"We're going back for them," Buck Wilmington stated firmly, taking his eyes away from the scanner that indicated the Avenger was veering away from the Rogue and making its way back to Ithorian orbit.
Charlotte remained silent for a moment, unable to think clearly because her thoughts were filled with panic. She should have guessed this was what Vin had intended to do and cursed her foolishness for minding his privacy and not searching his thoughts before they had taken off from Ithor so that she could learnt that this was his plan all along. She should have known that he would rather sacrifice himself than to see all his friends caught in Vader's net when it was only he that had to suffer. How could he believe that any of them would find that sacrifice tolerable? With a sigh of deep pain, Charlotte realized that he had not, which was why he hid from them what he was doing, to take the choice out of their hands, to make the decision they could not.
"No," she swallowed thickly. "You will not turn back."
Buck turned to her in astonishment, not quite believing his ears. "What do you mean I won't turn back?"
"You won't turn back, you're taking my daughter and Maria away from here, you're going to return my Lilith back to the Rebel Alliance where she will be safe from Vader," Charlotte answered in a measured voice, not looking at him.
"The hell I will," Buck retorted. "If you think I'm going to leave Vin and JD to Vader, you got another thing coming lady!"
"No one's leaving anyone!" Charlotte barked back just as sharply. "I'm going."
"What?" Buck stared at her with even more incredulity.
"My lady you must not!" Maria exclaimed from the seat behind her.
"I'm going," Charlotte repeated herself and met Buck's shocked expression with an expression of steel. "I'm the only one who can, I'm the Jedi remember?"
"No," Buck was already shaking his head in refusal. "Jedi I or not, you're not going back there alone."
However, Charlotte was not listening. She had made up her mind long before she had spoken and she was set on her course. "It has to be me because you're no match for Vader. I don't intend to fight him, just get in his way long enough to help Vin. You have a life pod do you not, on this ship?"
"Yes," Buck nodded, not seeing what crazy plan she was intending on carrying out. "I've got a pod but it will only go to the surface."
"Well I'm going to follow the Tracker down," Charlotte answered. "Once I retrieve the ship and your friend, we'll go to Seleusa to get Vin."
"That could work," Buck agreed before he realized that he was starting to go along with this insane idea. "Wait a minute, you're not going to do this alone. We all go!"
"No," Charlotte glared at him. "You have to get my daughter out of here. I won't let the Empire get their hands on her, not for anything you hear me?"
"But my lady...," Maria protested again and this time even Lilith who had been remaining silent because of the angry voices bandied about the cockpit found the courage to speak.
"Mommy I don't want you to go," she said to her mother.
Charlotte took a deep breath and faced her daughter. "Lilith, I always taught you never to run away from yourself didn't I?"
"Yes mommy," Lilith nodded. "You said that a Jedi must always know their heart." Her small voice sounded peculiar indeed making that recital but she did so perfectly, word for word and what was more she understood.
"I haven't been doing that Lilith. For a long time, I hid what I was because I was afraid for you and that was wrong. You needed to know the real me, the tradition you come from and its nothing to be ashamed of. The Jedi were great Lilith and I was one of them for a long time. I hid what I was because I was afraid for you and for myself but I can't hide any more because a good man is going to die for us and I can't let that happen. Do you understand?"
Lilith nodded "You're going to save him."
"Yes," Charlotte nodded, kissing her on the forehead. "Because I'm the only one who can."
"Look," Buck interrupted, "no one is saving anyone, I haven't agree to anything yet."
Charlotte took a deep breath and turned to Buck before speaking coolly. "You will take my daughter to the Alliance. You will question me no more on this matter and you will let me leave your ship, unhindered." Her fingers moved just enough for the suggestion to be planted in his head and for a moment, Buck appeared dazed as he closed his eyes trying to compose himself from the Force working its way into his mind.
His thoughts were scattered and Buck blinked furiously in an effort to remember what it was he had been thinking when the words came out of his mouth. "Yes," he nodded slowly. "I will take your daughter to the Alliance and I won't you stop you."
Charlotte gazed at him a minute longer, content that the suggestion had taken root and knew that he would take Lilith to the rebel base without any further debate. It was just as well; she had little time to expend on that venture alone. Taking a deep breath, she faced Maria this time and ran a hand of confidence over the young woman's shoulder. "Maria, I need to look after Lilith no matter what happens to me. I can't promise you anything in return except my thanks and my confidence that you will do your best."
"My lady, you are coming back." Maria stared at Charlotte, suddenly having the terrible insight without the aid of any Jedi prescience that her lady was making her farewells.
"Yes I am," Charlotte responded, trying to sound as if she believed it. "But in case I don't, you have to promise me that you will look after Lilith." There was a hint of pleading in her voice that she had hoped to avoid but could not help exude in the face of her request of the young woman.
"You know I will," Maria swallowed thickly. "You gave me a home and a family my lady, when I was nothing. It would my great honor to do this for you."
"Thank you," Charlotte said relieved and trusted Maria enough to keep her word in this before turning to Lilith. She gathered her daughter in her arms and held her close. Lilith in turn clung to her mother with just as much intensity. The fear radiating from her little body was easily sensed by Charlotte but to her pride, Lilith was doing her best to hide it form her. "Baby I love you," Charlotte whispered as she parted from Lilith's embrace and looked her daughter in the eye. "Whatever happens, I always will, you know that."
"I do mommy," Lilith started to weep, her own senses telling her something terrible was happening. "I love you too."
Each tear shed broke Charlotte's heart just a little more but she had to do this, not only to save Vin from Vader but also to ensure the sanctity of the secret that would see Lilith's own freedom some day in the future. She was willing to risk all to see to it that some day her daughter would not have to hide what she was and be proud of it. "I will come back," Charlotte said firmly as she disengaged herself from Lilith's embrace. "I promise you I will do everything to make that happen."
Lilith nodded as she saw Charlotte stand up from her seat and reach into the folds of her cloak to produce something that neither she or Maria had ever seen. Charlotte held the device in her hand, feeling its weight and finding it very comforting how easily it felt in her grip once more even after such a length of time. The light saber was not that different from that carried by Vin Tanner but this one was far more seasoned and had seen battles that the apprentice could not even begin to imagine.
"It's been a long time since I've used this," Charlotte said with a little smile and glanced at Lilith, "someday, you will build your own. I'm going to see to it that you can."
No matter what the cost.
The life pod arrived in Seleusa as expected with little interference from the Empire or the Ithorian authorities. Vin directed the small craft into the emergency landing bay at the herdship's spaceport after leaving JD and the Tracker in the canyon where they had taken refuge earlier. He tried not to think too much about what he would be facing as he brought the life pod into its unceremonious landing amidst the howl of beacons that sounded throughout the hangar bay. Technicians and port authorities were keeping close eye on him, aware that his arrival was due to an effort to save the lives of more Ithorians from the Emperor's brutal intimidation and thus when he emerged from the craft was regarded with some measure of respect. Particularly when they saw the light saber in his hand and identified him a Jedi.
One thing was clear to him however the moment he arrived on the herdship and that was the fact that he could sense that Vader was already there.
Like an invisible thread pulling him along, Vin was helpless but to follow the dark and sinister sensation exuded from one whose power came entirely from the dark side of the Force. Vin felt fear bubbling inside of him and as he progressed along the empty hallways of the herdship, he forced it away knowing that it could be used against him and he refused to allow Vader to have that much power over him. He had in his life, never been afraid of anything before, daring to take chances no sane man would attempt because he refused to allow fear to keep him from his goals, no matter how reckless the course may be. This would be no different. Vader was stronger yes but was he invincible? Vin did not think so. Yoda had said the dark side was very strong but a Jedi with the Force as his ally, devoid of fear and doubt, could best it. For the sake of his continued existence, Vin would have to believe that passionately or else Vader would destroy him.
He made his way to the roof of the herd ship, where it was used as a landing pad for terrestrial skimmers used to transport people from one community to another on Ithor. When the doors to the lift module slid open and he found himself standing below the Ithorian sky, Vin could see no signs of such ships. They had abandoned the place probably on the instruction of the dark lord who wanted to face him alone. Vin remembered the lessons taught to him by Chris and Yoda and hoped that those teachings would be enough to offset his lack of experience when facing a dark Jedi of Vader's caliber. Vin stepped out of the lift module and let his eyes scan the roof for Vader. He could feel the presence of the Sith Lord close by and was certain that the recognition was mutual. Taking a deep breath, he left the safety of the lift and continued forward, certain that Vader would show himself soon enough.
He did not have long to wait.
Rounding the corner of the roof, he heard the raspy breathing and recognized it as those produced by someone wearing a respirator. It coincided with a chill running through his entire body and as the cloaked figure in a polished black mask came into view, Vin knew it could be no one else but Vader. He looked in person more frightening than his description, appearing like a statue carved from black armor and the sound of his artificial breath was almost as chilling. He stood almost a head taller than Buck Wilmington and as Vin approached him, the apprentice was determined not to feel the fear that was whispering at him to give up what Vader wanted and leave here with his life.
"The Force is with you, Vin Tanner," Vader greeted politely.
"And with you," Vin responded in turn for it was the way of the Jedi to be civil in all things, even though what they were about to do was hardly that.
"It took remarkable courage to come here," Vader continued speaking. "I sense your fear in this confrontation."
"I fear nothing," Vin retorted, feeling a surge of anger because inside he knew it was true, he was afraid and hated Vader knowing.
"You are strong Vin," Vader responded. "One of the strongest even though you are but an apprentice. I would hate to take your life."
"That's kind of you to say," Vin snorted, igniting his blade and prompting Vader to do the same because he hated talking to this creature or letting Vader climb inside his head. "I'll try to be as considerate when its time for me to take your life."
"That is unfortunate," Vader returned more amused then insulted by Vin's response. "The Emperor could use someone with your potential. I could complete your training. I bested your master, Larabee, I could teach a great deal more than he possibly could."
"Chris let you win," Vin declared, refusing to give this bastard the satisfaction of thinking that he had aachieved some kind victory over Chris Larabee.
"You won't have the same luxury with me, little apprentice," Vader answered before swing his blade into a neat arch that would have taken Vin's head off. The younger man immediately raised his own lightsabre and blocked the blow, sending the beam of crimson energy bouncing off its surface as its master launched another attack, this time faster and with greater accuracy. Vin met him blow for blow, refusing to allow him any quarter and for a moment they stood in circle of space, blocking, parrying and thrusting with neither making an advance or a retreat. Suddenly Vin had the idea that Vader was not fighting him but rather testing out his defenses, trying to learn how to get through them without killing him because he still needed Vin alive.
"You can't kill me!" Vin gloated as he shoved Vader away. "You can't kill me because you need me to tell you about Skywalker! Can you?"
"I do not have to kill you little apprentice, I can cause you enough pain to ensure that you give me what I want," Vader returned confidently.
"NEVER," Vin hissed and came at him with an offensive blow, slamming his saber into Vader with all the strength he could muster. The dark lord retreated as Vin vented his fury and outrage at Vader's presumption at his lack of skill. The blue glow of his saber impacted hard against Vader's own crimson blade until he was pushing Vader across the tarmac, seeing nothing but the enemy he had to destroy.
Suddenly Vader stopped retreating and caught Vin's latest blow with a powerful block before shoving back hard enough for Vin to stumble backwards, almost losing his balance. The pause in hostilities gave both combatants time to take a breath and Vader lowered his weapon confidently and regarded Vin almost contemplatively. "You are strong apprentice. You are possibly even stronger than Larabee but your ability to control your fear is slipping. I can defeat you and you know it, you feel it inside of you and that is why I will win."
"Take your best shot!" Vin lunged at him again and once more Vader blocked his blow easily, with Vin coming at him, using all his strength to wear down his opponent. He swung hard and fast, leaping into the air at one point in neat somersault and landing behind Vader to disorientate him. Vader barely avoided the strike that might have decapitated him and dropped to his knees before lashing out and bringing Vin to his own knees before leaping to his feet again and renewing his attack while the younger man was at the disadvantage.
Vin saw the blade coming down on him and raised his own to avoid being mortally wounded. He rolled once he had fended it off and got to his feet again to see Vader taking the offensive with a series of hard and powerful strikes. The strength of the man took Vin's breath away and soon the apprentice was using all his reserves to keep those blows form meeting its mark. Vader was not only a powerful Jedi but he was extremely skilled with a sabre and Vin was just too new at this to mount a defense that could defeat him. Still the younger man was not about to give in and with every strike that Vader delivered, Vin countered it back with equal force, giving as good as he got for as long as he was capable.
However, Vin never stood a chance and he was about to be shown how futile trying had been.
Vin raised his sabre to strike when he saw Vader lower his own, thinking for a moment that somehow the dark lord had misjudged his skill and had left himself wide open for attack. Vin ran forward, preparing to make the kill when suddenly, he was swept off his feet and flung into the doors of the lift module. He impacted against the steel with so much force, the air escaped his lungs and it felt as if he might have broken every bone in his body with the pain that followed. For a few seconds, Vin reeled from the attack until his senses screamed warning and he came around just in time to see Vader coming at him again. He threw himself out of the way just as Vader's blade tore through the steel doors of the lift and Vin scrambled to his feet, searching for the lightsabre that was no longer in his hand and seeing it on the floor nearby. Concentrating hard, the weapon returned to his grip, just in time for him to ward off another powerful strike by the dark lord.
"I don't wish to kill you little apprentice," Vader spoke as he continued his attack. "I am only interested in my son. If you give me what I want, I can complete your training and we can faced the Emperor as Master and Apprentice. Do you know the power of the dark side; have you allowed yourself to feel it? Join me and you will become a part of the New Order. The Republic was decayed and chaotic, whole races squabbling with each other, never accomplishing anything. The Emperor has a vision and you can be apart of it."
"Your new order is going to die!" Vin shouted defiantly, striking back in an attack of his own even though he could not keep it up for very long. His limbs ached from the impact with the door despite his best efforts to ignore it. "The Rebel Alliance is going to finish your Empire before this abomination you call a new order even has a chance to begin!"
"The Rebel Alliance is nothing!" Vader roared and a surge of power escaped him, tearing Vin off the floor and crushing him to the ground once more with a hard thud.
Vin let out a groan of pain as he felt something give way this time and knew that he had broken ribs. There was little time to reflect on the pain as he saw Vader coming for him again, this time, his attack was ruthless and precise, blade after blade of powerful strokes that Vin could barely block let alone defend. Vin was becoming exhausted and Vader seemed unstoppable. With a feeling of anguish and growing despair, Vin realized he was going to die. He was going to die here and probably not before giving Vader exactly what he wanted the truth about Skywalker.
"Give in Vin," Vader lowered his weapon once more as Vin staggered away, having real trouble holding up his blade as he panted in exhaustion and pain. "I don't know want to kill you but if you choose to ally yourself with what is left of the Jedi, you give me no choice but to destroy you."
"If that's my destiny, then so be it," Vin responded defiantly.
"Is it also the destiny of the one you love to die at my hands?" Vader asked.
"What?" Vin stared at him, wondering what he could mean by that remark. He could not possibly know about Alex, could he?
"I see her in your mind. Your thoughts about her are strong indeed and they betray you. Love is a weakness my young apprentice; it is an exploitable vulnerability. Give me what I want and I will not send a legion of my troops across the galaxy to hunt her down. If you will not give me my son, then I will take your lover!"
"YOU STAY AWAY FROM ALEX!" Vin screamed and lunged at the dark lord, feeling a swell of adrenaline flood through this veins as he went after Vader with vengeance.
Swinging wild and hard, Vin drove Vader back once more, his offensive almost frenzied as he kept slamming his blade against Vader's own. Vader deflected the strikes easily, watching the younger man get wilder and more reckless, knowing that he would soon run out of energy and be completely open to defeat. Vader could feel the rage building inside of Vin and knew that he was closer to the dark side than he knew but unfortunately, Vin Tanner would not be able to use that to his advantage. He had difficult containing what power he had already without being bombarded by the unparalleled surge of strength that would come from accessing the dark side.
"I won't let you get her!" Vin swung again, determine to kill this foul creature before he could harm Alex.
"Foolish boy." Vader shook his head as he caught Vin's latest blow and shoved back, utilizing the Force to make the return strike even more powerful. "You make it all to easy."
Once more Vin was swept of his feet. He sailed through the air with such speed that he had no idea what was happening until he felt the tarmac under his shoulder and a sickening sound of a bone popping upon impact. He let out a scream as the pain flared from his injured side and spread through the rest of him. He was still on the ground when he saw Vader come at him and this time Vin did not know if he could defend himself. Tears running down his cheeks in agony, Vin raised his uninjured arm and deflected Vader's downward strike. The impact of sabre upon sabre almost dislodged the weapon from Vin's hand and he rolled onto his stomach to scramble away, trying to gain a little ground so that he could catch his breath.
However Vader was not giving him that respite and the dark lord made his advance again, lashing out with brutal intensity, shaking off every effort Vin made to defend his strikes, as if they were nothing than annoyances. He was driving Vin towards the edge of the roof, swinging his blade over and over again until the apprentice could do nothing but retreat in an effort to prevent that final decisive blow that would end this duel once and for all. Vader could feel Vin's defenses starting to slip, the fear was overwhelming the younger man now, salting his bones to the point where his mental shields would come down with one resounding crash and Vader would at last get what he wanted, the location of his son.
"I'm giving you one last chance little apprentice," Vader declared. "Tell me where my son is and it will not end the way it is going to."
"NO!" Vin screamed, refusing to be swayed by that offer even though the temptation to concede was overwhelming. He was going to die and he knew it. He tried his best and it was not good enough! The Sith Lord was just too strong. However, Vin did have the choice of how he would leave this world and he would do so with honor, keeping his word to Chris to never betray the secret the Jedi had entrusted him with. Darth Vader could kill him but he would never defeat him.
"I will die before I let you take it from me!" Vin hissed and with the last ounce of strength he had, he raised his sabre in the air and came at Vader for one final blow that would either finish him or the dark lord. Unfortunately, Vader was too seasoned to be caught that way and swung his own blade in a defending blow, intending to finish this battle once and for all.
The blade sliced through Vin's shoulder, eliciting Vin's first and only guttural scream he had ever uttered in his life as he felt his flesh, bone and muscle giving way in a burst of excruciating agony. Warm blood began flowing immediately down his chest and though his arm had not come away from his body, it remained in place only by a twist of flesh. Blinded with pain, Vin collapsed on the floor, hardly aware that his light sabre had fallen from his hand and was rolling across the tarmac, out of his reach. He hit the ground; not noticing it when his skull cracked onto the hard surface, sending waves of disorientation through him that was drowned in the sea of agony already coursing through his body. His cheek scraped against the steel floor and seconds seemed to pas before his cheek became wet with blood. He blinked twice and understood that it was because he was lying in a puddle of his own blood.
"You can still survive," Vader spoke once more, the harsh breathing of his respirator hovered over Vin's ear as he leaned down to make a final offer, now that the battle was truly over and done with. "Give me what I wish and I will see to it that you are given proper medical treatment. You do not have to die here."
Vin turned his head and looked the dark lord straight in the eye. It was difficult to talk because his lungs were filling up with blood and his body was starting to shut down, however, he refused to go, not before he gave the Sith Lord a final answer with which to remember. Vin was overcome a deep sense of peace, despite the excruciating pain, in knowing that the end had come and he had not submitted to his fear or Vader's temptations.
"Never," Vin answered, smiling weakly. The upturn corner of his lip sent a rivulet of blood down his face. "The only way you will meet your son is the day he comes to kill you."
"FOOL!" Vader swore and raised his sabre to deliver a final blow, deciding he had enough of this fledgling! "Keep your secret then!" Vader bellowed in fury. "You can take them to hell with you!"
However, the deathblow he intended to strike Vin Tanner with, never met its mark. It was halted in mid air by the presence of a new blade and an entirely new face.
"Care to try someone your own size?" Charlotte Richmond asked.
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