“Believe it or not, most tombs and temples are not trapped,” Rhylance bit back. “This complicates things considerably.”
Grot snarled, but didn’t reply, and turned to look around the hall. Upon closer inspection the walls were covered with bas-reliefs, scenes of battle and discord. Murder, betrayal, war, and every other form of violence was depicted with exquisite detail, the torches casting exagerated shadows over the anguished faces. Above it all about elegant, runic scrawl ran across the top of the hallway.
“What does that writing mean?” Grot grunted, pointing to it. Lucine took a quick look upward.
“Looks like ancient Sith…”
“The academy uploaded a translation program to your data pad, may I see it?” Rhylance asked. He took the datapad and snapped a few photos of the writing, waiting as the software tried its best.
“It cannot recognize the dialect precisely but,” Rhylance let out a sudden, wry chuckle, "it appears to be a curse of some kind.”
Grot felt his flesh chill at this. Absent-mindedly he clutched at one of his totems and looked around the hallway with renewed weariness. “What sort of curse?”
“It’s nothing to worry about, darling, Sith curses are more bluster and bark than anything else. Probably promising disease, death, infertility and misery to anyone who desecrates this temple. All the old standards.” Lucine answered as she began the clear away the bodies of the Collective troopers. With a flick of her wrist the corpses slowly unraveled themselves and piled up to the side of the hallway.
“A curse is no trivial matter!” Grot hissed.
“Then perhaps we will abandon the whole expedition for your primitive superstitions,” Rhylance said with an acrid sneer. “We have come this far already.”
Grot scowled, but said nothing in return, only silently stewing. In time they got the bodies cleared away and the spikes disarmed, so they could make their way safely down the hallway. As they marched the torches became less frequent, and the dim lighting made it increasingly difficult to see. Soon the hallway opened out into a large chamber, soaring high above their heads. The walls were painted a bright, scarlet red and the same, violent murals leered down at them as they entered.
Most disturbingly of all, however, the chamber split into five different paths.
“A maze,” Lucine said with annoyance. “How lovely.”
“You should be less worried about the maze, and more about the walls.” Rhylance replied with a grim expression. He pulled his shirt up over his nose as he examined them. “This looks like cinnabar. Breathe too much and you’re bound to get mercury poisoning.”
Lucine pulled her cloak around her mouth and nose, while Grot sealed his armor. Both dreaded the inevitable detox they’d be put through after this mission. There was a short silence as they considered their next course of action.
“We might have to get a scanning team down here, no telling how many—”
“Through here” Grot said roughly, interrupting Rhylance as he gestured towards the second corridor.
“How could you possibly know that?” Rhylance asked, exasperated with the Trandoshans brutish behavior.
“I have eyes, smoothskin, look at the dust on the ground. Most of the foot traffic runs through here.” Grot snarled, feeling his anger grow. He began to question why he was even on this expedition. Neither of his companions respected him, or his skills. They dismissed his advice, and put the whole expedition in danger. They were just using him to get to the artifact, to take all the credit—
“Well, lead on then darling.” Lucine interrupted his brooding, trying to defuse the tension she could feel building. Both Rhylance and Grot were slowly swirling with hate and anger, an extremity of emotion she couldn’t quite explain. There was something dark about this place, something not quite right that pulsed in her blood and made her toes itch.
Grot led them down to corridor, eyes locked on the ground ahead as the followed the Collective’s tracks. They bypassed a number of cleverly hidden traps on their way, their progress slow but vigilant as they marched through the ever darkening corridors. At last they came to a fork in their path, and Grot halted, confused as he looked at the floor.
“Trouble, Trandoshan?” Rhylance remarked.
“The tracks disappear here.”
“So much for the vaunted hunter then.”
Rhylance and Grot bickered and sniped at each other openly, their arguments growing louder by the second as they struggled to determine a path forward. Lucine stood apart, knowing that any interference from her would only worsen the situation. Instead she focused on that inscrutable feeling permeating the temple, expanding her senses and trying to pinpoint its presence.
She felt her pulse pound and her face grow flush as she comprehended the level of Dark Side energy suffusing this place. A choking miasma that nearly overwhelmed her as she opened up to it. It pounded at the edge of her mind like a wild animal, howling and screaming like the whirlwind as it tried to grasp her.
She leaned against the wall, suddenly faint, and tried to pull away from the thing that assailed her. Her breathing grew heavy, and her vision swam as its power receded, but she could still feel it there, scratching at the edges of her sensation, trying to pull her down with it.
Her presence of mind came back to her, and she saw that Grot and Rhylance were engaged in a shouting match. Their voices grew higher in pitch and their hands snaked subconsciously towards their weapons as they argued. The murals to either side leered down evilly, even eagerly as they tasted the bloodshed to come.
“Enough of this!” Lucine shouted, casting her voice with an irresistible power that shattered the argument. “We are allies, not enemies. There is something dark happening here, and I fear we will need to work together to oppose it.”
“We still have no idea where to go,” Rhylance protested weakly, still dazed by the strength of Lucine’s command.
“I know the way” Lucine said. “Whatever is here, it has seen me, and it wants to be found. This temple is not a vault, but a cage. These traps were not built to keep us out, but to keep it in.”
“How could you know this?” Grot hissed, his voice still gruff with anger.
Lucine frowned, pursing her lips. “I do not know.”
They passed to the right of the fork, Lucine leading the way as the men retreated in sullen silence to the rear. She followed her feelings, chasing that pounding, monstrous presence down the corridors. She was growing closer now, its voice terribly loud as they neared the exit. Just a few more halls and they would be—
And the ground gave way beneath her.
“Lucine!” Rhylance shouted as the rocks crumbled and their redheaded companion fell into the pit. There was a whistle as something leapt up from the hole. A grappling hook, with its head shining in the dim light, scrambled against the stones. Its head caught on a loose brick, jerking to a stop and leaving Lucine hanging perilously below.
Rhylance could see the brick would not hold for long and ran forward, grabbing the cord with both hands as he tried to haul Lucine back up. “Grot! I need help!”
Grot stood aside, oddly paralyzed by the sight in front of him. Maliciously, he thought how satisfying it was to see them like this. The ones who doubted him, so utterly at his mercy, begging for his aid. He thought how much more satisfying it would be to deny them, to let them fall and die under the weight of their own arrogance.
He shook his head roughly, grasping it with both claws. Why would he do that? He couldn’t just leave them to die. He felt his pulse pound and his body shake, a headache of monstrous proportions splitting his skull in two as he fought these intrusive thought.
Why? Why not! The power was his and he should use it! The only true power over a thing was the power to destroy it, and in this moment he held that power. Was it not intoxicating? Was it not a grand feeling?
“Grot! Please!” Rhylance shouted in desperation, his palms bleeding as the cord began to bite deep into them. His feet slowly slipped over the stone floor, mere inches from the edge as he fought to keep Lucine from her death.
At last two armored claws gripped the cord, and with monstrous strength began to haul Lucine up and out of the pit. Lucine gasped, her body flooded with adrenaline and happy to be on safe ground once more.
Furious, Rhylance hauled up and punched Grot, the sound ringing through the otherwise silent corridor.
“Where the kark were you!” He shouted, his hand stinging from the impact on Grot’s helmet. “You almost left us to die!”
“I saved you. You should be thankful.” Grot said in a deadly whisper. Lucine shuddered to hear that voice, and felt something terrible in its undertones.
“You sure took your time! Some savior!” Rhylance bit out, before swirling around to look after Lucine. She waved him off, looking at Grot with concern.
“I’m fine, darling, nothing more than a few bruises. Grot, dear, are you feeling quite alright?”
“We should keep moving. He’s not far from here,” Grot whispered in that same deadly tone, and began to move around the edges of the pit. Though it may have just been a slip of the tongue, Lucine caught every word.
"He" the Trandoshan had called the artifact.
They marched quickly to keep up with him, falling in careful step behind him. They felt an awful foreboding tension as Grot moved in utter silence, without even a glance in their direction. It wasn’t long until they came upon the main chamber of the temple.
A large and glittering room stood before them, the ever present murals on the walls now inlaid with gems and precious stones, untouched by the ravages of time. Torches blazed brightly in every sconce, and upon the solid gold altar in the center of the room, there it was.
A speckled blue stone floated there, unsupported above the altar. Its reflective face seemed to radiate malice, and the air grew darker in its immediate vicinity. It was a grim and foreboding sight, but none more so than the sight at the foot of the altar.For there was the last of the Collective expedition, their bodies still locked in frenzied combat, dead by each other’s hand.