The Great Hall of the Priory was in by far the best repair, the walls still complete, and the stone arches overhead mostly in place. Of course, there was evidence of its more recent use as impromptu sleeping quarters: piles of branches and bracken against the walls, smoke-blackened stones and half-charred sticks in the massive fireplace, and names, dates, and caricatures scratched into the soft sandstone. Most of the slate-tiled roof, patched with bits and scraps of wood and leather, was now smashed across the floor, crossbeams and all, leaving the hall open to the deep-blue noon sky. It was quite patently entirely deserted.
“Maybe they went to Teth after all,” hazarded Nasriel in a whisper barely audible above the whistling wind in the arches.
Turning slowly in the center of the room, Obi-Wan studied the walls. The fireplace wall was at least three times the thickness of any other… “Master Chakora Seva wrote about a secret passage, a few years before this was abandoned. He said it was reached ‘through the place of the angels, where even fools fear to tread,’ I think. Did you ever notice a passage? It could well be in that wall, but I can’t see an entrance.”
“Fireplace,” supplied Nasriel instantly. “Angels are the tiny tongues of fire in smashed-down embers, when the fire’s low.” She picked her way across to the hearth, and stood in the chimney, boots crunching on the long-cold ashes of past blazes. Activating her green lightsaber for a torch and holding it up, she looked around the soot-stained stones, and grinned. “Here. There’s an opening in the side, but I can’t reach it. Come see.”
Nasriel was small and light enough to be easy to lift up to the level of the opening. With a wriggle and a sharp kick to the stonework, dislodging mortar and making Obi-Wan wince at her carelessness, she was seated on the edge, looking along the tunnel by the faint green light of her saber.
“Yes, it’s here, all right. I say, well done, Master!” She hesitated, examining the walls, then said in quite another tone, a tone tight with fear, “Someone with claws didn’t want to come this way. I hardly blame them.” The light moved off into the darkness, out of Obi-Wan’s sight, but returned quickly. “Master, please come up here. I think something’s awful wrong – or will be.”
Stumbling across the fallen roof of the hall nearly five hours earlier, Ben had tried to think of some way to warn Obi-Wan, but he was tired, and his head ached, and he just wanted to sleep. When K’tarr picked him up and all but threw him into the tunnel, he limply complied, and trudged leadenly after Reseda’s glowing beads, only managing to keep his balance by one hand placed on each wall. Allun objected more strongly, caterwauling in misery, yellow fur bristling. He clawed at the Trandoshan holding him, but K’tarr wordlessly backhanded the boy’s face, a loud, cracking blow that rolled Allun’s head sideways. While he was still giddy, punch-drunk and disoriented, K’tarr flung him after Ben, then scrambled up himself. Ben unobtrusively helped Allun to his feet, but the feline boy clawed at the walls, and his screams of terror reechoed horribly about the passage.
For the first time in the journey, K’tarr spoke. He had a heavy, rumbling voice, like the core of a world talking. “Claws in, you brat, or I’ll clip them. You’re assigned to me now. Walk.” Ben thought shudderingly of the Trandoshan’s last Padawan, sensitive, nervy little Wirem Waimar, who, brought back to the Temple, had spent weeks in the medcenter and for months after his return went daily to Adesse the psychologist. Allun was hardly braver, and K’tarrr showed no signs of going easier on him.
Lost in his troubled thoughts, Ben did not notice that Reseda had stopped, and crashed right into him. The Twi’lek threw him impatiently off, and called back to K’tarr, who was still guarding the fiercely reluctant Allun.
“Know what we’ve forgotten?”
“Yeah. He’ll need a light along here. So we need something for him to see by it, eh?”
“Toss Wuqotikea this way. You handle it,” Reseda replied imperiously. Ben and Allun changed places in the tunnel, pressing against the walls in the pitch darkness, and then Ben felt a huge, clawed hand close on his arm. K’tarr’s other hand groped in the darkness for Ben’s face. Trial of Courage, thought Ben desperately. Mustn’t scream. As the cold, leathery fingers patted invisibly down from his hairline, he clenched his teeth until his jaws ached. Then K’tarr suddenly pinched his nose between thumb and forefinger and twisted, hard, almost, but not quite, to breaking point. Ben felt hot blood pour over his sealed lips, heard it drip against the wall and on the floor, for a long few seconds, before his hand was released and he could fumble in his pockets for a handkerchief to stem the flow. He heard rather than saw Reseda’s smile of satisfaction, and then the scaly hand was at his back again, pushing him onward through the dark.
By the blue glow of his lightsaber, Obi-Wan saw Nasriel, farther ahead, the strange light making the marks on her face look red and yellow against whiteness. She was looking in frowning puzzlement at something glistening on the wall. This far from the chimney, the walls were hardly blackened at all, and the dark stain showed clearly. Obi-Wan touched it, tentatively, and rubbed his fingertips together.
One word was enough. “Blood.”
Nasriel shivered. “How long?”
“It’s still wet. A few hours at most.” Less than a meter further in, the claw marks showed in the stone again, and the way began to slope steeply downwards. At the bottom of a long flight of roughly-hewn steps, a pool of still water glimmered in the blue-green light of two sabers. Here Claws had become close to frantic, if the scraped walls were any guide, and here the way ended, as the low roof sloped down to meet the surface of the water.
“It can’t be a dead end,” said Nasriel, stooping to examine the way. “It can’t. This scratch goes right into the water, and there’s no other way to go.”
Obi-Wan deactivated his lightsaber. “I’ll go on and see what happens further ahead. Can you stay here and hold your lightsaber over the surface?”
Wading into the water to just above waist-deep, Obi-Wan took a deep breath and ducked under, leaving scarcely a ripple as he swam away. It was less than a minute before he returned, flicking his dripping hair out of his eyes and gasping for breath.
“It’s all right,” he said cheerfully. “It comes up again about ten meters on. Switch off, we’ll have to do this dark. I know what happens when an activated lightsaber gets wet.”
“No,” said Nasriel flatly. “No, I can’t do that.”
This was no time to mince words. “I can’t swim. I’m scared.”
Strangely, Obi-Wan did not try to persuade her. “That’s all right. I’ll go alone and find Ben and two strangers who could be anyone and your friend who you trusted. You stay here.”
“Fine,” whispered Nasriel, in a tone that threatened to sob. “Fine. I’ll come.”
“Good girl. Walk out to me. It’s not deep, not here. Yes, I know it’s cold. You’ve been on Hoth; this cold won’t hurt you. Deactivate your lightsaber and reclip it to your belt. Now take my hand. It’s right here.” In the darkness, Nasriel should have been terrified. But clutching her Master’s hand, her Master who knew the way, she was surprised to find that she was only a little nervous.
“All right? Good. Take a deep breath, and on three we’ll go under. Ready? One, two, three.”
Under the dark water, she almost let go and turned back, but Obi-Wan’s grip on her hand became rigid as durasteel, and she had no choice but to follow through the velvety blackness. Her lungs screamed for air, but just as she was about to give up and breathe in, she was standing on stone again, head out of the water. On the other side. The familiar blue hum of a lightsaber, and it was no longer dark.
“Not bad,” smiled Obi-Wan.
“Never again,” Nasriel replied through chattering teeth.
“Well, not until the way back.”