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ZOMBI3S

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About ZOMBI3S

Year 12
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  • Birthday 05/25/1992

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  1. Chapter 14 - Trial by Darkness It was time. Aya watched the procession before her, unable to shake the dread from her shoulders. She could feel every minute pass, every second tick by as the Turaga and Toa marched past, as if some sixth sense of hers was counting down to doom. She’d seen too many strange things to believe everything was going to be alright, but she still had no proof, and she couldn’t stop it now. Like the beings before her, fate marched forward, and Ta-Koro’s clocktower boomed, signaling the beginning — or maybe the end — of seemingly everything. Five times the great tower rang, and Aya stood beside Kokani from the square outside Vakama’s palace, amidst a decent-sized crowd. Everyone looked to the great iron doors where the Turaga and Toa now met. The council was about to begin, and Illum’s trial — what everyone had been talking about for weeks — was finally about to happen. Vakama started talking, addressing the crowd, saying something about what was to come, something about unity in darkness and the threat of Makuta, but Aya didn’t hear any of it. She was too busy trying to reassure herself, looking to the masks of the Toa, telling herself that even if something was afoot, the Toa would succeed. They would protect the Turaga, they would get to the bottom of it, and all would be well in the end. Right? She blinked, and before she knew it Vakama’s speech was over, and they were all filing into the palace. All, except for one. Aya took a deep breath, nerves prickling as she saw Mako lead a small group away from the doors, parting the crowd and moving to exit the square. A mixture of Ta and Onu-Matoran guards — they escorted a lone figure, barely visible between their spears. But even if she couldn’t see, Aya knew who it was. The convoy passed in front of her and she briefly caught a glimpse of his eyepatch. His single, deep green eye latched onto hers for a second before disappearing into the crowd. Illum seemed… smug. And Aya shuddered, suddenly unable to take it. She looked back to the doors, knowing that she had to do something, that this was her last chance, and without thinking she shoved her way forward, moving for the palace, but almost everyone was already inside. Only one figure still stood in the quickly closing doorway. “Toa Gali…” she muttered as she broke free of the crowd, picking up her pace, unable to control herself as she was racing for the doors. “Toa Gali…!” she called out. “…Hey, stop!” “You! Stop right there!” Aya slid to a halt just before the closing doorway, face to face with the spears of two guards. But she’d succeeded. The Toa turned at the sound of her name, and her Kaukau lit up as they made eye contact. “Easy! Stay your blades, friends,” Gali told the guards, waving off their weapons. “This one’s alright; I know her. If you could give us a minute?” The guards exchanged a glance and stepped back, granting them just enough space for a private conversation. “Toa Gali,” Aya addressed her, relieved to finally see her again, yet wishing this moment had happened so much sooner. Her breathing was heavy as she tried to think of what to say, and how to say it fast enough. “Something’s… going on. I know it. Please — ” Aya paused, fumbling with her words as she tried to not look too frantic. She huffed, settling on a brief, poignant phrase. “…Please don’t let anything happen.” But Gali seemed to understand. She knelt to Aya’s level, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You do not need to be afraid.” “But I — ” Aya stopped herself from cursing, uncomfortable with admitting it, even to a Toa. “But I am.” “Oh, Aya…” Gali let out a smile, but her eyes were somber. “Whatever happens, know that it is the will of Mata Nui. We will see each other again.” The Toa’s words only seemed to worsen her dread. She just couldn’t shake the sense of impending doom, and with hesitation on her mask, she looked up at the Toa. “How can you be so sure?” “You are strong, Aya of Ga-Koro, and I wish we could’ve had more time,” she nodded with confidence, clasping Aya’s head with both hands, gingerly pressing their foreheads together. “But before I go, know that there is a bond between us. Your struggles — and those of your friends — may be much to bear, but know that whatever happens, I will be with you in heart.” And she stood, letting out another smile as she looked down at Aya, who didn’t know what to make of that. The Toa nodded to the guards and stepped back into the palace as the great iron doors began to close. Aya watched as she was enveloped in shadow, not ready for her to leave. But Gali gave a reassuring nod, and spoke once more before they were separated. “Look for me, in your dreams.” Aya shook her head. “I don’t… understand….” “I will come to you then; remember what I show you.” “But — !” “Remember us, Aya.” And with a thunderous, final clang, the iron doors slammed shut. Aya didn’t know what to do. She stared at the carved metal, feeling alone and isolated. The early evening light shone through Ta-Koro’s smoke, glimmering off her armor, and she could hear the crowd start to shuffle behind her. It would be many hours before the doors opened again, before any final decision was made, and Aya — like everyone else — had other matters to attend to in that time. She took a deep breath, pulling herself together as she felt eyes on the back of her head. “Aya.” “I know, Kokani,” she turned around to meet his Akaku, her jaw tight with apprehension. Behind the Ko-Matoran, the crowd was thinning, but she noticed someone else standing a dozen feet away. Someone in dark armor, someone patiently, quietly, watching them. Aya shifted her focus, seeing that it was Rae. The Onu-Matoran nodded, her Ruru flashing before she spoke. Her voice was smooth, tempting… and dark “Come,” she said, locking eyes with the two of them. “It is time.” ~~~ Time was of the essence now, and Takua spent every moment working on the cell door. He became practically nocturnal, staying up late into the night, prying his fork into the keyhole, using what he’d learned from the shackles to pick his way to freedom. But the door’s iron proved more troublesome, and having to reach around the bars, blind, working with only the resistance he could feel in his fingers… the going was slow. Far too slow, for his liking. He was up the entire night after his meeting with Jaka, determined to be ready when the time came. The news his friend brought, the fact that the Matoran might have found them, that they had almost crossed the sea, it brought a new sense of urgency to his work. He had to pull this off, no matter what it took. Crack! “Mata Nui!” he cursed as his fork shattered, its last prong lodging itself in the keyhole. He’d been able to push one of the pins in place, but no more. Grunting, he looked at his now prong-less fork, disappointed to have lost it, yet pleased it had done so much for him. Well… no matter. He had more. He tossed it over his shoulder, reaching out for his new blanket, uncovering his two remaining lock-picking tools. Grabbing the utensil that Cook had given him, he moved to begin again — but then, movement. Above his head the Kryll moved, their thumps and groans increasing, and Takua realized that it must be dawn already. He shook his head, disappointed. He’d hoped to get more accomplished in the night. Cautious, he sat back against the hull, placing the shackles loosely around his wrists as the crew woke up. It turned out to be a smart move, as a few minutes later, the door to the hold swung open to reveal Cook, who descended the stairs with a large sack slung over his shoulder. Takua sat up, grabbing his forks and blanket, shoving them behind his back as the Kryll made his way down. There was a bit of pep in his walk, seemingly due to the amount of food he had in his bulging sack. Either way, the Kryll was soon outside his bars, slumping the burlap onto the floor beside him. “Good morning,” Takua said cheerfully, nodding. The mottled Kryll spared Takua a glance and a click from his mandibles. He began to rummage through the sack. Takua watched as Cook pulled out half a loaf of bread, a small wedge of cheese, and — his eyes widened at seeing it — a fresh mango. Placing the food gently within Takua’s cell, the Kryll then uncorked a bottle secured to his hip, pouring a small cup of water and handing it to Takua through the bars. “Thank you…” Takua smiled, taking the cup from him, careful not to expose the blanket behind his back. “Fresh fruit today? Did you get re-supplied?” Cook stood back to his full height, clicking his mandibles again, eyes narrowing happily. “Well… good!” Takua assumed that meant yes. “I’m happy for you.” The Kryll cocked his head, as if he didn’t quite know what to make of that. But a moment later, he gave Takua a content nod. There was a pause, and Takua hesitated, hoping he wasn’t about to abuse Cook’s kindness, but he had to take the risk. “Hey,” he blurted out, “while you’re here, I was wondering… would I be able to get a bottle, or maybe a jug? I just get so thirsty during the night, and I know Sithrak wants me to stay healthy, so I just thought…” Takua trailed off, biting his tongue, cringing at his words as Cook stared down at him, unmoving. “I mean, if you can’t I understand… I just thought I’d ask….” Cook blinked, lost in thought for an uncomfortably long moment. But then he shrugged, letting out a slight chirp as he motioned for Takua’s empty cup. Reaching out, Takua gave it to him, and Cook replaced it with the bottle. Takua’s fingers closed around the glass, instantly relieved, pleased to have obtained the very first of his supplies. He smiled at the small, unassuming figure before him. “…You’re a good Kryll.” And in classic fashion, Cook didn’t move for slightly too-many seconds, but then he clicked his mandibles and left. ~~~ Rae pushed the door, holding it open for Kokani and Aya, but the two didn’t enter. Kokani stood in the doorway, staring into their room at the inn. A lone lightstone flickered, its faint glow revealing Illum, sitting comfortably in the corner. His eye flashed, looking up from the small bag he was holding. “Welcome, friends.” Neither of them budged. Kokani scanned the room, making sure everything was in order before speaking. “Your guards?” “In a barracks near the Lake of Fire. Far enough away to not pose a threat.” He glanced to Rae. “And her?” Rae held up her hands, revealing that she was weaponless, and Illum spoke for her. “She’ll watch the door to ensure our privacy,” he said, glancing to Aya, who was armed to the teeth and gripping her dagger with white knuckles. “She’ll be no match for you.” Aya grimaced, leaning over Kokani’s shoulder. “His guards could be in the next room for all we know….” “Let me put this simply,” Illum sighed. “If I wanted you dead — you’d be dead already.” Kokani and Aya made eye contact; Illum did have a way with words. Aya spoke first, her voice low. “You sure about this?” Kokani’s steel gaze settled on the Onu-Matoran. “No.” “We can still leave….” Kokani took a deep breath, gripping his staff as the shadows flickered around them. But then, without words, he stepped inside the room. Rae let them enter, and then bowed as she exited, pulling the door behind her. With a click, it latched shut, and they were alone with the Turaga of Onu-Koro. “Good,” Illum arose, moving suddenly to action. “Quickly now — we have no time to waste. The Turaga’s council may last all night, but they will need me as soon as they are finished. And the time frame for our results is unpredictable.” Kokani watched closely. “And how do I know this won’t end terribly? How do I know I won’t be a slave to Makuta when the night is over?” “You don’t,” Illum looked up from the bed. “And it will be terrible — but you’re not one to fear a challenge, are you?” he smirked. “I don’t like this…” Aya crossed her arms. “I don’t like this, Kokani….” “None of us like it,” Illum replied. “But ask yourself — if not us, if not the Protectors of the Atouri, if not those chosen by the Turaga to ensure the second coming of the Toa of Light… then who? Who else will be willing?” The Ga-Matoran frowned, but Illum didn’t wait for her response. He was a whirlwind of energy now, preparing the space for what was about to happen. He produced a wide, shallow dish, and placed it on the ground in the middle of the room, beckoning for the Ko-Matoran to sit in front of it, at the edge of his bed. Kokani obliged, and Illum turned his attention to Aya’s bed. And as he fiddled with it, Kokani noticed something. It was difficult to see in the dim light, but it was obvious now… its surface wasn’t flat. There was a shape, under the covers…. Illum turned as he grabbed the blankets, pausing for a second to warn his companions. “Brace yourselves.” He said calmly, and he pulled the blankets aside, revealing — a body. The body of a Matoran. Kokani stood up as Aya cursed, and they both looked to Illum, ready for anything. “What is this?” Kokani demanded. “Take a look.” Illum stood aside so the two could see, and Kokani bent over, staring at the bed. It was an older Le-Matoran, with a lime green body and a withered, grey Ruru. Not a natural grey, but rather, as if it had lost all its color, as if it’s life force had been drained. Kokani inspected it, eyes scanning the withered figure for… he wasn’t exactly sure. But he realized something — this Matoran still drew breath; he was still alive. And as he leaned closer, as the silence in the room permeated the air… Kokani could hear him. He was speaking, barely. Inconsistently muttering between shallow, ragged breaths, but yes — he was speaking. As if his mind was on a loop, as if all thoughts except one had left him, this Le-Matoran spoke one word, over and over: …Takua. “Familiar?” Kokani whirled around, his jaw clenched, fiery eyes meeting Illum’s. “Where did you find him?” “Lewa and Gali did,” Illum replied. “A lone survivor from Le-Koro — the only one still breathing who hadn’t disappeared. An unnamed Storyteller; a sleeping body, lost without its spirit — a victim of the late Toa of Shadow, no doubt.” He unapologetically met Kokani's stare. “I know you were close with Matau… I assume you’ve met before?” Kokani’s eyes narrowed. “…A long time ago.” Illum nodded. “I will not lie to you — what you are about to do is dangerous. To enter the void, to become one with the Makuta, to experience the Madness and return… it is not something I have ever accomplished. I can only tell you what I know from Whenua’s notes.” Kokani watched him as he opened his bag, grabbing two cloth-covered cylinders, placing them near the metal dish on the floor. “He wrote of the terrors waiting within the void… but if you are true, if you face them head on and defeat everything thrown at you, you will find the truth.” He glanced back to the Storyteller. “Whenua was not shy about describing his horrors, but he also stressed his belief that dark could not exist without light, and if he looked for it, it was always there. He said there were always… spirits, always tiny points of light, leading him in the right direction — if he could only stay true and follow them.” Illum trailed off, watching the Storyteller’s ragged breath. “I can’t say for certain, but I thought perhaps… he may be of help to you.” Kokani looked back to Aya, who gave him an ambiguous shrug. He sat back down on the bed, and Illum turned to him, kneeling on the other side of his metal dish. “I know we have our differences, but I want you to succeed, Kokani,” Illum said, removing the cloth from his canisters, revealing the silver, shimmering glow of Energized Protodermis. And the dull, grey-green of Makuta’s essence. “…For all our sakes.” Kokani paused, staring at the substances as their light reflected off his mask. He glanced once more to Aya, and the Ga-Matoran met his gaze, still nervous, still untrusting, but now resolute in — or maybe resigned to — their decision. Her words trembled only a little. “For Takua. And Jaka.” Kokani turned back to Illum, his mask rigid. “Do it.” Illum smiled. With a click and a hiss of pressurized air, Illum opened the vials, carefully, gingerly, pouring them into the dish. The substances mixed together, the Energized Protodermis flowing like thick water, the essence of Makuta clouding around it, its infectious color mixing, forming dark streaks in the pure silver liquid. It was as if the two wanted to combine, the gas hovering at the surface of the dish, being pulled in as ripples reached up, as if the two elements were alive. “Just the right dose, just the right concentration,” Illum spoke, emptying the silver canister, and shutting infectious one with a click. “No more… no less.” Kokani stared down at the dish, watching as the streaks of silver and grey-green swirled around each other, twisting, churning, morphing into one viscous, rippling mass of putrid grey. It was nothing if not unsettling. As if this was a substance that simply shouldn’t be. And Illum lifted the dish, offering it to Kokani. His words were simple. “Your Kanohi.” “Kokani…” Aya’s concern reached him, but he continued. He reached out, his fingertips pausing at the surface of the substance, his mask watching Illum’s, the flickering lightstone, the undulations and swells within the dish. And, swallowing, he touched it. It felt like nothing. Smooth and slippery, almost like water, without it being wet. It seemed to break the laws of the earth, refusing to behave the way it was expected to. It was a liquid, obviously, but its edges, its surface seemed fuzzy and vague, like a gas. Cupping a small amount within his palms, he brought it close to his mask, its viscosity not allowing any to slip through his fingers, yet it filtered into the air around him, rising like steam to his Akaku. And all the while, Illum watched patiently, excitedly. “Breathe…” the Onu-Matoran murmured. “Inhale its fumes, place it upon your mask… let it merge with you, and it will do the same.” Kokani did. In and out he breathed as he brought it closer to his mask, seeing the fumes billow around him. Fresh air filled his lungs — or so it seemed. In and out, in and out… he closed his eyes, calming himself, shoulders relaxing as he brought it to his mask. He felt now, more than ever, that he was atop a mountain in Ko-Koro, the crisp, cold, fresh air unmoving around him. His heart beat slow and calm within his chest. Thump-thp. And he placed it on his mask, sensing it, ever-so-slightly — but then it was gone, disappeared into thin air, or maybe absorbed within him. He opened his eyes, finding himself back in the dimly lit room, looking at Illum as Aya peered over his shoulder. Their eyes shone faintly before him, curious, nervous, excited… perhaps all three at once. “How do you feel?” Kokani looked down to his palms, turning them over, watching as he moved his fingers, touching them to his thumbs. He shook his head. “Fine.” Illum’s one eye narrowed. “Remember, no matter what happens, you have to keep going. Stay true… and you will find the truth.” “I don’t think it worked.” “Trust me,” Illum let out a smug huff, standing up and turning to inspect the Storyteller. “It worked.” Kokani frowned. He didn’t know what to expect, but he definitely expected something. His vision was good, his mind felt sharp, and everything seemed normal as Illum packed his cylinders away. He had a small tickle in his throat from inhaling the fumes, but other than that? Nothing. “Well?” Kokani cleared his throat, scratching the tickle as he replied to Aya. “…Nothing.” “What game are you playing, Illum?” Aya growled. “No games… just give it time.” “How much — ” Kokani coughed as his itch persisted. “How much time?” Illum’s mask flashed in the dim light. “Not much at all….” “Hmm,” Kokani scowled, clutching his chest, growing impatient already. “Kokani?” It was… that tickle. Just a tinge, an annoying spot inside his lungs. He coughed once more, clearing his throat for a third time. But still, it remained. “...Kokani?” He looked past Aya to Illum, and the flickering lightstone on the wall. “I’m fine.” “You look pale.” “I’m fine,” he repeated. But it wouldn’t go away. He coughed again, louder and heavier as the tickle persevered, as it latched onto the inside of his lungs. It only seemed to grow, in fact, changing from a point of irritation to an itch that rose in his throat, throughout his chest. From an itch, to an ache. From an ache, to… burning. “Ah…” he hacked, pounding his chest. He just… couldn’t get it out. “Kokani? I’m right here, what do you need?” “I don’t…” Kokani blinked, looking to the Storyteller, unconscious as Illum wiped his mask with a damp cloth. The lightstone flickered above them. Was it… fuzzy? “…I don’t know.” The sliver of Illum’s eye as he turned partially around. “Embrace it, Kokani. Don’t be afraid.” “I’m not afraid,” he grimaced, annoyed with the Onu-Matoran already. And then he was coughing again, realizing now that there was sweat on his mask. Aya knelt in front of him, eyes flicking back and forth. He tried to concentrate on them, but she seemed to go in and out of focus, like the very surface of… whatever he had just ingested. “Illum,” he said calmly. “Yes?” Illum answered without turning, as if he didn’t want to look at him. “What — ” but he coughed again, the burning in his chest now suddenly fire, spreading down to his stomach, up through his neck. He heaved, his body trying to force something out, louder, heavier. He couldn’t… he couldn’t get it out. “Kokani!” “I’m — fine,” he growled, cutting off his fit, blinking repeatedly, trying to focus, but no, everything was shimmering, everything seemed chaotic. He sputtered, coughing into his palms again, then looked down to find his fingers… twitching? Was he doing that? “Illum!” he raised his voice. Like honeyed tea, like smooth silk — Kokani quickly, passionately, hated his voice. “Yes, Kokani…?” He wheezed, grabbing the edge of his seat, steadying himself as the fire spread within him — through his limbs, up into his head — burning flames upon his face, his mask. Multiplying, taking over. Why was this room so small? “What… did you — ” He wheezed again, doubling over, trying to force it out of his system, but still he couldn’t. He couldn’t get it out. “You’ll have to speak up.” “Aah!” he roared. Sweltering, scorching fire in his veins, in his mind, erupting in his eyes! Aya’s hand was on his shoulder, but he retreated, shoving her away — it was so cramped in this room, why was everyone so close? He needed space. “Kokani you have to tell me what you need; I’m right here!” Another coughing fit, wheezing, doubling over — horrible, burning agony — was that blood on his hands? He just — couldn’t stop coughing; he just… couldn’t… get…. “I…” he blinked, catching a glimpse of Aya’s worried mask. “…I have to get out.” The back of Illum’s head. “You won’t be leaving this room.” “You!” he boomed, abruptly furious, standing up, almost falling over without his staff, with his mind so contaminated. “What… did you… do to me!?” “Kokani, stop! You need to sit down!” Hands on him, and Kokani fell back to the bed, scraping his mask on the hard wall behind him, and Illum turned around, his one, green eye glowing as his voice was suddenly deep, suddenly pounding within his head. “I gave you what you deserve.” “I’ll end you!” Kokani roared back, ready to attack, but hands were on him again, forcing him down, and suddenly he couldn’t move. How many hands were there? He couldn’t feel them, he couldn’t see them, but they forced him down all the same. How many people were in this room? The lightstone went in and out like his breath, pulsating, waxing and waning, and all he could see was Illum’s one good eye, glaring down at him. “It’s okay, Kokani; I’m right here!” “Stop — don’t touch me!” “You escaped justice for so long….” He pushed himself against the wall, trying to free himself of all the fingers that pulled him down, but there was nowhere he could go. He wheezed, gasping for air as his charred lungs tried to expel the poison, to expel the festering infection inside. But he couldn’t get away… he couldn’t get out! “…But not any longer.” “Stop. Stop it!” he spat, he demanded. “Did you really think you could escape? After everything you did?” Illum’s mask towered over him, taunting, relishing in his pain. “All those people you killed — did you really think the world would let it slide? Nuju forgave you, set you on the right path, but did you really think the rest of us would?” He pushed against the wall, scooting backwards, trying to distance himself from the mask, from the swirling, creeping shadows all around him, but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Nowhere would offer him shelter — not after everything he’d done. “You’ll die alone,” Illum taunted. “Afraid, and in pain. And no one will remember you. No one will care.” “Aya…” he reached out for her, trying to ignore the madness that played out all around him. Trying, with all his might, to resist, to ignore the hands, the claws, pulling him down, scraping against his mask. She said she’d be right there…. “Aya!” he called out. “I’m right here; what do you need?” Her voice, echoing, reverberating in his skull… there she was! He wheezed, eyes bloodshot, his body aching, failing, his fingers twitching as he reached out. “Aya….” But she pulled her hand away, looking down with disgust. “You let Takua and Jaka die. You’re the reason Makuta has the Atouri. Why would I help you?” “No…” he shook his head, not believing it. It was a lie, a trick of the shadows; Aya wouldn’t say that. “You’re not real.” “You burned my home to the ground. And for what? Acceptance? Attention?” Aya shook her head, watching as he writhed on the ground before her. “You’re pathetic.” “Stop,” Kokani rasped, his lungs rattling as he choked out the words, as he fought with everything he had. “You’re not… real!” “All that pain and suffering, because of you. Because of a child, throwing a tantrum,” Aya knelt down, staring at his broken mask, sickened by him. “Did you really think I ever cared about you?” “No…” he refused. “No!” She placed a cold, gentle hand on his mask, her eyes flashing yellow. “You’re such a fool, Kokani.” And the shadows laughed at him. The shadows, the shades, the invisible creatures, deities and demons — they laughed at him, pulling him deeper, lower, tearing at his flesh and armor, and the mask above him shouted, its voice violating his very mind. “You are worthless! You are pathetic! The world will spit on your gave and you will never repent for your sins!” “Stop!” he yelled back, still fighting, still losing. “Stop it!” He repeated, but he knew it was too much. He couldn’t escape; he couldn’t get out, there was no hope for him here; only darkness. Only chaos, penetrating his will and shattering his soul as Illum’s mask — no, not Illum’s mask; it was Saku’s mask — screamed at him. “You betrayed me! Your only friend! The only one who ever cared about you; the only one who ever will!” He squeezed his eyes shut but it was still there, increasing, growing, enveloping him, louder and louder, heavier and heavier. Paralyzed and mute, he was powerless against it, he was nothing compared to it. Everything he’d ever known and been was less than a lowly insect to the exquisite, perfect, masterfulness of what entombed him: the beautiful, holy, Almighty Darkness. “The dirt will eat your flesh, and you will be forgotten! You will die in pain! You will die alone!” “Stop it!” “You will become the void, Kokani of Ko-Koro! You will die, and you will become nothing!” And all at once, Kokani knew it to be true. He knew it, he knew this awful truth with all his heart, and he knew he had no choice. He had no will, he had no power. And he knew, at the end of it all, he was, truly… nothing. So he turned to face the Mask of Shadows, all his thoughts, all his emotions leaving him, and he knew himself, as clearly as he ever had before. “…Do it, then. I am not afraid.” And the darkness paused, chaos and anarchy freezing around him, like the deep, full inhale before a great and terrible sigh. “Kill me! I am ready.” Kokani’s demand echoed as he stood tall against the Kraahkan. But that wasn’t what truly lay before him, was it? No, he could see clearly now. It wasn’t the Mask of Shadows; it never had been. It was an off-white Akaku — it was his own mask. So again, Kokani spoke, this dormant truth making itself known as he stared into the dark — as he stared into himself. “Kill me. I’ve been ready for a long time now.” And just like that, it was over. Just like that, Kokani of Ko-Koro became Nothing.
  2. Chapter 13 - Muted Meetings Banging on the cell’s bars, and Takua was startled awake, eyes blinking as a lightstone shined in his face. He squinted, realizing the blurry figure in front of him was Chief. The Kryll’s scarred face growled. “Five minutes.” Takua hesitated, still half asleep, but then he was gone, disappeared into the shadows of the hold, taking the lightstone with him. A few moments of pitch-black silence passed, and then… another, smaller figure approached. “…Takua?” “Jaka!” Takua’s eyes lit up as he recognized his friend’s voice, and he leaned closer to the bars, barely able to make out his Kakama in the darkness. “Mata Nui,” Jaka breathed a sigh of relief, squatting to Takua’s level. “I was worried this was some kind of trap. Are you okay?” “I’m good… real good, Jaka.” He held out his hands, revealing that he had picked the lock on his shackles. “Look!” “Uh… I can’t really see anything.” “…Right,” Takua replied. He leaned in, his mask inches from Jaka’s, now whispering. “Is Chief out there with you? Are we alone?” “Chief?” “The surgeon.” “I… I think he’s in his quarters.” Takua paused, scanning the gloom as best he could, searching for any sign that they were being eavesdropped on. The hold creaked, rocking as the flagship moved through the water, but aside from that, there was only silence. There didn’t seem to be anyone nearby. “I picked my shackles,” Takua whispered in Jaka’s ear, his words barely audible. “I’m working on the cell door, and I think I’m getting close. We’re going to get out of this, Jaka.” “Yeah,” Jaka nodded cautiously. “You have a plan?” “Kind of… the cook seems to like me, and I bet I could stockpile some supplies — I just need a little more time. But once I pick my cell door, we could steal one of those longboats and sail out of here.” “Alright, um…” Jaka paused, stifling a grimace. “…Look, I don’t want to dash your hopes, but that’s a pretty vague plan.” “Right, that’s why I need your help. I don’t see a lot down here; I need you to be my eyes.” “I don’t know, Takua. I’m watched almost all the time. And even if we pull it off… I don’t know how to sail, do you?” “I know I’d rather be adrift on the ocean than accept whatever fate Sithrak has in store for us.” Jaka paused, then cursed to himself. “Good point. But we have to be careful, and quick. I hear we’re nearing the end of our journey… which might be good, because Sithrak’s at the end of his rope.” “What do you mean? What’s going on up there?” “I’ve only heard the crew’s mutterings… but things haven’t gone according to plan. The winds, the currents… it seems like they’re pushing against us all the time, and storms are getting more frequent. Progress is slow; I guess we should have arrived days ago. The crew are starting to think this voyage is cursed.” “Good news for us, I guess.” “Yeah,” Jaka replied. “But it’s driving Sithrak insane, and he’s starting to take it out on everyone. We had four escort ships when we left Three-Finger Island… one disappeared a week ago. Wind carried it over the horizon, I guess. And there’s rumors we’re being followed.” This gave Takua hope. “You think the Turaga are coming for us?” “I don’t know what to think. But I know if we don’t get out of here soon… Sithrak’s going to come for us.” Takua took a deep breath. “We need a plan.” Jaka agreed. “I’ve been watching the crew. There’s a shift change every day at midnight, when most of them are asleep. We’ll have… I don’t know, maybe ten minutes where the guards won’t be at their posts, or aren’t paying that much attention. If we’re going to make a move, that would be the time.” “Okay,” Takua replied, his nerves already tingling at the thought. “I’ll get what I can stockpiled and work on my lock. You keep an eye out and stay low… can you get your hands on a weapon?” A light, coming from the infirmary. Both of them froze as footsteps sounded, and the door swung open. Chief was returning. Jaka swiveled back to Takua, now racing to finish their conversation. “I have two sharpened butter knifes beneath a loose board. They’re not much, but at close range they’ll do the trick. One has your name on it.” Takua grinned. “We’re going to do this, Jaka.” “How long do you need?” “I don’t know…” Takua made a quick calculation in his head, trying to estimate how close he was to picking the door. “…Three days?” Chief’s voice growled from behind them, his boots clomping closer. “Time’s up, little ones….” “Three days…” Jaka frantically repeated. “For better or worse… at midnight. I’ll be at the door to the hold. I’ll knock three times — listen for me.” “I’ll be ready. No matter what.” “No matter what!” “I said… time’s up!” Chief leaned over Jaka, grabbing him by the shoulder and yanking him back from the bars. The Kryll stood above Takua, glaring down, his lightstone casting long shadows on his face. Takua stared back, fearless. With a flick of his wrist Chief threw a bundle of cloth at Takua, who flinched, catching it just before it hit him in the mask. His fingers closed around a blanket, and… he squeezed the bundle, feeling it — a fork, nestled within the folds. He let out a satisfied smirk. “I kept my end,” Chief stared, his voice emotionless, yet slightly threatening. “If it comes down to it… you keep yours,” he demanded. And Takua nodded, briefly making eye contact with Jaka, who stood behind the Kryll, just at the edge of the lightstone’s yellow glow. “You have my word.” ~~~ “What does it mean? Are we under attack?” “Nonsense! We have lookouts around the clock. There’s been no sign of a Kryll army anywhere near Ta-Wahi.” “But the question remains; how did it get inside the city?” Aya stared, motionless as dozens of voices echoed around her, asking questions, promising answers, proposing and debating actions, around and around and around again. She sat in a small, wooden chair in the middle of the council chamber, surrounded by… who were these people? Advisors to the Turaga, experts in their own specific fields, whatever that might be. All professionals, all with their own opinions, all trying to figure out how this had happened. How had a Kryll gotten into the most fortified city on Mata Nui? “Tell us again, where exactly did you first see this Kryll?” “I’ve told you everything a thousand times,” Aya said, desperately trying to hold it together. Kokani stood behind her, silently supportive, but she still felt overpowered as she stared to the head of the room. Mako sat there, listening to everything. “…I need to speak to the Turaga.” “With all due respect, Guard Captain,” came a voice to her left. “I’m not sure we should trust this Ga-Matoran. Why was she out in the middle of the night anyway? It could have been her who let the Kryll in all along.” “What — ?” Aya jumped to the edge of her seat, trying to find the person who’d said it, instantly ready to knock them out. But she didn’t need to express her outrage; plenty of others had enough to go around. “How dare you? Do you know who they are? This is Aya and Kokani, they are the ones who brought the Atouri to Ga-Koro! They made the summoning of the Toa of Light possible!” “And where is the Toa of Light? Where is the Atouri? Guard Captain, I fear these Matoran may have fooled us all, I fear they may have been spies for Makuta all along!” “Mata Nui!” Aya leaned back in her chair as the room erupted in heated opinions, rubbing her temples as she tried to retain her sanity. They’d been at this for hours. Her chase with the Kryll had gotten her what she’d wanted: access to Vakama’s palace — but she hadn’t wanted it like this. Escorted by a dozen guards, she’d been ushered straight through the iron doors, down below street level and into a circular, vault-like room carved out of solid rock: the Turaga’s council chamber. Although the Turaga themselves were frustratingly absent. Mako and the advisors argued upon a raised platform that ran around the perimeter of the room, and she sat in the center with only Kokani at her side, as if they were the ones on trial. There was only one way in or out of the secure chamber — through an imposing, three-foot thick metal door, and Aya didn’t like having her back to it. It was claustrophobic, and it seemed too easy to get trapped in here. “That’s ignorant! After all they’ve done for us, how could they be spies?” “Someone had to have let the Kryll in. There’s no way it could have breached the wall without us knowing!” “Then what do you propose? Are we supposed to interrogate everyone in the city?” They bickered as Aya eyed Mako like a hawk, who sat in his chair, unnervingly silent. She knew he had something to do with this; she knew there was a reason he hadn’t granted her access to the Turaga yet. There was a reason he’d wasted hours of everyone’s time with this shouting match. She narrowed her gaze, inspecting him, waiting for his nervous twitches to appear when someone brought up a good point, something that would support her theories. But no — he was stoic and professional, for now. “All I’m saying is we can’t discredit anything at this point. The safety of the Turaga is of utmost importance, and we can’t let anything slide!” “Captain, these accusations are absurd!” “As is… this meeting.” And suddenly everyone was quiet. The last voice had come from the open doorway, and all heads turned to look at the speaker. Aya followed suit, swiveling in her chair to see the small form of Turaga Vakama, lit only by the wall-mounted torches behind him. He hadn’t shouted, or even spoken very loud, but his voice alone resonated. He looked to Aya and Kokani, and then Mako. “Leave us,” he nodded. And, in a fluster of movement, all the advisors and guards were shuffling out of the chamber, like dogs scolded by their master. Their resounding noise disappeared, and the stone room was suddenly peaceful as Vakama turned to Mako, who now stood hesitantly in the doorway. “Just these two… for now.” “Turaga,” Mako bowed, and then he was gone. Aya watched as the Turaga approached, his slow steps echoing on the floor as he leaned against his staff. His lined, azure eyes met hers. “Turaga…” she stood up, bowing her head. “Thank you. I’ve been wanting to meet with you for a while.” “I know of your concerns Aya,” he said slowly, pausing as he looked from her to Kokani. “And I apologize for not arranging something sooner…” he trailed off for a second. “But, as I’m sure my Guard Captain has told you, things have been quite… hectic, recently.” Aya nodded, finally feeling better that he was here. For a second the room was quiet, but the Turaga soon went on. “Well… come.” Vakama motioned for them to follow. “This place is for debate and deliberation… not at all appropriate for the words we have to exchange.” He paused, leaning against his Firestaff, smiling at Aya. “If you could perhaps… help an old Turaga with his weary legs?” Aya blinked before forcing herself into action. “Of course, Turaga.” Moving quickly, Aya offered her arm and Vakama took it, slowly nodding to Kokani as he escorted the two through the metal door. They moved down the stone hallway, Vakama’s slow steps setting their pace, which was just the right speed for Kokani’s own weary gait. The Ko-Matoran followed closely behind as they moved through palace’s corridors, Vakama’s weathered Huna reflecting the torchlight. His voice was quiet; a pleasant change from the shouting of earlier. “The council begins tomorrow…” he looked to Aya as they made their way up a staircase. “And I understand you have many questions….” “I do,” Aya said plainly, helping the Turaga up the steps. “I have seen things that worry me. About Illum, and about Mako.” “I know… you do not trust him,” Vakama replied. “But Mako has served me for many years. You need not be afraid….” “I am though, Turaga.” Aya replied as Vakama led them into a small, undecorated hallway. “There’s just… something going on. I’ve seen too much to think otherwise now.” “Mhmm,” Vakama nodded, coming to a small, wooden door at the end of the hall. “There is always much going on that the eye cannot see.” Reaching out, he pushed the door open with his staff, and it creaked on rusty hinges. He nodded for Aya and Kokani to enter. “But that does not mean you should be afraid.” Aya walked into the circular room, finding herself in Vakama’s personal study. It was simple and homey, much unlike the rest of the palace, but it fit the Turaga’s personality. There were a few comfy chairs, a desk lit with a cluster of dripping candles, and a stone carving of a Hau mounted on the wall. But the staple of the room was a stone pit in the middle of the floor, one that housed a crackling fire, dimly lighting the room and casting long shadows on the walls. The air smelled of smoke, incense, and old books. Vakama motioned for them to sit by the fire, and they did as he shuffled to a small table, rummaging through a drawer. “Tea?” he asked, quite informally. “If you are, Turaga,” came the hesitant response. “Yes…yes,” Vakama moved back over, dangling a small kettle over the fire with a pole. He sighed, easing himself into the chair opposite Kokani and Aya, gazing into the flames. “Ta-Koro… it has changed much over my years… but I still try to keep the old ways,” he nodded. “I remind myself that new legends constantly awake, that change and growth are inevitable, beautiful, but…” he trailed off, watching his kettle. “Nostalgia is a tough Rahi to tame.” The three of them were wordless, and Aya sat, looking at her feet, not quite sure what to say or how to start. It was Kokani who broke the silence. “What do you need of us, Turaga?” “Hmm?” Vakama looked up, as if being pulled out of a memory. “Ah… no. A better question, perhaps — what do you need… of me?” Aya looked up, her attention switching from Vakama to Kokani and back before speaking, realizing that this was her chance. “Turaga…” she started. “It’s this council — something is going on, I don’t know what exactly, but you have to call it off. Disperse the Turaga, meet somewhere else, I don’t know. You’re in danger here. Mako has been acting strange, like he has two personalities, and he’s tried to stop me from reaching you and the others for far too long.” She scooted forward in her seat. “And Illum; he’s planning something, I know he is. He has — ” “I am aware of Illum’s plans.” “…You are?” Vakama nodded, quiet as he took the kettle off the fire, pouring its contents into three cups, handing one to each of them. “Energized Protodermis contains power unimaginable, but often yields results… unpredictable.” Aya paused. “So, it’s true then? What he said about Whenua… and how he died?” “I know not how my brother passed,” Vakama took a sip from his tea, furrowing his brow. “But in our search for the Atouri, he did come to me with a vial of the substance, and ideas. He asked me to help him.” It was Kokani’s turn to speak. “Did you?” The Turaga sat back in his chair, the shadows long and deep upon his mask. “I once learned much about the darkness, long ago. It was another time, another place… another life.” He turned his attention to the fire, looking suddenly solemn. “A beast had grown inside me, and I succumbed to an intricate web of shadows, if only for a short while. But within that while, I learned that there is… great power… within the dark.” Aya watched him, a tingle moving down her spine. Her tea sat still in her hands. The Turaga continued. “I learned that we must always search for Mata Nui’s will, as is our way. We must always follow the light, always strive to be good. But I also learned that does not mean we should fear the dark. To ignore it, to hide or run from it… it does ourselves a disservice. It is a part of us, whether we like it or not, and only through acknowledgment and acceptance may we truly experience unity. Only by embracing it, as a necessary component to our being, can we understand our duty, and in turn… discover destiny.” Aya blinked, catching Kokani lean back in the corner of her vision as she took the first sip of her tea. It tasted of flowers, of cherry blossoms grown from volcanic soil. Of something beautiful, sprouted from fire and ash. She swallowed. “So, you did? And… it worked?” Vakama paused. “The Atouri was found… that is all I can say,” he replied slowly as he set down his cup, leaning forward to look them both in the eye. “If you are searching for advice or answers… know that I cannot make any decision for you. And as for your suggestions about the council — proceedings have already begun, and we no longer have time to delay.” He leaned forward, his warm demeanor suddenly stoic, as he changed gears. “I have received news… news that you will undoubtedly wish to hear.” Kokani met his gaze. “What news?” “News of Le-Koro. Gali and Lewa have returned….” Aya looked up. “And?” “…They found the city ransacked. The Le-Matoran have disappeared, scattered to the wind — they will not be present at this council.” “What…?” Aya looked from him to Kokani and back, her eyes wide. “How?” “Nothing is certain… but Makuta’s reach extends farther than we thought,” Vakama nodded, his mask solemn. “Krosis can no longer achieve victory through massive armies, so instead he turns to guerrilla warfare, striking hard and fast, preying upon smaller, scattered, villages. We have failed our brothers in the trees once again, and thus we are reminded — this council, the plans we now make… they are about our own survival.” Aya looked to the ground, taking another sip of her tea, if only so she could take a moment to process. Instantly she thought of Takua and Jaka… it was their home, after all. Wherever they were, she hoped… she hoped that… well. She hoped for a great many unlikely things. The Turaga went on, looking now to Aya. “I know you have your fears, but the council must proceed. Our first order of business will be to decide Illum’s fate, and once that is settled our plans for the future — the future of all our people — will be unified, ratified. Answers will be found, and decisions will be made, but… for you two…” He leaned forward, his gaze still kind, but now striking and powerful as he spoke. “I have only one question — what role do you wish to play, Aya and Kokani, protectors of the Atouri?” They both looked up, curious. “You are free to act as you have been — as soldiers and advisors, abiding by our decisions and offering assistance when necessary. But you have done more than your duty already. I, nor any of the council hold power over either of you. You are free to act as you please.” Aya stared. “…What are saying, Turaga?” And Vakama leaned forward. “You may continue down your present road — or you may take fate by the hand, and carve your own path through this eternal, unending, Biological Chronicle.” And he paused, taking a sip of his tea, his weathered Huna gazing contently into the flames. “The choice is yours; it always has been.” Aya swallowed, the Turaga’s words emanating through the air like smoke from the crackling fire. Vakama leaned back in his chair, once more taking a careful sip, exhaling with pleasure as the liquid passed his lips. “As the Sacred Fire burns eternal… so do all things come to pass.” He nodded to the flames, his eyes dim, the energy in his voice gone, but his words still impactful. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t choose which of them we experience.” The fire popped, sending a cluster of sparks into the air, their bright orange cutting into the darkness of the room. The embers glowed brighter for a moment or two, and Aya stared at them, her mind focused on the flames as a realization grew. Slowly but surely, it came forward, penetrating her consciousness, and she swallowed, her mask stern. She knew, deep down, what had to be done.
  3. Always good to see new Bionicle art. Your style is dope!! A good mix of traditional Bionicle with some humanized elements, my personal favorite! And your colors are very nice. Very pastel, much beautiful. wow.
  4. Chapter 12 - Dancing with Danger The Kryll stood outside Takua’s bars, arms crossed, claws drumming against his biceps. Takua met his narrow stare, and the surgeon let out an amused, crooked smile. “…You? Help me?” Takua nodded. “Awfully brash, considering your current position.” Takua lifted his chains, the shackles around his wrists, having re-secured them before calling the Kryll over. “I’ve been in worse,” he shrugged casually. Chief grunted, clearly entertained. “So, tell me, little Matoran, what exactly makes you think I would want — let alone need, your help?” “Because you’re desperate.” And Chief laughed, his scratchy voice echoing down the hold. Then, stifling himself, he squatted down, eye level with Takua. “More desperate than you, little Le-Matoran prisoner?” Takua leaned back against the wall, his Pakari striped with shadow. “You don’t know who I am. And you certainly don’t know what I’m capable of.” He could play this game if he needed to. “I know you can’t get out of those chains, for starters.” “You know you haven’t seen me get out of these chains — not that I can’t.” Chief kept his grin, studying the Takua’s mask. He cocked his head, humoring him, but his intrigue growing at the Le-Matoran’s audacity. “Fair enough,” he replied. “What are you capable of? Enlighten me.” “I’ll let you connect the dots,” Takua nonchalantly clinked his chains. “Krosis hires his best warriors to capture me, keep me alive, drag me across the sea… why waste all the energy? I’ve been watching you; you’re smart. I bet you can figure it out.” “You’re the one who held the Atouri,” Chief shrugged. “You’ll be brought to the White Tower and presented to Makuta as proof of Krosis’ service. And then he’ll descend and wipe your kind from the earth, as was promised in the king’s visions. Every Kryll knows that.” “But why me specifically?” Another shrug. “You’re the Turaga’s herald. It sends a message.” “Not because he thinks I’m a threat?” Takua called back to what Krosis had once told him. “Not because I’ve been touched by Makuta? That only he is strong enough to defeat me?” Chief snorted, stifling a laugh as he rubbed his broken mandible. “The Kryll on this ship defeated you.” “And yet Saku couldn’t.” “Saku?” the surgeon furrowed his brow. “The White Warrior defeated Saku.” “Kokani? Is that what they told you?” Takua questioned. “No, Saku was winning that fight until I stepped in. I was the one who broke his blade. I sent him falling into the abyss…” Takua rested his head against the hull, lifting his chin. “…I stole his spirit.” “…Right,” Chief drummed his claws. “And let me guess — you could smite us all in an instant, if only you cared to?” Takua formed an understanding grin as they matched wits. “Look,” he corrected the conversation. “I’ve heard you talk before; I know you’re not the biggest fan of Sithrak.” “I am loyal to my king, if that’s what you’re getting at.” “Of course you are. But you’re also loyal to your people, and you know as well as I do that those loyalties can sometimes… be at odds with each other.” But Chief glared at him, his demeanor suddenly threatening. “Don’t play games you haven’t read the rules to, Matoran. And don’t act like you know me. If you have something to say, spit it out.” He leaned forward, growling as the boat creaked, rocking steadily around them. “Before I lose my patience.” “Okay, alright… I meant no disrespect,” Takua lightened up, levelling with the Kryll. “Look, you’ve basically lost the war. Krosis knows you can’t compete with the Toa, and so you’re running to Makuta, in hopes that he’ll protect you. But is protection what Makuta is known for?” Chief shifted his weight, not responding. “No,” Takua went on. “Makuta is destruction, and you’ll find only death there. You, Sithrak, everyone on this ship — you’re all running to your graves.” The Kryll’s response was low and rumbling. “Again… awfully bold assumptions for someone in your position.” “You know it’s true. Rashi knows it as well.” Takua replied quickly. “But there’s nothing you can do about that, is there? Because dissent under your king means death. Because you’re ruled by madmen and liars, who’ve twisted your kind into believing they’ll bring unity and salvation. Yet have they ever before?” “Were you there, Matoran?” Chief warned again that he was treading in dangerous waters. “Because we were scattered tribes before them. And now we are united, marching for a common duty. A common destiny.” “Your unity is built on silence; your duty is bought from fear. And your destiny only leads to destruction.” Takua said simply, his words strong as he stared at the Kryll, his gaze cold but not accusing. He was simply truthful. “Destruction… if not from the Toa, or Matoran, or Makuta… then from yourselves.” There was a moment of silence, and the creaks and groans of the ship pervaded into their conversation. Above, someone moved about, their footsteps sounding through the ceiling, but no one bothered with the hold. No one opened the door to disturb them. And Chief clicked his mandibles, tilting his head to look down at Takua. His response was short. “What do you want?” “Not much. A quick meeting with my friend, and my sword,” Takua replied, before looking around at his cell. “A blanket or two would be nice.” “Your sword is locked in the captain’s quarters. It’s Sithrak’s prize now; you’re not getting it back.” “Fine,” Takua frowned. “Then I want a fork.” “A fork?” Takua held his gaze. “I said what I said.” Chief paused, confused, but he shrugged it off. “What are you offering?” “A way out. A good word with Matoran leaders, just in case this doesn’t go quite as Krosis had planned. A path that doesn’t end with you dying at the hands of a vengeful Toa… or an angry king.” “And why should I trust you?” “Would you rather trust Sithrak?” Chief gradually smiled, his shoulders moving up and down as he suppressed a chuckle. “I like you,” he nodded, standing up. “If nothing else, you’re funny.” Takua managed an indulgent, half-bow. “I only aim to please.” The surgeon’s crooked smile widened, and he massaged his broken mandible as he shook his head, glancing down at Takua once more, and then… he turned to leave. “Ah… Makuta.” Takua heard him mumble between the sound of his boots, clomping away as he moved towards the infirmary. He raised his voice, questionably calling after the Kryll. “…Well? What do you say?” A brief flash of yellow as Chief’s eye glanced over his shoulder. “We’ll see.” ~~~ Raipu had been right — the cistern was good place to ease the mind. Aya stood in the circular room, upon a wide, stone dais as water gurgled all around. It poured in from every side, brought to this central chamber through an array of pipes. Each one large enough to fit a Matoran, Aya couldn’t help but stare into their depths, wondering where they led. She chose to ignore the bars at their entrances as she gazed; life already felt stifling enough. Rays of moonlight shone through small holes in the ceiling, lighting the room in a pale blue glow, and Aya closed her eyes as she listened to the churning liquid, echoing from all around. She leaned against one of six, beautifully carved pillars that lined the central platform. Maybe she should try and be more like Raipu; maybe she shouldn’t go about asking questions. Her journey here had been in a haze. She’d stopped at their inn first, but Kokani had gone off somewhere, probably to talk more with Ihko about the Sanctum. She’d waited for him, but every minute spent pacing in that cramped room had driven her more and more insane. Eventually she’d decided on leaving him a note, explaining everything that had happened, everything Illum had told her. She just had to get out of there. And besides — a note was easier than saying it all in person. Aya placed her hands on her mask, fingertips sliding down her face, pulling at her eyelids as she sank down the pillar and sat on the cold stone. In front of her sat the largest of the pipes, wide enough for a Toa to stand inside, and looking though the metal latticework that barred its entry, she thought. Maybe somehow, she could get through it. Maybe she could climb inside the pipe and escape this city. It would take her far away, away from the smog and the crowds, from the councils and trials, from all the honeyed words and horrible schemes. To a cool, wet, dark place, a place she could lie down and disappear forever. “What are we doing here, Aya?” Aya didn’t turn around. She hadn’t heard anyone approach, but the sound of Kokani’s voice didn’t surprise her. Aya pulled her knees to her chin, staring into the dark pipe. “You got my note?” “Yes.” Aya took a deep breath. “What do you think?” “I don’t know.” “You think it’s true? Any of it?” Kokani paused before repeating himself. “I don’t know.” “If it is… if they really are still alive… and we could bring them home….” Kokani didn’t respond. Aya swiveled around, looking at him, trying to gleam something from his stoic mask. But Kokani only stood there, half in shadow as he leaned against his staff, the faint moonlight just touching the edges of his armor. His eyes were dark and emotionless. She turned back to stare at the water. “I don’t want to lose them… but I don’t want to lose you either.” The water gurgled, and Kokani was quiet for a few moments. But when he responded, his voice was low. “You won’t.” And Aya sighed, not knowing how to feel. She listened to the water, hearing, after a bit, the slow, shuffling of Kokani’s footsteps, the tapping of his walking stick as he made his way closer. He appeared in her vision, his Akaku looking down, and he offered his hand. “The council will start soon. We’ll get our answers then. And after that… we’ll find Takua and Jaka.” She managed a slight nod, and, taking his hand, he pulled her up. In a wordless agreement, they both decided it was time to call it a night. And so, arm in arm, they moved to leave the cistern. Aya helped support Kokani’s weight so he could walk a bit easier, and the two made their way back to the stairs, climbing them one by one, slowly but steadily. About halfway up, the entrance to the tunnel came into view — an arched doorway, lit faintly by the light of the moon. And, just by chance, Aya looked up to it. A silhouette stood there. Aya squinted, just slightly taken aback. What? …A Kryll silhouette. “H-hey!” Aya called out, her muscles instinctively tightening, but the shape was already gone. Sparing a second, she looked to Kokani. “Did you…?” she asked, but she already knew he had. He stared at the entrance, eyes narrow, and so Aya let go of him, bolting up the stairs, already having drawn her dagger. “Hey!” she yelled again, bursting out into the open — Slam! Aya hit the ground, the Kryll having pounced on her. Its dark armor came fast as she saw the dagger heading for her throat, but she was ready. Grabbing its claws, she pushed the blade back, struggling as the Kryll tried to overpower her, but they were equally matched. This Kryll wasn’t the warrior or brute she was used to, no, this one was smaller, faster — but not stronger. Grunting, she kneed it in the side, trying to force it off, and it winced, but held its ground. Its mandibles clicking above her mask, Aya gritted her teeth, yelling as she pushed upward, slowly — yes, yes! Pushing it off! Whack! Kokani’s stick met the Kryll, and it fell off Aya, rolling away as it scrambled to its feet. It popped up as Aya did the same, and she got her first good look at it — small, quick, agile, with matte grey armor. Armor made to be invisible in this stone city. It sized them up as well, eyes flicking back and forth as it hesitated, dagger gleaming between its claws. Aya blinked. A scout…? It turned heel and ran. “Hey!” Aya called out again, tearing after it. “Hey, get back here!” she glanced back to Kokani, who gave her a nod; he couldn’t keep up, but he could go get help. And so Aya gave chase. Skidding around a corner, she caught its scowl as it weaved into an alleyway, and Aya barreled after it, flawlessly leaping over barrels and crates as the Kryll knocked them over, trying to stop her advance. In another second — out of the alley and into the next street, and Aya skidded to a halt. Where had it gone? She whirled around… there! Its boots clinking against a ladder, onto the roof! With a grunt she leapt onto the ladder, up three rungs at a time, vaulting herself onto the low rooftops, back to her feet as she caught the Kryll leaping to the next cluster of homes. And then she was too, landing on the next roof, across a small bridge, trying not to lose balance as she carried herself as fast as her legs would allow. Another glint of the Kryll’s armor, another scratchy curse as it glared back, and up, up they went. Running and jumping, rooftop to rooftop, the buildings growing taller as the Kryll fled to the inner city, trying to shake her off. But she wouldn’t give up. Not yet. The Kryll crossed a loose plank that bridged an alley, and then kicked it, the wood rattling to the ground far below. Forced to find another way, Aya thought quickly, scanning her options, psyching herself up as she backed up and sprinted forward, throwing herself off the rooftop. Through the air and across the alleyway, she landed with a thud on the next building’s balcony, one floor below. Grimacing, she threw her body at the balcony’s doors, forcing herself into a startled Ta-Matoran’s living room. “Kryll!” she yelled at the terrified Matoran, breath heavy as she forced out her words. “…On the rooftop…! Which way…!?” Stuttering, the Matoran pointed to a doorway at her left, and Aya vaulted over his sofa, soon finding herself in a stairwell. Sprinting up, she heard the Matoran yelling to someone as she reached a door at the top. “…Kryll! In the city! Get the guard!” Slamming into the door Aya found herself outside again, moonlight meeting her as she scanned her surroundings — yes! A flash of dark armor, just two buildings away. She was still in this! Barreling after it, Aya leapt to the next structure, this one with a slanted roof, and she slowed her pace, careful not to lose her footing on the slick tiles. Her eyes widened as she glanced over the side. She was three stories up now. Her boots clacked on the hardened clay, and the Kryll must have heard her — she caught it looking back, realizing it wasn’t free yet — and it sprinted off again. Aya cursed, leaping off the tile and grabbing a ladder on the next building’s wall. This Kryll knew the city better than she did. It knew all the pathways, the passages, all the ways to get around without being seen by the guard. She pulled herself up, taking off as the Kryll leapt to the next rooftop, and she gritted her jaw, her body tiring. This Kryll had been here. It had been in the city, many times before. “Come… on…!” Aya cursed, her legs growing heavy as she arched over a low railing, sliding down a steep roof, flying through a few feet of empty air before landing on the next flat, and she looked up. Where…? Where had it gone? She stopped in her tracks, hand on her dagger. This was the end of the line. This building, three stories tall and shaped like a narrow triangle, ended their clustered chain of rooftops. It stood at the intersection of two wide streets — there was no way the Kryll could have jumped across. She scanned her surroundings, glancing around: no visible balconies, no doors or hatches that led to any stairwells… only flat, smooth stone. There was nowhere the Kryll could’ve gone. Which meant… it had to still be here. There were a handful of guards in the street now, pointing to each other and moving about, alerted to the commotion by one way or another. Aya made eye contact with one of them, who silently pointed to the other side of the building. Aya gave him a silent nod, shifting her attention. Readying her blade, she approached the edge of the roof, feet silent on the stone. Her spine prickling, her knuckles white around the handle of her dagger… closer… closer…. She peered over, seeing dark claws for only a second, hanging from — It pounced. Aya yelped, stumbling back as the Kryll launched itself up, throwing its weight, pushing her to the side as it sprinted away, hurtling itself off the building. Its arms outstretched into the empty air — no, it wasn’t empty, there was a clothesline! The Kryll’s armored claws latched onto it, and the line held strong. Aya stared in awe as the Kryll sailed away, using it as a zipline, expertly crossing the wide street. The guards didn’t see it coming, scrambling as they tried to get better positioning, and Aya cursed. She knew she had to follow. Winding up, she ran forward, throwing her body off the edge. She flew through the air for a brief, terrifying moment, and…! “Aah!” She was yanked up, her shoulder almost dislocating as she caught the line with the crook of her elbow. Using her forearm armor to slide across, gaining speed as she sailed forward, she smirked as the Kryll looked back, bewildered that she had succeeded. The wind flying past her ears, she watched as it felt a moment of fear, as it realized Aya was right on its tail, as the guards below grew more numerous. They moved to enter the shop on the other side… and its escape routes were cut off, one by one…. The Kryll reached for its belt, claws wrapping around the dagger. And Aya shouted, realizing its plan. “Wait! No…!” But the Kryll cut the line. Panicking, Aya grasped for the rope, her fingers clenching it just milliseconds before it fell out of reach. And she yelled, freefalling for almost a story before it caught, instantly tight as it tore through her palms, ripping them raw as she careened down. But the friction saved her life, slowing her fall just enough to hit the cobblestone and roll out, her body sent flying, scraping halfway across the street before she slid to an abrupt, unceremonious halt. Aya wheezed, unable to move for a minute. Bruised and bleeding, she lay there, trying to function as her jarred mind tried to process the world. People and guards moved about, their voices ringing to one another, saying words she couldn’t seem to understand. A few came over, poking and prodding, making sure she was still alive, but Aya moaned and rolled over, shoving them away as she forced herself to sit up. Her ribs seemed bruised, her chest felt like she’d been stabbed, her was vision was blurry and her palms were raw and bleeding. But… she was alive. Just a few scrapes, she thought, reaching out to some fuzzy Ta-Matoran who helped her up, saying something about a healer, something she couldn’t quite make out. No big deal. The Kryll wasn’t so lucky. She could see it on the other side of the street, now encircled by a handful of guardsmen. Ignoring everyone else, she forced herself to move, limping over, breaking her way through the circle, taking a moment to look down at the mangled, desperate Kryll. It lay on the cobblestone, still gripping its dagger, swinging wildly at anyone who dared come too close. One of its legs was tucked awkwardly under its body, clearly broken; there was no escape for it now. Aya paused, taking a moment to find her voice, gingerly holding her ribs as she forced air into her mouth. “Just… put the blade down,” she breathed, staring at it, admiring its determination. “…It’s over.” The Kryll turned to look at her, and was suddenly still, as if her words had helped it realize something. Fear flashed in its eyes, but also strength. Courage, perhaps. Its voice was shaky, yet focused. “Blood and fire…” it murmured, clicking its mandibles. And it nodded to her, as if she understood. As if it wanted someone to understand. “…For the New Age.” And before anyone could act, the Kryll turned the dagger upon itself, plunging the blade through its heart.
  5. Yeah I went back and forth on the term for a while... finally decided on using it. I do try and keep it 2001-2003 but some things are just widely accepted for the Bionicle audience and would be weird if I used the original terms (Tohunga vs. Matoran, etc.). I think 'Energized' makes for a better cliffhanger too
  6. Chapter 11 - Leverage A tapping on his cell door, and Takua was startled awake, thrust out of a dream. He blinked, focusing on the light that streamed through his bars. He recognized Cook, a lightstone in one hand, a bowl of gruel in the other. “Good morning…” Takua creaked, relieved it was him, and not Sithrak or anyone else. Cook clicked his mandibles in return. The Kryll opened a small slot at the foot of the door, sliding Takua’s breakfast through, followed by a wooden cup of fresh water, which rattled to a halt just within Takua’s reach. The food was hot today, and Takua wondered if the Kryll had served him before the rest of the crew. A kind gesture, if that were the case. Takua found his words groggily, but not insincerely. “Thank you,” he let out. Cook responded, as he always did, by latching the slot shut once more. Takua was about to reach for the bowl when he paused, looking up as the small brown Kryll turned away. And, taking the hot meal as a sign Cook was in a giving mood, a thought popped into his head. Did he dare? Takua hesitated less than a second. He did. “Um… sorry,” he spoke up, his words as polite as he could make them. Cook turned around and cocked his head, not used to exchanging more words than they already had. But still, he lent Takua his attention, and the Le-Matoran continued. “…Would you mind grabbing me a fork?” Cook didn’t move. He blinked, once, twice, even three times, silent as he processed Takua’s request. And then, with a click of his mandibles… he left. Well. Takua didn’t know what to make of that. He reached for the bowl, scooping he gruel out with his hands, scarfing it down as he was starving. He’d been up late last night, working, gaining his strength while the rest of the crew slept. Already he could feel his arms growing stronger, and his wrists had started to heal, thanks to his newfound ability to free himself from the shackles every night. But he grew anxious every time he picked the lock — after all, he only had one prong left, and while he knew the right angle to work from, any mistake could spell disaster for his lock-picking tool. Takua inhaled the food, his appetite increasing as his strength did the same, and he thought about the dream he’d had before awakening. There had been… someone familiar, reaching out to him. Someone who looked after him, like a teacher, or a mentor. Was it Kokani? Takua swallowed his food, remembering Illum’s letter. Your friends yet live. He hoped it was Kokani. Takua sighed, still hungry as he licked the last of the gruel from his fingers, setting the bowl down. He took a swig of water, telling himself not to get lost in his head. It was only a dream, after all — and then he frowned. He thought that phrase far too often. Footsteps approaching, and Takua looked up again, wondering who it was this time. Squinting, he saw a lone Kryll, a lone lightstone, and a second later the slot at the foot of his door opened. Another bowl of gruel. But this one contained a fork. Takua looked up, almost not believing it, but so pleasantly surprised to see Cook staring down at him. “Thank you…!” he blurted out, bewildered, but pleased the Kryll had bothered to spare him this little kindness. And Cook only blinked, standing motionless for another moment. Then, he clicked his mandibles, and left Takua once more. Feeling as if he’d made a friend, Takua enjoyed his second meal in peace, his stomach finally satisfied. He spent the rest of the day working on his strength, and carefully bending his new fork. Haphazardly, he poked at the lock to his cell, getting his bearings and gathering information. He wouldn’t seriously try to pick it until nightfall, when visitors were much less likely. Besides the random appearances by Chief and Cook, he’d learned when to expect other crew members, as they often lined up with shift changes. Having noticed the few, consistent flurries of movement throughout the day — once in the morning, once in the evening, and once late at night — Takua was always prepared to look natural when they inevitably arrived to rummage through the hold. But even when they came unannounced, he always had a few seconds between the creak of the door and the time the Kryll could actually see him. It was just enough to place the shackles loosely around his wrists, and unless they decided to inspect his cell closely, no one would ever know he wasn’t truly chained. And so he spent his day. Waiting. Planning. Preparing. It was late that night when something finally happened, and it came as the surgeon, barging through the door, making a beeline for his supply room. Takua sat, still as stone, watching from between his bars, staring across the hold as the sounds of Chief rummaging through his supplies echoed down the ship. He’d been picking at the lock when the Kryll suddenly appeared, hastily looking for something. Slowly, Takua grabbed his open shackles, placing them loosely around his wrists, just in case Chief came his way. Takua spared a second to think — the evening shift change had happened a while ago, and Chief wasn’t normally up at this hour. Was something happening? A loud clatter as a box of something breakable fell to the ground. “Ah, to Makuta with you!” Chief cursed. Another minute of scavenging, and Chief’s armored boots thumped back up the stairs, a large box of something important at his hip. And then… quiet. Takua didn’t move for a minute. He didn’t move for five, then ten, then more. All was calm down in the hold, and Takua was about to set his shackles aside and continue his work, when — Crash! The door at the top of the stairs flew open, and Chief came storming down again, still holding his crate of supplies, but this time followed by another figure. A dark, tall, slim figure, one he hadn’t seen in a while… Rashi. A glimpse of one red eye glowing, furious and silent as she covered half of her face with her hand. Reluctantly, she followed Chief into the infirmary. The two disappeared behind the room’s partition, but still Takua sat quietly, his ears ever-open for anything useful. And soon enough, their words reached him. “Sit,” Chief’s rough voice sounded. Silence for a minute, the soft sound of pacing boots. “Put aside your pride for one Makuta-loving second and sit, will you?” An annoyed growl, but then the sound of a body resting in a chair. “There, now let me look at that.” “It is nothing.” “If it were nothing you wouldn’t be bleeding, now would you?” Another grumble, another few moments of silence. “Ah! Easy!” “If you’d hold still and let me work it’d be a lot easier.” Takua’s mind wandered as the hold was quiet again. He wished they would hurry up and finish so he could go back to picking his lock. Huffing, he closed his eyes, waiting for something else to happen. Minutes passed. “You can’t do that again….” “You dare lecture me?” “And there you go with the pride… I’m just trying to help.” “I do not need your help, surgeon.” A deep sigh, and another few moments before Chief’s voice sounded again. “Disagree with him all you want, but please, do it privately. He’ll make an example, even out of you. You know he’s not above that.” “Krosis will hear about this.” “Not if Sithrak throws you overboard first. Now, what did I say about holding still?” Another minute of Chief moving about, grabbing supplies from drawers and crates and wherever else he kept them. The dim cabin light flickered as the ship rocked gently back and forth, back and forth, against rougher seas than normal. Chief’s voice started up again. “…I just want to help. Play his little game, let him have his ego, at least while you’re trapped in close quarters together. I don’t want to see anything bad happen to you.” The sound of bandages being cut, wrapped, and tied. “You’re a good Kryll.” “And you are a surgeon,” Rashi snapped, her voice strong and cold. “Not a mentor, not a commander, not a member of our King’s council — but a surgeon.” The sound of a chair scooting back, bodies moving, of boots clomping angrily again. “It is not wise to forget your place.” “I didn’t mean — ” The infirmary door swung open and Rashi stormed out, up the stairs, throwing her weight against the exit and she was out of sight. And Takua sat, eavesdropping on it all from his far corner, curious, and amused. Silence in the hold again, until Chief shuffled out, alone, staring to the top of the stairs, the door to the upper levels still swinging from Rashi’s blow. He stood there, staring quietly, until deciding to grab a nearby chair, crack open a barrel, and poor himself a drink. Takua watched as the Kryll sighed, one clawed hand on his face, massaging his broken mandible as he hunched over, staring at the ground. And Takua’s boldness got the better of his judgement. “Hey,” he called out, his voice piercing the silence. Startled, Chief looked up, the yellow in his eyes flashing. Takua nodded, beckoning him closer. “...I think we can help each other out.” ~~~ The clearing was silent as Aya stared at the shimmering liquid, slipping within its container as Illum moved so she could see it better. She stared, wide-eyed, unable to move or think for a moment. Energized Protodermis… it couldn’t be. The power to create new life, to kill with just a touch, to fuse two beings into one… it couldn’t actually exist, could it? People said it had a mind of its own, that it could alter destiny, that it came from the heart of Mata Nui himself… Aya didn’t know where to begin. “How… how did you get that?” she got out, her voice piercing through the night, almost trembling. “I know,” Illum nodded, “I thought it was a myth too, until I discovered a secret room in Whenua’s study. He must have harvested it ages ago, from Mangaia beneath the Kini Nui… before its entrance was lost to us.” Aya took a step back, her awe growing into fear as she glanced at Rae, then back to Illum. She didn’t like him having it; it was too powerful, it was too dangerous to be in Illum’s hands. “What…” she managed to say. “…What are you going to do with that?” Illum smiled, sensing her trepidation, and turned to walk about the clearing, giving her space. “Whenua always had great faith in the past. He was a scholar, an archivist… a storyteller.” He paused, looking down at the shimmering liquid, its light reflecting off his mask. “For years, he poured over old legends and stories, searching for kernels of truth, the grains of history they held within. I assume you are familiar with The Tale of Atouri? It’s not particularly well-known, but given your history — ” “Yeah, I know it,” Aya cut him off before he could start rambling. She’d escorted that thing across the island, of course she knew the story. Illum went on. “You see, Whenua believed that Atouri — the Matoran, mind you — lived at very the beginning of our world, and that the events of that story, true or not, occurred before Makuta revolted against his brother, before he cast that infamous spell that made Mata Nui sleep. He theorized that Mata Nui’s banning of Makuta from the stone was the spark that spurred the fire of Makuta’s rage, the catalyst that formed his resentment of his brother, and thus, everything we know of our history. The Great Cataclysm, the Dark Time, the Coming of the Toa and Mata Nui’s Re-Awakening — everything we know — it all comes back to the Atouri.” “Okay… fine,” Aya said, still hesitant, but now wondering what he was getting at. “So, what does that mean?” “It means the Atouri was the reason Makuta was never slain by the Toa. He kept coming back, kept growing stronger after each defeat. Because his heart was always safe, locked away inside the stone.” “But the Seventh Toa could destroy it,” Aya replied, her apprehension moving into curiosity, although she would never admit it. “That’s why we did this whole thing, that’s why we took it to Ga-Koro. To summon him and end this, once and for all.” “Yes. And so when the Seventh Toa first arrived, Makuta placed the stone among the Matoran, keeping his heart safe from harm, even after he was defeated.” Illum explained. “But when the Toa of Light lifted the door in Mangaia, when he lifted Makuta’s spell and re-awakened Mata Nui, our Great Spirit saw everything his brother had done, and cast the stone away. That’s why our people have known peace for so long, up until recently. Because Makuta has been weakened. Because he’s been searching for the Atouri ever since.” “So…” Aya thought about it. “The Tale of Atouri… it actually takes place over a long time?” “Over ages, if you are to agree with Whenua. As I do,” Illum confirmed, casually moving about the clearing. “But the Turaga always knew Makuta would return, given enough time. And so they spent years looking for the stone, hoping to keep it safe. But they never had any success. Until Whenua, just a few short years ago.” “So how’d he do it?” Aya asked, ready for him to get on with it. “If it wasn’t by accident, how did he find it?” “With this…” Illum said, looking back to the Energized Protodermis, finally coming full circle as its light reflected off his mask. The mist swirled around him as he stood, gazing into its shimmering glow, before he turned to meet Aya’s confused, skeptical gaze. “That’s why I asked you here. Because I need someone to help me learn more.” Aya paused before shaking her head, an unnerving chill running through her spine. “What are you talking about?” “Well…” Illum took a breath, switching his gaze to the canister of the Kryll’s gas. “It was decades ago now, but the Turaga had known it for a while even then: things were getting worse. Hostilities between Matoran and Kryll had been growing for years, Saku was plaguing the island, and there seemed to be plots to isolate the villages, to weaken us, to keep us divided. They knew, in the back of their minds, that Makuta was coming; that darkness was slowly rising again. And then Kryll were discovered with this gas, and that was the final warning sign.” Illum paused, cradling both canisters in his hands, keeping them close to his body. He went on. “So they doubled their efforts, scouring the land for the Atouri, knowing that with the Toa absent they’d be doomed if Makuta found it. But through all their efforts they still had no luck, and they were getting desperate. And eventually, Whenua took matters into his own hands.” Aya watched him, her entire body on edge. She feared at any moment he might throw the canister at her, and she was ready to dodge, fight, or flee. But nothing came, so she let him go on. “He’d been studying the gas, and already knew it was the essence of Makuta, that different doses yielded different results. And he discovered that, if used just the right way, one could become temporarily infected, and still retain enough of their mind to return to reality. And he figured he could use that to their advantage.” “You can… temporarily infect someone?” “So to speak,” Illum nodded. “At just the right dose, you can induce a state of fear, of terror, similar to what occurs at the very beginning of the Madness. It breaks one’s sense of free will, leaves them vulnerable to commands, but the dose isn’t high enough to send them careening off the edge to permanent infection.” Aya’s lip curled. “That’s horrible.” “True,” Illum agreed. “But also… useful.” Aya’s fingers gripped her dagger. “You see,” he continued, “Whenua discovered a way to experience the Madness while still retaining the ability to come back to himself. And he was able to take what he had learned, extrapolate that to what was known about Energized Protodermis, and….” Aya’s eyes widened as the realization hit her. “You don’t mean…” And Illum looked up. His face was still, but also… sullen. “He used Energized Protodermis to fuse with the gas. To fuse with Makuta — temporarily.” Aya had to take a moment. She took a deep breath, cursing as she blew the air out of her lungs. “Mata Nui….” “Whenua became… a different kind of Kaita — between Makuta and Turaga. It offered him a way to look into the shadows, to gaze into Makuta’s very heart, to see the Atouri, and find it. He spent months preparing, carefully measuring the doses, finding just the right amount that would let him control his descent into the dark and gaze into the void, all while sparing enough of his sanity so he could bring himself back.” “I’m not doing that,” Aya blurted out, realizing the point of their conversation. “There is no way I’m getting anywhere close to that stuff.” “I don’t need you, Aya…” Illum said, pausing for only a moment before coming to his final point. His words were smooth, but also straightforward. “…I need Kokani.” Aya didn’t hesitate. “No.” “I need someone who knows their own darkness,” Illum went on. “I need someone who isn’t afraid, someone who understands themselves fully, someone at peace with the darkness in their heart. Aya — I need you to talk to Kokani. You know he won’t listen to me.” Aya put her foot down. “No!” But Illum persevered. “I’ve read through all of Whenua’s notes. And I know he died because he wasn’t the right person. In his efforts to find the Atouri, to unravel deeper mysteries and uncover secrets that could save lives — the darkness got the better of him. He didn’t understand it, he didn’t really know it. He was too innocent, he was too good, and that was his downfall. Makuta found him, and the darkness inside started to grow. It made him sick, it infected him, and eventually… it killed him.” He looked down for only a second, swallowing before going on. “But Kokani... if anyone can do it, it’s him.” “I’m not going to let you infect him!” “Please, Aya,” Illum pleaded. “Think of what we have to gain. Think of the greater good! We can’t win this war if we don’t know what we’re dealing with, and we’re quickly running out of time. We need to tie up the loose ends. We need to figure out what Makuta’s plans are, what happened to the Atouri, where the Toa of Light is, and what is going on with this council! I’d do it myself, but I am afraid of my own darkness. I would fail, just like Whenua.” Aya’s anger was replaced with disgust. She already thought the worst of Illum, but this was something else entirely. This was simply repulsive. “Just… mention it to him,” Illum went on, his one good eye glowing in the darkness, the black trees rising behind him. “That’s all that I need of you.” And Aya was left without words. She stared, suddenly emotional, suddenly unable to keep up her fight. The thought of doing that to Kokani, after all he’d been through, after all they’d experienced together… it was nauseating. She’d gotten answers, but they only lead to more questions, and she didn’t know if she could stay here any longer. She looked at Illum once more, disgusted, horrified at his proposal. But the more she thought about it, the more his words resounded in her head… well, she didn’t even know. Illum put the canisters away, stifling their glow within his bag. He looked to Aya, his gaze unexpectedly empathetic before he broke the silence once again. “Takua’s still alive, you know.” The words hit her like a wall, and it took all her willower to stare at Illum, her jaw tight, her mask trying to look unfazed. “Don’t…” she trailed off, swallowing. “If you talk to Kokani, and he agrees… if we’re able to pull this off…” Illum nodded to her, voicing what he knew was already running through her head. “We might still be able to save him.” Aya took a deep breath, hating the leverage he always seemed have. “You’re a monster.” “If that’s what it takes…” Illum let out a smile, his mask looking far too satisfied. “So be it.” And the mist swirled around them, embracing, caressing, coddling the clearing as the darkness hung heavy from the sky. Aya fidgeted, the feeling in her gut slowly making itself known, the whisper in her mind telling her what had to be done. She turned to leave the clearing, her feet crunching on dead soil once more. She couldn’t stay here. She had to leave. She had to get out. But Illum’s voice resounded again, his words ominous, comforting, and threatening all at once. And whatever their implication was, Aya felt her spine shiver. “I’ll always be around, Aya… if you need me, of course.”
  7. I'd just like to thank my family, friends, my beloved readers, as well as the academy. I never thought I'd be able to accomplish this feat, but five chapters? Five?? In a relatively consistent posting schedule?? Amazing. I've truly reached my peak as a writer.
  8. Chapter 10 - Power and Protodermis Takua paused his work, sensing tension in the fork. This was the tipping point; this was the place that always offered two outcomes. In the first his fork would push the pin, unlocking it and offering freedom. And in the second, the tension would break his prong, and he’d have to start all over. It all depended on a delicate twitch of his fingers, a near insignificant tic of movement. He took a deep breath. No pressure, he told himself. It was only the last pin in his shackles. He’d succeeded before. He’d failed before. Takucva frowned, thinking very carefully about which way to proceed. How had the other pins turned? How would that influence the way this one — no. He stopped his mind from churning. This wasn’t about thinking; it was about feeling. No amount of forethought would influence his outcome, he needed only to focus. Focus, he reiterated to himself. Takua closed his eyes, honing his energy on the tips of his fingers. Breathing in and out, he silenced all thoughts from his mind, embracing his senses instead. He could feel the warm metal between his fingers, the rough wood beneath his body, the still air in his lungs. He let himself fall away, trusting his fingers to work on their own, letting the shadowy hull surround him. All was quiet. All was calm. The darkness enveloped him, and he allowed it. A subtle twitch of his index finger, separate from himself, controlled by nothing but instinct. And… done. Takua let out a sigh of relief, opening his eyes as he unlocked the shackles, placing them silently on the ground. His raw, atrophied wrists were finally revealed, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. But still, he let out a cocky smile. Take that, Sithrak. He was down to the last prong on his fork, but he’d done it. He’d picked the lock, and he was free to move about his prison. Free to move, to stand, to sit, whatever he wanted! As long as it was within the confines of his cell… which was roomy enough. Truthfully, he was still a captive, but it still was progress. Takua stood up, stretching his legs, steadying himself against the wall in case his weak muscles failed him. But he did so without issue, and he rose to his full height, standing tall, shoulders back, raising his chin as he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. A moment of peace, a moment of serenity. A moment of power. He knelt back down, his legs wobbling, feeling a little woozy. All this time he had spent in the dark, lost in his defeat, chained to the wall and eating so little — it had weakened him. And now that he was free — well, relatively speaking, of course — it was time to change that. He lay, stomach down on the floor, his hands flat against the wood, and he pushed his body up, working his muscles for the first time since his capture. Up, down, up, down, he breathed quietly, counting in his head, keeping track of his repetitions. Whenever the time might come — and he knew that eventually, it would — Takua needed to make sure he had the strength to fight. He promised himself, picturing his sword, stashed somewhere with the Kryll above his head, picturing its smooth leather grip, resting between his fingers once more. He saw its steel, cutting through the air, singing as he unleashed his power. He would get his strength back. And in time, he would fight again. He promised that much to himself. ~~~ Aya found Illum’s associate without trouble, who turned out to be yet another well-decorated, dark, Onu-Matoran noble. She introduced herself as Rae, and Aya looked her up and down, sizing her up before feeling it wasn’t necessary to return the favor. Rae already knew who she was. Rae already knew a lot about her, if she was anything like Illum. Wordless, she followed her new acquaintance through Ta-Koro’s southern gate, the guards standing at attention as they passed, not questioning the pair’s late stroll into the Charred Forest. In a minute the storefronts of the city had given way to tall, black, petrified trees, the bustle of late evening replaced with the sound of their footsteps. Their boots crunched atop the dusty, cracked, soot-covered earth, and as the sun reached the horizon, long, black shadows fell upon their stride. She’d heard the stories about this place. People it was cursed, that the trees should’ve grown back ages ago. But Makuta’s darkness during the Great War was so strong that his essence lingered, poisoning the land even after all these years. It was on old tale, used in bedrooms across Mata Nui to scare little ones into behaving. But now, as Aya eyed the back of Rae’s head, not comfortable with any part of this, it was hard to dismiss what they said. But still, Aya forced herself forward, not willing to give up this opportunity, readying herself for anything. It was quiet here. Upsettingly so. “Stay close to me…” Rae called back, breaking the silence. Much like Illum, her armor shone in the dim light, polished with care. Her voice was distractingly smooth, deep, and beautiful. “…It’s easy to get lost in these woods.” Aya shuffled forward, just now realizing her pace had slowed. For a second she’d gotten lost in the moment, staring at her guide, at the long-dead trees surrounding them. There was something about this place, something unnerving, yet… reverent. As if something more powerful was watching, listening, waiting. “Where are we going, exactly?” Aya asked as she caught up, her teeth grating at the sound of her own voice. She felt like she had to whisper here. But Rae only smiled, her silken words much more fitting for their surroundings, and Aya hated that she found them attractive. “Someplace where we won’t be disturbed.” “…Right.” Aya gripped her dagger as the sun left them, replaced by a low mist that shrouded everything. She followed the Onu-Matoran for longer than she would’ve liked, twisting and turning her way through the haunted trees, the eerie air only growing more intense. The sky was black, and with each crunchy, dusty, footstep Aya wondered if this was even real. Her gaze meandered back to Rae, gracefully walking a few steps ahead of her, like a siren leading a sailor to death. It certainly seemed like a dream… or a nightmare. Crunch… crunch… crunch…. Something wasn’t right about this place, and Aya knew it more with every step. But it wasn’t Rae, or even the knowledge that she about to meet Illum. It was… something else entirely. Something about the dead trees, the lifeless soil… it was as if the forest was watching them. As if it didn’t want them here. But Aya shook her head, pushing the absurd thought out of her mind. She had work to do; she had to stay focused. Crunch… crunch… crunch… Her footsteps felt like the loudest thing in the world. She winced with every step, feeling invisible eyes turning towards her with every movement. It seemed there were creatures staring at her, hiding behind every tree, watching, waiting, preparing… Aya took a deep breath, filling her lungs before expelling all at once. Her fingers twitched at her blade, sweat forming on her brow, her heart silently pounding. Try as she might, she couldn’t shake the feeling that this place was… unwelcoming. Off-balance. Wrong. Crunch… crunch… crunch… How much more of this she could take? They shouldn’t be here; no one should be here. There was something in these trees, something in the soil, in the ash, the dust, the very air around them — it kept this place for its own. It made this place, ages ago, and it had been here ever since. This was its’ domain, and anyone who entered was under its’ control, subject to its every whim. And more than anything… it didn’t want them here. Crunch… crunch… crunch… She knew it now, with every fiber of her being: she should leave. She had to get back to the city, back to safety. Aya tried to calm her mind, to tell herself she was being insane, but the feeling rose in her chest more powerful than ever. She had to get out. She had to — “We’re here.” Aya paused, shaken back to reality by her companion’s voice. They stood in a clearing, trees on all sides, with a few downed logs and stumps scattered across the ground. There was nothing that made it special. Nothing at all. “You came. I wasn’t sure if you would.” Caught completely off-guard, Aya whirled around at the voice, recognizing Illum sitting on a stump behind her, a dozen feet away. Realizing she’d been played, that the whole walk was just meant to disorient her, she gripped her dagger, her entire body tensing as she paused on the balls of her feet, surveying her surroundings. Illum sat relaxed before her, his mask dark except for his gold eyepatch, glimmering ever-so-slightly. Rae stood to her left, one hand on her hip, smugly silent. No one else was present, save for the trees, and the shadows. Aya looked back to Illum. “…Are we alone?” Illum’s voice was just as honeyed as she remembered. “Of course.” Not sure if she believed him, Aya didn’t move. She looked around the clearing again, trying to see through the dark mist before making her decision. “You son of a — ” In an instant she’d drawn her bow and nocked an arrow, pointing the barb at his heart and was ready to let it fly — but she was a second too slow. Cold steel rested at her throat and she froze, her gaze drifting to Rae, who smirked as she held a hidden blade, detached from the inside of her wrist. No one moved until Aya slowly loosened her bowstring, lowering her aim as Rae responded respectfully, taking a small, cautious, step back. Illum leaned forward on his stump. “Come now Aya, I know we’re not the best of friends, but I think we’re both reasonable enough to hold a conversation when we need to.” “You’re a traitor,” she spat. “You’re a snake. A worm.” “And you could have better manners…” Illum let out a short sigh. “Yet here we both are.” Aya glared at him, expressing her disgust as best she could. She had to force herself to stop reaching for her blade, hyper-aware of where Rae had positioned herself, just on the fringes of her vision. Deciding that this meeting wasn’t going to go quite as she had planned, that perhaps it was in her best interest cooperate, she opened her mouth to speak. “What do you want?” “Your help.” Aya snorted. “And why in Makuta’s name would I help you?” “Because you’re desperate. Same as I.” Aya crossed her arms. “You don’t know me.” Illum stood up, opening his palms in a peaceful gesture. “Perhaps you’re right; I don’t — not entirely,” he responded, looking her in the eye. “But I know what you’ve been up to. And I know, same as you, that something isn’t right in Ta-Koro. Something is going on — if not a plot, then an uncanny string of happenings.” Aya glared at him. Of course he knew; of course he’d been watching her. The thought made her gut churn: Illum’s little minions, always watching from somewhere, always with their prying eyes, staring from the shadows. She clenched her jaw, knuckles yearning to meet his mask. “You’re the one with the plots. You’re the reason Mako’s acting funny; you’re the one causing this ‘uncanny string of happenings.’” Illum almost laughed. “And your proof is...?” “I’ll find it, unless you want to show me.” “I assure you; I am not the one behind Mako’s… behavior,” Illum paused. “Though I am keeping my eyes open so we might soon discover who is….” “Ugh,” Aya grunted, already tired of his lies. “You’re like a squid… with your slimy tentacles, clouding everyone’s vision with ink.” “I’d love to listen to you insult me all night, but I do have other matters that require my attention,” Illum replied, clearly starting to get annoyed. “You came here to talk, did you not?” “You know…” Aya’s eyes flicked to Rae, deciding that if she could position herself at the right angle, she could take her. “…I haven’t really decided yet.” Illum rubbed his temples. “Believe it or not, Aya, we’re on the same side.” “The — ” Aya stopped herself to let out a string of curses, instantly furious and bewildered. “The same side? You tried to keep the Atouri for yourself! You tried to infect Takua, to kill us! You… you murdered Turaga Whenua! And now you try and say that we’re on the same side!?” “Everything I have done has been in service to my people. But don’t you dare blame me for Whenua’s death,” Illum retorted shortly, almost, but not quite losing his composure. “He was a dear friend of mine, and no one has grieved his loss more than I.” “Oh, so selling out to the Kryll, that was all for your people, right?” Aya rolled her eyes, perfectly ready to have a shouting match with the Onu-Matoran. “Well you should be thanking us then, because if we hadn’t stumbled on their contraption and messed up their plans, Krosis would’ve infected your whole city! You call that serving Onu-Koro?” Illum leaned back and clenched his jaw, but his voice was remained calm. “I established an open line of communication between our forces; one of first steps that can be taken towards peace. And while I admit not everything went according to plan, I did gain great insight into how the Kryll operate,” he took a breath, his eyes narrowing as he met Aya’s gaze. “And I don’t have to explain myself to you, but if you think for a moment that I hadn’t already re-routed those ventilation shafts to poison the very Kryll who were plotting against me, then you’re a fool. Krosis is clever, but I am ever-vigilant.” “Ha! Okay,” Aya laughed, not believing a word of it. “And starving your own people? I’m sure they just loved going without food while you were partying in Whenua’s palace.” “And there you go, just like the rest of them,” Illum let out, clearly having heard this a hundred times before. “Blaming me for the problems I inherited; the problems I wish to resolve.” Aya glared at him, vividly remembering their escort into the City of Earth, seeing all those poor, starving Matoran watching as she was paraded with fanfare. The thought made her feel grimy. “Whenua wouldn’t have let that happen.” “Tell me; were you there, Aya? Did you see how it ended?” Illum stood up, starting to get defensive. “The last years of his rule were chaos; he locked himself in his study and without his guidance the city fell into disarray. I took it upon myself to make things right; I was burdened with finding food and work for Onu and Po-Koro’s people, and yet here you and so many others are, calling for revolution, blaming me for your problems because I don’t fit this preconceived, idolized depiction of what you think a Turaga should look like.” This was news to Aya, but she could still connect the dots. She could still see through Illum’s lies “Jaka went to his tomb; he told me what he saw. You were poisoning him with that gas, trying to infect him. But then he died, and you scrubbed his mask clean to cover you tracks. It’s no wonder he locked himself away, he was trying to get away from you!” Illum paused, taking a step back as Rae put a foot between them, making sure Aya didn’t try anything. But the Ga-Matoran only smiled, knowing she’d struck a chord, staring at Illum over his bodyguard’s shoulder. There was pain behind his mask as he looked down, and it gave her pleasure to see it. But in a second he nodded to Rae, and she stepped out of the way as Illum looked back to Aya. “…You want to know what really happened to Whenua?” “If you’re going to confess I’d say do it in front of the council,” Aya leaned back, folding her arms again. “But I’d love to hear all the details.” “You won’t believe it.” Aya narrowed her eyes. “Try me.” And Illum nodded, reaching into a small satchel at his hip. “I suppose it does relate to why I called you here….” He produced two small cylinders, holding one in each hand as he brought both into the dim light. Two cylinders, containing two vastly different substances. “You see… it wasn’t by accident that Whenua found the Atouri, all those years ago….” Aya took a step back, instantly recognizing the Kryll’s grey-green gas; the essence of Makuta. Instinctively her hand reached for her dagger, but she paused as her attention was drawn to the substance in the other canister. It was… like nothing she’d ever seen before. “Tell me, Aya, do you know what this is?” Hesitant, she looked at it, a soft, shimmering, silver glow emanating from within the glass. It took her a minute, but she did recognize it, though she’d never seen it in person before. She’d heard so many stories, about its mystery, its power, but she’d never really believed it was real. A legend that had, up until recently, only lived in stories. A myth, torn from the pages of an old book, thrust into her new reality. “It that…” she swallowed, not quite believing what she was seeing. “…Energized Protodermis?”
  9. It has come to my attention that chapter formatting has been messed up again (I'm assuming this is due to BZPower's migration earlier in 2019?). So that's on the to-do list. But first -- another chapter! Been somewhat consistent recently... that's suspicious.
  10. Chapter 9 - Hushed Voices Aya sat at the table, twiddling her thumbs as Kokani and the other Ko-Matoran talked. Aya almost recognized him — they must’ve worked together in her brief time with the Sanctum, but they’d never grown close. Physically, he was larger than most Ko-Matoran, both taller and thicker, but his personality was quiet, aloof, and somewhat cold. Which was fine — it was just so stereotypically Ko-Matoran. He called himself…. “Sorry, what?” Aya wasn’t paying attention. “Ihko,” he answered, bowing slightly She returned a slight, polite nod. “Nice to meet you.” “We’ve met,” Ihko said plainly. “Back in Ko-Wahi. We rescued Takua together, and had to escape the Rahi Nui.” “Oh! Right, I remember you,” Aya smiled, not remembering him. She quickly turned her attention back to the inn, watching the innkeeper greet Matoran as they moved in and out of the building. Her mind was on other things right now. She listened half-heartedly to their conversation as she eyed the room. Ihko was a senior member of the Sanctum Guard now, and was offering Kokani a position with them after everything had settled down. Kokani had his doubts, due to his obvious injuries, but Ihko insisted they had work for him. His name still held weight in Ko-Koro, and they’d heard the stories of his deeds. How he stood in Po-Koro, ready to die as the Kryll surrounded them? Narrowly escaping the tunnels of Onu-Wahi? Fighting alongside Toa in Ga-Koro, leading up the summoning of the Seventh? People respected him, all over the island, and — There! The back of Raipu’s head, pushing through the door and leaving the inn. She’d followed him from Vakama’s palace, and this was her moment. She turned her head, leaning over to whisper in Kokani’s ear. “Sorry about this, Kokani.” “What?” Aya kicked at his chair with just enough force to tip him over. Surprised, he groped for balance before falling over and hitting the floor with a soft thud, surprising a few tables of Matoran around them. “Mata Nui!” Aya stood up, yelling out. “Hey, innkeeper! This chair’s faulty, it collapsed underneath my friend! Out of nowhere!” Surprised and concerned, the innkeeper put down her things and hurried over, drawing everyone’s eyes as she fussed and cursed at her carpenter for all the shoddy work he’d been producing recently. Ihko bent over Kokani, helping him to his feet as Aya slipped away, slinking behind the innkeeper’s counter, easily pocketing her master key, which now lie unattended. She flashed Kokani a smile and a wink as she met his confused gaze, before disappearing upstairs. In a minute she was on the second floor, sliding the key into a lock, pushing her way into Raipu’s room. She’d asked the innkeeper earlier which one he was staying in. After all, she was just an old friend, looking to pay him a visit. With a soft click, Aya was in, and she grinned, taking her first look at the space. “Mata Nui…” It was a mess. The same size as her room, it had one door and an open window, but it was packed to the brim with books and scrolls, notes and notepads. Piled atop each other, scattered here and there were minutes and transcripts of appointments, meetings, and deadlines. The bed was messy, belongings were strewn about the floor, and the only thing that seemed in order was a closet in the corner, containing a handful of decorative Onu-Matoran sashes. Illum kept Raipu very busy with his clerk duties, apparently. But — Aya smirked as she took it all in — with any luck, all this mess meant she would find a great deal of secrets. Quickly, she got to work. Starting in the corner of the room, she tore through the tomes and manuscripts, searching for anything that might hint at Illum’s plans. It was tedious work, scanning through Raipu’s mess of a lifestyle, trying to keep everything in roughly the same place she had found it, but she persevered. Aya made her way across the room, piece by piece, glancing over the thoughts of this house of Onu-Matoran nobles, how this meeting had gone, the schedule of events for these three people who worked closely with the Turaga. But so far, nothing caught her eye. “Come on, come on….” There were books on Ta-Koro, about its people, its structures, its history. Raipu’s pleasure reading, maybe? Maps and charts, blueprints on buildings, structures and statues Illum wanted to erect, city districting plans, plumbing, mining… not only about Onu-Koro, but the other cities as well. Why did Illum need all this information? It didn’t make sense to her, but then again, none of this did. The intricacies of trade routes, market values… there was so much more to being a Turaga than she had thought possible. But none of it was what she was looking for. “Ugh!” Aya threw her hands on her head, taking a moment now that she was halfway through Raipu’s things. There was nothing on Illum’s plans. Nothing on Makuta, nothing on the Kryll, the Toa, Takua… nothing! With an exasperated sigh she threw a booklet of all the Koro’s waterways down, pausing to pull herself together. She took a few deep breaths, calming her frustration. …Footsteps. Aya cursed, gathering her pile, tying to remember where she had found it, before hurriedly placing it on the bed. She’d been here too long. How much of the afternoon had she wasted on this? The footsteps echoed down the hall, coming closer, and she knew she had to move. They were too close for her to leave now, and she whipped her head around, searching for someplace to — the closet! She opened it, shoving herself inside, Raipu’s sashes covering her face as she pulled it closed again, just mere seconds before the doorknob rattled. Aya froze, a sliver of light allowing her to see through the seam in the doors. Raipu stepped into the room. The Po-Matoran paused, looking at his key, obviously wondering if he had forgotten to lock the door on his way out. But he paid it no mind, and soon went about his business. Aya watched, silent. He walked over to the window, pausing to select a few key documents, placing them in his satchel as he moved about, picking up a random tome here and there. It was clear he had some sort of chaotic system, and Aya was glad she’d taken care to keep everything mostly as she’d found it. Raipu then went to the bed, knelt down, and… pulled a small chest out from under it. Aya leaned forward, careful to stay quiet. She hadn’t had time to check under the bed yet. Raipu pulled a key from his bag, and Aya heard the chest unlock. But he bent over as it opened, blocking her view no matter how she craned her neck. He pulled a small object out, placing it securely in his bag — but no, Aya still couldn’t see what it was. She heard the chest lock again, and Raipu shoved it back into place, standing up. Then he paused, seeing the packet of waterway schematics atop his bed, where Aya had dropped it. His voice was a low mutter. “That’s… not where you belong….” Aya held her breath. Raipu glanced around the room, a confused look on his mask, growing more puzzled as he inspected his things, now noticing that this pile wasn’t quite right, that notepad was out of place… no, he always kept this book on top, and now it had fallen over to the side…. “Hello?” Raipu called out. “Is anyone here…?” Aya pressed herself against the closet’s back wall, trying to shrink as small as possible, trying to hide behind the sashes. Her heartbeat pounded in her chest. Raipu approached, walking closer, taking another look around. Cautiously, his attention turned to the closet, and he raised his arm, fingers reaching for the handle…. A breeze blew through the open window, and a pile of papers fluttered to the floor. “Ah, Mata Nui!” Raipu cursed as he went to the window, shutting it before gathering his pile, placing it back in order. He sighed, relaxing as he grabbed just a few more things. And then, with one last look, he left, locking the door behind him. Aya exhaled, her shoulders sinking with relief. She heard his footsteps disappear down the hall, and her eyes closed, taking a moment to calm her beating heart. And as all sound of Raipu faded, she pushed the closet open and got back to work. She grabbed Raipu’s chest from under the bed, sliding it out from under the frame. It was a sturdy thing, made of hard wood and iron, with a formidable lock in the front. After inspecting it, she knew it was beyond her skills to pick, unless she wanted to spend the next week trying. So instead, she went to the window, waiting to see Raipu down below, exiting the inn, heading to… Mata Nui knew where. Her eyes narrowed, knowing her next move. Down the stairs, outside, and out into the street as fast as she could. Where was he going at such a late hour? Aya squinted at the back of his head, slinking her way through the marketplace. The day was almost done now, and they were headed toward the outer wall. If he was one of Illum’s clerks, wouldn’t he have normal working hours? Shouldn’t he be moving toward the city center, where all the meetings and councils were happening? Aya frowned. Unless this late trip was for pleasure. But there was something about the documents he’d chosen, something about that object he’d pulled from his chest that made her doubt that. She didn’t trust this, Aya thought as she slid behind a blacksmith’s shop, careful not to be seen through the dwindling crowd. The sun was setting, and her cover was quickly dispersing, but that didn’t stop her. She climbed a small ladder to the roof of the forge, giving herself a better vantage point. She didn’t trust this one bit. Aya looked down at the Po-Matoran, quietly making his way through the city, his suspicious bag resting at his hip, and suddenly, the realization hit her: it wasn’t the situation she didn’t trust — it was Raipu. Now that she was conscious of it, it was a bit sad, considering how far they had traveled together, how close they had once been. But that was life, she supposed. Aya hopped across a narrow alley and onto the next rooftop, her eyes following Raipu as he turned onto a side street, weaving his way closer to the outskirts. Aya let out a small exhale. Life had a way being sad, sometimes. Before she knew it, the sun was just shining over the walls, its golden rays streaming through Ta-Koro’s thick air. With the day’s business winding down and their continued movement toward the outer wall, the streets were soon quiet, and so Aya took care to keep her distance. She stayed on the rooftops, using only the city’s hidden pathways, sticking in the shadows as she kept Raipu in her sights. But then, just a few blocks away from the wall, the Po-Matoran reached his destination — a small, unmarked doorway at the intersection of two narrow, quiet streets. Aya watched from the rooftop across the way. He paused at the shadowy entrance, looking over his shoulder, checking if anyone was watching. Aya hunkered down, lowering her profile, but she remained unseen. Raipu didn’t think to look up. He disappeared inside. It was — in Aya’s opinion — nothing if not suspicious. She knelt there for a minute or so, deciding whether she should follow him or not. Where did it lead? She didn’t want to find herself in a creaky, one-room cellar, where Raipu would instantly notice her presence. But then again — ah, to Makuta with it. She was here to find answers, wasn’t she? So in a few seconds she was at street level, peering into the dark doorway — no, it wasn’t a doorway, but a tunnel. An old, stone tunnel, with a weathered staircase that descended into blackness. Aya paused, frowning. …Suspicious. She entered, her feet silent on the cold stone, her fingers brushing against the dusty wall, guiding her way as the tunnel grew ever darker. Like a ghost she moved, gliding forward, watching, listening as she delved into Ta-Koro’s underbelly. The sound of water reached her ears, growing louder as she descended, and the walls soon grew damp. There was moss on them now, and she could feel moisture in the air. And then, up ahead — light. She’d reached the end of the stairs now, and she could see the tunnel opening into a larger chamber. Glowing with a few streaming rays of soft, gold-yellow sunlight, the sound of running water echoed from it, and she inched her way forward, always on the lookout for… Mata Nui! Raipu — or at least, his distant silhouette — coming towards her! She turned heel, moving as fast and as silent as she could, taking long strides as she made her way back to the entrance. She didn’t think Raipu had seen her, but she wasn’t about to stick around and find out. Up the steps she went, skipping two at a time, her heart pounding as she made her way back outside. Back to the narrow intersection, back to the outskirts, and she power-walked away, trying to look natural until she could turn a corner and be out of sight — “…Aya?” She froze, wincing at the sound of her name before slowly turning, placing a façade of confusion on her mask. She met the Po-Matoran’s gaze, squinting as if she didn’t know it was him. “…Raipu?” she let out. “What are you doing out here?” But Raipu didn’t seem to buy her reaction. He met her gaze, cocked his head and crossed his arms. “I could ask you the same question.” “Just out for a stroll, you know. Trying to get away from people; there’s just so many here.” She shrugged, clapping her hands together, forcing herself to not act awkward. “Crazy to run into you — ” Raipu sighed. “Why are you following me, Aya?” “Following you? Why would I…?” “I’m not stupid.” And Aya paused, not sure what to do at this point. Raipu was right, he wasn’t stupid — but maybe she was if she thought she could talk her way out of this. “…I’m worried about you,” she half-lied. “You know I don’t trust Illum. I just… want to make sure you’re safe. That he’s treating you alright.” “You never cared before.” “Am I not allowed to now?” Raipu almost laughed, shaking his head. “You think I’m up to something, is that it? You think Illum and I are whispering in a dark corner, plotting some evil scheme?” “I never said that.” “But you’re thinking it.” Aya lifted her chin, guilt rising in her stomach, but she tried to play it off as offense. “Why on earth would you assume that I — ” “Go on,” Raipu cut her off, emotion breaking in his voice. “You want to know what I’m up to? What I’m doing out here? Take a look,” he gestured to the open tunnel. Aya hesitated, looking into the tunnel before glancing back to Raipu. She didn’t quite know what to say, and before she could come up with something Raipu went on. “It’s a cistern, Aya. I come here every evening.” He paused, his gaze cold, and suddenly solemn. “Because the sound of water helps ease my mind. Because I can’t sleep anymore. Because every time I close my eyes I see Nika, dying behind that door.” Aya swallowed. “Raipu we had no choice….” “Look — it doesn’t matter,” Raipu said, his mask tired, obviously not wanting to go into this right now. “I’m actually glad to run into you. It saves me a trip.” It was Aya’s turn to cock her head. “A trip…?” “Yeah,” Raipu replied, reaching into his satchel, pulling out a sealed letter. “I’m supposed to give this to you.” Aya hesitated. “Who’s it from?” “I don’t know,” Raipu said quickly, insisting that she take it. She did, and he closed his bag and started to walk away. “It’s not my job to ask questions.” Puzzled, Aya looked down at the envelope. It was nice parchment, and her name was written along the front in beautiful black calligraphy. Curious, she wasted no time in breaking the seal, unfolding the small piece of paper that was enclosed. The script was short and to the point, but her eyes widened as she read it. Aya — I heard you wanted to see me. An associate of mine will meet you at Ta-Koro’s southern gate, tonight at dusk. Come alone. —Turaga Illum Aya looked to the sky, her muscles suddenly tense, her heart suddenly thudding. It was almost dusk. She wavered for a second, before hurriedly crumpling the paper and looking back to Raipu, now a dozen feet away and moving farther from her. “What does he want?” Raipu answered without stopping or turning around. “Not my job to ask questions, Aya.” Aya stared after him, her mind racing. “…Will I be safe?” “Again — not my job!” Raipu’s voice faded as he turned a corner down the street. Aya cursed, straightening her belt, securing her sword and dagger before checking her bow, making sure the string was tight. She knew what lay beyond Ta-Koro’s southern gate, and she didn’t like it. But she had to make a decision, and this might be the only chance she’d get to meet with the Turaga of Onu-Koro. She swallowed, composing herself as she rolled her shoulders and cracked her neck, loosening up as she normally did before a fight. She moved for the southern wall, her gaze focused and determined, yet also nervous. She wasn’t exactly thrilled to venture into the Charred Forest. ~~~ Click! Takua held his breath as the lock on his shackles let out the tiny, almost indiscernible sound. It was the sound of yet another pin clicking into place, the miniscule, quiet sound of success. This was the fourth pin of five, as he’d been able to figure out over the past… however long it had been since he started. He knew it was the middle of the night, as dinner had been served hours ago, but he was still hard at work, determined not to give up while he was still making progress. His fork had proven extremely valuable; the prongs were flexible enough to bend so they’d fit the keyhole, but sturdy enough to hold their shape as he twisted and prodded the inside of lock. He was almost there, and had only broken one of its four prongs so far. He pushed the fork in further, bending it just a little more, feeling for any movement inside the lock, twisting his wrist as he tried to push up the final pin. He was close. He was close…! And then —crack! “Mata Nui!” Takua cursed under his breath. Make that two of his four prongs. But then, movement. Takua stirred, hiding his tool behind him, pulling the broken prong out of the keyhole before the heavy clumping of armored boots made it to the door at the top of the stairs. It swung open quietly, and the dim yellow glow of a candle shone as two Kryll descended the steps. The rest of the ship was quiet; most of the crew were probably sleeping. The two exchanged a few hushed words before pausing at the foot of the stairs, their heads turning to the long cargo hold, their gaze finally reaching Takua at its end. Thinking quickly, Takua pretended to be asleep.One of them spoke in a deep, rumbling voice, just barely audible from the other side of the ship. “…Almost forgot that one was down here.” “Don’t worry about him; he’s a deep sleeper,” the other shrugged off, his voice rougher, older. “He won’t bother anybody. I haven’t hardly seen him move since we left the island.” “…I don’t like him.” The second Kryll laughed. “He’s a Matoran, nobody likes him.” There was the sound of something scraping across the floor, and then the definitive crack of a barrel being opened. “You sure ‘bout this? If Sithrak finds out — “ “If Sithrak finds out. Which he won’t,” the other Kryll interjected. There was the sound of liquid sloshing, and he went on. “Here. Settle your nerves. Makuta knows we’re not rationed enough anyways.” The first Kryll grunted. “You know why he’s so stingy? We got a lot down here.” “Who knows? If I were him I’d let us have our fill. Just so we could stand being around him.” The Kryll snickered as chairs scooted across the floor, and Takua peeked through his eyelids, sensing he had lost their interest. They were simple crew members, both in standard gray armor. The one with the deeper voice was huge brute, and was built like a wall. At least three times as wide as Takua and with legs as thick as tree trunks, he dwarfed the chair he sat upon, corded muscles spilling over almost comically. But the other was much smaller, and Takua realized it was the Kryll’s surgeon — he had that unmistakable scar, and the mutilated mandible. He was clearly the older of the two, but the pair sat on the other side of the hold as equals, just beyond the infirmary. The light of the candle illuminated their tankards, and Takua could smell the brew they drank, sweet with fruit, yet heavy with hops. It was familiar, although he couldn’t quite place it. The brute grabbed a drink the other had poured for him, taking a few gulps before setting it back down, his body visibly relaxing. “That’s good stuff. Not like that water they ‘ave in Po-Koro.” “Yeah, its southern drink. Guess they picked it up outside of Le-Koro on the last raid.” And then it hit Takua. The smell of their drinks, why it recognized it: it was brew from home; he’d had it before, in the Twisted Nail. His mind buzzed. Had the Kryll raided Le-Koro again? What had happened to his people? He bit his lip, trying to calm himself. If he ever got out of here, if he ever made it back to the jungle… would there be anything waiting for him? He shuddered, trying to push out the thought. “Le-Koro? That’s up in the mountains, innit?” “Come on, Rikks…” the surgeon put down his drink, and it was only then that Takua recognized the brute — he was the one who’d placed him and Jaka together, back on Three-Finger Island. The surgeon rubbed his temples before looking back to his companion. “You ever seen a map before? There aren’t that many cities with the ‘Koro’ name on them.” “Hey,” Rikks crossed his huge arms defensively. “I don’t like readin,’ and I really don’t like readin’ maps. Never left the bamboo forests in my life ‘till we marched for Po-Koro.” “…Seriously? How’d you get picked for this job then?” Rikks shrugged his bulky shoulders. “I’m loyal and good at fightin,’ I guess.” “Tons of people are loyal and good at fighting.” “Yeah but they ain’t ever fought a Toa, ‘ave they?” This caused the veteran to raise his eyebrows. “…You fought a Toa? You never told me that before.” “Alongside Krosis, yeah,” he smirked, taking a swig from his mug. “Battle of Po-Koro. Had to fight off Pohatu just to capture the city. When everybody else was running I was swinging my axe. An’ Krosis noticed that.” “Huh,” the surgeon nodded, seemingly impressed. “How was he in person? All my years, and I’ve never even seen him.” “Pohatu? Or Krosis?” There was a sigh of exasperation, and the surgeon shook his head. “Krosis, of course!” “Oh! Best warrior I ever seen. And he’s real good at leadin.’ Gave us a speech before stormin’ the gates — glory and honor and all that. You shoulda seen us; we’d ‘ave followed him into the Mangai if he asked.” After a long drag he placed his mug down, empty. He went on as the other Kryll refilled it. “Never respected anyone more.” “Yeah, well… he does have his talents, doesn’t he?” Takua craned his head as he tried to get a better view of the Kryll. It was strange to hear them talk about someone he hated so much, but in a way it was interesting. His chains clinked as he moved his shoulder, and the two looked back in his direction. Takua dipped his head instantly, and, taking him to be still asleep, they paid him no mind. “…Just wish the cap’n was like that.” Rikks added, finally. The surgeon groaned, hunching over the barrel as he rubbed his temples again. “You hear what he did to the quartermaster yesterday? Winds were strong, sea was calm, and everybody was in a good mood. But he forgot one of his sheets for his report. So he asks if he can grab it real quick, it’s just sitting underneath his hammock, right? Wrong! Sithrak goes off, angry about everything, out of nowhere! Gave him a black eye and tied him to the mast. Made him sleep there all night.” “Huh, I was wonderin’ what he was doin’ there,” Rikks responded, as if he hadn’t thought anything about one of his crewmates being tied to the mast until now. “Did you notice Rashi though?” “Chief…” Rikks frowned. “You know I ain’t real good at noticin’ things.” “How many times have I told you to stop calling me that?” “Sorry, Chief,” Rikks grinned. The surgeon, apparently named Chief, rolled his eyes. “Anyway… Rashi. You see her? She was quiet like always, but you could tell she was furious. I don’t think she can stand him much longer. And there’ll be trouble if that happens.” “What’s she care? It’s not her crew.” “Oh… you don’t know?” Takua opened his eyes and furrowed his brow, curious to hear what the Kryll was about to say. Rashi, knowingly or not, had given him the note from Illum, as well as his fork. And she had spared Jaka his fingers that one time. If she wasn’t getting along with the captain… well, Takua decided to close his mind and open his ears. “You see,” Chief went on, his scar catching the candlelight as he lowered his voice and leaned over. “This was probably a little before your time, but back when we were still wandering about in tribes, back when Krosis was still trying to unite us all under Makuta, her and Sithrak were enemies.” Rikks looked puzzled. “But they’re both in Krosis’ council, ain’t they?” Chief nodded. “I’ll get to that. But her clan — and a number of others, mind you — they all thought we should stick to the old ways. Keep close to the earth, you know? Seek peace with the Matoran where we could find it, instead of uniting and starting a war like Krosis wanted.” He paused to take a drink, wetting his throat before continuing. “So Krosis, knowing how passionate Sithrak is about everything, has him travel to all these clans and speak out, see if he can convert any of their people over to his cause. Sithrak does what he does best, and with a little muscle from Noruk where need be, Krosis gets a lot of followers. Suddenly, all these clan leaders who wanted peace are in the minority, and from there its easy pickings — a kidnapping here, an accident there, and just like that everyone has no choice but to look to Krosis, who names himself ‘King of the Kryll.’” “That why some people call her a traitor, ‘cause she was against Krosis?” Rikks asked. “I mean, I never seen anybody say it to her face, but some of the crew been mumbling about it when she ain’t around.” “Don’t you listen to them, she’s never betrayed anyone as far as I know. And if you get on her bad side she’ll mess you up, I’ve seen it.” Chief pointed a long, clawed finger at Rikks. “But you see, when Krosis took power, he saw how good she was at stealth and gathering intelligence, so he gave her a choice: swear fealty or die. Obviously she swore, even though it’s clear she doesn’t really care for his cause. But Krosis let her into his circle, albeit on a short leash. Which is why we’re stuck here with Sithrak, too.” Rikks frowned for a second, contemplating a thought before responding. “But why don’t she like Makuta? I heard of some Kryll thinkin’ like that, but he ain’t done nothin’ but good for us, I say.” “Well…” Chief paused, choosing his next words carefully, as if he had many thoughts on the matter, but didn’t dare voice them out loud. “I don’t know,” he responded blandly. “People just have different ideas of how the world should be, I guess.” And Rikks thought again, scrunching up his face as if he wasn’t very good at doing so. But before he could reply, Chief brought their conversation back on track. “What I’m trying to say is,” he cleared his throat, “long story short — Rashi’s here, taking orders from the very person who turned her clan against her. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything’s going to happen, but… well, there’s a lot of tension on this ship. And it might all snap before we make it across the sea.” “Tension?” “Yeah,” Chief explained, trying to clarify for his companion. “You know, like you feel before a storm. Before a fight breaks out.” This was easier for Rikks to handle. “So? Sithrak’s the boss. If Rashi makes trouble we beat her up, right?” “I’m trying to tell you that it doesn’t matter if Sithrak is in charge. After all, you and I aren’t his biggest fans, are we? “Yeah but he’s the boss. So I do what he says anyways.” “Ugh, just listen for a second, will you?” Chief set his tankard down. “I’m just saying I’ve been around both of them before. And neither are very… flexible. So if this goes on, if they keep trying to get at each other’s throats, people are going to start taking sides. And remember, I’m not saying anything’s going to happen, but if it does... we need to make sure we’re on the right side.” Rikks looked puzzled. “…What’s wrong with the left side? My hammock’s on the left side of the ship.” Chief smacked Rikks upside the head. “The winning side, you big idiot. Look, I’ve lived through a lot of power grabs, and I did it by anticipating people’s actions and picking the right allies before everything blows up. And here, if we pick the losing side, we’ll end up swimming with the fish.” “Right,” Rikks nodded. “Swimming with the fish. Which is… bad….” Chief groaned. “Makuta help me — we’ll end up dead, Rikks!” “Oh! Yeah, I don’t like that.” “Yeah, you’re telling me. Look, you and I, we have to stick together. Everybody on this ship is good at what they do, or else they wouldn’t have been picked for this whole thing. But that doesn’t mean they’re good people or that I like them.” Chief took another sip from his tankard. “Now, I can smell trouble pretty well, and I can mostly make sure we make friends with the right people. But I have a few jobs for you, alright?” “Whatcha need, Chief?” Chief paused for a second to chug the last of his drink before looking Rikks in the eye. “First off, whatever I do or say, just go along with it.” Rikks finished his drink as well, smiling with a sharp, toothy grin. “No problem, Chief.” “Also, I need you to — hey, pay attention, this is important,” he snapped his fingers, forcing Rikks’ attention away from his drink. “I need you to not make any enemies. Can you do that for me, big guy?” “I can do anything I set my mind to, Chief.” “Yeah, that’s what I’m worried about,” Chief muttered with a sigh, before putting their tankards away and sealing the barrel back up. “Now come on, somebody will notice if we’re off our posts for too long.” Takua watched as the two scooted the barrel and chairs back to their proper positions, before pretending to be asleep again as they turned towards him and made their way back up the stairs, the candle light fading as they moved. Their feet clumped up the wooden steps, and soon the creak of iron hinges and the thumping of wood signified that Takua was once again alone. Alone, in the dark, with nothing but his thoughts. But now, he had so much to think about. He sat in the shadows, staring at the ceiling as his mind sifted through everything the pair had told him. The tension on the ship, the dynamic between Rashi and Sithrak, how Krosis had come to power in the first place. It was all very… interesting, to say the least. In the grand scheme of things, it probably wasn’t much, but it felt like he had learned of events he wasn’t supposed to know, and that in itself was exciting. It felt like he had something on his captors now, something to work from, something he could use against them — if only he could figure out how. He remembered a conversation he’d had once, a long time ago. At the center of the Underworld, in Turaga Whenua’s old study, he’d talked with the newly-appointed leader of Onu-Koro. Of course, that entire encounter hadn’t gone as planned, but he had learned a fair amount from the experience. Information is the key to victory, right Illum? He leaned back against the hull, feeling content. There was power in patience; there was power in planning, and something told him that he could use this. Takua smiled, feeling for the first time in a while — well, powerful. Takua doubled down, working on his shackles with renewed vigor. He could use this to his advantage.
  11. Chapter 8 - Perseverance “Apologies for the wait….” Mako tapped a pile of papers on his desk, organizing them into a neat rectangle before placing them to the side and looking up. His eyes were tired and sunken, but other than that, his Matatu was emotionless. “It’s been a busy morning. Now, how may I help, you… Aya? It is Aya, yes? Defender of the Atouri?” “Yeah,” Aya quipped, staring with her arms crossed. She’d wasted no time in coming here, and Mako’s quarters were just what she’d expected: functional, but plain. “How are you? You seem a little under the weather,” she asked with narrow eyes, trying to glean any bit of information she could. “Tired, but well,” Mako returned her look, not sure why she was asking. “As I said; it’s been a busy morning. But surely you have a more pressing reason for visiting?” Aya looked him up and down, disappointed. He did look well. The best she’d ever seen him. Gone was the heaving, the coughing, the shaking from last night, gone was his twitching and fidgeting, his general nervousness. He didn’t even flinch when she dropped her dagger to the floor, loudly rattling as the steel met stone before she apologized, blaming her clumsy hands. In the few hours of night that had passed since she’d last seen him, Mako had become the Guard Captain she expected: strong-willed and to-the-point, perhaps even annoyed she was here, seemingly wasting his precious time. Aya picked her dagger off the floor, not sure if she should be comforted or put-off by his change in demeanor. “Alright…” she said. “I have to see the Turaga. Or the Toa — Toa Gali. As soon as possible.” “Toa Gali has left the city temporarily,” Mako leaned back in his chair, confirming the rumors she’d heard. He crossed his arms. “May I ask your reason?” Aya paused, copying him, as she leaned back as well. “It’s private.” Mako sighed, picking up a scroll and starting to read it, clearly not giving Aya his full attention. “Do you know how many Matoran have told me that? The Turaga are extremely busy, I can’t just let anyone in to see them on ‘private business.’ Nothing would ever get done.” “Look,” Aya said, not trusting Mako enough to say anything about her suspicions. “It’s important, okay? Nuju himself gave me the task of escorting the Atouri. I know Gali and Nokama personally, and I’ve worked with many of the Turaga before. They trust me.” She swallowed, trying her best not to get on the Ta-Matoran’s bad side. “I know you’re busy, but all I need is an escort into the palace.” The Guard Captain didn’t look up from his scroll. “And do you know how many Matoran have told me that?” Aya bit her tongue, already preferring the twitchy Mako over this brash, stubborn one. She lowered her voice, trying to sound as pressing as possible. “I have information that could affect the security of the council, for their ears only. And sorry for asking, but if someone like me isn’t important enough to meet with the Turaga, then who is?” Mako glanced up before putting his scroll down and leaning forward. “As I’m sure you know, I oversee the Turaga’s security. So, that being said — if you know something that might affect that security, perhaps it would be in everyone’s best interest for you share it with me?” Aya clenched her jaw, pausing as she tried to think her way out of this. “I have specific instructions from Nokama that I am to report to her, and her only,” she lied. “I’m under an oath of secrecy. Do you want me to break that?” “Not at all. But surely you won’t mind if I verify that with her first?” Aya groaned as she rubbed her temples, well-aware that this was going downhill fast. She’d rather stay under the radar; what would Nokama say if Mako approached her with an obvious lie? Aya stopped herself before she paused too long. “...We don’t have time for that!” “Look,” Mako leaned over his desk, clearly having had this conversation before. “As soon as Le-Koro arrives, the Turaga and Toa are going to lock themselves in the council chamber, and not come out until they’ve decided on a solid plan of action. And in the meantime, it’s my responsibility to provide a safe and productive environment for them, so they can gather the information they need to make the best decisions. Now, I’m not saying I don’t believe you, but how do I sift the important issues from those just looking to benefit from the Turaga’s presence, or from those who may wish to do them harm? By getting as much information as I can.” He concluded, leaning back in his chair again. “So, if you want to see the Turaga, I need to know what’s going on.” Aya sat there, at a loss for what to do now. Her mask warming, she kept her mouth shut, fearing an outburst would ruin her chances of ever getting in. Feeling it was best to cut her losses and rethink her strategy, she looked to the floor. “Well… fine,” she mumbled through gritted teeth. “Thank you for your time then.” Mako nodded, acknowledging her decision as she stood and turned to leave. Aya crossed the study, opened the door, and was halfway out when the Ta-Matoran suddenly spoke her name. “Aya.” She paused, looking over her shoulder. And for just a second, Mako twitched, letting the other side of his personality break through. His yellow eyes stared at her, just slightly glimmering before he opened his mouth to speak. But then he froze, and no words came out. He looked at her, as if asking for help, his mouth hanging half open, stuck on his own thoughts. Aya squinted, her brow furrowing as he took just a second too long to respond. “…Yes?” And Mako sat up, once again his normal self, his voice was stoic and professional. “I’m sorry I can’t help you.” Aya paused, puzzled by his mannerisms. “Yeah… me too,” she replied, then quickly left. ~~~ Takua soon found himself aboard the flagship, separated from Jaka before Sithrak noticed they had been briefly placed together. Takua hated it, but it wasn’t all bad; if Sithrak had known they’d spoken, he wouldn’t have been happy. And it seemed the Kryll put in charge of him realized that, as their brief meeting stayed a secret. And so, still chained up, still holding his little metal fork, Takua was once again attached to an iron ring in the hull, this time within a metal cell, in the lowest part of the ship. But surprisingly, Takua found his new accommodations weren’t all that bad. The flagship was three, maybe four times bigger than their schooner, with multiple floors built within its massive hull. The deck was multi-layered, with Sithrak’s quarters at the rear, its roof forming the tallest portion of the deck, where a helmsman manned the wheel. A narrow staircase allowed access to the lower levels, the first of which was the crew’s quarters, and weapon storage. This level had hatches along the walls that opened outward, presumably so the Kryll could fire arrows out, but also — as Takua had made sure to notice — to allow access to the flagship’s longboats, which hung along both sides. The lowest floor was where Takua found himself, again with the freight and ballast, but now also among Kryll’s kitchen, and infirmary. These two rooms were at the rear of the ship, closest to the staircase, and Takua’s cell was located at the bow, separated from everything by a long, dark, path through the freight. A lone lantern illuminated his end of the hold; it was obvious Sithrak wanted to isolate him, to break his will even further. But Takua simply found it quiet. Calming, almost. He couldn’t eavesdrop as well as he could on the schooner, but he did have more privacy. And, he thought as he looked down at his fork, warm between his fingers — that was especially important. They were back at sea now, and Takua had very few visitors. It was the cook he saw most of, the small, brown Kryll who worked tirelessly at the opposite end of the hold, pulling together dishes and hauling them up and down the stairs, making sure everyone, including Takua, was fed. He didn’t know his name — everyone just called him ‘Cook,’ and so Takua decided he would too. Three times a day Cook would bring him a meal, usually small and lukewarm, but Takua made sure to thank him nonetheless. He figured if he was nice to Jaka, he couldn’t be all bad. And maybe, if this Kryll took a liking to him, it could come in useful later. But Cook never spoke a word to Takua; only clicking his mandibles once or twice before heading back to the kitchen. The other visitor Takua caught glimpses of was the surgeon, who seemed to be a new member of the crew since they’d swapped vessels, but that didn’t mean he was a rookie in any sense of the word. He knew his way around the ship like the back of his hand, constantly moving in and out of his infirmary and the hold, kept very busy with whatever his slew of duties were. With standard grey armor he was lean and quick, larger than Cook but much smaller than the brutes, and a long scar on his face ended in a mutilated, broken mandible, suggesting a lifetime of experience. Occasionally, at the end of the day, he would sit in the middle of the hold, crack open a barrel of brew and have a drink to himself. Takua got the feeling that Cook and this Kryll were something close to outcasts; not large or strong enough to have the status of brute or warrior, but still kept around for their necessary, if underappreciated, skills. And so Takua’s routine went on, occasionally visited by these two Kryll, but for the most part, left alone with his thoughts. Left alone, with his plans. Takua watched through the bars of his cell as Cook lugged a steaming crockpot up the stairs, ready to serve the crew. His muscles twitched, growing eager as the Kryll’s footsteps thumped upward, and then Cook had pushed his way through the wooden door, entering the crew’s quarters above. The door swung shut behind him, and… finally. He opened his palms, grabbing the fork in one hand as he shoved one of its prongs into the keyhole of his shackles, cautiously, carefully, feeling around inside the metal lock. He’d been at this for hours, slowly trying to feel his way through the metal pins, carefully pushing, pulling, prodding his way toward freedom. He was by no means a locksmith, but with this one tool he knew he could figure it out. He knew he could do it, given enough time. And if there was one thing he had on this ship — it was time. It’d been in his mind since speaking with Jaka. His first problem was the shackles. But — he presumed as he jiggled his fork, feeling a single pin slide in the direction he wanted — he would solve that eventually. The same went for the lock on his cell; it would be a bit harder, as it was on the opposite side of the bars and he would have to pick it blind, but once his hands were free he knew he could do it — assuming the fork held up. His major problem was what to do at that point, though. He and Jaka could steal a longboat while most of the crew were sleeping, but he’d first have to get a message to his friend. There were so many factors to consider, with guard schedules, weather, how to get supplies — and even if they pulled that off, even if they got far enough away so that the Kryll couldn’t find them once their absence was noticed, neither of them knew how to navigate at sea. They’d be adrift; lost in the vast expanse of ocean, with no way to find their way home. The dim lantern flickering as he moved his fork, Takua felt a little click inside the lock. He squinted, trying to decide if that was a good or bad. One problem at a time… he told himself. And besides, Takua had a feeling something was up. Sithrak wasn’t one to leave the island in the middle of the night; he would’ve wanted to gloat, to have a glorious send-off in his beautiful new ship, to give a booming speech about destiny, salvation, or whatever. Takua tried to push the thought out of his head, as he didn’t want to get his hopes up… but he couldn’t stop seeing Illum’s note in his mind. Do not give up hope; we are coming… Maybe, if they could get off this ship, if they could get a longboat… someone would come. Someone searching for them, someone on Sithrak’s trail would come by, and — Takua stopped himself. Grimacing as he moved his fork just barely, bending its prong just enough to push another pin into the unlocked position. He focused on his task at hand. One problem at a time, he thought. ~~~ She squinted, gazing into the crowd as she poked her head out from under a low-hanging tapestry. From her secluded alleyway, she could just see Mako on the other side of the street, walking through the mass of people. Though in a moment he was gone, and she moved to keep him in view. The market was busy, as always, and the golden, early-morning haze highlighted every glint of Ta-Matoran armor. Fumes of nearby furnaces muddied the air, but Aya didn’t mind. Through the hustle and bustle of business and trade, it was easy to stay hidden. Another glimpse of the Guard Captain, and Aya was on the move, pushing past a stand selling fresh fruits and veggies, following just far away enough to not arouse suspicion. A slight of her hand and she had grabbed an apple, tossing a widget into the owner’s bucket. He didn’t seem to notice. Her teeth sank into the fruit as she watched Mako move purposefully toward the Lake of Fire. After their conversation, she knew she no longer had the luxury of listening to rumors. The Guard Captain’s suspicious behavior was one thing, but if he was actively going to keep from the Turaga? Something far worse had to be going on, and she was going to find out what — all by herself, if she had to. Aya slid behind a cluster of nobles as Mako looked back. But the Ta-Matoran didn’t see her, and a second later he was on his way again. Another crisp bite of the apple and Aya followed with renewed perseverance. Mako had reached the shell of the Mangai now, and was talking to two guards positioned at the tower there. The conversation lasted a few minutes, and Aya used the time to grab a thin square of fabric from a nearby clothesline. She draped it over her mask, disguising herself as a weary traveler. There weren’t too many Ga-Matoran here, and she didn’t want to be recognized as the one who stalked Mako everywhere. His conversation over, the Guard Captain moved on to cross the Lake of Fire, and Aya waited a minute or two before following. She pushed her way through the crowd, passing through the tower’s open gate, watching the guardsmen through the corner of her eye. They paid her no attention. Sticking close to a ragtag group of traders, she crossed the fiery lake, its searing heat enveloping the narrow stone bridge. Mako walked faster now, was he in a hurry? She had no doubt they were headed to the Turaga’s palace, but as they crossed the bridge, as elder Ta-Koro arose through the red haze and they walked through its inner gate, her suspicions were confirmed. The maroon Matoran made a beeline for the palace’s doors, and she moved faster, pushing her way through the square, hoping maybe she could slip through behind him. He was talking with these guards now, nodding as they gave their report, while another Matoran stood — …What? Aya paused, her yellow eyes wide as she stared at the four Matoran: Mako, the two guards at the door, and…. Raipu. What was he doing here? Aya pulled the fabric tighter around her mask, staring as the crowd moved around her, watching as Raipu listened to everything, before nodding to Mako, and the two were ushered through a small opening in the heavy iron doors. She cursed her hesitation, moving quickly as she tried to get close, but the doors slammed shut again, clicking as they locked tight, the guards once again on alert. Aya wanted to scream. She stood in the middle of the square, balling her fists tight as she tried to search the building for any opening — a servant’s door, a low window, a ledge she could climb up, but no. It was designed to be secure. Raipu? she huffed. Raipu gets in and I don’t!? “Hey!” she yelled at one of the guards, giving into her anger as she marched confidently, perhaps stupidly, forward. “Hey!” she yelled again, and this time the guard turned toward her, cocking his head in a curious, cautious manner. “Why’d you let him in?” she demanded, suddenly not caring about stealth. “That Po-Matoran with Mako, why’d you let him in?” “Sorry miss,” the guard recited his line as he had probably done a thousand times before. “No one gets into the palace without an escort by the Turaga or the Captain of the Guard. And that Po-Matoran was with the Captain.” “Yeah, I know that. But why did you let him in? What’s he doing in there that’s so important?” “Inspecting the council chamber’s security, so I’ve been told. Happens every day before work gets going. Not that it’s any of your business, Miss…?” “Miss None-Of-Your-Business, actually,” Aya snarked, pulling the fabric tight against her mask. “Do you even know who that is? Do you ever even ask where he comes from?” The guard leaned against his staff, starting to get annoyed. “I know he’s with the Guard Captain, so he gets in. That’s how this whole thing works.” “Hey, wait a minute,” the other guard chimed in. “I think I recognize you. Weren’t you here the other day trying to get in? Take that cloth off, lemme see your mask.” Aya took a step back, immediately playing her part. “A palace guard forcing a weary traveler to expose herself? If this isn’t an abuse of power!” “Hey... what!? You listen here, Miss None-Of-Your-Business — ” “Good day!” Aya stomped her foot, storming off before anything could escalate. She quickly turned a corner, hiding in a secluded alleyway before muttering ‘Fire-spitters,’ among a few other choice words. She crossed her arms. This… this was Illum’s doing. It had to be. He must have gained some leverage over Mako, and was using Raipu to influence him and carry out his schemes. The Turaga of Onu-Koro was working with the Kryll, and was going to sabotage the council… or something. Aya didn’t know, not yet at least, but this had to be some sort of power grab, some way to gain control over the other Turaga. But that was all fine. She turned around, marching back to her inn, where she knew Raipu was staying as well. She could find the answers she needed — all by herself.
  12. Chapter 7 - Resolve Soon enough, their journey began once more. Thunder cracked and Takua clenched his fists. He watched the Kryll move about, hauling crates along the dock, moving supplies onto the great flagship that sat at the end of the harbor. Shivering as the wind and rain pelted him, he gazed up at the massive vessel, its grey sails furled upon three towering masts. Sithrak had swapped out their schooner for this dominant craft; a necessary change for his self-proclaimed ‘journey to salvation.’ He’d even bragged about escort ships, scout ships, battleships — it seemed they would arrive on the Eastern Continent with their own miniature fleet, carrying all those important enough to witness the dawn of their ‘New Age.’ But Takua didn’t see those ships now, and he couldn’t help but roll his eyes. He knew what this really was: Sithrak stroking his ego. He turned his attention to the shanty-covered island. Unlike their arrival, there was no fanfare for their departure. The packed-together buildings were one solid, dark grey mass, with only a few points where torchlight shone through shuttered windows. The Kryll who lived here were all in their homes, quiet, asleep in their beds, sheltered from the torrential rain. Takua rolled his shoulders, his chains clinking as another sheet of water came crashing down. Must be nice. After only a day and a half on the island, locked in the fortress at its peak, Sithrak’s brutes had dragged him back to the harbor in the dead of night. It was strange, now that he thought about it — in the middle of a storm? Takua looked back to the flagship, barely seeing Sithrak’s outline, barking orders over the torrential rain. It seemed the Kryll was in a hurry, or at least had a very tight schedule to keep. Perhaps… he’d received word that someone was following them? Takua wasn’t sure if he wanted to hope. “…I don’t know, just throw him somewhere, Rikks! We got a lot to haul still!” “Where? I was just told to grab him. I don’t wanna get on Sithrak’s bad side.” “Just make sure he’s tied up good and come on!” Takua looked up as a pair of bulky Kryll approached, one lugging three crates, the other, seemingly named Rikks, pulling a chain with a smaller figure in tow. For a second Takua squinted, trying to see through the downpour, but then lightening flashed, and… Jaka! Takua hid his excitement as the massive brute thumped over to him, making eye contact as Jaka was pulled closer. They exchanged a glance, and in a minute he was tied to the post as well. The two sat on the slippery dock as the Kryll loomed over them. “Stay,” Rikks growled before stomping off to grab more supplies. The two Le-Matoran sat there, waiting in silence as the rain pounded around them, until the Kryll was out of earshot. Then, quickly turning to each other, they both spoke at the same time. “Thank Mata Nui you’re — ” “I was worried they’d — ” They paused, taking a moment to give each other reassuring nod. Jaka nudged Takua with his elbow; it was the friendliest gesture he could manage, considering their wrists were still bound. “Hey,” he asked. “How are you holding up?” His Kakama was dark, but his eyes were still bright, still full of that signature Jaka energy. Takua shook his head as he looked down at their chains. “I’m… still holding, Jaka.” “Well…” Jaka shrugged. “We’re alive. We have that going for us, right?” “Yeah. Are they treating you alright?” Jaka hesitated, scratching the back of his mask. “Well… I spend most of my time locked in the crew’s quarters. And a handful of them are okay, like the cook. But I think if it weren’t for Sithrak’s orders a lot of them would’ve thrown me overboard by now. They figure I just get in their way.” Takua raised an eyebrow. “Do you?” Jaka grinned. “Oh, every chance I get.” They were quiet as more Kryll thudded past, dragging a rickety cart full of food and drink. Once they were alone again, Jaka went on. “What about you? Sithrak give you any more trouble?” Takua huffed, lowering his gaze to stare at his boots. “What do you think, Jaka?” he replied, his palms still pressed together. “Hey,” Jaka nudged him again. “Hey… look at me,” he repeated, waiting until Takua made eye contact, and then he smiled. It was a sad, yet somehow optimistic grin. A gesture that, even considering their circumstances, still dared to hope. “We’re going to get out of here. You hear me? We’re going to get out of these chains, we’re going to find wherever Sithrak keeps the Atouri, and we’re — ” “No.” Jaka’s smile faded. “Come on, Takua. You can’t just give up — ” “He came to me,” Takua said abruptly, knowing that if he didn’t just say it, his words would quickly fail. He looked at his friend, guilt welling up in his throat as he nodded. “He already took it. Makuta has the Atouri.” Jaka paused. “…What do you mean?” And Takua explained it. He told him how it happened, how it hadn’t been Talim at all, and rather Makuta, using her form as bait. He told him how he’d seen the yellow in her eyes, and how her fingers had closed around it, then disappearing into a whirl of shadow. And Takua swallowed, taking a deep breath before continuing, summing up what it all meant. “It’s over, Jaka.” The rain fell upon them, cascading onto their armor, pinging and thumping as it hit metal and wood and the water around them. And for a moment, the world was grey. For a moment the world was bleak and cold, without color or life, and as they sat there, chained to a weathered stump on a forgotten island far from home, the world was doomed. But it was only for a moment. “Takua, you know I’ll always have your back,” Jaka piped up again, piercing the lull in their conversation. “But you can be really thick sometimes.” “…What?” Jaka turned to face Takua as best he could. “If it was over, why would we be here right now? Why would they be lugging us across the sea, why would Sithrak still be yammering on about his ‘New Age,’ and why would Makuta still hide in the shadows, only appearing as… I don’t know… as fleeting ghosts?” He let out a half-smile, shrugging as if all of this were obvious. “I can’t say I understand it, but I just feel like if it were really over, if Makuta was really back to his full strength…” he trailed off, pulling his thoughts together before continuing. “…We would know.” His words fell like the rain upon Takua’s weary mind. Heavy, but cleansing and refreshing, washing away all the dirt and grime, the blackness that had accumulated in the corners of his consciousness. It was almost hard to accept, after dwelling so long in the dark… but it did make sense. If the Atouri was all Makuta needed to release his wrath upon the world, why was the world still here? “I don’t know how, or why…” Jaka continued, “…but I know that it’s not over. Not yet.” So Takua lifted his chin, replying with a small nod. Illum’s note appeared in his mind, and he thought about the hastily written words, the sugary paper glinting in the moonlight. And for the first time since leaving his cell at the fortress, Takua opened his fists, looking down at the small metal fork Rashi had given him. He’d kept it, smuggled it out within his palms — it had been easy, given that his wrists were always chained together. He looked up to the deck of the flagship, where he could see Sithrak’s silhouette, still pointing and yelling, overseeing their operations. “Yeah…” he responded, closing his fingers around the fork once more. Lightning cracked above them, streaking across the clouds as he stared at the Kryll, his mind focused, fueled, and suddenly clear. He repeated himself, gripping the metal within his hands. “We’ll get out of here, Jaka,” he said, his words both hopeful and threatening as he felt a fire ignite inside his chest. A warmth, slowly growing, rejuvenating him with strength and power. “One way or another, we will.” And Takua narrowed his eyes, his gaze boring into the Kryll. “I swear to it.” ~~~ Ta-Koro began to grow on Aya, once she got to know it better. Sure; it was still crowded and hot, and yes; she still felt the guards were watching her every move, but as time passed, as she went about her business and began to settle in, Aya started to find the parts of the city that called to her, the fragments she belonged in. It was in these areas, the shadowy spaces between spires, the narrow nooks and attenuated alcoves, where Aya found that it was, in fact, still possible to remain unseen. One could still slip away into the shadows, even in a place so loud and crowded as this. And, as she continued to explore, to peel back the first few layers of the City of Fire, she found it opened a whole new world of possibilities. The city’s packed-together buildings were daunting at first, but she soon learned what to look for. A scratch of graffiti here, an open doorway there, a flash of color hanging on an empty clothesline; all these were signs, marking pathways unused by the majority of Matoran. These almost-secret trails took her above and below street level, up ladders and onto balconies, across planks that linked rooftops, through slim passageways and into shadowy taverns. There was almost a whole world unknown to the rest of the city, a world of its own, populated by shady barkeeps, brokers, merchants, and mercenaries. A world, it seemed, that preferred to remain unnoticed by the ever-present Ta-Koro Guard. But Aya stayed focused, choosing to ignore the colorful characters that inhabited this new scene she was quickly discovering. These gruff and sketchy Matoran eyed her whenever their paths crossed, but she simply looked the other way and they paid her no mind. After all, she had business of her own to attend to. She made it a point to truly learn the city, to understand how its gears turned, how its people moved, how the ever-constant bonging of its clocktower influenced it all. She became a fly on the wall, a shadow in the corner. Ever constant, ever vigilant as she watched guardsmen and trailed nobles, intent on finding some way to Illum. She heard rumors about everyone and everything, about people and their pasts, events and actions, predictions and places she’d never been before. And, Aya thought as she took a sip from her drink, now staring out at the dozens of people before her, some of it was quite useful. “The Turaga are worried. They still haven’t heard anything. I know Lewa and Gali went off to investigate, but I’m not sure if they’ve returned yet.” Aya sat in the corner of the dark tavern, listening to multiple conversations as they played out before her. The nobles staying at this inn seemed particularly loose-lipped. “I don’t see why it matters. Le-Koro’s always been out of the way, and Matau’s been gone for how long now? I say just start it all without them. They’re holding everyone up!” “You think the Kryll got to them? People have been saying some were spotted in the Charred Forest.” “Don’t be ridiculous, they’re retreating! I bet there’s not a single Kryll south of Ga-Wahi by now.” Aya brought her tankard to her lips as the candle beside her flickered. Over at the bar, two Onu-Matoran shared a pint. “Spoke to him in the council chamber last night, you would not believe the security they have in there!” “Is it that different from normal? You know how the Guard always is.” “You kidding me? With all the Koro’s leaders in one place, Vakama’s not taking any chances. I mean, the chamber itself is carved out of solid rock beneath the palace, so the Turaga never even have to leave the building. And there’s only one way in or out, with this huge metal door guarded by all the Toa while they’re talking. Makuta himself couldn’t get through there.” “Yeah, I heard no one gets in or out without Guard Captain escorting them.” “It was almost insulting! Don’t they know who I am?” And again, Aya’s attention shifted, this time to two Ga-Matoran scholars. “I have a friend in the Guard. She says he hasn’t always been this twitchy. It only started once everyone from the other Koro arrived.” “What, you think he’s nervous?” “I would be if I was suddenly responsible for keeping all six Turaga and their entourages safe.” “You’re not the Captain of the Ta-Koro Guard.” “Well yes, but it’s still understandable.” “Hmm… I don’t buy it. Either he’s up to something or he’s unfit for the job. Either way, its unprofessional. That’s the way I see it.” Aya leaned back against the wall, contemplating as she inhaled the fumes from her drink. It seemed to be a common theme; Mako, Ta-Koro’s stout-hearted and stoic Captain of the Guard, who was also somehow twitchy and shy in person. The whole thing was admittedly strange, but if she wanted to get to Illum, he seemed to be the key. Aya stayed at the tavern just long enough to finish her drink, then walked out into the evening light. Within minutes she was back at the inn, leaning out the window as she watched the guard house, eyes fixed on Mako’s quarters. Her own room was quiet and dark; Kokani was out reconnecting with some Ko-Matoran he knew from the Sanctum, and Aya didn’t want to make her presence known by unwrapping a lightstone. She huffed, resting her chin on the windowsill as she stared at Mako’s window. No light shone from the inside, which meant he probably wasn’t home… but still. She could wait. And so she did. Bored, Aya watched as night fell upon Ta-Koro, as its forges settled, its roaring smokestacks fizzling into trails of steam. The sun set upon the charcoal buildings and night arose, but no stars were visible tonight. Clouds rolled above and a breeze that smelled of rain blew across her mask. And still Aya waited as the clocktower boomed from far away, marking the ever-growing hours as people began to return to their homes. She watched as guards of all shapes and sizes entered and left the house, some retiring for the night, others just starting their shifts. And yet, even as the late-night taverns began to close, there was no sign of Mako. Starting to get frustrated, she began to wonder. How long would he take? She’d rather not have to search the entire city for him, but if it came to that she supposed — Mata Nui, is that him? A figure shuffled toward the guardhouse, alone and hunched over, holding himself and twitching. Aya squinted for a better look — it was Mako alright, although he didn’t seem well. His steps were shaky, his gait weaving back and forth, and the only way he was able to open the guardhouse’s door was by throwing his weight into it, and stumbling inside. Aya stared as the door closed behind him, confused. She knew the Guard Captain to have a nervous tick, but this made her think he was ill, or even injured. In a second he reappeared, visible again through the foggy window of his quarters, and she watched as he fumbled with his lightstone, barely able to hold it through unsteady fingers. The Ta-Matoran doubled over, suddenly coughing, heaving over his desk as he began claw at his mask before stopping, twitching, then starting all over again. Then, eyes bloodshot, he looked to the window and pushed himself toward it, shoving a pile of papers off his desk as he steadied himself, barely able to keep upright as he wretched. Mako’s hands managed to grab his curtains, and the maroon fabric fell in front of the window, cutting off Aya’s gaze. She stared, wordless, trying to comprehend what she had witnessed. It took her a minute before she was able to move again, and she looked around the square as dozens of questions filled her head. Her brow furrowed, and she dipped back inside the room, realizing that Mako wouldn’t be coming out again anytime soon. She stared off into space and slid down against the wall, sitting on the floor as she tried to make sense of things. She didn’t understand it, but from what she knew about Mako — his strange disparity of personality traits, the sneaking around late at night, the behavior changes with the arrival of the Turaga — it didn’t seem good. And she knew it was foolish to jump to conclusions, but she couldn’t help but feel that something was going on. Something about the council, about Illum and Mako, about the timing of it all… it didn’t feel right. Aya’s fingers slipped to the hilt of her dagger, absent-mindedly gripping it as her heart began to pound. Her mask tensed as she thought, about the implications, about what it could all mean. One thing was for certain: something about Ta-Koro was definitely wrong.
  13. Hey yeah my bad.... so a while back I read through my last two parts and quickly realized that they A) did not remotely follow any character arcs B) did not answer any questions that had been proposed earlier in the story C) just kind of were really bad in general! So I had to take a LOT of time to rework them. Ta-Koro's part is the longest one so far, given that it's basically telling two stories a the same time. Still have a bit of work to do, but I can for sure promise the lapses in posting won't be nearly as bad as this last one. Thanks for still being here
  14. New chapter up. Updated the review topic for clarity. Let's go babey I have been hard at work and I am here!!
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