Fire consumed him.
Angry gases burned his lungs. Heat singed his brows. Bursts of reds and oranges tortured his arid eyes. It hurt to exist, let alone endure.
Dodging clods of flaming rock, he recalled a story told by a friend, a legend about the layers of the Corellian hells, each worse than the last. He was sure he had dropped straight to the bottom, where skin melted and hair fried. But he couldn't even suffer for it or the darkness would catch him.
The darkness. The dark thing. A creature. An abomination forged in some diabolical inferno. It pursued him, hungrier than the flames licking at his boots. It swiped and kicked and clawed unrelentingly. He could not yield to its power. Defeat was not an option.
He parried and blocked, countered and feinted with the dark. A deadly dance no one would win. With a crash of his sword he battered the night, knocking it back. He scrambled away, the quaking ground giving him no purchase. Climbing higher, he glimpsed possible fortune. Hope. An end.
"Don't do it," he said.
"I have grown more powerful than even you can imagine," the darkness told him.
Even the dark fears the light. Burn bright. He let in the Force. Hell had no hold over him. The darkness leapt, wanting to steal his very soul. The light pierced the night; there was nothing else it could do.
Mortal and wounded, lying on the burning blanket of scree, what was once a knight tumbled down. Another level. Only now had Hell shown its true face. Worse than the unimaginable. A brother lost, a friendship torn asunder, when the only right choice was wrong.
Now the mutilated fiend was dying, and hated his brother for it.
How had it come to this?
There was no salvation here, only ashes and molten rock to pass judgment on the course of a life. He wanted to hate the abomination for leading him to this place, where being right was so utterly wrong. He ached to scream his sorrow into this bellowing, belching noxious world.
But all he could do was watch. The darkness refused to die. Struggling against the slope, clawing the volcanic gravel, it strained to rise. Desperate and fearful. Despair. Hopelessness. The power which gave him life - born of fire - could take it away. Even the cleaved limbs refused to surrender to the lava.
Horrified, he watched as the man, what was left of him, writhed away from the river of fire in a futile struggle. Hell was not a place to be shaken. A soul sold could not be stolen back. Flames with a ravenous appetite licked at the stumps, and the more the darkness thrashed the more the flames danced with glee, until the last vestige erupted in a ball of fire stoked by the madness of hate.
A scream unlike any other, full of bitter rage, washed across him like a hot wave. He averted his eyes; he couldn't watch.
A chorus of cries pierced the night, multiple voices all in a discordant dirge with the dying gasps. He had no choice but to look. His brother was no more, but the stumps?
The two legs. They were no longer legs, but shadowy human forms clawing at the bank, howling in agony. One a woman, the other a man. And the arm?It was a distinct form, smaller, human. A child. It lifted its head to reveal a pair of cool blue eyes boiling amidst the depths of this hell.
"Be-en," the child croaked. "Help me."
Obi-Wan woke with a jolt. He panted, drawing sense back to his scorched psyche. Drenched with sweat, his nightshirt clung to him in the desert's cool evening air. He shivered, but not from the chill.
What had he dreamed?
Had he dreamed?
"All dreams pass in time, Anakin."
"Not mine, Master. Not mine."
How many times had they had that conversation? He had forgotten. No, he had chosen to not remember, just like he had not thought of that place in quite some time. He had not allowed himself to think of Mustafar for one reason alone - Jedi did not regret.
Swinging off his cot, he settled his feet to the dirt floor and reminded his lungs to breathe. The unsettled knot in his gut refused to surrender to his Jedi skills, however, niggling deeper and more forcefully than before. At times like these, only familiar patterns would banish the ache of pain-filled memories. He rose, determined to ward off this angst.
Obi-Wan had paced two silent steps across the earthen floor when he realized his dream was not a dream.
Fire! On the horizon, where ordinarily the black blanket of night caressed the sleepy dunes, reds and oranges washed out the evening stars. Often fire was the friend of the desert traveler, warding off predators, natural and otherwise. But it was also the most dangerous of allies, for just as its light was a haven of safety so too was its heat a dreaded foe. Once fire struck, it had few enemies in the desert. Water was precious, limited and sparse. Fire in the desert was ravenous.
Throwing on his tunic and pants, Obi-Wan dared not imagine what fed the beast dancing in the night sky. But no matter how much he refused to let his thoughts wander, the image of the little boy had been branded across his soul.
"Ben. Save me."
He ran barefoot across the gritty sea. The night was cool, but the sand burned. His heart was ablaze. He ran as hard as his body would allow, then faster. He was a Jedi; he knew not fear. He had the Force.
Crossing the swell of dunes, all doubt left his mind. The Lars homestead was burning. He had walked this way so many times even his bones knew the direction. As the central domed structure began to take shape like a fiery half-sun, Obi-Wan's thoughts raced. How could this have come to pass?
Hadn't he marked the homestead as an unholy land to the Tuskens? Their banthas bolted and anoobas whimpered at a half kilometer. Even the feral sandpanthers steered clear of the moisture farm. Hadn't he taken every precaution?
It was never enough.
"Luke!" he cried into the thundering flames, stumbling bloody-footed and wheezing for breath. He sucked in a waft of smoke and coughed. "Luke!"
A sooty head burst from the main structure's entrance. Between the black plumes and bright flames, it was impossible to make out a face. Obi-Wan did recognize the broad shoulders of a man, and something in his arms. Owen stumbled on the stairs, dropping his burden. Hacking on the smoldering air, two people, a man and a woman, clawed out of the dome.
Obi-Wan reached Beru first. Scooping her into his arms, he carried her clear of the carnage, then laid her on the barren ground. Her porcelain face was hidden behind a mask of ash, except where tears streaked in rivers of grey.
"Luu," she whispered.
Obi-Wan felt as desperate as she sounded. He laid a palm on her forehead and eased her burning lungs. "Where is he, Beru?"
She tried to speak, but the best she could manage was a moan strangled by fouled airways. A new wash of tears uttered her frustration. Unwilling to give up, her finger slowly pointed back into the hellish hole.
"In-side." A shaky hand gripped Obi-Wan's shoulder, taking support in his strength. He glanced up to meet Owen's fearful gaze. "Luke's?inside."
There was no hesitation, no respect for Beru, as Obi-Wan deposited her in the sand. He had one goal, one mission. He could not fail. Haunted by nightmarish memories of a lava-encrusted planet and his baptism in hell, Obi-Wan plunged into the fire's belching mouth.
Immediately blinded by the raw heat, he tumbled down the stairs, only a brief glimpse from the Force giving the Jedi enough sense to land upright. He was knocked to his knees a second later when another body crashed into him from above.
With an unforgiving tug, Obi-Wan yanked the man to his feet. "Owen, go back!"
"No." The farmer's eyes were as determined as the Jedi's. Without discussion, he brushed past. "This way."
Owen leapt over what had been the kitchen table and disappeared behind a wall of fire. Left with no choice, Obi-Wan followed. What should have been a ten second walk toward the bedroom units seemed an eternity. Falling embers. Crashing sections of ceiling. Conflagration everywhere the eye turned. Heat, so much heat.
The fire gnawed at everything, leaving ash in its wake, but not the toppled wall that stood between the men and their charge.
Owen beat his fists on the mortar and stone. "Nooo!"
"We have? to push!" Obi-Wan's lungs were starved for air, and the simple act of yelling winded him immensely.
Owen hacked into his sleeve and nodded. Quickly the men sized up the best direction and angle. They took positions, bore down with legs and backs, and heaved. The farmer howled; the Jedi made no sound. Neither was less determined. Obi-Wan summoned the power of the Force into his core and coursed it through his straining muscles.
Do or do not. There is no try.
The wall began to give - a little at first, unremarkable to someone not in tune with the Force. Then micrometers turned into millimeters, and Owen's eyes flashed wide with hope. With a defiant roar, the farmer found new strength. Obi-Wan had heard tales of men performing feats of unimaginable strength in the face of danger. As the wall faltered under their combined drive, he was certain he had witnessed just that.
The wall fell.
Excitement bursting inside Obi-Wan's very being twisted into alarm. A beam above cracked. His lightsaber slapped into his palm, swinging up, igniting, barely slicing the heavy rafter in two before it crushed them. Soon enough to save their lives, but late enough that his hand bore the brunt of the blow.
The lightsaber skittered out of his grasp. Gone. Lost to the fire.
Using his sense of the weapon, the Jedi stretched out to take back his one constant companion, but the fire would have none of it. Like tendrils off a dying supernova, the flames warned him away. A hand on his tunic reminded Obi-Wan of his objective. He turned, snorting in frustration, and ran into the bedroom unit.
The men shouted into the hazy gloom, lit only by the inferno beyond. Obi-Wan didn't need a response. He could feel the unmitigated terror emanating from the far corner of the room. Sprinting in the boy's direction, he found Luke huddled between the bed and the wall. The handwoven bedcovering was beginning to smolder as Obi-Wan plucked the boy from his prison.
"Don't fear, Luke," he said when the child took a crushing hold around his neck. Luke instantly relaxed into the comforting wave the Jedi sent through the Force. Owen rushed to their side.
"He's all right," Obi-Wan assured him.
Their time was waning, however, and none of them would be safe soon enough. Obi-Wan clutched Luke to his body and nudged past Owen. He didn't get far. The fire had herded them into this dungeon and had come to claim its prize. The farmer bounced off Obi-Wan's back, then cursed at the sight of their predicament. Their exit was blocked. Obi-Wan felt no fear; for a Jedi there was always another way. He reached for his lightsaber -
Panic began to seep into his heart. Obi-Wan shut his eyes and willed his pounding heart still. For a moment, amidst Owen's crazed shouting and Luke's fearful sobbing, life paused while he took a deep clearing breath. As always, clarity returned in a burst of renewed hope. Obi-Wan snapped his eyes over to meet the boy's worried gaze.
"The box? Where is the treasure box?"
Luke blinked and Owen bellowed, "You're worried about a -" The rest was lost to the wracking of his lungs.
"The box, young one." Obi-Wan inflected the power of the Force into the request, demanding Luke answer. It's here. It has to be.
The boy barely had begun to point when Owen snatched him from the Jedi's arms. "You crazy fool!"
Relieved of his burden, Obi-Wan sprinted in the direction Luke had indicated, a small nook of the room. Like a long lost familiar companion, he could sense it now, the touch and memories that were his old friend. Wading into the pile of toys, Obi-Wan found it even with his eyes misting from the smoke-laden air.
Dropping to his knees, Obi-Wan placed the carved treasure chest in his lap.
"We're going to die -" Cough. "- and you want to save that stupid toy?"
"Not a toy," Obi-Wan muttered, his eyes scrutinizing the box. Luke already had managed to open the third level, quite a feat for a child with no formal training. Padawans at the Temple would struggle for years to unlock the secrets to these hidden treasure boxes. Every layer opened indicated a new understanding of the Force. Anakin, he remembered fondly, had opened his completely in less than a standard week.
With a tap of his mind, Obi-Wan manipulated the final sequence of latches. The box's sides flopped open to reveal the central chamber. Inside rested what remained of a lost Jedi. After fleeing Mustafar, Obi-Wan had pondered why the Force had compelled him to pick up Anakin's weapon. Even as he had lovingly carved the treasure box, he had never found a satisfactory answer.
Owen had stalked the room, seeking another route out, before returning to hover over the Jedi. Obi-Wan could feel the rage boiling off the man at the sight of the weapon, but he didn't utter a sound. As Owen clutched Luke to him, Obi-Wan unscrewed the weapon's shaft to reveal the inner workings. His fingers flew as he returned the weapon to working condition. The crystal reversed. Power core actuated. Wiring connected. He closed the housing, laid the weapon in his lap, and dropped instantaneously into a meditative trance.
The Force was eager to accept him into its comforting fold.
"This weapon is your life."
"I'm sorry, Master. I'll try harder."
"Don't be sorry, Anakin. Do the right thing."
"I will, Master."
With a flick of his thumb, the lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker thrummed to life. Obi-Wan leapt to his feet, thrusting the shimmering blade into the wall. He funneled the Force into the weapon, feeding it the energy to disintegrate the most durable of Tatooine mortar and clay.
The fire chomping at their backs, Owen crowded as close as he dared. Sweat poured off the Jedi's brow and sizzled as it hit the floor. The heat - even in his dreams Mustafar seemed like a day at the Naboo lakeside in comparison to this - was unbearable. Breathable air was nowhere to be found.
Luke cried out from the sensation of being cooked alive. In that same instant, the wall caved to the weapon's onslaught and collapsed into the desert night. Fresh air swept in, a relief until the flames danced higher in welcome to the new fuel.
"Out! Out!" Obi-Wan ordered, snapping the lightsaber to his belt.
He grabbed Luke and tossed him through the opening. Snatching Owen's shirt, Obi-Wan added the strength of the Force to his efforts and shoved the farmer through next. He jumped after, rolling into the sand. Flat on his back and panting, he gazed at the angry night sky.
Only then did Obi-Wan allow himself the luxury of a moment to analyze his predicament. His feet throbbed. His arms stung. His eyes burned. His throat ached. But the sand was cool and the night breeze whisked the sweat from his overheated body. He shivered.
"Luke! Luke!" Beru scrambled around the remains of the burning homestead. She caught sight of the boy and her husband, then crashed into them.
The family was reunited. A home had been lost, but none of that mattered as they hugged and kissed. They rejoiced to be whole once more.
Obi-Wan reached down and patted the lightsaber that lay at his side. "For you, old friend. For you."
Original cover design by altaira. HTML formatting copyright 2006 TheForce.Net LLC.