It was nightfall on Gilliath, one of the Separatist stronghold worlds. Two important positions had to be taken before the fleet arrived in ten hours or the planet's defenses would slice the Republic ships to pieces. Darrus had already heard from the first wave. It was mixed news, which meant that for him and his men, it was bad news.
Master Tinn and his team had taken the northern gun but their casualties were high. Saesee Tinn wasn't badly hurt but his force was down to less than a fourth its starting strength and most of the survivors were sporting severe wounds. Still, their objective was in ruins, so the Army would call that a victory. Jeht was sure the dead troopers, if they could, would feel the same way. Try as he might, Darrus just couldn't understand how these clones could be so selfless, so utterly devoted to a singular cause. It was heartening and terrifying at the same time.
Unfortunately, loyalty and determination weren't always enough. The southern team had not fared as well as Tinn and his soldiers. Master Lutthuk was dead along with his padawan Allarah and their entire platoon. So many dead and only a half-breached perimeter and hundreds of guards on alert to show for it.
Even more unfortunate was what this meant for him; his force would have to somehow accomplish what the primary team could not. And on top of that, he had sixteen soldiers, less than half what Lutthuk went into the zone with and failed. He didn't blame the Bothan Master; he'd seen the orbital reports. Two hundred droids, a squad of Utupau snipers, and a mined grid surrounding the gun tower? Not good odds.
Not good at all, but there wasn't any choice. Already he was about the lead gunship, two others prepping for insertion. The window of the drop was small; they'd be coming in just outside the eastern edge of the mine field. Him and sixteen soldiers against that kind of enemy force. Assuming he could clear the mines, and that was a big assumption, how was he supposed to even get to the tower, much less take it out?
Even as heavily armed and armored as these gunships were, they didn't stand a chance of making it to the tower. They'd barely last long enough to get his troops on the ground as it was. The pilot's weren't afraid to die, but there was no use sending one across the mined perimeter just to see them go up in flames on the other side.
He started to send the GO signal and froze. Wait. Maybe there was a use. He hated to ask a man to basically commit suicide but in this instance, better one than a dozen. He jumped from his perch at the gunship's loading door and raced over to discuss his sudden new plan. He needed things and he needed them now.
Things from the armory... and the munitions deck.
Twenty minutes later, the three gunships were tearing over the planet's battered landscape at full combat speed. The ship in the lead was blazing its cannons at the ground, obviously taking up minesweeping duties as it tore trench after steaming trench in Gillath's tortured earth. If Jeht was right, the main tower and all its defenders would be focusing their fire on it right about...
NOW~! He saw the first glimmers of light from the enemy gun emplacements and shouted his preset command to the back two ships, one of which he was personally on. It was standard practice for the Jedi to lead from the front of any spearhead; he was counting on the Separatists making that assumption now.
Just as he'd hoped, when his two gunships turned at hard angles away from the lead craft, none of the enemy's weapons tracked them. They concentrated all of their lethal firepower on the front gunship and what appeared to be a full squad of clones standing at its open loading doors. Lash after scathing lash of energy tore into the gunship, ablating it within moments. Only sheer momentum got it halfway across the minefield before it crashed.
Jeht took a moment to remember the brave clone pilot whose life had just ended. Then he glanced away. This was going to be bright.
Master Lutthuk had been trying to clear the field with timed detonations but the snipers on the other side took down his men before they could do more than half the field. However, snipers were less than effective against vehicles and explosives always worked better in multiples. Such as, for example, clone armor stuffed with blastique, flare rockets, and impact sensors.
BOOM! The sound was carried on a shock wave that made both gunships tremble violently. Jeht, purposefully blinding himself to the flash of the massive explosion, was grateful for the turbulence because it was also the signal both surviving pilots needed to start Phase Two of the plan.
The other way to neutralize snipers was to get in close range with them. Without cover and distance, a sharpshooter was less than effective, especially if they were currently blind from the mistake of looking through focusing lenses at a explosion with a lumen rating in the high millions. Darrus understood light-blindness all too well; it was time to make that weakness work for him for a change.
The droids would be unable to target for six seconds before their optics came back on line. The snipers, if he was fortunate, would be blind for more than a minute. Knowing his passing relationship with Lady Luck, he chose to assume the enemy sharpshooters would be out approximately six seconds as well.
More than enough time. Both his gunships flew straight through the glowing shroud of phosphor and debris, slowing the distance to the guntower in less than three seconds. Darrus's craft carried only him; the other one held his troopers. That one landed a hundred yards before the edge of the newly formed crater and dropped its passengers. Blaster fire rang out immediately from his white-armored strike force.
Instant beachhead, instant demolished droid army.
Now for his part. His vessel had three seconds to get him to the roof of the guntower and drop him off. Ramming the tower wouldn't work; too much of the planetary defense weapon was internal and would survive an impact. It would have to be sliced apart from the inside...
...and that was his cue. Thumbing the black button on his lightsaber, Darrus was limned in violet as he leaped from the still moving transport. Fifty feet straight down, he landed on a blinking sniper to break his fall.
Maya watched in horror at the doorway to the landing bay as three troopers in white stared down at her sleeping stranger. "Damn you, Vaaro," she hissed under her breath. "The stormtroopers have found him already!"
The soldiers seemed unsure about what they'd found, which confused her. Visually, Darrus looked like any other sand bum trying to catch a nap in an unsecured hanger. Though there were vagrancy laws, it shouldn't take three Imperial troops to deal with one homeless human down on his luck. Why were they here? What did they think they were staring at?
And what was she going to do if they tried to arrest him?
In his dream, Darrus had just dispatched the last of the snipers. A single nick across his armored shoulder was his only souvenir from the slaughter. Six men down and one terribly large meson array to go. For that, he'd have to go internal. A swath of purple light and one glowing hole in the bunker later, he did just that.
And found himself in utter hell. This wasn't just a guntower, as evidenced by the command and control equipment everywhere, the squad of Utupau troopers scrambling for weapons, and the three Banking Clan officials standing in mute surprise over a holographic planning table.
For two months, the Army of the Republic had been searching in vain for the coreward military headquarters of the CIS in this quadrant and here Jeht was, standing alone in the middle of it. With absolutely nothing else to do or say, Darrus raised his lightsaber in a stoic salute and offered as politely as he could to accept their immediate surrender.
Every blaster in the room started firing....
Suddenly, Maya saw what they'd seen. One of Darrus' hands was visible past the edge of his concealing poncho. The bantha-hair woven parka was not large enough to cover him completely, especially with him sprawled against the wall unconscious. To her chagrin, the Jedi's fingers were crackling. Small bolts of lightning were passing along them, arcing like the points of a stun baton.
"*You see, sir?*" The stormtrooper closest to Darrus turned to his commander and spoke through his helmet's speaker. "*It could be the Jedi we were warned about. The file said he was a resident of this world at one time.*"
The commander, obviously of higher rank because of the insignias on his shoulder drape, tilted his head and waved his hand towards Jeht. "*Pull back the hood. I've got Skywalker's file. We'll do a visual comparison.*" Then, with annoying efficiency, he added, "*Cover him. Even if he's not the Emperor's killer, he's obviously dangerous.*"
Maya pulled her long sporting blaster from its leg sheath. She didn't want to do this, but if she had to choose between killing Imperial troops or letting them hurt Darrus, she'd fire this gun until its power cells went dry.
As she watched, nerves on raw edge, the stormtrooper reached for Darrus' hidden face.
Darrus was chasing the last of the Bankers into the guntower's basement. His armor was considerably more damaged now, as was the flesh beneath it. He'd already wrecked the weapon's firing controls; the fleet was safe. But if he could stop this official from escaping, the Republic would win a far more significant victory than just taking out another Confederacy of Independent Systems stronghold.
The Muun fleeing him was a survivor of the clone attack on Moneylend, one of the few leaders of the Muunilist to make it off that world before it fell to the Jedi and Republic forces. He couldn't let this man get away, not with the atrocities the Banking Clan had financed against the galaxy. Too many of Darrus' friends had died in the sands of Geonosis and since then on countless other worlds at the hands of droids paid for by the Muun.
Darrus reached out with his feelings and grasped a support girder from the corridor ahead of the running alien leader. Tearing it free was nearly effortless but guiding it was a little harder. As it was, his mind was so clouded with thoughts of revenge, he lacked the precision to use the heavy steel bar effectively. The Muun dashed around it and kept going.
He was tempted to get angry at the failure but Darrus knew the fault for it laid solely with him. Pushing back his anger, he turned the beam sideways and sent it hurtling down the hallway. His deadly two-ton javelin slammed into the Muun's back and left a fine gray and red streak all the way to the escape shuttle bay.
"No escape for you," Darrus whispered.
Then an electric pulse slammed into his back and he fell to the ground as his body convulsed. Desperately looking around for his unseen attacker, Darrus caught a glimpse of three cowled men shimmering into view. Stygian cloaking belts and force pikes, which could only mean one thing - Dooku's Hounds.
"None for you either, Jedi. Our master wants a word with you." And with that, the Hound who'd shocked him reached down to place him in manacles.
With a steady hand that belied her thundering pulse, Maya took aim from her hiding place by the bay's side door. At the first sign that the troopers meant to hut Darrus, she was prepared to kill the commander and prayed she could bring down the other two before they could comm for reinforcements. She'd have to be quick. She could not afford to miss.
The stormtrooper's white-backed black hand closed on the edge of Darrus' cowl...
...and the world became pain. Darrus was up, wide black eyes unseeing as his hidden left hand emerged from his cloak bearing his strange, curved blade. It sang as it cut upwards through the soldier's elbow and emerged from his bicep. The severed limb became a fountain of scarlet.
The second stroke was an arching extension of the first; Darrus never even slowed down as he moved from an upper slice to a cross body stroke. The stormtrooper fell in two halves, joining his arm on the ground as his pain ended instantly. The dark sword in Jeht's hand shifted to a two handed grip halfway through the cut, ending in a sundering parry of the commander's long blaster rifle. Sparks flew from the shorn, now-useless gun.
The second trooper shouted in surprise and stepped back out of reach, raising his carbine to blast the blood-soaked madman. He never got the chance to fire, as his back erupted in flames and he went down. Maya was quick; she didn't miss.
The commander saw his men both drop and did the only thing he could do. He lashed out with the ruined long rifle, catching Darrus' sword and forcing it out of his hand. Bringing the butt of the gun into the air, he stepped forward to deliver a knockout blow. The crazed Jedi didn't even seem to be reacting to things in this world. While his target was so obviously out of touch, the commander had the chance he needed and not a moment to waste exploiting it.
Then he stopped short, a crushing pressure all around him and the Jedi's hand on his chest. He couldn't move. He couldn't breathe! Darrus, his eyes still disfocused and wandering, leaned close and growled to the panicking Imperial, "I'll have to refuse Dooku's kind offer."
Then a bolt of lightning flashed between Jeht's eyes and the fury of an ion storm ripped through the commander's body, searing him instantly inside his melting armor. There was a single, choked scream that bubbled out from under the wilted mask, then nothing. Just the sizzle of boiling flesh.
Then Darrus staggered backwards...
The last of the Hounds was dead. The Muun was dead. The tower was destroyed. When he got back to the Dominant, Darrus knew the Council would be pleased. This place had been an important part of the war effort for the CIS. Without it, their ability to terrorize the systems in this part of space would be severely crippled.
He'd be praised. He'd be rewarded. He might even get his own command for this and the rank to go with it.
Darrus looked around at the carnage, looked down at the wet, warm floor and the evidence of his terrible powers.
This was a good thing... wasn't it? The pain and death was all necessary...
Maya was at his side before he fell, Jeht's vision clearing even as she took him into her arms. He was light enough for her to support, though he felt heavy and burdened in ways that went far beyond the physical. Her empathic senses were reeling just from touching him.
"Where... where am I?" Darrus looked up at her, finally awakening. The dream, being back on Gillath - it had all been a memory. Just a painful memory. He reached up to touch her face, grateful that Maya was there even if he didn't know why, and stopped short. If it had all been a dream, why were his hands covered in blood?!?
Before he could react, before she could try to calm what felt like a painfully intense wave of raw guilt and horror building in him, the roar of sub-light engines above them drowned out everything else. In the center of the bay, a slightly battered and worse-for-wear ARC-170 came in for a rough but passable landing.
"Woohoo!" shouted its Rodian pilot as he threw open the canopy. "That was an amazing ride!!!"
Vaaro then saw three dead stormtroopers and the bay's walls painted red. "Wow. I was only gone two hours."
Maya snarled at him and lifted Darrus to his feet. "You!" she roared at Vaaro. "You I'll beat later for taking this man out in broad suns' light. Right now, we have to go!" She pulled the nearly insensate Jedi into the middle cockpit with her. "Fly, V!"
"Ummm, where?" Vaaro was strapping in, though. he knew better than to argue with Maya when she was in this mood.
"The safehouse out past the wastes. Now!"
Vaaro shook his head. "Boss, I haven't secured that place yet. There might be Tuski...."
Maya slammed her fist into the canopy glass between them. "Do I look like I give a frang?!? Fly!" Then, turning to Darrus, she reached back and smacked him as hard as she could.
"And you! Get over it! They were bad. Now they're dead. Quit feeling guilty and get on with your damn life!" She was so furious, mostly with herself for letting the man get in this situation to start with. But damn it! He had to help her help him!
For his part, Darrus just blinked and tasted the corner of his now-torn lip.
Vaaro cringed and turned around, engaging the fighter's VTOL and getting out of Mos Espa as fast as he could. He'd never seen Maya so mad before...
...and he sure as blazes never wanted to see it again!