As Renci approaches the center of the room, dodging from column to column, she sees that the red light up ahead is stronger and projects from closer to the ceiling. It comes from elaborate candelabras mounted on ornate columns at least a dozen meters tall, a far more fancy setup than around any of the other tombs she has passed along the way. She thinks she hears footsteps up in that area, maybe even hushed voices. She homes in on that section of the room, and between a break in columns, she gets a good view of a large structure at ground level near which she sees movement—much movement!
To the north, within the circle of enormous braziers, lies the oversized death repose of a Devaronian. Or, at least, one was lying there. Renci watches as it sits up, sliding one leg over each side of the two-meter high sarcophagus, and then stands. It is not quite as tall as the candelabras, but it could certainly reach them with a swing of its massive arms. The red crystals in the sconces pulsate, and their color is echoed in the statue’s glowing eyes. As the creature unfolds its arms from its body, Renci sees an afterimage, a sort of trail of red light, lag behind each movement. Atop its head and wrapped around its horns is an elaborate tiara, and woven into that, a smaller piece of jewelry that, at this point, Renci assumes must be the Pendant of Ka’thazar. With a sinking feeling, she recognizes this creature for what it is; Quep told her about one that Cal and Chando encountered at another temple. This is no droid. It is a golem animated by Dark Force energy. And the attack on Torthal came from this direction.
Renci doubles back a bit, closer to Torthal, gesturing with military hand signals that she sees a target to the north and that they need to move around it. The Twi’lek stares back at her, no comprehension in his eyes. “What do you want to do?” he asks.
“We need to close distance and flank that,” Renci insists, pointing out the golem.
Torthal turns his attention to the direction the woman indicates. “Close the distance?” He sees the huge golem, but he has a different set of priorities than she does; the dart that hit him came from that way. Torthal does not tell the woman that movement to the north has already caught his eye: someone with a rifle in hand dashing to the east behind a column. He recognized the other human from the mirror room, the companion that she had described as well able to handle himself. If that man is here, it is possible Dr. Pramine is as well, particularly since the golem has activated. Torthal stretches out his awareness to the north, and he Senses more life ahead than just that one human. Pramine, that pendant is mine. He needs to stop the people first; he can deal with the golem later.
“Do you have a ranged weapon?” his human companion asks. He nods and draws a blaster pistol, though he intends to crush the throat of whoever gets in his way. The woman slips off to circle around to the northwest, intent on enacting her flanking plans. Torthal heads toward where he knows at least one enemy to be, wrapping shadows around himself with the Force. He reaches out, skimming the surface of his target’s mind. The woman. Torthal sneers and adjusts the shadows around himself. If the man notices him, Torthal will appear to be her, sparing him another dart and giving him the opportunity to deal with any problems.
Renci rushes forward through the dim expanse, dashing from column to column, moving close enough to the stone guardian for her heavy blaster pistol to be reliable. Quep did not specify how Cal and Chando dealt with their golem, so Renci figures she will start with what she knows how to do and improvise from there. Once close enough, she aims high at the huge creature and pulls repeatedly at her trigger, overheating the gun. At just that moment, the golem looks down at the ground around its feet and starts to reach for something on the other side of the giant bier with its right arm. Renci’s shots pass over its shoulder, hitting a sconce beyond. The glowing red crystal fractures, and the stone guardian’s grabbing motion falters, its right arm grown sluggish. Renci takes note of this. So this is some kind of droid, and its power sources are those sconces. The crystal she hit is damaged, but it still pulsates weakly. Okay, I can work with this, Renci thinks.
* * *
In front of Gomarr, Dr. Pramine steps up to a two-meter tall bier, perfectly aligned on an east-west axis. Upon it rests an enormous reclined stone statue of the legendary musician Ka’thazar. She studies the engravings on the north face, nodding sagely, and Gomarr hears her whisper something about the pendant. As she reaches her hands forward, his eyes widen. Oh no, oh no, oh no, he thinks. She grabs handholds in the stone, and the sarcophagus shudders. Gomarr jumps back in alarm as a large foot comes down off the platform, planting on the ground right next to the professor. Then an arm starts moving towards her at the same time as a barrage of blaster bolts streaks across the top of the room. Those flash into one of the light sources, damaging it and dimming the room more. Who is shooting blasters? Gomarr wonders, but then he decides that as long as they are not shooting at him personally, it does not matter. He backs farther away. And then a thought occurs to him, both frightening and exciting… If the professor doesn’t make it, I am the first author!
Dr. Pramine easily evades the sluggish grab. This droid does not seem very dexterous, but then, it is very ancient technology. “This is such amazing droid manufacturing for such a primitive society!” she observes aloud. “Gomarr, take note. This could be a later addition.” She eyes the large droid in front of her, looking for handholds, evaluating whether she can climb it. She has got to get that pendant, and right now, it is ten or so meters up. She tries grabbing at the leg near her, but she can get no purchase. She slips behind it, thinking to maybe climb up the bier instead to reach a better height for her next go at the droid.
Gomarr looks down at this trusty vibroaxe and then back up at the enormous droid. The professor is now behind it, and she is not currently issuing any orders to Gomarr other than observation. He sees no reason to engage the thing and looks around for a place to hide instead. There is a much smaller sarcophagus nearby, one with just a flat lid and no potential droid lying atop it. Ah, that’s a good one there. Gomar dashes over to it and pushes the lid aside to crawl in, but finds it occupied by a corpse. More importantly, though, the desiccated body has an ancient blaster-type weapon. “Sorry, pal, I need this,” he says, as he reaches inside and grabs the gem-encrusted pistol, hoping the battery-pack is still good. It looks like it was made to last. “Uh… it belongs in a museum,” he tells the former owner, justifying his actions.
From his position at the base of a support column, Renn scans the area in front of him, looking south across the dim mausoleum floor, on alert for any sign of red lightsabers. His attention is pulled away from the forward threats by a loud creaking and groaning sound back behind him to the right. He looks over his shoulder and sees, partially obstructed by one of the enormous candelabras, that the stone statue of Ka’thazar has arisen. Please tell me this is the last thing that’s goin’ ta go wrong in this room. Blaster bolts fly from somewhere—maybe Pramine?—and hit one of the crystals up above. The statue’s subsequent jerky movements, swatting down at something with its right arm, suggest those are control crystals of some sort. The statue steps to the southwest, swinging again. Renn cannot see what it is targeting, but the lightsaber was in the southern half of the chamber. There is nothing Renn can do about the dark Force user right now, given that the blade was extinguished. Maybe this giant thing will take out that threat for him.
The shuddering footsteps of the enormous statue shake the room, and Renn reevaluates letting it just stomp around. He does not want it to step on the maalraa nor the people he has been stuck with down here either, for that matter. One of the sconce structures is near his column, and the ornate decorations look like they will provide plenty of holds to cling to. He chit-chits a caution to the shadows at his feet. Then he sprints over to the closest decorative pillar and begins climbing, hoping that there will be something he can do to the crystal to interfere with the statue’s operation.
The narrow stand widens into the socket at the top. Renn pulls himself through gaps in the oversized filigree, leaning back against it so as not to directly touch the crystal. Now that he is right in front of it, the pulsing light has a far more organic quality, slightly arrhythmic like an unhealthy heartbeat, rather than the steady flashing of a shipboard instrument panel. But even so, he sees that not all the wires are decorative. That threat below might be animated in some way by Dark Force energy, but something is leaving this crystal via cabling. That, he can do something about. He takes a quick look at the wires, nudging them apart with the tip of his knife, deciding which ones to cut. He is reluctant to actually touch any of this, but he will need to provide resistance by holding the wires in place while he pulls the knife across them. He steels himself and grabs the wires with his right hand, feeling a jolt of pain and anger as they shock him, but he does not let go. He yanks his knife through the bend he has made, severing the wires. Red sparks go flying, and the crystal winks out, completely extinguished. Ah, it’s quite dark up here now.
* * *
Torthal slips north toward Ka’thazar’s resting place, confident that the man with the rifle will not cause him any immediate trouble. He is now free to turn his attention to his rival, Dr. Pramine. If she is here, she is certainly at that central dais. Torthal balances his own need for stealth against all the structures blocking his line of sight and decides to approach from the east side of the bier. The human woman will draw the golem’s attention in the other direction. It can take care of her, or she can take care of it. That is not his concern right now.
As he moves, one of the crystals winks out, the one closest to where he saw the man hiding. Good. If he is dealing with that now, he will not be looking for Torthal. Let the humans expend their energy fighting or disabling the golem. Once they are finished, if either of them is still standing, he will eliminate the witnesses and walk off with his pendant. There, up ahead, he finally sees his primary target, the archaeologist. He feels the dark energy of the space around him, and reaches out toward her with the Force, but it is as if the temple is mocking him. Is Ka’thazar’s ghost sheltering Pramine in some way? Is this a test of my worthiness, of my strength? Torthal growls and moves closer.
Dr. Pramine watches in frustration as the droid steps over the bier and away from her. Now even if she climbed atop its resting place, she would not be close enough to jump onto it. She makes a mental note to add a grapple gun to the supply list for her next expedition. Clearly, though, these primitive people would have had some sort of stop word for the droid. She returns her attention to the carvings in front of her. They indicate that the pendant was of personal importance to Ka’thazar and is not related to the functioning of the droid. That is a relief to her, as it means there will be no need to damage the pendant to bring the droid to heel. These carvings really are fascinating.
Gomarr holds the ancient blaster pistol in one hand and his vibroaxe in the other, the larger weapon propped against his shoulder. It is important to indicate in the write-up of our visit to this temple whether artifacts were found in working order or not, he tells himself, deciding he should probably test this gun. Gomarr crouches down behind the smaller sarcophagus, and only then, when hidden, does he sheathe his vibroaxe. He takes a two-handed grip on the pistol and braces it across the flat surface in front of him, carefully lining up a shot. The golem is lurching around, so he takes his time following its movements, waiting for the perfect moment.
* * *
As Renci considers getting closer to the sconces, the stone guardian treats her to the same attention. It turns away from whatever was on the north side of the bier and thuds her way. Still within the circle of candelabras, it swings a lengthy arm out at her. Although the right arm seems damaged in some way, it still packs quite a punch as it swats her aside. She bounces off a column, and her head snaps against it. For a moment, she finds it difficult to focus her eyes at all, and even once that passes, she sees spots in her vision that distract her. A small corner of her brain, the part that is still dazed from being slammed into the stonework, thinks, So this is what it is like to be Renn Herkin. Then the golem raises both its arms above its head and starts swinging them back down at her again. The left arm, thankfully, freezes in its upright position, upsetting the golem’s balance such that its right fist crashes into the floor next to her. It makes a crater there and showers Renci with shards of duracrete.
With dust in her eyes, Renci considers the benefits of backing the kriff out of here, but when she blinks them clear, she sees the stone guardian has straightened up and is stepping back toward its resting place. The whole space seems a bit dimmer now, and out of the corner of her eye, she notices one of the other sconces has gone dark. Maybe that’s why the left arm froze. Let’s see how you do with no arms. She brings her blaster back up, loosing a cluster of shots in the direction of the fractured crystal she hit with her previous barrage, but they splash harmlessly against the outer mesh. She ducks into cover behind a nearby column—the one she was smashed into earlier—so that the golem will not see her if it decides to turn her way again. She is not sure why it moved back to home base. Does it think I was trying to draw it away? Is it going to recharge? Is it acquiring new targets? She figures it must have programming of some kind, this “Force droid,” and whatever it is, she would prefer it not know where she is while she comes up with her next move.
* * *
Gomarr sees the statue turn and step back to the dais, right above the professor. He pulls the trigger, wondering if anything unusual will happen with this blaster. It is almost a relief when the shot goes wide, missing the statue; it still will not know he is here. Gomarr ducks back down and examines the gun. Maybe I have to fix the sight on this. It looks fine, so he pokes his head up over the lip of the sarcophagus again, watching the statue’s movements.
From behind a nearby pillar, Torthal glares at Dr. Pramine and channels all the frustration and aggravation that has built up over the course of this entire university ruse. He stretches out a hand and clutches at the air, squeezing his fingers shut as the Force cuts off the flow of oxygen into that insufferable archaeologist’s lungs. He sees her wobble a bit, a look of confusion on her face, and she raises a hand.
Dr. Pramine feels her throat tightening. At first, she thinks maybe she has caught whatever bug was going around the grad students earlier on the expedition. Certainly there is nothing down here that she would have an allergic reaction to, but breathing is growing difficult. She brings a hand up to her collar to loosen it. She goes to step away from the droid lumbering in her direction and finds that her body will not respond. She feels rooted in place, but by her throat, not by her feet. This does not seem natural, but it is familiar…. She remembers reading about something like this feeling of being unable to move or breathe, but not in history books. It was in a collection of myths that Ashgur lent her. As she recalls that story, she realizes that other things she has observed in the past few hours were also featured in that anthology. Like the way the human was going up to the doors in the room with the wall hangings and concentrating hard, as if he could somehow discern what was on the other side. He did seem to know which doors had the animals, and he was choosing them over the proper exit. That all aligns with what some myths claim this Force thing can do. At the time, she thought he was just listening, but she was wrong.
A chill runs down Dr. Pramine’s spine. The Force is real, and she has been manipulated by one of its adherents for the past several hours. Those humans… they were already here in the temple. They were trying to get her to leave, probably so they could have the place to themselves. One of her grad students pointed out a lightsaber wound on the woman. And the man was even wearing some sort of amulet around his neck under all the fangs and claws. This thing that is happening now, to her own throat, this is the Force in action. That man must being doing this to her. She needs to find where he is and have Gomarr stop him. Although Dr. Pramine’s body is bound in some way, held in place by the throat, she is able to move her arms and turn her head. She pulls out her pistol. Maybe she cannot move away, but she can shoot from here. She cranes her head around, looking for the Force user, and spots him up in one of the sconces, doing something to the crystal up there. Probably using it to animate the giant droid statue that could step on her at any moment. Everything he said about the lightsaber down here earlier was just misdirection. What a trusting fool I’ve been, she thinks, lifting her blaster.