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A tall figure in white, billowing robes walked onto the stage. To Kafor, he looked like a savior, walking slowly and deliberately with his hands together, as if in prayer to the Great Beings. The spotlights fixed on him, their light reflecting off his spotless robes, enhanced his savior-like mystique even from Kafor’s current location, a small, obscure bar in the slums of New Atero.
When the figure reached the end of the stage, thousands of Skakdi -- all of whom had gathered in the Great Spirit Stadium to listen to him -- cheered and screamed his name. Kafor was quite glad she was watching this event on the telescreen in the quiet, nearly-empty bar called the Tarakava’s Fist, for she doubted she would have been able to tolerate such loudness and merriment if she were actually there in person.
The figure raised his hands high, as if reaching for the sun, with a benevolent smile on his face that reminded Kafor of others before him, beings that had inspired hope in the oppressed Skakdi with their warmth and idealism. Such beings had, in the past, attempted to lead the Skakdi to a greater future, but they never got very far due in large part to the might of New Atero, so Kafor rarely paid them much attention.
The camera’s focus shifted, now showing a Le-Matoran news reporter standing just outside the crowd. He was speaking loudly, attempting to be heard over the boisterous shouting and chanting of the throng.
“I’m Gosfa from Channel Nine News and I’m reporting here live from the Great Spirit Stadium in Zisar, New Zakaz,” said Gosfa, speaking directly to the camera. “The controversial speaker, Masqouth, is about to deliver his first speech to the Skakdi people in Zisar. We’re providing the entire speech commercial free thanks to our sponsors, Ignika Industries, ‘making your life better every day.’”
Gosfa tried looking over the Skakdi, but as he was a rather short Matoran, that proved impossible. So he said, “Well, I’m not going to be able to see it, I guess, but that’s what we brought multiple cameras for. I think he’s about to start.”
The reporter was right. The Skakdi had ceased their chanting and cheering and were now watching Masqouth, who looked over them all with a kind, almost parental gaze.
“People of New Zakaz,” said Masqouth, spreading his arms, “thank you for allowing me to sojourn in your grand city. Though I’ve been here for two days only, yet I’ve been shown such kindness and respect that I don’t know how I will ever be able to repay it. I am honestly surprised, for before I came here I was warned of the viciousness and cruelty of the Skakdi. It appears that I was misled, but whether intentionally or unintentionally, I cannot say.”
Of course he couldn’t. Not on a live broadcast. It was common knowledge that the New Atero government did not like Masqouth. His last speech in New Roxtus had ended with Skrall Imperialists causing a massive citywide riot that ended only after the Nuva Guard came in and killed or arrested those that had started it. There were probably Nuva Guards in the stadium right now. The cameras simply did not show them.
“Yes,” said Masqouth, lowering his hands, “the Skakdi people have always been on the receiving end of destiny. Back in the beginning, many, many thousands of eons ago, you people were once prosperous and powerful, at peace with your neighbors, who respected your might and never said one false or untrue word about you. You were among the most technologically advanced people in the old universe, even in some cases surpassing Metru Nui and Xia in terms of tech level. That is why that time is known as the Golden Age of Zakaz, for they say that during that era, riches were plenty and no one lacked anything. Even the poorest Skakdi still had many of the luxuries and necessities their brethren had. It was truly a beautiful time.”
The crowd cheered at this. Kafor sipped from her drink and continued watching.
“But then all that changed one day,” said Masqouth, his hands balled into fists. “A Makuta named Spiriah arrived on the shores of your island. He promised to make the Skakdi into a better and stronger species, one that didn’t have to rely on the whims of their neighbors for necessary exports. He promised that the Brotherhood of Makuta -- that hated, wicked organization that is now the very symbol of evil -- would stand behind a Skakdi Empire, ruled by the elders of Zakaz.”
At the mention of Spiriah, all of the Skakdi began booing and hissing. Kafor felt much the same way. In her opinion, Spiriah was even worse than Irnakk, for at least Irnakk was honest about wanting to kill everyone.
“Yet you all know what Spiriah’s promises turned out to be,” said Masqouth, gesturing at the crowd. “They turned out to be lies. The Brotherhood didn’t want to help the Skakdi become a force to be reckoned with in the old universe. They wanted an invincible army of soldiers for their own wicked ends, but they didn’t even get that. When Spiriah gave your ancestors this power, they got into arguments about who would rule the Skakdi Empire. These arguments might have remained simple arguments had a Skakdi named Reidak not destroyed an entire city of his enemies, triggering an island-wide civil war that raged until the end of the old universe.”
Again, more booing and hissing, this time directed at Reidak. Kafor had never known Reidak personally, although from what she knew of him, his demolishing a city was not at all unexpected.
Masqouth raised his hands again and the booing and hissing ceased. Then he continued, saying, “After that, the most significant event in Skakdi history was when six Skakdi, ex-Dark Hunters who branded themselves Piraka, went to the island of Voya Nui in search of the fabled Mask of Life, which they believed would give them the power to help their people rise from the never-ending war that had engulfed Zakaz.
“Yet they were opposed, first by the Toa Nuva, whom they defeated, and later by the Toa Inika, whom they failed to defeat. Despite the Pirakas’ noble intentions, Mata Nui sided with the Toa, as he always does, and the Piraka died, thus seemingly banishing all Skakdi to an eternity of warfare and strife.”
This time, there were no boos and hisses, but Kafor could easily tell that the Skakdi were riled up. The mere mention of the Toa Inika was enough to enrage them. That the Skakdi were not howling in rage told her just how angry they were.
“And afterward, life seemed to get even worse for the Skakdi,” said Masqouth. “Makuta Teridax took over the old universe and forced the Skakdi people to be his slaves. He ordered them to commit evil acts against the other inhabitants of the universe, such as attacking the city of Metru Nui and slaughtering anyone who dared stand against Teridax’s vile will. Not only that, but he forced them to be members of the army he sent to conquer Bara Magna. Truly, that was the Skakdi people’s darkest hour.
“But, seemingly out of nowhere, hope came in the form of a golden-skinned being, who history now calls the Dream Maker. The Dream Maker used his fantastic powers to lead the Skakdi people out of the ruins of the old universe and to a new home on the shores of Aqua Magna. He even tamed the Toa Mahri, previously known as the Toa Inika, thus assuring the Skakdi that he could conquer any foe, no matter how powerful or legendary. Because of his benevolence, today the Dream Maker appears in Skakdi legend as the heroic counterpart to the vile Irnakk. Truly, he was a hero of heroes.”
At the mention of the Dream Maker, the crowd whooped and went wild. Even Kafor cracked a small smile at the mention of the Dream Maker, a being whom she had never met personally but had heard much about.
“Where do I begin describing the Dream Maker’s awe-inspiring powers, might, and wisdom?” said Masqouth, putting one hand on his chest. “Yet this hero, in spite of his strength and wisdom, was slain a few years later by the malicious Great Being known as Velika. Without the Dream Maker to guide them, the Skakdi became disorganized and so were easily subdued by the New Atero Republic that had sprung up in the death of Teridax, a republic that still rules the Skakdi to this very day.”
At that, some of the Skakdi started shouting obscenities and curses; others, merely yelling incoherently, although their meaning was well understood. For once, Kafor found herself wishing she was back among her people in order to join them in cursing the Republic.
“The hypocrisies of New Atero are many,” said Masqouth, spreading his arms. “Though it calls itself a republic of equality and peace, not every species is allowed to make decisions in the governing of this corrupt sword. Where are the Skakdi ambassadors? Why are the Skrall also denied any representation? If this were truly a democratic state, why are the Skakdi and Skrall alike denied the rights supposedly granted to all living beings by the Great Beings? Who orchestrated this injustice, which has existed since the very beginning of the New Atero’s domination of Spherus Magna?”
Behind Masqouth, a giant screen suddenly flickered on. A gigantic image of the Mask of Life stood behind Masqouth. It was the symbol found on the New Atero flag, but Kafor knew Masqouth had a deeper point to make here other than pointing out the obvious.
“The Great Spirit Mata Nui,” said Masqouth, gesturing at the image behind him. “It was he who led the Gadarians and Agori to crush the Skrall, a people that had done nothing wrong except wishing to survive. It was he who, after slaying Teridax, gave the Toa and Gadarians and others permission to subdue those who had served Teridax, a euphemism for the Skrall and Skakdi. His apathy or perhaps misanthropy toward the Skakdi can be seen in that he did not bother to undue the injustices the Brotherhood of Makuta had performed on the Skakdi, even though Mata Nui had spent his whole life fighting the Brotherhood’s leader. And then he disappeared without a trace, allowing others to fix the mistakes he’d made instead of doing it himself!”
Now the crowd was really riled up. One Skakdi even shouted, “To Karzahni with Mata Nui!” while another shouted, “Down with New Atero! Down with New Atero!” Kafor expected the crowd to break out into a riot at any moment, which would give the Nuva Guards an excuse to move in and start arresting people.
“Yes!” said Masqouth, raising his hands high, as if trying to touch the sky. “Do not praise such a tyrant, such a coward, who has never helped the Skakdi. In his eyes, you are nothing . . . and in the eyes of his followers, you are even less than that.
“But I say to you, people of Zisar -- no, people of the world -- that though we are slain, we will not stand for this. The poet Zarsk once said that, though the Skakdi may be beaten down by destiny time and again, a force that is beyond destiny awaits us. A new century for the Skakdi, Zarsk said, would dawn, which would overthrow the chains of destiny and lead the Skakdi people to a newer, better, and much brighter future! And, my friends, I dare say that this new century is upon us!”
The crowd was in something like a frenzy now, although the cameras were focused squarely on Masqouth. That didn’t stop the crowd from chanting “The new century! The new century! The new century” over and over again, chanting it with such passion that even Kafor, cynical as she was, started to feel a little hopeful.
“It is wonderful to see such strength and bravery in the face of adversity,” said Masqouth, putting both hands over his heart. “It warms my heart to see that the Skakdi people still hope for a better future, for them and their descendents. Truly, the new century burns in us all, demanding to become a reality rather than remain a prophecy. To the new century!”
“To the new century!” the crowd roared.
The crowd cheered and chanted for several more minutes before Masqouth -- who had watched them with the loving gaze of a parent -- clapped his hands, creating a loud noise that drowned out even the crowd’s chanting. When it passed, everything was silent, for the Skakdi were eager to listen to Masqouth’s words.
“Now,” said Masqouth, again spreading his hands, “bring to me your sick and your wounded. Allow me to heal them with my gentle touch so they may enter the new century whole and healthy. I am but the humble servant of the weak and the downtrodden. Remember to come one at a time so I may give a word of hope to each sick person who needs it.”
Surprisingly, the crowd, despite their uncontrollable excitement, began organizing themselves into lines that went from the stadium entrance to the stage where Masqouth stood. The first Skakdi up was a blue one who walked with a bad limp; in fact, had it not been for her friends, the Skakdi might never have gotten up there at all.
Masqouth placed his hands on her shoulders and, one bright flash of light later, the blue Skakdi walked away good as new. The sight of the healed limper made the crowd buzz with excitement, but they kept their spots in the line and slowly began making their way up to the stage.
Then the telescreen changed, showing two Agori newscasters discussing Masqouth’s speech. Kafor lost interest in their discussion and looked at the bartender, a Roffican named Barc. His eyes were still focused on the telescreen hanging in the corner, absentmindedly wiping his hands with a dirty rag.
“That Masqouth guy sure does know how to get an audience all riled up,” said Barc. “What do you think, Kafor?”
Kafor shook her head. “I don’t know. He speaks good words, but there’ve been other guys like him before, promising the Skakdi hope and change. They usually get crushed by New Atero and then everyone goes back to their normal lives before some other moron starts the cycle again.”
“I dunno,” said Barc, looking down at her. “He really seems like something special. Came out of nowhere, can heal people, talks about the new century for the Skakdi and all that . . . maybe he’s gonna be different.”
“Doesn’t matter to me one way or the other,” said Kafor as she sipped from her drink. “Even if he somehow succeeds in liberating the Skakdi, that’s not going to help me one bit, not unless the Shadowed One magically decides to forgive me, anyway.”
“True,” said Barc with a shrug. “Aren’t you happy for your people, though? I mean, he kind of reminds me of the great Roffican philosopher, Tinak. You know, the guy who won better working conditions for Rofficans a couple hundred years back? That’s who Masqouth reminds me of.”
Kafor glanced at the telescreen again. The voices of the two Agori newscasters could still be heard off-screen, but the cameras were on Masqouth again, filming him from a couple of different angles as he repeated his hands-on miracles.
“He looks familiar to me for some reason,” said Kafor, running one finger around the rim of her cup. “I thought that when I first saw him on the telescreen when he spoke to the Skrall and I still think that right now.”
“Maybe he just reminds you of someone you knew,” said Barc. “Have you ever known a miracle-worker wearing white robes before?”
Kafor chuckled. “No, I haven’t. Then again . . . I may have seen him in a vision.”
“A vision?” said Barc, scratching his chin. “A recent one?”
Kafor frowned. “No, not a recent one. It was a long, long time ago, before everyone left the old universe. I think I remember seeing him in it.”
“What was he doing in the vision?” said Barc as he slapped the dirty rag onto the counter. “Talking about the new century?”
Kafor shook her head. “No. Actually . . . I was fighting him. Me and someone else, but I’m not sure why we were doing it or who my partner in the battle was.”
Barc scratched the back of his head and threw a quick glance at the telescreen, which still showed Masqouth. “Fighting him? Uh, your dreams are supposed to be symbolic, right?”
“Sometimes they are,” said Kafor, propping her chin in both hands. “Other times, they’re not. Take my vision of the Great Cataclysm, for instance. I had a vision of a giant earthquake shaking the old universe, and that is exactly what happened.”
“But why would you fight Masqouth?” said Barc. “He doesn’t seem like a bad guy to me. A little idealistic, maybe naïve, sure, but bad? Can’t see it.”
“Frankly, I’m not sure, either,” said Kafor. “My visions are never clear. All I can do is wait until the day it happens, whenever that will be.”
“’Time marches on and it’s all we can do to keep up with it,’” Barc quoted. “Right?”
Kafor looked at him in disbelief. “I didn’t know you read Zarsk. In fact, I didn’t know you read at all.”
“I try to get a little in here and there,” said Barc, shrugging his wide shoulders. “Have had a lot of free time recently, since things have been so quiet around here.”
“I see,” said Kafor. “Well, I-“
Her words were interrupted by the sound of the door opening and closing. Glancing over her shoulder, Kafor saw a hooded Skrall enter. He walked straight up to the counter and sat on one of the stools, placing one hand on the counter, while the other was on the hilt of his sword.
Barc -- who hadn’t had a single customer all day, save for Kafor -- eagerly drew himself up in front of the Skrall and said, “What can I get you?”
The Skrall didn’t make eye contact with Barc, keeping his eyes focused on the wooden counter that he sat at. He merely said, “Strong arang juice and a bowl of Thornax stew.”
“Arang juice and Thornax stew,” repeated Barc. “Got it.”
“Just hurry up,” said the Skrall. “I have places to be. Important places.”
“Of course, of course,” said Barc. “Be a minute.”
Barc went into the kitchen area behind the bar, leaving Kafor alone with the Skrall, who didn’t even seem to notice Kafor’s presence. He had unsheathed a dagger and was lightly running the tip back and forth across the counter. Kafor didn’t tell him to stop; after all, Barc’s counter had seen much worse in its time, including the memorable occasion when a particularly angry Vortixx mercenary stabbed his sword into it in an attempt to skewer Barc’s hand. A little knife wouldn’t hurt it.
Returning her attention to the telescreen, Kafor saw that the news was replaying footage from Masqouth’s speech in New Roxtus. The newscasters were comparing Masqouth’s speech in Zisar with his speech in New Roxtus, noting similarities and differences between the two speeches.
“He’s a fraud,” said the Skrall behind her. “Don’t even see why people bother with him.”
Kafor looked back at the hooded Skrall, who was also watching the telescreen. His hood obscured his expression, but his balled fists told Kafor the whole story.
“You aren’t Masqouth’s biggest fan, I take it?” said Kafor.
“No,” said the Skrall, shaking his head. “He will just go down the same road as the last revolutionary leaders. I don’t see why my people are getting their hopes up.”
“I agree,” said Kafor. “One of these days, he’s going to end up dead and New Atero is going to pretend it was an accident. Rather silly how one being can get everyone so hyped up for nothing, isn’t it?”
The Skrall nodded curtly, but said nothing in reply. He just returned his attention to the dagger, which he was still running across the counter.
As Kafor was getting bored sitting there in silence, she looked at the Skrall’s sheathed sword and said, “That’s strange. I thought it was illegal for citizens to carry weapons in New Atero.”
“I’m not from around here,” said the Skrall, still without looking at her. “Even if I was, screw New Atero. They’re not worth listening to.”
“I guess you’re afraid of being jumped by Matoran or something?” said Kafor. “I admit, they can be rather vicious little beasts when they want to, but it’s really the Toa-“
“I know who I have to look out for, Skakdi,” said the Skrall. “I’ve been doing this a long time. Don’t treat me like an imbecile, unless you’re willing to back that up with a fight.”
“Hey,” said Kafor, annoyed. “I was just jok-“
Again, Kafor was interrupted by the door opening and closing. Wondering who it was now, Kafor looked over her shoulder and saw a Toa of Air had entered. Kafor’s eyes widened because she recognized the Toa and had also not been prepared for the Toa’s beauty.
It was Toa Litho, the most famous non-Dark Hunter bounty hunter in the world. There was no mistaking that emerald and silver armor, nor the air-blaster gun she carried in her holster. Having seen Litho's picture all over the news recently, Kafor had no trouble recognizing her at all.
The Skrall had also looked to see who it was, but had just as quickly looked back at the counter. He ran his knife up and down the counter-top even faster now, although why, Kafor didn’t know. Something about Litho seemed to make the Skrall nervous. Maybe he had a large bounty, although that seemed unlikely, for Kafor could think of only one Skrall with that kind of bounty on his head and he would have to be a complete moron to be anywhere near this bar.
The Toa of Air took a seat at the counter in between Kafor and the Skrall. She didn’t look at either of them. Instead, she waited until Barc emerged from the kitchen carrying a bowl of Thornax stew, which smelled horrible to Kafor. She wondered how the Skrall could eat such filth. For that matter, she wondered why it was one of Barc’s specialties.
As soon as the Skrall got his meal, he began eating it quickly and noisily, like he had no table manners whatsoever. Kafor was glad she wasn’t sitting next to him otherwise she would have been covered in stew, although Litho didn’t seem to notice the bits and pieces of stew that were occasionally flung onto her armor.
Then Barc noticed Litho and said, “My, my. Looks like we’ve got a little celebrity here today. What may I do you for?”
“Oh, nothing, really,” said Litho. “I came by to see if there were any criminals in here who needed to be brought to justice. That’s all.”
“Well,” said Barc, folding his arms, “you’re out of luck. There ain’t no bounties worth getting around here. My humble little bar isn’t big enough to attract that kind of folk.”
Litho smiled and leaned forward on the counter. “Then who is this guy?”
She gestured at the Skrall with her head, causing the Skrall -- who had by now eaten half of his stew – to freeze, holding his empty spoon in midair, as though he’d been caught in some kind of crime.
“This guy?” said Barc, glancing at the Skrall. “He’s just a Skrall. Why should I know him?”
“Just a Skrall, hmm?” said Litho. “I wonder why he’s wearing a hood, then.”
Before Kafor could ask where Litho was going with this, the Skrall threw the half-empty bowl of stew into her face. The surprise attack sent Litho falling backwards into Kafor, sending Toa and Skakdi falling to the floor in a tangle of confused limbs. Kafor just managed to see the Skrall jump from his seat and race to the door, while Barc looked on, completely dumbfounded.
“Get off of me,” Litho snapped, pushing Kafor off her. “I’ve got to catch that Skrall.”
Litho rose to her feet and stared at the door, which the Skrall had by now almost reached. Her mask flared briefly and a thick stone wall appeared in front of the door, causing the Skrall to skid to a halt just a few feet from the now-blocked exit.
“How’d you do that?” said Kafor, looking up at Litho in surprise.
Litho gestured at her mask without looking at Kafor. “Mask of Stone. It’s amazing, I know.”
Kafor rolled her eyes, which Litho didn’t appear to notice. She aimed her air-blaster at the Skrall, who had now turned around to face the bounty hunter. He unsheathed his sword and brought out his buzz-saw shield as he took a battle stance.
“Now, now, Night,” said Litho in a mocking voice. “Be a nice boy and let me take you to justice.”
“No,” said the Skrall through gritted teeth. “I don’t play nice and I don’t let airhead bounty hunters arrest me.”
Kafor blinked. “Night? I’ve heard that name before. But where . . .”
“I’ll tell you who he is,” said Litho. “He’s one of the most infamous Dark Hunters around. He’s committed enough crimes to earn a ten thousand widget bounty on his head. So I’m going to take him down and get that bounty.”
“You may try,” said Night. “But I doubt you’ll succeed.”
Litho laughed. “I’ve never failed to bring in a bounty before. What makes you think that you are going to be the exception?”
“Because I’m not like previous bounties, Litho,” said Night as he dashed at her. “Because I don’t grant mercy to my enemies.”
Edited by TNTOS, Jul 29 2013 - 09:26 AM.