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The Destiny of Bionicle

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Welcome! I want to get right into the story, so please see the review topic's first post for comments about what to expect, etc.
Just three things briefly for here. First, it was written originally in text file format with many images aligned well with the text flowing around it, which I've known for some time now doesn't apparently work for BZP posts. Please bear with the "between paragraph" format of the images used here. Much later I will begin releasing "final" versions of the text files (ten chapters per file). Look for news on that in my review topic comments.
Second, the text file version also has many comments attached to parts clarifying things that are not canon, crediting artists, etc. For this version, those will always be put in the review topic post that goes with each chapter (or edit of my latest post there), stating what image or text the comment goes with. (Although in the case of credit for other artists' work I will also mention it at the end of each chapter post. If no such mention is made, the image is either from LEGO somehow or another, or may be my own work. Some are edits.)

Third, as this is a chronological version of events the canon story tells out of order, it necessarily includes spoilers from the story. For anyone who isn't already familiar with Bionicle I would recommend considering reading/watching/etc. the canon sources first, depending on what you feel you would prefer best; both approaches have pros and cons, but this is designed to be understandable to someone who knows nothing of Bionicle. :)
PART ONE -- Warring with Fate
Chapter 1 -- Without Destiny
There was no language to describe the wonder of the landscape before me, nor the intense apprehension and terror I felt at knowing what must happen to it before it could reach its true destiny.
There was no vocabulary.
No words.
Only thoughts, for I had only just begun to exist.
I stood on a tall cliff overlooking the boundary between a vast northern forest and an even vaster sandy region to the south. Plants and streams dotted the desert, but I knew these would one day disappear.


How do I know these things? I mused to myself.
The whole picture was clear before me but it was quickly fading. The ultimate end of this destiny I had already forgotten before I had even begun to wish I could describe the natural beauty sprawled before me.
Now that destiny felt more like a horrific fate, for I thought I saw the land being trampled by the feet of battling giants whose heads reached beyond the lofty clouds, as a vast army marched across the land.


This was clearly not happening right now.
But far into the future, it would.
This didn't seem to make much sense to me, for I was already realizing that these clouds were much higher and this land much wider than my innate sense of reality said should be possible. Somehow I knew that this was a planet, and I understood gravity and matter and how an atmosphere that was too large should be crushing me right now. Yet it was not.
Grasping desperately to this one image of destiny, I closed my eyes and waited while more and more of what I knew was stolen away.
Now as I inscribe this memoir near the end of my life in the city of New Atero, I know that what I felt was something like waking from a dream.
I had gained instant knowledge of virtually everything I was to experience in my future, in the moment I came to exist atop this cliff. Now the very process of registering the waking world was erasing that memory.
That scene of giants remained clear. I tried to follow the destiny backwards from there, clinging to more and more important pieces, and some of them remained, but the vast majority faded away into empty blackness. The truth was, I wanted to forget a lot of it. So much death, so much pain... Was it worth it?
I wished I had remembered the goal, but at least I knew there was a goal. I vowed to cling to that knowledge no matter how hard things would get. I would need it.
The process slowed, and I cautiously opened my eyes. What I had retained was solid, but I replayed the images rapid-fire in my head over and over again just to be sure. Part of my innate knowledge of how things worked told me that repetition was the key to long-term memory. To repeat something around six times was to make it firm, and the more often beyond that the better.
Another sliver of hope came when, almost as an afterthought, I realized that I had also been given knowledge of all languages, and I sighed audibly in relief at the knowledge that I would have a way to write down what I knew. I vowed to do this, for I was certain there were countless other beings in existence and none of them -- or at least, very few -- knew what I knew. Perhaps that knowledge could help them.
I looked down at my body -- for I did have a body.
Somehow I knew this was not normal for this world.
I was made of metal.
Well, not just metal. I had organic muscles, mostly hidden behind the armor, but it showed through in a few places. There it appeared dark gray and fibrous, something like rope. I seemed to have a sense of touch throughout the metal armor, which didn't seem to make sense, but there it was. The rest of me was mechanical parts around an engineered 'skeleton' and covered in armor instead of skin. I remembered the term for this was biomechanical.
I was biped, with two legs and two arms, but short. My arms were longer than my legs, so I held them naturally out to the sides somewhat.
Was that a flashing light?
Yes. There was a little technological light in the middle of my chest, blinking on and off. Colored yellow.
The rest of my armor was plain gray, but I liked the way the sunlight, the colors of the greenery and sand around me, and my own shadow reflected off of it in distorted form. Tiny flecks in the surface of the metal seemed to sparkle if I turned so that the light's angle off of them moved.
I noticed something odd in a somewhat flat surface on the back of my hand -- the reflection of my face.

It was the only part of me with any color added -- dark green. Something seemed odd about it -- it was in the basic shape of a face but stylized geometrically.


I lifted a hand to it, and immediately noticed that while my hand felt the face, the face did not feel the hand. Rather, I felt that something on my face had been pushed slightly more tightly inward, indirectly.
A mask.
I remembered that the color on it was paint.
Pulled it off to look at it.
Strange. It had been magnetically attached to my face. Why would...
Weak... I felt weak... more and more. Eyes felt heavy...
A involuntary urge moved my arm to turn the mask back around and put it back on my face.
Immediately I felt normal.
Kanohi. That word came to mind. It was the word for mask on this planet.
Some day it would come to mean this specific kind of mask, in another world. I hadn't quite remembered exactly what world, but I felt that I was destined to move to that world whenever I found it. I had a sense that it... didn't exist yet.
Another word almost came forward -- the word for the sort of being I was -- but it refused to surface. I remembered only that I was the only one of my kind for now and the others like me would live in that new world.
I was saddened by this, because I realized that I already loved this world I saw in front of me. The leaves of the plants fascinated me. The fresh smell of the gentle breeze. The various creatures I caught faint glimpses of moving through the forest.
And then I noticed something that was not like any of this.
Another short humanoid being moving through the plants at the bottom of the cliff.

I immediately realized it was something intelligent like me, though without my knowledge of destiny I could not have guessed. This was one of the inhabitants of this land.
Unlike me, it wore no mask and appeared fully organic, with grayish-blue skin. Its eyes glowed red. As it got closer, I saw that it had an ornately forged metal chestplate with two holes in the top, hanging from two ropes over its shoulder, connecting to a similar piece on the back. It also wore a metal helmet, which looked to have been painted red long ago along with the armor, but the paint had faded.
The face had somewhat reptilian features, and it had pointed fingers with metallic claws, but it had no scales.


In its claws, the creature carried a tall metallic bone. I gathered that all the bones of the life on this planet were partially metallic like this. Tied to the top of the bone was a sharp claw, much too large to belong to the diminutive creature.
It -- or rather, he, I sensed -- was moving toward a dim silvery light I saw flickering at the base of the cliff, almost right under me.
The creature kept looking up at the cliff, not right at me, but his eyes seemed to wander all over it, and his face seemed confused. He didn't direct such an expression at anything else around -- I sensed that other than this cliff, he was familiar with the area. The cliff did not belong.
I waited until he wasn't looking my way, so the motion wouldn't attract his gaze, and ducked down behind a bush, taking the opportunity to look behind me.
There wasn't anything back there but more cliff. I seemed to be atop a tall pedestal of a sort, as if a massive piston had pushed a jagged chunk of rock straight up. The top was elongate, narrowing at the two north and south ends to a point.
Was I supposed to let this being see me? Why was I here? How had I come to be?
And why did I feel such a strong sense of foreboding?
I cautiously peeked back.
The word for this being came to mind finally. Agori. That was the name of both the most populous kind of intelligent life here, and the language that they and most others spoke. I remembered that there were indeed others, some taller and some much taller.
The Agori seemed fascinated by the pulsing light, and began to walk faster toward it.
Quickly I scuffled to the other side of the cliff where I saw a loose rock.
I turned back, in time to see the Agori disappear behind a tree lined up between us.
I aimed for the north and threw.
The Agori came back out behind the tree and I ducked, so I didn't see the rock land, but I heard it.
Peeked over again.
The Agori had froze at the thundrous crashing. Was faced north, spear aimed dead at the source of the sound. Too many plants blocked his view of what had caused it.
Why did I do that? I wondered.
But the same instinct made me then turn and run to the back of the cliff.
Before I could think about it, my body had lunged over the edge, spinning as it did, and I grabbed a handhold a few inches down that I hadn't consciously known was there. But now as I kept going I remembered that one of the things I'd remembered was the full detail of the shape of this particular rock face.
As if sleepwalking I climbed rapidly and silently down the west cliff, while I let my mind wander over all the mysteries of my existence.
I hit the ground and immediately chose to run south, knowing the Agori would be glancing north warily from now on, probably convinced some wild predator was stalking the woods there.
I slowed and rounded the rock edge just in time to see him reaching with his spear in to a tall vertical gash in the east cliff wall.
The light was coming from what seemed like a pocket inside this. Earth filled most of the gap, but I could see a small void where the gash met with the horizontal ground. The dirt and grass of the ground there seemed to dip down in toward a hole there too.
Horror washed over me as I realized what was about to happen, but the memory surfaced far too late.
The Agori had leaned in to place the staff inside a small pool shape inside the rock, hoping to rest his weight against the spear's tip so he could lean in further and get a closer look.
"STOP!" I screamed, running forward at top speed. The grass was sparse here and sand grains flew as my feet pounded.
But the spear dissolved. The white light flared with a deep magnetic humming sound and crackled like lightning. The Agori fell, his face filled with surprise.
He landed with a splash inside. The walls of the gash mercifully hid the sight of what happened to him from my sight. He screamed, and gurgled, and then nothing.
I slowed, now in fear for my own life, and, keeping my distance, glancing around in vain hope to find maybe a long and sturdy stick I could maybe grab to hand to him and pull him out... I looked in at the shining silver liquid.
He was gone, without the slightest trace.
The liquid flared brightly for a few more seconds, the hum reverberating painfully with my ears, and then faded to a translucent form, so I could see for sure that no Agori remained.
At the base of the gash was a bowl-like shape of a dark blackish-metallic stone I recognized as exsidian. This was the only sort of material I knew of that could resist the effects of this substance.
Like me, I remembered, the silver liquid was not made of normal matter like everything else here. It normally existed only deep underground, in the planet's core. I and it were protodermis, a strange, highly advanced molecule with potential for an infinite range of powers and the ability to mimic the physics of a wide variety of natural materials. It had the potential for so much good and so much bad.


But unlike me, this was the only natural form, and it was the most mysterious of all.
This was energized protodermis.
Some tectonic upheaval must have pushed this cliff upward and this bowl had brought up the substance. All the dirt that had touched it had been destroyed... except one small pebble I noticed that... had grown eyes, and was now hopping out and north to the jungle.
If it is your destiny to be transformed by this... That was one thing. Unpredictable. Perhaps I was a bit of air or a span of dirt that had been given a strange unknown destiny? It wasn't a coincidence, I felt, that I came to exist here and now.
But that effect was rare.
If you have no such destiny.... you are destroyed.
I couldn't help but wonder if life would be like that for me. I had learned so much of destiny, but I was certain that at no point had I been informed of whether I had a destiny.


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Chapter 2 -- Well Met




The energized protodermis had to be hidden.


And... a warning had to be inscribed on the rock around it.


I was certain that it was inevitable that somewhere, somehow, this accursed substance would be discovered by the populace at large here. But I was here now, and I was responsible for making sure that didn't happen if I could do anything about it. Let it be somewhere else, some other time.


If my attempts to hide it did fail, at least they needed to know how deadly it was.


So the first thing I did was look around for a sharp rock, and begin scratching the word "Death!" in every dialect and language I knew to be spoken here around the gash.


Then I found or broke off big branches and braced them against the rock, and layered fern leaves over these until I could no longer see the pulsing light or the words. Still, that was in daylight, and at night...


Surely someone knew that Agori.


Someone would be investigating. If this society was like that, anyways. When I tried to remember whether it was, I only got a vague sense of the imminent danger of discovery.


So I began piling up sand over the ferns. Thankfully the leaves kept the larger grains of sand from falling through, especially as the weight of the sand pushed them down. Hours went by as the dark shadow of the cliff spread across the land. It was already so dark on this eastern side that I could more or less tell where the white light was escaping brightly enough to be seen at night.


Stars were out by the time I was satisfied.


Now it was hidden well... for night. In the daytime, any animal would be fooled, but an intelligent being? Unlikely. Why would there be a hole in the sand here -- several holes, for I'd run out of stability and had to take from other areas -- and a massive pile?


Maybe someone would think I had only been looking for something in the sand, like buried treasure. I hoped so -- that would make the pile the last place they'd think to look.


I wondered if that Agori was the only one to know this area well. If others saw the cliff as out of place, who knew how much curiosity this tectonic event might spark? Especially if there had been a quake along with it -- I had apparently come into being too late to know either way.


Again I wondered if I was supposed to allow beings to see me or not.


But this question faded as I now realized I was both exhausted and hungry.


And now very worried.


I had expended all my energy burying the energized protodermis, and now I was alone at night in the wilderness. I needed food, shelter, and -- considering I was on the far northern border of a desert and they could get very cold at night even closer to the equator -- fire. Indeed, the temperature of the air had already dropped dramatically, and the gentle breeze I'd welcomed in my first moment of life now felt like an icy blizzard to me.


Beyond this, I was painfully aware that I was made of a substance that did not exist anywhere else, other than the energized version of it in under that pile of sand. Could a being of protodermis eat food made of normal matter?


I should have spent the day collecting wood for shelter and fire.


Solace could be found in this -- it meant I was not selfish. Yet, what good was that if I died on the very first night of my life?


Shelter and fire, though, I could probably manage, so I hurried to collect more sticks -- having grown very good at it in the hours past -- and built a makeshift hut.


When it was finished -- a lean-to against the cliff face -- I set up for a fire, but my knowledge failed me at this point.


If only instead of clinging to images of battling giants I had clung to knowledge I needed for survival! How do you make a fire without any combustive substances?


The great irony was that I had access to perhaps the greatest power source this universe might ever know just inside that gash in the cliff. That energy could be tapped to spark a flame, an engine... or a war. But I had no tools to properly channel that energy and I couldn't risk digging it out again anyways.


At one point as I stared at that pile of wood and tinder trying to imagine ways to light it, my hands suddenly felt clamped tightly together.


I couldn't figure out at first what had caused it. But when I consciously told the effect to stop, it did.


Later I tried it again, and realized it was a minor magnetic power in my hands. Apparently a feature that all of the mask-wearing people would have, I remembered. But was that of any use now?


Maybe. I remembered that magnetism was related to electricity, and that could spark a flame. I tried to aim a beam of magnetic energy at the wood at full intensity. But there was no effect. Apparently it wasn't that simple.


That got me thinking that even if I did light the fire, had I made sure it wouldn't burn down the hut, let alone go out a chimney? I looked over my design, and realized it wouldn't work well at all for fire.


The air inside had felt warmer when I had left it closed for a while, so I decided to settle for this. I closed up every gap tightly and tried to sleep.


All I could do was toss and turn, and listen to the sounds of the nocturnal creatures all around me.


Finally, I opened my eyes to realize I had slept after all, but when I went outside I found it was already noon. I hadn't fallen asleep until the morning heat had come and made me comfortable.


Sighing, I decided I had to find food and see what would happen.


But what kind of food? That Agori had seemed to be a hunter. I wished I had a spear like his already made. Without something like that, I didn't dare try to take on unfamiliar wildlife. Instead I wandered around the nearby trees, keeping the tall cliff in view always as my landmark, and looked for any fruit I thought might be edible.


The possibility of poison fruit had occurred to me, though, so I didn't eat anything yet.


At one point, I saw a rodentlike creature eating greenish-yellow berries.


I paid close attention to that particular type of berry and watched only for it from now on. I couldn't afford any more stupid mistakes. After I had enough I went back to my hut to figure out how to eat them.


I set them before me on a big leaf.


Tried to consult my memories -- was it okay to eat these? The rat wasn't made of protodermis.


Held one in my hand and tried hard to concentrate...


Suddenly something flared with light in my hand, and I felt stronger.


I had had my eyes closed at the moment and only saw the light through my eyelids. Opened them and looked down.


The berry was shriveled, dry and ashen.


I picked up another and tried to think in the same way, my eyes on it.


Light glowed in the berry and streamed into my fingers. I felt the energy of the fruit's life entering me. Now I vaguely remembered that this was how the mask beings eat, and eagerly consumed the other berries. I felt much better now.


A few hours remained before night. I considered leaving the area, perhaps tracking the Agori's footprints in the hopes that he lived in a village. But then I would once again have to make a shelter at night, assuming there was no village or I didn't reach it before nightfall -- and I couldn't track prints if it got dark.


I didn't want to delay -- what if it rained? But I knew that my own survival was very much in danger. I had shivered all night, and I wasn't certain the weather here couldn't get much worse.


No, I had to make a fire. If I did that, I could take a torch with me tomorrow and follow the tracks through day and night if need be.


First, I rebuilt the shelter to feature a chimney I could cover for now, but uncover if I succeeded in making fire.


Finally, an idea occurred to me from my rich knowledge of physics. Friction could make heat. As soon as the idea came I realized I had been missing what had been obvious to the Agori for a long time. The vague idea of a fire-bow came back from my memory then, and I gave myself over again to the autonomic guidance of how to build and operate it.


The fire caught. I breathed into it gently to keep it going through the tinder until the bigger wood caught and the flames stabilized. Within moments the hut plus the daylight made it too hot to bear, but I was glad -- I'd be leaving the chimney open tonight.


I left to search for more of the berries, and keep an eye out for any other animals eating other types of fruit, of which I had noticed a few types.


I slept well that night.


In the morning, I selected a long stick that was far too green to burn and wrapped flammable fibers around its head, making a torch so my fire would be portable. I wished I had a bag to bring firewood and tinder with me, but I decided not to risk any more time for a rainstorm to wash away the tracks.


They led me quite far away by noon, so far that I could no longer see my cliff. I also erased the tracks and my own behind me with a leafy branch, so nobody could follow them back to the mound.


I tried to note other landmarks along the way because I knew the protodermis might need guarded. If the tracks washed away, I still might be able to find my way back.


The Agori had apparently traveled in a straight line toward the cliff as soon as he saw it, after a moment when he had been laying on the ground. I concluded that I was right about there being a quake, which must have knocked him to the ground. There were also a lot of fresh treefall branches laying around on top of the ground foliage.


Prior to that he had meandered all around, probably hunting because he seemed to sneak along at times, and other times ran very fast. He must not have caught anything, though, since I'd seen nothing on him.


Finally, I found a hut.


It was much more worthy of the title than mine. It was shaped like a short cylinder, the walls made of clay, which seemed to be plastered over a metal frame. A cone of support bamboo and sticks had been covered in tiles of bark and also plastered over. The windows featured irregular panes of glass that let light through but distorted the image.


I went to the wooden door and encountered a metal lock. The Agori must have had the key on his person, so it was destroyed. I examined it, wondering if a small twig could pick the lock.


There had been various creature noises around me, and I had been wary, but I'd gotten used to them as it became obvious most stayed away from me. I assumed the dead Agori had been an effective hunter and the creatures of the land knew to steer clear of small humanoids.


So I did not think to be especially concerned when I heard the heavy sounds of breathing coming along a path in the trees from the east.


"What is this?" a voice exclaimed.


I let go of the lock and turned around. Surprise was on my face.


I instantly realized how this looked. There was a white and blue Agori atop a metal cart, driven by a green and black two-headed creature. He had dropped the reins of the creature in surprise at the sight of me, and the beast looked quite violent. I was afraid it would charge, but I knew that if I ran, this Agori's suspicion of me would seem confirmed.


"Please," I said. "I am in trouble and came hoping to find food."



"Well," the Agori said slowly, "this hut belongs to Venatorux, a great hunter, so this is the place. That is why I am here too -- food for my Spikit here." The Agori looked down and noticed he wasn't holding the reins -- to my relief he carefully picked them back up.


He hopped off and tied the reins to a tree. "Name's Metus," he said.


Unlike Venatorux, Metus bore armor much like mine on most of his body, and a helmet that largely covered his face, other than the blue-skinned mouth. His armor was painted white, other than the dark blue torso, and he carried a blade and an intricate metal and crystal shield in the shape of a snowflake.


Despite our similarities in form, he still seemed confused by my mask and blinking heartlight, but was obviously unsure if it was polite to ask.


"I have a medical condition that makes normal eating... difficult," I said. "This special mask and a device in my chest are to help that. Prepared food is better." I was only guessing at that last bit, but I needed an explanation for my presence.


"I see. And the branch?"


I had forgotten I'd been carrying the leafy branch to wipe away the footprints. I saw the white Agori's eyes follow it down to the sandy earth, and follow a sweeping back and forth pattern from me to the grassline a ways away, then look back at me and narrow.


"I, uh... I'm somewhat of a... fugitive," I said. Then I realized I didn't know enough about the cultures here to back up this explanation convincingly. "I don't like to talk about it," I added awkwardly.


"What was your name again?"


"I..." Hesitating to think of one might take too long, so I decided on another cover story, one that was partially true. "The truth is, I've been having memory problems. I'm not really sure of most of my own past, including that."


"Jungle tribe?" he asked, pointing at my mask.


"I... think so."


"You must have been rich to get such strange implants from the Great Beings."




Metus tilted his head. "Maybe you really did lose your memory. Your armor also looks completely different from any I've seen before. Who are you running from?"


I shook my head helplessly.


"Well, tell you what. You help me load the meat Venatorux left for me -- I have a key, since he's often hunting when I come -- and I'll take you to my village. You could probably get a job with the supply caravan that comes around there soon. I've worked with them before. They move around a lot, so it would be hard for someone to find you in one place."





Metus unlocked the hut.


The inside smelled like smoked steak. Long slabs of meat wrapped in green oily leaves of a sort I had noticed often on my trek hung from hooks lining the back wall. A note etched in a piece of bamboo was nailed to the wall at one point, specifying the amount of food for Metus to take and the price.


The rest of the walls were decorated with various objects, apparently symbolizing aspects of Agori culture. There was also metal piping for a ventilation system. The walls themselves were painted green, and the floor a light reddish color. A flourescent lamp near the ceiling gave out yellowish-green light.


The Agori placed an amount of objects inside the tube-shaped wood, apparently equivalent to that value on a barter system. Most of the objects were small blueish translucent gems that seemed to have actual water trapped inside a bubble of crystal.


We placed the meat atop the back of the cart, leaving room for me. Metus fed part of one slab to the Spikit's left head, and part to the right.




Then he turned the cart around by circling the hut, and we rode back along the path through the trees. Soon the trees were left behind and it became clear we were headed into the desert.


The vivid images of what this land would look like when the water was gone flashed before my eyes. I seemed to see both versions of every inch of the land as we went along -- with occasional grass and bushes of a healthy green color and blue streams here and there, and the version that was nothing but endless dunes and outcroppings of rock.


When will that happen? I had to make sure I wasn't in the desert when it did.


Metus was quiet for most of the way. I asked a few questions about the world; things I hadn't managed to remember from my destiny-vision. He answered politely but not with much detail. He talked most when I asked about the materials he had used to barter with; it seemed to be his biggest interest.


It seemed that the system was not so rigid as I'd thought.


There was an estimated average value in number form for every material and size and quality, but it seemed it was mostly a lost art that Metus and only a few others bothered to study.


Most others would demand payment according to what they needed most at a particular time. Some would demand unfair trades based on what they simply wanted. The foolish who fell for these trades could find themselves in serious economic trouble. Metus seemed to imply he had been one of them at a time, motivating his desire to learn the estimation system.


Among the other things I drew out of him, I learned the name of this planet -- Spherus Magna.


The Great Beings interested me most.


They were tall humanoids, apparently, who wore concealing hoods and kept mostly to themselves, working on countless inventions and experiments. Scientists, Metus called them, but they were much more than that to the Agori and other beings. They were the rulers of this land.


His disillusionment surfaced most clearly here. The Great Beings were not so great as leaders, I gathered. They just wanted to focus on their work. Agori of early times who had encountered them had been awed into vowing loyalty to them, and now they paid the price for that naivete.


It had been the Great Beings, however, that had begun giving the Agori armor and mechanical implants similar to my own. I owed them for this, or my cover story would not have worked. I vowed to try to meet one someday, because I had a feeling they might know best how to solve the burning questions of my origin and purpose.


The trip spanned the night and most of the next day even with the Spikit driven at a near run. We stopped once to feed it again -- Metus let me do it -- and then he let me drive while he slept. He gave exact instructions for both, as well as navigating, and I was able to learn quickly thanks to the vague feeling of memory of these skills from my vision.


Then he drove again for a while as I slept. The distances in this world were vast, I remembered, and again I wondered how gravity wasn't crushing us on such a huge rocky planet, but I thought it would be odd to demonstrate knowledge of such advanced physics and astronomy here, so I kept quiet. One of the things Metus had told me was that everybody here had equally vast lifespans, and I was pretty sure my people would as well, so for them, this was a tiny trip.


The village eventually appeared over the horizon.


Many of the buildings were stone, while others were wood. Bamboo was not found. The wood was obviously taken from a grove that I spotted farther down a river that the village was set up alongside. A stone bridge crossed the river from the north side, which we crossed over to reach the village on the southern side.


Most of the inhabitants were clearly Agori. One or two wore strange helmets with mandible attachments -- these were colored tan and I remembered Metus describing them as the Zesk, of the Sand Tribe.



Others were taller beings -- the ones known today as Glatorian; the warrior class.





Metus drove the cart toward a group of Agori near the middle of the village. I earned odd glances as we went, which I returned with a polite smile.


These Agori were gathered around a tall, obese red one, arguing about something.


This was clearly some sort of leader. Metus had not mentioned him. He was so fat that his legs had metal pistons all around to help them support his weight. Only his feet and hands were armored like mine. His torso was layered with heavy scale-like overlapping pieces of armor of bronze. He didn't bother with a helmet.


In his right hand he carried a tall staff whose top third was a sword. He used this to help support his weight as well. His arms had only a few poorly fit pieces of bronze armor strapped around them; the red cloth of his robe was most easily visible here.




As Metus pulled the Spikit to a stop near a wooden post of the building behind this Agori, and got off to tie it up, the others fell silent and stared. The fat one turned to see us, frowning.


"What do you want, Metus?"


The white Agori hopped off the cart, motioning for me to follow. I did, smiling at the leader.


"Who is this?"


Metus stepped away from me, faced me, and said grimly, "This is Venatorux's murderer."







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Original Zesk form image by Tattorack.


Both green Glatorian images by Tayanacon.

Edited by bonesiii
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Chapter 3 -- The Danger of Misjudgment




The other Agori backed quickly away from me. One drew a bow and arrow and aimed it at me. A few others drew knives, and the obese one gripped his sword-staff more tightly, leaning back so his weight was all on his legs.


This can't be happening...


The one with the bow was a fit Agori also of the Fire Tribe. He inched closer, drawing the bow tight. "Slowly raise your hands."




I realized how I could get out of this. He was close enough to slap the tip of the arrow aside. I imagined my body careening at mad speeds among them, leaping just the right height, tilted sideways to disorient them, kicking knives aside...


My hands were shaking.


The urge to swallow became overwhelming, and I obeyed its command. I noticed this Agori had the arrow aimed right at a slight gap in my armor at the neck. The sound of Venatorux's scream rang in my ears.


Slowly I lifted my arms. Imagining such a thing and doing it exactly right were two very different things. One mistake and... I didn't want to imagine that.


The obese one opened the door to the large wooden building next to us. "Inside, slowly," he ordered me.


I walked in, one foot in front of the other. Saw 'rooms' made out of metal bars on the opposite wall, understood. Was it safe to entrust myself to the justice system of this world? I felt abandoned by my visions on this -- the answer would not come to me.


When I was inside a cell, and turned around, I caught a faint smirk on Metus' face. But before I could think to draw attention to him, he replaced it with a convincing grim expression.




The archer, who I realized was the deputy for the obese Agori, who must be the local sheriff, locked me in.


I recognized the metal of the bars as exsidian. Among its other properties, it was very strong. I wouldn't be escaping this.


The sheriff left the deputy to guard me, and stormed outside with the Ice Agori. I heard their voices talking but I couldn't make out the words.


How had I so misjudged Metus?


What I wasn't all that surprised about was how he could have so easily misjudged me. I might still be misunderstanding him -- that smirk could have been entirely innocent; pride that he had helped capture a dangerous criminal. I would have been suspicious of me if I was in his foot armor. I had come in erasing my tracks, I wore a strange mask, and I had been trying to pick a lock.


But that just said I was a thief. Murderer?


In a way, maybe I was. Circumstances had caused me to come about and draw Venatorux's attention. Those same circumstances had caused his death.


But that had certainly not been my intent.


And more importantly, I knew my own life was not worth revealing that dangerous secret. I had to have a cover story to protect the lives of the very people who were accusing me. I knew enough about people from my vision to realize that many were experienced at telling a liar from a truthteller. Since I would have to lie anyways, this sheriff would probably sense the lie, and assume I was lying about being innocent of murder.


How was Metus so sure Venatorux was dead?


A fear rose up and quickly subsided that the energized protodermis might have already been found and some sign I'd forgotten to remove of Venatorux left in the area. But that was highly unlikely.


A radical idea occurred to me then, and I immediately decided it was my only hope.


Not long after this, the sheriff came back in, Metus following.


The obese Fire Tribe Agori sat down on a big wooden chair which creaked in protest. This was behind a desk on the right of the stone building, facing this and two other cells. Spare chairs sat on the left side of the door; Metus sat down in one. The deputy remained standing, but now with his bow stored on his back.


"What is your name?" the sheriff asked.


"I don't remember," I said.


"You say you're a fugitive? You don't know from who?"


I nodded. "I remember bits and pieces, but that's it."


"Are you aware that there are some who in ancient times would wear masks like this to symbolize taking on a new life after making horrible mistakes?"


I shook my head. That had not apparently been part of my vision. I had seen the future, not the past. What I knew of the past came only from memories of learning about it in the future, and I'd lost almost all of that.


"So I'm willing to consider that you are not just trying to hide your face from us. I'm willing to believe it's possible that you are innocent of Venatorux's murder. But to wear a mask like that, under these circumstances... you understand it is suspicious?"


"Sir, I..." I sighed, looking at my feet. "I appreciate your fairness, sir. But it is unwarranted in this case. Because, the truth is, I did kill that hunter."


All three Agori looked taken aback. This was not what they'd been expecting at all.


"Tell me," I said to Metus, "how did you know?"


"I have a reputation of... how shall I say it... creative interpretation of the barter estimation system," Metus said, smiling wryly with a sidelong glance at the sheriff. "Venatorux always makes sure he's home on the day I'm scheduled to come. You carry no weapon -- in the forest, which is filled with dangerous wildlife. Ergo, you used your weapon to kill him, and probably buried it along with him, for fear of the newer sciences of the Great Beings proving it to be the murder weapon."


"But how did you know he's dead?"


"You may remember I circled the hut? I counted the recent tracks Venatorux had left. They were all in even numbers, in pairs with one track facing away, the other facing back to the hut. If Venatorux left and did not return, there should be an odd number. You weren't just erasing your own tracks, you were erasing his."


I was surprised anyone would think of that. Metus seemed very attentive. Perhaps there was nobody worse for me to run into. Why was this happening? Did I have no important destiny after all?


Again I remembered Venatorux's death. He had no destiny, so he was destroyed. And here I was in a cell for murder. I glanced at the sword-staff the sheriff had laid on his desk. Was that how it would come?


I kept seeing the giants towering over the sky, locked in mortal combat, every footfall an earthquake to those fighting the war below. The one with the orange eyes... something about that one... I couldn't explain it, but I had a deep foreboding about it. It was different from any other feeling I'd had in the entire vision. Why?


"Even more," Metus added, "when I told you how to feed and guide my Spikit, you took to it like you've been doing it for years, and even seemed less frightened of the beast than me. And when I dropped the reins, you looked a little concerned, but not terrified, and my Spikit didn't charge."


"Showing," the sheriff agreed, "unusual confidence around dangerous animals. Perhaps skill fighting them to surpass even Venatorux. Skill that could also outmatch him in hand-to-hand combat. But why did you kill him?"


"I just wanted to," I lied. "I saw him hunting, and thought he'd make an interesting challenge."


The sheriff's jaw dropped open. But the deputy's eyes narrowed. He'd noticed my tone was off.


"I've killed many people," I added. "I think one of them fought back and gave me this head injury."


The deputy glanced at the sheriff. Saying, without saying, 'are you noticing he's lying?'


The sheriff glanced back and seemed to give a slight nod. "Do you have any friends or allies?"


My people. Whose name I had forgotten. I knew they would be my friends someday. I would do anything to protect them. And I felt a kinship too with all the Agori of this land, the Glatorian, and the Great Beings. I felt that I was a friend to all of them.




The chair protested the lie loudly, because the sheriff shifted his weight as he stood up, and began pacing the room. I noticed he left the sword-staff on the desk.


Finally he stopped and faced me again. "What tribe are you, really?"


"I don't know," I answered truthfully. My own people were not exactly called tribes, but we did have elemental associations -- or rather, would have in the future. I did not, however, remember which element I was associated with. Besides, the list of elements for my people was different from the list of this world's elements in some ways.


"You might be of the Plague Tribe," he said.


I remembered Metus telling me of them. They were really the Iron Tribe, but they all suffered a mysterious illness. They'd lost the ability to dream. Sleep refreshed their bodies, but their minds slowly went insane, and eventually most of them died. Others scattered, trying to find refuge among the other tribes, but were refused for fear the disease might be contagious.


I happened to remember that tragically this paranoia was unfounded, though I didn't remember what did cause it. Many others died later for lack of societal help in surviving. At one point they painted their armor orange, hoping people wouldn't recognize them, but it failed. It was imaginable that one or two might not have applied the paint.




It would explain my uncolored appearance, I thought, except for the mask. But I knew it was impossible. I might perhaps be of the Iron element of my people, but this had nothing to do with the Iron Agori.


"I don't think so," I said.


"Will you show me your face?"


I hesitated, but my arms did not.


The autonomous control forced me to take the mask off and put it back on, maintaining a strong face that gave no hint that doing so weakened me. I realized a moment later why -- I could not risk anyone knowing that removing my mask for a few minutes would send me into a coma, especially if I still was suspected of murder.


They gasped at the sight of my face. I had not seen it, so I tilted my head.


"Your entire face is armored," Metus explained. "You didn't know?"


I shook my head.


"And I've never seen that style of eye implants," the sheriff added. "I'm beginning to think you're some Great Being experiment got loose."


"Not as far as I know," I said. In a sense, perhaps that could be argued, but there had been some fluke in time and physics that had spawned me, I felt. The main question was whether this was really a fluke or whether I had a purpose. There was also the question of who or what gave me that purpose, if purpose I had, but I was certain it wasn't the Great Beings.


The sheriff finally went back to his chair and sat back down. "Look, let me just be direct. I can tell you're lying. You didn't kill Venatorux. But someone you know did, and you feel you owe them somehow, so you're covering for them."


In a sense, that was very true. This was how I'd hoped things would go.


I looked at my feet. "Well, it was... worth a try."


"But now," the sheriff said, "it's my job to demand you tell us the truth. Who did it, and where can we find them?"


"Please... I really don't know much about him, if it's even a him. He's very capable of destroying me, or you, or anyone else who goes looking for him. If by luck he feels he has a purpose for you, you'll still never be the same again."


"I understand. This killer must have you under threat of death?"


I nodded. It was true. If I led a big enough group to the protodermis, mining would be inevitable, and then a war. I would probably be killed in that war.


That thought alone oddly gave me hope that I must have a purpose; if I died, I couldn't stop what I'd seen in the future. I'd had the vision, hadn't I? It couldn't have been an accident. But... a thousand other questions came up at that idea. Why had that cliff appeared? Why was I what I was? I shouldn't even exist yet. Even little things like the imbalance of my color scheme confused me.


Shouting above them all was every question I could think of about that orange-eyed giant. There was war, and then there was true malevolence, a struggle of the valiant against a true evil. Was that what felt different?


This enemy did not exist yet, I sensed hopefully. And yet, it felt inevitable.


"How did he do it?" the sheriff continued. "And why?"


I sighed. "Venatorux wandered near. I think... the sound of the killer carried farther than I had thought. The hunter was curious. So the killer led him into a trap."


"You understand I'll have to ask you to lead us there. Believe me, we'll bring warriors."


So that was it. To keep convincing them I wasn't lying about this, I would have to lead them to the pool.


I wasn't quite as worried now because I had remembered something about exsidian. It alone wasn't protodermis-proof. Later the Great Beings would mix it with more artificial protodermis to make a substance that was. But for now, the pure exsidian would still be slowly eaten away. When a hole appeared, it would entirely seep back down deep underground.


Then I could simply explain the trap as acid. It would be true as well. I could be released.


But what if I was misjudging the timing of the dissolution? What if the protodermis was still there when we arrived? The trip would only take a few days. And somebody might still try to mine for the acid, perhaps to use it for a weapon.


No. To protect everyone, I couldn't do this.


"I... I can't."







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Chapter 4 -- Recurring Dreams




The fortress of the Great Beings stood in the middle of a wide valley before me, a lofty pillar of stone with many bridges radiating away from it, topped by an advanced metal structure. It stood in clear, still contrast to the wild grasses and trees waving gently in the breeze across the valley.




My double-vision showed me this valley as it would one day appear -- filled with an impenetrable labyrinth of stone. But for now it was peaceful and open.


From here the vaulted scientists governed the rest of the civilized world, and carried on their secretive experiments.


And it was here that I would stand trial.


The sheriff had not been comfortable either leaving me in jail or letting me free, so he had appealed the case to the Great Beings. I had been assigned to travel with several guards when that supply caravan passed through on its way there. The village's deputy had come with us. His name was Rogatio, and he would be presenting my case before the Great Beings.


Many times I had thought of ways I might try to escape, but something made me hold back. I felt like I was walking willingly into monstrous jaws opened wide, trusting that they would not close forever upon me, that somehow I would end up with the others like me who would come to be. Yet I couldn't shake the fear that I may be doing exactly the wrong thing.


I was worried about many things besides this.


Beyond all of my past and future worries, several odd incidents had occurred along the way.


First had been the quakes.


The ground kept shaking now and then -- at first I thought it was aftershocks of the large quake that had caused the cliff to rise. But it had kept happening over the three-year journey, even thousands of miles away from that village.


Then, many of us had begun having trouble... dreaming. Myself the worst.


Immediately the status of my case had changed.


I was deemed to be of the Iron Tribe after all. My refugee status was pinned down, erroneously, but I found myself unable to attempt to argue this. My mouth literally would not move when I tried. The murderer was now thought to also be of the Plague Tribe, and the trap was thought to probably be the disease, though some questioned how it could strike in just a few days to bring Venatorux's rapid death, since he'd been seen the week before.


When camp was struck, I was placed in the center, chained firmly to a metal stake driven deep into the sand, and the other tents formed a wide ring around me, keeping their distance.


When we traveled, I was in the middle of the line, with another gap between two groups ahead and behind. Only Rogatio rode on my Spikit's cart, for he had been having almost as much trouble dreaming and believed himself sadly already infected.


The others grouped themselves as well based on who had trouble dreaming and who did not. Eventually the effect faded for all but myself and the deputy, and by the third year, they concluded that the method of contagion was telepathic and just because you had a little trouble dreaming for a while didn't mean you'd actually caught it. That just meant it was trying to spread to you, they assumed.


I knew it was all false, but what was I to do?


I also had a vague suspicion about why the quakes and the lack of dreaming made sense together. Something intelligent, I vaguely remembered from the visions, must have been involved in the upheaval that formed that cliff, and maybe me, if accidentally. I remembered that an Iron Tribe Agori would one day uncover the truth behind this secret for the public at large.


For now, I kept expecting this intelligence to strike the caravan and reveal itself, at least to me.


I wondered if that being had intended me to come to exist, or if I had actually frustrated its plans. It was quite a stretch to think the exsidian's bowl-like shape and convenient placement were coincidences.


Perhaps that being had tried to push energized protodermis up for the Agori to discover, and my existence had thwarted that attempt. The idea was in my mind now, and sometimes in what little dreams I had, I remembered the idea, and somehow I felt that this meant the being had heard the idea.


This made me very afraid, and yet I had a sliver of hope if this being was, against all appearances, on my side. Maybe it could free me.


But no such rescue came, and now here I was walking through the front gate of the massive stone fortress.


Up a long spiraling stone stairway Rogatio and I went, ignoring several branching hallways that went to supply rooms and various other places where Agori and Glatorian labored in service to the Great Beings.


I couldn't help but fear what was coming. I had an inkling of the ways science could be used to poke holes in the impression I had given of a criminal being behind this, and find the protodermis despite everything -- and the Great Beings were the most accomplished scientists of all. Even I could only begin to imagine how to actually successfully incorporate technological implants in sensitive organics, and that might only scratch the surface of what they could do.


Finally, we came to a dark metal room.


Rogatio explained our situation to a messenger, who immediately backed away in fear of the plague, and ran off to summon a judge.


The room was almost entirely black except for very dim light by the door, and a faint lamp with a solid back that cast light on our faces, as we sat on a row of chairs. I caught my hands shaking slightly, and pressed them down into the arms of the chair to prevent them from rattling aloud. Took several slow, deep breaths.


The opposite end of the room featured -- as far as I could tell -- a long and high stone desk with multiple high-backed chairs behind it. A door to the side opened, and a tall silhouette crossed to one of the chairs. All I could see was the vague shape in blackness.


The Great Being sat down. Apparently I was not important enough to warrant a full panel of judges despite what had happened on the way.


"Greetings," he said. "Accused, what is your name?"


"Koronga." For that was the name I had chosen in my first year. It meant 'purpose.' I tried to keep my voice calm as I said it, but it came out wavering a little.


"Representative, explain the case."


Rogatio told my tale as far as I had told him. I had answered some of his questions over the years to refine my story but I had stubbornly refused to construct a lie, other than the one detail in which I referred to the killer as a "he". Yet I was consistent in maintaining that I was not certain of the killer's gender and only called it this for convenience. Rogatio had clearly been convinced of this.


Yet, it was his duty to tell both sides of this case, and present all the original evidence from Metus that I was the killer, and of course to urge again that I open up about the killer's identity.


The shadowy being listened in attentive silence to all of this.


Rogatio left out mention of the quakes, I noticed. I wasn't sure why.


"How do you plead?" The question was directed at me.


"Innocent of murder," I said. "Guilty of being forced to cover for the real killer on pain of death."


"You need not fear him here."


"Sir, with all due respect, and that is much, you cannot imagine what he is capable of."


The hooded being seemed to tilt his head. The idea of something beyond the imagination of a Great Being was almost unthinkable to Agori. I immediately regretted the phrasing.


"I mean, sir, that..."


"Do not apologize. We are not so naive as to think there are no mysteries left in this world. Now, you say this strange form is a medical solution? What illness do you suffer other than the problem with dreaming? And who gave it to you? We have no record--"


It was at that moment that the ground shook.


The silhouette stood up in alarm, excusing himself. "Wait for my return."


His return took almost an hour. I began to think we'd been forgotten.


In that time, I kept thinking back to my vow to meet a Great Being. What I'd had in mind was to confide in one the truth of what I knew, but keeping out the part about what substance was involved. I was sure by now it had eaten through the exsidian and disappeared. There was still a chance the others working for the sheriff had discovered it while investigating the hunter's death, but if so, word would already be spreading behind our caravan's travel, and there would be nothing I could do about it.


Still, to bring a leader of this world closer to the dangerous truth felt irresponsible.


Now I could say honestly that I had fulfilled my vow -- I met a Great Being. That was all I'd promised myself, as far as that vow went.


When the ruler returned, he asked, "You say that you are unsure of the gender of the killer?"




"Tell me. Has your caravan experienced tremors like that?"


Rogatio confirmed it. "I did not think you would believe me."


"I think I know what has happened," the judge said, "and the identity of the killer."


I glanced at Rogatio to see that he looked as shocked as I did.


The Great Being continued. "We encountered her long ago. She tried to overtake our minds, but we came away the stronger, the more inspired to create. She fled deep underground. We know her as Annona, often seen only as a mass of tentacles, when her mind-illusions do not hide these. I believe she is the one who has threatened to kill you if you tell."


I could say nothing. I wanted to lie and confirm it, but I had no way of knowing how good a judge of lies these rulers were.


"She fears us. As long as you remain in our fortress, you will be safe. You need not confirm my theory, for I will order it to be taken as the official explanation, deputy...?"


"Rogatio, sir."


"However, that explanation may only be known to us. Rogatio, you are ordered to inform everyone who asks that it is classified, and simply say that Koronga has been pardoned. Koronga may work with the others in our tower. Annona will leave you alone here. Do you accept?"


I considered. I really had no idea if this was for the best, but I had a strong feeling the Great Beings would be the makers of my people and their world. More to the point, I now suspected the Great Being's explanation was right in a sense -- Annona had indeed tried to foist energized protodermis upon the world and I had stopped it. She must be furious, although too cautious to attack me directly with so many guards before. What else could I do?


"I accept. Thank you, sir."


The Great Being summoned the clerk, ordering him to pass on the command to someone to show me to my new quarters and my new job. I followed the clerk out, and waited in a lobby.


"Well," Rogatio said, "I am sorry your life has been disrupted in this way. Some might view this as a life of slave labor."


"I feel responsible for what happened to Venatorux," I said.


"I know."


"I wish I could have known him. He seemed admirable."


We'd had this conversation several times, I reminded myself. Rogatio just nodded. "Well, I guess I'll be going."


"You don't think this Annona will attack you?"


"It sounds like she senses your presence. I might be in danger at first, but once I leave, she won't follow. She'll hang around here... Make sure you never go outside."


I nodded, but I hoped that wouldn't be necessary for my entire life. I loved the outdoors, especially after having lived three years passing through it, constantly living off the land. And I doubted Annona would be a direct threat to me; she'd had all that time to attack if she really wanted to. On the other hand, it could just be that she did not want witnesses.


I realized that it was she who had stolen the dreams. The Great Being had implied that he knew this, but for some reason did not choose to let the populace at large know it. I didn't know what to make of that. But it was not a disease. And neither of us had actually been driven to the point of insanity like the Plague Tribe. In time the effect was to fade from me, leaving me able to dream normally.


Rogatio said his final farewell and left.


The clerk showed me my room. It was hewn into the rock below the metal areas, as were the others like it, simple but not uncomfortable, with a stuffed mattress of cloth. I had one window overlooking the valley, but I decided to get a curtain to block it, because I still kept seeing the flashing image of the maze in place of the current scene. It made me dizzy.


My job would be assembling parts of inventions that the Great Beings wanted mass produced, in a larger room.


Months passed as I settled into this life. I watched for any hint to the kinds of security systems the rulers' own facilities had, and spotted many, so many I felt it wasn't worth the risk to try to break in to get information about what they might be planning to build. I would have to wait the future out the hard way.


In the meantime, I began to yearn more and more to explore the wild.


Sure, I enjoyed my work, but I wanted to walk around amidst plants, feeling the soil under my foot armor. I had begun to strongly suspect that I was of the Plants elemental association, which correlated well with the Jungle Agori I was pretending to be. I even asked a friend to get me some potted plants to take care of, placed near the window, which was now covered in distorting glass similar to Venatorux's windows, so it let light in but not a clear image.


I didn't want to spend time in the valley itself -- the sense of the maze that would one day be built here was still with me, though weakly. But I wanted to explore the hills beyond.


So I petitioned to have at least one warrior assigned to protect me.


A Great Being must have read it, because a Jungle Glatorian showed up at my door. He was of a variant with a more pronounced nose, with short black hair and a goatee. He wore no helmet but was otherwise armored normally. I'd seen him around; he was one of the most elite of the Jungle warriors in the region.




"You're the tower-bound one?" he asked. Before I could answer, he nodded at my mask and continued gruffly, "Pack up -- but only for two days. This is coming out of what little vacation time you've earned, and I understand the danger to be great. We will not go far."


"Yes, sir. Thank you for accepting such a lowly job as guarding me."


"You are welcome enough," he replied, raising an eyebrow slightly. "I could not resist the chance to test my mettle against nameless myths feared even by our rulers."


I packed and headed down the long spiral stairway, the Glatorian in tow. I saw that he had already packed for camping, including a folded-up tent tied to his backpack.


As we walked through the valley, I found myself walking between and around the "walls" of the maze. I glanced at the warrior to see him obviously wondering why. Then I looked away and tried to walk in a straight line now, walking right through the flashing images of the stone walls. I'd be glad to get out of the valley.


I said little to the guard, hoping not to encourage him to ask about my strange behavior, and he seemed to sense this and did not ask. I never did find out his name.


We set off for the north; I hoped to climb one of the taller hills there and see if maybe I could see the Great Jungle, though I knew it was unlikely.


I reached this hill and surveyed the land. No, this was all clearly part of the area called the Great Barren, though there were some forests here and there.


We made camp.


In the early morning before the sun rose, I was gathering fruit, when I felt a quake.


The Glatorian looked all around, an alert expression on his face. "Stay near your tent," he ordered me. He circled the camp, checking for any signs of a tentacle or illusion. He was carrying an orblike device the Great Beings had given him, allegedly capable of protecting us from Annona's powers.


Another quake.


After all this time? She is that obsessed?


Just then I caught motion out of the corner of my eye.


A tentacle had appeared, reaching out of the ground.


I heard a click from the device the Glatorian carried, as he twisted one half of the sphere with respect to the other.


A field of whitish energy spread out from it. The tentacle pulled back slightly as the ghostly glow hit it and spread still further, but then advanced. More appeared, as a hole in the ground opened farther, the ground around it shaking.


A bright sun appeared as the center of the being. I thought I saw images in that sun, and they remained even when I blinked, but I couldn't understand them. The being's form seemed to shift, but I could not truly understand the sight. When I blinked, the image seemed to remain even while my eyes were closed.




But more than that, there was a sense of horror that I understood was being transmitted telepathically to us. Perhaps a defense mechanism, but I found myself unable to focus enough to think it through clearly. And yet I sensed that the orb was protecting me from the full brunt of this power. What it would be like to experience it fully, I did not dare to guess.


"Keep back, monster!" the Glatorian warned tersely, holding up the orb. "There is much more pain I can visit upon you." He twisted one hemisphere again, and the field of white energy intensified. It didn't affect me, but the creature's tentacles writhed in response.


Annona stopped advancing this time. Yet I felt her probing my mind. She wanted to know what I was, now that I was finally away from most others.


I sensed other thoughts in her mind coming back along that connection, against her will. She seemed surprised, and the flow of thoughts narrowed, focusing only on what she wanted to tell me. I'd gathered enough to realize I had been right -- she'd wanted somebody to find the protodermis. Yet she seemed to be holding something back about this even now, something that mattered to her deeply. I got the distinct impression it had not originally been her idea.


I also got that she had been taken utterly by surprise when I appeared atop the new cliff.


She had no idea what I was, and that scared her. So for a long time now she'd been waiting out here, still as a rock, instinctively knowing I would be drawn to the highest hill, hoping to get me alone and find out the truth about me. When she'd seen that I had a guardian, she had finally decided to approach despite the witness; her curiosity was too great to delay any longer.


From my mind, I gathered that she sensed I knew much about the future, and she caught some important patterns of future events, some that had eluded me, though the details remained obscured. One in particular fascinated her, and by her focus on it, I became more strongly aware of it than I had been before.


There was a darkness that would one day come to live. A will of great evil and intellect, somewhat like hers, but belonging to the new world, and far surpassing anyone else.


This was not as she wanted it. What mattered to her was surviving whatever happened. If I did have a purpose to stop this evil, her own survival depended on letting me go.


And so I sensed that she was done with me for good. But she left me with one parting warning, again communicated in pure thought even though I sensed she could have used words. It was like the difference between hearing a tale of an intense thunderstorm and standing atop a mountainside in the heart of its terrible majesty.


Annona had been watching the world and its inhabitants from before they could now remember, feeding on their memories and imaginations. She fed because she hungered -- hungered for their dreams, for their deepest fears and lightest whims. Over time, she came to know her victims' very souls even more than they knew themselves. Others she only lightly fed upon, sparing them the deadly fate of the Dream Plague, but her long experience still helped her to understand them.


One thing she knew well was that while most people had frightening dreams, upon awakening they would be relieved to find out it wasn't real.


Yet there were some dreams whose terror continued in the waking life.


This alone was not so strange, for a real problem might come to a person's awareness more in a dream. But in recent years, a very specific type of nightmare had become common, and Annona had noticed that I had not had such a dream yet. She thought that strange -- nearly everybody else in the tower had suffered from the dream. In fact it seemed to spread like an actual plague whenever one sufferer told someone else about their nightmares.


It took many forms and wore many faces, but they always involved an enemy that could not be beaten, which even in defeat achieved its goals, an intellect so far above their own and so much more motivated that it could anticipate every possible counterattack and protect itself from them all. Even when it seemed defeated, the dreamer's very actions led it to later victory over them. It was a thought that, once conceived, could not be shaken, for everyone sensed such a thing could happen.


I wished she hadn't told me -- she was right; the idea was infectious.


What if the evil I had seen was just such a being? It was hard to believe that an enemy could make no mistakes -- everybody did. But then, that was no comfort, for what truly frightened people was that they could make mistakes as well, and situations on the small scale of life did happen where they would make enough that an enemy would come out far ahead of them, where nothing was as it seemed, not even apparent victories.


And, Annona added, many of the dreams had the enemy coming back even from death.


I shuddered uncontrollably. I'd felt a burden already, but this... It made me question myself, and yet forced awareness that this very thing could be my downfall, for victory often required confidence.


The Glatorian guarding me seemed not to be disturbed -- apparently Annona had directed this warning at me alone.


When I would face this enemy and try my very best to defeat him, Annona added as her parting thought, I must always remember this one thing. No matter how much I had seen in my vision, I must overcome the enemy and never underestimate it. Destiny could guide me on the right path, but I must choose to walk it, or all would be lost.


With that, the sun and its mass of tentacles retreated back into the earth.







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Annona image by Tattorack.

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Chapter 5 -- Warrior's Pride




After that, thanks to the testimony of the Glatorian who had, apparently, sensed enough of our mental conversation to be convinced Annona would leave me alone, I was allowed to travel freely.


I kept my job at the tower, however, because I felt that it would be important someday, and I only used my vacation time.


Decades passed as my long lifespan wore on, and I settled well into my new life.


At first after Annona's revelation I had a few nightmares, but nothing as horrific as what she had described, and they stopped after a few months. My dreams after that seemed fairly normal, but there was always the lingering memory of how I had begun life, and the questions I could not answer. Soon even centuries were passing almost before I could notice. As I got more and more used to my job, I started working unusually long hours to earn enough vacation time to take multiple years off and travel much farther.


One of the first places I visited was the Great Sea to the south. This was a single ocean, vaster than you could imagine and yet just a fraction of the size of the planet, which was mostly dry land. The coastal inhabitants explored the sea on living boat creatures. I went along on one of these voyages, visiting various ports along the coast and buying souvenirs, and wrote a travel guide to those places that actually got published, to my delight.




Another of my favorites was the remains of three super-tall trees far to the southwest of the Great Beings' valley. It was said that they had all fallen in an unusually strong storm long ago, which also destroyed all the seeds, and while the majority of the trees had rotted away, the Agori had applied preservative coatings to the stumps to commemorate the now-extinct species.




I once spent five years visiting each of the broken pieces of the prototype giant robot.


This was a project the Great Beings had attempted before my time, which I recognized as one of the two giants I saw battling in my vision. It did not function properly because their power source was unstable. As a result, it fell into its separate pieces, which scattered across the land of the Great Barren. Several landed near the giant tree stumps, but a few were quite far away.


The pieces were all half-buried over the centuries, but they still looked like they'd function.


I especially liked to look at the face, which lay tilted somewhat to its side.




I wondered what mind would one day peer out through those mega-scale eyes, looking at our largest wildlife as if they were mere grains of dust. I sensed that it definitely would not be me, but maybe it was someone I was supposed to help, as unlikely as it would be if I was anybody normal. This robot, apparently, was destined to fight the larger one, which would be controlled by the great evil.


The idea had occurred to me by now that perhaps the new world I was to live in along with my people was in fact this very giant. Rumor had it that some Agori had planned to live inside and act as maintenance workers.


But then, this had only been a prototype.


Soon I was to see with my own eyes the beginning of the march of history toward answering this question.


It began with a trip back to Rogatio's village, and then north to the spot where I had first appeared.


Jungle had overgrown the area, so the distinction between the cliff and the hills around was not obvious until you got close. I could still see the form of that mound and the holes around it but it was all obscured by thick foliage.


But I was still curious whether the protodermis was there or not.


So I found a long piece of bamboo, and stuck it into the mound. When I pulled it out, it showed no sign of being changed or eaten away. It was merely deformed when it encountered a completely solid block -- the exsidian.


Satisfied, I reburied the small hole and left the bamboo far away to rot.


Protodermis would not be discovered that day, but I was certain it would be found elsewhere, and soon. Annona had sensed this as well, and had decided not to try to rush history again.


One day, I was at my job, when I heard that the Great Beings had an announcement to make.


I was allowed into the room where it was given -- this was a fairly large metal room in the top of the tower where notables and those of high rank could gather all at once. There was nowhere near room enough for everybody that lived and worked there, but those present were expected to pass on word to others.


At the top of one of the high walls, near the ceiling, there was a gap. Like the judgment room, this room was poorly lit, and the gap was filled with blackness. Several robed Great Beings moved into this gap, standing behind a window into this cavernous room.


The one in the center stepped forward a little. The light almost let us see the folds in his hood, but that was all.


"The task of governing a world as vast as this one has always been a challenge," he began. "One that we have been honored to fulfill. As we have learned more about that service, we have realized that there are ways to improve it."


He paused.


"Therefore, this day, we are altering your system of government. From now on, all but the most difficult decisions will be made by a group of representatives who will serve you in our stead. We will focus on our science for the faster gaining of knowledge to benefit all society."


Murmurs spread throughout the room. While some undoubtedly viewed this as a lazy thing to do, most seemed to welcome it or even see it as about time. Metus had not been the only person to think the Great Beings didn't really want their leadership role. Many had grumbled for years that they wished we could rule ourselves.


"For this purpose, six warriors of great honor will be chosen. One from the Fire Tribe, the Water Tribe, Jungle Tribe, Ice Tribe, Sand Tribe, and Rock Tribe."


He was referring to the four tribes of Glatorian, as well as the tan-colored Vorox, who served the Zesk in the same way Glatorian served Agori. The Rock Tribe was the most warlike, called Skrall, and among the most numerous, with their own social system. Thankfully I had avoided contact with them so far.


"These warriors will be notified by messenger later this week and summoned to a secret location to begin their new life. Further details will be announced after that time."


The Great Beings left, and we excitedly filtered out of the massive room to seek our friends and spread the news.


The Glatorian and Vorox among us were thrown into a mess of bold pronouncements that each was more honorable than the next, therefore he or she would be chosen. The Agori and Zesk placed wagers amongst themselves for who would be chosen. I even got caught up in a few of these bets, but the truth was, I was not so eager about all of this.


As for the Skrall, they did not live or work in the fortress, but in the mountains of the Great Jungle.


A messenger would have to be sent.


Thanks to my love of travel, including of the northern jungle, I ended up being chosen for this task. I can't say I wasn't honored, but neither can I say I was eager. I'd heard a lot of bad stories about Skrall.


Since the jungle was also inhabited by vast families of Vorox, I was assigned a contingent of desert Vorox and some Zesk to help me convince them to let me pass, and guard me against the Skrall should they refuse the offer and try to kill me for trespassing.


We set out for the north that very night.


The Vorox were a lot like the Zesk. Both branches of the Sand Tribe preferred solitude, though they would travel in large groups when necessary. Both had mandible-like helmet add-ons, symbolizing the desert scorpion, an important cultural icon to the tribe. Back then, they were as intelligent as anybody else and had a normal society, though different in some ways from the Glatorian and Agori. But I had retained a faint memory that this would change.


The leader of the family group I was traveling with was named Voskoa. He said he was familiar with the mountains of the Skrall and knew some of them personally.




I was used to traveling alone, working off of maps I bought from locals wherever I passed through. This was the first time since the journey to my trial that I had others with me. Over the roughly five years of the trip there I got to know Voskoa and the others well.


Many times I almost warned Voskoa that I knew something was going to happen to him and his people, something horrible. To their minds, I felt.


But I wasn't sure what exactly, and if I told him, he would obviously demand to know how I knew.


I felt so selfish to keep my secret to myself, but that's what I did.


"Our cousins are near," Voskoa said one night in the Great Jungle. I had almost dozed off.


I stood up and looked out into the dark foliage. I heard faint noises of travel -- weapons hacking through the thick underbrush. I could also see flickering orange light from torches.


Here and there I caught a glimpse of a tan being. Yep, more Vorox and Zesk. Some had green added to their color scheme to signify their jungle habitat, especially the leader, but they also had mandible decorations on their helmets distinguishing them from the Jungle Tribe.


We approached, waving our own torches so they would know we approached in peace. Soon their line stopped, and they all faced us. They waved their torches back, and we approached.


Hearty greetings woke the sleeping jungle beasts nearby, and I heard them scampering away.


"Who is this?" the leader of the jungle Vorox asked of me.




"This is the strangest Jungle Agori I have ever met," Voskoa said.


"Koronga," I said, grinning. "I'm on a mission to bring a message to the Skrall."


"That is strange. I hope you don't want our help -- things have changed in recent years here."


"Oh?" Voskoa asked.


"Skrall are claiming more and more of the jungle around the mountains as their own. The Jungle tribesmen have left us here to deal with them ourselves. They've headed west toward less sandy soil."


"Everything about that may change if my mission succeeds," I said. "Six warrior class beings are being offered top leadership positions to rule in the Great Beings' stead."




"Yes. Another messenger has already been sent to a Vorox they deem worthy."


"Then I guess that means we're all worthless?"


I didn't answer.


Then they all laughed uproariously at my reaction, as if unable to hold it in any longer. I smiled weakly. After further discussion the other Vorox did agree to come.


And so we found ourselves entering a part of the jungle dominated by tall mountains. For a while I did not see any intelligent life. Then, finally, I spotted a Rock Tribe Agori.


He was short like me, carrying two black bladelike devices with what looked like green-painted wires crisscrossing them.



Voskoa shouted across a gully to him. "We come in peace, bringing a message of great news to your leader!"


The Agori looked around until he spotted the tan forms of the Vorox. He just stared for a moment. Then he turned and ran uphill. He was immediately out of sight.


"Are you sure he heard you?" I asked.




"We must not proceed," the local Vorox leader said. "Just in case. We wait here. Soon a contingent of Skrall should appear and tell us whether we may enter or not. Do not make any angry statements or even facial expressions, no matter what they say. They will insult us, make no mistake."


Sure enough, a group of Skrall, outnumbering even our whole group of Vorox, as well as enough Rock Agori to outnumber me and the Zesk, marched through the jungle.




I knew from the tales that this huge number was still just a tiny percentage of the total population of Skrall.


Each Skrall was shaped something like the humanoid Glatorian, but more hunchbacked, and large decorative blades pointed up from their shoulders, each of the same design as the Rock Agori's weapons. In their hands they carried a variety of weapons and shields with similar shapes. All were black with decorative patterns in either lime green or red.




Something odd was the total lack of females, especially considering their huge population.


There was about an equal proportion of females amidst both groups of Vorox with me, and it was the same across the planet, but rumor had it that for some reason the Skrall males had begun to shun the 'Sisters of the Skrall' as they were called. Rumor also had it that the men had proudly declared themselves no worse off for this, and continued their warlike ways all the more. But the rumors were undecided on what the female Skrall were like.


I wished I had more definite facts. Would bringing up the possibility of a Skrall ruler, ordained by the Great Beings, perhaps reuniting the species be of any help?


I had asked Voskoa's cousins this before arriving, but they had as little idea as I did.


I decided it would be best not to mention the idea. To be quite honest, I wasn't sure it would even be wise if it had succeeded, due to their warlike ways and already huge population numbers, though I wonder often if I was wrong to feel that way.


The Skrall came to a stop, and one stepped forward.


This one was twice as tall as the others, a member of a titan class, who were always rulers among the Skrall. This was another major factor I had to worry about, because the Great Beings had made it clear they would only ordain leaders from the everyday warrior class.


This particular titan had two bladelike appendages sticking out of his back in addition to two normal arms carrying weapons. His color scheme was black and lime.




"My name is Tuma," he shouted across the gully. "I will lead a small group of you only to our leaders. Choose wisely, for no more than five may come."


I was dismayed.


Voskoa turned around and looked me in the eye. "You are the messenger, and you carry the authority of the Great Beings. Don't let this pipsqueak walk all over you. Refuse these terms."


Oh great. Sure.


But I sighed and stepped forward.


Tuma looked taken aback. Clearly he had not noticed me.


"I have been assigned to bring word of a marvelous offer to the Skrall warrior class," I shouted. "The Great Beings themselves have commanded that this entire group accompany me to meet your highest ranking warrior Skrall."


Tuma looked furious, but also confused. "You speak in riddles, Vorox and Agori alike. Here I have over a hundred Skrall. Why not deliver your message here and now? Yet, what business do the Great Beings have with our warriors that they do not have with my class?"


"That is for the ears of the warriors, in your central city."


I had to admire the Skrall's resolute sense of duty, for unlike the inhabitants of the Great Being's fortress, they had not erupted into chatter. They did glance at each other -- not as I would have, but as if appraising whether any other seemed to be of any value.


"Do the Great Beings think to offer my troops better wages and so steal my army?"


Your army?


"Answer me!"


"He has said his piece!" Voskoa shouted back. "Now may we pass, or may we not?"


"Your message must be delivered to our rulers. If we deem it right to pass it on to our warriors, we shall, on our own time."


Voskoa muttered, "Looks like we have to take it or leave it, Koronga."


I knew the titans like this Tuma would never tell the warriors once they understood the offer. But I had a card that nobody here knew about -- nobody but the Great Beings, and they did not even know I knew. It was something I'd remembered from my vision. But it had to be delivered in a way that wouldn't risk giving away my secret.


"I offer an alternative deal," I said. "I propose to speak to you, Tuma, alone, right here." I pointed to the center of the gully. "Let both our forces back off so that our voices will not carry. If you do not like the deal, then send me on my way, and answer to your superiors for your own mistake."


Tuma looked worried. "Well... when you put it that way..."




So I climbed down to the streambed. Tuma leaped down in one stride. The others backed off.


We stood across from each other on opposite sides of the gurgling stream, surrounded by jungle plants and intertwined roots of the massive trees above. I listened carefully, and when I was satisfied that no Rock Agori had hung back to listen in, I began in a low whisper.


I explained the deal as the Great Beings had announced it. "But before you object, titan, hear me out, for I have a secret to add that is for your ears only."


Tuma scowled. "I will not have some warrior outranking me! I don't see how anything you can say would change that."


"I happen to know that change is coming to this world, Tuma, whether the Skrall will be a part of it or not. I offer a piece of information that can enable you to take advantage of this change."


He narrowed his eyes, thinking. "I'm listening..."


"Think about this. There are three ways for this to go. First, if the ruler class opposes this--"


"That is not an if. We must."


"Alright, so let the others do so, but you must not be so foolish. Hear me out. If the others oppose it and keep the Skrall out of it, power will still rise up to dwarf your rulers in the other peoples of this world, and the Skrall will learn of your betrayal and slaughter you. If you oppose it but inform them, they will slaughter you anyways."


"So your third route is for us to pretend we accept merely because it is inevitable? Do you take the Skrall for Iron Wolves? The instincts of a warrior are attuned to deception and politics as much as to the dance of blades, Agori. There is no fooling them."


"I agree. That's why that's not the third route I mean."


I paused. Tuma looked confused, but attentive, so I continued.


"What the Great Beings have not revealed to anyone but me yet is the nature of the power they will be granting to these six rulers."


Tuma's eyes flashed. "Then... it will not be merely political?"



"That's correct."


"You must tell me."


I looked around. "See all these plants? The rocks jutting through the soil? The water?"




"Imagine if you could think... rock, rise up and cast yourself at the enemy! And it would happen."


Tuma looked at one of the largest rocks thoughtfully. "Is such a thing possible?" he breathed.


"It is. That is the gift the Great Beings are going to give."


"But not to me. You said it yourself. So why tell me?"


"Think about it. If you were to inform your most trusted warrior of this beforehand, you would prove your value to him. Send him to be the Lord of the Skrall. Then, when he returns... and the other titans have opposed his ascension..."


A faint smile appeared on Tuma's lips. "He will destroy them, and raise me up in their place. Oh, not directly... but he will protect me, and not shield them from the dangers of war. Yes, I see..."


Was I a fool for letting this secret out? I did not believe so. I knew that six 'Element Lords' as they would be called were going to come. Whether through these means or not. And I knew I had a mission, and my own reputation depended on it being successful. If I failed, another messenger more clever than me would be sent. And this way, if I ever ran into trouble with Skrall, their second-in-command would owe me.


Loyalty might not be something you could depend on from them, but honor was vital, and more than that, I just sensed that Tuma might honor me in such a situation. Considering I wanted to one day live up here in the Great Jungle, that could be important.


After a moment's more consideration, Tuma gave a nod. "Very well."







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Chapter 6 -- Lords of the Elements




Energized Protodermis!


The news of the millenium, spreading like wildfire across the planet.


And the end of the peaceful age, I knew.


The truth was, the good life I had loved was gone from the moment the Element Lords walked into the fortress.


I had been part of the procession that welcomed them to the fortress, having been transformed at some secret place already.


The Jungle Glatorian that had guarded me against Annona was chosen to be the Element Lord of Jungle. I had expected to see him looking the same as before but with added power, but this wasn't true at all.


Where before he had flesh, he was now composed of plant matter. The neck was wide, like the base of a massive tree, and the mouth could have swallowed me whole, with thorns for teeth. Leaves and the tips of vines sprouted from the head. Intertwined roots and vines formed his clothes. The form even seemed to shift as he walked, as if he was still trying to decide what shape he liked best.


He dwarfed the Jungle Glatorian in the procession. I found myself gaping in a mixture of horror and amazement at the transformation. I had expected a noble ruler, but what I saw was a monster.



He turned his head, looking around at the Glatorian and Agori in the large greeting room. When his eyes swept over me, where I expected perhaps a nod of recognition, I saw only the glazed look of one counting the number of his subjects.


"Welcome," the monstrous jaws spoke in a deep, rustling voice, "to the new era of your glory, brethren of Jungle."


The Element Lord turned and strode silently through a massive doorway. We followed as if enthralled. It was disconcerting to hear virtually no noise with the motion of something so large. I found myself unable to watch him as it made me dizzy, like watching a hill covered in a forest move.


He entered the giant meeting chamber where the news about the six new rulers had originally been announced.


At the same time, five other monsters with elemental forms entered from other doorways, with Glatorian, Agori, Vorox, Zesk, and Skrall trailing behind them according to their elemental groups.


I remembered with nostalgia how in the past, people had entered these doors for announcements in whatever order they had wanted. A Jungle Agori might enter with a Vorox, or a Fire Glatorian with a Zesk. Admittedly, Rock Tribe members had very rarely been here, but I had to wonder if that was any improvement. Everybody seemed so tense around them.


The Rock Lord was like a muscular humanoid giant, made of an almost black shade of tannish stone, with geometric patterns of a slightly darker rock forming armor and a helmet over a dome-topped cylindrical head with a black mouth and two tiny, shining red gems for eyes. The helmet and shoulder pads had small stone spikes.


I noticed Tuma was standing to his right; the only ruler class Skrall that had been invited here. Skrall stood in military lines behind them, and Rock Agori marched behind them.


The Sand Lord was of a similar form as the Rock Lord, but his form shifted as well like a walking sand dune. Spikes of sand pointed up in an arch array around his head, and his eyes were points of yellow light shining out through two holes in the sand. He had no mouth at the moment; he would only form one when he chose to speak.


I spotted Voskoa among the Vorox behind him, a look of pride on his face to be honored enough to be here. It was the last time I would see him happy.


The Lord of Water was a tumultuous sea of waves, like a waterfall that had looped endlessly back upon itself, topped by an awkward-looking perfect globe of water-filled glass encompassing a vague dark blue form of a head faintly visible inside it, with limish-yellow eyes placed close together. I gathered that he also had dark blue robes beneath the water covering his body. A bubble of air floated at the top of the globe, and I thought I saw gills on the sides of the head.




The Fire Lord was as you might expect, a living bonfire. Bright orange flames swirled about his feet and body. Occasionally he would lift up a two-clawed hand at the end of a charcoal arm. And if the wind passed by just right, the flames would whip to the side enough to catch the top half of a red skull with shining orange light coming from the holes that should have been eyes and the nose.


Smoke rose from him, and even his people had to hold back lest they need to cough.




And finally, there was the Element Lord of Ice, a tall muscular humanoid of packed blueish-white snow girted about the waist with frost-colored cloth, icicles hanging from his shoulders and chin. His most noticeable feature was his massive arms and fists.




The Great Beings filtered into the little dark alcove above, and one spoke, directing the Element Lords to the stage in front of the rest of us.


I didn't consciously think about it at the time, but that scene was so symbolic of the change these new masters would bring. They were really out for themselves, not the rest of us. They were up in the honored position.


The dark hooded beings up in an obscure corner of the wall might as well have been random spiders in the room for all they mattered now.


If only it had been us against them. No, the semblance of division by Tribe reached deep into our society. True, it had always been there, but now we each had our own monster to point to and claim that he embodied our element and therefore, it was our element that was important.


And yet, I could not blame the Great Beings. I felt that the idea of elemental power was wondrous, but they should have thought more carefully about who to give it to. Little did I realize how right I was, and the future would bring good news along these lines.


But for now, life became about reorganizing the world according to the desires of the Element Lords.


Each of them left the Great Beings' fortress, and set out to establish his own territory.


I heard that the Great Jungle was taken by the Lord of Jungle as expected, as well as some forested regions in the Great Barren. The Water Lord set up an underwater fortress in the Great Sea and ruled land on the coastal areas of the Great Barren. The others picked spots within the Great Barren, which was by far the largest region on the planet.


The Rock Tribe remained in the jungle mountains, which they called the Skrall Homeland, but established some territory to the south as well, especially in the Black Spike Mountains on the mid-northern side of the Barrens, and the White Quartz Mountains to the west of those.


The Fire Lord ruled the Barren region near the Great Volcano in the northeast of the Barrens, which was connected to our fortress in the valley and served as a power source for much of our factory machinery. I was not to learn the true nature of this volcano until far in the future.


The Sand Lord ruled an area of the Barren that was even more of a desert than others.


And finally, the Ice Lord ruled the Northern Frost, the extreme northernmost land at the planet's pole, north of the Great Jungle, as well as some territories in the Barren of high enough elevation to have snow.


The Lords met sometimes in the fortress, but usually they stayed in their own territory.


I remained in the fortress, but our quarters were rearranged so that I had to live only with other Jungle Agori, and not with Jungle Glatorian for that matter. Now and then I passed some of my old friends in the hall. Most did not even acknowledge me, though I always gave them a respectful nod, and some returned it.


I saw Voskoa sometimes at first, but then he seemed to disappear, and so did all the other Vorox and Zesk.


I worried that my vision was coming true, but I had to know.


So one day I decided, forget the rules, I was going to seek out the Sand Tribe's section and try to see my old friend.


To do even this first step, I had to ask someone for directions. "Do you know which levels the Sand Tribesmen live on now?"


The Jungle Agori I'd asked looked at me like I was an alien -- nevermind that I really was -- and said nothing.


So I just wandered into the spiral staircase and walked up.


As I went by, I saw doorways opening, and members of the various tribes coming in and out. At one point only Skrall came in or out; I was well aware of this section as was everyone who tensed up as they passed it to reach the meeting room for occasional announcements -- now always from the Element Lords or lower ranking messengers from them, never from Great Beings.


But I could not find any of the Sand Tribe here.


I was sure they had been given quarters, but it seemed those areas now had been turned into expansion areas for other tribes.


Since I'd accumulated enough vacation time, I immediately declared this to be a vacation and headed off for where I'd heard that the Sand Lord had set up his palace.


The approach was purer desert than most areas, and since I didn't want to have to carry water for both me and a Spikit, I rented a mechanical vehicle with its own engine, called a Dune Chariot.



It had the upside of being much faster. The downside was that by the time I was in sight of my destination, it was almost out of fuel -- I hoped the Vorox would have more for me. Nobody had been able to confirm this for me because all word from the Sand Tribe had ceased.




At first, I was relieved when I saw humanoid figures in the distance. They blended in well with the dunes, so they could only be Vorox and Zesk.


But as I got closer, my engine sputtering, I realized the forms were not so humanoid as I'd supposed.


No, they resembled scorpions.




Long mechanical tails rose out from their backs and arched over their heads, poised to strike. The rest of their bodies seemed altered slightly as well, so that they walked as easily on all fours as on their legs.


My engine gave out when I was a few dunes away from their border patrol. I waved hesitantly.


They did not wave back, but one scampered away, obviously to ask what to do.


I walked cautiously closer.


Then I caught sight of one of the Zesk.


Four eyes.




My mouth fell open. What had happened?


"Stay back!" the nearest guard rasped. "You are not welcome here until we say you are!"


"I am Koronga," I said. "I'm a friend of Voskoa's; do you know him?"


"I know the name," another guard replied. "What of him?"


"I've been wondering where he is, how he's doing. What has happened to your people?"


The guard looked away. "It is not my place to say."


"Did the Sand Lord do this to you?"


None of them answered.


Just then, the other guard returned, and I saw Voskoa with him. It was hard to recognize him, walking on all fours and with a scorpion tail. His teeth were much more pronounced and sharp, his helmet modified to look almost identical to the others, and he'd apparently gone bald.




"My old friend!" he said when he arrived. "Come, there is an oasis outside our land nearby. Let us go there for water."


I followed reluctantly. Apparently I would not be allowed in their land.


"How have you been, Koronga?"


I shrugged. "Nostalgic, honestly. But really I'm doing fine. Why did you move out of the fortress?"


We reached the "oasis," a small spot of a few brownish lumps you could call shrubs if you worked up the courage for it, and a mud puddle fed by an automatic metal pump. Voskoa took a drink before answering, and offered me one. I gladly bent over to catch the stream of pure water with my mouth, then waded back out of the mud, now with dry sand sticking to my feet.


"I had no choice," Voskoa revealed. "After they did this to us, they felt it was best we weren't seen."


"Who? Who did this to you?"


He didn't answer, but he looked serious.


"Not the Great Beings?!"


Voskoa nodded slightly.


I frowned. They had always seemed so honorable. Why would they mutilate a whole people against their will?


"They thought they were helping us," Voskoa offered, as if in response to my expression. "Survival in a desert is difficult, but it is how we have lived for hundreds of thousands of years. But they felt that we would be better off... changed."


"It's not just the mechanical additions, is it?"


"No. They transformed us with a genetic-rewriting virus. It's still in us, slowly changing us. I guess they didn't realize the effects it would have. And it's far from done."


He sounded sad. Resigned.


"Our best scientists have studied it and concluded that our minds will eventually deteriorate into... little more than... beasts." He finished the revelation with clenched fists. "You would do well to stay away from us from now on."


I didn't know what to say. I felt so guilty. I could have warned him that something was coming, and perhaps my friend could have escaped this fate.


And now I would always look to that metal top of the tower I called home... not with the admiration and thanks I'd grown used to, but fear. What if they decided that I was to be the subject of an experiment someday, and that I did not deserve to have anything to say about it?


Had they gone insane?


No, I decided. They had gone... tired. Tired of holding up the facade of being something better than mere tinkerers, of being our vaulted leaders. That contact with Annona, perhaps, had been to blame, for now they just wanted to make better and better things, when the truth was, life under their old rule had not been so bad anyways.


I decided Metus had been wrong when he'd complained that the Great Beings were bad rulers because they didn't want the job. Maybe that was the mark of a good ruler. Yet, that could only be true so long as they held that balance. Now everything was off, and I sensed it might never return.


"I'm sorry," I finally said.


Voskoa looked away. "As am I, for what I must now say. Do not come back."


He turned away.


"Wait. I... I'm out of fuel."


He stopped. "I'll see to it that you are refueled. If you need more water, feel free to fill your canteen from this pump in the meantime. I will miss you, Koronga."


With that, he left.


It was a few years later, when I was just getting used to the new order, when the news came.


A mysterious substance had been found.


A spring, pushed up by geologic pressure, in the Northern Frost.


The rumors about what the two Ice Agori who had found it said it could do varied, but I understood which were true and which were false. They had noticed that chunks of ice they threw in were sometimes destroyed, sometimes transformed -- and the nature of the transformation seemed random.


And so began what I knew would spark the greatest war anyone could have imagined.







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(First) Jungle Lord image by Vrahno.

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Chapter 7 -- A Vital Mission




I found myself summoned, soon after the news of the energized protodermis came, to the Fire Lord. There he was, in a room filled with smoke, orange light flaring from the flames. I had to hold a piece of cloth over my mouth to breathe.



"You are the traveler, Koronga?"


"Yes, sir."


"Of the Jungle Tribe, with a rare medical condition and an implant to solve it, enabling you to eat by absorbing energy?"




"Then I have a mission for you."


"For just me, sir?"


"You see, your rare condition may be just the answer we need. For the Lords have met to discuss this new discovery, and we have agreed that a way must be found to tap into this massive energy source."


Oh no. The fools.


"Perhaps your implant will do the trick. We have tried to ask the Great Beings for a similar device, but it appears they have... ah... gone on a haitus."


"Gone, sir?" I was very much surprised to hear this, because recently I had been constructing machines that I was told were still going up to the top of the tower for their experiments.


"Never you mind about that. The Ice Lord asked if any of us knew of such a thing already in existence, and the Jungle Lord remembered you. It appears you may have the only such device the Great Beings ever made."


I didn't mention to him that the Great Beings had been as ignorant of it as anyone else, of course. "I see, sir. But what could I do?"


"If you can act as a conduit between a battery device and this protodermis as they are calling it, it will be a proof of concept that such a thing could be done, and we'll be able to direct future research toward imitating your implant."


"I see."


"Do you accept?"


I knew there was no point in refusing. He was being polite. It was actually an order.


"I do, sir. It would be an honor."


"Very well. I'll assign a contingent of Fire Glatorian to you. Along the way you will pick up a Jungle contingent. You will meet an Ice contingent at the border of the Northern Frost who will take you to the spring. They will make sure nobody attempts to attack you."


"Why would that be necessary?"


"It seems that some splinter groups from the Skrall have begun operating as pirates across the land."


"I had not heard of it, sir. But why would they attack me?"


"It stands to reason that anybody being sent to the well must be a scientist knowledgeable in extracting liquids from the earth, or in energy technologies to tap its power, and these renegades have shown interest in capturing experts of such caliber already."


"So they're after the protodermis and anybody who can help them use it."


"Exactly. We Element Lords ourselves will accompany you to ensure this doesn't happen."


I was surprised to hear that. "Just how many Skrall are in these splinter groups?"


"Undetermined, but we are coming more because we hope to see this joyous occasion come to pass." His voice seemed forced. I gathered that there was more to it.


I really didn't look forward to traveling with all six of these monstrous things. "Thank you!" my mouth said as if I loved the idea.


And so the longest years of my life wore on as I traveled alongside these incarnations of the forces of nature.


I became witness to just how petty their bickering could be -- once they literally argued over who would consume the last lizardsteak. At times I almost welcomed this. It felt like the only time a faint vestige of the Glatorian they had been shone through.


Most of the time I was terrified their fighting would turn physical, considering the sheer elemental power they possessed. I sensed the same apprehension in the Glatorian with us. But more than that, none of us felt we had the right to relax and be ourselves. We made every effort to speak and act with formal propriety at every moment.


But there was one redeeming quality to this journey -- for the first time, I got to ride one of the dinosaurs that the Jungle Tribesmen owned.



They were creations of the Great Beings, which I recognized as forerunners to my own people because they were made biomechanical from the start, rather than naturally organic with implants like the Agori. I and the Element Lords rode massive sauropods with seats built into their foreheads, as well as control sticks -- they could only move where they wanted when these were not being used.


Various other kinds such as ceratopsians carried the Glatorian guards around us.



I just couldn't help but grin at the view from up here. I also served as a lookout, should any of those renegades appear, but none ever did. I began to wonder if the Fire Lord had lied to me about them.


We left the dinosaurs behind at the entrance to the Northern Frost, where we met the Ice Glatorian contingent. This was Spherus Magna's tiny polar ice cap; the planet did not have enough tilt to have a large one, and it was aided by twin mountain ranges on either side that kept most of it out of direct sunlight even in this pole's summer. Then we crossed the distance to the spring without incident, until we got very near.


We made camp that night, and all was well.


When we awoke, the Ice Lord was nowhere to be found.


Nobody was especially alarmed -- it was, after all, his own land, and everything around us was under his direct power. But it was still concerning.


The Rock Lord believed the always-arrogant ruler had thought it safe to wander off in search of a village that might have some more lizardsteak, and had been knocked out by the rogue Skrall. He was quite insistent that his Skrall were capable of such a thing, but I thought that was just pride speaking.



As it turned out, the Ice Lord returned safe and sound, and said he had been scouting for any sign we were being watched, and found none.


And so, as we crossed the distance to the well itself, our guard was down.


Not, as you might think, from Skrall, but from the Ice Lord.



We crossed over a hill, and beheld...


A vast wall of ice.


Immediately, I felt intense cold on my upper arms, and the snow beneath my feet seemed to fall away.


The Element Lord of Ice had snatched me up, and ran with me in his grip toward this wall.


He turned around then and walked backwards toward it. I saw that the Ice Glatorian had turned on their allies, pointing their weapons at their throats.


More had risen up around other hills, and were advancing.


Icicles, but upside-down, appeared all around the other five Element Lords.


I tried to remain calm. "What are you doing?" I whispered.


But he did not answer me -- instead a shout burst forth. "The protodermis was found on my land! It belongs to me! I thank you for helping me guard him from the Skrall. Now you may return home."


"I thought we were to divide the protodermis up equally?" the Fire Lord barked, sparks flying from his head.


"Yes, we had an agreement," the Sand Lord rasped, his mouth appearing and then disappearing.


"I lied."


The Fire Lord formed two swords of fire, and stabbed into the ice. "See what I will make of your wall!" The ice there melted, and the Water Lord pointed at it, making the effect spread faster.


But it could not get far. The Ice Lord's feet fused with the ground, and the water slowed to a stop many yards away.


"You are in my land!" the Ice Lord chortled. "My power here is greater than if twenty of you opposed me!"


I began to struggle. I was not some gold nugget to be fought over. The Ice Lord clamped down his hold tighter, and the cold made me cry out in pain. I hate you, I thought. I hate all six of you.


Thousands upon thousands of Glatorian had formed a semicircle around the others. The red and green Glatorian cautiously lowered their weapons and backed away, glancing at their leaders for confirmation. The Jungle Lord reluctantly nodded. The Fire Lord did not even seem to remember they were there.


The Water Lord withdrew his power, and stepped forward. "You may rule where ice surrounds and your warriors march, but we have our own warriors. And now we know where the protodermis is -- not just here, but underground! I declare that I will own my own well, or I will own yours."


"It should be mine," the Fire Lord objected. "I am ruler of our meetingplace, and the most important place in Spherus Magna, economically."


"Only for the energy from the Great Volcano anymore," the Rock Lord replied, "and it is now made obsolete if we can use protodermis instead."


"I rule the greater part of the land," the Sand Lord put in. "It should be mine."


And so it went, as they reluctantly walked away, carrying the promise of war with them.


As for me, I was dragged -- though thankfully by Glatorian; the Ice Lord relinquished his bone-chilling grasp -- to the spring itself.


"I have one demand," I said, knowing that since I controlled the power, this was my one and only bargaining chip. "I want to try it alone. No witnesses. I'll tell you if it worked or did not."


The Ice Lord looked like a young Agori who'd just been told the candyberries were off-limits. But after throwing a few insults at me, he agreed, and he and his forces marched out, slamming the door.


I took a moment to study the room. It had obviously been built hastily over the spring, because the natural rolling rock shape of the ground was still present. The snow around the well itself had been cleared away. The snow at the well had been destroyed, apparently; the silver liquid formed a pool in a jagged crack in the rock that seemed to be slowly widening.


"Why have you surfaced?" I wondered to myself in a whisper. There was no exsidian here.


It seemed that pressure alone had done it this time. I remembered that the planet should have crushing gravity. While something seemed to negate that effect above a certain level -- perhaps the protodermis itself, I mused -- it was possible that physical downward pressure could still eventually force a liquid upward.


My heart pounded.


Did I dare lie? Claim it didn't work?


No, that was far too dangerous. The Element Lord would just torture me until I tried it with witnesses present. At least, so I feared. I didn't know if he was capable of prolonged, serious torture, but torture was indeed the name of what he had already done to me, not to mention kidnapping and an implied threat that he'd murder me if he didn't get his way.


But what fate would meet me if I tried and it worked?


The very real possibility occurred to me that they would kill me and dissect me. How else would they figure out how my "implant" worked? It was in reality my heart.


No, there had to be another way...


I had to hope against all hopes that it would fail. Then I could show them it failing. Then... maybe they'd just give up on that method and let me go. It would still be valuable to them as a weapon and -- if any were crazy enough to try it -- a mutagen. Eventually, I sensed, someone would figure out how to tap into its power.


I walked closer, and put one hand on the tall cylindrical empty battery. With my right, I reached toward the liquid. I could not touch it, but if I triggered my eating power when I was close...


Suddenly, a hand reached out.


A mirror image of my hand, reaching toward it.


I screamed and stumbled back.


The hand plunged back inside. The pool rippled away from that point. My eyes followed the ripples intensely, as if trying to convince myself it had happened.


A wild theory came to me that maybe it was the ghost of Venatorux, come for revenge. But that was impossible. Right?


The ripples hit the outer edge of the crack in the rock and bounced back beautifully. The light from the silver liquid played on the stone ceiling in the same pattern.


I stood behind the battery, my legs unable to move from the shock.


And then the ripples shifted.


A lump seemed to rise up in the center of the pool.


At the very front of this bulge, two spots seemed to shine brighter. They turned slowly, until they faced me like eyes.


I heard a ratta-tat-tat sound, which at first I thought came from the pool, but soon I realized it was my own hand shaking and tapping the battery.


"Are... are you," I whispered, almost involuntarily, "the evil?"


A deep sound like rhythmic wind beating against a tree came from the pool as if in response.


Like... a laugh. The sound was so alien I couldn't tell if any particular emotion was conveyed with it beyond amusement.


"What shall I do?" my mouth asked.


The bulge lifted farther, forming a recognizeable face that seemed to have a geometric design with elongate eyes narrowed into slits, as if it was suspicious of me. But then I realized it was the shape of a Kanohi mask.


I recognized it from my vast library of language. This shape was the label for a particular power -- that of Shadows.



What did it mean?


The form continued its ghostly rise until I could see distinct shoulders.


Without moving otherwise, its 'right arm' lifted, taking form as it came out of the pool, and stopped midair, outstretched to the right. I slowly worked up the courage to look at the 'hand', and saw it was pointing.


I looked that way, but saw nothing of--


A ball of protodermis shot from the hand and violently crashed into the wall there.


Bricks fell into a gray pile of rubble. The blast had not opened a hole through the wall, though, so I was still confused.


Then I noticed the rubble was still sliding downward, toward where the wall and ground met. The pile was shrinking.


The humanoid form slipped back down into the pool, and the ripples settled.


I ran over to the pile. Sure enough, a cave entrance, very narrow but just wide enough for me, had opened up beneath the wall.


I slid through -- I had to take my mask off as I passed through the base of the wall itself, then put it back on quickly.


There was a meandering, downward-facing cave. Apparently the protodermis had eaten through the rock here and then moved over before surfacing, for reasons I couldn't understand.


The obvious questions and theories ran through my mind as I ran. Did this mean I definitely had a purpose? But was it a good purpose, if so? What had formed that shape?


The protodermis... was it... alive?


It certainly seemed so, but I was apparently the only person who knew it. Or had perhaps some evil spirit made the liquid move like a puppet, and it had sent me on the first steps of a path that would "accidentally" help it come to physical form sooner and garner power?


A loud crashing sound from behind interrupted my thoughts.


A cloud of rock dust rushed through the cave. When it cleared, rubble filled the hole entirely. The room had collapsed.







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Fire & Ice Lord images by Brave_Dragon.


Biomechanical Ceratopsian by Vrahno.


Rock Lord image by Tattorack.

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Chapter 8 -- Presumed Dead




I was later able to surface from the cave system near the border and spy on the Ice Agori, listening in to their gossip as they mobilized for war.


I had been presumed dead in the collapse. Though no body was found, the battery had been knocked half into the pool, and that half destroyed. It was logical to conclude, since I had supposedly been closer, that I was destroyed as well.


Rumors of skirmishes at the border were already flying, though I doubted they were true yet. The people of Spherus Magna had a way of inventing the rest of the news after they'd heard the first bits, since word necessarily traveled so slow. It might be months before the first battle would really begin. But my own travel became much more difficult as I decided to keep my survival a secret, so I couldn't take the easy, established routes.


In peacetime, I could easily plan a vacation of a few years and travel wherever I wanted. The trip would seem to fly by, and before I knew it, I'd be back in the swing of things at the tower.


Now, a single journey back there seemed like an eternity, especially as I crossed over the front. And then the battling wouldn't end, I knew, because the different factions would all end up warring against each other.


I would have to be cautious to avoid all that. If any of the six factions found out I was alive, I might be captured and forced to go through that experiment under armed guard. I refused to trust anyone.


So before I even tried to leave the Northern Frost, I continued to use caves as my homes and carefully stole from any warrior encampments I found unguarded.


This happened more than I would have expected, as they spent long hours carrying out drills. So far in their border, they assumed there was no enemy to raid their camps.


I stole a coat to keep myself warm, bags to carry supplies, food, and anything else I wanted. My attitude was that anything was fair game because these people had declared me personally their enemy, although I didn't steal much from any one place lest they complain loudly enough and someone might connect the dots.


As this wore on, my whole outlook on my life began to change.


I'd had quite enough of having an apparent destiny to get drawn into the most important events of the world. I was not opposed to having a purpose, but from now on, I decided, I myself would scheme and work to ensure I was present to witness the most important events of the future, but on my own terms.


Anybody else could never have dared such audacity, but I was well aware of my own knowledge of the future, and I had learned a lot about pyschology over the centuries.


I had realized that while my conscious mind could not recall most of my vision, it was possible my subconscious still remembered it. That implied that if I followed my intuition, I could still obey the spirit of the vision. I guessed that this was what I had already done on several occasions when I had seemed taken over by an involuntary drive.


And whether I had a special destiny or not, I decided that I would make my own destiny, and it would be that I was to be the Observer of History. Who better to someday record all of what I had seen in my vision than the person who'd received that very vision? And who better to teach future generations how it all interconnected than someone who had lived through it all?


I realized it was ridiculous to even attempt such a thing, but coming so close to death had a profound effect on me. I felt like whatever time I had left now was a gift, and I wouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security ever again. If you were going to live, live!


And so I found myself well-stocked and crossing into the Great Jungle under cover of night, bound for one battle I knew was going to take place and would be quite a sight.


This was a battle I would be personally immune from as well, if memory served, so it would be good to watch it carefully and learn from what I witnessed in case I ever got caught up in one myself.


Along the way, I witnessed a few other battles between various Glatorian forces.


I huddled in the trees near the canopy, hoping the ground forces wouldn't think to look for me up here, or if they did, they might mistake my mask for the face of a beast.


Later on I found a helmet on the dead body of am obese Jungle Glatorian that I discovered fit over and entirely concealed my mask. Sometimes I walked in the shadows in sight of Jungle Agori and was not suspected.


I saw some jungle Vorox on the way, and noticed they had not been changed by the Great Beings' experiments. But I did not dare get too close to learn more.


I crossed south of the main jungle many years later, and entered the smaller forest I knew would one day soon host the battle. Before I knew it, it began.


Forces of the Ice Lord swept down from the north, as far south as they had yet reached, heading toward an important village at the confluence of a river and a land supply route.


The inferior forces of the Jungle Tribe kept trying to push them back north, but they were being killed.


Some Skrall entered the scene from the east, fighting both forces.


And then, from the west, like a raging Sand Dragon, came the Jungle Lord.


He lifted his hands, and the tree branches bent. Their very trunks unraveled like frayed ropes. They looped around Ice Glatorian, who swung their swords in vain. Pulled them up, entangled them.


The plants fused with their very bodies.


Now they would supply nutrition to the warriors, and would even control their nervous systems, so their blades would swing to defend the trees from creatures who would seek to devour them.


The few Skrall involved fled in terror, while the Jungle warriors cheered in victory.


I did not dare join in while the Element Lord was near. And the truth was, I wished I hadn't come. Seeing this moment in a vision was one thing, but I couldn't help but pity my enemies. I remembered Metus, as I had many times before, and wondered if I would even be tempted to cheer if Ice Agori like him were forced to enlist the way the Ice Glatorian were. They were really slaves of the Ice Lord, after all.


The disturbing sight put me in such a mood as to even pity the Element Lords. I remembered the Glatorian the Jungle Lord had once been, and I wondered if the transformation had buried his true personality under that monster. Perhaps somewhere inside he was groaning to see what he had done here. Maybe I could even forgive the Ice Lord.


The fault here really rested squarely on the shoulders of the Great Beings, but I was in such a forgiving mood at the time I forced myself to realize they did not intend for any of this to happen.


They had known only peace and the risk of war had blindsided them. Yet, the rest of us had to live with the consequences. I wasn't sure how I truly felt about it.


Before I made it out of the Great Jungle, I witnessed Ice forces leading Iron Wolves into battle.



These had been natural wolf creatures once, but the Great Beings had modified them to be biomechanical. I hurried out of the jungle, knowing their tracking skills could possible give me away.


Despite my effective disguise, the thought of going alone through the Barren scared me, so I hung back in the less important forests for a while. But eventually I stumbled upon a means I could use to get back to the Great Being's fortress -- for despite everything I still felt instinctively that I needed to be there for my future to have value.


I had been sitting amidst a grove of Thornax trees as the sun rose, watching for any sign of approaching warriors.



It was then that I saw a Rock Steed in the distance, with what looked like a Rock Agori atop a saddle. This was a red tyrannosaur-like creature, but this one was covered in metal armor the Agori had obviously made.



It took me a while, but I realized who this was -- it was one of the renegades the Fire Lord had mentioned. I'd heard rumors that their numbers had increased greatly since the war -- of which they wanted no part.


They were now known as Bone Hunters because they wandered the deserts scavenging broken-down vehicles and picking the bones of any dead creatures they found.


This was to be my first real test if I was going to live as an outsider, I thought. Because I might have to kill this Bone Hunter for his Steed.


That may sound like an evil thing to do, but Bone Hunters were themselves murderers. Word had gone out that any citizen, which I suppose I still counted as, was authorized to use deadly force if a Bone Hunter tried to attack them.


I walked out into the sand, waving my arms.


The Agori saw me, and snapped the reins. The tyrannosaur turned and ran toward me, scattering sand as its large feet landed.


Sure enough, the Hunter drew his weapon and swung at me without offering any deal.


I leaped out of the way and circled around, my own sword -- lifted off a dead soldier -- drawn.


The Steed could have killed me with one chomp, but that way the Agori would risk losing my supplies either to the beast's stomach or just due to damage from its teeth, so he was keeping its head up and relying on his weapon.


He brought it around for another pass. This time I leaped for the sand right between its feet as it ran by, knowing the Agori would expect me to use the same dodge as before and throw his sword.


Sure enough, I heard the sword hit the sand to my left.


I rolled and grabbed it, then stood as he came around for another pass.


Now the Agori directed the Steed to the nearest tree and hopped off, tying it to the tree. He pulled a spare sword from a pack tied to the side of the beast, and advanced carefully.


Swordfighting was not one of the things I had remembered from my vision, nor had I ever practiced it, but I believed that my intuition could still guide me to the right moves. I took a deep breath and tried to sense what I should do.


The Agori lunged. I brought up my right sword to block, but he hit with such force my sword snapped out of my fingers. Only my magnetic power kept it attached to my hand. His sword hit my chest armor. I let myself fall back, kicking his chest.


He flew several feet away and landed on his back.


I might have inferior finger strength, but my other muscles were stronger, being augmented by pistons that the Agori did not usually have.


I glanced down at my chest. The sword had cut a definite nick in the metal, but it hadn't gone through to my fleshy lungs.


Judging by the look on the Agori's face, that was shocking. An inexperienced Agori would probably be dead, being more organic.


I gripped my sword again and advanced this time, taking advantage of his surprise.


Now I stabbed with both swords, hoping he wouldn't be able to block one, but he just leaped away and circled around me, swinging at me fast. I leaped away too and we were at an impasse again.


Anger flushed his features and he lunged.


I rolled away, blocking his swipe and kicking him again with my feet.


I couldn't beat him.


So I stumbled to my feet and ran for it.


Threw the sword in my right hand at the rope holding the Rock Steed to the tree. Severed it.


Landed on the beast's legs, my magnetic power holding me on, and climbed.


"Hey!" the Agori shouted, chasing.


I grabbed the reins and snapped them. The Steed hesitated. I was not its master. You had to fight a Steed to gain its trust. But I snapped the reins again firmly anyways. This was one thing I had practiced, at least with Spikit, and I felt my intuition guiding me. Pure confidence was the key. If I seemed to know what I was doing, the Steed should respond instinctively. Trust could come later.


Reluctantly the Steed ran forward, and I pulled the left rein. It ran that way just before the Agori reached us.


The Agori leaped, trying to grab the Steed's ankle, but all he got was a faceful of sand.


I never looked back.


Ten years passed. The war raged on all around, but always I stayed on the horizon.


I obtained a telescope so I could watch from afar. At one point I found a dead Rock Agori who had been working with a Skrall contingent that was wiped out, and took parts of his armor and helmet. I experimented with forging and eventually put together a second disguise. It wouldn't work well up close, but if anyone saw me through a telescope they would assume I was a Bone Hunter.


I slowly earned my Steed's trust.


I practiced running him regularly, knowing that if I ever encountered more real Bone Hunters, there was a chance word of me had spread from the one "whose life I spared" -- I was under no illusion he thanked me for it. I would have to outrun them. But it turned out that they were rare enough that it never came up.


Elementally-charged weapons were added to the war at one point.


The Element Lords had been experimenting, it seemed, and they had discovered that they had a form of energy, called elemental energy, which radiated from their bodies, and when they controlled their elements actively, this energy field was what did it, both by interacting with existing matter if it was under the category of that element, and by energy turning into matter. The energy could be fused with other objects, like a metal blade, and any soldier could mentally trigger a bolt of it to fire, materializing as whatever element was involved.


Eventually the weapons would lose their charge, but probably long after the war was over.


This radically changed the war.


Projectiles had been invented before but they were not efficient. Now, every warrior could hit another warrior at a distance, and as the war progressed, they got better and better at it. I was very glad I had taken a strict horizon-only approach to witnessing the war. Now I took special care to always find high ground and scour all directions carefully to make sure nobody snuck up on me.


Finally, I made my way back to the Great Beings' fortress.


I was stunned to see the region transformed.


It was the maze.


Well, part of it.


I approached at night, lest I be seen from the tower during day, yet I saw no lights in the myriad windows except a few near the top. The Great Volcano was abandoned as well, apparently.


And yet, beings moved throughout the valley, building the maze.



If you could call these "beings".


They were purely mechanical, I determined after watching carefully with the telescope. Their bodies were bulbous, and their heads flattish, held at a hunchback-like angle over their bodies, with four glowing blue lines for eyes, two on each side, bracketing the forehead area. Their legs were medium length but their arms were long and powerful.


The headplates, shoulderplates, and hands were protected with silvery metal with gearlike teeth sticking off the edges. Actual gears built into the rest of them appeared to control their motion. Each arm was tipped with two clawlike fingers.



This is where the easy to understand part ended, for I saw them actually changing shape here and there to suit other tasks.


Not like a machine bending parts to change its basic form -- actually shapeshifting. It seemed to be a power much like those of the Element Lords, but these were not elemental powers. They were more like the minor powers of magnetism and absorbing food energy built into me, or like Annona's abilities.


I remembered the name of these robots from my vision -- Baterra.


Acting on my intuition, I tied the Steed to a tree, and used my swords to dig a hole. Then I emptied my backpack into the hole, and left the swords in it too -- I wasn't good at using them anyways, and I had a feeling these robots would not make mistakes like that Bone Hunter if it came to a fight. No, stealth was my only hope, which meant I needed to travel as light as I could. I broke off some leafy branches and laid them over the hole.


Then I began my approach, tiptoeing so I would not make a sound.


Parts of the maze already reached out to the edge of the valley, and I headed right for these. The robotic beings were working on other areas, so I would be left alone here.


For anyone else this would be an impossible maze to master.


But for many of the thousands of nights I had dreamed, I had wandered through my detailed memory of this maze. Sometimes when I'd left the tower to travel I had physically walked through my image of the maze -- though only at night so nobody would wonder why I would do such a thing. I knew every inch of it.


I turned a corner, and a Baterra was there, carrying a stone block to a new wall.


I froze.


The Baterra glanced at me, and moved on.


I let out a big sigh. These ones were on a mission to build, and had no time for anything else. But still, I should be more careful. Once I got to the tower, I was certain other Baterra would be set to a guarding mode of some kind.


By the time the morning sun rose, I had reached the tower. I walked up the spiral staircase a ways, to the first hallway. I peeked in.


Tons of the robots. One walked toward me.


I backed up and ran up the stairs.


Slowed, peering down.


It walked out, and down.


I went to the next stairway.


Parts. On shelves. These were parts of the robots -- I actually recognized some of them from work I'd done before the war. But most of them were new.




I ducked into a room.


Another robot walked by. This was not the same as the ones outside. It was made only of parts I had seen manufactured years before.


I formed my theory. I had been building construction robots to replace my own job. Now, those robots were building the Baterra.


But how were they getting the power to shapeshift?


Maybe that was the task on the lower floor. This was storage of new parts. That construction robot had been carrying a metal box. Probably taking new parts down to the first floor, for assembly of the robots. Then some other device of the Great Beings was used to endow them with the power?


Or perhaps devices like that were built with the power already and added into the being.


Running on the second idea, I carefully snuck up more steps to the third floor, and explored it.


Sure enough, there were tiny spherical machines here about half the size as the one the Jungle Glatorian who had become the Jungle Lord had carried to guard against Annona. But these were opaque and the only control was a single button.


Other devices appeared designed to attach to this. My first guess was that these were the brains of the robots, but then I wondered how they would control the power. Elemental powers and others like my eating power were controlled mentally, as if a minor power of telepathy was always included that bridged the gap between the user and the device that generated the power. The Great Beings probably would want such a feature to be included in this so they could test the power themselves.


That meant the shapeshifting power was also controlled telepathically, not electronically or by gears or the like. One of these other devices probably translated the 'telepathy' signal to something electronic or mechanical.


Meaning I could control it.


I snatched one up and retreated to a back room.


Calmed myself.


Hit the switch.


I felt no particular change, but the room around me seemed different now. It was dark, so I moved toward a window to let the moonlight and starlight shine on me.


My hand was the hand of a Rock Agori.


I felt my face. The helmet of a Rock Agori -- not the enlarged disguise over my mask I had designed, but a perfect replica of what that Bone Hunter's helmet had looked like.


I noticed my hand seemed to ripple. The lime green turned silver, and blue light now reflected off the walls. I recognized the hand design now from the Baterra.


And then I backed up to the wall and became a shelf.


I released the power, becoming myself again, and switched the power off, unsure what the energy source limitations were. This should be a last resort. But to be safe, I decided to steal as many as I could fit in my backpack.


The mental discipline it apparently took to hold a form worried me. I hadn't consciously commanded the first two forms; they'd just happened. I'd formed the shelf on purpose, but had my form remained solid?


What might happen if I took a form, and then switched the power off? Would I remain in that form until I switched it on, or just revert instantly? I could think of several dangers either option could present.


I decided I needed to continue exploring the tower in the hopes of finding perhaps some technical writings that might explain these things, though I had no idea if Great Beings still bothered to make them considering robots did their work now. But first a test I could definitely handle -- I picked up another orb, and shapeshifted both myself and it to include it in my mass. Picked up another, and another -- soon I was carrying a large amount of them, and with an altered foot design, I could carry all that weight even more quietly than before.


That was a relief -- I could sneak around while still carrying my weapons. I decided that since I didn't know how long the batteries lasted, and I didn't want to leave my Rock Steed in one place for too long in case there were Baterra patrolling beyond the maze, I should head back and drop off these extra orbs, then come back in to continue the search - this time with my weapons.


My intuition was clouded on the wisdom of heading back out, but it seemed to make sense to me. I had also become quite attached to the Steed by this time, and I'd earned his trust by now; I didn't want to put him at risk.


Besides, he didn't like being tied up for so long.


So I carefully snuck back out of the maze, my body altered to be able to run quickly and yet almost silently, but with ears reshaped to channel the slightest sound of a Baterra footstep so I could take a different form if I was about to approach one. A few times I did, and then I became an oozing, barely perceptible patch of texture in the walls, until I was past.


I felt giddy at the possibilities. I was now a shapeshifter -- not in my wildest dreams had I imagined such a thing. There could be no better power, I thought, for the destiny I had decided to make for myself.


As I left the maze, my thoughts wandered to questions such as whether to search the higher-security areas of the tower. Was it worth the risk? I might find information about how and where the rest of my people would come to be.


What would happen to this world when this war ended? I believed I was meant to leave; my 'death' only further confirmed it -- would I ever know? And what would it be like to leave everything I knew and enter a completely different world? I want to know as much as I can beforehand...


But those security devices in the tower worried me.


Distracted by all these concerns, when I reached the Steed, I just went through the motions unthinkingly. I uncovered the hole, and grabbed a spare bag, which was one of the things I regularly carried for just such opportunities as this. I put the spare shapeshifting orbs in it and tied it to the saddle. Then I put my other things, including the main orb, back in my backpack and donned it. I picked up the swords and--




Trees and rocks around me shifted form.


Became Baterra. Advanced.



Their blade fingers held ready.


I'd thought myself safe! None of the orbs were handy, and the terrible realization that such a mistake could be very dangerous made me freeze up. There were patrols... Didn't think they'd be this swift!


My muscles seemed locked in place. For one long moment, I felt like no matter how urgently I screamed at my own body to move, it could not. I could only manage to wonder what would come next. I knew I was in danger, but how much?


How far would they go to guard the maze?







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Chapter 9 -- A Dark Discovery

In the final moment, as the blades neared my throat and I realized the threat might be more than I could have imagined, I desperately seized on the only thought that made sense.

Panic and shock had gripped me -- so calm was my only hope. A deep breath, a long blink. Acceptance.

Eyes still closed, I leaped for the saddle, away from where the blades had been.

My muscles responded this time.

Opened my eyes mid-jump.

Sliced open the spare bag. Caught one orb as it fell.




I was now in the form of a Cave Shrike, a large bird of the desert, with metallic feathers that Agori sometimes used as swords. I flew rapidly out of the grove and back toward the maze. The rocky ground and then the maze zoomed by beneath me like a blur, and the air pushed against me like a strong wind yet I felt my fingers as the feathers, cutting through it easily. I immediately felt dizzy -- I'd never experienced flight, and this was at a rapid speed.

So I stopped looking directly at the maze, and concentrated on the tower far ahead, looming larger only slowly. That was better.



I tilted my bird's head back for a split second to see a whole flock of 'Cave Shrikes' flying fast after me.

Why did they attack?

I remembered it hadn't happened until I'd touched my weapons.

Was that interpreted as hostile? But they had lain in wait for me. As if they had already spotted the hole -- it was meant to hide against creatures more than intelligent beings -- seen the swords, and wondered if I would pick them up. The moment I did, I became an enemy.

I was still carrying them, albeit in shapeshifted form, so apparently I was still an enemy. Their understanding of their own power apparently helped them know I still had the swords, even though they couldn't be seen. Well, too bad -- I wasn't about to head off into the desert unarmed, especially during a war.

What would they do if they caught me?

I realized the answer soon because I saw evidence with my bird's eye view scattered throughout the maze.

Agori and Glatorian alike -- dead bodies, holding blades and projectile weapons. I hadn't walked along the right paths through the maze to see them but now I saw all the paths.

I even saw one living green Agori who held no weapons, wandering in the maze.

I remembered when that one Baterra had seen me. I'd assumed it just wasn't programmed to guard, but now I realized if I'd brought even just one of my swords, I'd be dead.

You've lived too easy a life, I told myself. This won't be the first time deadly surprises will come. I had to learn to be ready... but how?

First I had to survive today. The Baterra imitating other birds were closing fast.

I flew down into the maze, dipping a feather on my right wing.

Then I flew sharply left, as soon as I was out of the Baterra's sight.

Saw a crack in the wall. Slowed, shrinking and rippling in form. Landed. Oozed into the crack, sealing it with my own body, and took the color and texture of the stone.

The dip of the wing was a habit of real Cave Shrikes that indicated the direction they were about to fly. By going the opposite way, maybe, just maybe, I'd fooled my enemy.

I heard feathers flapping, and feet stomping. Now three Baterra marched through the maze right in front of me. Did not see me.

I waited like that for several minutes until by the sound of things, they had given up.

Then I stepped out and took the form of a Baterra, and walked out a different way to the left.

Finally I allowed myself to wonder how could the Great Beings be responsible for such murderous things? I could not believe my own eyes, even when now on taking a different route through the maze I came upon one of the bodies again.

Something had to have gone wrong... This couldn't be what the rulers wanted.


I stayed in Baterra form through the maze, then I crossed the final distance in the form of a Scarabax Beetle, partly because I just wanted to test if I could compress my mass and imitate a small being -- it worked. Its dark blue-ish purple body and long beaklike mandible blended in well, although to be accurate, I did include six robotic legs; this species was one of many the Great Beings had modified, like Iron Wolves. The silvery color of the legs stood out, but hopefully the Baterra would be less suspicious of such a tiny creature anyways.


I kept the beetle form as I climbed the stairway to the first floor, hugging the wall. A Baterra went by on the stairs at one point, but ignored me.

I entered a room where the construction robots were building Baterra, and found one moving to a room where parts had been brought down by other robots in metal boxes. I followed it in.

When it was out of sight of the other robots, I turned into another construction robot, and walked up to it.

It saw me, and appeared confused for a moment. I grabbed it, and studied it. It kept staring at me as if trying to figure out why I was malfunctioning.

There. I was used to these pieces because I had made them. I knew how they worked. This wire... I pulled it out.

The robot immediately shut down.

I took my own form, and hit the button to conserve the battery. The construction robot was fairly lightweight, so I carefully lifted it and carried it silently behind a shelf where I'd be unlikely to be seen. Then I took it apart.

With the motive drive in my hand, and a diagnostic device from the construction robot plugged into it, I studied the code and reprogrammed it.

Now, it would issue the need for a software update to both the other construction robots and the Baterra.

I had discerned the purpose of the Baterra.

The Great Beings despised war, I realized. There had been rumors of a hopeless meeting they'd called early on with the Element Lords to urge them to stop the war, but their creations had minds of their own and also had no illusions that the way the Great Beings thought the government was organized had any reality. No, the Lords were in charge; the Great Beings were now reduced to figureheads.

This was the scientists' response.

The Baterra would march out in orderly strategic arrangements, disguising themselves along the way, and slaughter every man, woman, or child who dared to pick up whatever they deemed a 'weapon'.

Some would escape this slaughter, so the population would live on, but the war would be over.

It was them. It was really them.

The Great Beings had gone way too far this time. Had they gone mad because of how badly the Element Lords' decision had gone? Did they think they could just cleanly erase the history of their error? I thought back to Rogatio, with his bow almost always slung casually over his back, and quiver full of arrows. I thought of the stinger tail of Voskoa, which the robots might take for a weapon, and maybe slaughter all Vorox, except maybe a few in the Great Jungle who might set down their normal weapons now and then.

I had to sabotage the Baterra.

But how? The Great Beings would surely have taken steps against the risk of such sabotage. I had learned enough about their designs over the years to realize that safeguards and contingencies were their unique obsession. Often they included systems to handle possible scenarios that nobody actually thought would ever happen.

I could only think of one way. The update would announce a better attack strategy.

I programmed the strategy in, and pieced the robot back together.

These construction robots had no way of communicating anything other than what they were programmed to; there was no over-thought safeguard array in them because they were viewed only as building tools, not an end themselves. When the army of Baterra was fully populated the construction robots would no doubt be destroyed. So although the robot kept looking at me in confusion when I turned it back on, it had no way of warning the others of my presence.

I pushed the robot back out into the open, and it walked over to the nearest construction robot to give it the update by wire connection.

The new strategy?

To erase strategy.

I figured that some basic strategy would not be accessible; some of it was probably "hardwired" into the clockwork mechanisms of the Baterra's brain. But part of it I was sure was electronically programmed because a program in the construction robot said so. The Great Beings had foreseen that Baterra might need over-arching strategy updates if the Lords adapted their own strategies well enough, so all Baterra were to return here occasionally. If needed, a Great Being would meet them here and carry out the reprogramming.

Now they would never return, and what strategy they had would be gone. They would wander across the planet, most of them ending up in the vast unpopulated regions of the Barren.

Some would occasionally still encounter people with weapons and kill them. Sadly I could find no way around this. But there would be no coordinated sweep through the land killing almost everyone.

I turned back into the beetle and left.

I had planned to go down the steps and back out into the maze, but when I crossed out the door, I decided to stand still and really try this time to listen to my intuition. Which way should I go? Up or down?

After several minutes trying to calm myself down, I found my legs turning me, and I was climbing.

I wasn't sure why this was better, or even for sure if it was. I only knew that ignoring my gut feeling was probably why I'd almost been killed by the Baterra. I had to trust that deep down I had good reasons for the choice. I didn't let myself worry too much about whether that was really true.

Up and up I went to the top of the tower, and then I wandered the abandoned metal rooms. Then it came to me -- I could avoid the high-security rooms, but there were still many rooms that weren't locked, and I might get lucky.

Once I found a vial of exsidian laying on a desk, broken. The damage looked to have been caused by gradual eating away by protodermis. There were spare vials as well on a shelf nearby, some broken and some not, and a metal contraption that looked like it could hold one vial over another.

So the Great Beings had obtained a sample, and studied it. They must have let it eat through each vial only to fall into the next, so they could store it long-term. I wondered what conclusions they had reached, but all notes and records had apparently been taken away. There was no sign of any remaining protodermis now.

In another room, I found many Baterra studying a big map of the maze. Labels and other maps gave directions for various clever traps to be built throughout the maze.

I noticed the system was designed to end in the Great Volcano more so than this tower.

And at the center of the volcano was a note that read, "Power cube goes here. Protect with shield device."

So that was it. The unstable power source from the prototype giant robot -- I'd heard from some people who had helped make it that it was a cube. That was mainly what the maze was to guard. I imagined the Element Lords wanted it about as badly as they wanted to control protodermis.

I made a point of crawling behind desks and cabinets rather than out in the open, because some Baterra were wandering these halls as well. When I was about to give up searching, I bumped into a tablet that had fallen behind a desk and been forgotten.

I turned into a liquid form and slid it out, then laid it down in a patch of morning light coming in through a window.

Turned back into the beetle to read it.

It was another map, a crude one, but of the whole main side of the planet. Yet, it only had a few of the well-known landmarks named.

Most of what it showed were things I'd never heard of.

It labeled the Valley of the Maze.

Then, in the Great Jungle, labeled a second fortress.

Elsewhere, a dot with just one word -- "lab".

Still elsewhere, "Wish Gate." That especially caught my attention.

And at the edge of the map, an arrow pointing to that edge.

I turned into liquid and flipped the map over, then back to the beetle.

This side had a map of a huge valley, but no information on where exactly the valley was. It bore the label, "Construction Site."

Construction of what? Why build it so far away?

I had no clear answer, but I had a very strong feeling.

And with that, my plan was formed.

I decided against bothering with the other Great Being fortress. No, I would go for this lab first, and then check out the mysterious Wish Gate. Then, I would try to find a way to this Construction Site.

I stayed in beetle form as I entered the maze. Along the way, I sought and found the lost Jungle Agori., who turned out to be a female. She wore no helmet, and carried no weapon, yet she did carry a scabbard that was empty. It seemed she knew of the Baterra's mission and was trying to appear nonthreatening.


I took the form of a random Agori as I approached.

"Ah!" she said. "You're late."

I tilted my head. "Late? You were expecting... me?"

"Oh! You're not the... Sorry. Someone was supposed to show me the way out of here."

"I know the way," I said. "Why were you in here?"

She smiled enigmatically. "Ask me a few millenia from now."

Stumped, I led her toward the exit that went in the direction she told me she needed to go. I also gave her some food because she looked to be starving. "If you ever get lost in a maze like this," I advised based on something I'd learned in my maze-wandering dreams, "just pick the right or left wall and keep following that side, whichever one you pick. Eventually you'll get out."

"You're not going to lead me all the way out now?"

"I'm sorry, I can't. I can't risk being seen with you; they're already trying to kill me, so they might kill anyone with me. Just know this. Whatever you do, do not pick up a weapon."

She answered as I'd expected. "Oh, I know -- but you're not supposed to," she said, narrowing her eyes. "Don't tell anyone. It's... for the war," she added in a tone that seemed half apologetic and half disturbed.

I gathered she must be one of the few Agori the Great Beings assigned more important tasks to, but I didn't ask. "I need to leave now. Just keep following this wall; the exit's not far ahead. The wall-following trick doesn't work in all mazes, and there's parts here it doesn't, but from here on out it does. Don't deviate from that strategy even once."

"Don't worry; I've had enough of this place."

After I was out of sight, I turned into the form of a Sand Bat, and flew out, wondering why the Great Beings apparently didn't want people to know of the Baterra's rule until it was too late. If I had gone to such an extreme measure, I was certain I would announce it to the world as an ultimatum -- lay down arms and go home; the war's over. But then again, I had never had authority to make such a difficult decision. At least, I hoped the decision had been difficult...


Were more Baterra hiding by the Steed again, I wondered as I neared?

Probably so.

I perched in a nearby tree, and pretended to go to sleep.

In reality, I grew a few more eyes dotting the snakelike body so I could watch in all directions.

I wished I'd thought to pick up a battery checker device. Who knew how long this shapeshifting orb would last?

And there were the spares, scattered all over the ground. It would take too long to pick them all up and get out yet another bag. Baterra would surely attack the moment I -- or any form I might take -- touched them.

Unless, I thought...


I acted like I was watching a bug flying through the air, and flew off to chase it.

When I was far enough away, I turned into a Mountain Worm. This large creature could burrow through any particulate, including sand or gravel. In this form I slowly inched my way back to my Steed, underground. The one place the Baterra wouldn't think to watch.


Finally I was in place underneath the fallen orbs.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I took the form of dirt oozing under them. The sun was well up now, and it cast complex, moving shadows of leaves across the ground, confusing the sight for any Baterra observers.

Finally, I instantly switched form into a big flat cloth underneath them all, but bent over the grass blades between them.

Bent up. Became the replacement bag. Grew legs and hopped onto the Steed's saddle.

I allowed one sword to manifest its normal form, and sliced the ropes, even as I turned into myself, with an extra bag tied to my backpack.

Snapped the reins, and I was off.

Sure enough, Baterra took form behind me, but the Steed was too fast for them. All the exercise had paid off.

Pre-update, I imagined these would have chased me and eventually tired the Steed out, or even perhaps been smart enough to form Cave Shrikes again and put the chase to a swift end. But I'd seen every Baterra heading in for the update, summoned by a radio signal, as I'd left through the maze. No, I was safe for now.

As I passed through a connected valley on my way out, I saw a green helmet atop a remarkably lifelike, painted wooden sculpture, holding a sword. If any Baterra had found the sculpture, there would be marks of attempts to kill it, but there weren't. The Agori could thus know if it was safe to retrieve the weapon. Wish I'd thought of that...

And now I traveled in as close to a straight line as I could to the dot marked "lab", drawn by an insatiable curiosity. It was there I hoped to learn the answer to a question that had been burning in my mind since my first waking moment.

Where will I find my own people?

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Chapter 10 -- The Shattering of the Old

The war had, unfortunately, moved down into the Barrens, so it slowed me down considerably.

I was getting impatient, because I sensed that something big was going to happen soon. Something with violent finality, and if I was in the wrong place when it happened there would be no getting past that mistake.

But finally I found the secret entrance to a cave far to the southwest.

After traveling down the tunnel for a while, I reached a large cavern with six paths leading into six perfectly circular doors.



Through one of the doors, green light cast upon a beautiful jungle inside another vast cavern.


In another room, there was an active volcano.

The others had waterfalls, an icescape, a sandy desert, and a rocky landscape.

Massive footprints led out from them. I recognized them. The Element Lords. They'd been transformed in these rooms.

For a split second I wondered if the rooms might still have the power to bestow elemental control upon a person, but I instantly rejected the idea. Even if true, which I doubted, the last thing I wanted to become was a monster like the Jungle Lord.

I found a locked room farther down, and oozed inside with my shapeshifting power. There I beheld many stone pedestals with various symbols in green-glowing light. I recognized some of them as a rudimentary, early version of the language of my people!

It seemed that it was a programming language. The Great Beings had recently been using this lab, I gathered, to work out an exact yet highly adaptable grammar for the language that could describe nearly anything from basic mechanical function to advanced powers.

I discovered diagrams of molecules, unpronouncable names of enzymes and molecular machines.

Finally, the diagrams culminated in the most complex molecule you could imagine.


They'd done it. They'd cracked its code -- not in the way the Element Lords wanted of tapping into energized protodermis's mysterious energy, but in figuring out its molecular structure so they could make an artificial version.

Like the protodermis I was made of. I was now sure I was on the right track. But this was not enough. Surely there was more to this lab. Something that would tell me what my people's world would be.

Eventually I found a lower level, where there was a room with a tall pedestal in the center.

I walked around its four sides, studying the glowing green text and designs.



One side was entirely taken up by a sketch of a massive mechanical giant. Judging by scale measurements, it was even taller than the prototype.

And I knew that face design. I had seen it in my vision, battling the prototype across the Great Barren, long after most of the streams would disappear. Now I understood what sort of realm my people would live in -- perhaps they had already begun to be made and were already inside it?

Another side showed a diagram of circles inside that body -- dome realms with islands inside an artificial sea. Here my people would live, under illusions of fake stars, unaware that they were maintenance workers in a giant robot -- cells in a giant body if you will. I found that side fascinating, though it didn't have a lot of detail. Islands... Amazing!

On the next side, a diagram that looked almost exactly like... me.

With a word above it.

The name of my species.


Text surrounding it described exactly how my body worked, but the Great Beings seemed to have a very different idea of what I was than I had.

It seemed they thought of me as, metaphorically speaking, mere nanotech for the giant robot. They literally saw us as machines, with some use of organics for muscles and the like, but it seemed they had not imagined that they could possibly succeed in creating genuine artificial intelligence.

Yet, all the seeds for it were there in the glowing text. The Matoran would have a full power of imagination, to think of ways around unforeseen problems. We would have a brain designed basically like the Agori's, able to learn and think and feel. Why did not the Great Beings see what that added up to?

Perhaps a designer's humility, I thought, for who would imagine that they might accidentally create sapient beings?

Our minds were based on a system of dual elemental light and shadow. The light represented mental pathways of construction, and the shadow of demolition. Both would be vital to our jobs.

The reason Matoran were given masks that they depended on for consciousness, the text revealed, was in case any of us glitched and started using, for example, processes of demolition where construction was warranted, or where nothing needed to be done at all yet, or started building things that would interfere with normal operations. Removing a mask left the unit unconscious, so it could be repaired.

New Matoran would be made by special machines placed throughout the 'Matoran Universe'. Mental gender identities were included, though there was no physical purpose to them, apparently just because the Great Beings were accustomed to thinking of beings in terms of gender.

There were also to be more elemental associations than with the Element Lords, though this list appeared to be incomplete. They had made the first element, Light, have both genders, as well as some actual elemental powers, but later had cut down on the complexity of the spawning machines for other elements, so those Matoran had no powers, and gender was determined by element.

The potential for Matoran to transform into other related forms was mentioned, but it was a reference to another tablet with detailed notes that I couldn't find here. There was only the word Toa.

The fourth side of the pedestal brought forth deep emotions.

All I registered at first was a diagram of two giants standing atop a large circle, each holding a hand up, and lines reaching out to another circle, making three circles in all. I didn't understand what I was seeing, but the notes soon made it clear, and I felt sick.

I could not focus on what I had learned, and found myself stumbling out. It was as if I had been stabbed and knew I was dying, or a close friend was dying. Only at the last second did my eyes fall upon a tablet that mentioned the purpose of the Wish Gate, and that alone gave me a way to reach this giant.

I found my Steed, and pushed it to run as fast as it could to the Wish Gate.

Foregoing a proper balance of rest and feeding, I made my poor Steed go for days without food, and then allowed it to hunt as if it was wild, catching massive game and swallowing it without my usual careful preparation. Then I would use shapeshifting with wings to catch up to him. I myself rationed my supplies and did not stop to get more.

My mind seemed unable to engage to consider what I had learned. I felt that I could not allow the thoughts to register fully until I saw it happen with my own eyes. Until then, I was stuck in a strange state of half-denial, half desperation.

Only one thought made it to my full awareness.

It would happen the moment someone figured out, finally, how to tap directly into the energy of the protodermis.

The Great Beings had realized that someone, whether one of the Element Lords or an Agori, would eventually figure it out. If I had obeyed the Ice Lord's command on that day, I would have triggered the disaster then and there.

And that time was almost here.

Finally, one clear night at the headwaters of a major river, I reached an ornately carved arch.


I stopped, and undid the Steed's saddle.

"I never named you," I muttered with regret, as I undid the harness as well, letting the reins fall away. "I name you now, old friend. I'll remember always how reliable you were over the years. So I name you Pirihonga." In Matoran, it meant 'faithful'.

I stepped away, holding up the last piece of meat I'd saved for myself, spiced with salt to preserve it -- he loved them. It was the last treat he'd get from me.

I threw it away, and he chased eagerly.


"And now you'll be free," I whispered.

Tearing myself away, I ran at full speed through the gate.

There was a flash of white light and a sickening feeling followed by utter blackness. When the effect faded, night had been replaced by daylight.

I was on the other side of the world.

There, across the dunes, rose up a scaffolding structure, housing a giant humanoid form of the same sand color as the dunes around. There is no word in any dialect of any language to describe how huge it was, only phrases such as "its head reached into the heavens". Clouds curled around its ankles.

The head was just now being moved into place, dragged across the sand with ropes, apparently thanks to some device greatly lessening the effects of gravity and friction upon it.


A month passed as I flew toward it in the form of a Sand Bat. The Gate had not teleported me as close as I'd hoped -- perhaps it had a range limit. And although I could see many of the details of this structure, that was only because of how enormous it was.

I was actually many miles away, and starving, with little sign of food around. I absorbed energy from a desert plant here and there, but it was a losing battle, and soon I began to seriously consider draining battery after battery from the spare shapeshifting orbs. But I resisted the temptation -- my life once I entered might depend on having these things charged. Shapeshifting was also making the journey go faster; I expended much less energy flapping wings than walking would have.

In that time, the finishing touches were put on the arms, and the eyes finally lit up, glowing green.

This was not how it had been in my vision. Then, the eyes had been orange. I wondered why, and vaguely remembered the depiction of both robots standing side by side on that pedestal. That was not how things would end up, I knew.

Suspicions already began to form about the meaning of Annona's warning, but I didn't dare think about it too much.

According to the first face of that pedestal, this giant robot was controlled by another artificial being, but not one with his own physical body. He existed only as software in the control computers.

His name was Mata Nui.

In Matoran, it meant "Great Spirit."

He was created to be a vast benevolence, one capable of undoing the mistakes of the Great Beings, but in order to do this, he would have to embark on a journey of exploration and science that would last for countless thousands of years. But one day he must return, and then the great goal would either be won, or lost forever.

Was this the ultimate destiny I had briefly seen in my vision? To undo great wrongs?

I sensed that was a part of it, but not the ultimate purpose. That remained an enigma lurking on the dark edges of my awareness.

At the very least, this showed some redeeming qualities of the Great Beings, regret at their mistakes and the unimaginable consequences. I imagined that without a vision of the future as I'd had to give even a sliver of hope that the goal might be accomplished, the rest of their lives would be a torment of doubt, lit only by educated faith.

This brought up the need for caution. If they placed as much value in this giant invention as I thought, they would have included more, and more advanced, safeguards in it than anything else they'd ever made. Besides a stable power source and many backup systems, they probably had security systems.

I might be putting myself at risk trying to enter it.

But I was marked for death here. The Baterra wouldn't forget I had some of their orbs, that I could conceal a weapon even if I appeared not to have any.

Eventually the Baterra would spread throughout the planet, and although they wouldn't actively seek me, they could hide as well as I could, and it was inevitable they'd catch me in some moment when my guard was down. It wasn't just my strong desire to be with my people. I wasn't just chasing a foolish dream from the first minute of my existence to be abandoned with scorn in the light of experience.

No, for my own survival's sake, it made sense to leave. And yet, I was uneasy about it. I would be leaving everything I knew. That everybody believed me dead didn't seem to matter to me. This place was my home.

When I arrived at the Great Beings' base camp, I immediately formed a Scarabax Beetle and snuck into one of their tents to steal a full supply of food -- after snarfing down a meal.

Then I set out across the final stretch of dunes, under cover of night. Yet that journey took another few hours, and the sun rose by the time I reached it.


I found a hatch at the base of the giant's foot.

I didn't trust the door, but I could see no other way in or out, at least not within breathable atmosphere. It looked like there were ways in through the face, but I didn't dare try to fly so high above the clouds. What if I lost consciousness and fell? Even if in my shapeshifted form I might actually survive the fall, my mask might break, and I might starve to death while in a coma, or get burned to a crisp when the giant rocketed away.

The solution presented itself while I was still studying the entryway.

Several Great Beings had walked up, and they were now opening the hatch themselves. Apparently they had some loose ends to tie up before releasing their invention.

So I followed them in.

Gravity seemed to bend sideways inside. I realized that since the "ground" of the domes was toward the back of the robot, and "up" was forward, it needed an artificial gravity field. Just one of the many powers that protodermis could enable.

To account for this, a ramp tilted as we walked along it -- me with Scarabax legs, sticking to the dark corner again.

Light came from ahead -- it seemed like sunlight, but I knew it had to be artificial because there were no windows in these areas; only the eyes of the robot functioned that way.

Soon the tunnel opened into a massive dome.

An illusion of a blue sky filled its surface. I couldn't see the other side of the circle of water, it was so huge. The water had a silvery tint, showing it to be protodermis mimicking the physics of real water, but it did not glow. This protodermis was not energized, though according to the pedestal plans, some energized protodermis was included in the robot's design here and there, in hidden places.

There was an island in the center of the dome, but this was not our destination.

Up ahead, a massive, elegant boat was docked, with powerful turbine engines.

The dark-robed beings boarded it, and I turned myself into a fish to cross to it, then to a crab to climb its outer surface. The prow had an alcove built into it with a statue of a Matoran standing in it. I moved in behind this, so I could get a good view of the sea ahead, and take my normal form to rest, without being seen by the boat's passengers.

It was now that I must begin to decide... was I committed to this path?

What was about to happen on Spherus Magna would mean that many would die, and life thereafter was to become much more difficult. I wanted desperately to know how their society would adapt, to be there and guide them along the way. Perhaps I could study and undo what was happening to the Vorox.

If not for the knowledge of the coming evil, and the certainty that the evil would overtake and command this great giant, I might have left. Braved the threat of the Baterra, and consigned myself to life in squalor.

There was also something else.


My heartlight seemed to beat faster at the thought of exploring this brand new world. And there was the thought of living among my own people! I sighed deeply, closing my eyes as the vast ship's engines started up, and it surged forward. I would not go back. But it was good to admit to myself that the transition... would not be easy.

The boat passed swiftly over the waves, heading for a water-filled tunnel that led from this dome to the next one, higher up in the leg of the giant robot.

I had several adventures following the Great Beings' quests in that final time, as the boat made its way to the 'north', and a few after they had turned back and left the robot, but before I tell of them, I wish first to tell of what I saw after leaving the boat, when the time for the terrible disaster had come.

I had entered the northernmost dome, inside the giant's head.

The island ahead of me made up the foundations of what would one day be a great city -- and it bore the name that meant just that in Matoran. Metru Nui, the Great City.

Tall mechanical skyscrapers rose up from the land here and there, containing automated functions that indirectly kept the brain of the giant robot functioning. Matoran were tasked with keeping these skyscrapers running, though they did not know why. They assumed it was part of their advanced city, and this was in a sense true, for if Mata Nui did not stay alive, physics inside these domes would break down eventually.

Other machines that did some more dangerous and secret repairs would surface in these skyscrapers, where Matoran would repair them.

These would then go back underground and pass through secret tunnels to maintain the rest of the robot. There were similar structures as these, though usually smaller, throughout the torso regions of the robot, to the south of here.

Later the Matoran would build other automated skyscrapers to handle more direct city functions, I recalled.

I once again experienced a sort of double vision, seeing this city in flashes as it would one day look, with skyscrapers from the southernmost tip to northernmost peninsula.


The city was divided up into six main regions. Matoran belonging to the six 'primary elements' on the protodermic list of elements, distinct from the Spherus Magna elements, lived in these regions, with one region per element. These were Fire, Water, Stone, Earth, Ice, and Air.

I decided that I would live here. I set out to explore the city to help decide which region -- or Metru -- I would choose.

But before I could even begin, I sensed that it was time.

Like a spider beetle drawn to a flame, I was drawn to the sun-holes above.

These were the eyes of the giant robot, but they also served as giant glasslike windows into Metru Nui's dome. The sky illusion handled the making of stars and a fake moon, but for Metru Nui alone, it did not make a fake sun, but instead, merely bent the light of the holes to appear as two suns, seeming to rise and set each day.


I grew wings and flew upward.

When I got to a certain altitude, the illusion began to blur. Although it appeared to be early morning at the time, the bent light seemed to stretch out in a line toward a high noon position, and then resolve into physical holes in a massive metal ceiling.

I flew toward the right eye -- to the west.

Closer and closer. Now the light-bending effect faded entirely and I saw outside as if through a window.

I flew up to the glass itself and turned into my normal body, except with insect-like grabber hairs sticking out of my feet and hands to adhere to its surface.

There was the landscape of the Great Barren, but it seemed to be sinking away.

Through the glass I could feel strong vibration, though I understood that a dampening field of energy was making it so the Matoran below could not feel this. I could see smoke clouds rising from below the giant's feet some form of engines were firing like rockets. Presumably the Great Beings had left the area.

My heart skipped a beat as the clouds slipped away below. We were rising.

The sky darkened, and the stars came out, even though sunlight still cast upon the glass.

Soon I could no longer see Spherus Magna.

Up ahead, I saw a red dot glowing, and it seemed to be getting larger and larger.

Then, silently, the stars turned.

Mata Nui was spinning slowly around.

I heard something connect with his body with a deep clunk. I assumed this too was dampened. I couldn't tell for sure, but I thought the red object was a separate booster pack that normally orbited the planet, described on the pedestal plans, to help him blast away from the planet's gravity.

Then the stars turned again, and I beheld a massive sphere.

There it was.

Spherus Magna.

Mata Nui was facing it now, looking down upon it.

It was like a massive olive, with the main body colored tan -- the Great Barren -- the southern pole showing the blue of the ocean, and the northern pole a ring of thick green topped with white; the Northern Frost. There was also a white spot of ice floating in the middle of the southern ocean.

But as I watched... it happened.

There was a great flash, in a ring shape around both poles.


The great ocean, and the great jungle, lifting.

Rising up.

Massive chunks of rock lifted out of two matching craters.

As they flew up, gravity violently reshaped them into spheres, but I saw faint streams of energy from Mata Nui's hands cushioning the quakes enough with dampening fields that their unfortunate inhabitants would not die.


Now two huge moons were rocketing away from the planet, pushed by brilliantly shining fountains of destabilized protodermis.

Debris clouds zoomed out into space in two cone formations around this.

I watched, and watched, and watched, even as Mata Nui watched. I wondered what it was like for him to see this, knowing that some day, thousands of years later when the new moons finally stabilized, he would have to come back and use all his incredibly advanced powers to put the planet back together again.

Spherus Magna was no more.

For this was the Shattering the Great Beings' science had predicted, the result of the Element Lords' tampering with the protodermis in the Core.

Now, I beheld three worlds.

The largest, the desert where most of the armies and inhabitants had still been warring at the time, including all six Lords, had been named Bara Magna on the pedestal, meaning barren planet. Sadness threatened to overwhelm me as I imagined what their life would now be like, robbed of the occasional rainclouds coming up from the ocean.


That ocean now formed Aqua Magna. Gravity bent its rock into a sphere, and water rushed violently across it, sparking vast storms and tsunamis, but there was no land and no inhabitants to suffer the effects, although there was a wide variety of sea life.

And finally, the moon with one side now covered in forest, the underside now barren brown and gray rock that was still settling into spherical form with quakes that Mata Nui was still cushioning, was Bota Magna, the jungle planet.

As Mata Nui continued to rocket out of the planet's gravity well, my denial finally faded away.


It had happened. It was real.

I had loved Spherus Magna so much that when I saw this in my first moments, the sight had been so traumatic I had immediately blocked it from my memory. Even now as I watched, I could not bring myself to truly believe it had happened.

Somehow I already knew that this was even worse than it looked. If Spherus Magna wasn't reformed, eventually the main fragment, Bara Magna, where most of the Agori remained, would suffer some kind of worse disaster. Though my vision had been vague about what this would be, I was certain that everybody there would die.

The three fragments had to be merged again, and this was what Mata Nui was designed to do, after studying other megaplanets to make sure he understood how.

And now the pain of the knowledge that an evil within this universe would rise felt all the more sharp.

I must find this evil and monitor its rise, I knew. I must do whatever I could to slow it down and make sure Mata Nui, or perhaps some band of heroes inside him, could stop it.

But then, a moment of hope came.

I noticed that the clouds of debris were beginning to spiral around Bara Magna under the influence of gravity, forming an orbital path. Circling around the three planets. The main planet's magnetic field bent the spiraling shape at two points oddly. Soon the apparition stabilized into a regular form, and my eyes widened. I recognized it.


It was the same shape as a symbol I had seen briefly in my vision.

A symbol that on the Great Beings' boat trip I had learned had been assigned a meaning within the Matoran Universe. The Three Virtues -- the way that the Matoran would live their lives and work toward the great goal at the end of all things. It was a reminder to Mata Nui of what he must stand for, that life was not just about reaching some goal, but about how you lived on the way.

Those virtues were Unity, Duty, and Destiny.

I nodded slowly, and closed my eyes. Destiny was so important the Great Beings themselves had affirmed it. And so I must believe in it.

But what if my vision meant that the rise of evil was itself destined?

Could destiny be thwarted?

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PART TWO -- Year of Change





Chapter 11 -- The Founders of the New




Before the Shattering, I watched several events involving the Great Beings, before they left the Matoran Universe for good.


Their ship was enormous, almost large enough to think of as a floating island except that it was clearly made of metal and wood, not earth, and so fast I didn't even feel the spray even though I was in an alcove in the prow.


The first half of their journey north crossed through many islands uninhabited by Matoran, in domes inside the left leg of the giant robot.


They stopped several times and a few went ashore on the various islands. From the conversation I overheard through the metal hull, they were checking on some of the great beasts they had created to populate the world and serve as guardians to scare Matoran away from areas they should not visit.


They used a word in the Matoran language for all the different types of animals -- Rahi.


I saw one of them because it turned to attack the ship. It was a massive squidlike creature, but entirely biomechanical and with glowing eyes like mine. As it got closer I saw it was more like a whale made of metal but with organic tentacles coming from its head. It seemed larger not only than the boat, but the green island to our left.


The hooded Great Beings ran back to the ship, and it took off, narrowly avoiding the grasp of the Rahi.


Several other Rahi I watched them check on were much more normal in size, especially a tortoise creature. It still dwarfed me, but the robed beings were slightly taller than its back.


Soon we crossed out of the leg domes and entered a single massive dome.


The landmass I saw ahead was by no means an island -- this was a continent. Later I was to learn it was the largest of two continents.


The ship anchored offshore and several Great Beings went ashore, this time carrying many provisions in backpacks. I gathered that this was no quick stop, and turned into a fish, and then a bird, to follow them.



I hadn't seen many native birds, so I made sure to stay small and blend in. I had overheard several times that they had programmed Mata Nui to worry about the making of many new types of Rahi later. The Shattering was going to happen soon, so they had to focus on the most important steps in getting the Matoran Universe up and running.


The journey to their destination took several weeks, but to me it felt like a few hours, since I was so used to incredibly long journeys.


At one point, they split up. Two of them went a different way, carrying a mysterious box.


I debated which group to follow, but the main group was carrying some massive, impressive cannonlike devices, so I figured there would be more drama if I stayed with the main group.


Several times we passed groups of Matoran. I was overjoyed to see them.



Interestingly, the Matoran seemed incapable of seeing the Great Beings.


And this did not seem to surprise the master inventors. It was clearly intentional, a design feature of my people. I wondered if they had the ability to turn off my awareness of them too, but had simply never quite realized I was a Matoran.


They did not go far before they entered what appeared to be a massive hole in the ground. Yet it seemed too perfectly circular to me.


The explanation seemed to present itself when I noticed a blue being already present there. She was holding a staff whose lower end was pressed into the rock.


She reminded me of a Glatorian in size and shape, but wore a Kanohi Mask like a Matoran, although I couldn't see it clearly at this distance. I remembered that the word I'd seen earlier -- Toa -- was the name for this being. It meant "hero. I was to learn more of Toa at the end of my traveling with the Great Beings, but for the moment I understood only that they were related to Matoran.


The Great Beings walked to a point at the edge of this hole, where I saw a massive spiral staircase similar in design to the one in the center of their fortress at the Maze Valley. They continued down it.


I formed a tiny flying insect I had seen in the woods on the way, and followed, but I kept my distance. I had a feeling that something up ahead could be very dangerous to me despite any disguise.


We entered another dome, apparently hidden beneath the continent. I saw a vast plain of sand filling the floor of this dome.


The huge stone spiral continued down through the air of the dome until it reached the dunes below. The Great Beings walked all the way down and then continued along the sand.



Now the purpose of the cannons became apparent.


There were monstrous ghostly forms zipping around the air. They looked like lightning bolts that never faded, but they moved with obvious intelligence. And when they hit anything, like the sand that was everywhere here, the results could be explosive.



As soon as any came close enough, the hooded beings aimed the massive cannons, which seemed to be held up with antigravity powers, and blasted them with a magnetic pulse.


The Avohkah, as I remembered they were called, burst apart with a brilliant light if the air-distorting pulses hit them.


Otherwise their flights just bent a little if the bolts passed near, and they kept attacking. The Great Beings walked in a circular formation, with at least one faced in each direction at all times, so several were walking sideways and others backwards. Between the whole group, they got all the Avohkah before any reached them.


Yet there were still thousands more of the strange things throughout the dome. I wondered why.


Later I was to learn that this place was called Karda Nui; the great heart. It was Mata Nui's power core. He was not conscious at the moment. When he would awaken for the first time, this dome would fill up with a deadly, constant energy storm. Presumably the Avohkah were some kind of side effect to this place's design, though what could make them living creatures, I couldn't fathom.


I kept my distance from the battle, but I sensed that this was not the main danger to me here. So I hovered high above the scene.


I could already see the Great Beings' destination -- a huge silver sphere laying in the sand.


The Avohkah finally decided to leave the hooded titans alone as they neared the giant silver sphere. With silence reigning through the area, I was able to faintly overhear them call this the Codrex. I gathered it was important to the functioning of the giant robot.


They did something I couldn't see very well in the dim light at a circular doorway, and apparently massive internal nested spheres spun around inside the larger sphere, until their own circular doors aligned with the outermost one. It was quite a strange sight. The metallic sound of the metal sliding echoed for miles.



Then they entered.


I felt a deep foreboding about what was inside, and my insectoid wings refused to spin faster to move me forward, as curious as I was.


Soon I felt strange whispers in my mind.


If I'd been much closer, I thought, it would have been a deafening scream.


Some monster was living in the Codrex. Some creation of the Great Beings, I was sure, but I shuddered at the horrible feeling that came over me, as if projected telepathically from that monster. I backed away.


Flashes of red light were visible inside.


Despite the sensation of screaming, I also felt a pervasive confidence. My own emotions seemed thrown into chaos by the brief contact, and I could not be sure of any of my impressions, but one idea did occur to me, and it was the only explanation I was able to come up with.


Something had played some temporary role in maintaining functions in this world, prior to Mata Nui being brought online. Now that the Great Spirit was ready, even though asleep, he could handle things himself. I thought it was like a stitch, a method Agori would use to hold together a wound until it could heal properly with time.


Now that Something was no longer needed... but it did not want to go.


I caught only a faint amount of thoughts cast off by the being, like a telepathic barrage of weapons fire, but part of that contained his name. Tren Krom. Despite being incredibly intelligent, I felt, he was utterly primal in nature, and to connect with his mind just might drive anyone but the Great Beings into just such a primal state of insanity. The similarity to Annona was not lost on me.


When they inevitably extracted him, I was immensely grateful to see that he was entirely concealed in a massive silver container that must have been placed in the Codrex for this purpose. It was shaped something like an enormous cylinder, and devices built into it made it hover just like the cannons the Great Beings carried. Something about the material apparently blocked Tren Krom's psionic powers.


The Codrex's layered shells scrambled, effectively locking it again, and we continued back toward the stone staircase.


The Avohkah had scattered far and wide the moment Tren Krom had begun protesting. We encountered no resistance on the way back.


When we finally reached the top of the stairs, the blue Toa tilted the staff, and apparently in response, the stone of the stairs moved, flowing slowly as if liquid, rising up and filling in the hole.


The moment it entirely covered over the hole, she lifted the staff away.


A Great Being handed her a large scroll, and she left.


Our group met up with the two other Great Beings who had apparently hidden whatever was in the metal box, and we returned to the ship. With our strange cargo safely stowed away, we continued on a voyage around the continent to the west, then north.


Part of the way along the journey, we stopped off at a large peninsula on the northern continent, which pointed southeast toward the southern continent.


The Great Beings went ashore with Tren Krom. I was afraid to follow, thinking they were going to release him, but later they returned with him still in tow. I never did find out what they did, but that land was later known as the Tren Krom Peninsula, and had a number of strange and dangerous features such as acid falls and volcanoes.


We continued to the northeast, and then took a turn through a series of domes I realized were in the giant's right arm.


Past several islands we zoomed without stopping.


Finally, on a barren land that no Matoran had yet seen, at the southernmost of the domes in this arm, the Great Beings once again took Tren Krom's silver container ashore. Again I was too afraid of the monster to risk going ashore.


This time they returned without the cylinder. Where it had come from, and where it had gone, I never did learn.


From their conversation on the ship as it headed back up the arm, I gathered that they had fused him to the island, where he would remain hidden for hopefully a very long time.


Just before leaving the arm, the ship tied up at a dock on a fairly large island, and almost the entire group of Great Beings went ashore.


I determined to take the opportunity to explore the ship before hurrying after them.


There was the collection of cannons. There was not much else aboard except for more boxes like the one those two Great Beings had carried away. I checked them, and they all contained only mundane items and food.


However, I did find one item I needed -- a tiny battery checker. It could be plugged into my shapeshifting orbs and would tell me how close to empty the batteries were. But it seemed they had not packed any spare batteries; the only things that would have needed them were the cannons, and these had wires that could attach to the power core of the ship to recharge. One was plugged in now.


I checked the battery of the orb I'd been relying on and was alarmed to find it nearly empty.


With no way to recharge it, I put it in a special pocket of my backpack and pulled another one out to use for now. I made a mental note to try to invent some way of recharging them later, if possible. I decided to risk stealing the battery checker, as I found more than one, and I wasn't sure how to get the programming right to make my own.


In a big room of the ship, I found a massive list on a stone-plated wall, written in what appeared to be chalk.


A list of elements.


I remembered that the Great Beings had still been trying to pin down what the final list would be.


At the top were the eight that were most set in stone. Fire, Water, Stone, Earth, Ice, Air, Light, and Shadow. The latter had a note next to it that no Matoran would naturally exist of that element, and that it would be reserved for something called 'Makuta'.


I was pleased to see two in the list below that I still thought were the top candidates for my own identity -- Metal and Plants.


It seemed the Great Beings had not been fond of these names, though, because they were scratched out and replaced with Iron and The Green. I gathered that it did not literally refer to only one type of metal.


The Avohkah were apparently representative of another on the list, Lightning. This one and Water had a note next to them that they were all female. Light had a note that it contained both genders -- the only element to do so.


Other elements included were Sonics, Plasma, Magnetism, and Gravity.


Finally, a whole board was devoted to the choosing of one more element. A number of suggestions were written there, ranging from obvious choices like Crystal to strange ideas like 'Magic'.


Their final choice was, perhaps, inspired by the incident with Annona, and the design of Tren Krom.




But the list was not complete, because next to this was a note that read merely, "Who?" And another note added that it was uncertain how well this strange element would work, compared to the others which all handled some form of matter or energy.


That must be what this trip is for. The Great Beings needed to pin down these final details before considering the universe finished.


I memorized the list, and looked around the room for anything else that might help me.


What I found delighted me.


A complete registry of all the other powers the Great Beings had originally programmed with exact definitions of the Matoran language programming code that ran them.


This was a series of tablets that explained the nature of protodermis as related to powers. To make a long story short, it revealed that the artificial protodermis could come in two main types; raw, which imitated various elemental substances, and purified. It was the purified protodermis that could generate powers. All Kanohi Masks, it said, including those belonging to the Matoran, were made of purified protodermis, though the level of purity varied.


Furthermore, it revealed a complex system of how the powers worked, and various basics of what items had so far been established that had these powers.


But I knew if I was going to catch up to the Great Beings on that vast island I'd better leave now, so I wouldn't be able to read it all here.


What to do?


Did I dare steal outright from the Great Beings? A simple battery checker was one thing -- this was the only copy of this text I could find.




I had no way to know what their limits were. If they could shut down beings' awareness of them, maybe they could also detect what beings had been where and track them from afar, erase memories, etc. There was a very strong risk, I thought, that they might rob me of all my memories, and I'd become merely another ignorant Matoran among the rest here.


No, I had to leave no clues that I'd been here at all.


The idea occurred to me after pacing back and forth and giving myself a headache thinking about it.


These records were in tablet form. It was a common method of storing information among the Agori, and the Great Beings seemed to prefer it to paper or, as in the case of this large board, chalk.


That meant that the words were physically inscribed.


Meaning, it was possible to make a copy.


So, without disturbing the other tablets, I made my left arm and two swords turn into liquid and ooze into the collection, forming clothlike planes that indented in the inscriptions. Then I made this hold steady, and pulled them out.


Now I had a long tapestry of inverted bumps in place of my left arm. I held the form steady, and rolled them up. Then, taking the form of a bird again but with this tapestry rolled up under one wing, I carefully walked toward the dock.


On the way, I saw one remaining Great Being writing a list of words on another chalkboard, and crossing some out. I saw words like Kanota and Velika, but they didn't mean anything in particular to me, and I couldn't risk taking a less visible form to spy on him closer now. But it was the first time I'd seen a Great Being up close in good lighting. Even then, I could not see his face under the hood.


I saw him wave an arm, and the cloak's sleeve revealed an ornate blue gauntlet. An energy crackled from this device, and the list erased itself. He started to walk out, so I hurried faster down the hallway before he could spot me.



I left the ship, and hopped to the coast, then followed it for a ways to one side.


When I was out of sight of the vessel, I unfolded my "arm" and pressed it into a patch of soil. Gently lifted it away.


It had worked. There was the entirety of the records, reproduced as depressions in the ground.


I had to make a difficult choice then.


Follow the Great Beings and find out the result of their experiments with Psionics? Or work on copying this now?


The decision wasn't easy, but the logic of it was.


I couldn't be sure I'd hold this form indefinitely. A rain might come along and wash away the inscriptions in the sand. Besides, psionics had the same problem as Tren Krom -- I might be detected despite my best disguise.


That was, come to think of it, something I'd have to think about later. I should look for ways to come up with a mental shield, if beings with that power were going to be wandering around. The way was probably right here in this record.


So I spent the next day using my right arm to form a carving device to extract tablet shapes from a nearby rock face, and then rapidly chisel a copy of what I saw. I kept my left arm held in the clothlike form for as long as I could. Wind had begun to erode parts of the record, so I moved down the beach a few times and pressed it in anew.


By nightfall, I finally had a complete copy.


I had to throw away much of my food to make room for it in my backpack. But I wasn't too concerned. I'd seen many trees with fruit that Matoran picked and ate freely. Food was easily replaceable in here.


I'd obsessively checked and rechecked as I went, and I was sure the copy was accurate, but it was with reluctance that I allowed my left arm to take its normal shape again. I'd gathered most of the intriguing basics of the text's revelations, but I'd gone through most of it so fast it hadn't really sunk in. I would work on studying it more carefully later.




The Great Beings were on their way back.


I flew back to my alcove and peeked out, remaining in the bird form just in case.


There was one more among their number now. Not a Great Being -- another Toa. He was colored blue and gold.


"...accidentally made by the same process that made another form of creature that you don't need to know about," one of the Great Beings was explaining to the Toa.


"They never forgave us for it," another added.


"What do these 'Zyglak' look like?" the Toa asked.


"Reptilian monstrosities," the first Great Being replied. "But don't tell them we said that. It's up to you to calm them down."


The Toa turned to two crab Rahi that were fighting nearby, and lifted a hand.


Instantly the two creatures calmed down and retreated to their holes.


"Easy," the Toa said.


"Zyglak aren't Rahi, Orde," the Great Being chastised. "This will require patience and understanding."


The Toa muttered something I couldn't hear, and they boarded the ship.


So that's what a Toa is, I thought. They were the equivalent of Element Lords. But instead of being fused with their element, they were more like how I had hoped the Lords would be. Essentially Glatorian with elemental powers -- and masks.


One thing I had noticed as I'd copied the tablets was that Kanohi came in four types.


The "Matoran Masks" like mine had no powers other than to keep us conscious.


But the other two types did have protodermic powers. "Great Masks" were worn by Toa. They could choose a power of their own preference, or switch masks to use a different power, unlike their elemental powers which were inherent to the individual.


There was a third weaker power type that I will tell of later.


As the boat powered up, I gathered from their further conversation that the island we were now leaving was called Artakha, named after its ruler, who wore one of the most powerful masks in existence, the Mask of Creation. This was one of only two currently in the fourth power level of Legendary.


The details were unclear to me, but apparently the Great Beings had commanded Artakha to use his mask to create Toa Orde.


Now we were delivering him to the site of his trial mission.


This turned out to be on the northern continent.


He went ashore. I followed, being fairly sure that the Great Beings would remain anchored here to see the results.


Orde wandered the forests and grassy plains of the continents until he found the Zyglak. They were bipedal but their legs looked much more animalistic, and they had long crocodilian heads. They were covered with dark blue scales, and white scales on the head. They wore dark red clothes, and many carried a spear or a knife.



I saw one throw a spear at a sharp-toothed Rahi that attacked it, and the Rahi disappeared with a flash.


I kept my distance again.


Orde had obviously seen this as well, and looked quite unsure of himself now.


He walked up to a stone ridge overlooking the encampment, right as two Zyglak started shouting and attacking each other. They fought violently, throwing spears and dodging.


"These things will never be peaceful," Orde muttered under his breath. "They're nothing but mistakes."


He shook his head, stood up, and charged in, raising his weapon high. "Listen here, you monsters!" he shouted at them. "This must end!"


With that, he aimed his hands at them and blasted them with invisible Psionic energy.


Not how I would have handled it...


They turned toward him, and clamped their hands over their heads.


After a moment they started kicking and screaming.


Orde kept it up, but he looked shocked. Apparently he could sense that it wasn't working. Despite his proclamation that it would fail, it seemed he honestly assumed he could succeed from sheer power.


I thought back to my first day of existence. Had I been this naïve myself?


Of course, I'd had help; a vision that gave me much insight I would need. I wondered if other Matoran, or Toa, were given similar information. They had to get at least knowledge of language, how to walk, etc. Orde seemed to understand much already.


Finally, he lowered his hands.


They stopped kicking.




Glared murderously. Gripped their spears.


Orde ran.


To put things mildly, the Great Beings were disappointed to see Orde racing over the grasslands at top speed, the whole known population of Zyglak on his tail.


They gave him a ride to save his life, but dropped him off at the next port on the continent and told him to think more carefully from now on. I learned from their ensuing conversations that the Great Beings had been using scans of their own minds to make mental templates for Matoran and Toa; they'd chosen one of their number who had a bit of a temper for the final element. That had clearly been a mistake. Another was selected, who had successes with diplomacy in the early years of the golden age. Her mental template would be used from now on for Psionics.


From the conversation I overheard then, it was clear that the end was near. The Great Beings had accomplished everything they needed to do, and would now return to that hatch. The final stages of preparations would now begin.


Choosing not to ride back on that ship was one of the most difficult choices I'd made.


After everything I'd been through so far, it was hard to watch the last remaining trace of my old life sail away over the horizon, knowing that I would now be alone in a universe that was as foreign to me as if I was really an Agori.


But that was the choice I'd made.


The Great Beings would soon leave the world they had made, but my intuition and parts of the vision I still vaguely remembered told me that I had enough time before the Shattering to witness one more important event. To do that, ironically I had to get back to the land of Artakha. I knew where it was, but how would I get there?


With so many huge and dangerous sea Rahi, I wasn't sure I wanted to risk a boat. And I didn't know much about the artificial weather patterns here. So I decided I'd have to fly the whole way there.


A risky drain on the shapeshifting batteries, but something told me it was a risk worth taking. For there were six more Toa to meet -- the most important Toa ever made.







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Chapter 12 -- Six Heroes of Legend




I rested for the night and collected as much of the types of fruit I'd seen other Matoran eating as I could find. I ate most of it in the morning, and took a form that could carry the rest in a pouch.


I now resembled a Cave Shrike, but I colored myself as close to the sky as I could. This was a large form with highly efficient wings and I knew of no parallel so I wanted to make sure nobody spotted me. It was also the form I would use later to fly up to the sun hole.


When I landed on Artakha, I was shocked to discover it was nothing like the land I'd visited just days before.


What had been a green paradise was now a dark, barren volcanic world mostly obscured by clouds of soot raining from the sky.


I hurried onto the land, deeply concerned. Had the evil arisen so soon? Struck in the very wake of its inventors' travels?


No sooner had I gotten forty feet inland when everything changed.


And the change erupted from my own footsteps.


Black soot turned to white snow. The effect spread away from me and over the hills.


The volcanoes turned into mountains that collapsed as avalanches. One rushed toward me, and I took flight, zooming back toward the water in fear.


I looked back. Now fog obscured the whole land, heavy with warm water. All I could see was the soil and sand at the very edges, plus rich green grass.


I landed, so tired from the long flight and my panic that I had no choice. I'd eaten most of the fruit on the way, thinking I could find more here, but now I wasn't so sure. It seemed the island had presented its most pleasant face for the honored guests earlier, but now it was on some kind of high alert. Nobody was allowed to enter unless its ruler deemed them worthy.


How could Artakha sense me?


Or was it some kind of automated system?


I leaned toward the latter, but either way, I realized I could go no further. I would need to ration the fruit I had left, and consider trying to fish.


But I still sensed that I'd be able to witness some important event if I waited near that path the Great Beings had used. There had been a recognizeable dock there, so I flew along the coast until I found it.


The days wore on, and the fruit ran out. I formed a pole with a rope and a net on the end by shapeshifting one of the swords, based on a design of the Agori's. But catching anything with it proved much harder than I'd thought. It wasn't a skill I'd bothered to learn; I had bartered for fish if I ever ate it, and mostly eaten fruit and other meats. They were rare, after all, in the Barren.


Thankfully, I soon spotted a group of Matoran carrying a brand-new boat made of glistening silver. Behind them, more Matoran carried six coffin-shaped boxes, but I was pretty sure they were the opposite of coffins, due to the life-support machinery built into them. I would soon learn that they contained six sleeping Toa. A titan accompanied them.


The boat was very good news.


I saw it had a complete stock of food. I'd have to steal some of it. Fishing off the side of it would be too obvious.


The titan boarded the boat, and the six boxes were also brought on board. The Matoran went back inland.


This trip seemed to go fast for me, compared to flying by my own strength, even though sea travel was actually slower. The titan steered the boat back past the northern continent, and around the southern continent to an island just off that continent's southeast side.


More titans of various designs came out to help carry the boxes inland. Intuition told me not to go ashore here either; I gathered that this island belonged to the same organization as Artakha, so I assumed there was another security system.


Several months passed. I survived on fish and seaweed, using various shapeshifting contraptions to catch the fish more easily.


Then one day, with no particular fanfare about it, six Toa walked back to the boat, and we left for the continent.


These Toa seemed much more confident compared to Orde. Later I was to learn that the titan had been training them on this second island, Daxia. It was this training that explained the delay between significant events. I could feel the Shattering getting closer, but intuition said that these Toa must first complete an important mission before Mata Nui could be awakened.


There was one Toa for each of the main six elements. I was to spy on them over the next week as the boat made its way to the southern continent, and I learned as much as I could about them.


They had traveled light, but they did bring some food supplies, among other things in backpacks. Each took a room in the boat, but the food was kept in another room with a built-in kitchen. I had gotten quite tired of fish, and risked a nibble now and then on these foods -- mostly exotic fruits and meats from Daxia, but also some hard crackers designed to last.


After they were situated, and the boat was underway, the red Toa spoke up. "Time for mind training!"


I gathered he was the leader of the team. He was colored red and orange, and carried a sword with a red blade shaped like curved flames.



"You don't think we've had enough of that from Hydraxon?" the brown Toa replied, referring to the titan who'd brought them to Daxia.


"We need to stay sharp," the blue one countered. "What's the scenario this time, Tahu?"


I recognized the first syllable of the red Toa's name as the Matoran prefix for the element of Fire.


"A village of Matoran is in the path of a stampeding herd of Rahi," Tahu said. "Since you spoke first, it's just you, Pohatu, and you're alone."


"I make a stone wall to divert them," the brown one answered. I again recognized a Matoran prefix as the first two letters of his name.



"They leap over your wall."


"And you're low on elemental energy," the green Toa suggested. "Can't make another."


"I make big walls," Pohatu countered. "What stampeding Rahi leaps that high?"


"The Makuta might invent one someday," Tahu said impatiently. I recognized the name from the Great Beings' plans, but didn't know what Tahu meant by it. "No time to think! Answer!"


"I... activate my Mask of Speed and yank every villager out of the way!"


"That could seriously hurt the Matoran," the blue Toa said.


"So could being trampled by magical wall-jumping Rahi," Pohatu said. "I'd be gentle."


"Your mask makes you fast," Tahu admitted. "But fast enough to save the entire village in time?"


"I'd start with the ones closest to the stampede."


"Might work. But now for the Toa Code twist." He frowned in thought. "The village is inside a steep canyon, and you can't just take the Matoran to the side easily. You'd have to run all the way out the back and then in again each time. No way you'd get them all. With your knowledge of stone, you could cause an avalanche and block the stampede for good, but if you don't act fast, you'll bury them. What do you do?"


"I act fast," Pohatu answer, pointing at his mask.


"You do, and it turns out there's a lava lake behind that top of that cliff. Your avalanche has released it. Now the stampede is running right into lava pouring down both sides of your rocky blockade. They'll all die if you don't help them."


"Always lava with you!" Pohatu said, grinning. "Why not a water lake for once?"


"The Rahi might still drown," the Toa of Water pointed out.




"I said lava," Tahu said. "You can't change the scenario once I say it."


"Fine, fine. But the Toa Code says we don't kill people. Is it worth risking my own life to save a bunch of Rahi?"


"No, it says Toa don't kill," Tahu replied sternly. "And you're out of time."


"I run at full speed at the opposite wall, at an angle. Leap. Jump off of it, over the lava. I turn my stone wall back into elemental energy. Absorb it. Then I make a rock bridge over the lava with it."


"Congratulations," Tahu said. "Now the stampede comes off the other side and tramples the remaining villagers to death."


"Oh. Right..."


They continued to debate the finer points of this 'Toa Code' for a few hours. I was fascinated -- and very pleased.


This was the highest system of honor I had ever heard of, with no parallels in my world. Toa don't kill. No matter what -- if they can help it.


Listening to them made me want to work harder than I ever had to seek good and avoid evil.


I was forced to think back to my sometimes cavalier, sometimes even hateful attitudes during the war. I wondered if, hypothetically, I had been endowed with skill at swordfighting. Would I have killed that Bone Hunter? According to the way of Spherus Magna, that was justice. But Tahu would argue that what I did -- what for all those years I felt ashamed of as a failure -- was in fact the right thing to do.


After their mind challenges, Tahu challenged all the Toa to a series of sparring matches on deck. I overheard more of their names, and saw several of their mask powers in action.


Tahu's mask made a bubble of energy that blocked attacks. But once Pohatu made a stone and bounced it off a wall behind Tahu, and it passed right through the shield. His armor protected him, but had it been an explosive, he might be dead. I gathered the mask only worked if he saw attacks coming.


Sparring was cut short by our arrival at the continent's shore. The Toa packed up and headed inland. I followed, again in my normal tiny bird form.


Tahu led us on a nearly direct path across various tricky natural obstacles toward their destination. Each of the Toa used their elemental powers, mask powers, and their many skills to easily conquer the difficult terrain. On the way they continued to spar and talk through challenges related to the Toa Code.



I learned that the Toa of Water was named Gali. She was colored blue and pastel blue, and wore a Mask of Water Breathing. She carried two hook Tools.


She seemed very wise, and adept at understanding others; I felt I could relate best to her. At times I almost made the move to appear to her and explain my purpose, but I also learned from her caution, and ended up deciding to remain hidden.


Gali had done the best with their martial arts training, and climbed the most difficult cliffs with ease, even near the coast were some of them were wet from ocean spray. I'd seen her diving underwater on the boat ride over and coming up with fish every time. She stayed under quite a long time; her Mask of Water Breathing made that possible.



Once when we came to a tall and thick cliff, the Toa of Earth, Onua, showed off his abilities by using his massive digging claws and his Mask of Strength to dig a tunnel angling up to the cliff top. His name was the only one to build off a three-letter Matoran prefix, Onu.



The Toa of Air, Lewa, took the lead when we passed through a jungle region, using his mighty axe to chop through the thick ground foliage, and sometimes using his Mask of Levitation to hover and look for the best route for the others to walk along.



The sixth member of the team, the Toa of Ice named Kopaka, was very quiet, but he seemed very confident, and when he did speak up it was always with a cutting insight that impressed me. He won every mind challenge I overheard, and nearly every sparring match, but the others didn't seem to get along well with him. Even so, I learned that he had been assigned as the second in command of the team.



Once as we were camped near our destination, Tahu suddenly started shouting at his teammates.


"Who did this?!" he demanded, holding up one of the bags of crackers.


I remembered that as one that I had raided.


"We ration these carefully!" Tahu shouted. "Not every region has fruit trees a flame's leap away."


"Relax," Pohatu said. "I'm sure none of us would have done that. Are there--"


"You speak first again!" Tahu said. "Maybe it was you."


Pohatu looked hurt. The others looked too uncomfortable to speak now.


Tahu threw the crackers down on the ground, and his firesword flared to life, flames running all along it. These 'Toa Tools', as they were called, helped the Toa focus their elemental powers, I remembered overhearing them mention at one point. But unlike the Glatorian weapons of the Core War, if someone was to steal the sword, it would be just a sword. The power itself was in Tahu.


He brought the sword down as if to burn the crackers up, but his eyes were on the Toa.


They all seemed surprised, but nobody looked especially concerned. They were a backup meal, not the best choice from their supplies. I'd started nibbling from that mainly because I didn't think anyone would check them.


Tahu seemed convinced nobody had an unusual taste for them and let the flames die. He returned the package to his own backpack, and ordered them to break camp early. Although they groaned at this, they packed up dutifully and we headed out again.


I was glad I hadn't chosen to appear to them.


At one point, I overheard one of them mention the name of the team.


They were the Toa Mata.


And judging from the content of many of their mind training discussions, they knew what their destiny was. They were a contingency plan of the Great Beings. But for what, they had not mentioned.


We reached our destination, which Onua found based on a map they'd been given at Artakha.


There was no magical staff this time to give us easy access to our destination -- Karda Nui.


Instead there was a narrow entryway to a cave system.


"This meanders down to the dome below," Onua said. He flipped the map tablet over. I flew in closer to get a good look. "This is the route from here on in."


"Looks very dark," Lewa commented.


"Just the way I like it," Onua said.


"Still," Tahu said. "We had better wait for the Av-Matoran."


This line was a complete surprise to me. According to the power registry, Av was the prefix for the element of Light. I had been wondering for a while what exactly was the nature of this mission, and it sounded like I was about to find out.


The Toa set camp.


A question had come to my mind now, considering it was clear we were headed into Karda Nui, and as far as I knew, the Avohkah were still rampant there.


How would Toa, who didn't kill, handle the lightning beasts?


The Great Beings had no qualms about destroying Avohkah, and perhaps if they were here they might give an order for an exception to the Code. But I believed that even if they and Mata Nui himself agreed on such an exception, Tahu would refuse the order and seek some way to capture them alive. But how do you capture a living bolt of electricity?


Oddly, the Toa did not discuss any scenarios involving the Avohkah either on the boat trip or now at the camp. I was beginning to think they'd been sent on this mission with no information at all.


Soon the tribe of Light Matoran arrived.


Each was colored gold and white. They seemed bulkier than other Matoran, a bit more like Agori in design.


One of them, wearing a Mask of Strength like Onua except for its gold color, walked up, bearing a box. I noticed others had boxes as well.



"My name is Takua," he said. "You are the Toa Mata?"


"We are," Tahu said. "You are the Oldest?"


Takua nodded. Later I was to learn that this was literally true. Takua was the oldest of all Matoran or any other of the beings created for the Matoran Universe. Only I was older. Yet, he seemed more like a child in personality than many, eager to set out on this adventure. "Shall we go?"


Kopaka walked up, and took the box. "Please pardon me."


Takua tilted his head. "I thought we were to--"


The Toa of Ice opened the box, lifted out a projectile weapon of some sort, then turned.


Faced me directly.










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Chapter 13 -- A Painful Choice




I was in a bird form at the time, but when the bolt of dim whitish energy hit me, I liquefied, and found myself in my true form a moment later, finger on the button of the shapeshifter orb.


The whole group of Toa Mata and Av-Matoran were staring directly at me.


I switched off the orb, and swung a sword at the bubble of clear energy around me.


It bounced off.




Yet I was not afraid -- not for myself. It was strange because I'd never met them properly, but I trusted these Toa.


"How long have you been aware of me?" I asked.


"Something kept tripping alarms at Artakha," Tahu said. "That island is very advanced. Much more than you obviously realize. We thought whoever did that was probably following us."


"But how did you realize what or where I was?" I asked.


Kopaka pointed to his mask.


"That's a Mask of Vision," Tahu explained for him. "He spotted you spying on us after I noticed the missing rations."



I shook my head in amazement.


I was duly impressed. The Great Beings themselves were put to shame by the sheer professionalism of this Toa Team. I wondered how their trainer could have become so accomplished in the few years that this universe had been in existence -- perhaps the Great Beings had given him access to libraries of tactical and strategic knowledge built up over millenia on Spherus Magna.


"Those weapons -- that is how you plan to trap the Avohkah?"


Tahu narrowed his eyes. "How do you know of them? We intentionally avoided speaking of them."


"I've seen them before. I'm assuming that's what you're here to deal with."


Takua nodded. "We were trying to prepare Karda Nui for the awakening of the Great Spirit when the zapping sprites appeared and killed a number of us. We were forced to retreat up here."


It was then that I began to feel the urgency of intuition. The Shattering was going to happen soon, and I had to get out of this trap to go see it. But how?


I felt like that intuition was betraying me, because the solution that came to my mind... it was utter folly. But it was the only way.


I looked at Tahu and Kopaka. "I need to speak to the two of you alone."


They glanced at each other, a look of surprise on Tahu's face... and a face on Kopaka's head. They had a feeling they knew why I would select them, and it was obvious the possibility seemed disturbing to them.


Gali spoke up. "I suggest we all go inspect your temporary camp," she said to the Av-Matoran. "Maybe Pohatu can improve it; you'll be moving back up here later, right?"


"That's what I heard," Takua said, "though nobody explained why."


The others moved off.


"Speak your piece, shapeshifter," Tahu said.


"I'm not really a shapeshifter," I said, holding up the orb. "This device has the power. I'm just a Matoran, but a Matoran with a unique destiny."


"A destiny to spy on Toa?" Kopaka asked.


"Well... yes. But also to help when I can. You see, I know much about you because... I can see the future."


Tahu tilted his head. Kopaka blinked slightly faster.


"I know that you two had a secret conversation about what will happen to your team after this mission," I said. "I know you've kept this from the other Toa."


"You cannot possibly know that," Tahu whispered. "That conversation took place deep in soundproofed walls of Artakha. You were registering on alarm systems on the shore."


"Exactly. Yet I know that as soon as the Avohkah are trapped, you will trick the other Toa into remaining in the Codrex while deadly energy storms power up in the rest of Karda Nui."


The Toa stared in disbelief.


"Then you will have to convince the others to enter special canisters. You will enter suspended animation for thousands of years."


"You cannot know that," Tahu blurted. "Next you'll tell me you know what our mission is."


I nodded as confidently as I could, but in truth the memory was only just now coming back to me, as this conversation itself was reminding me of how the rest of the conversation would go. "You are one of the Great Beings' most important safeguards. If Mata Nui should ever be cast into slumber, you will be released. Your canisters will fly to Metru Nui, and you'll begin the process of awakening him."


I tried to hide my feelings of what this had to mean -- for I remembered flashes of these Toa awake in the distant future. But that doesn't prove they get awakened for that actual reason... My practicing of allowing the autonomous intuition take me over had paid off, but much of that future was still hidden from me, and I began to feel like I wouldn't be able to pull off such a clear real-time recollection again. The rest of the future... it was just too distant.


"But if this is true,” Kopaka pointed out, “how did you not know you would be captured now?


I did not skip a beat. "My vision is not selfish. It does not show me what I need for myself. It shows me what others need." Sadness tinged my voice at this. I wished that wasn't how it was, but I had now concluded it was the truth. I had never been able to see my own path clearly. Maybe I was selfish, but I would have liked to know.


"And does it say whether entering the canisters is a mistake?" Tahu breathed.


I sighed. "I only know that you must. I know that in the end there will be a battle. I do not know whether good or evil will win. But your names will be great throughout this universe and another you are not even aware of."


"You speak in indecipherable riddles!" Kopaka exclaimed.



"That's how the visions speak to me. But riddles or not, have I not proven to you that I speak the truth? And now I beg you to let me go. I am needed in the north."


"Will you aid us against the Avohkah first?" Tahu asked.


"Yes. If I wasn't going to stay for the duration of this mission I would not have come. I had assumed I could only watch. To actually help would be an honor, but sir... I'm not sure how much help I can be. I do not have real battle training."


"Then we will train you as best we can along the way," Tahu offered.


I smiled. "I accept."


With that, I was released by the weapon being pressed against the bubble and a secondary button pressed. The bubble disappeared.


Tahu made good on his promise.


I felt bad about keeping the other Toa in the dark about the trick their leader and second-in-command had been forced to pull on them, but it was the Great Beings' will. They would not want for anything while in the canisters -- it would be essentially as if they merely slept one night.


Training with the Toa Mata was difficult.


They made me promise to follow the same rules their trainer had used on them. When in a mock battle, I must fight as if it was real. Although I used sticks instead of my swords, I was to treat the moves seriously. After all, if I didn't learn proper blocking, for example, then when I faced a real foe I would be dead.


We trained for long hours whenever we set camp along the long snaking cave route. It was grueling exercise, but I came to enjoy it.


One of the reasons the Toa had waited for the Av-Matoran, besides the trap weapons, was for lightstones.


These were crystals about the size of my fist which shone in the dark, colored usually lime green or golden yellow. They were mined deep in the earth, especially by Onu-Matoran, and were highly prized by the Light Matoran.



The Av-Matoran also had the unique ability to fire elemental bolts of light. They were the only kind of Matoran who had actual elemental powers; the later types had only physical or mental traits that were reminiscient of their elements. Now and then they would fire one of these bolts down the path ahead, frightening away disgusting insectoid Rahi that anybody would rather not meet.


When we reached the end of the tunnel and passed through an energy field surrounding Karda Nui, I found it the same as I'd left it -- dark except for the shifting constellations of lightning sprites.


The closest Avohkah immediately attacked.


Tahu threw up a wall of flame, and they backed away.


Pohatu created a rock and tossed it at one of them.


The Avohkah dodged, but Pohatu focused and the rock's flight bent midair. Hit.


On contact the lightning made the rock splinter into pieces, but the sprite shone a little less brightly and moved more slowly.


Onua held his hands out and materialized a massive ball of earth and threw it with all his might.





The earth exploded out. Now the Avohkah moved sluggishly.


Takua aimed his weapon and fired.


The whitish-clear bolt of energy hit the ghostly being and flashed. Clear energy curled around it, forming a bubble.


The sprite zoomed around inside the bubble but could not escape. It slowly sank to the ground.


Other Av-Matoran moved in now, pulling ropes that directed robotic walking carts behind them. They loaded the bubble on the cart.


Another Avohkah moved forward to replace the other, and Gali blasted it with a stream of water.



Bad move.


The electricity flashed back along the beam and hit her. She cried out and fell to the sand, unconscious.


"Check her, Koronga," Tahu ordered with concern.


I ran over to her. Her heartlight was still flashing normally. Her hands looked okay too, and I saw no other signs of damage. "She's just stunned," I said.


Some Av-Matoran and I helped carry her onto another cart.


A third Avohkah joined the second, then zipped around, trying to attack the Matoran.


"Look out!" Takua shouted -- he was farther ahead and didn't have a shot lined up.


The closest Av-Matoran whirled and fired blindly into the air. Missed.


I grabbed another Av-Matoran's weapon -- he was busy carrying Gali. Lined up the shot.


The Avohkah was three feet away when I pulled the trigger.


At that range it couldn't dodge. I hit it.


Its bubble collided with me, knocking me onto my back. But the lightning could not escape.


I stood up, brushing myself off.


"You okay?" Tahu called back from where he was still battling the second Avohkah.


"Good!" I said.


The battle continued, now with less mistakes. After we'd captured about twenty Avohkah, the rest suddenly backed away, just as they'd done with the Great Beings.


"We've impressed them now," Tahu said. "We can take a breather, but to finish this we'll have to leave the tunnel exit."


We waited until Gali awoke. She looked quite frustrated at her obvious mistake. "Bolts of water," she muttered. "Not beams. I practiced too much with beams."


Now we moved out, forming a circle just as the Great Beings had, on my advice. Avohkah moved around as we advanced, continuing to keep their distance.


"This isn't working," Tahu said. "We'll have to split up."


"No," I said. "They'll circle around and hit you from behind."


"You don't want that," Takua said. "Gali survived a quick blast, but several of my people died from longer contact. They could kill even a Toa if they held contact for more than a few seconds."


"Then I'll need you to keep the carts in the tunnel, behind the shield," Tahu said. "I have a plan but I can't worry about protecting all of you at the same time. Give us some of the guns. When we trap an Avohkah, move out into the sand in groups of four to retrieve it, and carry it back to the cart. Keep your backs to each other and your guns ready."


It was agreed. So I watched from the tunnel exit as the Toa advanced.


They were heading to the Codrex. I understood. Tahu was going to give the appearance of using it for shelter, but I knew what the real plan was.


At first I cooperated with this plan, staying with the other Matoran. Tahu and the others climbed up to the Codrex's entrance and stood in the doorway. Pohatu alone stayed down on the sand. Whenever an Avohkah came close enough, Pohatu zoomed around with his Mask of Speed behind it and fired at point-blank range. Then he rushed back in range of the other Toa for protection.



Immediately four of us would move out and cross the distance.


The next time one fell, four more would leave. And so a long chain of groups of four moving carefully along the sand developed.


When my group reached the first Avohkah, the leader, which was Takua, attached the bubble to a magnetic backpack device he was carrying. Then we crept back to the tunnel to load it on one of the carts.


After the second such trip, I pulled Takua aside.


"Listen," I said. "I need to be in the Codrex with the Toa. I've realized there's a way in there for me to travel to my next quest."


"Alright," Takua said. "Can I come with you?"


I smiled. "Sorry, but this is something only I can do. Besides, your people need you."


"How will you cross the distance?"


"Send in a group of five this time, me being one. Come back as four."


Takua nodded.


"Also, as soon as you clear out the last Avohkah," I added, as I opened my backpack and rummaged for an item, "and everybody but you is safely outside the shield, fire three light bolts into the sky as a signal. I'll be watching." I pulled out my telescope, then put it back once he saw it and understood.


"Make sure you then run through the shield, and get everyone back up to the surface. This place will be deadly when we start it up. I'll give you a few minutes after the signal just to be safe."


"Okay... but what of the Toa?"


"Tahu has a plan."


So on the next trip I stayed at the Codrex, and Takua's group picked up an Avohkah bubble and headed back without me.


"Decided to join us?" Tahu commented. "You sure that's wise?"


"I'm never really sure of anything," I said.


"What do you mean, Tahu?" Gali asked.


"I'll explain later."


Pohatu and the others had definitely found a foolproof system. The Avohkah were fast, but they could not compete with his Mask of Speed. They were falling one by one, the only delay being when the brown Toa had to take a moment to rest.


I lost track of time, since there was no sky illusion down here to tell days and nights by -- it was just all night. But I could tell the Shattering was close.


Finally, the last Avohkah fell. I explained the signal to the Toa, and instructed them to head into the Codrex and wait for me.


"Why inside?" Pohatu wondered aloud. "I thought we were done here."


"There's something he needs to show us," Tahu said.


"What is it?" Onua asked.


"You'll see in a moment," Kopaka replied. "Just trust us."


So the Toa reluctantly went inside. Forcing myself to go along with it, knowing it really was necessary, I aimed my telescope and tried to watch the groups of Matoran leaving. They weren't going in circle formations anymore, but it would still take a while to cross that distance. Their lightstones were the only thing I could see in the darkness.


Finally, several minutes after I lost sight of them all, I saw the three bolts of light fly straight up into the air.


I counted out seconds to calculate a minute, then did it again ten times for ten minutes total. By then, Takua and the others would be far away, I thought.


I recalled from discussions we'd had on the way down that the Avohkah would be shipped off to Metru Nui -- the Earth Matoran there were beginning a museum called the Archives that would include many dangerous Rahi kept in suspended animation or other containment such as these bubbles for the elemental creatures which merely needed a wire connection to 'feed'. Really, the sprites would probably be much happier there.


I turned inside and walked down the sloping cylindrical tunnel created by the aligned circular holes in the many nested spheres.


Entered a large domelike room. There were several features of this room which the Toa were wandering around looking at.



I walked up to a lever and pressed it.


With a deem rumble, machinery powered up.


"What are you doing?" Gali asked in surprise when the holes in the spheres moved out of alignment, sealing the entrance.


"Aligning them so they all point down," I said. "Through a smaller hole out of here that only I can take."


I'd remembered this in the design specs on that giant pedestal. Something about the size of a mask could be moved through this secret tunnel, but nothing larger. I could do it via shapeshifting.


"You've trapped us here?" Lewa exclaimed.


"Betrayed us?" Pohatu added.


"No," Tahu said. "It is the will of the Great Beings."


They were all silent as they stared at their leader.


In that silence, we heard a rising crackling sound and a deep magnetic hum.


The energy storms had started. All foreign matter in Karda Nui was now being destroyed. There was no going back for the Toa. Not unless -- really, until, I knew -- Mata Nui would fall into a coma and require these Toa to save him.


"You wished this, Tahu?" Gali whispered.


"And I agreed," Kopaka said.


"The plan was explained to us on Daxia," Tahu said. "It is the only way."


"But we'll starve!" Pohatu said.


"I don't think so," Onua said softly. He was walking toward one of the features of this room.


Six metal canisters, about the size of Toa. Tubes designed to lower a Toa down into them.


"Stasis pods?" Onua guessed.


Tahu nodded. "We will slumber in those pods. It's poetic if you think about it. If we awaken, it means the Great Spirit sleeps."


"If?!" Lewa cried out.


"No," I said. "I happen to know that you will awaken. Something is going to go wrong. You will be needed."


"How could you know this?" Pohatu asked.


I sighed. I had felt strange telling it once, so I just looked at Tahu and Kopaka.


"Visions," Kopaka whispered. "And he's not alone. Sometimes I have had strange dreams, and when I awoke... they came true."


"I have as well," Gali said.


"I dreamed of losing a sparring match once," Pohatu said. "Came true!"


I laughed despite myself. "I'm serious."


"I think we believe you, little one," Lewa said. "But this is a hard thing to accept."


They were silent for a while longer. Then Kopaka walked forward to his stasis pod. He looked at the others.


"See you on the other side of destiny," he said.


With that, he stepped inside, and the system automatically froze him in time, with a field of green energy. The others solemnly moved into place as well, giving me a respectful nod.


The systems gently lowered the cylinders of frozen time, with their precious cargo, and the canister lids, into place inside the canister vehicles.



The Codrex interior fell still.


And so I found myself alone again. I wanted to stay and check over all the equipment, but that feeling was getting stronger by the minute. For a moment I felt pulled in two directions, and then the curiosity won out. I nodded.


And ran to the tiny metal tube.







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Chapter 14 -- Inner Workings
Since Karda Nui was the power core of the giant robot, and also powered the most important places on the islands and continents, I realized, following its power conduits would take me to those islands.
The distances were just as vast as on a boat ride, but in here there was an advantage that a boat didn't have.

The repair robots, which surfaced occasionally in the skyscrapers at Metru Nui and a few other places for their own repairs, were incredibly fast vehicles if you were small enough to enter their little storage compartments. Important fuel or machinery items for delivery throughout the giant robot's systems were carried at incredible speeds in these systems.



One day I knew a particular mask would indeed be carried in such a system to an outer hatch and shot out of the giant robot. That would be an important event I'd have to find a way to witness, but it was a long time from now.
Almost before I knew it, the robot took a turn upward and slowed down.
It turned out not to be bound for a repair skyscraper -- it was here to perform maintenance on a wire array under the great city -- so I left it and explored until I found an exit, into a power transfer chamber in the basement of Metru Nui's tallest building, the Coliseum in the center of the island.


I turned back into Matoran form and found my way out of the Coliseum.
It was then that I was drawn up to the right eye of the giant robot.
Witnessed the Shattering.
Before heading back down, I habitually studied the eye itself, and noticed a manual release that could make the giant glass barrier slide out of the way. Intuition told me that would be important someday, so I made a mental note about it.
Then I glided down from the sun hole in a daze, heading back to the Coliseum.


My beloved homeworld broken into pieces. Who knew how many deaths Mata Nui's cushioning power had failed to prevent?
What would become of the culture there? I had some vague ideas, but it would be a hundred thousand years before I would learn the truth.
My plans to study the six regions of Metru Nui and choose a home now seemed so trivial. I began to think I should not settle down that quickly. Maybe there was still more to witness in the early Matoran Universe. Maybe, just maybe, I could find a clue to the identity of the great evil.
But I felt that now was the time to at least study the powers registry. I had only one copy and it was always possible for it to be destroyed or stolen. Besides, it was taking up a lot of room in my backpack. And I needed to get my mind off of everything that had happened -- to take stock of what my resources were and think about how I might need to use them. Protodermis was where that would begin, since everything in here except the air was made of it.
So I 'borrowed' a lightstone and wandered through the hallways of the Coliseum until I found a locked room where I could study the tablets.


The first thing the registry explained was that the way the protodermis molecule actually generated the effects of the powers was unknown.
A transcendent version of it was present already in natural protodermis -- the "energized" aspect of it -- and they only succeeded in capturing some of this effect in "power augmentors" on the outer surface of each spherical molecule, and one other part the guide said would be described later. Tiny versions of electromagnets manipulated this energy to tell it what to do. It could generate energy fields, which could control matter in various ways, and could also convert energy to matter and vice versa.
However, much else about the molecule was understood, especially in how it coded for what power was to be generated.
There was a basic problem with protodermic powers, the Great Beings's registry explained, for their purposes. There was a contradiction between the highly advanced nature of the protodermis molecule and the simple minds they had created for the inhabitants of this world.

So there had to be a way for simple people to manipulate advanced molecular technology, by simple means.
The solution turned out to be inherent to the protodermis molecule.
The key was that the molecule was so advanced that there were portions that could move around and bend. In their artificial version, this was done in such a carefully defined way that it operated like an extremely tiny version of a computer.
That enabled a programming language to define what the molecule would do.
This was the primary purpose of the Matoran language.
If you used proper grammar and made sure to define a balance of strengths with realistic weaknesses, the code could function, and the highly advanced molecule would generate a power that fulfilled the description.
But if you made an error in grammar or failed to define a proper balance, there could be serious side effects.
Therefore, their artificial molecule actually included its own semi-alive analysis system that could check a line of code and make sure it was proper. If not, it would calculate and modify the line until it turned into a functional code.

This was the key to bridging the gap between the advanced nature of the molecule and the simple ways to use it. The Great Beings coded eight "root" powers into protodermis. None were elemental, so they would have to be used in Kanohi Masks or tool powers.
If you purified some protodermis, as the Matoran in Ga-Metru did, you would end up with protodermis that had one of these eight basic powers. Each was fully defined, and used the most important language operators. If you then mixed two of these types of pure protodermis, the powers would mix. The result would, at first, not be functional, but the adaptation system would calculate in a perfectly predictable way until the resulting fusion of the two basic powers was transformed into a single, proper program.
Amazing... It's like chemistry, but way beyond it.
I had already heard, from listening in on Matoran here, that maskmakers in Ta-Metru took the basic powers from Ga-Metru and mixed them to make these other powers. Reading this, I began leaning toward Ta-Metru as my home, though it would require at least a paint job for my mask, because green was not part of the range of color schemes of Ta-Matoran.
The neat thing here was that theoretically, the number of different powers that could be produced by these means was infinite.
I was about to read on, intrigued, when I heard noises outside the door.
I had laid out all the tablets so I could read them at my leisure. There was no time to pick them all up again.
I froze for a second, but then in the last second, as the doorknob was turning, I leaped atop the tablets so my body was touching all of them, and shapeshifting myself and all of them, as well as the lightstone, into a woven rug.
Two Matoran walked in, carrying a metal crate. There were other such crates in the room already. What were the odds they'd be stocking this room now?
Thankfully, they didn't seem to notice the rug. I'd intentionally chosen a dull gray color and made it thin and utilitarian in design. I'd noticed similar rugs here and there in the Coliseum.
They left and locked the door.
Why lock this room?
It was true that the full sapience the Great Beings didn't realize they had bestowed on my people meant that we had freewill, with all its wonderful effects, and the unfortunate possibility of crime. Were the leaders of this city afraid someone might steal valuable supplies?

The possibility occurred to me that these very Matoran might in fact be criminals.
So I decided, after storing away the tablets again, to open one of the crates.

Each crate was locked as well, and none were marked. Seemed suspicious, I thought.
I made the end of one of my swords turn to liquid, and pushed it inside the keyhole. Carefully I caused it to change in shape, in a more semi-solid gel form, twisting the sword constantly, until the lock finally turned.
I opened it.
Silver glowing liquid.
Oh no.
Why was I surprised? The specs on the giant robot had said that energized protodermis was included in it, but I'd been under the impression it was all hidden from Matoran.
Clearly not. Now it made sense why they were using unmarked locked crates in a locked room. They must be aware -- or so I hoped -- of the dangers of the substance.
Almost without me being aware, my hand reached toward the substance.
I shrieked and backed away.
"What was that?" a voice said from outside.
I closed the crate -- quickly but quietly -- and turned back into the rug.
The same Matoran entered, carrying another crate. A third, carrying a lightstone and a simple projectile weapon, came in as well. This one looked around the room carefully.
"I don't see anyone," he said.
"I was sure I heard something," one of the others said.
I felt my form lose coherence slightly, and ripple.
No, no. What is wrong with me?
I held it steady, focusing intensely.
"Nothing," the third said. "Maybe it was from somewhere else, echoing through the vents?"
The others shrugged. They deposited the crate and all three left.
I turned back into liquid form and fled the room.
Why did I do that?
I was not consciously aware of intuition guiding my hand. Yet, the feeling had been similar to my first day of existence, when I had climbed down the rocky face of that cliff with no awareness of how I was doing what I was doing.
Maybe I was destined to be transformed by energized protodermis.
But who in their right minds would intentionally touch it?
No. If you walked by a pool of it and someone pushed you in, that was when you found out whether you had a destiny. There was no way to know beforehand, so any sane person would stay far away from it if they could help it.
I was willing to have faith that I did have a destiny, but there were other kinds of destiny besides that. I felt like I would never intentionally touch the substance.
Wanting to get as far away from it as I could, I found myself sneaking through ventilation pipes down level by level, until I reached the energy conduit chamber again. It was quite crowded, with both Matoran and Toa, so it was hardly a place to read the tablets, but it was dark, and I moved around the outer wall, looking for another way down to the automated systems below.
Suddenly my intuition told me to move down through a faint crack in the floor, and I obeyed it.
A tunnel.

Pitch-black. One door, but heavily locked, from the inside.
I had a feeling nobody had ever been down here, at least nobody from the Matoran Universe.
Walked down the tunnel.
It went down, and down, and down.
Because I am now writing these memoirs long after these events, but I can't be sure that what I found next can't be used for evil still, I will refrain from explaining how I found it. Suffice to say, the tunnel branched in many different ways, and my intuition once again guided me. Yet, I also felt that same intuition warning me again, more intensely this time, that it was not going to keep working so often.
After slipping through another locked door, I entered a large chamber filled with advanced technology.
Most of it was a series of large screens.


There were quite a few buttons and other controls as well, including what looked like a framework of metal rods and pistons which could fit around a Toa-sized being, in the center of the room.
In the back, I saw two large glowing half-cylinders set into the wall, rimmed by advanced technology with screens that appeared to be monitoring something. Inside the blue fogged-glass cylinders, I discerned bipedal shapes.
I walked closer, trying to see them properly. They were encased in a substance similar to ice.
Not Toa.
This must be a very important room to have two of the warriors from Spherus Magna inside. As far as I'd been able to tell, no Agori or Glatorian lived in the Matoran Universe or had even known it existed. I tilted my head at the helmet design of one of them.
I'd seen him before. He'd worked in the Great Beings' fortress where I had, long ago.
I wondered if anyone had noticed he was missing, or if they'd just assumed he was one of countless warriors lost in the war. Had the Great Beings given him a choice to join this two-man team? Had be been instructed in what he was to do?
And what was that, exactly?
I wandered around the screens, studying them.
A chill went down my spine when I finally realized. It was obvious, now that I thought about it.
This was a control room.
For the giant robot.
One of the Great Beings' many contingency plans. In case Mata Nui broke down, someone could pilot the robot from here. And in case none of the artificial beings living inside could do it, these two Glatorian would be thawed out and would take shifts controlling it. I noticed bedrooms and other rooms through an arched doorway where they could live.
If this room really was what I thought, I realized with a satisfied smile, then nobody was going to be entering it for a very, very long time.
I could live here.
I could study the tablets and whatever else I wanted here. Only if those pilots were needed would I have to live somewhere else. And I had a strong sense that they would not awake for many thousands of years, if at all.
And better yet, I could watch the screens. They were constantly updating to show important information about the giant's systems, as well as some things about the world inside. I realized I could probably get a lot of information here, and this must be why my intuition had guided me here with the sense that it would not be helping me much in the coming centuries.
One screen in particular caught my interest.
It seemed to show a running tally of the thought processes of Mata Nui, including some of the details of what manifested as "conscious thought", as well as some automatic analyses that ran "subconsciously". It listed them by Mata Nui's priority of current focus, so the one at the top was always the one that took up the most space on the huge screen.
As he moved from task to task, the items' order switched around.
I noticed he was intently studying the interior of his body, exploring the Matoran Universe with apparently strong fascination. Emotional indicators were included as well, and he seemed amazed at the brilliance of the dome realm.
Right now his focus was on a large building off the coast of Ga-Metru where Toa Masks were to be stored, called the Great Temple. An image of the location displayed in a smaller screen next to this one. It was also a location Matoran could visit to meditate and contemplate the mysteries their tasks required them to solve.


Judging by the emotional indicator, it seemed to be one of Mata Nui's favorite locations.
A possibility occurred to me then. A disturbing idea.
What if Mata Nui himself was the evil?
It would make sense. I'd seen this giant robot acting maliciously, and the prototype robot, after being pieced together, apparently reunited with its power source, and piloted, fighting this one.
The most direct explanation was that at some point, Mata Nui would go wrong. Perhaps the change in the color of the protective energy field over the eye-windows was symbolic of some kind of rampancy. The idea was known in Agori culture since the Great Beings had introduced robotic servants such as those construction robots I had helped manufacture. Occasionally their software could break down and go crazy.
That was the idea behind giving Matoran masks, so there was an easy "stun" option by removing the mask.
What if it could happen to Mata Nui?
If so, I could probably see it coming and work to stop it. This screen could give me hints to it. If I saw, for example, Mata Nui's positive emotional indicators start attaching to highly negative events, like a traffic accident or even a murder, then I would know he was on a very dark road.
My heart pounded faster at the idea.
What exactly could one do if the manager of your very universe went down such a road? That was what Mata Nui was in here. And he could be dangerous to anyone outside his body as well for obvious reasons.
Somehow my intuition told me that Mata Nui had made a conscious choice never to turn evil, though. My heart calmed a little. Mata Nui was someone like me, someone who might very well make serious mistakes, but who wasn't evil. Someone who struggled to find ways to do good always, to choose the best alternative in any set of choices. I could see the honest report of this right on the screen.
I wondered, though... Could a good person like me go bad?
I didn't want to think about it. But I knew that the time might come when I must.
How could such a thing happen? I didn't know. But what scared me was, I had no idea either why a good being would remain permanently good. As far as I could imagine, at least at the time, it was basically a matter of luck.
And we -- myself, Mata Nui, and just about everybody else I knew of -- had such long lifespans. Could we all keep up that string of luck until the day of our natural deaths hundreds of thousands of years into the future?
I shook the thoughts out of my head, too disturbed to continue further with them.


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Chapter 15 -- New Life




I was delighted to discover a screen that could give me access to Mata Nui's memories.


Flipping through them, I discovered that he was building a complete library of knowledge about all the locations in the Matoran Universe. This would prove highly useful to me, so I took a few hours to read up on the ones he'd marked as the highest priority.


On the thought report screen, I saw that Mata Nui had completed the library of the most important locations, and was now running an analysis on the efficiency of the entire system as a whole.


He had quickly realized that there were major imbalances still.


True, everything ran well enough to launch the giant from Spherus Magna and use that cushioning power to save lives during the Shattering. He had the processors and scanners and other technology he needed to study other star systems and planets to learn more about the physics he'd need to understand to reform Spherus Magna.


But in order to keep the robot maintained over those vast spans of time, he was going to need a lot more.


Part of the answer to this was already in his program.


This was the explanation to a mysterious word I'd noticed on another chalkboard on the Great Beings' boat.




It seemed that this was to be a strange species of inventors, who would take over the task of making more Rahi.


Makes sense, I thought.


I'd seen for myself how the underground systems Matoran weren't supposed to visit were essentially unguarded. The most well-meaning citizen might accidently wander into some of those areas, and get themselves killed by high-voltage wires. Mata Nui would not be the ideal person to figure such specifics out, as his processors were specialized for geologic analyses. He could understand much else, including the making of sapient beings like the Matoran or Makuta, but the little details of his operation would be better analyzed by new specialists.


Yet, Mata Nui was delaying the creation of these Makuta.


In part, this seemed to be because they were to be made out of a strange substance that was different in many ways from protodermis, and Mata Nui didn't want to mess them up. He was taking his time planning their design.


But also, the Great Spirit wanted to have a good balance of a whole society.


So for various other seemingly minor purposes, he was going to make several other sapient species.


I was intrigued, but the progress on the rest of the analysis was slow, so I decided to take the opportunity to read more of the protodermis guide.


The next part of the guide was relevant to Mata Nui's current thoughts.


Protodermis was such an advanced molecule that it approached the complexity of a living cell.


It was so near to this that there was a way to actually turn certain protodermis molecules into an organic version.


This worked because there were three main processor areas in each molecule.


The first was the power manager I had already read about, tied into the most advanced part of the molecule that could actually generate powerful energy fields and even convert matter into energy and vice versa.


Here it was revealed that there were three powers even more fundamental than the eight basic powers. The eight were like template sentences, but the three were like basic grammar. These were Time, Creation, and Life. Unique masks existed that controlled two of these, the most powerful masks in existence, but so far none had been made for Time.


The second of the molecular processors was the one for the matter-mimicking behavior of the molecules, which could be rock in some states, metal in others, and water and so much more. But how this worked was saved for a later section.


Third, there was a hidden destiny program function in the very core of each molecule. This part was copied directly from the natural protodermis, so it was where the real intrigue came in.


I read through this short section with a sort of hyper-awareness, but I quickly realized I'd hoped for too much. No known process could read destinies. If you pulled apart the shell of protective molecular material around this sensitive core, you would destroy the core in the process and thus it could never be read.


But the Great Beings had deduced some things about it nonetheless.


The destiny cores of multiple molecules working together had the ability to analyze all known data in all nearby molecules, forming a massive computation network that could even use Time-based powers to accurately predict the future, including multiple possible futures based on different choices! It could give visions of the future to certain individuals who would be instrumental in avoiding negative futures and helping the good future to come to pass.


I guessed that my own visions had been given to me by something similar to this in the natural energized protodermis that this artificial version was based on.


This was where the guide got really fascinating -- and personal -- to me.


It seemed that if destiny determined it was appropriate, at least as far as its current analyses had gone, it could assign certain molecules to activate programs that would convert it into a living form, comparable to a cell. The elemental programming could be partially overwritten with this life program, as could parts of the power programming. These two new compartmentalized processors would perform all the same functions that a real cell would do.


This also included some energy powers such as the generation of a new form of energy called life energy, which was what I could absorb through my hands. This came from the Legendary Power of Life.


Thus, destiny programming essentially acted like the master controller for all the rest of what a protodermis molecule would do, similar to the genetic nucleus of a real organic cell.


This was the most important feature of protodermis.


The Great Beings had even chosen to name it after this ability. "Proto" meant "before" or "in anticipation of," and "dermis" meant "skin," "flesh," or "life." In its normal state, protodermis molecules were not alive, but were capable of becoming alive at the flipping of a switch.


The guide said that the Great Beings considered this the most profound and wonderful discovery in their entire history.


Yet, there was a dire warning that it might be possible for destiny to be thwarted, since it was only predicting the future, not seeing the actual fated future for sure. The very rise of life could potentially lead to the possibility of evil, but the guide's author mentioned that they did not believe they could actually achieve true artificial sapience anyways, so the risk seemed minimal. I knew they had been much too modest.


It seemed clear that the destiny systems in the natural protodermis must have somehow sensed events on the surface, even from inside the megaplanet's core, and realized the way things were headed would produce a great evil. However I had come into being, my first awakening near protodermis could not be a coincidence.


If I was right, it would mean that I definitely had a destiny. In a sense, I was destiny.


Yet, my intuition was clouded on this issue. I felt that I was on the right track, but this alone could not be my purpose. It could only be a part of it. There had to be a bigger goal. And I immediately realized that this must be the end goal of destiny.


Whatever that goal was, I was just a course-corrector. I still had to figure out what the intended course was.


Fear struck me -- almost paralyzed me -- at the next idea. Since I was made by natural protodermis, not this artificial kind, the only logical place I could look to learn what that course was....


Was by touching energized protodermis.


No, no, no. What if I'm wrong? This is all just a theory!


It would explain why my hand had tried to move of its own accord to touch the substance.


And why the entity in the protodermis well, in the Ice Lord's territory at the outbreak of the Core War, had tried to reach out to me.


No. I refuse. I cannot.


There had to be another way.


But I was at a loss as to imagine what that could be.


I stood up and nervously paced the room, trying to think of some other way to make all these disparate facts come together. The more I thought, the more I realized there was no such way.


I looked back at the screen, and was glad to see that Mata Nui had formed some conclusions. He was already preparing to create some of the new species, and had chosen their locations.


One had just been made, the screen reported. I'd been so engrossed in the guide I'd missed it.


The readout called them "Skakdi" and described them as a muscular but peaceful people, assigned to a beautiful ring-shaped island with a calm inland lake, called Zakaz, located in the torso region of the giant. For some reason the name worried me -- some future danger would come up with them, I thought. But for now they seemed harmless enough.




Now Mata Nui was preparing to make a sea species.


I took note of the location -- not far from Zakaz -- and also saw the location for the creation of the Makuta to follow soon after.


I turned into liquid, exploring this room until I found a power conduit. I traveled down into the deep system and found a robot bound for land near where Mata Nui was going to make the sea species. Entering its storage chamber, I waited as it sped toward my destination.


Then I got out and found my way out to the land, and ran toward the coast.


When I reached it, I shapeshifted my backpack and supplies. Now they formed a compressed-air tank -- briefly I made my swords form a compressor engine to pump lots of air inside it -- and when that was done the swords turned into scuba gear for my face. Since attaching a breathing mask over a normal mask was not efficient, I shapeshifted my mask itself into the scuba mask, and made the swords into tubes that attached to this.


I camouflaged myself to look like the sea lichen, sand, and rock that formed the seafloor, and entered.


I also created a tank to store the expelled air in. I realized that regardless of how well I was disguised, an upward stream of bubbles would give my position away.


I reached a clifflike formation overlooking the area.


A bright energy field surrounded a plain rocky outcropping. Machines had gathered here, some brought by robots like the one I'd traveled here on, others with their own locomotion systems. They were building two larger machines.


These new machines, I realized, were Spawners.


It was how a new person was made.


These Spawners were designed to create a specific type of being. Others existed in Metru Nui and elsewhere that were designed to make Matoran. Artakha apparently had made one that could make Toa, although I wasn't sure, because he could have just made Toa directly thanks to the Mask of Creation -- the guide said it had been entrusted to him.


Giant sea Rahi wandered near, as curious about the strange activity as me, but the shining energy field acted as a barrier. They could not get past it.


Here and there I noticed a beam of energy seeming to come from midair, or a piece of rock moving seemingly on its own and pushing something.


Mata Nui's power, I thought. He could essentially do anything he wanted inside the Matoran Universe.


Which was a good reason to fear him, if he ever turned evil, I thought, trying not to shudder.


After two hours had passed, the other machines moved back.


The Spawners were ready.


Each was a large metal box, filled with a shining energy field even brighter than the barrier around this area. Clear fogged-glass panes like the ones surrounding the cryogenically stored Glatorian made up the front and back walls. The side walls and the ceiling contained a complex track system for robotic arms that all gripped a single device that resembled a chisel but was much more complicated.


Behind each box was a large tank with tubes coming out from it in different directions and feeding into different machines dotting the left and right walls of the boxes. Then from here tiny tubes reached in and converged in the chisel.


The pumps whirred for several minutes, then stopped.


Both boxes whirred to life, indicator lights flashing and screens describing what was happening, though I was too far away and the protective barrier blurred my sight of it too much to read it.


The chisel started zipping around on the floor.


Different indicator lights on the different tubes lit up at different times.


Soon I realized what was happening.


The big tank contained purified protodermis, in a neutral state of physics behavior.


As it was pumped out through the different tubes, it was being converted into different materials. Some became metal for the skeleton, pistons, gears, and armor. Others became organic protodermis for the muscles and other organs. Still others became other protodermic materials, like tough 'glass' for the surfaces of the eyes or the heartlight.


As the chisel moved over a spot that needed a molecule of one type of protodermis, it opened a connection to the tube from the proper converter, and a field of energy forced the molecule to move into the right position and bond to its neighbors.


It was a three-dimensional printer.


We'd had a device similar to this in the fortress, but it was much more primitive. It could only make objects out of one substance at a time, and only a few materials worked well for the process, especially a type of plastic used in the brains of robots.


We also used it to make molds in any shape needed, which in turn were used to make metal objects in any shape. Metal itself was not a good substance to use the printer for directly, because to melt it you had to heat it so much the printer itself would melt, being made out of metal itself.


But protodermis was not actually real metal. I speculated that the molecules were all suspending their differentiated physics until the moment they were put into place. So it could act like a liquid plastic until it had been printed, and then it would turn into metal, organics, etc.


Brilliant, I thought.


This explained well the origin of my people.


But did it explain me?


How could it? I had appeared atop a cliff, and even if I was made by some kind of printer, what made the printer... and then were did it go?


The printing continued over the course of another hour.


When it stopped, the chisel in each each printer moved up and to one side, and a new helmet-like device moved down and connected to the heads of the two beings.


Probably downloading knowledge, I thought.


Language, identity, and similar things would be essentially for a being to be able to survive in his world. It wouldn't be like Agori who gave birth to babies which had to learn the hard way to live in their world. Protodermic beings were created fully adult. I smiled at the thought of trying to teach a full adult all the things a baby needed to learn. Just trying to carry it around before it learned to walk could break your back!


Finally the helmets moved away, the light faded, and the doors swung open.



Two green and lime bipedal beings walked out, one of each gender. They each took a deep breath -- of water, for they were to live underwater.


A rock in front of them lifted up and changed shape, forming a face that resembled Mata Nui's own face but in simplified form. I realized he was using this to provide a face to his voice as he welcomed them to his universe.



I heard friendly tones, though I couldn't make out the words; the barrier field distorted sound as well as light.


Then the rock lowered to the ground and went still.


The two new beings left, through a thin area in the barrier shield.


Immediately, the printers started up again.


For this new species would need a much greater population than just two.


But my attention was now on the new biomechanical pair swimming with flipperlike feet into the wider ocean.


Those original Rahi were still out there.


Still... dangerous.


One of them moved closer.


It was a jellyfish, but the jellyfish I'd seen in the Great Sea were usually tiny. This was large enough to be its own island. It was barely visible, most of its parts almost clear, but light from the surface reflected off its bulbous form like a giant bubble. Long threads reached out toward the newcomers.



Had Mata Nui factored for this?


Did they need my help?


Could I risk blowing my cover while Mata Nui himself was watching?


I almost shapeshifted flippers to swim forward, but stopped at the last second, scolding myself.


Mata Nui certainly had the power to protect them now. The real question was whether they could defend themselves on their own in such dangerous waters, and I sensed Mata Nui was holding back, giving them a chance to try out whatever defenses he'd given them. He could not keep watching forever, and neither could I -- they had to know how to survive on their own.


Against most other creatures, I realized these strong, tall beings could simply overpower them, but jellyfish tended to have neural poisons in their tendrils.


The beings sped up, swimming at an angle toward the jellyfish, but out of reach of its tendrils.


A sharklike creature came near, but the female brought her claws together in a fast snap, making the very water around shake with the volume of the sound. The shark appeared irritated and fled.


The beings turned, arcing back in toward the bulb of the jellyfish, now above the reach of its tendrils, and punched its form.


It quivered as if in pain.


They swam away.


Obviously they'd hoped to scare it, but it wasn't impressed. It turned, now spreading out its tendrils wider so they couldn't swim around it again.


They tried, but it swam away slightly, so they could never quite reach it.


They turned and tried to flee, but it turned as well and gave chase.


While turned this way it could not reach them, but every time they turned to attack its exposed 'head', it turned faster and blocked them with the tendrils. It seemed like a draw, but I knew it was likely to outlast them. Its lightweight form was efficient for swimming, but they were much heavier in proportion to their size. They'd get tired fast.


I crept along the seafloor toward the chase, knowing Mata Nui's attention would be on his creations, not me. I still wasn't sure if it was wise to reveal myself to the Great Spirit, but I knew I didn't have it in me to watch these beings die while I stood by doing nothing. I got out my telescope to watch closely.


Several large fishlike beasts had been watching the battle with interest. Suddenly the jellyfish turned and latched onto them.


They jerked around on the first contact. Their flippers flapped wildly, and then went still.


Through the telescope, I saw their eyes still moving as those tendrils curled up, dragging them in to its mouth. They were only paralyzed, but I could do nothing to save them without risking suffering their fate. They were now deep within a jungle of the deadly tendrils. It was the circle of life I'd seen in so many sad forms, and permitted my Rock Steed to take part in because he needed meat to survive.


But in this case, I had to root against the jellyfish because I understood that it was recharging its own store of energy to continue the chase.


I could see the two new beings waving their hands around, and wasn't sure why. I zoomed in, and realized they were discussing fervently any idea they could come up with for how to handle it. At one point they seemed to be begging Mata Nui to help them, but he did not answer.


Think, I wanted to tell them. There had to be a way out of this mess.


I saw them both nod, and even smile.


I couldn't hear anything but distorted mumbling at this distance through the water and through my scuba mask, but I couldn't help smile too. They'd figured it out.


One swam to the left.


The other swam to the right.


The jellyfish froze for a moment, undecided. Which should it attack?


It settled on the male, and reached with its tendrils.


But the female swam with all her might at its bubble-like side.


It could not block from both directions at once.


She reached it and pinched its oily membrane on the top -- but gently. She clicked her other claw inches away from it, making the sea vibrate from the violence of the sound.


A warning.


The jellyfish seemed to contort inside.


It was thinking.


She did it again, and it thought faster.


Slowly it retracted its tendrils.


Meaning, it had agreed it would leave them alone, and would leave as soon as she released it.


She nodded, and swam away at full speed.


True to its "word", the intelligent predator swam away.


The two beings met up again, clanking fists proudly. They'd met their challenge and overcome with teamwork.


With that, they swam away, still talking.


I felt oddly proud of them too, as if I had raised them, but they didn't know I even existed. Still smiling, I swam back toward land.


Now it was time to witness the creation of the Makuta.









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Chapter 16 -- Dark Thoughts




I left the repairbot transit system on one of the southern islands, and searched until I found a dark cave system, and a large cavern not far in.


I entered in the form of a patch of dirt on the wall.


In the middle of the cavern was a vast lake, but not one of water.


No, this was substance I'd already read carefully about while I'd originally copied the guide. It was a greenish liquid that in patches seemed almost black.


It seemed to glow, oddly, in both green light, and with darkness. I had never imagined that darkness could glow, but around those blotches in it, light seemed to penetrate less, and the effect faded out with distance, just the opposite of a glow. And it was not calm -- it looked like a powerful storm was battering it about, but the air was still.


The Great Beings made more than just one form of artificial protodermis, the guide explained.


This form was made by literally reversing the design of a key portion of the molecule. Everything worked in reverse. It had the same destiny core, and it could generate powers and even imitate different materials -- but the methods it used to accomplish these things followed alternate pathways that made it behave quite differently from normal protodermis.


Especially important was that where normal protodermis used elemental Light as a major part of its programming, this used Shadow.


Normal protodermis operated on a kind of binary code with the presence of light and the absence of light. But this worked with the presence of shadow energy -- which actively drained light -- and the absence of shadow energy. Two different kinds of darkness formed its alternate binary code.


At the time the substance had no name except the essence of Makuta, but far in the future it was to be called antidermis, and I will call it that here.


Now, the guide clarified that any being whose moral light was drained could cause elemental shadow power to manifest. In the absence of light, shadow energy tended to build up naturally in protodermic physics. With antidermis, the absence of shadow energy tended to allow light to build up. So in effect, it still used light and shadow, but the coding format used them in the opposite way -- what in protodermis was a "one" was a "zero" in antidermis.


I found the concept of three states -- one light, one shadow, and one neither -- difficult to understand, but the guide assured its readers that the molecules could manage the three as needed to make it all work, so that antidermic beings still had a balance of moral light and shadow. Yet, I wondered if the opposite system might cause unforeseen problems, as it had probably not been thoroughly tested.


It was certainly not a stretch, I felt, to imagine that from this substance could arise the great evil I'd been warned of.


So I paid especially close attention to everything I saw here.


There was a single massive printer to one side of the room, connected to an even more massive vat of antidermis. Another vat of normal protodermis was also connected. Printing was in progress when I arrived.



I saw a stone hovering here in the same shape Mata Nui had used at the making of the other species. I thought that was odd -- he hadn't formed it for those beings until they were made.


Then I noticed the vat was slightly lowered from a line marked “fill”.


Meaning at least one Makuta had already been made.


Yet, I saw nobody.


I couldn't use my telescope without the motion giving me away, and I couldn't get any closer.


But I could see the rock hovering around, as if searching. There was a smile on its face.


I thought back to a game young Agori liked to play. One would close his eyes and wait, while others would go hide. Then after a sandclock ran out, the first would open his eyes and try to find all the others. Was Mata Nui playing such a game?


The rock moved close to a stalactite, and tapped it, then backed away. "Found you," the voice said.


The stalactite changed shape.


A shapeshifter like me?


The transformation was slow, not at all like the fluid transformations I could perform. But soon the default form became apparent -- a bipedal titan with a bulky build, covered in metallic armor, with two massive black wings sprouting out his back in addition to his normally-placed arms. Some of the armor was colored red, as was the mask.


I had never seen the material of that armor, but I gathered, based on the motions of the printer and the timing of when the light for the antidermis vat and the light for the protodermis one lit up, that the armor was protodermic, while the body inside it was pure antidermis.


The Makuta also wore a Kanohi mask, in a shape I didn't immediately recognize. I was sure it was part of my knowledge of the label-shapes, but I was too nervous to remember it clearly.



"Well done," Mata Nui said. "I admit I had to cheat and use an advanced vision power. Very few beings other than me could do this. You concealed yourself well. Come, Miserix, your first fellow Makuta is about to awaken. I must teach you battle sparring. Be careful -- do not use any of your powers yet."


"Understood, sir," Miserix said.


The door opened, and another Makuta walked out.


Both carried large stafflike weapons.


"Your weapons are made of proto-iron," Mata Nui said. "They cannot harm your protosteel armor. Now, your knowledge download included martial arts. Whoever touches the other with the staff wins the sparring match. Against a normal foe, a stunning power would activate, but your essence is immune to it. Please begin."


The two titans began clanking their staffs together, with awkward motions at first, but soon they got better at it.


I was unable to stop watching. Studying every hint to the personalities of each and every Makuta, almost certain that one of them would be the evil. I saw many more Makuta come out of there, as days passed.


I fed myself by shapeshifting so that the location inside my form that was made out of my stored food was in contact with the part that was really my hand, so I could absorb the energy directly without appearing to move.


Near the end of the process, I saw one Makuta being formed with a mask I instantly recognized.


The Mask of Shadows.



Mata Nui had been assigning names to each new being as they emerged. This one he named Teridax.


My gut twisted into knots.


Although Teridax walked out with a pleasant smile on his face, looking around in awe at the spectacular cavern and immediately heading over to eagerly greet his fellows, I knew instantly who this was.


He was the evil.


Whether something had gone wrong in his design, or he would make a freewill choice of evil, I could not be sure. Perhaps the two concepts were actually synonyms in some sense. Or antonyms. I did not know. But now a vague, thunderous stormcloud of images came back to me from my vision, of atrocious acts this Makuta would commit in the future.


I was now sure that the orange eyes I had seen in the giant robot really meant that Teridax would somehow take the giant over.


Perhaps he would force Mata Nui into a dormant state and use my control room. I decided I must study that room carefully and make sure such a use was impossible. Maybe even rig a self-destruct system for it. Or maybe Makuta would take over the Core Processor itself somehow. In that case, maybe I could override him. But somehow, he would end up in charge, and he would try to destroy all that was good.


A moment later I felt ashamed to be writing off so viciously anybody who was essentially a newborn as unquestionably fated to be such a villain.


Maybe that was not THE future, but one possible future. Maybe I could prevent it somehow, encourage Teridax to choose the path of good.


I watched Teridax interact with the other Makuta.


He was already forming friendships easily, I noticed.


So he was not likely to be an outcast. He seemed to fit in just fine. Why, then, would he go wrong?


Power hunger.


Had I not seen it with the Element Lords? Fitting in so easily was one thing, but eventually the idea of leadership might come up, and I had a feeling Miserix would stake a claim to it, being the first. Mata Nui was already training only Miserix in everything from the start, leaving it to him to train the others in turn. He was already leader.


That might make someone like Teridax jealous.


So, what, am I supposed to make the others hate him so he becomes an outcast and has no hope of being leader?


I could not make such sweeping assumptions. Anything I might do could push Teridax over one edge or another and by trying to avoid that future I could cause it. I felt oddly unsure of all my observations. Where for the others I had felt a confident calm understanding of their personalities, my own fear of this future I'd seen was so powerfully sickening I felt my own intuition being thrown into chaos. I could not rely on it where Teridax was concerned.


I hate this part of my purpose, I thought. Maybe I could find somebody else and somehow pass the burden of responsibility on to them.


I sighed -- very softly.


No. I could not be like that. That would be just as bad as being evil, to be apathetic. I would always know that I must have been chosen for the task for a good reason. As hard as it was to carry, I could no more shrug that burden aside than I could heal Spherus Magna with a wave of the hand.


A few more Makuta were made after Teridax, ending the count at a hundred, and Mata Nui commanded them to leave the cavern. A ship had been provided, he said, for them to travel to the island that would be their home. From there, they could begin their tasks.


They began to move toward the exit -- meaning toward me -- so I fled in a hurry. I took the form of a bird that meandered around the area, until I spotted the vessel.


It was the Great Being's ship.


Of course.


I wondered if the guide to protodermis was still there, meant for Makuta eyes. I did not dare enter to check. Mata Nui was surely watching it. But I did want to go with it to learn where the Makuta would live, so I risked becoming a fish and then slowly becoming a series of short-lived barnacle creatures that moved up the prow until I reached my familiar alcove.


The Makuta boarded the ship, and it powered up.


Mata Nui's voice could be faintly heard explaining the controls to Miserix. Then the massive vessel moved forward, slowly and jerkily at first, then he started to get the hang of it.


I was starving now, completely out of food, but I didn't dare try to enter the water to go fishing. As soon as the ship got up to full speed I'd be completely unable to catch it again. I wondered if Mata Nui had somehow ensured there was a store of food onboard. Someone had to have moved the ship here. Could the Great Spirit do that by himself, or did he have servants that handled taking care of specific needs like this?


I heard many disturbing sounds and saw strange lights from on board the ship as the journey continued, but I couldn't understand them, at first. Finally I began to realize they were powers that the Makuta were controlling -- practicing with. They had refrained from using powers in the cavern, I recalled, probably for fear one might accidentally damage the Spawner.


There seemed to be such a wide variety of these powers, at first I assumed there was a different power for each individual.


I was still puzzling over this when suddenly I became able to hear Mata Nui's voice.


He and Miserix had obviously moved to the prow. Someone else must be piloting the ship now, I gathered. One of those servants, maybe?


"...and order," Mata Nui was saying. "This will include all aspects of society, although there are a variety of beings to delegate lower ranking positions to, especially the Toa, because there is one area I need you to focus on."


He went on to explain the need to create more Rahi, both to make animals Matoran could use for travel and other purposes, and for guardians of dangerous areas. He even gave the repair robot transit system as an example, just as I'd thought of it. But then he said something that greatly concerned me.


"I have reason to believe some unknown being may have already penetrated this system. Several times I have noticed an apparent imbalance in the magnetic forces. Something seems to have been using the repair robots as a ride, a method of travel from one place to another. They were never intended for such a thing."


"I'll look into it personally," Miserix promised.


Oh no.


I was beginning to get used to my role as a witness of important events and perhaps a guide, but I was getting quite tired of those events turning against me personally. I guessed maybe it came with the job.


True, with the Toa Mata it had turned out to be very fortunate. But I instantly rejected the idea of going before one of these Makuta and revealing myself.


"Whatever it is seems to be able to move like a liquid. Your shapeshifting power could be useful in trying to track it down. I'll explain how the systems work so you can avoid the dangers yourself, and perhaps you can assign some Makuta to lay in wait to trap the being."


Won't be using that method of travel anymore, I thought with disappointment. It was so convenient. On the other hand, it drained the orbs' batteries and I was getting close to running out, with no way yet to recharge them.


"Later you can design Rahi to guard it for you."


"Let us hope this infiltrator will be dealt with before then," Miserix said.


Mata Nui went on to inform him about similar suspicions of a being suspected of spying on six important Toa. “Some Matoran who went with them were to report back on an attempt to ensnare the spy. But when the Matoran were questioned later, and stated that the attempt apparently failed, there signs of deception in their manner.”


“Strange. Why would that be?”


“Whoever this being is must have some ability to bring others over onto its side -- whether through innocence or deception, or perhaps some form of mind control. You should assume the worst, but please do your best to capture the being alive if possible.”


“Yes, sir.”


"Now, when we get to Destral, I'll show you how to create Kraata and Rahkshi."


"The words mean nothing to me."


"I know. It had never yet been a part of the experience of the people of my universe, so it was not part of your language download."


It was part of mine, I remembered, focusing on this to distract myself from my new worries.


Kraata was a word in an obscure Agori dialect for "slug", and Rahkshi had no easy translation but I knew that it would come to refer to a being that inspired widespread horror and loathing. Why did Mata Nui not see this potential?


"Your tasks are important, but dangerous," Mata Nui said. "So you need perfectly loyal and very powerful servants to help you direct your more dangerous Rahi creations into place safely. This is where Rahkshi will come in, and the Kraata that control them. Each Kraata that you make will obey you perfectly. It will not have freewill, but it will have the intelligence needed to carry out your instructions."


"I see," Miserix said. "And if another Makuta makes a Rahkshi?"


"It will be obedient to that Makuta. Any Makuta could give any Rahkshi orders as well as long as they do not conflict with their basic instructions from their own maker."


They continued to discuss the finer points of this, but I must admit I tuned out. I was too saddened that Mata Nui thought of me as just a potential threat. More to the point, I was trying to figure out how I would travel now.


It wasn't just that I felt I was supposed to travel.


I loved travel.


In my days at the Great Beings' fortress, people thought of me as the traveler. Whether I was heading out for an official mission or technically for my vacation time, my friends would ask me to bring them back souvenirs or to carry out some personal request they had, like delivering a message to family they had in the area I was headed to.


I had been looking forward to living in the rooms designed for the Glatorian pilots and traveling only by the robotic transit system.


Now with the one out of the picture, I had to consider that the other might be unrealistic too. Oh, I would have to visit that room from time to time, but if I wanted to use boats for travel, I'd need to spend time building an identity as a known citizen of Metru-Nui. So it was back to Plan A for most of the time, it seemed. Too bad, because I'd loved the idea of Plan B.


Of course, there was always shapeshifting into a flying Rahi form. Maybe that would work once the Makuta populated the skies better. But for now I couldn't rely on the idea. And it might be too obvious to the Makuta anyways.


If I was to live in Metru Nui, and if I was restricted to boat travel, Ga-Metru would be the best choice of residence, but all Ga-Matoran were female. Ta-Metru was right next to Ga-Metru though -- just south of it. I was seriously leaning toward Ta, for this reason and because I might be able to get a job involving the mixing of pure protodermis.


If I could learn that science, I could probably find a way to recharge the orb batteries and maybe make other orbs with other powers, of my own choosing.


But I would have to somehow work in the need to visit Ga-Metru in the job to get access to boats. I needed my adopted identity to be just as well known as a traveler as my original "Agori" identity, so times of long absence would not be suspicious. The most plausible explanation would be to actually use normal transportation, as part of the identity itself.


I was on the verge of finding an ideal answer to this when something Mata Nui and Miserix were discussing caught my attention.


"Forty-two," Mata Nui said.


I vaguely recalled that the question Miserix had asked was how many powers a Makuta had.


Forty-two?! Is this not a bit excessive?


"I thought it was a lot," Miserix said. "Didn't realize it was that many. Why?"


"You, and your Rahkshi, will need a variety of means to keep your Rahi under control," Mata Nui said. "Each Kraata you make will only have one of these powers," Mata Nui added. "Thus the Rahkshi made from that Kraata will have that power as well. They aren't smart enough to handle such a vast collection of powers."


"So if I want Rahkshi with more powers, I have to make more of them?"




"So that's where the Kraata levels come in?"




I had tuned out when they discussed this part, so I didn't understand what they meant. It was to be demonstrated soon at this "Destral," which was our destination. Mata Nui finished the conversation with a few more details of his plans for the creation of Rahi, and they left the prow.


I returned to my thoughts and fears, worrying about how I would balance my need to guide the life of Makuta Teridax away from evil, or at least success with evil, with the new challenge that these very Makuta were to be actively hunting me.


To distract me from these overpowering worries, I was almost grateful that I was experiencing life-threatening starvation. At least it was something else to focus on.







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Chapter 17 -- Servants of the Brotherhood




I overheard little else on the final leg of the journey to Destral.


One incident that happened just before we arrived disturbed me deeply.


It seemed they definitely had brought food, but someone had underestimated just how much food a hundred titans of antidermis would require. Mata Nui himself seemed surprised at how much they ate. Clearly, antidermis had been something of a mystery even to him.


But it was Teridax who suggested a solution.


"We eat by absorbing energy," he said. "Now, I noticed something about this boat as we arrived. There's a lot of moss, and barnacles, clinging to the hull. We might not want to eat those if we ate everything the way we drink water, with our mouths. But why not absorb their energy?"


I shuddered at the thought, partly because I had been remaining in a barnacle form myself. It was more stable at the prow of a fast ship than a bird.


I immediately turned into what looked like just part of the Matoran statue in the alcove.


Now, I was so desperately hungry that the idea of absorbing energy from barnacles was actually attractive to me at the time. I wished I'd thought of it first, but to eat moss?


To my Agori and Glatorian friends reading this memoir, it might seem like it would make no difference, since I merely absorb energy through my hands. But something like a taste comes through the contact. It is not quite the same. But I would never want to eat what was essentially viewed as the rot of the Silver Sea.


Soon something that seemed like a dark gray liquid oozed over the edge.


It was all the Makuta, shapeshifting their way down the hull, each connected to the next so that together they gripped around the massive hull without risking falling off into the water as the ship sped along.


Then they made long tendril-like appendages that moved across every inch of the lower part of the hull, absorbing energy from every creature and bit of moss that clung to the ship. As each tendril passed by, that bit of moss would disintegrate and wash away, or that barnacle would crumble and fall off. When they pulled back up and took their normal forms, the ship was spotless.


Thankfully they left my alcove alone.


I managed to find one barnacle they had missed inside the alcove, and absorbed its energy. Even so, I was still starving.


To my immense relief, I now saw land approaching.


We had been moving alongside the Southern Continent for a while now, off its western coast. This island was just offshore from there.


But my relief turned to dismay as we got closer.


It was a barren gray rock. There was a wide grassy field in the middle of it, true, but I saw no fruit and no obvious Rahi. Most of it was a wide variety of knifelike rock formations, with what seemed to be a collection of cave mouths, but no obvious tracks of any cave-dwelling animal visible even as we anchored right offshore so I could see the land clearly.


I was so starving that I decided I had to deal with my hunger instead of following them ashore for now. The island was so barren I was willing to bet they were headed for the grassy plain rather than the caves, though in hindsight I realized they were beings of darkness created in a dark cave, so why wouldn't they go for the caves?


I shapeshifted a small version of my scuba tank as part of a fishlike body and leaped into the water.


Soon I found another fish, and I shapeshifted into a larger sharklike form to capture it. I was sad to have to kill it, but there was no suitable seaweed around. I absorbed its life energy and released its corpse to float away.


Then I chased and caught another, and then a third.


Finally I felt the hunger no more.


Carefully now I moved onto the shore, staying in a highly camouflaged form that was basically just a thin layer of the rocks I oozed over, taking on the exact same texture and color patterns so you'd have to be basically a few inches away to see the motion. It had occurred to me that if Mata Nui was aware of my use of the transit system, he probably had a feeling I was watching the making of the Makuta, because I had come up on that island just before that event, using that same system.


So he might still be watching for some sign of me.


Maybe like dead fish suddenly floating nearby... I realized, too late, that I should have just taken small amounts of life energy from a lot of fish, and left them all alive.


Maybe I should just reveal myself to him and ask that he not tell the Makuta. Let them continue investigating and never find me. Or even call them off?


I'd think about it. Maybe I could study the thought report screen and actually figure out how trustworthy Mata Nui would be from that, even. For now, I would stay secretive.


I headed to a rock hill that overlooked the entire grassy plain, expecting to see the Makuta, but of course they had headed for the caves. Foolish, I thought. I can't keep making so many stupid mistakes!


So I slowly, slowly, slowly moved back to the shore opposite the ship and eventually found their tracks.


Several days passed as I slowly moved through the complex caves searching for them. The tracks tended to disappear right when forks in the cave system appeared, so I often had to backtrack the moment I passed from bare rock to earth and found no prints. I was glad I had replenished my energy so thoroughly, even if it was in such a risky way.


Finally, I reached a chamber where Mata Nui was teaching them how to make Kraata and Rahkshi.


And there it was.


My fear.


Energized protodermis.


Aapparently a natural pool, but I knew better. No, the bowl-shape of this pool was made of a protodermic substance mixed with exsidian.


It was the only known material that the natural protodermis would not eventually eat its way through like acid. Even pure exsidian would succomb to it over time, as I had personally confirmed. I wondered how much work had gone into the Great Beings' experiments to search for such a mixture.


I felt no particular urge to abandon my secrecy and leap into the pool in the presence of the entire population of dark titans. But even so, I stayed as far away from the pool as I could.


I'd had time to try to remember the parts of Mata Nui's conversation with Miserix I'd tuned out, so I felt I had a good understanding of what I was seeing.



Each Makuta was practicing by making one Kraata slug at a time.


Different Makuta were already at different stages in this process.


One Makuta had shapeshifted a hatch in his chest where the slug would grow out of antidermis.


Another was just opening such a hatch to let the grotesque slug out.



Each slug came in one of forty-two different color schemes, each indicating its power.


At the beginning of their lives, the Kraata were not very intelligent and not very powerful. Mata Nui was explaining to one of the Makuta now how they would change shapes as they aged, growing in intelligence and power.


"For example," Mata Nui said, pointing to one Kraata, "This Heat Vision Kraata is at Stage One, and it can only make its body seem hot to the touch. But this Stage Six Kraata of the same type," he continued, pointing at another, "can vaporize any object within sight. Obviously, you must be cautious to telepathically teach them to use such a power only when needed, which you should have time to do as they age."


The Makuta who owned that Kraata turned his head to it, and a moment later the slug pointed its eyes at a loose rock and shot out two beams of orange energy from its eyes. The rock burst into flames, melting into a pool of lava.


Mata Nui seemed like a good person, but I was beginning to think he was hopelessly naïve.


You're making giant shadow beings with countless powers that make mindless slugs that can burn anything they see? How could Mata Nui not see how easily this could go awry?


Had he not realized, as the Great Beings apparently also had not, that the beings inside his body were fully sapient and had freewill? Did he think he was giving orders to mere machines?


Of course, I had to consider that Mata Nui himself was essentially a machine. Didn't I read the computer's summary of his processing? He did not think in exactly the way I did. Maybe he could not yet grasp the concept of freewill himself, though I sensed he was advanced enough of an artificial intelligence to have it himself.


Maybe he thought you had to be a mega-industrial giant to have enough brainpower to truly have freewill. Maybe he even imagined that the Great Beings themselves did not have what he had.


Whatever the case, his voice gave no indication of worry that this would all go wrong.


Now his hovering stone form moved close to the pool of energized protodermis.


"It is time to show you Rahkshi," Mata Nui said. "We will begin now, with that Stage Six Kraata, and take a break to find more food, as it will take a while to fully form."


The Kraata obediently entered the silver liquid.


It was not destroyed. Indeed, nothing seemed to happen at first, but when it found a spot in the pool that was deep enough, it stopped moving, and I seemed to faintly see it growing in size.


"All Kraata have this destiny," Mata Nui revealed. "It is one of the few things we know for sure about destiny."


The Makuta murmured their wonder at this revelation.


Why would a good destiny system allow this?


Now I had to do some serious reconsidering. If protodermis wanted such things to come to existence... I didn't want to think about this, but the obvious theory was... energized protodermis had been the evil all along.


It would explain its choice of appearance at the Northern Frost -- seeming to wear a Mask of Shadow.


No, it cannot be.


If it was, then my entire purpose would be cast in an entirely different light -- actually, cast in shadow.


Maybe I was a fool, but I refused to believe it.


The Makuta left to find food. Apparently there was some sort of cave Rahi after all in here, or perhaps they were going to the sea to hunt fish or other sea Rahi much as I just had. I never did figure that out -- I was afraid to move now.


Instead I watched the countless other slugs in various colors and stages wandering around the dark cavern, and tried not to lose my form's coherence or exclaim the disgust I felt at the sight.



When they did return, the Makuta who had made that Kraata gestured at the pool. Another Kraata entered. Moments later, ripples appeared.


Something came to life inside it, and stood up. At first I just saw the top of something like a head, and the tip of a staff weapon. Then it waded out onto dry land.


It was a suit of armor, piloted by the second Kraata, and carrying a double-ended staff.


The added limbs were basically like a Toa's, but instead of a head atop shoulders, the head was mounted forward like a hunchback and a backplate that housed the rest of the Kraata curved over from between the shoulders to a stubby tail. Spine spikes pointed up out of this along the curve.


Something similar to the strings on an Agori child's marionette puppet apparently controlled the limbs.


This one was colored black and a slightly orange-ish yellow, indicating its Heat Vision power.


It turned to a stalactite and shot out heat, vaporizing the rock formation just as it had done when it was just a Kraata.



"The bipedal form will obviously help it handle Rahi better," Mata Nui explained. "It can channel its powers through its Staff as well. Keep in mind the intelligence of the Rahkshi depends on the intelligence stage of the Kraata you use to make it, and to some extent on whether you give it clear instructions to think about. A low-level Rahkshi with no instructions will be essentially a wild beast. And now, command it to fly!" Mata Nui added.



"Fly?" the Makuta who owned it said. "It has no wings like us."


"Every Rahkshi suit has a Flight power," Mata Nui said. "Tell it to fly to the plain!"


The Makuta tilted his head.


The Rahkshi moved in response. There was a puff of dust as the power snapped on, disturbing the ground of the cave. Its head lifted a little, and its feet bent up and forward. The feet were very large, which I'd thought seemed a little awkward, but it now became obvious the power was in the feet. They tilted so the soles faced each other and clamped together.


Then after a momentary pause, there was an energetic buzzing sound, and the Rahkshi zoomed forward.


It was like the feet were a Spikit and the rest of the Rahkshi behind it a chariot.


The Makuta flapped their wings, following at high speed. Some laughed in joy over the fun of the chase, including Teridax.


Mata Nui followed as well.


I risked a tiny insectoid form to follow, intrigued. I remembered reading about the Kanohi Mask power of Flight, and I'd wondered what it might look like in action. This was close enough, I figured.


The Rahkshi zoomed forward through the cave as if it wasn't there, until one point when its staff hit a stalactite. The staff won.


Soon we emerged on the island and the Rahkshi flew in wide circles over the grassy field at high speed.


I had to admit to myself, that had been fun.


The Makuta settled onto the grass, gathering around the hovering stone once more. I flew low and between the blades of grass to get close enough to hear Mata Nui speak again.


The Rahkshi landed, disconnecting its feet and standing like a person, by the time I got close enough. Then it turned to a sickly weed growing in the field and blasted it with heat vision.



Mata Nui was no longer talking about the Rahkshi. "...walls and buildings. Delegates from the lower ranking governments will come here to discuss large and important governing issues."


"Will they help with the construction as well?" a Makuta wondered.


"If that is your wish. It will be up to you to decide how to arrange the government. I will leave the passing of laws to your judgment."


"A big responsibility," Miserix said. "But I have faith we will be up to the task."


The others agreed heartily.


"And now," Mata Nui said, "I must leave you to focus on other work. Before I leave, I would like to officially declare you leader of the Makuta, Miserix. You have responded well to all my instructions. It will be up to you to determine the form of your organization and how you'll go about your work, beyond what I have taught you. I wish you good luck, and always remember the Three Virtues!"


Miserix gave a parting bow, and the stone lowered to the ground and stopped moving.


"What shall we do first?" another asked.


"I think I and any of you who wish to help should focus on drawing up plans for the fortress we'll build here. But I do have a special mission for a small group. You, what is your name?"




"You seem sharp. I want you to lead it."


"As you order, Miserix. What is the mission?"


Miserix went on to explain Mata Nui's awareness of me.


I began moving away already, almost without conscious control over my actions. It was more because I was starving again and I wanted to cross the channel to the continent where I knew of many edible fruit trees, but my deep paranoia about Teridax made me go all the faster.


"What will we call our organization?" I heard another Makuta ask before I was out of earshot.


A few names were thrown around, but in the end, they chose the one I'd always known they would.


"And so with majority agreement, I deem us the Brotherhood of Makuta," Miserix said.







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Chapter 18 -- From Bad to Worse




I could not hear what else was said. Miserix chose a few more for Teridax's mission, and some others apparently to work on Destral's future architecture.


Teridax and his team went down into the caves.


To make more Rahkshi, I realized. There were four total Makuta in the team, and who knew how many Rahkshi he'd assign to the task.


I reached the channel and turned into a long eel-like Rahi I'd seen, though I couldn't quite reach the full mass of the actual one. I caught some more fish with this form, and then sampled the fruit I found here and there on the land until I felt replenished, and turned into a bird again to fly over the continent, turning left to head north.


Nothing of note happened on my journey across the continent, other than sighting a few construction sites for future Matoran cities, and passing many smaller villages with simple huts of stone, clay, or the like.


I crossed the channel again in eel form, but just as I was approaching the Northern Continent, the very last of the orbs that I'd brought with me ran out of battery power. I had left others at home, along with the protodermis guide tablets, thinking I could return easily by the conduit system.


Now I was stuck in my true Matoran form.


The journey across this continent, even though it was much smaller than the Southern Continent, seemed to take forever. I'd had to swim right for the Tren Krom Peninsula. That meant I had to dodge regions of razor sharp rocks, acid falls, and volcanic flows.


I was just beginning to cross out of this dangerous area and enter the mainland forested regions when I heard voices behind me.


I recognized one of them instantly.




I hid behind some bushes and peered back across a clearing I'd just left.



I saw nothing at first. Then some of the plants shook, and he walked out, several Rahkshi and three other Makuta with him.


He walked to the center of the clearing.


My muscles wouldn't move. Mentally I screamed at myself to stand up and run. But I'd seen how Rahkshi could fly. If they heard me... I must sneak. But I couldn't even do that. It was as if I was paralyzed.


"This looks good," Teridax said. He sounded reluctant.


Then I noticed the beast he had with him, attached to a metal chain he held the other end of in his fist.


It was something like an Iron Wolf, but the details were all different. It looked like it was eagerly chasing something -- and it was following the exact path I'd taken through the clearing, headed right for me.


So that's how they found me.


The thought managed to form, but my brain would not work beyond this. I was ended. It was over.


I should just step forward and demand to have a fair trial.


But maybe silence would be better. It wasn't like Teridax had already gone evil. He wasn't going to slaughter me on sight or anything.


"That hound never quits, does it?" one of the other Makuta commented with a chuckle. "You'd think the shapeshifter was right over there!" He pointed my way.


I gathered it had been like that for a while. So the hound must not be actually smelling me like an Iron Wolf would. I wondered how it was tracking me instead.


Teridax was pulling some meat out from a bag.


I finally felt able to move, and looked down as I did, watching for twigs or dead leaves that might crunch. Glanced back now and then to make sure the bushes still blocked my view of them, therefore theirs of me.


Faster and faster I went the farther I got away.


When I was so far away I was sure they couldn't hear me, I ran at top speed.


Spotted an acid fall. A thin one.


Can't let them get the orbs.


Dead batteries or not, they'd still learn the power. Their slow shapeshifting was a good limit; I wouldn't want Teridax to get past that limit.


I veered left, pulling the orbs out.


Slowed to a stop at the stream of brownish acid. Threw in the orbs one after the other, then checked my backpack carefully. No more.




It wouldn't matter that I'd thrown some of them away. Those ones' batteries were empty. If I couldn't recharge them, they'd be useless. If I could, I'd recharge the other ones I still had at home.


Home. I hadn't even consciously thought of the Glatorian pilot chambers as home until that moment. I hadn't even done anything but glance at the residential rooms and I already missed them.


At one point when I glanced back I noticed dots circling in the sky.




The search was definitely still on. How fast were they coming?


I was entering thick trees now -- I couldn't tell.


I can't keep this up!


But I couldn't just give up.


And what did I think I'd do when I reached the northern coast, exactly? I had no idea at all. Okay, maybe find some poor Matoran's boat and steal it.


But then what? Makuta and Rahkshi could fly. I didn't know how they were getting that hound across the water -- maybe it could swim. Wolves could. They'd still catch me. And how would I explain away my entry to Metru Nui with a boat? What about tracking me—


It was then that I heard the screams, and the snarling sounds.


I burst out into a plain.


Toa, running for their lives, due east.


Running from an army of Zyglak to the west.



Spears flying.


A lime-colored Toa far in the east, running toward the scene with all his might.


Some of the Toa rallied, attacking those who had thrown spears already, moving in close so others couldn't risk throwing their spears.


But the close-quarters fight ended quickly as the hate-filled monstrosities punched, clawed, kicked, and even pulled the components of their enemies apart. One held up a Toa's disconnected head, as the eyes faded to black, and roared at his horrified teammates.



One Toa, a blue and white female, turned and blasted several Zyglak with lightning. She wore a Mask of Possibilities, and carried a staff that looked like dark knotty wood with green gems mounted in it here and there.




"Come on, Lesovikk!" she shouted to the lime Toa.


He spun his silver sword in the air as he neared, creating a cyclone. Obviously a Toa of Air. He wore a Mask of Kindred, which let him copy the powers of nearby creatures, but there were probably none that would help.




One Zyglak pointed at me.


I was still running. I had been in too much of a panic to stop, knowing what was after me. I finally slowed.


Three Zyglak turned and ran with all their might after me. Bent back their spears, readying a throw, distance closing.


I was too afraid to stop. This plain was long -- if I turned back or slowed down the Rahkshi would see me. I had no choice... I had to keep going. I could dodge the throws if I ran fast enough...


What are you thinking?! I shouted at myself. Teridax wasn't deadly. Not yet. Time to give up.


I stopped. But now the Zyglak were almost on me.


The female Toa glanced back. Froze at the sight of me. I turned my head, making eye contact, unable to think, unable to react.


She aimed her staff.


Lightning flew.


I saw then what she missed because her head was turned. A spear in the air.


"Look out!" I shouted.


The cyclone raced toward us. Zyglak near me, showered in electricity, slid forward on sheer momentum on the ground, stunned.


Spear hit her staff.


She had let go of the staff at the last moment. It disappeared with a puff.


She tried to shoot lightning at Zyglak that were racing toward her, but the electricity crackled away into random directions.


Multiple Zyglak crowded around her. She tried her best to fight them off, but she was overwhelmed. Soon she was dead like the others.


"NIKILA! NO!" Lesovikk screamed, as the twister tore through the army, yanking them off their feet and blasting them back toward the treeline.


"NO! NO!"


When they landed, the Zyglak turned and ran.


I had barely felt the impact as the three stunned ones had slid all around me. I climbed over them and kept running north.


"Matoran!" Lesovikk shouted, though grief twisted his words. "Stay with me! They're everywhere!"


But I did not listen. Could not. I ran through the treeline just as Rahkshi appeared in the sky. Had they seen me?


"Matoran?" I heard Lesovikk call again.


Then I faintly heard Teridax's voice. He had met up with the lone survivor.


As cruel as it sounds, I was glad that something would delay him. Mata Nui's orders had been clear. Law and order. Peace -- and no killing. Teridax would have no choice but to hear Lesovikk's account of the battle, and likely chase and try to arrest the Zyglak. If anyone could do it, his group could.


I did slow down, though, and take care to make less noise.


The rest of the day passed as in in a dream. Something was horribly wrong, I sensed, but I assumed it was just my paranoia about Teridax wrapped in the regret and pain of the deadly attack I'd seen.


As the light grew dim, I happened to glance at my hands – at the bits of the muscle I could see through the metal armor.


They looked... burned?


Wrinkled and blackened.


I gasped in shock.


I'd been going so fast that the pain hadn't registered consciously, beyond the pain of my exhausted muscles.


I looked down at my knees and feet.


All the same. My torso was fine, as was my head, but every organic part of me that had touched a Zyglak was corrupted.


Even as I watched, I saw the effect spreading.







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Chapter 19 -- The Wise Healer




I had two ideas.


Although I'd failed to discover how exactly Makuta created Rahi, I had a vague idea that they did not use printers or other machines in the process. Maybe Teridax or one of the others with him could create something to heal me.


I could demand that they heal me before even thinking of revealing who I was.


I turned and ran back toward them. Along the way I tried to imagine a good cover story. I didn't enjoy lying but this was a situation where I could think of no other way.


If, by chance, the Makuta couldn't heal me, I still had another idea.


Takua had told me a tale of a contest the Great Beings had held between two titans, to determine who would get the Legendary Mask of Creation, and rule over the land where the best workers would be sent. Nobody knew what that contest had been like, but Artakha had won.


But his brother, Karzahni, was still given an honorable position; rule over another land, where Matoran who had unfortunate accidents or who were bad workers were to be sent, so that in his wisdom he could repair the damage in form and mind that afflicted them. If Teridax could not heal me, he could transport me to Karzahni.


I approached the battlefield, but still slowly. I didn't want to meet an early end by Zyglak spear.


As I neared, I heard voices. They seemed to be arguing.


"...don't recognize your authority. I've never heard of 'Makuta' before," Toa Lesovikk was saying.


"The shapeshifter is wanted by Mata Nui himself," one of the other Makuta said.


"All I have to that effect is your words," the Toa of Air answered. His voice wobbled at the end.


"Your judgement is being clouded by what just happened," that Makuta replied.


Another chimed in, "Which is understandable. But we are all on the same team here. Had we come a few moments earlier we could have saved your team and you'd be eager to grant us our every wish in gratitude."


Lesovikk didn't reply for a moment. "That may be so, but I will not betray a Matoran whose life Nikila died to save."


"She may not have saved him quite yet," Teridax said. "Or do you not know of the disease that the skin of the Zyglak harbors?"


I had walked out from the trees by now, but it was a big plain and I hadn't been spotted. I saw the sorrow on Lesovikk's face.


"I know all too well -- I didn't realize the Matoran had touched them," he said. "We had met the Zyglak and after I threatened them with a cyclone, they offered to sign to a peace treaty. They had been acting wary but tired of war. One of my team sealed the deal with a fist bump. You can imagine how things went sour when that fist started to be consumed by the disease."


"I'm sorry that happened," Teridax said. "It is said the Zyglak were the Great Beings' mistakes. I pity them as much as all who have fallen to them. Nevertheless, we must ask you to tell us which direction he fled."


I was confused at this point. Had their hound lost my trail?


Then I noticed the beast was cowering at Teridax's feet.


It smells Zyglak. Or senses, however that works.


If only I hadn't touched them! I would have had a strong chance of getting away.


There had been a few times in my life before where I'd made a simple mistake and been very grateful I'd been able to quickly undo it before it got out of hand, and a few where the simple mistake caused me serious injury and I went around scolding myself for weeks as I healed, annoyed at the irony that if I'd just done one little thing differently, I'd be fine.


I'd always feared I'd eventually make a mistake with colossal consequences.


But I'd been so distracted by the vision's horror I'd never thought that the consequence might be a slow and painful death by something like disease. Oh, diseases existed on Spherus Magna, but the science of the Great Beings had virtually eradicated them and made the healing of them when they occurred easy.


I broke the awkward silence. "No need. I came back."


Two of the Makuta gasped in horror at the sight of my limbs.


My hands' muscles were almost completely rotted away. The effect had spread up my arms, to my shoulders, which were already blackening. My lower legs no longer worked -- I walked in as if on two peg legs, and it was only with great effort I remained standing. I was glad Matoran had no blood, or I would be dead already and even more disgusting to look at.


Teridax waved the Rahkshi back, handing the hound's leash to another Makuta. "You all stay here. Shapeshifter, stay where you are. I'll come to you -- I may be able to heal you."


"If you can," I said, "I promise I won't run away."


"No need for such a promise."


"But I won't tell you my story."


Teridax frowned as he jogged near. "But I must know a little if I am to heal you. Are you really just a Matoran, or is this the form you have taken?"


"This is my true form. My power was bestowed on me -- I will not say how."


"Then let us hope it doesn't interfere," the Makuta said.


He kneeled in front of me, balling his hands together.


"Zyglak illness can only survive in flesh, and as far as we know, only theirs is immune, so they're carriers. As long as nobody touches you, you won't infect others. I do not know the nature of their immunity, though, so if this doesn't work..."


I nodded.


Bright green light flared from in between his fingers. When it faded, there was a cloud of an ashen substance held telekinetically in place.


"What is that?" I wondered.


"It is how we make Rahi," Teridax said. "It is a virus, like the one that is destroying you, but one made for good. They can grant powers, or reshape matter and turn it alive as we command. I've endowed this one with my power of Quick Healing. It'll grant you that power and activate it. Stand still."


I could hardly disobey. He opened his hands, and the powder flew at me, hitting me like sand in a windstorm of the Great Barren.


I felt a sharp coolness wash over me. The pain lessened.


But it did not go away.


Teridax watched closely for several moments. I looked down at my right arm. The spreading had slowed, but the disease was still there.


"I'm afraid I've only bought you time," the titan said grimly.


"You know of Karzahni?" I asked.


Teridax nodded. He stood up, backing away. "I am forbidden from entering, for only the injured, ill, or poor workers may go there. But I can teleport you there. If I do, will you promise to return to Destral to stand trial?"


I was desperate, but I forced myself to ask, "What right of defense will I have?"


"I'm afraid we're still working out the laws. I promise to consult with Mata Nui. He has told us he will meet with us again regularly to hear our updates, including about this mission."


"I will come."


"Alright. Now prepare yourself. There will be a flash of light, and you'll be there. I will have to send you right to Karzahni's palace itself. Cry out for help when you arrive."


I nodded -- the motion hurt. The early stage of the disease was already in my neck.


Teridax lifted his hand, and there was a flash. A sickening feeling and darkness, just like I'd felt at the Spirit's Wish Gate.


And then a strange new land faded rapidly into view around me.


I appeared a few inches above the ground and the short fall made my legs buckle. I fell on my side with a clank against the stone ground.


"Help!" I called.


It was strange -- I thought I heard myself screaming when I hit the ground, yet my call for help came at the same time. I pushed the thought aside, assuming I was delirious from the virus.


"Zyglak disease!" I shouted. "Help!"


I was in too much pain to move around so I just let my eyes take in the landscape.


It wasn't at all what I'd expected, but then, Artakha had shown many strange versions of itself to me too.


The inhabited part of the land, where I saw Matoran building forges, metal scaffolding, stone towers, and the like, was entirely contained within a massive canyon of ugly stone varying from sickly yellow to off-white, and here and there chalk-white stone that looked ready to crumble at the slightest touch. Statues of Matoran dotted the landscape.




All of this was under a dark red sky.


I saw a diminutive Matoran whose body design I'd never seen before standing atop a stone wall, holding a black metallic scythe.


I shuddered when I noticed that he seemed to have totally dark eyes.


Matoran eyes are supposed to glow!


Yet, his heartlight was flashing. He was alive.


And he could not be blind. He was turning around, surveying the landscape, as if he was a guard.



He hadn't noticed me yet, it seemed. A scream rang out every few seconds somewhere nearby, and sometimes a scream constantly rose up, pulsating rapidly.


Did Teridax send me to the wrong land?


The dead-eyed Matoran was wearing a Mask of Undeath, I noticed. This mask -- for Toa -- would enable the body to be animated after death to continue to pursue the user's mission. But Matoran could not use it, and Toa did not even like the disturbing power. What, then, was this being? Perhaps one of the other species Mata Nui had made? One designed after I left the control room?


He turned his head away from me, and I noticed light was coming from his eyes as seen from under the mask. Apparently there were just blackened glass pieces covering his eyes.


But why? I could think of no reason except to symbolize that he felt like he was dead. There was no bright sun here to shield the eyes against.


But this is the land of healing!


Behind the Matoran, or whatever he was, I noticed what at first glance seemed like a waterfall, but it wasn't blue, and it wasn't liquid.


No, it was sand.


A sand fall.


Well, I'd seen acid falls before, and there was something similar on Spherus Magna. But this seemed an odd choice for this land. I was nearly beyond caring, and shouted again, but yet again someone's scream came at the same time and the Matoran on the wall didn't hear me.


Gotta move.


I tried. Stumbled forward a little, to the rhythm of screams that seemed to be coming from all around me.


No... under me!


The ground itself was screaming!


I saw another small Matoran walk by, and heard the pulsating screaming effect as his feet contacted the ground.


My eyes finally noticed that the red sky was crackling with orange lightning, but I heard no thunder, not even the slightest rumble.


A Matoran who had only one arm lifted a sledgehammer and drove it down onto a metal bolt he was driving into a scaffolding-like structure I saw being built. The impact made no sound. Then he gently set the hammer down, and thunder roared out, making me wince in pain.


The looks on their faces. Misery. Smoldering fury. Deep sadness.


Most disturbing of all were the ones that wore only a deadened, numb expression, shuffling about, apparently heedless of the screams under their feet.


I noticed the pain in my limbs was already lessening, despite the horrors I saw around me. I welcomed it...


Until I looked down at my left arm and leg, where they contacted the ground.


They had turned to stone.


Those aren't statues all around me.


No Matoran here ever stopped to rest, while on the ground, I realized in horror. They'd learned from watching their neighbors make that fatal mistake. They all walked, they all worked. Most of all, they stayed atop the structures they built whenever they could, like the dead-eyed one atop that wall. The only rest possible was there.


I flailed my other arm. My mind refused to accept what I was seeing. Surely all I needed to do was get the attention of one of them, and I'd be taken before Karzahni, healed, and sent on my merry way. Surely I was hallucinating most if not all of this.


I kicked my leg. It only worked at the hip joint, but at least Teridax's countervirus had preserved that. Both my shoulders worked. I could crawl.


I struggled forward on elbows and one knee, the pain in my right arm still unbearable. It drove me to move faster.


Now all I could see was the ground as I crawled -- I had no idea if my motion had helped them spot me. But I saw a metal floor flush with the ground at the base of that scaffolding, and whenever a Matoran walked over it, the screams beneath his feet stopped. Some of them stopped to rest on it.


I allowed myself to join the screams, so sickened by all this I felt I was losing my mind.


Was I wrong about the evil? Is this not evil all around me? Is it already here, and not Teridax at all?


I reached the scaffolding and panted hard to try to catch my breath, my lungs themselves fighting through pain. I pushed myself to a sitting position.


I was very near the fire of a forge, yet I felt no heat.


The Matoran with the hammer walked toward me.


He was colored green and wore a Mask of Aging. His arms were pencil-thin, apparently prosthetic -- it was amazing he could lift that big hammer, but then everything was so insane here I figured it was probably as light as a feather -- and if there was a feather, it would weigh a ton.




He looked like he was going to walk right past me.


"Take me to Karzahni!" I demanded. "Now!"


He turned his pinpoint-red eyes toward me apathetically. "Why?"


"Can't you see I'm dying?! Zyglak sickness."


His eyes flashed and he backed away. "Then I mustn't touch you! I've seen that before here. You will die where you sit!"


"Don't you have a cart or something? How do patients get to Karzahni?"


He gave me a look of annoyance. "We... would carry you, I guess. Forget it."


"Please! I'm... I have a..." What was I going to say? I have a purpose and you do not? Best not to insult my only hope. "I will reward you greatly!"


"With what?" he belted out rudely. "There is nothing of real value here, and we cannot leave!"


My eyes widened.


Takua had not mentioned anyone coming back out from Karzahni, but I'd just assumed it was because the universe was so new and these things took time. Or perhaps most had elected to stay and help him.


"But I must. I must."


"Well, Karzahni keeps promising he'll send some of us away, but it never happens."


"But surely he will! He was made by the Great Beings! His brother—"


"Do not speak of him here!" the green Matoran exclaimed, as if amazed I could be so insensitive.


"Just take me to Karzahni. I'll take care of the rest."


"I suppose I can get one of the carts we use to bring gifts to him. But how will you get onto it? You cannot walk or climb."


I gestured with my eyes to a large rectangular sheet of strong metal. "Prop that up as a ramp. I'll crawl on."


"The illness usually hits faster than this," the Matoran muttered. "I suppose you might have a chance."


"A... friend... slowed it down," I said. "Go! Please!"


The Matoran set down his hammer and ran to the cart.


I had a few moments alone with my thoughts, but I didn't want to think about myself, the pain in my chest and neck, the nothingness in my limbs. I forced my mind instead to puzzle over the impossibility of this land. It was all protodermis, but apparently something had gone wrong with the coding of how it was supposed to behave. Maybe Karzahni was placed here to use his great healing wisdom to try to undo the error, I guessed. That made sense.


I crawled up the makeshift ramp, feeling distant stabs of pain in the two limbs that had not turned to stone, and collapsed onto the cart, unsure if I could move again. The green Matoran ran around to the front and grabbed the handles to pull it along.


I shared the cart with Karzahni's latest gift from the Matoran.


It was strikingly beautiful, a lone anomaly in what I'd seen so far of this land, a depiction of an elegant tree, cast in gold. The tree's roots rested on a wide pedestal of bronze, and it was topped with a clumpy, apparently hollow top that obviously represented abundant leaves.


They could only have made it from memory -- there were no plants here as far as I'd seen. I wondered what they ate.


I was heartened by the lovely creation. It showed that despite the pervasive horror of this realm, despite the misery I saw all around, and the shocking attitude toward its benevolent ruler, the people still recognized his goodness and wisdom, and sought to honor him and please him.


This made me dare to think a little about what was happening to me. It was astounding that I could fall so far this fast, but incredibly reassuring that I had fallen into the right company, that it would over soon. I'd be back to normal, trying to forget this ever happened, planning my new identity. Every jolt of the cart's ride hurt my head, but my mind was sinking into a delirium that was almost pleasant.


Even so, I knew it was possible I could die on this cart before ever reaching the healer.


We reached a collection of ugly brown structures, and my reluctant rescuer pulled me right into the largest of them. This hallway looked designed to admit carts like this, which made sense.


I saw a titan in a large room at the end of the hall, who I assumed must be some brutish warrior perhaps working as a guard for the brother of Artakha. He carried a chain, which seemed to serve no purpose, and wore spiked armor in gold and gray, and his unsettling horned mask seemed patched together out of four different masks. A circular design with a skull insignia carved on it decorated his waist.


But to my surprise, the Matoran wheeled the cart up before this monstrous being.




"Gift for you, Karzahni," the Matoran said. "And a victim of Zyglak disease who wishes you to repair him!"


"Zyglak?!" the titan roared. "How dare you bring that pestilence before me! Let him rot like all the others. All the good I can do!"


"Please, sir," my mouth said, as my mind tried to catch up to what it had just heard. "A powerful friend has slowed the disease. There may be hope!"


Karzahni looked interested. "If there is one powerful enough to slow that scourge, you should have demanded that he fix you."


I was about to answer, but Karzahni made a quick stopping motion by holding up his hand. "Speak not. I will do my best." He chuckled.


The titan walked nearer. He wasn't even looking at me, but at the statue. "Bring it down," he ordered. "Who built it?"


"I did, sir," the green Matoran said. "Just like the other."


"I see that, yes. Identical."


I looked around but failed to spot its twin, confused.


"Move it in front of my throne and remain here."


"Yes, sir," the Matoran said, and awkwardly tried to get to the statue without touching me.


Karzahni stepped in front of me and studied me closely. Almost as if he was unaware of it, his left hand tore his right shoulder-pad off, spikes and all, and threw it away into a vague pile of objects in the shadows of the corner of the room.


He walked away from me, and picked up a golden armor pad that looked just like it, then grabbed a massive welding gun and attached the piece to his shoulder.


Then he tore off an armor piece around his foreleg and replaced it as well, with more gold.


What is he doing? I'd heard that Matoran came here to be rebuilt by him, but it seemed he was rebuilding himself.


Suddenly he snapped the chain in his other hand like a whip, and pointed at a Matoran that happened to walk by the room in the hallway outside at that moment. "YOU THERE!" he thundered. "Get a new mask for him!" He pointed at me.


A new mask? "Sir, I don't need a new mask, I need--"


"Who cares what you need? I don't like your mask."


Was he completely insane?


Am I insane for ignoring the truth my eyes are seeing all around me? Why, after all I'd seen here, was I still hoping against all hope that Karzahni was the wise healer people said he was?


He was letting me die, doing nothing.


Karzahni walked over to the statue of the tree. Admired it for a moment.


Then reached back with the hand holding the chain, and swung it at the statue with all his might.


Smashed the hollow top with one blow. The green Matoran did not even flinch. That deadened look I'd seen on others had a firm hold over him now.


Karzahni kicked the trunk of the tree, snapping it in two. Then he picked up both pieces and threw them into the dark corner.


"Make another!" he cried out, as if he was still admiring it and was praising the handiwork.


My pain was greatly increasing, and my vision was starting to fade. Was the healer going to do nothing at all for me?


The green Matoran left with his cart. Not long after, that other Matoran walked in, carrying a strange Kanohi I recognized as a Mask of Conjuring. I thought it resembled a blob of dark purple goo that had been stretched into a mask shape.




An ironic choice, I thought. I recalled the powers guide mentioning at one point that it was mainly written for users of this power; you could speak Matoran language definitions of powers to temporarily gain them, but the slightest error in grammar could cause severe mental backlash.


Of course, this was a powerless Matoran version, and now I was locked out from that guide anyways -- even if I survived this, which now looked unlikely -- but I felt it was nice to know the powers that the shapes went with. It was something sane I could keep a hold on.


The Matoran who brought it was brown, wearing a Mask of Mind Control, and carried two silver weapons. He set these down, and used a long metal pole to knock off my mask. My consciousness faded, but he swiftly placed the new mask on my face.




“Please, please, please,” I tried to shout, but heard only a hoarse whisper. I felt like I was supposed to be crying, but the disease must have eaten away my tear ducts, and the intensity of all emotion itself was fading. I didn't understand why...


"If he lives," Karzahni said, "I'll make him weapons like yours and he can go with you to the Southern Continent. So can the others with the weapons. But I'll reserve the rest for me."


"Understood, sir."


"Now get out of my face, Velika."


The Matoran scurried away, carrying my old mask at the end of the pole. I vaguely thought the name seemed... familiar somehow... but my mind was going. I wouldn't remember the thought for millennia.


I tried to call out for help again, but all I heard was a faint gurgle from my mouth. Breathing came slow and with intense pain. Even in the moments between breaths, the worst headache I could have ever imagined tormented me. Karzahni seemed to be speaking again, but his voice was distorted, getting quieter by the second. My vision turned to blackness, the sounds faded away to nothing.


And finally, a brief moment of blissful release, as I sank down into what I knew could only be death.







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Chapter 20 -- Matter of Life and Death
I felt no body.
No sensation.
Only my consciousness.
Part of my self, my memories, was gone. And yet, it was rapidly coming back to me. Soon, I felt my whole mind intact. I was able to wonder what had happened, but to shout for joy that I was alive was still beyond me. I had thought this was the last state of a dying mind, but it seemed I was being healed...
Everything felt different. There were no images, but I felt somehow as if I was... electronic. I sensed pulses of something that were arranged mathematically -- some kind of code. And soon I could understand parts of the code.
One fragment said, "Waiting."
Another said, "Calculations complete."
This was followed by a pause of no signals, but my mind still existing, seemingly growing clearer by the moment.
Impossible, I thought.
And yet, I could think. I was dead, bodiless, and I could think! Yet I was so excited, the only thought I could manage was that this was clearly something unrelated to Teridax's healing virus or Karzahni. Yet even now I sensed nagging concerns... I had made a serious error, and I must not forget the lesson it should teach me. And there was something deeper, something much more emotional, but I could not understand it.
"Secondary analysis complete. Containment protocols unnecessary. Irradiation commencing... Completed. Virus inert. Opening chamber. Request message sent for retrieval and disposal."
The first line of analysis gave a timed report. "Still printing..."
A third line reported. "Preparing check of language and other data."
I felt something combing through my mind, as if to make sure I remembered everything clearly.
"Basics library intact. Records of life intact, except for final moments. Calculating... Deemed irrelevant and likely irretrievable. New basics download deemed unneccessary. Ending tertiary analysis, referring data to personal records. Request message sent for manual analysis and decision."
After a moment, the first line chimed in. "Printing complete. Beginning download."
I felt my mind being split into two. At first parts of my life were being robbed from me -- yet such was the power of hope now coursing through me that I sensed I must not fight it -- and I remained where I was, an electronic consciousness.
Then, I had only those memories that had just been robbed from me, and I was somewhere else, waiting for the rest to come just as I had earlier.
Even before it was all back, I felt a body.
I was overjoyed to feel the existence of intact finger muscles and toe muscles!
But I could not yet move any of them.
Finally my whole mind was restored. I could hear no electronic reports. Instead I heard myself breathing, I saw the darkness of my closed eyes, I heard robotic whirring sounds around me, smelled musty air, even felt my sense of balance and the temperature of the room I was in -- comfortably warm.
Suddenly I could move.
I opened my eyes.
Everything was blurry, but I thought I was looking out through the glass-paned front door of a Spawner. I looked up to see the chisel-like printer module retract into the ceiling. The door in front of me was glass-paned, and now was swinging open on a built-in piston. The room beyond was made of dark metal and something red. Wires and tubes crisscrossed the walls. Or so I thought -- my eyes were taking forever to adjust.
"Come on now," a voice said. "We haven't got all day."
"We haven't?" another said.
"Maybe we have."
"What's a day again?"
"It's a word. A span of time. Had something to do with the word 'window.'"
"I thought so."
"Come on, Matoran!" the first voice repeated.
I stepped out, blinking at a bright light behind two small beings. They were similar to Matoran, wearing purple and black armor, with bulbous insectoid eyes. A red light on the ceiling above reflected off of them, making them seem mostly red, but the backlit portions looked purple.



"Just like the others," a third voice said.
"I haven't seen that mask before," the first disagreed.
"He should head down to the pad," the second said.
"Uh... It's what is done."
"It was done, but now it is not."
"Maybe it will be tomorrow."
"Who knows when that will be," the third put in. This one then turned to leave. There was a fourth with him who'd said nothing that left as well.
"Zyglak illness, you said?" the second asked.
The first nodded.
The second was now picking something up.
Finally my eyes focused... and I realized what I was seeing. I gasped.
"Is that... is that... me?" I asked.
It was indeed my body. I could see the Mask of Conjuring on its face. The rest was only metal, stone, and a dry, shriveled residue of what had been the muscles. I felt like I was in a daze as I watched them carry it, and their words barely registered.


"Teleported up when you died," the first commented. "First time it ever happened."
"Don't be absurd!" the second groaned as he dumped my body in what looked like a disposal tube. "We have many already!"
"Oh? I suppose we do."
Finally what had happened really sunk in. I had actually died. That body that was now gone had been me. My breathing quickened, and I felt a pain in my chest, but not from any disease -- just my own lungs tightening in nervousness. I was not up to the task. If not for this... this strange place... And who knew if that would ever happen again...
And if that was me... what... what am I now?
I closed my eyes and reached for a wall to steady myself.
Felt something soft and damp, like flesh. I shrieked and let go, standing up and staring at the wall. The red substance seemed to be organic!
"Where am I?" I finally ventured to ask.
"You're in our place, and you're making it very difficult to keep it operating!" the first said. "Get to the pad!"
"He can't!" the second said. "I just told you! Well, he can, but it won't do anything."
"What won't?" I asked. "I don't understand any of this. I... I am dead..."
"Were!" the first said. The second nodded cheerfully. "But we've replaced you, like the others. The Great Beings knew what they were doing, designing this place. Now I really wish you would leave."
"Where is this place? I don't recall seeing it..." I stopped myself. I couldn't be sure they were to be trusted...
I shook my head. Surely I was still dying. Maybe Karzahni -- the real one, not the one I remembered, which surely had to have been a hallucination -- had just healed me. Maybe this was a dream. But my gut told me that Karzahni was the real one. No wonder he lost the contest...
"I wonder what he'll do about his deal?" the first muttered. He didn't seem to have heard my question.
"With who, now?" the second asked.
"That Makuta."
I jerked my head toward them. Their backs were to me now, studying a screen. "What?"
"Oh, he's still here!" the first said.
"Terodahk," the second answered. "Your deal. I thought you remembered?"
"Teridax," I corrected. “How do you know about that?”
"They're always so slow," the first complained. He looked back to the screen in front of him. "You know of Karzahni?"
The second replied. "I am forbidden from entering, for only the injured, ill, or poor workers may go there. But I can teleport you there. If I do, will you promise to return to Destral to stand trial?"
"What right of defense will I have?" the other said. I finally realized they were my own words, and the words of Teridax. They were reading a record of my own memories. I guessed they'd started at the end.
"I'm afraid we're still working out the laws. I promise to consult with Mata Nui. He has told us he will meet with us again regularly to hear our updates, including about this mission."
"I will come," concluded the first.
"That's very vague," the second said. "I wonder if he'll still hold to it. Technically, Teridax was asking you to return and stand trial if he teleports you to Karzahni. He did that. Earlier you had said if he cures you, you wouldn't run away. But this deal says nothing about being cured. Even though you died, you'll still go to stand trial?"
"I... uh..."
"But notice," the first said, "Koronga never technically said he would turn himself in and stand trial. He just agreed to come. He could sneak onto the island and off, and technically he would have held to his agreement."
I held up one of my hands, turning it around and watching the muscles contract through gaps in the armor. Widened my fingers, watching how the muscles worked to make that happen.
Images of my friends from Spherus Magna, lost to me so long ago thanks to the war, and now maybe lost forever, flashed through my mind, and a terrible feeling welled up through me, making my eyes sting and my airways seem to constrict.
NO. I could not think about that. Something there... no. I forced my attention to stay on what the Kestora were talking about.
"There should be some kind of law against unclear contracts," the second said. "It makes our job very confusing."
"Why?" I asked, now just happy to get any insight at all into these strange beings. Breathing. Breathing.
"How are we supposed to tell if you're worthy if you're so vague all the time?"
"Worthy..." He means of being revived, I realized.
Something finally dawned on me. "Nikila..."
"I don't know that word," the first said. "I'm not a Nikila, I'm a Kestora."
"So am I," the second said, as if I had any doubt the nearly identical beings were of the same species.
"A Toa of Lightning," I said. "She died saving my life. Scroll up, you'll see it just... there. Was she revived?"
"Oh, dear," the two Kestora said in unison as they read the account.
“It's very unclear,” one of them explained, “but something about Zyglak!”
"No," the first added. "We have to have something to work with! Those spears the Zyglak have destroy whatever they hit. Poof. Nothing left. Nothing to upload a consciousness from."
“Unless she wasn't killed by a spear,” the other said. “Your account is very unclear -- the records system isn't perfect, you know. It does better with spoken words than thoughts and experiences. Do you happen to remember?”
I didn't. I remembered the spears flying, Toa being killed... it had all happened so fast, and apparently my memories of everything from that point on had been partially erased. But it sounded like they were gone for good.
Saddened, I sat down in an empty chair. This was all just too much to take in.
My destiny. I'd thought everything lost. As sad as the apparent loss of Lesovikk's team was, as horrible a being as Karzahni had turned out to be, and all else I'd seen that was so bad, I had to hold on to that one thread of hope. The existence of this place, even if it wasn't perfect, astounded me and made me think there might be far more hope than I'd realized.
I knew the Great Beings loved contingencies, but I never imagined this. What else might they have waiting in store for the good?
It didn't matter -- I had to proceed with the assumption that if I died again, or anything else bad happened, the natural consequences would follow. I couldn't rely on unknowns to save the day. I felt as if my hunger to drive events forward had only been increased a hundredfold. If only I knew where I was going...
After a moment I finally let their question sink in about my deal. It was a good question, one I'd have to weigh carefully.
"Well," I said slowly, "when I made that deal, I had no idea I could be revived. I thought death was the end."
"Oh certainly. And yet..."
I felt my face.
Mask of Conjuring.
In a sense I could almost thank Karzahni. I didn't understand why he swapped my mask -- though I was pretty sure his motives weren't good -- but I had been intending to obtain a different one anyways. I could pass for an Onu-Matoran now if that was what I wanted; purple was sometimes a color they bore, and gray was common. Maybe I could work in the Archives, and figure out protodermic power mixing in some dark forgotten room nobody but me knew was there.
Maybe I could even tunnel into the control room... but no.
I looked around at the Spawner.
It was larger and more complex than the ones I'd seen. Those had all been specialized to make just one type of being. This looked like it could make anything from a tiny fish to a titan, though I didn't see any hint of antidermis.
"This thing looks capable of making many different things," I said. "Can it make inanimate objects too?"
"Certainly! What do you think your mask is? Or your swords?" I hadn't realized I had them. I'd just seen them get thrown out into that tube, along with my backpack, yet here they were in their scabbards, and I had a new backpack, carrying the exact same weight, so probably the same things. Exact copies.
"Something like my shapeshifting orbs?"
The Kestora tilted their heads.
"I guess you haven't read back that far. Could I design an object and make it here?"
"It's possible," the first said.
"But strictly forbidden," the second added.
"Except on Tuesdays," the first added.
"What's that?" the second asked.
"Never mind," I said. "I'm sure it's allowed for me."
The Kestora didn't seem to know what to make of this.
"Well, the judgment was good," the first offered after a moment. "I suppose we can trust him."
"The computer's never wrong," the second agreed. "Very well."
I grinned. My grin faded a moment later when I realized how close once again I'd come to making a serious mistake -- I could have just left the room as they'd commanded. The consequence of that error would not be death -- I would just never know that there might be a simple way to get back to the giant's control room.
Come to think of it, my error with the Zyglak was the same. I hadn't imagined they would carry such a disease -- I couldn't really be blamed for not thinking of that, but I should have researched them more, since I knew they were a danger.
Lesson... stay curious. No matter what. No matter what.
They explained to me how to make it work, and I sat down at the controls and started programming. I could specify shape, size, interior design, and most importantly, protodermic power.
But I quickly realized it could take a long time to design something exactly like what I'd had before. That might have taken years to design, and I'd only seen the outer shell and one button. If this took too long the Kestora might change their minds.
Better to opt for a tool that had that power, but was triggered by some other means. Preferably mentally.
So I worked on it.
The second Kestora wandered away, but the first watched, intrigued.
"So," I said as I continued, "you didn't tell me where I am."
"I do not recall the name," the Kestora said. He looked around as if he expected the second to answer, then frowned in confusion at his inability to spot the other.
"Well, tell me about it, then," I said.
"Far, far, far away from your home," the Kestora replied. "The only way back is the pad."
A chill went down my spine.
Once again I felt incredibly naïve. Karzahni had not been the wondrous place I'd assumed. Maybe this place was just as bad.
"The pad that... isn't working?"
"Oh I think it is," he said. "Or so I heard."
Yeah, I heard the other tell you. I was beginning to wonder if I could trust anything they said.
I finished the design -- a sword similar to those I already had, though a bit fancier in design so it would fit in better in the Matoran Universe. It had the same power of fast shapeshifting -- I'd taken careful note of it in the powers registry and memorized the Matoran language coding of it, when I'd first copied the guide onto the tablets. But it was triggered mentally.
I noticed that you could add a few extra powers as well.
I coded one in that would make the sword fly to my hand, aligning properly so the blade wouldn't hit me, if I verbally commanded it to, from a distance, with the command, "Swordfly."
I wasn't totally sure I had the right grammar, but the guide had mentioned that the backlash effect only happened if there was a mental connection. That would only happen here if I already had the sword and was triggering the shapeshifting power, in which case I wouldn't need the retrieval power.
Another definition I had memorized was for the Mask of Shielding, so I included this as well. I wasn't sure enough about any others to risk it.
"A very good choice!" the Kestora said when I finished. "I think it should work. I could ask the computer to check it."
"It can do that?"
"Oh of course!"
The Kestora pressed some buttons, and a report displayed on the screen. "Analysis started... Completed. Grammar proper, no risk of mental backlash. All powers functional."
I smiled. "Can I add another, then, and have it checked, too?"
The Kestora studied the code. "Yes. Room for one more."
I programmed in a teleportation power, enabling me to consciously set the destination.
"Oh, very wise!" the Kestora said. "But that won't work."
"Only for a place you know very well. Watch." The Kestora typed. "I've seen this power before, you understand."
That wasn't very encouraging, but the computer would check it. It did, and returned an error report.
"Oh dear. Well... perhaps this. I'll try to make it so it'll tell you if the teleportation wouldn't work before you try it, and why."
That could come in handy. I've been too affected by all that's happened... I'm still not thinking clearly...
"All powers functional," came the result.
"Now this button to print," the Kestora said, pressing it.
I watched as it printed one thin layer at a time, the chisel-point whirring around. It was printing it laying on its side, of course.
"How can I find the pad to find out if it's working?" I asked. I would now have an option if it wasn't, but still, I was curious to know if I would have been trapped here otherwise... and if others were trapped.
Another Kestora wandered in before the first could answer.

"What are you doing?!" the newcomer exclaimed.
"Printing something," the first said.
"Will you never remember anything?" the other retorted angrily. "You are NOT to use the printers for anything but the original programming! We have very limited resources! That's the whole reason this place was made!"
"Oh. That does sound familiar."
"You fool!" the other said, waving a hand at him dismissively. "Throw it in the recycler immediately!"
"Wait," I said. "It's my fault, it won't happen again. Please, I need this."
"You do not! Go to the pad and leave! I don't want you hanging around like all the others out there!"
"I thought it was broken?" the first said.
The second opened his mouth to retort, but stopped, and looked confused. "Well.. I'm sure the rules are clear about making other items! What if you decided on a whim to make some monstrous robot that would stampede out and smash the wiring and ruin everything?"
The printing was done. I eyed the latch on the door.
"Maybe you're right," the first Kestora said. He looked at me suspiciously. "Were you trying to trick me?"
"No, I just didn't know about the rule. I'm sorry."
The other Kestora went to the printer and opened the door. He picked up the sword and walked toward the hole in the wall.
"Wait, please!"
I lunged.

The first Kestora kicked at my feet. I tripped.
The sword fell in.
"Swordfly!" I shouted.
There it came! It aligned blade pointed straight up, just as I'd programmed it to.
It hit the other Kestora in the head as it flew -- just the hilt, but it knocked the poor being over. Something flew off its face, but I was too focused on the sword to register what it was.
I caught the sword.
Turn liquid.
It worked!
Both Kestora tried to grab my wrists, but their hands slipped through me as if I was water. "I won't use the printer again," I promised. "I'm sorry. But I'm keeping the sword."
The other Kestora threw up his hands, and faced the first Kestora, even as he kneeled to pick up what I now realized was a mask. "See what I mean? I'm going to program in a block immediately. This is the third time I've caught you making things beyond revivals."
I ran out of the room. I wasn't sure if I could use multiple powers at once, so I wanted to be by myself when I tried the teleportation power.
Neither Kestora followed; they were still arguing.
I ran a ways, saw I was alone, and backed up against a wall to try it.
Focused on the control room.
Wouldn't work. I sensed that it was because I was moving at too great a speed with respect to that location, or that location was moving with respect to me, neither of which made sense, and also that I was not familiar enough with it.
There wasn't much in the Matoran Universe I was more familiar with.
The alcove. On the Great Beings' ship. I'd spent more time there than anywhere else.
But when I tried it, I got the same report about motion. I was familiar enough with it, at least. I wasn't surprised a ship, especially that ship, might be moving fast. But why would the control room?
Intuition came to me again. It had been a while. Good to know it still works.
I ran along the dark hallways. Occasionally I saw another Kestora. Once I saw a Matoran. But intuition told me I could not help them. I wasn't supposed to be here.
"There he is!" I heard a voice call. The strict Kestora. Talking about me.
"Don't let him get to the pad!"
I fled, turning into a bird to move much faster than they could run.
Down some ramp-hallways I flew, following the intuition.
Down, and down.
I stopped and turned back to myself. A big black metal panel. Intuition assured me it was safe to press the open button. There was solid clear protodermis behind it. My fear already told me why that would matter, but I had to know.
The panel slid aside, revealing a massive window.
Into starry space.
Over a huge planet.
I saw mostly blue ocean, but there was a small green continent on the edge of the horizon. Clearly not Aqua Magna.
And massive, like Spherus Magna, but every other feature looked different.
And there he was.
The giant robot, descending into its atmosphere. At first he had been invisible, cloaked by a power, but when he was low enough so he couldn't be seen from the continent he'd turned visible.
I wasn't the one moving. Mata Nui was, and I wasn't onboard.
Red energy seemed to radiate from the outer hull of what I was aboard.
There was only one explanation I could think of, as chilling as it was to even consider. I was in the booster satellite, which had just been disconnected. And Mata Nui was landing...
On an alien planet.


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PART THREE -- The Exploration Trap

Chapter 21 -- Cultural Contamination

I watched in a mixture of awe and worry as Mata Nui got farther and farther away, and I sensed he got closer to being out of my teleportation power's range.
When he slowed to ease his feet into that ocean, I assumed I'd see a tsunami wave splash out. But there was only a glow of blue light.
Absorbing the mass of the water he would displace, I realized. He must be storing it in its elemental energy form, to return it to physical form when he left. Smart. Otherwise, any possible inhabitants of that land would be in big trouble. Obviously he was here to stealthily study, not disrupt.
He stopped moving downward, his knees bending. He'd touched seafloor.
Even so, his head still reached above their atmosphere.
But now he lowered himself down into the water, to lay on his back. I gathered that he'd chosen a spot of just the right depth so that he could submerge himself entirely, except for his face.
And suddenly, his face changed.
Silver liquid seemed to move across it. Shining silver liquid. I grimaced. Energized protodermis. But it seemed that a highly controlled energy field was directing it where to go, and when it was done, it went back down into hidden vents.
In its wake, rock appeared. Then plants.
A fake volcano, already looking very old, and erupting lava I knew was probably pumped up from Ta-Metru's molten protodermis pipes.



Intuition told me this was also a standard procedure. My vision had included many images of me seeing something that I now recognized as a readout on one of the control room screens, reporting the generation of countless fake islands like this one, although it seemed Mata Nui was destined to tweak the design over the years.
This one was beautiful, but I sensed it was only the beginning of the design. It was enough to hide his face, so he could continue his scans, but that was all.
Slowly, the booster satellite orbited out of view of the continent. The new island was getting farther away too.
Mata Nui had stopped moving, but I was still moving, circling at incredible speeds around the planet. It didn't seem so fast from this distance, but I knew that was just a trick of proportion. In order to hold a steady orbit, we had to be going very, very, very fast. Plus I was just now moving completely out of range.
It would be a while before I circled back into range. Even then, I'd still be going too fast.
One thing about all this didn't make sense to me. As far as I could tell, this satellite was not only not stealthy, but it was actually radiating red clouds of energy. It would be noticeable -- and very attention-grabbing -- to the inhabitants, if any. I imagined it would look something like a comet, but no natural comet would be colored red as far as I knew.
Why did the Great Beings design it that way?
I could think of no answer.
I heard voices.
Kestora, arguing about something. Me?
I listened carefully. Yep. Still looking for me.
I caught a snippet of conversation. "...download it to all..." And another. "...twenty guards... taken offline just in case it works..."
Thinking about it a little, as I closed the panel, I understood.
That block the strict Kestora had put on the making of objects had to be downloaded to each Spawner. Meaning, there must be more than one spawner. Perhaps there would have to be, in case multiple people died at once.
I'd seen many rooms like the one I'd started in as I'd flown down here, but I'd been too distracted to think of it.
As for the pad, that was out. Even if it was still working, they were now taking it offline on purpose just to keep me here.
It's just one sword.
But these Kestora were not all there mentally. I got the impression they were doing this more because it was something to do than that this really mattered to them. Maybe boredom had driven them insane, already. Don't want to stick around to see how they handle 100,000 years.
I found the nearest room and immediately sat down to work at the console. I had one shot at this, most likely.
I needed to make a small space-capable vessel, and teleport it out into space. From there I would need to either land it or move it so it was temporarily not moving much with respect to Mata Nui.
There were so many factors involved, I barely knew where to begin.
An idea hit me.
What if there was already such a thing?
In fact... hadn't I seen some? The Toa Mata had been placed in metal canisters that would, if they were needed, shoot out, moving intangibly through rock and metal alike, and fly to Metru Nui. Or something like that, I gathered from my vision and some things I'd heard from them, and read about in the control room.
There had been a builder of those things. Several.
Had any of them died that might know how they were made?
I typed that in as a question.
I asked the computer to search for the final, tested and proven design of the canisters.
At first it found nothing. Canister did not seem to be the term they'd used. I typed in anything I could think of, until I finally got two matching results, downloaded and copied right from the brains of the workers themselves. Skyhoppers.
I read the file.
"Prototype," the label read.
I sighed. Of course the Kestora would prove to be wrong about the computer never being wrong. Both of these Matoran had died before the proven design was made.
I wonder how they died... I thought grimly. A quick search confirmed my fear. They died testing the prototype.
I had no options. If experts in Artakha's realm really had died from their best attempt, I wasn't likely to do much better.
I read the death reports more carefully.
They'd died when the skyhoppers impacted on a solid surface.
No intangibility power.
I could get around that with teleportation. I could avoid solid surfaces. This could work.
"Maybe," a Kestora's voice suddenly said, well within earshot, but not from in this room, "we could dissect his brain and figure out why he would be so disobedient!"
"That's a good idea," another agreed.
I slowly shook my head. I'd gotten no impression from the first Kestora how vile they truly were. They were worse than Karzahni!
The voices continued. They'd wandered past this room without entering. Maybe they forgot they were supposed to be downloading a blocking program.
I added a protodermic power of teleportation to the design, to be activated by me, mentally controlled. There was already a sensor system. Good.
I ran the check.
The computer judged the powers safe, but warned there was serious risk of collision. Recommended adding an intangibility power, but unhelpfully noted, "specific coding undetermined."
Never mind.
I pressed the print button.

This would take a while.
I took the opportunity to try to find records about this place.
I found a few, but they were heavily redacted. I did learn that it was nicknamed the Red Star.
It seemed there was much more to its function besides what I'd learned, which surprised me, but the redactors had blocked out every single word that would give me the slightest hint of what else it did. I could conclude only that this other purpose must have something to do with why they made no effort to hide it from the alien worlds Mata Nui visited.
Another idea that occurred to me was that it seemed like we'd crossed an awfully vast space in an amazingly short amount of time.
I knew from my basic understanding of physics that the nearest star systems that would likely support life had to be so far away it could take longer to travel there by normal means than even our lifespans would allow. Yet here I was in the same year we left home, already at one of these planets.
I supposed it was possible it actually orbited the same star. It had looked yellow.
But I suspected there was actually some kind of hyperdrive -- a power like the many that bent the rules inside the Matoran Universe, specifically to enable travel far faster than normal. And this could be part of the secret purpose of the Red Star.
Next I tried to find some kind of external sensor system.
There we go.
It was fairly limited, but I was able to get a camera of sorts to zoom in on the island, just as it was moving over the horizon.
But then intuition struck me strongly.
My fingers controlled the buttons without my input. Zoomed in more and more, on a spot in the ocean. I saw nothing at all...
But finally, I saw a yellowgreen dot. It looked something like a seed, but much larger. I noticed a lot of seaweed growing on it. More than I would have expected even for a long journey.


Moving closer to the island.
That was as far in as the lens would get. But I suddenly understood.
I was supposed to be here, right at this moment.

Mata Nui's sensors might not have been strong enough to spot that little yellow dot or realize quite what it was. Aliens must not be allowed to find a way into the robot beneath the island.
Nor could they be present on the island when the robot needed to leave. They had to be told to leave.
Or made to leave.
Finally, the prototype canister was done. I hurried to it and pressed a button that opened the lid at the top. I shapeshifted into a taller form to reach the opening.
Heard footsteps heading this way.
I slipped in quickly and closed the lid as quietly as I could.
A lone Kestora entered the room. Didn't seem to see me -- went right for the computer to my right, crossing from the door to my left. The left wall of the Spawner was opaque, so his back was to me.
I studied the controls and sensors, trying to figure out how to instruct and activate the teleport.
Glanced back at the Kestora, busy inputing the block.
Then I noticed something etched on the back of his hand.
“The one called Koronga will never fool me again. Make sure of it.”
My eyes widened. It was the one who had helped me make the sword. Was he programming the computers to ban me from being revived ever again?!
He glanced my way. Looked back at the screen.
Then jerked his head right at the canister sitting in the Spawner. “Hey!”
I saw a weapon in his hand.
Looked back at my controls. Found the right screen. Didn't dare waste the time to glance back, to see if he was aiming the weapon. Set the coordinates.
Pounded the button.
A bright flash.
Sensation of gravity disappeared.
The screens now said I was outside the red star. I saw it in front of me on one of the screens.


I set the destination path to fly and land in the water by the camouflage island, then propel itself by a slow secondary power to land.
I strapped myself into a cushioning wall on one side, knowing the forces involved could be quite extreme, and then shapeshifted myself a bit to be able to handle whatever the straps and the cushion wouldn't absorb.
Pressed the button to start it up.
The canister zoomed through empty space, rushing toward the island.
Then down.
Even if he wasn't programming the computer to refuse to revive me, I realized, that inscription will make him my enemy forever, forgetfulness or not. And if dissecting people is something they approve of...
Flames erupted all around the screens as it entered the atmosphere. My heart started to pound as much from this as what I now understood. I could never die again. If I did, chances were it would be for good.
The forces of atmospheric entry were indeed extreme. I was rattled around madly. The screens all seemed to shake constantly, but I realized it was more my own vision being shaken around.
I felt the temperature rise. Hadn't thought of that...
But it leveled off as the canister slowed and the flames disappeared.
I realized I'd been holding my breath the whole time. I tried to relax, taking several deep breaths. Whew.
The island got closer.
The sea rushed up. I braced myself... then at the last moment I decided liquid would be better. Shifted.
I sloshed all around the room, and water spray roared around the canister.
Briefly I was underwater entirely, all the screens showing deep blue.
Then the canister popped out into the air again, and splashed down again, this time more gently. It floated to a relative standstill.
With a clicking sound, the weak propulsion power kicked in. I checked the sensors. I was on track.
Nearly a whole week passed as I drifted closer. I had overestimated the speed of the secondary power. But I was pretty sure Mata Nui wasn't going to leave that soon.
Even so, I kept checking with the longer-range sensors to make sure the island was still there.
I was growing hungry again. I'd eaten all of the re-created food stored in my backpack. Should have thought about a power of Nutrition, I thought.
But then, I'd been hungrier than this before and survived.
I noticed the seaweed was growing rapidly. By the time the island eased into view over the watery horizon, it had entirely coated all the lower cameras and grown long like the fur of an Iron Wolf. It curled and flared as the waves washed past.


I used the longer-range sensors to scan for the seed.
I was too late -- it had already landed. I saw a leglike extension pulling it upright, and a flap on the front opened.
A crowd of alien beings poured out from the hole. Apparently they'd all been gripping the interior wall and let go when it opened.


They were all bipeds, but I couldn't see them clearly from here.

They fanned out from the seed, heading into the trees.
After a few moments, something like a large bird flew out from the top, heading toward the trees to roost. It had multiple black eyes and was colored gray and tan. It was clearly organic, but I thought the bipeds seemed metallic and... almost wooden, some of them.


Wondering if they'd brought any other animals, I watched for a while, but saw nothing.
The bipeds were now returning to the seed. They started cutting parts of it off with blades they carried, and dragged it into the jungle, probably to use as shelter, I thought.
After a few more hours, the canister reached the beach, not far from where the seed had landed.


I hit the button to pop the lid. It blasted quite a ways away, giving me room to easily walk out.
The bird was roosting in a tree near me. It tilted its head and squawked stupidly, then flew away.
I heard noises in the jungle ahead.
The aliens were coming.
Running at me.
They sounded angry.
I saw them now. They were brandishing their swords.
I brandished my own sword and increased my size to be more intimidating.


They slowed, wary as they realized I was not afraid of them.
Cautiously they came closer.


I was astounded at their shapes.


Although they were all bipeds, they varied so much in the specifics it was hard to imagine they were all of the same species. But I realized the metal and wood decorating their outer forms were added on, something like the armor most Agori and Glatorian wore.


One of them, which seemed to be their leader, wore what looked like a slab of bark on his face. It only had a hole for one eye to see out of. Very odd, I thought.


This one stopped in front of me and spoke in a demanding tone.

To my great surprise, I found I could understand him.
I had no translation power, though I recalled that one existed from the guide. I hadn't thought of adding one to the canister -- in hindsight, I should have. But I was hearing their words in their language. I simply knew their language.
There had been many I'd learned from my vision. Now I realized they weren't all related to Agori. Many seemed disconnected from each other almost entirely. Alien languages. Somehow I knew them all.
It's my destiny to know them.
The leader had said, "Leave this island. We staked it already. And your contraption is illegal. Only the spores are allowed for travel. The ancient ways are no more, or are you of the Shame?"
Although I knew the words, I had no idea of the cultural context.
But I had a couple of ideas.
I looked up into the sky. The Red Star wasn't visible. I didn't think it was cloaked, it was just both bright daylight and already below the horizon from this spot's perspective.
"A blood red star shall appear this night," I said in an ominous tone. "It is said the seeing of it portends the coming of Shame."
"Nonsense!" the leader objected. "We are not of the Shame!"
"This is the island of the Shame," I continued in the same enigmatic tone, as if I was continuing what I'd said before instead of replying to him. I could not make this a petty argument. It had to be something far more grave -- for it was -- and mysterious -- for I had no other choice.
The strange aliens looked around at each other nervously.
"I have come back," I continued slowly. "Back to the island of my Shame. All who linger here shall soon join in it."
"We shall have no contraptions here!" another exclaimed. "We are taking this land as we took all the others on our great voyages! This has not been found. It bears no marks."
"The marks of my old life here," I continued, "have washed away, but I know my land. The lake with one island in it..." I continued, describing features I could not possibly have seen from this side, if I was a mere sea traveler, and it seemed they could not imagine something more.
They backed away slowly, convinced I'd lived here before.
“The ancient ways were best,” I said, “though none of us in the Shame know why.”
"The ancient ways brought tyranny of the things!" the leader objected, but his voice wobbled. "Now we work for our food, for our shelters, we grow plants and tend to the birds. We have repented of the ways that ended in war. Surely you are not all this ignorant! I was taught that you choose the old ways in full knowledge of their evil."
I smiled at the land around me, ignoring him. "The others are hiding here, waiting for me and any others who wish to join us in the Shame, never working again. The contraptions do it all for us."
"No," the leader whispered. "The law. The birds!"
I blinked slightly, then caught myself. A suspicion was forming.
"We labor not in the care of the birds," I practically sang.

All of the aliens moaned, clamping their hands over their ears.
"He will hear!" the leader objected. "Flee this Shame!" he ordered the others. But they seemed too shocked to respond.
The bird is in charge, I realized. I'd assumed it was just an animal. Maybe that squawk hadn't been so stupid after all. Maybe it was its own language, one I did not know. It was giving the order to attack me.
"Oh how I've longed to hunt the birds!" I called out in a loud voice.
"He's insane!" one of them shrieked, and ran from me. The others followed.
"Set up camp!" the leader ordered them, even as they ran. "We will warn the ruler and prepare for war!"
I sighed. I'd hoped to just scare them away. But I still might be able to do that. I was a shapeshifter, after all.
Leaning forward, I turned into a massive, fiery dragon, hollowing myself out to seem larger until I was twice the size of the alien bird, with razor-sharp fangs and claws.


"HUNTING TIME!" I shouted.
One of the bipeds looked back and screamed at the sight of me. I repeated myself while he was looking just to make sure he understood I'd changed shape.
I added wings to the form on a whim, and took to the air.

There was the camp, made out of the giant seed. Two of the aliens were standing guard there.


I flew down into some trees, and shrank down to a tiny shape, then flew closer, coloring myself to blend in.
A moment later, the other aliens rushed in, shouting word that evil shapeshifting dragons, probably made somehow by highly illegal contraptions, were hiding here and one had come to call them out to hunt their ruler bird.
The huge bird flew to the camp at that time, squawking curiously about the uproar. It listened for a moment, then started hissing violently at its slaves.
"But once a spore is open we must wait to grow another!" the leader protested.
More hissing and cawing.
"Yes, ruler!"
He ran into the giant hut made out of the spore. The bird eyed its surroundings warily as it waited.
The leader ran out pell-mell, carrying what appeared to be a tiny version of the spore. He immediately dug a hole and planted it inside.
"It will take a whole day to grow," he said. "We will fight hard to protect you until then!"
He said it as if a giant plant growing in just a day was a long time. Considering the rate of growth of the seaweed I'd witnessed, I was inclined to accept that. It still sounded strange. I had to remind myself that despite the familiar rocks and earth and even many of the plants on the camouflage island, this was still a totally alien world.
Well, how totally alien seemed debatable. It was an odd coincidence that there would be a second planet that seemed far too huge for its gravity, with bipeds on it. I wondered if in very, very ancient times there had been other travelers between worlds. Maybe with those 'contraptions' of 'shame'. It was possible.
Maybe they'd seeded all these worlds with protodermis, and it altered them, making them larger and affecting their gravity. I had no way to know, but the idea seemed plausible to me.
The 'bird' -- not a very apt translation, but the closest there is -- stayed near the old spore.
When night fell, at first the Red Star was not visible. I heard bold proclamations that my prophecy was nonsense.
But sure enough, as morning approached, it rose.
The camp grew gravely quiet.
When the sun finally rose -- I stayed awake the whole night, afraid I might snore or drop the sword and turn back into Matoran form -- I saw a new Spore growing from a long stalk.
The side opened up, and one by one the bird carried them up inside the seed, and then went inside itself. The lid closed.
For several hours nothing seemed to happen. I realized the plant was sealing the cracks tightly. I wondered how they breathed in there. Perhaps something similar to suspended animation, but accomplished by biological means like hibernation, made it unnecessary.
As noon approached, the plant's long stalk bent so the spore almost touched the ground.
Then suddenly it sprang up like a catapult. The stalk snapped off at the halfway point.
The spore sailed through the air and crashed into the water.
I'd done it.
I flew out to it to make sure they'd hit a farther current that would take them away. Yes. Apparently without contraptions they did quite well. They would have had to aim it just right intentionally, I felt. It was unlikely to be just luck.
Now I flew back, wondering to myself at the strange contradiction between their appearances -- which looked very "contraptioney" -- and their culture. I couldn't quite understand, but it was fascinating.
"Well done," a voice suddenly said.
I had landed and taken Matoran form. I shrieked in surprise at the voice, and dropped my sword in the sand.
I whirled, even as I bent down to grab the sword again.
There was an oval stone, hovering in the air, facelike scratches etched on one side.


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Chapter 22 -- The First Chronicler




I stood up, sword in hand.


This stone was smaller than the others, but I was sure it was another of the Great Spirit's temporary avatars.




I could shapeshift and flee, but I suspected Mata Nui could override all my powers now that he was focused here.


"So you found me," I said, forcing myself to relax.


"As soon as my sensors detected the contamination I watched the land closely."


I nodded. Why didn't I think of that?


Many had been my opportunities to ask myself that throughout my life. Was I doomed to always be so clumsy? True, I'd done good. But I'd had to lie, I'd had to threaten, I'd had to cheat -- not so much out of an 'ends justifies the means' idea but simply to make up for my own serious errors.


"So you're the shapeshifter. Teridax reported you had likely died."


Mata Nui must have noticed my eyes glance up at the sky.


The stone's carved features frowned. "I see... You've been to the Red Star, then."


"Do you know what's happening up there?" I asked. "Or with Karzahni?"


"Teridax's report did warn me that Karzahni was taking an unusually long time to send either you or any word at all out, and that he'd heard rumors since then from other lands that it was the same everywhere. And I have noticed the land has become... strange."


"You should look at it more closely," I said. "He's become a petty tyrant, and I don't know how he does it but he's messed up practically all the physics." That couldn't even begin to express how I felt about it, but I felt unable to put that into words.


"I shall try, when I find the time," Mata Nui said. "In the meantime, I must continue my analysis of this planet, and determine what to do with you."


"Please don't tell anyone else about me. I'm here to help you."


The stone's expression changed to one of confusion. "You say that as if that is not the purpose of all who dwell in me. As if you came from outside."


I sighed. There I went again, slipping up.


"You did?"


"Look... all I wanted was to live... in Metru Nui, to be normal. But I had to explain how I could be there, when nobody saw me walk out of a Spawner. That was going to take work to set up. It all fell apart."


"I can arrange that easily. But should I?"


"I won't use the conduits again. I don't need them anymore. And I have the power to help you. When you need it most, I will know what to do."


Mata Nui didn't seem to know how to react.


"Just help me blend in there. I'm not sure which Metru. I was planning to be a Ta-Matoran, but Karzahni gave me this mask, which makes me look Onu."


"I can easily change the color right now," Mata Nui said. "But I thought you could as well."


I wasn't really sure if there was something like a battery limit to the sword. But it would still make sense there was, and besides, I wouldn't want to have to carry it constantly. "It would be inefficient," I simply said.


"Do you have enough power now to face Karzahni yourself?"


I supposed I might. "I have Shielding, and Shapeshifting is always good. I can also teleport, but that has serious limits."


"If I grant your request, will you promise to deal with him as you see fit? I really have more vital issues to tend to."


"Agreed.” I wasn't really sure what I would do, but now was not the time to test the Great Spirit's patience. “But what about the Makuta?"


"I will tell them the truth. Karzahni failed to save you in time, and you died. I will call off the search."


"Are you aware of my deal with Teridax?"


"You promised to come back and stand trial. I relieve you of your promise. It is my universe and my right."


I smiled. "Thank you, sir!"


"How will I know when you can help me in the future?"


"Well, do you know about a special control room where people my size can pilot... well, you?"


"I do -- you've been there?" He was surprised once again. "I was assured security procedures would prevent entry unless I were to cease functioning properly."


"Well, I guess they don't keep me out. If you keep an eye on that room, I'll come there anytime I need to help you. Maybe you could even unlock partial control for me by the consoles there. I have a feeling it will come in handy."


"A feeling?"


"It's a long story, and I think I need to keep it a secret, sorry."


Mata Nui was silent for a moment. "This is not anything like how I expected this to go. I guess I must agree to this, except about partial control. I think I will need to learn to trust you over time before I risk that."


"Fair enough."


"I'll need more details about the life you want. You have chosen Ta-Metru?"


I nodded.


Mata Nui's symbolic stone moved a little closer. I felt slightly different. Looked down at my hands. They were dark red.


"Your mask is red now as well," he said. "What about job?"


"Well, I wanted to learn the trade of mixing powers, but I also hoped to be able to travel as part of my job."


"Ta-Metru has a barge service that travels to other islands occasionally. I could set you up with a dual apprenticeship, alternating from one year to the next. That is a common practice, as I understand it."


"Sounds great!"


"But may I ask what reasons you have for wanting all these things?"


I hesitated. Then I realized he could be an immense help for the part of my destiny that I thought I understood. "I... I think I am destined to witness the major events of history."


The rock tilted slightly, implying a tilt of the head in curiosity, I guessed. "Interesting. That would be immensely helpful to me. It is a serious problem with time management for me to watch everything myself. You could inform me of the most important things."


"I suppose I could. Maybe in return you could set me up with other identities if needed to help me witness events?"


"Quite possible," Mata Nui agreed. "But I won't make promises to that effect for now."


"I understand." His caution about me was actually encouraging, even if it was inconvenient.


"And now, perhaps you would like to witness another major event? I have nearly completed my measurements and scans of the planet."


"You mean you're about to stand up? How can I see it without being safely inside?"


"Before I stand up," Mata Nui replied with a smile, "my face will need cleaned off."


"True. But how could I observe that while I'm on the island?"


"Follow me."


The rock hovered inland at a fast speed, but slow enough that at an easy jog I could follow without shapeshifting into anything. I gave the sword's power a rest and ran with my own legs. It felt good to run without my life being in danger.




Even just a simple accident like slipping on a pebble as I ran through this jungle could kill me, if I hit my head wrong when I fell. And that could be my end. Forever.


Eyes on the ground. Keep shapeshifting power ready in every moment. That was how I'd have to live. The stakes were too high to risk my own end, for the sake of others.


I picked some coconut-like fruit I thought I recognized as very high-energy from a palm tree. "Are these Madu?" I asked.


"Yes. Be sure they're ripe if you want to eat them."


"Not healthy if not ripe?"


Mata Nui turned back, another look of surprise on his face. "Just how young are you?"




"Madu are explosive before they ripen."


I raised my eyebrows, remembering the one time I'd eaten a Madu, after seeing a Matoran do so. More stupid mistakes -- but it struck me how dangerous this giant robot was in so many surprising ways despite being built for a good purpose. "How do you tell?"


"Green is unripe. Matoran call them Madu Cabolo. Your energy absorption power would trigger the explosion. Brown is ripe Madu; absorption is safe, but don't try to eat them like a Rahi eats."



"Don't worry. I always thought that kind of eating was gross."


I almost tossed aside the one I'd picked because it was green, but thought better of it. "Do they explode on impact?"




"Right." I set it down gently, and picked a brown one.



I absorbed the energy, and felt very replenished, but I was still hungry, so I absorbed the energy from three more.


"I wish we didn't have to eat so often," I said.


"Have you not been to the recharging stations at Metru Nui?"


"The what?"


He spared me more surprise this time. "They give Matoran enough energy to last for a year or more."


"Oh! Somehow I missed that. Thanks, I'll definitely look into that."


"You'll want wings now," Mata Nui said after a moment.


We'd reached a vertical hole in the ground, which Mata Nui was apparently still opening with his power. The symbolic stone hovered down into it.


I turned into my usual small bird form to follow.


As we continued along a network of cave tunnels, I suddenly wondered why I had felt no desire to warn Mata Nui of the evil.


Maybe I needed to keep how I knew it secret. But shouldn't I at least drop some kind of hint that I suspected Teridax would go wrong and somehow take over Mata Nui's giant body?


It was very possible he'd kill Mata Nui to do it.


I tried to say something, but it was as if my lips were glued shut. The words would not form.


Now we entered a large cavern. I beheld a massive wall filled with green-glowing circles, arranged honeycomb fashion, at the other side.



We came closer, and I made out the texture of the substance. It reminded me of algae, but it was clearly solid.




I could faintly see round shapes inside. "What is this?"


"A nest," Mata Nui said. "And what is inside will clean away the island."


"I guess I'd imagined you'd just blast it away."


"That would be rather risky," Mata Nui laughed. "And now, stand back. I will send the sonic signal to awaken the swarms. Don't worry -- as long as you do not threaten them, they will ignore you."


One of the circles glowed brighter green. I began backing away.


Suddenly it burst, and something round but textured with sharp lines -- it was a being that was folded up, colored red -- burst out into the air like a projectile from a launcher.




I jogged back farther.


The beast landed with a metallic clank.


More explosive sounds rang out as the other circular lids blasted open and more of them rained out.


After they landed, circles on the right and left sides folded out, revealing themselves to be handheld shields at the end of stubby arms. Even stubbier legs folded down, planting feet solidly. The things stood up. Some stretched out a neck connecting the hemispherical head to the rest. I couldn't make out much of the detail in the greenish particulate that now fogged the air, but they had blue eyes in a V-formation, and apparently had teeth.


I immediately recognized the basic shape once they had unfolded. They looked a lot like Baterra. Perhaps Baterra had been prototypes of these. But I was pretty sure these couldn't shapeshift.




"What are they?"


"They're called Bohrok. They are robots, except their brains are biological creatures similar to Kraata that control them. The ones you're seeing here have the elemental power of Fire."


"There are others?"


"Six total types. Four of the others also have normal elemental powers, but the green ones have the power of acid. Come, I'll show you."


We both flew ahead of the swarm, back out to the surface.


I turned back to my normal form and stood at the edge, looking down. The whole swarm from that nest was climbing up the walls.


I noticed that there were smaller creatures climbing along with them.




"What are those?" I pointed, as one of them and a Bohrok climbed out.


"Those are Bohrok Va -- the Helpers of the Bohrok. They carry extra brains, if the Bohrok need them."




"Extra brains?!"


"The Bohrok themselves have their own robotic processing, but the organic brain-creatures, called Krana, aid their thinking. And they come in different types with different powers, similar to mask powers. A Bohrok can swap brains to gain a different extra power just as a Toa can swap masks."


"I see." I didn't mention how disturbing I found this.


"The Krana can also attach to other beings' faces and control their minds, making them part of the swarms. If you hadn't scared those aliens away that's what would have happened to them. Obviously, a measure of last resort, so I was glad to see you making it unnecessary."


Mata Nui continued toward a thicker part of jungle.


I glanced back as I entered the trees, to see the whole swarm bursting out of the hole en masse.




Now, I'd had many opportunities recently to think of myself as naïve, but this was not one. I was certain something was going to go wrong with these things in the future, if not right now. I couldn't really recall anything specific from my visions, nor was I even sure if my intuition was telling me this, but it just made sense. I'd seen so much else going wrong, why not this too?


Well, I've got to try to correct all these errors.


The giant robot was a delicate system. While I'd seen no hint of any problems with the repair robot systems, so much else depended on the countless freewilled individuals that made up the society of maintenance workers. If too many of them went like Karzahni, it was inevitable that the whole system could collapse.


Or, I reminded myself, just destabilize long enough for Teridax to seize power.


I heard noises up ahead.


Wait... Where was the Mata Nui stone? I'd lost sight of it.


Suddenly a plant ahead of me moved, and I realized it was no plant but the headshield of an Acid Bohrok. There were others behind it. They pointed their shields forward, and released the acid in a wide spray.






I yelped and ran back out of danger.


"There you are!" Mata Nui said, floating out from behind some thick bushes.


"Why didn't you warn me they spray like that?"


"I did. You must have fallen behind, out of earshot. My apologies. I was watching ahead to find them."


I sighed, and shapeshifted into a bird to fly faster and make sure I didn't lose sight of him this time.


"The acid is one of the most important parts of clearing the island. The others help loosen things up as well. The acid works best on the trees and their roots."


Indeed, trees were falling all around me, and some of the robots were elementally controlling the acid to seep down into the roots.


"The ones up ahead loosen up the packed earth."


A black Bohrok appeared through the plants, and more behind it. They were running -- right at me, smashing down trees as they came.




I flew higher, narrowly missing their heads.




We continued on, leaving the jungle and entering some of the steep rocky areas.


Mata Nui showed me a swarm of Stone Bohrok climbing a mountainside, causing avalanches behind them.




"They loosen the thicker mountains and also cut lines throughout the bedrock."


We flew over the big lake to the northeast. The water seemed to be churning.


"Water type?"


"Yes. They're underwater at the moment, so we'll dive in to see them," Mata Nui said. "Notice first that they are creating much water."


Some pebbles flew up into the air, and formed the rough shape of a hand -- which he used to point to the shore, where other types of Bohrok were pushing plant matter and loose earth into the water. Then he pointed to a river that flowed from the lake out to the ocean.



"The extra water creates a stronger current in the river, sending this waste material away. Others are doing the same thing at the oceanfront. Follow me!"


He dove in.


Okay... I dove in after him, and saw the blue Bohrok swimming around to fight the current of their own making and to stir up the matter lest it settle onto the lake-bed. I stayed liquid, worrying a random splintered tree trunk might impale me. Something occurred to me then about what was going on, but I wasn't sure enough to focus on it much.




We left the water and began the final leg of our trek on the island.


Mata Nui explained that he would now show me the sensor device he was using to map the planet's rotation with respect to the stars at night, and the sun's apparent path across the sky during the day.


All this walking had tired me out, so I found another ripe Madu to eat. I realized suddenly I'd been so engrossed in all this I'd forgotten to restock my backpack.


Wasn't really sure I wanted explosive fruit in my backpack, but the ripe ones shouldn't explode except on a fast impact -- I asked specifically to make sure. Mata Nui assured me it was safe.


We passed out into a clearing, and I beheld a huge stone structure, something like a flattened dome with four big spikes sticking straight up out of it.




"Doesn't look like a sensor to me," I commented.


"A disguise. The sensors are inside the spires. It's called the Kini-Nui."


The term meant Great Temple, but carried a different connotation than the name of the Great Temple off Ga-Metru's shore -- an open-air structure versus an enclosed building.



"It also has sensors to help me see what's happening on this island, and can deploy cloaked probes to spy across the planet. Those are on their way back now."


Mata Nui pointed the pebble-hand again, this time at a smaller stone circle in the ground near the Kini-Nui. A white Bohrok stood atop this. It seemed to be sniffing the rock, as if to make sure it was really part of the temple devices and thus should not be cleaned away.


"That's where the probes come out," Mata Nui said. "And that's the Ice kind on it."




"How does it know not to destroy this place?" As I spoke, I noticed a large swarm moving through the trees in all directions, knocking them down, and getting closer. My suspicion came back more clearly this time. Was Mata Nui testing me?


"The swarms are all coordinated by two intelligent beings called the Bahrag Queens," Mata Nui said. "They understand everything there is to know about the island. I'm going to point you on the way to see them as you return through a tunnel system you should be aware of. Might come in handy someday."


I tried to keep acting normal. "It goes down to the Matoran Universe?" I asked.


"To the Metru Nui dome, on the outside. They call the wall there the Great Barrier. You can fly over the water from there to the city. Don't worry, I've told the Bahrag to allow a small bird matching your current form to pass."


"You're not going to follow me the whole way, I take it."


"I must prepare to leave the planet. I've only had the time to speak so long with you because my sensors have been compiling all the data. I will need to spend much time analyzing it all now."


Once again I tried to warn him about the future. But I just wasn't sure it was right. Maybe my vision had somehow told my intuition that it would be worse for Mata Nui to know what might come. Maybe some even greater catastrophe would befall him if I told him.


"You may bring this stone with you," Mata Nui said. "I made it smaller than the others so you could store it in your backpack without taking up too much space. I'll use it to speak to you later. I find it's easier to have a conversation when you have something to see."


"I agree."


"I've told Toa Helryx to meet you in the Great Temple of Ga-Metru."




"The first Toa. Of Water. She has been appointed in charge of the Order of Mata Nui. They perform special services for me, much like you, but I have told her not to ask you to be a member. I would like you to be free to travel where and when you feel it's necessary to view major events, but I have commanded her to inform you if she suspects something is about to happen."


"Thanks! I will owe you greatly for this."


"Actually, I was thinking. You will be a better observer if you can write down what you know. I've decided to give you just enough access to the controls that you can record your observations into my database directly."


I didn't dare beg him for more access -- although I had cheated death and gotten away from actual enemies, I was in more danger here than ever before, if he didn't trust me. "That makes sense. Although... like I said, I have some secrets..."


"I don't ask that you tell me your whole history. Use your judgment. But I must ask... did you... exist before the others?"


I didn't answer for a moment. I frowned slightly. Was it okay to tell him this? I could imply I was perhaps an early prototype for Takua. I decided I had to take a leap of faith sometime if I was going to start trusting Mata Nui.


"I existed long before even you," I whispered.


The familiar surprise moved over the carved features. "How is that possible? Did you witness the Core War?"


"I did. I was there at the incident that started it."


Mata Nui frowned for a moment.


"A masked Agori... named... Koronga?"


I smiled, though I was distracted by all the trees lining the Kini-Nui's actual clearing falling at once. "Yes." I thought for a moment, forcing myself to focus, as the largest swarm I'd seen yet, of all six types, moved in. "I... I wonder if it's safe for me to keep using that name?"


"Did you ever reveal it to the Makuta?" Mata Nui asked as if the Bohrok weren't there.


"No. I... did use it with Takua and the other Av-Matoran with him. And the Toa Mata." I tried to see out of the corner of my eye whether the Bohrok were facing me or going about their business.


"You are full of surprises. I will contact the Av-Matoran personally and make sure they keep your secret."


And could you lock Teridax away forever?


For a moment I thought I'd spoken that out loud, but Mata Nui gave no sign that he could hear the thought.


"Now, I have created a stone tablet map to lead you the rest of the way." I saw it hovering toward me from the jungle. I turned back to my normal form to collect it. "It will lead you past a collection of extra Krana, and the Bahrag themselves. Begin by going up to the center of the Kini-Nui, and follow the instructions written at the top of the tablet."


Finally, he acknowledged the swarms all around us. “I have a confession to make, Koronga. I have been testing you this whole time. Judging your reactions to all of this according to a psychology system the Great Beings gave me.”


I grinned. “I knew it!” The one thing Mata Nui must have been programmed to be suspicious about would be anybody trying to enter from this island. I only hoped he would use that kind of caution in other things. “Have I passed?”


“What would you do, if I were to tell you no?”


Now I allowed myself to look around at the Bohrok. They weren't watching me -- they were dealing with the roots of the trees, and burning up the fallen logs and so forth. But I knew Mata Nui could disable my powers in an instant and warn the Queens of the swarm in another instant. All those Krana would launch at me. There would be no hope.


I sighed deep and long. Is this what was actually coming?


No memory of this came to me from my vision. No feeling as to what I should say or do. Only a deep knowledge that I was supposed to trust the Great Spirit. I was on his side. I must be -- no matter what happened. And I could not believe that destiny would put me through all this just to fail here. Not forever.


I made up my mind, and looked back to the stone -- right at the eye indentations. “I would surrender myself willingly, trusting that someday, somehow, I would be freed again. Perhaps you would come to trust me from searching my mind. Perhaps the Krana would simply fall off someday on accident. I would not fight. I would not try to dodge.”


The stone's eyes blinked.


“If that is what you are telling me,” I added, my voice returning to a whisper, “then command just one Bohrok to open its forehead. I would put the Krana on my face myself.”


He did not answer.


Then he smiled. “Then do so, Koronga.” The pebbles pointed at one Bohrok, which turned and faced me.


I closed my eyes, a chill going down my spine. What had I done wrong?


Had I been lying? I'd honestly felt like it was the truth. Maybe... maybe I had been lying to myself. Could I salvage this situation? Could I sneak into the jungle? But then what? I knew of only one way down, and this entire island would be destroyed. Swimming out into the ocean would only get me left behind on this alien planet, and probably killed by sea creatures before I ever reached that continent.


“Yes, sir,” I muttered sadly, and turned to do it. It did occur to me he could still be testing me. I had to hope that...


I reached the Bohrok, and its headplate opened.


My hand reached forward. My mind scrambled to think of any other way. But I forced myself not to stop, not even to glance doubtfully at the hovering stone. So this is what trust feels like...


I pulled my mask off, and put the Krana on, grimacing at the feel of the brain on my face.


But in place of the thoughts of the brain creature overriding my own, there was only silence. Now I let myself look hopefully to the stone.


Its face was smiling in deep contentment. “You have passed the test.”


I reached up and pulled the Krana off.


It was a bunch of leaves matted together and molded into the shape of a Krana! The Bohrok in front of me was carved of wood -- carved, no doubt, by Mata Nui's great power. The rest of the swarms were real, and continued to ignore us.


I felt the happiest I had ever felt, perhaps more than when I'd found myself still living after my death -- I cried aloud in joy, like I had wanted to do then. “Thank you, sir!”


“You will go on to write your story,” Mata Nui said, still beaming in obvious pride for me. Then, and only then, did I realize that I really did trust him. Now I knew. The Great Spirit really was somebody worth fighting for.


All I could do was keep on thanking him, as we moved back to the Kini-Nui. In hindsight, I wish I would have thought to at least beg him to use this testing system even in situations where he hadn't been programmed to do so. But I was too overwhelmed with emotion to think of it.


Now the stone lowered, onto my outstretched hand, and dropped the pebbles. With his parting words, he said, "There is a term for what you will be writing, in an ancient Agori dialect."


I thought I knew what he meant. "Bionicle? A chronicle of life."


"Yes. You will be the Chronicler of the life of your people."







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Chapter 23 -- The Taste of Lies




After putting the Mata Nui stone in my backpack, I climbed the stairs to the center of the Kini-Nui.


Here there lay a dome-like object, more massive than me but slightly shorter.




I recognized the term for this. It was a Suva -- a teleportation shrine. It could not teleport me or other beings, but it did work for certain important objects, especially Kanohi masks. Toa could switch masks with others stored on magnetic slots here, by mental command -- theoretically from almost anywhere.


I wondered if this one was here as part of a contingency plan in case of aliens finding the island. If I hadn't come, would Mata Nui have first sent a Toa up here, with extra masks, to deal with the problem stealthily, before resorting to Krana? I hadn't thought to ask, so I made a mental note to ask next time I contacted him, if I could remember.


In any case, the tablet said that the Suva also concealed the entrance to the tunnels that would lead down to Metru Nui's dome. I was just glad to have finally earned the right to get back into the Matoran Universe and know that this time I entered with its master's approval. The other details could be investigated later.


Following the instructions, I pressed the northmost slot. It gave a little. Then the westmost. Then the one closest to the southwest.


The Suva slid aside, the sound of stone sliding across stone ringing out. There was the hole, with a spiral staircase. I went down inside, and pressed a button in the cave wall.


The Suva slid back into place, casting me into pitch blackness.


I set down the sword and the tablet, and opened my backpack. Light shone out from the lightstone. I was grateful the Kestora had recreated it too, but I thought that seemed odd considering the fuss the strict one had made about waste. Of course, he hadn't been there when I was revived.


I pulled the lightstone out. But now I had a problem. I had three objects to carry; the lightstone, the tablet, and the sword. I'd made no scabbard for it.


So I pulled one of my old ones out and set it down, ready to leave it behind. But the new one was too large to fit in that sheath, so I put the old one back.


I briefly considered trying to store it in my backpack, but I remembered the Madu. When Mata Nui said they were safe, I was pretty sure he hadn't meant while in contact with a sharp blade and being jostled around as I walked.


Shapeshifting could easily solve this of course, but I was worried there might be a power limitation. That Kestora hadn't said any such thing, but he was far too scatterbrained to trust. And I hadn't thought to ask the computer. Besides, Matoran form was most convenient to read the tablet otherwise, and I didn't want to walk around with three arms.


Finally I settled for holding the lightstone and the sword with different fingers of my right hand, and the tablet with my left.


The map was not to scale or accurate in shape at all. Instead it showed forks on a wavy line ending in an arrow indicating direction of travel to the right. I could tell which way to go by which fork continued to others. A brief note said that the forks shown on the top were to my left.


I had to stop occasionally to let my fingers rest.


But soon I found a cavern with a single small opening near the top.


A circular depression near me was filled with Krana brains. If one Krana was disgusting, just try to imagine standing on a ledge over a whole 'sea' of them.




Farther out, some Bohrok had apparently come here for repairs. Their Krana were taken by out by Va, who rebuilt damaged parts of the robots, then put the brains back in.




I noticed they were opening the headcases by tapping the eyes.


Much farther back, shrouded in darkness, I saw what appeared to be pools of some sort of substance.


The tablet mentioned, as I'd noticed already, that it was in those pools that Krana were made -- and that it was here that the Zyglak accidentally formed as well. They were not made like Matoran, but grew spontaneously, from a coding glitch in some of the protodermis.


The Va used to have the vaporizing spears of the Zyglak, the tablet added, stored in a connected chamber. They were a truly final resort in case of an incursion by a superior alien army.


But the Zyglak found that chamber while trying to escape before they spotted the exit, where I was standing now. They stole the weapons and killed several Va before they found the way out, and wandered down through the tunnels.


I gathered, though there wasn't space on the tablet to say so, that from there they must have swam around in the Silver Sea until they ended up on the northern continent. Or perhaps they wandered all over?


I continued along the route.


Now, the next big problem I might face, which the reader might be expecting, had already occurred to me. But my plans to prevent it failed.


I'd seen light ahead, corresponding with a dot marked, "Bahrag's lair." Mata Nui had only told them to let a small bird pass. Not a Matoran carrying a map, a lightstone, and a sword.


But it was dark out here, and I also had no idea where to fly once I entered that cavern. I put the light and the tablet in my backpack and walked forward in the dim light from the chamber ahead, hoping to catch a glimpse of the other exit before I entered.


I naturally assumed the only source of light, in the Bahrag's lair, would be where the Bahrag actually were.


But I forgot that I'd spotted that light before crossing the next fork in the tunnels. This one split three ways, but they angled toward the way I was coming from, so the other two were hard to spot as you approach.


So here I was, tiptoeing up to their lair, carrying just a sword, plus two other swords hanging at my belt.


I knew I'd made a huge blunder before it happened, because I heard noises from behind me. I didn't understand yet about the fork -- I was still expecting to spot it ahead, and in the dim light, I missed that I'd already passed it.


Suddenly light flared behind me.


I whirled.


To my right, a red dragon, tyrannosaurian like my old Rock Steed but with short legs and a too-long neck. To the right, her blue twin. Both had viperlike heads brimming with razor teeth.


They were creating orbs of bright orange flames between their tiny arms. They marched forward, cutting off the middle road back and blocking the other two.



Now I heard more noises behind me -- Bohrok, I assumed.


Suspicion seemed to drip from the queens' narrowed eyes.


I was standing in a defensive posture out of pure reflex of my training with Tahu, holding the sword up as if in challenge, as I'd done with Mata Nui.


Cautiously I lowered the sword. "I'm the one Mata Nui told you would come," I said.


I shapeshifted into the bird to prove it.


Their reaction wasn't at all what I'd hoped. They screeched like dying gravel hawks, and let loose the bolts of flame.


I flew up just to dodge them.


But suddenly I was in darkness. No flames, no light at all.


And I collided with a stone wall.




Fell to the ground, only now turning liquid, back to my true form.


Then I heard thoughts in my mind that were not my own. "Imposter! Do you think us dumb beasts, to see you take the form of the bird before our eyes, and then forget that you are NOT the bird? Do you think you can escape us by your trickery?"


Apparently Mata Nui had been as unclear to them about me as to me about them.


"I was only dodging the flames. And I meant no trickery -- Mata Nui meant you to let me pass. He was in a hurry; he must have forgot to explain I was a shapeshifter. I was in bird form at the time, but he knows what I am."


"You do not belong, so you shall be contained until we figure out how to join you to the swarm."


I guess that's a no to the Toa contingency plan...


Out loud, though unsure whether they could hear my thoughts or not, I said, "But an imposter couldn't know what I know."


I stood up and pulled out the lightstone, glad to see it intact. I had felt the impact badly as a bird, and I was still reeling from it, but my actual form was uninjured.


I saw that I was trapped in a small cube made entirely of stone. I hadn't seen any glow from elemental energy, but here it was. The Bahrag apparently had all the powers of the Bohrok, but this was beyond even a Toa.


"You cannot confuse us with verbose lies. We know your mind, and you are a liar at heart."


I felt like I'd been stabbed. "No! I hate lying!"


"And yet we can tell that you have done it often. The guilt of it pours from you."


"It's true I've had to lie sometimes, and keep important secrets, but only when I had no choice, and I've never liked it!"


"The imposter admits he is a liar," one of the Bahrag apparently said to the other -- I wasn't sure which.


I was beginning to think they'd described themselves perfectly -- dumb beasts. Mata Nui had probably just told them to look for a bird because that was all they could understand.


If being honest wasn't working, then this must be one of those situations where I had no choice.


"If you don't let me pass," I said, "real invaders may come down." It wasn't completely a lie. More of those seeds were apparently floating throughout the seas, looking for more new lands to claim. Another could come at any moment, and they'd apparently have no knowledge of what had happened with the other.


"We sense the lie as you make it."


Then how do you not sense the truth? I thought.


Maybe I should give them more truth to help them sense the difference. So I began telling them of everything I'd seen of the aliens, telling them specifically where to look for the remainders. If the evidence was already destroyed, ask the Bohrok, or Krana, that had seen it as they destroyed it. I could prove this story.


As I talked, I turned one hand liquid and tried to feel for the slightest hole in the stone.


I also asked the teleportation power if it would work, but to my dismay, I sensed that somehow this stone cage was blocking the power. It was as if I had failed Mata Nui's test after all, but without his knowledge.


And I was finding no hint of any deformity in the stone at all. Every corner and every inch of the rest was perfect. Even the floor was the same -- it wasn't the same kind of stone I'd been standing on earlier.


My voice started to falter. I stopped the story and asked, worry making my voice wobble a little, "Uh, how long will I be trapped here? I need to breathe!"


No answer.




Still nothing. I heard no sounds.


They must have walked away and left me here. I've been talking to the walls.


I turned fully liquid and tried to push hard against the stone. Same results.




Utter silence.


I remembered what the tablet had said about the spears. A final resort. I'd seen firsthand what those did. This was tame by comparison, though I didn't savor the idea of gasping my last breaths in air I myself had poisoned by virtue of living.


The Bahrag must be terrified to have seen me turn into a liquid like that. From their perspective, what choice did they have? Contamination must be prevented.


I shouldn't have told them I was 'a shapeshifter,' I suddenly realized. That had been a lie mixed with the truth. I was just a Matoran. I'd told that half-lie to Mata Nui himself, although he might have understood that I didn't mean it literally, depending on how detailed Teridax's report had been.


Maybe they're right about me.


Wasn't I trying to meet up with Toa Helryx to fake my own 'birth'? I was willingly choosing to take on a life that was a lie.


But there had been real practical reasons I'd been in bird form earlier. Mata Nui hadn't given me the chance to suggest a better wording for his message to the Bahrag. He told me about what he'd said to them after the fact.


I had one idea to get out of this. The ripe Madu.


But what would that do to me, even in liquid form, in such a confined space?


Well, I already knew.


It would superheat the air, because my innate physics knowledge told me it was heat that made air expand in an explosion anyways. I might burn to death depending on how powerful it was. And even if I didn't, if it wasn't powerful enough to break the trap open, the heat would slowly dissipate through the stone until the air inside went back down to normal temperature and pressure. I could be cooked over time instead of right away, and what about the pressure problem? Could shapeshifting counter that?


I had the power of Shielding. That might keep out the higher air pressure, but the heat?


Really, I doubted ripe Madu had the power to either kill me or do anything to the stone. Unripe Madu Cabolo might blast the stone open, but I seriously doubted my power would block that kind of heat.


I set down the lightstone and my powered sword, and drew the Spherus Magna swords instead.


Swung back, and hit the stone with all my might.


The tips of both swords chipped. Fragments flew. One bounced off my armor. The other bounced off the wall behind me and then again off the wall I'd struck.


I dropped them and picked up the crystal again, holding the light close to the wall so any crack would show a more obvious shadow.


Smoother than ice.


I felt it with my fingers to confirm it.


The Madu would be useless.


This isn't normal stone.


It wasn't protosteel. I saw flecks and tiny pits that made it look like your average tough but breakable stone, as if normal weathering such as groundwater had affected it. Of course, the Bahrag could have just made the inner surface that way. But why?


And why didn't I seem to feel those flecks and pits?


I tried again. Feeling for a Matoran is not like an Agori's natural state. Agori have skin on their fingers, and merely cover it with armor. Our fingers were metal with muscles attached in certain gaps inside, and sensory devices just under a thin armor layer. We can't feel fine texture directly; the armor is smooth. But I would still expect to sense a slight give and push effect as I slid my fingers over the larger of the flecks.


No such luck.


Could the texture be an illusion?


That makes no sense. Why would they bother? Besides, I'd just experience just such an illusion, apparently, with that wooden Bohrok. I hadn't noticed the real texture of it or the Krana until the test finished. What were the chances the same thing could happen to me twice in a row?


And yet, it seemed to be the only explanation.


So, my running theory was that this was a cage made out of something other than stone -- perhaps protosteel. Not a power of the Bohrok. I supposed the illusion did make sense if you considered that fact. It would have to have hinges and spring upon me. I couldn't imagine from where; I'd seen nothing like that... Unless of course it had already been hidden with illusion, perhaps in the ceiling.


So this illusion was to make me think there was no way to release it at all from the inside.


Implying there must be, or why bother?


I knew I'd seen visions from my own eyes in the future. I couldn't die now... IF those were visions of what would be instead of what could be.


If I died, most of the Kestora might revive me by now, since they were so scatterbrained. But then, my disobedience was still very recent and they started reading at the end. No, no, I couldn't resign myself to just die! Think....


The vision... it had failed me often lately, but maybe that was because I was approaching it wrong. I was worried about whether I could change what I saw. But now I realized it didn't really matter if they must happen. So far everything had matched up so perfectly, the sensation of déjà vu was something I took for granted, even if sometimes it only came in hindsight. A perfect constant.


So even if I could deviate from the visions here -- and I had to believe I could, or I wouldn't be able to stop Teridax -- that meant the visions I'd seen included images of me escaping.


I only had to remember them... The problem was every time I found myself in a desperate situation like this, the added adrenaline just made that dim memory even harder to access. Even now, my breathing quickened, and I tensed up, worrying about the depleting oxygen. I needed to be calm to remember what to do. I could force myself to relax when a way out was obvious, from years of experience in my old life, but now?


If only my Mask of Conjuring was real!


What other resources did I have? I'd already proven that if there was a catch, it wasn't of the sort you could feel, nor a pressure release. I'd applied pressure everywhere. What else was there?


Magnetism, but if it was protosteel, that was unlikely. Something to try if I could think of nothing else, but I couldn't waste time on longshots...


A chemical release? Maybe something in the Madu might react with something? It was potent stuff.


But how could I determine that? I had a pretty extensive knowledge of chemistry, but that was with real matter. I didn't think anything in the protodermis guide would help...




Protodermis imitated the physics of normal matter. Never mind the how -- I remembered something about a matter belt -- it should still react the same way.


I sighed. It didn't matter. I had no way to detect a different chemical...


Suddenly I dropped the lightstone in surprise. Could it be that simple?


I did have a way.


The sense of taste.


Not from my mouth -- from my energy absorption power. It wasn't the same kind of sense as Agori's tongues, but I could get an idea of the taste of things.


I held up my hands and waved them over the wall in front of me. First I had to get the 'taste' of protosteel.


Okay, apparently it had no taste.


That seemed odd. I'd eaten meat sometimes that had the metallic bones still in it on Spherus Magna, especially while I was on the run. Metal had a taste. It was sometimes faint and very strange, but there.


Without really thinking, I held my hand out to my protodermic sword and 'tasted' it too.


Tasted like metal.


Steel wasn't necessarily pure metal, of course. The steel I knew of was an alloy of iron, carbon, and some other things. Carbon wasn't metal, but it had a taste of its own.


Maybe I'm going about this all wrong.


What if... what if the stone... did not exist?


Maybe the whole thing was an illusion this time. Maybe I was only imagining that I couldn't get through.


Had my swords really chipped?


I picked one up and stared at the end. There was the little gap. I tried to touch the surface of the break...


But my finger wouldn't quite reach it.




Maybe a trick of the mind could make my arm stop itself short midair, but it couldn't make my finger pass through real metal. I felt no pressure -- I was glad my fingers didn't have skin, or I would be cutting my fingertip without being able to feel it.


Actually, now I realized I did feel the pressure, had all along, but I'd been lying to myself. I was so convinced what I saw was real that my brain generated all the sensations needed to drown out the real ones. But it could not actually supplant them.


No, not lying to myself, exactly. I believed the lie they put in my mind.


I guess it takes a liar to know a liar.


Now that I thought of it, it made sense Mata Nui would think of using an illusion in my test earlier -- he could have looked to this very power for inspiration! I sheathed my old swords and picked up my other things. Shapeshifted into the bird.


Walked up the wall.


Put my beak to it.


I felt nothing but air.


I slipped through.


Flew through the lair over the heads of the Bahrag, and the other beings around them, which I saw were actually Va.




They shot out elemental powers after me, but I circled and zigzagged long enough to spot the other exit and zipped out, laughing with delight as I went.


I was free!


Now I shapeshifted into the three-armed form I'd rejected earlier, knowing they would chase me, or send others. I followed the rest of the map quickly at a run. The sounds of pursuit followed me for a time, and I remained somewhat liquid just in case, but they faded far away.


So now I go to start my new life -- my new lie.


But I would make sure that from now on I wouldn't be so cavalier about deception. I had let myself fall into a trap of thinking that if I must do it sometimes, that made it right to lie whenever I wanted. No, I had a duty to avoid it except as an absolute last resort.


Maybe, just maybe, I could find a way to never lie at all.







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Chapter 24 -- The Great City




Before meeting up with Toa Helryx, I headed to the control room. Besides the need to familiarize myself with it better, I wanted to get to the orbs, just in case the sword did have a power limit.


I couldn't be spawned with the sword, but I wanted people to know I had it -- though I didn't want them to know of its shapeshifting or teleporting powers -- so I could keep it on me always. So I'd have to get her to come up with a way for me to buy it. A traveling merchant would work, though that would require her to leave and come in again on a boat. I guessed she probably swam some distance to Metru Nui so the Matoran would see no boat, but would have used a boat to get close. Even for a Toa of Water, the seas were a dangerous place to spend too much time in.


That meant I'd want the orbs for backup if I needed to shapeshift due to some unforeseen emergency.


Plus I hoped to see footage of Mata Nui standing up, which I knew he must do soon.


I entered the control room just as one screen showed Mata Nui's head breaking out from underneath the remaining bedrock of the camouflage island. Apparently the feed was being redirected from the Red Star, maybe as an automatic monitoring protocol, maybe for my sake.




As the Great Spirit stood up, more chunks of rock rained down into the ocean. Some waves resulted, but were dampened farther out. Massive amounts of seaweed stuck to him.



He stood, and then took off, flying up toward the Red Star to attach it to his back. But really I was seeing myself, and everyone living around me, flying up to the remote camera.



Water returned to its original place behind him with a blue glow, which quickly faded.


The feed stopped shortly after he disappeared with the invisibility power, at a certain altitude.


I had a lot on my mind, having experienced so much in such a short span of time, that I decided to jot some notes into the computer to make sure I wouldn't forget.


After retrieving the extra orbs, I left for the Great Temple, again in the form of a bird, but this time matching an actual Rahi I'd seen flying around the city.




I imitated the behavior of the real birds since there were so many Matoran around as witnesses -- I would head for a tree, chirp a little, hop from twig to twig, looking like I was searching for food, seem to rest for a while and casually survey my surroundings, then flit to the next tree. Often I flew in formation with the same species of bird who happened to be heading my way.


Finally I reached the entrance to a long bridge that led across the water to the building itself.


It was fronted by an ornate wall, with two large torches of a design I'd noticed in several places throughout the universe -- a wide flattish bowl that held the flames, under a curved cone with a twisting design on it, supported by four simple half-arch strips. Similar designs marked various points of the wall.




I perched on the wall for a while, doing my best to look uninterested, and then flitted down by the water as if to look for some sort of easy catch. 'Seeing nothing,' I flew out diagonally from the bridge, now being pretty sure nobody was watching, and higher up to disappear in the blue of the sky illusion.


Then I turned back down and flew to the top of the temple, on the back where nobody could see me.



From here I found a window and shapeshifted to seem to be just part of the stone sill, moving in to look for the Toa of Water.




I couldn't see anyone. Maybe she wasn't here yet.


But it was a big place and it had many rooms. There were some Matoran in here at the moment. She probably didn't want to be seen.


I was about to move in to try to explore some of the side rooms on the ground level when I heard a low cough.


It came from outside, not inside.


The 'window' I was looking in through was the start of a narrow stone bridge that led between the main building and the top of a narrow tower -- one of four surrounding the Temple itself. I saw a tall form standing in the shadow of the room at the other end of the bridge, appearing as very dark blue in the low light.


She must have seen me land and change shape.


I turned back into the bird and flew into the building. Then became myself.


She stayed in the dark, so I couldn't see her mask clearly, but I was pretty sure this was the same blue Toa I'd seen help the Great Beings get down into Karda Nui. She didn't have that strange staff, but the design of her armor was identical.


"I'm Koronga," I said.


"Helryx. I've been ordered to tell you much of the past, and of the Order, yet not to recruit you." She didn't sound happy about it.


"Don't misunderstand," I said. "I'm willing to help if I'm really needed. I just have to preserve a cover identity."


"Why, exactly? Mata Nui was very unclear on this."


I thought about it. I had no solid reasons, just a strong gut feeling. She sounded like a no-nonsense person who would accept only clear explanations.


"I have good information," I said, "which I don't think I'm allowed to reveal, that my having a known identity will be important."


"Important how?"


She's not very trusting. Of course, she doesn't know me yet.


I had to resist the urge to tilt my head, because the thought actually brought to mind a very good reason. "I will need to earn the trust of some people."


She sighed. "Very well. It's not for nothing I have a rule against Matoran joining, but if ever there was a reason for an exception... But never mind."


I briefly summed up my plan.


She confirmed what I'd guessed about the boat, but added that the merchant was someone the Order had dealings with already. "But I'll need time to set all this up."


"I understand. How will I know when it's all ready?"


"Meet me here in three months. If it's not ready by then I'll give you further instructions."


She then proceeded to tell me much of what she knew from the early history of the Great Spirit. It seemed she was one of only a handful who understood that the Great Spirit and the Matoran Universe were essentially one and the same. She even knew much of how the Great Beings had constructed the giant robot.


"You know of energized protodermis?" she asked.


I nodded, trying not to show my feelings about it.


"Everything here is made of artificial protodermis, which is a molecule. That is a combination of—"


"I know all about that," I interrupted, to save her time. "I don't know exactly how they made the new protodermis, though."


"I don't know the entire process, but it involved powerful microscopes -- you know what those are?" When I nodded, she continued, "And experimenting to build copies of the parts they could understand."


"Which," I said, "is basically everything except the power augmentors that dot the spherical surface, and the destiny core, right?"


"Exactly." Slight surprise tinted her voice, but nothing like Mata Nui's surprise at my various revelations. Perhaps she already suspected I'd seen the protodermis guide, which mentioned that, and she'd seen it too? But I chose not to ask.


"They also could not access the full coding of the rest of energized protodermis. So they shredded a molecule of it, isolating the destiny core with its intact shell so they wouldn't damage it, built their artificial version of the rest around this, and also isolated its augmentors and added them near the end."


That solved a major mystery I'd struggled with. The destiny programming of both was the same. "Could they influence destiny in the new substance?"


"Yes. They had to or they couldn't have made so much more in the short span of time they did before the Shattering. But they could not read or alter those destinies that were already coded; they could only add to them. After that, they found lakes near the construction site that were rich with most of the minerals they needed, and secretly hired some Agori to mine for the rest. They dumped it all in the lakes and seeded them with the first molecule, with a destiny to construct more around it, and give the same instructions to the new ones, until the resources ran out."


"I see... A chain reaction?"


"Yes. The first destiny after that was the creation of several important staffs with powers over the protodermis. One of them, which was later given to me, could control huge amounts of it to arrange the large pieces of the giant robot on-site. Another can repair non-machine parts of the giant -- this was later given to Artakha. Still another constructed huge towing robots that dragged the pieces to vast scaffolding and put them together. At the end those were recycled into the repair robots, which Mata Nui told me you know of."


I nodded.


"That's when Matoran came in. I assume you were there."


I decided to take a bold leap of faith. "I wasn't. I was made elsewhere, well before all that."


Her eyes widened now in genuine surprise. "A prototype?"


I allowed myself to nod. It wasn't necessarily a lie, but the Great Beings weren't the ones to make me as I hoped she'd assume.


"Fascinating. That would explain how they already had the design for Matoran. That was the power of another staff -- to construct the original Spawners. I was made with a special one at Artakha that makes Toa, after the first Matoran, Takua, was made, then the other Av-Matoran, and then six of the other types, the main elements of this city."


"So you've met Artakha?"


"Indeed. I was a member of the organization called the Hand of Artakha, which was disbanded last year in favor of the Order."


"What was this world like then?"


"Totally dark, except what lightstones had grown in the original raw form of the domes, and the light of the Av-Matoran, who helped foster the crystals' growth. I helped oversee the work in the dark, building the islands as you know them, and even systems that would light up the skies, though the Matoran did not understand this. They saw it as banishing a cloud of shadow."


I wished I could have witnessed that banishing. What would it have felt like to see the sky light up for the first time?


Helryx went on to clarify a few things about later events I'd witnessed and some other important information, most of which is still dangerous knowledge today, so I shall not write of it here. She was very forthcoming about what was known of other lands, although everything was so new, that wasn't much.


But when it came to the Order, she said little, and seemed to tense up, as if daring me to cross some kind of boundary and see where it got me. I decided not to ask much.


At one point I wondered if she knew of any means to shield minds from beings with Psionic power.


"You really are serious about all this, aren't you?" she remarked. "I don't know if it can be done for the rest of us, but Matoran of Psionics have the ability innately. I've got an Agent trying to determine how. I'll let you know if I learn anything useful."


I left first, wondering why she resorted to such secrecy, and returned to the control room. Not being officially a Matoran yet, I could not access the year's worth energy charge station, as records would show the unapproved transfer and might arouse suspicions, so I continued to search for ripe Madu and other edible fruit, stocking up at the control room, making use of the provided shelves and drawers for my food and supplies. There was even a refrigerator.


Over those three months I became quite familiar with that room, and occasionally practiced teleporting there just to make sure I could.


For much of the time I jotted notes about major events down in the computer. I figured I'd have time to come back to them later and expand on them. But they did seem to take the pressure off of my memory and I felt more able to explore some of the rest of my vision and try to piece together the clues from what I managed to recall.


Mata Nui already visited another world after the second month.


He was spending less and less time cataloging the changes within his own universe and instead focused on analyzing the alien worlds and their planets.


What fascinated me most was the study of the geology. There were many megaplanets, and they all had the same reasonable gravity level, even though based on their size and measured substance and density, they should have more mass than most crushing gas giants.


It seemed my suspicion about the energized protodermis being somehow to thank was correct, because sensors in the back of Mata Nui's head detected it in the core of each of the megaplanets.


When he went to normal-sized rock planets, asteroid belts, and gas clouds in uninhabited star systems to ingest material to be converted to energy for his power core, he detected no protodermis.


Something about the protodermis altered the rock of most of the megaplanets' cores so they absorbed any gravity over a certain level, Mata Nui had concluded. What they did with this gravity or how they did it, he had not yet determined.


He would need to study many more to even begin to get a clue about that, or what it would mean for his task.


He was also fascinated by the alien cultures themselves, it seemed, as was I to read along with his conclusions, and read back to the records of his thoughts that I had missed while away. But after a while he got so deeply into it, including hundreds of branches of alternate theories where he had insufficient data, that I got lost in it and decided to stop reading them.


I'd hoped that he would remain an active force in his universe, but it seemed now like his interest in it had been merely to build a catalogue, as the first of the universes he explored, besides his built-in knowledge of Spherus Magna, and to ensure a balance of proper operation was reached. Now that he was confident it was, he paid very little attention to it.


I wasn't worried at the time, because he did check in with me a few times, speaking through the carved stone, which I left on a shelf instead of in my backpack.


We'd agreed to meet in this control room if I had news for him, but I really didn't have anything yet other than my records, which he promised to read from the computer whenever he had time. I never did spot a record of his thoughts turning to them.


In the third month, I spent most of my time exploring the city in various secretive forms.


Once when I returned, I found a soft clay tablet. A message was written on it, signed by Mata Nui. "Checked in, you were out. Decided prior agreement inefficient. Leave messages on this for each other if missed." I added a note that it made sense. Three days later, I found a note from him that he acknowledged the new agreement.


What weighed most heavily on my mind was the issue of Karzahni. I'd made a promise to return and deal with him, but I wasn't sure I really was capable. It occurred to me that somebody had to mess with the physics of his land, since Mata Nui had said he hadn't. Who else but Karzahni could? If he could do that...


Would it be suicide for me to return?


I finally decided that I must try, but that I would put it off until I'd learned enough of the trades to collect many extra powers. This was a powerful titan made directly by the Great Beings, after all. So, I would not go until many years from now.


Something very odd happened the very first time I explored the city.


I'd decided that despite having chosen Ta-Metru to be my home, that didn't mean I couldn't visit the other Metru as I'd originally planned.


So I went first to Ga-Metru, mainly because it was here that protodermis was purified and I was curious to see the start of the process.


Ga-Metru was a beautiful region filled with green trees and blue canals, interwoven with white stone cliffs and tall waterfalls. The buildings were made of gray stone, a silvery rust-proof metal, blue-tinted metals in other places, and glass.



At the coast, there were strange glass-domed buildings with silvery 'root' bars holding them up out of the sea. These and other places took in raw liquid protodermis from the water.



Pipes then sent it to the purifying stations.


I was about to enter one of these, in the form of a tiny beetle, when I saw a Toa that stood out from the crowd. He was colored purple and black. His back was turned to me at the time and I couldn't identify his mask.


I recognized the color scheme as that of either a Toa of Gravity, or a very rare color scheme for Toa of Earth -- much more common in Matoran of Earth than Toa.


Now, there were still many visiting Toa of various elements in those days, and some Matoran, who were helping with the continuing construction of the city. So this sight in and of itself was not odd, but I immediately felt that something was off about this Toa. I couldn't figure out why at the time.


Shrugging the feeling aside, I entered the station and looked around.


It looked like some sort of accident had just happened.


There were several large pools of protowater, with pipes that ran into other pools which had various smaller structures in them that apparently did the purifying. The pipes ran under the floor, it seemed, to specialized stations with glass panes encircling them. I figured these must be testing devices to ensure the protodermis was pure before piping it off to Ta-Metru.


Several of them looked scorched as if from an explosion, and the glass was broken in places.


It looked like it had just happened, because there was only one Matoran here and she was just standing there surveying the damage. I hadn't heard any noises, so it must have happened just before I arrived.



Soon others entered and started helping to catalog the damage and what supplies would be needed to fix it.


Deciding it was probably a freak accident with protodermic chemicals, which the labs studied according to labels I saw on various tanks, I left.


Another major purpose of Ga-Metru was learning and teaching. Knowledge from around the universe was compiled here into vast computer and tablet records. The more knowledgeable a Ga-Matoran became, the more likely she could be chosen for the honorable job of a teacher. Others were students, and would remain so for thousands of years, learning more and more even as their teachers learned more and continued to stay ahead on the tests which they all took.


They then applied all this knowledge in their other jobs, especially the purifying.


I visited one of their classrooms. It reminded me of schools the Agori used to teach their children on Spherus Magna, only here they used computers instead of tablets for the most part.


This particular classroom also had a protodermis purifying machine with its outer covering removed, to demonstrate how it worked. A Matoran was running it now even though the class was off, apparently checking it in preparation for a class, because others were lining up outside.



The pan of protodermis was bubbling. At first I assumed it was boiling, since I felt heat coming from it, but I saw no steam.


Then I remembered a fragment from the protodermis guide that I'd mostly skimmed through. All protodermis had an alternate method of obtaining energy to run its processes -- reaction with oxygen. Living protodermic beings had organic lungs to speed up our reactions with oxygen and help keep us alive, since our 'organic' molecules needed much more power.


It seemed this machine was sending bubbles of air up through the bottom of the pan to provide a similar reaction. I now recalled the guide mentioning that if this was done with pure oxygen, a code in the molecule would register the extremely high oxygen content and use the extra power to align the 'matter belts' to a neutral position that did not imitate any normal-matter physics.


I stayed for the class, and learned several other details. For example, the purified protodermis was lighter than the raw protowater, so floated as a thin layer on the top.


A device reaching just the top skimmed some of this off at a slow rate, and pumped it down to a secondary, smaller pan. From here it entered pipes which would go to a heating center in Ta-Metru.


I still didn't quite get how the protodermis did its part of this job, but now I understood how to do my part, so I could build one in the control room. But I'd have to be careful to avoid an accident like the one I'd just seen the apparent effects of, so I'd build it in the room farthest from the computer, which was a storeroom.


How to get pure oxygen, though? I'd have to study that part of the guide more carefully. For now, it was time to visit the region of heat and fire.


On my way, I saw one of the beetle-shaped buildings off Ga-Metru's coast brilliantly shining from its internal lamps at night.




I followed one of the pipes to the first of the important structures in Ta-Metru, the Great Furnace. This was where the purified liquid protodermis was superheated.


Only Ta-Matoran, with their innate resistance to heat, could work there. I would have to be careful never to be assigned that job -- assuming I wasn't a Ta-Matoran, which I didn't really know. But the heat of it already seemed oppressive to me as I approached, and I decided not to enter. I circled the building, looking for where the protodermis was piped out.


I found it, and followed the pie to a waystation. The interior resembled the lava flows of volcanoes, except it was entirely mechanical. These flows would be directed to the mask-making forges and others that made Tools of power.




Unpurified protodermis of various kinds, especially protometal and protostone, was also sent in pipes from Ga-Metru through the furnace, and similar waystations sent these to factories that made non-power machines.



Some of these, I knew, secretly entered pipes that went under the Silver Sea and up along the great dome, to Mata Nui's face. When he landed on a megaplanet with enough water, and formed the camouflage island, that would supply the fake volcano with 'lava'.


I followed one of these pipes to a mask forge.


Highly skilled Matoran here poured the molten protodermis into molds for masks, and then into other copies of the same molds and back again, cooling them rapidly, until the final thick glowing gel entered the final mold and solidified.



Then they would check for the slightest flaw, and if one was found, they'd ship the broken mask off to be recycled.


The morning sun soon came through a window and I headed out to look for the nearest reclamation facility.




I was admiring the industrial landscape, when I spotted that Toa again.


This time the sheer coincidence of it struck me as suspicious. But once again, I failed to catch a glimpse of the Toa's face, and he disappeared behind a building.


Fearing he was somehow tracking me, I decided not to chase, and I took to using very different forms now.


That was possible because the Makuta had begun to trade valuable work Rahi for supplies and loaned workers for the construction on Destral. There were many more options to imitate now, and I could blend in more easily.


I was so disconcerted by the sighting that I left the Metru immediately, forgetting all about the reclamation facility, and headed to Po-Metru.




This was where parts of more complicated things, which were forged in Ta-Metru, were shipped to be put together properly. Most of the stone region was composed of Assembler's villages.


Here the Po-Matoran first unpackaged the parts and stored them in honeycomb shelves that reminded me of the Bohrok nests, categorized and carefully labeled according to what and how many parts the final machine would need.



They used small robotic walking carts and other robots to help with this work.


Then the workers in the Assembly huts would follow instructions written on tablets to put the pieces together.



There were also many stone carvers in this Metru. It was a hobby of most of the Po-Matoran in fact, judging by the carving stations I saw in most of their homes.


I didn't see the odd Toa here, but I did hear a crashing noise nearby and saw that some small statues and a workbench in one such apartment had been knocked over.




Next I visited Onu-Metru, the region of earth.




The ground here was dotted with vertical holes -- entrances to the many mines and to the Archives.



Towers reached from the surface of the ground to the deeper areas, housing elevators to the Archives and mines inside via elevators.



After taking a look at one of the elevator entrances, I flew down myself instead.



Near the surface, some less interesting objects were stored in massive honeycomb warehouses similar to those in Po-Metru, as well as duplicates of the ones that were on display.



Others were on display in glass cases.


In one room that housed stone sculptures of some of the newer kinds of Rahi, I spotted that Toa again, just leaving. This time, he was hovering while moving forward.


He had to be a Ba-Toa -- of the element of gravity. I knew of two masks that could enable similar effects, and once again I'd missed seeing his mask, but the Mask of Levitation only enabled you to hover, not move forward, and the Mask of Flight required you move forward much faster than he'd been moving. Toa of Gravity were one of the very few types who could fly on their own power easily.


Some of the displays in this room were also damaged. I was now sure of it -- this Toa was causing the damage.




But how could I have so coincidentally have almost run into him this many times?


It seemed he wasn't chasing me, but was trying to damage places just before I got there. This was hardly something a Toa should be doing, so I had to wonder if it really was a Toa. Something still seemed off about the face.


This time I tried to chase the Toa to figure out what he was up to.


But he beat me to a robotic bus, and I didn't want to chase him with other possible witnesses along with him.


I first had a look at one of the lightstone mines, and saw some of the also-glowing lightvine plants in one of the connected tunnels, then I headed to Ko-Metru.






The ice region was dominated by the Knowledge Towers, huge crystals that dwarfed even most of the skyscrapers in the other regions. The cold was a result of the incredible heights the Knowledge Towers reached.




While the Onu-Matoran of the earth region dug into the past, the Ko-Matoran looked forward into the future. They meditated on what might come to pass inside these towers, and even studied the ways Mata Nui arranged the illusions of the stars, which they believed could tell the future.


This obviously interested me greatly. Did Mata Nui actually do such a thing? Did he give ideas of what he had planned through these arrangements?


It was possible, but this wouldn't be literally seeing the future. Yet, what they were doing reminded me a lot of what the protodermis guide said that the destiny cores of all protodermis molecules were constantly doing -- analyzing what was going on and predicting what would happen based on the present.


The destiny cores also guided things toward those major events. I wondered if the star illusions might be a way to get around the impossibility of reading the destiny cores directly. Perhaps I could somehow learn of my destiny and of others' by these means?


I spotted the Ba-Toa again heading for a bus at a travel station inside one of the giant crystals, and this time I abandoned caution and used the bird form to rapidly chase him to Le-Metru, the region of air, and also the central managing area for all vehicles.




I saw the Toa hovering quickly around a building and chased, now switching to the form of a larger flying Rahi with more power, partly because it had four wings -- a Gukko bird.




For a few minutes all I could do was chase like this.


He stayed ahead of me, but finally he lowered to the ground.


I caught a glimpse of his face, then, but I still failed to see his mask, because he was covering it with what looked like a Glatorian helmet!




He looked right at me, and then whirled and zoomed off high in the sky, moving much faster than I could follow.


The helmet had concealed from my view the shape of his Kanohi mask underneath. I'd noticed parts of the helmet had moved as if they were something like leather, not metal, but some Glatorian helmets did that. It was colored gold and red, hardly befitting a Toa of Gravity. If it was meant to make him seem unobtrusive it failed miserably.


More likely he wanted everybody around him to know that he was concealing his identity. But why?


Scared, I ducked behind some trees and turned into a bird I hadn't taken the form of yet -- a Kewa, which was a relative of the Gukko that had only two wings and a hawk-like beak -- and fled back toward my control room.




Not a coincidence.


But what was it?







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Chapter 25 -- Unrest




When I met with Helryx again, she assured me the strange Toa had nothing to do with the Order. I didn't find this very encouraging.


"I do know what the helmet means," she added, though. "It's a sign of a person who is to be left alone. It is considered impolite to look directly at the face of one wearing the Disguise Helmet. It was a custom started soon after the skies were illuminated. Some Matoran who are outcasts from their home islands wear them as well. I haven't heard of a Toa wearing one before."


"Will you look into it? I'm sure he somehow knew I was there."


"I'll be assigning an Agent to keep an eye on you anyways. I'll tell him to chase and detain this Toa if he shows up again."




She gave me the specific details of how to get my sword back, and I handed it over. Now I would have to rely only on my backup shapeshifting orbs, and whatever battery power they had left. I'd checked their charges, and also buried some of the extras and the battery checker outside the control room, just in case I got locked out again.


I went to the Spawner for new Ta-Matoran and entered it.


Helryx had reprogrammed it to run a fake printing if I pressed a special button inside. It moved and flashed all the right lights, drawing a passerby's attention, but I was using shapeshifting to mimic the printing effect.


Finally the lights dimmed and the door opened.


I stepped out, looking around as if I'd never seen Ta-Metru before.


"Hello," the Ta-Matoran nearby said. "Welcome! Come, you must choose the line of work for your apprenticeship, and your name!"


I was directed to a room in a building with a computer library of etymological suggestions for creating a new Matoran name, and a list of available entry-level jobs.


Clicking around with the control buttons, I 'randomly' arrived at my name, Koronga. I entered this into the computer and a camera flashed, entering me as a new citizen of Ta-Metru along with a registry of others. That registry was also checked first to ensure that nobody had already claimed my name.


It turned out that my two desired jobs were not considered entry-level, but there was a system of branching lines in a chart on the wall that explained where I should start working if I wanted those jobs.


To be a crewman on the barges, I would first have to be a Packer, putting objects others had forged into metal crates and helping load these onto robotic walking trucks.


Later I could be a Loader, taking these crates from the trucks onto the barges. Then I could rise from swabbing decks on a barge to being a Crewmen and maybe a Deck Boss, eventually earning the rank of Captain. From there, I could earn various administrative desk jobs I wasn't interested in.


I signed up for a dual apprenticeship as Mata Nui had advised, asking for Packer for the first year. The computer informed me that I would spend a few minutes observing how the work was done and being trained, then I would spend the rest of the year working at the job. After a year's break, I would continue in the job for many more cycles, until I had earned enough seniority to move up through the lines. Training for the higher jobs would take longer, depending on the amount of information required.


It would be slow going, because at the moment nobody was needed for those higher jobs.


There were new jobs opening up in other areas that others would slowly move into, and eventually an opening would trickle down to me. Also, tragically some Matoran died now and then due to accidents or even rarer, crime. These needed replaced. It was considered highly rude to ask for a promotion when none was available, as it could come across as wishing someone would die to open up a spot. Thus, it would be thousands of years before I moved up to where I really wanted to be.


That made me nervous, especially if someone was onto me, but I would soon retrieve my sword. Then I'd feel much safer as I waited.


For my other line of apprenticeship, I signed up to work in a Reclamation facility, being one of several entry jobs that would go the way I wanted, figuring I might as well since I'd forgotten to have a look at one earlier. After enough time there, I would become a Checker, inspecting things sent to the Reclamation Yard to make sure they really did need reclaimed.


From here I could move to the forges. I would have to begin by making non-powered objects out of unpurified protodermis. Quality checking was also an inherent part of this and all higher jobs. Later I could move up to powered tools, and eventually into maskmaking, but this was such a coveted job that the chart itself, and the computer, both warned that virtually nobody ever got that far. That was fine with me -- I was aiming for Toolmaking.


The computer informed me of the location of the apartment that had been assigned to me. I visited it briefly, then left to meet my new boss, eager to get right to work.



I was greeted by an all-red Matoran wearing a Mask of Speed. "Name's Maglya," he said, clanking my fist.




"Koronga," I said. "This is where new Packers start work?"


"Only if you're aiming to work on a barge," Maglya said, a twinkle in his eye. "My barge."


"Oh? I didn't realize you were a Captain."


He shrugged. "One can always dream."


I smiled. "I think I would like to travel. That's why I signed up for this line of work."


"Full apprenticeship?"


"No, dual, with a line toward Toolmaking."


"Half-hearted, that won't do!" Maglya said, but he was chuckling. "Come, I'll show you how we do things."


He showed me the objects coming down a series of conveyor belts, and then a special belt that sent down packing crates, plus a few more of larger sizes, by command with a press of a button.


There were screens in these rooms that said what went in what crate, with an identity scanner. I was to press this, and the next available list of items for a crate would be assigned my name, so nobody would mix up the work. I had my own loading area, but Maglya would supervise me for a while.


My eagerness quickly went down as I realized just how much work this was.


By the end of the day, I felt like I needed a replacement spine.


And the brain-work involved was more than I'd realized, even from my work assembling things in the Great Beings' fortress. The instructions there had been much more intelligible.


Here the labels for what was what were often abbreviated, and usually just referred to the finished product, so even my extensive knowledge of language was not enough, because I knew little about what these things were made of. Maglya instructed me to consult a computer at my workstation to learn the ropes, but occasionally he caught me putting the wrong thing in the wrong crate.


It was even trickier for me because I had to think of what I shouldn't know that I already did and act less skilled than I was.


This continued for several months, but eventually I got the hang of it.


I kept returning to the Great Temple and to the control room. Neither Helryx nor Mata Nui contacted me again except for a tablet I found at the Temple instructing me when and where the visiting weapons merchant was coming in.


I made my way to Ga-Metru right as he arrived, and was first in line.


One or two Ga-Matoran showed up after his arrival was announced, and then a few from other Metru. But I would get the pick of the selection, which of course was essential to the plan.


His boat had come from the neutral weapons-making island to the southeast of Karzahni, east of the Northern Continent, called Xia. It was populated by one of the new species Mata Nui had made, but this was a unique Matoran traveling merchant who had a deal with them.


"One customer aboard at a time!" the Matoran said, appearing at the entrance of his boat after the opening time started, as announced on the screens. He looked to be a Matoran of Plasma, wearing an orange variant of a Mask of Levitation.




He directed me inside and closed the door. "Any weapon here is yours for a very low price!" he said, beaming. "Now, what is your name?"


"Koronga," I said.


He dropped his silly smile. "So it's you. Good. I was worried I'd make no money!"


I gathered he meant he would have closed up shop if someone else had shown up first. Helryx, or some other Agent, must have explained things to him. It seemed he really was the merchant he claimed to be. I wondered how secretive they'd been with him.


"Name's Shonin," he said. "Which one was yours, again?" He walked to the general vicinity of my sword, scratching the back of his head.


I pointed it out, and he handed it to me.


"Free of charge for any friend of the Order," he said. "You... are just a friend, right? Not a member?"


"I'm not a member," I said, slightly surprised he even knew of the name of it. "Why?"


"And you won't be running missions for them?"


"I might. Why?"


"Oh... I just... You see, I'm only in this job because it's all I know. Did Helryx tell you about me?"


I shook my head.


"Oh dear. Well, it's not my place to interfere. How much do you know of the Order?"


"Not much," I said. I was beginning to wonder if he worked for unsavory individuals and might be trying to get information out of me.


"Oh don't worry," he said, waving away my obvious concerns. "I know all there is to know about it, or was until I was fired."


I raised my eyebrows. "I thought there was a rule against Matoran being members."


"That's my fault. I... ah... refused a particular order."


I frowned. "And that means every Matoran can't be a member? I'm not following you."


"It's probably just as well," he said. "Like I said, it's not my place to cast my troubles onto you. You seem... er... normal enough. I'll accept the deal."


I wasn't aware he had a choice. It was my sword, after all. Shrugging, I asked, "What do I owe you for the trouble?"


"Oh, just a favor if I ever need help in the future, Chronicler." He handed the sword over. "And I very likely will. You've heard how things are going out there?"


Once again I had to shake my head. Mata Nui hadn't been paying attention and I hadn't been traveling.


"People are getting snappy. Uneasy. Most of the heavy-duty construction work is all done, and now everything's turning over to maintenance. It's a slower job. I know it's not like that here in the Great City. This is a much more constant operation, but out there, a lot of Matoran are finding themselves with a lot of free time on their hands, and they're not happy about it."


"I would think that would be wonderful."


"Except that we work for our food," he pointed out.




"I've heard rumors that some are turning to piracy. Others on land are forming roaming bands of thieves. And that's just the Matoran. The more powerful new species are becoming even more dangerous in places. And I get the difficult task of having to sell weapons for my employers, who don't care about right and wrong, yet I choose to sell only to those I deem in the right, or for self-defense."


I nodded. "That does sound tricky. I take it some who are in the wrong aren't so happy about that?"




"If I ever find out there's anything I can do to help, I'll try to," I said.


"That's all I can ask. Well, fare well, Koronga, and stay on Helryx's good side!"


With that, he shooed me out the door and continued his salesmanship.


Not long after that, I purchased a scabbard that fit the sword well. Signs of the universe-wide unrest were indeed showing up in the city, which was in a sense to my benefit, because it was becoming less unusual for a Matoran to carry a sword all the time as I did, or some similar self-defense weapon.


Time seemed to zoom along after that.


Just when I was starting to really like the work, the year ended. "Hopefully I won't see you next year," Maglya said, "because I'll already be promoted to Swabber by then!"


He walked off, laughing to himself. I wouldn't have been surprised if the joke came true. He was a hard worker.


I arrived the next day at the Reclamation Yard. It was a big place, composed of three main areas -- the yard itself where items believed to be of too low quality or to be broken were sent, the furnace where they were melted down if the Checkers agreed with the verdict, and machinery that sent the recycled material back into the system.




I asked the nearest Checker where I should report in, and they directed me to an area where the one they called Kalama had last been seen, 'wandering', as they put it.


"Think about what you're asking," a voice suddenly said. "If the leaders found out, there could be major trouble."


I slowed down, and eased into the shadows, reaching into my backpack for the orb.


"No," the same voice said after a pause. "It isn't right."


Another pause. I gathered that he was speaking to someone via some kind of telecommunication device.


"I don't care if you insist," he continued. "I won't have it, and that's final."


There was a light crashing sound, and footsteps.


I shapeshifted into a bit of the wall, and crept around the corner, to see a silhouette of a Matoran against the orange light of the furnace.


He bent down and picked up a Kanohi mask. He fingered it, looking it over. "I know," he said, as if comforting someone who was dying. "It'll all be over soon." He tossed this mask onto the pile. I realized that was the same sound I'd heard a moment ago.


Who was this Matoran talking to?


Suddenly I realized who this was. I'd seen his name in the registry, and his photo. This was my boss. Kalama. He wore a Mask of Telekinesis.



He was indeed wandering, and I could see no communication device. Was he talking to himself?


Now he picked up a hammer, inspecting it by the light of the furnace. "A nick. You can keep on bringing up the same point over and over, but if you were to hit a nail just the wrong way it might go right through you." A pause. "Alright, enough, enough. I hear you. But if the leaders found out I was responsible, where would I be then?"


He tossed the hammer into the pile too and kept going.


I sighed inaudibly. I'd obviously misjudged the situation. He was literally talking to the objects. Was he insane? I'd sensed a hint of that feeling from the others.


I moved back into the shadows and released my power, then stepped out into the light. "Excuse, me, sir."


"Not now," Kalama said, his back turned. "I'll get to each of you in the order I see you. That Mask of Shielding is next. Impatient!"


I coughed. "Sir, I'm reporting for work."


He turned, looking like he was about to deliver some retort to a stubborn factory machine. When he saw me, he blinked a few times, then turned back around and continued his inspections. "Sorry, thought you were the Vocalizer over there. It's been pestering me for weeks."


I glanced around, to see what looked like an electronic speaker. Faint noises were still coming from it, as if its off button wouldn't work. I gathered that it could actually speak Matoran. Where that left his sanity, I wasn't sure. "I... see. Sir."


He pointed to a doorway to his left. "I've gone through everything in that room. Toss it all on the conveyor to the furnace. Make sure you don't toss yourself on it. A Matoran is not like a mask or a chisel. Not so easy to replace, despite the Spawners or whatever rumors you might have heard from faraway lands."


"Right, sir."


This work was ironically similar to Packing, but much easier on the brain. I just had to lift everything in the room and set it on the conveyor. The only tricky part was getting the heavy objects on considering the conveyor was moving. Sometimes something was heavy enough that I had to stop the conveyor and find another Reclaimer to help me lift it, walk onto the belt, and set it down, then get off and start it up again.


That year passed quickly and I returned to the job of Packer. Maglya hadn't left his supervisory job there yet. More years passed, and I was eventually promoted to replace Maglya as he moved on to the job of a Loader. I also became a Checker.


For the latter job, I took advantage of Kalama's strange ways by asking him if I could be promised my own little tradition, of having the room I was to check locked tight. I used my shapeshifting sword to aid in the checking for cracks during these times, turning my hand into liquid so I could feel them.


I quickly gained a reputation for my incredible skill and rose through the ranks quickly, entering the job of Forger for unpowered objects quickly.


Now that I had that reputation, I was able to continue my tradition even for bosses that thought it quite crazy. I moved from the lower-class Forges up to the higher class ones quickly, before even getting the job of Loader on my other vocational track.


When I was promoted to Loader, I got to work on the large robotic trucks that were beginning to be made in those days. They looked something like massive millipedes.



Smaller versions looked more like big beetles. I would load crates on these and ride with them to the barges, and then unload the crates onto the boats.





Back on my other track, I finally reached the job of Toolmaker, almost a hundred years later, under a Ta-Matoran I never did get to know very well who went by the name of Brander.




He accepted me to the job only on the condition that I give up my old "foolishness" of locking myself away while I worked.


By that time, I was getting extremely good at spotting flaws by eye anyways.


I settled into this job and ignored several opportunities to advance, slowly 'borrowing' bits of protodermis purifiers, forges, and other equipment and taking it to the storeroom in the Control Annex, as I'd started to call the control room and the connected rooms deep below the Coliseum.


I learned various things along the way about the city and the rest of the Matoran Universe that I found interesting.


For example, I learned why most of the Matoran Kanohi I had seen had a bit of silver paint at the top -- this was to easily distinguish them from the powered masks that Toa wore. This was painted over whatever color the Matoran mask was painted in, and was capable of wearing off over time, unlike the colored paint, so had to be replaced now and then.


Powered masks were always left unpainted. For a Toa of Fire, a mask would turn red due to the elemental energies of the hero. For a Toa of Water, the same mask would turn blue while worn, and so forth.


I was getting restless, though, with these jobs. I needed to get to a trade barge to plausibly leave Metru Nui for a while and spy on Makuta Teridax.


While I waited, I figured out both how to recharge the batteries of the orbs, and make more of other powers. I made a variety of powers for myself, such as Rahi Control, in case someone ever tried to use an Energy Hound, as I learned they were called, to track me again. I also mixed various new powers, rejecting any that I didn't like, and kept careful records of how to mix each one.


I learned that powered Tools like mine did not technically have a limited energy supply -- they had only so much energy for use at a time, so if I did a lot of teleporting in a short amount of time it might temporarily stop working, but after a while it would recharge from contact with me, its user, and thus indirectly from my own eating, and from energy seeping in from surrounding protodermis and reaction with oxygen.


Before I was feeling safe enough to go to Karzahni, I was contacted again by Helryx.


She'd come up with a solution for blocking the reading of minds, and left a vial of a substance I was to drink periodically. She gave me instructions for how to find a Toa of Psionics the Order was working with for this task. I recognized his name -- Toa Orde, the one who had failed so miserably to calm down the Zyglak all those years ago. He would infuse protowater with elemental energy for me.


Whenever I was about to run out of it, I would declare a small vacation from my exponentially growing earned time and fly to where he was staying to obtain more.


More hundreds of years passed. Soon, more than a thousand years had passed since the Shattering.


Finally, I got the job of Scrubber on a trade barge.


Maglya was the deck boss on this particular barge. He still had a twinkle in his eye, but he carried himself with a lot more confidence now, and he would bark orders at the slightest drop of a crate, even to me.


I was very excited for our first voyage because it was to Destral, exactly what I needed.


Even after all this time, the Makuta were still putting the finishing touches on their fortress, so they needed stone blocks and other components. But the vast majority of the imposing structure was completed. The place gave me and everybody onboard the chills, but I couldn't be sure the darkness of its design was a sign of corruption this early on, or if it was just part of their nature as antidermic beings whose personalities were different from ours.




I recognized the familiar style of gate to the fortress, for example, but with a menacing style difference.




I made sure to align my shifts by taking extra hours earlier so that when we arrived, it was my time to sleep. I gave the excuse that I was having trouble sleeping, so I felt like I needed the extra work. Neither Maglya nor the Captain were inclined to complain.


Now for the plan.


First, I pressed a button on a very important orb I'd made with the power of Antisleep. I would feel well rested when I awoke even though I would be awake during the whole rest period.


Then I put that one away, and took out an Orb Belt I'd made. This had a backup shapeshifting orb and several others of importance. I wore it slung over one shoulder, so I could easily reach the many buttons with my left hand over my chest if I needed to. With my right I carried my sword.


I shapeshifted into an oozing bit of texture on the ground, left my quarters, and locked them behind me.


Joining a school of fish called Reef Raiders, I swam to the shore, and then turned to a common spider Rahi called a Fikou to traverse the land.





I wandered the buildings, realizing with amazement that while I thought of them as brand-new, since the last I'd seen this part of Destral it was nothing but open grassland, some of them were already showing serious signs of wear and tear, and a few Matoran were working on replacing old parts. They were, after all, more than a thousand years old already.


How had time passed me by so quickly? The poor inhabitants of Karzahni needed my help. I decided I could put it off no longer.


But first I continued this mission, spying on the various Makuta, but every now and then checking a mechanical clock I'd bought to make sure I'd be back in time for my next shift.


I was having trouble finding either Miserix or Teridax, oddly enough. But after listening in on enough conversations, I figured out where they were.


Miserix had taken a new, strange standard form of a massive red dragon -- I'd seen him a few times already and mistakenly assumed he was a Rahi. He had four bulky legs and two arms, a tail, and a horned head. I'd remembered many years ago what his mask power was, but now the shape was obscured in this shapeshifted form -- a Mask of Mutation.




Makuta Teridax had been working on some secret project down in the caves, people were saying. He now flew up from a nearby cave mouth and flew into the fortress.


I followed as stealthily as I could manage -- being a small black spider, that was pretty well, considering.


Teridax was still in his winged titan form, though he'd tweaked it a bit.




He stood atop a tower, looking out at the barge and the work going on around him.


Another Makuta walked up behind him.


"More Matoran come to bring their tales of the wondrous works of Mata Nui," the newcomer grumbled. He wore a Mask of Silence.



Teridax nodded slightly. "Hello, Mutran. Yes, they never seem to tell of the works that we perform for them."


It sounded like a conversation they might have had hundreds of times before.


"How goes the work?" Mutran asked.


"Slow. Rahkshi are not good at building."


Mutran nodded. I gathered this 'secret project' was unknown to the Matoran.


"Perhaps we should consider modifying the design of those robotic suits," Teridax added. "They should be able to walk on their own power. Why not include an automated mode, which would respond to our orders and function like a robot?"


Mutran seemed to consider. "Perhaps. But I recommend we keep the name. Exo-Toa implies we're having them made to help out the Toa. It's better politics."




They talked on for a while, but I could discern nothing else helpful from their conversation. They knew what they were referring to when they mentioned the secret project, so felt no need to give any hint to what it was. I didn't get the sense they were intentionally avoiding the mention of it, as if they suspected an eavesdropper, but even so, I decided to head out anyways.


What really mattered was that I got a strong sense of jealousy already being directed toward Mata Nui.


This was a very worrisome turn of events.


I wanted to try to check on what that project might be, but I was out of time.


The Makuta might be getting jealous of Mata Nui, but that was harmless enough. It didn't mean they were too far gone yet. When the barge returned home, I took the time to go to the Control Annex and write a message for Mata Nui on the clay. "Makuta feeling unappreciated, recommend giving a decree that Matoran should honor them for their great work."


It was the closest I ever came to warning him of what I'd seen in my vision.


But I never got a reply.







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Chapter 26 -- Signs of Aging




By now I had accumulated several years' worth of vacation time, much as I'd done on Spherus Magna, except there I had actually tended to take vacations to satisfy my own curiosity. Here, for now, I'd wanted to lay low for a while so people who knew about my old life would forget about the mysterious shapeshifter, and be convinced I really was dead.


I'd taken a few vacation weeks here and there, mainly to get more mindblock serum from Toa Orde. But now it was time to go on a real mission.


Karzahni was situated due south of Metru Nui. The Great City's dome was inside the upper head of the giant robot. Karzahni was essentially the back of the throat, at the base of the 'skull'. There were three ways to get from Metru Nui to the upper torso -- either of the two giant tubes to the left and right of the neck, or through Karzahni and then into a tube that went through the neck itself.


Trade barges, of course, took the right or left tunnels, but now I would head for the middle.


Since both Karzahni's dome and Metru Nui's were in a single solid piece of the robot, there was no flexible tunnel between them. A peninsula of rock from Karzahni formed a floor of the entire tube between them, and even jutted a ways into the city's dome.


I rented a boat for my 'vacation', and beached it at this rocky peninsula, pulling it well up away from the water onto the rocks.


Then I took out a small dagger-like bar of pure protodermis with a hilt, and tapped the boat. Dim green light glowed and spread out like a blanket coating the vessel, and when it faded, solid rocklike camouflage material covered it. I tossed the camouflager through the glow, into the boat, just before it turned solid.


For a few minutes I stood in place, looking around to memorize the lay of the land here so I, too, wouldn't be fooled by that very camouflage. Then I headed inland.


Through a large circular metal portal the rock went and I followed.


Up ahead, I thought I saw something odd -- pitch blackness. It wasn't night yet, and the light from the suns behind me should have reached much farther in than this.


I took out my lightstone to counter it.


No effect.


Cautiously I moved closer.


It was a dense wall of shadow energy, apparently held firmly in place by an otherwise intangible and invisible energy field, because I saw no significant "dark glow" effect. I eased the tip of the lightstone in, holding it loosely at the other tip, afraid some hidden monster might try to pull anything that touched the wall in. Nothing like that happened, but the tip's light disappeared.


I pulled it back out. Wonder what the purpose of this is...


Then I wondered how deep it might be. Intuition warned me against just walking in. I'd be completely unable to see, and might get lost in there forever.


I looked around until I saw a thick, broken base of a stalagmite reaching up from the ground. I shapeshifted my left hand to form a noose around it, solidified it, and then reached with my right hand shapeshifted to be liquid.


The hand moved in.


I shapeshifted again so that one of my eyes moved to the tip of the liquid tendril, also in liquid form, but functioning.


My eye's glow gave me zero light in there. It was as if I'd just closed one eye tightly.


Something was seriously wrong. I sensed it, but I couldn't understand why. My heart started to race, as I stretched and stretched. I made myself seem to grow in mass to the upper limit, and then started shrinking as I moved mass from my body to the tendril.


Could this go on forever?


Hurry. My intuition told me something very, very bad was about to happen if I didn't get through now.


Faint flashes from my vision came up from the dark of my own memory. I'd registered images from something that was about to happen. I saw myself shouting in frustration, then screaming in pain. I saw white light, and felt a bump in total darkness -- none of this was happening now, though.


Thinning the tendril so it could stretch farther, I kept working.


Nothing! No end!


I reached 'the end of the rope that was me' and saw no light.


Could Karzahni itself have been plunged into total darkness?


No. Most of the images I'd seen of the near future were in daylight.


I started pulling my mass back. Gotta rethink this... There had to be a way to figure this out. There always was. Right? I pulled back to where I started.


I was almost back to my normal form when I heard the humming sound, fading in from behind me. My heart pounded, my muscles tensed.


I whirled.


Racing through the air toward me, rushing over the ground.





Three. White.


Looking right at me. Heading right at me. Two flying, one walking farther back, with some kind of Rahi walking next to it.


A pulse of white light flew out from one of their staffs. I dodged.


Ran into the shadow.


With all my might my legs pounded the rock, but I heard nothing. No sound. No light. I could only feel the rock and know I was going as fast as I could.


Once something bumped into me, and I recognized it immediately from the vision. I felt the shape of a Rahkshi's foot. I flew back, I knew not how far with no sensation to judge it, and hit the ground rolling. Checked to make sure I still had my mask, and stumbled back up, running.


How could I even be sure I was running in a straight line? That had been my worry earlier, but now... it occurred to me through the haze of my panic that even my tendril form might have been curving and looping around endlessly.


Idea. This was a solid tunnel. There had to be a left and right wall.


So I kept running, now with both arms outstretched and liquefied.


After unmeasurable seconds, minutes, or hours, I finally slammed into a solid wall.


Turned to the left and ran.


Suddenly light blinded me as I came back out.


The Silver Sea. Metru Nui. And one Rahkshi standing guard, waiting.



It saw me, and lowered its staff to fire.


Wrong way.


Turned back in, following the wall in the opposite direction. I stayed entirely liquid, afraid the Rahkshi might be smart enough to guess my strategy and find me.


Finally I came out the other end.


There were the yellowish mountains of Karzahni! Just at the end of this tunnel... The peninsula thinned here, and violent water that almost looked like it was boiling filled both sides.


I turned into a bird. Flew. One Rahkshi was already through, a battle-scarred one that I expected could easily defeat me.



I glanced at it just in time to see it throw its staff with all its might, leading the toss to hit me.


A bubble shield appeared around me at the last second, and the weapon bounced away.


I realized I'd been solid. If not for the Shielding power, I might be... dead...


These Rahkshi weren't out to arrest me.


Had Teridax gone that bad, that fast?


I remembered, as I reached the final arch into the dome, that I'd promised to return to Destral, and I'd been genuine. Maybe Teridax was already evil, and he'd somehow known it when I did return. These Rahkshi must have tracked me right from there.


I looked back, to watch the Rahkshi picking up its staff. And I saw an Energy Hound tied to a stalactite. I thought it looked like the same one that had tracked me all those years ago.


And then everything went black, and pain shot out. I screamed, liquefying and falling to the ground.


I'd just bounced off some kind of barrier.


I saw a rippling effect going out from the air in front of me.


If I hadn't turned liquid as I hit, I'd have snapped my neck and that would have been the end...


Now in my normal form, but liquid, I tried to run through the arch again. Repulsed!


The Rahkshi fired white energy at me again, but I'd glanced back and saw it just in time. It, too, bounced off my energy shield.


"HELP!" a voice suddenly shouted, from way back by the shadow fog.


I felt it was wrong even as my head turned to see who needed help. The voice was deep and gritty, but turned higher pitched at the end as if realizing it was doing a bad job of imitating a Matoran. The tone was sarcastic.


Another white Rahkshi, just now walking out of the wall of shadow, with a purple Kraata peeking out of its headplates.


White light washed over me. Not from the newcomer -- from the other Rahkshi I'd been fighting.


The newcomer had distracted me just long enough that the other could send out waves of his power from his staff.



I felt anger coursing through me now, for that was this type of Rahkshi's power. I felt bitter hatred tempting me. It took all I had not to give in to it.


My form rippled. I was losing control. More and more of the white energy poured into me.


The newcomer was an example of something I'd missed from Mata Nui's original explanation to the Makuta, and only learned later from his database. It was a level seven Kraata, signified by the purple color. They approached Matoran in intelligence, and could even speak.


Makuta did not assign a level seven Rahkshi to a task unless they were deadly serious.


I turned back to the wall and tried again in vain to go through. Even though I'd seen it in my vision before, I could not help but shout in frustration at the invisible barrier.


I could not help the Matoran of Karzahni. Somehow I was blocked out.


My form turned solid. I felt something hit my sword. It went flying out of my hand.


I whirled, just as a foot connected to my chest.


Luckily, he hit the button for one of my powers, Levitation, and I floated along the ground instead of hitting it hard.


Confusion. Weak.


My mask had been knocked off.


The sword had flown away.


"Swordfly!" I said weakly.


But a foot stomped on the sword midflight, pinning it to the ground.


I saw another foot raising, over my mask, as my vision faded. Mentally I screamed at my arm to move.


Pounded the button for shapeshifting on my belt.


Turned to the bird, held liquid.


Hit the mask right as the foot slammed down. Mask turned liquid at the last moment and I and it both flew out from under the foot.


I could not go on, so I must go back.


I wheeled around, trying to get to my sword, but the leader was putting all his weight on it, and firing at me -- I couldn't dodge his energy bolts if I went much closer.


With my mask back on, I dodged a few more shots, trying to think. My mind gained power with every second.


That's it!


I hit another button on my belt. Rahi Control.


The Hound tensed as I commanded it to turn to the stalactite and snap it. It obeyed. The rock broke off with an echoing pop, and the Hound ran at the leader.


The Rahkshi heard the sound and turned. Leaped aside. The sword flew. I caught it, and ran into the shadow, commanding the Hound to follow. I caught the dog's chain and commanded him to lead me out the way the Rahkshi had come, guessing that with their innate shadow nature, they hadn't gotten lost in here.


But there was another Rahkshi waiting on the other side. What would I do then? I couldn't go back to the boat while they were onto me. Had they tracked me first to my home and then followed me out here? If so, they'd be back even though I had the Hound now.


The darkness fell away into daylight again as I reached the Metru Nui side.


Where was the Rahkshi?


I tried to stay liquid, except for the hand holding the dog's chain.


Couldn't see it.


But I felt odd.




I looked around. Grew in size so I could see over the rocky hills better.


A glint of gold and red.




And purple and black.


The Ba-Toa.


He was holding out a staff, and the third Rahkshi was crumpled against the ground.


Intuition told me I'd had this Toa all wrong. He hadn't been trying to harm me at all. He'd been protecting me. But how?


I ran toward him, calling out for help.


He saw me. This time he did not flee. He waved me over.


"This is it, shapeshifter," he said. "My last stand."


"What? Who are you? What do you mean?"


"My name is Hagahu," he said. He took the helmet off, revealing his Mask of Vision. Unlike Kopaka's mask, Hagahu's lacked the visor addons and was symmetrical.



Referring to the helmet, he said, "This was given to me long ago by a strange being who said he was your protector. He told me what to do just before he died. But I'm almost out of elemental energy and two more Rahkshi will come through at any moment."


"I know." I didn't have time to question his story. I knew of no protector.


"What happened in there? Why were you going to Karzahni? All the elders throughout the universe have now forbidden it."


"I made a promise I had to try to keep, but there was a barrier in the way."


"A closed door?"


"No. Invisible energy."


His eyes flashed. "Hold out your hand, quick."


He took it. "Now focus. I was told that... my time as a Toa must end if you ever spoke with me."


"What? You're not going to die, are you?"




Then I remembered one of the interesting facts I'd learned.


Although many of the Toa I'd known had been made that way, it was not a coincidence that Toa were so similar to Matoran, especially in their wearing of Kanohi masks.


Matoran could become Toa.


Every Toa had a certain amount of Toa Energy, and could pass this on to a Matoran to transform them into a Toa. I'd wondered with excitement many times if I might become a Toa, and thought it might be the only way I'd learn my element.


I focused on accepting the transformation. Energy flowed into me.


But it didn't work.


I did not change.


Hagahu frowned. "You seem willing. But nothing is happening. The energy will not stay in you."


Just then the two Rahkshi appeared, in flight mode and headed right for me.


"Why not?" I asked quickly.


"You must not be destined to be a Toa," he said.


"Now what?"


"The Hound?" the Toa said.


"Under my control, but what good—"


"Send it away. I have an idea. Based on just a rumor but it's all we have. This'll be dangerous."


I commanded the dog to flee, as the other Rahkshi neared.


The Rahkshi suddenly seemed to fall, smacking into the ground. Hagahu looked very tired, his arms shaking.


"It's almost out!" he said. "Lift up your fist above your head!"


I did.


He sent the beam of Toa energy at my hand. I felt it doing something, but I didn't know what. I sensed that it was amplifying something in me. Some innate to me.


"Now!" he said. "Fire into the sky!"


"Fire what?"


But the words were barely out of my mouth before I tried, and in immediate response, a bolt of light flew up into the sky.


As it flew, it burned Toa energy, flaring brightly. The Rahkshi screamed in pain at the bright flare.


"Take out their Kraata!" Hagahu shouted. I ran to the two in front of me and popped open their backplates as they crouched low to try to cover their eyes. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hagahu taking out the third.




I'm a Matoran of Light.


The light dimmed.


I turned around, holding the two squirming purple slugs in my hand, to see the Toa.


But he was a Toa no more. He had shortened to just over the height of a Matoran, and his mask had changed. Before, it had been a Great Mask of Vision, but now it was a 'Noble' Mask of Vision. He was hunched over, like an elderly Agori, and appeared to be physically weak.



Now he was a 'Turaga'.


For this was the end of a three-stage life cycle of those Matoran who were destined to be heroes. They would begin life as a Matoran, and when their unique time of destiny came, they would receive Toa energy and become twice as tall, gaining the full use of elemental powers and the ability to use Great Masks.


When they became Turaga, they could only use a tiny amount of elemental power -- compare the gravity of a giant gas planet to that of a small asteroid in Hagahu's case -- and they could not use Great Masks.


But they could use the special lower-level type of mask called a Noble Mask. To accommodate this, every "label shape" for a Mask power existed in both Great and Noble form. Toa could use Noble masks too, but to less effect than their Great counterparts, so the different shapes helped them tell the difference at a glance.


The protodermis guide also mentioned that the standard shapes had even been programmed by the Great Beings into protodermis itself, so when a transformation from Toa to Turaga happened, the mask would change to the right shape automatically.


I understood what had happened now. Toa Energy could be used for a few other things besides making a destined Matoran into a Toa. It could also undo the effects of curses and amplify the effects of good powers. Hagahu had amplified my light bolt to be so powerful it was as if I had been a Toa of Light, for just a moment.


But that sacrifice had cost him greatly.


He now carried a smaller version of his staff, and hobbled closer. He pointed at the purple Kraata. "That Shadow Kraata is still dangerous. Come, I have already prepared a trap for it."



He led me to where he had made a deep hole in the ground. We threw the Kraata in. Moss coated the bottom.


A metal grate was lying nearby. He slid it over the hole, and then pulled out my camouflager, which I gathered he'd taken from the boat. He tapped the heavy metal cover, and it disappeared into the camouflage.


"They'll be able to breathe and eat, but not escape."


"How could you know to prepare all this?" I asked, unable to hold the question back any longer, as I summoned the Hound back.


He looked sad. "I was told you wouldn't understand. There is no time to explain -- much has gone wrong, and everything is at stake. I must leave you now, but I'll try to meet with you again and share some of my knowledge."


"You must tell me something," I said.


"I have been watching over a group of Matoran from Karzahni," he offered. "I believe you know of them -- one of them said he saw you die."




"They were the only group that he ever sent out. I can also tell you that several teams of Rahkshi have been scouring the universe. Teridax was never convinced you weren't a threat, so he secretly continued the search."


I was impressed with how much he knew, but confused. Mata Nui did not know these things; I'd checked. Who would? Had the being who told him all this been a Glatorian? I didn't recognize the helmet, exactly, but I hadn't met every Glatorian who ever existed.


"They kept that Hound with them, so when they met those Rahkshi that met the exiled Karzahni Matoran, they got a trace of energy from them, revealing that you had indeed been to Karzahni. That didn't mean you hadn't died, but later they found traces in Metru Nui. I was there to erase them."


"That's possible?"


"Yes. I erased traces both of where you were, and of where I knew you would be, for the power can linger in an area for tens of thousands of years and continue to erase new traces. But a team of Rahkshi was also hunting for you and they'd learned that they could follow me. That was a team of Illusion Rahkshi -- they made sure nobody else saw them, but I battled with them several times."


"So there are other teams out there still hunting me?"


"They gave up after a while, but then the Hound sensed you again on Destral. I was warned in a vision to come help you."


"A vision?!"


The elder nodded. "I have been getting them ever since the strange ancient hero met with me. He told me more about why, but he warned me I must not explain how it works until you come to understand it yourself."


I shook my head. "Why not?"


"Because everything about your life depends on you making your own choices. I cannot presume to tell you what you are. You must discover it for yourself."


I sighed. "But I've wanted for so long to understand. I don't even know how to begin to find out."


Turaga Hagahu nodded sadly. "It is like that for us all, Koronga."


He turned, and walked toward another boat I saw anchored offshore, after handing me back the camouflager. "I must return to watch over the Matoran now. I have reason to believe they are in danger where they are now, and I must convince them to move. It is the first step I believe I must take if the future is to be salvaged at all, for much has happened that has not been foreseen. I fear the veneer of peace we see in the world today is but an illusion."


I wanted to ask him to wait, but I felt guilty about being somehow responsible for him losing his Toa power. Although he was younger than me, I thought of him as a wise elder who must be respected. I could bring myself to say nothing but a farewell.


"I can't thank you enough for what you did," I said. "You saved my life. I hope to see you again."


He nodded.


I walked back to my own boat, and tore away the rest of the camouflage material, which was rubberlike, letting it sink in the water. My thoughts still raced, trying to explain all that had happened and to come to grips with what I'd learned.


One thought rose above all.


This time, Teridax had issued a kill order for me, and now I thought, with deep dismay, that I understood why. I had only to put myself in his place and imagine how he would feel about what had happened.


Mata Nui had told him I'd died. It hadn't been a lie, but then when other, more recent traces of me were detected, Teridax could only think of it as a lie.


He must have tried to warn Mata Nui against me, but Mata Nui wasn't communicating any more. At least, Teridax knew, not with him. Why would Mata Nui lie about me except to protect me from Teridax? And why would he do that, Teridax must have thought, unless he distrusted the Makuta? Unless he had chosen me over him.


He was jealous not only of Mata Nui, but of me.


That bitterness had driven him already deep into the darkness I'd always feared.


And it's my fault.







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Chapter 27 -- The Trouble with Trade Quibbles
On my various journeys as a Swabber, and later Crewman, of the trade barge, I saw many places in the Matoran Universe, and beheld many quarrels over prices. But none were quite so severe as the time I witnessed the Brotherhood of Makuta's negotiations with Xia over the price of weapons.

The weapons merchant Shonin had returned a few times to Metru Nui since the incident with the Rahkshi of Anger.
This time, I felt intuition calling me to visit him.
After waiting in line for a while, I entered. He looked relieved to see me, and closed the door hastily.
"I was thinking of sending a messenger to you," he said. "I'm in trouble."
"I'll help if I can."
"It's the Brotherhood," he said. "I've been getting more and more unsure about them. They keep showing up on other islands on my rounds besides Destral, always demanding more and more weapons. I almost ran out and had to keep driving the price up."
"You're wondering if I still think they're good? I don't know about all of them, but I think there's one or two that are... misguided."
"Well, I just got word that they're putting together a group to go over my heads at Xia and demand low prices. I can only carry so much per trip. This'll drive up my fuel costs -- I'll have to go back to Xia more often rather than my efficient round trip. That'll mean I can't offer as many weapons. And yeah, I'd love to refuse them, but how do you say no to a Makuta?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "What can I do?"
"Go to Xia, and see if you can somehow influence my bosses to stand their ground. Maybe even assign a Vortixx or three to my boat to protect me." He was referring to the native species of Xia.
"I'll see what I can do," I said. "When will this be? You should talk to our leaders and ask them to send one of our trade barges to get involved. If the prices go down there'll be shortages and that will affect us. Recommend they send Maglya's boat." For Maglya had indeed become a Captain now.
"Good idea. I guess you'll be a stronger influence if you're there 'in person,' huh?"
"Yes. It's public knowledge that I know you, so I should be able to convince Maglya to let me speak on your behalf."
"And if I may ask, could you close up shop now, to save what weapons you have now for our crew? I wouldn't want to send the others in with me unarmed."
"But we'll pay full price," I added, winking.
He smiled.
I left to await word. There was no answer that day, but in the morning, Maglya showed up knocking on my door and ordered me to get to the barge early.
"Yes, sir!"
When the barge headed out for Ga-Metru, Captain Maglya called all the crew to the main deck except one who remained in the wheelhouse. He explained the mission to us.
I made sure to speak up at the mention of Shonin and hold up my sword, saying I knew him well, and I'd love to help any way I could. Sure enough, Maglya offered to let me do the speaking at Xia. He would accompany me.
We stopped off at the water region's docks and met up with Shonin. We purchased almost his entire stock.

I even bought another weapon I'd had my eye on for a while, called an Energy Extraction Rifle, and a clip-on holster to attach to the back of my scabbard belt next to my backpack.


This would send out a beam of red energy to drain a target of energy, and I could then use that energy as needed, such as to charge my orbs' batteries or perhaps amplify a bolt of light. I would only be able to test and then use that last idea if there were no witnesses, though.

Maglya bought an Impact Crystal Launcher, which fired Knowledge Crystals -- the same that the Knowledge Towers of Ko-Metru were grown out of. Those grew to incredible size only because they were placed in pools of rich ingredients, similar to how the Great Beings had made protodermis, but these would only grow large enough, on impact, to imprison a target.


We proceeded to the southeastern tunnel out of our dome.
Xia was situated not far from the exit of this tunnel, though we had to circle around a small but long barren island with only a few Rahi living on it.
The island still had some grass and trees on it in those days, but the signs of the pollution that would one day decimate them were already present. I didn't recall seeing images of this from my vision, but it was simple logic -- the Vortixx were ramping up their production, clearcutting, and pumping out more pollutants than ever with no sign of slowing down. It simply wasn't in their personality.
The style of the buildings here was unique -- dull rust colors and yellows, matching the rustlike appearance of the earth and stone, and the brownish-yellow sky.


I recognized a boat docked nearby as one that had been docked at Destral during a previous visit.
"The Makuta are here already," Maglya said, pointing out that boat, which he must have also recognized.
We docked and went ashore.
We were greeted by a Vortixx. She was colored black and gray, with a lizardlike head, blue eyes, and a ponytail-like decoration hanging down the back of the head.


"My name is Roodaka," she said. "I'll be directing you to your quarters for your visit. May I inquire as to your reason for visiting? I see you already have a good supply of our weapons, but trust me, we have plenty more, and much better ones to offer!"
Maglya explained that we were here to join in the negotiations.
"I see. I will bring your request before our leaders."
"May I ask who was sent from the Brotherhood?" I put in.
"Of the Makuta, Mutran and Icarax," she said. "And a high-ranking ally named Pridak."
Not Teridax. Good.
Mutran I knew. Icarax I would probably recognize if he was important enough to be sent here for this mission. I'd have to wait and see about the servant. I considered coming up with some excuse once we were seen to our quarters to go spying, but Roodaka explained that she would return soon to summon us to a meeting that was already taking place.
"I'd like to go to the meeting now," I said. "If you're going to ask whether you should summon us, know that Metru Nui's leaders are serious about our position on the prices. We won't accept being ignored."
She narrowed her eyes, but a hint of a smile appeared on her lips. "Perceptive. But we have our rules and they are to be obeyed, at least if I want to have any chance of being promoted, you understand."
"Did I mention we support Xia's position on the prices?"
"Follow me."
I caught that old familiar twinkle in Maglya's eyes as we did just that.
Roodaka did make us wait outside the actual meeting room.
Soon she returned with an orange-eyed Vortixx. "This is Durva. She's in charge of the negotiations."


Durva was an oddity among Vortixx, in that she did not carry a weapon, though her left hand was replaced with a Catcher Claw that could stop most projectiles. I politely asked about this.
"Durva is an expert in martial arts," Roodaka said.
"Everything can be a weapon if used intelligently," Durva added. "Now, what is Metru Nui's position on our pricing?"
I summarized it.
"You have failed to take many things into account," Durva said. "You consider our prices reasonable, because your only contact with us has been Shonin, an outcast among Matoran who receives only our clearance weapons. For the real deal, people travel to Xia, and for those we charge much more."
"Not too much more," Roodaka added. Durva gave her a look that said she should go scrub her quarters' floors or something, and Roodaka nervously eased her way out of the room.
"You also failed to take into account that Metru Nui is, virtually bar none, the richest collection of naïve Matoran in the universe. Not everybody can so easily afford what you can."
Maglya started to reply, wondering the obvious, "Why are you defending—"
I interrupted. "She's playing Brotherhood's Advocate," I said.
"Exactly," she said. "The greatest weapon at the disposal of the smart are those very things thrown at us by an enemy."

"As a matter of fact I have considered those things," I continued. "It's no coincidence we're rich. We're good, and we deserve what we've earned. Now an argument can be made for some other places, but our perspective is not quite the same as Xia's neutral perspective. I intend to make this clearer to the Brotherhood, and I'd like to get started."
Durva gave a slight nod out of the custom of neutrality. One did not display impatience toward a Vortixx in just any situation, but when it came to customers, it could actually be a good thing. After all, an impatient customer is more likely to accept a bad deal rather than search for a better one.
Even so, I could tell she was aware that I'd just made her seem brash and foolish in the eyes of the Ta-Matoran with me. Maglya was a much better ship's captain than a judge of character and it was written all over his face. The others were often even more naïve.
We walked in.
Mutran was standing in front of a huge blue screen with large hexagonal pixels, well away from the sets at the back of the room -- the door came in on the left side.


From the seats, Mutran would appear very tiny -- the screen was enormously massive. I guessed it was normally used to help sell weapons by emotional persuasion. Mutran had apparently been using it to present a slideshow that explained the math of his argument because a slide of this was paused onscreen.
Seated against the back wall was a four-winged Makuta I did indeed recognize from Destral, though I hadn't happened to hear his name then. This would be Icarax. He wore a Mask of Scavenging, which enabled him to absorb the life energy from deceased Rahi or people.


He was tapping his fingers loudly on his chair's arm. As soon as he saw us, he blurted out harshly, "Can we get on with it? Who are these people?"
"This is Captain Maglya of a trade barge from Metru Nui," Durva said, "and a crewman familiar with our merchant Shonin, Koronga. He will be representing Metru Nui in this negotiation."
"Why should Metru Nui be involved?" Pridak put in.
He was standing behind one of several podiums on the right wall, which I guessed were used for helpers of a weapons designer to explain things about a weapon during a presentation. The other chairs at the back of the room were empty, as it would be hard to see each other there. We were directed to wooden chairs that other Vortixx had hastily set up around the door on the left wall.

Pridak looked like a land version of the aquatic species I'd seen created long ago, colored white and dark gray, with red eyes.


On the way here, Roodaka had explained that he had gained a high rank among his people and worked with the Brotherhood often, but he was actually here representing the other peoples of the universe besides the Makuta.
So, prior to our showing up, he would be presumed to speak for Metru Nui as well as the others. Given that he was siding with the Makuta, it was a very good thing we'd come.
But I tried to avoid that implication in my response. It was possible I could win him over to my side, as far as I knew. "I would really rather everybody be involved, if it were possible," I said. "Perhaps we are not essential to these negotiations."
"Understatement, a classic trait of Matoran," Icarax said.
"Even so, our leaders have a firm position on the issue and wished us to convey it. But I'll explain after you finish your presentation." I almost said Mutran's name, but caught myself at the last second. Koronga the Ta-Matoran worker on a random barge had no reason to be so free with that name or necessarily even know which Makuta was which.
Durva picked up on my hesitation, and thankfully misinterpreted. "That is Makuta Mutran," she said.
I nodded my acknowledgement.
Mutran was standing behind a podium on the right of the screen, so Durva took her position behind another pedestal on the left.
"Shall I start over?" Mutran wondered aloud.
"I think not," Durva said. I had to scold myself a moment later because I smirked. Thankfully the room was only dimly lit so the screen could be seen more easily -- I don't think Mutran noticed.
He continued, showing a long series of economic equations that meant nothing at all to me, and then restated a series of bullet-point arguments in the slideshow.
Essentially it boiled down to, 'we can't afford your prices, so lower them.'
He tried to prove that the materials used to make the weapons weren't worth enough to add up to the final prices, but Durva interrupted to point out that this failed to account for the most valuable ingredient of all -- the skill of the designers and manufacturers, which the Brotherhood implicitly acknowledged by asking Xia to make things for them in the first place rather than making them on their own.
Mutran stumbled past a few more points along these lines, then concluded with complaints about Shonin's inconsistent policies about who he sold weapons to, which did not at all fit with Xia's neutrality position.
Durva thankfully shot this down as well. "Shonin has a license to sell our products, yes, but he is his own agent who must first buy the weapons from us and then sell them at his own profit and discretion. He is not our employee."
Mutran just looked at Icarax and Pridak as if hoping they would know what to say in response, but Icarax just rolled his eyes at him, and Pridak seemed content to let him squirm.
I raised my hand enough to be noticed.
"I'd like to add that Metru Nui recommends that some type of guard contingent be assigned to Shonin, for reasonable wages which Metru Nui and other agreeing locations can contribute to, to make sure his personal sales policies are upheld."
Icarax slammed a fist down on the arm of his chair. "We're here to negotiate lower prices and less restrictions! I will not tolerate this being hijacked to make the opposite happen!"
Mutran coughed, then added in a gentler tone, "Shonin can make whatever policies he wants if he's not an employee, but I consider this to still be a point of contention, since you admit he has a license for what he does. He everywhere markets himself as the direct representative of Xia."
"And in a sense, to the average lowly Matoran out there, he is," Durva said readily. "With him and a handful of other roaming merchants like him, the customer gets more direct access to our weapons rather than needing to go through the trouble of arranging a boat ride here."
"Semantics," Pridak said. "The point is, the distinction between licensed salesman and employee is blurred, and this is actually hurting your own profit, if you think about it."
"There's much more to this than profit," I countered. "Weapons can be used for good or ill, and Shonin has strong morals, as I'm sure all of us in this room do. That's why he sells to all of us. He simply wants to make sure the weapons don't fall into the hands of some wannabe tyrant or your average petty criminal."
"We are not here to debate Shonin's personal policies," Durva said. "And that's final. This is really about our own price levels. If we were to lower those uniformly it would affect Shonin's prices as well as he would spend less to buy ours. But our own leaders do not believe our prices are unreasonable."
"But your customers do," Mutran said.
"Not all of us," I said. "Consider this. By making the prices higher, it is more likely that those who have earned a higher amount of money will be able to buy them, and less likely that those who have done nothing to earn such money will. This means that good people like the Brotherhood, your people, Pridak, Metru Nui, or countless other cultures in our world will get weapons, while those who harbor ill will get far less."
Nobody seemed to have an answer to that.
Mutran finally said. "I'd like to request we continue this meeting tomorrow. I would like to take time to consider a well-researched answer to these points. Unless you have a more detailed presentation to give?" he asked me.
"I don't have anything for the screen," I said. "For now, I'll just add that it's an honor to meet all of you, and whatever is decided, I'm sure it will be for the best."
Icarax stormed out of the room, followed by a thoughtful but obviously bothered Mutran, and Pridak whose face I couldn't seem to read well.
Roodaka greeted us again at the exit and showed us back to our quarters, just in case we wouldn't recognize the way while heading in the opposite direction.
"Gotta say you surprised even me in there," Maglya told me. "You told Metru Nui's position on it even better than I told you. It was like you were there when they told me!"
I smiled. "That's probably because I suggested some of it to Shonin in the first place."
Maglya grinned widely. "Ha!"
"I knew it," one of the other crewmen said.
"But they'll cook up some clever comeback for tomorrow," another added. "Where do we go from here?"
"Shortages didn't even come up," I said. "I'm saving it for tomorrow. Fuel costs factor into it too, for Shonin, but it seems we're no longer allowed to debate his policies. I'll bring that up only if they press the point anyways."
"Most of it went over my head," Maglya said. "But fuel costs make a lot of sense to me. I'd bring it up regardless if I were you."
"Maybe you should bring it up," I said. "It is in your area of expertise."
"Maybe I will."
"And now," I said. "I've got to be well-rested for tomorrow."
I locked myself in my room and shapeshifted to seek out the Makuta's quarters and spy on them.
Mutran was working on a point I honestly feared I hadn't taken into account -- the possibility of a criminal organization being successful enough at gathering stolen funds that my 'moral equals rich' argument would utterly fall apart.
It was a good point indeed. I had been thinking of trying to influence Mutran to think more about right and wrong, and praising the Brotherhood because I felt this was the best chance to steer them away from temptation. My concerns were so much larger than anyone else here realized. In the attempt, I'd missed the obvious.
The real irony, of course, was that I knew the Brotherhood could become just such an organization.
How could I defeat this argument, and at the same time try to steer them away from thinking of that themselves?
Or had they already? Was this all just a charade? Teridax had apparently ordered those Rahkshi to execute me, when I had committed no crime, certainly nothing legally befitting the death sentence.
But I found myself unable to focus, because I kept thinking I was hearing someone screaming in another room.
Mutran and Icarax were seated around a table with similar blue hexagonal pixels for a computer screen surface. Mutran was working on a second presentation on his half and asking now and then for Icarax's input. Icarax was playing a primitive computer game simulating firing a weapon at 'enemy pixels' on his half and nodding absent-mindedly to Mutran's questions, even when they weren't yes or no questions.
The noise seemed to be coming from one of their rooms. Pridak was making some kind of meal in a kitchen room that smelled like seasoned meat.
I tried to ignore the sound, figuring I must be imagining it.
I watched Mutran's plans for a while, but I was soon so tired I had to go back to my room and actually sleep. I could have used the Antisleep power, but I had realized by now that it wasn't quite as effective as real sleep.
The next meeting went horribly for me. Mutran seemed to have a great answer ready for every point I made.
He forced my attention through one of his equations which showed that while temporary shortages might come about, in the medium long term, sales would increase and so would total profit, which would drive further manufacturing to meet the higher demand. In the long term, weapons would become more numerous and demand would lower again, making shortages nonexistent. He even had quotes from famous Matoran economists on both continents, who considered Metru Nui's position unrealistic.
I had no answer for this, and made a similar request to take a day to think through "the response I am preparing" as if to imply I had any at all.
But before I could get to this, Maglya lamely tried to rescue me with a stuttering, rambling diatribe about fuel costs that only served to confuse Icarax as to how it was relevant and insult the others.
I resisted the urge to wince, and silently admonished myself for not being clearer about how I wanted him to go about it. In all honesty, I should have advised him to let me do all the talking.
I tried to spy on Mutran again to learn more about those economists. We had no computer like his -- the great irony here being that while we were being labeled as the rich, we were just ordinary citizens who couldn't afford the luxurious quarters the Brotherhood elite could. We were rich only in comparison by our relatively even wealth to the highly centralized wealth of the Brotherhood -- its servants were usually dirt-poor.
But that screaming was earshattering by now, and I could ignore it no longer.
Turning into an odd patch of carpet, I oozed into what I guessed must be Mutran's room, judging by the neatness of the sheets and luggage.
I'd almost expected to see a Matoran being tortured or something like that, except the screams took no pause to breathe. This was clearly some kind of strange Rahi.
But I couldn't see anything.
I moved around, trying to pinpoint the noise. That didn't take long.
It came from a fairly small decorative box, locked tightly shut.
My arm formed the shape of the key, and I opened it.

It looked like a rock. But it had several tiny mouths all around it. One would scream, then pause to suck in air, and scream again. The mouths timed their screams randomly so they sounded like one continuous, wavering shriek.


Now I activated a power I had been afraid to try on the Makuta.
I had mixed this power myself -- it was not known to the Great Being who had written the protodermis guide, nor to any other Matoran I was aware of. I called it Mind Skimming.
It enabled me to sense just the most intense surface thoughts and emotions of a target, so that the act of sensing them was difficult for the target to detect. I could not call forth thoughts at my own choosing -- that would alert them to the presence of a being who was forcing those thoughts up. But it could still be useful.
Of course, I'd only had myself and Rahi to test it on, so I wasn't really sure a truly intelligent being couldn't sense the intrusion anyways.
There was one overpowering thought from this screaming rock. "FEED ME!"
It's starving!
I closed the lid, realizing I had let the volume of the screams grow much louder, and locked it again, shrinking down into the carpet. But Mutran did not come.
He was ignoring it.
I had known he could be jealous, prideful, and was probably working with Teridax to subvert Miserix -- or worse, working with both of them to subvert Mata Nui. But I hadn't imagined animal cruelty to be among Mutran's vices.
I saw a box of treats nearby. Strings were tied around the box with no discernable knot or other way to re-seal it; they would have to be cut -- and hadn't been. He hadn't fed it on this trip at all.
I couldn't risk blowing my cover, but I could and did demolish Mutran's arguments the next day as if I had a personal vendetta against him. He seemed quite at a loss as to explain my suddenly Icarax-like behavior. Durva had to shut me down a few times as well as Icarax who leaped to Mutran's defense.
Pridak stayed mostly out of it, with a definite air of it all being beneath him.
I left that day's meeting ashamed of how I'd acted, though some of the other Matoran seemed to think it was the best day yet. I retreated 'to my room' again and spent as much of that night as I could watching to see if Mutran would feed the poor creature.
He did not.
It was like he'd spitefully created his own version of the Mata Nui stone to neglect the way he must feel neglected by Mata Nui, I thought. But the rock was an innocent in that mess.
The next day ended in a stalemate, with both of us agreeing reluctantly that the other had reasonable points, but Durva was adamant that the prices needed to remain in place.
That afternoon the rock was screaming so deafeningly I expected Pridak, at least, to say something, but he didn't.
Icarax was actually humming along to the chaotic 'tune' of the screams.
Mutran drew up a quick argument, but soon he seemed to relent. "Let's take the rock for a walk," he said.
Icarax agreed. Pridak said he would rather prepare another meal -- more meat.
Mutran stuffed the metal box and the box of treats into a thick cloth bag, somewhat muffling the screams, and walked out. As soon as anyone came near, he used his Mask of Silence on the poor thing, so it couldn't be heard at all -- the power both deafened a target and made it mute. Now it couldn't even hear whether he was about to take it out to feed it, much less scream.
I didn't dare risk the Mind Skim power with two Makuta nearby, as I followed, but I imagined its thoughts ran along the lines of desperate pleading for its life.
The buildings of Xia followed a meandering muddy stream that roughly encircled the island. In the center there was a wide stony plain with some sparse brownish vegetation remaining. Mutran took the rock to a spot of wide bare rock and opened the metal box with his key.
He let the screaming rock roll out onto the ground. Then he rolled it around a bit as it continued to scream for a few minutes. Finally, he opened the box of treats, littered them around the ground, and rolled the rock over them, carefully avoiding putting a finger in any of the mouths.
The creature had actually shrunken in size since I'd last seen it. It looked like it was about to waste away into nothing. But Mutran would not let it get off so mercifully. Now it would survive -- it actually fell silent for a moment. But he would torture it for the rest of its life.
I tried to think of some way to fix this, as Mutran and Icarax talked strategy.
It was clear to me now that the Brotherhood had sent the wrong ambassadors for this job. I felt confident Teridax would have already gotten the prices lowered. He was much more savvy than these two. Mutran had his head in a computer or tablets all the time, I guessed, and Icarax had no people skills at all.
"So stubborn!" Icarax said. "I could snap them all in two and I'd still be angry!"
"Now now," Mutran said. "Remember we're the good guys."
The rock seemed satisfied for now as Mutran packed it away, and I returned to my quarters, not so tired now. I really tried to apply myself to my task now.
I thought of a few good arguments, and made them the next day. All three of the Brotherhood representatives dismissed them outright as nonsense at first, but Durva praised them as among the best yet. One of them was a re-attempt at Maglya's fuel argument, which I said I'd thought about and decided the point needed hammered home.
Honestly, I didn't think Durva even understood most of what was being said now. I thought it was odd that a martial arts expert was assigned to this job, although her obvious tactical skill helped explain it. But now it became clear her strategy was to simply begin to agree more wholeheartedly with everything I said as the negotiations went on, forcing the others to compromise.
I only feared the strategy was too transparent, especially when Icarax himself accused her of it outright. Or maybe he was smarter than I was giving him credit for.
I didn't watch the Makuta that night -- I spent it actually talking strategy with the other Ta-Matoran. I felt that the only way we'd win this would be if it was more obvious we were all on the same page. It couldn't be all me anymore.
I was about to go to sleep when Roodaka knocked.
"I'm afraid there's been a ruling in the Brotherhood's favor," she announced.

"What? I thought Durva was in charge, and she seemed decided against them."
"There was... ah... an incident earlier tonight," she said. "One of the Makuta... er... lost his temper, understandably so I'm sure, and... there was some property damage. In light of the contentiousness of the issue, we decided to reach a reasonable compromise and lower our prices."
I glanced out a window as she gestured that way. Several buildings had been utterly leveled. I'd thought I'd heard a noise or two as we'd talked but our voices had drowned it out too much for me to be sure it was anything unusual.
Translation: Icarax smashed things and you gave in.
I should have seen it coming.
The three Brotherhood reps had already left, Roodaka added.
I asked what the new policy would be, and she explained that at least my arguments had helped, in Durva's opinion, settle on a compromise that was more comfortable than what Mutran had originally asked for. The new prices seemed somewhat reasonable to me, if I understood the scholarly Makuta's economic formulas correctly.
I had no idea whether those could be trusted, but at least I could report some kind of partial success to my superiors. Ultimately the failure was not mine, anyway.
It was too late to set out for home, so we stayed the night. Before turning in, I felt intuition guiding me outside. This confused me greatly, until I felt drawn toward the center of the island.
Sure enough, there was the rock.
In the confusion of Icarax's attack, Mutran must have closed his metal box, going through the motions, without realizing he'd forgotten to pack the creature inside.
He'd notice eventually when he didn't hear the screams, but I wasn't inclined to do anything about it.
Several of the treats were still laying on the ground, and the rock was ever so slowly rolling around to pick them up. It was twice its earlier size now, and there was no screaming. It was also rolling toward the grass. I decided to test whether it could eat the plant, and laid a piece in front of it. It swallowed it eagerly.
I smiled. It might not last, but for now the creature was happy.
The next morning, I decided to ask Maglya to wait a bit before we left. I asked around for where I could find Durva now.
When I did, I asked her if Shonin could get those guards I'd suggested. The Brotherhood might still bother him, and given how Icarax had just learned he could get his way, I was justifiably concerned.
She seemed confused, as if she hadn't recalled this request. "I'm sorry, I've been distracted by the disappearances."
"The what?"
"Several people have been reported missing this morning," she said. "At first we assumed they were in the rubble of the buildings Ic... ah... that were lost."
"We have an advanced scanner that can detect bodies in the rubble, and we found nothing."
Icarax? Mutran? Or even Pridak?
Any other explanation was possible but the timing seemed too coincidental.
"I'm sorry to bother you, under the circumstances," I said. "Can you let me know as soon as there's a decision? I'll ask the Captain to let us stay until then."
"Very well."
Maglya agreed.
It was mainly for Shonin's sake that our superiors had wanted us to come on this mission in the first place. We were no fools -- this was becoming a more and more dangerous universe and he was one of the best sources of weapons for self-defense. Many people felt like they owed him.
Of course, his suppliers were also a part of the reason self-defense was becoming more necessary.
But when you had Makuta, Rakhshi, and beings like Pridak populating the universe, not to mention the many dangerous Rahi beasts, you really appreciated having anything to help even the odds.
Not for the first time in my new life, I wished Mata Nui would have just been patient and allowed the Matoran to overcome their inefficiencies with technology, rather than resorting to these more powerful beings. It was like watching the error of the Element Lords all over again, although so far things hadn't gone that far bad.
We waited two days before hearing anything.
When Roodaka did come to us, she brought several other Vortixx, all armed.
"You are all under arrest," she said simply.
We exclaimed our surprise and outrage at this turn of events, and Maglya demanded to know why, but they refused to answer. They marched us to a collection of cells and threw us in.
I left my cell at night, using the Antisleep power, to try to figure out why they would have done this.
I found a room where they were questioning Durva.
"And then he said they'd stay for a while," she said. "Awaiting our decision."
"And what implication did you take from this?"
She shrugged. "He seemed genuinely alarmed at the news. I didn't read the threat you seem to want to imagine."
The other Vortixx shook her head vehemently. "I'm not imagining anything here. The two Makuta and Pridak left. The Matoran remained. Nothing else has happened that could explain the continuing disappearances.
"But did any of the Matoran head toward the center of the island?"
"I admit that's a weak point in the explanation."
I almost gasped out loud, understanding what must have happened.
It was my fault in a sense.
I hurried back to my cell, afraid they might come to us for questioning next, but I was certain that rock creature must be to blame. I should have found some way to alert them to it earlier.
But they didn't come that night. I waited until I was satisfied my cell would be left alone -- none of us could see the other cells as their side walls were solid; only the fronts had bars, luckily for me.
Even so, I used an Illusion Echo orb I'd designed that would leave an image of me in the position I was in when I hit the button -- laying on my cot, apparently asleep with one hand happening to have fallen onto the scabbard belt on the floor.
Flying out to the center of the island, I beheld the rock.
Except it wasn't a rock now. It was a small hill.
It must have rolled over to the dirt and sunk roots into the ground, eating soil and plant material alike.
Vortixx who liked to hike in the central wilderness for fun must have encountered it, and touched it out of curiosity. Later others could have tried to walk over it and been consumed. I could see feet and hands poking out here and there, but they were all clearly dead.
Horrifed, I flew back, wracking my brain for a way to explain this without blowing my cover. I could save lives if I came forward now... but then, how could I keep from still looking guilty in some way for knowing what had happened?
No. No! I had a much larger purpose than this. I had to consider the whole reason I'd built this cover so carefully. If I came forward now I'd lose all that potential trust, and maybe make myself a more direct target for Teridax's hatred.
Mutran wasn't neglecting the rock, I realized.
I'd made a reasonable assumption with limited facts, but if I'd encountered him in my 'real' life I could have simply politely asked, and he would explain that the rock's screaming was deceptive. If you fed it as much as it thought it wanted, it would grow and grow and grow with no upper limit.
It wasn't his smartest design and thankfully it couldn't reproduce, but he must actually be fond of it to put up with it given the risk.
This only showed all the more why my cover was so important. I could feel free to ask normal questions as 'the Ta-Matoran barge crewman' that the mysterious shapeshifter could never ask. And in this case likely Mind Skimming wouldn't have helped, as Mutran would have been used to it by now and wouldn't be focused so clearly on it.
Two more days wore on as I found myself unable to think of a way out of this mess.
I slept for the first night, but as it was looking more and more hopeless, I used Antisleep again the second night and decided to explore Xia and try to learn about some of the projects they were working on, so at least the extra time here would be useful.

I found many designs that were just being tweaked, or projects that were too new to tell where they might lead. Others were in prototype form and had not been decided on yet. But finally, I found a few with working final models that were not yet known to the public.
First, there was the Cordak Blaster, a six-barrel gatling gun that shot red mini-rockets which exploded on impact.


Its design actually came from a secretive outside source that was left unnamed. It seemed that the Xians were placing prime investments in its production, because it would fill a gap in ability that had been quite glaring for a while, made up for only by Toa of Fire and Plasma.
I wasn't sure I liked this direction.

The next weapon I found was being designed by a group of Matoran from an island in Mata Nui's right arm, called Nynrah. They had been competitors of Xia for a while, but eventually some had gotten the idea of working with the Vortixx to produce even better inventions, of the weapons category. A few even lived and worked on Xia.

Nicknamed the 'Nynrah Ghosts', they were all Matoran of Iron, highly skilled at forging metal components for the weapons.
The weapon in question was called the Nynrah Ghost Blaster because of this -- it was their first successful invention, the records showed, having been sold in many places already, though I had not heard of them, probably because they were too expensive for Shonin.


But it seemed that somehow the Vortixx had gotten their hands on the design and were now mass-producing knockoff copies by the same name.


The Ghost Blaster fired blunt-tipped arrow-like projectiles. They would give the user the ability to control any mechanical or most electronic devices that they hit. They could even give limited control of biomechanical beings' metal components.
I was most interested to find several prototypes and a finalized design of the Exo-Toa, the robotic suits I'd heard Mutran and Teridax talking about once on Destral.


In its robotic mode, it was essentially a titan standing about the height of a Toa and a half. A head was folded forward so its cameras could operate.

To be used as a suit for a Toa, the head folded back, appearing as a backpack of sorts, and the body of the robot would open up slightly so the Toa could fit inside.


It had a frontal armor plate to protect the Toa inside. On its right hand it had powerful punching claws that could also grip things. On the left, it could fire electro-rockets.


This was in the process of mass production now.
Ironically, this time the Nynrah Ghosts and the Vortixx actually worked together to aid the Brotherhood in designing it, probably thanks to the idea that Toa would control them. The Matoran made the designs based on specs from the Makuta, while the Vortixx focused on manufacturing.

I discovered a few more interesting things that night, but none more worth mentioning here, and returned to my cell.
Thankfully, Mutran himself returned the next day, telling the Vortixx that he'd forgotten a pet of his.
As soon as he was told of the disappearances, he put two and two together and assured the Vortixx that we were not to blame.
We were released, and word went out to avoid the strange multi-mouthed living rock.
I 'slept' that afternoon as well so I could witness Mutran arrive at the small mountain that the creature was becoming. It was so huge he had to crane his neck up to see it all.


He tried the power of Rahi Control on it, and a few others, to no avail.
"I'm afraid it's too deeply rooted," he told the Vortixx who had accompanied him. "I'm sorry for the mistake."
"Sorry enough to pay damages?" one asked.
With that, he left.
Over the next few centuries, I would return several more times to Xia with the barge. The mountain grew and grew, until it dominated the skyline, and eventually far surpassed it.


The Vortixx only made this worse, because they developed a sick rite of passage, where pairs of Vortixx would actually intentionally climb the mountain. Only those that returned were granted high rank in Xian society.
I once witnessed Roodaka and a green-armored Vortixx make this rite of passage.
At one time, his Catcher Claw got caught in one of the mouths. He could have gotten his hand free of the Claw if Roodaka would have come down to help. He shouted for her.
But she ignored him, using the moment of distraction to climb higher.


She reached the summit, and returned alone, as the mountain dragged the unfortunate male deeper into its gaping maw. Again I deeply regretted my foolish choice, and argued with myself constantly over whether I could afford to intervene. But he was dead before I could decide anything.
There had been witnesses to Roodaka's treachery, which was part of the rite -- telescopes with a Vision power were employed to watch each to make sure they reached the top.
I'd hoped they would punish her, but to my dismay, they awarded her an even higher rank than most ever attained through normal hard work.
Everyone I meet seems to go so wrong, I thought.
If only I could have seen how dark Roodaka would become.
Well, I had. I must have. The vision I'd received on that cliff had been so complete. I wished I'd understood it better.
Maybe something I'd done wrong during the brief time I'd known her had sent her down this path. Or maybe something I hadn't done -- I hadn't treated her like anybody important.
With Teridax, I wished that instead of digging into a cover and working to earn the ability to make powers to defend myself against him if he would ever go bad, I would have asked Mata Nui to introduce me to him, explain everything, and thank him for trying to save my life! The Teridax I'd met that day had been honorable and worthy of great admiration.
Oh how I wished I could turn the clock back.
It was ironic, I thought, how the slightest little rock could turn into a mountain if you let it fester.
Well, not everyone had gone bad. Really, it was only a select few, but they also seemed to be among the most important in the grand scheme of things.
Mutran's prediction about the shortages being temporary turned out to be true. Shonin was assigned only one guard, and only Metru Nui and a handful of other places agreed to pay his prices.
As for me, I found myself reluctant to choose the barge line of work permanently as I'd planned. I continued stealing from my Toolmaking job and experimenting on the side, making more and more Orbs of various powers. I felt that I might need them, but I could no longer distinguish the vision-guided intuition on this matter from my own selfish desires.
But I will have to decide soon.


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Chapter 28 -- Enough is Enough




One day, as the five-thousandth year since the Shattering approached, our barge was moving along the northern coast of the Southern continent, stopping at various ports to sell the wares of Metru Nui, when we were attacked by pirates.


Their boat appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, pulling alongside us.


One or two of them were members of the larger species, but most were Matoran. All of them had swapped out their normal masks for identical Noble Masks of Silence. I guessed they had used an actual Tool power of Silence in their engines to sneak up.




They carried Cordak Blasters. The leader pointed one at one of the crew as their boat pulled alongside ours.


"Surrender or he dies!" the pirate shouted over our combined engine noise.


I was Deck Boss by that time, and it was a very good thing. We all knew about Cordak by now -- we even had one in some dark locker somewhere, probably covered in mold. But only I had read the actual specs and test results on Xia, so I knew they could be deadly.


More importantly, I was a better judge of character. I saw the vacant but alert expressions on their face and I knew. They had killed before, and they were far beyond caring.


"I think we can take them," another crewman whispered to me, reaching toward one of our guns.


"No, Moavak," I said. "Stand down. That's an order."


Maglya's voice came over a loudspeaker. "What's going on out there?"


"Do as these Matoran say, Captain," I said. "They've got greatly superior firepower. I think they'd kill if we fought. We have no choice."


"Piraka," he replied, uttering a curse in the Matoran language reserved for thieves and murderers.


"Oh, indeed!" the leader said, as he climbed aboard. "Cut your engines. Everybody line up on the main deck in front of me. Now!"


Maglya repeated the order over the intercom for the sake of those Swabbers and Crewmen that were belowdecks. "No weapons," he concluded.


We all obeyed.


Then they ordered us to set down all our weapons, holsters, and scabbards.


Now, you can guess that by now I had realized this might happen, and shapeshifted accordingly. They hadn't been able to see me well until they boarded from where I was standing, so I'd made my belt, sword, and rifle seem to disappear. But everybody else's weapons were laid in a pile, and I figured they'd be taken on board the pirates' boat.


They ordered us to move belowdecks at gunpoint, then they locked us all in a storage room we'd emptied earlier.


There were breathing holes, but no way to unlock it from the inside. The possibility of accidentally locking oneself in had been considered -- the door was not very high-strength and could be broken open from the inside, but that would obviously make too much noise.


"What happened to your weapons?" Moavak whispered to me.


"I hid them," I answered cryptically, hoping they'd been too upset to notice I'd had no time to do so.


"So we can fight back?"


"No," Maglya said. "An order is an order."


The Ta-Matoran shrugged. I knew he wasn't satisfied with that. He was always the one to throw a temper tantrum when he didn't get his way, though he would seem to come to his senses later and apologize profusely. It wasn't in his nature to back down from the slightest challenge.


Whenever he was absolutely ordered to do so, he had an annoying habit of taking off his Mask of Emulation, turning it over in his hands as if he was considering crushing it, then putting it back on before he was too weakened. I guessed it was the only way he knew how to calm himself down, but it made everybody want to watch him carefully to make sure he didn't collapse, especially in rough weather when a stray wave could wash you right overboard with no trace. He did this now, over and over.




Of course, nobody dared advise him to stop, lest he blow up at them.


We heard noises for hours after that. I wished I could leave to spy on them at the very least, and preferably do something about them, but quarters were far too close in the room to risk leaving an intangible illusion in my place -- besides, the illusion would seem frozen in time so would attract attention.


Finally, the leader told us they'd loaded everything they could fit, and unlocked the door.


"Stay in there until you can't hear our engine anymore," he said. I noticed I could indeed hear it. I guessed that they'd turned off whatever power had dampened the sound earlier.


He backed out, keeping the Cordak Blaster trained on our door, and left.


"We could make a run for your weapons," Moavak whispered.


"And still be overpowered," I said. "There's a Brotherhood fortress nearby. We should just report the incident there."


Maglya agreed, but Moavak was obviously not happy with that answer. Chances were that our engines at top speed couldn't catch their cutter anyways, I figured, so it would have been pointless.


When all we could hear were the waves, we left and surveyed the loss.


All of our remaining items, food, and materials for trade had been stolen. And all the weapons the others could find except for a few, including that Cordak, in the lockers. Maglya kept the key on him and the pirates had evidently not thought of that.


Thankfully our own food was left alone, plus they left us enough fuel to take our pick of the nearest few ports.


When I came to where I had been standing, I walked to the nearest gap in the machinery and reached my hand in. I released the shapeshifting power so my things seemed to have been inside there the whole time, pulled them out, and donned them again.


Soon we put in at a rocky stretch of the coast. The Brotherhood's castle was a decorative but imposing structure at the top of a series of rock hills and cliffs. Mountains surrounded the area, making the sea the only reasonable approach for any invading army. None had yet tried as far as I knew, but there were several in the area, led by a variety of petty warlords.



We anchored offshore.


Maglya and I got in one of the smaller boats tied to the hull -- two of these had been stolen but several others remained. The pirates seemed at least to have a modicum of concern for our safety provided we didn't fight them; these boats also served as our emergency options in case we were to sink. As it was now we could all still fit in what we had left, but just barely.


As we approached the fortress, a Matoran called out for us to stop where we were and state our business.


"We've come to report an incident of piracy," Maglya said. "We're Metru Nui traders."


"Very well, proceed." We were directed to a courtyard garden and told to wait for the ranking Brotherhood servant to return from a trip. I noticed there were locks on the doors on the inside as well as the outer entryway.


Night fell before this servant returned. Maglya had fallen asleep, but I'd used the Antisleep power.


Suddenly, brilliant blue light shone from a point in the courtyard, and thunderous crackling energy awoke Maglya with a shriek of surprise.


Through the light, a silhouette seemed to appear, and then resolved into a golden titan walking through the shining portal.



The portal had appeared a few feet off the ground, and he landed, crouching to absorb the impact, in the garden.


In the same fluid motion, he spotted us and drew a double-ended blade. I saw that dark blue was his secondary color. His mask was one I would not have expected for a mere servant -- the Mask of Dimensional Gates. He could travel virtually anywhere he wished, or send others through such portals. I'd heard it was so rare as to be nearly nonexistent.



"Who goes there?" he challenged us.


Maglya timidly introduced us, repeated what he'd told the guard at the gate, and added a password he'd been ordered to give to prove the guard had let us in.


The titan relaxed. "Name's Brutaka. You can call me Lieutenant. Tell me more about the pirates."


He described them.


"I've heard of this bunch," Brutaka said. "Unfortunately, I've got my hands full dealing with the local warlords. I'm afraid this universe is just too big to expect the Brotherhood to have the manpower to deal with everything out there."


"You don't know where the pirates are based?" I asked.


"Apparently nowhere. They move around."


"They took an awful lot of stuff," Maglya countered. "If they're hitting people the way they hit us often there wouldn't be enough room on the cutter we saw."


"Others have seen a larger ship," Brutaka said. "They don't keep a camp on land, I meant. Nowhere to track them down to."


"Perhaps a Makuta could assign some Rahkshi to the task?" Maglya asked.


"They have tried in other areas, actually," Brutaka said. "These gangs of criminals, including pirates, are well aware of the limitations of Rahkshi intelligence. It's gone nowhere. And before you ask whether there are enough Toa to try it, there aren't. Toa have more specific and generally more important tasks than chasing down petty thieves."


Neither of us dared ask if a Makuta could handle it personally, knowing we would just be laughed off as full of ourselves.


It was obvious the Brotherhood would do nothing, so we left to head to the nearest village where we could buy fuel. However, we had no money and nothing to trade, except our ability to work for it. So we took local jobs for a few months until we could afford enough fuel to return home.


Several weeks into this wait, Moavak disappeared.


We were dismayed that he would actually act on his impulses. There was nowhere for him to go, however, and he eventually returned, having spent everything he'd earned up until then in a fruitless quest between this village and a neighboring village. There, he'd had to work for about that many weeks just to buy a cart ride back to us. After a stern verbal lashing from Maglya, he vowed never to be so brash again.


When we got home, I immediately took a few days off and headed down to the control room.


The Energy Hound, who I'd named Spinax after his spiky spine, was almost out of food. I'd considered the possibility of such a delay, especially given what had happened when I witnessed the creation of the Makuta, so I'd made a large device that would dispense food at the push of a large lever, and trained Spinax to use it. Now I was thinking I should make it larger...


But really, what if I was to die? Or just be delayed too long, regardless of the size of the machine?


This really wasn't a good place for a dog. I could barely spend any time in here to hold my cover.


It was time to think about giving him up, as hard as that was to consider. And Brutaka's statements had been giving me some ideas...


I'd been watching the screens all this time, whenever I had a spare moment. As crime and discontentment spread, the maintenance work on the giant robot had slowed.


Mata Nui's health was slowly diminishing. I had no idea how low it could go before he would be in serious risk -- chances were it depended on which parts broke when -- but anything less than perfect balance of repair for every bit of damage sustained would eventually add up to a system crash.


I erased the old clay message and put a new one begging Mata Nui to contact me to solve this spreading chaos.


What I didn't mention was my fear that any significant weakness could result in Teridax thinking of the idea to take control and perhaps even acting on it. Of course, that was much easier said than done, especially since as far as I knew, Teridax had no idea we were all living inside a giant space-traveling robot.


Several months passed, as I slowly h