The soft whisper faded into a white hiss of driving snow.
From his vantage point at the mouth of the cave, Obi-Wan Kenobi, recently knighted and now Master of the Chosen One, peered out past the snowy drifts and into the blue-black twilight of Ilum. He could hear the storm intensifying. The wail of glacial winds and the sharp clatter of ice crystals hitting stone was almost an avalanche of sound; the ominous rumble of snow moving rapidly down the mountainside added its own dangerous noise.
When ice began pelting across his face, Obi-Wan moved quickly inside. He tried hard not to shiver in the wintry air.
It was cold, unbelievably so. There were many risks on this frozen planet, ravening animals and sudden storms and the unrelenting wind howling through the caverns of rock and ice. The cold was not the worst threat to life and limb on Ilum but it could be deadly. Even Jedi were not immune to its effects.
He could cope with the physical perils of freezing temperatures and wind. It was simple enough to prepare for icy gales and beasts seeking warm blood; heaters, layers of clothing and a good lightsaber would be enough for the merely corporeal.
Dealing with the harsh realities of a snow-bound planet was not the problem. It was the mental challenges that had driven him back to Ilum and had him shivering in the growing night.
Officially, he was here to shepherd Anakin in his path toward Knighthood. The caves of Ilum were full of crystals and it was an important rite of passage for a Padawan to retrieve the proper one and make his first lightsaber. Even now, the boy was already deep in the largest cavern, hopefully allowing the Force to guide his way and, in time, he would return, task completed, with a saber in his hand.
Officially, the Council had agreed to allow Anakin this step in his development and, on the surface, it was the sole reason for being here. But the real reason was somewhat less honorable.
Ob-Wan had done something that most Jedi would condemn as self-indulgent and, in many ways, arrogant. He had put his own feelings above the good of the Order and then refused to remedy the situation. In mourning the death of his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, he had stepped over the bounds of the Jedi Code.
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Knight of the Jedi Order, had lost his way.
The Jedi had always had a strict mandate. The Way demanded that there be no attachment, no connection of any kind other than a serene compassion for all living beings. From childhood, it had been drilled into them that to hold onto any strong emotion was the first step onto the path to the Dark. Certainly, there was no room in that for grief.
Obi-Wan had tried to let it go, truly he had. But Qui-Gon's voice had followed him ever since that fateful day, whispering in the wind, murmuring in the leaves in the Temple gardens, rumbling low in the hiss of sandstorms or the gentle swell of ocean waves. With each fresh sound, Obi-Wan fought anew to banish the damning sound of his dead Master's words.
Finally, his heart heavy with confusion and sorrow, Obi-Wan had given in to the realization that he needed help and had gone to Master Yoda. He knew that the wisest of the Jedi would have had some experience in all his long years of service and might have a way to help him get beyond this increasingly uneasy attachment.
Unfortunately, although he knew that Yoda meant well, the ancient one had only reminded him that death was a natural part of life, that he must accept Jinn's passing, that it was key to following the Jedi Way.
It was something that he already knew. It was just harder to do when Qui-Gon's voice kept rumbling in his ear, tormenting him.
Obi-Wan protested, hoping to explain his dilemma and find some insight into why his Master kept haunting his every moment. But instead of understanding, Master Yoda had frowned, his ears drooping low in exasperated concern. With durasteel certainty, the old one had told him that hearing his dead Master's voice was merely his own imagination and that it was a way of hanging onto that which must be let go. Mourning or missing those who had passed on into the Force was an anathema to the Jedi. All good Jedi accepted this without question.
Apparently, Obi-Wan wasn't a very good Jedi. But he tried to be - oh, how he tried to be.
So there he was, hoping to find in Ilum visions a way to rid himself of the voice in the wind, to cleanse his mind and bring sanity back, to be the Jedi he had always expected to be - steadfast in his purity of purpose, free of the guilt and sorrow from the loss of Qui-Gon Jinn, secure in the rules and dictates of the Jedi Order.
If only the whispers would stop.
Peering out to watch the maddening chaos of dirt and snow chase the deepening shadows, he forced himself to relax into the beginnings of meditation, hopefully to banish his demons at last. But he could still hear his Master.
The blizzard picked up, shrilling past the entrance. The sound of ice pellets against stone peppered the air, a scattershot effect of frozen rain drowning out the voice for a moment. The tempest outside only added to the echoing noise within.
Breathing out his distress, Obi-Wan turned away, seeking solace in the cavern's shadowy depths.
Padawan, hear me.
The air seemed to liquefy with cold. As he walked further back into the cave, the bone-chilling storm of crystalline snow wailing outside quieted and he was alone - nothing there but a wintry cloud of his own breath and the darkness surrounding him.
His Force-sense almost blocked off in his effort to ignore the insistent voice, he stumbled past the beginnings of the path into the cave proper and, turning aside, felt his way into the black. Reaching out, his hand followed the jagged lines of stone and crystal into a small opening.
It was warmer there, a few degrees above the gale outside and silent, too. As he breathed out, he could hear the perfect reflection of his own body's sounds - no compelling voice in the wind, nothing but quiet. He had found peace at the bottom of Ilum's Crystal Cave. At last.
He was almost afraid to turn on his saber. The stillness was deafening and so very welcome after all this time, but he needed light. With a shaking hand, he drew out his blade's hilt and, holding it high, turned on the emitter.
The snap-hiss of saber song seemed to reverberate in the small cave, the blue light throwing everything into sharp relief. The stone surface was rough-edged with pockets of deep shadow but there was also the glitter of prized Ilum gemstones on the walls. Broken shards littered the floor. It seemed as if he were in a bowl of cut-glass, the chaotic sparkle of crystal turning the space into riotous color.
In the center, from ceiling to floor, was a single column of frozen water, an icefall of transcendent purity that reflected back all the color and cold fire of a thousand Ilum gems.
It was breathtakingly beautiful and frightening as hell.
He could see himself in the glistening surface, his eyes wide and almost black, his face white and young-old haggard as if he'd lived from the beginnings of the Jedi Order and never slept. He looked terrible.
But beyond that, in the reflection, he could see the ghost of his old Master. Qui-Gon Jinn was there, standing behind him, large as life in the mirror of ice.
Obi-Wan could not move fast enough. He staggered sideways, shuddering away from the insanity, tripping, falling onto the slippery fragments of stone. He slid to a halt an arm's length away from the icy mirage. Sprawled on the cold floor of the cave, the saber still blazing with light, he lay there stunned, staring up at the grief-filled blue eyes.
Not that his Master was following him. Instead, in the reflection, Qui-Gon stood, one hand outstretched, his face filled with sorrow and desperation.
Obi-Wan, don't go. Please...
Shaking his head, Obi-Wan whispered hopelessly, "Leave me alone. I can't..."
He seemed to be flying apart. He wanted to banish the image, wanted to embrace his dead Master, wanted to shake the man who had left him all those months ago.
But he knew it was only his lost longing; it was his own mind playing tricks on him. It was not possible that Qui-Gon had learned the secret of immortality. Everyone knew that. It had to be that he was going insane at long last.
Turning off his saber and plunging everything back into darkness, Obi-Wan curled inward, his face buried into his hands, his knees pulled in hard on his chest. He wanted to make himself disappear. The black depths of the cave should have helped, but he could still feel Qui-Gon's presence even in the underground night.
Crazed laughter bubbled in his chest and he forced it down with the last of his strength. That his dead Master would be here at the bottom of a icy cavern, trying to talk to him as he had done every day of their partnership - the whole idea was just absurd. Ragged breathing, all his own, echoed in the small space and he kept muttering into the dark, "Please go away, please go... away."
Qui-Gon or rather his mind making him think it was Qui-Gon, must have heard or realized the edge of insanity in his voice, cracked and raw and bleeding desperation, and decided to stop doing whatever ghostly spirits do.
But no, his thinking was muddled. There were no ghosts, and once they became one with the Force, they were gone forever. Qui-Gon was no longer here; he was never here. It was Obi-Wan's own mind playing tricks. Therefore, there could be no voices in the wind. The cave was quiet - that should be proof enough for that.
You are not insane, Padawan.
It was too much, it was all too much and Obi-Wan exploded into fury.
He didn't remember turning his saber on but when he came back into himself, the gleaming column of ice was in jagged pieces. Melted water, liquefied from the heat of his blade, coated the walls and was fast turning back into ice. Large chunks of the translucent icefall were scattered about, obviously hacked off when he had gone mad.
His Master's reflection was nowhere to be seen.
Obi-Wan stood there, panting, horrified at his reaction. He should never have destroyed such a lovely thing. Perhaps that was what insanity did to Jedi - turned them into destroyers.
Stumbling back, he hit the rocky wall and slid down. His saber still on, he looked into the humming blade and realized that he had a decision to make.
He could accept that he was insane and give himself over to the Council. They had places for such as he was - clean, sterile, Force-blocked rooms. He could stay in that safe place for the rest of his life, perhaps even doing good work from his jail cell. Of course, his mind would continue to think that Qui-Gon was talking to him. But that might not be such a bad thing after all. Delusions could be comforting.
Or he could destroy himself right now, shoving the lightsaber into his brain. There would be a moment of pain but only a moment. Other Jedi had done this in the past, sometimes so overwhelmed by darkness that they could only see the Light in death.
But that would leave Anakin alone on Ilum. That was not acceptable. The boy deserved better than to be abandoned so soon after Qui-Gon's death. If nothing else, he should take Anakin back to Coruscant and let another take over his Padawan's training before ending his own life.
Or, my Learner, you could see that the rest of the Jedi are wrong. That I am with you, here in the netherworld of the Force.
Something must have broken in Obi-Wan because he didn't even flinch at the ghostly voice, merely considered the idea. Weary beyond all measure, tired of fighting against his madness, he whispered, "Possibly."
The Force will guide you. Open yourself to it.
Leaning back, Obi-Wan turned his head from side to side in an exhausted parody of disagreement. He didn't have enough strength left to fight. It was all too much. He just wanted it to be over, one way or another. "I haven't... Master, I haven't dared since you died. So much darkness, so much pain. I..."
Padawan, you must accept the will of the Force. My time had come but yours will not be for many years.
Grunting gently at the ridiculousness of arguing with his own mind, Obi-Wan looked down at his saber, rolling it carefully in his hand, seeing the fine craftsmanship in the hilt, remembering how he lost his last blade in that terrible battle on Naboo. He could not bear to use Qui-Gon's saber after his Master's death and so he had pushed himself to make another, in the exact same design as his first.
He and Qui-Gon had designed it together when he was still a boy. He could remember the joy on his Master's face when he had finally turned his saber on and the blue blade sizzled into life. It seemed so long ago.
If he returned to Coruscant and admitted his madness, he would have to give up the new blade, allow it to lie neglected in the dusty backrooms of the Archives. It didn't matter. There were only two sabers that he had really cared about in his life and one of them was melted slag at the bottom of a power core. The other was Qui-Gon's own and that was hidden in Obi-Wan's rooms, far from the watchful gaze of the Council. A forbidden possession, damn their eyes.
Blinking, Obi-Wan came back to the present. "I cannot accept living in a cell full of madness. It would be better to join the Force and end it."
Do you want to die so much?
"No, but I don't see any alternative. I'm insane, you know, talking to a figment of my own imagination." He brushed his free hand over his eyes, incredibly weary and heartsick. He could hear the crackle of frozen tears on his face and feel the utter exhaustion creeping into his limbs. The cold was ever-present and he knew if he did nothing, just sat there, he could slip into unconsciousness and freeze to death. It would be so easy.
But there was Anakin and duty. He shook himself free of the lethargy.
Trust me, Padawan, one last time. Please....
He was tired of fighting, tired of the grief and the anger and the accusations of madness. Turning the saber off, allowing the darkness to fill the small cave once more, he took one deep breath and then another. The black was absolute, although his vision showed sparkles and a faint blue haze next to him. He ignored it. The eyes could play tricks in the dark.
Let go, Obi-Wan.
And so he did. He let go of his fears and joys and longing for his old Master; he let go of the hurt of the Council's suspicions, the derision of the other Knights and Masters. He let go of his need to be understood or cherished or recognized as having worth, let go of his duty to Anakin and his guilt at not being able to save Qui-Gon. He let go of everything.
At first, nothing happened. He had closed his heart off for so long that it would seem a block of ice beat in his chest instead of flesh and blood. But as he pushed himself into meditation, the Force began to flow through him again, a soft summer warmth that slowly chipped at the frozen wastes of his mind and sent heat to thaw out his icy heart. It felt so good to sink into that great energy and allow it to take away all of his fears, all the insanity and terror and grief that had resided in him for so long.
The more he fell into the gentle embrace of the Force, the more clearly he could feel the presence of Qui-Gon Jinn.
He couldn't believe it. It was a trick - it had to be. All the Jedi wisdom and lore and the Councilors, how could they be wrong? How could he be right?
Trust the Force, Padawan. It has never lied to you.
He let go again and floated on the wellspring of the Force, soothing energy that had cradled him for as long as he could remember. He felt the rightness of it. His mind was not playing games with him, not driving him into madness; rather the Force had been trying for all these months to tell him something miraculous.
He could have sobbed in relief. He was not going mad after all.
At last, Padawan, you begin to understand.
As he came out of meditation, Obi-Wan felt that he had never been more centered. He was still feeling the grief of his Master's passing but it was an old grief, worn down and gently painful, not the tearing agony he had lived with for so long. The fear of madness, too, had left him and the shame with it.
More importantly, he was experiencing the joy of knowing that his Master lived on, even if it was only in him, even if he was the only one who ever knew. He wanted to laugh with the sheer wonder of it.
Stiff with the hours he had spent fighting his fears, he got up slowly, feeling along the cave walls. The darkness had morphed into a deep black-grey color as dawn approached and he thought he could still see little sparkles of reflected light from the Ilum crystals. From beside him, where Qui-Gon felt the most solid, there was the faintest cloud of blue light but there was no Master staring back at him.
Perhaps he would only be able to see Qui-Gon in reflections. When they returned to Coruscant, he would have to find out but right now he was cold and aching and duty called.
Much as he wanted to talk with his Master, much as he felt closer to understanding the Force at this moment than at any other time in his life, Anakin would be finished with his task and looking for him. Obi-Wan needed to walk back and find his apprentice and take him back to the safety of the Jedi Temple.
We have time, Obi-Wan. I have much to teach you.
Even as Qui-Gon's voice faded away, from beyond the lightening grey shadows, he heard the high-pitched sound of a young boy searching, "Master, where are you?"
"I have to go. Anakin is waiting." But there was no reply.
Obi-Wan just shook his head and smiled. His Master was the same in death as in life - turning off the comlink before the polite goodbyes. It didn't matter. He knew now that Qui-Gon would be back.
With the weight of threatening madness lifted from his shoulders, Obi-Wan felt light and free and very relaxed. Turning on his lightsaber for a moment so that he would not be stumbling in the dark as he made his way to the cave's opening, he could feel the first crack of a long-gone smile pulling at his skin. It felt odd and yet wonderful. It would be all right after all.
Anakin was waiting for him at the entrance, saber in hand. His young face was hesitant, almost as if he didn't know what to expect and he stood stiffly. Seeing Obi-Wan, he stilled, frowning at the sight, and then looked away, down at his own new lightsaber. He radiated worry.
"Padawan, I'm sorry I wasn't here when you arrived. I needed some time for meditation." He thought the explanation would give Anakin a chance to collect himself, but instead the young one only stood silent.
"Anakin, is something wrong?" he probed lightly. He didn't want to frighten the boy. After all, these last months had been very trying for them both.
Chewing on his lip, Anakin glanced up, his face still twisted in a frown, his eyes flat and wary, "You feel different. Did something happen?" His hands kept turning his saber hilt over and over in his small hands.
"Yes, something did happen. It's not something I can discuss with you now but things will be better. I've not been... helpful to you these last months, but that is going to change." Obi-Wan hoped that the excuse would be enough. He wasn't up to explaining to his young apprentice about Master Qui-Gon as yet, perhaps never. But he did want to make amends. He hadn't been a very good Master and the child had suffered because of it.
Anakin, it will be all right. He can hear me, too.
As Obi-Wan stared at his apprentice in astonishment, the boy colored and looked away, off in the direction of Qui-Gon's voice. It was apparent that Anakin could indeed hear everything and must have for quite some time.
Anakin whispered, almost under his breath, "Are you sure?"
To an outsider, it would have sounded like Anakin had merely answered his statement about change but Obi-Wan knew better. It was time to talk frankly about this.
"Padawan, I have come to accept that I can hear Qui-Gon's voice. That he has somehow been able to transform himself in the Force. Can you hear him as well?" As the boy glared down at the frozen dirt beneath his feet, kicking furiously at a shard of green crystal, Obi-Wan said gently, "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I did. You didn't believe me." Anakin's body shook with misery and a kind of vulnerable frailty. "You said that I was wrong and anyone who believed that kind of rubbish was insane." Blinking rapidly, he scrubbed at his eyes and said, "You thought I was crazy."
With careful steps, Obi-Wan walked up to his furious padawan and, kneeling down, put his hands on the boy's bony shoulders. "I'm so sorry, Anakin. I thought I was going mad and I didn't want to you to suffer for it." As he looked at Anakin's troubled face, he pulled his apprentice to him and hugged him hard. "I was wrong, young one. I should have listened."
It took a moment or two but, at last, Anakin relaxed into the warmth and began to hug back. His small face was jammed into Obi-Wan's neck, his words low and hurried as if he didn't think this shaky rapport would last long. "Master Qui-Gon sir was worried about you. You wouldn't listen to anything he was saying. He's even tried to talk to Master Yoda but he wouldn't listen either. Why won't anyone listen?"
"It's believed that people don't come back once they are dead. That they merge into the Force and you never see or talk to them again." His hand brushed gently through Anakin's hair, trying to settle him down. He hadn't known how much his own terrors had affected his young charge. He would have to make things right somehow. "We are taught to let go of our fears and grief is a part of fear, the fear of loss."
Anakin pulled back, his bright blue eyes troubled. "But I could feel Master Qui-Gon sir in the Force and hear his voice."
Still brushing at the boy's hair, Obi-Wan shook his head and shrugged, "But if you hear or talk to a person known to have passed into the Force, you are considered insane and locked up or severely medicated. Everyone believes this."
His face twisted into a thoughtful frown, Anakin said firmly, "Then everyone is wrong."
Obi-Wan tried not to smile at the boy's decisive attitude. Anakin could be very forceful when it came to things he believed in, but it would do too much damage right now for them to reveal the truth. It would need a better time and substantial preparation.
Standing up, he agreed, "Yes, everyone is wrong but we can't tell them that yet. We have to keep it a secret until they are ready to hear it. Do you think you are up to the challenge?"
Anakin thought about it, very seriously, and then smiled. His face lit up in awed anticipation. "A secret this big? That no one else knows, just you and me? Wizard."
Obi-Wan put on his most solemn face, making sure that the joy he felt did not show at the moment. He had to make sure that Anakin understood the gravity of the situation. "For now, Padawan, it will be difficult. We cannot lie, they would feel it in the Force anyway, and besides lying can lead to the dark." With one finger, he tapped the young boy's nose, "But we can dissemble."
When Anakin looked confused at the reference, Obi-Wan explained, "That means we can tell them that I've learned to accept that Master Qui-Gon is dead and that it was my memories of him that were holding me back."
The child was frowning again, trying to follow the logic of it all. Obi-Wan reminded him, "That is not a lie." Putting his hand over Anakin's heart, he pressed lightly and then tapped his fingertips over his own chest, smiling all the while, "He lives in me and he lives in you, even if we never hear his voice again. His memory and love he had for us both should have been enough to sustain us, even in the most perilous of times. That he lives in the beyond is a treasure that we must hold in our hearts until the right time."
The blue eyes lit up in understanding. Sending Obi-Wan a huge grin, he said, "Yes, Master. I'm just so happy that you finally know."
"I am, too." He could not help but send the grin back. His mind was almost bubbling with happiness and relief. "Now, it's back to Coruscant for us both." Turning back toward the darkened shadows of crystalline cave, he bowed in respect, "Coming, Qui-Gon?" Always, my Padawan.
With a relieved sigh, he started toward the entrance. The first light of dawn had crept past the stone portal, brightening up the rough floor, illuminating the walls in pinks and yellows and a kind of sunny grey; the gemstones scattered about and the litter of brilliant shards were sparkling in the radiance.
The sky beyond was already turning blue; apparently the storm was over. It would be a beautiful day.
Original cover by Laura Kovalcin. HTML formatting copyright 2007 TheForce.Net LLC.