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Toa of Italy

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About Toa of Italy

Year 13
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    Armored Protector
  • Birthday 08/05/1996

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    Milan, Italy

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  1. FORTY-EIGHT Tahu Nuva stood atop a cliff, overlooking the waters of Naho Bay. Not far to his right, he could hear the roar of the Hura-Mafa River as its waters poured over the Naho Falls and into the bay. The falls themselves were not quite as imposing as they had once been, for the Bohrok swarms had broken the rim of the cliff along its entire length, yet they still existed and the rain that had fallen over the previous days and filled up the Hura-Mafa had reinforced them. It was not raining at the moment, however, quite the opposite: the azure, sparkling surface of Naho Bay was illuminated by bright sunlight shining down from a clear blue sky. There was a light, pleasant wind blowing in from the open ocean, rustling the bamboo groves that over the past few weeks had repopulated the beaches that lined the bottom of the cliffs and the luxuriant vegetation that was reclaiming the clifftops. Tahu could hear the cries of the sea gulls. The Toa of Fire had never formed a particularly close bond with the natural world, yet even he could not fail to acknowledge the idyllic character of the scenery that lay before him. It was difficult to believe that over the last few days the bay had been the theatre of fierce fighting. The signs, however, were unmistakable, Tahu only had to look at Ga-Koro, on the other side of the Naho Falls, to see it. The town was significantly different from the village that he remembered: for a start, it was not built on lily pads, for those magnificent plants had all been uprooted by the Bohrok swarms, but rose rather on the coast, displaying a strange yet not unharmonious mix of seaweed shelters, bamboo huts and stilt houses, as well as some larger buildings made of stone. It was also considerably larger, for settlers from many lands and tribes had flocked over the past weeks to the town of Turaga Nokama, causing the town to expand outwards along the beach and upwards to the cliff top on the opposite side of the Hura-Mafa River, where virtually a second town had risen, connected to the first one via stairs and ladders running down the cliff face. Tahu could easily see that both towns had suffered considerable damage. Parts of the lower settlement had been washed away by waves unleashed by the Gahlok and a couple of days earlier raiders had sailed in and pillaged part of the town. The destruction in the clifftop settlement, mainly inflicted by a swarm of Pahrak that had marched in from the southern grasslands, was even worse. Yet neither part of Ga-Koro had been completely destroyed or deserted and none of those attacks had ultimately beaten down Nokama’s people. Such an outcome had been far from predictable, for after all Naho Bay lay relatively close to the Dark Hunter territory in Po-Wahi and its northern shore was largely by Dark Hunter allies. Over the past few days, those allies had banded together into an army that had beaten down all resistance north of Naho Bay: the sack of the small city founded by the Matoran from the Northern Continent had been especially brutal. To the south, however, the situation was different. Over the past weeks a great number of large and small settlements had sprung up, yet few housed Dark Hunter sympathizers. And when the northern Dark Hunter forces had tried to cross the bay in force, they had encountered the opposition of a group of Toa led by Gali and, perhaps even more importantly, that of the Zakaz water breathers who had settled in the bay and who had sunk the vast majority of the Dark Hunter vessels. Turaga Nokama also deserved equal, if not greater, credit. It had been her who, over the weeks, had crafted a solid web of diplomacy, binding together the many, diverse settlements of the southern coast of Naho Bay with kind, quiet words, leaving the Dark Hunters little room to work their mischief. Even the floating platform to the east had not been neglected: despite the resentment of its residents for their treatment, none had joined the Dark Hunter insurrection. Thus, when the Dark Hunters had tried to send in Bohrok swarms to attack from the south, they had found the Naho Bay towns united in their resistance, and although virtually every settlement had been damaged, few had been destroyed or abandoned. If only the same had been true in the south. Over the last few days, Tahu and the other Toa Nuva, apart from Gali, had been fighting to stem the advance of the Dark Hunters and their allies in the south of the island, but with very little success. Their control over the Bohrok swarms had allowed the Dark Hunters to seize hold of key locations, including Kini-Koro, and over the rest of the land chaos now reigned supreme. The Dark Hunters and their allies had played a role, of course: the Skakdi, especially, had seized the stronghold that the Toa Nuva had tried to protect following the defection of the Bohrok and from there had attacked and savagely pillaged the densely populated lands around Lake Kanae. But much of the turmoil had been caused by internecine fighting between the multitude of races and factions that had settled in the south: even when not clearly aligned with one side or the other, many of these groups had seized the opportunity to settle scores over grievances that had arisen during the settlement or even pre-existing ones, dating to before the death of the Great Spirit. Trying to put an end to those conflicts had been as disheartening as useless. In the meantime, Turaga Dume and Toa Helryx had decided from the safety of the Order of Mata Nui’s impregnable fortress that the counteroffensive would begin in Ga-Wahi and had accordingly summoned all the Toa to gather there. After finally rescuing Kopaka from the clutches of the Skakdi, Tahu and the other Toa Nuva had only been too glad to leave the south behind and respond to those summons and had quickly raced north using their Kakama Nuva. Meanwhile, the Shadowed One had also been reportedly making his preparations. A new great fleet was being readied on the northern coast of the bay to crush the resistance in Ga-Wahi once and for all, and a multitude of Gahlok would accompany it to counter the presence of the Zakaz water breathers. The decisive battle, it seemed, would be fought here. Tahu glimpsed a figure emerge from the waters below the cliff and recognized her as his sister. He waited as Gali summoned her Miru Nuva and used it to levitate to the clifftop. Once there, the two of them bumped their fists in greeting. “Is everything ready?” “Yes. The Dark Hunter fleet is launching. Everyone is in place. We’re ready to meet it.” She hesitated. “There was another message. A second Dark Hunter army has left Po-Wahi. They’re headed to Onu-Koro.” Tahu didn’t answer immediately. He knew very well what those news implied. Then he turned back to Gali and said: “Then let’s win, sister, and let’s win quickly. We’ll beat them here, and then we’ll beat them in Onu-Koro too.” ----- The light of Onu-Koro’s lightstones shone down upon the inhabitants of Ta-Koro as they crossed the threshold of the great central cavern of the Earth village. It was not as strong as Vakama remembered it, nor were the lightstones as numerous, but it was a welcome sight nevertheless, the confirmation that they had at last reached the end of their journey. He sighed and forced himself to walk on. It would be undignified for the leader of Ta-Koro to simply collapse onto the ground, though a strong part of him was urging him to do just that. He was exhausted. Over the past thousand years, he had made the journey from Ta-Koro to Onu-Koro several times, but never at such a grueling pace. There had been no choice, though: the highway and the surrounding tunnels had been crawling with Nuhvok and other Bohrok, and Vakama would not leave his people exposed to their threat for any more time than he had to. So when the Ko-Matoran Mazeka had insisted that they had to move along the highway as fast as possible, Vakama had agreed, authorizing no more than a few hours of rest per day. Even so, it had taken the people of Ta-Koro nearly four days to cover the distance between the two villages. More than once, Vakama had wondered whether all their efforts would be for naught and whether they would arrive in Onu-Koro to find it already fallen to the enemy; after all, the Earth village was far closer to Dark Hunter territory than Ta-Koro. But every teleporter sent by the Order of Mata Nui had confirmed that the village remained free and urged them to keep moving. And so on they had gone. By far, the most frightening moment had been when they had run across a swarm of Gahlok which had immediately flooded the tunnel, threatening to drown them all. But fortunately, Takanuva had been traveling with them since shortly after Ta-Koro’s fall and with the help of Mazeka and Tanma’s Av-Matoran fighters he had managed to cut off their power and drive them off before the waters could fill the whole highway. Other attacks had been dealt with in the same way, and a couple of days into their journey they had been reached and reinforced by a strong Ussalry patrol sent by Whenua to escort them. And so in the end, weary but with no additional losses, they had reached their destination. It was more than a decade since Vakama had last walked in the caverns of Onu-Koro. It was staggering to think about all that had happened since then: the coming of the Toa and the battles they had waged against Makuta, the return to Metru Nui, the death of the Great Spirit, the migration back to Mata Nui. In the course of those events, the villages of Mata Nui had all been destroyed and rebuilt and Onu-Koro was no exception. Back when Vakama had last visited it, Onu-Koro had been a true marvel, an underground city spread over multiple caverns, with carved-out huts rising from the cave floor or perched upon the cave walls. In some ways, the village had been reminiscent of the Great Archives of Onu-Metru, yet it had also been radically different, for nowhere in that vast museum the Onu-Matoran had displayed the sense of artistry they had demonstrated in Onu-Koro, sending crystalline streams of underground waters flowing across the floor of most caverns and shaping the living rock into decorations, sculptures, fountains and actual rock parks, all illuminated by a constellation of hundreds if not thousands of glittering lightstones. The old Onu-Koro was gone now, however, largely destroyed in a battle between the Toa Nuva and the Rahkshi during the search for the Seventh Toa. The new Onu-Koro, built following the return of the Matoran to Mata Nui, was very different. It was much smaller, for a start, for even though swarms of Nuhvok had worked tirelessly to dig through the rubble of the collapsed caverns, they had managed to clear only a couple of caverns so far. The houses were different too: many were carved into the cavern walls, with only the entrance being visible to an observer, and even those that rose from the cavern floor were blunt and functional, with no decorations either upon them or in the vicinity. No streams ran across the cavern, either, and no fountains or sculptures were visible. And it was darker as well, for the lightstones were far fewer: the Onu-Matoran had been one of the greatest buyers of restored lightstones from the Av-Matoran, yet even so, they had not collected nearly enough to illuminate the caverns as in the old days. Still, they have made amazing progress so far. Give them time and Onu-Koro might be restored to its ancient splendor, or even exceed it. Provided we win against our enemies, that is. Escorted by the Ussalry, the crowd of Matoran from Ta-Koro had reached Onu-Koro’s central plaza. As he made his way across it, he saw that most had sat or even stretched themselves onto the smooth rock floor, resting as they waited to know what to do and where to go. In another situation, most Ta-Matoran would have been too proud to display weakness and exhaustion so overtly, but they clearly were too tired to care, and Vakama could not blame them. But he would not allow himself to imitate them. Instead, he cast his eyes around, looking for Whenua. He found him immediately, standing at the very center of the plaza, speaking words of welcome and comfort to the Ta-Koro Matoran as they came. A moment later, the Turaga of Earth spotted him too and came forward to meet him. “Whenua,” smiled Vakama, “you are a sight for sore eyes.” “As are you, brother. I am glad you were able to make it here safely.” He sighed. “Though who can tell how long that safety will last? I can see you are exhausted, but we have to talk.” “My people…” started saying Vakama, glancing back towards the plaza entrance, where Matoran were still streaming through, many looking even more tired than he was. “They’ll be taken care of,” Whenua assured him. “Though they won’t be able to rest for long, either. If the reports are correct, we’ll soon have a full-blown battle on our hands.” Vakama sighed, though he was not surprised. It was already a miracle to find Onu-Koro still free… it would have been too much to hope to have left the war behind. He considered summoning the other community leaders of Ta-Koro and decided against it. Far better to hear Whenua’s news first. “Tell me.” Whenua led him away from the plaza. “We were more fortunate than most when this chaos broke out. Since the new cave network is mostly centered around our village, it has been decided that, should the Brotherhood break through to Metru Nui, the headquarters for the battle in the tunnels to Mata Nui will be placed here. There, to be precise.” He led Vakama towards a tunnel entrance, but as they got closer, Vakama realized that it was not just another tunnel: the rectangular opening was fortified, with a smooth concrete wall sporting a number of cannon apertures having been raised around and above it, rising until it merged with the curving cave wall above. He had heard about this place: Onu-Matoran traders called it simply the Compound. There was a lot of movement near the entrance: Vakama recognized Maxilos robots, but there were also warriors from many species and even some Matoran, clad in what looked like an armor suit of some kind. “We thus had the Compound, a garrison of Maxilos robots already manning it and enough artillery to defend ourselves. When the Nuhvok swarm that was working here in Onu-Koro turned against us, the robots took care of it. And the Order has sent us additional reinforcements since then. Toa Helryx herself came for a time and helped us repel several attacks. But it’s getting worse: we’re surrounded by Bohrok from all sides now.” “I saw,” nodded Vakama. The Bohrok attacks had increased as they had approached Onu-Koro and eventually they had come across a full-scale battle between a platoon of Maxilos robots, aided by an Ussalry regiment equipped with Boxors and led by Onepu, and a Kohrak swarm. It had been then that Takanuva, after carving them a path through the swarm, had left them, staying behind to help with the defense. “And it’s not only the people of Onu-Koro who are at risk now. Your people are here as well, and not just them: we have refugees from the floating platform on the Papa Nihu Reef, from Ga-Wahi, Ko-Wahi… everywhere. It was the Order that suggested gathering them here, since Onu-Koro is heavily guarded and our tunnels connect us to most of the island. It made sense and it’s not like I could refuse them. But now it’s made us a target.” They passed through the Compound’s entrance and Vakama blinked in surprise as he saw they had actually entered another cavern, which had been turned into a great marshalling yard, crowded with fighters, robots and weaponry of all kinds. There were several apertures in the cavern wall and Vakama could hear the sharp sound of hammers falling, the low rumble of machinery and the sizzle of molten metal. Catching his glance, Whenua nodded: “Weapon foundries. Nothing like the factories of Ta-Metru or Ta-Koro, but at least we can make sure we won’t run out of ammunition. There are storage compartments as well and this whole cavern is teleport-proof: the Compound is designed to hold out even if the rest of the village falls. Unfortunately, it’s not large enough to house our entire population.” The Turaga of Earth led Vakama into one of the apertures and down a narrow corridor dug into the rock, until finally they reached a small council chamber. Vakama was slightly surprised to see that Mazeka was occupying one of the chairs, sitting beside an ebon-armored female. They were the room’s only occupants. “This is Johmak,” Whenua said, gesturing at the black-armored figure, “from the Order of Mata Nui. Toa Helryx left her in charge of the Order forces here. And she has some news for us, if I am not mistaken.” “Correct,” said Johmak curtly. “There isn’t much time. Our messengers report that there is an army on its way from Dark Hunter territory to Onu-Koro. By now, they are probably inside the tunnels already. It’s far larger than the forces we’ve battled so far and better armed. The Shadowed One clearly intends to put an end to Onu-Koro’s resistance once and for all. We need to organize our defense.” Vakama closed his eyes, trying to banish his fatigue. It was even worse than he had been expecting: they had just completed a long and terrible journey and already a new danger had been thrust before them. Had he guided his people away from Ta-Koro only to lead them into an even greater peril? It’s too late to worry about it now, however. This is just the way things are. Now we need to see what can be done about it. In theory, I should summon the other leaders of Ta-Koro for this… but there isn’t time for a full war council, clearly. They will just have to go along with what we decide here. “The bulk of the Ussalry is in the tunnels, already dealing with other Bohrok attacks,” Whenua was saying. “Yes,” nodded Johmak. “As are part of our robots. And they need to stay there. Which means that the burden of the defense will have to fall mostly on the refugees, most of whom are Matoran, and especially on the Matoran who have just arrived from Ta-Koro, who are the most numerous.” Vakama sighed. “My people will do what they can, but they’re all exhausted from the journey. If I may ask… is there any word of the Toa? Can’t any of them reach us in time?” “There are two Dark Hunter armies currently on the move,” replied Johmak. “One is headed here, the other to Ga-Wahi. The Toa are regrouping off Naho Bay to meet the second one. Toa Helryx herself will be there as well.” She paused, then resumed, more forcefully. “These are the decisive battles: if the Dark Hunters win, then they’ll have won this conflict. So we must prevail. The Toa will be fighting in Ga-Wahi. Should they win, they will then be able to come to our aid. We must hold out until then.” “And we will,” said Mazeka. “The Matoran fighters might be tired, but they will not fail us, I’m sure of it. Tanma is already starting to organize his Av-Matoran. As for the Ta-Koro Guard…” “Kalama is Captain of the Guard, now,” said Vakama. “Consult with him.” “Consulting isn’t enough, Turaga,” said Johmak. “In the battle to come, the chain of command needs to be clear. We need you to place your Matoran under Mazeka’s authority.” Vakama turned around to stare at her. “The Ta-Koro Guard follows its Captain. It has done so for a thousand years. And from what Mazeka told me during our journey here…” “He has been an Order agent for less than five years and a fighter for little more than that,” nodded Johmak. “He has also received training far superior to that of any of your guards and fought far more powerful enemies.” And he has also saved my life and Kapura’s, held off the Tahnok long enough for the Ta-Koro Matoran to escape and helped Takanuva defeat the Bohrok that attacked us in the tunnels. I certainly can’t say he hasn’t proved himself. Even so, he hesitated. He glanced at Mazeka, who stared right back at him. His face was almost expressionless, as it had nearly always been during their journey, but there was a fierce determination in his eyes. “I will not fail you, Turaga,” said the Ko-Matoran simply. Vakama nodded slowly. I became a Toa with far less experience, after all… “Very well. Until this battle is done, command is yours. I will tell Kalama to follow you. And Mazeka…” “Yes, Turaga?” The next words were hard to speak, yet they had to be said. “Vultraz recruited for his conspiracy some Matoran that I believed beyond suspicion. And he hinted that there were more. Be on your guard… against treason as well.” Warning a near stranger against Matoran from my own people. How has it come to this? How can a Turaga be so blind that he cannot see whether some of his villagers are planning treachery? “I understand.” “The very idea that some of our villagers may be conspiring against their own people is terrible even to ponder,” said Whenua, “but our past teaches us that Matoran are far from incapable of treason… doesn’t it, brother? I will be on my guard as well.” “It’s settled then,” said Johmak. “As for the battle plan…” But at that moment, a Maxilos robot appeared before the door. “The portal is opening, agent Johmak,” it said in its emotionless, robotic voice. “Very well,” replied Johmak. Then, without any warning, she shattered into a cloud of black crystals, which flew out into the corridor. “We should go as well,” said Whenua. “This should be the Exo-Matoran delivery.” “Exo-Matoran?” asked Vakama. “You’ll see.” When they emerged into the cavern, they found Johmak already there, standing before a dimensional gate, a hole in the very fabric of space that had yawned open at the center of the yard. As Vakama watched, shapes began to emerge from it, indistinct at first but then quickly becoming recognizable as carts drawn by Ussal crabs, each one carrying a load of armor suits. Vakama remembered seeing some Matoran outside already wearing them. “Are those the Exo-Matoran?” “Yes,” answered a Fe-Matoran who had ridden through the portal aboard one of the carts. A Nynrah Ghost. “They’re based on the same design as the Exo-Toa. They are nowhere near as powerful, but they will enhance both the strength and the speed of the Matoran who wear them. They are also equipped with an energy weapon, which draws its power from the user’s body.” “They were not supposed to be produced at all,” interjected another voice, a female voice whose rich, silken texture Vakama would never forget. He turned to see her standing in front of the portal from which she had just emerged, black-armored, tall and powerful, as always. “I expected no puny villagers to be drafted to fight the Brotherhood, after all. But since those villagers now are the only ones standing between the Dark Hunters and victory I thought it best to restart production.” “Greetings, Roodaka,” said Vakama. “I had not expected to find you here.” “Yet here I am. And I am here to stay.” She unlimbered her Rhotuka Battle Axe. “The Shadowed One and the Dark Hunters have no love for me. Their victory would mean my death. But I will not wait meekly in Metru Nui for my fate to be determined by others. One way or another, I will decide my own destiny.” ----- The Exo-Matoran armor suit was like nothing Kapura had ever seen. It was about the same height as a Boxor, but that was where all resemblance ended: whereas Nuparu’s inventions were bulky and somewhat ungainly machines, the Exo-Matoran looked lithe and agile and their smooth metal framework gleamed in the lightstone glow. And while there was a closer similarity with the Exo-Toa, these suits looked far more advanced and sophisticated than the wrecked automatons that Kapura had seen in the tunnels connecting Metru Nui and Mata Nui. But the true marvel began when Kapura climbed inside his Exo-Matoran and found that the suit behaved like an extension of his body. No additional effort on his part was required to move it: the Exo-Matoran was equipped with mechanical muscles that could respond instantaneously to his every motion, mirroring his movements perfectly and boosting the strength of his limbs beyond anything a Matoran could have achieved naturally… perhaps even to the level of a Toa. Around him, other Matoran were exclaiming in awe and delight as they donned the Exo-Matoran and realized their capabilities. Most, like Kapura, had come from Ta-Koro and had been exhausted from their journey, but the discovery of the armor suits that the Nynrah Ghosts had built for them seemed to have restored their spirit. A few might even have tried out the suits’ energy weapon there and then had Mazeka and Tanma allowed it. Kapura himself, however, remained silent and stood back, waiting for the Matoran commanders to give out their instructions. “All in your armor?” called out Mazeka. “Good. Now, as I explained: our forces will be concentrated at the entrance of the Po-Wahi Highway. However, we will not yield the whole length of the tunnel unfought. So while half of us man the entrance, under Tanma’s command, the rest will follow me into the highway. The Onu-Matoran will show us the most defensible spot and we will wait for the enemy there. Once they reach us, we will hold them back for as long as we can and then bring down the tunnel. It won’t stop them, but it will buy us time. We will then fall back to the gate and make our stand there. Clear to all?” Mazeka’s speech had been short, to the point and not particularly inspiring, yet he was answered by an affirmative, collective shout, the kind of response that would make any commander certain that his troops would follow him. There was none of the muffled resentment and of the whispered mockery that had characterized Kapura’s time as Captain of the Guard. They have accepted him as leader without question. It is not so strange: had it not been for him, many wouldn’t have escaped from Ta-Koro, including me. And had he not stalled the Gahlok until Takanuva could arrive, we would all have drowned in that tunnel. Kapura certainly resented neither Mazeka nor Tanma and had no problems taking orders from them. It is for the best. I was never the right person to command. The Ko-Matoran was actually the only one who had not donned an armor suit. However, once outside the compound he hopped onto his Swamp Strider and led the way to the entrance of the Po-Wahi tunnel. There was a steady stream of Matoran fighters going in the same direction, most of them Matoran who had come from Ta-Koro. The vast majority wasn’t armored, for there weren’t enough Exo-Matoran for everyone, and as Kapura marched past them he saw that most of them looked sullen and tired, with little trace of the enthusiasm that had infected the armor bearers; on the contrary, he could tell that the news that another battle had to be fought and that the safe haven of Onu-Koro that they had struggled so hard to reach might not prove safe at all had left most Matoran feeling dejected and resigned. They have all answered Vakama’s call, and no one seems to be complaining. But is it enough? They reached the tunnel’s entrance, which was swarming with Matoran, robots, warriors and Ussal crabs, all hard at work raising barricades and positioning artillery. When Kapura and the other armor bearers arrived, however, all activity seemed to grind to a halt as the workers turned to stare in awe at the sight of their fellow Matoran marching past in shining, powerful armor. It lasted only a moment, but it was enough to spark a lively chatter amongst the Exo-Matoran wearers, clearly delighted at the reaction of the other villagers to their new, impressive appearance. Kapura, however, did not feel like joining in. He only had to look at the assembled crowd to see that several onlookers appeared to be more envious, or even resentful, than awed. Just a few days earlier the sight wouldn’t have troubled him in the least: he would have dismissed it, confiding that the resentful Matoran would be but a minority and trusting in their ultimate loyalty and better nature. But the betrayal of Vultraz, whom he had welcomed, trusted and even somewhat admired, and of Ta-Koro guardsmen that he had known and fought beside for centuries had taught him a bitter lesson, showing him just how much damage hidden anger and resentment could inflict. And it had also revealed just what a mess he had made of things. I should move away from such doubts. Doubts will freeze me, he thought almost automatically. I cannot improve without practice and I cannot practice if I stand still. If I am to be where I am not, I cannot remain frozen in the past. But for once, the compulsion of the teachings that he had followed for so long was weak and none of maxims that Kapura had painstakingly learned and composed over the decades would relieve him of the knowledge that the destruction of Ta-Koro was his fault, his failure. He had been Captain of the Ta-Koro Guard, after all: the defense of the village had been his responsibility, just as it should have been his responsibility to spot the traitors in the guard before they could carry out their treason. Instead, Kapura had failed on both counts and even worse, everyone knew it: he had seen it in the eyes of his fellow Ta-Matoran and heard it in their mutterings. But the worst moment had been when during the journey to Onu-Koro he had presented himself before Turaga Vakama: the disappointment he had seen in the eyes of the Turaga then, as well as the ill-concealed relief that had appeared when Kapura had announced his intention to resign as Captain of the Guard, had cut deeper than any blade. He had therefore been very surprised when just a few minutes earlier his successor, Kalama, had chosen him to be one of the Ta-Matoran guardsmen who would be equipped with an Exo-Matoran armor suit. He had complied, of course, but he had been unable to banish his fear over what the other guards would think, over whether they would resent such an honor being bestowed on the Captain who had failed them and whether such resentment would push more of them to betrayal. Fear stops all… and so what? How did being faster than all others help me in Ta-Koro? They were past the tunnel entrance now and advancing into the darkness of the tunnel, though they had some lightstones to illuminate the way. Others had joined them: four Ussalry members were leading the way upon their crabs, while Ussal cart drivers were coming up alongside them, their carts carrying artillery pieces and ammunition. A platoon of Maxilos robots, led by the Order agent called Johmak, was also accompanying them. And finally there was a party of Onu-Matoran armed with Kanoka disk launchers or other weapons bringing up the rear. But these had not come along to fight, clearly, for every now and then a couple of them would halt and remain behind while the rest carried on. Kapura didn’t know what to make of this until his gaze fell upon one whom he recognized. “Taipu?” The Onu-Matoran miner turned, startled, but then his mask opened into a smile. “Kapura! I hadn’t seen you! I’m so glad to see you again!” The Ta-Matoran stopped in his tracks and stared at Taipu. He hadn’t expected such a glad and warm reaction on the other’s part. After four days spent enduring the scornful glances of his fellow Ta-Koro villagers, it was strangely moving, touching even. Taipu, for his own part, had apparently not noticed the effect his words had had. “So, how are things in your village?” he went on. “Have you…?” And then he noticed Kapura’s expression. “Oh… right, of course… I’m sorry. But still, before the Bohrok came, it must have been a fantastic place! All our traders kept talking about it. I visited the old Ta-Koro only a few times, you know? And I heard that the new city is even bigger. Tell me…” It was comforting to hear him talk, with no undercurrents of disappointment or hostility in his voice. After a few moments, Kapura began to answer and the two of them spent the next fifteen minutes or so chatting, just as they had when they had both been in the Chronicler’s Company on their way to Kini-Nui. Eventually, Kapura was able to ask: “What are you doing here, by the way?” “You don’t know?” replied Taipu. “It’s very simple. For the last four days, the Nuhvok have tried many times to dig their way past our posts and then take our guards from behind. So now our miners bring up the rear and scatter along the tunnels, so that we can hear them digging before they emerge. If they do, we sound a horn to warn our fellow Matoran. It’s working. If we flee before the Nuhvok emerge, they cannot catch us… usually, that is. And by the way, this looks like a good spot. Tehutti, here!” he then said to another miner who had been walking next to them. “You’d better catch up with the rest,” he then told Kapura. He was right. The two of them had lagged behind as they talked and while Tehutti, Taipu’s partner, had stayed with them, the rest of the squadron had outpaced them and disappeared into the darkness. Pathetic, thought Kapura, it’s one mistake after another. My comrades could already be fighting for all I know and I can’t even keep up with them. I’d better hurry up and… And then he took a deep breath and glanced back at Taipu. He remembered now that the reason the two of them had got along so well while in the Chronicler’s Company had been that Taipu had been the only other member who seemed to appreciate the value of moving slowly. And now, perhaps thanks to their conversation, Kapura had recalled it as well. The art of moving slowly served me well enough in Metru Nui, didn’t it? And it was Vakama who first encouraged me to practice. If I failed him, then the fault lies in me… not in what he taught me. So he took a single step, and then another, stilling the urgency in his heart and adopting a steady, unhurried pace. After a couple of minutes, he could still see Taipu and Tehutti crouched down, illuminated by their lightstone and listening for any digging noises: they were only a short distance away. It matters not. Only by moving slowly can I travel great distances. And that was when the earth started to tremble slightly. Kapura frowned and glanced back at Taipu and Tehutti, but the two Onu-Matoran seemed oblivious to the noise. Yet it was getting louder and it seemed to be closer to them than to him: how could they not hear it? They were even talking, chatting as if nothing at all were wrong. He started edging closer. The source of the noise seemed to be a spot just between him and the other two Matoran. In the glow of Taipu’s lightstone, Kapura saw fragments of rock tumbling from a wall. He opened his mouth, a shout of warning about to leave his lips… And at that moment the tunnel wall exploded outwards, a gaping hole yawning open before Kapura’s eyes. Six squat, red-eyed figures burst out an instant later: Bohrok, but not Nuhvok as the Ta-Matoran would have expected, but Lehvak. The four beings that followed them, however, were no Bohrok at all: they stood on two feet, but their shapes were somewhat lizard-like, and the claws at the end of their multiple limbs crackled with electricity. And then another being emerged, a red-eyed, short figure with silvery blades sprouting from each shoulder… and Kapura finally understood what was happening, for he had seen this Dark Hunter before, when he had been carried away, shortly after the battle of Metru Nui, after being caught spying on the Turaga. Dweller. Behind Dweller, yet more Bohrok were emerging: already, there were at least a dozen in the tunnel. And yet, Taipu and Tehutti still couldn’t see them. They kept talking until one of the lizards clasped its claws around them and sent electricity coursing through their bodies, leaving then their limp forms sprawled upon the tunnel floor. But none of the lizards had seen Kapura yet, nor had Dweller’s illusion affected him, for some reason. And the Ta-Matoran knew he had to get away: the Bohrok lay between him and Onu-Koro, but the way to the Matoran platoon was still free and that was the way he needed to go, for it was clear that these Bohrok would be used to attack the Matoran and Order force from behind. So he moved, but he did not run. Only if I move slowly can I be faster than them. I will not run, I will not give in to fear, for fear is the enemy of courage and courage is the soul of movement. On he went, step after step. The Bohrok were on the march, he could hear them, the sensation that they were getting closer was almost unbearable. Yet still he did not accelerate. He forced himself to be patient, to believe that he would reach the other Matoran before them. And then, suddenly, he was there: before him, the tunnel narrowed and it was there that the other Matoran were setting up a barricade and their artillery to block the highway. “Mazeka,” said Kapura, walking up to the Ko-Matoran. The Order agent turned in surprise, as if startled by Kapura’s appearance. “What is it?” “There are Lehvak in the tunnel and at least five Dark Hunters. They tunneled around us and are about to attack us from behind.” Mazeka’s eyes widened, but he asked no questions and did not doubt Kapura’s word. Johmak had left him in command while she scouted out the enemy, so it was he who started issuing orders, gathering Matoran to oppose the new threat while leaving others to continue setting up the barricade. He was just in time. No sooner were preparations complete than the Lehvak appeared, numbering in the dozens. The Matoran outnumbered them, however, and the Lehvak had not caught them by surprise. Mazeka was the first to open fire, the energy weapon upon his Swamp Strider blasting down three Bohrok in quick succession, and the other Matoran were quick to imitate him: a single energy bolt from the Exo-Matoran embedded weapons could not bring down a Lehvak, but the combination of many took down several green Bohrok. The rest came on, shooting acid from their shields, but the Matoran they were facing were not defenseless: enhanced by the Exo-Matoran, their strength was a match for the Lehvak and though some went down from acid burns, the rest fought on, fighting the creatures hand to hand, the sharp talons of their armor flashing in the lightstone glow. A few minutes into the battle, an explosion resonated through the tunnel and, glancing back, Kapura saw that the barricade was under attack as well. The barrier was still defended by the Maxilos robots and the Av-Matoran led by Radiak, however: it would not fall quickly. At about the same time, the lizard-like Dark Hunters made their appearance, vaulting into the fray. Several energy bolts struck them, but they shrugged them off and retaliated by electrocuting any Matoran they could close their claws upon. It seemed for a few moments that no one could withstand them, but then Mazeka hit one with his more powerful weapon and the creature definitely seemed to feel that attack: it turned upon the Ko-Matoran, actually jumping onto his Swamp Strider, but Mazeka was faster and pirouetted out of his seat, landing gracefully behind the creature. He did not give it a chance to turn around: his blade flashed and the lizard went down screaming, the Order agent’s blade embedded between its shoulders. The sight emboldened the other Matoran. A rain of energy bolts finally brought down another of the lizards and half the Lehvak had fallen already. The battle was definitely going their way, but something was nagging at Kapura. It took him a few moments to realize what. Where is Dweller? It was perhaps some instinct that caused him to turn again. And when he did, he found the Dark Hunter immediately: he was standing in the midst of Radiak’s Av-Matoran, yet none could see him. The Maxilos robots might have spotted him, perhaps, but their eyes were all on the enemy beyond the barricade. Without even thinking, Kapura raised his energy weapon, aiming for Dweller… but this time, the Dark Hunter seemed to perceive him. He turned around, staring straight back at Kapura, and suddenly the Ta-Matoran blacked out. When he came to, it was to find the tunnel engulfed in chaos. At least a dozen of Radiak’s Av-Matoran were unconscious and the hulking shapes of the Bohrok Kaita were stepping over their bodies, pouring through the breached barricade to engage the Maxilos robots. The Order mechanoids were more powerful, but for every Kaita they cut down or blew apart another came to take its place. Kapura glimpsed two Kaita rush towards the Matoran still fighting the Lehvak, but before they could reach them a cloud of black crystals enveloped them and the titans abruptly collapsed, their Krana wrenched from their headplates, even as the cloud started coalescing into Johmak’s shape. But at that moment Kapura felt the temperature drop abruptly and suddenly Johmak was engulfed in ice unleashed by a platoon of Kohrak. The Ta-Matoran got back to his feet in time to see Mazeka stare fixedly at his comrade’s frozen form. And then the Ko-Matoran’s sharp voice resonated through the tunnel: “Retreat! Matoran, take down those Lehvak and back to Onu-Koro! Maxilos robots, cover us, hold the enemy back!” And then he dived back into the fray, his Swamp Strider firing continuously to demolish the few remaining Bohrok blocking the way. One of the lizard-like Dark Hunters was still standing, but the Matoran bulldozed it as they rushed back towards Onu-Koro. Kapura himself moved more slowly and soon fell behind, until he suddenly found himself surrounded by the Maxilos robots that were still fighting a holding action against the main Dark Hunter army. He barely heard Mazeka’s command: “Bring it down, bring the tunnel down!” And then there was the deafening sound of multiple Cordak rockets striking the tunnel roof. Kapura looked up to see the ceiling disappear behind a cloud of rock dust. Then the rock tumbled down on him and everything went black.
  2. FORTY-SEVEN The Toa was clad in gray and bronze armor and sat with his back against the deck’s railing, inspecting the spiked mace that lay in his lap. So intent on his work he was that he did not seem to hear the sound of footsteps approaching him. But when Orde stopped in front of him, he found that Zaria had raised his head to stare at him, looking not in the least surprised at his return. He uttered no word of greeting, but simply said in that deep voice of his: “Any luck?” “None,” replied the Toa of Psionics. “I even probed one of the messengers. Useless: she didn’t know a thing. Their hero, Botar, simply summoned them, made off with the majority of them and forbade the rest from teleporting to Mata Nui. He didn’t say why, and they didn’t ask. The word is spreading, of course… by now, I’d say almost everyone knows that we’re cut off from Mata Nui. But no one seems to know why.” “The agents of the Order are immune to your telepathy, though, aren’t they?” “Don’t remind me,” scowled Orde. The way Order of Mata Nui members were able to shield their thoughts still disconcerted him: in his whole career as a Toa, he had never before encountered a being with such perfect mental barriers… and now he was in the presence not just of one, but of several such beings. For someone who was used to perceiving every thought of friend and foe alike, it was a disturbing situation, to say the least; nor did it help that, though the Order members might profess themselves friends, Orde could not allow himself to trust them. Who knows what’s going on behind those mental shields of theirs? When our fleet from the Western Islands was attacked by the Rahkshi, Toa Helryx was willing to sacrifice Matoran lives to lure them into a trap. And what they did once, they can do again. To be sure, over the last few days Orde had fought at their side and had found no reason to doubt their valor or their hostility towards the Makuta and their servants. Nevertheless, he did not feel at ease with them. And it was hardly better with the other species and factions that made up the army that guarded Metru Nui’s westernmost sea gate. The forces of the Order, in addition to a small number of Order agents, were made up of Maxilos robots and other machines. The Frostelus, whose forces were concentrated at this gate, were hostile, ill-tempered and even their minds just felt alien, as might be expected of creatures who spent their entire lives housed in larger suits of armor. And nothing would persuade Orde to fraternize with the Dark Hunters: the memories of his capture at their hands, of the weeks of torture to which they had subjected him before his teammates rescued him, were still fresh in his mind. Fortunately, there weren’t many Dark Hunters at this gate, either, but the mere sight of one was enough to make his hand reach for his spear. Of course, that wasn’t the end of it: the army also comprised volunteers, allies and servants of the larger factions and even warriors who had just happened to attach themselves to the Allied force during the last battles. But even though some were from the Western Islands, and a few Orde even knew personally, he belonged with none of them in truth. In fact, he kept wondering what he was doing down here, rather than being on the island above with his teammates. I brought this upon myself. I did so the moment I chose to stay behind while the others escorted the Western Islands’ fleet to Mata Nui. At the time, there had been a valid reason, for Helryx had agreed to launch a search for survivors from the ships that the storm and Orde had decided to remain and use his telepathic power to help. And indeed, some survivors had been found, though the Allies had soon insisted, over his objections, on putting an end to the search. But even after that, Orde had not left, for word had come that reinforcements were needed at one of the besieged ports on the Northern Continent and the Toa of Psionics had decided that he would be more useful there rather than on Mata Nui. He had spent the last few days fighting, until finally the port had fallen to the forces of the Brotherhood and the Allies had retreated back to the sea gates. And now I find that Mata Nui is cut off and that there’s no word from my brothers and sister. I should go to them… but how can I leave now? There’s no ship that will carry me to Metru Nui… and besides, the Brotherhood attack might come at any moment. He glanced at Zaria. The two of them had met during the fight on the Northern Continent… but this Toa was no substitute for his Toa team, even though they had fought side-by-side during the siege and even afterwards had spent most of their time together, being the only two Toa posted on the westernmost sea gate. In fact, though the Toa of Psionics wouldn’t have admitted to anyone, Zaria made him uneasy as well. He was far younger than Orde, but already his reputation was formidable… though perhaps fearsome might be a better word, for it was said that he had single-handedly slain a Makuta and some even whispered that he now slew foes routinely, in open violation of the Toa Code. Orde knew the truth about those rumors, of course, for he had scanned Zaria’s mind the moment they had met; but whatever Zaria might have done paled in comparison to the horrors that he had suffered. For Zaria was a Toa of Iron, probably the last one in the universe: all the others had been systematically exterminated, along with all the Toa of Magnetism, by the Brotherhood of Makuta, for amongst the Toa they were those whose powers posed the greatest threat to the masters of shadow. Nor had the Makuta been content with killing the Toa: in order to prevent new ones from coming into being, they had over the past millennium systematically hunted down, deported and imprisoned Matoran of Iron and Magnetism, claiming countless lives in the process. It had been a true genocide, and Zaria had lived through it. Unsurprisingly, the experience had scarred him deeply, as Orde had felt the moment he had touched his mind. He had also perceived that Zaria’s torment was in no way a thing of the past, for the Toa of Iron was painfully aware that most of his people had been largely confined in Brotherhood concentration camps when the Great Spirit had died and that they would now either be killed or left to perish while the Makuta tried to force their way out of the dying universe. And as for the effect that such a trauma would have on the Toa of Iron’s behavior, he had seen it firsthand, for he had seen Zaria fight… and he knew that his current impassive demeanor was but a façade that would not last long should the Brotherhood attack them. “Toa Orde!” The Toa of Psionics turned to see the enormous four-armed warrior who was in charge of the Order forces and in overall command of the gate defense emerge from belowdecks. At the same time, he heard the hum of an airship descending towards them. “I’m sending out a scouting airship. Take command of it. If you perceive any Brotherhood forces whatsoever, return and report it immediately.” Orde bit back the retort that was forming on his lips and instead replied: “Sure thing.” The airship had lowered itself until it was level with the deck. It was small as airships went, but there was no harm in that, for this was a fighting airship and needed to be both fast and agile. A Maxilos robot was already on board, along with a pilot. Orde hopped across the divide and a moment later he was on board and rising fast into the air. From the new perspective, Orde could see the whole waterway, illuminated as it was by lightstones that had been placed everywhere, as much to aid the sight of the Allied fighters as to deny the Brotherhood forces the advantage of total darkness. He could thus see the warships and the Frostelus icebergs, which were lying in wait within the tunnel, almost a Kio from the outer gate. Before them, the waterway narrowed down, for a wide and very long platform of rock created by Toa of Earth and Stone from Mata Nui now extended from one side of the great tunnel to the other, with only a single channel in the middle to allow ships to sail past the obstacle. At the rear of the platform several lines of cannons had been placed, all pointed upwards, for these were the automated weapons that would shoot out of the air any Rahkshi flying into the tunnel. Combined with the firepower of the warships and the airships, they would hopefully be enough to prevent the sons of Makuta from flying past and force them to land onto the platform in order to disable the artillery… and should they do that, the Allies were ready to meet them, for the front half of the rock platform was where the bulk of the Allied fighters were concentrated, ready to engage Rahkshi, Exo-Toa, Visorak or whatever the Makuta cared to send their way. In truth, though, the hope was that only Rahkshi would make it this far, for there were other defenses designed to deal with other threats. Orde could see them now, as the airship passed through the gate: on either side of the waterway entrance, the rock of the Great Barrier had been covered by a smooth layer of protodermic concrete, so thick and sturdy that even Rahkshi with fragmentation or disintegration powers would have trouble blasting through. And protruding from the concrete wall, arranged on multiple levels, was line after line of cannons. These artillery pieces were less sophisticated than those inside the waterway and would be of little use against the fast-moving Rahkshi… but any incoming ship or airship would be subjected to overwhelming firepower and would be destroyed long before it could gain the gateway. And should some Brotherhood creature attempt the underwater route, Zakaz water breathers, armed with their lethal protosteel talons, were ready to bar their way. As far as Orde knew, the same arrangement was replicated on each of the four Metru Nui sea gates. The only weakness he could see in this defense was that, if the Brotherhood forces did get through this first line, they would then be free to travel up the waterway without any opposition. According to what he had been told, they would be forced to halt only at the very far end of each waterway, where a second, similarly arranged defensive line guarded the entrance to the dome of Metru Nui, and in the meanwhile they would be free to mercilessly harry any retreating Allied ship. Though maybe this first line will be enough. Then he snorted. Yeah, right. A gust of wind blew over the airship and Orde shivered. The weather seemed thankfully calm at the moment, though there was no guarantee it would remain so, but it was still terribly cold. And it was pitch black: looking out from the airship’s deck, he could see light radiating out from the sea gate, but nothing at all ahead. Even when the airship switched on its headlights, for there was no point in trusting to the cover of darkness when faced with creatures of shadow, there was only blackness for them to shine upon. But where eyes fail… He cast his mind out, pushing his telepathic perception to its furthest limit. He expected to find nothing, not so close to the sea gate. Instead, he felt something immediately. For a moment, he could not believe it. They had all been expecting this to happen, for days they had been waiting for it, and yet now that it was finally here he could not believe it. But his power did not lie, the mental signatures he was perceiving were truly out there. And Orde knew who they belonged to the moment he touched them, for no other creature could rival the hatred and anger that burned within those minds, the minds of the sons of Makuta. There were hundreds, if not thousands of them, and they were making for the sea gate, flying as fast as their dark energies would carry them. Orde whirled around, his mouth already open, ready to shout out an order, to tell the pilot to turn around and make for the sea gate… And at that moment, the darkness fell. The airship’s headlights winked out, as did the lightstone shining over the deck: even the lights illuminating the sea gate vanished. Orde was plunged into complete blackness: he could see nothing at all, not his fellow passengers, not the airship, not even his own hands and body. And sound was gone too, he realized an instant later: his last command had gone unspoken and unheard and now his voice would not come from his mouth, nor could he hear the voices of the airship’s other passengers or the sound of their movements. An absolute silence had dropped over the airship. And over the gate, and the whole army as well, the Toa of Psionics realized in horror. They’re deaf and blind… and the Rahkshi are coming! There was no time for subtlety. Summoning his power, Orde unleashed the strongest telepathic cry he could muster, a screamed warning of the incoming danger. It was all he could do: the robots would not hear it, nor the shielded Order agents… but perhaps the rest would be enough. Then he turned his attention towards the airship pilot, who sat just a couple of Bio from him but might have been Kio away for all he could see or hear of her. But when their consciousnesses touched, the pilot understood immediately, and even though she was flying blind she managed to turn the airship around. But the Rahkshi were aware of them now. Orde felt at least ten Rahkshi consciousnesses pull ahead of the main host, headed straight for them. He just had the time to shout out a telepathic warning when the airship shuddered violently, though no sound travelled through the air. Are we damaged? How badly? thought Orde, though he knew that there was no way to know. And a moment later he perceived that the airship floor was trembling slightly and realized that the Maxilos robot, invisible to his telepathy as to his sight, was on the move, heading out onto the outer deck. Can it see in this darkness? The first four pursuing Rahkshi were rapidly approaching, with the others not far behind. One vanished from his perception in mid-flight, though no sound of its destruction reached him, but the airship shuddered again and the three remaining creatures drew level with the craft. Orde did not wait for them to board: summoning a mental blast, he burned through the mind of the closest Kraata. The other two Rahkshi managed to vault over the railing, but Orde felt one being immediately attacked by the Maxilos. That just left one: Orde felt it rush at him, perceived a flash in its mind and dived aside just in time, so that the creature’s invisible heat vision eyebeams merely grazed his arm. Then he hurled his telekinetic energies at it, freezing the Rahkshi in mid-step. Then he groped forward, following the trace of the Kraata’s mental signature. His hand found the Rahkshi’s headplate, shaking violently as the creature tried to free itself. Not a chance, thought Orde, wrenching back the headplate and yanking the Kraata out. The Rahkshi collapsed immediately. The airship was drawing close to the gate now, Orde could feel the minds of the Allied army. But they were disorganized and panicked, they knew the enemy was coming but they could not pierce the darkness. And Orde knew it was up to him. Ignoring the other incoming Rahkshi, he forced his mind into that of the squirming Kraata he was still clutching, seeking the Makuta who was guiding it… for only under the guidance of a Makuta the Rahkshi could have pulled this off. And he found him immediately. He wasn’t with his army: surrounded by a cohort of Darkness and Silence Rahkshi, he was hovering above the gate, so high that he had escaped detection. But now I’ve found you and your mischief is over! thought Orde angrily, channeling the strongest mental blast he could muster into the Makuta’s consciousness. The master of shadow was caught completely by surprise, and in the blink of an eye sound returned and Orde once more beheld the lights of the sea gate. The airship was just about to pass into the tunnel. But then Orde heard a furious hiss just outside the craft… and a moment an enormous lightning bolt pierced the very heart of the airship with a deafening blast. Orde was sent sprawling onto the deck as the airship rapidly lost altitude. The pilot managed to give them one last burst of speed, enough to get them above the stone platform; then the craft came crashing down onto the rock. “Come on!” shouted Orde, dragging the pilot out of the wreck. The Maxilos robot was already out, but it did not get far, for a bolt of energy struck it in mid-chest and blasted it to pieces. Orde just managed to dive aside as a second shattering bolt came shooting down, only to find himself in the path of a deafening power scream. Shouting in pain, he collapsed to the ground, hands clamped over his ears. The shadow of two Rahkshi fell over him. Curse… And then came the sound of metal twisting and snapping… and when Orde rolled around, he saw in astonishment that the brown Rahkshi was hovering in midair and shrieking madly as its armor imploded, crumpling on itself and crushing its Kraata. Beside it, the purple Rahkshi raised its head, ready to unleash a second devastating scream towards the new threat, but it did not get the chance, for Zaria came rushing down onto it and buried his mace into its headplate, the spikes penetrating Rahkshi armor as if it were no more solid than water. And when two more Rahkshi landed before them, the Toa of Iron charged again. He did so silently, no words or shouts escaping his mouth… but Orde could feel the hot fury raging in his mind and fueling his limbs, as he beheaded one of the creatures even as his power seized hold of the other’s metal armor, paralyzing it and then tearing it apart. By this time, the rest of the Allied army had roused itself and the two remaining Rahkshi had been destroyed by its artillery. But it had been just the start. The silence and the darkness were gone now and a collective shriek of hatred and anger, promising destruction to anything and anyone standing in its way, was echoing from beyond the gateway. And then, out of the shadows, they came, a horde of Rahkshi, their eyes burning with hatred, their sharp claws ready to rend their foes, their staffs and limbs coursing with the same dark energy that held them aloft. An armored hand stretched out towards Orde. The Toa of Psionics clasped it and Zaria helped him to his feet. There was no need for words: the two Toa simply knocked fists together. Then they turned around and held up their weapons, ready to meet their foes. ----- At last, it has begun, thought Makuta Antroz, as the roar of artillery fire echoed through the absolute blackness. It was answered by the screech of the Rahkshi, dozens of them screaming out their hatred and their challenge. Around the central sea gate of Metru Nui, bolts of energy and projectiles started shooting through the air, as the sons of Makuta exchanged fire with the Allied defenders. So far, the army of the Makuta had taken few losses: the cannons that the Allies had positioned on either side of the sea gate were powerful and numerous, but not sufficiently advanced to track foes flying at such speed. But the Rahkshi had not managed to inflict much damage either, for the walls of concrete protecting the cannons were sturdy and seemed all but impervious even to their most destructive powers. Hovering in the shadows high above the sea gate, Antroz watched it all. The darkness made no difference to him. He could see the sea gate, the only source of light amidst the blackness, and just as easily he could see past the shadows where so many more Rahkshi still lurked, hidden from the Allies’ sight. Only a vanguard had so far been sent on to challenge the defenders; Antroz would not commit the majority of his forces until the appropriate time. In another situation, he would have perhaps been less prudent. He had not acquired his fame as the Brotherhood’s most skilled commander with caution and hesitancy, after all; well aware of the power of shock and surprise, he had several times led the Brotherhood armies to victory by exploiting the speed and power of the Rahkshi to launch massive and devastating attacks, overwhelming his foes before they could even react. But Antroz was also aware that speed and boldness had their limits. The layout of the Allied defenses was known to him, and through the eyes of the Rahkshi he could now see them for himself. The artillery protecting the sea gate’s exterior was but the first line; the ships, airships and automated cannons lying in wait inside the waterway, protected by an army of Dark Hunters, robots, Toa and warriors of countless species, would be a far tougher obstacle to overcome. And Antroz’s army was not yet complete: the Brotherhood airships and warships, which would also be carrying the Exo-Toa contingents, were yet to arrive. The final assault will have to wait until they come. And even then, the numbers will be barely sufficient. This gate is the widest and has the shortest waterway, but because of that it is also the most heavily defended. We’ll get no easy victory here. The Brotherhood battle plan did not, in fact, require victory to be achieved here; Antroz’s attack was meant primarily to divert the Allied forces from the other gates. It was on the gate immediately to the west of this one that the decisive blow would fall. The choice made sense: that gate was somewhat less heavily defended than the central one and was the closest to the shore of the Northern Continent, thus making it easier to ship the Brotherhood army from there. True, it was slightly narrower than the central gate, but if Icarax’s plan worked, that would not make much difference. Icarax. The leader of the Brotherhood intended to lead the decisive assault himself. That, of course, was only to be expected, as was Icarax’s decision to claim the bulk of the Brotherhood forces for his own army. It’s the rest of the plan that’s utter madness. In order for the Makuta to successfully break through, all four sea gates had to be attacked, that was obvious. But it made no sense for the second-most intense attack to be directed against the westernmost sea gate, which had a far longer waterway and was considerably more distant from the shores of the Northern Continent. Such an attack would have to rely mainly on Rahkshi, the only ones that could cover such a distance fast enough; and in fact, it was at that gateway that the bulk of the Rahkshi forces had been deployed. And in charge of such an important force, Icarax had placed the Makuta of Stelt… possibly the most unsuitable Brotherhood member for the job, for the Makuta of Stelt was neither a warrior nor a hardened commander and was not known for his bravery, either. But of course, he is loyal. He has stood by Icarax’s side all this time. And it’s not that our glorious leader doesn’t know that he’d make a pitiful commander; on the contrary, he is fully aware of it and is counting on it. Such a clever move! In one stroke, he places a stalwart ally at the head of our second army and makes sure that army won’t win any victories, thus claiming all the glory for himself. And the easternmost gateway, the one that led to the Eastern Islands, was no better. Icarax had essentially written it off. The bulk of the regular Brotherhood forces stationed in the Eastern Islands had long since been transferred to the other gateways, leaving only a token force led by two Makuta, and to reinforce them Icarax had sent the army of Brotherhood allies that had taken Xia. Originally, that should have been led by a Makuta as well, though that one would have been an even more pitiful commander than the Makuta of Stelt… but that particular Makuta had apparently been killed in battle on Xia. Or at least, that was what the being that now led the army had reported; Antroz, personally, had his doubts. In the best case scenario, that one is a creature of the Makuta of Stelt and the assassination of our fellow Makuta was planned between them. In the worst, he is a traitor who will switch sides at the first opportunity. Such a being should never have been raised so high. He joined us barely a month ago and was our enemy before that. Folly. In a way, it is lucky that he is in charge just of our so-called allies. Such an undisciplined, ragtag band cannot do much damage. And that left the main Metru Nui sea gate, where Antroz himself was stationed. Icarax had had the sense of giving him a command, at least… but it was not a crucial one and Antroz had no doubt that the Brotherhood leader was hoping for him to fail. Why else give him so few troops? And if I fail, he will be able to hold it against me once we are on the island above. It could have been worse, admittedly; at least Antroz had obtained a command. Gorast, who along with Antroz himself was the greatest danger to Icarax’s leadership and who was far more vocal in her opposition, had been relegated in the rear and would be the last Makuta to enter the battle. And that decision, more than anything, enraged Antroz, because Gorast had command over the Visorak Horde. It was her who, millennia earlier, had single-handedly conquered the vicious but wild spiders that Chirox had created and turned them into the Brotherhood’s most disciplined and dreaded army. All the commanders that had followed, including Sidorak with his pretentious title of ‘king’, had been no more than her delegates. And when Sidorak had been killed and the Horde had scattered, it had fallen to Gorast to track them down and band them together once again. She was their unquestioned leader now and it was unthinkable for the Horde to enter such a large battle without her to lead them. Icarax knew that well, of course… and so, to deny her even the slightest chance of glory, he had decided that the Visorak Horde would be shipped from the Northern Continent only after the rest of the Brotherhood troops were in place. Our most feared army, left behind because of Icarax’s vainglory. Time and time again, over the last weeks, Antroz had considered attempting to remove him. But the right moment had never come. There had been an opening following the destruction of Destral and the catastrophic defeat in Metru Nui, but at the time Antroz himself had not been in a strong position, for his armor had been destroyed on Destral, leaving his essence exposed. And by the time the Nynrah Ghosts had built him a new armor suit, Icarax had gone on to win a crushing victory, annihilating the fleet of the Order of Mata Nui. At the time, with the Order uncovered and crippled and a new army already gathered in the Tren Krom Peninsula, ready to march on Metru Nui, complete triumph had seemed days away and Icarax’s position had appeared stronger than ever. But then the Allies had struck back, wrecking the Tren Krom Peninsula fortress and crippling the Brotherhood forces there with a single Nova Blast of sound. That was not a tactic they would ever be able to use again: Rahkshi of Telepathy were scattered across every Brotherhood force now, on the watch for any Toa making such an attempt. At the time, though, it had worked perfectly, and though overall the damage had not been catastrophic, for the Brotherhood still held the Staff of Artakha they had stolen from Daxia and had used it to repair many a wrecked ship or airship, all hope of a quick campaign had been dashed. Icarax’s authority had been weakened as well, but there had been no space for a leadership contest there and then, not with the Brotherhood in such a critical juncture. And so Antroz had temporarily put aside his ambitions and his scorn towards Icarax, while for his part the Brotherhood leader had implicitly agreed to drop his antagonizing attitude. The next two weeks had seen the Makuta give a show of unity. With an all-out assault against the island above now impossible to put together quickly, the Brotherhood had focused on striking those populations that were traveling to Metru Nui to reinforce the Allies and on taking over the islands that would constitute the staging posts for the final attack. Some of their operations had succeeded, others hadn’t, but there had been no real acrimony over the failures. What had truly caused the first fractures to reappear had been Icarax’s decision that no Makuta should take part in the preliminary battles so as to focus their energies on the mass-production of Kraata. It was a duty that many Makuta considered humiliating and energy-consuming, but, aware of the importance of multiplying their Rahkshi forces, they had agreed without question… until, a few days earlier, Icarax had decided that his command applied to all but him and had declared that whilst his fellow Makuta kept producing Kraata, he himself would be free to lead the Brotherhood armies of the Northern Continent and conquer one by one the besieged ports on its northern coast. That had created considerable anger. And the destruction of the Southern Continent was making many a Makuta nervous as well, for they could all feel the oncoming apocalypse now. There had even been talk of abandoning their armies altogether and making their way to the world outside via teleportation. That was madness, of course, for no Makuta could teleport directly through the walls of the universe, leaving them no choice but to pass through the island of Mata Nui… and even if they were to elude the vigilance of the Allies, they would be left alone, cut off from the armies that had made them powerful, essentially forced to give up their plans of dominion that for so many millennia they had nurtured. No. Not a chance. Until no other option is left to us, I will not go down that route. That left winning this war as their sole choice. If the report on a civil war on the island above was true, then the task might be easier than it seemed… but Antroz would not again make the mistake of underestimating the Allies. They might still hold us off long enough for the destruction of the universe to reach us. And this dratted plan of Icarax’s makes things worse. It might work, in spite of everything… but it could also fail. And if it does, I cannot afford to hesitate again… we need a leader that can guide us to victory, the fate of the Brotherhood depends on it. In the meantime, there was this battle to win. Antroz might not have the necessary numbers, but that did not mean he would hold back. He had ordered the other Makuta assigned to avoid entering the battle for now, for the warships that were on their way would need to be escorted by beings with weather control powers if the storms should resume… but it was not his nature to stay away from a fight. The Rahkshi he had so far sent to challenge the Allies had not moved past the gate’s threshold, for there was no point in exposing them to the automated artillery needlessly. Instead, Antroz was having them attack the cannons on either side of the gateway: once those were demolished, the Brotherhood warships and their Exo-Toa cargo would be free to enter the tunnel. Yet the Rahkshi were having no particular success with that, either, for the concrete walls protecting the great cannons were sturdy and riddled with murder holes through which the defenders could shoot with their powers and shorter-range weapons, preventing any Rahkshi from approaching. But in every defense, there is a weakness, thought Antroz, flexing his wings and shooting up into the sky, followed by a squadron of Rahkshi. He shapeshifted as he went, his shape becoming smaller and more lithe and agile… the ideal form for fighting at close quarters. And then at last he was hovering only a couple of bio from the flank of the Great Barrier. The concrete walls shielding the outer cannons, so sturdy and well-protected, were directly below him, but the defenders would not be able to see him… for there were no murder holes facing straight up into the sky. And then Antroz power-dived, unleashing his shattering power before him. The brown Rahkshi escorting him did the same, all concentrating their energies in a single spot. Even the reinforced concrete used by the Allies could not withstand such an assault. A gap in the upper portion of the wall crumbled open and Antroz dived straight through. He found himself in a narrow corridor linking the bunkers where each cannon was located. Some of the Allied fighters were there already, drawn by the sound of the roof’s collapse. Antroz left them no time to recover from their surprise, using his sonic powers to unleash a deafening boom that echoed through the corridor and into each bunker. He followed up with his poison power, filling the air with toxic gas, and then with his confusion power, seeding chaos within the minds of his foes as well. And then he sprung forward, cutting down his reeling opponents with blasts of shadow. Yet there were always more, for the Maxilos robots had been unaffected by his attack and other enemies were also recovering. Smiling ferociously, Antroz summoned his energies and dived into the fray. ----- The wind blew furiously across the ocean, showering the warship with snow and sending gusts of freezing air racing across the deck. The majority of the vessel’s passengers had long since taken shelter in the hold, cramped and crowded though it was, and even the being himself couldn’t help but shiver. Still, he remained outside, gazing through the darkness as if it weren’t there, ascertaining the situation that lay before him. It was immediately clear that they would not have to worry about the storm, for the wind might be violent, but it couldn’t reach the sea, covered as it was by a smooth, unending layer of ice. The ice was not excessively thick, allowing the warships of the being’s fleet to cut through it as they sailed towards the easternmost sea gate, but it seemed solid enough for a person, and possibly even an army, to walk across it. Another advantage. The cold was another matter, however. Among the fighters under his command, only the Skakdi of Ice would be immune to it, and perhaps not even them. Everyone else was sure to be debilitated and slowed down, and for the Matoran of Shadow it might well spell their death if they remained out for too long. They will have to remain behind until we can breach the gate. Once inside the waterway, it should be easier. The other fighters will just have to bear with it. But one last business remained to be settled before battle could be joined. The being’s army would constitute the bulk of the attacking Brotherhood force, yet there were regular troops of the Makuta here as well, drawn from the forces that had once manned the bases on the Eastern Islands and especially the great fortress on the island of Nynrah. All those strongholds had been abandoned by now, their garrisons transferred weeks earlier to other areas of the universe, but a portion had remained on the northernmost Eastern Isle, ready to be flung against the sea gate, and two Makuta had been assigned to lead them. The being could see their ships now, lined before the sea gate, but far enough to be invisible to the defenders. It did not look as if they had started the assault yet. The Rahkshi hovering above the ships certainly didn’t seem to be rushing forward to attack. And how to blame them? Look at their numbers. They don’t stand a chance on their own. They need us, they need me… and if they haven’t realized it yet, it’s time to make sure they do. When he crossed the gangway that had been set up between his ship and the flagship of the Makuta, accompanied by the white Skakdi warlord and by the silver-armored leader of the Brotherhood’s elite corps, he found both masters of shadow waiting aboard. Though they were both obviously Makuta, they couldn't have been more different: one, wearing a Kanohi Mask of Aging, was in the standard armored shape of his kin, though tinted slightly green. The other was monstrous, with sharp horns protruding from his head, a massive toothy maw, a spiked tail and six arms protruding from his torso. He was wearing a Mask of Scavenging, though its shape was barely recognizable. It was the green Makuta who spoke first... and he did so in an uncharacteristically courteous manner. “Welcome to our flagship. Shall we get down to business immediately?” “Naturally,” replied the being, waiting to see where this would go. “The artillery protecting the gateway is extremely powerful. So far, we haven’t been able to get any of our ships close and we don’t have enough or Rahkshi to attempt an attack on the concrete walls that shield them. Can your troops do that?” The white Skakdi warlord suddenly broke into a laugh. When the two Makuta turned their red glares upon him, the Skakdi stared straight back at them, smiling that vicious Skakdi smile. “So polite. Unlike your brothers, you don’t even attempt to treat us like rabble. You would like to, though. The anger is burning within you. You control it, conceal it… but I can see it. I can see everything.” “You dare speak to us like that, Skakdi…” started saying the second Makuta. But a glare from the first one silenced him. “That’s right, remind him. Telepathy is such a useful skill to converse without anyone overhearing you, right? Very useful, even I couldn’t hear you. But I can see. All that scorn for us lesser being… how can we have been given more power than you? And yet we have, and you know it. We have the fighters, far more fighters than those you command. Without us, you have no chance. And so we come to resentment.” “Enough,” said the first Makuta curtly. “Let him speak,” replied the being, a dangerous smile on his face. The spectacle was all he could have wished for. It was undeniably amusing to have an ally with the habit to flush out emotions and thoughts others wanted to keep hidden… and useful as well, when making a point. “Resentment towards us, towards me now,” the warlord continued. “But also towards your fellow Makuta, towards your leader. They have assigned you to an irrelevant battle with an insignificant force. And because of them, you cannot kill me. Instead, you’re forced to listen impassively as I unveil your every thought. Such incredible self-control… with so much inside you, and so little showing, you would make a fine addition to my collection…” “I don’t think there’s any need for that right now,” interjected the being. Amusing though the Skakdi warlord was, he did tend to get a little carried away. Then he turned towards the Makuta, staring straight into their eyes, his smile gone. “It seems to me we understand each other. The warriors and the weapons that can grant us victory are under my command. And they will remain so; attempting to assert your authority will not work. That said, there is no need to clash: we all seem ready to cooperate with each other. And success here will open opportunities for all of us… far greater opportunities than you might imagine.” The second Makuta looked furious and ready to lash out. But while between them he might have been the strongest fighter, he wasn’t the leader, that much was clear. And now the first Makuta was staring at the silver-armored Brotherhood commander, a loyal servant of the Makuta for thousands of years, and yet now watching impassively, betraying neither anger nor embarrassment at the irreverent way her new allies were treating her masters. When he finally turned back towards the being, there was a new understanding in his eye… an understanding that the tide might be turning and that change might be on its way. “Seems like we should work together, then,” said the master of shadows. “What is your plan?” The being smiled. “The warships and the Rahkshi will provide cover while we send my forces in over the ice. I’ll lead them myself: my powers are very good for indoor fighting, as my silver-armored friend can tell you. Once we take the outer defenses, you’ll be able to send the ships in with the bulk of our troops. Our foes will get far more than they bargained for, I promise you. And when we succeed where everyone expected us to fail, there will a great deal of astonished people… your brothers not the least.” ----- The cyclone came hurtling towards him, an air vortex powerful enough to uproot towers and flatten villages. It barely moved him. Twin heat vision eyebeams struck him in the chest, but they didn’t even scorch his armor. Standing behind him, a tan Rahkshi tried to coil its elastic limbs around his axe hand, but he batted them away as if he were shooing an annoying gnat. And then Axonn reached into his own essence, summoning the near-infinite energy that coursed through his body, and unleashed a shockwave that scattered the Rahkshi were scattered like leaves in a storm. That wasn’t the end of it, of course. Other Rahkshi were still hovering in the air, staying just far enough to avoid most of the artillery fire and peppering the defenders with their powers. His eyes on the closest one, Axonn reared back and hurled his axe at it. The Rahkshi didn’t stand a chance: the weapon shot straight as an arrow and cleaved it in two before the creature could even try to dodge. Then it flew back into Axonn’s hand. “Airships, open fire now!” he shouted, his roar echoing throughout the waterway. The flying craft reacted immediately. Volley after volley of artillery fire hurtled towards the remaining Rahkshi, shooting them out of the air. Eventually, the few survivors were forced to retreat. But they will come again. This was not even the first wave. A large figure suddenly burst out of the sea water lapping the shore of the stone platform. Axonn recognized him immediately: the monstrous, four-armed, tentacled Order agent who was the main go-between with the Zakaz water breathers that at every gateway guarded against underwater attackers. “How is it going?” asked Axonn. “They’re down there… Rahkshi, dozens of them,” replied the other. “But they’re not the problem, underwater our allies can easily tackle them. But there are creatures as well… monsters of some kind. The Makuta must have created them. One is already upon us and more seem to be coming. So far, we haven’t even got close to the hulls of the ships. And now they seem to be pouring some kind of substance into the water as well.” Axonn squinted. Yes, out in the shadows he could glimpse the outlines of some Brotherhood warships. They had traded some cannon fire with the outer gate defenses at first, but so far they had not attempted to advance on the gate. “I understand,” he replied. “Keep trying to reach the ships, but don’t take too many risks. You know the plan. We’ll need the water breathers later, don’t sacrifice lives needlessly.” “On that we agree,” replied the other. Then he dived back into the water. Axonn fixed his eyes on the ships again. He could not tell whether they were indeed pouring something into the water, but he did not doubt the other agent’s word. And though the other had not yet guessed what the substance was, Axonn knew. Helryx herself had briefed him, though she had stressed the need for secrecy, for there was still a spy in the Order’s ranks and it would not do for the Brotherhood to know that their plans have been revealed. But they have. We know that this gate, immediately west of the main one, is where their heaviest blow will fall. And we know that Icarax himself will be leading the attack. And when he did, he would find Axonn waiting for him. He had hoped for the confrontation to happen earlier, but although Icarax had led the attack on the port city of Metru Nuva that Axonn had been charged with defending, the battle had not brought them together. But now it would… Axonn would make sure of it. Over the last few days, the axe-wielding Order agent had thrown himself into the fighting, yet he had not been able to banish the image that kept playing before his eyes, the sight of his friend Brutaka, forever robbed of his legs and wasting away in the grip of a depression that had shown no signs of abating when he had last seen him. It was Icarax who had crippled him… and now Icarax would pay. Axonn could not give Brutaka his legs back, but he could give him this at least. The leader of the Brotherhood will fly into this tunnel. But he will not fly out again.
  3. Back at last! Chapter 46 is now online. Writing these chapters is very time-consuming, but still, I should be able to avoid such long hiatuses for the next few months (hopefully). Hope you enjoy!
  4. FORTY-SIX “Why have you summoned me?” “See for yourself.” A pause. “There’s been a battle?” “Not just a battle: war. The Dark Hunters are trying to gain control of the entire island. They’ve kidnapped the Bahrag and thus gained control over the Bohrok swarms. Other species and factions have joined them as well. The rest are putting up a fight.” “Interesting. Who is winning?” “Who knows? The Dark Hunters took everyone by surprise and no one expected the Bohrok to defect. Most of the island has probably fallen under their control by now, including Kini-Koro and Ta-Koro. The floating platforms are mostly theirs too. But they failed to assassinate both Helryx and Dume and now the Toa and the Order are reorganizing. In the north, Onu-Koro and Ga-Koro are still resisting. The situation in the south is more confused, there’s a myriad of factions all fighting each other. The Skakdi are pillaging one settlement after another, but not all of them are on the Dark Hunters’ side. It’s too soon to say.” “What about their forces guarding the sea gates?” “I cannot say. Helryx has ordered all contacts between Mata Nui and Metru Nui severed… and we think the Shadowed One gave a similar order. They’re both trying to prevent the fighters protecting Metru Nui from learning of the situation here, in the hope that they will keep working together should the Brotherhood attack. But I do not know whether they have succeeded.” “Find out.” “I’ll try, but I can’t make any promises. Isn’t this enough? A conflict having broken out between the Allies is precious knowledge… and an opportunity.” The being remained impassive for a moment… but then a dark, approving smile appeared on his lips. “So it is. Do you have any more information?” “No… for now.” “Then I’ll be going.” “Is the Brotherhood going to take advantage of this, then? Are they going to attack?” “What do you think?” ----- The cold was absolute and all-pervading. It was in the sky, in the blizzards of snow scourging the land, threatening to bury all who remained there. It was in the air, in the howling storm winds rushing in from the open sea, extinguishing all flames and slipping into every shelter, sparing no one from their freezing touch. It was in the sea, whose surface now lay beneath a layer of ice stretching further out than any eye could see, and in the land, perennially covered in frost and in snowbanks growing higher every day. And it was in the limbs of the people, and in their hearts: no amount of fire seemed capable of driving it fully away… and each day, some people would surrender to it, falling into a sleep from which they would never wake. And can I blame them? thought Gar drowsily. How much easier would it be to simply lie here, waiting… But then a hand shook him roughly and its touch brought the world back into focus. Groaning, Gar forced himself to overcome the weakness in his limbs and lifted himself to his feet. Idris was standing next to his bunk, a worried, almost frightened expression on her face, but when she saw him rise she relaxed. “It’s our shift again, isn’t it?” grunted the Onu-Matoran. “Yeah, ‘fraid so,” said Idris. Among them all, barring only the Ko-Matoran, she seemed to have the easiest time withstanding the cold, possibly due to the mutation she had suffered whilst in the Pit. Gar had thought his time in the cold waters of Mahri Nui would give him an advantage as well, but somehow it didn’t feel like it: the cold was always there, weighing down his limbs, impossible to dispel. If we don’t get going soon, we’ll all freeze to death here. When he pushed aside the door of the hut he and Idris had taken possession of, the wind hit him like a solid thing: he actually had to struggle to make it past the doorstep. Once out, it was even worse: the snow rose to their waist and Gar could barely see amidst the snowflakes that rode upon the maddened gales. Idris, of course, could not see anything at all. The Matoran had placed countless torches in the streets surrounding the docks, but the wind had blown them all out. And without them, the darkness was complete: the final light had gone out days earlier and since then the Southern Continent had been plunged into a black, endless night. It fell to Gar, whose Onu-Matoran night vision was just enough to spare him from complete blindness, to guide her along the snow-filled street, one hand in hers, the other lifted over his mask to shield it from the blizzard. Several minutes later, the two Matoran emerged in the shipyard area. There, at least, light remained: a series of gigantic bonfires had been lit, too big for even this blizzard to blow out. A dozen Matoran were charged with keeping them constantly fed… fortunately, the presence of the dead forest close to the port city ensured a steady supply of wood. Of course, lighting such great fires in proximity of the vessels under construction was a potential recipe for disaster: one spark gone awry and the whole fleet would go up in flames. But there was no choice: the light and heat provided by the fires was essential, for the work had to go on; the darkness, the cold, the wind and the snow could not be allowed to hinder it. Gar warmed himself for a few moments in front of the closest bonfire, then followed Idris to the drydocks where the ships were being built. It was Velika who had designed them. The Po-Matoran inventor had never lived near the sea in his entire life, barring solely the millennium Voya Nui had spent separated from its landmass, during which however the Matoran had never built ships… and yet, almost out of the blue, he had managed to produce accurate designs for two-masted sail ships that would be large enough to withstand the storms and to carry in their holds every single person currently in the port city, as well as enough supplies to see them to Metru Nui. No one, not even Balta, Dalu and the others who had known him the longest, had figured out just how he had accomplished this… but when the other engineers and inventors had had virtually nothing to add, construction had begun in earnest. There would be a total of six vessels. Two were already complete and a third would be finished in a few hours. Gar was assigned to the fourth ship, which was about halfway to completion, whilst the fifth and sixth ships had barely been begun. But can we truly last that long? True, he had to admit that their progress so far had been nothing short of astonishing, especially considering the desperate situation they had started out in, with the port city reduced to ruins by Brotherhood attack that had seen Garan and so many others killed or corrupted and with every ship and boat systematically wrecked. It was even more incredible if one considered that, apart from a group of sailors that had joined them a few days later, fleeing from another coastal settlement attacked by the Brotherhood, the survivors of the attack had all been inhabitants of the Southern Continent’s inner regions, most of whom didn’t know the first thing about either sailing or shipbuilding. Such success had come at the price of a monumental effort, however. First, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the trees of the dead forest surrounding the city had been systematically felled and transported to the shipyard, even as parties of workers scoured the ruins of the port and the wrecks of the destroyed vessels, recovering ropes, sailcloth, wooden planks, tools and any other item that might be useful. Then the construction had started, and from that moment on the Matoran, along with their few fellow travelers who belonged to other species, had toiled non-stop, night and day, with only a few hours of sleep between one shift and the next. By now, exhaustion was settling in. As Gar set to his assigned tasks, he could feel the fatigue left over from the previous days weighing him down. The cold and the blizzard made it worse: every step was a struggle against a headwind and he could feel the frigid temperatures numbing and weakening his muscles. In the early days, the workers would exchange comments and idle chat, but even that had dried up by now; they had to focus all their mental energy on just keeping going. Even the appearance of the Toa of Plant Life did not elicit much enthusiasm. Gar and the other workers simply parted aside, giving him access to the lattice extending from port to starboard and from fore to aft that they had produced over the last few hours by linking together dozens of wooden planks… and watched as the Toa advanced across the lattice and commanded new wood to grow, merging each plank with its neighbors. It took just a few minutes for the lattice to turn into smooth, uniform and complete wooden deck. In the early days, the transformation had been greeted with cheers and applause, but now the Matoran merely looked on with tired, sullen stares, before shuffling across the new deck towards their next task. The efforts of the Toa of Plant Life thus went almost unacknowledged. It wasn’t due to lack of gratitude: they all knew that without the Toa’s help, not a single ship would have been completed by now, and they were also aware that, even though the deck’s creation had been completed in minutes, the effort had actually exacted a great toll on the Toa, for manipulating dead wood apparently required far more elemental energy that controlling living plant life. But, quite simply, cold and exhaustion had robbed them of the energy to celebrate. The other surviving Toa, the Toa of Stone, had also played a key role, Gar reminded himself. His power was of little use when it came to shipbuilding, but his great strength had made up for that. First, he had helped clear away the rubble from the drydocks and transport wood from the forest into the shipyard. Then, when the blizzards had come, he had taken it upon himself to keep the port area free of snow, allowing the workers to concentrate on ship construction. And finally, for the last few days, he had repeatedly set out over the frozen waters, smashing through the ice before it could invade the port and ensuring that a channel to the open sea remained open for when the ships would set sail. The Onu-Matoran resumed his work, even as the blizzard around him grew worse. More snow than ever was being blown in… and when he heard Balta’s voice calling him, he struggled to spot him it first, before finally seeing him standing a short distance away with Velika at his side. “Gar!” repeated Balta. “What?” “Gather some workers!” said the Ta-Matoran. The wind was picking up speed, forcing him to shout to be heard above its noise. “We need… pieces… mast…” “What?” repeated Gar. The wind’s howl was drowning out all other sounds. “Collect… pieces…” tried saying Balta. But he gave up a moment later, for in just a few seconds the wind strength had multiplied. Gar saw the Ta-Matoran grab hold of something to steady himself… and a moment later, he was forced to do the same. Shouts and cries echoed from the nearby workers. Many hit the deck, as the wind grew strong enough to blow a Matoran away. Even the light of the bonfires wavered, as if the flames were on the verge of being extinguished. It’s impossible! thought Gar. How can we keep working like this? We cannot even… And at that point, without warning, the wind just died down, vanished. Gar blinked, then looked up at the sky, incredulous. It had stopped snowing, though the temperature was still freezing… and he couldn’t perceive the slightest breeze. “What… what’s going on?” he said. He shot Balta a look, but the Ta-Matoran looked clueless. Around them, the other Matoran were picking themselves up, wondering at the sudden change, all wearing the same surprised, astonished expression. And then, so softly that only Gar and Balta heard, Velika whispered: “It’s the calm before the storm.” “What?” said Gar. “When a Muaka is mortally wounded,” said Velika, staring at the sky, “it will howl and roar, mad with pain, more violent than ever before. But eventually its strength will bleed out, and the rage will be replaced by calm.” He turned his gaze upon Gar; yet it seemed to the Onu-Matoran as if the inventor’s eyes were slightly out of focus, as if he were looking at something only he could see. And what was that on his face? Surprise, fear… or rapture? “And then by death,” concluded Velika. “Wait… what are you saying?” asked Balta. Velika hesitated. Then he smiled sadly, and simply said: “It’s time.” And that was when the earth began to rumble. Gar was caught completely by surprise: as the whole deck lurched violently, he was knocked off his feet and sent sprawling. Around him, he could hear yells of surprise and shock, and the distant sounds of ruined buildings crumbling. And when the quake didn’t cease, but grew in strength, its rumble turning into a roar, he knew that this was not like the other quakes that they had experienced over the past few weeks… and the meaning of Velika’s words was finally clear. Balta knew it too, he could see it in his face; but there was neither panic nor despair in his expression, just resolve… and when Gar finally managed to get back to his feet, the Ta-Matoran was ready. “Gar, get out of here! There are Matoran from Voya Nui who are not on shift. Find them, bring them here! Now!” “Right,” said Gar. “What about you?” “I’ll secure the ships,” replied Balta. “For us.” Gar frowned for a moment… and then he understood. Two ships complete… three at the most. He tried to say something, but no words would come. “Gar, get a move on! Go!” And Gar went. Making his way across the shaking deck, he flung himself off the vessel and onto the ground. And then he was dashing across the shipyard and plowing into the snowbanks that had swallowed the surrounding buildings. He knew where he had to go: with so much work on their hands, none of them had had no time to build themselves proper shelters, so they had simply moved into the abandoned, and often ruined, buildings that surrounded the port… and fortunately most of the Voya Nui Matoran had settled in the same area. “Get to the docks! Go, now!” he shouted as he beheld the first Matoran standing outside their shelters, looking dazed and bewildered by the sudden quakes. Not everyone heeded him: surrounded by near-total darkness and not gifted with a night vision equal to Gar’s, many did not know which direction to take and could not even see just who was shouting out such commands. Yet Gar persevered, a growing sense of urgency in his heart; the first quake had subsided, but he could perceive an underlying tremor in the earth and he knew that there was far worse coming. And then he burst into a warehouse where many people had been lodged and found more than a dozen Matoran standing before an enormous pile of rubble that hadn’t been there before. And he heard a familiar voice call out to him: “Gar! Quickly, come and help us! There are people trapped underneath!” In response, Gar simply stared at Idris, wordless. He had thought her still working at the shipyard. Instead, she was here, holding up a torch as others scrambled to rescue people who had clearly been buried when the quake had struck and demolished the already-ruined warehouse… but she can’t stay here, not now! “Idris, there isn’t time! Get to the port, get yourself onto a ship! Go, now!” “What are you talking about?” replied Idris, looking at him as though he had gone mad. “Idris, this is the end! That quake was just the start! We need to leave, now… and there aren’t enough ships for everyone! Go, please!” Idris heard him… and so did everyone else. Some scrambled away immediately, but others started shouting out questions, the clamor of their voices drowning out Gar’s own. The Onu-Matoran attempted to gesture for calm, to make himself heard, but to no avail. Then the second quake began: in the blink of an eye, everything started shaking, more and more violently; around Gar, people lost their balance, their shouts turning into panicked yells, and Idris herself dropped her torch, plunging them all in darkness. Blind, the Matoran started shuffling around the warehouse and into the snowbanks outside, but few, if any, knew where to go. In desperation, Gar grabbed Idris’s wrist. If I can lead at least her out of this chaos… And that was when the explosion hit them, a blast of deafening noise more powerful than any sound Gar had ever heard. A collective scream went up from every Matoran in the port, only to be drowned out by the roar of the blast wave. Gar tumbled into the snow, hands clamped over his ears, and for a moment he felt on the verge of blacking out. Then, when he finally came to, he realized that it was no longer as dark as before. There was a red glow shining over everything… and when Gar turned around, he realized that the glow was coming from the distant mountains: two of the peaks had burst asunder and red-hot lava was running down their slopes, whilst an enormous black cloud of smoke and ash, barely visible amidst the shadows but no less terrifying, was rising up to fill the entire sky. And then the truth was clear to all. The Matoran buried beneath the rubble of the warehouse were forgotten. As the earth began to shake again, a panicked scramble amidst the snowbanks began, everyone trying to make for the port. There was nothing Garan and Idris could do but follow them. When they finally made it past the snow, they found the port engulfed in chaos. There were people running in every direction, not knowing what to do. Two of the great bonfires had gone out, but a third, left to itself, had sparked a fire that had already enveloped two warehouses, even as the buildings, or their remains, crumbled before the quake. But the flames burning in the port were nothing compared to the inferno that was raging in the distance: up on the southern mountains, the lava had reached the dead trees covering the slopes, setting everything ablaze. The two complete ships were moored at the piers that lined the river on whose bank the city stood, very close to the river’s mouth; the ice that had covered much of the river and the sea over the last few days had protected them from the rage of the storms. It was there that Gar and Idris therefore headed, but the going was difficult, for the earth was buckling and cracking beneath their feet. Others were heading in the same direction, as more and more people realized where the sole route to safety lay. When they arrived, they found dozens of Matoran already massed over the piers, shouting and pushing as they struggled to get onboard the vessels. As Gar and Idris plunged into the scrum, the Onu-Matoran saw that most of the Matoran trying to board the ships were Voya Nui Matoran. Balta had done what he had said, then: he had gathered the workers from Voya Nui and led them to the docks, anticipating all the other leaders, and the villagers roused by Gar had joined them. The Matoran from the other lands were now rushing in as well, as were the beings belonging to other species… but Gar could tell that not everyone would be able to get on board: already, the first ship looked nearly full, with the second filling up rapidly. Ash was now raining down upon them from the black sky, while the earth was now shuddering so violently that nearly every surviving building in the city had crumbled and the cracks running across the ground were multiplying. Up in the southern mountains, smoke and fire were now everywhere and as Gar watched lava burst out of two more peaks. The sight agitated the crowd even further. Gar and Idris were jostled and pushed around, and when the earth lurched yet again the Onu-Matoran lost his balance. Others fell as well, but still more remained standing… and in horror, Gar saw them advance, heedless to his plight. He raised his arm to protect himself as feet stamped upon his fallen form, trampling him as if he weren’t there. His cries of pain went unheeded and he saw a Matoran foot stab down onto his mask… And then another explosion shook the port, even more powerful than the previous one, and Gar saw the crowd that had been trampling him fall away, as all the Matoran lost their balance and their hands flew to their years to protect them from the deafening noise. He felt the shockwave fly past him, perceived the ground shudder madly… and when he finally got to his feet, his body sore, his ears still ringing, the port city no longer existed: every remaining building had been flattened, and a great crater had formed only a short distance away, containing a huge fragment of rock… or was it metal? “Gar! Come on! It’s now or never!” The voice belonged to Idris. A moment later, the Ga-Matoran’s hand closed around his wrist and dragged him towards the ship, past the stirring forms of the other Matoran, until finally they clambered upon the walkway leading aboard one of the ships and made their way to the deck. Defilak, Kazi and many others were there… so many, in fact, that the deck was full to bursting. No way we can take more people aboard. And yet, down on the pier, the Matoran were getting up and rushing once more towards the walkway. A Po-Matoran came aboard, then two Ta-Matoran, a Vo-Matoran, a Le-Matoran… But at that point Gar’s attention was drawn away, for now distant booms were resonating across the land. And when Gar looked up, his Onu-Matoran night vision found them: meteors, fragments of rock and metal plummeting down from the sky. And Gar knew where they were coming from, for like every Matoran from Voya Nui he was aware that the lands of the universe were actually underground, contained inside huge domed caverns… and it was now clear to him the roof of the Southern Continent dome was breaking apart, its pieces raining down upon the stricken lands below. This is truly is the end, then. We returned to this universe that none of us remembered… only to see it destroyed. Other people had spotted the meteors too by now… and when a second one fell just on the other side of the river, it was the last straw. Terror seized hold of the vessel’s passengers and shouts and cries leapt from mouth to mouth, a cacophony of voices that was however saying just one thing: “Cast us off! Let’s go, now!” And the ship’s crew, which was mostly composed of the few sailors who had joined them over the past few days, obeyed. The Ga-Matoran captain yelled out a short series of orders and one by one the lines mooring the ship were severed. “No!” shouted someone. It was one of the Turaga, standing on the pier, raising his staff in desperation. “Come back! There are still people here! You can’t leave us!” And suddenly the Toa of Plant of Life was running along the wharf. He pointed his weapon straight at them and two thick vines shot out, wrapping themselves around the vessel’s mast. The Toa wasted no time in tying the vines to the pier, causing the ship to lurch to a sudden halt. “Stop! Don’t do it, let us go!” cried someone, but the Toa paid him no mind, instead summoning his power again and causing wooden planks to grow and connect the two vines, effectively creating a bridge. Then he started clambering across and several Matoran immediately followed him. Was the Toa acting at his Turaga’s behest? Was he trying to save the Matoran whom he had originally sworn to protect? Or did he just want to escape himself? Gar didn’t know, nor did it truly matter, for his actions were going to doom them all. The mast to which the vines were tied was creaking ominously and the ship itself was lurching violently as it fought to break the vine’s grip. And then a Ta-Matoran Gar didn’t know rushed forward, an axe in his hand. The Toa saw him and again pointed his weapon, but he was too slow, or his power too weak, and when the axe dropped it chopped through the vines cleanly… and the Toa of Plant Life, to whom many of them owed their lives, without whom no ship would have ever been completed, plummeted into the water, along with those who were climbing after him. Amidst the darkness, even Gar did not see them resurface, if they ever did. He did hear the cries and pleas of those people who were still on the shore. Over the past few weeks, Gar had befriended some of them, he had traveled, fought and labored at their side… but now he closed his ears to them. There is nothing we can do, he told himself. The ships are already overburdened, they can’t take anymore. I did what I could. Most of the Matoran from Voya Nui are on the ships… I helped save them, I looked out for our own. The others… they had their own leaders looking out for them. If they were not fast enough, it is not our fault. Someone had to get to the ships first… it just happened to be us. The two ships were now floating before the ice sheet that had sealed the river mouth, trying to aim for the channel that would lead them out to the open sea, but steering was difficult, for the ice was cracking and moving and there was no wind to propel them along. Meanwhile, on both sides of the river, the dead forest was burning, the flames leaping from tree to tree, fueled by lava that was gushing out of ever wider cracks in the ground to turn the floodplain into an ocean of fire. Yet even this inferno would prove short-lived, for the land was still quaking and the tremors were growing more and more powerful, bringing down mountains thousands of bio high and threatening to tear the continent itself apart. And when they finally reached their peak, the earth split from east to west with a deafening howl of destruction and all along the northern coastline the land sank, until it finally found itself below sea level. And then the waters came, rushing in from the sea to fill the void. The Matoran aboard the ships saw them, but there was nothing they could do about it. Before their terrified eyes, the ice sheet cracked before the waves’ might and kio-wide wide were overturned or shattered in seconds. And now a wall of water higher than the ships’ tallest masts came crashing on the two vessels. It was impossible to avoid, impossible to surmount. Gar could do nothing but stand there, eyes wide open, waiting for the impact that would surely shatter both ships into kindling and sweep them all into a watery grave. But the impact never came, for as the wave bore down upon them a barrier of solid rock rose before them, so high that the waters could not surmount it. They found their way around it instead, but their force had been blunted and instead of drowning the vessels they raised them up and carried them along. That was the last Gar saw of the Toa of Stone, standing atop the cliff he had created, a lone islet now amidst a raging ocean. But had the Toa saved their lives or merely prolonged their agony? The vessels were now in the grip of the waters, which were rushing south rather than north, sweeping over the floodplain towards the fire-riven mountains in the distance. There was nothing the crews could do about it: the two ships were at the mercy of the waves. Wind. We need wind! There’s no other way out of this. These are sail ships, they can’t move without wind. Give us wind! And though Mata Nui was long dead, perhaps some other spirit heard his prayer. For as the waves swallowed the last of the floodplain, a gale, as powerful as it was unexpected, came rushing out of the south and slammed into the vessels. The ship gave a terrible lurch and for a moment the deck tilted sideways, almost vertical. Gar felt himself fall backwards, down towards the raging sea, but the deck’s railing broke his fall. But for three other Matoran, it wasn’t enough: the force of their fall slammed them into the railing, then carried them over it. Gar looked sideways just in time to see them vanish… and recognized Idris. “No!” he screamed. And then the Ga-Matoran tumbled into the sea and the waters closed over her. No, it can’t be! Idris can swim, she’s a Ga-Matoran, she’s from Mahri Nui… she’s a water-breather! She can’t… But Idris didn’t resurface… and it wouldn’t have mattered if she had, for there was no way she could have kept up. The two ships were now rushing north, riding before a wind that was stronger than any gale their crews and passengers had ever experienced. And when Gar dashed aft, desperately seeking some sign, some trace of her presence, all he saw were chasms and cliffs of black water, as the sea convulsed before the cataclysm… and in the distance, the Southern Continent, its every hill and mountain brought down by quakes or torn asunder by fire and lava, its northern coast gone, claimed by the waters along with all those whom they had left behind, its skies riven with meteors raining destruction on the land below. Only their two ships remained: ahead of them was darkness and the desperate dream of a safe haven; behind them, the doom that would soon fall upon the entire universe and bring down upon every land the forces of the apocalypse. ----- The tower stood upon the shoreline, rising high above the water to dominate the bay. Its builders had wanted it situated precisely opposite the bay’s entrance, thus ensuring that the gaze of every sailor cruising into the bay would be immediately drawn to it. The resemblance would then be noticed immediately… for although the tower was far smaller, its conical shape and the spires rising from its apex made an almost perfect replica of Metru Nui’s Coliseum. Nor did the likeness end at the tower, for in the city that surrounded it, hugging the shore and extending up to the great cliffs that enclosed the bay, towers grown from Knowledge Crystals imported from Ko-Metru could be found side-by-side with mask and tool-making forges that would not have looked out of place in Ta-Metru. The city sported tunnels too, a network of underground passages that resembled a miniature version of Onu-Metru’s Great Archives, and travelers heading along the great road leading south would find themselves passing through a wide canyon housing a Field of Construction like those of Po-Metru. But it was with Ga-Metru that the city bore the strongest likeness, riddled as it was with canals and temples. It was not by chance, for its founders had originally been Ga-Matoran sailors from Metru Nui, seeking to establish a trading outpost on the Northern Continent. The Le-Matoran had been the next to arrive, building hubs inspired by those of Le-Metru where airships might be docked. The other Matoran tribes had followed, eventually turning this settlement into the continent’s greatest port, its main link to the City of Legends. Over time, many Matoran native to the Northern Continent had settled here as well, but the city, appropriately christened Metru Nuva, had never forsaken its character as an exclave of the City of Legends. At the height of Metru Nui’s Golden Age, the two cities had even been linked via undersea chute, and though that connection had eventually proven too complicated to maintain, the privileged relationship with Metru Nui had persisted: after the Dark Hunters had invaded Metru Nui three thousand years earlier, it had been to Metru Nuva that Metru Nui’s Toa of Water, Toa Naho, had first come seeking help and it had been Metru Nuva’s Turaga, an ancient teammate of Turaga Dume when the two of them had been Toa, who had summoned the Toa army that had swept into Metru Nui to drive the invaders out. Then the Great Cataclysm had come, shattering Metru Nui and forcing its population into exile. The loss of its main trading partner had dealt a severe blow to Metru Nuva, but its new status as sole remnant of Metru Nui’s civilization had played in its favor and allowed it to expand its influence on the Northern Continent, for the Matoran of Metru Nuva had become the custodians of knowledge and technology that other lands had lost. For this reason, when the Toa of the Northern Continent had united in an effort to attack the Brotherhood of Makuta, responsible for the fall of the Great Spirit, Metru Nuva’s Toa protectors had been at their head. But one by one, they had fallen, and both the Brotherhood and the Dark Hunters had then turned their attention upon Metru Nuva. Following a Brotherhood siege and the assassination of its last Turaga by the Hunters, the Matoran council ruling the city had made concessions to both powers. And yet Metru Nuva had survived, albeit weakened and diminished, and had never truly given up its independence, for its inhabitants took great pride in their origins and would not meekly bow to the enemies of Metru Nui. In this, they had been aided by those Toa who still remained on the continent and who would often pass through the city… and, covertly, by the Order of Mata Nui, though Metru Nuva’s inhabitants had not realized this. After the death of the Great Spirit, it had thus been relatively easy for the Order to reveal itself and convince Metru Nuva’s inhabitants to migrate to Mata Nui. The following few weeks had seen the city crowded like never before, as the Northern Continent’s inhabitants converged in the northern ports, and in Metru Nuva especially, to set sail for Mata Nui. And then, at their heels, the Brotherhood had eventually come. When the being reached Metru Nuva, it was all over. The Allied forces, sent into the port city to reinforce it and hold it for as long as possible against the Brotherhood onslaught, had put up a heroic fight, aided by the strong fortifications that had been built by the Metru Nuva Matoran over the past centuries. But although they had held out longer than any of the other Northern Continent ports, after a week-long siege they had been forced to capitulate and had sailed back to the sea gates, leaving Metru Nuva to the Makuta. And how sad it is to see it now, thought the being. Inevitable, fitting even, yet sad nonetheless. Many times, he had visited Metru Nuva; he could well recall the marvel of seeing the cultures from Metru Nui’s six districts and from the lands of the Northern Continent all coexist, side-by-side, in one single city. But now, all he saw in the city’s streets was emptiness and destruction: its diverse buildings had been shattered and ruined, the forges, which had housed some of the best mask makers outside Metru Nui, were now cold and dark, the canals lay clogged with debris and coated in ice and only emptiness filled the fields of construction. The port, once full of countless trading ships and airships, now housed the black vessels of the Brotherhood, with hundreds of Exo-Toa marching in unison aboard. Its streets, once populated by proud, hard-working Matoran, now teemed only with shadows and in those shadows Kraata slithered, Rahkshi walked and infected Rahi lurked. And the tower, the pride of Metru Nuva’s inhabitants, had now been violated by their greatest enemies, by the masters of those shadows. And when the being stepped into the council chamber, it seemed as if he had left the eternal night behind to enter an even more absolute darkness. No lightstones or torches lit the hall, for there was no need; the chairs that had once been occupied by Matoran now housed titans clad in black armor, their bodies coursing with shadow, the air surrounding them crackling with energy, their red eyes unhindered by the darkness, their gaze capable of striking terror in all but the strongest of beings. But the shadows held no fear for the being and when the gazes of the Makuta fell upon him, he returned them effortlessly. In their stares, he saw the contempt of those who regarded him as little more than a servant and the anger of those, such as Chirox, who still considered him an enemy and suspected his hand in the recent death of their fellow Brotherhood member on Xia. Only the Makuta of Stelt, and possibly Makuta Vamprah, seemed to be truly wary of him, even concerned. But the rest will soon learn. Already, they allow me to address them, rather than report through one of their number. And soon it will be far more than that. And then, of course, were those who weren’t looking at him… the inquisitive gaze of Mutran, the calculating stare of Antroz, the furious glare of Gorast, and many more… all directed at the throne. All those Makuta had been forced to put their differences aside after their defeat in Metru Nui, but their contradictions were still there and now, amidst the tensions of the coming war and fear that the news of the Southern Continent’s destruction had brought, they would once again erupt… if necessary, the being would make sure of it. And then finally, the ever-present threat of destruction mingling with an undercurrent of triumph in his voice, his limbs vibrating with raw power and strength, his red eyes blazing from behind the Mask of Shadows, Icarax spoke. “You have a report for us?” The being smiled and nodded. “It is finally time.”
  5. Yes, for those of us following the story, this is definitely good news. I'm very intrigued by this last chapter. Takua's part still seems to be proceeding a bit slowly, but judging from the conversation Takua overhears in the previous chapter, things might soon come to a climax. And at last Aya speaks to Illum, who confirms himself as one of the most interesting and complex characters of this epic. I must say, the cliffhanger of the Energized Protodermis (I was a bit surprised you call it "Energized", since that term was introduced in 2004, if I remember correctly in the 2001-2003 canon it was a mystery substance called simply Protodermis) is masterful... I seriously can't wait for the next chapter.
  6. FORTY-FIVE Tanma stood on the highest tower of Old Ta-Koro, staring out through the fumes of the lava at the outer shore of the Lake of Fire. His gaze took him past the small fortification that had been built to protect the far end of Ta-Koro’s drawbridge and that had been evacuated when the bridge had been raised; it swept over the incline that rose just beyond the lake’s shore and that was littered with the enormous pieces of the magma walls that had surrounded the Lake of Fire before their destruction at the hands of the Bohrok. Finally, it came to rest on the ridge at the top of the incline. Less than two hours earlier, the inhabitants of New Ta-Koro had been pouring over that ridge, desperate to find safety behind Old Ta-Koro’s walls; now Tahnok lined the ridge, their robotic eyes fixed on the island at the center of the Lake of Fire. So far, the Bohrok had deployed so as to surround Old Ta-Koro, but apart from that they had done very little; even the fires they had started a few fires in New Ta-Koro had been small… clearly, whoever commanded them wanted to capture Ta-Koro intact. Now something was changing, however. More Tahnok were appearing on the road leading down to the lakeshore… and then suddenly a being who was most definitely not a Bohrok appeared on the ridge: he was tall and lean, wearing tan-colored armor and wielding a long staff, and staring at Ta-Koro as if he owned it already. A Dark Hunter? wondered Tanma. “Conjurer,” confirmed Vultraz, coming up beside him. “That’s his codename. Fairly powerful and likes making an impression… but he’s less dangerous than he looks.” “People of Ta-Koro!” boomed Conjurer, his voice so loud it carried easily across the distance, leaving no one in Ta-Koro any doubt as to what he was saying. “I am the commander of the army that now surrounds you. There is no escape and you cannot hope to stand against our overwhelming power. Surrender! If you lower the drawbridge, lay down your weapons and pledge to obey us, your lives will be spared. Oppose us, and the walls you cower behind will be shattered and cast into the lava. Those of you who survive will be forever enslaved.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “I give you ten minutes to consider,” he then announced. “Decide wisely.” Tanma glanced at Turaga Vakama, who was himself staring at the enemy commander. He attempted no reply, but when Conjurer stepped back he turned around and spoke to the Ta-Matoran guards who stood on the tower’s terrace, his voice not so loud as the Dark Hunter’s, but clear and determined. “The Dark Hunters will have no surrender from us. We will not bow to their tyranny… nor will we forget their betrayal! Ta-Koro has fought off the Bohrok before… it will do so again. Kapura, are we ready?” Tanma almost jumped in surprise. Kapura was standing next to him, though he could have sworn he hadn’t been on the tower a moment earlier. “Yes, Turaga,” replied Kapura, speaking with his usual slow, monotone voice. “I have just completed my rounds. All the walls are manned.” “We are ready too,” added Tanma. “My people will take them on the moment they start flying across.” “Then return to your posts, and may the Great Beings smile upon us on this day.” Vultraz and Tanma quickly headed for the steps leading down the tower, easily outpacing Kapura. Tanma couldn’t avoid scowling silently… the Captain of the Guard was always so irritatingly slow. Vultraz, by contrast, seemed far more competent and reliable. True, there were some dark rumors going around about him, but then again, Kapura could be unnerving as well, particularly with his habit to suddenly pop out of nowhere… Like now! thought the Av-Matoran as he reached the walkway that ran on top of Ta-Koro’s walls and found Kapura waiting for him. Just how does he do that? “So… good luck to us all,” Vultraz said as the three of them parted ways. “And Tanma… leave some of them for us, will you?” “That won’t be a problem, I fear,” replied Tanma. Then, hoping his worry wasn’t showing too much on his face, he turned around and made his way along the northeastern portion of the walls, exchanging words with the defenders as he went. That whole section was manned by Av-Matoran… and it fell to him to command them. Kirop had given him no choice on the matter. When Tanma had objected that his military experience amounted to just a week spent battling the Makuta, and losing, and to a few clashes with Rahkshi on the journey from Karda Nui to Metru Nui, Kirop had simply replied: “Tanma, the same can be said for any of us. But you underestimate yourself. It might have been for only a week, but still, you held out against three Makuta with only a handful of Matoran following you. Do you really believe there’s anyone else in Ta-Koro who can make such a claim? I may be a good leader in peace time, but you are the best, the only, person who can lead our people into battle. So lead, and fear not: our people will follow you, as will I.” And he was right, as always. Someone has to lead, and the other Av-Matoran all seem to accept that it must be me. I just hope I’m up to the challenge. He reached the tower at the end of the Av-Matoran section. This one was smaller than the one that straddled the drawbridge and it clearly had not yet been completed. Nevertheless, it was here that Photok and Radiak had assembled their squadron that would fly out to engage the enemy… and judging from the number of Matoran who were clustered on the terrace and on the stairs below, they had gathered almost half the Av-Matoran fighters. Most of them were former Shadow Matoran, of course: their wings, which nearly all had chosen to keep even as they started rebuilding themselves to eliminate the more monstrous mutations inflicted by the Makuta, would allow them to fly under their own power. But Tanma also saw plenty of Matoran wearing rocket packs: clearly, he had been far from the only one to hang onto his. “Tanma, anything new?” called out Photok. “No. We follow the plan. Turaga Vakama is expecting the Bohrok to use Krana Vu to fly across anytime now. When they do, we intercept them in midair and try to knock down into the lake as many as we can. The walls’ defenders deal with the rest.” “Got it. Oh, and Solek said…” But that was when the horns of the Ta-Koro Guard started echoing across the town. Tanma immediately spun around. Up over the ridge on the lake’s far shore, Bohrok, folded in spherical form, were rising into the air. It was starting. “Let’s go!” he ordered, triggering his rocket pack. Out beyond the lake, more than a dozen Bohrok had taken off. Then they made for Ta-Koro. The Av-Matoran, led by Tanma, Photok and Radiak, met them in midair. A barrage of light bolts sailed into the first wave of Bohrok. At first, they seemed to have little effect. But then one Bohrok was knocked out of the sky, followed by another. Soon, the molten lava of the Lake of Fire had swallowed them all. Cheers broke out amidst the Av-Matoran, but Tanma didn’t join in; instead, he rocketed higher up, just in time to spot a second wave launching from the other side of the lake. “Half of you, with me!” he ordered. This time, the Bohrok were making for the spots where the walls had not yet been completed. The Ta-Matoran guards were attempting to intercept them using Kanoka disks and other weapons, but several Tahnok managed to gain the walls. But no sooner had they raised their fire shields than Tanma and his squad arrived, adding their light power to the struggle; before long, every Bohrok had tumbled off the walls, to crash onto the ground or melt into the lava. A third wave of Bohrok took off. The flying Av-Matoran were by now deployed all around Old Ta-Koro. They could not hope to intercept every Tahnok, for the Bohrok were both faster and more agile whilst in the air; however, the Av-Matoran had the advantage of being able to use their powers while flying, whereas the Tahnok could not, and they were thus able to thin the Bohrok numbers without suffering any casualties themselves. The other defenders completed the job: those Tahnok that landed on the towers or the walls found themselves cut off from each other by a swarm of defenders and quickly succumbed. There was a moment of fear when a group of them flew past the walls to land inside the town itself, but Vultraz had posted several Boxors on the ground precisely for this eventuality and the invading Bohrok were quickly surrounded and taken down. When the fourth wave of flying Tahnok was successfully destroyed, and no more came, a collective cheer went up from the defenders. “We’ve shown them!” grinned Radiak. “They’ll think twice before attacking again!” “Great job, people!” Vultraz greeted them as they landed again. “We couldn’t have done this without you.” Tanma wished he could share the enthusiasm. Gazing at the far shore, he glimpsed more than a dozen Tahnok Va scurrying around, bringing new Krana to the swarm. They’ll be trying something else soon. He noticed Solek also wasn’t taking part in the celebrations. Had he been wounded? “Solek, are you all right?” “Fine,” came the answer. Then a pause. And then: “Tanma… the Bohrok we killed… don’t you think… we might have known them once?” Tanma’s expression hardened. I should have expected this. He glanced back at the celebrating Matoran of Light, wondering if anyone else was having the same thought. Someone must have. Or have they already forgotten? No, impossible, it’s not something you can just forget… it crossed even my mind when the Tahnok first appeared… It had happened a couple of weeks back, shortly after their arrival on Mata Nui. One night, Kirop had summoned them all, saying he had something important, momentous even, to share with them all. Such words had fired up the imagination, of course… but the secret that Kirop had revealed that night had gone beyond all their imaginings. Tanma remembered the shock he had felt and seen on every face, as the Av-Matoran watched their leader explain how the Bohrok, those strange robotic creatures that they had seen for the first time upon reaching Mata Nui and that had been helping them build Av-Koro, had once been Av-Matoran. The Great Spirit, Kirop had said, had called upon them to give up their bodies and their very lives, so that they might be transformed into Bohrok and go on to serve his will in ways no Matoran could. Some had been unable to believe it, of course: they had raised objections, saying that the Bohrok numbered in the thousands and that there had never been so many Av-Matoran alive at one time. But Kirop had reminded them of the legends of the time before the coming of the Great Spirit, when countless Matoran had labored in darkness to edify the very universe. “Those Matoran were all Matoran of Light, for the Great Beings created our tribe before all others,” he had said. “But they are gone now: long ago, they went on to serve Mata Nui as Bohrok. Only for me the call never came… though at times I yearned for it.” And then Solek had spoken up, voicing the thought that had come to many of them the moment Kirop’s revelation had sunk in. “Does this mean that all our friends… all those who left us over the centuries, walking away without telling anyone anything and never coming back…” “They all became Bohrok, yes,” Kirop had answered. “From one day to another, they heard the call and knew what they were called upon to do. They left because they didn’t want the rest of you to see what would happen and live the rest of your lives dreading that moment… and for the same reason, they all bid me to keep the secret. And I did. But now that the Great Spirit is dead and that Destiny has brought us face to face with the Bohrok, the time has come to speak the truth.” And now the Bohrok, who were once Av-Matoran, are our enemies, mused Tanma. And I cannot allow Kirop’s revelation to distract us, or stand in our way. And so it was with a hard voice that he replied to Solek: “And what if we did? Those people are gone, Solek… they died a long time ago and there’s nothing left of them. Those Bohrok out there… they’re not Matoran. They’re not even alive! They need a Krana to guide them because they cannot think for themselves! Let’s get one thing straight, Solek: I do not grieve for the Bohrok we destroyed… destroyed, not killed… and I will not hesitate to destroy more if I have to. And I expect you to do the same.” Solek didn’t look convinced, but neither of them got the chance to say more, for that was when the roar of the enemy artillery split the air. A moment later, Tanma saw the parapet of Ta-Koro’s highest tower explode as a projectile struck it. “Take cover!” he shouted, but he needn’t have worried. As more projectiles came sailing over the lake, he realized they were all being aimed at the drawbridge tower: the enemy was concentrating their fire there. Ta-Koro’s own cannons were now returning fire, but the enemy artillery was positioned beyond the ridge, making it difficult to hit. Still, they didn’t seem to have many cannon pieces available, since all they could do was aim at the drawbridge tower… Unless… “Over there!” he heard someone shout. He found them immediately: more than a dozen Bohrok spheres, all making for the terrace atop the tower. And in their midst flew Conjurer, riding upon a Rhotuka spinner. “Let’s go!” shouted Tanma, but Photok, who was closest to the tower, had already anticipated him, taking off along with five more Matoran of Light to intercept the oncoming enemy. Tanma watched them pepper the Bohrok with light bolts, glimpsed two of the creatures tumble into the lake, saw Conjurer raise his staff and unleash an energy beam straight at Photok… and Tanma’s friend was gone, just like that, disintegrated by the Dark Hunter’s power. Nor was Conjurer finished: his eyes suddenly started glowing purple and the four remaining Av-Matoran were suddenly tumbling away from him. Three managed to regain control; one didn’t, and Tanma could only watch as she was swallowed by the lava below. Under the cover of his artillery, Conjurer and his Bohrok escort had now gained the tower terrace. Tanma followed along with several other Matoran of Light; rage was swelling in his heart, a burning desire to make the Dark Hunter pay for what he had done. He reached the top just as Conjurer slammed his staff onto the floor, pulverizing an entire portion of the structure and sending at least five Ta-Matoran guards plummeting to their doom. The rest were trying to aim Kanoka disks or other weapons, but the Tahnok were rushing towards them, unleashing flame jets from their shields that had already turned a guard into a living bonfire. By this time, several Av-Matoran were hovering over the tower and at Tanma’s signal they opened fire. But already the Bohrok were making for one of the staircases leading down the tower, and Tanma knew they were heading for the drawbridge controls and that there was no way he could stop them. And then Conjurer fired a disintegration beam straight at him, missing by a hair’s breadth. Tanma swerved sideways, though he could see Conjurer taking aim again and knew he would not miss again… But suddenly a Kanoka disk flew out from the staircase, striking Conjurer in the back and coating his torso in a thick layer of ice. The Dark Hunter howled in pain and whirled around to see Vultraz climb out of the staircase. “You…” roared Conjurer, flexing his muscles and shattering the ice. Vultraz simply smiled and pointed down… and a moment later the lower floor of the tower exploded, sending mangled Bohrok pieces flying out in every direction. The terrace buckled as well, and Conjurer was off balance for a moment. And Vultraz vaulted forward: drawing his sword, he knocked the Dark Hunter’s staff out of his hands. Conjurer’s face twisted in fury: he kicked Vultraz away and his eyes started glowing purple… “No!” screamed Tanma. And at that moment every Av-Matoran simultaneously opened fire and more than a dozen light bolts slammed as one into the Dark Hunter’s chest. Conjurer was lifted off his feet, his body arching through the air, flying towards the tower edge… No… past the edge. And then the Dark Hunter started to plummet and there was nothing below him to stop his fall. A last, deafening scream echoed up to the Av-Matoran, only to be abruptly cut off. The molten lava sizzled, and the Lake of Fire closed over Conjurer forever. ----- The chute station was located inside one of the smaller towers that rose next to the great bulk of the Coliseum. At the height of Metru Nui’s prosperity, the chute stations inside these structures had been some of the largest in the city, tasked with controlling the great cargo and passenger chutes linking each district to the Coliseum. Wrecked by the Great Cataclysm and repaired one thousand years later after the return of the Matoran, they had been primed to once more act as crucial junctions in the city’s chute system; but then the Great Spirit had died. Now, weeks later, with most of the chutes across the city shut down, five of these stations lay abandoned, never to be reactivated. But one was still operational. When Roodaka stepped into the station from her chute, escorted by two more Vortixx and a Maxilos robot, she found a number of Le-Matoran bickering loudly over a couple of consoles… but her arrival plunged the chamber into absolute silence. “Explanations, right now,” she commanded. “What exactly is going on?” The station chief gulped, eyeing her Rhotuka Battle Axe warily, as if expecting any moment now to be mutated into some revolting creature. Roodaka did nothing to disabuse him of the notion. “The… the fast-chute to the Great Barrier seems-appears to be… blocked, lady Roodaka.” “Blocked.” “Y… yes. There must be a… snag-problem… at the station on the other end.” Roodaka eyed him scornfully, doubting his every word. These Le-Matoran were originally from Metru Nui, but they didn’t know the first thing about chutes: their memories of chute operation had been wiped one thousand years earlier and Matau had only had a couple of months to try and teach them the basics. Still, they could be right. Let us see… She closed her eyes, willing one of the messengers from Botar’s species to appear before her. Most of the times, this was sufficient to summon them, though the messengers had never revealed just how this was possible. But when she re-opened her eyes, there was no one standing before her but the Le-Matoran. Roodaka cursed silently. This was already the third time in the last hour she tried and failed to summon a messenger. Coincidence? The messengers can no longer be reached and a key chute breaks down… “This breakdown, at this moment, is unacceptable,” she said abruptly. “You will go over every inch of this chute and make sure there are no problems at this end. And do it fast, or you’ll wish you had. I want to be informed the moment the situation changes. Is this clear?” The Le-Matoran nodded nervously. Roodaka immediately turned her back on them and made her way along with her entourage to the chute that would take her back to Ta-Metru. Within moments, she was on her way. As the chute carried her out of the tower, complete darkness fell around her, the darkness of the night that two days earlier had fallen over Metru Nui once and for all, extinguishing the weak, pale daylight that had until then persisted. Never again would light wash over the city, Roodaka knew: the black, starless night would stretch on, unbroken, until the end of all things. Heat had fled along with the daylight, naturally: over the last few days, the temperatures, already low, had plummeted further, turning the wild tempests raging across the Silver Sea into storms of snow and ice and locking Metru Nui into a cold spell the likes of which the City of Legends had never known. In a matter of days, entire districts had been claimed by the winter; with the Matoran population gone, there had been no one to stop its advance. Ga-Metru’s canals had been the first to freeze, even as the cold brought death to the forests that had once grown so lush and abundant over large portions of the district of water. Po-Metru had been buried by snow: the mountains, the canyons, the Fields of Construction, the wide expanses of the Sculpture Fields… nothing had escaped the blizzards; the bleaching heat of the twin suns was only a distant memory now. In Ko-Metru, always the city’s coldest district, ice had covered the streets, the chutes and even the crystalline walls of the Knowledge Towers; freezing winds blew amongst the icy spires, their howl shattering the silence that had once been the pride of its Ko-Matoran inhabitants. And the cold had seeped even into the Great Archives of Onu-Metru, cloaking every wall in frost and sealing every entrance with rock-hard ice. But the cold had not conquered the city completely… not yet. For the fires of Ta-Metru still burned… Roodaka could see them as she drew closer. She could not help feeling a strange sense of pride at the sight. It was, after all, in no small part thanks to her that these fires were burning and that, whilst the rest of the city died, Ta-Metru had undergone a rebirth of sorts. To be sure, the decision to turn the district of fire into the Alliance’s arsenal, producing the weapons and equipment that would be used in the war against the Brotherhood, had been taken before her arrival in Metru Nui. It made perfect sense: although Ta-Metru had suffered damage from Destral’s bombardment during the battle of Metru Nui, many of its factories and foundries had remained largely intact and it would be far easier to re-activate them than to build an industrial site from scratch on the island of Mata Nui. But ultimately, it had been Roodaka, and the Vortixx females under her command, who had made it work. Upon arriving in Metru Nui, they had taken command of the district, using their unparalleled experience to organize the production. They could rely on a very large workforce; in addition to the Vortixx males, who had been summarily dispatched into the factories on arrival, workers from every community on Mata Nui had been coopted to contribute to this monumental effort. Consequently, Ta-Metru’s population was now greater than before the Great Cataclysm and the factories and foundries were working at a rhythm that had not been seen in thousands of years. It was not easy, of course, to manage it all: with such a diverse workforce, frictions and misunderstandings were bound to occur; in addition, Roodaka and her fellow Vortixx females could not discipline the workers quite as harshly as they would have done on Xia… there were certain political considerations to be made, after all. But they had done well: the defenses of the sea gates were now virtually completed and work was underway to fortify the second line of defense, the tunnels linking Metru Nui to Mata Nui. Or at least, it had been until a few hours earlier, when the chute issue had come up. Roodaka emerged into the Ta-Metru chute station. This had also been a major station once, with chutes branching off from here to every part of the district. Now, of course, most of those chutes had been deactivated: there was no longer enough energy to keep them running. But the largest ones, destined to transport cargo, were still operational, powered by the plant that lay under the Coliseum. It was the one part of the great structure that had not been abandoned: a handful of workers were still there, squeezing every drop of power out of the apparatus to feed the factories of Ta-Metru, as well as the chutes that had been deemed essential. These were mostly the ones linking Ta-Metru to Le-Metru, leading specifically to the ship-airship port near Le-Metru’s southern tip that hosted the Allied fleet command center. But they also included a series of underwater chutes that had been constructed in ancient times to connect Metru Nui to other lands. Safety concerns had caused them to be abandoned tens of thousands of years earlier, but many were still working, after a fashion, and over the past weeks the Allies had made a great effort to locate them and repair them. They had succeeded: the gates connecting the waterways to the Silver Sea were now all linked to Le-Metru via chute… and a single chute had also been discovered linking Metru Nui to the Silver Sea’s northern shore, near the gate of Mangaia. That was the chute that had broken down now… and it was an irreplaceable loss. Up until a few days earlier, it would have been possible to use ships or airships to cross the Silver Sea, but with the storms getting worse the risk had grown significantly, turning the underwater chutes into the safest and most used option to make the crossing. And while other chutes linking Metru Nui to the Great Barrier had been discovered, only this one had been sufficiently repaired to be usable; its breakdown meant that Metru Nui was essentially cut off from Mata Nui. It cannot be the Brotherhood. That chute is covered with sensors, they would have detected anyone or anything teleporting in… though then again, the standard procedure is for our own teleporters to then intercept the intruder, and they are not responding. Could the two things be connected? Her office was inside Ta-Metru’s largest foundry. There were several people milling outside, waiting to speak with her, but she dismissed them… she needed a few moments to think the situation through. She walked inside, closed the door… and that was when Botar appeared before her. Her surprise lasted only a moment. Then she snapped: “What’s going on? Why can’t I summon those of your kind?” Botar stared at her for a moment and Roodaka wondered if she had not gone too far. She had dealt with her share of powerful beings, but she had to admit that Botar had something about him that made him profoundly intimidating. Back in the days when she had been young, and viceroy of the Visorak, she might have ignored it, or even laughed it off, but she knew better now. “Some of my people will answer your calls from now on,” Botar finally told her. “But they will not travel to Mata Nui for you. Communication between the two islands is now forbidden.” “Why?” “It is forbidden. That is all you are to know.” Roodaka’s eyes narrowed. “Is the Order responsible for the breakdown of the chute linking us to Mata Nui?” Botar stared at her, but he didn’t speak. Is that a yes? Or perhaps… a no… “Production must continue unaltered,” said Botar. “You will keep supplying our forces at the sea gates. Nothing must change in that regard and the fewer questions are asked, the better.” Roodaka clenched her fists furiously. How dare this minion of Helryx treat her this way? “And the time might also have come…” Roodaka frowned for a moment, then her eyes widened. “Already?” she whispered. “Tell me more!” she then snapped. “I am not one of your agents, to be pushed around at your whim. You want me to get that thing ready, you must tell me what’s happening!” Botar simply fixed his eyes on her. “You will do as you’re commanded.” Then he teleported away. Roodaka whirled around and smashed a shelf in fury. It took her a few minutes to calm down. Who did Botar and Helryx think she was? Yes, it was true, she had entered a partnership of sorts with the Order of Mata Nui. There had been no other choice. She had burned her bridges with the Brotherhood and she knew the Dark Hunters did not love her… she had double-crossed them too many times. The Order was all she had left. Her previous dealings with the Makuta had not endeared her to them, of course, but Helryx was a pragmatist: when Roodaka had approached her, the Toa of Water had agreed to work together on a number of issues and had promised, once Roodaka’s assignment in Metru Nui was over, to give her a seat in the councils that truly mattered… something Roodaka had great need of, for staying in Ta-Metru, in spite of her task’s importance, had cut her off from the true games of power. Still, none of this means they can just order me around without even telling me what’s going on! She paused. Though in truth, that’s not so hard to guess, is it? The Order had not sabotaged the chute station of the Great Barrier, she was almost sure of it now. And if it had not been the Brotherhood… that just left the Dark Hunters. It made sense. She knew the Shadowed One’s spies had been watching her since her arrival, but in the last few days she had perceived them more frequently… clearly, the Shadowed One was either preparing to eliminate her or he feared that she would act against him in some way. Or both. He is trying something on Mata Nui… a bid for power, maybe even an attack on the Order, as mad as it may seem. In that case, he probably knows I would oppose him. But why hasn’t he tried to eliminate me yet? Unless… yes, that must be it: both the Order and the Hunters want to keep this business contained to Mata Nui; they don’t want it to interfere with our defense against the Brotherhood. That’s why they’ve cut us off and why I am required to keep everything going as usual down here. Roodaka considered. If there truly was a struggle between Hunters and Order going on, and the Dark Hunters prevailed, it was highly unlikely she would be able to make a deal with them; the Shadowed One had ordered her dead not long before and he would not change his mind. So the Order must win, and I must try to make sure it wins. Maintaining the status quo down here is fine, but I have no intention of just waiting for others to decide my fate. She pondered quickly. Not every weapon they were producing was being sent to the sea gates. And there was one weapon type that was not meant for the gates… and had Roodaka had her way, would not have been produced at all. But in this situation… She called inside the aide that she considered to be most trustworthy. “Go to the Nynrah Ghosts’ factory. Tell them to get the production of their suits started again and to get a shipment ready as fast as possible.” Botar’s final words came back to her. “And then… start preparing the weapon.” ----- Steam rose from the Lake of Fire, rising up from the spots where the Gahlok were pouring cool water into the hot lava and concealing the far shore behind an impenetrable layer of white. Standing upon the walls that protected his town, Vakama gazed into the whiteness, hoping against hope that a vision might take form to guide him and show him what lay ahead. But the future did not choose to reveal itself. “I have seen all that there is to see,” he said at last to Kapura and Vultraz, who were standing next to him. “The leaders of the communities must now be consulted. Let us go.” The two Matoran nodded and preceded him along the wall. As they went, Vakama could not help noticing that whilst Kapura was advancing with his usual slow but steady pace, Vultraz kept stopping to exchange greetings, fist-bumps or handshakes with the Ta-Matoran guardsmen. He couldn’t pretend to be surprised. In just a couple of hours, Vultraz’s deeds had become legend. All across Ta-Koro people were speaking of how he had detonated the munitions on the drawbridge tower’s upper floor, blowing apart the Tahnok that had been about to reach the drawbridge levers, and of how he, a simple Matoran, had singlehandedly taken on and disarmed a Dark Hunter. The fact that it had been the Av-Matoran, rather than him, to actually finish Conjurer off did not seem to matter. The whispers of those who wanted to see Vultraz replace Kapura as Captain of the Guard would begin in earnest now, Vakama knew, and he could not deny that he was starting to see their point. Over the last few days, he had gradually grown to acknowledge that Kapura’s appointment had been a mistake. In the wake of his great deeds during the Battle of Metru Nui, he had been the obvious choice to replace Jaller, but for his all his courage, loyalty and wisdom, Kapura wasn’t a leader: he lacked initiative and he did not know how to make the other guards follow him or him respect him. Whereas Vultraz is everything Kapura is not: an experienced fighter, a natural leader, bold and quick to act. A bit cocky, perhaps, but he has the qualities to be an excellent commander. And yet, somehow, Vakama just couldn’t get around to trusting him. There was no clear reason why, just a series of occasional quirks and oddities in Vultraz’s behavior that gave him the feeling the Ta-Matoran was hiding something. He also had a strong suspicion Vultraz had not told them everything about his past and his dealings with the Brotherhood. Besides, he has been with us for too short a time to be given such a responsibility. I will have to consider someone else… Keahi, or perhaps Kalama… though, of course, all talk of replacement will have to wait until we pull through this conflict. And that is if we do pull through; it’s not as if the situation were looking particularly good right now… When he found himself before the assembled leaders of New Ta-Koro’s diverse communities, he told them as much: “As things stand, Ta-Koro cannot expect to hold out forever. The Gahlok swarm that joined the Tahnok an hour ago is attempting to create a way across the lake by using water to harden the lava. Given that areas of the lake are already almost solid, I cannot rule out that they might succeed. And even if they fail, I am quite sure that the Pahrak swarm that was digging lava channels about half a day from Ta-Koro is currently on its way. Once they are, it will only be a matter of time before the Bohrok cross.” Silence greeted these words. Then a Turaga of Plasma spoke up: “Turaga Vakama… have you considered surrendering?” Vakama turned to stare at him. “No, I have not. Nor will I. I cannot deliver my people to a life of slavery, which is all the Dark Hunters have in store for us.” “Forgive me, Turaga, but you speak without ever having been under Dark Hunter rule. I have… and though it is undeniably harsh and brutal, it is not unbearable. And sometimes there is simply no choice. My own people, as you know, are from the Northern Continent. For the last one thousand years, the armies of the Brotherhood and the Dark Hunters have warred on our lands and neither had any qualms about destroying those in the way, like us. At first, of course, we fought, along with our Toa. But they fell, one after the other. Eventually we had to realize that there was nothing to be gained by fighting against such great odds. So we surrendered and allowed the Dark Hunters to occupy our territory. We paid tribute, we were under their domination, but we lived.” Vakama didn’t answer immediately, but eventually he spoke: “No. I cannot accept that. Long ago, I swore that I would destroy those I loved rather than to see them under the rule of Makuta. That hasn’t changed and now that the Dark Hunters have chosen to betray us, it also applies to them. If any of you wish to give yourselves up, I won’t stop you. But I will not join you… and neither will my people.” He paused for a moment, allowing his words to sink in. “However, there is no point in fighting to the death. We do still have a way out.” “The tunnels,” surmised Kirop. “The Highway leads to Onu-Koro!” objected a Ta-Matoran. “Which is even closer to Dark Hunter territory. They’ve probably conquered it already.” “We do not know that,” replied Vakama. “Besides, the Highway does not lead only to Onu-Koro. There are other tunnels branching off.” “And what about the Nuhvok?” asked a Turaga of Iron. “Won’t they attack us?” “Not if Takanuva has been able to hold them off. And I trust that he has, even if he has not yet returned. My proposal is thus to start moving all non-combatants, as well as any supplies and equipment we might wish to carry with us, to the Highway entrance. We will not yet flee. I will not simply abandon Ta-Koro: the Toa or the Order might still be able to relieve us. But we should start preparing for the worst.” “Agreed,” said Kirop. The others also voiced their consent. With the decision taken, the meeting was concluded. After having dismissed the other leaders, Vakama wasted no time in packing a few personal items and then setting out for the Ta-Suva: as elder of Ta-Koro, it was his duty to collect the artefacts stored within the shrine. Not that there were many, apart from Toa Tahu’s Nuva Symbol. The Mask of Time, once the most precious item to be stored in the Ta-Suva, had been handed over to the Order of Mata Nui shortly after the formation of the Alliance, for Vakama had been forced to acknowledge that it would never be safe in Ta-Koro with Dark Hunters and their like prowling the island. And the majority of Ta-Koro’s sacred items, including most Great and Noble Kanohi, had been lost months earlier, when the original village had been destroyed by the Rahkshi. The task was thus quickly completed, allowing Vakama to then dedicate himself to the altogether more complex job of transferring the large and diverse crowd of refugees packing the streets of Old Ta-Koro to the Highway gate. Fortunately, the inhabitants of New and Old Ta-Koro alike proved cooperative, allowing the operation to be completed fairly quickly. In all that time, the Turaga of Fire threw periodic glances to the walls, but he saw no sign of the battle resuming: were the Dark Hunters truly content with waiting for the Lake of Fire to be bridged? And then, just as the final group of Ta-Matoran moved to the gate, a guard came up to him. “Turaga Vakama, Kapura’s asked for you. He’s in the drawbridge tower… says there’s something you must absolutely see.” “Are the Bohrok doing something new, Nuhrii?” “I cannot say, Turaga, I’m sorry. I was just told to call you.” “You did well. Lead on, then.” It took them only a couple of minutes to reach the base of the drawbridge tower. Vakama noticed in puzzlement that there were fewer guards posted there than before: had Kapura moved them? And then Nuhrii led him up the tower’s stairs up to the chamber that housed the drawbridge levers. Whilst the upper floors had been torn apart by the explosion Vultraz had triggered, this chamber had survived the detonation intact. Vakama frowned. Why would Kapura summon him here? And then the Captain of the Guard stepped off the stairs and said: “I am here, Turaga. What did you wish of me?” And at that moment the sound of Ta-Koro’s horns split the air, signaling an enemy attack. But the Turaga of Fire was no longer there to hear it… for he had beheld Vultraz step off the stairs behind Kapura and at that sight his mind had been overtaken by a vision of the future… or perhaps the past… A volcano exploding… rivers of lava flowing down, destroying everything in their way… Matoran screaming, running, dying… and a Ta-Matoran laughing, and laughing, and laughing… And then he was back in the tower and he could hear the roar of artillery and the shouts of the Matoran. But his eyes were all for Vultraz, who had drawn his blade and was smiling wickedly. “I was right, then.” “About me, surely,” chuckled Vultraz. “But what about them?” And one by one the Ta-Matoran emerged, blades and guns drawn. Vakama recognized them all: Ta-Koro guards, who had valiantly fought under his lead for the last millennium and who had now joined together to conspire against him. Nuhrii was amongst them, Vakama noted in disappointment: one thousand years after the events in Metru Nui, he had once again chosen his personal gain over everything else. But when he saw Keahi, the strongest fighter in the Ta-Koro Guard, who had been one of Jaller’s most trusted men and one of the favorites to succeed him, there was no concealing his surprise, nor stopping the question from escaping his lips: “Why?” Keahi did not meet his stare. It was Vultraz who answered: “For freedom… and power. They had a taste of both in Metru Nui, when the shadow leeches showed them just what the darkness could have in store for them. Did you truly think that it would be enough to simply ‘cure’ them? That no one among your people would lust for more?” The Turaga clutched his firestaff tightly. Vultraz’s words were striking home… Vakama, more than anyone, should have remembered the appeal that the shadows could hold. How could he have failed to imagine that something like this might happen? “That was where I started,” continued Vultraz. “And then, of course, there were other reasons for dissatisfaction… this whole settlement and coexistence problem gave me, and those like me, plenty of ways in. You’re seeing here only a small part of our little network.” Kapura had not said anything, but out of the corner of his eye Vakama glimpsed him slowly, almost imperceptibly, moving. But Vultraz perceived it all right: in the blink of an eye, he whirled around, sent Kapura sprawling and pinned him to the floor with his foot. “Sorry, Captain,” he hissed. “Once caught, twice careful: you’re not going anywhere and you are most certainly not trying your little tricks.” “And what have you promised, Vultraz?” demanded Vakama. “That they could become Shadow Matoran again, perhaps?” He still had his Mask of Concealment. If he could only play for time… “Oh, no! Only the Brotherhood could give them that and I am through with the Makuta. But the Dark Hunters are a satisfying substitute and have made us some very appealing promises.” “You just killed one of their operatives and you expect them to reward you?” asked Vakama incredulously. Vultraz shrugged. “The Av-Matoran killed him, not me. I just made sure that he failed. Conjurer expected to conquer and then rule Ta-Koro for the Shadowed One, and since I intend to do the same I could not allow him to succeed. Fortunately, Conjurer was not aware of my identity; he just knew some Ta-Matoran might eventually open Ta-Koro’s gates for him. And we will… he just won’t be there to see it.” “They’re coming!” called one of Vultraz’s conspirators from the stairs. “Of course they are,” said Vultraz. “And let us welcome them.” And he pulled the lever controlling the drawbridge. Vakama heard the mechanism grinding into operation, and though this chamber had no windows he knew that the bridge must be going down, to welcome the Bohrok that must surely be even now advancing towards the Lake of Fire. “In the chaos of the attack, no one will know exactly what happened here,” said Vultraz. “The two of you will tragically die as the Bohrok storm this tower. It’ll fall to me then to surrender to the Dark Hunters and lead Ta-Koro through this difficult time. I must admit, playing the hero might have been tiresome, but it was definitely worth…” And then the wall of the chamber caved in, showering Vakama, Kapura and the conspirators in debris. Vakama attempted to pick himself up, but Vultraz was faster and sprang towards him, blade arching down for the kill… and then he froze, as something large rose before the gap that had been blown in the wall: a multi-legged vehicle of some kind, with some kind of weapon mounted on the front and a Ko-Matoran riding it. “You!” snarled Vultraz. The vehicle fired, a sphere of white light sailing out of the weapon to blow Vultraz off his feet. “Sorry, Vultraz, no time to play fair,” said the Ko-Matoran. More spheres of light blasted out of his vehicle, downing one conspirator after another. “Come on, Turaga!” he then shouted. Vakama didn’t hesitate: grabbing a stirring Kapura, he managed to hoist himself through the gap and onto the vehicle, which immediately dropped down until it was hovering just a short distance from the ground. Vakama glanced at Ta-Koro’s gate, for a moment daring to hope… but then he saw the drawbridge was fully lowered and the gate open. The Tahnok came pouring a moment later, their shields already aflame, and Vakama knew then that Ta-Koro, the village he had devoted so much effort to rebuild, had fallen. “Go!” said the Ko-Matoran. “Get everyone into the tunnel! We’ll hold them off for as long as we can!” There was nothing more to be said or done. Vakama turned around and made for the tunnel gate, even as the Ko-Matoran opened fire on the incoming Bohrok and Tanma and other Av-Matoran flew in to add their power to his. And then the final struggle began, a last, desperate battle that the Matoran could not hope to win. The Tahnok advanced relentlessly, their flames rushing from their shields to consume anything or anyone standing in their way. But even when some of their comrades fell before the fire, still the Matoran fighters kept struggling, slowing down the enemy and buying time for their fellow villagers to evacuate. Only when the last refugee crossed the tunnel gate did they finally withdraw. And then the flames rushed forward, engulfing every building, consuming everything. That was the last Vakama saw of Ta-Koro: an entire city, burning. And then every weapon was turned against the tunnel roof, collapsing the Highway entrance, and the sight disappeared behind an impassable barrier of rock and rubble. “What now, Turaga?” wondered Kapura. “We make for Onu-Koro,” said the Ko-Matoran. “I’ve just been sent from there. The village is still free and Order of Mata Nui forces are defending it.” “Onu-Koro it is, then,” said Vakama. “Hopefully, Takanuva will join us along the way.” He turned to the Ko-Matoran. “I still haven’t thanked you for saving our lives.” “Don’t mention it. I only wish I had learned earlier that Vultraz was in your village. We are old enemies, he and I. I could have told you that he couldn’t be trusted.” “Are you an agent of the Order of Mata Nui?” “Yes. Pleasure to meet you. The name’s Mazeka.”
  7. Ok, I'm back, sorry for the hiatus. Chapter 44 is online. Hope you enjoy it. It is kind of a transition chapter, but we learn the fate of some characters and we see others returning. Hope you'll forgive the length of the second half, but I just can't resist some world-building now and then.
  8. FORTY-FOUR It was not the way of the Order of Mata Nui to bring back the bodies of the fallen. Where possible, agents who perished in the line of duty would be buried where they had died either by the local inhabitants or by fellow Order members; where not, the corpses would be abandoned. Secrecy, the Order’s utmost priority, would always be maintained: no grave would reveal the true allegiance of the deceased and burial sites would often remain unmarked or even be hidden… and in some cases, the body would simply be destroyed to erase all evidence of the Order’s presence. The practice had endured even after the battle of Metru Nui: the bodies had been gathered so that their identities could be recorded, but they now lay buried on the beach of the Silver Sea, and no signs marked their graves. Yet when called upon to decide what to do with the body, Helryx had not been able to contemplate just abandoning it, amidst the mud and the rain, waiting for the enemy’s arrival, and there had been no time to bury it. So, in the end, they had brought it with them. Now, deep within the dungeons of the new Order of Mata Nui fortress, the Toa of Water watched as the Maxilos robots lifted the corpse and carried it away, to await her decision on how to dispose of it. The explosion had scorched it, disfigured it and would have undoubtedly done far worse had Helryx herself not been in the way. But it was still recognizably Krakua. The leader of the Order of Mata Nui clenched her fists, forcing herself to bury the pain that sight caused her. It was not easy. She had lost many trusted agents over the millennia… and hundreds just over the last few weeks… yet no loss had made itself felt as keenly as this one. Krakua, she knew, had not been just another Order agent… not to her, anyway. He had been different right from the start, of course: the first Toa ever to be recruited into the Order of Mata Nui. At the time, his arrival had caused quite a stir. Never before had Toa or Matoran been admitted into the organization: the laws that had been in place since the Order’s foundation in the time before time forbade it, for Toa and Matoran had roles to play in the universe that were not compatible with Order membership. Helryx herself had been the sole exception for tens of thousands of years. It had been a vision, granted to her six years earlier by the creatures bred by the Order for that purpose, that had persuaded her to set that law aside, a vision that had shown her Krakua, a Matoran of Sonics living in a secluded village of the Tren Krom Peninsula… seemingly ordinary, yet concealing an amazing potential. He was destined to be a Toa, she had known that immediately. But there was more to it than that: Krakua, she had felt, was to play an essential role in shaping the future… and his destiny called for him to be at the Order’s side the day they would finally step out of the shadows and into the light. Destiny. How often does it play us for fools. To be sure, Krakua had played a vital role during the battle of Metru Nui: without him, Toa Takanuva would never have survived long enough to purify his dark duplicates, thus saving the Order from destruction and keeping the Makuta from Mata Nui. It had also been he who had unleashed the Nova Blast against the Brotherhood fortress on the Northern Continent, delaying the Makuta attack against Metru Nui for the precious few weeks necessary to evacuate a good portion of the universe. Yet, in spite of these amazing accomplishments, Helryx could not help but feel that this was not what had been promised, that the death of the Great Spirit had robbed Krakua of his true future. But who am I kidding? It is not his unachieved destiny that I grieve for… it is Krakua himself. How could she not? Shortly after Krakua’s arrival on Daxia, Helryx had personally provided the Toa Stone that had turned him into a Toa… and personally taken it upon herself to train him. She had told herself she was doing so because of what destiny had in store for him; soon, however, she had come to realize that she enjoyed his company… the company of another Toa, for the first time in millennia. Naturally, she had not allowed their relationship to turn into true friendship: there had always been a clear leader-subordinate hierarchy between them. Yet in time, Helryx had come to see herself not just as Krakua’s leader, but also as his mentor… and though he was far too junior to succeed her at the Order’s head should something befall her, she had started considering him her successor of sorts, the one who would perpetuate her legacy. I should have known better than to think something so foolish. That dream had come apart in seconds, out there in the plaza. Helryx only had to close her eyes to see Krakua vault towards her, taking the arrow that should have been for her. Had he not done what he had done, not all Helryx’s power would have saved her. But Krakua’s sacrifice had given her the split second she needed to summon a Kanohi Hau from her Suva… the Suva that, following the losses the Order had taken at the battle of Metru Nui, she had made it mandatory for all Kanohi users within the organization to have. That was what had saved her: when the Cordak rockets had come sailing in, Helryx had been wrapped in the energy field projected by the Mask of Shielding. It would have saved Krakua too: though the shield could not extend to him, she had managed to somewhat protect him with her body. But by that time, the poison was already eating through him. He had not managed to utter any last words… and if he had tried to send a final telepathic message, Helryx’s mental shields would have blocked it. And then, within seconds, he had started convulsing and had died amidst excruciating pain. Could I have done something more to save him? Maybe. But it’s too late now. Krakua is dead and I cannot let his death distract me or blind me. Decisions must be taken quickly if we are to confront this disaster. Even so, when she opened the door of the cell, she had to struggle to quash the impulse to drown its prisoner. She gestured at Johmak, who was securing the last chains and who immediately stood back, allowing her to behold the unconscious form of Krakua’s murderer. Helryx wasted no time with subtlety: a jet of cold water shot out of her hand, brusquely bringing Lariska back to consciousness, gasping and spluttering. The Dark Hunter assassin was good, however, and her wounds seemed to take little toll on her ability: instantly taking stock of the situation, she immediately positioned herself so as to have the greatest possible freedom of movement the chains could give her. Then she fixed a defiant stare upon Helryx. “I have no intention of wasting any time here,” Helryx told her. “I have questions only you can answer. You can either do so right now, speaking only the truth and withholding nothing, or else we will extract the information… no matter what it takes.” Lariska blinked. “Do I get to live if I answer?” Helryx’s expression darkened. A tendril of solid water lashed out of her finger, wrapped itself around Lariska’s throat and started squeezing. “I see I have not made myself clear.” In response, Lariska simply stared at her: even when suffocating, she seemed to be in perfect control of herself. Then she nodded slowly. Helryx banished the tendril. “I will answer,” gasped the assassin the moment she was free. “I will answer. Why shouldn’t I? The Shadowed One got us into this mess. Why should I owe him anything?” Helryx was careful to hide any trace of surprise. She had not expected such a blatant expression of disloyalty… though it was not as if Lariska’s word was trustworthy. Still, extracting the truth from her would take time… and she’d undoubtedly be difficult to crack, even using telepathy or mind control. If there’s a chance she’ll speak willingly, we must take it. “What is the Shadowed One planning to do with the Bahrag?” she said. “He will torture them until they give him control over the Bohrok swarms. Then he will use the swarms to take over the island.” “How does he plan to do that?” Lariska chuckled. “Oh, I doubt he’ll bother with particularly subtle tactics. All the convoluted planning was aimed mostly at seizing the Bahrag. Now that he has them, he’ll just send in the Bohrok to take key locations and overwhelm all resistance. Other places will surrender to him without a fight… we’ve been making sure of that over the last few days. And of course we have our allies… Skakdi, Frostelus, Steltians… you know some of them and we’ve been recruiting more. Even some Matoran came over to us. The little fools were so angry about the floating platform business… all the Shadowed One needed was to make a few cheap promises and there they were, ready to spread as much confusion and discord as we needed.” Helryx’s fists clenched in anger… at Lariska, but now also at herself. She had suspected this, of course… it had been clear from the beginning that the Dark Hunters were working to undermine the peace. But with the Order so depleted of manpower, she had not possessed the resources to watch both fronts and had chosen to focus most of her energies on the confrontation with the Brotherhood. A mistake, blast it. I allowed Ancient to be sent away from Mata Nui and did not make an effort to find another spy within the Hunters. And all those frictions and clashes… I dismissed them as petty squabbles, did not truly realize how serious the discontent was. But the Shadowed One did… and he exploited it far more than I believed possible. “Oh, and you might be interested to know that we also managed to recruit a few of your teleporter friends,” added Lariska. “The Shadowed One was particularly delighted about having persuaded them to change sides right under your nose.” Helryx managed to conceal her shock, but it was a close thing. She had not seen this coming, not at all. She had trusted Botar to make sure his species remained loyal… after all, he had for millennia been possibly the most loyal and efficient member of the Order, and his people regarded him as a legendary hero, almost a god. We’ve entrusted them with all our communications… they were even allowed to come and go from this fortress almost freely. And some of them are traitors. “How many teleporters are we talking about?” Lariska was breathing harder now, her wounds seemed to be taking her toll, but still she answered. “A dozen, perhaps. I did not meet all of them and I do not know their names. I could recognize them, though…” She gave Helryx a meaningful look. Does she really think she can get out of this? Looking for a deal? That might imply she really is telling the truth. Krakua’s death played before her eyes again, but Helryx forced herself to ignore it. An idea was starting to form at the back of her head. If she keeps cooperating… “What about the Brotherhood?” she said suddenly. “Can’t the Shadowed One realize what shattering the Alliance right now would mean? If our combined armies start fighting amongst themselves, the Brotherhood will wipe them out… and that includes the Dark Hunters. Doesn’t he see that?” Lariska didn’t answer immediately. When she finally looked at Helryx, her smile was gone and her expression unreadable. “I don’t know. Yes, of course, the Shadowed One’s aware that the Makuta are going to attack. He just seems to be gambling everything on the armies below not fighting amongst themselves… on holding out long enough for the Dark Hunters to take over the whole of the island and on weakening them enough for Bohrok and Hunters to be able to repel them once they reach Metru Nui. He was very careful when selecting the operatives who would be dispatched to guard the sea gates: none of them was told a thing about the plan to take over Mata Nui. If the fighters guarding the sea gates don’t know what’s going on here, they will have no reason to stop working together… or at least, that’s what the Shadowed One believes.” She hesitated, as if trying to decide whether to continue. “I cannot see the sense of it, either,” she finally added. “It’s just… madness.” Helryx scrutinized her. “Why are you telling me this? It’s not just to survive, I can sense that. There’s more to it.” Lariska nodded. Helryx saw her eyes flit for a moment towards Johmak before turning back to her. “Yes… there is. I don’t want war. It would be a disaster. And the peace we were building… it can work. There are people in our organizations who can make it work.” She stopped, then gave a short laugh. “I can hardly believe I’m saying this.” Helryx didn’t speak. Instead, she gestured to Johmak and the two of them walked out of the cell, slamming the door behind them. “Do you believe her?” Helryx asked her ebon-armored subordinate. Johmak nodded. “Yes. She’s telling the truth.” “I believe so too. Which means we don’t have much time.” She closed her eyes and concentrated. That was all that was needed for Botar to be summoned. The monstrous teleporter materialized in front of her and remained standing there, awaiting orders. “The Dark Hunters have betrayed us,” Helryx informed him. “And they now most likely have the Bohrok on their side. I have orders for both of you. Johmak, go to Brutaka and tell him to open a gateway to Kini-Koro. That will be the swarms’ first target, and we are not strong enough to hold it. Evacuate what forces we have left there… as well as any congress members still in the town. Ineffective as they might be, they remain the representatives of the factions on Mata Nui and the Dark Hunters must not be allowed to seize them. They must be brought here… willingly or not.” Johmak nodded. Helryx turned to Botar. “According to the Dark Hunter, some of your kindred have betrayed us.” “They must be punished, then,” said Botar, seemingly unfazed. “I will see to it.” “No. That is not the priority right now… and it won’t be easy to identify them, considering they have deceived you until now.” She made no effort to soften her words. Botar had almost never failed her before… for him to do so now was almost unforgivable. “I want you to summon your people back to Mata Nui… without revealing the reason until they get here. Leave in Metru Nui only a small number of messengers. From now on and until I say otherwise, communication between Mata Nui and Metru Nui is forbidden. The teleporters in Metru Nui will carry messages between the fleet command center and the sea gates… but no one, except for you if I order you to, is to travel between Mata Nui and Metru Nui.” “Toa Helryx, may I ask the reason?” said Johmak. “In this, we have no choice but to go along with what Lariska says are the Shadowed One’s plans. The armies guarding the sea gates must not be informed of what is going on here… they must continue to think the Alliance is intact. The rumor will spread, it always does, but if we can keep it contained then we might manage to prevent internal fighting from breaking out and hold off the Brotherhood… at least for some time.” She turned to Botar again. “Inform Trinuma of what has transpired… but no one else in the fleet command center is to know. And Trinuma is to do nothing… nothing… against the Dark Hunters guarding the sea gates. They must treated as our allies, just like before. Once you’ve done that, return to Mata Nui and start organizing your people. We will need them to remain in contact with the Toa and our other allies… but as a precaution, direct teleportation into our fortress will be forbidden. Your kindred will materialize outside and then be escorted in.” She started to wave them on their way, then suddenly stopped and added. “After seeing Trinuma, go to Roodaka. Reveal nothing of what’s going on here, but tell her… that it might be time.” Botar nodded and vanished into thin air, even as Johmak shattered into crystals and flew off. Helryx was left alone. She knew what was to be done now… and hated, absolutely hated, having to do it. But the situation was too serious to leave any possible route untried. She stepped back into Lariska’s cell. “I imagine you are aware by now that Ancient was our spy within your organization,” she told the assassin. Lariska nodded. “The Shadowed One has imprisoned him. Or perhaps killed him by now, I don’t know. Your organization is impressive… I would never have suspected him, you planted him in the Dark Hunters right from the beginning. But the Shadowed One found out somehow.” “I thought so. There was no other way the Dark Hunters could have pulled this off without us knowing.” Then Helryx changed the subject. “How many Dark Hunters share your opinion about the Shadowed One’s plan?” “Several,” replied Lariska immediately. “Of course, the Shadowed One probably knows who they are. But he cannot get rid of them all right now… he needs them.” “I see.” She fixed her eyes on the female Dark Hunter. “Lariska, you have just killed one of my most valued agents. Ordinarily, that would be enough for me to either execute you or imprison you for life. But I believe you’ve been telling me the truth and you seem willing to cooperate with us… which means that we can come to an arrangement.” Lariska’s face remained expressionless. “What kind of arrangement?” “An arrangement where the Shadowed One dies and another Dark Hunter takes his place… a Hunter willing to reestablish the Alliance, to cooperate with us in the war against the Brotherhood and to work with us to build a permanent peace. Ancient would have been a viable candidate… but it looks like his allegiance to the Order has been revealed. So we need someone else… someone skilled, respected and feared enough to seize power and hold it. Sounds interesting?” ----- The sound of distant digging traveled along the length of the tunnel. The wall shook softly, almost imperceptibly at first, but the rumble gradually grew stronger, as the source of the noise slowly grew closer. And then the rhythmic sound of footsteps filled the air, growing louder by the second. The guards of Ta-Koro gripped their weapons. They did not need the skill of Onu-Matoran to interpret the sounds they were hearing, to know that enemies were coming, marching slowly but relentlessly, caring nothing for the fact that their foes were now alerted to their presence. “There they are!” cried someone. Sure enough, green dots were now glowing amidst the darkness, growing larger and more numerous by the second, until it was impossible to mistake them for anything other than what they were: the eyes of the Bohrok. “Let us see them,” rang out the voice of Toa Takanuva. And suddenly the tunnel was bright as day; every shadow vanished in the blink of an eye and the Nuhvok swarm stood revealed. A couple of Nuhvok Va scouts, finding themselves exposed, quickly scampered back to the safety of the swarm, but the Nuhvok themselves kept coming. There were dozens of them and their numbers were growing, as more Bohrok burrowed out of the ground to join them. To be sure, the Ta-Matoran were better armed than the last time they had faced Bohrok in battle. Many clutched projectile weapons now rather than blades and wielded real Kanoka disks rather than the powerless, bamboo replicas they had once used. Naturally, they had made a point of bringing Boxors with them and they even had a cannon ready to fire. But when the Nuhvok were revealed, it was immediately clear that the swarm far outnumbered them: Ta-Koro might have been warned of their coming, but there had been no time to assemble a larger force. But then again, the outcome of this battle was never going to be decided by numbers. “Stand back,” said Takanuva. And then there was nothing more for the Ta-Koro Guards to do. The world went white, a brilliant, blazing light swallowing Takanuva, the tunnel, the Bohrok, everything. Like his men, Kapura, Captain of the Guard, could only shield his eyes as flash after flash came rushing through the blaze, each one more powerful than the last. The screeches of the Bohrok mingled with the sound of their confused, shuffling footsteps, and more than once a powerful rumble made the whole tunnel shake as if on the verge of collapse. Then steps were heard again, but sounded distant, fleeing away. Then silence. The light winked out, leaving only blackness. As their eyes re-adjusted, the Matoran stepped forward: in the glare of the torches and lightstones that they carried, they spotted cracks and craters in the tunnel floor and found that a portion of the roof had indeed caved in, though the tunnel remained passable. Disabled Nuhvok were everywhere and Nuhvok pieces lay scattered across the ground, but there were no functioning Bohrok to be seen. A tall shape suddenly walked out of a side tunnel; the Ta-Matoran were immediately forced to raise their hands to their eyes again, for the figure was surrounded by a blinding glow that all but obscured his features. “You… you’ve defeated them all, Takanuva,” managed to say Kapura at last. “They were no match for you.” “Not all,” replied Takanuva. The glow around his form abated somewhat, but it was still difficult to stare at him directly. “I took down as many as I could, but most managed to escape. The Nuhvok are tunnellers: they are probably still lurking close by. I need to stay here and hunt them down, make sure they cannot regroup.” “I understand…” “Return to Ta-Koro and report what has happened to Turaga Vakama. And be on your guard. There is something happening across Mata Nui. I do not know why the Nuhvok have turned against us… but they may not be our only enemies.” Kapura barely had the time to nod in agreement; then Takanuva turned his back on him and disappeared back into the side tunnel from where he had emerged. The Captain of the Guard was left somewhat baffled: such an abrupt dismissal was not at all typical of the Takanuva he knew. Before becoming a Toa, Takanuva, then known as Takua, had always been careful, when called upon to lead, to treat his followers as his equals, always asking to their advice and never imposing his opinion needlessly; Kapura himself had witnessed that attitude firsthand when he had followed Takua on his great journey to recruit and lead to the Toa’s aid the members of the so-called Chronicler’s Company. That same mindset had persisted after his transformation: conscious of his origins, Takanuva had never attempted to set himself apart from the Matoran he was called to protect… and though by that time he and Kapura had grown more distant, still the Ta-Matoran had felt a greater affinity towards him than towards Toa Tahu or any of the other Toa Nuva. It was difficult to reconcile that image of Takanuva with the authoritative, almost aloof Toa of Light they had seen today. Had he truly changed so much in the weeks since the Battle of Metru Nui? Still, he is a Toa. If he gives us a command, then we must obey. With that in mind, he started issuing orders, speaking slowly and deliberately, as was his use, so as to leave no room for misunderstandings. Three guards were selected to remain behind to ensure no Nuhvok appeared to resume the attack and, if necessary, to bring messages back from Takanuva; the rest, himself included, set out towards Ta-Koro, taking the Boxors with them… but leaving the cannon behind, just in case. As they marched back through the tunnel, the only light available to them was the one projected by the torches and lightstones that they carried; even though the Highway from Onu-Koro to Ta-Koro had been reopened a couple of weeks earlier, there had not been enough lightstones available to illuminate its entire length. Unfortunately, that absence of light made the Highway treacherous, for the constant burrowing of the Nuhvok, which had excavated much of the route and which were not particularly clean diggers, had left plenty of holes and side tunnels that could turn into dangerous snares and might even have come to lodge some dangerous subterranean Rahi. For that reason, Kapura set a slow pace: it was important to keep the platoon together and avoid the risk of someone getting lost in the darkness. Not everyone agreed, however. They were about halfway on to Ta-Koro when Agni, one of the Ta-Matoran guards, came up to him and asked: “Captain, shouldn’t we perhaps move a bit faster? They might have need of us in Ta-Koro.” “You must be patient,” replied Kapura. “You may travel fast, but you may find you’re getting nowhere. But if you move slowly you may be faster than all others.” The answer was greeted by whispering and even the odd chuckle. It didn’t annoy him. Kapura was used to being mocked: it had happened many times during his service in the Guard. None of his fellow guardsmen, not even Jaller, had ever believed his constant practicing amounted to something and that it might be possible to travel quickly by moving very slowly. But Kapura had never craved their approval, only Vakama’s, and the Turaga of Fire had always supported him. And when the Makuta had attacked Metru Nui, his long practice had paid off, saving him not once, but many times, and allowing him to complete the mission that had ultimately allowed Takanuva to save the city. Why, then, should it bother him that some of the guards still didn’t believe him? They would come around eventually: after the war was over, Kapura intended to train the entire guard the way he had once trained himself. In the meantime, it was enough to be the Captain of the Guard; his men might not admire him like they had admired Jaller, but Kapura trusted their sense of discipline and knew they would follow his commands. Eventually, the tunnel started sloping sharply upwards, even as the air around them grew warmer: a sure sign they were approaching Ta-Koro. When at last the guards crossed the gate of the Highway, it was to find that night had given way to day while they had been underground, and even though thick clouds covered the sky, still daylight allowed them to see the center of Ta-Koro stretch before them. When the Matoran had first settled Mata Nui, Turaga Vakama had decided that the new home of the Ta-Matoran would not be a mere village: it would be a fortress, capable of withstanding anything Makuta’s creatures could throw at it. For this reason, he had chosen to raise it in a location where nature itself would constitute a formidable defense: an island at the center of the Lake of Fire, a great lava lake located at the endpoint of an immense lava tube and bordered by high lava walls on all sides. By fortifying the only opening within those walls and connecting that external fortification to Ta-Koro solely via a bridge that could, if necessary, be lowered into the Lake of Fire, the Ta-Matoran had obtained a stronghold that had never fallen in one thousand years. Its main defense, the Lake of Fire itself, had never faltered: the hot, fluid lava was constantly resupplied by the Tren Krom Break, a great lava river that for a millennium had incessantly flowed down from the crater of the Mangai Volcano, traversing the entire region of Ta-Wahi before pouring into the lava tube that fed the Lake of Fire. What however even Turaga Vakama had perhaps not fully realized was that even as the lava protected the village, it would eat its way into the base of the island on which it was built, creating a myriad of passageways, lava rivers and lava falls and weakening Ta-Koro’s foundations; and when one thousand years later Makuta’s Rahkshi had attacked the village, easily flying over the lava that surrounded it, their awesome power had cracked those fragile foundations, sending the entire fortress plunging into the Lake of Fire. Thus Ta-Koro’s strongest defense had proven to be its ultimate undoing. When the Ta-Matoran had returned to Ta-Wahi a few weeks earlier, there had been arguments both for and against trying to rebuild the village in its original location. The debate had however been cut short by the discovery that the Lake of Fire as they remembered it no longer existed: by plugging its source, the Tren Krom Break, the Bohrok swarms had caused the molten lava filling the lake to finally harden, a process that Kohrak swarms had accelerated, even as Pahrak levelled the lava walls that had surrounded the lake. But whilst most Ta-Matoran had interpreted this as the definitive sign that another location should be chosen, Turaga Vakama had thought differently. He had realized that, even if the Tren Krom Break had been severed and might never start flowing again now that the universe below, from which the Mangai Volcano clearly drew its energy, was nearing destruction, still the lava pockets scattered across Ta-Wahi might take years, if not decades, to fully cool, and the same would be true for the Lake of Fire. He had been right: when the Matoran had drilled through the hardened lava crust, they had discovered that molten material still lay below it. Vakama had thus ordered Nuhvok and Tahnok swarms to break through the lava crust along the lake’s outer perimeter, whilst leaving the central portion intact so that the new village could be built on top of it. The result had thus been a settlement built on a larger surface than the original Ta-Koro, surrounded by a ring of lava that was neither as hot, as wide nor as deep as the old Lake of Fire, but that would still provide some protection… and most of all, would supply the heat and the molten material that the Ta-Matoran needed for their work. And that lava supply had proven to be the new village’s fortune, allowing the Ta-Matoran to rapidly set up foundries that turned the lava collected by lava farmers into all sorts of items, tools and weapons. With so much work going on across the island as the new settlers attempted to rebuild their civilizations, such objects were in high demand across Mata Nui, providing Ta-Koro with an immediate source of income. Soon, the village’s prosperity had drawn in Ta-Matoran from other lands, as well as crafters and traders belonging to multiple Matoran tribes and some other species. Even the fact that many of these had been coopted to travel down to Metru Nui to work in the factories that were producing weapons and equipment for the war effort had not stopped Ta-Koro’s growth, turning it into a small city, with districts springing up far beyond the original perimeter of the Lake of Fire. Chief amongst the new arrivals had been the Matoran of Artakha, many of whom had accepted Vakama’s invitation to settle in Ta-Koro. Their incredibly advanced skills, and their willingness to share them, was allowing Ta-Koro’s manufacture to become even more advanced and diversified. And when the Onu-Ta-Koro Highway had been reopened and a pipe sent through to pump into the sea the protodermic compound used to create the floating platforms, Vakama had successfully lobbied for the pipe to remain operational even afterwards, so as to draw liquid protodermis from Metru Nui’s Silver Sea that could then be purified and used to craft Kanoka Disks and Kanohi Masks. Not everything had gone smoothly, however. With so many people of so many different origins congregating together, disputes were inevitable. Access to the Lake of Fire was proving a particularly problematic point of contention: given that most of the structures of Old Ta-Koro, as the island at the center of the lava lake was now known, belonged to Matoran from Metru Nui and from Artakha, a common accusation was that the latter had privileged access to Ta-Koro’s fundamental resource. It was this particular problem that had been at the heart of the dispute with the Ta-Matoran of the Eastern Islands, which had seen their Turaga take advantage of the fact that Vakama had been on Xia to claim authority over the whole city and order that some of the homes in Old Ta-Koro be ceded to his people. Kapura, whom Vakama had left in charge in his absence, had been reluctant to challenge a Turaga, but most of the Ta-Matoran from Metru Nui had been outraged by the suggestion and they had eventually pressured him into refusing the Turaga’s commands. Even now, weeks later, Kapura wasn’t sure how one thing had led to another; all he was sure of was that in the end the situation had degenerated and he had ordered the Ta-Koro Guard to expel the Eastern Islands Ta-Matoran from the city. That hadn’t been the end of their troubles, however, merely the beginning. The Eastern Islands Matoran had set up a rival fire village north of Ta-Koro and there had been several border disputes. They had also harassed traders headed for Ta-Koro, especially Av-Matoran, whose lightstone commerce mostly passed through the Fire city; and over the past few days, they had laid a claim to the port that the Ta-Koronans were building to expand their growing trade network, demanding that half the port’s revenues be turned over to them. Kapura had been unsure over how to respond. There were voices within Ta-Koro calling for an expedition to put an end to their troublemaking once and for all. Yet the rival settlement lacked the ability to be a real threat: they were significantly outnumbered and the Ta-Koro Guard was far stronger and more organized than their own military. And since Turaga Vakama also wished to avoid conflict, he had limited himself to sending guards to protect traders and re-affirm Ta-Koro’s boundaries and had mostly managed to keep the peace. Until the previous day, when everything had changed. Kapura had received upon waking the news that the Eastern Islands Matoran had occupied one of the sites where the Ta-Koronans were working to excavate a reservoir that would store the liquid protodermis pumped from Metru Nui, in anticipation of a time when the universe below might be no more and liquid protodermis might become far harder to come by. It had seemed a demonstrative gesture, little more, but Kapura had nevertheless taken a platoon of guards out to try and defuse the dispute. They had never made it to the site: instead, they had walked into an ambush. Eastern Islands Ta-Matoran had set upon their brethren, armed with projectile and energy weapons. The Ta-Koro Guard possessed those weapons too… Vakama had thought it wise to acquire some of them following their return to Mata Nui… but Kapura had not believed it necessary to take them along, so his own men, while more numerous that their attackers, had been armed mainly with spears, though they did have some Kanoka disks. Nevertheless, they had managed to fight their way out of the ambush and make for Ta-Koro. Along the way, they had been joined by the party of Ta-Matoran and Av-Matoran who had gone out to resupply the camps on the Ta-Wahi Beach floating platform and who had also been attacked. That had been when Kapura had first started to realize that something far more serious than a simple territorial dispute was going on. He had spent the rest of the day receiving reports of settlements near Ta-Koro being attacked and either occupied or torched. Sometimes the Eastern Islands Matoran were the culprits, sometimes the ones from the Western Islands who had by this time made their way from the floating platforms onto land. But other factions seemed to be involved too, the situation was still very unclear. Even Ta-Koro itself had seen trouble: one of the districts that had sprung up west of the old Lake of Fire had rioted, as the residents, or some of them anyway, had attempted to seize control of one of the lava canals that had been dug to harvest molten material from nearby volcanoes. Fortunately, they had not gone beyond that, but the situation was still very tense and in spite of Vakama’s attempts to negotiate the rioters still controlled the canal and most of their district. Where possible, Kapura had dispatched guards to try and repel the attackers, but success had been limited. Fortunately, his men had not yet suffered any casualties, or at least no confirmed ones, but several Matoran had gone missing during the clashes, possibly taken prisoner. In the meantime, people fleeing the clashes had begun filtering into Ta-Koro, looking for refuge. They had grown gradually more numerous as the day went by and had culminated around sunset with the arrival of the entire Av-Matoran tribe, who had asked for sanctuary and explained that a small army of Matoran and other beings had chased them out of their own town of Av-Koro. At the same time, unconfirmed rumors had started spreading of that same army now making for Ta-Koro. With the situation growing more and more serious, Vakama and Kapura had both welcomed Takanuva’s arrival from Kini-Nui; with the Toa of Light as mediator, they had been hoping that a truce might be agreed upon and negotiations opened to try and solve the dispute. But no sooner had the Toa of Light set out towards the other fire village than two wounded Onu-Matoran had come rushing out of the Onu-Ta-Koro Highway, shouting out confused tales of Nuhvok attacking them and of a Nuhvok swarm on the march for Ta-Koro. Kapura had been forced to assemble what guards he had left and march down the Highway in the hope of stopping the swarm from reaching Ta-Koro. With hindsight, it had been a hopeless venture: had someone in Ta-Koro not managed to call Takanuva back and send him after them, none of them would have lived through the night. The Great Beings must have smiled upon us, thought the Captain of the Guard. He started heading for Vakama’s hut; tired as he was after a day and a night constantly on the edge, he knew he had to deliver his report to the Turaga first. He was on the doorstep when another Ta-Matoran came hurrying towards him. “Kapura! You’re back. What happened? Were the Nuhvok really on their way here?” “They were,” replied Kapura, immediately recognizing Vultraz. “But Toa Takanuva reached us before the battle and he fought them off. What about you? Did anything happen while we were away?” “The night has been mostly peaceful. I’ve just returned from a scouting mission: so far, there’s no army approaching Ta-Koro from aboveground. But,” added Vultraz grimly, “we’ve received some bad news. Turaga Vakama has called a council… no doubt he’ll tell you about it himself.” He went inside and Kapura followed him. As Vultraz had anticipated, they were not Vakama’s only visitors. Several Matoran, not all of them affiliated with the fire element, were in attendance, representing Ta-Koro’s inhabitants, and two Av-Matoran, Kirop and Tanma, were also present. But everyone’s attention was focused on another figure, one that Kapura failed for a moment to identify. Then recognition came and with it surprise: for sitting on a stool, with a guard watching over him, was the Turaga of Fire from the Eastern Islands who had started the dispute between the two Ta-Matoran factions. He wasn’t looking good: his back was bent as if bearing a terrible weight, his eyes were slightly unfocused and his mask wore the signs of shock and desperation. What is he doing here? What’s happened? And if he’s here… who’s commanding his villagers right now? “Kapura,” broke in Vakama. “You have come back, then. Please, tell us what has transpired in the tunnels.” As everyone’s glances turned to rest upon him, Kapura gave Vakama a little bow and began his tale. He spoke synthetically but methodically, ensuring that his words were understood. Some of the listeners began displaying signs of impatience as he approached the end of his report, but Kapura had eyes only for Vakama and the Turaga never interrupted him. Only when he was done did Vakama finally speak: “Thank you for this report, Kapura. I believe we can trust Takanuva to protect us from the Nuhvok for the nonce; we do not need to devote guards to watch the tunnels. Let us therefore focus on what is happening outside our walls. You all know my fellow Turaga and I can imagine many of you have reasons to be angry with him. But I bid you to listen to his tale without interrupting; as you will hear, it has not been easy for him to bring it to us.” The Turaga from the Eastern Islands blinked and seemed for a moment not to understand he had been invited to speak. Then he said: “I… I’m not sure how to begin. You all know what happened when I first led my people to Ta-Koro. At the time, I thought only to do what was best for them… I did what I did because I felt they were not being treated justly. I might have been wrong about that, I realize it now…” He hesitated, then continued. “When we were expelled from Ta-Koro, I decided that the best course was to build our own settlement, but no sooner had we started building than some of my people started saying that we had not been treated justly, that we were being excluded from the resources that were making you rich… and so on. I won’t say I didn’t agree with them at times… but I would not condone acts of violence. When I discovered that Matoran from our village had started harassing traders and senselessly provoking clashes, I attempted to rein them in… but I gradually realized the more hot-headed amongst them were disobeying me. I never… ever… sanctioned their actions, you must believe me.” He paused again and then resumed once more. “I knew nothing of the ambush that some of them had planned: I found out only when they returned and started telling the tale. I challenged them then… but instead of backing down, they brought out those weapons of theirs. And they had support… far more than I would ever have imagined. They imprisoned me… but I wear the Kadin, the Noble Mask of Flight, and none of them thought to take it from me. When the night fell, I was able to trick them into letting me out of my prison for a moment and I used my mask power to escape. I knew then I had to get word to you, for I know who helped them now, who gave them those weapons: they could not help but boast about it when they imprisoned me.” He stopped again. He was shaking, from fear, or shame perhaps. “The Dark Hunters!” he finally blurted out. “Some of them made contact with the Dark Hunters. It was the Hunters who gave them their weapons. By now they have probably taken over my village.” He fixed fevered eyes upon them. “Not all of my people were involved, you must believe me! Most were forced to go along with this… they did not have weapons to fight back, after all. They are victims just as much as you are!” “Calm down,” said Vakama. “We understand. You should rest now. Don’t worry: we will do all in our power to spare your people from harm.” The Turaga hesitated, then walked out, escorted by his guard. Vakama closed his eyes as he watched him go, as if in pain. “Whilst you were in the tunnels, Kapura,” he then said, “a messenger from the Order of Mata Nui teleported here and confirmed what my fellow Turaga has just told us. The Dark Hunters are behind this: worse, they have now seized control of the Bohrok swarms. It is they who sent the Nuhvok against us and they are likely to try again. Takanuva will guard us from below, but we must expect an attack from the surface too.” “We went out scouting during the night,” said Vultraz. “We saw no armies on the way here, neither Matoran nor Bohrok. But we only covered the area near the beach. There are several swarms in the vicinity, digging lava canals, and if I’m not mistaken the Vortixx are also using Bohrok to help build their factory to the west. If the Bohrok have truly turned against us… they could come from any direction.” “Thank you, Vultraz,” said Vakama, though there was an edge to his voice. Kapura was not surprised: he knew that his Turaga did not fully trust Vultraz… but for once, he couldn’t help thinking that Vakama was wrong. Yes, Vultraz had done terrible things in the service of the Brotherhood of Makuta, but he had been a Shadow Matoran back then. After Takanuva had purified the Matoran from the effects of the Shadow Leeches, he had joined the Ta-Koro Guard and had proven indispensable ever since. His manners were somewhat too rushed for Kapura’s taste, but he was a formidable fighter and a good tactician. He was also brave and bold and was not afraid of taking the initiative: when the dispute with the Eastern Island Matoran had broken out, it had been Vultraz who had made Kapura realize that he couldn’t just bow to the foreign Turaga and needed to speak out for his own people. Kapura had named him his lieutenant after that and the choice had proven popular with the guards; Vakama himself had been less happy, but he had not overruled him. “If they do come,” continued the Turaga, “then we need to guard ourselves against treason as well. Yesterday’s riot… if Dark Hunter agents were involved, then that means the true reason behind it could be providing an attacker with a foothold inside Ta-Koro. You must…” But that was when another guard, Nurhii, came rushing in. “Turaga! There is a crowd rushing down from the slopes, from the west. They’re running towards the drawbridge!” Vultraz cursed. “Does this mean…?” “It has begun,” said Vakama. “Allow them in, we must give them shelter behind the walls of Old Ta-Koro. The two of you, go. Check out the enemy. Then come back, we must prepare the defense.” “I’ll come too,” said Tanma immediately. Vultraz was already rushing out and the Av-Matoran followed him. Kapura moved more slowly, knowing that running would not necessarily get him to his destination quickly. And as he had expected, the three of them reached the drawbridge crossing the Lake of Fire at the same time. Past the bridge, there was a slope to climb to emerge from the Lake of Fire’s basin. Then, once on top, the so-called New Ta-Koro, still only half-completed, began. Kapura, Vultraz and Tanma started moving along the perimeter of the Lake. Kapura had overtaken the other two now: moving calmly and slowly made it easier for him to slip through the throng of people fleeing the other way. And then he finally was on top of the lava tube that had once replenished the Lake of Fire. There were no buildings here, giving him a perspective on the entire city. He found the enemy immediately. There were some Matoran with them, as well as members of other species. He did not know how many of them were Dark Hunters. But what truly gave away the identity of most of their foes was the smoke, rising from countless burning buildings. And amidst the smoke he saw them, flames roaring out of their fire shields, numbering in the dozens, maybe in the hundreds: the Tahnok.
  9. There isn't much I can add to what has already been said. Takua's character development in MoL is mostly as you set it out, but the authors completely failed to take into account the fact that he had already become far more responsible and heroic in earlier years (we can see this especially in 2002, where, in the online animations, Takua takes the lead in the defense of both Le-Koro and Ga-Koro). In general, I must say that (unlike in 2004, where they truly nailed it with Vakama's character) the movie's authors did a pretty bad job with character building (though of course, it was nothing compared to the disaster of the Legend Reborn in 2009). It's not just Takua... Jaller also is portrayed in a completely different way compared to the previous years, where he was far more serious and formal. Of course, much of the blame can be attributed to the awful voiceovers (which also led to horrific mispronounciations such as "Jalla"). I think the general idea was to portray the Matoran so as to push kids to identify themselves with them... thus their more immature behavior (be it Jaller's or Takua's) and their young-sounding voices. Takanuva himself is also somewhat neglected in terms of character development. From the moment of his transformation it just seems as if he is following the path that destiny has set out... no attempt is truly made to explain why he does certain things (why does he keep the Toa Nuva from joining him? why does he then have Hahli summon the Matoran? and so on...) and what is going on inside his head when he does. I must say, however, that the authors did get one thing right: the scene of Jaller's sacrifice and Takua's transformation is one of the most fantastic moments of BIONICLE as a whole. That scene, at least, is in continuity with the previous years: Takua's transformation is the culmination of the process that began in 2001 and makes perfect sense seen in that light. I wasn't on BZP back then, so I don't know how many people had figured out the Toa of Light's true identity before the movie came out... but I'd dare speculate that even those who were expecting it must have found it immensely satisfying to actually see it happen.
  10. Interesting reading, as always. The original concept of the Toa Kaita, as you describe it, does seem somewhat more elaborate than the final version. I should add that, were it not from the touch-and-go appearance of Wairuha Nuva in 2003 (which was basically put thrown in the comics, and then reprised by Hapka, to publicize the combo sets for the Toa Nuva and the Bohrok-Kal, without devoting much effort to it), there would be nothing in the canon version of the story to contradict it. Even more interesting is the section on the Turaga Nui. In my opinion, never featuring the Turaga Nui in the official storyline was a colossal waste: such a character had so much potential! I do wonder what the original plans for the Turaga Nui were (maybe you'll be writing about that in the Turaga chapter... I can't wait to read it) and why they were scrapped. On the other hand, I'm not sure the issue of the Golden Kanohi means much. Personally, I'd prefer to go with the simpler explanation (which you acknowledged as well): the 2002 (and end of 2001) material featuring the Toa without Golden masks was created because the sets don't have them and they later modified some of it to be coherent with the story. I honestly don't think the authors ever meant the Toa to lose their Golden masks at the end of 2001 (it seems a bit limited for the Golden masks to be used only for the creation of the Kaita)... at the most, they didn't think it through when the 2002 material was developed.
  11. I must admit, I really thought you had given up on the epic, this time. Good to know you're still working on it. I won't deny I'm hoping the lapses between chapters to be somewhat shorter from now on... though of course, it's obvious that work/family/real life come first. Three-Finger Island... not bad, definitely didn't see that coming (considering that it was never featured in any canon medium, not even in 2001-2003), but I appreciated the choice. Though at this point I wonder how long the journey to the Eastern Continent will be... you've always been consistent with time, so I wonder how many chapters it'll take. I must say that the Takua sections of the last few chapters were starting to look somewhat uneventful. This is different, of course, given the scene where Illum's message reaches Takua (I'm not very clear as to how it happened, though I suppose that will be explained later; I'm also waiting to see if what the Toa did a few chapters back will have any effect), though I do hope the consequences won't take too long to emerge. Turning to the Ta-Koro portion... to begin with, I think it is the best-described village of the six. In general, I've loved your idea to enlarge the villages and turn them into cities of sorts and with Ta-Koro I'd say the idea has worked particularly well. As for the whole Illum issue, I'll be waiting to see how it all works out before passing judgement.
  12. FORTY-THREE The Skakdi army was breaking. It was not yet broken: plenty of warriors were still fighting fearlessly, roaring out their defiance and utterly refusing to retreat, determined to fall rather than flee. Had they been able to marshal all their fellow fighters, they might even have managed to turn the battle around. But a continuous barrage of fire and acid jets was shooting out of the enemy lines, leaving no respite, no chance to regroup. And the two Toa who stood in the midst of the incoming Bohrok swarms seemed to know in advance where each nucleus of resistance would coalesce: time and time again a warrior would rally a few more to his side, only to be immediately attacked and overwhelmed. Meanwhile, more and more Skakdi were deserting the front line, retreating or fleeing altogether towards the top of the hill. And no refuge was to be found there, either: the warriors who had been besieged mere moments earlier had now launched a sortie. The Skakdi were trapped between two foes. So why do I feel so uneasy? thought Varian, even as she led the Bohrok upwards, side by side with Kopaka. The battle is going our way, yet I know something is wrong. But what? It was a strange feeling and one she just couldn’t shake off. It had been there at the battle’s beginning, when she had used her illusion power first to cloak the Tahnok infiltrating the Skakdi rearguard and then to inflate their numbers and cause panic amongst their adversaries. At the time, she had believed the problem might be that she had been doing all this without actually taking part in the battle itself. After all, it just didn’t feel right to watch from the sidelines whilst her fellow Toa risked their lives… and had she not grown dramatically aware of her own limits after the Dark Hunters had captured her, that thought that would have quickly led her to wade into the battle until she was once more side by side with her brothers. In fact, Varian in the end had waded into the battle… she had been forced to do so when the Skakdi had launched their counteroffensive, threatening to destroy the Tahnok swarm. Even then, the unease had persisted. And it had not left her even when she had managed to strike with one of her sleep Rhotuka the blue Skakdi lieutenant leading the attack, nor when Kopaka Nuva and his Lehvak swarm had slammed into the Skakdi flank, once more turning the battle around. Thinking back, the feeling had first started nagging her when Turaga Dume had appeared and told them what was happening across the island. Varian stole a telepathic glance towards the top of the nearby hill where, almost at the limit of her perception, the Turaga of Fire and his teleporting escort were watching the battle. Was it what the Turaga had said? Or something else entirely? I simply can’t figure it out. I should just ignore it… distraction in battle can be fatal. Fortunately, her unease, persistent though it might be, wasn’t strong enough to truly disrupt her concentration. Ever since linking up with Kopaka, Varian had been successfully using her power to befuddle the minds of the Skakdi attempting to fight back. She left the rest up to the Bohrok… and to Kopaka Nuva himself. Moving gracefully and silently, the Toa of Ice was amazing to watch: the winds of winter went before him, obeying his every gesture, their cold touch freezing every rain-drenched foe they passed over. Even Varian could not help but shiver each time she caught Kopaka’s icy gaze. A telepathic flash alerted her of a foe aiming her weapon at the Toa of Ice: acting quickly, she knocked her unconscious with a sleep spinner. Distracted, she almost didn’t see a tan Skakdi target her with his eyebeams, but her Kanohi Calix moved faster than her mind and allowed her to somersault out of the way. The Skakdi wouldn’t get another chance to strike: Kopaka was already leveling his blade at him, a blast of ice already forming on its tip… but suddenly, without any explanation, the Toa of Ice staggered. The tan Skakdi didn’t hesitate: twin energy beams surged from his eyes and struck the Toa of Ice, dissolving a portion of his breast plate and knocking him flat onto his back. Varian unleashed a telekinetic blast, hurling him backwards… And then everything went still. Silence fell, the falling rain the only sound still to be heard. And it was not just a physical silence, but a telepathic one as well. It took Varian a moment to realize why. Throughout the battle, she had felt a constant buzz coming from Bohrok, as the Krana continuously received and sent messages out to each other and to the Bahrag queens, far away in Kini-Koro. Now that was gone. The Krana were mute… and Tahnok and Lehvak alike had gone completely still, frozen in their tracks. Startled, the Skakdi had stopped too. But their shock lasted only a few seconds: then a savage cry of triumph went up. Projectiles and energy blasts screamed through the air, headed for the two Toa… but never reached them. Wounded though he might be, Kopaka was still conscious and the Kanohi Hau Nuva had materialized on his face, wrapping him and Varian in a protective energy field. The Toa of Ice struggled to his feet, his mind ablaze with pain. “The Bahrag…” he muttered. “Something’s happened to the Bahrag.” Varian was about to rush forward to support him when another flash of pain surged through her mind. But this didn’t come from Kopaka. In fact, for a moment she could not trace it. And then her sense of unease came rushing back into her and she knew where it had come from. “It’s not just the Bahrag, Kopaka! Something’s happening on the other hill. The Turaga… Turaga Dume is in danger!” Kopaka breathed in sharply and staggered, his knees almost buckling. Around them, the shield he had created wavered for a moment. That was all the Skakdi needed: the bombardment resumed and an instant later the forcefield shattered entirely. The warriors rushed forwards, hands brandishing their weapons, savage smiles on their faces… “STOP!” The roar came from behind the Skakdi. A moment later, Varian glimpsed amidst the darkness another Skakdi walking forward and realized he was the lieutenant who had led the counteroffensive against the Tahnok. Knocked unconscious by her Rhotuka spinner, he had clearly recovered. “Surrender!” the blue Skakdi told the two Toa. “Do so and we shall not harm you.” “What?” growled another Zakaz native. “Why should we…?” He got no further than that. The blue Skakdi vaulted forward and sent him sprawling. “He saved your life, you fool. And mine. He saved all our lives, or have you forgotten that?” Varian blinked, astonished, but even amidst his pain Kopaka’s astonishment was even greater. And yet it was true, though even the Toa of Ice himself had failed to consider it. Without Kopaka, none of these Skakdi would ever have escaped Zakaz. He had saved them, every single one of them. And the Skakdi knew it. They lowered their weapons, though some did so more reluctantly than the others. Varian opened her mouth to speak, but a series of renewed telepathic flashes stopped her. Kopaka, she whispered telepathically. There’s fighting on the other hill, I’m sure of it! The Turaga… And Kopaka gave her his answer: an orb of energy flew from his blade, rising into the sky and then arching down until it touched the other hill… and in its wake a staircase of pure ice formed. For a moment, Varian could only stare at the incredible display of power. The Skakdi, too, were startled; some raised their weapons once more, but Kopaka’s voice, suddenly clear and loud, froze them in place: “I surrender!” Go. Varian went. Before the Skakdi could realize it, she was gone, climbing the staircase as fast as she could. She could feel the mind of the teleporter on the other hill: it was him who was fighting. But fighting who? A moment later, there was a flash of pain and she knew that the teleporter’s foe had won the fight. She could feel his mind now, strangely familiar. He was advancing on Turaga Dume. Varian would not get there in time. Unless… oh, I really am a fool! At her behest, a Rhotuka spinner materialized in her shield’s embedded launcher and Varian immediately stepped upon it. Riding the wheel of energy, she shot through the sky, aiming for the top of the hill. In the darkness she could not see Dume and his aggressor, but she could feel them both, and both felt familiar. And then Varian landed on the muddy ground between them and found herself facing a huge Muaka tiger, snarling and crouching, ready to spring. But she saw it immediately: the mind animating it was no Muaka’s. It was a far more intelligent and devious consciousness… and at last, recognition dawned upon her. “You!” she screamed. And then the Muaka was shapeshifting, assuming a different form. In the darkness, Varian could only glimpse its outlines, but she recognized it. She had seen it only once before, but she would never forget it, for it had been her last sight for thousands of years. Just as she would always recall the feeling of horror and betrayal she had felt then. “We meet again, Toa,” smiled the Dark Hunter. “Though I fear I cannot recall your name.” “Varian!” the Toa of Psionics growled. “And you… you called yourself ‘Grey’, remember? But your name, your true name, was Triglax. I will never forget that name.” “I’m glad to hear it,” chucked Triglax. “I should have guessed we would meet again. Last time, I brought you back to the Shadowed One as a trophy. It’ll be my utmost pleasure to do so again.” The words merely fanned her rage. She could remember it all, crystal clear. Triglax had been the Dark Hunter who, thousands of years earlier, had lured her and her friend Norik into the trap that had led to her imprisonment. The shapeshifter had masqueraded as a Toa of Sonics back then: his true identity had been revealed only at the very end, instants before she was put in stasis. And now she understood where her unease had come from. Triglax had been there all along, transformed into an insect and riding on Turaga Dume’s shoulder. Varian had subconsciously perceived him and had instinctively known something was wrong. Even so, she had almost been too late. But I’m not. And this time it is my turn! Before Triglax could react, Varian had him in her telepathic grip and slammed him into a nearby rock wall, once, then twice. “You won’t find me as easy a target as last time,” she hissed. Then she fired a sleep Rhotuka. A moment before it struck, the Dark Hunter vanished. It took Varian a moment to realize that he had used his shapeshifting power to turn into a much smaller creature. That moment almost cost her the duel. A giant claw erupted from beneath her feet and only her Kanohi Calix allowed her to dodge it in time. The rest of Triglax followed, as he shapeshifted into a towering colossus. Armed with this new, powerful form, Triglax lunged at Varian, but the Toa of Psionics dodged again and again. When she glimpsed his shape beginning to blur, she was ready: a devastating mental blast tore through Triglax’s mind. For a moment, his form became completely indistinct, before slowly coalescing back into the Dark Hunter’s own appearance. Varian advanced upon him, keeping her Rhotuka shield pointed at him. “I can do this as many times as I need,” she said. “Surrender or I’ll be only too happy to blast your brain out of existence.” Triglax shook his head. “Once again, Toa, you fail to understand my power. And once again it will cost you this battle.” Too late, Varian glimpsed from his mind what he was about to do. Before she could react, Triglax threw himself sideways. There was a ledge nearby and the Dark Hunter went straight over it and plunged below. A moment later, he rose again, his shape now similar to that of a Nui-Rama. Gaining height, he flew out of the range of Varian’s powers; then he dived, using this Rahi’s particular ability to hurl its stingers at its foes. Protected by a telekinetic shield, Varian was about to attack in turn when in the blink of an eye Triglax turned into an Odina Cliff Screecher. Moving so fast that Varian barely saw him, he caught her in his claws and lifted her upwards. It took only a moment for Varian to decide what to do. In this shape, Triglax was ascending so fast that to use her power against him now would mean a dangerous and painful fall. But sooner or later he was going to let her go anyway. Better for it to be sooner. A mind blast radiated out of her, striking her foe. His concentration disrupted, he dropped her. Varian instantly called upon both her mask and elemental power to slow her fall, but she still came down hard. She tried to rise, but the pain held her down… and she could feel Triglax coming for her. The Dark Hunter crashed into Varian a moment later. This time his shape was large and muscled and he used his strength to knock her shield out of her hand and pin her to the ground. His fingers latched onto her mask and lifted it off; without a Kanohi, a Toa’s power was halved. “It’s over, Toa. I’ve won and once I’ve dealt with the Turaga, I’ll take you back with me to the fortress. Your stasis tube is still waiting for you.” Varian didn’t answer, her eyes wide. “No last words? Well, never mind. Coming from a Toa, they wouldn’t be very memorable anyway.” He raised a fist, ready to knock her unconscious. And then Varian vanished. A moment later, a telepathic grip closed around Triglax’s throat, cutting off his air. He tried to shapeshift, but the grip intensified, so strong that he could not muster the concentration. “You’ve underestimated me, Triglax,” whispered Varian. She wasn’t sure how, amidst the pain caused by the fall, she had managed to create such a powerful and convincing illusion. Perhaps it had been merely luck. Perhaps her anger had given her enough strength. All that mattered was the result. “And this will be the last mistake you ever make.” That said, she pushed him to the ground and increased her power, crushing him against the rock. “You… can’t…” managed to say Triglax. “Can’t I?” shouted Varian. The fury was upon her, a fury the likes of which she had never known. The last moment before her imprisonment kept playing out before her. The next time she had opened her eyes had been millennia later. And Triglax was responsible for it all. “You robbed me of thousands of years. Now you’ll pay for it! Pay it with your life!” The Dark Hunter had lost consciousness now. A bit more power and he would be gone forever. Varian called upon her last strength… “Toa Varian!” The voice was Turaga Dume’s. The words stopped her in mid-gesture. “What are you doing? Remember who you are, Toa Varian. Remember what you fight for. No matter what he has done to you, you cannot lower yourself to this. Leave it to him and those like him!” Varian blinked. She stared at Triglax for a moment, then realized what she had just said, what she had almost done. She had been on the edge of an abyss, but somehow Dume’s words had broken through her rage and pulled her back at the very last moment. The Toa of Psionics cut off her power, allowing Triglax to collapse to the ground. Then she stood above him, still breathing hard. “Toa Varian.” “Turaga… Turaga, I’m…” “Nothing needs to be said,” Dume told her. “You suffered much at that Dark Hunter’s hands and occasionally we are all tempted to let our rage get the better of us. You made that mistake, but you stopped yourself before going too far. That is all that matters.” He turned to Triglax. “I must ask you to read his mind. Can you do it? The Dark Hunter was obviously here to kill me. We need to know why.” Varian’s powers weren’t at their peak, but she nodded. It took her only a few moments. But when she found what she was looking for, she did not speak immediately. Dread went through her, as she realized the implications. But there was no surprise… none at all. “Well?” prompted Dume. Varian slowly turned to face him. And when Dume saw her face, he found the answer written there, an answer he had known all along. And he then knew that the fear that had plagued him ever since the formation of the Alliance had finally come true. And on the hill next to their own, the Bohrok started stirring. But the will that drove them now had a new master. ----- The building that had housed the Bahrag lay in ruins. The attackers had dealt tremendous punishment to the structure: the roof had completely caved in, as had a wall. Yet as she stood in the rain, shining a lightstone over the ruin, Helryx realized immediately that there had been no senseless aggression behind the devastation, merely cold calculation: the building’s destruction had been the fastest and surest way to disable the wards and devices the Order had embedded in the walls to make it teleportation-proof. She glanced across the plaza. What had started as a light shower had now become a veritable downpour that was turning the beaten earth streets into torrents of mud and had transformed the plaza into an expanse of water and marshy soil. The weather, and possibly the presence of the squadron of Maxilos robots that had arrived onto the scene shortly after the attack, had quickly chased the residents back indoors. Not that they were asleep: the attack on the Bahrag had been loud enough to be heard all across Kini-Koro and besides, Helryx could see light filtering out of most houses. They’ll be huddling indoors, possibly with neighbors, anxiously worrying what the future will bring… well aware that they’re all but powerless to do anything about it. It was not a sensation the Toa of Water was used to. As leader of the Order of Mata Nui, Helryx wielded an awesome power and had done so for millennia. She was well conscious of its limits and had more than once been confronted with disastrous failure… but never, not even when the Great Spirit had died, had she felt completely powerless, unable to do anything to influence the situation. Nor was she powerless now… and, in fact, that knowledge made this latest crisis even more frustrating, for Helryx knew that the Order most likely could have done something to prevent it, and hadn’t. A flash of lightning lit up the sky, shedding light for a moment on the building and illuminating the shapes of the Bohrok Kaita that had been guarding the building. Some were frozen in place, others sprawled onto the ground, but not a single one of them was moving. Yet none were displaying signs of damage. “Remove the Krana of every Bohrok near the building,” the Toa of Water ordered. A pair of Maxilos robots immediately hastened to obey. “Do you really think the Bohrok pose a danger, Toa Helryx?” asked Krakua, who was standing close by. The Toa of Sonics had been at the Kini-Koro Order compound when the attack had begun and had led the Maxilos robots to the scene as fast as possible… yet that still had not been fast enough. “The Bahrag were teleported away,” replied Helryx, “kidnapped, in practice. Whoever has done this could have only two purposes: either to destroy them, and thus disable the Bohrok permanently… or to sway them, willing or not, to their side, so as to gain control over the swarms. And in the latter case, the Bohrok might become our enemies any moment now.” “And who…?” Helryx gave him a sad, grim smile. “You know the answer to that question as much as I do, Krakua. There are only two possible culprits.” And I do not know which would be worse. The operation had clearly been prepared with painstaking accuracy. If the Brotherhood of Makuta was involved, it meant that they had managed to infiltrate several agents on Mata Nui without no one catching wind of it. It was bad enough for the Order to have a spy in its ranks that, in spite of all their efforts, they had been unable to identify; but this would take the security breach to a whole new level. But there was another option, a far more dreadful one, yet also far more likely. The way the kidnapping had been executed, the long time the attackers must have spent on Mata Nui in order to plan it… it all pointed in one direction. It is time to find out. In a few moments, she would send Krakua to interrogate the nearby residents and discover what they had seen. But there was a faster way to learn the truth. The Toa of Water stepped inside the ruins. It did not take her long to locate the spot where the attackers must have stood. Then she placed her palm against the ground and activated her Kanohi of Psychometry. Unfocused images started flashing before her eyes. Helryx concentrated, willing them to take form. Normally, touching an object would be enough for her Kanohi to show her its past, but in this case she was attempting something more difficult, actually willing the floor to remember who had stood upon it. In a more crowded place, her efforts would have been futile. But not many people had visited the Bahrag over the last few weeks… and the events of the past hour were still clearly imprinted in the rock. When she emerged, her expression was grim. “There is no time to lose,” she told Krakua. “It is as I feared: the Dark Hunters did this. We must…” And then suddenly a thunderbolt crossed the sky and in its light she glimpsed Krakua’s eyes widen, saw him spring forward, heard him shout desperately: “Look out!” ----- Crouched behind a wall that bordered a portion of the plaza and cloaked in the power of her Kanoka Disk of Concealment, Lariska watched Helryx teleport into the plaza. The leader of the Order spoke for a moment to the teleporter who had accompanied her and who now nodded and took a step back; then she turned to Toa Krakua, who had come rushing into the plaza at the head of a Maxilos robot squadron less than half an hour earlier, drawn by the noise of the Dark Hunters’ attack on the Bahrag’s building. The Shadowed One was right, then. It had been the Dark Hunters’ leader who had commanded that she remain behind, whilst the rest of the strike force was to teleport back to the fortress along with the captive Bahrag. The Shadowed One had reasoned that Helryx would want to inspect in person the site of the attack. He had been correct. And now Lariska was to assassinate her. The Shadowed One was conscious that Helryx was right now his most dangerous enemy. Should she be allowed to survive, she would be able to rally the Order of Mata Nui and coordinate the resistance to the Dark Hunters’ takeover… and the only window to take her out was this, before she could return to the impregnable Order of Mata Nui fortress. Given the task’s importance, Lariska, the most talented assassin the Dark Hunters had at their disposal, had been the obvious choice to carry it out. That it would be difficult, not to mention dangerous, Lariska was well aware. She had killed many Toa throughout her career, but she knew that Helryx stood apart from them all. She could easily remember the sight of the watery colossus that the Order leader had evoked when she had confronted the airships carrying the Dark Hunters to Mata Nui… a display of raw power than few, if any, of the Toa Lariska had previously fought would have been able to match, and with great difficulty at that. The Maxilos robots were also not to be underestimated: as powerful as Exo-Toa, but more agile and with a far more advanced artificial intelligence. Should the squadron in the plaza corner her, Lariska would have no chance at all of emerging victorious. But the challenge, alone, would not have frightened her. In fact, Lariska relished it. The meticulous planning, the thrill of risk, the struggle of a hard-fought battle, the achievement of the perfect technique, the glory of success… this was what life was all about! And this assassination could easily be the coronation of her career, the triumph of her ability. Why should she fear such a mission rather than embrace it? And yet she was not embracing it at all. From the moment the Shadowed One had given her the task, Lariska had started to have doubts. It was not hard, after all, to imagine the outcome. The Order of Mata Nui had never known leader other than Helryx. Her death would deal them a severe blow, leaving them fragmented and disorganized, and they would thus be unable to mount a serious resistance to the Dark Hunters’ takeover of Mata Nui. But couldn’t the Shadowed One see the effect this would have down in the universe below, where Order of Mata Nui and Dark Hunters were at the core of the army defending the Metru Nui sea gates? The Order’s weakening would cripple those defenses at a crucial time, for everyone knew that the Brotherhood of Makuta attack was days, if not hours, away. And the masters of shadow would not be slow to realize it. Lariska scowled silently, trying to banish such thoughts. The opportunity to strike would present itself in moments. She needed to remain perfectly mission-focused, allowing nothing to disrupt her concentration. And yet it couldn’t be helped: for possibly the first time ever, she was feeling truly, deeply reluctant to carry out an assassination. It was a strange sensation. Throughout her life, she had seldom bothered to worry about the consequences of her actions. Now she simply couldn’t stop doing so. Why? What’s so different this time? But the truth was that she knew. She didn’t want to confess it, not even to herself, but she knew exactly where the problem lay. It had all started with the raid on that Brotherhood fortress, the one that had plucked the Nynrah Ghosts from the grasp of the Makuta. During that raid, Order agents had, for the first time, fought side-by-side with Dark Hunters… and had managed to win Lariska’s respect. And somehow, since then, that respect had not worn away. More and more often, Lariska had found herself contemplating the future and wondering whether a peaceful coexistence with such admirable beings might be so impossible after all… or even, with time, a truly common society. And since the Shadowed One had revealed his intention to shatter the Alliance and take the island over, she had kept hoping against hope that he would change his mind before it was too late. I could have done more. I should have killed him there and then. But she hadn’t, of course. On the contrary, she had complied with his every command, helping carry out his strategy and trying to stifle her growing doubts. That was something else she could not explain. She had fantasized about killing the Shadowed One and taking the Dark Hunters over for millennia and the conditions had all been there: with the Brotherhood soon to attack, the Shadowed One’s gamble had struck many Dark Hunters as being far too dangerous… they might have welcomed a change of leadership and few would have been bold enough to challenge her. But in the end, she had not managed to nerve herself to do it. Had she been unable to throw off the discipline that the organization ingrained in every Hunter? Had she unconsciously felt that the Shadowed One was beyond her abilities to kill? Or could it be that she secretly respected, even admired him, and that even his latest, mad gamble had not managed to fully destroy her confidence in his leadership? She could not be sure. She only knew that she here, now, and that it was too late to turn back. Her pride would not allow it. Her vocation remained that of a professional killer. She would not shirk away from an assassination, never. She saw Helryx walk into the ruined building and clasped the weapons she had selected. Given the choice, Lariska preferred to dispatch a foe in close combat using her daggers… but one of the first rules of her profession was to adapt to the situation and to take every step necessary to ensure the assassination’s success. Outnumbered and outpowered, Lariska could not hope to prevail in close combat. Nor could she fail to account for her target’s characteristics; Helryx was not only extremely powerful, she was also quite sturdy: during the battle of Metru Nui, she had reportedly taken the full brunt of a Makuta’s powers and still managed to survive and take him down singlehandedly. So in the end, Lariska’s primary choice had been a crossbow, equipped with a protosteel arrow. The arrow’s tip was razor-sharp: no armor or shield would hinder it. And should Lariska miss a vital spot, it would not matter: the arrow had been dipped in the most lethal poison ever developed by the Dark Hunters and even the lightest wound would prove deadly in less than a minute. No matter how advanced the Order’s medical abilities were, they would be powerless against this substance. And to finish the job and ensure success, Lariska would fire the Cordak blaster the strike team had used earlier to demolish the Bahrag’s building. Again, chaotic, explosive killing was not her style, but the situation required it: the Cordak rockets were very powerful, a direct hit by one or more would be virtually impossible to survive, and the explosions would also scatter the Maxilos robots and make it easier for Lariska to get away. Helryx emerged from the building. Lariska took aim. The Toa of Water started saying something to Krakua. Then, suddenly, a thunderbolt crossed the sky. Lariska triggered the crossbow. “Look out!” Krakua’s scream split the air. Somehow, the Toa of Sonics managed to fling himself in front of Helryx. The arrow took him in the shoulder. Curses! Krakua’s body slammed into Helryx and the Toa of Water tumbled to the ground. Impossible to miss. Lariska aimed the Cordak blaster and fired all six rockets. An explosion rocked the plaza, shattering Helryx’s lightstone and plunging everything in darkness. The Maxilos robots were moving now, rushing towards Lariska’s position and firing their own Cordak blasters, but Lariska was still invisible and had started moving the moment the last rocket had taken off, following the escape route that she had studied beforehand. She halted after a few minutes, wiped rainwater from her eyes and stared back the way she had come. It was very dark, but she was equipped with a small optical implant that gifted her a decent night vision. There seemed to be no robots gaining on her. The Concealment Kanoka had clearly done its work, though its power had now worn off. Lariska allowed herself a small smile. She didn’t know how Krakua had detected her: she had known he would most likely be with Helryx and had hence equipped herself with an telepathy-hamming device, but perhaps she had made some noise that the acute hearing of a Toa of Sonics could perceive. It hardly mattered. The Cordak blaster would have finished both him and Helryx, the Toa of Water had had no time to call upon her elemental powers. Now all that remained was getting to the safe house that was waiting for her at the border of Kini-Koro, where the plateau gave way to the first slopes. Should the Order manage to track her there, she could easily make her escape into the mountains and wait there until a Dark Hunter force arrived to occupy the area. She took a step forward… and then an almost imperceptible whistle reached her ears, the sound of something slicing through the air, heading straight for her. There was no time to think: Lariska dived to the ground, even as the blade passed above her, missing her by a hair’s breadth; then flipped back to her feet, a dagger already in hand. And that was when she beheld her ebon-armored attacker. Of course. I suppose I deserve this. Johmak lunged again, swinging her razor-edged shield effortlessly. Lariska flipped away, then threw her dagger straight at the Order agent’s chest. It pierced Johmak’s body and went through effortlessly, leaving a cloud of black crystalline shards in its wake. But instead of scattering, the crystals flew back into the gap left by the dagger, erasing in less than a second any trace of its passage. “Very interesting power you have,” grinned Lariska. “I noticed it from the very first moment I met you.” Johmak didn’t reply. Instead, she swung her weapon again. Lariska jumped back, but Johmak’s arm became a tentacle of dark crystals and stretched towards her, forcing Lariska to somersault out of the way. She did not land again: a huge hand made up of grainy crystals closed around her. Lariska immediately swung her new dagger, slicing through the hand’s fingers and causing it to lose its grip, though once again no damage was done. Johmak was upon her the moment she touched down, swinging her shield again… only to be parried, not by a dagger, but by a blade Lariska had drawn from her back. Her other hand, the mechanical one, held a dagger, and Lariska immediately threw it. It pierced Johmak’s wrist, only for it to explode into crystals… but for a moment the shield’s pressure slackened. Lariska’s blade swung immediately straight for Johmak’s mid-section. It made contact… and a layer of ice washed upon the Order agent’s body, preventing the crystals from separating. Johmak grunted as the blade cut into her, leaving a deep gash. “Unfortunately for you,” smiled Lariska, “I have been thinking about how to counter your power ever since our raid together. And I knew you were still on Mata Nui… and that hence I might have to fight you tonight.” Again, Johmak didn’t reply, merely stared at her coldly. Then she raised her free hand towards Lariska and a jet of crystals erupted out, aiming for the Dark Hunter’s eyes. Caught by surprise, Lariska lurched back, but not quite fast enough. Johmak swung her shield, cutting a gash in the assassin’s thigh. Then the Order agent dissolved into a black shard cloud and washed upon Lariska. The Dark Hunter found herself besieged by Johmak’s substance: the razor-edged shield reformed behind her and swung towards her unprotected back, even as grainy tendrils tried to wrap themselves around her arms, legs and throat. But no attack succeeded. Lariska swung around and parried the shield with her blade, even as she slashed through the tendrils with a dagger, forcing them to dissolve once more. Johmak tried again, but Lariska spun around, countering every assault as fast as the Order agent could unleash them. Then she jumped, somersaulting out of the black cloud, and turned once more to face her opponent. “What’s the point in still fighting?” she asked. “Your leader is dead. Join us… a fighter as talented as you would have a place in the Dark Hunters. We both have a common enemy to face, haven’t we?” “You should tell your leader,” replied Johmak icily. Lariska smiled sadly. So true. And then the two of them were at each other again, locked in frenzied fighting as the rain cascaded around them. Johmak lunged with her shield and substance, only for Lariska to parry every assault. The Dark Hunter swung her freeze-powered Kanoka Blade again and lashed out with kicks and daggers, only for Johmak to dissolve into crystals before each attack hit. Neither managed to inflict any more wounds, neither was able to gain an advantage. Time and time again one of them found an opening… and time and time again found herself countered. I was right to respect you, my friend, thought Lariska. Now this is a fight! Her chance came when she parried another swing of Johmak’s. Using the Kanoka Blade to keep her opponent’s shield away, she threw a dagger straight at Johmak’s face, causing it to explode into crystals. And then she was drawing back her blade, ready to place the flat upon Johmak’s neck stump, so as to freeze it and prevent her opponent’s head from reforming. That would effectively behead her, thus… And then something punched into her back, something small. Lariska gasped, only to be hit again. This time, she felt her body being pierced. And then she was screaming pain, as more projectiles cascaded onto her. She collapsed to the ground and rolled around, trying to spot the source of the bullets… No, not the bullets. The rain. The last thing she saw was Helryx was looming upon her, her eyes burning with fury, her power flowing out to turn raindrops into protosteel-hard projectiles. Then darkness claimed her and Lariska saw no more.
  13. Really amazing, congratulations for the discovery. Is there any chance more chapters of the book could be recovered? After all, lots of things happened in Invasion that are still regarded as canon: from Makuta taking over Matoro’s body (I imagine he’s the enemy in the Introduction), to the second battle with Vezon, to the Zyglak and so on... it wouldn’t be bad to recover it (if it even exists... I have no idea how far along GregF was with Invasion before it got cancelled) .
  14. Chapter 42 is now online. Hope you enjoy it. The next one will come eventually, though most likely not before November. Thanks. Your compliments might almost persuade me to forgive you for posting in the story topic... (Just kidding, of course. It's no problem at all.)
  15. FORTY-TWO The dungeons of the Dark Hunters’ new fortress were only a fraction of the size of the old ones on Odina. After all, when the stronghold’s construction had begun, they had hardly been a priority: the Dark Hunters had arrived on Mata Nui with virtually no prisoners, having either slaughtered or abandoned to their fate the captives that had been imprisoned on Odina, and the Shadowed One had ordered that efforts be concentrated on the fortress’s defenses, especially following Lewa Nuva’s daring raid. Only a single corridor had been devoted to the prison cells that would eventually house the organization’s new captives… and in the beginning, those cells had mostly lingered empty. Not completely: as the Dark Hunters worked to keep their allies in line and broker deals with the myriad of factions, prisoners had come and gone; after all, the abduction of leaders who might require ‘persuading’ and the taking of hostages were key aspects of the organization’s negotiating strategies. But in the first few weeks the Shadowed One had ordered his operatives to keep a low profile and avoid any excessively blatant kidnappings. All that had now changed. Over the last day or so, the organization had begun clearing the way for its new campaign, which entailed kidnapping and bringing a whole new host of prisoners. When the leader of the Dark Hunters reached the bottom of the dungeons’ staircase, he was therefore unsurprised to find the prison’s corridor crowded with blindfolded captives being crammed into the cells. The guards were being none too gentle about it: any prisoner who tried to protest or resist would be savagely beaten and possibly scheduled for an additional session of torment. When the Dark Hunter leader appeared, his subordinates immediately slammed the prisoners against the walls to make a path for him. The Shadowed One spared no glance for the captives’ suffering; in another situation, he would have taken time to visit some of the prison cells and decide whether a prisoner should be threatened, tortured, released or executed, but today timing was critical. Walking quickly, he reached the door at the end of the corridor and passed through. He found himself in a natural cavern, lit by great flames. The Dark Hunters had discovered this space while building the fortress and the Shadowed One had decided to incorporate it into the dungeons. Back then, it had been dark and silent; now it was lit by great flames and alive with the sound of screams, weeping and begging. For a moment, even his task’s urgency could not prevent the Shadowed One from stopping to admire the sight that lay before him: the new torture chamber, at least, had nothing to envy the old one on Odina. Here, more than anywhere, he could perceive the power that lay within his hands: the screaming prisoners that were being tormented using the torture devices spread across the floor were completely at his mercy, a mere word from him could free them, sentence them to death or subject them to indescribable agony. They knew it too: the captives that in the cages hanging from the ceiling where awaiting their turn had turned their eyes upon him the moment he had come in, knowing that their fate depended completely and solely on him. The Shadowed One met the eyes of the Matoran of Plasma who some time before had so bravely denounced him in the congress: now all that he could see in his eyes was terror. Dweller fell in behind him as he made his way across the chamber: in a short while, he was going to join the strike squad the Shadowed One was assembling. And so was someone else, someone who didn’t know it yet. He was being tortured at the far end of the chamber, using purpose-built devices. Their construction had been somewhat challenging for the Dark Hunters’ crafters, but it had been worth the effort, for the six Skakdi who had called themselves Piraka had been the most serious challenge to his authority in millennia and now that they lay in his hands he intended for them to know the cost of such an act. The horrifying mutation that they had already suffered before being delivered to him and that had turned them into water-breathing snakes was not sufficient, not in the least. The crafters had done a good job: the Piraka snakes were swimming in tanks full of boiling or freezing water and were being subjected to a variety of torments. The Shadowed One particularly enjoyed the sight of Zaktan, reduced to a swirling cloud of maddened protodites through the use of ear-splitting sounds. Once the takeover of Mata Nui and the war with the Brotherhood was complete, what was left of Zaktan would be dissected in an effort to discover just what had allowed him to survive when, five thousand years earlier, the Shadowed One had blasted him with his eyebeams. Hakann, Thok, Vezok and Reidak would be tortured for weeks before finally being executed, so as to act as an example to other Hunters plotting treachery or desertion. Vezon, the seventh Piraka, who had been delivered to him as well by an Order of Mata Nui clearly wishing to get rid of him, had already been deemed useless and summarily put to death. And that just left Avak. The Shadowed One would have gladly let him enjoy the fate of his fellow traitors, but it so happened that he had a use for him. When his torture was interrupted, it took Avak a few minutes to recover. But recover he did: the Shadowed One had ordered his torture to last less and be lighter. And then the Piraka finally beheld him and recognized him. The fear that appeared within his eyes was a delight to see. “Avak,” he said calmly. “It is such a pleasure to see you again. You and your fellow traitors had probably hoped never to see my face again… or did you actually think you would one day return to cast me down?” Avak did not answer. “Not that it matters. You should have known better. Now the six of you are in my grasp once more. I have forgiven traitors before, but not this time. Your fellow… Piraka, was it?... are going to die in the most painful and terrifying way we can think of. But you still have a chance.” Avak remained silent. It didn’t matter: the Shadowed One could see the sudden hope in his eyes. “I have a use for you, Avak, so this is what is going to happen: you are going to put your power to the service of the Dark Hunters for as long as I see fit, executing my orders to the letter and doing so efficiently and obediently. If you do so, once I no longer need you will be awarded your freedom; once you have it, I suggest that you get away from this island as fast as that spine of yours can propel you. Is everything understood?” Avak hesitated, but just for a moment. The Shadowed One’s offer was incredibly generous; both of them knew it. His answer was therefore virtually certain. “What am I supposed to do… sir?” “Your job, naturally. You’ll be a jailer. Dweller will fill you in on who your captives will be. Oh, and one more thing…” His hand moved as fast as lightning and yanked Avak out of his tank. As the Piraka gasped, trying in vain to breathe, the leader of the Dark Hunters hissed: “Do not delude yourself. You are not essential and I never forget treachery. Try anything, anything at all, and you will die, slowly and painfully. The deaths of your fellow traitors will be a mercy compared to what I am going to do to you.” He threw Avak in a water-filled bowl that one of his servants were carrying him. “We will be leaving within the hour.” ----- As night descended upon Mata Nui the clouds that for the better part of the day had loomed over most of the island of Mata Nui at last began to discharge their rain onto the lands below. In the south of the island, the hills that lay between Lake Kanae and the sea were subjected to a powerful downpour that lasted about half an hour. The rain subsequently weakened, but kept nevertheless falling even as the sky turned black. Neither darkness nor rain were however going to dampen the fighting ardor of the Skakdi. As night fell, the green warlady ordered a portion of her troops to make their way through the hills and try to infiltrate the plain of Lake Kanae under the cover of the night. But the bulk of her forces remained deployed around the besieged stronghold. The fierce resistance of its occupants, which had prolonged the siege beyond her expectations, had simply inflamed her desire to blast her way into the fort, seize it for herself and exterminate her foes in the process. She would not be defeated here… she would not retreat. Never. The combined sound of dozens of war cries split the air as the Skakdi army made yet another. Other Skakdi remained behind, using weapons and eyebeams to target the defenders upon the walls. So far, the fort’s occupants had managed to beat back every attack because of their more numerous cannons, but if their artillery could be stalled for a few more moments the Skakdi would be right under the walls and the stronghold would fall. The warlady could see it happening already. The section of the wall they were aiming for had been weakened by previous attacks. A couple of well-placed explosions would open a breach. She raised her Devastator lance, ready to strike… Light exploded out of nowhere, blazing light, so strong and bright that it seemed for a moment that the sun had come up. Blinded by the abrupt radiance, the Skakdi were stopped in their tracks, if only for a few moments. And then a wall of fire rushed up in front of them, the flames towering over the attacking warriors, burning the closest ones, their sheer heat forcing the rest to retreat. The entire assault floundered. Standing upon the walls, Tahu Nuva fired another bright flare into the sky. This time, it was a signal. From deep beneath the ground, Onua generated a localized quake, the tremors throwing the Skakdi off their feet. And no sooner had they recovered that it was Lewa’s turn: down from the air he came, sending screaming gales rushing towards the ground, scattering the Skakdi as if they weighed no more than dry leaves. Twin tornadoes followed, sucking up everything and everyone in their path. Pohatu took advantage of the confusion to make hands of stone rise from the ground immediately before the fort to seize the closest Skakdi and hurl them away. And then the fort’s artillery opened fire, seeking to exploit the enemy’s confusion. From the air, Lewa singled out the green warlady. She was roaring out orders, striving to regain control, but it wasn’t easy, for now cries of alarm were coming from further down the hill as well. Amidst the ranks of the Skakdi rearguard, a fiery inferno was blossoming, though there was no clear reason why. “Ignore it!” he heard the warlady shout. “Get those robots in line. Concentrate on the fort.” Now, we would not wish-want that, would we? thought Lewa, calling upon the winds once more. No sooner had the Nektann robots lined up that another tornado came down, smashing through the robots’ ranks, upturning even the heavy cannons. Lewa smiled mockingly as he watched the green warlady frantically look around, trying in vain to spot the source of the attack; amidst the darkness, the Toa of Air was nearly invisible. Though you will spot-see me soon. Just short-wait. And then Varian dropped the illusion she had created and Lewa smiled again. He, of course, had been able to see them all along, but the Skakdi rearguard was caught completely by surprise as a swarm of Tahnok appeared in their very midst, their fire shields radiating flame and scorching heat. They gave the Skakdi no chance to react and went immediately on the offensive, creating walls of flame that pushed their foes towards the top of the hill. Watching from above, Lewa smiled triumphantly as he saw the Skakdi rearguard disintegrate completely before the fires of the Bohrok, which seemed unhindered by the rain and the wet soil. At the same time, inside the fortress, he could see the warriors reading a sortie. Tahu, Onua and Pohatu, who had tunneled into the fort to negotiate with them, had not managed to convince them to attack before the Bohrok arrival, but now that the first swarm was here it should only be a matter of time. Then the Skakdi would be crushed between the two armies. And my home-village will be avenged. But the Skakdi had other ideas. The Tahnok were halfway up the hill when some warriors finally managed to combine their elemental powers and unleash a wave of water and ice that for a moment doused the swarm’s flames. And then, all of a sudden, it was the Skakdi who were charging: roaring their battle cry, they rushed at the fire Bohrok. Lewa was suddenly seized by dismay, as he saw the Tahnok give way before them. Exploiting the perfect night vision provided by his Adaptive Armor, he located the blue Skakdi leading the attack, but he didn’t get a chance to strike: twin energy eyebeams suddenly grazed his arm, disrupting his concentration. More beams followed, not all from the same direction. Cursing, the Toa of Air shot up, trying to confuse his attackers, but only when he shot into the clouds did he manage to escape detection. By the time he was able to glance below again, the situation had changed for the worse. Robbed of the element of surprise, the Tahnok were heavily outpowered by the Skakdi and seemed unable to halt their offensive. Meanwhile, on the top of the hill, more Skakdi were lining up, clearly aware of the sortie about to be launched and ready to meet it. This is dark-bad, thought Lewa. Maybe we should have long-waited from more swarms to march-arrive before quick-launching the attack. To be sure, there was a Lehvak swarm closing in, led by Kopaka. But if the Skakdi managed to get rid of the Tahnok and beat back the sortie before the green Bohrok arrived, then what? Lewa’s eyes found the green warlady again. She was standing conspicuously before the fort gate, ready to meet the enemy attack. His hatred suddenly came back and he knew what he had to do. She’s the key. Trash-crush her and the Skakdi will apart-fall. There was no time for sophisticated plans. Pushing the rockets of his Adaptive Armor to their limit, Lewa power-dived straight down, his eyes fixed on his target. About halfway to the ground, he unleashed a shockwave of air that flattened the warlady and the warriors surrounding her. He was on the ground before they could get up, using his power again to blow the other Skakdi away, leaving the warlady isolated. He watched as she picked herself to her feet, found him and grinned savagely. “Another Toa! Let’s see if you fare any better than the other one I fought a while back.” Lewa grinned as well, his smile almost as wide and ferocious as his opponent’s. “Don’t much-worry. I will.” The warlady swung her lance. Lewa somersaulted and dodged, then, before she could swing her weapon again, jumped at her, aiming a kick for her face. She swung her other hand, striking him in midair and hurling him to the ground. The Toa of Air didn’t bother getting up. Instead, he directed a concentrated beam of air at her chest, which sent her sprawling. Then he aimed his new adaptive weapon and fired three slim darts which pierced her body. The warlady stumbled, suddenly seeming to have trouble keeping her balance. Lewa immediately vaulted forward and pinned her to the ground. He was dimly aware that there was more fighting around him. Clearly, the warriors had taken advantage of his attack to launch their sortie. He even glimpsed Pohatu dart forward out of the corner of his eye, but he almost did not care. His full attention was on the Skakdi who had ordered the destruction of Le-Koro. Her expression was dazed and she was blinking furiously, as if having trouble staying awake. Clearly, the darts had contained some kind of narcotic substance. But as Lewa raised a hand to strike and knock her unconscious, she finally managed to fix her eyes upon him. There was no warning: excruciating pain shot through Lewa’s body, making him stumble back. Keeping her eyebeams trained on him, the warlady slowly picked herself up. The effect of the darts already seemed to be wearing off: her daze was rapidly giving way to fury. But she still wasn’t fully steady on her feet and when she suddenly stumbled, her gaze slipped away from Lewa for a moment. The Toa of Air gasped, but he knew he had to move. Raising his hand, he unleashed a gust of air to blow the warlady back. His attack struck home, but it was also just what the Skakdi needed to shake off the last effects of the darts’ drug. Picking up her Devastator lance, she slammed it onto the ground, unleashing an explosion that blasted Lewa off his feet. Then she ran straight at him, forcing him to jet into the air. A beam of pain vision brought him crashing back onto the ground. The warlady swung her Devastator straight at him, but Lewa rolled sideways, then suddenly sprung, caught the lance in midair and wrested it from its owner. Roaring in rage, the warlady charged and Lewa saw her changing as she did: somehow, she was growing in size, her teeth sharpening, her muscles bulging up, her hands turning into claws. She plowed into Lewa, talons arching for his neck; the Toa of Air caught her wrist and tried to force it back, but he could feel her strength growing with her fury and knew he could not match her for long. If he had had access to the Pakari Nuva it would have been a different fight, but his Suva had gone up with Le-Koro. Unless… Without warning the Toa of Air stopped pushing back and instead pulled. Caught by surprise, the Skakdi was unable to stop herself from falling forwards. Lewa moved out of the way and then fired his adaptive weapon again and again. As the narcotic darts rained upon her, the warlady shrank in size. She stumbled and collapsed, desperately trying to retain consciousness. Lewa summoned his power, preparing to create a vacuum that would cause her to pass away from lack of air. And then a scream filled his ears and mind, a noise so strong and powerful that it drowned out everything else. For a moment, the Toa of Air no longer knew where he was or what was happening. The warlady seized her chance: putting all her remaining strength into one last blow, she swung a powerhouse fist that lifted Lewa off his feet and catapulted him backwards. Reeling from the blow and from the noise, the Toa of Air spotted more Skakdi rushing towards him. He didn’t even try to face them: instead, he took to the sky. The noise had already vanished, lasting barely a second before being abruptly cut off, yet still Lewa knew that whatever had caused it was important, far more important than his vengeance. And when he finally managed to concentrate and glanced back at the ground, and saw what was happening, he realized it had been no real scream at all. It had been a telepathic message. A cry for help. ----- The hut was as common and nondescript as the ones that surrounded it. Located, with respect to the Kini-Nui temple, on the far side of the ravine which bisected the plateau where Kini-Koro had arisen, it lay amongst a group of dwellings that housed members of a species native to the Northern Continent. Since many of these individuals were skilled builders or crafters, they had soon been coopted to contribute to the construction of the defenses that would protect Metru Nui from the Brotherhood’s attack: for the past weeks they had thus worked in shifts, with about half of them traveling down to the island city and spending a few days working there and then returning to Mata Nui to be replaced by their kindred. The owner of this particular hut had returned two days earlier, but hadn’t managed to spend much time in her house, for during her stays in Kini-Koro she was employed at the construction site of one of great buildings that were being erected on the other side of the ravine and would return only as the sun fell, often too tired to do anything but rest. Just as she was doing right now… or so everyone thought. When Dweller materialized inside the hut, the first thing he saw was the lithe figure of Lariska, leaning against a wall and toying with a dagger. An instant later, his mind also found the Dark Hunter Silence. As for Dweller’s own companions, they had all materialized at the same time as he: the two teleporters from Botar’s species, Avak, whose water bowl Dweller himself was holding, Guardian… and the Shadowed One himself. “Well, look who’s here,” said Lariska. “I was about to take matters into my own hand.” “Problems?” asked the Shadowed One. Had another one of his operatives spoken to him that way, they would have been in at the very least for a painful session of torture… but Lariska was the one person from whom he regularly tolerated impertinence, even in public. “None. Usual routine: a Kanoka Disk of Illusion to mask my appearance when I go out and come in and no one’s any wiser to the fact that I buried the owner two days ago. Half the neighborhood is deserted anyway. As for our target, there has been no change in the guards’ movements.” “Good. Dweller?” “All clear, sir. “Let’s go, then.” Once outside, the Dark Hunters quickly made their way through the streets. There was no lack of shadows to use as concealment: though lightstones had been installed in some places, they were few and far between. Nonetheless, the Dark Hunters took care to move as quietly as possible… and the Shadowed One most of all. It was astonishing to watch him: despite the long centuries spent behind the lines, acting through others, the Dark Hunters’ leader had lost none of the ability that had allowed him, in a past so distant it was legend, to found the organization. Only Lariska seemed to match him in agility… and barely at that. Dweller was using his power to conceal their presence from the minds of any potential onlooker… though in truth there were almost none to be perceived. Everyone was inside, sheltering from the rain… and he also perceived a diffuse sense of uncertainty, even fear: though there had been no disorders in Kini-Koro so far, the rumors from the rest of the island had spread within the town, where virtually every species and faction had at least a few representatives. And who’s to say they are wrong? Once our plans go into full motion, this place might very well tear itself apart. Such doubts were unlike him: ever since he had joined the Dark Hunters, he had been a loyal follower of the Shadowed One and had obeyed every order without question. Yet the terrifying experiences of Zakaz had changed him, there was no denying it: after fighting so hard to save the Allied Skakdi, it had been with difficulty that he had gone along with his leader’s instructions to persuade the warlords to rise up as soon as they reached Mata Nui; after all, knew very well that for the Shadowed One the Zakaz natives were no more than a tool and that, should they be slaughtered as they unwittingly carried out his plans, the leader of the Dark Hunters would shed no tears. Besides, the whole plan struck him as highly risky: with the Brotherhood about to attack the sea gates of Metru Nui, what was to be gained by tearing the Alliance apart? He wasn’t the only one with such thoughts; plenty of Dark Hunters had pretty much the same opinion. He had even detected strong reluctance in the mind of Lariska, normally one of the Dark Hunters who most relished violence and risk. Fortunately for Dweller, upon his arrival to Mata Nui, it had been to him, and to Guardian, that the Shadowed One had turned to identify potential traitors. He had thus been able to expose the Hunters having potentially disloyal thoughts whilst keeping his own concealed. Only in the case of Lariska had he neglected to inform the Shadowed One: the assassin was after all the Hunters’ best operative, not easily replaced… not to mention the fact that Dweller might as well start digging his own tomb if Lariska found out he had outed her. Up ahead, the Shadowed One called a halt. Dweller immediately banished his doubts: there would be time enough to ponder them later. Right now, he had to devote his whole focus to the task at hand. They had reached their destination; the building they were targeting, far larger than the nearby huts, was up ahead, surrounded by a wide plaza. That alone made it unique in Kini-Koro: everywhere else, buildings were clustered together. Not so here, where the residents had gladly left this space unoccupied: no one dared to live too close to the Bahrag, queens of the Bohrok swarms. Dweller gulped silently. He could perceive the Bahrag easily enough: thousands of telepathic messages were issuing out of the building with every second that passed, relaying the queens’ will to the swarms scattered across the entire island of Mata Nui. It was a frightening display of power, to say the least; compared to the Bahrag, his own telepathic powers were negligible. It was all he could do to shield the strike squad from their perception… and there was certainly no question of concealing them from the eyes of the Bohrok Kaita guarding the building: should he attempt to interfere with the minds of the Krana guiding the Kaita, he was certain the Bahrag would sense it immediately. But the Dark Hunters had come prepared for this. Lariska unlimbered the Kanoka Disk of Concealment she had brought specifically for this and immediately struck first Silence and then herself with it, vanishing from view. Dweller himself saw their minds easily enough as they ventured out towards the Kaita and pushed himself to the limit to shield them from the Bahrag’s telepathy. Everything unfolded swiftly. Without giving any warning, Lariska and Silence attacked a Bohrok Kaita each, yanking out its Krana. At the same time, the Shadowed One unleashed his devastating eyebeams, vaporizing in rapid succession two more Kaita. The Bahrag felt it instantly: Dweller perceived them becoming aware, felt the power that controlled thousands of Bohrok seeking whoever had dared to destroy their minions. But the strike team was already on the move, dashing towards the building. Guardian’s Rhotuka spinner allowed him to seize control of the stone wall and create a gap within it. The Dark Hunters dashed inside… and found themselves in a vast hall, face to face with the twin Bohrok queens. For a moment, Dweller faltered. The Bahrag were huge: smaller than the Tahtorak, admittedly, but far more powerful. Worse, he could feel Avak and the teleporters faltering as well… and the entire plan relied on them. “Who are you?” thundered the red Bahrag, Gahdok. In answer, the Shadowed One unleashed his disintegrating eyebeams. They did little damage: the leader of the Dark Hunters had purposefully reduced their power. But the Bahrag still felt them. As the Shadowed One attacked again and again, they screeched in pain and fury and summoned their power, preparing to obliterate their tiny attacker. But now the first teleporter was on the move. Frightening though the Bahrag might be, this one had long ago learned to control his fear: an experienced hunter and warrior, he had joined the Dark Hunters because he was dissatisfied with the role of mere messengers his kindred had been given. Among the defectors’ minds, his had shone with the greatest courage, which had led Dweller to advise the Shadowed One to select him for the strike team. Now his judgment proved correct: as the attention of the Bahrag was focused on the Shadowed One, twin energy tendrils lashed out from a weapon the teleporter was holding, given to him by the Dark Hunters, and each one coiled around a claw of one Bahrag. The queens tensed, their great strength more than sufficient to free them. But they did not get the chance. For there was a wall appearing now around them, transparent and translucent. Dweller felt the twins’ puzzlement, perceived it turn to alarm as they felt their telepathic links to the Bohrok swarms being cut off. Fire, water, stone, acid and more crashed against the strange barrier that was enveloping them, but to no avail; Avak’s ability allowed him to create the perfect cage for any being, even one as powerful as the two sisters. The last emotions Dweller detected were fear and panic… and then the cage’s telepathic screen fully established itself: the queens were cut off from his perception and even their formidable mental powers were blocked. Every single link to the Krana scattered across Mata Nui was instantly cut off. The building was now shaking violently, masonry raining from the ceiling. Guardian and Silence had not been idle during the struggle. Using respectively Rhotuka spinners and a Cordak Blaster stolen from the Order of Mata Nui, they had been attacking the walls and roof of the building, attempting to disable the embedded wards that made the place teleport-proof. They had to hurry: with the Bahrag bound, the Bohrok Kaita were no longer a threat, but Dweller knew that now the whole of Kini-Koro was aware that a battle was taking place here; the Order of Mata Nui might arrive within moments. An entire wall suddenly caved in and the teleporters nodded to the Shadowed One: “It is enough!” “Take us out!” ordered the Dark Hunter leader. The Dark Hunters clustered around one teleporter, whilst the other one willed his power to flow out along the energy tendrils that connected him to the Bahrag. Only Lariska was left out: to her, the Shadowed One had now given another task. The other Hunters, the two teleporters and the Bahrag disappeared as one. A moment later, they were deep underground, in a bunker built under the Dark Hunter fortress; a bunker designed specifically for this. Dweller leaned against the wall, panting heavily, incredulous that everything had gone according to plan. The other squad members were reacting similarly. All but the Shadowed One. The leader of the Dark Hunters marched towards the caged Bahrag and stared straight at them. “Release us!” roared the blue one, Cahdok. “Do you recognize me?” replied the Shadowed One calmly. The sisters hesitated. “You call yourself the Shadowed One,” said then Gahdok. “Correct. I am the leader of the Dark Hunters. And the two of you are now in my power.” He gestured at several more Dark Hunters that had been waiting in the bunker. On cue, they raised a series of long staffs and approached the Bahrag. Avak modified his cage in order to allow them through and the instruments were pressed against the bodies of the queens, who were powerless to prevent it. “Do it,” said the Shadowed One. The staffs were activated… and the energy began to course through them and flow into the bodies of the Bahrag. The queens screeched in agony. The Shadowed One waited a few minutes, then ordered the torture devices to be withdrawn. “This is just a taste of what is in store if you choose to defy me. The torture can begin again and continue as long as necessary. Unless you agree to serve me and to put the Bohrok under my command.” “We have a duty to perform!” roared Cahdok. “We will never bow to you!” “Fine. Avak, separate them.” The Piraka nodded. A moment later, the two queens were locked in separate cages. These were harder for the Piraka to maintain, but since his captives were identical, it was not impossible. Now the torture began again, but this time only on Gahdok. Cahdok watched as her sister was once more forced to suffer the worst pain imaginable… and shared the pain. Dweller could see it well: the two queens were bound together, two halves of the same being, a link that even the cages could not destroy. For Cahdok, the knowledge that her sister was in torment and that she was powerless to prevent was agony in itself. Ultimately, she held out for even less than Dweller would have expected. “Stop! Stop, I beg you! We’ll do what you ask.” The Shadowed One smiled. “Good. But not both of you. I will release you, Cahdok, so that you can control the Bohrok. But your sister remains caged. Do anything against my will, and she will endure the worst pain imaginable. You will also allow Dweller to monitor all your mental communications, so that we can be sure you’re not sending requests for help. Is everything clear?” Cahdok hesitated. But then the instruments of torture were once more pointed at her sister and she thus answered: “Yes.” And so it was that the gamble of the Shadowed One proved successful. For with Cahdok’s assent, the full might of the Bohrok swarms was now in the hands of the Dark Hunters.
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