Hi! I made a new account in the rush of news about 2015, and I wrote this soon afterwards, set on a reunified Spherus Magna. No characters from the main canon are used; I have an entirely original cast. I intend to write a sequel or two (also named after famous sci-fi novels), but as they'll be largely self-contained pieces, I figured this forum would be the best place for them. I hope you enjoy! Strangers in a Strange Land The Toa strode through the tall grasses of the new world. Xiatan stood seven feet tall, adorned with armour of royal purple and deep black. He was mostly an intricate figure of cogs and pistons, held together by rope-like muscles and steel-hard armour, topped with a intricately carved metal mask. He was a stranger in this living, natural world, and it was obvious. Xiatan knelt down to see a small creature making its way through the grass across his path. It was a pale brown spider, maybe a foot across. "I haven't seen one of these before," he said to himself. When he reached a hand out to investigate, it extended a number of razor-edged spines from its skin, surprising him. His mask emitted a violet haze as he instinctively activated his mask power. On his face he wore the Kanohi Konomau, the Great Mask of Biomechanics. It allowed him a degree of control over systems both purely mechanical and those with organic components, which included everything in Xiatan's homeland. Unfortunately, the wildlife of Spherus Magna was almost entirely organic, making his mask power ineffectual. Nothing happened to the spider and it continued on its way. Xiatan decided to try a different approach. He tapped into the smallest fraction of the elemental energy that coursed through his frame and decreased the pull of gravity on the spider in a brief flash. The spider drifted gently upwards, legs scrabbling to find purchase in the empty air. Xiatan took a small stasis container from his backpack and floated the helpless spider into it. "Turaga Chilosa will want to see this," he thought. This was who Xiatan was; not a warrior, not a conqueror, but an explorer. His greatest desire was to explore, to discover strange lands and see long-forgotten sights, to know things that no-one else knew. He looked off at the still-unexplored land to the east of the village. All the way to the distant horizon, there were rolling hills and fields of vegetation, forests and jungles and grassland. Past that horizon lay places still unexplored; canyons of steel, vast biomechanical jungles, an ocean without end. One day, he would see them all. But today, there was another place that Xiatan was needed. He began the long trek back to Fotaki. It was a matter of moments before a sound at the edge of his hearing drew his attention. He crested a nearby hill and saw what was making the noise. ~ In the time before time, when legends were young, the planet of Spherus Magna was rent asunder by a great cataclysm. The elemental tribes that called it home were split by war over a treasure that, in the end, brought nothing but destruction. Three worlds formed from the upheaval; Bara Magna, Aqua Magna, and Bota Magna. Millions perished. The Great Beings, powerful rulers who nonetheless failed to stop this calamity, constructed a device to restore their world and prevent such a war from recurring. This was the Great Spirit, Mata Nui, and he was everything. He stood thousands of miles tall, and within him was contained the Matoran Universe, the home of a dozen biomechanical races. They lived in harmony as he travelled the stars, learning all there was to learn about the universe and its peoples. At the very end of his quest, disaster struck. The Brotherhood of Makuta grew hungry for power and sent Mata Nui into a thousand-year slumber. Despite the courageous efforts of many Toa and Matoran, Makuta's plan was successful. He exiled Mata Nui's mind and took the titan's power for himself. The Great Spirit's mind, contained within a mask of power, fell to Bara Magna. The Glatorian who fought alongside him have spread the tales of his daring and his bravery. He defeated the marauding Skrall and took control of an older, long-broken machine that had been scattered across Bara Magna. Mata Nui fought the tyrannical Makuta and defeated his fallen brother, at the cost of the Matoran Universe. Hope was not lost, for in his final act, Mata Nui used the great machine to unite the shattered planet and seed it with life. Bara Magna, Bota Magna and Aqua Magna were once again a single whole. The Matoran Universe was lost, but its peoples survived on the new world of Spherus Magna. ~ Turaga Chilosa looked up from her carving for a moment to rest her hand. She instinctively disapproved of the native Agori's habit of recording information on paper. Mere plant fibre would rot, but you could trust stone. A good stone carving could endure many millenia. She stood up slowly from her simple stone seat and walked outside. She was greeted by the sounds of night-time on Spherus Magna, so different from the busyness of day. About seventy Matoran and fifty Agori lived here, along with a pair of Glatorian, Toa Xiatan, and of course Chilosa herself. They all depended on her for guidance. Such was the role of a Turaga. There was a small oasis not far from the village where a solitary ex-Dark Hunter had taken up residence, but she was reclusive and rarely visited. The world seemed quiet now. In the island-cities that Chilosa had spent many years defending, there would never be silence, not even at night. The great forges would smelt ore into purest protodermis day and night, and the carvers would shape it into Kanohi, Kanoka, and every tool imaginable. But here in the new village of Fotaki, all that Chilosa could hear was the crackling of small fire-pits and the rustling of wind through the long grasses. It was hard to believe this place had once been a desert before the Great Spirit had blessed it with his final gift. "Turaga!" a voice said from behind him. She turned to see her oldest friend, Xiatan, approaching her with a grim expression. She remembered when he used to smile all the time; back when they had both been Matoran, not one an aged leader and the other a warrior twice her height. "What is it, brother?" she asked. "A band of Bone Hunters, not far east of here," the Toa said, out of breath. "I recognised them from the Agori's descriptions. They used to roam the desert before the restoration, and I thought they must have disbanded in the aftermath. They must intend to attack Fotaki!" Xiatan's head was filled with the memory of the Bone Hunter camp he'd found, where they settled down to feast off the spoils of a caravan from Tajun that they'd attacked. The scent of the roasting meat was nauseating. He'd had to slink away before one of their reptile steeds got his scent. "Were I still a Toa," the Turaga of the Green said, shaking her head, "I'd fight them with you. But no, my days of heroics are past. There's always a chance they're just passing through. We'll have to rally the villagers to fight them off if they decide to try and raid us. When do you believe they will attack?" Xiatan thought back to his conversation with the elderly Agori, Racillus, from whom he'd learned much about Spherus Magna. "They have poor night vision, so not before dawn. They've given themselves eye implants to improve their sight in daylight. I would guess they will attack when Solis Magna is at its highest, at midday." ~ Dawn rose over the village of Fotaki. It reminded Chilosa of molten protodermis, rising over the land in a great wave and then running in rivulets between buildings. As it did, the Matoran awoke from their rest and resumed their tasks. It was the way they were made; they had once been used to maintain the Great Spirit mechanoid so that it was kept in proper working order. There were different tasks at hand now. Fotaki was a village of many aspects. There was a mine, where the more resilient Matoran laboured, bringing carts of gems and precious metals to the surface where the local foundry processed them into useful goods. A band of Agori from the Earth Tribe had agreed to cultivate food for the village. and their farm was producing bountiful harvests of vegetables and fruit. There was a small but growing library, where the scholars of both races met to carve their legends and histories into stone. The most important aspect of the village was the reclamation area, and that was where Chilosa found herself that morning. Here was where salvage teams and hired scavengers brought their valuable artifacts from the decaying ruins of the Great Spirit. Zamor Launchers, Visorak Battle Rams, Copper Masks of Victory, everything was useful, even shards of the immense mechanoid itself. One was being towed in now by a crew of Glatorian from Iconox backed up by hulking Steltians. It was a vast block of metallic protodermis, easily fifty feet high, resting on a wooden platform connected to a series of rollers. Such fragments were used as building material, to construct homes for the many who now needed them. All the chatter and bustle of the village centre died down as Turaga Chilosa used her Kanohi Suletu, Mask of Telepathy, to project her voice into the minds of the villagers. Although it was not as powerful as the mask of a Toa, Agori and Matoran alike heard her call, and paused at their tasks to listen. "People of Fotaki," the Turaga said. "I am as glad as ever to see how much we have grown!" She paused for effect while the people gave a cheer. It would do them well to be reminded of how successful the village was before she delivered the bad news. "Unfortunately," she said, "I bring dark tidings. Bara Magna long knew the scourge of a band of scavengers called the Bone Hunters. It was hoped that, with Spherus Magna transformed into a paradise, they would no longer need to raid peaceful villages for supplies. Toa Xiatan has discovered that that is not the case. A number of Bone Hunters have been sighted near the village, and we believe they will attack at midday." Rumbles of dismay went through the crowd from some of the Matoran, who were unused to conflict. By contrast, most of the Agori had spent their lives struggling to find enough food. They were fighters by necessity, and many of their hands drifted to the handles of tools and weapons at the first mention of Bone Hunters. It made Chilosa proud to see that some of the Matoran did so as well. "We must prepare a defence," Chilosa said. "Encephix, you have knowledge of strategy. We need you to discern where we should position our defenders." The tall Glatorian of the Jungle tribe gave a nod and donned her helmet. "I am at your service, Turaga," she said, humourless as ever. Chilosa returned her nod. Encephix had aided her people during the exodus from the Great Spirit. The changed land of Bara Magna was alien to this native as well, yet enough of the knowledge she'd gained over nearly a hundred thousand years of life was still relevant that she'd become the Matoran's guide to their new land. Without the tough old Glatorian, it would have taken much longer for the Matoran and Agori to trust each other. Bojax, a Glatorian from the Earth Tribe, spoke up. "Turaga! What job do you want me to do?" "You're foolish as a Sand Snipe, Bojax, so I can't give you anything too important." A few Matoran chuckled. "You're going to help Xiatan. Both of you seem to like weapons, so get to the armory. Arm and armour the people against the foe. You can do that, right?" Bojax gave an unsteady salute, and Xiatan sighed as several people laughed. "You can count on me, Turaga!" he said. Xiatan had always considered him boorish and lazy, and he wasn't looking forward to working with him. He often wondered why such a clumsy lout was tolerated by Chilosa, who could be quite harsh with unproductive workers. "We have a matter of hours to prepare," Chilosa said. "Gear up." ~ In time, Xiatan made his excuses and slipped away from Bojax. The Glatorian was enthusiastically demonstrating the use of a spear on a practice target (a broken Po-Matoran sculpture) for some villagers. He made his way to the town hall, where Chilosa was answering the concerns of some of the Agori and Matoran. Upon seeing him, she waved them away. "Can you believe the nerve of those mulchers from Iconox? Fleeing before I can give them any orders... Is something wrong, brother?" she asked. "You look troubled. Well, more so than normal." Xiatan nodded. "You are as accurate as ever, sister." "Tell me about it, but try to be swift," Chilosa said. "We are about to be attacked, after all." "Why did you choose me to be a Toa?" Xiatan asked. "When I was a Matoran, all I wanted to do was explore, to see what was over the next horizon. I was never a warrior, never a fighter. There were so many others you could have chosen for this duty. Why me?" Chilosa was silent for a long moment. "I felt that my time as a Toa was over. Makuta was defeated, and the world we knew was dead. It was time for me to hand over the responsibility of defending the people to another. I chose you because... I'm not sure. We were always friends, even when we were both Matoran. Feels like a long time ago, now." Xiatan smiled for a moment. "Remember how we used to explore the caves around Ba-Koro? The Turaga used to be so worried about us. Especially after that time with the Metru Mantis." Chilosa laughed, a musical sound. She didn't do it often. "Turaga... Always seeming so stuck-up and full of themselves. Never thought I'd end up one of them." The Toa of Gravity sighed. "I didn't understand why Toa Puhril chose you at first. None of us did. But you did great, didn't you?" "Stop it!" Chilosa said with another laugh. "You'll make my head swell." "Admit it. You were the best, whatever you did. When the Matoran look at you, they see a hero. When they look at me, they see a fool, a hanger-on that you always had to rescue. That hasn't changed, even now that you've made me a Toa." The Turaga wasn't laughing now. "That's not true. They thought of me as a cross-wired fool, too. That didn't change until well after I became a Toa. The Matoran haven't seen you fight yet. You're going to change their minds, just you wait. Besides, have you thought about the Agori?" "What?" "The Agori. Think of how they see you! To them, you're a living reminder of the being that fell from the sky and remade their planet, a symbol of the Great Spirit himself. They're in awe of you, every day." Xiatan laughed nervously. "I never thought of that." "Soon, everyone will know how great a hero you can be. You just have to get out there and fight. I've taught you everything Toa Puhril taught me, Mata Nui rest his spirit, and I've taught you everything else I learned by fighting. You're going to be the best Toa these people have ever seen. I can feel it in my heartlight." Xiatan smiled, then frowned. "Hold on, half the village hadn't seen a Toa before me." Chilosa winked. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice that. Come on, you've got defending to do." ~ After his meeting with Chilosa, Xiatan practically tripped over a Ko-Matoran on his way out. The villager was one of his closest friends; a cobalt blue and white figure named Lhoke, who had once been a member of a group called the Nynrah Ghosts. He didn't talk much about that time in his life. He kept to himself and was a bit of a bookworm, but he was still Xiatan's friend. "Lhoke!" he exclaimed. "Didn't expect to find you here!" "Toa Xiatan!" the reply came. "I was looking for you! You're going to help us fight the attackers now, right?" Lhoke was wearing a chestplate that looked like it had been welded together from three others. As usual, he had a scope affixed to his Kanohi Elda. It whirred softly as he focused on Xiatan. "I'll do everything I can, my friend," Xiatan said, "but I'm only one Toa. I can't take on everything that comes our way." He picked up his Matoran friend with one hand and carried him on his shoulders as he walked. "Only one Toa?" Lhoke said. "One Toa is more than a match for any dumb Nui-Jaga that picks a fight with us. Speaking of which, I've had to put a hold on that mirrored shield I was working on in case of a Nui-Jaga attack. There's something I want to show you in my workshop. You're not going to believe this!" "Is it completely safe for me to use?" Xiatan asked, thinking the last time Lhoke had gotten him to test out a device that wasn't entirely reliable. It had taken days to clean the Toa off, and the town's Mukau herd had never returned. "Yes, I'm sure-" Xiatan stared at him. Lhoke was a terrible liar. "Okay, fine, it'll wait." They made their way to the walls, finding their assigned places among the other protectors. There, they waited for the enemy. ~ They came at midday. When the sun was at its peak, the Bone Hunters appeared from over the hills. There were three dozen of them, each a dark humanoid form riding on the back of a vicious two-legged reptile, a rock steed. The lizards had crimson scales and narrow yellow eyes. Each one stood taller than a Toa and waved a barbed tail as it ran. A low, mournful horn echoed out across the hills as the Bone Hunters approached. To the villagers, standing as tall as they could in their armour of war, it seemed there was a sudden chill in the air. Even Xiatan felt it, a little shiver of dread deep in his core. He heard Lhoke shudder next to him, and he placed one hand on the Matoran's shoulder. The Bone Hunters were not dissimilar to Agori, wearing patched armour of black and bronze. Their weapons were scavenged from every corner of the world; Skrall blades, force blasters, elemental weapons, even tools that Xiatan recognised as the handiwork of the Nynrah Ghosts. "You never mentioned that thing!" Lhoke yelled to Xiatan. The Toa's Ko-Matoran friend had a scope attached to his Kanohi, and he was using it now to observe the leading figure in the pack. Xiatan couldn't see anything at first, but the Bone Hunters were nearing the village walls, and he could soon tell what was wrong. The leading figure was no Bone Hunter, nor anything from Bara Magna. She dismounted from her rock steed, which was even taller and more menacing than its kin, and walked up to the main gates. Chilosa let out a hiss of fear as she recognised the species of the figure. The Bone Hunters were being led by a Skakdi, a violent monster from the former Matoran Universe. "Villagers of Fotaki!" the Skakdi cried. She was even taller than Xiatan, with scarlet and yellow armour plates and a smile full of daggers. She had an golden organic spine running down her back and along her arms which pulsed with sickly life. "I'm glad to see so many of you have turned out to see me on this lovely day! Oh, where are my manners? I'm Nephoka of Zakaz, and these are some of Bara Magna's famous Bone Hunters! Give them a big hand, people! They've travelled a long way to meet you!" The land was silent except for the rustling of a soft wind through the grasses. The Matoran and Agori continued to clutch their weapons in fear. Xiatan tightened his grip on his axe. He glanced over at Encephix. She stood next to Bojax, but her gaze was firmly fixed on the Skakdi interloper. The Bone Hunters brought their mounts to a trot, and they slowly circled outside, using their enhanced eyesight to pick out any valuables the villagers were carrying. "How rude of you, Fotaki!" Nephoka said, spreading her arms and feigning offence, though she did not stop smiling. "Not a single one of you applauded. What a way in which to treat honoured guests! Bunch of Akilini-heads. I was hoping we would enter the town and have a calm peaceful negotiation for my supplies, with perhaps a few snacks, at the end of which we could be on our way." "You want to negotiate?" a voice spoke out defiantly. Xiatan realised it was Chilosa, who had made her way to his post on the wall and was glaring at the Skakdi. "I remember your kind. You were imprisoned on your home island because you couldn't get along with anyone else. The Skakdi are monsters." "And you're a racist!" Nephoka retorted, though she still hadn't stopped smiling. "Typical Turaga. Is that racist of me, though? You aren't a different species, you're just a Matoran who got lucky enough to survive being a Toa. I guess it's not racist." "You're insane, Skakdi!" Chilosa said, waving her staff of office angrily. "All your kind are. You bring nothing but violence and suffering wherever you travel. There will be no negotiations! Leave this place, Makutaspawn, and never return!" Xiatan had never heard Chilosa so angry. He placed one hand on her shoulder, but she just brushed it off without saying a word. The Bone Hunters had never heard of Makuta, and weren't really sure how to react. Nephoka, however, was taken aback by the remark. "Another insult, and an accurate one! Got a death wish, Turaga? I wasn't planning on killing anybody today, but if you insist on being a total Kane-Ra, I'd be happy to oblige. Boys?" A pair of Bone Hunters urged their rock steeds forward into a gallop. A few of the defenders fired crossbow bolts, but the experienced riders easily dodged them. They dropped handfuls of small metallic devices near the gateway before returning to the group. The defenders above it looked uneasy and tried to back away. Another Bone Hunter levelled his modified crossbow, loaded with what looked like a Rahkshi staff head. "You're going to love this," Nephoka snarled. "Tear it down, boys!" The crossbow fired a glowing bolt, which struck the ground mid-way between Nephoka and the gates. The bolt produced a massive disturbance in the earth, tearing up the ground in sprays of dirt and rock. The shockwave reached the gateway in moments, where it reacted with the devices. There was a high-pitched metallic tearing noise, and then a deafening thunderclap. The ground quaked as Xiatan found himself, and all the defenders, thrown from the wall. The Toa of Gravity used his powers to lessen gravity's pull around himself and some of the nearby villagers. They slowed almost to a halt just before they hit the ground. Xiatan took a deep breath to calm himself and surveyed the area. They were at the bottom of the wall now. He'd only managed to slow the falls of Chilosa and a few others; the rest hit the ground at full speed, though most of them were likely uninjured. The defender on the entire eastern segment of the wall had been thrown off. Lhoke helped Chilosa to her feet. All at once, Xiatan realised that the gates were probably breached. He got up and ran, dodging between a pair of huts and a well, and out into the open. What he saw filled him with disgust. The gateway was gone, completely destroyed. The Skakdi had used some kind of fragmentation power, turning the strong protodermis gates into so much scrap metal. The defenders posted on the gateway were gone, likely broken just as thoroughly by the devices. The Bone Hunters began to spill in over the mound of iron rubble, their rock steeds snapping and growling at fleeing villagers. Bolts of energy and exotic projectiles flew past as Encephix, Bojax and the other defenders charged to meet the enemy. Xiatan sped towards the Bone Hunters, grabbing his waraxe from his back. Lives had been taken, and he hadn't been able to stop it. All he could do was avenge them, and avenge them he would. His axe lit up with a purple aura which pulsed brighter and brighter as the Bone Hunters neared. He roared and swung the axe in a mighty arc, releasing a coruscating wave of gravitational energy. Half a dozen rock steeds screeched as the wave tossed scavenger, mount, dirt and sand alike into the air, where they floated for a brief instant before being slammed back into the ground with a terrible crunch of broken bones. The remaining Hunters broke off their charge and circled around, wary of the Toa's power. It occurred to Xiatan just then that his foolhardy charge had let the mounted attackers cut him off from the other defenders. The Bone Hunters had encircled him, and he couldn't hope to take out so many of them at once without being hit by one of their weapons. "Toa!" a Bone Hunter growled. "I am Jesh-son-Iosin. Lay down your arms, and we will kill no more of your folk." Xiatan suddenly remembered that the only experience most Bone Hunters would have of elemental powers was the charged weapons used by the tribes in the Core War, weapons which were long since exhausted of all power. Having never met a Toa, these Bone Hunters must have assumed that his power came from his protosteel waraxe. "I surrender!" Xiatan said, laying down his waraxe and raising his arms, hands open. Jesh gave a yellow-fanged grin and signalled to his Bone Hunters, who turned away from their captive Toa and towards other victims. Quietly, a purple nimbus began to flare around the Toa's hands. Xiatan closed his fist, and the gravity experienced by Jesh was suddenly ten times higher. His rock steed almost collapsed under his weight before it threw him off. He flopped to the ground, unable to move a muscle. Xiatan returned his weight to normal to allow him to breathe, then turned his attention to the next. A surge of gravity, and the waraxe flew back into his outstretched arm as the other Bone Hunters heard their leader's fall. Their attention was distracted from the true threat behind them. Encephix, legs pumping, barrelled into the first of the cavalry like a charging Kane-Ra bull. The Glatorian had spent a long time fighting in the ceremonial arena battles that had composed Bara Magna's loose system of government. Here, in real combat, she didn't need to hold back. She started by swinging up onto a rock steed's back by its reins, balancing on the saddle. The rider didn't have time to react before she hoisted the smaller being into the air and threw him from the saddle. Xiatan swung his axe, taking off a charging rock steed's leg at the knee. The Toa Code didn't forbid the killing of Rahi. The rider fell to the ground beside his bellowing mount, scrambling to his feet and aiming a slapped-together Thornax launcher at Xiatan. The Toa grinned at the opportunity to try out his favourite trick. The Bone Hunter fired, and his explosive fruit projectile zoomed straight upwards, propelled by a sudden inversion of gravity. He glanced skyward, confused, allowing Xiatan an opening to punch him in the face. He dropped like a stone, unconscious. Encephix moved past, fighting barehanded, a master of improvisation. She grabbed a stone from the rough soil, churned up by the passage of the rock steeds, and tossed it through the air in a perfect arc. The unlucky Bone Hunter she'd targetted fell from his mount, where she took him down in a blistering blur of kicks and elbows. Xiatan took a moment to get his bearings. Almost a dozen Bone Hunters had fallen between him and Encephix. Some of the others were spreading through the town, lobbing flaming bombs and wreaking havoc. He spotted a lone Bone Hunter that was hoisting his injured fellows onto the back of a sand stalker, a reliable beast of burden that would carry them back to the camp. The Toa Code forbade the harming of anyone who could not fight, and so he ignored the latter enemy and began to wade through the battlefield towards the rampaging foes. And then Xiatan couldn't see anything. The entire world had just turned completely black, as if a Kahgarak had decided to cast the whole battlefield into the Zone of Darkness. He focused on his other senses and found that they all worked normally. He could hear the cries of wounded fighters, feel the vaguely sandy soil beneath his feet, smell the ozone of elemental weapons discharging and the oily scent of Thornax fruit. He heard a voice, somewhere behind him. He whirled around out of habit, but of course he could still see nothing. Not even himself, he realised, which meant something had to have happened to his eyes. He was rewarded for this minor discovery by a painful blow to the head which sent him reeling. "Blindness vision!" the Skakdi said from somewhere. "Courtesy of Makuta Spiriah. I always thought it was weird that I got an eye-based power that induced blindness. Kind of ironic, ain't it?" Xiatan tried to stand back up, only to be rewarded with a kick to his chest that left him sprawling on the ground again. He had dropped his axe, and didn't know where it was. He tried to use his gravity powers, but the Skakdi's vicious attacks left him unable to concentrate for long enough to do that. His mask power was useless when he couldn't see his target. Sight returned in a rush of colour, and it took a few moments before Xiatan adjusted to the influx of light. Up close, Xiatan could see that this was no normal Skakdi. Nephoka's organic spikes twitched slightly in a rhythmic fashion. She carried enough knives to put the Odinan armory to shame, and wore a pair of strange mechanical devices, one around each wrist. They glowed now with a reddish light. "You see, a Toa's abilities put my fellow Skakdi at a disadvantage. You can use your terrific elemental powers on a whim, while we have to work together to do that." She snorted disdainfully. "I don't play well with others. They're boring, their minds move too slowly." She pointed one of her wrist-mounted blasters at Xiatan. Heat vents glowed white-orange. "That's why I built these! They let me channel my element on my own. Want to help me test them?" The blasters spat a jet of angry flame, and Xiatan was forced to roll away before he could get back to his feet. "This is great!" Nephoka exclaimed, firing further bolts of flame to keep Xiatan off-balance. The villagers and Bone Hunters alike gave their duel a wide berth for fear of the incinerating blasts. "Do Toa have this much fun all the time? Going around, blasting whoever threatens you. It must be enjoyable." Xiatan didn't reply. "You're no fun!" she growled, turning a dial on her flame bracer. "You've had so many opportunities for snappy comebacks! You could have said something like "I'm in the dark here!" when I blinded you! You could've said "I've dated hotter chicks than you!" when I tried to flambé you!" All the while, she sprayed a torrent of flame from her wrists, scorching the earth and incinerating the grasses. "In fact," Nephoka mused, "you could still say that last one. Y'know, because I'm still trying to cook you. Do you want to say it? I think you should say it." "Stop talking!" Xiatan shouted, grabbing a protosteel shield from a dead Bone Hunter's hand and using the thick metal slab to shelter him from a burst of fire. "Just shut up for once!" he yelled, pushing forward with a blast of gravity and slamming the shield into Nephoka. She was knocked backwards, giving Xiatan an opening to regain his waraxe. She sprang back to her feet, spinning behind the Toa to deliver a punch that he narrowly blocked with the haft of his axe. He jabbed the blunt hilt towards her, landing a solid hit on her arm. She didn't even flinch, and responded by drawing a knife. Xiatan didn't have time to do more than wonder where she'd gotten it from before Nephoka was in front of him, stabbing and slicing in a vicious blur that he could only just avoid. The knife was razor-edged, and it left metallic scars on his chestplate in a few places where he hadn't moved fast enough. He knocked it from her grip, but she pulled two more from somewhere and continued her assault. Their melee swirled through the battleground, terrain so uneven that he had to focus on keeping his balance almost as much as on his opponent. She spun her knife around, reversing the grip and making to plunge it into his chest. He blocked it with the head of his axe, ducked under her next blow and delivered a headbutt. A solid plate of protodermis slammed into Nephoka's face, chipping one of her perfect white teeth. For the first time, the smile slipped from her face, and a look of pure loathing settled over her for a moment before she began grinning again. Xiatan suddenly felt that he'd made a mistake. She was on him again in an instant, and he thought he could almost feel the anger radiating off her. He soon realised that that wasn't anger, but the flaming jets from Nephoka's bracers. She was using them in close quarters now, blasts of flame mixed with punches in a manner that was extremely dangerous for both of them. He used his powers to lessen his own weight, making him more agile, but it only took one mistimed dodge on his part before she got the upper hand, wrenching one of his arms behind his back. Suddenly, she grabbed the mask from his face. Xiatan could no longer fight. His mask didn't just give him an additional ability, it also gave him strength and stamina. Without it, he quickly became weak and light-headed. His uncoordinated blows missed, and Nephoka sent him sprawling with a kick to his chest. She turned the mask over in her hands, admiring the craftsmanship of the object. "I never really bothered with Kanohi," she said. "I mean, yeah, they could give me awesome power if I focused hard enough to use them. But really, what's the point? I already got a nice set of tricks, courtesy of Makuta Spiriah. Say what you will about the guy, he really knew how to interfere with a species' genetics." "Anyway," she sighed, "I guess I have to kill you now. It's nothing personal, but I have a feeling that you'd interfere with my plan if I let you live, and I really want some of the loot you've gathered here. I heard from that caravan that you have a Visorak Battle Ram? I want to see that. Fine example of Vortixx engineering. But, again, I have to kill you." Nephoka held out her arm, where a blinding orange glow formed. "Knowing you, I don't expect any clever last words. Care to surprise me?" Xiatan gave a weak grin. "You don't know me, and you talk too much." Vines ensnared the Skakdi's limbs, dragging her away from Xiatan and making her drop his Kanohi. In her verbosity, she hadn't noticed Chilosa creeping up behind her in a plan that the Turaga had telepathically informed Xiatan of. Although Chilosa's control over plant life was weaker than it had been when she was a Toa, it was enough to catch Nephoka. The Turaga grimaced from the exertion, but she held on long enough for Xiatan to stagger back to his feet. He grabbed his mask, put it back on his face, and instantly felt his strength returning. He activated the Kanohi. His Kanohi shimmered and Nephoka (as she was biomechanical) froze, her body temporarily slowed down by his mask. Between the vines and the Kanohi, she was immobile. It took all his concentration to maintain control, and even so he feared he could not hold her for long. "Hurry!" he groaned to Chilosa, who tightened her vines on Nephoka, binding her securely. In a few moments, the vines had completely bound the Skakdi, leaving only her face exposed in a plant-based cocoon. Chilosa fell to the ground, exhausted from the effort. Xiatan shut off his mask power and went to help Chilosa up, leaving Nephoka imprisoned. She began to speak, but a final surge of power from the Turaga grew the foliage over her mouth, muffling the verbose Skakdi. "Sister!" Xiatan said, picking up the smaller Turaga. "You shouldn't have gone to such an effort. You'll hurt yourself..." "People were already being hurt, Xiatan," Chilosa groaned. She'd come awfully close to completely exhausting her supply of elemental power, the stress of which could be fatal to a Turaga. Her heartlight's pulsing had become weaker. "I won't let people die for me while I stay safe. That's not who I am." "Once a Toa, always a Toa," Xiatan murmured, and Chilosa gave a faint smile. "I'm not that weak, you know," she said suddenly. "I can stand on my own, thank you very much." He let her down, and she pulled herself to her feet. "Look alive," she said to him. "I get a feeling there's more trouble coming our way." He looked up to see the village's militia, Lhoke amongst them, escorting a Bone Hunter. It was Jesh, the one that had demanded he lay down his weapon. The Matoran and Agori were clustered around him and a few of his fellows, who were no longer making any attempt to fight. "Turaga Chilosa of Fotaki?" the Bone Hunter asked in an accented Agori dialect. Up close, Xiatan could see that he was remarkably similar to an Agori. The two races had similar builds and skin tones, but years of study of living beings let him see that Jesh's kin were adapted for a desert life. He noticed flaps where the auditory canals and nostrils could be sealed to keep out sand, places where the skin had hardened in response to an abrasive environment. Jesh blinked his secondary eyelids often, presumably to ensure his eyes remained moist. "That is my name," Chilosa said stiffly. "Who do I address?" "I am Jesh-son-Iosin, Overrider of Mataqi-brigade," the Bone Hunter said. He talked as if with a perpetually dry throat, always scratchy and raspy despite his politeness. "I come to negotiate the terms of salvage." Chilosa looked skeptical. "Explain." "We are a nomadic folk, for we were never wanted in the lands of others. There was never enough room for all of us to build great cities. We rely on theft and scavenging to survive. I am aware that, to you, such things are barbaric. Not so to us, for they are what our fathers and their fathers before them did to live in a harsh land. Martial pride does not matter nearly as much as what we need to live." "You want us to let you rob our dead?" the Turaga asked incredulously. "The sun has clearly dulled your wits." Jesh laughed once, a deep and throaty sound. "No, sharp-wit. You won the confrontation, so all we ask for is the opportunity to take our own dead and their things. Your people, and the salvage we might have won by following Nephoka-daughter-Chronak, are your own. This is so by the rules of the Pact of the Desert, and has been so for centuries." "There is no more desert out here," Chilosa replied. "And no Matoran was ever witness to such a contract. What is there to stop me from ordering you executed?" To his credit, Jesh did not start at this threat. "Nothing," he said simply. "I ask you for mercy, to adhere to the Pact and not to butcher us. We regret our actions, as we always do, but more bloodshed will solve nothing." These are no savages, Xiatan thought, loudly enough that he knew Chilosa would hear him. I have seen them rescue their own wounded in the midst of battle. Chilosa was silent for what felt like a long time. "The desert is gone," she said, "remade in the Great Spirit's final gift. Without the desert, is there anything to keep you bound to this pact?" "As it happens, no," Jesh said. "Nothing but our own traditions. The contract was sworn on the desert itself, as all involved saw it as eternal and unchanging." Chilosa gave a tired sigh. "I ask you to stop raiding. The ages of conflict are in the past now, but they will only stay that way if we avoid violence. Take your dead, get your people out of here and find another way of life. Spherus Magna can provide for all of us now. Fishing, farming, mining, I don't care. All that matters is that you do not take up arms except in defence, and that you never return to this village so long as my heartlight beats." Jesh nodded. "I thank you, Turaga. Your mercy could give my folk a new way of life. I am in your debt." With that, he turned and walked away. Chilosa gestured for the guards not to stop him as he returned to the surviving Bone Hunters and helped them to gather their dead. "You could have had him killed," Xiatan said, not quite believing his eyes. "It wouldn't have been against the Code, because you're a Turaga. Why didn't you?" "Because he was right. It wouldn't have solved anything," Chilosa said. "I've seen enough death today." There was a tearing sound behind them. Although Nephoka's limbs were too securely bound for her to move, she'd managed to chew through the vines that had gagged her. "What, isn't the Skakdi warrior-princess important? Shouldn't you pay me some attention?" "Well, Nephoka of Zakaz," Xiatan said, pointing his axe at her throat, trying not to look as exhausted as he felt, "I'm not sure you understand the gravity of this situation." Nephoka looked surprised before breaking into laughter, great peals of it like a tolling bell. "A pun!" she exclaimed before falling into a renewed bout of laughter. "A high-and-mighty Toa, never laughs once, and he makes a light-hearted pun at last!" Xiatan gave a thin smile. "There's nothing light about your crimes." Nephoka's uproarious laughter was out of place on the battlefield, and it only got louder from there on out. He reduced gravity for the cocoon, and a pair of Agori dragged it away to the town's barely used jail. Encephix followed them closely, muscles tensed to react to an escape attempt. As soon as they were out of sight, Xiatan fell to his knees. He sat down in the dirt, scorched black by the battle. Shards of metal, vitrified soil... "It will take a long time to clean this up," he said, picking up a tuft of grass. It turned to ash, and he let it fall through his fingers. Chilosa gave a grunt of agreement. "I hope they take that Skakdi a long way away from here. The Bone Hunters knew no other way of life, but she did this maliciously." "She'll face trial in New Atero, and that's a four-week journey by caravan." "The question remains," Chilosa said, almost to herself. "Nephoka was nothing more than an aspiring Skakdi inventor; she said so herself. How did she gain access to so many weapons from the Matoran Universe?" "There must be someone out there who supplied her," Xiatan murmured. "Someone who gave her weapons in exchange for whatever resources she and her Bone Hunters could capture." Chilosa put a hand on his arm. With her other hand, she clutched her staff of office as if she would fall without it. "We'll find it, brother. We'll figure out who was behind this, and we'll do it together." They stood like that together, two old friends, watching as Solis Magna began to sink downwards. In the dust, grass still grew.