It didn’t take long to gather HK, but matters were complicated when the Gatekeeper insisted on having Tomo assist him on another matter. Leaving the prisoners with Tomo and the Gatekeeper, the rest of the group moved on, following the path deeper into the valley towards the temple. The Gatekeeper was tight lipped on what exactly it was he needed Tomo for, and neither responded to attempts to contact them via comlink. It was a fact they were warned of, but one that didn’t make them feel any more secure about the matter.
Before they could stew long on this disturbing matter, however, they came upon a large chasm. The temple rested above them on the summit of a steep cliff, shrouded in moss and evergreens, a single statue of a long forgotten Jedi Knight stood towering over the trees around him. Another statue sat akimbo at its base, rising out of a river that ran through the valley and ended in a large, glimmering waterfall. The waterfall in turn descended from the summit and crashed deep into the chasm that separated the group from continuing to the temple above.
Spanning the deep chasm, was a tall, arched bridge of wooden beams and intricate knot work. Covered in beautiful frescoes depicting scenes of Jedi meditating and practicing Lightsaber forms, the sturdy looking wooden bridge must have been created long ago by Jedi artisans, for it too was covered in the same strange writing they had found on the stonework stairs. The bridge itself connected two trails, one on each side of the bridge, leading both back the way the group had come and forward into the hills towards the temple.
Standing guard over each end of the bridge, preventing passage along the trails, stood a group of Advose, jaundiced skinned aliens with coal black eyes, and a single, crude, stubby horn jutting from the center of their foreheads like a third eye. Their wide, flat mouths were eternally down-turned; they seemed to be forever scowling, and their thick muscled hands gripped blaster pistols which they impatiently waved back and forth. Two of the aliens stood at each end of the bridge, talking amongst themselves in the brutish and guttural tongue of their native language. They seemed to be at once anxious and bored, a strange combination that indicated they were on guard duty and not exactly pleased about it.
Looking at their options, the group considered both sneaking past and directly assaulting to be risky. The Advose as a species were generally hired out as mercenaries and thugs, and the behavior of these did nothing to indicate that wasn’t exactly what they were. Mercenaries could be bargained with, provided one could speak in the right amount of credits. Lil and the others were discussing exactly this when they realized the group was one short.
“Wait,” Lil said, looking around with a sinking feeling, “where’s bat-boy?”
The group moved to the edge of the brush and began searching for V’Brel when their worst fears were realized. He was moving up to the edge of the bridge! They waited with baited breath as he silently made his way forward. Not seeking to challenge the Advose directly, he moved through brush about 10 feet laterally from them, heading towards the chasm edge. Once there, he slid over the side, and shimmied along until he was next to the bridge supports, the bridge itself now shielding him from their sight. Either by luck or by skill, the small Chadra-fan made his way along the underside of the bridge until he reached the far end of the chasm, and then repeated his previous maneuver using the chasm edge to get into the underlying foliage before waving innocently at the group.
The group looked to each other in amazement. Lil just shook her head and laughed, “Way to go bat-boy!” Getting into a stance more benefitting creeping, D’Jrem turned to the others, “Well, I’m not about to be showed up by an adolescent rodent!” He moved through the brush, following the same route the Chadra-fan took, and was quickly followed by the others.
HK moved along, but as he attempted to lower himself to reduce his visibility, one of the wires which was precariously patched sparked and popped, making a racket loud enough that anyone could have heard. Seeing that the others had progressed in stealth, HK logics circuits rerouted his actions to assist them as best he could. Straightening up, and moving forward with confidence, the assassin droid emerged from cover and walked brazenly towards the Advose. “What the hell?” Lil muttered, unsure what the droids play was going to be.
“Proclamation; I am assassin droid HK One Zero Four Zero. You are surrounded, meatbags! Surrender your weapons and relegate yourselves to capture. I would much prefer you resist, however, as I have not engaged in appropriate dispensation of violence in 3.28 hours.” To accentuate the point, HK released the flap on his forearm and extended the concealed barrel menacingly at the Advose. Caught off guard, and unsure of how to react, the two Advose guarding the near end of the bridge raised their blaster pistols and regarded the droid for a moment. They were joined quickly by the two at the other end of the bridge, clearing the way for the others to cross unseen.
“What are you two doing?” The comment came from one of the Advose crossing the bridge. “Just shoot it and let’s get going! It’s just a damned droid!”
“No, no its not! That’s one of those assassin droids! It’s designed for combat and programmed to love it!”
“Statement; Thank you, now that you have received backup, I am authorized to turn off my ‘Combat Protocols’ and switch on my ‘Wholesale Slaughter’ suite. I appreciate your cooperation.”
“I didn’t think droids could lie like that,” Tam whispered as the group made their way through the brush. Sighing, Lil shook her head, resisting the temptation to grow endeared to the crazy murder-bot, “He’s not lying … he really does have a ‘Wholesale Slaughter’ suite …”
“Whoa, whoa, big guy, we aren’t paid enough to mess with no assassin droids! We’re just supposed to watch for some stupid townsfolk and hunters. This is way above my pay grade.” The Advose dropped his blaster pistol and raised his hands, quickly followed by the others. Lil and the others emerged from their hiding spots and moved to the Advose, collecting their blasters and cuffing them using the binders they carried on their belts.
“Good work HK!” Lil said, emerging from her hiding spot.
“Recitation; As I said, I am an assassination droid. It is my primary function to burn holes through meatbags that you wished removed from the galaxy, Master.” HK moved to the Advose, and watched as D’Jrem bound them together and then to the bridge. “Commentary; Perhaps we should just blast the meatbags and save the trouble of binding them.”
“Does he always have this level of bloodlust?” Tam looked unbelieving at the level of violence the ancient looking droid exhibited.
“Observation; I am a droid, meatbag, with programming. Even if I did not enjoy killing, I would have no choice. Thankfully, I enjoy it very much.” Not for the first time (and according to his probability circuits, there was a 94.556% chance it would not be for the last time, either) HK found himself the center of the meatbags incredulous stares. He made note that both the Advose and the rest of the Master’s group shared the same look, and considered briefly that there was some preprogrammed behavior amongst the meatbags that produced the look. He took special note that his Master didn’t share the look the other beings did, meriting pride in his Master for her resilience, and prospering hope in HK that someday his Master would share the same level of appreciation for liquidation that he possessed.
“That’s my murder-bot!” Lil was momentarily disturbed that she was actually becoming accustomed to HK’s behavior, then she reminded herself this entire planet was ridiculous anyway, and nothing that happened here should really surprise or upset her. She trudged on, letting the others stare in horror at HK as they went.
The group journeyed along the trail and into the hills leading up towards the summit and the temple that occupied it. Along the route, they noted the growing cold, as if the elevation had finally begun to overcome the natural warming the enclosed valley had managed to maintain. Snow became more common in the general area, as stone started to replace soil, but spots of green still remained where the rocks didn’t hold sway. The sky above was a brilliant blue, a distinct difference form the mottled grey it appeared below the cloud line. Bright golden shafts of sunlight pierced the white clouds and shone brilliantly on the ground. The trip was at both daunting and uplifting in its beauty, knowing that all this splendor could be lost to the dark side should the group fail in their quest.
The temple loomed ever larger as the group continued their approach, the rock walls of the valley giving way to stone arches and pillars crowned with snow. As they arrived at the entrance to the temple, a broad stone plaza splayed out before the entrance hallway. Unlike the snow-capped pillars, the plaza was doused in the brilliant sunlight of the daytime star, and had a warmth to it that made it a refuge from the cold. Dozing in this winter oasis, a pack of ice wolves, four strong, dozed in the warm sun. The wolves, large, four-legged predators, had massive jaws and razor sharp fangs, with pelts of white and grey that turned to ruddy brown the further down their limbs you went.
As the group watched, one of the wolves rolled in its sleep and stretched its muscled legs, knocking a second wolf from its perch. The jostled wolf tumbled down from the bench on which he had rested and hit the stone floor of the plaza with a start. Growling, it rose and regarded its pack mate with angry red eyes. A moment later, the two beasts fell into a snarling, spitting, roaring dance as tooth and claw flashed in the sunlight until finally, with a gut wrenching crunch of bone and wet splat of blood, the dispute was decided and the pack was reduced to three.
V’Brel averted his eyes from the scene, while the others looked on. D’Jrem regarded the wolves with interest, their behavior at odds with what he knew of the normal behavior ice wolves of Spintir. Far too aggressive, and distinctly anti-social compared to the pack hunting species they were presumed to be, he considered what the Gatekeeper had said about the dark side affecting the inhabitants of the Valley. It’s possible their internal squabbling could reduce their numbers to so few, but it was unwise to assume it. Realizing there should be at least two to six more in the pack, D’Jrem began to look around for others.
“I’m going to get a better vantage and maybe get a shot on those wolves before we get to close,” he told the others, unslinging his blaster rifle and moving through the brush towards a treeline nearby. The other nodded and returned their attention to the group in the plaza, while D’Jrem focused on the area around him, parting a bank of tall grass for a better look. As the reeds moved apart, he found himself mere feet away from one of the wolves!
Quickly retreating, he slung his rifle, spun, and made a dash for a nearby tree, which he had identified as a good perch for sniping the wolves in the plaza. Trusting in his speed and stealth, he moved quickly and didn’t look back, scaling the tree hand over hand and moving with as much celerity as his coordination would allow.
Reaching the perch he spotted from the ground he looked around to see if he had attracted a pursuer and was relieved to see the ice wolf still wandering the same path it had been. From his vantage point, he spotted the ice wolf had two pack mates with him, all three of them moving towards the rear of the group. Flicking his comlink on and whispering into it, he alerted the others as he reached for his rifle.
Which wasn’t there.
Looking around in a panic, he cast his gaze to where he had parted the grass and initially spotted the first ice wolf. There, in the grass where he made his break for it, was his blaster rifle, lying with a broken connector at the end of the sling strap. Cursing, he drew the blaster pistol he had taken from the Advose and took aim at one of the closer wolves. Firing, he dropped the first wolf and looked towards a second.
HK activated his concealed blaster and began firing, scoring a hit on yet another wolf as Tam and V’Brel opened fire on those wolves in the plaza. Lil helped HK control the wolves circling their position, missing but bringing them into a single line for HK. With a single shot from his forearm blaster, HK felled both wolves and looked approvingly at Lil.
Now out of range, D’Jrem made his way from the tree to retrieve his rifle as Tam and V’Brel fired on the three remaining wolves, dropping one and holding the others off long enough to allow D’Jrem, now with rifle in hand, to lend supporting fire and finish them.