“I wonder: how many of these could you stuff in your mouth at once?”
“They shouldn’t go in my mouth. They should go beneath my feet.”
“I beg to differ, dear Reidak. That is to say – and, as much as it pains me to disagree with someone of such monumental musculature and stupidity, I must – they’re too delectable to belong anywhere other than on the tongue. Look. See?”
“I’m not going to watch you… You’re disgusting.”
“You’re right, I shouldn’t have slurped that one down so loudly… Some of us actually have better manners than that. Come on; stuff them in your mouth.”
“I dare you.”
“Dares are meaningless, Thok.”
“Have it your way. Hakann was able to squish sixteen in his gob, when I dared him… without swallowing. He’s been bragging about it all day.”
“…Give me the box.”
“Knew you’d come around. Okay, I’ll keep count.”
“Sixteen. I can beat that.”
“Your mouth may not be as naturally fat as Hakann’s, but I don’t doubt your resolve. Go.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. I only counted sixteen… One more… Hakann! Come in here!”
“Is he doing it?”
“Sixteen. So far.”
“And they’re still alive?”
“Wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
“I almost can’t believe he actually did it.”
“Hmm, whmmm mhnn…”
“You’re seeing it with your own eyes. Pay up, Hakann.”
“That’s the last time I bet against Reidak’s stupidi—euch! Reidak! Owch! Thok, get them off me!”
“Can’t. The little teeth really latch—”
Thok’s leering cackle, Reidak’s muffled chortles, and Hakann’s grunts were all cut short by the opening of the bungalow door. A bright trapezoid of sun joined the little streaks of light that always peeked through the ramshackle walls of the Piraka’s hideout, mercilessly banishing the disheveled sitting room’s formerly dim atmosphere. The sudden illumination in the lounge elicited miniscule screams from the fat maggots that’d sprayed all over Hakann’s abdomen when Reidak had thrown their box at him, causing the grubs to loose their hold on Hakann. They fell to earth, bulbous black eyes smarting, and took refuge in the darkest spots they could find (most of which were under the couch). The three Skakdi, meanwhile, squinted towards the flickering silhouette in the doorway.
Zaktan strode duck-footed into the bungalow, hunched more than usual by the tires of travel, but far from robbed of his tyrannical aura. As usual, his snakelike face was unreadable; were those miniscule twitches about his mouth – one instant, he was infinitesimally grimacing, the next, subtly smiling – indicative of his mood, or were they merely symptomatic of his unique composition? It was impossible to tell; Zaktan’s glowing eyes, perceivable to the other Piraka even against the blinding backdrop of the sky, gave no clues. One of his clawed hands held something small, discreetly hid it from view; the other fist clutched, much more remarkably, his golden three-bladed scissor. The weapon, in particular, was an unwelcome sight.
Hakann was first to speak. “Our glorious leader returns,” he cooed maliciously, standing from his singed wicker chair and roughly flicking a few especially tenacious maggots from his stomach as Zaktan slapped shut the door behind him. Hakann gave Zaktan a mockingly deep bow, complete with extravagant flourish of the hands. “Welcome back, oh… insubstantial one.”
Reidak, who had instinctively adopted a crouched battle stance when the door was opened, had by now unceremoniously spat his mouthful of chewed-up larvae onto the floor. As he slowly straightened, the black Skakdi’s eyes did not leave Zaktan. “Where were you,” Reidak asked, making the inquiry into a statement.
“Yes!” Thok chimed in, remaining pointedly seated on the couch. “Tell us where you were, Zaktan… what exploits you undertook, what mountains you climbed, what civilizations you decimated, we’re fascinated to hear all about your – what shall we call it – your journey of self-discovery.”
Thok’s arms were spread over the top of the couch, and his feet were crossed casually over the back of a silent, shaking Matoran crouched on hands and knees. Zaktan hardly spared this unwilling footstool a glance, but Thok nevertheless noticed his gaze and, without looking away from Zaktan, promptly gave the Matoran a sharp kick to the ribs, sending the little being tumbling across the floor. Hastily, the Matoran – who wore several fresh-looking bruises and cuts – scrambled to his feet and stood as still as he could, still quivering, hardly daring to breathe. Thok crossed his legs again and lifted a hand to gesture at the Matoran.
“Like it?” Thok solicited. “New pet. Found him far from home, without a collar… Poor thing needed a home, so the boys and I figured it was our civic duty to adopt. We’ve decided to call him – among other things, of course, names for when he’s naughty – Zakk.”
The other two Piraka chuckled lowly; Zaktan didn’t visibly react. Thok, sensing leeway, pressed on, his icy grin widening in the face of Zaktan’s illegible countenance. “The similarity to your name didn’t at all occur to us when we named Zakk here,” Thok jabbed happily. “But oh, what a funny coincidence it’s turned out to be! Look how small he is. Look how he waddles. Look how he… flinches. Zakk. Juice.”
At Thok’s order, the Matoran that’d been forcibly baptized as Zakk shot off like a coiled spring towards the adjacent room, tripping twice in his haste to get there: once on the leg of an overturned table, and once on a dirty-brown foot that caught him by the shin in the doorway. As Zakk fell, landing without uttering even a grunt, his tripper’s head poked around the side of the doorway.
“Always quiet,” Avak added as he joined the other Piraka, a waxen smile stretching his wide mouth. “We taught him that trick pretty early.”
Zaktan maintained silence, but now his ruby eyes lazily followed the enslaved Matoran. Zakk emerged into the room again with two coconuts; he carried them as carefully and quickly as he could, depositing one each in Thok’s and Hakann’s waiting palms.
“Bringing me a better version of whatever Thok gets was the second lesson I made sure Zakk here knew,” Hakann grinned smugly, holding his coconut in one hand for a contemplative moment before chucking it with a shrug at the wall of the bungalow. “Doesn’t matter if I wanted it or not.”
Reidak growled at Zakk as the Matoran scurried past, savage satisfaction spreading on his face when Zakk almost jumped out of his skin. The other three Piraka laughed, too, imitating the flinching movement in turn and propelling one another further into fits of mirth. Zaktan’s face contorted momentarily into something very ugly; the four Skakdi around him, occupied by their merriment, didn’t notice.
“It’s the Jitter that really does it,” Avak informed Zaktan with a humored, professorial air as he wiped his eyes. “Glorious nightmares… When Zakk misbehaves, he knows what’s coming.”
“Your pet has been trained well,” Zaktan noted cooly, speaking for the first time since reentering the bungalow. The fictitious nonchalance in his hissing, distinctly multifaceted voice shriveled any vestigial guffaws in the group; even Zakk, unacquainted with the ramifications of Zaktan’s façade of calm, shuddered at the eerie buzzing. Zaktan addressed the others with breezy arrogance; the venom beneath his words was evident by its concealment. “It knows the consequences of disrespect.”
“That’s right,” Thok replied as he extracted himself from the couch. The languid posing of before was gone; suddenly, flipped like a switch, Thok was brittle and biting as ice. His grin froze sinisterly in place. Taking cue from Thok, something in his compatriots changed, too. Avak folded his arms; Hakann’s brow darkened; Reidak’s stare was downright predatory.
Zaktan received their drastically shifted energy with palpable scorn. He bared his teeth with the dispassion of a python, and the Protodites in his face melted and righted themselves with nauseating rhythm. One by one, and despite his shorter stature, he met the gazes of the other Skakdi with naked disdain. “Perhaps I should learn from you,” Zaktan said. “Perhaps my little pets need to be trained with a firmer hand.”
The four other Piraka exchanged meaningful looks, and almost as one, their heads turned back to face Zaktan. Their square jaws were set in resentment, in anger and, in Hakann’s case, in brazen defiance. The Skakdi of Fire stepped closer into Zaktan, and when he spoke, it was without his signature sardonic syrup. “I am no pet of yours,” he stated. “You are a fool, and soon you’ll be a dead one.”
“Hakann, I’ll confess myself disappointed,” Zaktan sneered back, approaching the mutinous Skakdi until they stood almost nose-to-nose. Hakann growled like a wildcat, and Zaktan hissed softly. The fingers of Zaktan’s scissor undulated slowly by his side. “I’ve come to expect more creative threats from you,” he said.
“Hakann, for once, is right,” Reidak snarled, drawing closer to the standoff. “Your time is done.”
“While you were away, we talked,” Avak added, licking his lips. “Incredible as it may seem, Zaktan, the others and I discovered that we could all agree on something: we’d prefer your company if you were deceased.”
“In unity is strength,” Thok agreed, simpering through his bared teeth. “Wow, gee, I’ve really learned something today!”
“You sound like a Toa,” Avak remarked under raised eyebrows.
“And you sound like an imbecile,” Thok retorted, rolling his eyes as his voice dropped back to its normal octave. “Of course I sounded like a Toa, that was the point, don’t you think I—”
“Here’s what I think—”
“Oh, you think now? How novel—”
“Unified front,” Hakann rumbled, his fiery eyes remaining fixed on Zaktan’s alien ones. Zaktan glared back, and his hand clenched tighter around its hidden object. Unnoticed by the Piraka, Zakk crept as quietly as he could towards the door.
“Right,” Avak apologized, though not before trading offensive gestures with Thok. “Right… Proceeding according to plan. Prison time!”
Almost as soon as Avak had gleefully said this, an invisible orb of force came into being around Zaktan. Zaktan, as though he’d sensed what was coming, had instants before become a cloud of Protodites and darted laterally, but his evasive transformation occurred too late; the orb had coalesced at the speed of thought, and as Zaktan tried to soar through its unexpectedly and immediately realized surface, the force-bubble bounced him back into itself and vibrated at a piercing frequency.
A submarine porthole in one of the walls shattered, as did a few of Hakann’s collection of mirrors in the corner. Hakann, Thok, Reidak and Zakk (who had almost made it to the bungalow door) all grabbed their ears and doubled over, and Avak almost lost his focus on maintaining the bubble; the corporeal beings’ suffering, though, was small compared to that of the insubstantial entity among them. The penetrating, shriek-gong of the bubble attacked the entirety of Zaktan’s cloud of Protodites simultaneously, fracturing him into millions of discrete particles moving in millions of different ways. The whirling swarm, excruciatingly revoked of its internal reason, emitted a wrenching cry equal parts livid swarm of bees and tortured Skakdi.
One bout of this agony was enough for Zaktan to learn. Though the dark green cloud of his being was moving in constant flux, struggling to regain self-control and identity after the debilitating sonic attack, it hovered more or less in place, and as far from the edges of the bubble as it could. The other Piraka, after the ringing had cleared from their ears, straightened again and, seeing Zaktan’s swarm trapped, whooped with victory. They (aside from Avak, who was too busy maintaining his specialized prison to do much of anything) passed one another high fives.
Zakk tried to use the Piraka’s celebration to make good his escape, but as he slunk along the wall, Reidak caught sight of him. The burly Skakdi took hold of the Matoran by the midriff and tossed him with a grunt at the far wall of the room. Zakk hit with a thud and slid down to the ground. Reidak didn’t bother watching Zakk’s arc; he, like the others, surveyed Zaktan instead.
“It worked,” Thok acknowledged. “For once, Avak, you’ve made something that really works… Bravo.” Avak didn’t rise to the jibe – he was too consumed by the preservation of the orb to say anything – but he grimaced, clearly tempted to give Thok a piece of mind or a piece of his fist. Thok reveled in his impunity. “I’m so proud that you’ve finally become useful—”
“Shut up,” Reidak snorted, popping his knuckles. “We’ve got him trapped. Now we need to decide how to kill him.”
“I bet fire would do it,” Hakann crooned. “I’d love to hear Zaktan crackle.” He collected a fat glob of saliva behind his teeth and spat it masterfully at the surface of Zaktan’s sphere; the spit fizzled there, producing a softer – but no less prickly – version of the first orb noise. Hakann and the others winced; Zaktan’s swarm flared in renewed disarray and fury.
“Killing me would be unwise,” buzzed millions of almost perfectly aligned voices from within the orb. Zaktan’s voice was entropy, even more disconcertingly bizarre than normal; perhaps this was why the other Piraka recognized no panic in it.
“I really don’t see a downside,” Thok considered, stroking his chin demurely. “Pro: you’d be gone… Pro: no more need for mosquito nets… Pro: I’d get a chance to perfect my crocodile tears at the memorial… Pro: it’d be so amusing.” His smile crystallized. “Unless, of course, you were talking to Hakann individually, in which case I’d agree with you. Hakann, killing Zaktan would be unwise, since I called first dibs on him. Don’t want to get on my bad side, do you?”
“We never discussed a dibs system,” Hakann sniffed.
“We didn’t,” Thok nodded earnestly. “…Until right now. And I just called first dibs. I disembowel and dismember him; you get to play with his dust. Fair? Fair.”
“You tickle me, Thok,” Hakann oozed. “You really do. Such impertinence—”
“You’re the impertinent one, you want to violate the sacred dibs system—”
“Shut up,” Reidak said for the second time, urgently. “Look at that.”
He was pointing not at Zaktan, but below him. On the floor beneath and apart from the orb was a little article that caught the fractured light coming through the wall of the bungalow. It had fallen from Zaktan’s hand upon his disintegration a minute before, clinking unnoticed to earth at the same time as Avak had formed the sonic bubble. It was a small vial, hexagonal and full of a meandering green-black fluid that was both gaseous and liquid. The others stared at it; even Avak risked giving the floor a glance. The following seconds of shocked silence drew Zakk’s attention, too; from the back of the couch behind which he’d been quivering, the Matoran joined his oppressors in peering cautiously at the vial. He’d never seen anything like it, but the Piraka were all acquainted perfectly well with the substance inside.
“Antidermis,” Zaktan hissed, and the satisfaction in his horde voice was unmistakable. “Unless you set me free, you will never understand what this vial means.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Reidak decided. “I’d rather have you dead.” He started to tramp purposefully towards the vial.
“Stop,” Thok ordered. For once, his voice was without guise or guile; probably out of shock, Reidak halted and whipped around to face him. The grin Thok routinely wore was absent from his mouth. “Despite myself,” the Skakdi of Ice glowered, “I’m interested.”
“I don’t care,” Reidak said. He lifted a clawed foot over the little vial on the floor.
The end of a shoddily coiled rope hanging on the wall of the bungalow shot like an arrow at Reidak’s neck. At great speed and with superb force, the rope coiled about his throat, subsequently tugging him violently back towards the rest of itself as it coiled down and down his body. Reidak, caught off-guard, was only still for a moment; he started to struggle against the rope, but the more he jerked, the more tenaciously he was held, squeezed, suffocated. Thok’s eyes were icicles catching the sun; he moved his gaze up and down and in circles, and the rope followed, slamming Reidak against pieces of furniture and surfaces of the bungalow.
“Thok!” Hakann bellowed. “Let him go!”
“I’d… rather… not,” Thok moaned distractedly, his face a mask of barbaric glee. Reidak gasped as a coil of rope tightened around his trachea, and his legs flailed about, knocking over anything they encountered.
Zakk, wide-eyed with fright, narrowly avoided being struck by a particularly powerful kick, and hurriedly took stock of the chaotic room. Thok was fixated on choking the thrashing Reidak; Avak fought not to lose his own focus as he kept Zaktan imprisoned; Zaktan, within his bubble, chuckled like a hive of malignant bees; Hakann howled bestially and, with barely a running start, tackled Thok. Zakk knew an opportunity when he saw one. As fast as he could, throwing caution to the wind, the Matoran shot towards the door, hitting the outside of Zaktan’s bubble prison en route. The shrill ringing made something in his ear pop at such close proximity. Zakk yelped, but didn’t stop. He crashed desperately into the door, forced it open, and sprinted as far away from the bungalow as he possibly could.
None of the Piraka noticed their former pet escape; the reverberation of the prison orb cowed them. Thok’s and Avak’s concentrations were both broken by the shrieking chime; they, along with Hakann and Reidak, fell to the ground, faces screwed up tight in sharp discomfort. Again, Zaktan’s whirling cloud was shattered, and his excruciated cry was almost as terrible as the noise that’d caused it. Had Zaktan recovered more quickly from the prison’s dying sound, he might have flitted away before Avak, screaming a profanity as he noticed his creation’s absence, quickly renewed its existence around him. Reidak, tearing the limp rope from around his neck, prowled towards Thok with murder in his fingers, but Hakann stood pointedly between them; his boiling blood was incentive enough for Reidak and Thok to maintain their distance. They all joined Avak in glowered up at Zaktan.
“Ah, we’re all finally ready to listen to each other,” Zaktan derided, recollecting his essence in the confines of the bubble. Though he had no eyes in his current state, the Piraka could feel his contemptuous gaze on them nevertheless.
“How did you get that vial?” Hakann asked moodily.
“When Avak sets me free,” Zaktan droned back, “I’ll tell you.”
“When Avak sets you free,” Thok echoed snidely, “You’ll kill him. And I don’t have a problem with that, really, it’s just that the rest of us – myself included – pride ourselves on also being high on your ‘to-fillet list.’ Do you really think I’m as dumb as Reidak?”
“I… do…” Avak grunted, unable to resist the opportunity.
“SHUT UP!” Reidak roared for the third time.
“Ooh, so sorry Reidak,” Thok apologized in a shoddy semblance of sheepishness. “Didn’t realize you were right there.” His smile was back, as strong as ever.
“If killing you was part of my plan,” Zaktan explained pedantically. “I would have done it when I came in.”
“Can’t argue with that logic,” Hakann rolled his eyes. “Here’s a dose of reason, Zaktan, permit me to dissect the situation as I see it: you expect us to give this – you, trapped and helpless – up, and for what? The possibility that this vial of what might be Anti has a larger meaning?”
“Pick up the vial,” Zaktan suggested carelessly. “See for yourself.”
“Good idea!” Thok chirped. “Hakann, go pick up the vial.”
“I’m not getting close to that stuff,” Hakann retorted.
“But you said it just might be Anti.”
“Yes, and it might be.”
Reidak barged past Thok and Hakann and stooped to hold the vial between his meaty thumb and forefinger. The Skakdi of Earth spun the thing in the air before his face, letting its green-black contents filter the meager light from outside. He grunted, tossed the vial back to Hakann, who caught it just in time, almost sent it flying again. Hakann too took a closer look at the contents of the vial, though he held it at arms length. Thok regarded the vial over Hakann’s shoulder.
“Definitely Anti,” Reidak frowned. “How did he get it?”
“I don’t know,” Hakann snapped back, gingerly setting the vial down on the ground.
“Set me free,” Zaktan repeated. “And you’ll find out.”
“…Fine,” Hakann conceded after a long moment. “Avak, let him go. Avak… Avak.”
Avak was still too intensely focused on the prison to respond vocally. He slowly shook his head, keeping his glance trained on his sonic orb.
“How cute,” Thok noted. “Avak’s learning to communicate!”
“See, he’s afraid that Zaktan’ll swoop him the second that orb is gone,” Hakann explained conspicuously to Reidak, who chuckled at the tone. “Avak is afraid.”
Avak didn’t acknowledge the jab; he wouldn’t split his concentration willingly. Hakann’s conspiratorial smirk flickered out. Businesslike, he picked up the coconut that Thok’d received from Zakk minutes before, and swung it at Avak’s head. Upon contact, the coconut broke, its juice splattered to earth, Avak’s focus broke, and the sphere in which Zaktan had been kept disappeared. Avak, panicking and on the floor, threw his hands up over his face, bracing for Zaktan’s impending strike.
The strike didn’t come; the other Piraka laughed at the fetal position Avak had assumed. At a leisurely pace, Zaktan’s recognizable body reformed, and stared down the other four Piraka haughtily. Despite themselves, they all quailed; Zaktan’s calmness and stillness unnerved them more than an act of violence would have.
“Well,” Hakann prodded. “How did you get the Anti?”
“It was shown to me,” Zaktan replied simply. The others exchanged looks again; they all could guess what that meant.
“Is he… here?” Avak inquired. “I thought—”
“He’s gone,” Hakann snapped at him. “That was about the first thing we learned when you crashed us here. Zaktan is lying.”
“But, the vial—”
“Proves nothing,” Hakann finished. “It’s residual, gotta be…”
Zaktan responded perfectly clearly with silence.
Unnerving seriousness had manifested itself on Thok’s visage again. “Not gone,” he mumbled, saying the words as though they were a foul swear.
“The Anti was shown to you,” Reidak pressed on anxiously. “Why?”
Zaktan unhurriedly appraised Reidak. The corner of his flickering mouth tilted a bit, though the glow of his eyes remained cold. The other’s attentions were drawn to him; Zaktan drank their fixation as he slowly bent to pick up the vial from its place on the ground. He palmed it once more as he straightened, and by the time he had unrolled, his teeth were bared in a perilous leer.
“It’s a key,” Zaktan whispered definitively, the hissing quality of his voice accentuated by its softness.
Hunger floated palpably in the air.
The Piraka’s minds, sent into overdrive by the ramifications of his prior statement, were pulled out of reverie as Zaktan spoke again. “Something is missing,” he stated. “Where’s the explosive oaf?”
“Vezok?” Thok considered. “Who knows? Might’ve fallen into a pit someplace. Could have drowned. Maybe he was swallowed by something. Reidak was just showing off the flexibility of his mouth. Or was it the flexibility of his idiocy? I forgot—”
“Shut u—” Reidak started to caution for the fourth time.
“Vezok is in Ta-Koro,” Avak interrupted. “Probably getting into all sorts of trouble with the Matoran sheriffs. Why d’you ask?”
“He might be useful to me,” Zaktan replied evenly.
“Well, I’ve been perfectly happy without him around,” said Hakann as he plopped down on the couch where Thok had sat before. “Remind me why I should care what’s ‘useful’ to you.”
“Because,” Zaktan intoned, his compound voice dripping with contempt, “I’m the one in charge.”
“Beg to differ, Zaktan,” Thok broke in, twiddling his thumbs. “Who was just imprisoned, a cloud of floating specks, at our mercy?”
“My mercy,” Avak corrected.
“Be realistic, Avak,” Thok grinned impishly. “Hakann took you out with a coconut—”
“Quiet,” Zaktan buzzed. “You’re fond of asking questions, Thok; I’ll play your game. Who among you knows how to use the Antidermis? Which of you knows what it unlocks? Can any of you touch it?” The others moped crossly. “No,” Zaktan concluded. “I have the information, I have the ability, and therefore I am in charge. We will retrieve Vezok because I say we will; he’s too good a tool to leave behind.”
“All hail our great leader,” Hakann snarled.
“Furthermore,” Zaktan proclaimed, ignoring Hakann as his ever-melting face arranged itself into a reptilian smile, “Ta-Koro is a playground we have not yet enjoyed. I wouldn’t dream of depriving any of you its amusement… We leave in two minutes.”
The other Piraka made sounds of fervent approval, and went about collecting their weapons. The prospect of mass destruction could always rouse them.
“This’ll be fun,” Avak said cheerfully to himself as he shouldered his pickaxe.