The fever burned its wick to an ashen twist amid the pooled dregs of his strength, and guttered out, leaving him hollow and fragile as one of those spherical candle lanterns the Felucians lit at festival-time – nothing left the next morning but a translucent rind of wax curled about an aching emptiness.
He sat for a long time, huddled in the blankets and reaching with clumsy fingers for the Force. The effort proved too taxing, but when he gave up the fight and hunched miserably around his own center, he discovered that a small wellspring still burbled at his core, a dirtied trickle of universal Light mixing with the fire-scourged fields of his spirit. It was enough, barely, to nourish him into full wakefulness.
And with that almost abstracted state came a stark clarity, the mottled shadows and hues of his former existence reduced to a sharp chiaroscuro in the wake of consuming fire, the edges of right and wrong traced like skeletal trees against a bleak skyline. He understood what he was expected to do, and what is was he must do. Obedience and submission fell asunder, split in twain like the Other and himself, an impossible distinction but a real one, a liberating distinction.
He found his boots and pulled them on. The exercise left him breathless. His borrowed shirt was ruined, but Cerasi had left another for him. When his fingers brushed over the fiber, he knew it to be the cast-off of a dead man… but such sentimental associations no longer held dread. They were all walking dead upon this planet, unless some miracle of the Force wrought an unlikely salvation for them all. He could wear funerary black, and be content.
He clipped the twin sabers at his sides with reverent care, and went to find Dooku.
It was Cerasi and Nield he happened upon first.
"They'll be at each others throats again before long, and the killing will start down here – I won't have it. They made their bed, let 'em lie in it." Nield thrust a hand at the motley assembly in the dining hall, encompassing Melida and Daan refugees now huddled in insular knots at opposite ends of the room. Between them, upon a narrow isthmus of battered cafeteria tables, the Young and the rescued children ate their spartan meal in morose silence, the threat of annihilation hanging heavy in the stuffy air.
"I won't turn anyone away from this last shelter," Cerasi insisted. "If we're to die, then we can die shoulder to shoulder at last… a united world." Her mouth twisted into a bitter and unhappy line, and she blinked rapidly.
Nield's face was lined, care-worn, grave. He sighed. "Cerasi."
And she was in his arms, sobbing.
Obi-Wan turned and took his quiet leave, stomach turned by the spectacle of despair. Sifo-Dyas' severed head swam before his eyes again, its shocked grimace horribly transformed to a mocking leer. The rogue Jedi might at last have perished, but who was victorious?
Dooku was in the Young's makeshift hangar bay, adjusting the intake valves on a salvaged swoop. The Sentinel straightened and favored his apprentice with the rarest gift of a genuine smile, a feral baring of teeth that flashed in and out of existence like fleet lightning. "Ah, there you are. It is long past the hour I wished to depart – but I see your strength is somewhat recovered."
The padawan was mindful of his balance as he made the formal bow to his master. Headache prowled behind his eyes. "We're going to leave, and abandon them," he stated, flatly.
Dooku wiped his hands thoughtfully and took a few paces closer, bringing the padawan into a paternally intimate circle. "There is nothing we can do to reverse their fate," he softly replied. "To stay is to choose destruction alongside them." His grey eyes bored into his young companion's, and a rare softness flitted over his features. "I am sorry. Someday you will understand."
Obi-Wan stiffened. "I do not aspire to such depths of wisdom."
A strong hand reached out and settled upon his shoulder. "Nonetheless it may someday be thrust upon you. That which we do not embrace willingly must be taught through suffering."
"The situation here has changed!" the young Jedi insisted. "The interdiction was put in place before Sifo-Dyas unleashed this plague! Melida and Daan have laid aside their quarrel now, in the face of a greater danger. Surely the Senate –"
"The Senate is a convocation of foolish biddies," Dooku snapped, his voice wavering on the serrated edge of anger. "They will do nothing, even at the Council's behest. And the Council must needs court the favor of politicians, it would seem. My hands are tied."
His apprentice blinked, this glimpse into Dooku's inner turmoil as unsettling as the despair of the Young. He saw for a moment the Republic in senile corruption, the Jedi Order reduced to impotent servants of a failing state, a great shadow winging its way over the galaxy, pillaging and laying low system after system because there was none to stand in its way… he wrenched his focus back to the here and now.
"Sifo-Dyas clearly has allies within the Republic – dare I posit, within the Senate. We shall hunt them down and expose them. This must satisfy you, padawan. The deaths of your friends will be avenged. Justice will be served."
"I don't want to avenge them; I want to save them!"
But the Sentinel shook his silver head, sadly. "We shall defer this discussion until you are quite in your right mind again; our first priority must be to see the Temple healers."
The implication that his words could be reduced to the truculent protestations of a lunatic rankled. "What of Kar'Thon?" Obi-Wan pressed. "Is he too to be sacrificed on the altar of expediency?"
"He will accompany us back to Coruscant – the information he holds about Sifo-Dyas' organization may prove invaluable. And when he has given a full deposition to the Council, you will release him from his life-debt. I think he has quite repaid it in loyal service."
And that was a bitter lash across unhealed scars. "Loyal service! We used him!" The prick of conscience redoubled the pain. "And you used me! You played me like a dejarik piece!" He trembled, suppressed outrage taking away his breath.
Dooku raised one censorious brow. "We come to serve, Padawan. What are any of us but tools of a higher purpose? We are every one of us used by the Force to achieve balance. This is the nature of your chosen path. Why rebel against its strictures now?"
There was a good argument against that point of view, the young Jedi felt certain – but the throbbing in his head made it difficult to formulate. He clenched his fists, fighting back mounting rage. "I do not wish to serve any Purpose which abandons innocents to despair and bitter death."
The Sentinel took a step back. "Careful, now," he warned, voice dropping a half-octave in sober exhortation. "Dalliance with such emotions is a path to the Dark. Sacrifices must be made; those unwilling to make them flirt with obscene arrogance, the need to play universal savior. Come to your senses!"
"I just have!" Obi-Wan squared his shoulders and tilted his chin upward. "These people deserve help, and I will give it!"
Dooku's face hardened in fury. "You will obey my order; do not be forsworn."
"I swore to serve the Light, Master. And so I will."
They faced off, the Force thundering about them, vast drums echoing in the plenum. "That is enough, Qui-Gon!" Dooku shouted, fear and anger and the long weight of decades rasping in his strident tones.
And in that moment, fate was sealed. Obi-Wan smiled, softly, buried loyalties blooming like melting fires beneath crusted ice, a flood of joyful certainty joining the roll of thunder in the Force.
Dooku's tone dropped to a murmur. "You do realize I could overpower you and haul you back to Coruscant by physical force, like the recalcitrant child you are?"
Obi-Wan stepped back another pace, hands resting upon his 'saber hilts. "I will not go willingly."
Silence. The first lightning bolt struck, cleaving their solidarity in two, rending obedience from submission, purpose from compassion, service from devotion. Their breaths textured the cold air of the hangar, fueled two racing pulses.
"So be it," Dooku growled, aristocratic features drawn and pinched. He withdrew a small object from an inner pocket. "This, I believe, is yours."
Obi-Wan gravely accepted his Vespari knife back. Chest heaving, he unclipped his 'saber hilts and held them out to the Jedi master.
"No," the Sentinel decided, eyes darkened by inscrutable emotion. "Keep them. When the time comes, you may be glad of a swift and honorable death."
The weapons were returned to their places. There was nothing more to say.
Dooku reached out then and took the dangling padawan braid between his fingers, deftly unbinding the threads and markers, pulling the twisted plait apart, unraveling the labyrinthine path back to its root and origin, until the chestnut strands fluttered unmoored and free, the fluttering ash wafting off a cooling pyre.
"You are wedded now to futile ambition and the tyranny of your own folly. Walk this path alone, for it leads to naught but extinction." He raked over his companion with a cold gaze, one behind which regret and sorrow were tightly locked away, and turned his back with a sharp finality.
Obi-Wan watched him depart, the black cloak a forlorn attendant scuttling at its master's heels, his last chance of escape from this graveyard of hope fading into the distance with Dooku's proud figure.
Cerasi's tear-stained face transformed to radiant gratitude when he told her.
"I – I hardly know – you – " She blushed, and more tears sprang up to replace those already spilled. "Thank you," she whispered. "For all of us. Thank you."
Obi-Wan gazed over the ragged assembly of Melida, Daan, Young, the tiny children, the weary elders, the battle-hardened men and women in their prime, every one of them grimy and hungry and frightened, the last holdouts of life on a world given over to a reign of terror beyond all imagining.
They would be lucky to survive more than a week, more than a few days. They would be lucky not to end as mindless zombies themselves, a fate worse than death. They would be lucky to stave off famine, disease, and internecine strife. They would be lucky not to embrace Darkness and utter despair before the end.
But he did not believe in luck.
Chilled, weak, the mocking voice of the Other pouring black counsel in his ear, he stood tall and faced his chosen future. "Cerasi. Gather Nield and whomever else you trust. We need to make a plan."
He would not consider the impossibility of victory, nor the overwhelming power of hatred and despair, nor the inevitability of death, nor that which he had renounced forever, his birthright and heritage. There was only the moment, and the will of the Force.
He finally understood.
The chieftain's words fell at first upon uncomprehending ears, rainfall upon drought-baked earth.
"The trading vessels," the patient elder repeated, his wrinkled face and crescent eyes peering in concern at the haggard Jedi master. "They have arrived. Will you depart again?"
Sluggishly, his mind ground back into gear. Trading vessel. Hyperlanes. The Core. Yes.
Qui-Gon stood, and managed a bow. "Yes, yes I shall. I thank you for your hospitality and care. I am forever in your debt for such kindness."
His host merely smiled and spread both hands out, fingers splayed like the feathers of a soaring thranctill.
The tall man accepted the traditional blessing with humble gratitude, and gathered his things: a cloak, a 'saber, a packet of food wrapped in silken thread, a gift of the tribe's women. The freighters stood a short distance away, their captains and crew milling about their ramps, a mundane and jarring anomaly in this land of rarefied dreams.
He inhaled, exhaled, centering himself in the Force like a child venturing forth on its first expedition into the unfamiliar world. He would beg for passage, work for it if his Jedi status did not merit a free berth. He would meditate on his mistakes, and on his newfound wisdom, and prepare himself to face the Council's judgment.
And above all, he would look forward to a blessed reunion. He smiled, thinking of that bright luminary in the Force, of that mercuric wit and brilliant smile, that melting compassion and peerless courage. He would endure whatever penance and chastisement he deserved, for the privilege of mending even that one precious friendship.
He strode onward, trepidated and eager at once, lightheaded with weariness and hope.
He was at last going home.
END BOOK X