"I have a bad feeling about this," Anakin Skywalker muttered darkly as he looked down at his boot, now completely mired in the mud. Cursing under his breath, he struggled to free himself from the wet, slimy muck. Finally, his leg broke the surface with a loud slurp, and Anakin lost his balance, stumbling wildly and almost falling face first into the murky bog.
"Careful, sir," the clone lieutenant called out loudly, and Anakin was certain he caught a hint of amusement in the clone's voice.
Scowling darkly to cover his embarrassment, Anakin turned to the soldier. "Keep moving. The sooner we find the remaining Akori Separatist leader and end this uprising, the sooner we can all get off this miserable planet."
Snapping to attention, the lieutenant nodded sharply and motioned for his platoon to proceed with their advance.
His pride still wounded, Anakin was silent as he continued to lead the small detachment through the swamp-laden terrain. They had already traveled for hours but had gained little ground, their progress impeded by the multitude of gullyweeds and bog plants that inhabited the Akori swamps. The entire atmosphere that surrounded them was sullen and gray, a light drizzle seeming to fall endlessly from the cloud-covered sky. And whenever the hot rains did briefly subside, the oppressive humidity they left in their wake only served to make breathing difficult. All of these conditions had done little to improve their situation and morale, and as Anakin wiped the sticky sweat from his face with the damp sleeve of his tunic, he found himself growing more and more impatient with his current circumstances.
He wasn't even supposed to be here, he mused darkly. After his injury on Tashil, he was to receive twelve days' leave. The Council had promised...
It had been months since he had been in her arms, and he ached with the longing to hold her closely throughout the night. Her embrace was the only place he called home. It was his sanctuary, and his body and spirit were tired and weary, longing for the healing that only her presence could give him. Her soothing voice and warm touch gave him strength, resolve. But now...he sometimes wondered if this war would ever end, if he would ever find peace in her arms again.
Anakin shook his head fiercely, as if he could somehow physically clear it of his ruminations. Gritting his teeth in determination, he forced himself to push all thoughts of her from his mind. If he ever wanted to see her again, they had to survive this mission. And in order to survive, he had to focus on the task at hand. Wading carefully around a clump of bog grass, Anakin climbed from the swamp and onto solid ground at last, the platoon of clone troopers following closely behind him.
They had just entered the forest when he felt a strange tingling in his mind, a nudge from the Force warning him that all was not as it should be. Holding up his hand to forestall the group's movement, he stretched out his senses, listening carefully to the sounds of the forest surrounding them.
"He's here," Anakin muttered softly.
Behind him, he heard the tell-tale click of a weapon being engaged.
"No," he ordered sharply, whirling around and placing his hand atop the clone lieutenant's blaster rifle. "He's alone. I'll handle this."
"But, sir," the clone trooper protested. "Our orders are to -"
"Your orders are to remain here," Anakin reprimanded sternly. "If he sees an entire platoon bearing down on him, he'll flee. This is his home, and he knows it well. He could find any number of places to hide, and I don't know about you, but I'm tired of wading through these blasted swamps. So do not interfere under any circumstances." Then without another word, Anakin hurried into the forest depths, grateful that the lush vegetation blanketing the forest floor masked the sound of his footsteps.
Just ahead, Anakin could see a clearing. Crouching behind the shelter of a towering tree, he scanned the glade for his quarry. Then he smiled slowly as a figure finally began to emerge from among the trees on the other end of the clearing. It was a humanoid male, his stature imposing and his skin tinged with the ashen hue of the Akori people.
Silently, Anakin retrieved his lightsaber from his belt as he waited.
It is time, the Force seemed to whisper.
Anakin stood up and strode purposefully into the clearing. "Commander Kofri," he called out. Anakin watched as the leader of the Akori resistance turned slowly toward the sound of his voice, noting with satisfaction that a flicker of fear passed across the man's eyes as he did so. The man composed himself quickly, however.
"Jedi," he acknowledged with a deep bow, as if welcoming an expected guest.
"It's time to end this," Anakin said calmly, his finger hovering over the button that would activate his lightsaber's deadly blade. "Too many of your people have already died."
"And how would you see this conflict end, Jedi?" the Akori warrior taunted. "With this planet and all its inhabitants enslaved by the Republic and its lies? My people would prefer death."
Anakin shook his head. "The Separatists have filled the minds of your people with lies. The Republic wants you to be free."
"The Republic wants to mine the resources that rest beneath these swamps." Kofri's voice thundered throughout the clearing. "It cares nothing for the Akori."
"You're wrong," Anakin pleaded. "If you will agree to surrender and come with me peacefully -"
"I loved her," the resistance leader continued, as if he had not heard Anakin speak. "And I watched her die in my arms. Your warriors did not care that she was unarmed. In her eyes...there was such pain and suffering. So do not speak to me of peace or of your Republic."
His words gave Anakin pause. He thought of Padm? and how much he loved her. Every day he lived with the fear that something would happen to her while he was away fighting yet another battle on yet another Force-forsaken planet. He hated this war, and he hated the knowledge that there was nothing he could do to protect her. And as he stared into Kofri's eyes, he felt a stab of sympathy for what this being had lost, for the pain he must be enduring.
"I am deeply sorry for your loss," he said sincerely. The man met Anakin's gaze. An understanding seemed to pass briefly between them, but the gesture was fleeting.
"Save your sympathies for your own kind, Jedi," Kofri snarled. "You will need them." With lightning speed, the Akori warrior withdrew a blaster from its holster and charged at Anakin.
Anakin easily sidestepped the blaster's fire and ignited his azure blade. The Force flowed easily through the Jedi as he repeatedly deflected the blaster bolts. Yet Anakin knew it was imperative that he take the resistance leader alive, and he was reluctant to mount his own offensive. With each round of fire, Kofri backed closer to the shelter of the forest behind him. Determined not to lose his quarry, Anakin lowered his weapon and tried to give chase. But a warning signal charged through his body, and Anakin skidded to a halt, instinctively raising the lightsaber close to his face, its glowing blade barely managing to deflect the bolt before it reached its mark. Anakin knew they could not continue this deadly dance much longer.
"This is a battle you cannot win, Kofri," Anakin warned through gritted teeth.
To Anakin's surprise, the warrior stopped in his tracks and began to chuckle deeply. It was the laughter of defeat, yet the sound sent an uneasy shiver racing along Anakin's spine. "I do not fear death, Jedi," Kofri said, his voice calm and accepting. He kept his blaster trained on Anakin as he began to slowly back away once more, each step bringing him ever closer to the forest behind him. "Yet if you do kill me, another Akori will merely rise to take my place. Our warriors will not surrender to your armies. This is our planet, and we know it well. Death will rain down from the trees and rise from the depths of the swamps, inflicting a wound that slowly seeps away your strength and will to fight."
"It doesn't have to be this way," Anakin pleaded once more.
A warrior's cry ripped from Kofri's throat as his blaster let loose with a rapid barrage of fire, the sound echoing wildly throughout the clearing. Muttering a string of curses under his breath, Anakin charged forward, his lightsaber nothing more than a glowing blur as he deflected the deadly stream of blaster bolts. Then the lightsaber blade met flesh and bone, and Kofri howled in pain as the weapon severed his hand.
Anakin lowered his lightsaber slightly. "It's over, Commander. You are injured and have no weapon. But you don't have to die," he said gently. "Surrender, and let's end this before more innocent blood is shed."
Kofri's lips curled into a sneer, and he slowly backed away from Anakin, the remains of his wounded arm cradled tightly against his body. Fumbling about his waist with his remaining hand, he withdrew a primitive dagger from a sheath at his waist.
"To surrender is to bring disgrace to my people," he growled. The resistance leader lunged at Anakin, forcing the Jedi to leap backward to avoid the dagger's blade. Anakin swung his lighsaber down in a deadly arc, the blade slicing through both fabric and flesh as it met its mark. The clearing fell suddenly silent. Kofri's crude weapon slipped from his fingertips, and the Separatist leader fell to his knees, his singed chest bearing the mark of Anakin's blade. He collapsed to the forest floor, the sound of his fall cushioned by the lush vegetation beneath him.
With a feeling of failure, Anakin kicked away the dagger and lowered himself slowly to the ground. As he knelt at Kofri's side, something within him compelled Anakin to place his hand on the dying warrior's shoulder. Kofri stared up at him, and Anakin was certain he saw pity shining in the Akori's eyes.
"Your eyes betray you, betray your path," the Akori rasped as he regarded Anakin wearily. "We...are kindred creatures, you and I. We s-share the same burden."
Anakin said nothing. He merely lowered his gaze, staring at the damp ground through unseeing eyes. He knew this was nothing more than the disjointed ramblings of the dying.
"It is...the ones we love...who will pay the price, who must suffer for our arrogance, our selfish thirst for...more," the Akori continued, struggling to find the breath to speak. "My Tera, my beloved...she is gone. And now...you will share my pain. You...cannot save her, you know."
Anakin's head snapped up sharply, and he withdrew his hand from the Akori's shoulder with a startled jerk. "W-What did you say?"
"So foolish, your kind, believing...that you alone have communion with the living Force. The future...it is not the Jedi's alone to see...to feel." The fallen warrior smiled sadly as the light slowly began to leave his eyes. "No one can...stop death. Even he cannot help you. You...are not all-powerful, Jedi..."
His heart thundering within his chest, Anakin stood on shaking legs, his gaze never leaving the dying man as he slowly backed away from him. When he reached the shelter of the forest, he turned and fled. Soon, he could see the platoon of clone troopers up ahead, their blaster rifles held at the ready as they scanned the forest.
"Commander Skywalker," the clone lieutenant called out when Anakin finally reached their position. "Are you all right, sir? We could hear the blaster fire. Despite your orders, we were preparing to -"
"It's over," Anakin muttered, trying to control the fear and confusion that now swirled within his mind and body, threatening to overwhelm him. "Kofri is dead."
The clone headed in the direction of the forest. "We'll retrieve the body, sir."
"No!" Anakin roared, causing the lieutenant to whirl around suddenly. "Leave him."
The lieutenant's helmet tilted to the side, and Anakin knew that beneath the white armor, the clone was eyeing him with curiosity, confused by his erratic behavior. "Contact the transport," Anakin ordered. "Tell the captain we'll reach them before nightfall."
The lieutenant acknowledged the order, and Anakin refused to look back toward the clearing as he gave the order to move out. Determined to hide his fear and confusion, he led them once more through the maze of swamps, the dying man's last words echoing through his mind, haunting him.
You cannot save her...
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