Qui-Gon watched from across the room: the Force gathered, almost tangible in the air, and Obi-Wan stood at its center, as its focus. Tossed like a rag doll, Xanatos was hurled against the wall. Obi-Wan tried, in vain, to stop the power he had set in motion. And then he cried out, a long keening wail, and crashed to his knees.
Xanatos lay stunned beside him. Now would be the time to take him into custody, before he could do more harm. But Obi-Wan needed him. Without a backward glance, Qui-Gon skirted the room and the zone of fire where Tomas and Ki-Erin held the guards at bay; he dodged and reflected blasts aimed at him, and trusted Ki-Erin to keep any stray fire from Obi-Wan as he ran.
Obi-Wan sagged against the door frame, his blue eyes sightless, vacant. Qui-Gon took his shoulders and called to him, shaking him.
The boy groaned. His eyes slid closed.
"Can you hear me, Padawan?"
"Master -" he whispered. His hand moved a little. His eyes fluttered open again, looking dull, exhausted.
"Can you move?" Qui-Gon didn't dare to help him through the Force, not after such a spectacular display of raw power. Who knew what would happen if he tried?
Obi-Wan shifted, his movements heavy, sluggish. "How could I be so stupid!" he muttered, his voice low and slurred.
"Welcome to the world of fallible beings. You're in good company."
Behind Qui-Gon, Ki-Erin cried out. He turned. A stray shot had pierced her guard and hit her shoulder. More guards pressed through the door. Several had managed to get into the room and find cover. Qui-Gon jumped up and ran to the girl's side. He would have to join the fight if they were to survive.
Then the door in the wall beside him, the one direct to the utility room, slid open. Warriors bearing blasters and vibroblades and sundry other weapons poured through - not the Palace guard, but slave trainers, many of them Mozelle. They were surrounded.
But wait! The trainers were aiming, not at the Jedi, but at the red-clad Palace guards: a startled but very much relieved Tomas moved aside to let them take up positions firing into the guards' ranks. Qui-Gon and Ki-Erin also withdrew, getting out of the line of fire. Tomas glanced to Qui-Gon and then to Ki-Erin, making clear that he expected his friend to take care of the injured girl. Then he turned to find Xanatos.
Xanatos was up, cradling his arm, staring at Qui-Gon with raw hatred in his eyes: hatred that pierced Qui-Gon, that pushed at him. Without releasing Qui-Gon's gaze, Xanatos reached up to caress the scar on his cheek with his fingertips: a promise of vengeance yet to come. Only when he saw Tomas approaching did Xanatos move; he jumped into the open repulsorlift car beside him, setting it racing down the shaft even before the door slid closed behind him. Tomas leaped onto the back of the car as it pulled away, clinging to the door.
Tomas disappeared from their sight. Qui-Gon pulled Ki-Erin back to where Obi-Wan lay still crumpled against the wall; there were more than enough trainers in the room, now, to hold the guards at bay, and Qui-Gon sensed they would be safe here, at least for a while. Obi-Wan had fallen into a stupor of exhaustion; thankfully he was closer to sleep now than to unconsciousness. Ki-Erin knelt beside her friend while Qui-Gon closed and sealed the door behind them to protect them from stray shots.
"What happened to him?" she asked.
"The nephrolite," he answered shortly, while he gently inspected her wound. It was ugly, and messy, but thankfully not deep.
"Like when you overextended, at Vandos3A?"
"Something like that. He's all right for now."
Ki-Erin breathed deeply and held still and quiet for Qui-Gon as he worked. At least there were no shreds of cloth to clean out of the wound, as Ki-Erin still wore only a slave shift. With bacta and a patch bandage Qui-Gon dressed the charred and bloody mess of skin and muscle. Then, on impulse, he unlatched the fake collar from her neck and dropped it to the floor.
She looked from the collar to his face, her eyes sad. "Thank you," she told him.
Qui-Gon touched her arm lightly. He had come to feel kinship and shared purpose with her and with Tomas, and gestures of polite thanks and welcome felt unnecessary. He crouched beside Obi-Wan; lifted his limp form. "Help me find a place to put Obi-Wan."
"But your arm -"
"It's nothing much. It's already stopped bleeding."
Ki-Erin gave him a dubious look before answering Qui-Gon's original request. "Obi-Wan told me there was a bedroom back here." She stood and set off down the short hall; accessed the wide door at the end. The room beyond was large and sparsely but expensively furnished; the dominant colors gray and black with splashes of deep color.
Qui-Gon laid his Padawan on the wide bed, carefully tucking his own long robe around the boy once more; then began poking through the drawers and cabinets that filled the room. "Xanatos mentioned he was using inhibitor and catalyst drugs to control the effects of the nephrolite," he explained to Ki-Erin, who had settled down beside Obi-Wan to rest. She was pale, still, from blood loss and pain. He continued, "if we can find the inhibitor -"
"Tomas and I heard about it," Ki-Erin interrupted, "from the slaves in the lab. We found some vials, and gave them to the slaves that needed it. Tomas kept a vial for Obi-Wan."
Qui-Gon looked around to the girl, feeling some relief. "There still might be some here," he said. "Would you tell me what happened at the lab while I look?"
Ki-Erin was silent a moment. She began, "it started off according to plan. We went to the slave purchasers at the Palace. They took a blood sample, inspected me. They wanted to buy me right there." Ki-Erin's voice thickened with distaste. "But Tomas played difficult. So they sent us to the lab. There they did some more tests. Tomas convinced them -" here she waved her hand in the gesture for Force-influence - "to call in Xanatos. Who arrived shortly after, through the Palace halls." Ki-Erin lay down on her good side on the bed, her head next to Obi-Wan's shoulder, her hand on his arm. "I don't like that man," she said softly.
"I'm sorry you had to deal with him," Qui-Gon said softly, his heart going out to the girl.
"Well." Ki-Erin shuddered. "He received some sort of signal. An alert from Obi-Wan's cell here, I'm assuming. He walked out of the receiving room, and then he was, just... gone. It took us a minute to realize. How did he keep that lift tube out of the technical diagrams? He went through a lot of trouble to hide it."
"He's always kept a back door open, an escape route." Qui-Gon found a portable data station in a drawer near the bed. He tossed it down next to Obi-Wan to examine later.
"It confused us, that's certain," Ki-Erin continued. "When we realized he was gone, we signaled you. Speaking of which, we should contact Tahl now."
"Good point." Qui-Gon pulled his comlink from his pocket.
"Tahl here. Qui-Gon, what's happening?"
"We have Obi-Wan. Tomas is chasing down Xanatos, who is now running for his ship somewhere to the north of the Palace. The trainers seem to be engaging in an uprising against the Palace guards: I'm guessing because of Sitaris's interference."
"How will you get out?"
"I'm not certain; so far we're waiting for Tomas to return. I'll keep you informed."
"Do that. And if there's any way I can help..."
"We may yet call on you."
"All right, Qui-Gon." Tahl's voice was sharp, edged bitter: Qui-Gon recognized her frustration at being out of action because of her handicap, but there was nothing he could do to help.
Qui-Gon leaned over the bed to check on the two padawans. They looked so very young, lying there side by side - and so they were: young, and no longer so innocent. It saddened Qui-Gon to think how they had both been hurt, on this mission. He leaned over to inspect the dressing on Ki-Erin's wound.
"It's all right, Qui-Gon," she told him quietly. "Nothing is forever."
And so very perceptive, Qui-Gon thought. The ghost of a smile touched his lips. Do they know the gifts they give to us? he wondered. Obi-Wan lay still, his breathing shallow, but his mind was whole. He would recover. Qui-Gon refused to believe otherwise.
"After Tomas signaled me?" Qui-Gon prompted, returning to his search.
"We captured the guards and lab workers. Then we freed the slaves. They told us about what had been done to them. Some were in terrible condition. Tomas got a lab technician to tell us about the secret lift tube: he'd never seen it opened himself, but once we knew about where it was located, we were able to find it and cut into it. We called the repulsorlift car, and escorted the slaves to the far end: Xanatos has a small docking bay there, for his starship. We saw the slaves out, then rode the car to Xanatos's apartment. The rest you know."
Finished with the drawers, Qui-Gon pulled open the cabinets, looking into the bins and boxes stacked neatly within. There his search was finally rewarded. A set of three bins in the center cabinet proved to contain injector vials. Qui-Gon recognized their labels as indicating the chemical composition of the contents, but they held no meaning for him beyond that.
Ki-Erin climbed from the bed to join him. "That one is the inhibitor," she pointed. "I recognize the sign from the lab. The slaves told us it needs a half hour or so to take effect. It must bind to the nephrolite somehow, make it inactive."
Carefully Qui-Gon took one vial from each bin, and stowed them in a pocket of his robe. A second inhibitor he plugged into his injector; taking it to the bedside, he emptied the contents into Obi-Wan's arm.
"What I want to know is, how do we get the nephrolite out of him for good?" Ki-Erin asked.
"I wish I knew. If the Mozelle take over this compound and eject Starways, we might be permitted to examine Xanatos's experiments here in more depth." Qui-Gon looked down at Obi-Wan, brushed a hand through the brown hair with its garish patina of glittering gold. He wished he could wash every trace of captivity from the boy before he woke, but they still faced a difficult situation, with no way to know as yet how it would be resolved. And there were too many unanswered questions. For instance, what had happened to Mazala Lidocha? He couldn't sense her anywhere in the apartment.
"We should find out what's happening, and decide on the best route out," Qui-Gon told Ki-Erin. "Will you come, or stay here?"
"Will he be safe here, you think?" she asked, lifting her chin to indicate Obi-Wan.
"I don't sense any danger," Qui-Gon answered.
"Then I'll come. I want to see Tomas come back."
The battle had moved out of the living area, but the two Jedi heard blaster fire in the distance, through the apartment's open entry. In the depths of the Palace, the battle raged on. Sadly, Qui-Gon surveyed the bodies on the floor. So many lives lost, so many hurt: he reached out to the still forms, to sense them in the Force. That one - nothing he could do there, the lung was a ragged mess, her living Force a thread fast fading. But a trainer by the back wall - Qui-Gon moved to the man's side, pulling out his med-kit. Ki-Erin followed, and helped him to lay the man out on the floor and bind his wounds.
As they were finishing, the horizontal repulsorlift car slid up to the open access. Qui-Gon stood. He could sense Tomas inside, alone. As soon as his friend jumped through the open door, he asked.
"Got away." Tomas was tired, and he looked grim. His tunic was singed in a long slash down the front. "I got his ship pegged with a homing beacon, though. We should take this lift car out of the Palace. Tahl is going to meet us at the end of the tunnel."
"What?" Qui-Gon and Ki-Erin asked in chorus.
"That was my response," Tomas sighed. "But she insists she's capable of flying here with the guidance of the Force. I decided it was a better bet to risk the ship than to risk her temper." He chuckled resignedly.
Qui-Gon didn't know what to say.
"Ki-Erin and I are still going to fly us out. As long as Tahl gets the ship to us in one piece." Tomas made an attempt at a grin, which came out a grimace, and pulled Ki-Erin into a quick embrace. "Are you all right?" he asked, one arm around her.
"I'll be fine, Master."
Qui-Gon left them, then, to fetch Obi-Wan. But he couldn't help overhearing Ki-Erin's low murmur to her master:
"I'll be glad to get off this Light-forsaken rock."
Much as Qui-Gon knew he should be above such petty feelings - that there were good and caring people here as well as the greedy and corrupt, as was true on every world and man-made station he had ever seen - still, he could not help agreeing.