ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND.
ABANDON YOURSELF, YE WHO ENTER HERE.
Anakin stared at the looming stone gate before him. The mountain beyond, obscured by dark mist, seemed diminished by the carved arch. The ancient words wavered before him, and he shivered with dark foreboding. "Master, what is this inscription? What does it mean?"
Obi-Wan materialized in the mist beside Anakin. The odd light engraved deep lines in his face, and illuminated his graying hair. "You must put aside all division of spirit. You must brace yourself against cowardice. To reach your destination, young one, you must face the fallen, and find your place."
The Jedi Master's words were no comfort to the padawan. He clutched his cloak at the throat. The air was hot and acrid, but Anakin felt a deep chill as he looked through the gateway. A crumbling stone path stretched before them, disappearing in the heavy clouds that crept along the ground. "This is the only path?"
"This is the path you have chosen, young Padawan."
Anakin swallowed, then straightened his shoulders and strode under the inscription. His lightsaber bounced against his thigh with a comforting weight. As he stepped out from under the gate's shadow, the mist lifted.
A desolate land of gray was revealed before him. Figures stood unevenly upon the plain. At first glimpse, they appeared to be statues made of the clay under their feet. Anakin paused, staring at a nearby figure. It was stone, but rather a man in a dark cloak, standing perfectly still. As Obi-Wan glided to his side, Anakin turned and asked, "Why are they like stone? Why don't they move, why don't they take action?"
Before Obi-Wan could answer, the ground opened up under the dark man's feet, and belched thick steam at him. No longer immobile, the man jumped, and pulled out a lightsaber. The saber ignited, and the man used it to cauterize the break. Then, he turned, and walked to another spot -- stopping directly over another fissure, near to bursting.
"Seal it, you fool!" Anakin cried out. "It will only erupt beneath you again!"
But the figure simply stood as a statue, waiting for the inevitable.
Anakin spun around, looking at the other figures around him. Men and women of all species stood as far as he could see on the plain. All were cloaked like the man. All had lightsabers dangling at their waists. All stood upon weakened ruptures.
"Why don't they fix them?" Anakin turned angrily to his master. "They must know they stand on the edge of disaster. Why don't they seal the breaks?"
"To anticipate is also to invite disaster, young one." Obi-Wan looked out at the figures surrounding them. "If they sealed everything, the pressure would build, and not only would the eruption be greater, but it would be unpredictable."
"So it is better to stand and do nothing!" Furious, Anakin rushed further down the path. A light whisper reached his ears, surrounding him. He spun, searching for the source of the whisper, but it disappeared. He glared at the figures to the side of his stone path. No one reacted to his silent challenge.
Obi-Wan calmly walked up to Anakin, who reluctantly waited for him. "You must not pass judgment so quickly, young Padawan."
The dark mist closed in on them again, and Anakin could see nothing but the stones under his feet.
The heat took on physical form in the mist. It caressed Anakin's cheek, leaving a trail of moisture. He wiped at his face as he labored up the steady incline. The mist thickened into visible strands, dancing in a storm of winds. The heat permeated everything. Anakin wanted nothing more than to strip off his sodden clothing and leave it on the side of the path.
The whispers teased and tantalized. Obi-Wan showed no sign of hearing the murmuring and only nodded at the path when Anakin looked to him for reassurance. The padawan tried to ignore the sounds carried on the air, but they drove into the core of his being, and spoke of the forbidden.
Anakin turned sharply to his right. In the mist, he caught a glimpse of curls, a familiar profile. The murk swirled around him. He hesitated, and glanced at Obi-Wan. The old man continued forward, never seeing that Anakin had fallen behind.
Betraying reason, Anakin stepped off the path.
He tumbled forward, falling through space. A violent counterstorm swept him through the sweltering vapor, tossing him about. Sharp cords lashed at him in the naked darkness, and his body arched. He was consumed, buoyed, at once beaten and carried by the storm. The winds conducted a dissonant symphony, a choral harmony of passion and anguish. He cried out, and his breath was stolen away.
A figure appeared in the gloom. Anakin twisted toward it. She was there -- gliding through the storm as though on wings. She stopped at the sight of him, her mouth round in surprise. The storm increased to fever pitch, tossing Anakin's body about. He reached out for her, straining with his very soul.
She looked down at his hands, then back up to him. Though the winds carried away the sound, he called out to her.
She reached for him.
At the touch of her hand, the air filled with a cracking shriek. Abruptly, Anakin's feet touched ground, and he stumbled forward onto his knees.
The path was uneven, the stones disturbed. Anakin pushed himself to stand. Before him waited Obi-Wan. The master looked on the apprentice, his eyes patient. The urge to confess his misstep swept over Anakin, and his mouth opened. "I..."
A last brush of air whispered to him, and stole the heat that had smothered him only moments before.
Anakin closed his mouth. Obi-Wan waited a minute more, and then bent his head when no words passed between them. He turned and pointed up the path. "Come, Anakin."
Stumbling over the broken byway, Anakin followed.
The storm lifted slowly. Shadowy buildings took form around them, and robed beings milled about. Obi-Wan stopped at a fork in the path, and turned to look at Anakin. "You must choose the way."
Anakin squinted down each road. He thought he saw something familiar to his left, and set off in that direction. He stepped into a crowd, and when he looked around, Obi-Wan had disappeared.
As the mist cleared, Anakin recognized the courtyard in which they stood. They were in the central plaza of the Mos Espa slave quarters. The sand beneath his feet burned. He looked up, where he should see the blazing suns of Tatooine, but the sky was obscured by dark clouds, unheard of on his home planet. His surroundings were bathed in an eerie, red light, casting shadows that made Anakin uncomfortable.
The faces of the people around him came into focus, and he recognized them as fellow slaves from his childhood. Some faces had aged with the time, but others looked the same as the day he left. He clenched his fists, looking at the crowd around them. Yes, he'd escaped the life he'd been born into. But these people had been abandoned to their fate.
As he walked among them, he thought back on all the pleas to the Council to do something about Tatooine, to send Jedi to free the slaves. He'd been turned away time and time again, told that it was not a padawan's place to make such requests.
Eyes bored into him, accusingly. Why hadn't something been done? Why were they all still here, trapped on a forgotten planet?
"Their place is here, Anakin."
He spun to the left in shock. Qui-Gon stood before him, dressed in the poncho Anakin had first seen him in as a boy, looking like a gruff old grandfather. His face was serene, and his hands were folded in front of him. Anakin boiled, looking at the ghost of a Jedi.
"No one's place is here. They deserve to be safe, to have some security in their lives, to know they won't be sold away from their families, or attacked by bandits while out doing their masters' errands."
"The time was not right for them to be free."
"You mean it didn't serve your purposes to free them," Anakin spat. "You're a hypocrite. You claim to serve the Force, to serve the people of the Republic, but you only do so when it will achieve your own ends."
"You mean ends that you yourself would not have chosen. Would you have sacrificed Naboo, so that I could have returned to Tatooine?"
"There are other ways!" The crowd of slaves closed in, silently observing the exchange. "You could have spoken to the Council, insisted that they send someone! You were a Jedi, you had real power, you could have used it!"
"Power corrupts, Anakin."
"Power gets things done."
The two men stared at each other. The wasteland on which the city was built burned, but Anakin was ice cold with anger. Qui-Gon stared into his eyes, looking troubled.
"Then it is true," Qui-Gon finally said. "You shall leave us." He turned and walked away, melting into the crowd.
Anakin took a deep breath, trying to control his racing heart. He looked into the faces around him. "This isn't real, this isn't real," he murmured, turning to look for Obi-Wan. "Master!"
He found Obi-Wan in a side alley. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
Anakin simply scowled and grabbed his master by the arm. "This way." He knew the streets well enough to wind his way through the maze, though in the back of his mind he wondered where it was he was going.
It doesn't matter where I'm going. I'm getting out of here.
The path beyond Mos Espa was dark and steep, ascending the mountain. Their way was lit by bouts of fire expelled from the summit. The air was heavy, and the stench of noxious fumes burdened Anakin's breaths. He held the sleeve of his robe over his nose and mouth as he once again fell in behind Obi-Wan.
When the ground leveled, the two Jedi discovered a river. At first glimpse it appeared to be a flow of lava, but upon closer inspection they found it was a river of blood. Anakin stared in horror, watching the muddy flow before them. "How will we cross?"
Obi-Wan pointed out a small boat approaching them. "It appears we are to be ferried."
The boat ground against the stones, and Obi-Wan stepped into it. As Anakin approached, the stooped boatman lifted his head. Anakin recoiled in shock and dropped his sleeve from his face -- the boatman was an old Tusken Raider, staring at him from behind tattered wrappings.
"Anakin, get in," his master said, and he gestured to the seat next to him.
Without taking his eyes from the boatman, Anakin gingerly stepped into the boat. It creaked and settled heavily into the river. The Tusken pushed off with his long pole, and began the slow journey across the river with his eyes fixed on the anxious man. Anakin tore his gaze away, anxious to distract himself.
As they entered the deeper part of the river, Anakin saw people swirling amidst the muddy blood. They reached toward the boat and cried out.
"They shall weep and wail for all eternity," Obi-Wan said, watching them impassively.
"They're in torment," Anakin said. His insides twisted at the sounds of their cries, and he nearly wailed with them.
"They drown in nothing more than their own wrath, young Padawan."
Anakin glared at his master. "Have you no pity, no sense of..." He stopped, at a loss for words.
"Why are you so troubled, Anakin?"
But he turned away from the master, his eyes scanning the approaching shore. Figures were bent over at the river's edge, and they appeared to be washing clothes in the blood.
When the ferry ground to a halt, Anakin nearly leapt onto the land. The path turned parallel to the river, and Anakin hurried along without waiting for Obi-Wan. He passed several figures hunched over. Just as he thought to slow and wait for his master, one person in particular caught his attention. He stepped into the soupy mixture of mud and blood along the shore.
The woman looked up from the river, a tattered cloth clutched in her hands. "Ani, I can't get the stains out."
He crouched next to her and reached out to her face. Shmi's hair hung limp, falling out of the twisted braids. Her face was pale and stretched. "Mom, what are you doing here?"
She held up the cloth, revealing one of Anakin's tunics. "I'm trying so hard, Ani, but it's so very badly stained." She crouched over and plunged it into the river, scrubbing it against a jagged rock.
He grabbed at her shoulders and pulled her up. "Mom, c'mon, you can't stay here like this." Out of the corner of his eyes, he was saw beings swimming toward them. They were swaddled in Tusken robes. "Mom, let's go!"
She shook him off and turned back to her washing. "So stained, so stained..." Tears ran down her face. "I'm sorry, Ani."
"Sorry? Why are you sorry?" He stood and pointed into the river. "They are the ones who killed you! They tortured you!"
"And they died because of me." Shmi looked up at her son as he quivered. "I do not hate them. Why do you?"
"They killed you!"
The mountain shook beneath them, and the figures in the river turned and fled into the current.
"Anakin." Obi-Wan stood on the path, calling to the padawan. "Leave her. She is a part of your past, not your future."
"I can't." Anakin reached for his mother, and she took his hand.
Then she withdrew it sharply and gasped. "What have you done to my boy?" She stood, clutching the tunic to her chest. "What have you become?" She whirled and ran up the river, slipping in the marsh.
Anakin snarled at Obi-Wan, and returned to the path. It turned again, leading this time into the mountain itself.
Anakin emerged onto a volcanic plain inside the deep caldera of the volcano. The floor burst with fire around him. The air shimmered, creating the illusion that the sky itself had taken leave of the earth, and become a stranger to the man who bore its name. The intense heat overcame him, and Anakin pulled off his outer robe, dropping it to the volcano's floor.
The padawan gripped his lightsaber handle where it hung at his waist. His mind flooded with the memories of his ascent, and his heart smoldered. When Obi-Wan appeared, Anakin ripped the lightsaber from its cord and ignited it. "Why do you torture me?"
"I have done nothing but act as a guide." Obi-Wan stepped carefully amongst the crags at his feet, his face impassive beneath the heavy hood. "This is the path you chose, Anakin, and it is you who must choose where to go from here."
Flame billowed between the two men. The heat of it called to Anakin, fueling his anger. "You have led me into hell."
"You were warned the path would not be easy."
As the master approached, the apprentice danced amongst the flames. "What if I choose not to continue on the path?"
"Will you then forsake the Jedi?"
"It is the Jedi who have forsaken me!" Soon as the words parted his lips, Anakin was engulfed in flame. He felt the heat searing him, his heart blackening. When they receded, Obi-Wan stood only inches away, his eyes blank.
"You shall betray all you cherish, if this is the path you choose. Anakin, I beg of you - "
Enraged, Anakin struck with his lightsaber. Incredibly, Obi-Wan's own weapon blocked. The two circled, and with each furious blow, Anakin felt the heat growing. Fire erupted where his feet touched the ground as they dueled. There had been many duels contests of will in his young life, but none he had devoted so much of himself to. In that moment, Obi-Wan became the embodiment of every wrong Anakin had witnessed, every trauma that had torn his universe into shreds. The volcano rumbled, encouraging the padawan, claiming him as its champion.
When the two lightsabers locked, and Anakin met his master's eyes, he saw a deep sadness in them. The men stood in silence for a long moment.
"If the hero is unwilling," Obi-Wan said, "then no one can disturb."
The Jedi Master faded away, leaving Anakin alone in the caldera.
Only fire answered him, licking at his boots.
But now that Anakin was left alone, nothing remained to stop the flames. He screamed as the inferno consumed him.
Original cover by Sreya. HTML formatting copyright 2005 TheForce.Net LLC.