The engines of the AIC hummed beneath their booted feet. It had already breached atmosphere, and above the grind of mechanics delivering them into the warzone and the howl of the wind tearing around the boxy little drop ship, explosions could be heard. Distant, almost rhythmic detonations gave the cacophony of background noise a bass undertone. Above that, from the cockpit, the occupants could hear the treble, scratchy, frenetic reports over the comlink. Celevon sat with his head back, resting against the bulkhead, staring up at the red light which flickered when the AIC banked too hard. His booted toe tapped along to an imaginary beat, as if it was music they were all listening to; not the sound of a battle in full swing, with hundreds of thousands of lives in the balance.
Turel stood near the front of the craft, one hand holding the rail above his head, his other was braced against the door frame, leaning to see over the crew’s heads, watching the repeater displays. He was officially the small group’s leader, and had been tasked by Marick to establish a foothold in the Valley of The Dark Lords. From what he’d understood of the mission brief, the Valley of the Dark Lords was currently where you went if you had a particularly strong urge to die. A war on three fronts. It was not going to be easy, pretty, or even remotely safe. There was a large chance that the team he’d been given wouldn’t all make it out alive.
Mako was hunched over a datapad, a stylus poking out of his lips as he muttered to himself, presumably writing poetry. Turel’s lip quirked in amusement, but he swallowed the comment before voicing it; undermining his subordinates a strong team would not make. Rod, the Journeyman of their little venture, was checking his weaponry almost religiously, and outwardly appeared calm, but the Quaestor had seen many of his type before; a young soldier who bought into the glorious ideal of war, only to have his first few forays crush that polished dream. Now, he was disillusioned and merely wondering if he’d make it out of the Valley alive.
Last but not least was Rhiann. The willowy woman sat next to Celevon, and despite appearing engrossed in her own datapad, flickering the jeweled stylus over it with the odd flourish, she did spare a scathing look at the assassin next to her - more specifically, his boot. Celevon’s tapping bothered her. He didn’t stop.
The AIC listed hard to the left, and Turel’s wrist strained holding him upright. The others, strapped in as they were, didn’t lose their balance, but a few exchanged alarmed glances.
“What was that?” He demanded to the cockpit’s crew.
“Birdstrike, sir. One of our engines is out.”
Turel ran a hand over his face in frustration. They’d managed to dodge innumerable ballistics and got to within a few hundred feet from the planet’s surface when a rodding avian took them out.
“Can we make it to the ground?”
“Oh, that part will definitely happen, Sir. I’ll try to get as low as I can. When the light goes green, jump.”
Turel turned to the others, and without a word began shouldering on a jetpack. They immediately got up and did the same. A tense few seconds followed, with the craft’s engine tone sounding gradually more and more strained. The bay doors opened, blasting them with hot, dusty air which whipped stray debris in the cabin around like a miniature cyclone. The Quaestor took the first position and stared out of the doors at the battle below. It was mostly obscured by a thick cloud of dust kicked up from thousands of feet churning the previously-undisturbed ground, but there was the odd muted flash, and somewhere a blast of lightning shot up from the melee, framing the sky in blue brilliance.
The AIC started leaning heavily, banking away from the battle. Turel’s eyes focused on a pair of individuals barely visible on a rocky outcropping, partially sheltered by a boulder. There was a flash of light, a cloud, and a black speck shot up towards them - a missile.
“Incoming!” He bellowed, but the pilots couldn’t hear him over the wind and the engines.
“Out! Out! Out! He shouted at his team, virtually shoving Celevon out of the door as he stood up. Rod went next, then Mako then Rhiann. With a last look at the interior, at all the mission-essential kit they were leaving behind, he threw himself out, and was taken by the wind. Above, the AIC exploded spectacularly as the chip tore through the open hatch. All their carefully-packed ordnance went up, causing the ship to swell like a water balloon for an instant before the explosion ripped it apart, scattering the sky with burning shrapnel. The Quaestor turned to face the cloud of dust rapidly coming up to approach him. It’d be near-impossible to see when it was safe to activate the jetpack in that mess, where visibility was limited to a few feet.
Grimacing, Turel dipped deeply into the Force and closed his eyes. His senses were obliterated by a miasma of pain, rage, and even joy coursing through the valley. Shoving it to one side, he focused on prescience. A hint, anything that would tell him-
He stabbed the activator stud, and the pack flared to life, righting him, and halting his momentum enough to not become yet another casualty in the conflict. The landing was rougher than he expected. The former gangster collapsed in a pile of limbs, swearing to himself. He sat up, then scrambled into a crouch, trying to look everywhere at once whilst simultaneously shrugging off the jet-pack. It wasn’t easy. He had to locate his team. All seemed quiet for the most part, though the dust was cloying and stung his eyes. He grasped the Force once more and felt out around him. It wasn’t hard to pick up the others. They were all alive and within a hundred meters. Turel set off towards Rod, who would need protection the most, and mentally nudged the others. They took the hint.
Within a few minutes, they were crouched in a small circle, looking windswept and wide-eyed, but alive.
“Where are we?” Celevon asked, looking up, as if trying to pierce the fog and pick out the sky.
“Judging from the dust and Dark Jedi trying to kill us, I’ll venture a guess and say Korriban.” Turel responded, his lips twisting into a wry smile.
Most of the others simply rolled their eyes at the attempt to lighten their moods with humour, but Celevon cracked the ghost of a smile. He appreciated the effort, at least.
“We need to get to higher ground so we can see what we’re doing, and where we are. From there, we can maybe plan an approach to the temple.”
A rock clapped against what sounded like the sheer valley wall, and the team moved as one. Turel and Rod immediately brought up their pistols and took aim in the direction of the sound, whilst the others, who favoured close combat, moved to cover. Rhiann, however, pulled out her datapad and frantically started tapping at its screen.
“Three life forms. Twenty meters due east. Can’t discern who they are with, but there is no vehicles supporting them.” She reported crisply.
Turel nodded his thanks, then gestured to Celevon and Mako, who started moving east, down the small valley path. There were a pair of gurgles a moment later, followed by the sound a cat makes when stood on. Rhiann flinched, but didn’t move any further.
“Clear!” Mako’s voice echoed through the valley.
Rod, Turel and Rhiann approached, to find the pair of duelists cleaning their blades of blood. Two soldiers and what appeared to be a Squib jedi were dead at their feet, having never gotten a shot off. The two troops bore Odan Urr livery.
“Good work.” He clapped Mako on the shoulder, but the Rollmaster flinched back from the touch. Clearly, he wasn’t used to such camaraderie.
That’ll need to change.
“Turel, that sound we heard before which alerted us…”
The Quaestor turned to Rhiann, who was staring at the valley wall. The dust had thinned considerably as they moved deeper into the narrow pass. Above them, it swept like an angry demon, or vultures circling.
She gestured at a fresh mark on the wall. A chip. “This is the mark stone makes when hit against stone of the same type. And here,” The Magistrate pointed at two fractured stones lying amidst the dust. They seemed strangely out of place, and a subtly different colour. “This stone split in two when it struck the wall. Who throws rocks when they are sneaking up on unknown antagonists?”
She was right. It didn’t make sense. Why would they give themselves away like that?
“We’ll watch our backs. I don’t like it anymore than you do, but we have to focus and keep moving. Celevon, find us a way to higher ground.”