Set a few years before "The Phantom Menace" -- While on a solo training mission, Obi-Wan is captured and imprisoned by mysterious aliens. Unable to use the Force, he must rely on his wits and training to escape.
Something was wrong. Obi-Wan Kenobi slowed, one hand going surreptitiously to the lightsabre at his belt while his mind reached outward. Tremors in the Force crawled across his skin like dry leaves and a nagging sense of urgency clawed at him. The quiet Regaidian street, which earlier had teemed with people, was now utterly deserted. And he hadn't noticed, not really, until now. His thoughts had been too focused on the successful completion of his mission, too self-involved, to see what was happening around him. "Stupid Apprentice," he thought unhappily. Qui-Gon would not be pleased.
Ahead, a shadow moved in the darkness. Obi-Wan halted, thoughts of his Jedi Master fading from his mind. For a moment there was utter stillness, then a blaster bolt whined out of the darkness.
The Jedi was already pivoting, his lightsabre up and activated in one smooth movement, its beam deflecting the bolt harmlessly into a wall. It left a scorch mark across the pale grey surface, but Obi-Wan didn't wait to see it. He was already in motion, sprinting for cover around a nearby corner.
This wasn't supposed to be happening. It was supposed to be a simple mission, his first solo assignment, as part of his Jedi training. All he had to do was escort the Regaidian Ambassador home, pick up some documents, and return to Coruscant. Simple. So what exactly was going on? And why were people shooting at him?
A flurry of laser blasts came out of the shadows at the end of the street. Anyone else would have been struck down from behind. The Jedi Apprentice merely changed direction at the last moment and pivoted again, once more using his sabre to ward off the blasts and send them back against his attackers. At least one hit an unseen target, if the muffled shout and thud was anything to go by. Obi-Wan spun his lightsabre in an arc before him, partly as a defensive maneuver and partly as a display to show his assailants just what they were up against. "Maybe they'll catch on and just go away," he thought ruefully.
They didn't. Something made him turn, just as another hail of laser fire descended upon him, this time from ahead and slightly above. Together with the first attackers, they - whoever they were - had him pinned down in a deadly crossfire.
Obi-Wan's dismay turned to all-out alarm, even as he brought his lightsabre to bear. He could sense more than a dozen lifeforms ahead of him, and almost as many behind. Even Qui-Gon couldn't stand against this much blaster fire. He had to find cover...and quickly.
There. Across the street - an open window on the main floor of a building. Thought instantly became action and the Jedi launched himself across the street, diving headfirst through the small opening as laser blasts singed the air only centimetres behind him. He just remembered to switch off the power to his blade before he dove through the window -- and then he was rolling smoothly, coming to the classic defensive stance that Qui-Gon had spent hours drilling into him, every sense alert.
He was in a small, dark room. There were two windows, the one he had just come through and another, higher up. No starlight shone in through either but that didn't matter. Obi-Wan knew it all, in an instant. The entire layout was safe in his mind - he could have found his way out blindfolded a year later, if necessary. Of course, if he didn't get out of here quickly, he wouldn't get that chance.
There were no lifeforms in this building, save for a few insects hiding in the shadows. It was deserted, at least for the moment. Hooking his weapon back onto his belt, Obi-Wan moved forward stealthily, the only sound the whisper of his cloak. Outside the blaster fire had died away and an ominous silence had fallen. "Time to leave, Padawan," he thought grimly.
His first impulse was to head upward. Qui-Gon always said his apprentice had the instincts of a Tegel Cat - when things went badly, Obi-Wan invariably took to the high ground. It made him somewhat predictable though, and the Jedi Master had spent much time and effort trying to drill the habit out of him. In this case, however, it was warranted. If he could just get above his attackers, he would have the advantage...he hoped.
Moving softly as a wraith, Obi-Wan turned and headed through an inner door and up the stairs that lay just beyond. He met no one and saw nothing out of the ordinary during his climb. Outside, he could still sense the lifeforms who had ambushed him drawing closer, but he couldn't read them clearly. It was as if something were hiding them from him - he knew they were there but couldn't get past -- whatever it was -- to read their thoughts. It was more than a little disconcerting - as if someone had thrown a blanket over his head, muffling all his senses. In another time and place, Obi-Wan would have gone into a meditative trance, to try to discover what -- or who -- was blocking him. Now though, well, life and limb took precedence over exploring why these beings were protected against his powers. He would figure it out later...if he survived.
Light glimmered faintly ahead of him. The Jedi slowed his pace. He had reached the roof. Questing ahead with his mind, he carefully stepped through an open doorway, his hand on his lightsabre. He didn't dare ignite it though, as its beam would stand out like a flame in the darkness. If they happened to look up...well, Obi-Wan had more than enough of playing target today. Nevertheless, he had to exercise more willpower than he liked, to not light it. The feeling of menace he had sensed earlier had increased, not abated, and chills were running through him like ice water. Something was very wrong here. Something he didn't understand. For a moment he wished heartily that Qui-Gon was here...actually, that anyone was here.
"This isn't helping," he told himself firmly, giving himself the equivalent of a mental kick. "No one is going to help you - which is the whole idea of a solo mission in the first place. So hurry up and do something clever!"
Feeling only slightly better, Obi-Wan stepped away from the doorway, keeping to the shadows, looking carefully around him. Three sides of the building offered no hope of escape - the closest structures were too far away to jump, even with Jedi-enhanced powers. The last though -- well, it was a possibility. It was further than anything he had ever tried before, but another rooftop beckoned. And beyond that, another. Escape. Maybe...
He didn't pause. Thinking about it wouldn't make the distance any less, and would only give his pursuers more time to locate him. They hadn't given up - he could sense that, even through the clouds fogging his mind - probably wouldn't give up until he was dead at their feet. Well they weren't going to get the chance. Silently he sprinted toward the edge of the roof, gathering the power he needed as he ran. He took care not to look down as he flung himself over the side, arms spread wide and his cloak billowing out behind him.
For an endless moment the Apprentice hung in mid-air, like some oddly shaped alien bird. But then gravity started to catch up with him and he began to fall...too soon. He wasn't going to make it. Desperately Obi-Wan reached out with the Force and pushed. Just a little farther... He stretched his hands out even more...and caught the edge of the roof with one hand. The sudden strain on his left arm and shoulder almost made him cry out, but he didn't, augmenting his strength once again with the Force. With a superhuman effort he managed to keep his grip from loosening, and reached up with his other hand for the ledge.
It was at that moment that it hit him. Some...power... greater and more alien than anything he had ever encountered, tore through his mind like paper. It was like standing in the backwash of a hyperdrive engine. He had no warning, no chance to erect any mental shields - not that they would have helped - and no chance to cry out. One moment he was clinging to the edge of the roof, the next he was falling helplessly, his mind screaming in agony, his body no longer his. Time slowed to a crawl.
It seemed to take a very long time for Obi-Wan to fall, although in reality it must have been only seconds. Somehow, even though half blind with the pain and barely conscious, his Jedi training took over and he managed to angle his body and brace for the impact. But not enough. Not nearly enough. He hit the ground hard, one leg crumpling beneath him. Another burst of pain ripped through him and all the air abruptly left his lungs as he slammed into the street. Stunned, Obi-Wan lay motionless, unable to breathe, unable to think, darkness clouding his vision.
'Pain can be controlled,' Qui-Gon was saying to him. 'A Jedi can move beyond pain, ignore it, or use it when necessary. You control the pain - it doesn't control you...'
Or later... 'How long can you hold your breath, young Padawan? Your body's need for oxygen is a limitation. Limitations are meant to be overcome...'
Limitations are meant to be overcome. Obi-Wan blinked then squinted upward. Well, at least his eyelids still worked. That was something. Above him, the stars were spinning in the night sky. Either Regaid had ripped loose from its orbit or he had sustained what was probably a very nasty concussion. Ignoring the cavorting firmament, he took a quick mental inventory. At least it was supposed to be quick. Nothing seemed to be working properly - his mind was sluggish and he couldn't quite feel his body, couldn't feel much beyond the pain. Still, the pain proved that he was still alive. He had to be. The afterlife wouldn't hurt this much.
One thought rose to the surface of his dazed mind. Where were his assailants? With an effort he turned his thoughts outward. Obi-Wan reached out for the Force...and the resulting wave of agony that poured over him almost completed what the fall hadn't. Stunned and shaken, he forgot the fact that he had just fallen several stories, that he still couldn't breathe, and that a multitude of homicidal aliens were doubtlessly coming closer with every passing moment. None of that seemed important compared to the power that had hit him, and its aftermath. Something that could so easily strike down a Jedi, even a Jedi Apprentice, and leave him unable to use the Force, feeling as if his mind was being burned from the inside when he tried... "I have to warn the Council," Obi-Wan thought desperately. "Have to tell them about this...whatever it is..."
Of course warning the Council meant standing up first. It meant getting to his feet and eluding the beings who were trying to kill him. "I don't think I can do either," he thought dismally... And then his training took over once more. Somewhat to his own astonishment, Obi-Wan found himself rolling over weakly - it hurt, a lot, but that didn't stop him - and levering himself up...sort of. He swayed hazily on his knees for a heartbeat, wishing heartily that someone would put the fire in his left leg out, and that his head would either stop throbbing or take itself elsewhere for a while. On the plus side though, his abused lungs had finally decided to let in a little oxygen. He gasped for air. A mistake. The motion set off sparks behind his eyes and, although he wouldn't have thought it possible, the pain increased. If he hadn't already been on his knees, he would have fallen. As it was, he swayed dizzily, putting one hand out to prevent himself from crashing back to the ground. If he went down this time, he wouldn't be getting up again. Ever.
Footsteps approaching. Not much time. Obi-Wan blinked tiredly, trying to focus his vision and see where they were coming from. It didn't help. The darkness swirled around him like black mist, shot through with streaks of grey and red light. Random images imprinted themselves on his mind -- the street, still deserted, but shadows drawing nearer, ahead of him, and to the right. The glint of starlight on alien weaponry, the distorted sound of guttural voices...
"You're a Jedi. Do something." And suddenly, somehow, he was on his feet, his lightsabre lit and in his hand. And he was in motion, retreating slowly, his left leg dragging uselessly behind him. The part deep inside him that was still capable of coherent thought, felt a spark of amazement. Qui-Gon had told him that a true Jedi could escape the boundaries of his body when necessary, could become more - do more - than he thought possible, but Obi-Wan had never been able to reach that level. He had never been able to reach past the physical...until now. Incongruously, he found himself smiling faintly. "My Master will be pleased..."
The others were closer now. One of them, a Regaidian, raised a weapon and fired. The Apprentice swung his lightsabre, distantly noting that it was a lot heavier than it should have been, and sent the blast winging back toward the man. It missed. The others didn't hesitate. As one, they fired. The first shot hit the Jedi in the right shoulder, his arm immediately going numb and his lightsabre clattering to the street. The second and third impacted squarely in the middle of the chest...and then he was falling. Darkness had claimed him long before he had hit the ground.
Qui-Gon was speaking, but Obi-Wan couldn't hear him. There was only a rushing sound in his ears. Try as he might, he couldn't make out what his Master was saying. He stretched out with his feelings, trying desperately to hear the message, but the rushing only grew louder. "Master...please..." And then, with a jolt, he was awake, the words he had spoken aloud still ringing in the silence.
"Master?" No. Qui-Gon wasn't here. He was alone, on...Regaid. For an instant there was only confusion, then a wave of memories rushed back at him, threatening to overwhelm him. His mission, the ambush, the fall from the roof...the laser shots. Startled, Obi-Wan opened his eyes...and wished he hadn't. He could see nothing beyond bright swirling fog and the light seemed to stab through him like a lasercutter, slicing through his optic nerves and carving all the way to the back of his head. As if that was a signal, the rest of his body began to howl in pain.
Grimly he ignored the sensations, concentrating instead on what he could see, sense, touch. He was lying on his stomach on a hard stone floor, that much he could tell. The room...cell?...was poorly lit, the only illumination coming through a small barred window of a nearby door. And it was cold. Very cold. It was a measure of his disorientation that it took several minutes before Obi-Wan realized that the cold was partly due to the fact that his cloak, tunic, and boots were gone, only his trousers remaining. Well, at least they...whoever they were...hadn't stripped him completely naked. Nevertheless, what body heat he had left was rapidly being leeched away into the cold stones. He really should get up, try to keep warm...
On second thoughts... The slight movement he had made sent the cell spinning wildly around him, and he closed his eyes, holding onto the floor desperately and trying to regulate his breathing. It didn't help - if anything it only made him feel more nauseous. Definitely a concussion, the Jedi thought distantly, his head pounding. "I feel terrible..."
The rest of him wasn't much better. The knee which had twisted under him when he fell felt like it was on fire, his left arm and shoulder ached unmercifully, his ribs were sore, and...
"I was shot." The memory jolted through him. "More than once. So why am I still alive?"
Good question. Hesitantly he moved his right shoulder a fraction. It ached, but no more than the rest of him. Whatever energy weapons his attackers had used, they were obviously like nothing he had seen before. They looked and behaved like standard blasters, but a real blaster bolt would have taken his shoulder off. As for the two shots to his chest...he'd be well on his way to the next world by now if they had been standard weapons. On the other hand, they definitely hadn't been set for stun. Obi-Wan had been stunned in the past. He knew how it felt, and it was nothing like this.
"So...to sum up. We have unknown aliens, including at least one Regaidian, with unknown weapons and..." a chill went through him, "something that disrupts a Jedi's use of the Force." No, this was not good. Not good at all.
With an act of will, he opened his eyes again. They still wouldn't focus properly but he ignored the effects. Hesitantly, remembering what had happened the last time he had tried to touch the Force, Obi-Wan reached out with his mind, concentrating on what lay beyond the walls of his cell.
Nothing. Not the nothingness that would have indicated he was alone. But sheer, absolute...blankness. Where the Force, his connection to the world around him, should have been, there was nothing. It was as if someone had disconnected him from the universe.
The sharp burst of adrenaline and fear that coursed through the Apprentice went a long way to clearing the last of the fog from his mind. Eyes wide open now, and his body in motion before he realized that moving really wasn't a good idea, Obi-Wan levered himself to a sitting position, his whole being centred on reaching outward and touching something...anything.
There was nothing. Nothing at all. "Maybe I am dead after all..." he thought, panic beginning to replace the fear. For the first time in nearly two decades Obi-Wan was alone. Absolutely, inexorably alone. The power he had grown to depend on and recognize as a friend was gone. He was shaking, he noticed distantly. "Master," his voice lifted silently, desperately, "I need you."
His only reply was silence.
After a while, Obi-Wan realized that blind panic wasn't going to help him. Realized it on a conscious level, that is -- it took considerably longer for him to regain control of his body's reactions. Nevertheless, eventually he managed to calm himself, using Jedi breathing techniques. It helped, but only a little.
He couldn't remember ever feeling so alone. Not even during the darkest times in his life, when he thought he might not become a Jedi at all, before Qui-Gon had taken him as his apprentice... even then, he had always had the Force, his link to the world around him. Now that it was gone...well, nothing had ever prepared him for this. Nothing could. It was as if someone had hacked off a limb, had taken away the most important thing in his life... He hadn't realized how much he depended on that link until it was gone.
With an act of will, Obi-Wan forced his mind away from the loss. He might not be able to use the Force, but he was still a Jedi...well, Padawan, at least. And he still had to find a way out of here, to get back to Coruscant. "Although, at the moment," he muttered, "I'd settle for just getting out of this cell..."
Using the closest wall as an aid, the Apprentice slowly pulled himself to his feet...foot. He still couldn't put any weight on his left leg, he found. When he tried, touching his foot tentatively to the ground, pain surged up his leg and threatened to knock him back into unconsciousness. Only some deep breathing and the wall's support kept him upright. "All right," he thought raggedly, "I won't try that again." Straightening his shoulders, he took a single awkward hop forward toward the door. It certainly helped his bad leg, but didn't do much for the headache pulsing at his temples. Bouncing up and down with a concussion was not a good idea. Still, it was either that, or start crawling... Obi-Wan kept hopping.
By the time he had reached the door, the Jedi was sweating from the effort. He leaned his aching forehead against the metal surface for a moment and closed his eyes, trying to gain some measure of control over his body. It wasn't easy. Even with the Force, Obi-Wan wasn't particularly adept at self-healing. He never had been. He could use his abilities to help others heal more quickly - had helped Qui-Gon in the past, in fact, when his master had been injured - but was absolutely hopeless when it came to helping himself. And now, well, he was no better off than anyone else. Considerably worse, in fact, given that he knew there was a power that could help him, but couldn't access it. "Later on, when I have the time," he thought glumly, "I think I shall be depressed."
With an inward sigh, he opened his eyes and peered through the barred window in the door, blinking to help his eyes adjust to the light behind it...
...and yelped as a pair of dark green eyes blinked back at him. Startled Obi-Wan leapt backwards -- or at least tried to. His injured leg collapsed beneath him and he tumbled back onto the floor, bruising his backside as well as his dignity. In an instant though he was upright, balancing on one foot, as ready for battle as he could be.
The voice was pleasant and even sounded a little concerned. The Jedi frowned, but didn't shift his defensive stance. "Who are you?" His voice was rusty from disuse, he noticed absently, and he was excruciatingly thirsty. It wasn't important. Thirst could wait but he needed answers now.
"Altos." Just the one word, as if the man was afraid to say more.
"Why have you brought me here? What do you want?" Anger was beginning to lace the Jedi's words, now that there was a target for his hostility, but he fought to keep his emotions under control. Anger would cloud his judgement, and he needed to keep a clear head. Anger was a weakness. And yet...
The man behind the door shifted uncomfortably. Obi-Wan could only see part of his face, blurred by the shadows, and a lock of dark hair falling over his eyes, but could nevertheless read a multitude of emotions in him - disquiet, uncertainty, guilt, perhaps even a touch of fear... "He's afraid of me," Obi-Wan thought, not needing the Force to sense that much. A dark flicker of satisfaction went through him. "Good. I can use that."
"Well?" the Apprentice continued, his voice harsh and cold. "Who are you people and what do you want? Kidnapping a Jedi is..."
"There wasn't a choice. I hope that..." His voice trailed off.
An impatient sigh. "Oh, just get on with it, Altos." Obi-Wan jumped. That was a woman's voice. It came from behind the man...Altos. He hadn't known she was there. Silently he cursed whatever was preventing him from using the Force. He should have been able to sense her presence. The fact that he couldn't brought home to him what he had lost, all over again. Once more, he had to fight down the wave of fury that rose up inside him.
"I'm opening the door now," Altos was saying. I've got a weapon, so back away from the door. Please."
Great. More hopping. Moving slowly, trying to keep the extent of his injuries from his captors, he edged backwards a few steps then stopped, every muscle coiled and ready for action. For an instant he even forgot about the hammering in his head. "Just one chance," he thought silently, "just give me one opening, one chance to escape..."
They didn't. The door swung open silently and two people entered - Altos, and the unseen woman. Both carried the same energy weapons that his attackers in the street had had, and both had them pointed steadily at his bare chest. Obi-Wan froze. Being shot three times already today was three times too many. He didn't intend to make it four. But if they would only relax their guard, just a little... He settled back a bit, waiting...
"Go on Altos," the woman said. "He won't bite." Obi-Wan glanced at her. She was older than Altos, who looked to be about the Jedi's age, or possibly a little older. The woman was probably the same age as Qui-Gon. Fine streaks of grey coloured her dark hair, and there were other, faint signs of age on her face, but despite this she looked more than a little dangerous. It wasn't the weapon she was holding in her hand. No, there was a look in her eyes - the Apprentice had seen it before, recognized it for what it was. The woman was a zealot. She had a cause, and was willing to die...or kill...for it. Obi-Wan heartily hoped it wouldn't come to that. He had the feeling she'd shoot him down without a qualm for that cause...whatever it might be. A faint shudder went through him. "Master," he thought unhappily, "I really wish you were here..."
Beyond that, the woman was dressed ornately. She was definitely Regaidian, and someone of rank. She wore long robes which were more decorative than functional and her hair was caught up in the latest Regaidian fashion. Obviously someone of importance, which meant that whoever was behind this was in a higher position of power than he had originally thought...which put a new, even more unsettling spin on things.
Obi-Wan let his eyes drift back to the man. He too was Regaidian, and well-dressed, although less elaborately than the woman. An aide, perhaps? He had the look of someone used to taking orders, rather than giving them. Narrowing his eyes, Obi-Wan addressed him, rather than the obvious leader. "Who's she?" His tone was harsh and commanding, and Altos answered unthinkingly.
"The Lady Auriga, she's..."
"Altos!" Her voice was a whiplash. The man cringed slightly and looked embarrassed. "An amateur," Obi-Wan catalogued him absently. "Not happy with the situation he finds himself in, but not able to find a way out of it. Obedient to the woman, and perhaps even loyal to her, but still a weakness. One I may be able to use..."
The Apprentice allowed his gaze to wander back to the woman, injecting a note of cold disinterest into his voice. "Well?" he said.
Her eyes met his in a moment of challenge. For a long moment neither moved, then she glanced away, frowning. "That legendary Jedi composure. It's very annoying."
"Sorry." He wasn't. Obi-Wan took the opportunity to lean against the nearby wall, trying to ease the strain his right leg was taking, wincing slightly as his other knee complained. She noticed and smiled. The smile didn't reach her eyes though.
"Don't get too comfortable," Auriga said. "My allies wish to see you. They...have questions which need to be answered."
Allies? What allies? Obi-Wan didn't allow his expression to change. "You do realize that the Jedi Council will send someone after me, don't you? They won't allow this to..."
The woman waved her hand dismissively. "It won't matter. By then it will be too late. My allies will have what they want." She turned away. Obi-Wan barely heard her as she continued softly, almost to herself: "...and so will I." Then she glanced back over her shoulder, gesturing to Altos. "Bring him." She moved toward the door.
Altos and Obi-Wan locked eyes. Slowly the Apprentice stood upright, trying to look as menacing as possible. It worked. The Regaidian paled and the hand holding the weapon shook slightly. Auriga turned and snapped. "If you try anything, Jedi, I will shoot you, and Altos will drag your unconscious body out of here by the heels. It will make no difference in the end - except perhaps to you. Your choice." The weapon in her hand was unwavering.
There was no choice, not really. With a mocking half-bow, Obi-Wan moved forward, limping after the woman. Together, the three of them left the cell.
Obi-Wan's feet were cold. His captors hadn't returned his boots or tunic, and the stone floor was like ice. A cool draft played against his bare chest, and he shivered.
The two Regaidians had chained his hands behind his back, chains that would not have been a problem if he had had control of the Force, but which now only served to emphasize his helplessness. The emotions seething through him were not pleasant as Auriga and Altos brought him to what could either be described as a laboratory or a dungeon - he wasn't entirely sure which. The room wasn't very large but was decorated with a mixture of devices, some alien and speaking of an unknown technology, the others primitive and more than a little foreboding. The walls, like the floor, were composed of thick stone, or some similar material -- "to muffle the screams?" he wondered unhappily, looking around. "I have a very bad feeling about this..."
He was turning to speak to the man on his right, to try to find out...anything...when something shifted in the shadows across the room. The Apprentice caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, glanced back...and gasped.
It was a nightmare given form. A shifting, nebulous creature that flowed across the floor, appearing solid one moment, then fluid and gaseous the next. It was a scorpion...a humanoid with many arms...a fanged Shadari...darkness... All the while, strands of black fog flowed and ebbed from its centre, reaching out like dark ribbons, writhing like snakes. A faint sound, like a sibilant whisper of many voices, so low Obi-Wan wasn't sure whether he heard or felt it, crawled across his skin like insects. The sound seemed to worm it's way into the Jedi's mind, and he shook his head desperately, his hands straining at the chains. Blindly, he reached out for the Force but there was nothing. Only darkness, and the murmuring sound which was growing steadily louder.
Then the creature turned two glowing amber eyes on him and one of the tendrils of fog touching him lightly...
...and Obi-Wan forgot his training, forgot everything except the sudden and very urgent desire to get out of there, as fast as he could. For an instant he gave in to the panic, fighting desperately against the hands that held him...and then the creature's eyes caught his own and he froze. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't look away. All thought fled.
"Fear may lead to the Dark side," Qui-Gon was saying, "but it can sometimes be a good thing. It can keep you alive, warn you of danger, help you make choices... Provided you control it, not let it control you. Do you understand, Padawan?"
He had thought he understood, at the time. It had been easy then, in the safety of the Jedi temple, or in a transport ship on the way to some diplomatic mission with his Master, to learn about fear. Now though, when he stood, trapped alone with the darkness, it wasn't so simple.
With the memory of his Master, a small measure of control returned to Obi-Wan, enough that he could hear the calm, rational voice deep inside him that was speaking. "No," it was saying. "A Jedi does not panic - you will not panic. There is no one to help you, Padawan. If you panic, you will not be able to help you..."
Something was in his mind, he realized with horror. Something evil. It was sifting through his thoughts and memories, leaving a foul, dark wake behind it. He could sense it. With this realization came determination, fuelled by the desperate need to get it out. Now. With an effort Obi-Wan reached for the mental shields his Jedi masters had spent so much time teaching him, and flung them up around him like a wall.
Surprise. Irritation. And something else. Amusement? Alien emotions washed over him in a sickening wave and Obi-Wan clenched his teeth. He poured more energy into the shields, ignoring the sound of dark voices that was rising to a shriek. For what seemed like an eternity, the sound battered at him, at the barricades he had erected...
...and then it was gone. Silence fell. Obi-Wan found himself crashing to his knees, unable to stop the fall with his hands bound behind him. He swayed unsteadily for a heartbeat, welcoming the pain in his left leg as proof that he was still alive, still whole...that it was gone from his mind...and then he toppled over, to lay gasping and shaking on the stone floor, his heart pounding and a cold sheen of sweat coating his body.
Hands, touching him, one under each arm, picking him up. The Regaidians. And a voice. The woman's. For a moment Obi-Wan couldn't remember her name, then it came back to him. Auriga.
"Don't be so foolish, Jedi," she was saying. "Just tell it what it wants to know, and all this will be over. You will save yourself much pain..."
Obi-Wan shook his head as he hung limply in their grasp, as much to clear his mind as in refusal. His head...hurt, as if all the corners of his mind had been scorched, left smoking in the wake of the alien's touch. And there was something else. It was as if the creature had left a piece of itself behind when it invaded his mind, something dark and evil that had taken up lodging within him. It lay coiled inside him, ready to come to life at any moment. Somewhere, deep inside, he was screaming.
And then another voice was speaking to him, directly to his mind. It was old, older than the stars, echoing with past evils and wrapped in shadows. Where it touched his mind, Obi-Wan could feel bits of himself dying - memories of light, friendship, goodness - all fading and disappearing at the touch of the darkness. Despair shot through him like a lance.
Once more it was his Jedi training that saved him. Unthinkingly, Obi-Wan threw up yet another mental shield, weaving a barrier around himself so tight that nothing could penetrate. It was stronger than the strongest shield he had ever built and the effort left him weak and trembling. But he didn't stop. If he didn't banish the creature from his mind, there would be nothing left of him. Nothing at all.
It worked. Slowly the alien contact dissipated, like fog lifting. It was like stepping out of shadows back into sunlight. Relief washed over him, but Obi-Wan did not release his hold on the mental shields, despite the fact that they were already beginning to slip. The incredible amount of energy he was expending was draining him fast...too fast. "I can't keep this up much longer," he thought hazily, grey spots beginning to dance in front of his eyes.
A sound caught his attention, and he looked up wearily...and blinked. The creature...surely it had faded? There were fewer tentacles of mist and it seemed more transparent somehow - as if it wasn't entirely here anymore. A feeble whisper of hope went through him. Perhaps the effort had weakened it as much as the Jedi. If he could hold on just a little while longer...
The voice again, but not directed at him, thank the Force. Obi-Wan glanced left - it was talking to Auriga. He could hear an echo of it, through the thick shields he was holding around himself, but not the words. Not the words...
Auriga released him and moved forward. Obi-Wan found himself leaning heavily on Altos, unable to stand on his own, as she walked toward the creature. Something inside the Apprentice wanted to call out, to warn her. She didn't know what she was dealing with, neither of them did. They didn't realize the danger they were in - the danger everyone was in, as long as this abomination was present. With a flicker of surprise, Obi-Wan realized he knew things, things he hadn't known before the creature touched his mind. He knew that it was the alien that was preventing him from using the Force, that somehow it could dampen a Jedi's natural abilities. That must have been how they had captured him...the creature must have been somewhere nearby...waiting. But he still didn't know how. Some alien technology? Part of the creature's very makeup? Or just the presence of so much evil, in one place, being too much for him...? Too many questions...and not enough answers.
Auriga was talking to it. The creature had moved forward, the tendrils curling around her body . Obi-Wan shuddered, watching in tired horror. The Regaidian nodded once, said something he could not hear, then stepped back, away from it. And the creature vanished...
...just as Obi-Wan's mental shields collapsed. The pain he had been managing to keep at bay for the last few minutes returned without warning, and he bit his tongue to keep from crying out. Nevertheless, the overwhelming emotion flooding through him was relief. The creature was gone. He didn't know why, or for how long, but for now at least, it was gone. He closed his eyes and exhaled, a long, deep, shuddering breath.
Footsteps. Obi-Wan opened his eyes again, wincing at the pounding in his head. Auriga had crossed the stone floor to stand before him. She took a deep breath and met his eyes and, just for an instant, Obi-Wan thought he saw something in them... sorrow?...regret? And then it was gone. She straightened her shoulders, nothing but cold determination in her gaze. "Don't be too relieved, Jedi," she said harshly. "My allies have given me instructions, to get the information they need from you. I am prepared to do whatever it takes to get that information."
"Why?" Obi-Wan was vaguely surprised to find that his voice still worked. After everything he had gone through in the last...was it really only a few minutes?...he was surprised that anything still worked. He licked dried lips and continued. "How could you ally yourself to...that? What are you getting out of all this?"
"My planet back," she said fiercely. "Help, and support for..." Her voice trailed off, as if realizing she had already said too much. "No, Jedi," she said, after a pause. "I will not debate this with you. And you will not trick me into revealing too much."
Obi-Wan continued, as if he hadn't heard her. "That creature is evil. You can't trust it..."
"I don't have to trust it! It has already given me almost everything I need..." She glared at him, then at her aide. "Altos, put him there."
"There" was a pair of metal chains hanging from the wall, unpleasantly close to the more lethal looking instruments and devices in the room.
Altos shifted uncomfortably. "Are you sure about this, my Lady?" the Regaidian asked. "This isn't..."
"Yes, I'm sure," she snapped. "Or perhaps you would prefer to tell our allies you don't have the stomach for this." Altos swallowed and shook his head. "Then do as I say. Our allies need information about the Jedi, and I'm going to make sure they get it." She turned and spoke a few words into a communicator. The door behind them opened and three Regaidians entered, two taking up positions just inside the doorway, the third walking past them and removing one of the instruments from it. He turned back and stared impassively at Obi-Wan.
Torture. The unspoken word rung inside the Jedi's mind. "They're going to torture me." There should have been disbelief; instead there was only a kind of weary acceptance, and a weak sense of anger. He turned back to the woman, to make one more attempt to get through to her.
"Whatever they have promised you, they will not honour the bargain. You must realize that."
She didn't answer. Instead she gestured to the men by the door, who moved forward as one, reaching for the Jedi. The time for talking was obviously over, he realized grimly.
Obi-Wan was weak, injured, dizzy, and chained. He had a concussion, a leg that throbbed in agony, and no use of his hands. But he was still a Jedi. He would not give up without a fight - could not. Without warning he lashed out with his good foot, ignoring the pain as he asked his injured knee to bear his weight. And then he was in motion, not waiting to see the Regaidian fall. A quick shove and Altos was sprawled on his hands and knees - another kick and a roll that took almost all of his remaining strength, and only Auriga stood between him and the door...
...and then the first man he had attacked was flying at him, bringing them both down in a flurry of arms and legs. The second Regaidian joined him, landing a heavy blow on the back of Obi-Wan's head, behind his left ear...and the fight was over before it had ever really started. He barely felt the solid kick to his ribs before he was dragged up and half marched, half-carried to the dangling chains and the third man who still waited, unmoving. Sick and light-headed, Obi-Wan could only watch as his wrists were unbound and then just as quickly re-chained, high above his head. He made one last effort, trying to focus on the man climbing to his feet.
"Altos," he said thickly, "you can still stop this. Talk to her." It wasn't quite pleading, but it was as close to as Obi-Wan had ever come to it in his life. The fear going through him was beginning to outweigh the anger.
It was hard to tell, his vision fading in and out as it was, but Obi-Wan thought the Regaidian looked away for an instant, as if undecided. Then Altos dropped his head and he stared down at the floor. "I"m sorry." It came out as a whisper. Quickly he turned and left the room, guilt written in every line of his body. With him went the Apprentice's last hope.
Auriga did not watch her Aide leave. Instead, she stared at Obi-Wan for a long moment, as if memorizing him, then she too spun around abruptly and left. "I'm sorry too," the Jedi thought he heard her say as the door closed behind her with a hollow, permanent sound. But by then the man with the instruments had started, so perhaps he only imagined it...
It wasn't possible for one person to feel so much pain and still live. Obi-Wan was convinced of it. He had died sometime in the last few hours...or perhaps he only wished he had. He tried to think of his Master, to hear Qui-Gon's voice inside his head, but there was nothing. Nothing but the cold, aching loneliness. And the pain.
Obi-Wan had thought he knew what pain was. The time he had miscalculated when sparring with another trainee, and the low-energy blade had caught him against the cheek bone. Or the time the ship he was piloting on a training exercise had crashed, and he had ended up with several broken ribs. Or more recently, the fall from the rooftop...
He had been wrong. Everything he had felt before was only a trickle compared to the waterfall of agony coursing through him. Every nerve, every fibre was burning. He was only distantly aware of the world around him, his entire being caught up in his suffering...
Time had elapsed, how much he didn't know. He no longer hung from chains made slippery with his own blood. Now he was on his back, his hands loose by his sides, lying on some cold, hard surface. It was over, at least for now. Fleeting memories flashed through his mind, of what they had done to him, and he shuddered involuntarily, and groaned. But no sound came out. His throat was raw...from screaming, he realized. But somehow it didn't matter. If he tried hard enough he could distance himself from everything. Even the memories...
One thought warmed him. He hadn't broken. He had stood resolute against the darkness and had not betrayed the Jedi. He had not betrayed them...
Voices. A man and a woman. Arguing. Obi-Wan struggled to put names to them as they spoke.
"This can't go on," the man was saying. Altos. The man's name was Altos. "They'll kill him."
Auriga, her voice sounding uncertain for the first time. "He'll talk soon. He has to."
"He won't. He'll die first. You know that. We have to find another way."
"You forget that I'm in charge here, Altos!"
"No you're not. They are." A brief interval, then: "This was a mistake. The Jedi could have helped us, instead..."
"No one could help us. You know that!"
"All I know is that it was a mistake to go along with what they wanted, and a mistake to act on your own. If our government knew..."
"Well they don't know." A vicious hiss. "And they won't. And even if do they find out, they'll thank us."
"Perhaps you would prefer that we merely stood by and watched our planet die slowly. Would that ease your conscience, Altos?"
A long pause. "No. I don't think anything can do that now."
"He's just one man." Her voice was softer now. "Surely all those billions of people are worth just one man?"
There was no answer. The voices faded away...
This time when Obi-Wan woke, he woke all the way. The confusion in his mind was gone, although the pain...and the memories...remained. He opened his eyes. He was still in the room where they had...a tremor went through him, but he ignored it. He was lying on his back on the stone floor, the only sounds his own ragged breathing, and the chains clanking softly above him in the cool draught. He was alone. Relief poured through him. He was alone.
And then the memories came crashing over him, of what they had done to him, of what he endured. Obi-Wan's first impulse was to roll himself up into a ball on the cold floor and cry, but even that much movement was beyond him. As for tears - they wouldn't come. Distantly he wondered why. It took several minutes before the answer came to his clouded mind. He was angry. White-hot fury, the like of which he had never experienced before, never even imagined, blazed through him like an inferno. Tears stood no chance in the heat of that anger.
"Good," he thought grimly. "Anger is a weapon. And I will use it." A faint alarm bell tolled somewhere deep inside him, but he ignored it, focusing instead on the fury, feeding it so that it burned even hotter within him.
It was the anger which gave him the strength to roll over, to ignore the hurts, and to lever himself to a sitting position. Then he paused, gasping for air, lungs heaving. Leaning heavily on one arm, head bowed, he looked down... and allowed himself to remember...
They had been skilled at what they did. They had been able to inflict vast amounts of pain on him, but not so much that he would lose consciousness and find refuge in the darkness. No, they had kept him awake and aware, all the while finding new ways to hurt him. Even when the Apprentice had thought there was nothing more they could do, they had found it, done it. And always the questions: "What are a Jedi's powers?" "How many Jedi are there?" "What training is involved?" "How many years?" And so on.
He had told them nothing. Not a single word. Until finally, when he could no longer even scream, they had stopped. Obi-Wan shivered again, looking at the places where they had burned his abdomen and chest with his own lightsabre, and winced. For an instant his vision darkened, and he swayed.
No. He looked away, holding onto the anger instead. They had done no permanent damage, caused no injuries that would not heal fully, given time. There were no excuses, no reason to sit here feeling sorry for himself. And the anger demanded an outlet. He was shaking with the need to vent his fury on someone...anyone...
As if in answer to the thought, the door swung open. Obi-Wan looked up, shaking his head in impatience at the effort it took to focus his eyes, and coiled his muscles. Whoever...whatever...it was, they would regret what they had done to him, he vowed silently to himself.
It was Altos. The Regaidian moved quietly, closing the door behind him. He hesitated, took a step toward the Jedi, then stopped. But Obi-Wan was already in motion, launching himself at the man in a silent, ferocious assault. Somehow all of his pain had vanished, burned away by the rage. Obi-Wan no longer knew or cared about his knee, his concussion, what the torturers had done to him... No, his entire universe had narrowed down to inflicting the same pain on someone else.
Altos went down under a vicious backhand, without a sound, without even a token defence. Obi-Wan could read the startlement in the Regaidian's face, and smell the fear rising within him. And then his hands were around Altos' throat, and he could feel only the bloodlust coursing inside him like a river. The man was pulling desperately at the Apprentice's hands, straining for air, but to no avail. An eternity passed. Obi-Wan squeezed, enjoying the dark feelings of pleasure that welled up within him as the Regaidian went limp...
...and stopped. For a long moment, he was motionless, his hands still wrapped tightly around the man's throat, the desire to finish it singing in his ears... And a single memory assailed him.
It was the day Qui-Gon had chosen him as his Apprentice. He didn't remember the danger they had just gone through, or what the Jedi Knight had said. Instead he remembered what he had felt at the time. Happiness. Pure joy. Acceptance. Being part of a family. Knowing he was worthy.
Worthy. Would his Master find him worthy now? Obi-Wan looked...really looked down at Altos. And saw himself. Slowly squeezing the life out of another person, not in self-defence, not to protect another, but in anger. In rage and fury, and out of a desire for revenge. Ahead, the dark side beckoned like an abyss. He had already taken the first step...one more and he would never find his way back. Already the light seemed to be dimming around him. And, for just an instant, Obi-Wan saw his life unfolding before him, saw what would happen if he chose to walk this dark path...
...And he chose the light. With a ragged cry he flung himself backward off the Regaidian, collapsing onto the floor and curling up into a ball. The anger within him gave one last stubborn flicker then faded and died, leaving behind only sorrow and regret. And guilt. So much guilt...
He was crying now, he realized distantly, his vision fogged by tears trickling down his cheeks. The pain had returned too, now that the anger was no longer keeping it at bay but he didn't care. It didn't seem important anymore, compared to what he had just done...
...what he had just done. Altos! With a moan, Obi-Wan unfolded himself and crawled shakily over to the Regaidian. Had he killed him? Fear shot through the Apprentice. If he had killed him...
But no. Altos coughed suddenly, one hand scrabbling weakly at his bruised throat, gasping for air. Relief replaced the fear in Obi-Wan and he sat down heavily, next to the Regaidian. He reached out an unsteady hand toward him, stopping at the panic in Altos' eyes. The guilt increased. "I have to put this right," the Jedi thought desperately. "Somehow."
Obi-Wan swallowed. "I won't hurt you." It came out as a rough whisper, choked with emotion. "I'm sorry." Under the words was an unspoken plea for forgiveness.
Slowly, cautiously, Altos sat up, rubbing his throat and edging away from the Jedi. For a long moment there was silence as the two looked at each other, then finally the Regaidian asked hoarsely: "Why didn't you kill me?"
Obi-Wan looked away, scrubbing away his tears with the back of one hand. "I didn't kill you...because I remembered what I am." A pause. "I'm a Jedi." There was no conviction in his voice. He didn't feel like a Jedi, had never felt less of one...would probably never be one once the others found out what he had done... A deep blanket seemed to be settling over his mind, numbness radiating outward from his core. It muted the pain and guilt, just a little, and he welcomed it. Welcomed the deadness...
Altos was still holding his throat. "I would have killed me, if I had been in your place."
Obi-Wan stared mutely at him. There was no reply to that. "Why are you here?" he asked instead, not particularly caring what the answer would be. They could torture him to death for all he cared - it would probably be a release...
"I...came to help you."
Obi-Wan blinked. "Help me?" He didn't understand.
"Escape." Altos paused, as if looking for approval. The Jedi just stared at him. Altos continued. "I can help you get to a ship, get away from here..."
Some deep part of Obi-Wan was still functioning, still thinking. "It's a trap," it said instantly. "Don't trust him."
"Why not?" the rest of him argued tiredly. "So what if it is a trap? Just do...something."
"All right," he said out loud.
It was Altos' turn to blink, as if he hadn't expected such easy acquiescence. "Okay. Um...now?"
In answer, Obi-Wan struggled to his feet, swaying a little. Giving him an odd look, the Regaidian also climbed to his feet, reaching out to steady him. "I'm surprised he will even touch me," though Obi-Wan distantly, "after what I did."
"What now?" the Apprentice asked, trying very hard to care.
"Come on." Altos pulled gently at Obi-Wan's arm. "The hallways will be empty for a while. I made sure of that. But we don't have much time..."
Obi-Wan let himself be steered toward the door. The functioning part of him was supplying a running commentary. "He could be doing this just to get my hopes up, to break me that way...make me talk..." But somehow it didn't matter. In one instant his entire life had changed and nothing would be the same. Nothing they had done to him, nothing they could do to him would ever equal what he had done to himself. He had given into the dark side, if only for a minute, had tasted its dark power... He knew now how easily he could draw on the dark side, how close at hand it lay... What was he supposed to do now? How was he supposed to go on, knowing what he knew?
Something Qui-Gon had once said hovered at the edge of his mind, but he ignored it. He didn't want comforting words; not even the memory of them. He simply wanted...
He didn't know. With a sigh, he let the thought drift from his mind, welcoming the emptiness that replaced it. He barely noticed when they left the cell.
Obi-Wan limped down the corridor with Altos, one hand on the Regaidian's shoulder, the other clutching his ribs. He suspected some were cracked, if not broken - the result of one of the kicks he had taken earlier. He ignored the discomfort though, just as he was ignoring the other hurts in his body...and in his mind. The state of numbness he had fallen into was more than welcome and it was only a threadbare sense of duty that kept him moving. He still had to warn the Jedi...somehow... And if that meant trusting one of the people who had put him in this position...then so be it.
Nevertheless, try as he might, the Apprentice couldn't quite keep the memories from replaying themselves in his mind. Not the memories of what had been done to him -- those were...well, not easy to deal with, but he could cope with them better than the thought of what he had done...and almost done...
He had given into the Dark Side. Shame and anguish welled up within him, banishing the deadness. It hurt to remember, and he stumbled as the recollection threatened to overwhelm him.
Altos steadied him, one hand going to his elbow. "Are you all right?" His voice helped to pull the Jedi out of the dark quagmire he was falling into.
Obi-Wan met the man's eyes. "No," he said truthfully. "But that doesn't matter. Where is this ship?" Inwardly he braced himself, half expecting the betrayal to come now.
It didn't. Altos replied immediately. "The other side of the facility. We should make it before anyone notices you're gone...but...can you hurry just a little?" The request was diffident and more than a little fearful, as if the Regaidian expected Obi-Wan to launch himself at his throat again, just for suggesting it. Obi-Wan flinched, then nodded briefly, quickening his pace, as much as he could, leaning heavily on the Regaidian's shoulder.
As they walked, Obi-Wan fought to regain the sense of nothingness that had blanketed him earlier. If he didn't think, didn't remember, didn't care, everything would be...not all right -- nothing would ever be all right again -- but he could function, do what was necessary. If he could just hold everything at bay... "They can't hurt me if I don't care..."
It wasn't working. The feelings were beginning to crash over him in waves as his mind slowly awoke from its trauma. And unless he did something soon, he would drown.
"What is this place?" Obi-Wan asked quickly, desperately. If he could just concentrate on other things, on the here and now, as his Master liked to say, he would be able to ignore what had happened. "And where are the...guards?" He added.
Altos answered the second question first. "I have a little authority of my own," he said, a faint hint of pride shimmering in his voice. "I sent them...elsewhere."
Too easy an explanation, Obi-Wan thought. How? Where? This only makes sense if it's a trap... He didn't ask any of these questions though. If it was a trap, Altos would not answer and if it wasn't...the Jedi could not afford to alienate what might be his only ally. Instead, he nodded. "And this place...?"
"It used to be a food processing plant, but it hasn't been used for years. Most people have forgotten it still exists...which is why they chose it."
They being the creatures...and Auriga. "How does she fit into this?" Obi-Wan wondered aloud.
Altos knew who he was referring to. He hesitated, as if trying to frame his reply diplomatically, then sighed and spoke plainly instead. "She's not really evil, you know, although I'm sure you won't believe that. She's...she's trying to save Regaid..."
"By kidnapping and torturing me?" Obi-Wan's voice was harsh, and Altos started, as if he had been struck. The Regaidian looked away as they continued their march down the corridor.
"That's the aliens' doing, not hers. She didn't plan any of this..."
"But she went along with it..." The anger was rising within him again, uncoiling itself like a serpent that had invaded his soul. Obi-Wan shuddered and fought it back down. The effort left him exhausted mentally, but he ignored the tiredness. He couldn't afford to give into the anger again. Ever. Silently he resumed his mantra: "Don't think, don't remember, don't care..."
"Our people are dying..." Altos was saying.
Obi-Wan shot him a sharp look. "They looked healthy enough to me."
Altos shook his head. "Nevertheless, we are dying. All of us. One by one. Slowly...but still dying."
Obi-Wan waited, saying nothing. After a moment or two, Altos resumed his tale. "It started two years ago. A new disease, one our doctors did not recognize, had never heard of, began striking down the old, the weak...the children." Altos' voice shook on the last word, and Obi-Wan wondered distantly just what...or who...the Regaidian had lost.
"Go on," he said, more gently this time.
Altos visibly pulled himself together. When he spoke again his voice was flat and emotionless. "The doctors could do nothing, although they tried. And then the disease began to affect the rest of the population. And it was obvious that unless something was done quickly, every Regaidian on the planet would die."
"Why didn't you ask the Senate for help? And what about quarantine? If this disease spreads to other worlds..."
"It won't. It only affects us, we've found. It's very specific..."
Too specific, Obi-Wan thought. A faint suspicion glimmered within him, but he put it aside for the moment. He needed more information... With an effort he focused his attention back on the conversation.
"Our government decided not to tell the Senate about the plague." Obi-Wan must have looked disapproving, because Altos spoke hurriedly, trying to defend his rulers' actions. "Regaid is a poor planet and we're far from the main trade routes. We have very few natural resources. None of the big trading corporations will have anything to do with us. What trade there is relies on independent freighters and haulers being willing to make the extra effort to come here. An effort they wouldn't make if they knew there was a plague..."
Short-sighted, selfish, blind fools! Obi-Wan shook his head. This could have been a disaster...still could. An unknown disease sweeping through the galaxy... And there was no guarantee it affected only Regaidians, despite what Altos had said. It could have a delayed effect on the other races, could affect them in a thousand different ways... Suddenly the need to warn the Jedi and the Senate went from urgent to dire...
"Didn't your government think the traders would notice people dying in the streets?"
Altos shook his head. "It...never reached that point..."
A third voice answered. "Because I made a deal that saved our people, Jedi." Ahead, a figure stepped out from behind a dark corner, the muted light reflecting on the jewels on her gown. Auriga.
"My lady..." Altos' voice sounded strangled.
Auriga cut him off. "Did you think I wouldn't know what you were doing? Who do you think really sent the guards away?" A pause. No answer. She glanced at Obi-Wan. "And you - did you truly think you could escape, despite what my Aide may have told you?"
Obi-Wan shook his head, wearily. "No, not really. But I had to try."
Auriga nodded slowly. "Yes. You Jedi never give up, do you...?" She gave him a measuring look then continued. "Then you understand why I can't give up either." She took a pace closer, her gaze going back to Altos.
"My lady..." the Regaidian said miserably. "I'm sorry..."
Gently she placed an hand on his shoulder. "It's all right, Altos." Her voice was kinder than Obi-Wan had ever heard it. "I understand. You still have a conscience. That's not a bad thing. Our world needs people like you."
"But does it need people like you?" Obi-Wan interjected. He had eased his weight from the Regaidian, shifting until he was leaning against the nearby wall. Some part of his mind was still working perfectly - he had already formulated and rejected half a dozen plans, most of them involving some kind of violent reaction. But violence wouldn't help him...had done nothing but hurt him, in fact. Maybe it was time he started using his mind, rather than his body. And listening. It was time he listened.
"Does your world need people like you?" he repeated. There was no hint of accusation in his words, only an honest desire to know...
"Unfortunately, yes." Auriga sighed and looked at him, taking in the bruises, the burns on his chest and stomach, at the awkward, tight way he held himself, as if a single motion would tear him apart...and she looked away. For a moment she closed her eyes, then opened them again, meeting the Apprentice's gaze. Sorrow and regret had replaced the single-minded determination he had seen earlier.
"I won't insult you by apologizing for that..." she nodded towards his injuries, "but...I want you to know it wasn't my idea. If I had had a choice..."
"We all have choices, Auriga." Obi-Wan spoke softly. "It's what we do with them that matters." He could almost hear Qui-Gon's voice echoing the words and somewhere deep inside, he could have smiled. All those lessons, all those lectures -- he must have been listening after all...
"Yes," Auriga was saying. "I made my choices, and I'm prepared to live with them."
Obi-Wan nodded slowly. "All right," he said. "Then why are we still standing here talking? Why haven't you called the guards, taken me back to the cell...?"
"Because...because I told my allies that you would never tell them what they want to know. Unless..."
"Unless...?" he prodded when she stopped.
"Unless you understood the need for it!" She snapped. "I know you Jedi. You will help anyone...even someone you hate, even someone who has hurt you. So I'm going to tell you what's at stake -- and..." it sounded as if she was choking "...and ask for your help."
In another time and place, in another lifetime, Obi-Wan might have laughed. As it was, he just stared at her, speechless. She stared back, her expression one of challenge.
"All right," he said. "Tell me."
Auriga moved around to stand next to her Aide, the two of them unconsciously presenting a united front. She looked up, gazing into the shadows above them, and began:
"Altos has already told you about the disease?" Obi-Wan nodded wordlessly, and she continued. "And you know the decision our government made, to hide this plague for as long as possible, until a cure could be found. But no cure was found. And it was becoming harder and harder to hide. We were desperate. We didn't know what to do, who to turn to..."
"And your 'allies' arrived." It wasn't a question.
"Yes. They approached me secretly, offered me what turned out to be a cure, or at least something that will keep the disease from progressing...and all they asked for in return was information."
"What kind of information?" The suspicion in Obi-Wan's mind was rapidly taking form. A quiver went through him. He didn't like where this conversation was heading. If what he suspected was true...things were much, much worse than he had imagined.
"Everything. Anything," Auriga was saying. "Information about our culture, our planet. Planets we trade with, the Republic, our friends, our enemies. Everything."
"And you told them." Once again, it was not a question.
Auriga clenched her teeth. "Yes, I told them. I would have told them anything they asked, done anything. Because this is my home, my people". She paused. "You would have done the same." Nevertheless, a faint note of doubt could be heard in her voice.
"She has misgivings," Obi-Wan thought, leaning against the stone wall, barely noticing as its coldness bit into the numerous welts on his back. "She is afraid...she could be persuaded to change her mind." He wasn't sure if the last was wishful thinking, or an accurate reading on his part. Once more he wished futilely for the powers of the Force. But it was no use wishing for what he did not have...
"Why didn't these creatures approach your government?" he asked instead. "And why did you act alone?"
"I...because they told me to. They didn't want people to know about them." Auriga stopped and silence hung heavily between them for a long moment. Beside her, Altos shifted nervously, as if he wanted to add something, but didn't dare interrupt. Then the woman went on. "I've done nothing wrong. They just want information. They mean no harm!"
This time Obi-Wan did laugh, a short sharp bark. "No harm? What do you call this?" He raised one arm slightly, inviting them to look at his injuries.
She bit her lip. "If you had only told them what they wanted to know, they would not have hurt you..."
"Wrong, Auriga. Listen to me, and think about what I'm saying. That's all I ask." He did not pause but continued, trying to inject his voice with all the powers of persuasion at his command. "If you were part of an invasion force," he raised a hand at the quick movement of denial she made, and went on, "you would first send out scouts, to find out everything about the place you were invading. About the land, the people, their strengths and their weaknesses. And you would make allies. You would find someone, perhaps several someones, who were willing to deal with you. They could have different reasons, noble reasons even, but those reasons wouldn't matter. All that would matter is getting the information you need and sending it back to the rest of your force."
He glanced at them for their reaction. Altos' skin was ashen, a muscle in his cheek twitching. Auriga - he couldn't read her response. Obi-Wan continued.
"And when you had all the data you could get from your allies, you would turn to the strongest force in the land, because they would be the biggest danger to you. You might try to sway them to your side, make them an ally too - then you would be unstoppable. But if they could not, or would not be turned, they would have to be destroyed. And how would you do that?"
"You would learn about them." It was Altos, pain written in his face, his voice no more than a whisper. "You would probably capture one, and...extract information from him. Torture him." A tear rolled down the Regaidian's face as he turned to Auriga. "Did you know about this, my lady? Did you know...what they intended?"
The woman turned to him, outrage evident in every line of her body. "How can you say that?" she hissed. "It's not true. He's making it all up because he wants to escape. He would say anything... They are not evil, not part of some so-called 'invasion force'. They saved our people! We'd all be dead by now without them..."
Obi-Wan took two quick paces across the corridor to her, all thoughts of his injuries gone. He seized her by the arm and shook it slightly, as if to punctuate his words. "You're lying to yourself, Auriga! You must have known all along, must have at least suspected. Especially when they ordered you to lure a Jedi here... You must have been overjoyed when the Council sent an Apprentice, rather than a Knight or Master. So much easier to get information out of a Padawan..."
"No..." she shook her head, denial written on her face.
He didn't let her finish. "Lie to me, if you must," he said, his voice vibrating with emotion, "and lie to Altos. But don't lie to yourself!"
The world seemed to spin to a halt as the woman stared up at him, brown eyes gazing into green. For a moment he thought he had reached her, had convinced her of the truth...then she was twisting away out of his reach, a weapon suddenly appearing in one hand.
It was pointed unwaveringly at his chest.
Auriga drew a ragged breath. "I've told you our story, Jedi," she said, the doubt vanishing from her as if it had never existed. It was replaced by the stony determination he had seen earlier. "And now I ask you this. One time only. My allies want information from you. If they do not get it, they will not continue to supply my people with the medicine that is keeping them alive. Billions of people will die if you do not break your silence. So - do you die here and now, or will you tell them what they want to know?" Her finger tightened on the trigger.
He didn't have to think about it. There was only one answer.
"No," he said. "I will not."
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Obi-Wan could see Auriga's finger tightening on the trigger, the barrel of the weapon aimed unerringly at his chest; could see the deadly intent in her eyes, and knew there was no time to save himself. There was nothing he could do to avert what was about to happen. Nevertheless, he tried. She had been right...a Jedi doesn't give up. Ever. He was coiling damaged muscles, preparing to fling himself at the woman in the hopes of somehow knocking the weapon aside...
...when another form launched itself at Auriga, reaching out for the gun. The figures seemed to blur together in the shadows, becoming one. Voices, and motion. And then there was a burst of light and sound, bright and sharp, burning an image onto Obi-Wan's retinas. A cry...and the sound of something falling...
...and time resumed its normal pace. Obi-Wan was standing beside the stone wall, blinking the spots from his eyes. Auriga, unmoved, the weapon still in her hand. And, at her feet...
Obi-Wan drew in a sharp breath. At the sound, Auriga looked up, meeting his eyes. Her own were wide and frightened, her face pale. Then, almost reluctantly, she looked down...and with a low moan sank to her knees beside her Aide, the weapon slipping unnoticed from limp fingers.
Obi-Wan walked stiff-legged toward them, reaching out with senses he no longer had, for some sign of life. There were none. The man on the floor did not move; his chest was still. Ignoring Auriga, Obi-Wan painfully lowered himself to his knees, his left leg complaining at the motion. He reached out for the man's throat, noticing the faint bruises on Altos' neck -- bruises that matched the fingers that were now searching for a pulse. Fingers that were shaking...
"Is he...?" Auriga's voice was unsteady, brimming with unshed tears.
Obi-Wan sat back tiredly, unable to look away from the marks on Altos' chest and the glassy eyes staring up at the ceiling. "He's dead." He should be feeling something, Obi-Wan thought. Some emotion -- remorse, sorrow, gratitude... Another man had given his life for him. He should feel something...
There was nothing. It was as if everything within him had burned away with Altos' sacrifice. Fear. Anger. Hope. Sorrow. All gone. There was nothing left. Obi-Wan looked back at Auriga, wondering vaguely if she would kill him now. It wouldn't matter if she did, he thought emotionlessly. Nothing mattered.
He had been through too much, he recognized distantly. Too much had happened. He had done too much, seen too much...too much had been done to him. At some point, even the most resilient mind will shut down. It was understandable. No one would blame him for giving up.
Qui-Gon was talking again. Somewhere deep inside, a flash of despair went through Obi-Wan. "Damn all these lectures," he thought listlessly. "I've had enough. I won't listen." He shut his eyes. The voice was insistent though, the memory beating against his mind until he was forced to hear it.
"There will come a time when you will want to surrender," Qui-Gon had said, in response to a question from the youthful Padawan. "Someday you will be called upon to do something you cannot do, overcome some obstacle you cannot overcome."
"But if I cannot overcome it," Obi-Wan had replied, "surely there is no shame in surrendering?"
Qui-Gon had smiled, but the smile had not touched his eyes. "No. There is no shame in surrendering. Others will not condemn you for it. But you will have to decide, in your own heart, if you can live with that surrender."
"I don't understand, Master."
Qui-Gon had looked away, his eyes distant, as if remembering a time when he had faced the same decision. "When the time comes, you will have to decide for yourself if it would be better to die standing against the darkness than to surrender and live with defeat."
"But...how will I know which to choose?" Obi-Wan's voice had been clouded with confusion.
Qui-Gon had laughed then, and touched the Apprentice's shoulder, lightening the mood. "I cannot tell you how to decide. You must do that yourself. But I can tell you this. I know you will make the right decision..."
"How do you know?"
"I know you, Padawan..."
Qui-Gon's voice faded away, leaving Obi-Wan feeling wearily resentful. Damn his training and damn his own memories. It would be so easy to give up, to let the darkness carry him away. But he couldn't. And Qui-Gon had known it. He had known Obi-Wan wouldn't be able to surrender. His Master had been right. Sometimes it was better to die standing...
With a bone-shuddering sigh, Obi-Wan opened his eyes. Only a few moments had passed. Auriga had not moved, her head bent over Altos' body, one hand touching the burnt chest. Obi-Wan glanced down at the gun lying on the floor beside her. Not even trying to be silent, he leaned over the corpse and picked it up. She did not look up...did not move. Obi-Wan took a cursory glance at the weapon, figuring out its controls, then tucked it into the waistband of his trousers. He looked back at Auriga.
"Where is my lightsabre?" His voice was empty and tired.
She did not respond. Obi-Wan touched her shoulder. "My lightsabre," he said, more insistently, shaking her lightly.
At the motion, the Regaidian looked up. There were no tears in her eyes - it might have been better if there were. Instead, she looked...lost. The arrogance and certainty were gone from her, leaving only a confused kind of sorrow. "She really cared for him," Obi-Wan thought. Incongruously, a faint spark of sympathy for her went through him. "I need my weapon," he said a third time, speaking slowly and clearly.
She hesitated then reached blindly into an inside pocket on her gown and pulled out his lightsabre. She stared down at it for a long moment, as if wondering what it was. Then, still moving automatically, she held it out to him.
Obi-Wan's fingers brushed hers as he took the weapon, and she flinched, then looked back at the body. "What have I done?" she said brokenly. "I...I never intended..."
The Jedi shook his head. "It doesn't matter," he said, fighting down the surge of relief that went through him to have his lightsabre back in his hands. "It's too late. And there's no time. We have to get out of here."
Auriga did not move, except to run a trembling finger along Altos' cheek. "No. Go if you must. I won't stop you. But leave me here. With him..."
Obi-Wan was climbing painfully back to his feet. He swayed for a moment before regaining his balance, then bent down and seized her by the arm. "Sorry, Auriga," he said, "but you have to come with me." He pulled at her.
"Why?" She didn't sound as if she particularly cared. Wonderful. Both of them in the same mental state. They wouldn't stand a chance against whatever guards might happen by... On the other hand, Obi-Wan thought, taking all his weight on his right leg and hauling her to her feet by an act of sheer will -- at least she's not fighting me. Given his current physical condition he wouldn't be able to cope with anything stronger than passive resistance.
Auriga looked as if she wanted to sink back down to the floor. The Jedi knew he wouldn't be able to hold her up if she did. Clenching his teeth, he tightened his grip on both of her arms and said insistently: "Listen to me! You know how to get out of here, and you know how to avoid the guards. You're going to help me escape." It wasn't a question.
Auriga did not meet his eyes. "I'll tell you whatever you want to know," she said dully, "just leave me here. I have to...make sure Altos...is looked after properly. I can't leave him...alone."
"He's dead," Obi-Wan said ruthlessly. "He won't care if he's left alone. And you have to come with me. You have information the Jedi Council needs."
"Yes!" Enough. The time for talking was over. Obi-Wan was uncomfortably aware of how much time had passed since he and Altos had left the cell. Whatever Auriga had done to send the guards away, he couldn't rely on it for much longer. They had to go. Now.
Shifting his grip so his left hand was clamped tightly around the woman's wrist, he set off down the corridor, dragging her behind him.
It was difficult. His left knee had not improved...the injury had worsened, if anything. The effects of the concussion...well, he could ignore that, if he tried hard enough, but the results of the torture... That he couldn't ignore. Part of him wanted to sink to the floor and curl up around his injuries, and wait for the pain to go away. He did not acknowledge it though. Instead he continued down the hallway, his focus narrowing to a single goal. Escape.
Despite the Apprentice's determination, he could not have done it if Auriga had put up more than a token fight. Fortunately, after a brief struggle, she settled down, trailing wordlessly after him, her wrist still imprisoned in his left hand. In his right he carried his lightsabre.
They reached a crossroad, where the corridor split in two directions. "Which way?" Obi-Wan whispered urgently, looking both ways. The stone hallways were deserted.
"Which way? Altos spoke about a ship..."
Auriga flinched at the mention of her Aide's name, then hesitantly pointed left. "The hangar is that way..."
Obi-Wan paused, wondering briefly if he could trust her. She stared back, uncaring, her whole being focused inward. Then he sighed and set off down the left-hand corridor, pulling her after him. Like so many other times since he had come to Regaid, he had no choice, not really. He could trust her or not. And Obi-Wan had the unpleasant feeling that it wouldn't make a difference which he chose.
They met no one and saw nothing but empty corridors, for what seemed like a lifetime. Finally though, they reached a large hangar, empty save for a single ship, facing toward the open portal. It was night again, Obi-Wan realized with a shock, looking out at the stars twinkling in the cloudless sky. He had lost all sense of time since he had been brought here. Was it really only a single day since he had been captured, or had more time passed than he was aware of? He sighed and put the thought from his mind. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered except escaping... He took a closer look at the ship -- a Regaidian T-11 freighter -- and smiled grimly. He could fly it.
The sight of the ship seemed to draw Auriga from her detachment. She looked down at her wrist and began to pry futilely at his fingers. "Let me go," she hissed, more life in her words now. "This won't work. You can't escape. They'll stop you. You don't know them!" Fear was beginning to colour her voice.
Obi-Wan was actually a little surprised that it had taken this long for her sense of self-preservation to overcome her grief. She might have truly cared for Altos, he thought, but the real Auriga - the survivor, the zealot - was beginning to return. Damn. Well, all he had to do was get her into the ship, take off, and set a course to Coruscant... He calculated his remaining strength. He could do it...he hoped. "Come on," he said curtly, setting off across the hangar floor, limping heavily, the unwilling Auriga in tow.
They were halfway there, Obi-Wan just starting to allow himself to believe they might make it, when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw motion. He turned. Darkness was coalescing in the corner, weaving itself out of shadows and nightmares, into a form that was...and was not...there. A chill shot through him. Beside the Jedi, Auriga came to a sudden halt, her abrupt movement throwing him off balance. Taking advantage of this, she wrenched her hand out of his grasp and took several quick steps towards the creature, falling on her knees before it.
"I had nothing to do with this," she was saying hurriedly, desperately. "It was... I would not betray you. You must believe me... Please."
The creature ignored her. It moved past the kneeling woman then stopped, a dozen or so paces from the Apprentice. Tendrils writhing, it began to...sing. That was the only word Obi-Wan could think of to describe what it was doing. But it was a song of shadows, of evil so old he couldn't even begin to imagine its beginning...or end. The sound went through him like shards of ice, leaving him chilled and shuddering. And then something made him turn his head...to see another alien emerging from the darkness. And, there on his left...a third. Fear, greater than anything he had ever experienced, leapt through him.
"I'm going to die." There was no doubt in his mind, only grim certainty. "I'm going to die here, alone." Somewhere deep inside, the scream that had never quite left him, returned.
And for one last time, he could hear Qui-Gon's voice: "Sometimes it is better to stand against the darkness than to surrender and live."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, took a deep breath...and opened them again. The fear was gone. In its place was only calm acceptance. He would die standing.
He was smiling as he assumed a battle stance and activated his lightsabre.
The three creatures closed around Obi-Wan, ignoring the still-kneeling Auriga. They formed a circle around the Apprentice, like Belarian wolves gathering before a kill. For a moment Obi-Wan knew how the wolves' prey felt, knew the hopelessness of one who was trapped -- and then he was swinging his lightsabre before him in an unspoken challenge. He would not make it easy for them...
Abruptly, the aliens moved as one, multiple tendrils lashing out at the Jedi, no longer strands of dark mist now, but solid, knife-edged whips, lashing out at him. "Good," thought Obi-Wan, dodging the first of them. "If they're solid, I can fight them." He countered one of the tendrils with his lightsabre and the shock of it went through his entire body, his wrist immediately going numb. "All right...not so good." Then there was no more time for thinking. He spun out of the way of one black flail, ducking another, then bit back a cry as a third struck him across the chest, adding a bloody weal to the burn marks already there. Obi-Wan found himself flying backward, sliding across the floor, his chest an inferno of pain. Darkness crowded at the edges of his vision, but he pushed it resolutely aside and climbed back to his feet.
He wasn't going to last long, he realized, blinking away the sweat running into his eyes. The adrenaline he had been relying on to keep him on his feet was fading quickly. And he couldn't dodge them forever. The aliens were lightning fast, the tendrils blurring in the shadows as they moved. And there were three of them.
"Think, Obi-Wan," he told himself desperately, lunging to the side to avoid another hit, hoping his damaged left knee would take his weight. It did, but just barely. And then he was rolling and thrusting with his blade again. This time the lightsabre went straight through the tendril, which instantly reformed and struck back at him. It missed, hitting the stone floor instead, leaving a deep gouge. Obi-Wan launched himself into a mid-air somersault -- much more difficult without the power of the Force behind him -- and spun as he landed, cutting through two more strands. Or rather, he should have cut through two more strands. Once again, the creature turned to mist, allowing the blade to pass right through it.
It was like trying to fight a phantom. He could not touch them yet they were tearing him apart, one piece at a time. Obi-Wan staggered as another blow took him across the upper arm. The smell of blood filled his nostrils and he staggered, falling to his knees. The movement saved him, as three strands of darkness whistled through the air, just above his head. Gasping with exhaustion, he heaved himself once more to his feet. Another blow, this time on his left thigh, tearing his skin open and lacerating muscles... Reeling, the Jedi struggled to lift his lightsabre with both hands, even though the weapon was next to useless.
They were playing with him. They could have destroyed him right from the first, Obi-Wan realized dimly, but they wanted him to die slowly...to suffer. A flash of awareness went through him. They hated him.
Fear leads to hate. Obi-Wan had been told that so many times during his training, it had almost become a part of him. Fear leads to hate. But...did these creatures fear him? He was fighting with only part of his mind now, the rest trying to work through the puzzle.
They didn't fear him specifically, he thought, dodging another strand with almost the last of his strength. They feared the Jedi. And what they could do. The Jedi were a threat to these creatures. But how?
The Force. It was the one thing that made a Jedi different from every other lifeform in the galaxy. The ability to harness and use the Force... Despair shot through him. He couldn't use the Force, hadn't been able to since he had been shot with the alien weapon...
The weapon. Obi-Wan suddenly remembered - he had taken it from Auriga in the corridor... Hastily he reached behind him with his left hand, wincing as the torn muscles on his upper arm shrieked. It was still there. Drawing it from his waistband in one smooth motion, he thumbed the controls and fired it at the nearest creature.
It screamed, the sound echoing through Obi-Wan's mind and driving him back down to his knees. Vainly he tried to erect his mental shields against it, but they were long since gone. He no longer had the strength or the focus to shield himself against the creatures. "Fine," he thought grimly, turning the weapon on the other two aliens, "scream all you like. I don't care. Just die."
The three aliens writhed in the beam from the weapon, their cries rising in the Apprentice's mind until he could hear nothing else...but they did not die. And then the weapon overheated and Obi-Wan dropped it from scorched fingers. He looked up, shaking his head slightly to clear his vision...
The creatures were more insubstantial now, more like the shadows they resembled than corporeal things. They had retreated a little, toward the other side of the hanger. Even as he watched though, they slowly began to reform, the dark tendrils once more becoming barbed whips that would cut and burn through him. He had bought himself a little time, that was all. Perhaps seconds only...
"Think!," he told himself again, his chest heaving. The answer was close...he could almost taste it. If he only had a little more time... A movement in the corner caught his attention and he glanced over quickly. Auriga was braced against the far wall, trying to stay out of the way of both him and the creatures.
Auriga. There was something important. Something he should remember... Obi-Wan let the memories come, even as he returned his gaze to the three creatures, almost completely solid now.
Auriga. And her Aide Altos, always by her side. Altos, dead on the floor...Altos freeing him from the cell...Altos lying helpless beneath him as the Jedi's hands tightened around his throat...
...and Obi-Wan remembered. Remembered the dark power flowing through him as he gave in to the dark side of the Force. Remembered the way it had erased all his pain and given him strength...stamina...boundless energy. The dark side...
He was wrong. He had been able to touch the Force at least once since he had been brought to this place. In the room where they had tortured him and he had yielded to all that was twisted and evil within himself -- he had stretched out and grasped the dark side, bending it to his will. There at least, the Force had not been beyond his reach.
The despair within him grew. Was that his only hope of escape then? To give in to the darkness and use it against these creatures? Obi-Wan shook his head. Then it was no hope at all. He would not surrender to the dark side, even to save his life...
...And yet...perhaps that was the answer after all. Obi-Wan's breath caught in his throat. The aliens had completely reformed, their tendrils whipping around them like serpents. They were on the move, coming toward him quickly and silently, like black wraiths, as if sensing that the end was near. Perhaps it was...
The Jedi took a long, deep breath...and deactivated his lightsabre. It would not save him now. Nothing would. Except...
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, ordering his mind to ignore the terrible pain and fear going through him...to be calm. To be one with the Force. It was difficult. Parts of him were screaming, urging him to run, to fight, to fall his knees and wait for the end... Be still he told himself...and his mind obeyed. One by one, the emotions fell away until he was alone. Completely and utterly alone. A soothing blanket descended over him, gently blotting out everything - memory, awareness, fear, desire...they all vanished. And, for the first time since he had come to Regaid, he was at peace.
He would be safe here, Obi-Wan realized. The creatures would kill him, but he would not feel it. There would be no more pain, no more terror. Nothing but peace. For a moment he was tempted. It would be so easy to just surrender, to float away into the night...but then duty and honour called to him, and he remembered. Remembered who he was, what he had to do. He would not give in. He could not.
Obi-Wan gathered the remaining shreds of his mental powers around him and reached. Somewhere, beyond the blackness, there was light. Somewhere, there was the Force - not the tainted power he had used earlier, but the warm, familiar energy that was as much a part of him as breathing.
There was a barrier - something standing between him and the light. The Apprentice recognized it for what it was now - Evil. Pure, cold, and unbearably ancient. It knew what he was trying to do, and was fighting to stop him. And it was strong. Too strong...?
No. No matter how powerful this thing was, it could not take his abilities from him - the Force was his, and he belonged to it. He was a Jedi... With a silent roar of defiance, he flung his mind, his body...his very soul...into the battle.
Obi-Wan had thought he knew what pain was, had thought he had experienced the very worst that could happen to a person. Now though...now he knew that nothing would ever outweigh this. He was being destroyed from the inside. Small pieces of himself were being burned away in the conflagration that burned his soul, as flames licked through his mind and body. The darkness rose up to swallow him and he was helpless before it. It was too powerful, too old...what chance did a single Padawan learner have against this? This was a fight he could not win. Could never win...
He could sense something. A presence. Something fragile and very far away. Hardly there at all. And yet...it was proof that something existed besides the darkness. Something else. It gave him hope. With the very last of his psychic energies, Obi-Wan stretched out for the Force...
...And something else reached back for him.
Obi-Wan was too drained, too far gone to feel surprise. He merely grasped whatever it was with mental fingers, holding onto it tightly...and the darkness vanished. Suddenly he was awash with light. It was all around him. Its warmth went through him like sunlight, easing the hurts, and Obi-Wan took a deep breath of relief. Smiling grimly, he turned back to the darkness that still pursued him...and lashed out at it.
The power of the Force surged through him like a torrent. He closed his eyes, feeling the energy course through him. He could not control or direct it...did not even try. He was the conduit, nothing more. He knew though, when the light hit the darkness, when the dark cried out in both fury and agony...and when the battle was won. At that moment Obi-Wan opened his eyes...
...and was back in the hangar, watching the three aliens slowly dissipate, helpless against the power he wielded. The sound of their screams echoed through the chamber. As he watched, the last one struck out blindly at him, shrieking its hatred. Its tendrils had already evaporated though, turning first to mist and then to nothing...and the creature was gone, only the memory of evil lingering behind it.
It was over.
Slowly, as if he had forgotten how, Obi-Wan lowered the arm he did not remember raising and released the last of the energies still flowing within him. As he did, the pain surged up to take their place. Darkness swept over him and he did not feel his body hitting the ground. He had time for only a fleeting thought before oblivion claimed him. "My Master would be proud..."
Perhaps he only imagined the voice that answered him. "I am, my young Padawan..."
Auriga uncurled herself from where she had taken shelter during the battle, her mind still reeling. She didn't believe it. Somehow the Jedi had survived. He should have been killed, but instead he had defeated them. She was alone. Altos was gone...her allies were gone, perhaps never to return...and her government would soon find out what she had done. She hugged herself tightly as she began to shiver.
Wordlessly, she watched the Jedi topple over, hitting the stone floor hard, to lie unmoving on his back, blood streaming from the wounds he had received. She gazed at his body, unable to think, unable to move, then blinked as a shadow fell over him. She looked up...
...and saw a large bearded man in a brown cloak enter the hangar at a dead run, a laser sword in his hands. Another Jedi, her numbed mind supplied. He scanned the room quickly, breathing hard from the exertion of his run, and taking in the body lying on the floor...and her. He met her gaze for just an instant. Auriga went cold. The emotions beating from those eyes...they went beyond anger. Auriga froze, afraid to move, hoping only that the fury would not be unleashed on her...
Then the tall man looked away, as if dismissing her as a threat. He deactivated his sword and returned it to his belt then knelt beside the body of the first Jedi. He gently lifted the younger man by the shoulders, one arm going underneath to cradle his weight. With his other hand he reached back for the edge of the cloak he was wearing and wrapped it around the half-naked body, sharing his body heat, holding him closely. "Obi-Wan," the man said softly, the words both a question and a summons. So that was his name, Auriga thought distantly. Funny, she had never asked what it was...
The unconscious Jedi stirred slightly and moaned, as if the man's voice were calling him back from the darkness. For a moment, Auriga could see fear written in the lines of his body and he thrashed weakly in the other's arms, his eyes still closed, barely conscious. The large man touched him softly on the forehead. "It's all right, Padawan. I'm here. You're safe now."
The Jedi seemed to hear him, for he sighed and abruptly went limp, his head turning toward the other man's shoulder as if for protection or to hide from the rest of the world. Auriga suddenly noticed that there were tears running down her cheeks. Tears for the Jedi, tears for Altos...tears for everything she had done, and not done. She gave in to the sorrow then and cried as the large man gathered the other in his arms and stood. She watched them leave...and didn't look away until the other men appeared and escorted her from the hangar.
Qui-Gon barely felt his Apprentice's weight as he hastened through the corridors toward the ship waiting outside. He was much more concerned with the pallor of Obi-Wan's skin, the blood still flowing from his injuries, and the extreme coldness of his body. His Padawan was shivering helplessly, stirring weakly in his arms. The cloak Qui-Gon had wrapped around him was obviously not enough. Even as he hurried through the stone building, he could feel Obi-Wan sinking deeper into shock. Qui-Gon quickened his pace.
The Jedi Master rounded the final corner, glowering wordlessly as one of the Regaidian troopers who were swarming throughout the building got in his path. The offending man gave him a startled look then stepped hastily aside. Qui-Gon swept by without a word. He did not stop until he had reached the ship standing just outside the main entrance. And then he was hurtling up the ramp, calling to the two Jedi healers inside to follow him. He hastened into one of the empty cabins and deposited his Apprentice as carefully as he could on the empty bed. Without looking, he reached behind him and seized the closest healer by the wrist, pulling him toward the semi-conscious Padawan.
Only then did Qui-Gon step back. His chest was heaving from the exertion, he realized, and his muscles ached. He should use the Force, he knew, to augment his strength and banish the pain, but he couldn't. It didn't seem important enough to make the effort, just now. And besides, the rage and worry seething through him were making it difficult to think, let alone focus enough to reach the Force...
The healers were talking together, listing the Apprentice's injuries as they worked to stop the blood loss and treat his shock. The list made Qui-Gon go cold. A severe concussion, torn ligaments in the left knee, hairline fractures of the fibula, two broken ribs, second degree burns, and multiple bruises, contusions, and lacerations. "Obi-Wan," he thought in anguish. What have I done?"
Qui-Gon closed his eyes briefly, guilt surging up inside him. He had thought the responsibility of a solo mission would calm his Padawan's youthful enthusiasm, just a little...had thought it would be good for him...but this... Obi-Wan had been so pleased with the assignment, so honoured that his Master trusted him that much. "I should never have sent you to Regaid alone..." Qui-Gon thought remorsefully.
Forty-eight hours. His Padawan had been lost to him for forty-eight hours. Qui-Gon had first known something was wrong when he had sensed Obi-Wan's fear, despite the distances between them. He had reached out with his mind...and staggered back under an incredible onslaught of pain. After he had hastily gathered his mental shields and wrestled the suffering down to a manageable level, he had reached out again...and felt nothing. Nothing at all. For the first time since he had taken Obi-Wan as his Padawan learner, he had not been able to sense his presence in his mind, try though he might.
Qui-Gon had immediately left what he was doing -- somewhere back on Galios there was no doubt a very angry Prime Minister -- and had taken the first ship he could find to Regaid, arranging with other Jedi to meet him there. But it had taken so long...too long?...to get there. The voyage had been agony for him, constantly trying to reach out to Obi-Wan through all the long hours, and constantly failing. Wondering if he would arrive too late...
Obi-Wan moaned and Qui-Gon's attention instantly returned to the three people before him. The first healer was straightening up, a look of frustration on her face. "Well?" Qui-Gon asked. "How...is he?" He braced himself inwardly.
"He won't let us in, he's fighting us." The healer shook her head. "How, I don't know. He should be unconscious, should be letting us help him, but...it's like..."
"What?" Qui-Gon resisted the impulse to reach out and shake the answer out of her. That would not help...
The other healer, an older Jedi with greying hair and a worn face turned to them. "I got into his mind for a few moments -- enough to see that he was tortured..." A pang went through Qui-Gon and, for a moment, his whole being was consumed by a fiery wall of anger that blazed through him. He fought it down, forcing himself to concentrate instead on the healer's words.
"...he was tortured, by people who knew what they were doing. And, judging by what little I could sense from him, he was in a fight against... something. And he's still fighting. I think he thinks he's still in their hands. He won't trust us enough to let us help him."
As if to punctuate the man's words, Obi-Wan thrashed weakly. A wave of sheer power pushed against all three of them. Qui-Gon did not hesitate. Fighting against the untamed energies of the Force that were swirling around him, he crossed to his Padawan's side and knelt beside the bed, seizing the younger man by the shoulders. "Enough, Obi-Wan," he said urgently, projecting the thought into the Apprentice's mind at the same time. "It's over. You're safe now. Let us help you."
It was like throwing a stone into a maelstrom. Fear, panic, guilt, hatred, remorse...a hundred emotions swirled around him. He braced himself and tried to steady Obi-Wan's mind, calling to him silently.
It wasn't working. As the moments crawled by, Qui-Gon could feel his grip on reality loosening, could feel the half-trained power of his Padawan's mind dragging him into the vortex. He should pull back, he thought distantly. Let the healers try again...
He had already discarded the idea though -- he would not give up -- when, without warning, something in the darkness responded. "Master," it said, weakly, distantly. "Don't leave me..."
"I won't leave you Obi-Wan. I promise. But you have to trust me." Qui-Gon tried to inject his mental voice with the all the affection and love within him.
The chaos slowed, just a little. "Master?"
"Yes. I'm here. You can stop fighting now. I'll protect you."
There was an endless moment when nothing happened. Doubt and suspicion tumbled around him for what felt like an eternity...and then it was over. Qui-Gon was back in the ship, leaning over Obi-Wan. The Apprentice stiffened...then collapsed back onto the bed, his eyes fluttering shut and his entire body going limp. A shaft of fear went through the Jedi Master. He was so still...
The two healers moved forward again, shoving Qui-Gon unceremoniously to one side as they worked hurriedly over the wounded Apprentice. And, for the first time in years, Qui-Gon found himself praying...to anyone or anything that might care to listen...
Hours passed. The small ship continued to race through the darkness, back to Coruscant, its engines straining.
Obi-Wan was still alive. That was the one thought that had sustained Qui-Gon through the long night. His Padawan had not died, although the healers had told him it had been a near thing. If Qui-Gon had not been able to get through to him, to allow them into his mind to start the healing process...
Qui-Gon's mind sheered away from the thought. He could not imagine losing Obi-Wan now...or ever. He had grown too close to him. For a moment, he allowed his thoughts to wander back to when they had first met. He had not wanted or needed another Apprentice then -- had fought against it with every fibre of his being, in fact. Somehow though, the boy had gotten under his defences, not giving up until the Jedi had finally taken him as his Padawan learner... almost against his own will. Qui-Gon's lips curled into a reluctant smile. If there was one thing he should have learned then, it was that Obi-Wan Kenobi was a fighter, and as tenacious as they come.
It was probably those traits which had saved him. Qui-Gon had managed to garner a little information while he stood his long vigil. The woman...Auriga...had been taken into custody by the Regaidian authorities and had confessed everything. Shockwaves were even now beginning to ripple through the Republic. Plague, mysterious creatures, secret alliances... Qui-Gon could only imagine the consternation that would shortly be felt in the Senate.
But none of that mattered. Not really. Not to him. Only the knowledge that his Padawan had almost died, and that it was his courage and fortitude that had averted a potential disaster, mattered. Somehow...Qui-Gon couldn't even begin to imagine how...the half-trained Apprentice had held off and defeated an enemy greater than any in living memory. And survived to tell the tale... He hoped.
Qui-Gon looked back down at Obi-Wan, who was sleeping fitfully. The worst of the injuries had been dealt with, but the rest - the effects of the torture he had endured, his damaged leg and ribs, the cuts and bruises, were all still there. The healers had stabilized him but could do little more until they were back on Coruscant. Qui-Gon sighed, glad that, for the moment, his Apprentice was unconscious. He would be in terrible pain when he awoke.
"He's still a boy, really," he thought, shifting in his chair. "Just turned eighteen, and already facing more than most men do in their lifetimes. Or most Jedi for that matter..."
The anger within Qui-Gon had burned away sometime during the night. A Jedi could not feel such hatred and fury, and still be a Jedi. And so he had tamed it and forced it to another place inside him, to somewhere where it could no longer control him. But that did not mean it was not still there...
Obi-Wane stirred and moaned, interrupting Qui-Gon's musings. The Jedi leaned forward and touched his forehead. "It's all right," he said softly. "No one can hurt you now."
As if he had heard, Obi-Wan's restless movements stilled and his breathing gradually became more even. Qui-Gon cautiously withdrew his hand and sat back, his thoughts turning inward once more. He couldn't shake the foreboding going through him. His Apprentice would survive, of that he had no doubt. But what of his mind...his soul? After what he had been through...how much of the Obi-Wan he knew would be left?
There was no answer, only the quiet of the room and the steady sound of Obi-Wan's breathing. Qui-Gon settled back in his chair to continue his long vigil...and to wait.
Terror. Pain. Eternal darkness. Obi-Wan was trapped in a nightmare labyrinth, unable to find his way back to the light. Memories swirled within him and he whimpered, trying to flee the creatures that were chasing him, the people that wanted to hurt him... "Master," he called out desperately, into the darkness. "Help me..."
"I'm here, Padawan." Ahead, a hand reached out for him.
He held back, suspecting a trick, yet one more deceit being played upon him. Around him, black fog swirled, forming tendrils that turned into whips. They cut into him, and he cried out.
"It's all right, Obi-Wan," the voice said. "They can't hurt you anymore. Trust me. Reach out with your feelings..."
Shuddering, wracked with pain and dread, Obi-Wan nevertheless did so, using the Force tentatively, as if he expected it to turn on him at any moment... He sensed a familiar presence. Master? And then he was rushing toward the voice as the darkness gave up its claim on him...
Obi-Wan opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was his Master, sitting in a chair close by. Qui-Gon looked terrible - haggard and exhausted, as if he had been awake for hours...or days. The Apprentice took a deep cautious breath, wincing at the pain in his ribs. At his movement, Qui-Gon leaned forward instantly, concern etched on his face. "Obi-Wan?"
"Master?" Obi-Wan's voice was hoarse he discovered, and speaking was difficult. Even that small effort had almost drained him. He blinked, gathering what small energies he had left...and his Master caught his right hand in both of his own, strength pouring from the older man into the Apprentice.
"Is that better?" Qui-Gon asked.
The action, combined with the genuine love and anxiety in Qui-Gon's voice was Obi-Wan's undoing. A wave of emotion poured through him -- relief, gratitude, anguish...and the overwhelming desire to burst into tears. He gulped. He would not embarrass himself or his Master like that. He. Would. Not.
"Nothing you could do would embarrass me, my Padawan," a warm voice said directly into his mind. "I'm proud of you..." And then Qui-Gon was gathering him up into a sympathetic embrace, regardless of his injuries... The tears did come then. For what seemed like an eternity Obi-Wan poured out his emotions onto the shoulder of his Master while Qui-Gon's support and care flowed over him.
Finally, after a lifetime or two, Obi-Wan pulled away from the other man, sinking back onto the bed and flinching at the movement.
"Do you feel better now?"
Obi-Wan shook his head. "No. Not really." He wiped an unsteady hand across his eyes as the memories crowded in on him again. His expression dimmed. He would have to tell Qui-Gon...what he had done...
Qui-Gon sensed his withdrawal. "What is it?"
The Apprentice shuddered and looked away. "Where...are we? He said, instead of answering the question. "What happened...after...?" His voice trailed off.
"We're on the way back to Coruscant. The woman...Auriga... is in custody on Regaid. I gather she's told them something about what happened, but both the Regaidian government and the Jedi Council will have a lot of questions for you, I'm afraid."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, unable to bear his Master's gaze on him any longer. Anguish and guilt ripped through him like blaster fire, destroying what little was left of his self-control. "I can't face them," he said, his voice muffled and broken. "Not after...what I did..."
"Look at me, Obi-Wan."
Reluctantly, fearfully, the Apprentice did.
"You need never fear the truth...or yourself." Qui-Gon touched his shoulder. "Tell me," he said simply.
And so he did.
The truth. He had told Qui-Gon everything, sparing himself nothing. And his Master had understood. There had been no recriminations, no blame...no disappointment. Obi-Wan didn't think he could have borne Qui-Gon's disappointment. But there had only been understanding and reassurance, that he was still a Padawan, still a good person...still Obi-Wan Kenobi. The darkness may have touched him, but it hadn't destroyed him, his Master had assured him. Every Jedi must face a challenge at some point in his life, Qui-Gon had said. And the Jedi's unending belief in his Padawan had flowed over Obi-Wan like a balm, soothing some of the hurts in his soul.
But not all of them. Nothing could heal them all. Obi-Wan sighed and closed his eyes. Images immediately leapt up before him, of the torture, the creatures...Altos. Shadows seemed to be hovering in the corners of his being and the fear that had never quite left him since his capture grew stronger.
"Reach out with your feelings." It was Qui-Gon's voice. Obi-Wan opened his eyes and looked up at his Master, still sitting beside the bed.
"I'm afraid," he said in simple honesty.
"I know." Nothing else. No prompting, no expectations. Only patience.
Quelling a shudder, Obi-Wan did as his Master asked. He stretched out with his mind and touched the Force hesitantly, half-expecting to fail...or worse, to grasp instead the dark, shimmering energies he had drawn on earlier. The fear rose within him...
It was there. The Force. Warm. Light. Powerful. The same as it had always been. Obi-Wan pulled at it slightly, testing it...and himself, then reached out with his mind...
His Master. Close by. An island of calm and tranquility in the vortex of energies moving around them both. Obi-Wan could sense nothing but warmth and care emanating from him. The Apprentice breathed a mental sigh of relief, his battered spirit reviving a little more, and then he was questing outward, past the room, to the rest of the ship.
The healers. Other Jedi. Balance. Calm. Sanity. One of them sensed his touch, and the sense of welcome that flowed back along the energy line left Obi-Wan breathless. And there - further away, on distant planets. Life. Other Jedi. Light.
Obi-Wan allowed the power to melt away and fell back on the pillow, exhausted by the effort, but nevertheless somehow...stronger.
"Now do you feel better?" It was Qui-Gon.
Obi-Wan paused to consider. Oddly enough, he did. Pain still wracked his body and just about everything hurt, from his toes to his eyelashes, but he did feel better. "Yes," he said, trying a careful smile. It was weak and tentative, as if he had forgotten how, but it was still a smile. "Thank you, Master."
"No, Obi-Wan. It was your courage, your bravery that saved you. And it will be your strength that will get you through this." Qui-Gon stood stiffly, easing cramped muscles. "Now rest. And heal. I will be with you when you awake."
Obi-Wan nodded, sleep already pulling at him. He heard Qui-Gon walk quietly from the room and leave, silence falling behind him. The Apprentice sighed and stared up at the ceiling for a long moment.
The darkness was still inside him, he realized. It probably always would be. But he had learned that he was stronger than it was. And he didn't fear it anymore. Now...now he just had to learn how to live in the light again.
This time when Obi-Wan closed his eyes, no nightmare images sprang up before him. The lingering shadows in his soul seemed to lighten, just a bit, and he surrendered himself...at last...to sleep.