful in cushioning the explosion. He gasped in pain as the heat energy from the blast scorched his already black armor and violently seared his skin. Again.

Worse yet, some form of electromagnetic pulse and had partially damaged his respirator, sending him struggling for breath.

There wasn't any rest, as right then the door was blasted open and two more of the large aliens came bursting through the smoke. Their eyes immediately fell upon the bleeding warrior on the ground, and while one rushed towards the prone figure, the other angrily roared and unleashed a wave of molten-blue plasma orbs from its two rifles.

Vader dodged a few of the shots but then quickly retreated down an adjoining hallway, aiming to put some distance between himself and the imposing aliens. He could not afford more distractions.

Galen and Luke arrived not a second later, their heads swiveling back and forth trying to determine the situation, then falling on the figure of the fallen Arbiter.

The Sangheili kneeling near the Arbiter applied some sort of liquid-hardening bandage to his chest wound. He looked to Galen and said, "He is alive, barely. We need to get back to the Hera's Wrath if he has any chance of surviving, you must pursue the Dark Demon by yourselves now. Go now!"

Galen nodded, looking sorrowfully at his wounded friend and for the first time the first hints of worry crossed Luke's features but he kept his focus.

The Elite that was tending to the Arbiter's wounds gently hoisted him over both of his shoulders in a fireman's carry, then barked at the other, still firing plasma down the hallway.

"N'tho, radio for extraction!"

The addressed Sangheili stopped firing and held up one hand to his helmet, the other still pointing down the hallway with his plasma rifle. "Go! He went that way!"

The two Jedi dashed after Vader, and found him waiting in another room. The Dark Lord raised a hand and telekinetic waves of immense strength slammed into Galen with massive power. He at once raised his sabers and bolstered his own shield of Force energy but the sheer power of the blows still sent him sprawling to the deck, knocking the wind out of him.

Be careful Luke! Galen communicated through the Force, even as he gasped for breath.

Skywalker seemed to have gotten his message and lost some of his aggressiveness, allowing Galen to catch up to the two and join the fray, far more cautious then their earlier assaults.

It was exactly what the Dark Lord wanted.

Vader went on the attack, showing why he was a force to be feared. Even with their three lightsabers against his one, he was managing to deftly parry or block every strike, occasionally taking advantage of a misplaced foot or ill-timed blow to deliver a telekinetic attack. He moved slowly, implacably, like a lumbering Star Destroyer. Skywalker and Starkiller continued to coordinate their efforts as they attacked him but he met their attacks head on, matching them, and still, amazingly…pushing them back!

Galen frowned in thought as he surrendered the lead spot to Luke. This wasn't working, if anything it was having the opposite effect. He had fought Vader twice before but the Dark Lord had never shown this level of power and skill. He fought like a man possessed as his fury and the Dark Side of the Force poured forth like a tsunami that threatened to overwhelm them. He could sense purpose and focus he had never witnessed within the Dark Lord before…as if something within him had been renewed. And in doing so it forged the all-consuming rage of the Dark Side into a potent weapon they were having trouble matching.

Vader seemed content to keep his focus on Luke and almost seemed to ignore his former apprentice unless he seemed poised to become an immediate threat. Luke seemed to have lost his earlier wariness and pressed his attacks with gusto, but his eagerness and zeal resulted in small holes in his defenses. Holes that if Luke wasn't careful, Vader was willing take full advantage of.

Vader found this hole when Luke delivered the second of a pair of strikes too hastily, leaving his left side exposed. Vader swung at Luke's chest, the blonde Jedi just barely able to get a block up. However, the force of the blow caused Luke to stagger, and Vader capitalized with a Force push that sent Luke stumbling into Galen who was just moving in to support him.

Reacting on instinct, Luke utilized Galen's body as a sort of springboard to regain his balance and launched himself back at Vader, the only drawback being Galen completely losing his balance and being forced to the ground. As he fell, Galen sent a blast of Force power towards Vader's feet, but the Dark Lord kicked it away like nothing even as he parried Skywalker's harried overhead chop.

Vader then turned and ran through a large opening into a dimly-lit room, and as Galen picked himself up off the floor he could see the beginnings of a blast door appearing at the corners of the opening.

"Luke! Wait!" yelled Galen, but the young Jedi sprinted forwards, not wanting to lose Vader with the closing of the blast doors.

The heavy blast doors slammed shut just as Galen reached them, and the Jedi pounded his fists on them in frustration. He took his sabers and plunged them into the metal, but as soon as he tried to move them he knew that it would take time to cut through the door, precious time that he didn't have.

Ripping his lightsabers out and deactivating them, Galen reached to his ear to activate his comm with one hand while his other snapped the sabers to his belt.

"Hera's Wrath, this is Hunter-Killer 1, does anyone read?"

"Roger HK-1, this is Thunder," came the deep, rolling voice of the Hera's Wrath AI.

"Thunder! Do you have schematics of the section of Cloud City I'm in?"

"Yes."

"Is there any alternate way into the chamber in front of me? I'm blocked by an extremely thick blast door. It would take too long to cut through."

"Negative," the AI responded, "I have calculated every possible avenues of approach. The only way in is through that doorway."

"Dammit," Galen cursed under his breath. He searched in the Force and found Luke's presence: He was locked in a fierce battle with Vader, and even though the Sith Lord was wounded, he was winning. What was worse was that Luke didn't know that, his aura projecting over-confidence and zeal. Galen tried to reach out and warn Luke, but Vader sensed his probe and magnified his own Force presence, effectively blocking out Galen's warning to Luke.

Anger began to boil in Galen's gut. If he had been just a little bit faster, Vader's Force strike wouldn't have caught him off-guard and disabled him for those precious few seconds, just the amount of time needed for Luke to rush after Vader while the blast door closed behind him.

Why did he have to be so naive? Rushing after a Sith Lord all by himself, he isn't ready! thought Galen.

Galen felt a crushing sense of defeat. Vader had fought smartly, far more so than he had ever seen from the Sith Lord. With dawning realization, Vader's goal became clear to Galen. Skywalker had always been his focus! Everything else had just been an impediment to that goal, and he had swept them aside to get to his true prize. But why? Why would Vader want to keep Skywalker alive... No, it couldn't be! It was so obvious when he took a step back to think about it, Galen realized with mounting horror. Vader wasn't going to kill Skywalker… He was going to turn him! He would subject his own son to the same torturers and hell he had been subjected to. All in effort to overthrow the Emperor, but then what?

To rule as father and son.

It all made perfect sense, and they had unwittingly played right into Vader's hands. Their failure could not have been more complete.

May the Force be with him, he thought, even as he activated his sabers and began the painstaking work of cutting through the heavily reinforced blast doors.


The blast doors slammed shut, taking most of the light with it. Luke could sense Galen's frustration bleeding out through the Force on the other side of the door, but there was nothing he could do about that. He was on his own now.

Luke reached out in the Force, and sensed Vader's presence in the middle of the room and slightly above him. The Dark Lord was as still as a statue, not moving.

Warily, Luke walked up on of the two circular stairways that would bring him to Vader, his lightsaber casting his surrounding in a soft blue light. Aside from the steady hum of his saber, the room was deathly quiet, white wisps of cold steam floating lazily in the air with the pressing hiss of steam pumps. Finally reaching the source of Vader's Force presence, the central chamber platform, he saw a large, dark figure in the shadows and stopped a few meters away from it.

"The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But unlike your ally, you are not a Jedi yet."

Even though he knew Vader was in front of him, the sudden voice still startled him. Not willing to show any weakness, Luke charged at Vader, locking blades with the Sith. Luke broke the lock, striking again at Vader's feet, but the Dark Lord jumped over his strike and lashed out at Luke's head. The young Jedi glanced the blow off of his saber, and turned to face Vader when he landed, renewing his assault.

Luke and Vader locked into fierce combat on the platform overlooking the chamber. Their lightsabers clashed in a brilliant contrast of blue and red, causing the platform to sway, and Luke aggressively drove Vader back, forcing the Dark Lord onto the defensive.

"You have learned much, young one."

"You'll find I'm full of surprises," replied Luke.

Vader made two quick strikes, one hooking Luke's sword out of his hand and sending it flying, the other a slash at his feet that made the youth jump back to protect himself.

Losing his balance, Luke rolled down the stairs to the circular carbon-freezing platform, where he was sprawled out on the floor, surprised and shaken. Just in time he looked up to see Vader jumping right at him, and Skywalker desperately rolled away just as Vader landed. Crouching, Luke kept his gaze steady on his enemy.

"Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker; Obi-Wan knew this to be true." said Vader.

"No!"

Behind Luke, the hydraulic elevator cover opened noiselessly. All the while, Luke slowly and cautiously moved back, away from the Dark Lord. Suddenly, Vader sent a Force push at Luke that was so forceful, the young Jedi was barely able to counter it, and he lost his footing. He fell into the opening of the carbon-freezing chamber, and in an instant freezing steam rose from the pit.

Vader turned to the side and deactivated his saber. "All to easy. Perhaps you are not as strong as the Emperor thought."

Through the steam, something blurred upwards behind Vader. The Sith turned around and looked up, only to see Luke, who had leaped fifteen feet straight up and now hung from some hoses on the carbonite outlet.

"Impressive... most impressive."

Luke jumped down onto the platform, where he was separated from Vader by the steaming carbonite pit. He raised his hand, and his saber flew back into palm, reigniting instantly. Vader ignited his lightsaber again as well.

"Obi-Wan has taught well. You have control over your fear... now unleash your anger!" boomed the Dark Lord.

Luke was very cautious, taking a deep breath to calm himself. He pressed the attack, and drove Vader back with a quick flurry of strikes. The Sith Lord was retreating, but some part of Luke knew that he was only acting; his blocks and parries seemed almost lazy.

"Only your hatred can destroy me," Vader growled.

Breathing hard, Luke tried to take Vader by surprise by somersaulting over him and trying to strike at his back. The move worked, and even though Vader blocked the attack, he lost his balance and fell into the outer rim of the maintenance platforms.

Luke felt a wave of fatigue some over him, but he drew in the sweet vibrancy of the Force to refresh him. He jumped after Vader and continued his attack.

The two Force-users dueled across the platforms, and Luke let the Light Side flow into him, giving him strength. Vader was putting more effort into his defense now, but was still slowly stepping backwards.

They fought their way into a small room overlooking the vast depths of the reactor core, a large glass window the only thing separating them from the deep abyss outside and below.

"Even with the three of you united against me you could not win. Alone, what hope do you have?"

"The Force is the only ally I need!" Luke spat defiantly.

"All too true young Skywalker, but you will find no victory here." Vader said evenly, then he brought his left hand up toward his face and clenched it into a fist "For as the Force is your ally, I am its Master!"

Vader sent a large piece of machinery hurling at Luke back, the young Jedi turning just in time to cut it in half. Another piece came soaring at him, and Luke put up a wall of the Force to deflect it. Vader started to bombard Luke with projectiles in a gathering storm of Force energy. Pipes, wires, small tools, they all flew at Luke, and though he did his best to deflect them, he was getting tired. His defenses buckled under the onslaught, which allowed a few to get through. A pipe flew into his stomach and Luke gasped, barely getting his lightsaber up in time to cut another piece of machinery in half. One half crashed into the window behind him, shattering it and sending a fierce wind rushing into the room.

Vader was not swayed however, his tattered remains of his black cape billowing in the gusts. He propelled his arm towards Luke, sending a wave of Force energy towards the tired Jedi. Not able to summon the strength to react, Luke was knocked out of the window and fell several meters onto a small gantry.

Groaning, Luke crawled his way up the gantry onto a grated metal pathway that lead back into the center of what he assumed was the reactor control room, bordered on either side by waist-high railing.

Just as he got to his knees, the narrow pathway shook as Vader leapt from the window and landed hardly on it. Vader lunged at Luke, and the Jedi snapped his sword up to meet his blows. Sparks flew as their sabers hit each other and the metal railing to either side, Vader inexorably forcing Luke back to where he had just crawled up from with each exchange. Finally, Luke broke under the assault and landed on his back, the tip of Vader's crimson saber pointed at his face.

"You are beaten. It is useless to resist. Don't let yourself be destroyed as Obi-Wan did."

Luke didn't respond, instead fainting a strike to one side then slashing at Vader so viciously that he forced the Dark Lord's saber away, allowing him to regain his footing. Luke summoned the last of his reserves and attacked with all he had. The two sabers clashing with colossal force as they met head on. Luke for a time was able to match the Dark Lord, but he soon realized it would not last. Ducking a sharp swing Luke sprung back up and slashed at his enemies shoulder. The black armor sparked and smoked as Luke's saber cut deep into flesh, causing Vader howled in pain and rage and renew his assault on Skywalker.

Out of space, Luke backed off the narrow end of the gantry as Vader came at him, slashing forcefully again and again at Luke's defense. Luke made a quick move around the instrument complex attached to the ganty, but Vader's sword came slicing down, cutting the complex loose. The instrument panel began to fall, but was then caught by the wind and almost slammed into Luke's face.

The distraction proved to be the exact window needed, and in an instant Vader's crimson blade came down just above Luke's right wrist, cutting through it like air, instantly cauterizing the wound. Luke's hand, plus his lightsaber, flew away into the abyss below him and the youth cried out in agony. In desperation now, Luke squeezed his severed forearm under his left armpit and moved back along the gantry to its extreme end.

"There is no escape!" Vader boomed over the whistling of the wind. "Don't make me destroy you!"

Luke did not heed the warning and frantically tried to put some distance between him and the Dark Lord. But Vader would not be deterred.

"Luke, you do not yet realize your importance, you have only begun to discover your power! Join me, and I will complete your training, show you the true power of the Dark Side! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict between the Empire and the Rebels and restore order to the galaxy!"

"Order?!" Luke yelled. "The Empire doesn't bring order! It only brings death! Suffering! Evil! I'll never join you!"

"If only you knew the power of the Dark Side..." Vader looked into Luke's eyes, and saw that they were full of fear, but also, determination and resolve.

"Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."

"He told me enough!" Luke snarled, breathing raggedly. "He told me you killed him!"

Vader reached out to him with a gloved hand. "No, Luke. I am your father!"

"No, no….that's not true! THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE!" Luke screamed against the Dark Lord.

"Search your feelings! You know it to be true!"

At that instant, Luke felt his resolve crumble, for in that moment he could feel the whispering of the Force in his soul confirming his worst fear.

Betrayed, broken, and ashamed, Luke Skywalker howled against the inevitable with pure anguish.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"


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