“Are we there yet?”
“Are we… there yet?”
“Are we there yet?”
“If you say another word, Thok, I’ll invert your entire digestive tract.”
“No need to get tetchy, Vezok my dear. It was a legitimate question.”
“And I gave a legitimate answer, which you seemed not to hear the first seven times. I think you ought to get your hearing looked at. I volunteer to do the inspection myself, I’m very thorough.”
“While there’s nothing I’d prefer – truly, nothing I’d prefer – to your putrid gaze, stubby breath, and glaring fingers invading the orifices of my ears, Vezok, I have a policy against checkups when I’m traveling.”
“Vezok, how do you know we’re not there yet? Last I checked, you couldn’t tell a brakas from a boulder—”
“That was one time, Avak.”
“Yeah, Avak, you’re one to talk—”
“Can’t. Don’t know how. Poor me! And to top it all off I probably also have an ear infection. Ah me, where’s the pity?”
“You simply must get your hearing looked at: I think you just mistook our voices for those of empathetic, pathetic little Toa.”
“Hakann, Hakann… It really is a shame you can’t see anything down here. My hand is trying to give you a very special gift.”
“Reidak stubbed his toe! This is marvelous!”
“Reidak, don’t you have infrared vision?”
“Only shows me heat signatures; I thought you knew better, Avak. I can’t see the stones. I can only see you clowns.”
“More’s the pity.”
“We all care what you think. Vezok, you still didn’t answer my question.”
“Remind me what that was, Avak; I tend to ignore everything you say, it’s an awful habit, I know.”
“You’re oh-so-clever. How do you know we’re not there yet?”
“Because Zaktan hasn’t stopped walking.”
“How do you know that he knows that we’re not there yet?”
“Because, you fool, I’ve been here before.”
“And we’re… not there yet?”
“Easy, Reidak, don’t cause another cave-in.”
“Or do, that’d be delightful.”
“We’re close. But if another one of you speaks a word…”
“No, see, Zaktan let his threat sit unsaid, as he figured it’d be more menacing. As an expert, I beg to differ; I find threats are more effective if you spell them out, nice and pretty—”
“—We all know how you like to operate, Hakann, but I find your unorthodox methods way off-kilter—”
“—Off-killer, you mean—”
“Quiet, you fools. I heard something.”
“I can see them.”
“Infared vision coming in handy at last, eh?”
“Shuttup. They’re coming down side tunnels, towards us. We have a few seconds.”
“I call one!”
“Stop shouting, you’ll draw more.”
“—But it’ll be fun—”
“—That’s not the point—”
“There’s a quick way to handle this: I elect that we cause another cave-in.”
“And kill us all, too? Geez, Avak, you’ve got an obsession, a singular fixation.”
“It’s like he has… tunnel vision!”
“I hate you, Thok.”
The Piraka dispensed of the Rahkshi with a deal of difficulty, but emerged with little more than some cuts and bruises between them. At the prodding of the others, and with a roll of his eyes, Hakann leaned on Zaktan’s elemental powers of air to create and feed a ball of fire that hovered over the group, granting them significantly improved visibility. Avak, meanwhile, palmed a thick, glassy-looking orb, in which was trapped the Kraata that Vezok had torn from the head of one of the Rahkshi in the skirmish. Every now and again, Avak would bounce the surprisingly flexible prison he’d created off the floor or a wall of the passage and back into his own hand, making the Kraata therein squirm and look as queasy as a slug could.
Without much more incident, the Piraka at last reached the cavernous heart of Mangaia, where the smooth, impregnable door to the Vault was situated. Hakann’s fireball seemed dimmer in this chamber, but the inscription on the Vault’s face was nevertheless legible.
“Ah!” Avak exclaimed. “I love riddles. Lesse. ‘Across an endless ocean…’ that could be anywhere.”
“But it can’t be anywhere,” Vezok countered, “Because this riddle is clearly referring to a specific place.”
“Well, duh,” Avak snapped, bouncing his Kraata a little harder than before. “I meant, mister literal, that it could be referring to a number of specific places.”
“Then you should have said that from the beginning,” Vezok retorted.
“Hush children, let’s not fight,” Hakann cooed. “Let’s just have a good time with the brain teaser.”
“The brain teaser is irrelevant,” Zaktan hissed in his million-voice.
“You’re irrelevant,” Thok grinned. “C’mon, Zakkie, let us have our fun. You have to give me a little room to show them how much smarter I am. Alright, ‘beyond where minds can see.’ Well, this is deliberate phrasing, inviting a little analysis, seeing as minds can’t see… unless it’s referring to the mind’s eye! It’s obviously talking about somewhere imaginary.”
“Dasaka ‘see’ with their minds,” Reidak offered.
“Mmm, couldn’t be that simple,” Thok dismissed, scratching his jutted chin with his ice pick. “Reidak, your never honed your close-reading skills, did you?”
“I only learn important things,” muttered Reidak.
“You have tragic priorities, then,” Thok tutted.
“How can thunder be bright?” Avak pondered as he dribbled up to the door. “Thunder’s a noise, not a sight.”
“There are some serious synesthesia issues in this rhyme,” Vezok agreed. “Mind’s don’t see, and you can’t see sound either.”
“What if the whole rhyme is just there to mess with us?” Hakann proposed with a knowing leer. “What if it, like everything else, means… nothing?”
“Hakann, rhyming things are always important,” Thok parried pedantically. “As are all alliterated articles. Really, did none of you study literature?”
“We did not come here to discuss the merits of the writing on the wall,” Zaktan spat impatiently. “We came to go beyond it. Look up.” The others followed Zaktan’s pointer finger to a discernible hole in the ceiling, camouflaged by the stalactites and the deep shadows around it. “That is where we are going. Avak, Reidak, make stairs.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Reidak and Avak replied in unison.
“Jinx! You both owe me drinks!” Thok giggled.
“That isn’t how it works,” Vezok snorted.
“It should be,” Thok replied smugly.
“Make the stairs,” Zaktan ordered deliberately, his intonation that of an aggravated beehive.
Not seeing a suitably revolutionary alternative, Reidak and Avak squared their shoulders and, using the stone and earth of the ground, pulled a steeply spiraling staircase up like a screw from the floor. Zaktan, Antidermis in the pincer of his blade and anticipation flickering on his face, was first to clamber up. The rest of the Piraka, their countenances lighting up greedily, followed. Midway up the narrow, perilous stairs, a few of the gang tried unsuccessfully to push a few of the others off; but seeing Zaktan proceed ahead undeterred without them was ample motivation for the rest of the Piraka not to dally severely. There was profit to be had, and nobody wanted to arrive last to it. Hakann, to his great chagrin, had the misfortune of being at the back of the ascending line.
When Hakann made it up into the peculiarly round passage through the hole in the floor, he gave Reidak a purposeful shove, causing the other Skakdi to stumble forward. That moment, a blue brightness – blinding to the Piraka, whose eyes had for so long been adjusted to the dark – flared up, seemingly from everywhere. The white-green quartz embedded in the walls of the tunnel carried the Abettor’s sigil-light, though none of the Piraka could have noticed this, as all twelve of their eyes were screwed shut and covered by their hands. A sequence of mechanical noises, including the rasps of metal-on-metal and a definite click, preceded the behemoth’s first words.
“Identify yourselves,” the ocean-deep, tinny voice rumbled.
“I’m Thok,” Thok declared as proudly as he could while he still rubbed vigorously at his eyes. “Captain of the couch, sultan of style, and commanding officer to these degenerates—”
“—That one lies,” Vezok snarled. “He’s no commander of mine. I’m Vezok, and I answer to no one—”
“Me neither!” agreed Avak as he buried his pained eyelids in the crook of his arm. “Er, Avak, master mechanic.”
“Disregard his speech impediment, he meant to say ‘terrible tinkerer,’” Hakann drawled while he vainly tried to bat away the beams of light with one hand. “I am Hakann, god-eater. I drink my foes.”
“…You drink your foes?” Vezok snorted incredulously while he reached behind himself to find a piece of wall to submerge his face in.
“Really, was that the best you could come up with?” Avak asked peevishly.
“I’ll drink you—”
“—Uch, no thanks—”
“Two of you have still not identified yourselves,” the Abettor clacked, pummeling the Skakdi’s voices into silence. “Identify yourselves.”
“I’m Reidak,” said Reidak.
“I am Zaktan,” Zaktan stated, his eyes closed but uncovered as he faced the bright blue of the Abettor’s presence. “We are the Piraka.”
“We do not know what Piraka are,” the Abettor said. “Why are you here.”
“Who’s asking?” Avak griped.
“We are asking,” answered the Abettor simply.
“How helpful,” Hakann commented.
“What ‘we?’” called Reidak.
“We are the Abettor.”
“Oh, so there’s more than one,” Vezok concluded.
“Or we could be addressing royalty,” Thok suggested with his signature grin. “Forgive the idiocy of the others, your Majesty, they know not to whom they speak. I implore you to punish them lightly; I’d recommend nothing more serious than a complete atomization—”
“We have come to enter the Vault!” Zaktan roared. His voice, a fractured thunderclap, was of rare volume and avowal. Something capricious, almost fanatical, flared in his eyes, which he’d forced open in spite of the blue brilliance. The others, very much unused to hearing Zaktan speak so ferociously, quieted.
The Abettor let the silence rest uncomfortably upon the shoulders of its guests for what felt like an age. By now, the Piraka’s eyes had recovered enough that they could all squint at the gigantic shape in front of them, make out some of the random letters covering its thick body. All heard a click-drag-click, and something in the center of the Abettor’s canister-shaped torso – unidentifiable in the Piraka’s hazy vision – moved. When the motion stopped, the Abettor spoke again.
“Our duty is to maintain the integrity of the Vault,” it boomed. “Therefore, your request to enter it is rejected. It is against our directive to permit the unworthy to enter this way.”
“I am not unworthy,” Zaktan sneered contentiously as he stepped closer to the behemoth.
With surprising speed, the Abettor shifted itself on its haunches, adapting a more combative posture. The top of its cylindrical body brushed the roof of the tunnel, and the crystal that it had instead of one forearm glowed ominously. The Kanohi in its chest – a Sanok, its eye sockets empty and dark, a glowing branded onto its forehead – seemed to glare down at Zaktan, daring him to take another step.
“Advance at your peril,” the Abettor warned in its flat voice.
Zaktan answered by raising his scissor arm and dexterously flipping his tool around in his hand, so that the pincer bearing the vial of Antidermis was pointed like a weapon at the Abettor. “Do you know what this is?” Zaktan asked behind a snakelike scowl.
“We do,” the Abettor clacked. “However, the Makuta’s favor does not equate with worthiness. We do not serve the Makuta.”
“Zaktan, are you sure we have the right tunnel?” Vezok asked, careful not to take any steps forward himself.
“It’s the right tunnel,” Reidak growled as he appraised the Abettor. “But Zaktan clearly lied about the Antidermis.”
“Zaktan, a… liar?” Thok swooned tragically. “Tell me it isn’t so!”
Vezok’s doubt, Reidak’s aggression, and Thok’s mockery hadn’t perturbed Zaktan in the slightest. Just as the faux-fainting Thok fell unceremoniously against an unprepared Hakann – who promptly let him fall to the ground in disgust – Zaktan resorted to using the Antidermis as more than a symbol. With a flick of his flickering wrist, Zaktan sent the vial spinning across the tunnel towards the Abettor.
The Abettor was prodigiously, ridiculously quick, and even before the vial would have collided with its massive chest, the behemoth had raised its crystal forearm and sent a pulse of blue energy at it. The crystal container was transformed immediately into water… but the Antidermis itself did not change. Surrounded by a glob of liquid, its momentum unbroken – seemingly accelerated, even – the Antidermis collided fully with the Abettor’s cylindrical core, just to the side of its Sanok.
While the water it’d been housed in splashed harmlessly off in all directions, the green-black Antidermis clung to the Abettor upon contact. As though pulled down a drain, the substance that was neither liquid nor gas slithered laterally into the Abettor’s central cavity. The Abettor jerkily raised its hands to the aperture, and rotated its wheel of Kanohi back and forth at frantic speed, but to no avail; it could not draw any of the Antidermis out. The behemoth only struggled for a few moments. Soon, as if it’d been sedated, the robot slumped slightly, and the blue letters splayed across its body faded in brilliance.
None of the Piraka moved or spoke, as the Abettor’s slackness was only temporary. A second after it’d drooped, the guardian pulled itself back up to its vigilant posture, and before the eyes of the six Skakdi, the glowing marks on its body changed color, from pure blue to deep turquoise to sickly green. The eyes in the Abettor’s Kanohi Rode – the mask that, by chance, it’d stopped on – were as empty as ever, but the darkness around the mask in the niche glowed slightly green, and black fog trickled lazily out.
“You may enter,” the Abettor said in the same voice as always, turning aside and giving the Piraka ample space to step around. Exchanging grins and enthusiastic high-fives, the Piraka proceeded beyond the tunnel’s guardian, and after all six passed, the corrupted behemoth resumed its protective position, green letters ablaze. It would henceforth allow the Piraka to pass, but no others; this was the subtle power that the Antidermis had wrought upon its soulless mind.
At the front of the clump of Piraka, Zaktan led the other five to the end of the round, geode-studded tunnel some distance past the Abettor. After taking an arcing turn to the right, the tunnel ended with another manhole, this one larger than the first. Directly below it resided the top of a broad staircase, wrought wholly from quartz. With whoops and much back clapping, the six hastily tripped down the stairs.
The sight of the Vault rendered them all uncharacteristically speechless.