Title: World of Enemies
Disclaimer: All recognizable Star Wars characters are the exclusive property of George Lucas. All others belong to me.I have no official permission to use these characters, and if you think anyone would pay me to come up with this insanity, you're worse off than I am.
Feedback: Yes Please!
Time Frame: 9 years before TMP. Obi-Wan is 16.
Summary: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan survive a crash landing only to find themselves hunted on a hostile planet.
NOTE: Please forgive the stupid paragraphing problem. This was my very first fic and something happened to it that Iíve never quite been able to fix.
World of Enemies
"Nowhere Left to Run"
The force of the explosion rocked the entire ship, throwing Qui-Gon back against the bulkhead wall with crushing force. A shower of red-hot debris rained down on him like a miniature firestorm. For a moment, it took all his concentration just to breathe again. In, out, in, out . . . he was sinking, but he refused to let the whirlpool of unconsciousness pull him under. Battling his way back to the surface, he was dimly aware of Obi-Wanís voice, calling to him from the cockpit. He did not register the words, indeed, could barely hear them above the intense ringing in his ears, but the tense, almost frightened tone in his Padawanís voice was unmistakable. Pushing himself off the bulkhead, he made his way across the badly listing floor of the ship and pulled himself into the co-pilotís seat, beside Obi-Wan. Obi-Wanís hands flew over the control panel, almost blurring as he fought to stabilize the damaged vessel. He spared a quick, concerned look in his Masterís direction as Qui-Gon seated himself. "What was that?" Was it Ė"
"A bomb," Qui-Gon finished Obi-Wanís sentence. A red light started flashing and a warning claxon sounded on their right. Obi-Wan looked momentarily alarmed. "Master, weíre leaking atmosphere, the oxygen producerís are over-heating, hyper-drive gone, impulse power failing," he reeled off the damage as it flashed across his screen in garbled blurts, then the screen went dead.
"We will have to put down on that planet," Qui-Gonís voice was calm, but obi-Wan could sense that the explosion, so close, had shaken him.
"What planet?" Obi-Wan scanned the seemingly empty field of stars confronting them.
"That one, there," Qui-Gon gestured and suddenly Obi-Wan could see it too, a small dot in the corner of their viewing area. It took all of their combined efforts to coax the damaged ship towards that small, green dot. Like the control screen, all the instruments and sensors were lifeless. They could not risk missing the planet, their oxygen would not hold. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan groped through the cold, emptiness of space attempting to feel the planet so they could pilot accordingly. Perspiration dripped down Obi-Wanís collar, but he shivered anyway. Space was cold, cold, empty, and lifeless. Qui-Gon felt his pupilís grip waver. "Reach out with your feelings," he instructed softly.
Obi-Wan was not sure if the older Jedi had actually said it out loud, or if he had heard it in his head. It was as if someone had packed a century into every minute, until the planet, at last, loomed large beneath them. For a moment, they got a look at the surface of the planetoid; huge continents of tree covered land, separated by blue-green oceans, before the planetís gravity and their own their own trajectory sent them hurtling down towards itís atmosphere. Thatís when Obi-Wan realized that the hardest part was yet to come. Attempting to land a crippled ship, on an unknown planet, with no sensors or gauges to go by was impossible for a normal person, and he had never heard of even a Jedi attempting such a feat. Qui-Gonís hands were folded tightly in his lap and a look of utter concentration was on his face. Obi-Wan could tell that his teacher shared his thoughts.
"Thereís a first time for everything Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon answered the unspoken question that hung between them.
"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan said, and tried to really believe it, if he did not, they were both dead. The ship jerked and pulled wildly, like a wounded Taun-taun, when it hit the planetís atmosphere. Obi-Wan handled the controls, leaving Qui-Gon free to seek them out a landing spot. Every nerve in Obi-Wanís body felt tense, every instinct probing as they plummeted down out of the sky at a speed he could not control.
Qui-Gon leaned back in his seat, hands folded. He did not look at the jungle landscape, rushing by below them, looming closer and closer each moment. By the time one could see a likely place with their eyes, it would have been far too late to attempt to land there. Instead, Qui-Gon stretched to see the landscape ahead of them that was not yet visible.
Obi-Wan kept his mind on the ship, resisting the urge to keep glancing at the older Jedi; he knew Qui-Gon would let him know as soon as he found a spot. He could feel the ship breaking apart under the strain and he hoped he would find one soon.
"Start descending now," Qui-Gon directed, eyes closed.
Obi-Wan pushed forward gently on the stick, but the ship did not respond. Be pushed forward harder, trying to apply whatever breaking thrusters they had left to slow their speed. The ship reacted violently, jerking and dropping out the sky like a rock. Obi-Wan quickly tried to compensate, but only half managed to pull them out of their headlong plunge.
They were now flying so low that the ship was clipping the tops of the tallest trees. There was nothing but treetops ahead of them for as far as the eye could see, but when Qui-Gon said, "Drop," Obi-Wan Dropped the ship like a Teridon after its prey. It seemed that they would crash into the trees, but at the last possible moment, the tree line gave way to a long, grassy meadow dotted with wild flowers. It was a good place to attempt a landing, but they were coming at it much too fast. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan both knew it, but they had no alternative.
Obi-Wan dropped the belly of the ship, making it drag the ground to give them some slowing friction. They mowed through the tall, green grass, leaving a wide path of crushed flowers and upturned red earth. The ship smashed through a small grove of young trees. One of the larger branches smashed the older model windshield of the cockpit, showering the two Jedi with fragments of broken plexi-glass. Raising their arms to protect their faces from the stinging shower, neither of them noticed that one of the shards had embedded itself deeply into Qui-Gonís restraining belt. The ship plunged on, unchecked.
"Turn left, hard!" Qui-Gon ordered suddenly and Obi-Wan obeyed, throwing the last of their thruster power into a sharp left turn, narrowly avoiding colliding with a huge rock formation, hidden under the deceptively tall grass. Their right wing brushed the rocks, jerking the ship hard and throwing the two men to the left.
Obi-Wanís head slammed painfully against the instruments on the wall beside him. He saw stars, but quickly realized that not all the lights he saw were unreal. A control light flashed at him.
"No!" he shouted, slamming his hand against the override control, but the ships response system was too sluggish to respond quickly enough to avert disaster. The landing thrusters deployed. The emerging struts caught in the thick earth, suddenly checking the shipís headlong momentum. It was too much, too quickly. There was a mighty tearing sound and a jerk that flung both Jedi forward, against their control panels. The thrusters, meant to gently land the ship, kicked in. The sudden blast pitched the ship forward, tail up. The cockpit was suddenly vertical, its nose stuck in the ground, itís tail reaching skyward. The ship flipped completely over, landing upside-down with most of its weight on its right wing. The wing snapped, sending them into a careening barrel roll down the steeply slopping hill that the rolling meadow had become.
All the jouncing had worked the glass caught in Qui-Gonís safety restraint back and forth like a knife, now, the partially severed restraint snapped, releasing him from his seat. He slammed against the ceiling of the cockpit, bounced off, hit the wall, hit the seat, and narrowly missed hitting Obi-Wan.
Obi-Wan heard Qui-Gon cry out and only just avoided being knocked on the head by the other Jediís boot, but there was no time for concern. The next moment the front and back part of the ship separated. The front portion with the cockpit stopped with a jolt, caught by a row of imposing trees. The back part kept going for one more tumble, landing squarely on top of the front part.
Obi-Wan opened his eyes, although he had not realized he closed them. It was dark under the wreckage, the bright sunlight of the unknown planetoidís day barely pierced the jungle of twisted metal and broken glass that entombed them.
Obi-Wanís left arm was trapped between the control panel and some part of the rear of the ship that had crashed through the broken cockpit window. The cockpit had come to rest at a 60į angle, of which Obi-Wan was on the upper side. With a little bit of effort, he freed his arm. He hurt everywhere, but amazingly, nothing seemed to be seriously damaged. Qui-Gon came instantly to his mind. "Master? Master?!" he called in the semi darkness, but received no answer. He could feel Qui-Gonís presence in the darkness beneath him, but it felt frighteningly faint, and far away. Pulling loose his safety restraint with slightly clumsy fingers, Obi-Wan half fell, half climbed down into what had once been the right side of the cockpit. He found the Jedi Master more by feel than by sight.
Qui-Gon rested against the right wall and ceiling of the cockpit, his legs trapped beneath the seat which had broken loose. Obi-Wan pulled the chair off him and lifted his shoulders. He did not feel anything broken in his Masterís body, but in the state he was in he did not trust himself to be able to even accurately tell which way was up.
"Master," he tried to reach into Qui-Gonís mind and bring him back to consciousness, but the smell of fuel, a lot of it, and close by, broke his concentration. He realized the fuel tanks, above them now, must have ruptured and were now leaking at an alarming rate, filtering down through the wreckage, preparing it to be the biggest bonfire you ever did see. As if in answer to Obi-Wanís thought, a single, bright flame leapt up the back wall of the cockpit, sparked, no doubt, by some overheated wiring. The stench of burning wire filled Obi-Wanís nostrils as the flames found a trail of fuel and leapt up to engulf the entire back wall.
Obi-Wan looked around desperately for a way out of the burning metal coffin. The way the ship had come to rest left he and Qui-Gon trapped inside the cockpit, pinned under the wreckage of the shipís engines. Obi-Wan knew that once the fire reached the fuel tank, the whole ship would blow sky high. The fire spread onto the control panel where Obi-Wan had formerly been seated. He knew he was going to have to do something fast, but he dare not ignite his lightsaber to clear a path for them, or he would risk igniting the rest of the leaking fuel and blowing them up instantly. A few rays of sunshine filtered down like a beacon of hope through the fast growing smoke and flames that threatened to choke them. That was the way out then, towards the sunlight.
Standing up as much as the smashed cockpit allowed, Obi-Wan used the Force to blast the pieces of wreckage away from the upper left corner of the broken windshield, enlarging the area of light coming in, and making a space big enough for he and Qui-Gon to pass through. Burying his face in the sleeve of his tan tunic for a moment, he attempted to block out the fumes, clear his ringing head and center himself. A crashing sound from farther back in the ship alerted him that he did not have the time. Lifting Qui-Gon by the shoulders, he hauled him towards the opening he had created.
Climbing up through the flames that were still spreading across the wreckage, Obi-Wan pulled his Master after him, half with his own strength, half with the Force. After they were out of the cockpit area, the tunnel turned into a vertical upward shaft. He grabbed a twisted strut to pull himself up, but quickly let go when he found that the deceptively cool looking alloy was burning hot. Testing the sturdiness of the tunnel above them, he placed his weight on a relatively sturdy looking protrusion. The twisted metal shrieked in protest, shaking unsteadily and threatening to fall down at a momentís notice.
Obi-Wan was already exhausted, but he realized there was only one way out of here. Closing his eyes he mustered what strength he had left, hoping it would be enough to pull this off. Reaching out with his mind, he took hold of Qui-Gon and himself. Weightless, weightless, rise . . . slowly they rose upward. A loud snap split the air as some part of the ship broke off.
Obi-Wanís concentration slipped and they both fell back down, caught only by the lip of the wreckage just outside the cockpit. Obi-Wan got up.
"Try again," he seemed to hear Qui-Gon tell him. Whether because he was actually speaking to him from some other form of consciousness, or because he simply knew what his Master would say, he did not know, and it did not matter. Centering his thoughts once more, he levitated them up, up. He almost made it that time. He was almost there . . . but again he failed, dropping Qui-Gonís limp form like a stone and slamming down hard himself. The wreckage above them teetered perilously. Obi-Wan pulled himself up to his knees; he tasted blood in his mouth and realized it was running down the side of his face, from his left temple. His hands were shaking and he couldnít help it, he was mentally and physically exhausted. "I canít do it," he said aloud, holding his head in his hands.
"Iím sorry Master, I just canít do it!" Obi-Wan winced, seeing in his mind the look of deep disapproval and disappointment that would fill his Masterís gentle blue eyes at such a statement. He did not need Qui-Gon to be conscious to scold him for those words; he did a fine job himself. Rallying his strength one more time, Obi-Wan cleared his mind of everything but the upward motion. Up, up . . . the wreckage around them was on fire now. Up . . . what was left of the ship shuddered in its final death-throws. Up . . . the shriek of burning circuitry and twisting metal filled the air. Up . . . and they were out, just as their exit route caved in beneath them.
With the last of his strength, Obi-Wan gave them a shove away from the ship and let go. They fell with a thump into the knee-high grass. Obi-Wan took Qui-Gon by the shoulders, dragging him manually away from the wreck, too run-out to use the Force for anything at the moment. They were almost to the fringe of trees that Obi-Wan judged to be far enough away, when a thunderous explosion rocked the earth. He felt the searing heat of the blast on his back as he dropped protectively over Qui-Gonís body. Looking back, he saw the ship reduced to a mass of burning rubble. With the immediate danger over, he dropped to his hands and knees. He had never felt so drained.
"I never want to do that again!" he said to Qui-Gonís still form. His body ached, but his mind ached worse. Qui-Gon stirred, opening his eyes slowly. His whole body was screaming a thousand different messages at him, most of them pain. He was dully aware of a burning throb in his right leg. He blinked and shook his head. Obi-Wanís concerned, bloodied face cut into the sky above him. "Are you all right Master?"
Qui-Gon nodded slowly. "I think so." Rolling onto his side, he saw the blazing remains of the ship. "You know," he said slowly, "I have a strange feeling that someone is trying to kill us." He said it seriously, but shot Obi-Wan a grin that was more visible in his eyes, than his mouth.
Obi-Wan grinned too, relived that Qui-Gon was well enough to joke. "I donít know whatever gave you that idea Master," Obi-Wan replied, settling back on his knees, a little out of breath. "But if they are, then they very nearly succeeded."
Qui-Gon regarded his apprentice for a moment, his expression deepening. "I believe I have you to thank that they didnít." He placed his hand on the young manís shoulder. Obi-Wan closed his eyes and his smile brightened a little. The warmth coming from Qui-Gonís touch soothed his aching mind and calmed his hurting body.
"Ohh," Qui-Gon sat up, holding his ribs. "I havenít felt this bad since I let you use me for levitation practice," he teased.
Obi-Wan just grinned and decided not to tell his Master the details of their escape from the ship.
Qui-Gon started to rise but stopped abruptly. A sharp stab of pain shot through his right knee and thigh. He winced and paled a shade.
"Master?" Obi-Wan felt the sudden disruption in Qui-Gonís aura.
"Iíll be fine, just give me a moment." Qui-Gon closed his eyes, leaning back on his elbows. Nothing was broken, just bruised and sprained to an extreme, probably a few torn ligaments as well. "Pain is in the mind," he told himself. Breathing deeply he sought out the pain centers and told his body to ignore the input. When he opened his eyes again the pain in his leg was not gone, but it was a considerable sight more manageable. "Well, it could be worse," Qui-Gon remained optimistic as he rose to his feet.
"Youíll forgive me Master, but I donít see how," Obi-Wan gave Qui-Gon a supporting arm; the Jedi Masterís balance was still a little off. Qui-Gonís head started to buzz as he attempted to steady himself on his own two feet. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and his hand came away bloody. He guessed he did not look much better than Obi-Wan, and he was right. The force of his injuries had left him bleeding from mouth, nose and head. He could tell his body was battling both shock and brain trauma. He wiped his hand on his long, brown robe and discovered something more disturbing. A familiar lump was missing. Qui-Gon quickly threw open his robe and checked his belt, but he knew already that it was gone.
Obi-Wan saw it too. "Your lightsaber Master!" he said in alarm, quickly checking to see that he had his own. Qui-Gon looked back at the flaming wreckage. "It must be back there." This was a grievous loss. For a Jedi to be parted from his lightsaber, especially under potentially hostile circumstances, was a serious thing.
Obi-Wan hung his head. "Iím sorry Master, I didnít think to check . . ."
"Itís not your fault Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon waved his hand, dismissing it. "You had . . . other things on your mind."
An oblong, insect-like head watched the two Jedi from a tree line out of their sight. The lone droidís STAP-like floating weapon platform hummed faintly beneath its feet. He was a back-up plan, his mission to follow the Jedi, just in case, by some miracle, they survived the bomb. "JEDI SURVIVED CRASH, PLEASE ADVISE," the silent communiquť was sent to his owners. The message came back to him almost instantly: "DESTROY THEM."
Without warning, Qui-Gon shoved Obi-Wan to the ground as an energy bolt sizzled above them. For a moment, they could not see where the shot had come from, then they saw the droid, riding his modified STAP, hovering about seven feet in the air. Qui-Gon kicked himself that he had not sensed the hostile presence sooner, but he too, had had other things on his mind. He reached to see if there were others, but he felt none.
The tall grass was no protection against the STAPís powerful gunnery; they could not stay there long. Igniting his lightsaber and jumping to his feet, Obi-Wan deflected three shots, sending them ricocheting into the trees. Qui-Gon would have sent them back at the droid, to destroy it, but Obi-Wan was not yet as seasoned as his Master, and in his shaken state, the thought did not occur to him quickly enough.
See the shots before they come . . . he did, and as a second volley was released, he saw one shot hurtling straight towards Qui-Gon, who had stood when his Padawan did. The Jedi Master went instinctually for his lightsaber, but it was not there. Obi-Wan struggled to move fast enough, to move the right way. He had never had to think of anything but the blasts coming at him before, Qui-Gon was usually more than capable of defending himself, in fact, he was usually the one looking out for Obi-Wan. But now, the tables were reversed, and Obi-Wan jumped to defend his Master. At the last moment, he got between Qui-Gon and the blast.
This time, the shot zipped back, catching the droid straight in its metallic chest and blowing it to smithereens. In the same instant, Obi-Wan realized he had been so intent on deflecting that blast, that he had overlooked another, but it was too late. He felt a searing jolt of pain as an energy bolt caught him in the shoulder, spinning him around with the force of the impact and flinging him backward. He did not remember how he and Qui-Gon ended up rolling down the hill behind them, all he remembered was hitting the bottom and feeling nothing but pain. Qui-Gon dragged his apprentice quickly under cover, where a hollow in the earth beneath a fallen tree had created a kind of shallow cave.
Somewhere, not too far away, Qui-Gon could feel other presences, and they did not feel friendly. It was best for them to be hidden. Obi-Wan moaned softly, holding his right arm tightly below the shoulder because it hurt too much to touch the shoulder itself.
Qui-Gon knelt to examine the boyís wound, and clenched his jaw. It was bad. The STAPís gunnery was much more powerful than a mere blaster, and the shot had done considerable damage to the young manís shoulder.
The pain was fierce, and Obi-Wan cried out involuntarily when Qui-Gon touched the wound. He was trying desperately to get into one of the pain reducing trances that Qui-Gon had taught him, but the pain kept jerking him out of it and ruining his concentration.
Qui-Gon divided his attention between monitoring the presences he still felt outside, and helping Obi-Wan.
"Master, I canít move my arm!" Obi-Wan gasped softly, alarmed.
Qui-Gon reached inside Obi-Wanís body to help quell the natural fear response an injury like this evoked. He winced slightly as he touched the boyís mind, feeling his pain. "Shh," the older Jedi soothed, running his hand gently over Obi-Wanís close-cropped hair. "Remember what I taught you, donít concentrate on the pain."
Obi-Wan closed his eyes, he tried to breathe deeply, but that made his shoulder hurt worse, he tried to center himself, but his center alluded him. "Iím sorry Master, Iím trying," he moaned through grit teeth.
Qui-Gon decided now was not the time to repeat Master Yodaís mantra on the subject of trying. He knew it was not easy to deal with something like this. Qui-Gon took Obi-Wanís hand and touched his mind again, in the way that only a Master and Padawan could touch, he soothed him, helped him, told him not to be afraid.
Obi-Wan felt like a little child again, that was the last time that anyone had needed to go into his mind and override his body like that. The Jedi Master felt his studentís hand steady in his grip.
Seven pairs of eyes had watched the ship plummet from the sky like a meteor. Seven pairs of ears had heard the crash. They had not seen the brief battle with droid, but they arrived in time to see the two men slide into the depression beneath the fallen tree. They were both hurt, one of them severely so, perhaps they would die on their own, but they could not rely on that.
Something in the presences, he had been monitoring outside changed, and Qui-Gon withdrew his mind suddenly. Obi-Wan bit his lip, tentatively reaching out to attempt to see what had caused his teacher to retreat so suddenly. The full pain of his injury started to rush in on him again and he realized he had to keep his focus on himself for now. So, instead, he turned a questioning glance to his Master.
Qui-Gon did not answer; he did not yet know what to say. Instead, he started to move around Obi-Wan, towards the opening, but Obi-Wan did not release his hand. "Donít go out there Master!" he did not know why or what, but he could tell something was wrong. Qui-Gon squeezed his hand and he ceased feeling worried, but he knew that was only because Qui-Gon made it so. "Shh, Iíll be right back."
Obi-Wan reluctantly released Qui-Gon but pressed his lightsaber into his teacherís hand. Qui-Gon accepted and slid out of the cave. He stood up and ignited Obi-Wanís blade, whoever was out there already knew where they were, well, he would let them know that they were not defenseless. He stood there for a moment, watching, waiting, and scanning.
One of the humanoids raised his weapon, targeting the man with the glowing stick, but one of his female companions put her hand on the barrel of his blaster, pointing it down. "Are you crazy? Look at him, heís a Jedi!"
"A Jedi?" one of the otherís asked. "Whatís a Jedi?"
"Donít you know anything?" the female Voth, whose name was Rurrha, snapped.
"So what if he is," Burhar, the one who had been going to shoot, argued. "Theyíre outsiders, outsiders canít be trusted! No one must know where we are, we have to kill them." Burhar fingered the trigger of his weapon eagerly. Rurrha snarled, showing her long, fang-like teeth. Burhar was young, eager, and foolish. "No, Jedi are special, you canít just kill one out of hand!" she insisted. "They must be taken back to the council, they will decide their fate."
Burhar snarled unhappily, but the majority of the group sided with Rurrha, so he, and the others that felt as he did, were forced to agree.
Qui-Gon felt a shift in the mental state of the beings after he lit the lightsaber. It felt like there were about seven of them out there. Their attitude was definitely hostile. The light of Obi-Wanís blade cast an unfamiliar blue glow over his hands, reminding him that they could ill afford to be attacked right now. Making a decision, Qui-Gon flicked the blade off and slid back into the cave.
"Thereís danger," he answered Obi-Wanís inquiring gaze. Obi-Wan tried to sit up, but his shoulder screamed at him and Qui-Gon quickly pushed him back down. "But Iíve got to help, if we have to fight . . ." his voice trailed off, he knew it was no good. Qui-Gon shook his head. "There are alternatives to fighting," he said, smoothing Obi-Wanís hair, then the Jedi Master closed his eyes, and Obi-Wan knew better than to interrupt him.
"All right then, itís agreed, we move in and take them," Rurrha said. Everyone nodded, some more reluctantly than others, and scattered about the area, each taking up their positions.
Jarahh, one of the eldest of the group, was supposed to give the signal for them to move in as one and converge upon the men under the tree, but once he attained his position and looked down at where the men had been, he found that there was no tree there anymore, much less any trace of the two men. "Wha Ė" he rubbed his eyes, thinking they were playing tricks on him, but no, the bottom of the incline was occupied only by the bright yellow and orange flowers that dotted the whole meadow. He felt confused, and he was not alone. One by one, the other Voths abandoned their hiding places, all seeking the otherís reassurance that there had indeed been something down there only a moment ago.
"Itís a trick I tell you!" Burhar fumed. "We should have killed them while we had the chance!"
Rurrha looked down the hill, wondering if all that she had heard about Jedi were true. "I do not know what is going on, but they cannot hide from us forever, we will fan out, cover the area. Burhar, run back to the village and get the others, especially Purrudah, and the trackers." It did not occur to them to go down to the bottom of the hill to look around, and later, no one could quite figure out why not.
Qui-Gon concentrated intently. It was not easy to maintain the total illusion, dissuade all of them from any thought of coming down here, and continue helping Obi-Wan at the same time. Their minds were curiously strong, suspicious, and not easy to influence. As their presences receded, he relaxed enough to notice that his leg was throbbing painfully again. In order to maintain everything else, he had let that go, and it was reminding him that his body needed a little of his attention too. He threw a little strength at it, just enough to make it shut up, and turned his attention back to Obi-Wan.
He had to do something for him, and fast, but they could not risk staying here, once he let go of the aliensí minds it was only a matter of time before they thought to come back and scour the area. He had bought them a precious few moments, and they must take advantage of them. Pouring energy and stability into his Padawanís injured body he helped him sit up. "Obi-Wan, can you stand? We must leave swiftly."
"Yes, Master," Obi-Wan assented, but he would have whether he felt he could or not. With difficulty, he followed his Master out of the burrow. He held his injured arm tightly, fighting back the pain and nausea that moving caused. Qui-Gon pulled Obi-Wanís good arm around his shoulders, wrapping his own arm under the young manís armpits. The sharp inequality in their heights caused a bit of a problem, but they worked around it. The world blurred around Obi-Wan, an endless tangle of green. In a walking stupor, he remembered little until Qui-Gon helped ease him down on a soft bed of moss, behind a dense thicket of saplings and scrub growth. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he lost track of the accurate passage of time, it could have been minutes, it could have been hours. A chill wind blew in from the east, and dark clouds blanketed the sapphire sky.
Qui-Gon split open the thick skin of the succulent green plant with his thumbnail, exposing the yellowish-clear gel inside. Scraping the gel out he added it to the other ingredients he had gathered. He knew he must not let himself worry, that took too much energy, but he could not quite help worrying just a little. All their medical-emergency supplies had gone up with the ship. He knew a thing or two about natural, herbal remedies to ease the pain a little, and stop any further damage, but Obi-Wan was going to need more than that if he was ever to be able to use his arm again. The shot had burnt away a good deal of flesh and muscle, he needed regenerative treatment, soon.
Qui-Gon touched Obi-Wanís mind. Mentally, he was doing better, thanks in no small part to Qui-Gonís help, but physically, his body was on the verge of going into shock. Qui-Gon knew it would hurt when he applied the salve he had mixed, and he wanted Obi-Wan prepared for it. He spread it on as gently as he could, but Obi-Wan still gasped and cried in pain. As soon as the entire wound was covered, Qui-Gon took a small roll of thin, cloudy burn wrap from his belt. It was not much, but it was all he had, so it would have to do for now.
Unrolling it, he swathed Obi-Wanís shoulder, sealing off the wound. Obi-Wan could feel Qui-Gonís concern, even hidden as it was, behind his calm. Gingerly probing the wound for himself, he knew why. Hopelessness, like a powerful vortex whirled up inside him, sucking his strength and his spirit into a relentless downward plunge. Certainly, there were Jedi with physical handicaps that made it to be Knights, the Force taught that physical limitations were not the issue, but rather, how you used what you had. But that thought did not help much when confronted with the very real possibility of losing the use of his right arm.
Qui-Gon felt the alien presences, very many of them now, searching for them, drawing closer. He had dissuaded them once, he did not know if he had the strength, or the right, to influence their stubborn minds again, so he would simply have to see that they did not find them. The thicket they were in was not the best hiding place in the world, but it was the most readily available. Supplementing their hiding placeís skimpy concealment features, Qui-Gon built a wall of illusion around them, making them vanish into the shades of the forest. Thunder rumbled in the darkening sky above as the evening rains descended upon the tree-clad plain.
The rain was curiously cold as it penetrated the Jediís thick, layered clothing, making them shiver. The gentle shower turned into a deluge, which the pair would discover was a normal evening event for this planet. The tree cover sheltered them some, but not much. In no time, both of them were wet to the bone. Obi-Wan shivered violently, the extra stress proving too much for his weakened body. Pulling off his long, brown robe, Qui-Gon covered Obi-Wan with it, and when that did not prove to be enough, he sheltered the boy with his own body as evening slowly faded to night.
Qui-Gon struggled through the trees, bearing Obi-Wanís limp form in his arms. Their layered clothing held the moisture of the damp, rain-prone planet, somewhat hampering his movements. His knee gave out, making him stumble and fall. It was the umpteenth time they had had to move to avoid being discovered. Qui-Gon had not slept in two days. The Voths were excellent hunters, and their skill was matched only by the relentlessness of their pursuit as they played a deadly cat and mouse game with the wounded Jedi. It seemed to Qui-Gon that they could almost feel his presence, even as he felt theirs.
It was too much for his Padawan. Obi-Wanís body had gone into severe shock, making him slip further and further away, until three hours ago he slid into a deep unconsciousness that Qui-Gon no longer had the strength to bring him out of. Pulling himself painfully to his knees, Qui-Gon realized he barely had the strength to keep his own body going. The constant illusions he was forced to create drained him, and he was carrying Obi-Wan in more ways than one. He tried to rise, but his knee refused to work. It should not have been working as much as it had. The hopelessness that had seized Obi-Wan was working on him too. He felt alone and lost, something he had not felt in years. Obi-Wan would joke sometimes that he was the eternal optimist, but now, surrounded by a world of enemies and faced with the prospect of losing his beloved Padawan, he felt his sanguinity waning.
He did not like running, but was in no shape to do anything else, especially not with Obi-Wan . . . Obi-Wan! Qui-Gonís head snapped up sharply. The boy was deathly pale, looking infinitely younger than his sixteen years. His chest did not move; he was not breathing. Qui-Gon felt his aura, already faint, flicker and start to fade away. Grabbing his left hand, Qui-Gon laid his head on his dying pupilís chest. Pouring his own life-energy into Obi-Wanís failing body he sought desperately to keep him, half commanding, half begging him to stay. Slowly, Qui-Gon felt the young manís chest move under him, he was breathing again, but for how long?
The sudden awareness of the other presences made Qui-Gon realize that he had been so intent on Obi-Wan that he had heeded nothing else. He sighed, too worn-out to think of fighting, too drained to even lift his head. There was nowhere left to run, and even if there had been, he did not have the strength. "Theyíve come," he whispered softly to his unconscious apprentice, raising his eyes to find himself staring down the large, black barrel of a blaster, pointed straight at his head.
"How Much for the Life of a Jedi?"
"You will come with us, outsider Jeeedi," the cat-like humanoid hissed at them. There were more than a dozen of them, and who knew how many more, hiding in the trees beyond.
Qui-Gon lifted his head with an effort.
"Carry the ill one, you come now!" Purrudah, the head tracker, commanded, waving his blaster at them. Burhar stood behind him, his lips pulled back in a silent hiss of victory. He almost hoped they would try something; he would very much enjoy killing them in an attempt to escape. Qui-Gon Jinn however, was no such fool. He was experienced enough to know when compliance was the best option. Rising to his feet seemed to take an incomparable amount of energy, but he managed. Not content that their quarry would not try to bolt, they tied one end of a long rope around his waist, keeping hold of the other end, but leaving his hands free to carry his unconscious companion. Once more lifting Obi-Wan in his strong, but weary arms Qui-Gon grimly focused on putting one foot in front of the other. It took an eternity to reach the Voth village. Stumbling over fallen logs and through heavy brush, Qui-Gon quickly gave up memorizing their path. With his life force supporting both he and Obi-Wan, he had no power to spare. The journey became a living nightmare. A dozen times he stumbled and fell to his knees, his body screaming that it would support him no longer, a dozen times the Voths jerked on the rope, dragging him to his feet, pushing, pulling, prodding him inexorably onwards. Onwards, on a forced march into unknown peril. On and on through the unending tangle of trees that spread themselves into an unmerciful infinity.
"Is this the great Jedi Rurrha speaks of?" Burhar and some of the other, more unpleasant Voths taunted, jabbing Qui-Gon painfully in the back when he fell. "Is this the enemy that evaded us so long?" "Whereís your strength now human?" Qui-Gon said nothing, even had he the inclination, he had not the energy.
It was a relief when at last they came upon the Voth village. Although at first, one could barely tell they had. At first glance, it seemed to be a large glade, like any other, but on closer inspection, you found that those clumps of trees were really carefully camouflaged houses, the giant stump in the center, a great table, the surrounding trees, lookout stations, and so on. It was to the great stump, its top worn flat with age, its width putting even the great redwoods to shame, that they brought Qui-Gon with Obi-Wan still in his arms. Behind the naturally formed table, the town elders waited in patient silence, the silver and white in their coarse hair proclaiming their seniority over the others present. "My father, and honorable council members," Rurrha stepped forward from the group, bowing to the five Voths behind the table. "These are the ones we have told you of," she gestured to the Jedi. "We have brought them to you as you requested."
"As you requested Rurrha," a black and silver haired Voth at one end of the table corrected. There was something in his voice, irritation? Disagreement? Qui-Gon could not tell. The center Voth made a barely perceivable motion with his hand, and the other Voth fell silent. The center Vothís hair was almost entirely snow white, but here and there it was still streaked faintly with the same honey-gold color as Rurrhaís. "We have spoken of this already Kuhrahr," the old Voth said calmly, in a surprisingly deep voice. "We agreed she was right."
The one named Kuhrahr bowed his head in acquiescence. "Just as you say Muahhal."
"Bring them before us," Muahhal commanded, folding his arms, which even in his great age held the mighty power and strength that seemed to be possessed by all the Voth people. The rope around Qui-Gonís waist was cut and they pushed him forward. Qui-Gon could bear Obi-Wanís weight no longer. Sinking to his knees, he laid the young Jedi on the grass before the table, his hands still firmly holding his comatose Padawanís. Obi-Wanís hands were cold, so cold. He knew this was important, knew that their futures were being decided here, but it felt strange, distant, and unreal. The Voths were speaking, but he did not hear. All that he could think, all that mattered to him now was holding on to Obi-Wan. The boy was slipping, slipping, so hard to hold . . . was he holding him? Or was he sliding with him, further, and further away?
The five Voth elders bristled. "I repeat, what do you have to say?" Muahhal repeated, his patience waning, his voice rumbling into an almost growl. Qui-Gon did not respond, or even look up, he was barely aware of what was happening around him.
"You will show respect, and attend us when we speak to you outsider!" Kuhrahr snapped angrily. Purrudah and Burhar took Qui-Gon roughly by the arms, wrenching him away from Obi-Wan and dragging him to his feet. Obi-Wanís body stiffened, shuddering convulsively as the power that had been sustaining it was suddenly withdrawn. He gasped once, and stopped breathing. Qui-Gon felt him teeter on the brink before starting the deadly plunge into oblivion.
"NO!" he cried. With a sudden, powerful blast, Burhar and Purrudah found themselves flying backwards, the breath knocked out of them. Dropping back to the ground, Qui-Gon quickly took hold of Obi-Wanís face between his hands. Bowing his head over Obi-Wanís until their foreheads touched, his hands trembled as his spirit searched. It was almost too late, for a desperate moment, he could find no trace of his pupilís consciousness still in his body. Then he found him, and like a floundering swimmer trying to save a drowning man, he grabbed him, holding on with everything he had as a dark whirlpool threatened to suck them both slowly under.
Obi-Wan coughed, shook, and once more took up breathing again. But his thread of life was fragile, and Qui-Gon knew he could only hold him for so long before it would kill them both. The Voths watched in silent amazement. None of them quite knew what to make of this.
Rurrha smiled at her father. "See," she seemed to be saying. "I told you they were powerful, told you we could use them . . ."
"Heís dying," Qui-Gon murmured, half speaking to the Voths, but with his eyes still locked on Obi-Wan. Couldnít they understand? Didnít they see?
The Elders exchanged looks. These Jedi did have powers! One Voth could normally overcome at least two humans; it was no small thing to ward off two full-grown Voths as Qui-Gon had. The Jedi was obviously weak now, think what he could do when he was strong . . .
Muahhal appraised the Jedi Master. It was obvious he was strongly attached to the other human. "We could save him," he said carefully. "For a price. How much is his life worth to you?"
Qui-Gon raised his head to meet Muahhalís gaze and his eyes said everything.
"Would you give your life for his?" Muahhal pressed.
Qui-Gon inclined his head. "Yes," there was no hesitation in his voice or in his clear blue eyes. He would gladly change his life for his Padawanís.
Muahhal nodded slowly. "We will save his life. Your life is ours in return. You will take his life-debt and do something for us." It was a statement, not a question.
Qui-Gon held Obi-Wan tightly, but he could not quite agree to just anything . . . "I cannot do anything for you that goes against the Jedi Code," he said sadly.
"Donít worry," Muahhal dismissed his concern. "What we will require of you lies well within the confines of your precious code."
"Then, I accept," Qui-Gon sealed the bargain with his word.
"So be it then," Muahhal clapped his hands and several Voths appeared at Obi-Wanís side. One, a black haired female with strong build and kind eyes, laid her hands on the young man. Qui-Gon felt a strength emanating from her that surprised him. It surprised him even more when he felt her ease in and gently take over the support he had been pouring into Obi-Wan.
"Tandur," she summoned, and another Voth joined her, adding his strength to hers. Tentatively, Qui-Gon released a little. Obi-Wan remained stable. "Itís all right, we have him now," the female Voth murmured. Lifting Obi-Wan in their powerful arms, they prepared to carry him away. It took Qui-Gon several moments to register what was happening. When he did, he began to rise as well, reluctant to release his Padawan, even if he was being well supported now. Qui-Gonís knee went out, making him start to fall. One strong Voth scooped the big man up in his arms, carrying him away also, as unconsciousness finally claimed the Jedi Master.
The Vothís primitive nature belied the great wealth of healing ability hidden behind their war-like faces, just as their camouflaged village belied the large community it concealed. Qui-Gon drifted in and out of consciousness. He was vaguely aware of someone touching his knee, it was all pain inside, but there was a new feeling starting as well. He thought he saw the female Voth from earlier standing over him, her face intent. She was joined by another Voth then, who stood beside her. They were forming some sort of connection, one studying; the other working according to the data the first supplied. "Alien physiology is so different . . ." he thought he heard one of them say.
Qui-Gon partially awoke. He felt groggy and sluggish, but his thoughts dwelt on Obi-Wan. "Where is he?" he heard himself asking, "Is he all right?" He did not realize he had sat up until a strong hand pushed him down.
"Heís fine, lie still." Momentarily relived, but not entirely satisfied, he drifted off again and the next thing he heard was the female Voth talking heatedly to someone else, outside the room, if it was indeed a room he was in, which he was not certain.
"But Dameema, the Council Ė " the voice took on a demanding tone.
"No!" Dameema was adamant. "Heís not ready, not finished healing yet! They will just have to wait." Her resolve left no room for argument.
"Very well, but they wonít be pleased . . ." the voices faded away, whether because they retreated, or because he phased out again, was impossible to tell.
Qui-Gon woke up. His head was clear and he could see that he was lying on a bed near the wall of a small but clean room. He did not know how much time had passed. The cuts on his head and arms were healed and other than an overall stiffness and ache, he felt no pain. Leaning on his elbows, he sat halfway up. He tested his knee gingerly. It could move without screaming pain now, but it was still tender and tingled warmly inside when he moved.
Qui-Gon looked up to see a tall, black haired Voth standing above him.
"It is no longer injured, you have a new knee." There was a hint of pride in her voice.
Qui-Gon was momentarily alarmed by the way she had said that, and quickly probed the joint in question with his mind.
Dameema smiled in amusement. "No, thatís not what I meant. Itís still yours, itís just fixed. The ligaments were torn, they had to be re-grown and reconnected," she informed him, her voice was melodious, soothing. "It is not easy to work with alien physiology, I did not want to stimulate the wrong thing to grow, or to attach to the wrong place, but it was a success. You must now be gentle with it for a time. My name is Dameema."
"Thank you very much for your help Dameema," Qui-Gon looked around the room for Obi-Wan.
Dameema followed her patientís gaze. "I told you, your son is all right," she assured.
Qui-Gon smiled. His son . . . it was an easy mistake to make. Besides their deep and apparent attachment to eachother, he knew that many aliens found it hard to tell humans apart, and sometimes, from certain angles he and Obi-Wan did look something akin, though he supposed it was really more a matter of the spirit that united them, rather than one of appearance. He did not correct Dameema.
"His condition was very serious, it was almost too late to save him," the Voth added softly. "But we have, and in time he will recover complete use of his arm and shoulder," she assured Qui-Gon.
Qui-Gon turned as if to get up, but Dameemaís firm hand on his chest stopped him. "You must not get up yet. The new ligaments are hardening and must not be stressed or walked on."
"I need to see Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon explained. He needed to see for himself that his protťgť was well and healing before he could relax and concentrate on his own healing. Having come so close to losing his pupil made Qui-Gon anxious to get a reading on him, to be sure he really was all right.
Dameema shook her head decidedly. "Iím sorry, but I worked too hard to put you back together to let you re-injure yourself now. You are staying put until you are better." Dameemaís mind was obviously made up. "He is still unconscious anyway."
Qui-Gon however, was not easily dissuaded. "I need to see him. Please Dameema, I must see him." He knew he would not rest easy until he did. Dameema resisted stubbornly, but in the end, she realized that her patient really would not rest until he had his way. Reluctantly, she gave in. "All right then, if you must," she sighed in frustration. "You are very difficult human."
Qui-Gonís mouth twitched. She was not the first to think so.
She placed a soft brace on his knee as a guard. Wrapping an arm around him, she helped him stand. "Donít you dare put any weight on that leg, all right?" she commanded gruffly. "Iím not fixing you again!"
Qui-Gon nodded, and Dameema led him into an adjoining room, letting him lean on her like a crutch. They found Obi-Wan still unconscious, just as Dameema had said. His shirt and tunic were gone; his right shoulder was covered with a clear, sterile wrap. Underneath the translucent bandage, Qui-Gon could see the newly formed and forming muscles and tissue that were quickly filling in the wound. The Vothís methods were unusual to say the least, but apparently highly effective all the same. Rather than relying on any sort of medical technology, they healed by actually talking to the body and stimulating re-growth and regeneration. The Jediís bodies were very receptive to such stimuli, and they responded better, and faster than even some of the other Voths. As patients, they were very pleasing to Dameema because her efforts went so far for them, once she struggled around the barrier of their different anatomical structures.
"He is still in the regenerating process," she informed Qui-Gon. "The final layer of tissue and skin have not finished yet."
Qui-Gon probed the shoulder gently, reassuring himself that what she said was indeed true, relieved to feel that even if Obi-Wan was still weak, he was able to support his own life once more.
"Youíll find everything there," Dameema commented, pulling a sheet up, over Obi-Wanís bare chest for warmth.
Qui-Gon pulled back suddenly. Somehow, Dameema had known what he was doing. She had known what he was doing earlier too, when he was checking his knee, when he was thinking of Obi-Wan. When he stretched out with the Force, she seemed to be able to read his thoughts. Just like out in the woods when he had felt that the pursuing Voths could almost feel his presence. "Your people are Force-sensitive," he said softly. It should have dawned on him earlier, but he had not been operating at maximum ability.
Dameema looked at him inquisitively. "I do not know what you mean."
"You could tell, just now, that I was checking him."
Dameema shrugged her strong shoulders. "Oh, that. Sometimes we can tell things about others, although it is easier with you than with most. It aids our healing abilities. But is that not so of everyone?"
Qui-Gon did not correct her, but it made sense to him now. Somehow, his strength in the Force spoke to these people, called to them in someway, making him easy for them to read, or at least, to sense. That was why it had been so hard to put illusions between them, why the Voths had been able to follow them so unerringly. Yet, it was natural to these people, a part of their lives and a part of them. He would not interfere. "Dameema, what do your Elders want of me in return for this?" he asked as he allowed the Voth escorted him firmly back to his own bed, having satisfied himself that Obi-Wan was indeed on the mend.
Dameema just looked at him for a moment, her green eyes considering him. Then she looked away, pulling the covers back over his legs. "You owe us a life-debt for saving him."
"Yes, but Ė "
"They will tell you when the time is right," Dameema cut him off. "You are not ready to do anything just yet."
Finding that line of conversation to be a dead end road, Qui-Gon tried something else. "Are the Vothís the only species on this planet?"
"Yes," Dameema nodded carelessly. "We are alone. This is our world."
"Are all the villages like yours? Do they all live the same way?" he wanted to find out if they had any technology, such as spacecrafts, but without directly asking.
"Some," the Voth shrugged. "Some not." A shadow crossed her face. "They do not live like us, though every day, I fear we live more like them."
Qui-Gonís ears perked up; there was a story behind her words unless he was very much mistaken. "What do you mean?"
"The Voths are . . ." she seemed to be searching for the appropriate words. "A very fierce people. We are all of us warriors and hunters, and some of us healers. It was our warlike nature that bred the need for such healers I suppose . . ." For a moment, she seemed very distant. Qui-Gon thought he felt a little bit of her opening up, somewhere deep inside. Then her focus snapped back to the present. "But this does not concern you human Jedi," she withdrew quickly.
"Is that why your people are in hiding?" Qui-Gon could not help asking. "Because of war?"
Dameemaís lips pressed into a tight line, and Qui-Gon guessed this would not go far either. "What makes you think we are hiding?" she asked, guardedly.
Qui-Gon arched an eyebrow. "Because people who wish to be found, generally do not disguise their cities quite so well."
"If you are right, then they also do not indulge their secrets in strangers and outsiders," Dameema said pointedly. "It is time for me to do some therapy on your knee," she announced, plainly closing the subject.
Obi-Wan lay perfectly still, but his mind was reeling. There was danger! Something fearsome and deadly was pushing them back, back . . . He could feel Qui-Gon beside him, but he could not see him. Everything was dark . . . A crevasse, behind them, safety . . . but no, the moment they were inside something was on them from behind! Obi-Wan felt a paralyzing thrill of terror, his arms were pinned to his side and he couldnít move! A pair of luminous eyes shone out of the darkness at him . . . But no, now he was not there and Qui-Gon faced the unknown monster alone. He saw his Master fight, saw, in horror, his Master fall . . . alone, alone . . . he was screaming, but he could not get to him, could not because he was not there. Suddenly, the setting shifted swiftly, and for the briefest of moments he saw the same instance, but no longer in the dark. Qui-Gon was fighting the deepest manifestation of evil, this time, Obi-Wan was there as well, but he still could not get to his Master, something separated them, Qui-Gon was still alone. In terrible slow motion he saw Qui-Gon fall to the hard, grey floor, his lightsaber rolled out of his hand . . . Obi-Wan thrashed violently, sitting nearly all the way up, his eyes sprung open with a yell. "NO! Master!" he cried aloud. For a moment he just sat there, breathing heavily, the terror of the dream still strong upon him, still seeing it, still living itís horror. He was barely aware of his actual surroundings at all until he felt a strong arm slip behind his shoulders and a warm hand on his bare chest. Dameema made him lie quickly back down. Sinking into the soft pillow behind him, he took in the details of the room around him in bewilderment. He did not know where he was, or how he had gotten there. Had it all been a part of his dreams? The crash, the droid, the pain . . .? The last thing he remembered was woods, an eternity of them, his shoulder hurt like a nightmare, Qui-Gon was concerned about him . . . Qui-Gon. Where was he? Casting about quickly, he felt his mentorís presence quite close.
Qui-Gon had heard Obi-Wanís cry and was already out of his bed and halfway across the room when he felt Obi-Wanís searching mind touch him. Now he limped carefully through the doorway, favoring his right knee, being sure not to put too much pressure on it too soon. Dameema was bending over his Padawan, but looked up when he entered. She looked at him disapprovingly. He felt a lecture coming on. "Itís all right Dameema, I am much better," he dismissed her concern, turning his attention back to his apprentice. Obi-Wanís usually clear blue eyes were clouded with confusion, but the pain lines were gone from his face. His eyes cleared a little and great relief spread across his face when he saw Qui-Gon in the doorway. "Master, youíre all right!" he blurted in relief.
Qui-Gon raised an eyebrow. "I am glad to see the same of you," he said with a small smile. Joining Dameema by the bed side, Qui-Gon laid his hand on Obi-Wanís arm. Obi-Wan tried to move and his shoulder throbbed dully. It had not all been a dream then, but what . . .? "Master?"
"Itís all right, these people have healed you," Qui-Gon told him.
"What happened?" Obi-Wan wanted to know. "Where are we?"
"We are in a Voth village, under their care," was all Qui-Gon would say. No need for Obi-Wan to know everything all at once.
"But Ė "
"Rest now, Iíll tell you everything later," Qui-Gon assured him.
"This is a good idea Jedi Jinn," Dameema said, still giving him a hard look for being up without her approval. Qui-Gon raised his hands in a gesture of amused compliance. Giving Obi-Wanís arm another squeeze he started to return to his bed before Dameema carried him there. Obi-Wan tensed; his dream still weighed heavy on him and he did not want Qui-Gon to go. He was tempted to call out, to ask him to stay, just for a moment . . . but he held his tongue. Qui-Gon needed rest too, although he knew he himself would have none just now. Besides, he knew what his Master would say if told him of his fears, he would tell him not to center on his anxieties, he would tell him the future was not to be guessed, but shaped by the moment, he was always telling him things like that. Most of the time he was right, but as Qui-Gon himself had once told him about a blunder in a Phindian docking bay: "I was wrong, it happens sometimes." Obi-Wan could not shake the burning desire he had to tell Qui-Gon his dream, it seemed very important to him somehow. It had been so clear, he was convinced it was more than a dream, but just how much more? Well, it would have to wait for a little while. Obi-Wan stared up at the ceiling as the alien that Qui-Gon had called Dameema re-entered the room. "Your father is a stubborn man young one," she commented as she moved to his side.
Obi-Wan smiled slightly. "Yes, he is," he agreed quietly. Dameema studied his shoulder through the bandage. The final layer of skin was just in the last stages of forming. The bandage could come off soon, and he too, could begin therapy, as Qui-Gon had two days ago. Placing her hand over his wound, she helped speed the process up.
Obi-Wan looked at her, amazed. He could feel what she was doing, but had no idea how she did it. He had felt certain there would be no more rest for him at the moment, but with the rush of healing signals Dameema was sending into his body, came an incredible sleepiness. As his eyelids closed, he heard the Voth saying softly: "Yes, yes Obi-Wan, rest is good for healing . . ."
Obi-Wanís lightsaber moved methodically through the air, itís blue radiance illuminating the space around him. His feet moved through the well-known steps, not needing Qui-Gonís deep voice to guide him. "First defensive posture, second defensive posture, third, fourth, now back to the ready position." Qui-Gon did not need to correct him on his stance, his stance was fine, he was well trained. But wielded with one hand, his lightsaber did not cut the clean arcs and paths it was accustomed to, or rather, it did, but with a small amount of hesitancy, and effort. Obi-Wan felt it too as he brought the blade up to his face in a sweeping salute and then, shut it off. He rubbed his bandaged shoulder.
"Does it hurt you my Padawan?" Qui-Gon asked in concern.
"No," Obi-Wan lied, pushing back the ache that made it a lie. It felt as if he had been working for hours, instead of mere minutes. He stretched his good arm, opening and closing his fist. He was not stiff; rather, he almost seemed to feel too loose. The muscles and tendons in his shoulder were re-growing fast, but were not yet to a stage that he could begin to use them again. His right arm remained useless and Dameema had put him in a kind of sling that bound his arm to him, wrapping across his shoulder and around his waist, holding the injured limb immobile. This enabled him to begin working with Qui-Gon to help keep the rest of his body in tune. Yet his body seemed to know that it was getting new members and that they did not yet work as one with the rest of him. It slowed him up a little, disturbing his usual balance. He silently vowed that that would change very soon. "Master," Obi-Wan still wanted to tell Qui-Gon about his dream. "When I was unconscious I had a dream, it Ė "
Qui-Gon lifted his hand. "This first, then we can talk. I think it is time for some other exercises," he said and Obi-Wan clipped his lightsaber to his belt. Together, they started out slow, with the basic training moves, Qui-Gon retraining his knee, Obi-Wan, his shoulder.
Dameema watched them from a corner of the room in fascinated silence. Their moves were so graceful and connected, like a dance, and yet so strong and definite. A great deal of power radiated from them as they moved, more and more so as they fell easily into sync with one another, seeming to move as one. She had never seen people like them.
Oh, she knew they were Jedi, but what did that mean? She had never seen a Jedi before, and knew next to nothing about them. The same was true of most of her people. Only a handful, like Rurrha, knew anything about these special ones that were called Jedi. Once, long ago on a distant part of the planet, a Jedi had been, the peace that was formed at that time, in that place was the longest lasting of any known in the history of Vtol Prime. At least, that was what Rurrha told her. Rurrhaís grandmother had been there. But peace never lasted long for the Voths, it was not in their blood. Always again, the fighting would start, and the healers, like Dameema and Rurrhaís grandmother and mother, would be pressed into service mending the wounded, so they could go out and kill some more, only to come in wounded again and again. Treated little better than slaves, and considered weak because of their lack of aggressiveness, many healers also died in the wars. It was so with Rurrhaís mother and grandmother both.
Dameema shook her head sadly. Eventually, most of the healers realized there was no life for them in Voth society, so they took off on their own to create their own society. Hidden from the rest of their people, away from the wars that plagued them, the healers had lived their secluded life here for the past three generations. Dameema was only a very little girl when her parents brought her here with them and already she had seen too much of war and bloodshed. This village was a haven, a paradise found to her as a child, as it was for many others. She was now entering middle age for a Voth and much had changed, all of it for the worse. Even having two healers for parents did not assure that their children would be healers, and there had been some intermarriage before they came here.
Rurrha had been very close to her grandmother, and her mother, before the warfare claimed their lives as it had so many, yet for all her knowledge and intelligence, Rurrha had not the amount of healing skill that both her grandmother, and mother had. They were a mixed lot now. No longer a society solely of healers, now there were many normal Voths in their village. One or two of which were on the council. Muahhal himself, though wise and respected, was not as purely a healer as she. Raised in a society that downplayed violence and warfare, the normal Voths were much more restrained than their ancestors, but nature had cursed them with warrior character, and Dameema feared that the whole circle would start over again, here, in their village. Especially with the current situation . . .
Later that day Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan walked together in the trees surrounding the Voth village. They knew better than to stray far, but the fresh air, and free movement was good for them. Dry leaves crunched under their feet as they walked side by side. Obi-Wan was still troubled about his dream. Qui-Gon could sense that his pupilís mind was disturbed, but he chose not to mention it.
"Master," Obi-Wan ventured finally. "I need to talk to you about something. I need to tell you something I saw."
"In your dream?" Qui-Gon did not slow his pace, but Obi-Wan did, causing him to lag slightly behind his teacher.
"Well, yes, but it was so vivid, so clear, that it hardly seemed a dream. I think it was something more . . ." the young Jedi tried to explain.
"The Voths gave you something to keep you in a deep sleep. Deeper than you are accustomed to," Qui-Gon half dismissed him. "It is possible that that left your mind open to darker dreams and made them seem clearer."
"Perhaps," Obi-Wan consented, "But Ė "
"Dreams can be dangerous, they are not always to be trusted," the Jedi Master warned, still walking. Qui-Gon did not know why he felt so reluctant to hear Obi-Wanís dream. He decided he simply felt that now was not the time. But deep down, it was more . . .
Obi-Wan wanted to stop, wanted Qui-Gon to listen to him. "Yes Master, but in it Ė "
"We will discuss it later," Qui-Gon interrupted him yet again.
Obi-Wan was getting frustrated. "But, Master, I feel that I must talk to you about it now," he said, remaining respectful.
"Patience," Qui-Gon said briskly. "Feelings are not always your best guide. Just as dreams are not. Sometimes they mean something, other times they are nothing more than random energy, and if Ė "
Obi-Wan could not understand why Qui-Gon kept brushing him off. Patience had never been his strong suit, and he lost hold of the little he had. "Why wonít you listen to me?! What are you afraid of?" he blurted out in frustration. The moment after he said it, he realized what he had just done and regretted it, but it was too late to take it back now. Qui-Gon stiffened. He turned and looked sharply at Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan actually flinched and took a step back as if he had been slapped. He hung his head, knowing he had done wrong. Not only had he interrupted and contradicted his Master, but he had rebuked and accused him, all of which were terrible transgressions. He sank to his knees in contrition, his head bowed. "Forgive me, Master," he whispered. Qui-Gonís disapproval cut him like a knife through his heart. He did not wish his Master to think him rebellious and disobedient. He simply could not shake the feeling that he must speak to Qui-Gon about this.
Obi-Wanís outburst made Qui-Gon question himself. Was he acting out of fear? If so, why? There was no tangibly understandable reason for him to not listen to Obi-Wanís dream, especially if his Padawan seemed to consider it so important. "Continue," he quietly gave Obi-Wan leave to speak. Obi-Wan ventured a glance up, but Qui-Gon had his back to his apprentice. Lowering his head again, Obi-Wan closed his eyes, recalling the painful dream to his mind. "We were fighting something Master, a dark, unknown terror. It backed us into a shadowed recess, where something evil waited for us."
Qui-Gon realized there was no call for him to be so rude as to listen to his Padawan with his back to him, and turned a little, so that he stood profile to Obi-Wanís kneeling form.
"Then, the scene shifted somehow," Obi-Wan looked pained. "But we were still fighting, only the evil seemed darker, more foul. Then, we were separated, or, or something, because I was no longer there. You were alone," Obi-Wan shook his head. "Alone, and then," Obi-Wan paused, turning his face up and willing Qui-Gon to look at him. Qui-Gon remained staring straight ahead. "And then, Master," Obi-Wan tried again. Slowly Qui-Gon turned to face his apprentice. He realized that Obi-Wanís face was streaked with tears. "And then you died. It killed you and I couldnít stop it." Obi-Wanís voice cracked. He did not mean to show such weakness to his Master, but it had been so real!
Qui-Gonís face softened, his eyes turning gentle again as they held Obi-Wanís. He did not perceive Obi-Wanís show of emotion as weakness, rather, he took it for what it was. A symbol of how deeply his Padawan cared for him. He sighed, and with the sigh, let his own fear and apprehension fly away and vanish into oblivion. He joined Obi-Wan, kneeling in front of him. "I know how deep your commitment is Obi-Wan, to the Force, to the Council, and to me. I may seem a mystery to you sometimes, but I would have you know that I feel the same for you," Qui-Gon continued to hold his eyes. "Nothing can ever break that. Not separation, not death." Obi-Wan flinched internally at the mention of death. Qui-Gon felt it. "Obi-Wan," he shook his head. "Death is not to be feared, it is inevitable," the Jedi Master spoke to himself, as well as to his pupil. "Perhaps your dream meant something, perhaps it did not. But someday I will die Obi-Wan, everyone does, it is part of life."
Obi-Wan knew this to be true; he had never worried about it before, not for his Master, not for himself, not for anyone. Yet, the dream haunted him, leaving him no peace.
Qui-Gon clasped Obi-Wanís hand tightly. "You were right to tell me the dream Obi-Wan, but fear of the future must not overshadow the present. Let it sharpen us, but do not let it rob us of the time we have, and of what we share now." Reaching out, Qui-Gon gently pulled his Padawanís head to his chest for a moment in an almost hug. "As long as you carry in your heart what I have taught you, I will never truly leave you," he whispered softly, "The Force will be with you Obi-Wan, always."
Qui-Gon released him, and together they knelt silently on the green grass of Vtol Prime. They remained that way for a long time meditating silently, content in eachotherís presence, and in the presence of the Force that flowed above, below, around and between them.
Obi-Wan leaned against the pile of pillows that supported him in a sitting position. He had mended rapidly in the past day or so, but his shoulder remained fragile and unusable. His Master sat across the room from him, his fingers together in a contemplative triangle, his gaze distant.
Obi-Wan wondered if he was thinking about their odd hosts. He himself had been thinking about them for a while. The Vothís were a private people, even as they healed the Jedi, they still seemed to view them as mistrusted outsiders, save perhaps, for Dameema. Their whole attitude was uncannily like a people at war, yet there was no sign of any enemies. The Voths were short on trust, but what Obi-Wan thought more strange was that although they were possessed of special, healing skills, they seemed even shorter on compassion than they were trust. Not only for the outsiders, but even for their own kind. Even in the short time they had been there, he had seen that. Qui-Gon was always encouraging him to study the ways and structures of other cultures when he was among them, it was the best way to avoid offence as well as propagate good will. Master Yoda had told him much the same thing back in his Temple days, and he knew that Master Yoda himself had studied the culture and lives of hundreds, possibly thousands of worlds and peoples during his long lifetime. He had already learnt much about the Voths, but some of it puzzled him. "Master," he said softly, offering Qui-Gon the option of not hearing him if he was concentrating intently on something. The Jedi Master was not, and bringing himself to focus on the moment turned his attention to his Padawan. "Yes, Obi-Wan?"
"Just what did happen when I was unconscious?" Obi-Wan wanted to know. It was unlike Qui-Gon to keep things from him, well, perhaps not entirely unlike, but it bothered Obi-Wan all the same.
Qui-Gon sighed. He had not held back from his apprentice intentionally, but it was hard to explain the situation when he was unsure of it himself. "We where hunted."
Obi-Wan nodded, he remembered that much. "And?"
"And they found us," Qui-Gon said simply. "The Vothís are Force sensitive, and gifted in healing, both with technology and their special power. They brought us here, and saved your life."
Obi-Wan absorbed what his Master told him. He was surprised, and yet, strangely, not. He was however, still puzzled. Why had the very creatures that had hunted them so fiercely decided to help them? "Itís strange Master, but Iíve been observing their society and it is very based on the principle of give and take. I mean, they donít seem to be the type to do something for nothing, especially not for those they consider outsiders."
"Indeed," Qui-Gon nodded. "You have observed well." It was no kind of answer, but then again, Obi-Wan had not really asked a question. Obi-Wan had a feeling he could not explain. He felt that somehow, Qui-Gon was not completely leveling with him about something. Patience, patience, he told himself. He and his Master shared almost everything, if there was something that Qui-Gon hesitated to tell him, then he had his reasons, and it would be clear in time. He knew this in his head, but in his heart was a strange unease.
From the next room, he heard Dameemaís voice. It was raised above its normal pitch and she seemed to be arguing with someone. Obi-Wan reflected that for a Voth, Dameema had been very friendly to her charges and exhibited the most amount of empathy they had seen here. He wondered what the problem was, but could not understand the language the argument was taking place in since they were speaking in Voth.
Dameema had been bandaging some cuts that Burhar had gotten in a fight when the representatives from the Elders came again. She clucked her tongue disapprovingly at the young Voth she was treating; it was the third time this week that someone had had to fix him up from something or another. When the two other Voths came in she looked up. She knew what they wanted before they even spoke. "We have come for the Jedi Dameema. The Elders will not be put off any longer."
"I tell you he is not ready yet!" Dameema was sick of them pestering her.
"He will have to be. They will wait no longer. Our situation is intolerable! We cannot Ė "
"I know very well what our situation is!" Dameema snapped curtly. "Iíll leave your job to you, you leave me to mine, and I tell you he is not ready!"
"Dameema," the male Voths took on an almost threatening air. "We have come to take him with or without your permission."
Qui-Gon stood in the doorway. He could not understand what they said either, but he knew very well what they were about. Dameema looked at him disconsolately. "Itís all right Dameema," he laid a hand on her shoulder as he joined the escort sent for him. Then, he simply followed them out. Truth was, Qui-Gon was not sorry to be summoned. He had waited much longer than he liked to find out just what exactly the Voths were expecting of him.
Obi-Wan entered the room just in time to see his Master leave. "Dameema, where is he going?" he felt a funny little twinge of apprehension in the pit of his stomach. He pushed it aside.
"He goes to see the Elders," she said softly, her gaze still fixed on the door where Qui-Gon had made his exit.
Obi-Wan thought he sensed something in her . . . was it sorrow? If it was it would be the first time he had felt it in any of her race. "Why?" he wanted to know.
Dameema glanced at him, as if just noticing his presence. The look in her eyes made his heart go strange for a moment. "They want to speak to him. It is a matter of . . . agreements."
"What agreements? Please Dameema, tell me," Obi-Wan thought he would scream if she kept acting so mysterious, but he controled himself. He was beginning to have a suspicion, and he was not sure he liked it.
"It is not for me to say . . ." the Voth hedged. Obi-Wan could tell that what she really meant was that she did not want to say.
Qui-Gon Jinn bowed his head towards the Elders in a gesture of respect. "You sent for me?"
"Yes, Jedi, it is time we discussed the payment of the debt you owe us," Muahhal got directly to the point. "Away to the east of here there are a certain set of caves . . ."
"Why keep him in the dark Dameema?" Burhar, forgotten until now, butted in rudely. "Let the outsider scum know what kind of price his life costs. Personally, I donít think heís worth it," the young Voth snarled with the kind of endearing attitude that got him into so many fights.
"Thatís enough Burhar!" Dameema snapped roughly.
Burhar smiled. Dameemaís anger did not bother him, and he enjoyed the look of alarm that spread across the humanís face at his words. Virtually the whole village had known what the Elders would demand of the Jedi Master long before they had seen fit to reveal it to Qui-Gon. It had been the idea from the start, Rurrhaís idea. Burhar however, did not like it. He would much rather see the two strangers dead.
Obi-Wanís stomach tightened. "Why Burhar? What price do you speak of?" he tried to remain composed.
Burhar laughed. "The stupid outsider Jedi sold his soul for you and the Elders will send him to his death. Good riddance I say."
Obi-Wan moved a pace closer to the gloating Voth, his equanimity gone. "What do you mean?"
Dameema stepped between them, trying to calm Obi-Wan and push him back. She growled a low hiss in her throat in Burharís direction. Obi-Wan refused to be pacified. The strange feeling he had had made sense now. Qui-Gon had made some kind of deal with the Vothís for their assistance, but what had he done to save his pupilís life, and what would the final cost be? "Answer me, what do you mean?!" Obi-Wan was almost ready to grab the smirking Voth by the front of his shirt if he did not answer him.
Burhar growled low in his throat, sliding off the table and crouching slightly as if anticipating, or inviting a fight with the human. "Stop it! Stop it now!" Dameema ordered sternly, but in vain. The last thing she wanted was a fight right here in her clinic, especially if it involved one of her patients. "Burhar, I want you out of here this moment!" but she might as well have been speaking to herself.
"He means that I have agreed to help the Voths, nothing more," Qui-Gonís calm voice from behind Burhar defused the quickly mounting tension. Qui-Gon brushed past the Voth and into the room. The look on Obi-Wanís face hurt his heart. He should have told his Padawan about the agreement before, he should not have found out like this. "I am sorry I did not tell you at once, I wanted all your strength on healing, not on worrying like you are now."
"But Master Ė "
"Itís no different than helping anyone else Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon said reasonably. "The Vothís get much of what they need to survive from a set of caves. Lately, there seems to be some problems when they send people in, and they need someone to investigate." Qui-Gon told him what the Elders had just told him.
"Why donít they investigate?" Obi-Wan had a very bad feeling about this.
"We have," Burhar put in helpfully from his place by the table. "Many of our people have gone, time and again. No one ever comes back from there. They say there is a nameless horror that has taken possession of the caves, one that drinks the blood of men."
Obi-Wan shuddered and Qui-Gon cast an annoyed glare in the young Vothís direction. Surely if he did not have anything useful to say he could move along.
"Obi-Wan, the Vothís need those caves, they cannot survive much longer without them and the resources they hold. It would be my duty to help them anyway." Qui-Gon reasoned well, but Obi-Wan could tell thatís just what he was doing, trying to convince him that there was nothing wrong. When Qui-Gon tried to convince him of something, rather than just stating it as so, it meant that he was not certain of it himself, and if he was going to do this, without being sure he should, it was definitely time to worry. Suddenly the way that Qui-Gon had phrased his last sentence struck Obi-Wan. His duty . . . "Our duty, Master."
"No," Qui-Gon shook his head gently. "Not yours, mine. It was I who made the agreement."
"But itís my life-debt!" Obi-Wan protested. He would not dream of letting Qui-Gon do this alone!
"But I accepted it, it is my responsibility now," Qui-Gon shook his head. "Besides, youíre in no condition to go anywhere yet. It would be foolish."
"More foolish than going alone? Forgive me Master, but I feel very strongly that if we are to live, we must continue to act as one," his eyes were centered on his Masterís. "If you do this alone, you will die Master, I have foreseen it!"
"Then let me go Obi-Wan!" Qui-Gon surprised his pupil by not arguing the point. "Examine your heart Padawan, you are acting out of fear! Not long ago you asked me what I was afraid of, and you were right, I was afraid, now examine yourself and find your fear, before it destroys your reason. Our destinies lie along different paths Obi-Wan."
"Yes, but not now, not yet!" He realized, horribly, that Qui-Gon was saying goodbye. Obi-Wan did not feel this was right. It could not be right!
Dameema watched the two Jedi silently. She could feel the tension in the air between them; it was so thick it was almost palatable.
"Remember what we spoke of before," Qui-Gon warned. Despite his earlier assertions, he too felt a strange, vague certainty that this would be his last mission, and he would not see his Padawan die with him. He had had a long life; Obi-Wan had barely begun his. Besides, there were other considerations. "We have a duty to continue our mission to Ralteer. Someone wanted us kept away bad enough to try to kill us, they must not succeed," Qui-Gon attempted to turn their thoughts back to business.
"They wonít, weíll go together Master, but I will not leave you!"
Qui-Gon still felt much fear in his apprentice, and that disappointed him. "Jedi must not fear death, nor separation. Yet you are letting that fear rule you Obi-Wan, and it is a doorway to the path to the Dark Side. You know this. Let go."
"But Master Ė "
"Sometimes our deepest loves are our greatest weakness. I know you care, but if you are not careful, that love can turn to hate." Qui-Gon studied his apprentice. He was a good student, studious, serious, and strong in the Force. Secretly, Qui-Gon acknowledged that he was the most apt Padawan he had ever trained, but he still had so much to learn. Great strength like his also meant great danger and Obi-Wan still had not learned how to let go, how to accept the death of someone he was so deeply connected with as his Master. Qui-Gon decided that it was time for him to learn now. Whatever the future held.
Obi-Wan did not fully understand what Qui-Gon said. How could love turn to hate? Were they not the very opposite of one another? "I do not understand Master."
"I know," Qui-Gon looked at him piercingly. "This is why it is dangerous. You are in turmoil Obi-Wan; you must never let that guide you."
"Is it more dangerous, than willingly throwing your life away?!" Obi-Wan knew that Qui-Gon was right, his mind was in turmoil, but this could not be right . . .!
Qui-Gonís voice tightened. "The Force controls our destinies, we must accept that."
"Not if I still have a part to play!" Obi-Wanís voice escalated with his Masterís.
"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gonís voice gained a sharp edge that Kenobi knew he deserved. "You will stay here and calm your mind!" Qui-Gon ordered. "I am going to see about the arrangements the Voths are making. I will return before I leave and we can finish this conversation when you have control of yourself." Qui-Gon held Obi-Wan for a long moment with his eyes before he turned and left him.
Dameema let her breath out, she did not realize she had been holding it. Had that been two Voths arguing like that, the disagreement would have quickly gone to blows, but of course, the Jedi were different. She was glad of that, yet the sparks of their confrontation had carried very real force behind it, and she had a feeling that she could only begin to feel the tip of the iceberg when it came to what was going on between them. After Qui-Gon left, everything was suddenly very quiet. Even Burhar was quiet. He slid outside without a sound, although he was still dissatisfied. He had wanted to pick a fight with the recuperating human. He saw nothing so special about these men, and would love to prove to everyone that they did not need the help of outsiders, that they were strong enough on their own.
Obi-Wan bowed his head. Qui-Gonís tongue lashing stung bitterly. His Master was gravely disappointed with him, and not without reason. He knew he had not exercised proper control of himself in their conversation. But he did not understand Qui-Gonís insistence that he must go alone. Obi-Wan bit back the rebellious anger that tried to creep into his heart at having been treated like a child. Qui-Gon had just warned him about anger and he was not about to add that to the list of things he had failed in today. Retreating to their back room and going to his knees in a meditative posture, Obi-Wan sought to find quiet in his troubled mind, searched for the still place where he could be one with the Force and things would make sense, but today, he could not find it.
"Is everything to your satisfaction Jedi Jinn?" Muahhal inquired as Qui-Gon tested one of the Voth weapons, weighing it in his hand. He sorely missed his lightsaber and had an uncomfortable feeling that he was going to miss it a lot more pretty soon. He nodded in response to the head Elderís question. "Everything seems ready, except, I will need a guide to take me to the place."
Muahhal nodded, turning to the throng of Voths that had gathered about to help prepare things, or to simply gawk. "We need some volunteers to act as guides. Who will take the Jedi to the caves?"
Everyone seemed to take one step back. "Not exactly a chorus of volunteers," Qui-Gon noted wryly, wondering just what was down in those caves. Whatever it was it had obviously inspired such fear in the normally fierce Voths that they turned pale at the thought of even going near them.
Muahhalís eyes sharpened as he scanned the frightened faces, each of them dropping their eyes in shame as he came to them. When his gaze lighted upon his daughter it hesitated. She did not flinch, but took a bold step forward. "Are all of you cubs and cowards?!" Rurrha snarled, looking disdainfully around her at her fellow Voths. "You make me ashamed of my race! I will go, alone if necessary. Who will come with me?" There were several long moments of silence. "I will go with you Rurrha," Purrudah broke the stillness, stepping forward. No one else moved.
"All right, thatís one," Rurrha studied her people with contempt. "Are there no other Voths among you Wearbats?" Her eye caught upon Burhar, on the fringe of the group. "Burhar, you talk big. Put your honor where your mouth is, come with us!"
Burhar snarled unhappily, but having been issued such a challenge had no choice but to accept or forever lose face with his people. Striding sulkily forward he joined Rurrha and Purrudah.
"That will be more than adequate, thank you," Qui-Gon cut the proceedings short before Rurrha could attempt to bring the entire clan with them. Three was already more than he needed. Their hesitancy was almost comical for ones so ferocious. After all, they were only going to show him the way, they werenít going to be actually doing anything. With that issue resolved everything was in readiness for Qui-Gonís departure, except one thing. Returning to the clinic he ran into Dameema in the front area. "Heís in the back," she said softly, aware what he had come for. "He has not moved since you left." Her gaze said that she did not understand, although what she did not understand was hard to say. Was it them? Their disagreement? Or was it her own Elders and their lack of compassion, or was it herself and the odd way she had come to care for these two strange outsiders so quickly? She did not know herself perhaps, and it did not really matter. What would happen now, would happen, whether or not she understood, or approved.
"Thank you Dameema, for everything youíve done for us," Qui-Gon replied, equally as soft. Not waiting for a reply he proceeded on and found his apprentice roughly where he had left him. The boy knelt in meditation, but he could tell that his mind was not calm. "Still troubled young Padawan?" it was not really a question.
Obi-Wan looked up. He had known Qui-Gon was there of course, and Qui-Gon knew he had known. "Yes, Master. I do not see the need for you to pursue this course alone," Obi-Wan rose to his feet. "Nor the wisdom in it." His voice and manner was now calm, even if his mind and heart were not.
"It is not necessary for you to understand everything. Wisdom comes to those who wait, and accept." Qui-Gon ignored the combativeness of his studentís words and changed the subject. "The Voths seem primitive at first glance, but from things I have heard there is reason to believe that they do possess ships capable of space travel, or at least, know of someplace that does. You must secure the use of one of these and continue to Ralteer. When you get there you must speak directly to the Ė "
"Here," Obi-Wan interrupted, unclipping his lightsaber from his belt. "I want you to take this Master. You can use it better than I can right now."
"No, Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon refused, laying his hand gently on Obi-Wanís injured shoulder. "Youíll need it on your mission."
"But Iím not going," Obi-Wan defied quietly. "I am going with you."
Qui-Gonís eyes flashed and Obi-Wan saw that he had actually made his teacher angry, but the younger Jedi did not back down.
"I cannot stay behind Master, I have tried, I have searched, but I have no peace about it!"
"Obi-Wan," Qui-Gon snapped, his grip on his Padawanís shoulder tightening painfully. "In the first place you are in no condition to accompany me, in the second you already have another job to do!"
Obi-Wan winced and started to shrug his not-yet healed shoulder away from his Masterís firm grip, but then he stopped. Squaring his shoulders he accepted the pain and looked directly into Qui-Gonís eyes. "You cannot stop me," he said quietly. Their eyes locked, blue on blue. Silently, their wills clashed. Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wanís inner battle. He wanted to obey his Master, but in truth, he did have no peace about this situation. Sadly, Qui-Gon realized he could not leave his apprentice behind. Obi-Wan was not ready. If he ordered him to stay now, and did not come back, the fear inside Obi-Wan would turn to anger, and the anger would destroy him. Some things were worse than death, and Master Jinn knew it would be better for Obi-Wan to die with him than to be left so open to the temptings of the Dark Side. He would not lose another the way he had lost Xanatos, but he was not at all pleased with this situation. Qui-Gon withdrew his will. He turned sharply and started walking away. "Come then," he said brusquely. "But your folly may kill us both," Qui-Gon did not speak the words, he did not need to.
Obi-Wan followed. He knew he had won the argument, but had lost some of his Masterís respect. That hurt him, but at the same time, he knew he had to do what he believed was right. He and his Master would just have to work this out. However, from the set squaredness of Qui-Gonís tall shoulders and the distance of his mind, Obi-Wan knew that it was not going to be easy.
When the time for departure came, Obi-Wan fell into place several paces behind his Master who still seemed to have nothing to say to him. The Padawan repressed a slight shiver as the group prepared to start out. The day was not really chilly, but he felt inexplicably cold. Not only because of Qui-Gonís distance, but also at the prospect of following unfriendly guides, through an unfriendly world to find a place where unknown danger lurked with a man who did not want him there. And there was something else . . . some creeping dread that he could not explain. A strange and subtle certainty that oneís death was at hand. He had been feeling it for a while now; it was perhaps, in part, what had contributed to his and Qui-Gonís argument. It seemed to him like a long, dark shadow or mist, which reached out its clammy fingers towards them, chilling him and seeming to breathe out fear and death.
Rurrha, in the lead, set off and the others followed her. Every step seeming to take them further and further into the dark shadow.
It was a long and silent trek. The two Jedi found very little to say to one another and the tension between them did nothing to help the feeling of impending doom which hung over the group.
If the Voths noticed the stress between their human companions, they did not let it show. They had their own worries and as they drew closer to the caves their apprehensive attitudes turned to outright fear.
"Tell me," Obi-Wan approached Rurrha.
Rurrha jerked slightly as if he had surprised her.
"Iím sorry," Obi-Wan apologized.
"What did you want to know?" Rurrha refused to admit that she had been startled.
"I was just wondering why these caves where so important to you. Master Qui-Gon said you got much of what you need from them, but what?" Obi-Wan asked as much to break the silence as to find out exactly what they were risking their lives for.
"Energy," the female Voth answered simply. "I donít know about your people, but we find that we need power to fuel many of the devices necessary to daily life," she explained when she saw by the look on his face that Obi-Wan had not understood her first answer. "Unfortunately, we have no way to produce our own power out here. For a while we were at a loss, then we discovered the energy crystals growing in the caves and came up with a way to harvest and convert their power. It worked quite well until Ė "
"Until our harvesters started going down and not coming up again," Burhar interrupted morosely.
It made sense to Obi-Wan now. Things he had not even noticed when he was with the Voths came back to him. The way Dameema would not turn on the lights after dark unless she had a patient, or other pressing need, the way the alarm system failed, enabling a pack of Woves to make off with a lot of their supplies, the worrying he had heard about their food spoiling. With no way to harvest the crystals, the Voth village was running out of power.
"Arenít there any other caves you could harvest out of?" he asked.
Rurrha shook her head. "We have searched long and hard. Many caves we have found, but none that grow the energy crystals."
"Whatís the matter outsider? You donít want to live up to the bargain? What, the big, tough, Jedi outsider scared?" Burhar taunted.
Obi-Wan chose to ignore the annoying Voth who was obviously much more scared than he was. He thanked Rurrha for the information and dropped back a few paces, preferring to walk alone. His gaze sought out Qui-Gonís tall form, walking near Purrudah some distance ahead of him.
"You are a stupid one I think," Burharís voice, close to his ear, pulled Obi-Wan from his thoughts. "You could have stayed, but you choose death."
"The future is not so certain," Obi-Wan replied, trying to keep his calm and hoping Burhar would go away. He didnít.
"More certain if youíd stayed, why didnít you?" Burhar had no intention of leaving the apprentice alone.
"Because I will not allow my Master to face this alone," Obi-Wan kept his eyes on the path ahead.
"Why?" Burhar was intentionally pestering him, but he was genuinely curious as well. "We saved your life, so the outsider Jinn does this for us; this makes sense, but why do you come?"
"Because . . ." Obi-Wan struggled to find the words to explain it and was frustrated when he could not. "Just, because. Canít you understand? Have you no idea what itís like to do something simply because you care for someone?"
"No," Burhar replied honestly. "It doesnít work that way. Voths donít do something for nothing. No one does anything without a reason. You hunt because you need to, you eat because it fills you, you build because it covers you from the elements, you play because it pleases you, you marry to propagate your species and, well," Burhar smiled, "Because it pleases you. No one goes out into a field and moves rocks around just because, only if they want to farm, no one waits all day by a brook, unless they want to catch a werebat. You get something for what you do, or it isnít worth doing, true?"
Obi-Wan could tell that the troublesome Voth was not simply trying to irritate this time, he was serious.
"Perhaps," Obi-Wan admitted. "There is generally a reason to why we do, what we do. But sometimes you have to look beyond the obvious to see the reason for doing something. You speak of pleasure as a valid reason for doing something, so if someone enjoyed moving rocks around, or sitting by the stream, then that would be reason enough to do it, wouldnít it?"
Burharís eyes narrowed in thought. "I suppose," he said hesitantly. "But you canít be enjoying this. Your friend does not even want you here, yes? So why?" the young Voth came back to the question like a broken record.
Obi-Wan gathered his patience. "Because I feel in my heart it is the right thing to do, and if I do otherwise I will not be able to live with myself. I would not enjoy that, do you see?"
"So, you are going because you do not want to feel bad?"
"Well," Obi-Wan ran his hand through his hair, his frustration mounting again. That wasnít exactly what he meant, but perhaps it was as close as he could get Burhar to understand. "Sort of."
"And youíre so sure that what you feel is right, that it is what will keep you from feeling bad?" Burhar prodded.
"No, I donít know, all right?" Obi-Wan semi-exploded, his patience wearing thin at last. The last thing he needed was this irritating being raising the questing that kept running through his own head, the one he couldnít answer. Burharís words rubbed salt in the open wound that that question had created between he and Qui-Gon. "I donít know. I just donít know what else to do!" Obi-Wan stopped himself just short of demanding what business it was of Burharís anyway. He realized he was reacting just the way the Voth wanted.
Qui-Gon paused and looked over his shoulder. Obi-Wan did not know if he had heard, or only felt, his outburst, but it shamed him. Quickening his step, he attempted to leave Burhar behind. Burhar tried several times to engage him again, but Obi-Wan knew his tolerance level and wisely refused to answer. Eventually the Voth gave up.
The green carpet of moss, grass and bracken slowly gave way to the slabs of red-grey rock and the trees grew scarcer and spindlier. The ground inclined slightly up now and through the thinning trees they could see a slate and rust colored outcropping in the distance. The crumbling rock face reared up a little under 60 feet high before plateauing off into a rocky tree field. Huge, bare tree-roots were visible here and there amidst the rocks, both destroying the cliff slowly, and holding it together at the same time.
The effect the sight of the cave had on the Voths was dramatic.
Rurrha clenched her hands at her sides and her face became set as if she were forcing herself onward, battling the foes of her own fear.
Purrudah scowled and started mumbling something under his breath, quickly and repeatedly, as if it were a prayer, or an incantation.
Burhar actually flinched and hung back, kept only from bolting and running because he would not lose face in front of Rurrha and Purrudah and because he would not be out-braved by a couple of outsiders!
Qui-Gon tried to reach ahead and scan the area, but was confronted by such raw fear that he had to withdraw his mind quickly. He could perceive nothing of the path before them except darkness.
Their Voth guides stopped about a hundred meters away from the opening of the subterranean caverns; they would go no closer. "You are on your own now outsiders," Purrudah informed them briskly.
"We wish you luck," Rurrha said sincerely. Burhar said nothing.
The two Jedi faced the cave alone. Alone. How ironic that they stood here, together, and yet so totally alone. Separated by the rift that had come between them they were each left to battle the darkness before them on their own. Had the distance between Master and Padawan really stretched so tight so fast? Or was it accentuated by the overwhelming emotions exuding from the cave before them? Neither could say.
They proceeded forward cautiously towards the foreboding hole in the rock. Sharp stones like teeth lined the entry and terror like a vapor flowed from itís gaping mouth.
Obi-Wan paused just inside the cave entrance. The darkness was so deep it made him dizzy. "Master," he bade Qui-Gon wait for a moment. "We canít go in like this." He did not explain what he meant; he did not need to. Qui-Gon could feel the estrangement between them just as well as he could.
Obi-Wan could not remember a time when they had gone into any kind of danger without feeling connected, as if they were one in purpose and in soul. How could they work together when they were so closed to one another? It was inviting disaster.
Qui-Gon resisted the urge to tell Obi-Wan: "Then stay here." It would have done no good. Obi-Wan would not stay, and it would only push them further apart. "Optimally, danger is faced only when one is at peace and in tune with the Force. However, because of the choices we make, that is not always possible," Qui-Gonís tone was neutral and un-accusatory, but Obi-Wan knew he was talking about him. "In that case, one must try to put other conflict aside and center on what the Forces is telling you now, about the moment. It is the only thing one can do." Qui-Gon spoke as a teacher, neither angry, nor conciliatory.
Obi-Wan couldnít read his Master at all. He felt maddeningly as he had when he was twelve years old and struggling to understand the calm, reserved man that was Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. He hadnít realized how close they had become until now, when he seemed to find himself right back at square one.
Qui-Gon was already descending the dark passage ahead and Obi-Wan hurried to catch up.
The passage was narrow and slanted sharply downwards. The ceiling hung about four feet above them, but in a few places Qui-Gon had to duck his head. They moved cautiously to avoid losing their footing on the slant. The light faded as they moved further in. About twenty yards in and fifteen down, the tunnel took a sharp turn to the left and the light from the entrance was no longer useful. Switching on the lights the Voths had provided them with they proceeded. The glow-boxes swayed back and forth as they hung from their belts, making the light dance around them and the shadows stretch and mutate like tormented souls.
Burned-out lighting strips hung dejectedly from the walls and support girders here and there gave proof to the presence of the Voths in this place before whatever had moved in here came. The air grew warmer as they proceeded deeper and deeper. The tunnel twisted and turned, but their guides had assured them that there was only one passage leading down to the caverns where the badly needed energy crystals grew. So far they were right; despite itís tortuous nature, there were no turn-offs or side tunnels to be seen.
Again and again, both Jedi tried to probe the darkness before them, tried to get an idea of what waited at the end of this tunnel, but they could perceive nothing past the darkness that clouded their mental sight. It was uncomfortable to try, because reaching out meant touching and partially opening oneself to unreasoning fear that seemed to lie ahead.
Obi-Wan tried not to focus on the feedback he was getting through the Force, on the way the walls themselves seemed to shriek. He tried remain calm and collected, but turmoil that had been building in him robbed him of his center.
Qui-Gon felt the conflict that still raged in his Padawan, but it seemed a mere side note compared with whatever was going on in here. He had already given Obi-Wan all the advice he could for the moment, it was up to the apprentice to carry it out. Right now the mission needed to dominate his mind, and Obi-Wanís.
The passage became wider and taller until their lights no longer penetrated all the way to the ceiling and inky darkness hung over them. Qui-Gon guessed they were nearing the bottom.
The lights on their belts showed them that the walls, which were until now only bare rock, were beginning to show traces of a fibrous substance that clung to the rocks like tangled, loosely woven ropes. Their boots began to stick slightly and they found that the floor was covered with the same substance. Qui-Gon tested one of the strands on the wall. His hand stuck to it and he had to struggle to get it loose, it cohered with surprising tenacity.
Obi-Wan crouched down to examine the floor. It was covered with the same sticky fibers, but there were other things too he now noticed. A Voth knife, one of their long, slim, bowcaster-style weapons like Qui-Gon carried, a dead glow-cube, a utility pouch and an assortment of things that looked like mining equipment. All these things lay scattered about the floor, partially stuck under or in the sticky stuff. Obi-Wan guessed there were more outside the circle of his light. Here were some of the missing Vothís belongings, but where . . ? Something made him look up, playing his light across the ceiling above their heads. Only his Jedi training kept the cry inside of him. Speechless, he tugged on Qui-Gonís sleeve, pointing up.
Qui-Gon followed his apprenticeís gaze, aiming his light up as well. He was repulsed by what he saw. Dangling from the ceiling not seven feet above their heads were the lifeless bodies of some of the previous Voth exploration and harvesting parties, or at least, what was left of them.
The bodies were wrapped in cocoons of the same fibrous substance that loosely lined the floor and walls; some dangled upside down, some upside right. What showed of them through the wrapping looked strange, mummified, and empty, as if only their skin and bones remained. As if everything else had been sucked out of them.
Shining their lights across the ceiling, as far ahead as they would go, revealed more bodies, perhaps dozens. Qui-Gon whistled softly. "No, wonder theyíre afraid of this place."
"Now we know what happened to them all," Obi-Wan nodded.
"Actually, we only know part of it," Qui-Gon corrected, stepping forward cautiously.
Obi-Wan knew he was right. They still didnít know what had done this, but they must be close now. Obi-Wan drew his lightsaber with his good arm, holding it un-ignited, but ready. The feel of it in his hand was comforting and he was glad that Qui-Gon had refused to take it. The tunnel broadened out until the echo of their footsteps told them that they had left the tunnel all together and now stood in the middle of a very large, empty cavern.
No. Not totally empty. There were the bodies on the ceiling and. . .
The Force screamed a warning and Qui-Gon dodged. He ducked and rolled as something shot past him, hitting the ground where he had been with a sticky splat. Springing to his feet once more he suddenly felt himself overcome with the most powerful feeling of fear he had ever encountered. It was so thick he could taste it, sheer terror, striving to paralyze him where he stood. The light on his belt shone up, up, up, illuminating the giant form of a huge, hairy, eight-legged beast. It resembled a monstrous spider, three times Qui-Gonís size.
NO! NO! The Jedi Master fought the fear that was attempting to actually, physically paralyze him. Raising the weapon he held, he pulled back the bolt and let it go. The spider-like creature pulled itself up one of its webs at the last moment, evading the shot.
Itís luminous, multi-faceted eyes reflected the light from their glow-boxes, shining at them out of the darkness with an eerie effect.
Qui-Gon looked around. Where was Obi-Wan? Why didnít he turn on his lightsaber?
Obi-Wan stood, rooted to the spot. Terror like he had never known coursed through his body, paralyzing him, rendering him helpless. Just as smaller species of arachnids use venom to paralyze and subdue their victims, so this spider used a kind of mental, telepathic venom. It froze itís victims, convincing them that they would die and there was nothing they could do, until they were safely wrapped up in itís web, and there was nothing they could do.
Had Obi-Wan been clear of mind and completely centered, it would have failed, as it had with Qui-Gon, but because of everything that had happened Obi-Wan was not entirely focused, and the creature slipped itís venom into his mind. Sticky bands of steel wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his chest.
Too late, Qui-Gon pieced it all together. It was this feeling of certain doom that had been affecting both of them, even from a distance; this darkness that whispered your own death in your ear, which had been at the bottom of their quarrels.
"Obi-Wan!" he reached out, trying to free his Padawanís mind as he drew back the bolt to fire again, he desperately wished he had his lightsaber. "Obi-Wan, youíve got to fight it!" To Qui-Gonís relief, Obi-Wan was already starting to do so. Firing at the monster repeatedly, Qui-Gon backed him off of Obi-Wan for a moment.
Obi-Wan struggled with the thick webbing that bound him, only having one arm to use made it even harder and the webbing chafed painfully against his injured shoulder. He was free of itís control, but not of itís web as the spider came around for another pass.
Qui-Gon fired just to distract it, he had already realized that the shells had little effect on the tough, exoskeletal creature. Grabbing Obi-Wanís lightsaber from his pinned hand; Qui-Gon flicked it on and used it to cut the webs that bound the young Jedi. Obi-Wan flung off the sticky, tattered remains and they both ducked swiftly as the spider shot needle-sharp spines from itís legs at them. This was not going well.
The beast was obviously perplexed that they were putting up such a resistance, but it was not about to give up. It danced above them, itís long, hairy legs swinging as it tried to pin them with itís web or get them with itís darts. It moved with incredible speed for something so large.
The two Jedi still seemed a trifle out of sync with each other and were not as effective as they might have been.
Obi-Wan, wielding his lightsaber one handed, hacked at one of the bruteís legs as it dived at them, but the arachnid was too fast and all that happened was he nearly lost his balance.
The spider drew itself up on a web, preparing to pounce down on them from above. Qui-Gon had an idea. Aiming his weapon at the web the spider dangled from, he fired. Obi-Wan knew what Qui-Gon was going to do and at last the pair worked as one.
The shot severed the spiderís web and sent it crashing to the ground before it could toss out a new one. When it landed, Obi-Wan was right there. Deflecting several barbs with his blade in an instant, he moved in close enough to land a direct blow to the creatureís huge, black body. The air was filled with a nasty smell and spider thrashed violently, knocking Obi-Wan down. A few moments later, and it was all over, the spider lay dead.
Obi-Wan pulled himself to his feet and found that Qui-Gon was by his side. Both were breathing heavily, glad that this was over . . . but their relief was short lived. A soft rumbling started, like the patter of many soft, but heavy feet. Out of the darkness glowing eyes surrounded them on every side.
"Weíve uncovered a whole nest of them!" Neither Qui-Gon nor Obi-Wan knew exactly which of them thought it, but it didnít matter, they both felt the same. If they thought the fear attack from one spider was bad, they were corrected now. Nothing came close to the incredible onslaught that a whole pack of the beings presented.
For a moment, time stood still and the Jedi scrambled to regroup and prepare. Then the black wave rushed at them, dozens of spiders strong. Swarming over the floor, the walls, the ceiling, even over each other, they converged on the two men like a deadly tidal wave.
Bracing themselves, the pair waited until the exact last moment, before swinging into action. The spiders were all around them; they felt buried and suffocated by them. There was no time for thought, no time for anything other than listening to, and following what the Force led them to do. Turn, jab, slash, jump, duck, dodge, roll, slash . . .
It all moved so fast, and yet so horribly slow. Qui-Gon bit back a cry as one of the darts caught him in the side. It stuck him like a porcupine quill. The wound was not dangerous in and of itself, but Qui-Gon guessed that there was probably poison on the sharp barbs. He pulled it out quickly.
Obi-Wan was knocked to the ground. His tender shoulder struck the hard floor with painful force and his glow-cube shattered against the stone.
A narrow miss took out Qui-Gonís light as well, leaving them in darkness, save for the blue glow of Obi-Wanís saber. Everything after this passed in a sort of blur that neither of them could truly recall the details of later. Darkness, the spiders, webs, darts, it all wove itself into a deadly kind of dance, played out to the unheard music of desperation.
Qui-Gon found that if you fired directly into their eyes, which still glowed, reflecting the light of Obi-Wanís blade, you could by-pass their armor-like shell and fell them.
Obi-Wan chopped off more spider legs than he could count, and still they came at them. The Jedi were wearing out, and there was that persistent terror still trying to clutch them, how long could they go on this way?
The spiders slowly pushed them backward, trying to trap them against the wall. Obi-Wan could feel Qui-Gon beside him, but he could not see him in the darkness.
Qui-Gon became aware of a small crevasse behind them and a little off to their right. If they could get in there, the spiders could not follow, that would give them a badly needed breather and they could regroup for their next move. "Obi-Wan, to your right," Qui-Gon said, giving him the mental image of the crevasse he had found.
Obi-Wan started to follow, but froze as crystal clear images formed in his mind. Images he had seen of this, before, in his dream . . . "No, Master!" he called out suddenly, halting Qui-Gon before he could dart inside. He had no time to explain, but the urgency in his voice was enough to let Qui-Gon know that something was not right. That gave him the split-second warning he needed when the seemingly small crack swung open and three more spiders rushed out him. He dodged, shooting one in the eyes. If they had both gone in there, with those spiders waiting for them . . . he did not allow himself to think about the consequences. He was suddenly not so sorry that Obi-Wan had come.
How long the struggle lasted, neither of them knew. It seemed to take an eternity, but they made it. As the last spider convulsed in death Obi-Wan let his lightsaber drop out of his numb fingers and sank to his knees in exhaustion.
Qui-Gon leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. Both had received enough strikes from the spidersí darts to have appreciable amounts of poison in their bodies, and they were feeling the effect. At least with the death of the spiders the mind-numbing terror had ceased, although the cavern still reeked with evil, even as it did with the smell of charred spider.
"Come on," Qui-Gon took Obi-Wan by his good arm, helping him up. "Letís get out of here. Fresh air will do us both good."
Obi-Wan nodded, but had to lean on Qui-Gon to make it back up the long, steeply sloping tunnel. He felt sick and it was not only the results of the spidersí poison.
The two men staggered out of the cave, almost blinded by the bright sunlight that greeted them. Obi-Wan sank to the ground again and Qui-Gon thought that sounded like a pretty good idea. For a moment they just sat there, reveling in the fresh, clean beauty of the forest after the terrible nightmare of the cave, re-gathering their spent strength. Then Qui-Gon noticed that Obi-Wan was shaking violently, his head bowed against the rock he leaned upon. "Are you all right?" he asked in concern.
Obi-Wan looked up; his eyes were red. "I am so sorry Master," he whispered hoarsely. "I understand now. I understand what you were trying to teach me. I was afraid, and I nearly got us both killed down there because of it, I am so sorry!" The padawan looked away, overcome by what he perceived as his failure.
Qui-Gon gently turned Obi-Wanís head back towards him. "Look at us Obi-Wan," there was a slight smile in his voice. "Weíre neither of us killed, and if you learned something from this, then I say it was worth it. I learned something too," he admitted. "Even as I warned you about the dangers of acting out of fear, I was doing the same thing. I was afraid that I would lose you, either to death or the Dark Side, I was afraid that I had failed you as a teacher for not better preparing you for this moment. But if you had not been with me, I donít know if I would be alive now. This has been a learning experience, for both of us."
Obi-Wan was relieved to find the tension between them slipping away and managed a small smile. "I hope not all lessons will be so hard to learn."
Qui-Gon laughed. "I hope so too! This is something I would not care to repeat!" Qui-Gon rose and helped Obi-Wan to do the same. "Well, the Voths should be happy at any rate."
"Where are they?" Obi-Wan looked around. He had expected them to be waiting for them, but he saw no trace of Rurrha, Purrudah, or Burhar. Had they all been so afraid that they ran away, certain that the Jedi would fail?
The sounds of a fight drew their attention. When they reached the spot, they saw not the three Voths they had left, but eight. The five new Voths were attacking their three guides. They fought ferociously with claw and fang, shunning weapons even though they carried them.
Rurrhaís party was badly outnumbered. Even as she struck a deathblow to one of her attackers, she heard Purrudah give a low, gurgling cry that told her he was gone, or soon to be.
Suddenly the two Jedi appeared through the trees.
Rurrha was surprised, she had hoped, but not really expected, to see them alive again. Several of the foreign Voths turned upon the outsiders. The young Jediís light sword came up, and the older one raised the Voth weapon he carried. In a matter of moments Rurrha, Burhar, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan were the only ones left standing in the glade.
Obi-Wan flicked his lightsaber off, surveying the scene of carnage with disgust. He wished they could have stopped the Voths without killing them, but there hadnít been time and the ferocity with which they attacked the Jedi had not permitted it.
"You Jedi are special," Rurrha said softly, her gaze switching from one, to the other. They had survived the cave and now this . . . was there anything they couldnít do?
Burhar leaned against a tree, his arm bloody, his breathing short. "Why did you help us? This wasnít your fight." His tone was almost combative.
"When they attacked us, they made it our fight," Qui-Gon said simply, doubting the Voth would understand anything else. "Would you rather we hadnít?"
Burhar looked sullen, but did not answer.
Rurrha was kneeling by Purrudah, but there was nothing she could do for him, even had her healing skills been stronger, it was too late. She sent up a low, cat-like wail in which Burhar joined, mourning the loss of their companion.
Qui-Gon guessed it was a custom, but when Rurrha got up again, there were tears in her clear eyes. Purrudah had obviously been a good friend.
"The caves are safe again," Obi-Wan reported softly, wishing in some way to lighten the sorrow she was obviously experiencing.
"Then you have done your job Jedi, you are free of your debt to us," Rurrha said, but a glazed, determined look was taking over her features, as if she was preparing for further battle.
"For all the good it does us now," Burhar snorted, binding his arm up as best he could. Rurrha stepped over to help him.
"What do you mean?" Qui-Gon wanted to know.
"Donít you get it? They have found us. Their numbers are greater, and their warriors fiercer," Burhar spat this last part as if he took shame in the fact. He winced as Rurrha finished his arm. "The village will not survive." Both he and Rurrha turned to go.
"I am sorry we must part this way Jedi," Rurrha offered by way of parting. "But may the leaves of your trees be green and your rains fall in the right seasons."
"Wait, where are you going?" Qui-Gon called after them as they started away through the trees.
"Back to our Village," Rurrha called back. "To stand with our people."
"And die with them," Burhar added, but he said it with pride, as if it were an honor.
The Voths were a strange, rough, law-bound people, but Qui-Gon hated to see them destroying each other this way. He thought of Dameema, and the other Voths of the village, they were trying to find a way out, they just didnít know how. If only there was a way to make them all see how pointless this was . . .
Obi-Wan glanced at Qui-Gon. "Uh, oh," he thought. His Master had that look on his face, and he knew what was coming next.
"We will go with you," he said decidedly. "If you will agree to follow my plan."
Obi-Wan tried not to stare at his Master. It was not their affair, it was not their concern, but did that matter to Qui-Gon? No. Obi-Wan thought this, but he said nothing, because suddenly he realized, wasnít that exactly what he had been trying to explain to Burhar on the way here? That sometimes you did things that did not profit you, and were none of your business, simply because it was the right thing to do?
Both Voths looked at them in shock. "Why?" Burhar wanted to know. "Itís none of your business."
"Maybe not," Qui-Gon shrugged. "It wouldnít be the first time . . ." "But you need help. Things cannot continue as they are, that is obvious. We can help you a little, but in the end, itís all up to you. You are unsatisfied with the ways of the other Voths, that is why you are hiding is it not? Perhaps we can make a difference, if you can put away your own desire for blood. To stop a war, one side must decide to stop fighting. Now you must ask yourselves, do you really want to change? If so, weíll help you try to change the other Vothsí minds. If not, there is nothing we can do for you."
Burhar scowled, but Rurrha stroked her chin thoughtfully. "What do you mean Jedi?"
The scene in the village was one of chaos. Fighting, blood and bodies were everywhere. Dameema stood in the doorway of her house and watched their world fall apart, again. She resolved inside herself that she would die with her people, but she would not fight. She was a healer; she would not kill.
From the trees to the north a horn blared, attempting to catch the attention of the warring Voths. It did. Dameema looked and found that it was Burhar who blew the horn, and with him stood Rurrha and the two Jedi. They had survived the cave! But what were they doing here now?
At the sight of the two foreign off-worlders, the Voths momentarily ceased their struggle to investigate. They massed around the Jedi, looking them over from head to foot.
Obi-Wan did not particularly like the way they looked at them. Qui-Gon remained unfazed.
"Who are you? What do you want here outsiders? Have you taken up with these cowardly werebats?" one of the new Voths growled.
"I am Qui-Gon Jinn and this is Obi-Wan Kenobi. We have come merely to ask a question," Qui-Gon said calmly.
"Why should we take questions from you? We donít like outsiders here!" a large Voth with a scar across one cheek snarled. He smiled at them and nodded slightly towards the Voths behind him. "I think weíve found ourselves a couple of prizes. Weíll bring home two outsider scalps along with these cowardsí!"
Obi-Wan fingered the lightsaber on his belt with his good hand, but he doubted that they could fight off all of them at once, what with his handicap and both of them already drained from their exhausting battle with the spiders.
Qui-Gon did not wish to have this go to warfare, that was what he wanted to stop! But the Voths did not want to listen; they had no reason to. He would have to give them a reason and it would have to be one that appealed to them. He was not unprepared for this, he had known very well that the Voths would most likely need something to catch their attention.
"Very well," he said calmly. "If fighting is all you understand, then I propose a contest." He could tell that grabbed their interest, just like he had thought. "One of you against me. If you win, you may continue to destroy yourselves anyway you wish, but if I win you must promise to hear my question and listen to what I have to say. Is it a deal?"
"No, Master! Donít do it!" Obi-Wan thought helplessly. Qui-Gon was tired and worn from battle and the Voths were easily twice as strong as a man. Yet he had not gone through this whole experience and learned nothing. He reached out to the Force for guidance and felt it calm him. Qui-Gon knew what he was doing. Obi-Wan had to trust and surrender him to the future, whatever it would be.
The new Voths laughed. The village Voths looked grim and puzzled. What was the Jedi doing now? They knew he was unusual, they had seen him back off Burhar and Purrudah when Obi-Wanís life hung in the balance, but could any human hope to win an all out fight with a Voth? They didnít know.
Truth to tell Qui-Gon didnít know either.
"Weíll take your deal outsider!" scar-face roared with laughter. "And when itís all over Iíll wear your hair from my belt!" Without further ado the Voth jumped at Qui-Gon, initiating the battle. Qui-Gon dodged a sweep of razor sharp claws and landed a quick kick in the Vothís ribs.
It was an unspoken rule that neither of them would use weapons of any kind other than their hands, feet and in the Vothís case, claws.
They went at it, tangling and parting, circling warily, tangling and then parting once more. At first, the Voth enjoyed himself. It was all a big game to him. But as the match dragged on he began to become frustrated with his opponentís skill and endurance. He would look very bad in front of his fellows if he could not soon subdue this puny little human.
Qui-Gon hopped back, breathing heavily. The Voth was strong and his own strength already depleted. His knee was beginning to throb and he knew he had stressed the still healing joint much too much today.
The Voth swung and Qui-Gon ducked away, but not before the Vothís sharp claws slashed his shoulder and chest. Qui-Gon pushed the pain away, but he was weakening. Then, he felt Obi-Wan reach out to him, sharing his strength with his teacher.
Feinting an attack from the right, Qui-Gon swerved at the last instant and gave the Voth a powerful blow from the left that sent him staggering.
The Warrior Voths murmured unhappily. They did not want their leader, and thusly themselves, disgraced by actually losing this battle.
Obi-Wan was so focused on the fight and on bidding Qui-Gon strength that he did not notice the Voth who moved up closer behind him until a sharp point pressed against the small of his back.
"Donít move off-worlder," the Voth hissed in his ear from behind. "If you move, or if your friend somehow manages to win this fight, there wonít be enough left of you to pick up and put back together!" he threatened.
Obi-Wan did not move. He ran quickly through his options. None of them were very promising. Maybe he could get a grip on the weapon through the Force and pull it away before it could fire. Maybe. He would not do anything yet, however. To do so might start another all-out war. He would have to wait and see how the fight progressed.
Burhar watched the fight with in mystification. The outsider stood to gain nothing from this, except maybe his own death. Why was he doing it? A slight movement to his right caught his attention. Burhar saw the Voth that had moved up behind Obi-Wan, noting the way the young Jedi stiffened. So, the warrior Voths had no intention of playing fair.
Qui-Gon felt Obi-Wanís attention waver, but had no time to think anything about it. The scar-faced Voth pounced Qui-Gon, bringing him down to the ground. The pair rolled over and over, ending up with the Voth on top. The Voth tried to get his claws near his opponentís throat.
Suddenly, Qui-Gon swung his legs straight up, hitting the Voth on the back of the head with his boots and flipping him over his head. Jumping on the Voth before he could recover, Qui-Gon rolled him on his stomach and caught his arm and head in a tight lock. The Voth could not move. The fight was over.
"Now," Qui-Gon panted. "Are you going to listen to my question?"
"Youíll listen to your friendís dying scream!" the Voth behind Obi-Wan shouted angrily.
Obi-Wan realized he had underestimated the time he would need to respond. He knew in that instant it was too late for him to do anything.
Qui-Gonís head snapped up in alarm and his eyes met Obi-Wanís. It only took a split moment for them to tell him "Iím not afraid, Master."
"No!" Qui-Gonís lips cried with his heart as he jumped to his feet.
The sound of a shot split the air. The Voth behind Obi-Wan gave a long drawn, cat-like howl and fell to the ground with a hole in his middle.
Obi-Wan unconsciously put his hand on his chest; momentarily unable to understand why he had not been shot. Turning, he saw Burhar standing about five feet away, the weapon in his hand still smoking.
"The right thing to do," the young Voth said softly, only loud enough for Obi-Wan to hear. Burhar knew the Jedi would understand what he meant.
"Are you all right Obi-Wan?" Qui-Gon asked in concern.
Obi-Wan nodded. "Yes, Master."
Qui-Gon looked relieved. Turning back to the Voths as if nothing had happened, he addressed them. "I still have a question."
"Then ask it outsider," a Voth growled. "It may be your last." Several of them laughed roughly. "We promised to listen. We said nothing about after weíre done listening."
Qui-Gon ignored them. "I just have one question. Why are you fighting?" he queried simply.
"Because, these cowards are traitors!" they indicated the healer Voths. "They refuse to fight for our territory and they ran away, leaving us with no healers to tend the wounded!"
"But why kill them? You gain nothing. Dead healers are quite useless to you. You call them cowards, but have they fought like cowards today? They left to get away from the pointless circle of destruction your people are caught in.
You fight many battles, some you win, some you lose. In the end, what does it gain you? You Voths would do nothing without a reason, and yet, your constant fighting defies all reason. So you win, or protect a piece of land, one that you probably never use anyway. So what? It will just be disputed again, and again, and again. You win one battle, and lose another. It all evens out and you profit nothing. Canít you see that?"
"What would you have us do?" a Voth snorted sarcastically. "Lie down like weaklings and let the other tribes walk all over us?"
"Of course not," Qui-Gon shook his head. "You protect what is yours. But itís the reason behind all this that I am talking about. There is a difference between protecting your people and willful destruction. I fought you, but I did it so that you would listen to me. Was that weak?
Do not mistake me. Peace is not easy. It is harder even than war. Warfare is the easy way out because you donít have to resolve the differences you have with someone instead of trying to kill them. Are you so afraid that you are wrong that you must constantly destroy one another to prove you are right? Any fool can pull a trigger; but it takes strength to try to pave the way for peace," Qui-Gon looked at them as if sizing them up. "I donít know if youíre strong enough to try it," he purposely provoked.
The Voths murmured among themselves. Not strong enough! They would show him who wasnít strong enough. "We are a strong people! We are afraid of nothing!" they shouted.
"Then act like it!" Qui-Gon challenged them. "Stop taking the cowards way out! Face each other and come to an understanding. Werebats can fight, anything can fight, but it takes something more to stop fighting, to find resolutions that result in gain for everyone."
There were several moments of silence. Obi-Wan realized he was actually holding his breath.
"That is all I have to say," Qui-Gon finished calmly. "You may continue to slaughter one another pointlessly, or you could come to an arrangement that would benefit you both. The decision is up to you."
More silence. Then Dameema, who had come out to watch when the Jedi showed up, stepped forward. "I agree with the Jedi. I will not fight. I will choose reason over violence."
Rurrha moved to join her. "This is right. Hear me my people, to end a war one side must decide to stop fighting. Let us be the side brave enough to do so!" she echoed Qui-Gonís words to her earlier.
"All who are not cowards, step forward and join us!" Burhar added, joining the two ladies. One by one, the healer Voths joined them, until the whole tribe stood together, united.
"We will not fight you," Muahhal, speaking as their leader, for all of them, said to the scar faced Voth. "And what gain you by the slaughter of unresisting foes? Nothing but contempt. Will you not try the peace the Jediís speak of?"
Scar face scowled, but looked contemplative nonetheless. "I donít know. I donít know yet, Healers. But," he hesitated, pondering their choices. "We will not fight either, at least, not now," he added cautiously. "We need time to think, to consider. Perhaps, perhaps there is something we could work out."
Muahhal stretched out his hand in a brave gesture of friendship.
Scar face stared at it, unbelieving. Hardly anyone thought he would take it, but then, unexplainably, he reached out and grasped his former enemyís hand.
"There will be peace," Dameema said in quiet satisfaction. The Voths were just finishing stocking the small ship they had given the Jedi.
"Everyone knows it now. The way will be hard and long I fear, but we Voths are a strong people. We start here, small, with our two tribes, but from there, who knows?" she said optimistically.
Qui-Gon smiled. "Sometimes small stones can start mighty avalanches," he agreed.
"We will leave our children a better legacy than the one before us," Rurrha, a latecomer to the conversation, put in as she came up. "The ship is ready for you friend Jedi. But before you leave, my father, and my people, wish to, to thank you for all the two of you have done for us," she spoke awkwardly, because Voths were unused to thanking people. After all, in a culture where everything was done for personal profit, thanks was of little importance, but things were changing here, for the better.
The two Jedi turned to meet the Elders as they moved towards them across the clearing. The sun caught on their blue and purple capes, clashing exotically with the green grass and trees like the petals of the woodland flowers.
The thanks exchanged was brief and to the point; the Voths were not ones to waste words, but it was also heartfelt.
Then, almost too soon, it was time for good-byes. Obi-Wan smiled to himself. There was hardly another planet he should have been more anxious to leave, yet some part of him had become strangely fond of these stubborn, frustrating Voths. He was glad they had been able to help them.
Burhar caught his hand and Obi-Wan saw him smile for the first time. "Well friend Jedi, it seems one is forever learning new things."
Obi-Wan felt inclined to agree.
"From you we have learned much," a mischievous glint shone in the Vothís eye. "Perhaps there is something you should learn from us," he added.
"Oh?" Obi-Wan cocked his eyebrow.
Burhar looked from Obi-Wanís bandaged head to his shoulder and gave him a hearty clap on the back.
Obi-Wan winced slightly.
Burhar laughed. "When to duck, friend Jedi, when to duck!"
Ralteer loomed large through the view screen of the tiny ship.
"Master, which of the factions do you think tried to have us killed?" Obi-Wan inquired as they put down.
"The one that has the most to lose if we are present."
Obi-Wan sighed, another one of those answers. Qui-Gon had an absolute knack for answering questions by stating the obvious, and not really answering the question at all. He supposed it was a Jedi trait and wondered if he would pick it up.
"What do you want me to say?" Qui-Gon shrugged. "I know no more than you. I do know that if a Jedi envoy is not present the meetings will not take place, and another envoy could never reach here in time."
"Weíre barely making it in time," Obi-Wan thought ruefully. As it was, they would have to land and dash to make it. Yet they had thought better of making contact to let them know they were coming. No need to invite further disaster by heralding their arrival to everyone. "So, whoever would profit from the meeting not taking place was likely behind the sabotage," he concluded the obvious. He almost smiled. Maybe he had already picked up the trait.
Qui-Gon nodded. "We may never know who exactly, but it is not of real importance now. Whoever they are, their plans have failed and their failure will mean their ruin. Come, we must change and leave quickly."
Qui-Gon had already called ahead to be sure that fresh robes where waiting for them when they arrived. Their clothes were slightly worse for the ware and were hardly presentable enough for Jedi representatives.
Twilight was just beginning to fall as they hurriedly hopped a public transport.
"Theyíre not coming I tell you. We have waited long enough," a man in a light grey suit said.
"We will wait until the sun sets as agreed," the other man sighed sadly. "If the envoy has not arrived, then there will be no talks," he agreed mournfully, as if he could see all the bright hopes for Ralteerís future fading with the waning light.
Just as the sun began to sink below the horizon, the doors to the chamber slid open. Master Qui-Gon Jinn and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi stepped through the door. "Gentlemen," Qui-Gon bowed. "We have arrived."
A collective buzz traveled around the room. The man in the grey suit went very pale. His companion however, was overjoyed.
"We almost gave up hope on you!" he said happily. "But you have come after all! What kept you?"
"We had," Master and Padawan exchanged a quick glance that was probably unreadable to the casual on-looker who could not see the faint smiles that tugged at the menís lips. "A little engine trouble . . ."