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In the End

Dawn Duology The Shikaverse Shika Trilogy Dimension Hoppers Finale

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#1 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Apr 07 2014 - 08:51 AM

Hi and welcome all to my newest epic, In the End, the final book in the Dawn Duology and the final epic set in my Bionicle fanfic universe (aka the Shikaverse). This epic is a sequel to Dawn of the New Century, which you can read about here. I highly recommend that you read Dawn first, otherwise this epic won't make a lot of sense.

Once In the End is fully posted, it will be 20 chapters (not counting the prologue). I will post one chapter a week every Monday. Any alterations in the posting schedule will be noted on my blog or in the review topic.
 

Table of Contents:

Prologue

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV


With that out of the way, enjoy:
 

Prologue


150,000+ years ago. . . .

The tiny Sawori named Jinka ran through the castle hallways as fast as her short legs could carry her. She ran by guards, who recognized her as the King's messenger, servants scrubbing the floors (almost tripping over a bucket of water in her haste to reach the throne room), and a Heratonian noble who under normal circumstances she would have stopped to greet. Instead, she shoved him aside and muttered a half-apology, even with the knowledge that she would probably get in trouble for that later.

Right now, she needed to find the King and tell him about the visitors who were waiting for him outside the castle. She had no idea who they were; however, she sensed that to stand against them would be every bit as foolish as standing against the storm, and probably more lethal.

She eventually reached the large double doors coated in gold that protected the King's throne room like a pair of sentinels. It took her a few more minutes to argue with the actual guards to let her in. They insisted that the King wanted complete privacy, whereas she insisted that the King could not afford to ignore her message. They eventually relented, although she caught them muttering foul curses at her under their breath as they opened the doors.

When Jinka entered the throne room, she couldn't help but glanced around in awe even as her feet carried her forward. Unlike the rest of the castle, the throne room was bathed in life. Instead of a carpet, a fine layer of grass covered the floor, while vines of various colors covered the walls and ceiling, twisted together to resemble paintings or wallpaper. A tiny stream with a bridge built over it flowed through the center of the room, emerging from the right wall and going down the drain at the other end. It was like stepping outdoors.

At the other end of the room, the throne was bare. Worried, Jinka almost turned around to leave before a soft, though authoritative, voice said, “Jinka, what brings you here?”

Startled, Jinka looked around until she spotted a large, well-armored being kneeling in the center of a small garden of flowers and vegetables in the lower left corner of the room. She wondered how she had missed him, because he was so much larger than anything else in the room, although she reminded herself that the King's armor was capable blending in with nature in ways none of the Sawori understood.

With the King's eyes on her, Jinka bowed deeply and she said, “King Atuje, you have six visitors who wish to speak with you.”

The King of Life lifted a small watering can and poured some water on his flowers as he said, “Who are these six, Jinka? Emissaries from the south?”

“No, my lord,” said Jinka, shaking her head. “They're, well, they're hard to describe. I have no idea who they are or where they even came from. They simply demanded an audience with you.”

Atuje looked up at her. His eyes were searing, searching, as if he knew every secret she had ever held in her entire life. Few Sawori were capable of standing underneath that gaze and Jinka was no exception, shrinking back under his burning eyes as she would from a large fire.

“Six strangers show up on my doorstep demanding an audience with me and you don't bother finding out their names, at the very least?” said Atuje. “I am disappointed with you, Jinka. I thought you knew better.”

The disappointment in his voice was perhaps worse than his gaze, prompting Jinka to say hastily, “Well, my lord, I can describe them to you. They're tall, but not as tall as you, and wear black cloaks. And they, well, they radiate this power that reminded me of yours, so I thought-”

“I have no equals,” said Atuje. “I would know about them if I did. You must be mistaken.”

Jinka wanted to agree with Atuje under the weight of his gaze and words, but something inside her – that stubborn spirit that had earned her a beating more than once as a child – kept her mouth going. “No, my lord, they really do radiate the kind of power you wield. It's different, obviously, but I can tell it equals yours.”

Atuje stopped watering his flowers. For a moment, Jinka feared punishment for her insolence, but then the King said, “Yes . . . you are right. I sense their power now. It is not insignificant, to be sure.”

Jinka breathed a sigh of relief. “Do you wish for me to go down and retrieve them, sir?”

“No need for that,” said an unfamiliar voice behind her. “We're already here.”

Startled, Jinka looked over her shoulder and saw the six visitors from before standing in front of the closed double doors. She didn't know how they had gotten there. She hadn't heard the doors open and they certainly hadn't climbed in through one of the windows, as those were closed shut.

“I should be a more considerate host,” said Atuje as he placed his watering can down and stood up. “My name is King Atuje, the King of Life and ruler of Heratone. What are your names?”

The lead visitor took a step forward, causing Jinka to scramble out of his way so as to not be in the middle of things, like a good servant. “You can call us the Great Beings. My name is Angonce.”

“You did not introduce the rest of your friends,” Atuje said. “Are they simply your servants or are you forgetful?”

The one named Angonce shook his head. “Their names aren't important right now. At least, they won't be until we're done talking.”

“And what makes you assume I wish to speak with any of you?” Atuje asked. “You rudely barged into my throne room and refuse to tell me your names. To me, this seems like the genesis of an invasion.”

“Rest assured, King of Life, that we have no intention of taking your realm from you,” said Angonce, gesturing to one of the windows. “We are already the rulers of our own world, anyway. And honestly, one world is more than enough to occupy our time, so why would we ever want another world?”

“There are some beings who do not use reason,” Atuje said as he picked a flower from his garden and sniffed it. “In my time, I've met more than a few power-hungry fools who let their desire to be the king of the hill blind them from logic and reason. How can I be certain you are not the same?”

“Because you don't even know us yet,” Angonce said. “But we have heard of your power and knowledge, Atuje, and that is why we are here.”

“Explain yourself.”

“There's one thing you need to know about us Great Beings,” said Angonce, gesturing at his group. “The one thing we value above all else – above money, above power, above even our own people – is creation. We are creators by nature, scientists who want to figure out how the universe works. It is our duty as creators to learn as much as we can about everything. Ignorance rarely created anything worthwhile, after all; at least, that is our belief.”

“So you have come to me for training or knowledge?” Atuje asked. “You sound like experienced creators already.”

“Both,” said Angonce. “We wish to be your apprentices for a short while, at least long enough to learn the one secret we know you hold.”

“And what might that secret be?” Atuje asked, dropping the tiny flower into the flowers at his feet.

“The secret to creating life,” Angonce answered. “True life, not just a robotic imitation. We have heard that you create beings and creatures that are every bit as living those birthed by nature, identical down to the last particle. We believe that the next step in our growth as creators is to create life.”

Curious, Jinka glanced at Atuje. All the Sawori knew about Atuje's secret, but none of them knew what it was. It was a secret Jinka was well-acquainted with, having had direct experience with it in the past. She only wished she could remember how Atuje had done it, although she supposed ignorance was for the best, as knowing how it was done would probably be useless information to her anyway.

Atuje stepped out of his tiny garden, carrying a carrot that Jinka had not seem him pick, and sat down on his throne, which was made entirely of tightly woven branches grown to resemble a chair. When he sat down, he took a bite out of his carrot and crunched on it thoughtfully for a moment before addressing the Great Beings again.

“That is perhaps the largest request anyone has made of me in the last ten years,” Atuje said. “And it is also the largest request I will have to deny in ten years.”

A shift in the room's atmosphere made Jinka look at the Great Beings. Though they didn't appear to have moved from their current position, she sensed they were ready to act at any moment. Considering the sheer amount of raw power their forms radiated, Jinka figured a conflict between them and Atuje would level the entire land or at least the castle and the surrounding countryside. She just hoped it wouldn't come to that.

“You deny our request?” Angonce said, the disbelief in his voice obvious, even though it was equally obvious he was trying to hide it.

“Of course,” said Atuje. “The knowledge needed to create true life is powerful. In the wrong hands, it could lead to untold destruction and chaos. Only a fool would hand out this knowledge to whoever asked for it. And I am no fool.”

Angonce took a deep breath and said, “Rest assured, Your Majesty, that we Great Beings have no intention of using this secret for malice. Our only desire is to create. Nothing more.”

“Have you heard the story of the logger?” Atuje said.

Angonce shook his head, as did the other Great Beings.

“Let me tell you it,” said Atuje. “Once, a long time ago, there was a Sawori logger who discovered a large forest previously unknown to his people. It was a beautiful forest, so beautiful that he didn't want to cut down any of the trees, despite the high quality wood that was abundantly available. He chose to keep this knowledge a secret until one of his friends convinced him to tell the rest of the world about it. 'Think of the money you could make,' his friend said, 'by selling this wonderful wood to the rest of the world.'

“Having spent his whole life on the edge of poverty, the logger agreed. He spread this knowledge far and wide to every corner of Heratone. When everyone heard of it, loggers from all over the country made a mad dash for the wood and leveled the entire forest in the process. Not a single tree survived the onslaught of wood-hungry loggers. The beauty that the logger had once loved so much was gone, so the logger – having nothing to look forward to but a continued life of poverty – killed himself, as these stories usually end.”

“I'm afraid we're not much for stories,” said Angonce. “Nothing you say will dissuade us from getting that knowledge.”

“The moral of the story is that good intentions often have bad consequences,” Atuje said. “Besides, I haven't even perfected the technique yet. All of my creations have never been truly living. They have always required some mechanical parts on my end so they can function. Jinka, come here.”

Trembling, Jinka nonetheless obediently approached her master. When she reached his throne, she stopped and stood with her back to the Great Beings. She tried not to look up at Atuje's face, as she had an idea of what he was about to do and looking at him would just make it worse.

“Jinka is one of my creations,” said Atuje, patting her gently on the head with one of his heavy hands. “One of the best, in fact. She is the only one who has managed to successfully integrate with Sawori society. I can sense you are surprised. She does look very much like your average Sawori, doesn't she?”

In spite of herself, Jinka began breathing hard. She reminded herself that Atuje was a fair and merciful ruler, that he hated killing, and that whatever he was planning to do to her wouldn't be cruel or unnecessary, probably wouldn't even hurt in fact.

None of that calmed her in the slightest.

“That is an illusion, however, crafted by my ingenious hand,” Atuje continued. “Watch.”

Atuje wrapped his thick fingers around her right arm, causing Jinka to whimper.

“What are you going to do to her?” Angonce said. “She whimpered.”

“It is nothing, I assure you,” said Atuje. “She is going to be fine. The way I built her makes what I am going to do possible without leaving any permanent damage.”

Without warning, Atuje ripped off Jinka's right arm. Behind her, the Great Beings let out various noises of disgust and surprise, but Jinka didn't join them. She just looked at the socket where her right arm had been. A hollow socket was all that was left, but Jinka didn't cry out, even though she wanted to. She just waited patiently as Atuje lifted her disconnected arm up for the Great Beings to see.

“Behold,” said Atuje in the voice of a creator explaining the intricacies of his craft. “Her entire body is like that. About the only part that cannot be taken off in that way is her head; otherwise, she would die.”

“So she's not really alive at all,” said Angonce. “Just a puppet.”

Those words stabbed at Jinka's heart like a knife as Atuje said, “Hardly a puppet. While she may not be perfectly organic, she is nonetheless one of my subjects and I will not tolerate such an insult to her being.”

Atuje reconnected her right arm. Jinka swiveled it several times back and forth, trying to make sure he had put it back on correctly. She realized she was holding her breath, which she let out rather more loudly than she intended.

“Do you still want to know how to create life?” Atuje asked. “After what I just showed you?”

Jinka glanced over her shoulder at the Great Beings. Though they still faced Atuje, she sensed they had all come to some sort of agreement without saying a word.

“Of course,” said Angonce, without a hint of hesitation in his voice. “We want more than anything else to improve our craft. Besides, we can already see ways to improve your work, if Jinka is representative of your ability.”

Atuje stroked his chin. “If I accept you as apprentices, what will I get in exchange? What do you have to offer me that I cannot get on my own?”

“Another secret of our own,” said Angonce. “One we know you don't know. It is called soul-splitting.”

Atuje's interest was apparently piqued at the mention of that technique, as he leaned forward in his throne, although Jinka didn't know what the term meant.

“You mean you know how to split souls?” Atuje asked.

Angonce nodded. “All of us do. And we've agreed to exchange that secret for yours. We believe the exchange is fair. Do you agree?”

“It is more than fair,” said Atuje. “It is generous. You are going to tell me how to cheat death, how to survive long after my physical body has given out in exhaustion. Do you realize what that means?”

“Of course we do,” said Angonce. “But cheating death is useless if we do not know how to bring about life, wouldn't you agree? We can complete one another's mental libraries with an exchange of knowledge.”

“Oh, yes,” said Atuje. “Yes, yes, of course. I will teach you what I know and you will teach me what you know. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Angonce. “Now where shall we begin?”

“I will take you to my laboratory,” said Atuje. “I can only perform my experiments down there. Jinka, I want you to inform the rest of the castle that we have guests whose will require accommodations similar to my own.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jinka, bowing. “I will make sure everyone in the castle knows.”

With that, Jinka dashed away from Atuje's throne, perhaps a bit quicker than she should have. She passed the six Great Beings, who barely acknowledged her, and reached the large double doors. When she stopped to look back, she saw that Atuje and the Great Beings were already deep in talk about matters she couldn't possibly comprehend.

What am I doing? Jinka thought. I've got a job to do, one that doesn't involve gawking at our guests.

Still, as Jinka exited the throne room and dashed down the stairs, she couldn't help but sense of feeling of ominousness hang over her head like a dark cloud. She ignored it, however, as she came upon the first of her fellow servants and began explaining to him what Atuje had told her. Whatever happened would be under the King's power. She had no right to worry about it.




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Edited by TNTOS, Jul 21 2014 - 09:50 AM.

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#2 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Apr 14 2014 - 08:40 AM

Chapter I


Present day. . . .

Masqouth, revolutionary leader and lover of all things theatrical and dramatic, walked down the narrow, dank stairwell, his Mask of Night Vision allowing him to see where he was going. Behind him walked Jeran, Wavica, and Asroth, the latter of whom thought this entire thing was a waste of time and had wasted no time herself repeating that thought for the last ten minutes.

“Why did Atuje order us to go down here?” Asroth asked. “Is he just trying to suffocate us underneath tons and tons of rubble?”

Masqouth briefly glanced at the ceiling before returning his attention to the stairs before them. “I didn't know you were claustrophobic, Asroth.”

“I'm not,” said Asroth, although even Masqouth could tell she was lying. “I'm just saying I'd rather be back on the surface fighting with the Kra-Matoran. Has anyone even been here before?”

Masqouth looked at the slimy, old walls on either side and said, “Something about this place is awfully familiar to me, but I can't quite place it.”

“I didn't even know this placed existed until Atuje told us about it,” said Jeran, fingering the handle of his new scythe, which he had received as a gift from the Kra-Matoran after freeing them. “It was rather well hidden in the castle basement, wasn't it? I doubt even the Kra-Matoran knew about it and they've lived in this castle for years.”

“And that's why I'm so worried about it,” Asroth said. “What if there's something dangerous down there? And why'd he wait a week to call us down here, if it's so important?”

“Asroth, stop being paranoid,” said Wavica. “Atuje would never send us to our deaths. Though he may be tough, he's not cruel.”

“You're only saying that because you know he can hear us,” Asroth muttered.

Wavica tapped the stone walls as she said, “I've simply learned to respect true authority and power. It's something you might want to think about doing yourself, Asroth.”

Evidently, Asroth didn't like that, because she and Wavica argued the rest of the way down. Masqouth ignored them, as he was fascinated by the mysterious nature of the stairwell. Where did it lead? Who made it? Why did it seem so familiar to Masqouth? What did Atuje intend to show them?

So many unanswered questions, Masqouth thought. I must have the answers.

Jeran, for his part, kept quiet. More than once, Masqouth wondered what was going through the gray hunchback's mind. Two of the Toa they had kidnapped for their plan had been Jeran's friends in another universe. Not to mention that Jeran hated the Kra-Matoran (a fact Masqouth knew, despite his friend's attempts to hide it). Masqouth always wondered what Atuje had promised Jeran to get him to work for him, but whatever it was, Masqouth decided it was irrelevant to their current situation.

After several more minutes of walking (and Asroth and Wavica arguing), the four Echoes finally reached the bottom. They now stood before a large wooden door that looked like it had been standing there for eons. It stood flush with the stone around it, making Masqouth doubt he could open it, even though it didn't appear to be locked.

“A door,” said Asroth. “If I wanted to see a door-”

“Atuje wants us to see what's behind the door,” said Masqouth. “Let me see if I can open it.”

His Kanohi Animus transformed into the Mask of Strength, he grabbed the door handle, and pulled.

It didn't budge.

So he tried to push.

Still didn't budge.

Taking a step back, Masqouth gestured at the others to retreat. “Step back. I think you're going to see more splinters flying today than you've ever seen in your life.”

The other three Echoes backed up around the corner. Once they were out of sight, Masqouth turned back to the door and charged at it. He slammed both of his fists into the door with all of his might and the old, wooden door – as strong as it must have been in its day – snapped off its hinges and fell backwards with a loud, echoing boom. Dust and splinters flew into the air, some of it dirtying his robes and getting into Masqouth's eyes.

As soon as they heard the boom, the other Echoes cautiously peeked around the corner. When Masqouth waved at them, they rejoined him and entered the new chamber beyond the fallen door. Like everywhere in Wyoko, the chamber was pitch-black, so dark that even Masqouth's Mask of Night Vision seemed incapable of truly piercing the shadows.

Then, without warning, the lights turned on. Masqouth had to close his eyes to avoid getting blinded. As soon as he was sure his eyes had adjusted, he opened them up and looked around curiously at the chamber they had entered.

It was a large, round chamber, like a cylinder, with straight walls that went all the way up to the dome-like ceiling. A string of glowing lights hung on the walls, which was the source of the light. It was a less claustrophobic room than the staircase had been; at least, Asroth didn't look quite as anxious as she had before.

The chamber's most striking feature, however, was the Toa-sized coffin propped up on a table in the middle. It was that coffin that caused Masqouth's memories to explode and start flooding his brain like a rushing river.

“I know where we are,” said Masqouth, snapping his fingers. “Atuje told me to go down here once. I remember.”

“What did you do down here?” Jeran asked.

Before Masqouth could answer, a voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once spoke. It reminded Masqouth of roaring waterfalls and the swaying of trees in the wind, like nature itself was speaking to them. Atuje's voice always made him feel that way.

“I am pleased to see you all made it promptly,” said the disembodied voice. “Today will be the day of my resurrection and you shall be witnesses to my return to glory.”

A presence like water filled the room, making Masqouth's every movement feel like walking underwater. Yet it was a comforting presence, as he recognized it for whose it was and so felt safe.

“What are you talking about, Your Majesty?” Asroth asked. “How are you going to come back to life?”

“It's simple,” said Atuje's voice. “Or rather, it is simple to me. Your minds lack the training necessary to comprehend what I am about to do. But do not worry; it is the results that matter, not the method. Now watch and be amazed.”

Masqouth felt a great surge of energy build up in the center of the chamber, right above the coffin. It was like water was being held back by a great, big dam, but this dam was about to break any minute. And when it did, it would flood them all.

Without any sort of warning beforehand, a gigantic, a black lightning bolt struck the coffin, creating a shock wave that knocked all of the Echoes back. Black electricity – at least, that's what it looked like to Masqouth, although he didn't really know what it was – arced up and down the coffin.

The coffin was shaking, shaking so hard that it looked like it was about to explode. But Masqouth knew it wouldn't.

And then, just like that, the coffin ceased shaking entirely. It lay on the table quite still, almost as if it hadn't been struck by a black lightning bolt at all. The four Echoes watched it with held breath. At least, the others seemed to be holding their breaths. Masqouth wasn't, as being a robot he was incapable of breathing air at all.

The lid of the coffin creaked open and a figure slowly sat up. He shook his head and then looked at his own hands in amazement, as if he couldn't believe what he was looking at. Then he turned to face the Echoes with a wide, triumphant smile on his face as he swung his legs over the edge of the coffin and jumped out.

Unfortunately, Atuje was less graceful on his feet than he had been sitting down. He staggered and fell to his knees, using his hands to cushion the blow from landing on the floor. He slowly stood back up, but he was now holding onto the coffin itself to help him balance.

Atuje's new body was familiar to Masqouth, although it looked a lot better than it did when he had put it here. It was that of a Gadarian, of the Water Tribe if the blue armor was an indication. He wore a rounded helmet with a few spikes sticking out of it. All in all, he was probably not much taller than Masqouth, but the sheer power he controlled still radiated from his being like the heat from the sun.

Atuje raised his hand as the Echoes watched. “Look at my new body. It is not as grand or magnificent as my old body, perhaps, but for now it will have to do.”

“I had no idea you had something like this prepared,” said Asroth. “Where did that body come from? Never seen it before.”

“Let me explain,” said Masqouth. “You see, Asroth, this body used to belong to a Gadarian named Eiflda. She died, however, and no one claimed her body. I took it, as per Atuje's orders, and placed it here. It was such a long time ago that I had forgotten all about it until now.”

“She?” Asroth questioned. She looked at Atuje and said, “No offense, Your Majesty, but it doesn't bother you as a male that you have a female's body?”

“Why would it?” Atuje asked. “Life is life no matter what its gender may be. All I needed was a suitable body to place my spirit in. Eiflda's was a good as anyone's, so I took it. It was even more useful because no one had buried it.”

Asroth shrugged. “Just kind of freaks me out. Does that make you male or female?”

“It makes me, me,” said Atuje, still gazing at his own hand. “I have been without a body for so long that I forgot how amazing one is. All these sensations will take some time to adjust to.”

“Excuse me, sir,” said Jeran, “but I think we're all a bit puzzled here. How did you put your spirit in this body?”

Atuje lowered his hand and took a few tentative steps away from the coffin. When it was clear that he wasn't going to fall over, he started walking toward the Echoes. As he did so, Jeran, Asroth, and Wavica clasped their hands over their noses, causing Masqouth to look at them in surprise.

“What's the problem?” Masqouth asked. “Do you smell something?”

“It's . . .” Asroth coughed before she could continue. “Atuje's body. It smells like death.”

Atuje stopped about halfway over to them and said, “I suppose we didn't really do much to preserve the body before we put it here. I will bathe at a later point; for now, let me explain to you how I pulled this trick off. As my loyal subjects who have followed my dictates to their letter, I will reward you with the knowledge to cheat death, although I admit I can only give you a basic explanation, lacking as you do the training and experience I have in these matters.”

The King of Life put one hand over his heartlight and said, “You see, prior to my first death, I learned of a technique known as soul-splitting. To put it in ridiculously simple terms, the technique allows the individual to divide their soul however many times they want. The individual can then place parts of their soul in anything; objects, land, even inside of other beings.”

“Really?” said Asroth, her hand still covering her nose. “Sounds to me like you could live forever that way. Wanna teach me how you do it?”

“It's hardly as glamorous as it sounds,” said Atuje. “Soul-splitting is painful to the extreme because it requires dividing the one thing that is supposed to remain whole: the spirit. Most beings who do it, perform it only once, and never consider it again for the rest of their life, as the very memory of it is like experiencing it again. I did it only once.”

Asroth grinned. “I can take a lot of pain, Your Majesty.”

“There are other dangers to it as well,” Atuje continued. “For one, you are never quite the same person after you've done it once. I do not know all the ways in which my personality has been changed, but I am certain that I am no longer the same Atuje I once was. There is also the danger of splitting yourself too widely; if you do that, you will essentially cease to exist.”

“Cease to exist?” said Asroth with a gulp. “That sounds, um-”

“Furthermore,” said Atuje, gesturing at the chamber, “you can't always be certain your other half will survive. Assume, for example, you place half of your soul in a jar. If that jar is smashed, you will lose half of your soul forever. It is irretrievable, which is why I placed half of my soul in Wyoko itself. It was the only way to be certain I would survive if I died.”

Asroth looked a bit put off by Atuje's words, but Masqouth said, “That is so cool. But if you could just do this whenever you wanted-”

“Hardly, Masqouth,” said Atuje, shaking his head. “The problem with placing one's soul in the land is that resurrection is impossible unless the land is devoid of its sentient inhabitants. That is the primary reason I had you free the Kra-Matoran; so long as the Kra-Matoran lived here and called it home, my soul would never be able to take back a new body. Believe me, I tried and failed before that. I know what I am talking about. Hence why I waited a week for all of the Kra-Matoran to leave the land.”

“Oh,” said Masqouth. “I always wondered why you wanted them free. I mean, of course, I knew why I wanted them free, but I never understood why you wanted it, Your Majesty. If that makes sense.”

Atuje shrugged. “Now you know. Anyway, it is time I leave, I believe. With my body in hand, I have some urgent business to attend to that I simply cannot ig-”

Without warning, Atuje's eyes widened and his hand flew to his chest. He staggered, almost fell to his knees, but managed to catch himself without much trouble. He looked down at his chest, a mixture of terror and realization dawning on his face.

Worried, Masqouth asked, “My lord? What happened just now?”

The King looked up at his Echoes and said, with a grunt, “Nothing. My half-soul is just . . . adjusting to this new body. I am feeling perfectly fine. There is no need to worry.”

Something in Atuje's voice made Masqouth doubt that, but he squashed those doubts. Why would Atuje not share his problems with the Echoes, if they truly were as serious as they looked? Didn't Atuje know how much all of them cared about his wellbeing?

“What is this urgent business, my lord?” Jeran asked.

Atuje looked up at the ceiling as if lost in thought as he said, “I have to go meet the Almighty Ones; you know, my old friends. It has been such a long time since I last saw them. In fact, did you know the whole reason I wanted to come back to life was so I could go talk to them again?”

“Really?” said Masqouth in surprise. “You knew my parents? I can't believe it. I want to come with you. It's been so long since I last saw them that I can't even name how many years have passed. It's amazing.”

But Atuje held up one hand. “Sorry, Masqouth, but I must do this alone. After all, you haven't killed nearly as many beings as your parents have. It seems a bit premature, in my opinion, to go and brag to them about your kill list when it is so small. Do you understand?”

The feelings of excitement and hope that had filled Masqouth previously died out just then, causing the Echo to slump his shoulders and sigh, “Oh, I guess you're right, Atuje. It's just been so long. . . .”

Atuje placed one hand on Masqouth's shoulder and said, “I know. And eventually, you will meet your parents. I simply want to see them again first, to make sure we're all on the same track, and that there is no confusion about our intentions.”

“What confusion could there be, my lord?” Masqouth asked. “If you're friends with my parents, then surely they will be thrilled to see us again.”

Atuje sighed. “This is where things have become complicated, I am afraid. You remember Toa Kiriah and the Gadarian, Jetrupi?”

“Yes, sir,” said Masqouth, nodding. “They're both dead, aren't they?”

“Not quite,” said Atuje. “They have both survived. They were rescued at the last minute by the Almighty Ones.”

“What?” said Masqouth. “Impossible. I know Kiriah was saying she worked for my parents, but she had to be making it up. Why would my parents hire someone to get in our way?”

“It appears to have been a simple misunderstanding,” said Atuje. “I've kept this whole thing a secret, so it would be a wonderful surprise when the time came, but alas, it appears to have backfired. Hence why I am going alone to clear things up.”

“That's a rather big misunderstanding if you ask me,” said Jeran, folding his arms.

“Yes, well, sometimes people make big mistakes,” said Atuje with a sigh. “Such is life. Anyway, before I go, I need to discuss another important matter with you four: The future of Wyoko, or, as I shall now call it, Heratone.”

“What about it, my lord?” said Masqouth. “What are you going to do with it?”

Atuje walked up to the walls of the chamber, dusted off part of it, and said, “Tell me, my Echoes, what do you see?”

The four Echoes crowded around Atuje to look at the section of the wall he had dusted off. It looked like a carving of a forest to Masqouth, although it was old and faded. Yet even while faded, its realistic design reminded Masqouth heavily of the Wyokan forests.

“You may not know this, but Wyoko was not always a land of shadow,” said Atuje. “At one point in the past, it was a land of light and life. It was only after a series of unfortunate circumstances that I failed to prevent that resulted in Wyoko becoming the desolate wasteland it is today.”

“What were these 'unfortunate circumstances' that you speak of, sir?” asked Jeran.

“They are unimportant,” said Atuje, waving him off. “The point is, with the Kra-Matoran gone, I can finally begin the long process of restoring Wyoko to its original glory. This is my ultimate goal. After so many years of watching the Kra-Matoran ravage my home, I am now prepared to return it to its true self.”

“Right away?” Jeran asked. “Because Wyoko is a big place. Not that I doubt you can do it, sir, but-”

“It will take a while,” said Atuje. “Which is why I first wish to speak to the Almighty Ones. I might even be able to convince them to help me. With their wide range of knowledge, powers, and skills, surely they must know something to help restore my land, to rid it of the shadow that has cloaked it for untold thousands of years.”

“I'm sure they will help,” said Masqouth. “They're always willing to help a friend. They're the best.”

“Yes, indeed,” said Atuje in agreement. “Now I must leave.”

A dimensional portal opened not far away, which Atuje stepped toward before Asroth said, “But Your Majesty, what are we supposed to do in the meantime?”

Atuje stopped and looked at them, as though he had forgotten who they were. “What?”

“Us,” Asroth said, pointing at herself and the other Echoes. “While you're out talking to the Almighty Ones, what are we supposed to do? Sit around here and do nothing?”

For a moment, irritation flashed across Atuje's eyes, only to be replaced by his solemn, understanding gaze a moment later. “Stay here and protect Kafor and the Toa prisoners. Make sure no one gets to them. I have plans for those six, plans I cannot allow to be derailed. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said Masqouth, saluting the King. “We won't let even an ant get to them, Your Majesty.”

“I am sure you won't, Masqouth,” said Atuje. “I will be sure to mention your diligence to your parents when I see them. They will undoubtedly be proud to hear that their son is doing a fine job.”

Masqouth beamed. “Okay, but don't yet tell them how many people the Kra-Matoran have killed yet. I don't know yet myself, but I want it to be a surprise. I'll be just like them.”

“Of course,” said Atuje. “I would never think to do that. I will be back hopefully shortly. In the meantime, remember my words, my Echoes. Because when this is all over, I will need those Toa and Kafor in order to do what I must do very soon.”



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#3 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Apr 21 2014 - 08:43 AM

Chapter II


Ten years ago. . . .

The Skrall stepped off the float bus onto the narrow sidewalk. This actually wasn't his stop; however, he had spent the last half hour listening to a crazy, probably homeless Po-Matoran ramble on about how the International Akilini League was secretly in control of all the governments on Spherus Magna and how everyone but him was brainwashed for failing to see the obvious signs of this conspiracy, the clearest of which was the IAL's presence in every country in the world (even though, to the Skrall's knowledge, the IAL only had a presence in every Republic country, not in the countries controlled by the League of Lords).

The Skrall had been tempted to punch out the Po-Matoran, but when he realized that would get him kicked off the bus, he decided to get off early and search for the place he was looking for on foot.

He looked at the place he had gotten off at. It was a rundown area of New Atero, located in the southeast end. He saw burnt out apartment buildings, homeless beings sleeping on stoops or inside trash cans, and smelled the stink of rotten food everywhere. The Skrall wondered if this was actually where his employer had told him to go or if he had accidentally gotten on the wrong bus. He decided to consult the letter he had gotten, telling him the date and location of his new workplace.

Fishing the letter out of his bag, the Skrall unfolded it and looked at the address scribbled hastily on the page: 829 East Kanoka Street.

He looked up at a nearby sign, which read '828 East Kanoka Street.' That meant he was only about a street away from his destination. He would have to walk quickly if he wanted to make it there on time.

Stuffing the letter back into his bag, the Skrall began to walk down the street in the direction he needed to go. He felt vulnerable without his sword and shield, but citizens and visitors weren't allowed to carry weapons within New Atero's city limits. Besides, the scum that lived in these parts was too cowardly even to try to take on a fully-trained Skrall warrior in a fight. They instead preyed on weak Matoran and Agori, which did not bother the Skrall in the slightest.

As it turned out, there was not just one someone, but several someones dumb enough to take on a Skrall. As the Skrall turned down the street, he became aware that he was being followed by multiple people, but whenever he looked, he didn't see anyone except a Kinloka digging through an overturned trash can for food.

Just as the Skrall decided he was being paranoid, a Gadarian stepped out of a nearby alley. The Gadarian appeared to be a member of the Jungle Tribe, based on his green armor, with a knife in hand that looked like kind of garbage an undisciplined fighter like him would carry. He approached the Skrall with a toothy grin, which might have made him look friendly if his teeth weren't as rotted as the roofs of several nearby buildings.

“Hey, there,” said the Gadarian in a falsetto. “Bucket-head. You lost?”

The Skrall stopped and glared at the Gadarian. “Hardly. I have an important appointment to attend to and I am in a hurry. Unless you happen to be with Ignika Industries, I have no time to stay and chat.”

“Ain't with no respectable company like that,” said the Gadarian. “Name's Vaner. I'm what you'd call a goods dealer. I convince you to give up your goods and no one needs to get hurt.”

“You mean you're a mugger,” the Skrall said. “Or are knives standard equipment among respectable 'goods dealers' nowadays?”

Vaner's eyes narrowed. “Call me what you like, it don't matter. I'm going to slit your throat and take your money just the same.”

The Skrall shook his head. “You think you can take me on your own? Look at you. You're skin and bones.”

Vaner chuckled. “I'm no fool. I know better than to pick fights I can't win. That's why I'm not alone, see.”

The Skrall heard movement behind him and glanced over his shoulder. At least half a dozen other Gadarians had emerged from the alleyways and were already forming a loose circle around the Skrall and Vaner. They all looked as skinny and food-deprived as Vaner, but with them all together like this, the Skrall began to doubt his own abilities.

“We can do this the easy way,” said Vaner. “You give us your money. We let you go. No need for anyone to get hurt.”

Instinctively, the Skrall wrapped his fingers around his money bag. “I would be a dishonorable coward if I let a bunch of dirty crooks take my money without a fight.”

“I forgot,” Vaner said with a chuckle. “You're a Skrall. Honor is all you ever think about. Maybe you shouldn't be so uptight. Learn to enjoy life a little.”

“Perhaps you should learn to make an honest living,” the Skrall said. “And maybe see a dentist while you're at it.”

Vaner scowled and raised his knife. “Enough chitchat. Looks like you aren't going to do things the easy way. Time to do it the hard way, then.”

The other Gadarians had knives as well and began advancing on the Skrall. Unarmed and unprepared, the Skrall doubted he could beat them; however, Grandfather had taught him to fight no matter what, even if the odds were strictly against you. At least that way he would go down fighting, maybe even take a few of them with him in the process.

Just as the Skrall was beginning to figure out his first move, a fire bolt came out of nowhere and struck Vaner's hand. The Gadarian let out a string of foul curses as he dropped his knife. The other Gadarians looked around in surprise, as if trying to find out where that fire bolt had come from.

Amateurs, the Skrall thought.

He knocked Vaner's legs out from underneath him and kicked the fallen Gadarian in the gut even as more fire bolts flew out of the darkness. Some struck the crooks, while others merely hit the street. Nonetheless, they all had the same effect of frightening the muggers, making them run away in fear from the sudden onslaught of fire and heat.

The only one who had any guts was Vaner, who rolled away from the Skrall and was on his feet in an instant. He didn't even look around for the assailant. He charged at the Skrall, drawing another knife from the belt around his waist as he did so with his unburned hand. With a wicked smile, Vaner stabbed at the Skrall, which the warrior dodged. Vaner kept at it, stabbing and slashing at him with shocking speed.

“You should have run when you got the chance,” said the Skrall, twisting his body to avoid getting skewered by Vaner. “Your friends did.”

Vaner snarled. “I ain't afraid of fire. I-”

Without warning, another fire bolt shot out from the darkness and struck Vaner's face. The Gadarian howled in pain as he dropped his second knife and ripped his now-burning helmet off his face and threw it away.

This gave the Skrall the opportunity he had been waiting for. He headbutted the helmet-less Vaner and knocked him to the ground. Then the Skrall pinned Vaner underneath one foot, scooped up the fallen knife, and pointed its tip directly at Vaner's exposed face.

Without his helmet, Vaner looked even uglier than before, with a long, thick scar running across the bridge of his nose. The Skrall didn't let down his guard, however, knowing as he did how dangerous this mugger could be if given an opening.

“Don't move,” the Skrall said. “I am a trained Skrall warrior. I know more ways to use this knife to cut out your throat than there are Kanohi. Don't think for even a moment that I won't use them all on you if I have to.”

“That's enough, Mr. Skrall,” said a feminine voice from one of the alleyways. “No need to scare the moron. As fun as that is, it's usually unfair to the moron.”

As Vaner didn't seem eager to get up and fight, the Skrall spared a glance upward as a Ta-Matoran walked out from a nearby alley. She wore a Mask of Strength and had red and yellow armor. How she had managed to hide in the shadows with such a bright color scheme, the Skrall didn't know, although at the moment that wasn't as important as the Ta-Matoran's identity was.

“Who are you?” the Skrall demanded. “Are you the one who saved me?”

The Ta-Matoran stopped several feet away from them, folded her arms, and smiled. “Yes. Those fire bolts were all me.”

“Wait,” said Vaner. “I thought Matoran couldn't use elemental powers.”

The Ta-Matoran sighed. “Mr. Skrall, will you please knock out the gangster? There's no need for him to learn anything he doesn't need to know, after all.”

The Skrall didn't like the bossy tone she used to make that request. He considered putting aside his enmities toward Vaner and teaming up with the criminal briefly, if only to teach the Ta-Matoran a lesson. He had not come to New Atero to be bossed around by arrogant villagers. He had had enough of that back home.

But when he realized that Vaner was a Gadarian – which made him slightly worse than a Matoran in the Skrall's eyes – he slammed his foot into Vaner's face, knocking out the would-be mugger instantly.

Stepping off Vaner, the Skrall turned to the Ta-Matoran and said, “Who are you?”

The Ta-Matoran scratched the back of her neck, like it was itchy. “Call me Taniru. If you want, you can also call me Blaze. That's what everyone else calls me.”

“I'm not everyone else,” the Skrall said. “So I'll just call you Taniru.”

“Fair enough,” said the Ta-Matoran with a mischievous smile. “By the way, what's your name?”

“I don't have a name,” said the Skrall, looking down at his feet. “Haven't earned one yet.”

“You haven't?” said the Ta-Matoran. Then she snapped her fingers (creating a small spark that vanished quickly) and said, “Oh, right. You Skrall aren't born with names. You gotta earn them by doing something remarkable, right?”

“Yes,” said the Skrall, still not looking at her. “My grandfather has faithfully served and defended the Skrall tribe for his entire life and yet has not been granted a name by our leaders. I do not expect to get one before my death, either.”

“How odd,” said Taniru. “If you don't have names, how do you distinguish among yourselves?”

The Skrall glared at her with all his might. “My culture isn't up for critique here, Matoran. I don't even know why I am talking to you like this. I have more important things to do than listen to your ignorant questions.”

“Sorry,” said Taniru, and she sounded like she meant it. “But actually, I think you're the guy I'm supposed to meet.”

Folding his arms, the Skrall said, “Explain yourself.”

“You're here looking for the place you're supposed to work at, right?” Taniru said. “My company, Ignika Industries, just hired a Skrall. Today is supposed to be his first day at work, but he's late, so they sent me out to see if he was nearby. Are you that Skrall?”

The Skrall nodded. “I did apply for work at Ignika Industries. I was also told that I was supposed to come down here. So yes, I am that Skrall you are looking for.”

Taniru clapped once. “Great. Thought I'd have to do some more sneaking around, watching gangsters mug anyone who looked like they were from North New Atero. Really sad how rampant crime is right underneath the noses of the Toa, isn't it?”

“Enough chitchat,” said the Skrall. “If you work for Ignika Industries, then surely you must know where I need to be. Lead me there.”

“All right, all right,” said Taniru, holding up her hands. “Follow me. I know a shortcut.”

With that, Taniru turned around and walked back into the alley. The Skrall followed her, but not before sheathing Vaner's knife into his own empty sheath. A part of him told him that he couldn't risk walking into what might be a trap. And even if it wasn't, that Ignika Industries had sent a Ta-Matoran apparently capable of controlling fire to fetch him was all the Skrall needed to know in order to justify a defensive position.
 

-

 
“That one looks good.”

“I don't like it.”

“Why?”

“It feels awkward in my hands and is too heavy. I need something that feels more natural.”

The black-armored Gadarian known as Jetrupi dropped the sword he had been holding back into the crate from which he had retrieved it. It landed with a clattering sound on top of the crate's other contents; dozens of knives, a few axes, a handful of shields, and various other weapons that had not seen use in who-knows-how-many years.

Standing on the other side of the crate was the Skrall codenamed Night. He watched as Jetrupi pulled out a long, curved knife out of the crate and handed it to him.

“How does that one feel?” Jet asked.

Night grabbed the handle, which was too large for his hands, and threw it back into the crate. “The handle is too awkward. If we're going to be fighting Masqouth and his cronies, I'll need the best weapons I can get.”

Jet sighed and said, “We've been at this for half an hour already. Why don't you check one of the other thousands of crates the Almighty Ones have?”

The Gadarian gestured at gigantic shelves that surrounded them. Each shelf seemed to run on forever, carrying boxes and crates of various sizes. While Night didn't doubt they all held a fantastic variety of weapons, the sheer amount of choice he had paralyzed him. Not that he was going to tell Jet that, of course.

Night grunted his response and grabbed something at random from the crate. “What's this?”

Night had fished out what looked like a wristband. Curious, he tied it around his wrist, but it didn't do anything until he noticed and pressed a button on the side. As soon as he did, a shield spiraled out of it and hit him in the face, causing Night to swear quite strongly.

“A wrist shield,” Jet observed. “Not very common, but useful because of their compactness. You might want to think about carrying that with you.”

Pressing the button again, the shield spiraled backwards into the little compartment it had popped out of. Night glared at Jet and said, “Are you being sarcastic with me?”

“Hardly,” said Jet. “I'm just stating a fact. Wrist shields are useful. As a matter of fact, I used to own one a long time ago.”

“What happened to it?”

Jet shrugged. “I fought a metal-eating tunnel worm and it ate it. Never got around to getting a new one, so I simply went shield-less.”

Night glanced at the wrist shield and said, “Maybe I will keep it. I don't have my original shield anymore, after all. As good as this wrist shield is, however, it is nowhere near as good as a Skrall buzz saw shield.”

Jet quirked an eyebrow. “How so?”

Being careful this time, Night spiraled out his shield and said, “No edges. I can't throw it at my enemies and behead them or even cut them. I suppose this will have to do until I can go home and get a new buzz saw shield.”

“You do know that shields are supposed to be for protecting, right?” said Jet. “Not for beheading your enemies?”

Night hefted his shield and said, “And that's why Gadarian shields were always pathetic. I don't know what your culture taught you about fighting, Jet, but where I come from, you have to be able to use everything on your body as a weapon. Swords, shields, and yes, even armor have to be able to harm your opponent.”

Jet leaned against the shelf and looked at Night's armor with surprise. “Your armor doesn't look any more combat-ready than mine.”

“That's because you haven't seen it in action yet,” Night responded. “Not that I would expect a non-Skrall like you to understand that.”

“I spent a good part of my youth among your people,” said Jet. “And I never heard about armor being used as a weapon.”

“Oh, that's right.” Night grimaced. “You trained with some pacifist monks, didn't you? I don't think they really count as Skrall, in my opinion.”

“Just because they chose not to fight didn't mean they couldn't,” Jet responded. “For all their flaws, they keep in practice every day. I bet even their weakest member could go toe-to-toe with you.”

“Maybe when this is all over, you can introduce me to your friends,” said Night as he retracted his shield. “So I can show them what a real Skrall looks like.”

Jet opened his mouth to respond, but before he did, Kiriah appeared around the corner, looking at the floor as if lost in thought. She seemed so lost in thought that she almost walked into Night.

“Hey,” said Night, glaring at Kiriah. “Watch where you're going.”

“Sorry,” said Kiriah, looking at him sheepishly. “Wasn't paying attention to where I was going.” She looked him and Jet over briefly before saying, “Hey did you two get new armor already? It looks . . . different.”

Night glanced down at his body. He had indeed replaced his old armor, which had been cracked and smashed by the rubble that had fallen on him, with a new set that the Almighty Ones had provided him with. It looked similar to his old armor, but its smooth surface and spiky helmet reminded him of the kind of armor Grandfather wore.

As for Jet, he had, too, had been forced to get some new armor due to the hole in his abdomen. His new armor was similar to Night's, but clearly designed for the lean body of a Gadarian instead of the stout body of a Skrall.

Adjusting his helmet – which never seemed to fit quite right on his head – Night said, “Yes, we did. Haven't picked out any new weapons yet, however, aside from this wrist shield.”

“Okay,” said Kiriah. “The Almighty Ones just gave me a report on what's happening back home in Spherus Magna.”

“Let me guess,” said Night. “Things are getting worse?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Kiriah. “Large numbers of Skrall and Skakdi have teamed up with the Kra-Matoran army. Even many non-Skrall and non-Skakdi are showing their support. The army is heading toward New Atero and will probably reach the city by the end of the week.”

“What about Masqouth?” Night asked. “What's he doing?”

“Well, aside from sending out a broadcast on the tele-network showing his support, no one knows where he is,” Kiriah said with a shrug. “At least, most Spherus Magnans don't. The Almighty Ones say he and the other Echoes are in Wyoko.”

“What are they doing there?” said Night. “I thought there was nothing there anymore, now that the Kra-Matoran are free.”

“They still have the Toa prisoners,” Jet pointed out. “As well as your friend, Kafor. Perhaps-”

“Kafor is not my friend,” Night cut him off. “She's just an acquaintance.”

“Right,” said Jet, who appeared annoyed at being interrupted. “Still, I can imagine they'd want to keep them somewhere they could keep an on them. And what better place than Wyoko? After all, no one lives there. With the Kra-Matoran ravaging Spherus Magna, I doubt anyone even cares about Wyoko. It is the perfect place for a revolutionary leader like Masqouth to hide, in my opinion.”

“Well, it's clearly not the best hiding place in the world if we know where it is,” said Night. “Masqouth will learn that when my fist meets his face.”

“Can't go until you pick out a new sword,” said Jet. “Real Skrall don't go into battle unarmed. Right?”

There was something about Jet's tone that annoyed Night, but instead of responding, he bent over and looked through the box for about a minute before finding an interesting-looking weapon.

Standing up, Night held up his find and said, “What's this?

It looked like a normal sword, except for the trigger on the handle. Night had heard of gun blades before and had seen quite a few in his time as a Dark Hunter; however, this sword didn't appear to have a barrel to shoot bullets from.

“No idea,” said Jet. “Why don't you find out?”

Night nodded and pulled the trigger. Without warning, the blade erupted into flames, causing Night to drop it involuntarily and making Kiriah and Jet start. As soon as the blade left Night's hand, however, the flames ceased and the sword clattered to the ground with little fanfare.

“A flame sword,” said Jet, peering at the sword with interest. “It must have its own internal supply of elemental energy to work that way.”

Kiriah – who had jumped back the farthest – said, “Okay, but you're not going to actually keep that, are you, Night? Night?”

Night paid her little attention. He bent down and slowly placed one finger on the blade itself. He immediately pulled back when he felt the heat, which was so powerful that he was certain he would have gotten a permanent burn on his finger if he had let it linger for a significant period of time. He wondered why the weapon seemed so familiar to him until he remembered Taniru and her chosen weapon.

Then Night snatched the sword up by its handle and swung it back and forth briefly before saying, “I want it.”

“Want it?” Kiriah repeated. “But you aren't a Toa of Fire. You're going to hurt yourself.”

“I've played with fire before,” said Night as he lowered the blade, careful to keep its still-hot blade from touching the rest of his body. “You should be warning Masqouth about this. He's not going to be smiling and joking when his head is no longer connected to his neck.”

“Night,” said Jet. “We promised the Almighty Ones we would take Masqouth in alive. They don't want him dead.”

“Fine,” said Night. “I'll try not to behead him. But do you remember if they mentioned anything about decapitation?”

Before either Jet or Kiriah could respond, a multitude of voices spoke in Night's mind: Very funny, Night, but we want Masqouth brought back in one piece.

“Can't make any promises,” said Night with a shrug. “Anyway, we gotta go. Do we have any other preparations we need to make? Because I want to kick Masqouth's smug behind and-”

We've dealt with everything that needed to be put away or arranged, the Almighty Ones confirmed. This time, we are going in with you. If Atuje finds out you're still alive, he will crush you all like ants. We will back you up and do what we can to counteract his power.

“Good, because I'm not about to cover your butts,” said Night. “I just want to go in and avenge Heavyweight.”

It's good to see you are excited to go, said the Almighty Ones. We'll teleport you three– wait, what is that?

At first, Night didn't know what the Almighty Ones were talking about. As far as he could tell, the warehouse looked much the same as it always did: Towering shelves filled with boxes and crates that contained far too many objects to count.

That was, until he felt a strange presence fill the area. It was like water, except as far as Night could tell, none of them were wet and he did not hear any water rushing nearby. Jet and Kiriah seemed to feel the presence, too, because they were looking around, weapons at the ready. Night had no idea what was going on, but if those two thought something was up, then he figured he had to prepare for battle, too, and so activated his wrist shield.

Just as Night's wrist shield finished spiraling out, a nearby shelf exploded. He raised the shield to protect himself, but the massive amount of debris knocked him over and buried him underneath its weight. Something cracked nearby, but Night didn't what it was until he tried to move his shield arm, which burned like fire at the slightest touch.

Ignoring the pain – he had felt worse – Night used his good arm to dig out of the debris and looked around at what happened. Jet and Kiriah were nearby, looking better than he did (at least they didn't have a broken arm), but they were still covered in dust and piles of rock and metal. Their faces registered expressions of astonishment that mirrored Night's own, but that wasn't the worst of it. The worst of it was the new being who stood where the old shelf had stood before it exploded.

The newcomer was a Gadarian, wearing blue armor and a rounded helmet with spikes running down the back. He had powerful green eyes that seemed to command respect, attention, and authority. His hands were glowing with what appeared to be suppressed energy. It was like standing in the presence of a god, so Night knew who they were dealing with immediately.

“Atuje,” Night said in a low voice. “I see you have a body now.”

Atuje flexed his muscles and said, “I do. It is great to be back in the physical world, capable of seeing and eating and touching and doing everything else people normally do.”

“Impossible,” said Jet, who crouching amidst the rubble. “We didn't know your resurrection was already underway. We thought we could stop you before you got too far.”

Atuje smirked. “Do you think I'm just going to be a fair sport and give you three the chance to kill me before I become too powerful? Hardly. As the King of Life, there is no reason I need to be fair toward those who cannot match my power, especially if they happen to be my enemies.”

Night grabbed his dislocated shoulder and popped it back in. It hurt like crazy, but he didn't mind. He just stood up, swung his shield, and said, “For being so powerful, you sure do brag a lot.”

“Why wouldn't I?” said Atuje, folding his arms. “When you are as powerful as I, you have every right to brag about your prowess.”

“True power does not need to announce itself,” Night answered. “Among the Skrall, the best leaders, the strongest fighters, are the least talkative. Anyone who spends more time talking than fighting is, more often than not, a braggart.”

“Then I assume you must be the biggest braggart of them all, Night,” said Atuje. “Because you've spoken far more than your comrades have since I arrived.”

Night smiled. “There's another saying among the Skrall, one that goes something like this: 'As the Skopio rampages, you never notice the sand bat coming up behind you.'”

For a moment, confusion passed over Atuje's face before being replaced almost immediately by realization. He whirled around just in time to get blasted by a gigantic burst of energy. The blast sent him flying over the heads of Night, Jet, and Kiriah, over the top of the tall shelf behind them, and onto the other side loudly, a string of vicious curses exploding from his mouth as he flew.

Standing not far from where Atuje had been standing just a few seconds ago was a group of five beings, all wearing the same ancient, gray cloak that hid their bodies, except for their dull, organic hands. All five of them held up their right hands, which still smoked from the blast of energy they had hit Atuje with.

“That was dramatic,” said Night. “But useful.”

As Jet and Kiriah got to their feet, Kiriah asked Night, “How'd you know the Almighty Ones were going to show up and attack Atuje?”

Night shrugged. “This is their home. I figured they had to show up eventually, so I simply stalled until they did. As you can see, it-”

“Jet, Kiriah, Night!” the Almighty Ones shouted in alarm. “Watch out!”

Without hesitation, all three of them turned around to see the tall shelf falling toward them. There was no way they could dodge it or break through it. If it fell on them, they'd all be crushed.

Then a domed barrier appeared around them; just in time, because the shelves crashed down on them so hard that Night feared the barrier would not hold. But it did and, when they were no longer under threat of being crushed, the barrier disappeared. They had no time to relax, however, because a whip of energy whipped out from the dust cloud, forcing Night, Kiriah, and Jet to jump back to avoid being hit.

Night glanced over his shoulder at the Almighty Ones and said, “Thanks for the save. I owe you guys twice now.”

Before the Almighty Ones could respond, Atuje stepped out of the dust and debris. Despite having been launched dozens of feet into the air and having been blasted by a bunch of pseudo-deities, the King did not look worse for the wear. He crushed rock beneath his feet as he strode toward them with energy blazing in his hands.

“You old fools,” Atuje said. “Still every bit as deceptive as I remember. It is remarkable how little changes in over one-hundred fifty thousand years.”

“Atuje, stand down,” the Almighty Ones said. “We do not want to fight you. We don't want anyone to die.”

Atuje sighed. “Do you think I like killing? Of course not. But even I must acknowledge that death is necessary at times. And this is one of those times.”

Moving faster than Night's eyes could follow, Atuje slammed his fists into the floor, sending a shock wave that knocked Night, Jet, and Kiriah off their feet. The Almighty Ones, on the other hand, teleported and reappeared right behind Atuje, but the King whirled around and slammed his fist into the lead One's head, forcing the entire group to skid backwards, away from Atuje.

Shaking his fist, Atuje smirked. “That felt good. It is almost enough to sate my rage. Almost.”

The King of Life launched himself into the air. So did the Almighty Ones, who collided with Atuje in a flash of power and energy that almost blinded Night. He could only watch as a sphere of what appeared to be light and energy swirled around the six beings, who based on the sounds of combat emitting from within the sphere were clearly in the middle of an intense fight.

“What do we do?” Kiriah asked, who had gotten back to her feet. “How can we help the Almighty Ones?”

“Easy,” said Night as a shadow orb appeared in his free hand. “I'll hurl shadow balls at Atuje.”

Night reared back to throw it, but Jet grabbed his arm and shook his head. “Hold on, Night. We can't see the Almighty Ones or Atuje in this battle, so you might miss and harm our allies. Better we wait for them to separate than attack immediately.”

Night yanked his arm out of Jet's grasp, the shadow sphere dissipating like smoke in the wind. “All right. I guess that makes more sense. I just hope we don't have to wait very long because I want to punch Atuje in the face.”

Kiriah looked at him quizzically. “I thought you wanted to punch Masqouth in the face.”

With a shrug, Night said, “Either one works for me. They're both about equally responsible for all the trouble we've gone through. Maybe I'll get a chance to punch them both in the face at the same time.”

Jet rolled his eyes, but then started and pointed up at the sphere. “Look! Something's happening!”

Jet was right. The energy ball expanded and then exploded. All of the Almighty Ones flew out of the explosion, scattering in different directions, while Atuje continued to hover in the air. He held one of the Almighty Ones by the neck, black lightning running up and down the King's form like he was a living lightning rod.

“You have failed to realize my true power,” said Atuje. “I am far above any of you Almighty Ones. Even collectively, you cannot hope to match me in combat. I suppose that's what happens when you become complacent and fat.”

Atuje hurled the Almighty One to the floor, who crashed into a pile of crates loudly. The King landed on the ground and began walking toward the Almighty One, his fingertips crackling with black lightning.

“We can't let him do this,” said Night. He glanced at Jet and Kiriah and said, “What are you two standing around for? Let's kick his butt.”

The two nodded and soon all three were running across the piles of smashed shelves and crates toward Atuje, their weapons drawn. They were yelling as loudly as they could, but Atuje didn't even glanced over his shoulder. He simply continued walking toward the fallen Almighty One, as if he were taking a casual stroll through the park.

Night's first thought was that Atuje had to be an cool dude not to notice them, but it soon occurred to him just what Atuje was planning. He tried to shout at Jet and Kiriah to stop, but it was too late. The King whirled around, a smirk on his face, and snapped his lightning-laced fingers.

As soon as he did so, black lightning bolts shot out from his fingers and struck Night, Jet, and Kiriah simultaneously. Even though Night had been struck with lightning once before, this was different. It felt like someone had taken had large, jagged knife and was cutting his insides apart with it. Even worse, the knife was boiling hot and burned with each application of it to his skin.

It was all over in an instant, but Atuje didn't stop there. Night and the others were still staggering from the blow and they fell straight into the dimensional portal Atuje had opened. As soon as they passed through it, Night found himself falling through the void between dimensions, spinning head over heels at a fast speed.

Lights . . . textures . . . colors . . . all of it flashed before his eyes as he fell. He felt someone grab his arm, but he didn't know if it was Kiriah or Jet. Not that it mattered, because they soon passed through a white light and slammed into something hard and wet.

Gasping for breath, Night opened his eyes and sat up. Every inch of his body was screaming in pain and he himself just barely managed to contain his own scream. Even the cool rain that splattered on him did little to alleviate the pain coursing through his entire body.

He looked to his left and saw Kiriah and Jet lying there, both looking just as worn as he felt. They were still breathing, so they were thankfully still alive. Despite being struck with black lightning, they didn't look like they had been fried. They just looked like they would never walk again, which was how Night felt.

The Skrall staggered to his feet, his hands on his knees, and looked around at their surroundings. As far as he could see through the thick rain, they were on top of a large skyscraper in the center of what appeared to be a gigantic city. In every direction he looked, he saw buildings of stone and steel and glass rising from the ground, but oddly, no lights glowed from within or on them. He did not hear the omnipresent bustle of the city's inhabitants. He just heard the sounds of the rain as it pattered against the stone roof of the building they stood on.

He wondered briefly where they had ended up, but quickly dismissed the question as trivial. They had to get back to the warehouse, had to confront Atuje, had to help the Almighty Ones. There was no doubt in Night's mind that this was what they had to do.

So he raised one hand, remembering the proper stance Kiriah had shown him for dimension-hopping, and willed a portal into existence.

Nothing happened.

Frantic, Night waved his hand again and again, but he received the same results as before. For the first time in a while, panic rose in his chest, intermingling with his pain in such a way that he felt like a small child again, lost and alone in a large place with no one around to help or comfort him. The idea paralyzed him before he heard Kiriah and Jet stirring behind him.

Turning around, Night said, in a voice of controlled calm, “Guys, I can't open a dimensional portal. I can't dimension-hop.”

Kiriah shook her head and looked at him as if not quite sure what she was seeing. “What?”

“I mean I can't dimension-hop,” Night said. He hated repeating himself, especially now when repeating himself meant saying aloud the very thing he feared the most.

Jet was sitting up now, one hand on his head, and he said, “Then let me and Kiriah try.”

At the same time, the Toa and the Gadarian raised their arms.

And like before, nothing happened.

“Why can't any of us dimension-hop?” Night said. “I thought the Almighty Ones had granted us those powers. How can we just lose them? They don't run on any energy source, do they?”

“I don't know,” said Jet, looking at his hands as though they were broken. “I don't know. This shouldn't be happening. What-”

“Atuje did it,” Kiriah said, causing Jet and Night to look at her. “That black lightning somehow stole our dimension-hopping abilities. Atuje was never planning to kill us at all. He just wanted to get us out of the way, knowing we're his biggest threat outside of the Almighty Ones.”

Night slammed his fist into his other hand. “That fool. How do we get back, then?”

Jet stood up, shaking slightly, though whether because of the cold rain or because of the situation they were in, it was impossible to tell. “Unless we can find another dimension-hopping device in this universe – wherever we are – I'm afraid there is no way for us to return. We're stuck here. Potentially forever.”

Night was not one to break down and get emotional about anything. Letting others see your emotions – even your close allies – was a surefire way to embarrass yourself, maybe even get yourself killed. Under ordinary circumstances, he would never shed so much as even one tear around Kiriah and Jet.

But now, Night didn't care. With his tears intermingling with the rain, he looked up at the sky and cursed everyone he could think of: Mata Nui, the Great Beings, the Almighty Ones, and especially Atuje. He cursed them as loud as he could with everything he had until his voice became hoarse and even then he kept going, while Jet and Kiriah merely stood by silently, their expressions saying everything that they were thinking for them.
 

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Edited by TNTOS, Apr 21 2014 - 08:59 AM.

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#4 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Apr 28 2014 - 08:42 AM

Chapter III

 

Rubella the Red Star – famed Glatorian, winner of countless matches in the arena, loved and adored by her legion of fans and even respected by her detractors – threw a soft, bouncy ball against the wall opposite her. The ball bounced off the wall, off the floor, and back into her hands before repeating the same cycle all over again.

Then Ruby got bored of throwing the ball against the wall and looked around her room for something more interesting to do. It was a tiny room, with only a bed, a desk, and a lamp on that desk for furniture. She didn't even have a window to look out, but she could still feel and hear the omnipresent hum of the Soaring Titan's engines. When Ruby first arrived on the flying fortress, she had been unable to ignore the engines' hum, but now it barely registered on her mind. It was just a part of the fortress's background, much in the same way New Atero's hustle and bustle of vehicles and beings was part of its background.

With a sigh, Ruby put her hands behind her head and lay down on her bed, staring at the ceiling. She had counted the amount of tiles on the ceiling about a dozen times already, so if anyone asked, she could tell them that the ceiling had 42 tiles on it, or perhaps 42 and one half, considering one of them had been cut in half to fit in between one tile and the edge of the ceiling.

When a super secret organization dedicated to following the will of a Great Being came knocking at my door and offered to let me see their super cool flying fortress, I jumped at the chance, Ruby thought. Now even watching paint dry seems funner than this.

The worst part of it wasn't the boredom, however; it was the powerlessness. Somewhere out there, Niham was the prisoner of Masqouth. And, as far as Ruby could tell, no one was doing a darned thing to save her.

Yes, Ruby knew all about the Kra-Matoran/Skakdi/Skrall alliance that had formed recently and how a gigantic army was heading toward New Atero. It had been on the news all week, especially the story about the Battle of New Vulcanus, in which the Kra-Matoran soundly defeated the New Atero forces that had been stationed in that city, slaughtered all the inhabitants, and burned the city itself to the ground before moving on. Let it never be said that the Kra-Matoran were not thorough conquerors.

In her mind's eyes, Ruby could see the bureaucrats who ran this place (although she had no idea what they might look like) worrying more about how they could help defeat the Kra-Matoran than about the kidnapping of a single Toa. And she couldn't fault them for that. When you were a leader, the needs of the many always outweighed the needs of the few, or so said her father, who had been elected governor of New Atero twice and was currently serving on New Atero's City Council as the City Treasurer.

But why did that mean they had to keep Ruby locked up here, away from all the action, instead of letting her go find Niham for herself? If Ruby was paranoid – like her father, who never did learn to trust anyone (which was probably why mother had left them, now that she thought about it) – she would have assumed there was some conspiracy running behind the scenes trying to keep her from her girlfriend.

As it was, it was merely good old fashioned safety. They said Ruby was 'safer' here, even though, from what Ruby had gathered, Niham had been kidnapped in this very ship right under the nose of the Will's leader, a being who claimed to be a good version of Makuta Teridax from an alternate universe. (Ruby put that explanation in the same category as the 'The IAL controlled New Atero' theory that her manager, a De-Matoran named Sonus, liked to spout off every now and then.)

They probably don't know what to do with me, Ruby thought. Probably think Masqouth might come after me. Which would make sense if he hadn't already kidnapped Niham.

Frustratingly enough, no one had told her exactly why Niham had been kidnapped. Even Oggak – her neighbor who apparently was also a member of the Will of Angonce – kept her lips closed even more so than usual about this. From what Ruby had gathered, Niham had gotten a little too close to finding out something she shouldn't during one of her investigations, but what, exactly, Ruby still didn't know.

Maybe I could break out of here on my own, Ruby thought, glancing at the door, which was locked. Steal an airship, maybe, and start my own private investigation into Niham's disappearance. I'm no detective, but maybe she left a clue in her case notes that could point me in the right direction.

Of course, the intelligent side of Ruby's brain – which always sounded like Niham for some reason – rejected that plan outright. For one, there was no way Ruby could get past the dozens of well-trained Will agents that lived aboard this ship. On her way to her room when she'd first gotten here, Ruby had seen a couple of Will agents training and they had pulled off moves she had never seen before even in all her years in the Glatorian arena. She doubted that even Cato, the current Glatorian champion, would last long in a fight against these guys.

And then there was the airship problem: Ruby didn't have an airship license and didn't know the first thing about how to fly one of those darn machines. She had always been flown to her matches by professional pilots who (usually) knew what they were doing. She'd probably cause the entire fortress to fall right out of the sky if she tried to pilot her own airship.

She sat up. She had to do something. Maybe she would see if they would let her at least stretch her legs. She was getting claustrophobic in this tiny room, which felt more like a jail cell than a guest's room, and swung her legs over the side of her bed just as the door opened and a Toa of Water carrying a bowl of steaming hot soup and a glass of water on a tray entered.

“Hello, Rubella,” said the Toa of Water as she closed the door behind her with her foot. “My name is Cina. I'm just here to deliver your lunch.”

“Put it on the desk,” Ruby said, gesturing at the furniture next to her bed. “Not that I'm really hungry right now. Maybe I'll eat it later.”

Cina nodded and did as Ruby asked. She then walked back to the door, but not before Ruby said, “How's everything going outside? I mean, is everything all right?”

Cina stopped, her hand on the doorknob and her back to Ruby. “I'm not allowed to talk to you about the Will's movements. It's Will law.”

Ruby rolled her eyes. “Really, you're pulling the 'loyal agent who follows whatever orders she's given' card on me? I thought those characters only existed on the telescreen.”

The Toa of Water turned around. It dawned on Ruby that Cina wore a Mask of Psychometry, almost exactly like Niham's (except it was blue, obviously). It reminded Ruby of Niham, which made her miss her more.

“I know how you feel, Ruby, but there's nothing you can do about Niham or Masqouth or anyone else right now,” said Cina. “When the situation is under control, we'll be sure to let you know.”

Ruby folded her arms across her chest. “Of course. It's not like Niham is my girlfriend or anything. Oh, no. This is all just some complex international problem only someone with political expertise could handle. Don't mind me. I'm just a silly Glatorian who entertains the masses.”

“It's not really like that,” said Cina, a hint of annoyance in her voice. “The Will knows we can't do much to stop the Kra-Matoran or quell the Skakdi and Skrall rebellions that have risen everywhere. So we're going to the source: Masqouth himself.”

Ruby looked at Cina. “What, are you just going to start blabbing all your secrets to me now? I thought you were a stoic agent who only revealed what your superiors told you to reveal.”

Cina's hands balled into fists. “Well, to be honest, I've been having the same thoughts as you. Why shouldn't you know about Niham's whereabouts? So I'm going to tell you. Not everything, but just enough that you have an idea of what's going on.”

At this, Ruby turned her whole body to face Cina and propped her chin on her hand. “I'm listening.”

Cina leaned against the door. “We have no idea for sure where Niham is, don't even know if she's still alive anymore. After Masqouth declared his public support for the Kra-Matoran, he disappeared completely off the map. As far as we can tell, he's not even on Spherus Magna anymore.”

“What does that mean?” Ruby asked. “Did he go to Luna Magna or something?”

“Not exactly,” said Cina, shaking her head. “We think he's hiding in the same place the Kra-Matoran came from: A land known as Wyoko.”

“Wyoko,” Ruby repeated. “I think Oggak has mentioned that place to me before. Not sure what it is, though.”

“It's a land of shadow,” Cina explained. “From what we've gathered, it's a pocket dimension, connected to and dependent upon ours for its existence. It's a safe place to hide, if you think about it, because no one will think to look there while the Kra-Matoran are rampaging all over Spherus Magna as they are doing right now.”

“I see,” said Ruby. “So what are you going to do about him?”

“Right now?” said Cina. “We're planning to send in a team there that will track down Masqouth and rescue his prisoners.”

Ruby scratched her chin. “Prisoners? You mean he's kidnapped more people?”

“Yes,” said Cina, nodding. “At least four other Toa, possibly more. While we don't know their status for sure, we think Masqouth probably still has them.”

Ruby jumped to her feet and said, “Then what are we waiting for? If we know where he is, then let's go take his butt and kick it all the way to Solis Magna.”

Cina held up a hand. “Sorry, Ruby, but you are not allowed to leave the Soaring Titan. Per Teridax's orders.”

Ruby looked at her in disbelief. “You just told me where my girlfriend is, implied she might be dead, and insist that I have to follow your rules? Are you even listening to yourself right now?”

For a moment, Cina said nothing. She cracked open the door, peered down the hallway both ways, and the pulled her head back in, quietly closing the door as she did so. She turned back to Ruby and said, “Ruby, I understand where you're coming from completely. I met Niham once before her kidnapping and she was a wonderful person. Wish I'd gotten to know her better.”

“You will if you go with me,” Ruby insisted. She took a fighting stance and said, “I really don't want to have to fight you, but if that's the only way I can leave-”

“Hold up,” said Cina, raising her hands defensively. “Fight? Who said anything about fighting?”

Ruby frowned. “How else am I going to get past you and find a way off this fortress? You guys have wasted a solid week planning what to do. In that time, only the Great Beings could know what Masqouth has done to Niham or to the other prisoners he has. As you clearly believe in following the rules, even when they're stupid, I think we're at an impasse here.”

“Doesn't mean we have to fight,” said Cina. “We can still-”

Without waiting, Ruby launched a punch at Cina. Much to her surprise, the Toa of Water caught it with ease, pushed her arm back, and headbutted her. That blow sent Ruby staggering backwards onto the bed, holding her aching head in her hands as she moaned in pain.

“Ow,” said Ruby, glancing up at Cina through squinted eyes. “What's your mask made of, protosteel?”

“I thought you'd have been able to take that,” said Cina. “You're a professional Glatorian, aren't you?”

“Yes, well, headbutting isn't allowed in the arena,” Ruby grumbled, rubbing the spot on her skull that hurt like crazy. “I was totally unprepared for that.”

Cina shook her head. “You see? That's why we want you here and not out there fighting Masqouth or whatever. In an actual, head-to-head fight? You'd lose. Real fighting is nothing like fighting in the arena. I hope I showed you why you're better off here than out there.”

Her head still smarting, Ruby stood up and shook her head. “Nope. As thick as your skull may be, mine's thicker. Get out of the way.”

“You really are stubborn, you know that?” said Cina.

“Niham tells me that all the time,” Ruby replied. “I think it's why she loves me.”

Cina sighed. “You know what? Fine. All right, I'll get you off the Soaring Titan. We'll go to Wyoko, find Niham and the other kidnapped victims, and head on home. Would that make you happy?”

A big grin spread across Ruby's face. “That would make me ecstatic. When do we leave?”

Cina turned around, opened the door, and said, “Now,” before disappearing through the doorway.

Taken by surprise, Ruby shook her head and quickly followed the Toa of Water into the hallways of the fortress. There was no one else in the halls but her and Cina, but that didn't make Ruby relax or let her guard down one bit.

“Um, Cina?” said Ruby as they turned a corner. “I'm one for screwing the rules and doing what's right, but have you thought about what will happen when your superiors learned what you did?”

Cina nodded without looking at Ruby. “By the time we do, we'll be halfway between here and Wyoko.” She shot Ruby a coy smirk. “What, are you having second thoughts after badgering me about letting you go?”

Ruby shook her head. “No, it's just . . . oh, never mind. I was just wondering what we might say if we run into any other Will agents.”

“Easy,” said Cina as they walked down a set of stairs and into another hall. “I'll tell them that Teridax has okayed your release and that I am merely escorting you back to New Atero.”

“You thought up that lie awfully quick,” Ruby said.

Cina shrugged. “It's a gift. Anyway, best to keep quiet around here. Ideally, we should avoid running into anybody so we'll never need to use that excuse. Most of our members are very perceptive, so they might be able to see through the lie quickly enough.”

“Assuming they figure out you just lied to their faces,” said Ruby, “what, exactly, would we do then?”

Cina didn't answer that.

As brave and courageous as Ruby had been feeling back in her room, now that they were actually on their way to rescue Niham and not just talking about it, she felt very vulnerable and exposed. She still loved Niham, she did, but she hadn't realized until now the enormity of their situation. Assuming they even got past the various Will agents crawling all over the fortress, there was the simple fact that they'd have to track down Masqouth in a land that neither of them (to Ruby's knowledge, at least) had ever visited before.

Moreover, Ruby had no idea what kind of power Masqouth had. She had seen him on the telescreen news reports, miraculously healing people with a touch of his fingers, but if he was truly a dangerous revolutionary, then he was probably a lot more violent than he appeared.

And what if he had friends? Cina hadn't mentioned anything to Ruby about any allies or friends Masqouth might have. She had no idea how many bodyguards Masqouth might have. While she and Cina were strong fighters in their own right, they were currently going up against an enemy that they knew very little about.

It was only a few minutes later, when Cina and Ruby came to an elevator door and Cina pressed the 'AIRSHIP HANGER' button on it, that Ruby finally decided to ask Cina what she knew about Masqouth. She knew that Cina had told her to be quiet, but right now she needed something to calm her nerves. Perhaps learning about Masqouth's weaknesses would do the trick.

“Hey, Cina?” said Ruby. “I was wondering if you could tell me about-”

Cina held up a hand for to silence Ruby, but the Glatorian just pushed it down and said, “Hey, don't treat me like I'm one of your servants, you-”

Her sentence was interrupted by a ding and the next moment the elevator door opened. Cina quickly stepped inside and Ruby followed, still feeling annoyed at the way Cina had tried to silence her. She tried to bring this up, but once again Cina held up her hand, clearly uninterested in a discussion, which infuriated Ruby so much that she was just about to scream when the elevator suddenly stopped.

“This our stop?” Ruby asked, her anger briefly forgotten.

Cina shook her head. “No. Someone else must be getting on.”

Ruby looked at Cina in alarm as the door opened and a black-armored Skakdi stepped inside. The Skakdi didn't seem to notice Ruby. He just nodded at Cina, pressed a button on the elevator, and stood near the corner nearest to the door as the elevator continued its downward descent.

“Nice day, isn't it, Cina?” asked the Skakdi, without looking at her.

Cina nodded and replied in an equally conversational voice, “The weather certainly is nice. Nice enough to go for a ride in one of the airships.”

The Skakdi chuckled. “Eh, Teridax would never let me fly one of those things. He's had everyone on high alert since the kidnapping. Doesn't want anyone getting out who shouldn't.”

“I know,” said Cina. “It's exasperating. It's like I have to sign ten different forms and give a blood sample just when I want to go to the cafeteria. Security these days. . . .”

The Skakdi gestured at the ceiling. “And then there's the whole Kra-Matoran army and Skakdi and Skrall uprisings everywhere. It's madness, I tell you. Right now, I feel ashamed to be a Skakdi. Everyone already thinks we're violent brutes who don't care about anyone else. We're not helping ourselves one bit by allying with an army of evil Matoran, no sir.”

“I know,” said Cina. “The political ramifications alone will destroy any credibility your people had. It's really quite pathetic.”

“Indeed it is,” said the Skakdi. He hesitated, then asked, “Say, Cina, did you bring that Rubella girl her lunch?”

Ruby found that a strange question. Why didn't he just ask her? And what was with that 'Rubella girl' nonsense? She was standing right here.

She opened her mouth to answer, but Cina slammed a hand over her mouth and shot Ruby a look that plainly said, Shut up and leave this to me.

“Yes, I did, Vinak,” said Cina in the same conversational tone from before. “She was quite thankful for the food, much more so than you'd think a big shot celebrity would. She's still quite arrogant, of course, but no more so than your average person.”

Right now, Ruby wanted to strangle Cina, but the Toa of Water seemed to have a plan, so she decided to go with it.

Vinak nodded without looking at Cina. “Indeed. Hmm, well, I was wondering if you could do a favor for me.”

“What kind of favor?” Cina asked.

Vinak seemed embarrassed for some reason, but he finally said, “Well, you see, I've always enjoyed watching Ruby's matches. She is so . . . graceful in the arena, much more so than other female fighters. If you go back to her room, could you possibly get her autograph for me? Nothing big or flashy. Just her name on a piece of paper will suffice.”

Something about the way Vinak emphasized the word 'graceful' made Ruby feel anything but, while Cina said, “Well, I am delivering her dinner to her later, so I'll see if I can get you one then.”

“Thank you, Cina,” said Vinak. “Unlike other females your age, you respect your elders. I like that about you.”

“Well, elders are full of age and wisdom, are they not?” said Cina.

Vinak chuckled. “Indeed we are, Cina. But I guess we're not always so wise; I mean, have you heard the news reports? It was the Skakdi elders who supported Masqouth and the rebellions. Sometimes, even we older folks forget our wisdom.”

The elevator door dinged again and opened. Cina nodded at Ruby to follow and said to Vinak, “Well, this is my stop. Nice seeing you, Vinak.”

“Take care, Cina,” said the Skakdi, waving at them as they stepped off the elevator. “Make sure to get Ruby's autograph for me, all right? It's not urgent, but I really would appreciate having it sometime soon.”

“Of course, of course,” said Cina.

Vinak smiled as the elevator door closed. Then Ruby turned to Cina and asked, “Why didn't he notice me standing right there in the elevator? I wasn't trying to hide or anything.”

Cina smiled. “Vinak is blind. Didn't you see his eyes? He's one of our older agents. Lost both his eyes during a mission when he was trying to destroy some avohkah that popped up near the ruins of Karda Nui. He's a bit . . . old-fashioned, as you can probably tell, but he's cool when you get to know him.”

Ruby frowned. “What did he mean when he said I was 'graceful'?”

“That's unimportant,” said Cina. “What's important is that we got past him without him knowing what we're up to. I imagine we're home free now, as there should be no one in the airship bay at this time of night.”

Ruby smiled and turned around to begin going here when she saw a Will agent standing there, staring at them as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

And then Cina, the brilliant, most creative liar ever, said, in the least convincing voice possible, “It's not what it looks like.”

The Will agent immediately raised what appeared to be a walkie talkie to his mouth, but before he could say so much as one word, Cina summoned a fist made of water and slammed it into his face. The blow sent water splattering everywhere as the agent hit the floor with a thud. When he didn't get back up, Ruby felt like she could breathe again.

“Holy Mahi, Cina, what was that?” said Ruby, glancing at the Toa of Water.

“Couldn't let him call in security,” said Cina. “Otherwise they would have had the place locked down tighter than the Pit. I had no idea that anyone was here. Must have been patrolling the hallways.”

The way Cina spoke, while not looking directly at Ruby at any point, made the Glatorian suspicious, but she had little time to think about those suspicions. Cina was already on her way down the hall, walking past the fallen agent without sparing so much as a glance at his prone form. Ruby followed, careful to tread on the wet floor so she wouldn't slip and crack her skull.

Moments later, they emerged onto a platform overlooking a large airship yard. There were dozens of airships, ranging from huge warships to tiny personal cruisers. Ruby glanced out the giant windows on the left wall, but couldn't see much due to the darkness and cloud cover. She could still hear the purr of the engine, however; it was even louder here than it had been in her room. She wondered how close they were to it.

“All right,” said Cina as they walked quickly down the metal stairs to the airship hanger floor. “It's simple. We get in my airship and fly out of here. I've got the coordinates for Wyoko,” she waved a folded piece of paper over her shoulder, “so it shouldn't be difficult to find it.”

“That's great,” said Ruby. “But how do we get out of here? The door is closed.”

She was right. The doors at the far end of the hanger were shut completely. “Are we going to blast them open? I'm not against the idea, per se, but it would make an awful lot of noise, wouldn't it?”

“Don't worry, I can open them from a distance,” said Cina. “Already got that covered. We're going to have to hustle, though, because I have no idea how long that guy I knocked out is going to stay out, especially since this is already a fairly time-sensitive mission.”

They were now walking through the rows upon rows of airships. Ruby had never been an airship fanatic, but even she could appreciate the wide variety of vehicles the Will owned. In particular, she liked this one that was completely red yet smooth and aerodynamic, with two Cordak blasters attached under the wings for easy firing.

But Cina kept them walking until they were about halfway through the hanger. She stopped in front of a silver airship that looked like it could sit two passengers, although the cockpit looked pretty cramped from what Ruby could see.

“Here's my ship,” said Cina, gesturing at the silver airship. “It's a TH-28. I call it The Smooth Wind.”

Ruby watched as Cina climbed onto the airship and opened its cockpit. “Does every agent have their own airship?”

“Nope,” said Cina as she sat in the cockpit. “Most agents merely borrow one of the dozens owned by the Will. Only reason I have my own is because I bought it. Also, the shared ones can be pretty nasty. One time, one of our agents came back in a shared airship bleeding like Karzahni. Took weeks to get all the blood out of it and it still smells like death.”

Ruby nodded and climbed into the backseat. As she thought, it was cramped in the back, barely any room for her legs at all. Not like the airships she often flew on, where she had plenty of room to stretch her legs and enjoy the flight.

“How many hours will it take for us to get to Wyoko?” Ruby asked.

Cina was pressing buttons and flipping switches as she said, “Oh, probably about six or seven hours, maybe five if I go fast.”

“Six or seven hours of this cramped-ness?” said Ruby. “Can't we steal one of the roomier airships, like that big red one I saw a while back?”

“That one is Teridax's personal airship,” said Cina as the cockpit cover lowered over their heads. “We steal that, I'm pretty sure he'll send the entire organization after us. I don't even know how to fly it, anyway.”

A moment later, the engine roared to life and the airship rose into the air. Ruby barely had enough time to hook in her seat belt when the Smooth Wind started flying toward the still-closed door. Finding as comfortable a position as she could in the cramped space, Ruby watched Cina raise what looked like a remote control and press a button on it.

As soon as she did, the door began to open; slowly, almost too slowly in Ruby's opinion. Another thing that bothered her, kept her looking over her shoulder, was how easily they had been able to escape so far. Did absolutely no one notice (outside of the guard Cina defeated) that there was an unauthorized airship flying out of the Soaring Titan in the middle of the night? Was it really this easy, escaping from the fortress of a highly secretive organization like this?

Ruby reminded herself that this was no normal breakout. Cina was a Will agent herself, after all, so she probably understood the best way to exploit the fortress's weaknesses than a non-agent would. Yet something still felt off to Ruby. Were all Will agents trusted not to betray the organization? Did the Will of Angonce lack a method with which to anticipate and deal with the actions of its traitors?

Because now that Ruby thought about it, there was no doubt that that was what Cina was: A traitor. She was explicitly going against her leader's commands, and the interests of the organization as a whole, simply to help Ruby. Cina was not betraying the organization 'to' anyone in particular, but the word seemed to fit just the same.

And then the door was open completely and the Smooth Wind was flying out into the open night sky and everyone looked fantastic or would have looked fantastic if Ruby had been able to see, if she had even cared. All she cared about was that she was on her way to rescue Niham. Nothing else was as important.
 

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Edited by TNTOS, Apr 28 2014 - 08:52 AM.

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#5 Offline TNTOS

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Posted May 05 2014 - 08:39 AM

Chapter IV


Ten years ago. . . .

The Ta-Matoran named Taniru liked to hum and walked with a spring in her step. Her cheerfulness contrasted sharply with the rundown and closed up buildings, the dirty streets, and the ragged homeless people that seemed to live on every corner of this place. The Skrall felt awkward, because he was just walking normally and didn't see any reason to be overly enthusiastic about anything.

He kept his hand on the knife in his belt the entire time. Taniru didn't seem to notice. Or if she did, she didn't care. He found that thought disturbing, if true, because it meant she thought she could take him in a fight if it came down to it.

Just as the Skrall was beginning to wonder when they would get to wherever they were going, Taniru stopped in front of a building, waved her hands in front of it, and said, “Here is our destination, Mr. Skrall.”

The Skrall stopped and looked at the building. It was a couple of stories high and looked about as rundown as the rest of the buildings around it. The walls and front door were covered with graffiti, covered with phrases like, 'Down with New Atero' and 'The gang is on the loose.' The front steps were chipped and broken off in several places, while the windows that weren't boarded up had clearly been broken at some point.

The Skrall looked down at Taniru skeptically. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“No joke,” said Taniru, shaking her head. “It's what is inside – or rather, what is underneath – that is our true destination. Follow me.”

Taniru made her way up the front steps of the building like she couldn't wait to go inside. Wishing he could be anywhere else, the Skrall followed her up the front door. Even though the door didn't appear to have been opened in years, Taniru unlocked it without a hitch and disappeared into the darkness inside. A moment later, a small flame appeared, hovering above her hand in front of her face as Taniru gestured for the Skrall to come inside.

After a moment's hesitation, the Skrall walked in, shutting the door behind himself as he did so. The air of the building was dirty and raw. While New Atero air in general wasn't exactly the cleanest, here it felt like walking into a gas chamber, causing the Skrall to cough and gasp loudly as dust entered his lungs. He beat his chest with one hand as Taniru watched patiently.

“You done yet?” she asked.

The Skrall looked at her in annoyance. “Doesn't the air bother you at all?”

In the firelight, Taniru's big grin looked eerie. “Nope. I've gotten used to it. So will you, assuming you don't quit and go home. Now come on. We're still not yet there.”

Taniru turned and began walking down a nearby hallway. Still coughing, the Skrall followed her, making sure to keep as close as he could without being awkward. He would never admit it, but abandoned houses and buildings had always creeped him out. Even when he knew there was nothing to fear, he still refused to go anywhere near them unless it was unavoidable.

Then, without warning, Taniru disappeared, casting the entire hallway into darkness. The Skrall reflexively reached for his knife, but a moment later he heard a small voice say, “Mr. Skrall?” and he looked to his right and saw Taniru standing at the bottom of a set of stairs. She still held her fire, which looked like a candle flame now.

“Sorry for not warning you,” said Taniru. “But the way is down here. Behind this door.”

Taking his hand off his knife, the Skrall walked down the small, narrow steps until he reached Taniru. She held up her hand and the fire illuminated what appeared to be a large metal door with a password system built into the side. In comparison to the rest of the building, the door looked new and modern and well-kept.

“Just let me type in the password and we'll get you started,” said Taniru, walking up to the control panel.

The Skrall waited as Taniru punched in a code far too quickly for his eyes to follow. The next moment, the door slid open, but before the Skrall could step inside, a something sharp bit his neck. He reached up and pulled out what appeared to be a dart before his mind became slow and buggy.

Alarmed, the Skrall looked at Taniru, who was smiling in an apologetic sort of way as he slipped into unconsciousness even before he hit the floor.




-


The Skrall awoke. He breathed in and out deeply for several seconds, as his body was still recovering from whatever had happened before. He didn't remember lying down anywhere.

He felt the place where he was lying down and looked at it. It was a soft mattress and a thick wool blanket covered his legs and the lower half of his body. He threw it off and sat up, a decision he soon regretted because he immediately threw up onto the floor.

“Ah,” said a voice he didn't recognize from nearby. “I see you are awake, Mr. Skrall.”

Wiping the last of the barf off his mouth, the Skrall looked up and saw a Turaga sitting in the upper left corner of the square room he was in. The Turaga wore black and gray robes, though the Skrall spotted a gleam of red armor underneath them. The Skrall had no idea what mask he wore, but whatever it was, its sharp edges and narrow eye slits didn't endear the elder to him very much.

“Who . . . the heck . . . are you?” the Skrall asked, clutching his stomach.

The Turaga smiled. “My real name is Takren, but call me Mr. Gray. It is my preferred name.”

The Skrall leaned back on one hand. “Mr. Gray? Is that a codename or something?”

“It is a nickname,” said the Turaga. “One I earned long ago due to my reputation for – how did my opponents put it? Ah yes, that's right – 'morally questionable business practices.'”

He said that with air quotes, like he disagreed with the term.

“Anyway,” the Turaga continued, “I am sorry we had to drug you, but it was the only way to make sure you didn't see anything you don't need to see just yet.”

“So that was what was in the dart,” said the Skrall. “Where am I?”

Mr. Gray gestured at the room. “In a room.”

The Skrall scowled. “Very funny, old man. You know what I mean.”

“You are in what will likely be in your home for the next six months to a year,” said Mr. Gray. “It is called the Bunker. Technically, it's official name is 'Project Elemental Training Facility for Volunteers and Ignika Industries Employees,' but nearly everyone who works or lives here calls it the Bunker. Even I do. Now that I think about it, I should have its name changed on all the official documents. That would certainly make things more convenient.”

“The Bunker?” said the Skrall. “Does that mean we're underground?”

Mr. Gray nodded. “Underneath New Atero itself, actually. It's a bit like the old Valley of the Maze, except it is not nearly as masterful a technological masterpiece as that maze was. To be fair, I don't think we Spherus Magnans have built anything yet that actually rivals a Great Being-built creation, but I digress.”

Mr. Gray's ramblings did little to soothe the Skrall's upset stomach or annoyed attitude. He merely pulled his legs back onto the mattress and said, “This is the place I volunteered to work in?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Gray. “I am the CEO of Ignika Industries, as well as the head of Project Elemental. I thought I should be the one to explain things to you, seeing as I understand the Project better than anyone else involved with it.”

“The contract said I was going to be working between six months and a year at an II facility,” said the Skrall. “No one said anything to me about being drugged and dragged into a room in the middle of a freaking maze.”

“I apologize for the rudeness, but we felt it was the best way to go about doing things,” said Mr. Gray, although the way he tapped his cane seemed unapologetic to the Skrall. “You see, we weren't sure how you would react to being asked to do what we were going to ask you to do. To keep you from running, we had to drug you and take you here. I wish it could have happened some other way, but alas, this was the best way possible in our eyes.”

“I already signed up for your stupid Project Elemental,” the Skrall said. “You just drugged me for no reason other than you're paranoid I might want to quit.”

Mr. Gray shrugged. “When you put it that way, it certainly makes us sound rather . . . unsympathetic. Then again, I've never cared for sympathy, so I suppose that doesn't bother me much. I imagine the real reason you're upset is because we took you by surprise, didn't even give you a chance to fight back. After all, you Skrall love fighting more than anything else in the whole world.”

The Skrall balled his fists, but before he could respond, his stomach rumbled uncomfortably and he put his hands on it.

“Upset tummy?” Mr. Gray said.

“What drug did you use on me?” the Skrall said, looking at the Turaga in anger. “A poison?”

“Hardly,” said Mr. Gray. “It's not any normal kind of drug; it is what I call the elementalist serum. Unconsciousness is a normal initial reaction to the serum.”

“The what serum?”

“Elementalist,” Mr. Gray said simply, as if explaining an obvious concept to a small child. “Assuming your body is compatible with the serum's chemicals, you should be developing elemental powers any minute now. You probably already have it, actually, and if I had to guess, I'd say you can control darkness and shadow.”

“I get elemental powers?” said the Skrall. “And why do you think I'd control shadow? You're babbling again, elder.”

“I see I will have to start at the beginning if this is to make any sense to you,” said Mr. Gray with a sigh. “Very well. You volunteered to be a part of Project Elemental, a top-secret project funded by Ignika Industries, one of the largest biochemical weapons companies in the entire world. You know that, right?”

“Of course,” said the Skrall. “That's what the contract said. What about it?”

“I guess you never wondered what Project Elemental actually is, did you?”

“The contract said it was supposed to test a new medicine,” said the Skrall. “They wanted to try it on a variety of species in order to figure out what side effects it might have before releasing it for public consumption. Right?”

Mr. Gray laughed. “Very nice cover story, I admit, but no, that is far from the truth about Project Elemental. And for good reason. If our competitors knew what we were doing, they might try to rob us blind.”

The stench of the Skrall's barf was starting to stink, forcing him to pinch his nose as he said, “Rob you blind? What-”

“Let me clean that up,” said Mr. Gray as his mask flashed briefly.

The ugly stuff from the Skrall's stomach floated off the floor toward what appeared to be a shut trash can in the corner opposite Mr. Gray. When the floating barf was close enough, the can's lid flipped open, sucked the barf in, and closed, all in just a few seconds.

“That was our vacuum trash can,” said Mr. Gray, upon seeing the Skrall's confused expression. “A system of pipes, all with the sucking force of a powerful vacuum, underlie this place's foundational. It takes the trash well away from the Bunker in a matter of minutes and is easy to clean, too, because the vacuum gets most of the dirty bits.”

The Skrall shook his head. “Whatever. You mentioned your competitors earlier wanting to rob you. Why?”

“Because of the true purpose behind Project Elemental,” said Mr. Gray simply. “Tell me, Skrall, have you ever seen a Toa of Fire in action?”

The Skrall frowned. “Once. A traveling magician came to my village and put on a show for everyone. He did all sorts of magic tricks with his fire powers, such burning himself without actually causing any harm and swallowing burning knives. He was entertaining, to say the least.”

“No, I mean, have you ever seen a Toa of Fire in battle?” Mr. Gray asked. “And by battle, I don't mean those staged fights you see in the arena on the telescreen. The people there are rarely in any actual danger, even if it is a Glatorian against a Toa. No, I am talking about war here.”

The Skrall looked down at his knees. “I am ashamed to say this, but I've never been in a war, much less one against Toa. So I cannot say that I have seen a Toa of Fire in battle.”

Mr. Gray leaned forward, one hand supporting his chin, as his eyes seemed to focus on something the Skrall couldn't see. “Back when I was a Toa, I fought in the Northern War that occurred about a century after the founding of New Atero. It was a clash between the growing New Atero Republic and the equally growing League of Lords. It was over territory disputes; who would get the Northern Frost.”

The Skrall nodded. “The war ended in a truce, didn't it? The League and New Atero were forced to come to a compromise and split the Northern Frost between them. My father fought in it and told me many stories about it.”

“Did your father ever tell you about one of the League's deadliest weapons?” Mr. Gray asked.

“You mean the Element Lords?” the Skrall said.

Mr. Gray shook his head. “While they are powerful, I am talking about their armies. They had a special force of soldiers known as the Igniters. They were a Toa team of six Toa of Fire, each one trained by Lord Slacuvun himself in the art of fire. Supposedly, their control over fire reached Nuva levels, although that was always the one rumor I was never able to confirm myself.”

“My father never mentioned them to me,” said the Skrall.

“With good reason,” said Mr. Gray with a shudder. “The Igniters were possibly the most brutal fighters in the entire war. They used their fire in all kinds of creative ways to kill, torture, maim, and harm anyone their Lord ordered them to. They were ruthlessly efficient. It was said that none of them had a soul, that their wills had been broken when they were young, and that they lived only to serve Lord Slacuvun and burn anything that stood against his will.”

The Skrall knew he was going to regret asking this, but his curiosity outweighed the rest of his feelings right now. “Were they?”

Mr. Gray sat back in his chair and put his fingers together in a pyramid formation. “Once, during the war, they came upon a small village nestled right in the middle of the line where New Atero and the League would eventually draw their boundaries. The villagers pleaded with the Igniters to spare them, that they would swear allegiance to Lord Slacuvun and give him ninety percent of their earnings, if only they would let them live. The Igniters burned the entire village – including the inhabitants, their children, their animals, and anything else they found – to the ground, destroying the ashes even.”

A cold feeling passed through the Skrall's body. “They destroyed a village that had already surrendered? One that didn't even try to fight back?”

Mr. Gray shrugged. “Supposedly, one little Agori threw a rock at them, but it is impossible to verify because no one is alive anymore. Anyway, it was that little scene that led to the League recalling the Igniters, horrified at their unnecessary slaughter, and placed them in a secure prison deep beneath the waves of Aqua Magna. The Northern Frost was divided right there, actually, because the event was so well-known both in New Atero and the League. The League even has a holiday observing what happened that day: The Day of Fire.”

“Are they still alive?” the Skrall asked.

“No one knows,” said Mr. Gray, again shrugging. “They were banished beneath the waves of Aqua Magna, but for a long time there were rumors that Slacuvun was merely re-training them, that someday they would return, but nothing has came of those rumors . . . yet.”

“Why did you tell me this story?” the Skrall said, folding his arms. “I see no point to it, other than as a tale about the dangers of training a bunch of fire-users to be the perfect killing machines.”

“The point, my friend, is that I witnessed their power in action once,” said Mr. Gray. “Oh, I didn't fight them. My friends did, my fellow soldiers did, but I didn't. When I saw my closest friend incinerated in a blast of magma from one of them, I knew it was time to leave. Better to live a coward than die a hero, right?”

The Skrall disagreed, but as he was more interested in hearing Mr. Gray's story than in criticizing choices he made a long time ago, he stayed silent.

“But I never forgot the power the Igniters showed,” Mr. Gray continued. “You would never believe it if I described it to you. It was like watching a living fire at work. Each Igniter knew what their job was, what they were supposed to do, and they worked together flawlessly. New Atero had Toa in its army, of course, but none of them – not even I – ever came close to the kind of power the Igniters displayed. I doubt any of us could.”

There was a note of melancholy in Mr. Gray's voice and a bit of nostalgia, too, as if he missed the days when an entire village and all its inhabitants could be annihilated for no reason. It vanished when Mr. Gray looked up at the Skrall, his eyes shining.

“After the war, I became a Turaga and founded Ignika Industries,” Mr. Gray said. “Then, about ten years ago, I decided to do the impossible: Grant elemental powers to beings who normally cannot use or access them. Hence, Project Elemental was born.”

“But why would you do that?” said the Skrall. “I don't see how giving a Matoran the power over fire will make us equal to the Igniters.”

“It doesn't,” Mr. Gray agreed. “But I feel there is an untapped market out there just waiting for the elementalist serum. The military will want it in order to make their powerless soldiers equal to their powered ones, civilians will want it to make their daily lives easier, and the research we conduct on elemental powers will undoubtedly go toward other projects that will make life better on this planet for all. I was only inspired by the Igniters because I wondered what non-elemental power users would do if given the same power.”

“Forgive me for being blunt, elder, but you're a fool,” said the Skrall. “I don't understand the science behind what you're doing, but the thing is, when you want to avoid another Igniters incident, you don't give people elemental powers.”

“We don't just give people elemental powers,” said Mr. Gray in agreement. “You're absolutely right, Skrall. We also train them. We keep them down here in the Bunker, day after day, week after week, month after month, training them and testing them to figure out the exact side effects the serum has on every species so that it will be safe to sell to the public. You are the first and only Skrall we have, which is why we were so eager to get you down here as quickly as possible.”

The Skrall looked down at his hands. “So you don't even know what the serum will do to my body?”

“If we did, we wouldn't have hired you,” Mr. Gray said. “Thus far, it has only made you make a mess. Do you feel any different?”

The Skrall flexed his fingers. He was about to say 'No' when a shudder ran through his body, replaced quickly by a hot, burning sensation running along the surface of his skin. He scratched at it, but the sensation seemed to run along his entire body, from head to toe. It was like he was wearing a very warm coat, except it was too hot and he couldn't take it off.

“I feel warm,” the Skrall said, scratching the back of his neck with one hand and the side of his left calf with the other. “And itchy. Very itchy.”

“Hmm,” said Mr. Gray. “Warm and itchy. Quite mild compared to some of the side effects we've seen, although of course it is only in its earliest stages. As the weeks pass and your body adjusts to the serum, we will undoubtedly be seeing other signs of it.”

The Skrall didn't want to know how the others had reacted to the serum, so he asked instead, “Earlier you said I controlled shadow. How could you know that? Even I don't know what I control.”

Mr. Gray smirked. “Easy. Through this entire conversation, you have been looking right at me without having to squint or ask for a light. While I have had a hard time discerning your facial expressions – my old eyes aren't quite as good as they used to be, you see – you have expressed no difficulty seeing me at all.”

“Why would I?” the Skrall said. “It's perfectly bright in here.”

Mr. Gray shook his head. “No, it isn't. There isn't even one lightstone on. It has been completely dark since you opened your eyes and started talking to me.”

The Skrall looked up at the ceiling. While there was a lightstone embedded in the center of the ceiling, it was quite clearly off at the moment. There were no other possible sources of illumination in the room, yet the Skrall could see everything as clear as day.

“Only a shadow being would require night vision,” Mr. Gray said. He paused and said, “Hmm, night vision . . . you know, I like that. Did you know that every elementalist – that is our term for beings like you – has a codename and number?”

The Skrall shook his head. “No, I didn't.”

Mr. Gray stood up, leaning on his staff, and said, “Well, it's true. Your codename is based on your powers and your number is based on the order in which you joined. Therefore, that makes you Number 16, as you are our newest member.”

“Then what is my codename?” the Skrall asked.

“I just said it,” said Mr. Gray with a smile. “Night Vision. Appropriate, don't you think, for a shadow-user who can see at night?”

The Skrall scowled. “Only a leader class Skrall can grant soldier class Skrall a name. And that is only if they have earned it themselves through some great or worthy deed.”

“I know all about your culture's peculiarities, Skrall,” said Mr. Gray, waving his concerns off. “It's not a real name, anyway, but a codename. You don't have to use it. It's for organizational purposes only. Don't worry about it.”

“It's not that simple,” said the Skrall, folding his arms. “In my culture, all names are treated the same. We don't have a concept of code names.”

Mr. Gray's smile vanished, replaced with a thin line that was impossible to read. “Practicality trumps culture this time, I am afraid, Night Vision, unless you wish to return home as penniless as you came.”

The Turaga had a point. The Skrall had been unable to find any other employment in New Atero. And he desperately needed the money. If that meant violating some of his own peoples' cultural standards, well, then he would just have to do that.

So he nodded and said, “All right, Mr. Gray, I accept. What do we do now?”
 

-


Present day. . . .

The heavy rain had forced Night, Jet, and Kiriah to take shelter under the overhang of a nearby penthouse. Night's voice was hoarse from the screaming he had done earlier, so he kept his thoughts to himself, watching the rain drop, as Jet and Kiriah discussed their plan of action.

“That was very convenient for Atuje, stealing our powers like that,” said Jet, who sounded even crosser than Night. “He really did ensure that no one would stand against him.”

“But how do we get back?” said Kiriah. “We can't stay here forever. We have to go home.”

“Why do you think I have all the answers?” Jet said. “I'm just as lost and confused as you are. There's nothing we can do. We're stuck.”

“Does anyone even know where we are?” Kiriah said, looking out over the city. “This doesn't look like New Atero or any other city we've visited. Then again, everywhere looks the same when it's raining like this.”

“What we need to do is find a way down to the streets,” Jet said. “We search for any inhabitants and see if they can give us any useful information about the place. Perhaps they will even be able to point us to an object or being who could help us dimension-hop.”

Kiriah looked at the penthouse they stood in front of and said, “Wanna try going in here? This might lead down to the streets.”

“Worth a shot,” said Jet. “Let's all look for a door because I don't see one right now.”

The party of three searched the small penthouse until they found a door behind it. It was locked, but the smallest application of Kiriah's telekinesis was enough to break the lock, causing the door to swing open and clash loudly against the wall. They quickly entered and found themselves in a long, stone hallway. At the end of it was a large door that appeared locked.

“Another locked door,” said Jet. “We've already broken one lock; why not another?”

Just then, Night heard the whirring of gears nearby. He glanced up at a corner in the room and saw a small camera pointing at them. The camera looked like an older model, bulkier and square, and underneath it was a speaker that looked slightly modified. He wondered what the camera was for until a feminine voice blared from the speaker, causing all three of them to cringe at the loudness and suddenness of the sound.

“Welcome, my three visitors from another world,” said the voice. “I see you have decided to play the Great Maze Game. Wonderful! Just wonderful. Ordinarily I would have asked for your signatures first, but clearly you have decided to drop in unannounced. I have never met more excited otherworlders before.”

Night snapped, “Who the heck are you?” in a voice that was still too hoarse, making his words sound more like, “Who the hew are you?”

Still, the voice seemed to understand his words, because it said, “You can call me Mendos. As a Skrall, I am certain that you recall that name and its significance. If not, I can always tell you because I am such a Mendos fanatic I could go on all day about how awesome she was.”

“I am quite familiar with that legend, thank you very much,” said Night, taking his hands off his ears.

“As am I,” said Jet.

Kiriah scratched the back of her head. “Well, um, I don't know who Mendos is. Wasn't raised by Skrall, you know.”

A high-pitched squeal emitted from the speaker, making Night wish with all his might that he could just destroy it. “Then I get to talk about her after all! Anyway, in Skrall legend, Mendos was a trickster goddess, the only one of her type among her fellow deities, and probably the most well-known Skrall goddess. She constantly played tricks on everyone; her fellow gods, mortals (enemies and followers alike), animals, even on nature itself once. It was said that she once tricked Solis Magna and Luna Magna into going to war against each other, which would have killed everyone on Spherus Magna had not the other gods intervened at the last possible moment.”

“So you named yourself after someone who nearly caused an apocalypse?” Kiriah asked in disbelief.

“Yes!” said Mendos with glee. “I like to think of it as the biggest prank ever pulled off, myself. You have to read about some of the crazier things she did. Once she convinced a bunch of saplings that it was winter instead of spring, which made them decide to sleep through the spring and awake during winter, causing them to die. Classic Mendos.”

“Probably wasn't great for the saplings,” Kiriah observed.

“Aw, you're such a spoilsport,” said Mendos. “Anyway, congrats for entering the Maze. If you win, you will receive fabulous prizes. If you lose, you die!”

“Die?” Kiriah repeated, glancing at her two allies. “As in, dead die?”

“What other death is there?” said Mendos. “But yes, you die. Don't worry. Most people don't die that easily.”

“You mean people still die,” said Night. “It just takes a while.”

“If you want to interpret it that way, sure,” said Mendos. “Anyway, just go beyond that door to begin your new adventure. I am certain you will have loads of fun because I personally designed the place myself. In the spirit of Mendos, little is what it seems and nothing can be trusted. Have fun!”

“Wait!” Night said, but the speaker audibly clicked off at that minute.

“Looks like we have no choice but to go into the Maze,” said Jet with a shrug.

Night looked at Jet in disbelief. “You must be joking. I'm not going to play some stupid game made by a Mendos fanatic, especially one that could end in death. It is illogical.”

“How else are we supposed to get down the building?” Jet asked. “Sprout wings and jump? I understand where you're coming from, but unless you want to sit in the rain all night, we have no other choice but to go into the Maze.”

“Jet's right,” said Kiriah. “We really have no other choice at the moment.”

Night sighed. “All right. Fine. We'll play Mendos's little game. But if we get killed, I will make sure you two die first.”

They walked over to the door. Jet reached it first and pulled the door open, revealing an empty room with an oddly slanted floor. Night took a step back, but Jet and Kiriah apparently didn't notice because they stepped forward. The Skrall grabbed their arms, causing his two companions to look at him, Jet in irritation, Kiriah in curiosity.

“What are you doing?” said Jet.

“Something's not right,” Night said, nodding at the floor in the next room. “The floor . . . it's slanted. . . .”

Without warning, the door closed behind them. As they were standing in the doorway when that happened, they were all pushed forward. Night landed on the floor and started sliding down. He grabbed for anything to slow him down, but the slanted floor was completely smooth. He reached out for Kiriah and Jet, but neither of them were within his reach and soon he passed into a tunnel that seemed to twist and turn for an eternity before dropping him flat on his bottom onto the floor.

“Ow,” Night said, rubbing his behind as the tube above him closed off. “Now I remember why I don't like slides.”

He looked around and realized he was alone. He was sitting in what appeared to be a narrow hall, a stone wall behind him, while a three-way path stood before him. On a nearby wall was another camera, like the one before, and it swiveled on its hinges to focus on him as the Skrall stood up and brushed off his armor.

“I see you three have entered the Maze,” said Mendos's voice over the speaker. “Excellent! You see, to make the game more interesting, the Maze is divided into three sections. Had to separate you all in order to keep you from working together and winning the game too easily. Nothing personal, you understand.

“Now you probably all notice the three-way paths ahead of you. You can only go down one path, so choose wisely. One will lead to the next floor; one will lead to treasure; and another will simply lead to death. Which leads to which is something I will let you figure out on your own. Have fun!”

The speaker clicked off just as Night started to curse Mendos. He looked at the three paths. They all looked the same to him. Yet if Mendos was telling the truth, then at least one of those paths led to certain death and frankly he suspected they all did because the game would be far too easy if only one of three paths was a path of death.

Night sighed and stood up. Looks like I've got no choice in the matter. I can only hope that Jet and Kiriah survive, too; but if they don't. . . .

Totally at random, Night picked the center path. He began walking down it, his thoughts filled with anger at everything for the situation he, Jet, and Kiriah had ended up in. If he ever met the Great Beings, Night would be sure to give them a good punch in the face for making destiny so stupid.



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#6 Offline TNTOS

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Posted May 12 2014 - 08:44 AM

Chapter V


More than once in the week since she had been kidnapped and imprisoned by the Echoes, Kafor fantasized about her escape. She saw herself breaking free of the uncomfortable shackles that held down her arms and legs, using her laser beams to break open her cell door, cleverly avoiding her jailors, and making a beeline for freedom and descending into hiding once more, as she had always done.

Of course, in those visions, Kafor was a lot stronger and braver in her fantasy than she was in reality. In addition, the situation was nearly always favorable toward her. After all, in her vision, she had magic navigation abilities, able to figure out where the Karzahni she was and where she needed to go in order to get back to Spherus Magna. Unlike now, where she had no idea where she was.

The Skakdi Seer knew she was somewhere in Wyoko, but that was about it as far as her knowledge of her location went. She also knew she was in the dungeons of Castle Kra, but as she didn't know where Castle Kra was, that was pretty much useless information at this point. None of the Echoes had been kind enough to tell her where she was. They'd simply thrown her in jail and left.

Earlier, Kafor had felt something shake the foundations of the castle, but the shaking soon ceased. She speculated it may have been an earthquake, but as the quake didn't knock down the walls of her cell, she had condemned it as useless.

The darkness of the dungeon made it impossible to see. She could hear the sounds of her fellow prisoners nearby, their feet scraping along the floor, sometimes muttering something she couldn't hear. Kafor had spoken with them when she first got here, learned their names, but otherwise they had spent a good amount of time talking among themselves, trying to figure a way out.

Kafor had suggested that the Toa prisoners use their elemental powers to blast their way out of their cells, but they discovered that the metal bars of their cells simply absorbed elemental energy. They tried brute force as well, but the bars were thick and strong and didn't budge, no matter how hard the Toa punched and kicked at them.

Now Kafor would have helped, but alas, the Echoes had placed a set of reflectors over her eyes. While she bet that her laser vision could have destroyed the lock on her jail cell door, it was now worse than useless because of the reflectors. One shot, and the lasers would bounce back into her eyes and fry her brain.

She sat up against the wall and drooped her head. While the Echoes had been giving her and the other prisoners regular meals of grubs and gunk (at least that's what it tasted like; unable to see, Kafor had no idea what they were being fed), Kafor couldn't see the end of this imprisonment. She didn't even know why they had kidnapped her. What had she done against the Echoes or their King?

Then again, Kafor thought, I am a Seer. Maybe they want me to look into the future or something. Or maybe they're just insane. Yeah, that's probably it.

There was a reason none of the prisoners spoke much. During their first few days down here, there had been an almost endless stream of conversation, discussion, and angry cursing from the Toa. They had come up with all kinds of bizarre and amazing plans to escape, including one that relied a little too much on the questionable idea that Masqouth was an alcoholic. None of them worked. None of them were even remotely plausible, which is why Kafor had stayed out of the discussions for the most part. That, and she hated Toa, but she didn't say that aloud.

A week in a dark, smelly dungeon, in cells that were little more than broom closets, coupled with food that was neither tasty nor nutritious, had eliminated their drive to escape quite effectively. The only one who seemed to be at all optimistic was Niham, who insisted that there was this secret organization called the Will of Angonce that supposedly knew where they were and was probably going to send a rescue team any day now.

It's been a full week now, Kafor thought. And the only people who have come down here are the Echoes. Guess those Will guys must not care for five Toa and a Skakdi.

The rest had simply lapsed into sullen silence. Occasionally, she'd hear one of them grumbling a variety of creative curses under their breath, mostly directed at Masqouth or one of the other Echoes (Asroth was a popular target for obvious reasons), but in general the other prisoners remained silent

The sound of footsteps echoing through the dungeon made Kafor looked up. Having been down here for a week, Kafor had quickly learned to identify each Echo by their footsteps. Based on the lightness with which this one stepped, it was clearly Jeran. She heard bowls being pushed across the floor as Jeran said, “Lunchtime. Eat up.”

A minute later, she felt a bowl slid up against her feet. Even without bending over, Kafor could smell the stench of her meal, which smelled like rotten eggs mixed with mud. She grimaced at the smell as Jeran said, “Eat up, Kafor. This is your last meal for the day, so you don't want to waste it.”

“I'd rather starve to death than eat this garbage,” Kafor said. “It smells like dung.”

“I'm sorry none of us are gourmet cooks,” Jeran said. “And I apologize for the ways we've treated you and the other prisoners. Atuje said we just need to keep you alive.”

“And you've done a wonderful job of that,” said Kafor. “We're starving and cold and uncomfortable, but at least we're alive. I guess that's why your king is called the King of Life, eh?”

“Stop whining,” said Jeran. “Compared to some prisons I've visited, you have it extremely lucky.”

“Lucky?” Kafor said with a bitter laugh. “Listen, mister, this is the second time in a week that I've been bound and blinded by someone who wanted me for various reasons. It's funny because I spent the last several thousands of years avoiding these predicaments. I tripped over destiny once and now I am here.”

“And?” said Jeran. “What do I care?”

“I don't know,” Kafor said, kicking out and knocking over her bowl of grub. “What I want is freedom. So do the other prisoners. We don't know why we're still here. The Toa have done their job. Aren't you finished with them?”

“Lord Atuje told us to keep them,” said Jeran. “He still has plans for them. And for you.”

“And what might these plans be, Jeran?” Kafor asked. “Is he going to throw a tea party for us?”

“He didn't tell us what he planned to do with you five,” said Jeran. “He simply told us not to let anyone get to you. That's all.”

The hint of doubt in Jeran's voice prompted Kafor to say, “That's all? You didn't ask him to explain?”

“Have you tried to ask for an explanation from him?” Jeran asked in annoyance. “He would probably have thrown me down here with you if I had questioned him. He was in a hurry to leave.”

“Leave?” Kafor said. “You make it sound like he has a body.”

“He does now,” said Jeran. “He left Wyoko hours ago and has yet to return. I am not sure what is keeping him.”

“Maybe he went on vacation,” Kafor said. “I hear the Northern Frost is miserable this time of year.”

“He left because he was going to kill his enemies,” Jeran said. “He didn't say it, but I knew. He spoke in euphemisms and smooth talk, but I don't doubt that's his ultimate goal. I have no idea if he has succeeded or not, though.”

“The King of Life wants to kill his enemies?” said Kafor. “Then again, the King of Life is the reason a war in which I am sure hundreds if not thousands of people have died is raging across Spherus Magna. His title just gets more and more appropriate every day, don't you think?”

“His hypocrisy is astounding,” said Jeran. “But his power is not to be reckoned with. Besides, he promised me that the ones who killed my friends would be punished, utterly destroyed, even. I'd work with Makuta Teridax himself if I thought that could help me destroy my enemies.”

“How can you be sure?” said Kafor. “I don't know who your enemies are, but from what you've said, I can guess they're still alive. Are you certain Atuje will uphold his end of your bargain?”

“Of course he will,” said Jeran in the least convincing voice ever. “He promised me several times over the past month that he would do it as soon as possible.”

Kafor chuckled. “Listen to me, Jeran. In my time, I've learned that you can't trust anyone who promises to do something 'as soon as possible' in order to get you to do something for them. Most of the time, they're just saying that to get you to shut up and stop asking questions.”

“If Atuje was trying to trick me-” Jeran said.

“Wouldn't put it past him,” Kafor said. “Look at what he did. Atuje orchestrated a gigantic plan that must have taken years of planning to pull off. He faked a messiah, roused two entire species (including my own, I might add) to rebel, started a world war, kidnapped five Toa and me, and got a new body. All while keeping his very existence a secret from the vast majority of people. And you think he is simply an honest angel who always has your best interests in mind? What are you, an infant born yesterday?”

“Shut up,” Jeran said. “Don't talk about things you don't understand.”

“Then explain to me, O wise one, where I misunderstood the plot,” Kafor said. “Because I am pretty certain I got most of it right.”

The stomping of Jeran's feet was all she needed to hear. She listened as the Echo stomped off out of the dungeon until his feet no longer echoed through the dungeon.

Well, that went well, Kafor thought. I wonder if he's going to stop bringing me lunch. Or maybe he'll give me extra mud. Either way, I doubt he'll forget this.

“Kafor?” said the voice in the cell next to hers, which she recognized as belonging to Niham. “You still awake?”

“Always,” said Kafor. “Why?”

“Because I think your words got to him,” said Niham. “He just went stomping out of here. He looked very upset.”

“I was just pointing out the obvious,” said Kafor. “The obvious fact is that Atuje is probably playing all of his minions for his own gain. I just thought Jeran should know that.”

“I'm just worried what this will do to us,” said Niham. “I doubt Jeran is going to stand up to Atuje. If Atuje finds out what you're doing, well. . . .”

Kafor shrugged. “So what? Let him get angry. I've faced my share of angry megalomaniacs over the years. Besides, Atuje needs me alive, so whatever he might do to me can't be that horrible, can it?”

“Kafor, have I told you that I'm a detective?” Niham asked.

Kafor shook her head. “No. Why should I care?”

“In my time,” Niham continued, “I've seen a lot of dead people, but I've also seen plenty of people who were kidnapped and tortured for various reasons. They lived, they survived, but they were never quite the same after the kidnapping. Many of them end up losing their minds, unable to function in normal society. And then, years later, they become like the very beings who tortured them. It's a vicious cycle.”

“You're saying I'm going to become a psycho mass-murderer?”

“I'm saying that death is not the worst fate in the world,” said Niham. “For some of those people, death would be as welcoming as a cool fall breeze on a summer day.”

Kafor scowled. “I know all about torture, Toa. I'm not stupid.”

“All right, then,” said Niham. “We're in this together, so I thought we should look out for each other.”

“Whatever,” said Kafor. “I'm just going to eat now.”

That was when she remembered that she'd accidentally kicked over her food bowl, and sighed.

Shouldn't have kicked over my food, Kafor thought. Now I'll have to lick it off the floor. Then again, the floor is probably cleaner than the crud I was fed, so maybe it will actually improve the flavor.

With a sigh, Kafor bent over onto the floor. It was going to be another long day and by the end of it her mouth was going to taste of grim and mud. She at least got the satisfaction of messing with one of her captors, although the fearful part of her mind wondered if she had gone too far this time, if maybe the next person to come down those steps would be armed with a whip and a knife. She hoped not.
 

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#7 Offline TNTOS

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Posted May 19 2014 - 08:38 AM

Chapter VI


Maybe it was Kiriah's imagination, but she had thought the path she had chosen would be a lot . . . darker. She expected to see bits of corpses littered here and there, blood splattered over the walls, floor, and ceiling, and a stench that would make the Bota Magna swamps smell like fresh perfume.

Instead, Kiriah found a perfectly clean, perfectly smooth tunnel that simply went straight ahead for as far as she could see. It was eerily quiet; after Mendos had spoken, the only sounds Kiriah heard were the click, click of her footsteps against the stone floor and her own breath. The air didn't even smell that bad. If anything, it reminded Kiriah of steamed bula berry.

Maybe I chose the right path, Kiriah thought. Maybe I am actually going to be okay.

As she walked, she wondered how Jet and Night were doing. Yes, she was a Toa of Psionics, but her telepathy had a limit. She could not simply reach beyond walls and make contact with them; well, okay, in theory she could, but it was a skill she had never been very good at and so had not bothered learning it. Even if she could, she would still have to know their exact locations in relation to her in order to find them.

She also worried about the Almighty Ones. Last she had seen, they had been at the mercy of Atuje, who despite his title was probably not going to simply give them a slap on the wrist. Had he succeeded in killing them? They had not contacted Kiriah or the other two yet, but at the same time, Kiriah thought she would know if they were dead or alive.

If they're dead, then I think we're screwed, Kiriah thought. Even if we do manage to go back to our dimension, there's nothing we can do to take on Atuje in a fight. If he can defeat even the Almighty Ones, well, it might just be better if we stay here and hide from him.

Then a voice in her head – one that reminded her, with a shocking realization, of her late friend, Isarot – berated her for her cowardice, telling her that even if the odds were against her that she had a duty as a Toa to find and defeat Atuje. That voice reminded her of the time that she and Isarot had fought Toa Darranas, a hopeless fight if ever there was one, and yet she had defeated him, even after the fallen Toa had slain Isarot in cold blood. Things had seemed even bleaker back then. What gave her the right to run away now?

Besides, it was unlikely that Night and Jet would want to run. At least Night would never want to give up. He seemed to have the strongest motivation of all them to stop Atuje. While Night had not spoken much about it, Kiriah understood, based on her low-level telepathy that was active at all times, that the Skrall had been deeply hurt by Heavyweight's death. He had not mentioned his partner even once since her death, but the swirl of anger and sadness that existed just beneath the surface of his mind was obvious to Kiriah even without her telepathy.

As for Jet, Kiriah had a hard time figuring out his main motivation for fighting Atuje. Unlike either her or Night, Jet was not from their universe. He was a wanderer, one without a home, and was the only real servant of the Almighty Ones out of the three of them. True, Niralo, one of Atuje's servants, had tried to kill him, but somehow Kiriah didn't see revenge as being the kind of motivation Jet would have.

Thinking of Jet reminded Kiriah of his father., Oscron She had met Jet's father not long ago, who was a wealthy, retired Glatorian living in a luxury village in Bota Magna in Jet's universe. Before Kiriah left his house, Oscron asked Kiriah to deliver a message to Jet. He gave her this message:

“Tell that ungrateful spawn that his father regrets having him every day and will continue to feel that way until the day he dies. Next time you see him, tell him that, in exactly those words, and I will be able to die in peace.”

Now Kiriah knew next-to-nothing about parent-child relations, as Matoran didn't have children. It was a realm controlled almost exclusively by the Agori, Gadarian, and other native species of Spherus Magna. The mysteries of reproduction were one that the Toa of Psionics had never been interested in studying; however, in her time, she had more than once picked up what might be called salacious thoughts one Gadarian or Agori might have toward another and they always made her uncomfortable.

Still, Kiriah thought that Oscron's message to Jet was a bit harsh. His last words were a puzzle, too. 'I will be able to die in peace'? How could a father die in peace knowing his son hated him, which would inevitably be the reaction of Jet once Kiriah had delivered the message?

The fact was that Kiriah had decided not to tell Jet these words just yet. All three of them had been under a ton of stress since Masqouth and his Echoes had soundly defeated them in combat not long ago. Telling Jet that his father regretted having him would not make the situation any better. At least that's what Kiriah thought. She would tell him later, when things had calmed down and they were all able to relax.

Her thoughts were interrupted when she music filled the hall. She stopped and listened more closely. She heard the stringing of a harp, done very beautifully at that, accompanied by a voice singing in a language she didn't understand. Still, she thought the voice sounded nice. The music was so enticing that she started walking again, not even paying attention to her surroundings as she rounded a corner and stopped.

Not far from her, a large being in spiky tan armor sat on a tall stool, holding a harp in his hands. The beautiful voice from earlier was coming from his mouth as his fingers strummed the harp's strings. He was so good at it that it was mesmerizing. Kiriah could have spent the rest of her life just staring at the way his fingers moved and listening to the sounds they made and she would have considered that a life well lived.

Then the being ceased his singing and playing and looked up at her. She wished he had kept playing, but something in his eyes – cold, gray, perhaps a bit out of focus – maybe her throat close up. She just watched as his eyes scanned her whole body, as if he had never seen someone like her before.

Then he spoke. His voice was just as musical while speaking normally as it was when it sang songs. In fact, it was even more musical, maybe because he somehow achieve the effect of singing and talking at the same time without doing harm to either.

“Are you one of the participants?” the being asked. “Mendos told me I might have a guest today. I had assumed it was a Matoran, but a Toa will do, too, I suppose.”

Kiriah shook her head and stuttered, “W-Who are you?”

The being smiled, which didn't look as good as his voice sounded. “My name is Izoz. I am a musician, really an amateur when it comes to it. I am best with a harp, although I still suck at it.”

“You, an amateur?” said Kiriah in disbelief. “But you sound so . . . so. . . .”

Izoz chuckled. “That is what everyone says. But if only they could hear the symphony that constantly plays inside my head, that drives me to sing and play . . . ah, then they would look upon my on work as the inferior shadow that it is.”

“No way. You'd have to be deaf not to appreciate your obvious talent. What are you even doing here, anyway? Seems like an odd place for a musician with as much talent as you to be.”

Izoz, still smiling, said, in his most musical, lyrical voice, “Why, I am here to kill anyone who gets this far. 'Tis part of my contract.”

Kiriah took a step back. His voice didn't seem quite so beautiful anymore. “You're joking.”

“My friends tell me I have a weak sense of humor,” Izoz said. “I am completely serious. I guess I forgot to tell you that I practice the harp in between my killings. At least, I do when I am not cleaning up the inevitably very dirty mess I make tearing my victims apart.”

Kiriah looked at the hallway they stood in. “But it's spotless and perfect.”

“That's because Mendos is a very harsh taskmaster,” Izoz said. “She expects her property, the Maze, to reflect her standards of cleanliness that she takes very seriously. Because I am so messy, she is harder on me than she is on the other Maze guardians. Because I've had so much practice cleaning, I can now usually do it in less than an hour, sometimes even half an hour if I cleanly kill my victims.”

“How about no?” Kiriah said. “Listen, Izoz, you seem like a great guy. You're obviously a very intelligent, very skilled musician. Why not come with me and we can see about establishing you in the music industry?”

Izoz shook his head. “I guess I forgot to tell you how I got here. You see, I grew up in a small village hundreds of miles west of here, practically in the middle of nowhere. My fellow villagers never had much, except for this harp, which I was allowed to play once every day for an hour. I soon became better than ever the village elders at playing the harp and soon I was the lead player in our village's yearly week-long concert. It was a good time.”

Despite the wistfulness of his words, Izoz's expression look like that of a Muaka cat, carefully watching his prey before he inevitably sprang on them.

“Then someone from a music publishing company came and took me away,” said Izoz. “He made me big, bigger than even the Great Beings, and I was making good money for many a year until the day I snapped, killed my manager, and burned down my studio with all of my staff trapped inside it. I broke their legs to make sure they didn't escape.”

Kiriah gasped. “Why would you do that? That's insane.”

“Frankly, even I don't know what I was thinking when I did that,” said Izoz with a shrug. “One minute, I was playing my harp as peacefully as ever; the next, my manager's headless corpse lay at my feet and his head was in my hands. It was like the spirit of the Beast took over.”

“The Beast?”

“A monster in the mythology of my village,” said Izoz. “Supposedly, the Beast lurks inside all beings and comes out whenever it wants. You cannot control the Beast; only hope that you and your loved ones never fall under its sway. And it appears that that is what happened to me all those years ago.”

“What happened after that?” Kiriah asked, who despite herself was interested in hearing his story.

“I got my own wanted poster,” said Izoz. “Wanted, dead or alive, ten thousand widgets. I evaded capture from bounty hunters and government officials for three months before being subdued by a Toa of Gravity named Barilo. I was then thrown into prison and informed I had about a week to live before they would bring me out to the gallows and hang me like a dune wolf. It was a very scary part of my life, perhaps the most frightened I have ever been.”

“How did you get out of it?”

“Mendos came for a visit,” Izoz said. “She bribed the officials to set me free and offered me a deal: If I worked here, she would give me food, water, shelter, and anything else I might need. If I refuse, I would go straight back to jail, where I would inevitably be executed for my crimes. You can tell my answer.”

“You mean the government is okay with a known killer continuing to kill people?” Kiriah asked in disbelief. “That doesn't sound right.”

Izoz shrugged. “At this point, there's not much of a government to enforce laws against murder. The virus took out a good portion of the population, including most of the government. Not that I'm complaining. This Maze is a lot nicer than the jail cell the government threw me into when Barilo took me in.”

“What virus?” said Kiriah. “What happened?”

Izoz strung one string on his harp, as if to test it. “That's a story for another day. If you survive this Maze, I'm sure Mendos will tell you all about it. Until then, I suggest you keep your guard up because I cannot guarantee that I won't pounce on you and rip your throat out. No need to look so surprised; after all, I did say that the Beast cannot be controlled, didn't I?”

The harp lay, untouched, on his lap now and his hands were pressed down on the edges of his stool, as if he was preparing to hurl himself at her. Suspicious, Kiriah reached out with her telepathy to see what he was thinking . . . and then, with a snarl, he pounced.

Kiriah just barely had enough of a warning to jump out of the way. Izoz went barreling past her, skidded to a stop, and then ran at her again. His eyes were aflame with pure madness and thick claws had sprang from them like retractable Muaka claws.

The Toa of Psionics managed to draw her sword and used it to blocked Izoz's claws. He kept swiping at her and she kept deflecting, but it was clear that he was the faster one and in a minute he struck Kiriah's sword hand, causing her to curse as her sword went flying out of her hands and clattered to the floor out of reach.

With no weapon to defend herself, Kiriah was forced to try to dodge again, but Izoz was still faster. He slammed both of his fists into her midsection and headbutted her, causing stars to pop in her eyes as her skull screamed in pain. She staggered backwards onto the floor and rolled out of the way just as Izoz brought down one of his feet, creating a crack upon impact.

When Kiriah got to her feet, she realized she was crouching near Izoz's stool. With a simple application of her telekinesis, Kiriah sent the stool flying toward Izoz's head. It was a direct hit, the stool breaking across Izoz's face and making him snarl in anger and rub his eyes to get the splinters out.

This gave Kiriah the opening she was looking for. Using her telekinesis once again, she picked up Izoz and smashed him against the wall three times in rapid succession and threw him away. Izoz landed on the floor roughly, but staggered to his feet almost instantly. He dashed at Kiriah, although not quite as quickly as before.

I don't have time for this, Kiriah thought. Night and Jet are probably already ahead of me by now. I gotta catch up with them so we can go back home.

So Kiriah reached out with her mind powers and grabbed hold of Izoz's mind. She let go almost immediately, however, as his mind was completely overcome with madness; so much so that it burned (not literally, of course, but it was the only word that best described the sensation of touching a mad mind).

This left her guard down, which Izoz easily took advantage of by slashing at her chest with his claws. A burning sensation exploded in her chest, causing her to cry out in pain as she staggered back. She touched her chest and felt blood. She didn't look down because she knew that seeing herself wounded would be a distraction she couldn't afford.

Izoz had stopped for a moment. He raised his bloody claw to his face, sniffed it once or twice, and then licked it. If he had looked crazy before, he was absolutely demented now. His eyes contracted, his breathing quickened, his muscles undulated, and his lips moved rapidly yet soundlessly. For the first time, Kiriah understood exactly how the Beast worked. And it frightened her greatly.

With a shudder and a hiss, Izoz launched himself at Kiriah. Now he clearly wasn't holding back. If there had been a hint of rationality and intelligence directing the wall of madness that loomed before her, it had truly disappeared, long gone, replaced by nothing more than primal instinct of the basest kind.

It was all Kiriah could do to avoid being ripped to shreds by Izoz's claws. His every blow was clearly maximized for killing effort; Kiriah knew, in a way the rational mind could never explain, that even one blow from this Beast would kill her instantly. Especially if he got her chest, which was already opened and exposed from his earlier attack.

Indeed, it was only a matter of time before Izoz landed the killing blow. It was Kiriah's survival instincts, rather than her conscious mind, that was keeping her alive. It was her instincts against his and only time would tell – in seconds rather than minutes or hours – whose were better.

And it turned out that Izoz's were the superior. Kiriah's left foot slid across the floor awkwardly and the Toa of Psionics slipped and fell. She crashed on her back and in a moment was pinned beneath Izoz's great weight. His breathing was harsh and heavy and his claws gleamed in the light of the hall as he brought them down on her mask.

Then her instincts acted again. A burst of telekinesis sent Izoz flying into the ceiling above her. Kiriah gasped for air, but didn't relent. She kept him pinned to the ceiling even as his limbs flailed. She thanked the Great Beings, Mata Nui, and any other powerful entities out there that might be watching over her life, even though it was quite probable that they had nothing to do with her survival.

Before she could check up on herself, however, she had to make sure Izoz was no longer a threat. She sat up and looked at the ceiling, where Izoz was still futilely striving to break free. She could reach into his mind and turn it off; however, the sheer madness that occupied his mind was unlike anything she had ever encountered before. Even the madness of Darranas had been calculated and could (in theory anyway) be reasoned with; here, it was like Izoz was a Rahi and not a rational, intelligent being.

Still, she couldn't keep him up there forever and if she let him down now she might not be able to pin him down again. The best thing to do at the moment was knock him out. And seeing as he had taken quite a beating already without going down, that meant she would have to directly access his mind and shut it off from within.

It would be difficult. She would have to maintain her telekinesis while doing telepathy. Multitasking was not impossible for her, but it was much more difficult than doing one or the other. If her concentration on her telekinesis slipped, she would undoubtedly die.

After moving out from underneath Izoz – a move she figured would buy her at least two more seconds of life in the event she failed to keep him up there – Kiriah took a deep breath, which hurt more than it should thanks to her wounded chest, and reached into his mind.

Madness screamed. That was the only way she could describe it. It was like the loudest person who had ever existed at any point in the history of the universe was screaming at the very top of their lungs into speakers that were turned to eleven. The scream didn't stop to think about what it was screaming about. It didn't care. It just screamed. And Izoz's rational mind was more or less in pieces as a result.

Kiriah wanted to pull back. Among Toa of Psionics, it was considered extremely unsafe to directly interact with the mind of a mad being. Because telepathy was the most intimate form of contact possible, there was always that chance that some of that madness could slip past the mind shields that were natural to all Toa of Psionics and infect Kiriah's mind. Mad Toa of Psionics were the worse. Their mental barriers made it nearly impossible to cure them of their insanity and anyone who tried often ended up as mad as them.

Nonetheless, Kiriah pressed on. The only way she knew how to deal with direct madness was having a solid goal in mind. Madness never had a goal. It was distracted by a million things at once. The only way to keep oneself from being taken in by madness was to know what you were trying to do and just doing it. Even then, it was possible to be distracted, possible to stare into the depths of madness too long and never return.

It didn't take long for Kiriah to identify the conscious core of the mind. It usually never was, as the conscious core was the most important aspect of any being's mind. It was reaching it that was the problem. A sea of madness, which Kiriah likened to a sea of fire, surrounded it on all sides. And in order to reach the conscious core, she would have to cross the sea.

More than once, as Kiriah attempted to cross the sea, she found herself back in the Maze, staring up at Izoz. Her mind was straining at maintaining the two different mental disciplines while at the same time ignoring the body's distress at being wounded in the chest so badly. There was no guarantee she wouldn't simply collapse, mentally and physically, though probably physically first, the mind following afterward. And when she did, Izoz would have the freedom to do with her as he wished.

That thought drove her deeper into the sea of madness. Every step she took – yes, she was walking through the sea, but it was a metaphor and not exactly a real sea and she wasn't sure why she was thinking this because she needed to keep her focus entirely on reaching the conscious core – became harder and harder, like she was walking through a sea of thick mud. The tug of madness wanted to sweep her out of her own sanity, but she held on and continued forward regardless.

The waves of madness roared over her and more than once, she found that it seemed . . . rational. Intelligent. Even reasonable. She blatantly dismissed those reactions, however, because she knew that if she gave madness an inch, it would take over her whole mind. And worse: she would not even realize that it did.

The sea of madness burned hot like a furnace, but eventually she made it through and found herself staring at Izoz's conscious core. Again, there were few words to describe the mind, as most beings had never seen it. Even among Toa of Psionics, only metaphorical language could sufficiently describe the mind.

So when Kiriah thought the conscious core resembled a sphere of light, she knew that it was only, at best, a metaphor. The actual conscious core likely looked wildly different, but as long as she could still interact with it, how it looked didn't matter. Whether she could access it, did.

She stuck one hand into the conscious core and charged the slightest amount of psionic energy into it. The next moment, the conscious core shut off and Kiriah opened her eyes, gasping for air, as she found herself sitting on the floor in the Maze, her chest still burning and Izoz lying face-down where she had been moments before.

Ignoring her burning chest, Kiriah crawled over on her hands and knees over to the musician. She poked him in the shoulder not once, but several times. Each time, she got no reaction at all, meaning that she had been successful. Izoz was no longer a threat, although he would wake up eventually.

By the time he does, Kiriah thought as she stood up, I'll be long gone.

Perhaps such thoughts were too optimistic because as soon as she stood to her full height, she got dizzy and her chest ached. She had no bandages to wrap around her torso to act as a temporary stopgap. She looked around and saw nothing that could possibly help her. She even searched Izoz's armor, but found nothing, not even a tissue.

Her wound couldn't stay open like this forever. It would eventually get an infection. And if the infection went untreated, she would die.

Out of desperation, Kiriah looked up at the ceiling and said, “Mendos, could you please send a doctor into the Maze? You know, to check up on me? Just for a minute? Please?”

Of course, there was no response. Mendos, from what Kiriah had seen of her so far, was a maniac whose idea of fun was sending people into a maze full of death traps. In all likelihood, Mendos considered Kiriah's current predicament a part of the game. Would the beautiful Toa of Psionics make it through the Maze before she died of infection from an easily treatable wound?

From Kiriah's point of view, however, there was nothing exciting about it. It was horrifying. It was even worse because she realized that even if she found Jet and Night, neither of them could use Kanohi masks, so they couldn't borrow her Mask of Healing even briefly to use it to heal her. Maybe they could find the Almighty Ones, who could heal her, but they still had no way of leaving this universe and frankly it seemed unlikely that they would find one in time to save her life.

How funny, Kiriah thought. I've come face-to-face with all kinds of crazy people and dangerous situations over the years, but in the end it's a simple infection that will kill me.

That thought alone nearly broke her. What was the point of going on and reuniting with Jet and Night – assuming those two even made it to the end of the Maze – when she was just going to die? Why not lie down with Izoz and wait for death to claim her? It would be easier than walking around with a bleeding chest.

Even as Kiriah thought this, her legs were already on the move, putting one foot in front of the other, her destination the door at the end of the hall. Yes, she probably would die, but that was no excuse for not trying to survive. Survival was paramount. If there was even a slim chance she could survive – and she had to admit that her chances of surviving here were very slim indeed – then she had to keep going no matter what.
 

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#8 Offline TNTOS

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Posted May 26 2014 - 08:38 AM

Chapter VII


“Wake up, Ruby. We're here.”

Ruby yawned and stretched. Unfortunately, she couldn't stretch very much in the tiny cockpit and so had to bend her limbs in all kinds of strange ways to compensate. When she felt better, she asked Cina, “Where are we?”

“The dome of Shika Nui,” Cina said without looking at her. “You can probably see it out the windshield if you look.”

Interested, Ruby peered out the window. Through the darkness of the night and the clouds, it was hard for Ruby to see anything. Then a cloud passed away and a gigantic round mountain appeared. The dome stood thousands of feet high, so tall that Ruby was certain it towered over even the tallest building in New Atero. In the distance, only a handful of smaller domes rose from the earth, but nonetheless it was easy to tell that they were gigantic even from Ruby's current position.

The dome had clearly been salvaged more than once for parts. A gigantic hole stood out, ugly and scarred, across the front of it, while another, wider gap had been opened closer to ground level. Despite the scars it bore, it was clear that the dome would last another fifty-thousand years before it ever broke down on its own.

“Why are we going to Shika Nui?” Ruby asked, looking at the back of Cina's head. “I thought we were going to Wyoko.”

Cina sighed. “In order to reach Wyoko, we have to go through Shika Nui. It's the only way.”

“I don't understand,” said Ruby. “Why? Is Wyoko underneath Shika Nui? Like underground?”

“Wyoko is a pocket dimension,” said Cina. “While it is possible to get there via dimension-hopping, the easiest method is using the Door that connects it to Shika Nui.”

“Back up,” said Ruby, holding up a hand. “I don't get it. What Door? Why is it under Shika Nui?”

“The full history is far too long and convoluted to get into right now,” said Cina as the airship shook slightly from wind turbulence. “Basically, all you need to know is that the Kra-Matoran were defeated once, a long time ago, and banished to Wyoko via a portal that someone discovered underneath Shika Nui. To keep the Kra-Matoran from escaping, Artakha crafted a gigantic door that was locked with a Toa seal.”

“Huh,” said Ruby. “I thought all the domes were torn down after Teridax's death and the materials used to make New Atero and the other mega cities.”

“Not all of them were,” said Cina. “Shika Nui is one of the few that was spared because of the Door, although it's sometimes raided for materials by certain construction companies that shall remain nameless. Metru Nui is another dome that was spared, although it's not in as good condition as Shika Nui's dome is.”

Ruby put her hands on the glass. “And the Kra-Matoran just marched out of here? Didn't anyone know about the Door to Wyoko that lay underneath Shika Nui? How come no one was keeping an eye on it?”

“There was no need to, for a while there,” said Cina. “Most people don't know about Wyoko, except for the Shika Nuians, who made sure to bury the tunnel leading to the Door before leaving the old universe. It was buried deep underground, nearly impossible to reach unless you want to spend years digging through tonnes of dirt and setting up the support system necessary to keep the tunnel from caving in on you.”

“But Masqouth did it,” Ruby said.

“Evidently, he succeeded,” said Cina. “Somehow, he managed to dig out the Door and captured the six Toa necessary to break the Toa seal.”

“And he did it all without anybody even realizing it?” Ruby said, raising an eyebrow. “Why weren't you Will guys keeping an eye on Shika Nui? Did it never occur to you guys that something like this might happen at some point?”

“We didn't think anybody would put in the time and effort necessary to open the Door,” Cina admitted. “Like I said, most people don't even know it exists. We're not even sure how Masqouth learned of it. For that matter, we don't know why he's even tried to unleash the Kra-Matoran. It's all madness so far, that's what it is.”

“You mean you really don't know why he's doing this?” said Ruby in astonishment. “You mean with all your vast spy networks and secret information on everything, you have no idea why Masqouth started a world war?”

Again, Cina shrugged. “Keeping an eye on Masqouth is a Karzahni of a lot harder than it seems. Whenever he's not in the public eye, sometimes it seems like he disappears into thin air, even when we know where he's staying. Maybe if we find Masqouth, it will all make sense.”

Ruby nodded, but she could honestly care less about Masqouth's motives. What mattered to her was rescuing Niham. Whether Masqouth had good or bad reasons (probably bad reasons, but she didn't think about that too deeply) for doing what he was doing, there was no way in heck that Ruby was going to let him keep Niham. If he didn't give her up quickly, Ruby was going to show Masqouth just why she was a professional Glatorian.

“What's the plan?” said Ruby. “Wait, I know. We land in Shika Nui, enter the Door, find Masqouth, and rescue Niham. Easy, right?”

“I don't think it will be quite that simple,” said Cina. “Do you know what it's like down there, in Shika Nui? Have you done any study on the domes at all?”

Ruby scratched the back of her head sheepishly. “Um, it's dark?

“Yes, it's dark,” said Cina in exasperation. “But it's also uninhabitable. Without the Mata Nui robot's life support systems, it's now uninhabitable to all but the most unkillable of creatures. The only reason it has air in it at all is due to the holes in the dome and even then, the air is most likely not very clean or easy to breathe. We'll probably survive when we get in, but I just want you to be prepared when we go in.”

“Polluted air?” Ruby snorted. “Cina, I've lived in New Atero all my life. I think I know a thing or two about polluted air.”

“We have to remember that Masqouth may have set up guards or traps to keep outsiders away,” Cina said. “Maybe there are even a few Kra-Matoran, hanging back to keep people from entering Wyoko. I tend to doubt it, but I wouldn't be surprised if Masqouth made a deal with the Kra-Matoran leaders to have a few of their minions stay behind to act as gatekeepers or guards.”

“We can beat a few Matoran,” said Ruby. “Even if they're evil Matoran, I doubt they'll be able to stand against us in direct combat.”

“That's right,” said Cina, glancing at Ruby. “I forgot. The Kra-Matoran can shoot shadow blasts from their hands, similar to Av-Matoran. They are also stronger than your average Matoran and are far better trained in combat. Didn't you wonder why the Kra-Matoran army hasn't been beaten yet?”

Ruby folded her arms and leaned back in her seat. “Doesn't make any sense. If the Kra-Matoran have been locked up for thousands of years, how have they been able to chart a course for New Atero? How could they possibly know Spherus Magna's geography if they've never been here before?”

“Good question,” said Cina. “Based on the evidence, we've decided that Masqouth must have sent them maps, videos, books, carvings, and other forms of information to update the Kra-Matoran on recent events. So far, it has obviously worked well, if the continuing rampage of the Kra-Matoran army is an indication.”

“Even if what you say is true, we can still take them by surprise, can't we?” said Ruby. “I mean, you're a Toa of Water for the Great Spirit's sake. Surely you can handle a couple of Matoran, even well-trained Matoran.”

“Yes, but it will be dark and hard to breathe in there, which will make things that much more difficult,” Cina said. “In addition, I doubt they will ignore the arrival of an airship, even one as small as mine. I could shut off all the lights and dim the sound of the engines, but that would make it much harder to find a good landing spot, which is absolutely crucial if you don't want to die a very horrible death.”

“Isn't your airship armed with lasers or missiles or anything?” Ruby asked, peering over Cina's shoulder to look for any war buttons. “Any way to defend itself?”

The Smooth Wind was designed for speed and travel, not combat,” said Cina, shrugging Ruby's face off her shoulder. “So unless I open the cockpit and start chucking things at people on the ground, The Smooth Wind is basically harmless.”

Ruby cursed. “And here I was hoping we could go in guns a-blazing on Masqouth and his cronies.”

“We won't be able to take The Smooth Wind into Wyoko itself, I think,” said Cina as they drew closer to the gaping hole in Shika Nui's dome. “I am not sure it will fit in the tunnel.”

“You just like crushing my expectations, don't you?” said Ruby. “Are you saying we're going to have to walk into Wyoko?”

“Probably,” said Cina. “Thankfully, I do have an idea of where Castle Kra is. You see, Oggak gave us some info on the castle's location, as she is familiar with Wyoko's geography. It's located somewhere in the center of the land, several miles north of the Door, so we're just going to head north until we come upon a giant, probably evil-looking castle.”

“Giant, evil-looking castle,” Ruby said, nodding. “Gotcha.”

“All right,” said Cina. “We're just about to enter. It's going to get very dark, very quickly because the sun in the dome doesn't work anymore.”

“I'm not afraid of the dark,” said Ruby with a snort, folding her arms and looking out the window. “No need to warn me.”

Cina shrugged as The Smooth Wind passed through the opening and into what could best be described as complete and utter blackness. The sudden change from the darkness of the night to the darkness of the dome made Ruby grab the back of Cina's seat. Thankfully, the Toa of Water didn't seem to notice. She kept staring straight ahead, the airship soaring through the emptiness, its engine louder than usual, or so it seemed to Ruby.

Relaxing her grip on Cina's seat, the Glatorian peered out the windshield. It was a solid black outside. Aside from a few pinpricks of light from the holes in the ceiling of the dome – which seemed a million bio away inside – and the lights from The Smooth Wind, it was completely and utterly dark. A primal sense of fear arose in Ruby's chest, choking her and making speech impossible.

Ruby had been telling the truth when she said she was not afraid of the dark. She was perfectly content to go walking the streets of New Atero at midnight in the middle of a blackout and sometimes even forgot to turn on the lights in a room when she entered it. While she did not necessarily have an affinity for darkness, it didn't scare her (which made for some very funny pranks on Niham, who by contrast was absolutely terrified by it).

But this darkness . . . somehow, it was different. She grasped the difference almost immediately: The lack of life. In other dark parts, Ruby could usually be assured that there was someone nearby, even if that someone was a complete and total stranger. Or perhaps a Rahi, a pet, would be around. If she was in a city, at the very least, she knew that the city's inhabitants were around her and that brought her comfort.

Here, though . . . when she thought about it, she realized just how alone she and Cina were. Shika Nui had been abandoned for fifty-thousand years. It had been uninhabitable for just as long. As far as Ruby knew, not even the aquatic life in the sea had survived. There was nothing in this place but Ruby, Cina, and the endless blackness.

The Smooth Wind flew for a long time. Occasionally Cina would press a few buttons or flip a couple of switches, but other than that and the sound of the engine, it was like they were flying through the void. Ruby had never been in the void before, but she had heard tales about how Toa Lewa had once ended up in the void between worlds. Even that wasn't quite an accurate comparison, however, because at least there were stars up there. Here, there wasn't even that.

After perhaps a half hour of flight, Cina said, “Radar says something big is coming up. I bet it's Shika Nui.”

“So we're finally going to land?” Ruby asked. She was starting to think there was no land in this place at all, that it was an empty void you just flew through for eternity.

“Not yet,” said Cina. “Once we're far enough inland, then we'll find a place to land. Should only take a few minutes.”

The fearful part of Ruby wanted to shout, “No! Land now and let me out of here!” but she kept her mouth shut and sat back. Despite her silence, she wrapped her arms around her body, feeling very, very small against the infinite blackness of the dome.

As they flew over the rocky, lifeless surface of Shika Nui, Ruby realized that if Shika Nui was dark, Wyoko was going to be much, much worse. Cina had described it as a land of shadow. How that even worked, Ruby didn't know, as she was no scientist. Unless Cina was being poetic – which she hoped with all her might that the Toa was – Ruby had a feeling that Shika Nui was going to look like a sunny summer afternoon in comparison to Wyoko.

The primal fear that had been building inside Ruby ever since The Smooth Wind had enter the dome was near its breaking point. Her heart was beating against her chest like a drum and her forehead was sweaty. She wanted to grab Cina's shoulders and tell the pilot to turn back, to head home, that they didn't need to brave the darkness, that she could wait for the Will to send a team to rescue Niham, that Niham was probably okay and really didn't need their help anyway because she could take care of themselves so could they please please please please go home now please?

But Ruby's rational mind stubbornly kept her hands on her lap. No. Niham needed her. Abandoning Niham because Ruby was afraid would be the worst decision she could possibly make in this situation, worse even than the time she drank too much arang juice and somehow ended up hanging from her feet from the New Atero Council Building (the details of that particular adventure were still fuzzy to her, even after Niham performed a thorough investigation that lasted several weeks).

She had come this far. There was no turning back now.

Still, even that steely resolve failed to translate totally into action. Her hands gripped her thighs tightly. She tried to distract herself by looking out the cockpit, but the utter blackness of Shika Nui simply made her more anxious.

Then Cina said, “All right, I think we're close to the entrance now. We're going in for a landing, so prepare yourself. It might be rough because I can't see the ground very well.”

Ruby wasn't sure how she was supposed to prepare herself for the landing, seeing as she was already strapped in.

So she just sat as still as possible until she felt The Smooth Wind land on the ground. Cina quickly hit a variety of buttons and then turned and handed Ruby something. “Here. Take this.”

Ruby took the object and looked at it. “A lightstone?”

“It's very dark out,” said Cina. “Both in Shika Nui and in Wyoko. We're going to need all the light we can get.”

Ruby clicked the light on and shone it around the cockpit. “Seems pretty pathetic.”

“It's all we've got,” said Cina as she held up her own lightstone. “Now I'm going to open the cockpit. Are you ready?”

Every part of Ruby wanted to scream, 'No, I'm not ready! Let's go home and forget this ever happened. I'm pretty sure I have a match in New Tajun scheduled today anyway!'

But she nodded and said, “Yes.”

“Here we go, then,” said Cina as she pressed a button on the control panel.

Then the cockpit slowly lifted up. As soon as it did, a stale, dead air rushed to fill the cockpit. Ruby hacked and cough several times as her lungs adjusted to the change in air cleanliness, while Cina simply stood up when the cockpit was open and looked down at her companion with concern.

“Are you all right, Ruby?” Cina asked. “Because if it's that bad, we can always leave.”

The idea of running away made Ruby stop hacking. She stood up, looking as determined as she could, and said, “No way. Niham would hate me for the rest of my life if I went back now.”

Cina chuckled. “All right. Let's go.”

Cina jumped over the edge of The Smooth Wind and landed on the ground. Ruby followed, but landed much less gracefully. She was still adjusting to the dome's less-than-clean-air, so she was a lot clumsier than she usually was. This disturbed her because if they had to fight someone, she wouldn't be at full strength. She just had to hope the rest of the trip was smooth sailing from here on out.

Cina clicked on her own lightstone and shone it into the darkness. “Used The Smooth Wind's guidance system and located the entrance to the Door. Should be straight ahead.”

“And that is . . .?”

“The ruins of a fortress,” said Cina. “You see, Shika Nui was originally ruled by the Dark Hunters for 25,000 years. The Dark Hunters built a fortress on top of the entrance to Wyoko. Considering that the Kra-Matoran army had to go through it to leave, though, I kind of doubt that the fortress is still standing. We might be able to find the ruins, at least.”

The duo began walking forward through the darkness. Every step sounded magnified in Shika Nui, although so far no one seemed to have noticed them. Assuming, of course, that there was anyone here at all. There was a good chance the entire place was completely abandoned. At least, if Ruby had been a Kra-Matoran, she certainly would not have wanted to stay in a gloomy place like this all by herself.

The lightstones revealed interesting bits and pieces every now then. For example, the road they were on was covered in thousands of footprints, with the occasional rut from wheeled vehicles obscuring them. They also came across discarded weapons, usually broken or damaged in some way to make them impractical, but Ruby did find a shield that was practically new, which she took because she was currently weaponless and needed something to defend herself with.

In addition, more than once they came upon strange drilling machines, abandoned and forgotten in the darkness. Cina identified them as Onu-Drillers, a popular drilling machine popular among Onu-Matoran miners. The Toa of Water speculated that they had been used to clear the path to the Door, although if that was the case, there must have been an entire fleet of them (where Masqouth could have gotten the fleet was a question neither of them knew the answer to). They found only one, although due to the intense darkness around them it was impossible to tell if there were more nearby.

The rest of the trip passed in absolute silence. There were no Rahi here. Not even tiny insects to buzz in Ruby's ear. There was no plant life, either. Cina informed Ruby that without the nutrients provided by the Mata Nui robot, the plant life had probably all died and shriveled up years ago. So, although they couldn't see it, Shika Nui was probably nothing more than a barren wasteland now.

Still, the fact that they were walking and that they had found some biomech-manufactured artifacts made Ruby feel much more at ease than she had in the air. Not that that it totally did away with her feelings of fear and despair, but it did temper them, made it easier to ignore them. Yet the feelings continued to hover in the back of her mind, as if waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

Their lightstones also revealed chunks of stone strewn along the path. Cina inspected them and informed Ruby that the stone chunks had at one point been part of the fortress they were looking for, which meant they were close to finding Wyoko's entrance. They kept on their path, Cina occasionally stopping to touch random objects they passed, explaining that her Mask of Psychometry was giving her important information on the objects that they normally would not have found out on their own.

Watching Cina do that reminded Ruby of Niham, whose habit of using her own Mask of Psychometry to discover the history of random objects – sometimes to look for clues concerning a case she was working on, more often simply for curiosity's sake – often drove Ruby up the wall. It also reminded her of something Cina said earlier, something that puzzled her at the time but which had slipped her mind until this moment.

“Say, Cina,” said Ruby as the Toa and Glatorian walked down the dark road. “Back on the Soaring Titan, you said you had met Niham once before. When was that, exactly? Niham never mentioned you to me.”

Cina shrugged. “About a week ago, on the day she was kidnapped. The Will had sent me to investigate the kidnapping of Toa Laomos. When I got to his apartment, Niham was already there. We talk a bit, traded information, and then went our separate ways. Wasn't anything special.”

Ruby nodded as Cina said, “But don't get me wrong. She's not a bad person or anything. It's just that the meeting was brief and uneventful. We're just acquaintances.”

Ruby raised an eyebrow. “An acquaintance who is risking her job and her life to save another acquaintance? Seems like something only a a really good friend would do.”

“It's nothing,” Cina said. “I'm just like you: impulsive, reckless, and impatient. I want to stop Masqouth more than anyone else and I don't want to wait to do it. Teaming up with you simply gave me the opportunity to get out and do something for a change.”

While Ruby's ability to detect lies was nowhere near Niham's level, she could still sense that the Toa of Water was not being entirely truthful. “Okay. But it sure seemed easy for us to escape the Soaring Titan. Yeah, I know no one knew we were escaping, but geez I would have thought their security systems would be a lot better than that, what with you guys being a super secret organization and all.”

Cina shrugged again, although this time it was less convincing. “We just got lucky. Or if you prefer, it was our destiny to escape.”

“Destiny, or a setup?”

“What do you mean?”

Ruby rubbed her forehead. “I mean that someone let us get away. Maybe even your leaders. They knew we would escape, knew we were escaping, but decided to let us go anyway. Why?”

“I think you're a bit paranoid, Ruby,” said Cina, scratching the back of her neck with her free hand. “Like I said, it was luck, pure and simple.”

“Sure was lucky that you managed to have the controls to open the hanger door automatically,” Ruby said. “Which you could have only gotten before 'impulsively' deciding to team up with me to get out of there.”

“What are you saying?”

“Nothing,” said Ruby. “Just observing how conveniently it worked out for me.”

“Every Will airship is equipped with a portable hanger door opener,” said Cina. “It's standard regulation. Ask anyone who regularly flies our airships and they'll confirm it.”

Ruby looked around and said, “Well, you're the only Will member around, so. . . .”

“Just get on with it,” Cina said, with more than a hint of irritation. “What are you trying to say? Speak plainly. Isn't that what you Glatorian are best at?”

Ruby met Cina's intense glare and said, “I am saying that someone in the Will wanted us to escape, perhaps had even planned for it, which is why we didn't face many difficulties on our way out. And I am really starting to think that that person was you.”

Cina stopped. “Me? You think I planned all of this out?”

“Not all of it,” said Ruby, stopping, too. “Just the basic gist of it. Or maybe someone smarter than you gave you the plan. Either way, it seems obvious to me that something is up and you are the one who probably knows what.”

For a moment, Ruby was sure Cina was going to run. In her time in the arena, Ruby had seen what cornered fighters looked like. They always were scared, even if they would never admit it themselves. They looked like their mind had run through every possible scenario, every plan they could think of, and their face revealed that no matter what they did, there was no way they could win. Cina looked a lot like that now.

Then the Toa of Water said, “Ruby, you're-”

Something cold flew past them, grazing Ruby's arm and causing her to jump in response. She looked at her arm, which was bleeding slightly now, as Cina hurled a water blast in the direction the cold thing had come from. The splash of water hitting something echoed from the darkness, followed quickly by another cold thing Cina dodged by jumping to the side.

“What's going on?” said Ruby, holding up her shield. “Who's attacking us?”

Cina aimed her lightstone in the direction of their assailants and something small, black, and dangerous-looking quickly leaped out of its range before Ruby could see what it was.

“Kra-Matoran,” said Cina. “Not sure how many, but at least one, probably more. Knew we'd run into some.”

Ruby heard movement behind her and whirled around just in time to block a spear with her shield. She raised her lightstone and saw the lizard-like face of a Zyglak snarling at her, its strength pressing down on her hard.

“What in the he-” Ruby said, struggling to hold back the Zyglak.

“You Toa and Matoran will fall,” the Zyglak said. “For taking our home, you must perish.”

Ruby certainly would have collapsed under the weight of the Zyglak had Cina not blasted the Great Beings' mistake with water, sending him staggering somewhere into the shadows. The Toa and the Glatorian went back to back, Ruby holding her shield up to her chest and Cina carrying an arm blade. All around them, it sounded like a battle was already in progress, which was strange because it had been completely silent up until this point.

“What's going on?” Ruby asked, raising her voice over all the fighting. “And why didn't you tell me there were Zyglak living here?”

“The Kra-Matoran and Zyglak are fighting each other,” Cina said. “I thought the Kra-Matoran army or Masqouth's minions had driven them off already, which is why I didn't mention them before. Guess I was wrong.”

“What are the Zyglak even doing here?” Ruby said. “This place is lifeless.”

“Exactly,” said Cina. “The Zyglak hide out in places no one lives. The domes have been positively infested with them since Teridax's demise, which is another reason why some of the domes were left untouched.”

The screeching of a Zyglak and the sound of metal slamming against metal drowned out Ruby's next question.

“What was that?” Cina asked.

“I said,” Ruby repeated, grimacing, “what do we do now? Fight?”

“Hardly,” said Cina. “We make a break for the Door. With both the Zyglak and Kra-Matoran distracted, it should be easy for us to make a break for it.”

“But it's dark,” Ruby said. “And there is fighting everywhere. How are we going to get through? Do we even know where we're going?”

“Just follow me,” said Cina. “And don't even hesitate to take down anything that jumps out of the darkness, whether Zyglak or Kra-Matoran.”

Before Ruby could say anything else, Cina ran off into the darkness. The Glatorian followed quickly, her heart racing as shadow blasts flew overheard, Zyglak screeched and growled, and Kra-Matoran screamed obscenities at their enemies. Every now and then something would grab at her from the shadows, but she always beat it back with her shield. Once a shadow blast grazed her leg, but she ignored the wound and continued to run.

Running in the dark, unable to see much besides what little their lightstones revealed, and having to avoid the Zyglak and Kra-Matoran was a nightmare. More than once Ruby tripped, but thankfully Cina always seemed to make time to help her up. Still, they never stopped for long because they did not want to be drawn into the fighting going on all around them.

How Cina knew where to go, Ruby didn't understand. The Toa of Water seemed certain about their destination, but Ruby felt that Cina was simply guessing at this point. How could either of them know where the Door was? Neither of them had ever been to Shika Nui before, after all, and the darkness and sounds of battle made things more confusing to Ruby.

Finally, Cina said, “I think I see a hole up ahead!” and flashed her lightstone. Ruby followed it and spotted what appeared to be a massive tunnel, easily big enough for an entire army to fit through. She couldn't see much of it, but she knew that that had to be their destination.

Just as Cina and Ruby reached the entrance, a sudden flash of red, white, and blue movement brought them to a halt. Their lightstones revealed more Zyglak, standing in front of the tunnel with their spears drawn. There was at least half a dozen, maybe more, and they were snapping and snarling like mad Muaka cats.

“Okay, Cina, Plan B,” said Ruby, glancing at her companion as they stepped back from the Zyglak. “What's Plan B?”

Cina looked at Ruby like she was crazy. “There is no Plan B.”

Ruby was just about to yell at Cina for not thinking ahead when one of the Zyglak launched itself at her. The Glatorian just narrowly managed to dodge the mistake of the Great Beings, which landed on the ground on all fours before rising to its feet and turning to face her. A vicious snarl escaped its lips as the monster stepped toward her, Ruby holding her shield up in defense.

“You don't want to kill me,” Ruby said, keeping her tone cool despite her heart racing. “I'm not one of those Kra-Matoran who drove you out of your home. I'm a Glatorian. Big difference.”

“There is no difference in our eyes,” the Zyglak said. “Whether you are a Matoran, a Glatorian, or something else, you must die.”

Before the Zyglak could tackle her, it screeched in pain and fell face first onto the ground. Ruby flashed her lightstone over its body and saw that three long, bloody cuts ran along its back. She looked up just in time to see a flash of yellow disappear into the darkness.

The next moment, all around her Zyglak began screeching and running, the Kra-Matoran cursed and shouted in shock, and then someone grabbed Ruby's arm and shouted, “Ruby, we've got to go. This is the perfect chance.”

It was Cina, who was now dragging Ruby along into the tunnel. Ruby just barely managed to keep up, but she kept glancing over her shoulder, asking, “What just happened? Who saved us?”

“It's not important right now,” Cina said. “You want to save Niham, don't you? Then we have to keep going. Standing around will only get us killed.”

Ruby wrenched her arm out of Cina's grasp, but continued following the Toa. Still, she glanced over her shoulder every now and then, because the sounds of Zyglak dying and Kra-Matoran screaming in pain were impossible to ignore fully.
 

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#9 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jun 02 2014 - 08:33 AM

Chapter VIII


Ten years ago. . . .

The Skrall known as Night Vision stood in the Bunker's training arena. The sandy pit reminded him of the Glatorian arenas Grandfather had told him about. Supposedly, the sand had been used because it had offered better traction on the floor than smooth stone did, but Night Vision had been told that that was just an excuse. The real reason the old-style arenas had sand-covered floors was because it had been too much trouble to sweep away the sand that the Bara Magnan desert blew in every day.

Whatever the reason, Night Vision was annoyed that he had simply been dumped in here with little explanation. After his talk with Mr. Gray, Night Vision had been escorted by two large Roffican guards to this chamber. The trip gave a glimpse to Night Vision of just how large the Bunker was. It had taken them at least five minutes to reach the arena and that had been after they used several shortcuts to save time.

When they got here, Night Vision was told he was going to train with another elementalist – whose name and element they had for some reason forgotten to tell him – and had handed him a bowl of Thornax stew to eat. It was the only thing he had had to eat in several hours and he ate it heartily, as Thornax stew was his favorite food.

That had been several minutes ago. Now Night Vision simply stood by himself in the arena, his arms folded, impatiently tapping one foot against the sand. While he had plenty of light to see by – not that it was necessary, seeing as he apparently had night vision now – there wasn't much to look at. Aside from the sand and the doors at either end, the arena was empty. It didn't even have any windows; then again, considering they were underground, windows would probably have been useless.

I wonder when my opponent will show up, Night Vision thought. Then again, maybe it's a test. They told me I would fight someone, but in reality it's merely a way to test my patience.

Night Vision hurled a shadow bolt at the wall. The bolt struck the wall and created a smoking burnt spot.

Guess I failed the test, Night Vision thought as he looked at the wisps of shadow escaping from the tips of his fingers. Now when do I-

The door at the other end of the arena opened and a Vortixx entered. She walked with the kind of inflated self-importance Night Vision had always associated with female Vortixx and wore dark gray armor as though it were the finest ever made. On her left arm was a strange tri-claw weapon that, to Night Vision, looked too heavy to be practical in combat.

The Vortixx stopped about two dozen yards away from Night Vision. She looked at him for a moment before saying, “You must be Night Vision. The newbie.”

Night Vision kept his arms folded. “And who might you be?”

“My codename is Heavyweight,” said the Vortixx. “We're supposed to train together, right?”

“I guess so,” said Night Vision. “Unless you happen to know another Skrall named Night Vision who can shoot shadow out of his hands.”

“Ah, so you can control shadow?” said Heavyweight with a playful smirk. “Interesting. I thought your name might be indicative of your power, but I wasn't sure if Mr. Gray was playing another one of his weird tricks.”

“Wait, you mean you didn't know what my element was at all?” Night Vision said.

“Before I got here? Nope,” said Heavyweight, shaking her head. “The point of this training exercise was to determine how and what kind of training you'll need. Our powers were kept secret from each other to make it more interesting. Thanks for telling me what yours is, although I'm afraid you're going to have to play detective to find out what mine is.”

“No one told me that,” Night Vision said. “They just dumped me in here and told me to wait for you.”

Heavyweight chuckled. “They do that with everyone. The only one who has ever gotten lucky is Blaze, who managed to beat Aqua with her fire on her very first try. Everyone else lost their first battles, including me. So if I hand your behind to you on a silver platter, don't feel too bad about yourself.”

Night Vision raised his hands and said, “There is no room for pity among the Skrall. Only victory and defeat.”

Heavyweight shrugged. “Then I guess you don't mind being defeated.”

Before Night Vision act, Heavyweight snapped her fingers and he went flying. The Skrall landed on his head on the sand several feet away, the blow dizzying him even as he instinctively rolled to a crouch. His skull burned with pain, but he ignored it as Heavyweight approached him, still smirking.

“So you can control air,” said Night Vision. “Big deal.”

Heavyweight shook her head. “Did you feel any wind? Try again.”

With a growl, Night Vision launched a couple of shadow bursts at her. To his disappointment, they were rather small and weak and dissipated halfway between him and Heavyweight.

The Vortixx froze when he'd shot those bursts, but laughed as soon as they disappeared. “Oh, I see. The learning curve. Always the worst part of being a beginner.”

“Stop mocking me,” Night Vision said. “I don't need my shadow powers to beat you. As a Skrall, I was-”

Once again, Heavyweight snapped her fingers. This time, Night Vision slammed into the wall and fell to the floor, more stunned than hurt.

Spitting the sand out of his mouth, Night Vision got to his hands and feet and asked, “Psionics?”

“Wrong,” said Heavyweight. “Close, though. But still wrong.”

This time, Night Vision rolled forward. He planned to roll between her legs, come up behind her, and then strike her lower back with his fists. An easy enough technique, especially in his situation. Even if she somehow managed to block his attack, at least it would give him time to come up with something else.

Then, Heavyweight flew. She went straight up into the air just as Night Vision rolled between her legs. The Skrall stopped and looked up at her, his mouth gaping, as Heavyweight looked down at him with a triumphant smile on her face.

“And the answer is . . .” Heavyweight said, like she was announcing the winner of a contest. “Gravity!”

Without warning, she fell like a rock. She kicked Night Vision directly in the face with her foot, causing him to stagger backward from the blow. Heavyweight landed gracefully and dusted off her armor, like she did that sort of thing every day.

Night Vision's head rang and his vision blurred. Something hot trailed down the side of his face, which turned out to be blood. Through his blurry eyes, he saw Heavyweight, looking like she was on the verge of laughing at him.

“Did I hurt the widdle Skrall?” asked Heavyweight. “I was just trying to knock you out. Guess you Skrall really are rockheads.”

The anger that had been slowly building up inside Night Vision over the course of the day finally broke like a dam. He shook his arms, which became covered with darkness, and dashed at Heavyweight faster than he ever had before, faster than even Heavyweight could react. He began slashing at her so quickly that she barely managed to dodge his blows.

“I . . . am . . . done . . . with . . . YOU!” Night Vision shouted as his attacks became more frantic and messy.

Heavyweight's smirk had disappeared off her lips, replaced by a look of intense concentration as she attempted to keep Night Vision from stabbing her in the chest. Despite his rage, Night Vision was impressed by how collected Heavyweight was even with him going all out on her like this.

But that didn't mean he let up. Not at all. He was trying to keep her off-balance. If she got even a moment to think, she'd use her gravity powers to turn the fight in her favor. That mean she was probably too weak to take a direct hit from him. All Night Vision had to do was get one good hit in and she would be down for the count.

Then Heavyweight ducked, causing Night Vision to overreach his punches and stagger forward. Heavyweight somehow grabbed his arm and lifted him over her shoulder. She then slammed him onto the floor with surprising strength, causing Night Vision to gasp in pain as the shadow dissipated around his arms. Before he could get back up, Heavyweight snapped her fingers again and a sudden force weighed down on him painfully.

“What did you do to me?” Night Vision said as he fought against the force holding him down.

“Are you really that dumb?” Heavyweight said. “It's my gravity at work. I've increased your gravity, making it impossible for you to stand up. So no matter how much you struggle, you can't get back up. In other words, I win.”

Night Vision was going to disprove that statement, but then he remembered that gravity was a force of nature that he had no control over at all. So he merely lay there, feeling extremely disgruntled, and said, “All right. You win.”

A voice blared from an intercom hanging in the corner of the room, saying, “All right, that's a wrap. Number 16 Night Vision and Number 13 Heavyweight, you will be escorted from the arena back to your rooms.”

Then the intercom clicked off and Night Vision felt the pressure leave him. He was on his feet instantly, glaring at Heavyweight, who merely appeared bored.

“Well, I'd say you put up a good fight,” said Heavyweight. “But you just lost your cool there. I thought you Skrall would know that you should never lose your cool in the middle of a fight, especially against an opponent like me.”

“What would a Vortixx like you know about battle?” Night Vision said. “Your people may make weapons, but just because you've made a weapon doesn't mean you know how to use it in battle.”

“Knowing how to use the weapon really didn't help you here, did it?” Heavyweight said. “Also, I don't really like your codename. Night Vision? It's too long.”

“You're right,” said Night Vision. “My name should be the shortest name ever.”

“And what would that be?”

“No name,” Night Vision replied. “I have not done anything to earn this name; therefore, I should discard it, but until Mr. Gray lets me go, I have to keep it.”

“Hmm,” said Heavyweight, scratching her chin. “Have you thought about going by 'Night'? Less of a mouthful.”

“I prefer no name,” Night Vision said. “If you truly want to show me respect-”

“Who said anything about respect?” Heavyweight said. “If you don't have a name, it would get really confusing and I'd have to call you something like 'bucket-head' to make up for it. On the other hand, 'Night Vision' is too long. Maybe you should talk to Mr. Gray about getting your name changed.”

Before Night Vision could tell her how wrong she was, the doors opened and four Roffican guards entered. They then escorted Night Vision and Heavyweight out of the arena through different exits. Night was thankful for this, as he never wanted to see Heavyweight again, not if she was going to treat him flippantly anyway.



-


Present day. . . .

Night examined the treasure box he had stumbled upon. When he entered the Maze earlier, he fully expected to have to fight some monster or evade a death trap of some kind (or possibly both). Instead, he'd had a simple, safe walk down a surprisingly clean hallway and at the end had found this purple treasure box with the word 'TREASURE' written on it in Skrall.

I must have gone down the treasure path, Night thought. I wonder what's inside.

He flipped open the box's lid – which he had expected to be locked – and spotted a tiny gold ring sitting on top of a small plush pillow. He picked the ring out and turned it over several times, but as far as he could tell, there was nothing special about it at all.

Another dead end, Night thought as he slipped his finger into the ring. Then again, why else should I expect from someone named Mendos?

In Night's younger days, Mendos had always been his least favorite deity. Always goofing off, getting into trouble, and acting like an cool dude . . . more than once Night had wondered how she ever got into the pantheon. Surely the gods did not need a trickster among themselves, wrecking their carefully laid plans or disrupting their training. Especially one as chaotic as Mendos.

As Night tossed the treasure box aside, he wondered about this Mendos. She was clearly insane. That much was obvious. Night had known insane people before. When you work as a Dark Hunter, insanity is basically a requirement for the job. He never spent much time with the more obviously insane Hunters, however, because they always made him uncomfortable in ways the less insane ones didn't.

Despite that, he thought it practical to take some time to figure out what Mendos was trying to accomplish here. Maybe it would even help him figure out how to escape the Maze or at least survive it.

He tried to recall any stories about Mendos the deity that might tell him what this Mendos was trying to do. Unfortunately, due to his lack of interest in that goddess, he could only recall a handful of stories, none of which were relevant to his current situation (although the tale where the deity Mendos accidentally crossed paths with the Slumbering Giants was one of his favorites, if only because it was one of the few stories where Mendos got her comeuppance in the end).

As Night opened the door at the end of the hall and peered inside to make sure there were no surprises waiting for him, his old temper flared again. In the last five hours, he had seen his best friend killed, learned that his entire species had been manipulated by a being who saw them as a means to an end, got crushed beneath tons of rock, and was stranded in a universe he could not currently escape. And now he was being forced to travel, alone, through a maze that a being who named herself after his least favorite god had created for reasons he didn't know.

Heavyweight's death especially weighed heavy on his heart, even though he tried not to think about her too much. She had been his only constant since leaving Ignika Industries. The two of them had joined the Dark Hunters together and had been an inseparable team since. There were rumors that they were together in a relationship, but Night's lack of interest in females kept their friendship from becoming anything deeper than that.

As he walked down the short spiral staircase to the next floor, Night had to keep his emotions under control. As a Skrall, it would be inappropriate for him to break down and cry. Besides, Heavyweight had died in battle. Among the Skrall, it was considered inappropriate for a warrior to grieve friends who died in combat. In fact, you were supposed to envy them and hope that you would someday be slayed in battle by a mighty opponent, rather than dying of old age or disease or in some other, far less honorable way.

Of course, Night had been a lone wolf ever since he had left Ignika Industries. His powers made him a freak, even among his people. There was a reason that only the Dark Hunters had accepted him and Heavyweight. At the time, he had believed it to be the only way he could avoid capture by Ignika Industries, though looking back now, Night was surprised he hadn't ditched the Dark Hunters sooner than he had.

The Dark Hunters were about the antithesis of Skrall ideals. They cared little about honor, honesty, integrity, fairness, or any of the other virtues that were commonly upheld in Skrall society. Every Dark Hunter was, without exception, insane, murderous, megalomaniacal, thieving, and selfish. Lying and deceiving were the two most powerful weapons any Dark Hunter could hope to have. As a matter of fact, Night was pretty sure that the reason the Shadowed One had maintained his rule over the organization for as long as he did was because of his ability to lie, manipulate, and intimidate his men.

In fact, Night figured that the original reason that the Shadowed One had taken in him and Heavyweight was because they were unique. Whatever else the Shadowed One had been, he was a collector. He loved collecting unique things, which is why he had owned a large vault of various artifacts from every corner of Spherus Magna. And what could be more unique than a Skrall with who could control shadow or a Vortixx capable of manipulating gravity?

If they were not unique, the Shadowed One undoubtedly would have sold them back to Ignika Industries for a hefty price. He may have been a collector, but he also liked money and was known to sell pieces of his collection if he thought he could get a good deal off it.

Night stopped and shook his head. What was he doing, reflecting on his life? He knew all of this stuff already. He had lived it for the past ten years. What he needed to think about now was how he was going to get out of here and punch out Masqouth. Or Atuje. Or maybe both.

He found himself standing before another three-pronged path. As before, the paths all looked the same. They probably had the same distribution before – death, escape, and treasure – because Mendos had not said otherwise. That meant Night would have to pick his path randomly.

So he chose the middle path and walked down it. He wondered what Mendos was doing right now. Was she watching them all on her cameras? Was she making sure that she could activate her death traps when they least expected it? For that matter, were Jet and Kiriah even still alive anymore?

These questions swirled through his mind as he walked. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't notice the tentacles slowly lowering down from the ceiling until they wrapped around his limbs. When they did, Night looked up and saw a squid-like monster – its beak wide open – as it pulled him toward the ceiling.

Dang it, Night thought as he was drawn closer and closer to the open beak. I chose the death path, didn't I?



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#10 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jun 09 2014 - 08:12 AM

Chapter IX


Masqouth stood on the balcony of what had once been the room of Toa Rhatara, one of the leaders of the Kra-Matoran. He leaned on the railing, overlooking the entirety of Caste Kra's courtyard and a good chunk of the nearby town of Dirf. Of course, because of Wyoko's darkness, it was nearly impossible to see things normally, but thanks to his Mask of Night Vision, Masqouth could see the world around him as bright as day.

After Atuje left to see Masqouth's parents (which Masqouth still felt a little angry about, as he had wanted to tag along), Masqouth split up the Echoes so they could evenly cover the entire castle. While it seemed unlikely that anyone would attack Castle Kra or attempt to get inside, King Atuje had told them to protect the prisoners at all times, so Masqouth figured the best way to do that was to protect the castle itself.

Masqouth took the top towers of the castle. There was no strategic reason for this, other than Masqouth enjoyed being high up in the air. Back in Spherus Magna, Masqouth had loved the skyscrapers of the mega cities. It was like standing on top of the world. If there was one thing Masqouth could change about Wyoko, it was the lack of magnificent structures to stand on top of. From what he had seen of it, Wyoko was a very bare land and most of the buildings were one or two stories, except for Castle Kra, obviously.

Despite the view, Masqouth found himself growing restless. He tapped the railing that he leaned against, tested a variety of different Kanohi powers, but none of it staved off his boredom for very long.

Just as he was wondering how the others were doing, he heard the sound of metal feet scraping against stone behind him. Masqouth looked over his shoulder and saw Wavica, carrying a lightstone, stepping out onto the balcony.

“Why, hello there, Wavica,” said Masqouth, waving at her. “I thought you were patrolling the grounds. What are you doing up here?”

Wavica shrugged. “I'm going around collecting reports from everyone, remember? You told me to come check in with you every now and then to report on any unusual or suspicious behavior we might see.”

“Oh, that's right,” said Masqouth. He felt a bit deflated that she wasn't here to socialize. “So how are things going?”

“They're going all right,” said Wavica. “Neither Asroth nor Jeran have reported any strange happenings. I myself have not seen any unusual activity on my patrol route.”

Masqouth's shoulders slumped. “Really? No spies sneaking around or anything?”

“Nothing,” Wavica said. “The entire castle is safe. Asroth has reported that no one has tried to break into the dungeons. The prisoners have been pretty quiet, too, and have stopped trying to break free. Everything is going swimmingly.”

Masqouth bowed his head and sighed. “Thank you for the report, Wavica.”

“You sound less-than-satisfied with my report,” Wavica said. “I did not leave out any facts, if that is what you are thinking.”

“Has nothing to do with you, Wavica,” said Masqouth, shaking his head without looking at her. “I'm just thinking about how boring everything is. I need excitement and stimulation. And I'm not getting any of that in this castle. I just wish Atuje would have brought me along to see my parents.”

“In my opinion, Masqouth, no news is good news,” said Wavica. “After getting captured by the Will of Angonce once, I am quite content with our current situation.”

“I'm not,” Masqouth said, gripping the railing hard enough to crack it. “I mean, the only possible threats I can think of are Kiriah, Jet and Night. And all three of them are probably not going to come here. After all, if they're working for my parents, I bet Atuje managed to convince them to leave us alone, too.”

Wavica shrugged. “You forgot about the Will of Angonce. You know, that secretive organization we didn't know about until just a week ago? I wouldn't be surprised if they had sent some of their agents here.”

Masqouth turned and leaned against the railing, a smile on his face. “No one has shown up yet, right? Besides, I bet my mask they're dealing with the war on Spherus Magna right now. Probably can't afford to send even one agent out here to deal with us.”

“Don't be so cocky,” Wavica said. “Asroth and I didn't think we'd get kidnapped by the Will and yet look what happened. We should be as cautious and sly as a doom viper.”

“But I want to be cuddly and fun,” said Masqouth. “Like an Ussal crab. You ever seen those things? They're so adorable. Tuggles are, too.”

“Cuddly and fun won't make the Will spare you,” Wavica said. “If anything, I imagine that will make them hate you more. Trust me when I say that the Will is not a particularly cuddly or fun organization.”

Masqouth sighed. “I suppose you're right. Not that it matters, of course. I'm confident that it will be smooth sailing from here on out.”

“Perhaps,” said Wavica, a hint of doubt in her voice. “Anyway, I've got to go check on the prisoners. So-”

“But I want you to stay,” said Masqouth, turning back to her. “I appreciate the company. It gets so boring up here. Besides, we've been so busy over the past month or two that I don't think we've had a chance to really catch up.”

“What's there to catch up on?” Wavica said, folding her arms. “Only reason we know each other at all is because we both work for King Atuje.”

“And that's the point,” said Masqouth. “I think, in order to be a more effective team, we need to know each other better. Like, what do you plan to do after all of this is over? Do you have any plans for your future at all?”

Wavica looked down at her feet. “I . . . have not thought that through very much. I've been considering staying here in Wyoko and helping Atuje rebuild his kingdom. I mean, it's not like I have anything else to do, right?”

“Don't you have a home you can go back to?” Masqouth asked.

Wavica laughed bitterly. “I guess Atuje never told you my past, did he?”

“Nope,” said Masqouth, shaking his head. “Never thought to ask.”

Wavica started to toss the lightstone from hand to hand. “Back in my universe, I was a performer. Adored by thousands of beings all across the universe for my daring acts of devilry and imagination. Once, for example, I spent an entire week on Artidax, one of the southern islands, all by myself, with only half a rusted knife to defend myself with, only occasionally sending out messages to my manager to deliver to the rest of the universe. I even got to perform in front of the Barraki at one point, I was that famous.”

Masqouth did a double-take. “Wait, you were a dare devil? No way.”

“Find that hard to believe?”

“Yes,” said Masqouth, nodding. “You've always seemed so mature, especially in comparison to Niralo and Asroth. Thought for sure you were something like a secretary or something.”

“I was young and restless,” said Wavica. “I couldn't be happy with mediocrity. I kept pushing my limits until . . . well, until the day my biggest stunt yet resulted in the deaths of a hundred people and earned me the highest bounty in the universe at the time.”

“What did you do?” Masqouth asked.

“It was at the acid falls,” said Wavica. “In the Tren Krom Peninsula. The stunt itself was simple. I would row a boat across the falls without any protective armor on to protect my body from the acid. The boat itself was made of an acid-resistant material, but I was not. So if my boat were to capsize, I would fall in and melt away into nothingness, you see.”

“Sounds exciting,” said Masqouth. “How did it result in the deaths of a hundred people?”

“That's the thing,” said Wavica. “You could buy tickets to watch from the shore as I rowed my boat. My manager came up with it. He considered it a brilliant way to add excitement to the show and make money all at the same time. Unfortunately, my manager also decided it would be more exciting if we set up the stands near the edge of the acid falls, close to where I was going to be.”

“And then . . .?” Masqouth asked, almost holding his breath in anticipation.

Wavica rubbed her arm with her other hand. She still wasn't looking at Masqouth. “The cliffs around the acid falls are notorious for their instability. Even Barraki Pridak didn't dare build anything important near the falls. So when the hundred guests we invited came and sat down in the seats – after we assured them that they had been designed by expert engineers and were designed to hold the weight of a thousand people should that prove necessary – the entire thing collapsed and all of the attendees fell to their deaths. Not a single one survived.”

Masqouth gasped. “But if it was designed to hold the weight of a thousand people, how did it collapse?”

“The acid falls ate away at the support beams,” Wavica said. “We had assumed that the Po-Matoran construction company that built it had coated it with the same acid-resistant material that kept my boat safe, but they had evidently forgotten to do that. I was about halfway to the other side of the falls when that occurred and probably would have go over the edge, too, if my survival instincts hadn't kicked in and got me safely to the other side.

“When news of the tragedy spread, I was hated by everyone. Everyone seemed to think that I had intentionally sabotaged the stands, like I'd gone crazy and killed them all. My manager was arrested and executed only a week later because he was considered a co-conspirator, while I managed to escape on the run for years until Atuje found and recruited me one day. You know the rest.”

“That's . . . horrible,” said Masqouth. “I mean . . . I don't know what to say.”

“It's fine,” said Wavica. “I've since gotten over it. Don't like talking about it, but it doesn't bother me anymore because I know I didn't have anything to do with it. I gotta tell you, though, that when I signed up for this, I didn't think I'd become a convict in yet another universe. Guess I just attract trouble wherever I go.”

“I wonder what Asroth's story is,” said Masqouth, stroking his chin. “And Niralo's. It's weird how we've all been working together for a while now and we don't even know each other's histories. What kind of friends are we?”

Wavica looked back up at him, her expression slightly skeptical. “Friends? We're allies, partners in crime, perhaps, but friends? I don't know about that.”

“What do you mean?” Masqouth said. “We're always looking out for one another. We've got each other's backs. Isn't that what friends do?”

“I guess it's not surprising you haven't been paying attention to the goings on in our group,” said Wavica. “You've been so busy playing messiah and starting revolutions that you never noticed how strained all our relationships actually are.”

“Strained?” Masqouth said. “How so?”

“For one, none of us liked Niralo,” Wavica said, tossing the lightstone from side to side. “And I mean none of us. When he still lived, we considered him a rude, psychotic maniac whose only redeeming feature was that he hadn't turned his sights on any of us. Even Asroth didn't like him and she is far from what I'd call a saint.”

Masqouth ripped off a part of the railing and hurled it at Wavica. The Tetakian just barely managed to dodge the chunk of stone, which smashed against the door behind her. She cast a glance over her shoulder at the debris, looking more than a little alarmed at the near miss.

“How dare you talk that way of Niralo,” said Masqouth. “He's not even alive to defend himself. That's low.”

“Are you defending Niralo because you actually liked him and considered him a friend,” Wavica asked, “or are you defending him because you think you need to?”

Masqouth wanted to confirm the first part of her question, that of course Niralo was a friend, just like she and Asroth and Jeran were and how dare she question his loyalty to his friends didn't she know that he would die for any of them and defend their honor if they were dead?

Then Masqouth's doubtful side – which he rarely listen to because it was generally boring – spoke up. Had he ever really known Niralo? He and the speedster had never spoken much one-on-one. Sure, they had worked together to achieve Atuje's goals, but for the life of him Masqouth could not remember even one joke he shared with Niralo. It was like they hadn't known each other at all, like they had merely been coworkers and nothing else.

For the first time in his life, Masqouth was unable to answer a question. He could not think of why he so vigorously defended Niralo. And now that he thought about it, Niralo had always been very curt with everyone. He never said thank you or please. He never showed even the slightest bit of concern for another person's well-being. He really did seem like an unrepentant psycho, one that the universe was better off without.

The uncertainty gnawed at him like a gadunka. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but to his surprise the words that came out were, “I don't know.”

Wavica sighed. “You see, Masqouth? That's your problem. You're just like a little kid. You don't think. You confuse your ideas about someone with how they actually are. Niralo was not a saint. None of us are.”

Masqouth staggered against the railing. His hand missed it, going through the gap he had made, before other hand wrapped around the rest of the railing. It felt like the only real thing in the world right now.

“I am not a little kid,” Masqouth said. “Atuje would never hired Niralo if he were as bad as you said.”

Wavica looked at him with the kind of condescension Masqouth had seen Skrall parents look upon their children with back in New Roxtus. “So you think Atuje is a saint, too?”

“I don't think Atuje is perfect, if that's what you mean,” said Masqouth. “But he's a good guy, isn't he? He just wants what's best for us all. He can be uncompromising, but that's because he's the King. Of course he has the authority to act however he likes.”

“The rest of us don't care much for him, to be honest,” said Wavica. “I know Asroth chafes under his every order, Jeran has severe doubts about the entire scheme, and I myself am only here because the alternative is life on the run from the law again. Notice how all the people Atuje hired all have nothing to lose if the plan goes haywire. It's what makes us special.”

“Are you saying we're disposable?” Masqouth said. “That Atuje chose us specifically because we could all die and he could just replace us if he had to?”

“More or less,” said Wavica. “Haven't you noticed how little he seems to care for us? He's hardly a benevolent monarch.”

“You're wrong,” said Masqouth, though his hands trembled. “Atuje cares about us all. He just shows us tough love sometimes.”

“Is that why, every time he talks to us, he is always rude and condescending?” Wavica said, rolling her eyes. “I'm not saying we should try anything against him. I'm just saying it's better to serve knowing who your master is, rather than who you want him to be.”

Every word that Wavica said rang true in Masqouth's mind, but he had to prove it wrong. “I'm leaving. You're in charge while I'm gone.”

“What?” said Wavica. “Where are you going? Didn't Atuje say we're supposed to stay here?”

“I'm going to find Atuje,” said Masqouth. “I don't know where he went, but I'm going to find him and have him prove you wrong. Good day.”

A dimensional portal opened in front of Masqouth and he hopped into it. He didn't bother to see whatever Wavica's expression was. There was no need, especially when he was absolutely certain that he was about to prove her wrong.
 

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Edited by TNTOS, Jun 09 2014 - 08:21 AM.

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#11 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jun 16 2014 - 09:46 AM

Chapter X


Before they passed through the Door, Cina warned Ruby that Wyoko was probably going to be far more dangerous than Shika Nui. The Toa of Water repeatedly emphasized that Wyoko was darker, that Masqouth and his Echoes likely had set up all sorts of traps and guards to keep out anyone they didn't want, and that even if Masqouth had not set up any traps or guards, there were likely all kinds of dangerous Rahi at every turn.

Ruby listened to all of this impatiently, but none of it changed her determination to go in and save Niham. She saw no reason why it should and told Cina so in no uncertain terms. That shut up the Toa, who simply shrugged and followed Ruby inside Wyoko, beyond the Door.

When they actually entered, Ruby shivered. While Shika Nui had been warm and damp, Wyoko was just cold. It was like stepping into a dark freezer. She could barely see anything. Even her lightstone barely penetrated the darkness, as if the darkness was greedily swallowing the light from it.

And when her eyes adjusted to the darkness as best as they could, Ruby noticed all the logs and stumps scattered around the area. It appeared that at one point a forest had surrounded the base of the Door. Evidently it had all been cut down and quite recently, too, if the fresh scent of the logs was any indication. Cina theorized that the Kra-Matoran had required lots of room to move all of their people out of Wyoko, so they probably cut down the forest to make that room.

They faced no traps or enemies as they walked through the fallen forest, as Cina had feared. More than once Ruby thought she saw something following them just out of the corner of her eye, but it usually turned out either to be a harmless Rahi or a tree whose branches were swaying harmlessly in the wind.

The darkness of Wyoko was a different kind of darkness from Shika Nui. Whereas Shika Nui felt lifeless, Wyoko felt like it pulsed with life. Even the earth seemed to crawl with life, like the entire land was a living being. She briefly wondered if Wyoko was a giant robot like the old universe had been, but dismissed the thought immediately because she had little evidence to support that speculation.

Cina said that Castle Kra was most likely north, based on the Will's records of Wyoko, so that was the direction they headed in. It was hard to tell where they were going, however, because Wyoko lacked a sun of any kind. Cina had a compass, which served them well, but even that got a little wonky at times, forcing them to adjust their course every so often to keep on track.

As they walked, Ruby remembered what they had been talking about earlier and said, “So, about my theory earlier. When I said you were part of a plan to let us escape easily.”

Cina became a stiff as board, which was impressive, seeing as she walked with long, natural strides. “What of it?”

“I just wanted to know if I was right,” said Ruby. “That there is more to our situation than meets the eye.”

“Ruby, I didn't plan any of it,” said Cina. “We just got lucky. Or maybe it was our destiny to escape. You ever think of that?”

“I'm not much of a believer in destiny,” Ruby said. “But I do believe people like to deceive other people sometimes for their own reasons. So what are your reasons for lying to me this whole time, Cina?”

“I am not lying,” Cina said. “You're just getting paranoid because you've been away from Niham for so long. Everything is absolutely fine.”

“Then what happened back there?” said Ruby, jerking her thumb over her shoulder. “Did 'destiny' decide to save us? No, we were followed. I bet they were some of your fellow Will agents, keeping an eye on us to make sure we got in here.”

“No one followed us,” said Cina. “Even if the other agents know of our escape by now, there's nothing they can do about it. By the time they get here, we'll have rescued Niham and the others and will be long gone.”

“Then what was that?” Ruby said. “If that had been a Glatorian match, I'd have said it was the producers playing favorites. No, what's happening here is something bigger.”

“I can assure you that nothing 'bigger' is happening,” Cina said. “Your imagination is just running wild.”

“No, I'm pretty sure it's not,” Ruby said. “I know what your plan is, but I don't know the end game. What's your goal? Why manipulate me? You guys must have something in mind. Otherwise, it's all for nothing, isn't it?”

Cina didn't respond to that, prompting Ruby to continue. “I mean, if your sole goal here was to arrest Masqouth and free the prisoners, then you could have sent an elite team of your best agents out here to do that. Instead, you manipulated a Glatorian who doesn't know a thing about Wyoko into doing it for you. Why? What do you guys have to gain from all of this?”

“All right,” said Cina, throwing up her hands in exasperation. “You're right. Our great, daring escape was not nearly as dangerous as I led you to believe. It was all part of a plan that the Will came up with. You have indeed been manipulated the entire time.”

“Really?” said Ruby, in honest surprise. “I didn't think you'd be so frank about it, considering all the slippery-sliding you've been doing since I brought it up.”

“At this point, it no longer hurts to tell,” said Cina. She gestured back with her head and said, “It's too late for you to turn tail and head home. I was told not to speak with you about this, but I see no reason to play this game any more.”

“All right, then,” said Ruby as they walked around a log. “Tell me about the plan, then.”

Cina scratched the back of her head and said, “The plan was simple. We would send you into Wyoko as a distraction. While Masqouth and the Echoes would spend time trying to stop you from reaching the castle, another group of agents would sneak in through the back, free the prisoners, and then lead an all-out attack on the Echoes. This would have resulted in the swift defeat of the Echoes and maybe even end the war once the news of Masqouth's defeat reached the general public.”

“Why did you come with me, then?” said Ruby. “Weren't they afraid you'd spill the beans at some point?”

“They needed someone to get you here,” said Cina. “We knew you could never find Wyoko on your own. We needed someone who had a plausible excuse for breaking you out, someone who also knew Wyoko's location and could get you there safely and quickly. I was chosen because I had already been involved in the Masqouth case and had known Niham. It would seem like I was trying to help a friend.”

“Was I supposed to get killed?” Ruby said. “Let the Echoes have at me?”

“No,” said Cina, shaking her head. “In fact, if the plan works out perfectly, then no one will die except maybe the Echoes. That's why we came up with this plan in the first place: to minimize the number of deaths that could result. We knew the Echoes were probably waiting for someone to show up on their doorstep and try to break in, but we doubted they'd be able to take on two different assaults at the same time, especially if one of those assaults was performed in secret.”

Ruby shook her head. “This just gets crazier and crazier. Why didn't you just tell me I was supposed to be a distraction? Did you think I'd refuse or that I ever had a choice of refusing?”

“We needed your motivation to save Niham to be as genuine as possible,” Cina said. “If you went in knowing everything was going to be all right, it might have tipped off the Echoes that something was wrong. And in order for the plan to work, the Echoes have to be completely and totally ignorant about the rescue team's very existence.”

“So not only have I been afraid of being captured by your people for no reason, but you also lied to me the entire time? What the heck, Cina?”

Cina opened her mouth to answer, but then a voice nearby said, “Sounds like you two have a bright future ahead of you.”

The voice was totally unfamiliar, causing both Ruby and Cina to look around, jerking their lightstones this way and that to find the speaker. Yet no matter how hard they looked, they could not find the owner of the voice. Fear gripped Ruby's heart as she realized that the speaker might be one of the Echoes, but that didn't stop her from taking her usual battle stance with her shield out and her legs planted firmly on the ground.

“Jumpy, aren't we?” said the voice. “And possibly very violent. I'm getting too old for this.”

“Who's there?” said Cina as a water sphere materialized in her hand. “Whoever you are, come out and show yourself.”

“Fine, fine,” said the voice. “I suppose I have to. I'm probably here to help you, after all, even though I have no idea who either of you are.”

Just then, a white light glowed nearby. It wasn't terribly bright, but in the darkness of Wyoko, it appeared much brighter than it normally would. Ruby was forced to hold her hand over her eyes as the light grew to a crescendo and suddenly dimmed. She slowly lowered her hand and looked at the newcomer.

The being had tall, thin legs, with short arms that carried a spear. She was completely white and transparent, floating several feet above the ground like a ghost. She seemed to have a turtle shell on her back, although it looked like it might actually be a shield of some sort. Her face was deeply lined, like a canyon, making her look older than her voice suggested she was.

“What the heck are you?” Ruby demanded, pointing at the newcomer. “A ghost?”

“I am a Doromas,” said the being, holding the spear at her side. She gestured at her appearance and said, “And I'm here to help.”

“Still don't get it,” said Ruby. “I've fought Doromas people in the arena, but I've never seen one like you. You look like a ghost.”

The Doromas shrugged. “Can't expect everyone to know about me, I suppose. Very well. My name is Ayhira, but I prefer to go by my title 'Spirit Wanderer,' or 'Wanderer' for short.”

“Wanderer?” Cina said. “That term sounds vaguely familiar. Where have I heard it before?”

“Probably from that play, The Tragedy of the Ghost King,” said Wanderer with obvious disgust. “Even though the playwright completely botched what real Spirit Wanderers are like. We're not mischievous tricksters who need to be put in our place by society, darn it, nor are we alcoholics with gambling addictions.”

“But what is a Spirit Wanderer?” Ruby said. “I've never even heard of the concept until now. What does it mean?”

“It means I'm here to help,” said Wanderer, holding out a hand. “You see, among we Doromas, we have a special ability given only to one person in our species per generation. That is the ability to spirit wander. Our spirits can leave our bodies and go to almost anywhere in the universe . . . and sometimes even beyond the universe's walls, as I am doing here in Wyoko.”

“Guess that's not the craziest thing I've heard so far,” said Ruby with a shrug. “But how did you get here? We didn't even know you existed and we definitely didn't ask for your help.”

Wanderer attached her spear to her back, yawned, and put her hands behind her head. “And I didn't even know you guys were here, either. I was just sitting in my home watching the Kra-Matoran army's progress on the telescreen when I drifted off to sleep. When I woke up, I was here. See, as Spirit Wanderer, I have no choice in where I go or who I help. I just go to sleep and wake up wherever I am destined to be. Since I'm here, I guess that means I have to help you two with whatever problems you're dealing with.”

Ruby looked at Cina incredulously. “Do you believe her? How do we know she's not an Echo?”

“I think she's legitimate,” said Cina. “The Will knows who all of the Echoes are and none of them look even remotely like her. So she's not an enemy.”

“You can trust me,” Wanderer said. “I have a long track record of helping people with their problems. Admittedly, it usually takes a while for me to figure out what their problems are, but when I do I always help fix 'em.”

“What if we told you to go home?” Ruby said. “We didn't sign any agreement with you or anything. We're not obligated to accept your help.”

“I still have to be with you,” Wanderer said with a yawn. “Even if you decline my help, I can't go back until I help you deal with your problem. That's just the way it is. I didn't write the rules. Mata Nui probably did. Or maybe the Great Beings.”

Ruby sighed heavily and looked at Cina. As much as she was unsure where she stood with the Toa of Water, she really didn't want Wanderer to travel with them and hoped Cina would agree with her. The idea of having a ghost following them around freaked her out, primarily because, whatever she might say to the contrary, she really was quite afraid of ghosts.

Cina scratched her chin and looked at Wanderer. “So you really can't go home yet.”

“Right,” said Wanderer, nodding. “It's a pain in the butt, but what are you going to do, am I right?”

“What can you do, exactly?” Cina said. “Like, what abilities do you have? Any elemental powers, for example?”

“None,” said Wanderer. “I'm just a spirit. I mean, sure I can enter people's bodies and such, but if you guys are intending to get into a fight with someone sometime soon, well, I wouldn't be able to do much other than play cheerleader. Unless that person happens to be a ghost, too. Are you fighting any ghosts?”

Cina shook her head. “No. And we don't need a cheerleader, either. You're not selling yourself very well.”

“Did I mention I've been here before, in Wyoko?” Wanderer said, looking around. “That's where we are, right?”

“What?” said Ruby. “You mean you have been here before? When?”

“A long time ago,” Wanderer said. “Fifty thousand years ago, in fact. I was helping a Toa team that had somehow gotten trapped here. One of the Toa had been turned evil and it was I, in the end, who turned him good again. Good times, despite the volcanic eruption that nearly killed everyone.”

“Neither of us are evil,” Ruby said. “Still have a hard time seeing why we should let you tag along.”

“How many times do I got to repeat it?” said Wanderer with a grunt of annoyance. “I. Can't. Go. Home. Right. Now. Even if I can't help you right away, what if you run into a problem later on that requires my help? Wouldn't it be better to have me around, just in case?”

“Having more allies is always helpful,” said Cina. “But not even you know why you're here and honestly I can't think of any situations in which we'll need the help of a ghost.”

“Then tell me what you two are doing here,” said Wanderer. “I've been involved in many crazy stories in my life. Whatever you two are up to is probably nowhere near as crazy as some of the stuff I've been involved with.”

“All right,” said Ruby. “If you really can't go, then I guess we'd better tell what we're doing here, just so you don't make any dumb mistakes.”

So Ruby gave Wanderer a brief account of recent events and what she and Cina were up to. To her credit, Wanderer was a good listener. She retained eye contact with Ruby (which required all of Ruby's self-control to maintain, as she was still terrified of ghosts despite Wanderer's lack of hostility), asked questions when she didn't understand, and nodded and made noises of understanding at the spots where she did. Cina looked a bit upset at Ruby telling Wanderer about the Will, but after learning how the Toa had been deceiving her this entire time, Ruby didn't see any reason to consider Cina's feelings.

When Ruby finished, Wanderer tapped her chin thoughtfully. “A false messiah, a kidnapped lover, a mad king . . . why, I wouldn't believe it if you weren't so earnest.”

“I know,” said Ruby. “It's hard to believe, but it's true. I'm not going to let Masqouth have Niham.”

“It sounds noble, too,” said Wanderer. “All right. Let me help and I'll see what I can do.”

“Hold on,” said Cina. “You aren't part of the plan.”

“Who cares about the plan?” said Wanderer. “If Ruby here is telling the truth, then I think you'll need all the help you can get. Besides, helping people is my job. I am a professional at it. My efforts to help have only resulted in the deaths of people who deserved it.”

“That's not very reassuring,” said Cina.

Turning away from Cina, Wanderer floated up close to Ruby and said, “Besides, have I told you what a big fan I am of your work? I watch all your matches in the arena, Ruby, even the reruns on the telescreen. Your match against Loven the Strong Arm was fantastic. There's a reason they call you the Red Star, after all.”

Ruby involuntarily stepped back from the ghost. “Uh, thank you very much. I appreciate praise from a fan.”

Wanderer rubbed her hands together in excitement. “You have to give me an autograph so I can take it back to my friends as proof that I helped THE Rubella the Red Star. They won't believe me otherwise.”

“But you're a ghost,” Ruby said, pointing at Wanderer's transparent body. “You can't interact with the physical world, so how can I give you an autograph?”

“We could figure something out,” Wanderer said. “Oh, I know. We could-”

“Enough,” Cina said. “Look, Wanderer, if you want to come along, I suppose you can, but for the love of Mata Nui how's about you think about ways in which you can actually help us, rather than ways in which you can get Ruby's autograph?”

“Okay, okay, sorry,” said Wanderer, floating away from Ruby sheepishly. “It's just so exciting that I get to meet one of my idols. Not just meet, but actually help, too. It's so excited I feel like I could die happy.”

“That's an odd way of putting it,” Ruby said.

“I know, but who cares?” said Wanderer. “After this, Ruby, you and I should get together for lunch sometime. It would be so awesome.”

“Um, maybe,” said Ruby, even though she was actually thinking, Never. Not in a million years.

“I know this really nice place where they serve the best agora soup,” said Wanderer. “The owner is also a fan, by the way. In fact, he's the president of the Rubella Fan Club, of which I am a member. We should so totally hang out.”

Ruby looked at Cina, hoping to develop telepathy for that moment to ask the Toa for help.

Cina briefly smirked at Ruby before saying to Wanderer, “Well, Wanderer, if you will talk less and think more, then I think this partnership of ours will work swimmingly.”

“Oh, I will, I will,” Wanderer said, nodding eagerly. “Like I said, I am a professional. I would never act in a way that would compromise our safety and security. Especially Ruby's safety and security. Doubt I could live with myself if I did something that would harm her.”

“Good,” said Cina. “Now let's keep going. Time is of the essence.”
 

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#12 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jun 23 2014 - 10:03 AM

Chapter XI


Masqouth did not know for certain where Atuje was. When he left earlier, the King of Life had not mentioned where he was going. He had simply said he was going to go see the Almighty Ones. It would certainly make Masqouth look foolish if he went dimension-hopping with no idea of where he should go.

On a whim, he decided to start with the Almighty Ones' warehouse. He had many good memories of the place, of times past when he and his parents were a happy family, of playing with them and having fun. It might help him figure out where to look next, at least.

When Masqouth stepped out of the dimensional portal and into the warehouse, however, he was completely unprepared for what he saw. The entire place looked like a war zone and a garbage dump combined. Hundreds shelves, boxes, and crates had been knocked over. Their contents were scattered everywhere in large piles. Many of the Almighty Ones' property had been destroyed, some of it crushed into a fine powder.

He stumbled onto a pile and almost fell off head-first before catching himself. He saw no sign of anyone, not even Atuje.

“Parents!” Masqouth called out, cupping his hands over my his mouth. “Hello? Almighty Ones? Is anyone there? Hello?”

His calls echoed throughout the empty, silent warehouse unanswered. Masqouth tried to reassure himself that nothing bad had happened here, but when he saw a bloody sword sticking out from a nearby pile of rubble and debris, his mind immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusion: His parents were dead.

Stay calm, Masqouth told himself. Don't jump to conclusions. Jeran is always saying you're jumping to conclusions. First, look for evidence that they are dead. If you can't find any, then they probably aren't dead. See if there is anyone here.

So Masqouth spent the next ten or fifteen minutes using his Kanohi, which had transformed into a Mask of Vision, to peer through the piles of rubble for any bodies. His search was unsuccessful until he spotted Atuje lying underneath a pile of rubble nearby. The King's body was still.

Panicky, Masqouth ran over to the pile and started throwing rubble this way and that in an attempt to save Atuje. After removing the last piece of rubble, Masqouth looked at Atuje. The King did not look as terrible as he first thought. His armor, however, was dirty and dented and his face was bruised in several places.

Masqouth put his hands on the King's chest, hoping to feel Atuje breathing. He let out a sigh of relief when he felt Atuje's chest rise and fall, although he was clearly still unconscious.

“Atuje!” Masqouth cried out, shaking the unconscious King. “Wake up, Atuje! What happened to you? Where are my parents?”

For a moment, Masqouth wondered for a moment if the King had in fact died.

And then Atuje stirred and his eyes flickered open. Almost as soon as they did, Atuje's eyes lit up with alarm and he immediately punched Masqouth in the face.

The blow sent Masqouth stumbling down the hill of debris until he crashed into another pile at the bottom. His head was spinning and it took him a few seconds to recover completely.

By the time Masqouth did, Atuje was sitting up, a hand on his head as he looked around, as if waking from a long nap. “Sorry, Masqouth. I was under the impression that you were . . . someone else.”

Masqouth stood up and brushed the dirt off his white robes. “Who did you think I was, sir? What happened here? Are my parents okay?”

Atuje put a hand on his chest, as if to make sure his heart was still beating. “I wish I didn't have to be the one to tell you this, Masqouth, but your parents . . . are dead.”

Time literally stopped. At least, for Masqouth, it did. His head started spinning again and he could no longer think straight.

“What?” said Masqouth. “My parents . . . dead? You must be mistaken.”

“Sadly, Masqouth, I am not,” said Atuje, shaking his head as he looked down at Masqouth. “I saw them die with my own eyes. I tried my very best to save them, but alas, I was unable to keep their lives from slipping into the oblivion. They are gone.”

“No, no, no, no,” said Masqouth, his fists shaking in rage. “No, no, no! They are all still alive. You're making some kind of bad joke. It's not funny.”

“This is no joke,” Atuje said. “I would never joke about something as serious as the deaths of some of my very good friends. I am not a child.”

Masqouth could not comprehend that idea. He'd always thought his parents were there for him, waiting for him, but if what Atuje said was true. . . .

“Who did it?” said Masqouth. “Who killed them? Tell me!”

Atuje raised a hand as if to protect himself. “Understand that when I got here, I was too late. It was a tragic fate for a fine group of beings.”

Masqouth climbed up the pile, actually grabbed Atuje by the shoulders and shouted, “Stop babbling! I want to know who killed my parents. Who killed them? Who?”

Atuje growled and pushed Masqouth away. “Don't manhandle me. I am your King and I expected to be treated as such.”

“I don't care,” Masqouth said, and he meant it. “I just want to know who killed my parents.”

“It was Night, Jetrupi, and Toa Kiriah,” said Atuje, looking down at his lap in misery. “I got here just in time to see them slay your parents. They even disposed of the bodies, so there's no point in searching for them among the rubble.”

A second was all the time it took for Masqouth to register what Atuje said. “How . . .? My parents are the strongest ever. There's no way they could have been killed by those weaklings. I mean, I beat Night once and I'm not even half as strong as the Almighty Ones, so how could he have killed my parents?”

“Alas, I am not sure,” Atuje said, putting his hand on his forehead. “I imagine they must have fooled your parents somehow, got them to lower their guard long enough to finish them off. I did try to stop them, but, well, they knocked me out, as you can see, and wrecked the place before they fled.”

Masqouth looked around at the destroyed warehouse again and let out a deep growl that actually made Atuje look uneasy. “Where did they go?”

“To another dimension,” Atuje said as he rose to his feet. “I probably could have beat them, but they got in a lucky shot and I ended up being buried under all that debris. Lucky thing you came by and found me.”

“What dimension did they go to?” Masqouth said. “Tell me so I can go there and show them what happens when they make me angry.”

“Allow me to send you there, Masqouth,” said Atuje as he raised a hand. “I-”

The King ceased speaking, put his hand on his chest, and staggered backwards. He staggered back so far that he accidentally fell off the pile of smashed boxes and destroyed crates and stumbled head over heels until he reached the floor.

Concerned for him, Masqouth jumped down beside him and said, “My King, are you safe?”

Atuje looked down at his leg – which Masqouth noticed had a shard of metal sticking out of it – and muttered, “It's all right. My spirit still isn't quite used to my body just yet.”

“Let me remove that,” said Masqouth as he grabbed the shard and pulled it out of Atuje's leg.

Atuje cursed loudly as the now-open wound started bleeding, but with a wave of his hand, the wound closed. Then Masqouth helped Atuje up, who now looked even weaker than before.

“Thank you for your assistance, Masqouth,” said Atuje. “But you mustn't waste time here. You should go after your parents' killers. They are still at large and I have no doubt they will come after you next if you do not get them yourself.”

“You're absolutely right, Atuje,” said Masqouth, nodding. “Just point me in their direction and I'll be on my way.”

Atuje snapped his fingers and a portal appeared not far away. “Step through that portal and it will take you to where you need to be. There you will find Night, Jetrupi, and Kiriah.”

Masqouth didn't jump through the portal immediately, however. He looked at Atuje and said, “Aren't you coming with me?”

“Why should I?” said Atuje.

“Because my parents were your friends too, weren't they?” said Masqouth. “Don't you also want to avenge them?”

A look of alarm passed over Atuje's face for but a moment before it was replaced with his usual calm face. “Oh, I am in no shape to fight them, as you can clearly see. I would love to help, but alas, I need to take some time to rest. Perhaps later I will join you, when I feel better.”

Masqouth smiled. “Okay, sir. I understand. I wish you could come, but if you really need to rest, I won't pressure. Bye.”

With that, Masqouth ran through the portal, ready to avenge his parents against those who had dared take their lives from him.
 

-


Atuje watched Masqouth disappear through the portal. As soon as the portal closed with a tiny pop, Atuje sighed and sat down on one of the few still-intact boxes in the warehouse. He placed his hand on his chest and cursed whoever had designed the entire soul-splitting process.

At least I fooled Masqouth, Atuje thought. The fool didn't even bother to ask about the obvious holes in my story. Bless him and his naïve little heart. It will probably get him killed.

Of course Atuje's story wasn't true. It was a complete fabrication. There was no logical way Night, Kiriah, and Jetrupi could have killed the Almighty Ones. Even if they had the element of surprise on their side, the Almighty Ones still wielded almost unimaginable power and could erase those three fools from existence as easily as Atuje could crush an insect beneath his feet.

In reality, after banishing Night, Jetrupi, and Kiriah to another dimension (while of course stripping them of their dimension-hopping powers simultaneously), Atuje went on to fight the Almighty Ones. He nearly succeeded in killing them. Although powerful, the Almighty Ones quickly proved themselves to be out of practice, whereas Atuje had been preparing for this fight for a long time. Their battle had utterly wrecked the warehouse and everything within it.

Unfortunately, before he could strike the killing blow, his body had decided to act up. Though he appreciated the soul-splitting technique for its ability to allow the user to cheat death, the problem was that acclimating the soul to its new body was not an instantaneous process. The body would more than once attempt to eject the foreign soul out of itself, which he found out the hard way when it interrupted him during his battle with the Almighty Ones. In addition, despite his preparations, Atuje was almost as out of practice as the Almighty Ones because he was still adjusting to a physical body after spending so many years as a mere spirit tied to the land.

That moment of hesitation had given the Almighty Ones the opportunity to strike him down, which they did. They thankfully had failed to kill him, but now he had no idea where they were. He suspected they might have returned to their real home (the warehouse was simply where they kept their things) or possibly went to find Night, Kiriah, and Jet, although he couldn't be certain.

A new thought crossed his mind just then: What if the Almighty Ones had gone to Wyoko? Perhaps they thought they could tell Masqouth the truth.

Little do they realize just how foolish that is, Atuje thought. Nonetheless, returning to Wyoko is probably the wisest option at the moment. I must check in on the other Echoes. Masqouth didn't tell me if they were running into any troubles, but he was in such a hurry to leave that even if they were, he might have forgotten to tell me about them. Time to go.

Cautiously, Atuje stood up. His body seemed to be okay with his soul right now. He wished he knew for certain how long it would take for his body to accept his soul, but based on his previous research on the subject, he knew it could take as soon as a few days or as long as a month. And frankly, he was beginning to reconsider fighting the Almighty Ones if his body was not going to cooperate.

I must stabilize my body, Atuje thought. This means I must put the next – and final – phase of my plan into action. Once I return to Wyoko, I'll order the Echoes to bring the prisoners to my throne room. I can no longer afford to put it off, although if I sense the Almighty Ones are in my kingdom, I will slay them, no matter what my body is like.

Before Atuje left, however, he realized that the Almighty Ones' warehouse still stood, even though most of its contents were wrecked beyond repair. He raised his hands and brought them down on the floor, sending a fissure throughout the building's foundations that would cause the entire thing to crumble. He was not going to give the Almighty Ones a place to retreat to in the event that he ran into them again.
 

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#13 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jun 30 2014 - 08:38 AM

Chapter XII


Ten years ago. . . .

After his first match with Heavyweight, Night Vision spent most of his time training. He trained with a wide variety of beings, mostly other elementalists, such as the Roffican codenamed Aqua, who could control water, and the bone hunter codenamed Mute, who despite her name was far too chatty for Night's tastes, although that didn't stop her from wiping the floor with him in their first training session a week after he came to the Bunker.

As the days turned into weeks, a schedule soon became apparent to Night Vision. Every day early in the morning, an alarm that sounded like glass being broken against metal rang throughout the entire Bunker, awaking him and his fellow elementalists. They were then summoned to the cafeteria, where they would eat a breakfast composed of food carefully chosen by Ignika Industries scientists for its nutritional value, as well as the effects it had on elementalists.

This meant that all elementalists received the same meal every day: Toast, with some jelly and butter to give it flavor (although not too much), a bowl of Thornax stew (which only Night Vision seemed to appreciate), cooked sand bat, and a tall glass of water or sometimes arang juice. There was rarely any variation in the meal and eventually Night Vision joined the other elementalists in calling it 'sand food,' a term that was usually only applied to tasteless food but which could also describe food you ate day in and day out that lacked variety.

After breakfast, the elementalists would be split up. Some would go into training, others would undergo experiments by II scientists designed to test their abilities in non-combat-related situations, and still others . . . well, Night Vision was unsure what happened to the last group. He knew for certain, at least, that they weren't given free rein of the Bunker. None of the elementalists were allowed to wander the Bunker as they pleased, apparently for security reasons, as one scientist told Night Vision.

At lunch, they would once again have the same meal from breakfast, although they sometimes changed it up a bit by allowing the elementalists to have cake and the like. Still, the puritanical way they were given their food made Night Vision wistfully recall the homemade meals Grandfather had always prepared for him back home.

Speaking of Grandfather, Night Vision had been unable to write to him because of the strict schedule. He had not been given any ink or paper. The elementalists apparently were not allowed to do any writing at all, if Heavyweight was telling him the truth. She explained that the II scientists were uncertain how paper and ink might react to the elementalists' new powers, which sounded like ###### to Night Vision but he didn't say that aloud.

After lunch, they would do another round of testing and training and then have dinner. After dinner, all of the elementalists were required to return to their rooms and sleep for the night, after which they would get up the next day at the same time as the last and begin the cycle all over again. There was so little variation that Night figured he could have set his watch, if he had one, to the schedule.

This schedule quickly became impractical for him. Night Vision had never been a night owl before, but suddenly he found himself staying up all night when the elementalists were supposed to be sleeping. He would only crawl into bed just as the alarm went off announcing the new day. He tried to catch naps during mealtimes, but mealtimes were so short and noisy that he could only catch maybe a few minutes of sleep a day, if even that.

As a result, during the first few weeks of his time in the Bunker, Night was even more irritable and grouchy than usual. He lashed out at the tiniest mistakes or annoyances and more than once found himself on the receiving end of a beat down from one of the other elementalists during mealtimes due to a sarcastic or rude comment he made. It became so bad that the II scientists had to ask him what was wrong and when he explained that he was not getting enough sleep, they took him out of his normal room and placed him in a special lab where they monitored his sleeping patterns for a week.

At the end of that week, the scientists reported to him that they believed his newly-found darkness powers were disrupting his usual sleep patterns. They explained that his body wanted to sleep during the day and become active at night when it was darkest. That meant in order for Night Vision to act with his full strength, he would need to be on a different schedule from the others.

Not that Night Vision minded that. He could barely tolerate his fellow elementalists, who ranged from the drama queen Gadarian codenamed Bright to the perpetually chatty Mute. The only two he really got along with were Taniru – whose codename, she told him, was 'Blaze' – and, much to his own surprise, Heavyweight.

Befriending Heavyweight was something he had not seen coming. After their first training session, during which she had defeated him and treated his culture with disrespect (although as he soon found out, most of the people in the Bunker thought even less of the Skrall than she did), the two spent nearly all of their mealtimes together, talking about their pasts, sharing stories, and discovering each other's interests. Blaze had joined them and soon the three became friends . . . or as close as a Matoran, Vortixx, and Skrall could ever hope to be, anyway.

Heavyweight revealed to Night Vision that prior to volunteering for Project Elementalist, she lived in a small Vortixx mining town in New Xia. She apparently tried to take over the mining company she worked for, failed, was fired, and subsequently lost all of her property. She signed up for Project Elementalist because it afforded her a chance to make some money, not starve to death (her words, not Night Vision's), and have a place to sleep. She also told him that her real name was Hamate.

As for Blaze, she had originally been a student at the New Atero Academy for Future Toa, where she had been in training to become a Toa. Apparently, her love of science had earned her quite a bit of bullying from her classmates, which got so bad that she actually dropped out and applied for Project Elementalist because she desperately needed the money and shelter, now that she no longer had a place to stay in the city.

And much to Night Vision's surprise, he found himself genuinely enjoying these mealtimes with Heavyweight and Blaze. Sure, sometimes he and Heavyweight would get into big arguments and he got frustrated with Blaze's sometimes astonishing ignorance of Skrall customs (for example, she apparently believed that Skrall glorified murder until Night Vision corrected her), but he looked forward to those mealtimes nonetheless, even when he was tired. They made the Bunker seem a little less confining.

So when the scientists told him that his new schedule would make it impossible for him to eat with his fellow elementalists, he asked if it was possible for him to at least eat with Heavyweight and Blaze, if nothing else. The scientists were confused by the response, not to mention a little indignant that he would dare question their neat little schedule they had set up for him, but nonetheless they complied.

Thus, Night Vision's schedule changed. He now did all of his training and testing at night, while the others slept, but he was awoken at breakfast, lunch, and dinner so he could dine with his fellow elementalists. It was an awkward schedule, to say the least, but as Night Vision was allowed to spend time with his friends, he didn't mind it.

What he did mind, however, was the strange testing exercises he was forced to undergo most days. Such as the time he was dumped into a lightless, muddy pit whose walls were too steep and slimy to climb out of. He was given the task of collecting the various bits and pieces of a ladder that were in the mud and then put them together himself and use the ladder to escape the pit. The lack of light wasn't a problem thanks to his night vision, but digging through the mud for every last piece was. He spent the rest of the day in a bad mood after that.

Nonetheless, Night Vision was assured that half of his earnings were indeed going back to his grandfather in Nenas, as he had arranged when they first hired him. That was the main reason he was here, after all. All Project Elementalist volunteers were paid a little money in exchange for their services. So long as Night Vision got his pay, he was willing to put up with some of the crazier crud he had to deal with day in and day out.

The only non-elementalists who lived in the bunker were the II scientists and guards. In particular, the head scientist, a Ba-Matoran named Sorox, seemed to take a special interest in Night Vision. Sorox was present at almost all of his training and testing sessions, taking notes and sometimes even coming down to talk to the Skrall. Night Vision learned from another scientist that Sorox was something of a workaholic and that he treated every elementalist this way.

At first, Night Vision was self-conscious about being watched by other people so intently. The scientists rarely interacted with the elementalists during their training and testing sessions, but it was easy to feel their eyes following the elementalists' every movement. Night Vision was not normally self-conscious, but for some reason it took him a month to get used to the idea of being watched so intently by a bunch of people whose names he didn't even know.

Soon, though, Night Vision grew used to his schedule. He slept during the day, except during mealtimes, and trained at night. Most days he would return to his room exhausted and doing his best to forget that he now had control over his elemental powers equivalent to that of a Toa.

For most of his life, Night Vision had always looked upon elemental powers as a strange thing, a curiosity, one that should be treated with fear and caution. His father had been frozen to death by a Toa of Ice during a riot started by Skrall Imperialists when Night Vision was a child. In addition, Grandfather suffered from an old burn he had sustained during the war from a Toa of Fire. It never occurred to Night Vision – not even in his wildest dreams – that he would ever get control over elemental powers someday himself.

Indeed, if Night Vision had not been forced to train every day, he probably would never use his powers at all. Watching shadow bolts fire from his hands awoke a primal fear in the pit of his stomach that he couldn't explain. Whereas Heavyweight, for example, often used her gravity powers even outside of training for basic needs, Night Vision didn't use his powers at all and tried to forget about them. It just seemed unnatural to him that a Skrall could use elemental powers, a thought he confessed to Heavyweight and Blaze one day a month after he had joined Project Elementalist, while they were eating lunch in the cafeteria.

“Most of us were unused to it,” Blaze said in agreement, nodding as she ate her toast. “At first. But now, well, it comes second nature to me.”

“That's because you're a Matoran,” Night Vision said, pointing his spoon at her. “You might become a Toa someday. It's no wonder you find elemental powers natural.”

“I don't see any reason to get upset over them,” said Heavyweight, sipping her water. “I've always been annoyed by Toa and other beings who use elemental powers. They've always acted like they're better than us. When the elementalist serum is finished, this will surely equalize our society, wouldn't you say?”

“Maybe,” said Night Vision.

He glanced down the table at the other elementalists. None of them seemed disturbed by their powers. Day in particular was something of a show-off. Out of all the elementalists, she seemed to take to her light powers like a fish to water. Right now, she was using her light powers to make herself invisible and visible again, much to the amusement of the other elementalists, who were watching her with glee. (Day had apparently been a famous actress before signing up for Project Elementalist, which certainly explained her attention-seeking behavior.)

“It's probably just the serum,” said Heavyweight. “Everyone has to deal with these bizarre mood swings. For example, at night I became extremely happy-go-lucky. No idea why. It just happens.”

“I fall into a deep depression at night,” said Blaze. “So deep that I usually can't get out of bed in the morning unless someone drags me out. After that, I'm usually good for the rest of the day.”

“I haven't noticed any extreme mood swings in myself,” Night Vision said, scratching his head. “Maybe I'm different or something.”

“Maybe,” said Heavyweight. “Or maybe you just haven't had enough time to develop some. If you start acting like Day over there, I'll blame it on the serum.”

That conversation stayed with Night Vision afterward. Yet he didn't realize just how relevant it was to him until two months later, during a training session with Aqua.

Outside of Heavyweight and Blaze, Aqua was the only other elementalist Night Vision respected. Respected, but not liked. The Roffican was a retired soldier of the New Atero Army who had signed up for Project Elementalist because he saw it as a way to help his society now that his service was done.

Thus, Aqua and Night Vision understood one another on a level different from that of the other elementalists. Whatever differences there might be between races, Night Vision discovered that those who had been trained in the art of war were much more alike than they were different.

This particular session had been rather brutal. Whereas Aqua had more experience, both in combat and in using his water elemental powers, Night Vision's youth gave him more stamina, energy, and speed than the old Roffican. And despite his instinctive reservations, Night Vision was becoming more comfortable with his powers.

The two faced each other, sweating and panting. Aqua held two large spheres of water in his hands, while Night Vision's arms were cloaked in shadow energy. This fight may have been a training session, but that hadn't stopped either of them from going all out and doing their best to take down the other.

“You're quick and young, Skrall,” said Aqua. “Yet speed and youth can only take you so far.”

Night Vision felt the sweat trickle down the side of his face as he smirked. “You're right, elder. It just needs to take me far enough to beat you.”

Aqua laughed a great, booming laugh. “You are absolutely correct, Skrall. A tool that can only be used once is useful if it is used wisely.”

That was another thing Night Vision respected Aqua for. Out of all of the people in the Bunker – scientists and elementalists alike – Aqua was the only one who did not call him by his codename. Whether he did it because he respected Night Vision's culture or for some other reason, the Skrall appreciated it and wished the others would follow Aqua's example.

Before the next blows could be traded, the alarm blared suddenly. It startled both of them, causing their manifested powers to dissipate into thin air. Night Vision and Aqua looked up at the box where the scientists had been observing the fight and taking notes. All of them were gone.

“What's going on?” Night Vision said, looking back at Aqua. He had to speak loudly to be heard over the alarm. “Where did they-”

A voice blared from the speaker in the top right corner of the room, booming, “Alert, alert! All elementalists must return to their rooms immediately! This is not a drill! I repeat, this is not a drill!”

Night Vision and Aqua exchanged a puzzled look. Why did all of the elementalists have to return to their rooms? What was the problem?

The two tried to leave the arena, but for some reason the door was locked. They took turns trying to bash it down with their elemental powers, but it stood strong. So they retreated to the other end of the arena, deciding that they would simply wait in here until the problem was solved. After all, whatever the problem was, it clearly wasn't happening in the training arena. Indeed, Night Vision speculated that the arena might be safer than other places, as its walls and door were made out of protosteel, which was the strongest metal on the planet.

Just as Night Vision was beginning to relax, Aqua pointed at the door and said, “Skrall, look!”

Night peered at the door, but at first saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then he noticed that the door was sweating.

No, it wasn't sweating. It was melting. The metal was beginning to pool at the door's feet, dripping off its surface in huge drops. Night Vision had no idea what the heck was going on, but if there was something on the other side of that door trying to get in, he wasn't going to be taken unprepared.

Shadow began arcing up and down his arms like lightning. Next to him, Aqua had summoned two spheres of water again, except these two were much larger than the last ones. The two exchanged one last glance as the door finally melted into a puddle of liquid metal. And then the scariest thing Night Vision saw in his entire life stepped through the door.

It was a walking fire. At least, that was the only way Night Vision could describe it. A hissing, burning noise arose from the puddle of liquid metal at its feet, but the walking fire did not appear to take notice. It strode slowly into the room and as it did so, the temperature skyrocketed in a minute. Night Vision let out a gasp for air. So did Aqua, who looked close to fainting from the sheer heat.

The newcomer stopped and looked around, as if confused. Night Vision realized it was not a walking fire at all. Rather, it was a humanoid being who was on fire. Why the being wasn't screaming for dear life, Night Vision didn't know, but he occasionally caught sight of a Gadarian's face through the flames that shrouded its body.

“Who is that?” said Night Vision. “Have you ever seen him before, Aqua?”

Aqua shook his head. “Never. But whoever he is, he's clearly a threat. A little water ought to cool him off.”

The Roffican hurled both water spheres at the newcomer. The walking fire did not attempt to dodge them. When the spheres collided with the newcomer's flaming body, they exploded into steam that briefly obscured the flaming Gadarian from view. The next moment, however, a stream of flames flew out of the steam and probably would have totally roasted Aqua had not Night Vision tackled him to the ground in time.

As it was, the stream of fire struck the wall behind them, scorching a deep hole in the rock face. Night Vision and Aqua scrambled back to their feet as the fiery Gadarian waved both arms and dissipated the steam. Though it was impossible to tell what the Gadarian was thinking, Night Vision nonetheless believed their enemy was probably quite unhappy with Aqua's attempt to put out his flames.

This was confirmed when the Gadarian raised both arms and unleashed two streams of flames at the elementalists. This moved forced Night Vision and Aqua to scatter. Night Vision hurled twin bolts of shadow at the Gadarian, which hit him directly in the face, but that did nothing except cause the flaming Gadarian to turn toward him and raise its arms yet again.

Before he could fire his flames, however, a huge burst of water struck him in the back. This created yet another steam cloud, this one much larger than the last, not only obscuring the Gadarian from view, but also making the entire room difficult to see. Consequently, the room became nearly impossible to breathe in because of the combination of heat and steam, which made Night Vision feel like he stood in the center of a boiling cauldron.

Then he heard someone running nearby and out of the steam came Aqua, who grabbed Night Vision's arm and started dragging him away.

“Hey!” Night Vision protested. “Where are you taking me? The fire-”

“We can't beat him,” said Aqua in a strained voice. “He's too powerful. We should retreat and alert the rest of the Bunker of his-”

Aqua never got a chance to finish his sentence because at that moment a stream of fire broke through the steam. He only noticed it just enough to twist his body out of the way, but it was too late. The fire stream struck his left shoulder, knocking him flat off his feet as he let go of Night Vision, who jumped back in shock.

“Aqua,” said Night Vision in horror. “Are you-”

He heard a blast of fire, like the sound of cannon fire, and ducked and rolled away as yet another stream of flames flew out of the steam. He stopped, kneeling on one knee, and watched as the flaming Gadarian stepped out of the steam cloud. Again, it was impossible to read his face, but Night Vision realized that the Gadarian wanted him dead, for reasons the Skrall was not entirely certain of but which he realized were unimportant in the face of almost guaranteed death by fire.

Once again, the Gadarian raised his arms and unleashed another trail of fire. Night created a shield of shadow, but when the flames hit, it was with such force that he felt like he was trying to hold back the tide. And in the end, he failed. His shadow shield shattered and the flames got through, but not before Night Vision rolled out of the way.

He rolled to a stop and stood up, panting. In addition to the fire, smoke now arose from the Gadarian's body. Combined with the steam, Night Vision knew he only had a few minutes before the toxic air killed him. That meant he had to end this quickly, but his mind offered no immediate solution to his problem, which meant he was as good as dead.

So he decided to be desperate. He raised his hands and concentrated hard, harder than he ever had before, on summoning a deep ball of shadow around the fiery Gadarian. He had no idea if it would work. He was hoping to cut off the Gadarian's oxygen, thus rendering his flames inert, but he had never tried something like this before, so he had no idea if it would actually work. Yet it was the only thing he could think of doing, because otherwise he'd never live to see Grandfather ever again.

Thankfully, the Gadarian seemed confused by Night Vision's newfound courage because he just stood there for a moment watching the Skrall. Then he raised his arms, but it was too late for him. A huge ball of shadow immediately appeared around the Gadarian and, with it, the temperature dropped to a more reasonable degree. Night Vision let out a gasp, allowing the rapidly cooling air to enter his lungs, but he didn't let up. He kept the ball, kept deepening its shadow, forcing it to hold the flames inside it, to kill them, even.

Yet the strain of sustaining the ball was too much for Night Vision and he soon fell to his hands and knees, panting, sweating, and coughing loudly. He looked up just in time to see his shadow ball disappear, but the Gadarian was no longer on fire. He stood there, wearing completely charred black armor, with unblinking eyes, before falling flat on his face. He did not rise again, nor even so much as twitch.

Night Vision weakly looked over at Aqua. The Roffican was lying in a ball on the floor, his right hand gripping his left shoulder, muttering curses under his breath that the Skrall failed to catch. Nonetheless, he looked all right, despite his badly burned shoulder. As for Night Vision, he felt so weak that he could barely keep his eyes open.

A few seconds later, however, a group of scientists and guards entered the room. Most of them gathered around the formerly flaming Gadarian, but some came over to Aqua and Night Vision and started asking them all kinds of questions. To Night Vision's mind, their questions sounded like little more than strange noises that held no meaning and his answers (which ranged from a meaningless grunt to something that sounded like “ugh”) sounded the same.

When the scientists saw that Aqua was badly burned, however, they focused almost all of their attention on him and his shoulder. This allowed Night Vision to see the guards carry off the charred Gadarian. He caught only a brief glimpse of the Gadarian's face as his body was hauled out of the room, but that one glimpse was certain to stay with him for the rest of his life:

The Gadarian's mouth was stitched closed.

And he did not have any eyelids.




-


Present day. . . .

The squid's saliva dripped onto his face and into his eyes, yet that didn't stop Night from struggling to break free with all of his might. Unfortunately, it rapidly became clear that pure physical strength alone was not enough to escape. The squid's tentacles were slimy, yet strong. It was like he being held down by extremely thick ropes.

Its beak was coming closer and closer. He could feel its putrid breath flowing over him. It smelled horrible, like blood and guts, and still he failed to break free. He tried to summon a shadow ball in his hand, but the squid squeezed extra hard on his limbs, breaking his concentration and causing what little shadow he had managed to summon to dissipate into thin air.

His mind ran over the various ways he had escaped from death traps during his Dark Hunter years, but unfortunately all of the methods had always involved him working with Heavyweight. Remembering Heavyweight caused him to remember her death, which released an influx of grief into his body that he had not even realized he had been repressing, which in turn paralyzed him completely.

Guess this is it, then, Night thought as he looked up at the squid's beak, which was a mere inches away from his face now. This is how I die. At least I will join Heavyweight in the afterlife. Then again, do Skrall and Vortixx go to the same place when they die?

And then a burst of sound – so loud it actually hurt Night's ears – blared suddenly, like the Bunker's alarm system. It was so loud that the squid screeched in pain and actually let him go. The Skrall fell to the floor hard, landing on his feet and then falling to his knees because his legs were too weak to support him. The sound grew louder and louder, however, and the squid still screeched and flailed its tentacles, forcing Night to roll out of the way to avoid being hit.

He looked over his shoulder just in time to see a figure in white robes walking down the hall, hands up and palms outward. With a shock, he realized that the figure was Masqouth. There was no mistaking those robes or that childish grin, but for the life of him Night could not figure out what that moron was doing here or how he'd even known Night was here.

The squid didn't seem to share Night's surprise. When it noticed the source of the sound, its tentacles flew out toward Masqouth and wrapped around his arms. The noise stopped abruptly, but Masqouth didn't look alarmed. His mask shape-shifted into the traditional shape of the Mask of Life and it glowed briefly.

The next moment, the squid's tentacles dried up. Not only that, but the dryness traveled up the squid's tentacles to the squid itself. The Rahi had just enough time to let out one final screech of terror before its whole body became as dry as dust. Masqouth pulled back and the giant squid fell from the ceiling, exploding into dust when it collided with the floor.

Night stood up, wiping the slime off his face, but said nothing. Instead, he dashed at Masqouth. He didn't know what Masqouth was doing here, but it was irrelevant. He was going to kill that moron, just as he said he would. He knew that the Almighty Ones wouldn't like that, but right now the Almighty Ones weren't here and besides what did he care for what they thought?

He raised his sword and slashed at Masqouth with it. Masqouth slid out of the way, however, like he was skating, and his mask shape-shifted yet again, this time turning into the Mask of Repulsion. Night knew what was coming this time and so jumped out of the way to avoid being blasted back. To his surprise, however, Masqouth used the mask to fly into the air over the Skrall's head.

Masqouth landed on the ground behind Night and lashed out with a punch. The blow sent Night staggering. It was much stronger than he had anticipated, but no matter. He recovered quickly and activated his wrist shield, which spiraled out just in time to block a kick from Masqouth. That blow, too, was strong, sending Night skittering backwards across the floor and creating a dent in the shield.

Looking at his opponent, Night realized that Masqouth was wearing the Mask of Strength. That certainly explained why Masqouth's blows had been stronger than usual. All that meant was that Night would need to keep his distance for now.

That was easy. Night raised his sword and fired a couple of shadow bolts from it. Masqouth's mask shape-shifted yet again, however, this time into the Mask of Shielding. Night's shadow bolts struck the shield with impressive force, but they did little to crack it. As soon as the shadow bolts disappeared, the shield dropped because Masqouth's mask had shape-shifted once again, this time into the Mask of Speed.

Before Night could move, Masqouth ran at him with super speed and pinned him to the wall. Night didn't drop his weapons. He lashed out with a kick, striking Masqouth in the abdomen and forcing the Echo to let go of him. Night followed this up with a blow from his sword, slicing across Masqouth's chest.

Masqouth's mask immediately change once more, but before Night could get a good look at it, his enemy vanished. Surprised, Night looked around, wondering where Masqouth had gone, before he felt two strong hands grab him from behind and lift him up in the air. It took him a second to realize that Masqouth had somehow grabbed him and he last out with his arms and legs, but that did nothing to stop Masqouth from hurling him through the air.

Night crashed on the floor painfully, but he rolled with the momentum and was back on his feet instantly. He looked up in time to see Masqouth's mask shape-shift again, this time into yet another unfamiliar shape. When it glowed, however, Night found himself facing four Masqouth's instead of one.

“Illusions?” Night said, holding up his sword and shield. “Is that what you're trying to scare me with now, Masqouth?”

“We are not illusions,” said one of the Masqouths. He tapped his Kanohi and said, “Great Mask of Time Duplication. Let's me summon as many of my past selves as needed. I think four should be enough to take care of you, wouldn't you say?”

All four of the Masqouths charged. Night swung his sword, unleashing a wave of shadow that struck all four of the Masqouths. Then they all disappeared, save for one, the original, who was staggering from the shadow wave. Night dashed forward and slashed at Masqouth again.

The Echo raised his arms just in time, however, and blocked the sword. The blade clanged off his arms and he lashed out, but Night raised his shield just in time to block the blow. Like before, Masqouth wore the Mask of Strength, so when Night's shield took the blow, he not only went skittering backwards across the floor, but his shield shattered, too.

“Oops,” said Masqouth. “Looks like I broke your toy. Just like how you broke my parents.”

Night had no idea what Masqouth meant, but he didn't get the opportunity to ask because for the nth time, Masqouth's Kanohi transformed. For the second time, it took on the shape of the Mask of Speed. Masqouth shot forward, but Night was ready. He pulled the trigger on his sword and it burst into flames and he slashed at Masqouth.

The Echo just barely managed to move out of the way in time to avoid it, but he went too fast and slammed into the wall hard enough to crack it. Dazed, Masqouth staggered backward, but Night didn't give him a chance to recover.

The Skrall ran up to Masqouth, grabbed him by the back of his head, slammed him against the wall again for good measure, and shoved him to the ground. He pinned the still-dazed Masqouth to ground with one foot and pointed the tip of his still-flaming at Masqouth's face.

“This is where it ends, Masqouth,” said Night, panting and sweating hard. “This is for Heavyweight!”

He raised his sword, but before he could bring it down, Masqouth's mask transformed into a shape he did not recognize. Twin lasers fired from the Echo's eyes and struck Night's hand, sending his sword flying out of his grip. Taken by surprise, Night accidentally took the pressure off Masqouth's chest, allowing the Echo to roll out from underneath the Skrall's foot and get to his feet.

Not to be taken by surprise again, Night charged shadow energy through his hands. At the same time, Masqouth's mask changed shape again and twin balls of fire appear in his palms. The two stood with their hands aimed at each other.

“Looks like we're at a stalemate,” said Night through gritted teeth.

“Why makes you say that?” Masqouth asked, his teeth equally clenched.

“Because if we both blast each other, then I doubt either of us will be able to dodge it,” said Night.

“It doesn't matter,” said Masqouth with a snarl. “You killed my parents. If I must die in order to kill you, so be it.”

“What the heck are you going on about?” Night asked in annoyance. “I've never even so much as touched the Almighty Ones. Are you trying to confuse me or something? Because if so, it's working.”

“Don't lie to me,” Masqouth said. “Atuje told me the whole story. He told me you and your two friends killed my parents. I saw the warehouse. You are a deceitful liar of the highest order.”

Night shook his head. “And you're the biggest moron I've ever met if you believe that obviously false lie.”

“You're the liar,” Masqouth said. “I always knew you weren't perfect, but this? This is beyond redemption.”

“Did you see your parents' bodies?” Night asked. “Did Atuje show you their graves?”

A flicker of doubt crossed Masqouth's face. “Well, no, he didn't show me the bodies, but-”

“Did he offer you any proof at all that I or Jet or Kiriah killed them?” Night asked. “Did you even think to ask?”

Masqouth's doubtful expression quickly turned into a scowl. “Are you saying I'm stupid?”

“I'm saying you're naïve,” Night said. “Think about it. You and I are clear equals in battle. The Almighty Ones dwarf us both. Even with the help of Jet and Kiriah, do you think I could possibly even hurt the Almighty Ones? Ask yourself that.”

For a moment, Night was certain Masqouth was going to ignore him.

Instead, the Echo said, “Now that you mention it . . . no. I don't believe you could kill my parents. It's impossible.”

“So now you know who the real liar is,” said Night. “Atuje. He lied to you. He's the king of liars.”

Masqouth pursed his lips, but didn't get rid of his fire balls. “But . . . he's never lied to me before. Why would he lie to me about something as serious as this?”

Night looked at Masqouth suspiciously. “So you really have no idea what Atuje is actually trying to accomplish? You have no idea how he has manipulated you from the start?”

To Night's surprise, Masqouth's fire balls dissipated and he put both hands over his ears. “Stop it. Stop saying those words. You're wrong. You're lying. Atuje would never manipulate me. Never.”

Night, of course, didn't let his guard down. “Then maybe it's time you learned the truth. The Almighty Ones told me and the others your story. I know your origin. Will you at least listen to that?”

Masqouth seemed like he was going to say no. Then he nodded slowly as he said, “Don't expect me to believe you, though.”

“All right,” said Night. “Then listen.”

Night told Masqouth all about the vision the Almighty Ones had shown him. He told Masqouth about Wyoko, about how Atuje had originally tried to kill him, about how Atuje had fought the Almighty Ones over Masqouth's murderous deeds. He spared no detail. Even when Masqouth began looking more and more upset, Night did not attempt to sugarcoat this story. Masqouth needed to know the truth. The whole truth.

When Night finished, Masqouth was silent for several moments. Night wished he had telepathy so he could figure out what Masqouth was thinking. As it was, Night kept his guard up, just in case Masqouth decided that he didn't believe him.

Then Masqouth looked up and said, “I . . . I believe you, Night. What you say, all of it, is true. I don't want to admit it, but I can't ignore it any longer. That would be dishonest of me.”

Night critically looked at Masqouth. The Echo wore an expression of solemnity and child-like sincerity. His mask resembled the Ignika again, but Masqouth didn't look like he was going to use its power. His arms hung at his sides and his shoulders sagged.

Finally, Night nodded and said, “Good. I was hoping I'd get to punch you out, but I guess this works, too.”

“We should leave immediately,” said Masqouth. “Go after Atuje. I am starting to think that he was the one who really killed my parents or did something else equally horrible to them. I am not going to tolerate his lies anymore, no sir.”

“I understand, but not yet,” said Night, shaking his head. “Kiriah and Jetrupi are stuck in this maze. We can't leave without them.”

Masqouth bit his lip. “But I want to go now. I don't want to waste any time here.”

“I don't like wasting time, either, but if we're going to take on Atuje, it makes sense to get as many allies as we can,” said Night. “And Kiriah and Jet are both allies. Besides, they cannot leave on their own because Atuje took our dimension-hopping powers away from us when he banished us here.”

“Oh,” said Masqouth, snapping his fingers. “That's why you are wandering around in this maze. I was confused about that.”

Night folded his arms. “How did you even find me, anyway? It's not like I left a trail for you to follow.”

“I followed the open paths,” Masqouth said. “There were a couple of other paths, but they were completely blocked off.”

Night looked up at the ceiling and muttered, “So Mendos is herding me and the others in one direction. That can't be good.”

“Who's Mendos?” Masqouth asked.

“I'll explain on the way out of here,” said Night. “For now, we gotta go. The only way we'll find Kiriah and Jet is if we keep moving forward. We have no time to waste.”



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#14 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jul 07 2014 - 07:47 AM

Chapter XIII


For Kiriah, every step was like walking through a waist-deep muddy swamp. She took a step forward, stopped to catch her breath, and then took another step down the staircase that led to the next floor of the Maze. Her chest wound was still burning, still bleeding, and droplets of blood covered the stairs behind her, but she kept going. The thought of reuniting with Jet and Night at the end of the maze was all that kept her going. Otherwise, she would have collapsed by now.

She finally reached the bottom of the staircase, but accidentally tripped and fell flat on her face and on her chest. Her wound exploded with pain, causing her to cry out. When she pushed herself up, she saw a large splotch of blood on the floor where her chest had fallen. The metallic scent of blood made her feel sick, but she stood up anyway and resumed walking down the hallway.

Every time she wanted to give up, she remembered her late friend, Isarot. He had been tough, much tougher than Kiriah would ever be, and he would never have tolerated any kind of quitting on her part. Especially when so much rode on her getting out of here alive. The only way to stop the war on Spherus Magna would be to get Masqouth and hand him over to the New Atero government.

Without warning, Mendos's voice rang through the hallway like a gong. Kiriah stopped and leaned against a wall, less out of a desire to listen and more because she was getting weaker and weaker by the minute.

“Well, well,” said Mendos in her usual chirpy voice. “A new participant has entered the Maze. He's quite the stud, if I do say so myself. I have no idea who he is, but his involvement has already made the game much more interesting, especially with that strange mask of his.”

Kiriah's audio receptors perked up at that. A new participant? Who could that be?

“I also have a couple of announcements to make,” said Mendos. “First off, congratulations, all of you, for making it past the first floor. The first leg is always the hardest, but now that you are all making your way to the next floor, I am certain we'll see the game become even more exciting.”

Kiriah let out a sigh of relief that hurt her chest. Night and Jet are both still alive. Thank the Great Spirit.

“The second floor is a bit different from the first floor,” Mendos said. “Whereas the first floor contained three passages – one leading to death, one to treasure, and another to life – the second floor has nothing in it but death.”

“No!” Kiriah said. “No!”

“It's not that bad,” Mendos said, almost as if she had heard Kiriah's cries of anguish. “You still have a chance of survival. And if you do, guess what? You get to meet me. Won't that be wonderful?”

Kiriah could think of many reasons why that wasn't wonderful, but she didn't voice any of them. She did imagine punching out Mendos, though without knowing what Mendos looked like, she was forced to imagine punching out Kafor instead. That may have been mean, but Kiriah was not very fond of the Skakdi and so didn't feel that guilty about it.

“Also, keep in mind that death will not always look like how you think it will,” Mendos said. “Sometimes, death will look like life and life like death. Which is which? You can figure that out for yourself. Have fun!”

With that, the speaker turned off with a 'click.' Kiriah pushed herself off the wall and started down the hall again. It might have been smarter to stay put, but that would have meant bleeding to death or dying by infection. Besides, the situation apparently wasn't hopeless, if Mendos was telling the truth. There was indeed a way to win, but in her current wounded state, Kiriah wondered if that was nothing more than a false hope destined to let her down.

Soon, Kiriah saw something up ahead. The closer she came, the clearer the object became. It was a simple wooden table, looking like something that had been picked out of a dump, with two glass vials on it. Kiriah stopped briefly and examined the area around it, but she could see no hints of traps or danger. She did find, however, that it was impossible to continue on because when she walked around the table she found the exit locked.

Kiriah was far too weak to use her telekinesis to break the lock, so she returned to the table and examined the two glasses. One contained a green liquid; the other, a red one. A small piece of paper lay between them, which Kiriah snatched up in her hand and read:

One of these vials will give you life. The other will give you death.

Choose wisely.


Kiriah crumpled the paper in her hands and threw it on the ground in frustration. That was an unwise move, however, because the sudden movement caused her chest to ache again and she let loose a string of curse words that even she didn't know she knew.

She carefully picked up both vials and examined them from every angle. In appearance and texture, the two felt exactly the same. They had no labels, no hints that pointed toward whether one was poison and one not.

Yet if the paper was correct, Kiriah had to choose one, and only one. She was not an expert on poison and potions, but she did understand that one would probably kill her instantly, while the other wouldn't. She wished she could figure out what these vials contained, but it was impossible to know.

She set them down and thought about it hard. Not that there was much to think about. With so few facts to help her, it was clear that Kiriah was going to rely entirely on destiny to pick the right one. That her chest was still hurting gave her even less time to think carefully about the dilemma.

She scooped up the crumple paper and flattened it out on the table. She read it over a dozen times, hoping there might be a clue within the text itself, but she found nothing that could even be construed as a clue. It was two simple sentences. And as far as she could tell, there was no code in it. She wished Horic, the Tagiki guardian of the Time Stone and her friend, was here. He loved cracking codes and if anyone could discover a code hidden within these words, it would be him.

This was the worst dilemma Kiriah had ever faced in her life. Either she risked her life and chose the wrong potion (which would be far more likely to kill her than to help her) or she did nothing at all and died of the wound Izoz had inflicted on her. More than ever before, Kiriah felt a deep, burning hatred for Mendos in her heart, one she didn't even try to repress.

“All right,” said Kiriah aloud. “You win, Mendos. I'll take your potions. I'll pick one and if I die, at least it will probably be instant and painless.”

Kiriah had always liked the color green better than red. That was the sole basis for choosing the green over the red potion. That may have seemed flippant, but considering that she had no other facts to base her decision off of, it really was the best way to determine which potion to drink.

She held the green potion in her hand. It splashed around in its vial in her shaky hand. It felt warm, but not burning hot. She really didn't want to drink something without knowing what was inside it. Her instincts warned her to put it down and walk away, but then she reminded her instincts that walking away now would be just as useful as drinking the wrong potion, if not more painful.

Without further ado, Kiriah popped open the green potion and downed it in one gulp. It smelled like Mado fruit and tasted like sewer water. She almost choked on it, but she swallowed it all. She felt it go down her throat into her system. It burned her mouth, so as soon as she felt the last drop hit her tongue, she slammed the vial back on the table and hacked loudly.

Then Kiriah felt her stomach. She didn't feel anything at first, but then without warning, her entire body shuddered with pain. She fell to her knees, her breathing rapidly becoming ragged, as the potion raced through her entire body. It felt like someone was raking her body with a giant, burning claw.

It was the poison. It had to be. It was killing her.

And there was nothing she could do about it.
 

-


Ruby was really starting to get tired of the Wyokan countryside. Or, rather, the darkness that completely shrouded it. More than once she had tripped over something she couldn't see – a tree root, an abandoned tool, a rock – and more than once she wanted to burn the whole place to the ground as a result. That may have been extreme and it was, but it was hard to convince her of that when it seemed like everything in Wyoko was out to trip her up.

Oddly enough, the trio did not face any wild animals on their way through Wyoko. Ruby wondered aloud why that was. Cina speculated that the animals may be afraid of their lightstones and possibly Wanderer as well, who as a ghost always gave off a small glow. After all, Cina continued, the vast majority of Rahi in Wyoko lived in complete darkness. It was unlikely they would like or appreciate light.

Occasionally, they would hear the noises of things in the darkness. Sometimes, it was obviously the sound of the wind, but every now and then Ruby's ears would catch the sound of some kind of animal prowling nearby. Once she even caught a glimpse of a giant bat-like creature, but every time she tried to shine her light on it, the Rahi would always run away with a screech and a snarl.

To her credit, Wanderer kept her mouth shut unless necessary. Unfortunately, she floated far too close to Ruby for her comfort. Ruby was used to this behavior. She did not interact with her fans too often, but whenever she did, they always treated her like she was the Great Spirit himself. It was flattering, to be sure, but also creepy. She appreciated how Cina at least knew to give her some space.

Due to the silence, Ruby began worrying about Niham again. She wondered if Niham was getting enough food, if she was warm, if she had a bed to sleep in, if she was injured or not. She had no idea how Masqouth treated his prisoners. She hoped he showed the same benevolence toward them that he showed in his speeches to the Skakdi and Skrall, but if he was willing to start a world war for reasons no one knew or understood, then she bet he wasn't even half as kind as he made himself out to be.

She wondered what the other team was doing. If Cina was telling the truth, then there was another team of Will agents in Wyoko making their way to Castle Kra. She wondered if they were farther along than her party was and how much luck they were having in reaching the castle. She also wondered if it would have been wiser for her and Cina to travel with that group than on their own, but when she remembered that that would go against the plan, she stopped thinking about it.

Just as they crossed a wooden bridge, they heard rustling in a nearby clump of trees. Both Cina and Ruby shone their lightstones in that direction, while Wanderer unlimbered her spear and shield from her back. How a ghost was going to help them battle a physical foe, Ruby had no idea. She suspected Wanderer did it out of habit.

The next moment, five hooded beings walked out of the clump of trees, beings whom Ruby had never seen before. They walked in perfect unison, almost as if they were one mind, but it was a weak walk with a lot of limping and staggering. Despite that, Ruby could sense they were not weaklings, simply badly wounded.

“Who are you?” Cina said as the hooded ones approached. “Are you Kra-Matoran? Echoes? Or allies of either group?”

The hooded beings stopped. One of these beings stepped forward and spoke. Yet when it spoke, it sounded as though multiple voices were speaking as one, which freaked out Ruby far more than their sudden, unexplained appearance.

“We are allies of neither,” said the hooded being. “We are the Almighty Ones. And we are in desperate need of help.”

“Almighty Ones?” Ruby said, glancing at Cina and Wanderer. “Either of you guys heard of 'em before?”

Cina shrugged. “No.”

“Same here,” said Wanderer.

Ruby turned to ask the strangers more questions about their identity, but then she saw all five of them collapse as one. Shocked, Ruby ran over to the lead one and turned him over on his back. She put a hand on his chest and felt a heart beat. The others still seemed to be living, too, but perhaps just barely.

“What happened to you?” said Ruby. “Hello? Are you awake?”

The Almighty One stirred and looked up at her. Blue eyes shone out of the dark hood which shrouded his face. “We were nearly slain by our enemy. We just barely managed to escape.”

“Who is your enemy?” Ruby asked. “Are you talking about Masqouth?”

“No,” said the Almighty One, shaking his head. “We are talking about the King . . . the King of Life.”

Ruby looked up at Cina, but much to her surprise, the Toa of Water looked like she understood completely.

“Makuta Teridax and Toa Oggak reported a being known as the King freeing Wavica and Asroth on the Soaring Titan,” said Cina. “I wonder if this King of Life is the same being or not.”

“He is,” the Almighty One said with a cough. “He's the true enemy. Not Masqouth.”

“What does that even mean?” said Ruby. “Masqouth is the leader, isn't he?”

“No,” said the Almighty One. “The King of Life, Atuje, he is behind it all. He only cares about himself. He will destroy anyone who gets in his way.”

“But where is he?” said Ruby. “If he's so dangerous and powerful, how come we haven't met him yet?”

“Likely he doesn't even know of your existence yet,” said the Almighty One. “But be warned. If he finds out what you are trying to do, he will not hesitate to snuff out your life like an insect.”

“Is he the one responsible for kidnapping Niham and the other Toa?” Ruby said.

The Almighty One nodded slowly. “He masterminded the entire plan. From beginning to end, it has all been his doing. Masqouth and the Echoes have merely been his pawns.”

“All right,” said Ruby. “Then we still have to go on.”

The Almighty One reached up with a shaky hand and grabbed her wrist, as if to stop her. “Do not go. His power is beyond even your wildest dreams. You must leave while you can.”

“Thanks for the encouragement,” said Ruby. “But no. Niham is my girlfriend. I am not going to abandon her just because there is some guy out there with powers stronger than his conscience. I've already come this far, anyway. Might as well keep going.”

The Almighty One let go of her wrist. “You are truly a noble soul, Glatorian. Truly noble.”

“Perhaps she is,” said a new voice, one like the sea, from somewhere in the darkness, “although in my time I've never seen nobility save somebody's life.”

Ruby, Cina, and Wanderer looked around before someone walked into the light of their lightstones. The newcomer was a Gadarian, just like Ruby, but he looked different. he wore blue armor that looked very old and wore a rounded helmet studded with spikes. He walked with an air of royalty, as if he expected everyone to bow before him in order to acknowledge his greatness.

“Who are you?” Cina said. “Friend or enemy?”

The newcomer spread his arms. “I am King Atuje, the King of Life and Ruler of Wyoko. I imagine those titles mean little to you, however, but it does not matter. All I ask is that you step aside and let me finish the job I started in another universe.”

Ruby stood up and held up her shield. “The Almighty Ones told us that you were the one who planned the kidnappings of Niham and the other Toa. Is that true?”

“It is the truth,” said Atuje. “I presume you are Rubella the Red Star, Niham's girlfriend and lover? I do not recognize the other two, but I know you because Masqouth used to watch your arena matches on the telescreen. He is a big fan.”

Ruby didn't let her guard down. “Yes, I am. And I'm here to save Niham from your dirty hands. Even if that means sacrificing my own life.”

Atuje tilted his head side to side before returning its to its normal position. “Interesting. I had not factored any of you three into my plan. Then again, I probably should have seen this coming, knowing as I do how strong a motivation love is.”

Ruby hurled her shield at Atuje, aiming directly for his head. The King merely deflected it with his arm, sending the shield flying away somewhere into the darkness out of sight.

“I take it you have no idea just how powerful I am,” said Atuje. “I suppose that's to be expected, seeing as we have never met before. Allow me to show you just why I am called the King of Life.”

Atuje closed his eyes and raised his hands. Ruby at first wondered what he was doing until she fell to her knees, completely unable to control her body. The next second, Ruby felt body rapidly growing weaker, almost like she was dying. Nearby, Cina and the Almighty Ones were in a similar position, while Wanderer floated above them, looking at the scene in horror.

“What are you doing to them?” Wanderer asked Atuje.

“Controlling their nerves and draining their bodies of life, of course,” said Atuje, without opening his eyes. “I regret having to kill your two friends in addition to the Almighty Ones, but even the King of Life cannot always avoid death. If I were you, ghost, I'd take this moment to say good bye to them one last time, as I doubt you will ever see them again.”
 

-


Kafor sat against the left wall of her cell, tapping her foot against the floor. Licking the food off the floor had taken the better part of the morning and now she was hungry again, although Jeran had not yet returned with more food for her and the other prisoners. She was under the impression that Jeran was punishing her for her getting under his skin earlier. He could have simply been forgetful, but he didn't seem like the absentminded type.

The Toa prisoners were talking, but she didn't participate in their conversations. They were talking about friends, about what the war in Spherus Magna was like, whether they would ever see the light of day again, and similar sentimental subjects. Kafor was too concerned with figuring out a method of escape to worry about the outside world, probably because she didn't have anything waiting for her on the outside.

The other prisoners had friends, jobs, and social positions. They had houses, money, food, and water. Even the poorer ones, like Toa Laomos the artist, had things to look forward to. Kafor had almost nothing.

She didn't own a house or even an apartment. She didn't have any friends, except perhaps Barc (although he could be dead now for all she knew). While the Dark Hunters might not be after her anymore, she nonetheless had many enemies that would love to gut her. She belonged to no groups. She lived a life mostly beneath the surface of acceptable society. Even her fellow Skakdi would probably not accept her. Being a Seer meant most people thought she was crazy.

Nonetheless, Kafor could not deny her desire to escape. She wanted to get to the outside world, wanted to leave Wyoko and the Echoes behind. Yet no matter how hard she wracked her brain, she could not come up with a way to escape. It seemed far more likely that she was going to die alone in this cell. There was no happy ending, for her or for any of the others.

Just then, she heard the door to the dungeons swing open, followed by the scraping of several sets of feet against the floor. A strong feminine voice, probably Asroth's, shouted, “Wakey, wakey, prisoners! It's time to get up and go!”

“Go?” said Niham's voice, slightly muffled by the walls separating her cell from Kafor's. “Go where? Why?”

“King Atuje's orders,” said another female voice, this one sounding like Wavica. “He expects all of his prisoners to be in his throne room within the hour to witness his arrival.”

“But that doesn't explain why,” Niham said. “Aren't we 'safer' in the dungeons?”

“We are not to question the King's orders,” said Wavica. “Only obey. Now everybody get up. We aren't going to drag you out of here when your own two feet can support you.”

The sounds of jail cell doors flying open and chains clanking together and people walking about filled the dungeon. Kafor scrambled to her feet as her cell door swung open and someone walked in. The being grabbed her roughly, dragged her out of the cell, and then chained her up to someone in front of her, all without saying a word. Which is how Kafor knew it was Jeran.

Above the sounds of clanking chains and talking Toa, Wavica's voice rang out, saying, “All right, prisoners. We're walking out of here single file. If anyone tries to escape, we will beat you senseless and drag you all the way up to the throne room ourselves. Now march.”

Kafor was suddenly jerked forward by whoever was ahead of her, but soon recovered and kept pace with the others. Walking up the winding stairs with the others was an awkward, time-consuming process, but they eventually managed to reach the courtyard. At least, Kafor assumed it was the courtyard. With her reflectors on, it was difficult to see anything.

Then they were walking up another set of stairs and entered the castle itself again. Again, that was what Kafor only assumed based on what she heard and felt. She could hear the sounds of the prisoners' feet echoing off the walls, which told her they were inside a building at any rate. No one spoke.

They had climbed only a handful of floors, however, before the sound of a door slamming shut nearby caused the entire chain gang to come to a halt. A light flared ahead of Kafor, but it looked very dim through her dark reflectors.

“What was that?” said Niham. Based on the proximity of her voice, she was directly in front of Kafor. “I thought I heard-”

“Quiet, Toa,” said Asroth with more than a hint of nervousness. “It's nothing. Just the wind blowing a window shut.”

For as long as Kafor could recall, she'd always had a sarcastic tongue. She had not chosen to be this way. It was just that whenever someone said something stupid or obviously false, her first reaction was always to belittle it in some way. Even if she knew it would get her in trouble, she'd still spit it out like a poison she desperately needed to get out of her system right away.

That was why she said, “Did you have a bad experience with windows when you were younger, Asroth? Because you sound awfully nervous about it.”

She fully expected to get a beating for that and indeed she heard someone stomping over to her. But then Jeran's voice behind her said, “We have company.”

“Company?” said Wavica from the head of the chain-gang. “What-”

A hot, sizzling burst of energy (that was what Kafor assumed it was, even though she could not see it) flew past Kafor's head and struck something. This was followed by Wavica cursing in pain and Asroth saying, “Who's there?”

That was when all Karzahni broke loose. Kafor was knocked to the ground with her fellow prisoners as energy blasts flew through the air, as metal clanged against metal, and as people shouted and screamed. It sounded like a fight had broken out, but it was impossible to tell who was fighting who. Not that she cared. Right now she was more concerned with not getting hit by a stray energy blast than with finding out the identities of their assailants.

The fight ended as quickly as it began, however, when someone (probably Jeran, by the sound of his voice) shouted, “Retreat!” which was followed by the sounds of feet running up the corridor. A moment later, several other sets of feet followed the first sets, with shouts and cries from the second sets demanding that the first get back here right away so they could apprehend them.

Kafor had little time to rest, however, because the next moment sharp, claw-like fingers dug into her arms and hauled her to her feet. At the same time, she felt the energy chains around her wrists dissipate, prompting her to immediately remove her reflectors and toss them to the ground. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the sudden bright light that had enveloped them all. And when they did, she got to see the results of the battle for herself.

Though she could not say how it had looked before, Kafor figured the holes and cracks that scarred the floor and ceiling were not part of the hallway's original decor. A nearby tapestry had been burned its half, its lower half lying on the floor underneath, with smoke weakly rising from both halves like steam from a freshly-cooked loaf of bread. A discarded knife stood a few feet away from her, handle up, the blade lodged into the floor, though how that happened, she couldn't say.

When Kafor looked around her, she realized that she and her fellow ex-prisoners were not alone. Six beings – none of whom Kafor had ever seen before – stood around them, each belonging to a different species. The two that stood out to her, however, were the black-armored Toa wielding a long sword and the large, yellow-armored being that stood next to her, knife-like fingers wrapped around the lightstone that illuminated the area.

The Toa of Lightning (who Kafor figured had to be Akuna, although she could not be certain because she had spent the last week blind) ran over to and hugged the black-armored Toa, saying, “Oggak, thank the Great Beings you're here. I thought we were all dead. How did you even know where to find us?”

“And who are these other people?” the Toa of Iron, probably Chimoy based on his voice, said. “I'm glad to see you, Oggak, but I've never seen any of these people before.”

The black-armored Toa named Oggak gently pushed Akuna off her and said to the former prisoners, “It's a long story, one we don't have time for right now. Just know that you guys are no longer under the Echoes' power and never will be again.”

While the Toa thanked their rescuers, Kafor stood a little to the side, scratching the back of her head. She knew she should thank them, but her mind was already devising a way to slip away unnoticed. It was more out of habit than anything, as she actually didn't distrust their rescuers, even though, like Chimoy, she had no idea who any of them were.

Before Kafor could depart, however, the yellow-armored being holding the lightstone noticed her and said, “Hey, who is that?”

“I can talk, you know,” Kafor said. “But for your information, my name is Kafor. I, too, was kidnapped by the Echoes, which is the second time I've been kidnapped in a week.”

“Strange,” the yellow-armored being said. “We knew the Echoes had kidnapped five Toa, but a Skakdi, too? Why-”

“It doesn't matter why,” Kafor said, cutting her off. “The real question is, who are you people and where the Karzahni did you come from? We had no idea you were coming.”

“We'll tell you later,” said Oggak. “The important thing is, you six are now officially rescued. The mission, therefore, is accomplished.”

Kafor looked around the hallway and said, “Where did the Echoes go?”

“They ran off because they were outnumbered,” said the yellow-armored being. “We sent a few agents after them. Our mission isn't only about rescuing you guys. We're also going to arrest the Echoes and bring them to justice.”

“Exactly,” said Oggak. “That's why we shouldn't be celebrating too soon. Masqouth and the Echoes are still at large. Half of us will escort the six of you out of Wyoko, while the rest of us will go join our comrades who went after the Echoes.”

This was all too good to be true to Kafor. Not only had she been rescued, but she was also going to leave Wyoko forever. It was like Mata Nui had heard her wishes and decided to grant them to her as an early Naming Day present.

And yet, something tugged at Kafor's conscience. She remembered her earlier woes, about not having anyone waiting for her, about having nowhere to go, and that made her depressed. And angry. What else was she supposed to do if she was not going to leave? Set up home in Wyoko, which was a rather depressing place?

While these thoughts swirled in Kafor's mind, Niham stepped up to Oggak and said, “What about Ruby? Did Masqouth get her? Is she safe?”

“Rubella is fine,” said Oggak, patting Niham on the shoulder gently. “In fact, she's more than fine. She's here in Wyoko, too, trying to rescue you like we were.”

Niham looked around the hall excitedly, as though thinking Ruby (whoever that was) would pop out from some hiding place, but Oggak shook her head and said, “She's not with us. She was with someone else. They were supposed to act as a distraction while we got you guys out of here, but I guess we got here first.”

“Then where is she?” Niham said. “Do you think she ran into some kind of trouble? You don't think-”

“Ruby's probably fine, Niham,” said Akuna. “She's tough. She can handle whatever Wyoko throws at her, I'm sure.”

Niham didn't look exactly comforted by those words, but she nodded anyway and said, “Yeah, you're probably right.”

“All right, then,” said Oggak, putting her hands on her hips. “Reyou, Iknor, Eronus, you three escort the Toa and Kafor out of Wyoko. The rest of us are going after the Echoes. We aren't going to let them escape this time.”

“Hold it,” said Kafor, holding up a hand. “May I come with you, Toa Oggak?”

Oggak looked at Kafor in surprise, as did everyone else. “Why? Don't you want to be free?”

“Freedom is great and all, but I'd like to teach those darn Echoes a lesson for treating me like garbage,” said Kafor. “How did that one line by Zarsk go? 'I desire freedom in order to get my revenge'? Something like that, I'm sure.”

“You're not a Will agent,” the yellow-armored being said, folding her arms across her chest. “The plan was to get you guys out of Wyoko, not let you fight with us. The boss will be angry if we get you guys in trouble.”

“Hello, you guys didn't even know I existed until ten minutes ago,” Kafor said. “Are you going to beat me up if I refuse to leave? I doubt it.”

“She has a point,” Oggak said. “We really don't have time to debate this, anyway. Can you fight, Kafor?”

“Of course I can,” said Kafor. “It's not my area of expertise, but I know a couple of tricks that those Echoes won't see coming.”

“All right, then,” said Oggak. “Does anyone else wish to come with us?”

The other ex-prisoners shook their heads. Privately, Kafor found it hilarious how these so-called 'heroic' Toa were running away from the Echoes, rather than staying to fight them.

“Okay,” said Oggak. “Now let's split up and get going. We can't let the Echoes escape, not this time, not when they're practically within our grasp.”
 

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#15 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jul 14 2014 - 08:39 AM

Chapter XIV


Ten years ago. . . .

After the burning Gadarian incident, the Bunker was never quite the same. Even when a repair crew came down into the Bunker to fix the damage caused by the burning Gadarian (which, from what little Night Vision had seen, was quite extensive), there was always this lingering feeling of ominousness, as though the ghost of that Gadarian still haunted the Bunker.

The official story the elementalists received was that the burning man had been a new recruit for Project Elementalist whose body reacted negatively to the elementalist serum. The new recruit was also revealed to have been a spy from a rival company seeking to shut down the Project, which none of the elementalists could confirm because the burning Gadarian's body was disposed of and his name withheld for 'security reasons,' as the II scientists put it.

That story raised a lot of questions in Night Vision's mind, the first and foremost being why II had tried to make another fire elementalist. They already had Blaze. For what purpose could another fire elementalist have served?

When he brought up this concern to Blaze and Heavyweight during lunch, a week after the burning man's attack, he found that they agreed with him. Heavyweight in particular seemed convinced that there was more to this story than met the eye. She explained that she had heard stories about the II scientists performing gruesome experiments on certain subjects and disposing of the evidence before anyone could find it.

Blaze was a bit less paranoid, suggesting that the scientists may have been trying to see how Gadarian reacted to the fire version of the serum. Nonetheless, she also shared her confusion at the scientists' secrecy, even though she warned them about the dangers of speaking these thoughts aloud.

Her warnings were based in fact. A couple of days after the burning Gadarian incident, Mute tried to ask Sorox about it. That simple question earned her a week in the Room and when she came out, she was far less chatty than usual and never brought up the subject again. That was not necessarily a bad thing, as Night Vision had just barely managed to tolerate her constant talk.

At first, the other elementalists seemed less disturbed by that punishment than he, Blaze, and Heavyweight were. Then at mealtimes, Night Vision heard the others muttering and whispering about the unfairness of Mute's punishment, which was always quickly hushed whenever a scientist or guard was within earshot.

But it wasn't until a week after that that the scientists tried to quell the discontent. And it wasn't even the scientists but Mr. Gray himself.

It was at lunchtime, when all the elementalists were gathered in the dining room. As usual, Night Vision sat with Heavyweight and Blaze, the Skrall trying to explain to them what chewing food was like because Vortixx and Matoran apparently did not eat with their mouths (which he found strange, to say the least). With the clinking of silverware against plates and bowls, the slurping of water, and the general din of sixteen beings of various species all talking at once, none of them noticed the arrival of Mr. Gray until a loud bullhorn directed their attention to the Turaga.

Mr. Gray stood in front of the door on the left side of the room. On either side of him stood two guards, a couple of Toa of Ice based on their white armor. One of them held a bullhorn, looking quite satisfied at having drawn everyone's attention to his boss.

“Hello, elementalists,” said Mr. Gray, smiling just like Grandfather. “I see you're enjoying lunch. After all of the strenuous physical tests you undergo, it is important that you keep your energy up with the well-balanced, scientifically sound meals provided by the scientists working on the Project. I wish I could join you, but as a busy Turaga I unfortunately don't have the time for it, you understand.”

His light and conversational tone made Night Vision suspicious. He exchanged looks with Heavyweight and Blaze. Heavyweight looked as suspicious as he felt, while Blaze's expression was unreadable.

“I have heard about the burning Gadarian's attack on the Bunker,” Mr. Gray said. “A terrible tragedy, one that no doubt has left many of you questioning your own safety in the Bunker. After all, the burning man did kill five scientists and nearly killed two elementalists. In addition, he caused millions of widgets worth of property damage that is still under repair even two weeks after the fact. I can understand why some of you wish to leave the Project and find someplace safer to work.”

Heavyweight was nodding. So were several other elementalists. These were common concerns that many elementalists had spoken about, so it was nice to hear Mr. Gray acknowledging them. That also made Night Vision wonder what Mr. Gray was going to say next.

“But I implore you all to remain with Ignika Industries,” Mr. Gray said. “The safety of our employees is our paramount concern. We have done everything in our power to ensure that another burning Gadarian incident never happens again. All that we ask is that you do not ask questions whose answers you do not need to know. That is all.”

Night Vision felt someone tugging at his arm and look to his right. It was Heavyweight, who wore an expression that quite plainly said, Uh oh.

“I know many of you have questions and concerns about the Project, but rest assured that you have nothing to worry about,” Mr. Gray said. “Your job is not to worry about things like security and safety, but to help us understand the full effects that the elementalist serum has on the average person's body. We will handle the rest.”

Again, people were nodding. Again, Night Vision was not convinced.

“If any of you have any more concerns, feel free to speak with the scientists about them,” said Mr. Gray. “If for any reason they cannot address your concerns themselves, then they will take them directly to me and I will make sure to take a little time out of my busy schedule to address them personally. Good day to you all and enjoy your lunch.”

With that, Mr. Gray and his two bodyguards left. As soon as they did, the elementalists returned to their eating and talking. Night Vision turned back to Heavyweight and Blaze and said, “What do you two think?”

“What is there to say?” said Blaze with a shrug. “He just said that they were going to make things safer and that we don't have to worry about it. What's to think about that?”

“Then you were clearly not listening,” said Heavyweight, tapping the table with her fingers. “He's worried we'll stumble onto the truth. The truth being, of course, that Project Elementalist has a deeper purpose than merely democratizing elemental powers.”

“I don't know,” said Blaze. “Are you sure you weren't reading things into his speech that he didn't intend?”

“Come on, Blaze,” said Heavyweight. “Surely you've noticed how the scientists and guards have been treating us like we're all ticking time bombs. That Mr. Gray explicitly told us not to ask questions is proof enough that they're doing something they don't want us to know about.”

“I'm with Heavyweight on this one,” said Night Vision as he picked at his food with his fork. “The entire thing is still fishy to me. There's more going on than we know and Mr. Gray isn't telling us what.”

“Well . . .” Blaze looked around conspiratorially for a moment before leaning in close. “A couple of days ago, after one of those tests they put us through, I overheard the two scientists who had been tracking my progress talking to each other. I didn't catch the whole conversation, but I did hear one of them say that he was glad that I was 'not like Burner,' while the other guy said that he thought the whole Project was 'doomed to begin with.'”

“Who's Burner?” Heavyweight said.

Blaze shrugged. “No idea. All I can figure is that they were afraid I might lose control of my powers.”

“They think we all might,” said Night Vision. “It's why security is tightened. Their safety is their top priority. The rest of us . . . well, I think you know where they think we should go.”

“You know what we need to do?” said Heavyweight. “We need to start investigating.”

“None of us are detectives, though,” said Night Vision.

Heavyweight punched his shoulder and said, “You know what I mean. We have to find out what the real purpose behind Project Elementalist is.”

“How do we do that?” Blaze said.

Heavyweight leaned forward, like she didn't want anyone else to hear what she was about to say, and said, in a low voice, “We break into the scientists' main office, of course. Where they keep all their records about the Project and, more importantly, us.”

Night Vision put his fork down and looked at her. “And we do that, how? Elementalists aren't allowed to go into the main office. We aren't even allowed to walk around the Bunker wherever we please.”

Heavyweight smiled a wicked grin. “I've already got a plan. If it works, we'll know for sure just what the Project is really for and what's really going on here. You in?”

Night Vision exchanged a look with Blaze. The Ta-Matoran looked very much like she wanted to not get into trouble, but she nodded anyway and so did Night Vision.

“All right,” said Heavyweight. She lowered her voice again and said, “Now listen, here's what we're going to have to do. . . .”
 


-


Present day. . . .

Teaming up with Masqouth seemed like a smart move at the time. After all, Night lacked the ability to dimension-hop, whereas Masqouth did. And Night had to admit (with great reluctance) that Masqouth was a good fighter and his knowledge of Atuje's powers and abilities would surely come in handy soon. As a Skrall, Night had been taught that having allies was the key to success in any battle, which meant his alliance with Masqouth was a smart move on his part.

What made Night regret their alliance was not the knowledge that Masqouth had played a direct role in manipulating his species into starting a war they couldn't win, nor that one of Masqouth's friends had murdered Heavyweight with Masqouth's tacit approval. He wasn't even upset about Masqouth's naivety, necessarily.

What caused him to wonder if he could get away with stabbing Masqouth in the face was Masqouth's unrelenting chatter. For such a powerful and influential figure, Masqouth seemed incapable of controlling his mouth. He droned on and on about subjects Night didn't really care about, such as a play he had seen recently, while occasionally dropping an insult (often a childish one that he seemed to think was scathing) toward Atuje. In particular, Masqouth was describing in detail an encounter he had had with a small homeless Ussal crab, who he of course returned to its rightful master.

“. . . And then he said, 'You know what, Masqouth? You're a pretty cool guy,'” Masqouth said, his voice taking on a slightly deeper tone in imitation of the Skakdi. “He were so happy to have his pet Ussal back that he tried to give me all his money as a reward. He was a rather poor Skakdi, of course, so I had to decline, but I did tell my followers – I have many, if you didn't know – to give him some money. And my how charitable my followers are. I bet they must have thrown him a hundred widgets, maybe even more, and I don't doubt that he's right now living in a nice apartment and eating out at fancy restaurants even as we speak.”

“Or,” said Night, unable to keep his thoughts to himself any longer, “he's fighting and dying in a war that you started. Just a possibility.”

That wiped the smile off Masqouth's face real quick. A cross frown appeared on his face before it was replaced by a sad frown. “Oh. Right. I was just trying to make conversation.”

Night glanced at Masqouth in amazement. “You were trying to kill me five minutes ago. What makes you think I'd want to talk?”

“I don't like silence,” Masqouth said. “I like talking to people. Or being in wide open places with lots of people. If I don't have someone to talk to I go crazy.”

Night shook his head. “Going on and on about pointless subjects makes you look crazier than if you'd kept silent, you know.”

Masqouth folded his arms across his chest and pouted. “Hey, that's not-”

He never got to finish that sentence because the floor fell out beneath them. The two fell screaming until they landed on the bottom of the pit, which, being as smooth and hard as the floor, was not a particularly soft place to fall on. Night rubbed his behind as he looked around at the pit they had fallen into, wondering what happened.

“Ow,” said Masqouth, sitting up and shaking his head. “What happened?”

“Looks like we walked straight into a trap,” said Night. “The walls are too smooth to climb, but with your mask we ought to get out of here easily.”

“Of course,” said Masqouth, hopping to his feet. “If this is the best that Mendos can come up with, then we'll be out of here in no time.”

Masqouth's Kanohi changed shape once again, this time into the Mask of Flight. “Hold on tight. We're going to go fast, so I don't want you falling off or anything.”

Reluctantly, Night grabbed onto Masqouth's shoulders. As soon as the Skrall was certain he was secure, Masqouth shot into the air toward the pit's opening. Night took this moment to think about how easy this particular death trap was. He found that he was actually disappointed. It looked like Mendos had merely exaggerated the dangerousness of this floor because he and Masqouth were certainly not in any-

The only warning he got of the barrier was the low hum of electricity that buzzed in his ears. Before he had time to realize what that meant, an electrical jolt shocked him and Masqouth. Masqouth cried out in surprise as the two fell back to the bottom of the pit, where they crashed in a confused heap of limbs. Night managed to untangle himself from Masqouth and looked up at the top of the pit just in time to see the faint outline of an electrical net fading fast.

“What was that?” said Masqouth, rubbing the top of his head.

“There must be an electrical barrier covering the pit's opening,” said Night. “It's invisible, but it's obviously there.”

Masqouth scrambled to his feet and glared at the top of the pit. “Then how do we get out of here?”

“Easy,” said Night. “We find a way to discharge the electric net. Surely you must have some kind of mask power that can do that, right?”

Masqouth's answer was drowned out by the sound grinding gears from somewhere underneath their feet. The next moment, a portion of the wall on the other end of the pit slid aside and a creature crawled out of it. The creature resembled a rock steed, although it appeared to lack back legs. Not that inhibited its movement much, however, because its muscular forelegs allowed it to move easily across the smooth stone floor.

Then Night noticed that the lizard did in fact have back legs. Or, rather, back wheels. The wheels rolled along the floor, making clicking and clattering sounds like the wheeled vehicles that could be found on the streets of New Atero. That was how Night knew what the beast was and how he knew that Mendos hadn't been exaggerating the deadliness of this level of the Maze.

“Ooo, what is that?” said Masqouth, pointing at the Rahi with interest. “I've never seen something like that before.”

“It's a roller lizard,” said Night as he held up his sword and shield defensively. “They're not particularly common, but they are extremely effective hunters. I've faced a few in the past and let me tell you that they are not something you can scare with bright lights and sounds.”

“So it's not friendly?” Masqouth said.

Night shot him an irritable look. “Of course it's not. They hunt Kikanalo for fun. They're actually known for torturing their prey before finishing them off.”

“Okay,” said Masqouth. “What are we going to do about it?”

“I'll distract it, while you use your powers to get rid of that electric net,” said Night, pointing at the pit's opening with his sword. “I have experience fighting these things, so I should be able to keep it busy for a while.”

Masqouth gave him the thumbs up. “I can already think of a mask that should do the trick. I just need time.”

Night nodded and stepped forward to face the roller lizard. The Rahi had not moved from its position at the other end of the pit. Like most roller lizards, its beady eyes were analyzing its opponents before moving into battle. Not that analyzing him would help the roller lizard one bit. This would be a quick fight.

To make it quicker, Night pulled the trigger on his sword, causing it to burst into flames. He swung it back and forth menacingly, but to the roller lizard's credit it did not seem disturbed by this. It simply let out a deep growl that sent shivers up Night's spine and jumped into the air. It tried to land on Night, but he jumped out of the way just in time and the roller lizard simply crashed onto the floor and rolled away with the impact before turning around to face Night again.

“Ooo!” said Masqouth from somewhere nearby. “I didn't know roller lizards could jump.”

“They can't,” said Night, swinging his sword back and forth. “Normally, at least. This one is different.”

The roller lizard dashed forward and Night ran at it. He swung his flaming sword at the Rahi, but it swerved out of the way just in time and slammed his abdomen with its tail as it passed, knocking him flat off his feet. He landed on his back with a crash, but managed to roll back to his feet instantly, though he had to turn off his sword's fire briefly due to the heat getting to him.

The roller lizard turned around and charged at him again. This time, Night fired off a couple of shadow bolts at it. It managed to avoid the first one, but the second shadow bolt hit it directly in the face, causing it to let out an angry roar. That didn't stop it completely, though, so Night was force to leap over the incoming Rahi as it barreled past him.

Landing on his feet, Night whirled around and fired off a dozen shadow bolts at the roller lizard's back. The roller lizard dodged them, however, and jumped again. This time, it was fast enough to land near Night and tackle him. He tried to shove it off, but the lizard held him tight despite its lack of back legs and it was all he could do to keep the roller lizard from ripping his face off his head.

“Masqouth,” Night said, holding back the roller lizard's head with both of his hands. “What's taking you so long to-”

An explosion of electricity above him answered his question. The sudden explosion caused the roller lizard to look up in astonishment, giving Night the opportunity to shove the Rahi off his body. Then he jumped to his feet and slammed the flat of his still-hot blade against the roller lizard's face, causing it to screech in pain and retreat to the other side of the pit in the blink of an eye.

A second later, Masqouth appeared and said, “Destroyed the net. Let's go before Mendos tries to fix it.”

Night nodded and grabbed onto Masqouth's shoulders and the next moment they were flying again. As they flew, however, the roller lizard let out a screech and launched itself into the air at them. It almost succeeded in grabbing them, but Night lashed out with a kick, knocking the Rahi out of the air and back into the pit, where it crashed with a screech of pain.

A moment later, Night and Masqouth landed on the edge of the pit's mouth. Night let go of Masqouth's shoulders and glanced down into the pit. The roller lizard didn't look any worse the wear for having fallen so far. It was glaring at him like it thought it could kill him with mean looks alone.

Masqouth was dusting off his robes, saying as he did so, “Well, that was random. Wonder why the roller lizard attacked us like that.”

Night gave Masqouth an incredulous look. “It was probably trained that way by Mendos. Remember, this floor is the death floor.”

“Oh yeah,” said Masqouth, snapping his fingers. “Right, right. I bet it gets hungry down there, though, and lonely.”

“It's not our problem,” said Night, turning away from the pit. “By the way, how did you destroy the electrical net?”

Masqouth tapped his mask and grinned. “Mask of Lightning. A simple lightning bolt in the right place completely short-circuited it. Simple, but fun.”

“Handy,” Night said. “Anyway, let's keep going. If Mendos was telling the truth earlier, then we won't have to be inside this Mata-Nui-forsaken Maze anymore. Finally.”

 

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#16 Offline TNTOS

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Posted Jul 21 2014 - 09:47 AM

Chapter XV


Kiriah was absolutely certain she was going to die. She could feel the poison in her system eating her from the inside, burning through her veins, turning her organs inside out. It was like being ripped in half, except she was aware of it the entire time. She knew it was only a matter of time before her life finally ended, yet she stubbornly held on anyway.

I . . . must . . . live, Kiriah thought.

Of course, that was much easier said than done. Her limbs had locked up and her chest was on fire. She could barely think, much less concentrate on her will to live. It would be easier, far easier, to let the darkness claim her.

But she knew she couldn't. She had a world to save. Her world. Her friends. She still had so much to live for, so much to do. She had to keep going. The only question was, how?

That was when she remembered the red potion. If the green potion was poison, could the red potion be a cure?

There was no way to know. Possibly both potions were poisonous. Maybe death only came when you drank both poisons. Maybe this entire scenario was designed as a no-win situation, in which the only possible outcomes were a quick death or a slow death.

But she had to try. She had to get the red potion, had to at least try it. At this point, she had nothing to lose.

Kiriah used all of her willpower to force her limbs to move, to let her sit up. Whatever the poison was, it seemed to be trying to paralyze her nervous system. Moving her limbs was like trying to move ten ton blocks of protosteel and just as fun.

Then something miraculous happened. She managed to move one finger on her right hand, then another, and soon (although it felt agonizingly slow to her) her entire right hand and arm could move. The same happened to her left arm, allowing her to push herself into a precarious sitting position, bringing her face level with the table.

The red potion sat there on the table, exactly opposite the green potion. She reached over with one hand and wrapped her fingers around the potion's cool glass vial. She slowly brought the red potion up to her mouth, but her arm was erratic. Sometimes it froze up, sometimes it jerked around (almost causing her to drop it once), and every time it acted up, Kiriah was afraid her time had come.

Once her vision even went totally dark, almost causing her to panic. But then her vision cleared a second later and she succeeded in bringing the red potion up to her lips. She allowed the bitter-tasting potion to enter her system, to cleanse her. Or she hoped it would, anyway. After all, she didn't know for sure that this potion could cure her.

When she emptied the entire thing, she dropped the vial. It shattered into countless pieces upon contact with the floor, while Kiriah herself leaned against the table. Her every continued heartbeat both scared and excited her.

Please . . . please let it work . . . I don't want to die, not yet. . . .

Then a sensation passed over her body like a fresh autumnal breeze. She blinked and yawned, suddenly feeling quite sleepy, but she didn't allow herself the luxury of sleep. She could feel the warmth inside her body growing stronger and stronger, slowly relaxing her previously paralyzed limbs and making her feel much stronger.

Carefully, Kiriah stood up, using the table for support. Her body seemed to want to work again. Her legs were stiff, but were quickly becoming looser and soon she was swinging them back and forth to test them. Even her chest felt better; in fact, it was no longer bleeding. That potion really had been a cure.

She leaned against the table for several seconds, letting the potion do its work. When she felt good enough to walk more than a few feet, she made her way to the end of the hall. As she had thought, the exit was no longer blocked and she soon passed through it, walking down the stairs to the next floor.

As she walked down the winding staircase, her audio receptors picked up sounds from up ahead. They grew louder and louder the further she walked until all she could hear was the blowing of trumpets, the banging of drums, and the sonorous noise of a piano. The music instantly put Kiriah on her guard, not because she distrusted music, but because she knew that Mendos most likely had a sinister reason for having a band playing.

Then Kiriah emerged onto the next floor and looked around at her new surroundings.

She stood on a long metal spoke that jutted out over what appeared to be an arena below, with two similar spokes about a couple dozen feet away from hers. A long metal slide stretched from the tip of her spoke to the sandy floor of the arena. The room itself was large and wide open, but for the life of her she could not spot any bands, even though the music was as loud as ever (if not louder).

That was when she noticed a pair of loudspeakers hanging from the ceiling. She instantly recognized them for what they were because they had similar loudspeakers back in the Temple of the Time Stone back home in New Tanjo Nui. The music was blasting from the loudspeakers, but for the life of her Kiriah could not figure out what the music was supposed to accomplish.

As far as she could tell, there was no way forward except to go down the slide. Maybe she'd reached the end already. If so, that made her wonder where Jet and Night were. If she was the first here, then maybe that meant she would be the only one here.

Just as depression began creeping up Kiriah's spine, a being in black armor emerged from the doorway on the right spoke. It was Jetrupi, who despite the splash of blood his chest (which didn't appear to be his own, because he didn't look wounded) seemed just fine. He was looking around the wide-open room in astonishment, but as soon as he spotted Kiriah he waved at her and she waved back. Neither of them said anything because the music drowned out every other noise in the room.

On her left, Night emerged from the left spoke. Like Jet, he looked like he'd gotten into a fight, with dented armor and cuts across his face and arms. Still, at least he was alive and, while Kiriah didn't like him as much as Jet, she was quite grateful for that.

Much to her surprise, however, Night wasn't alone. A being in white robes stepped out of the doorway after him, a being who Kiriah instantly recognized as Masqouth. Like Night, he too, appeared to have been in battle, but she didn't spend a lot of time looking at him in any great detail.

Instead, she pointed at him and shouted, as loudly as she could, “Night, watch out! Masqouth's-”

Her voice was drowned out by the sudden blaring of the speakers, causing all four of them to cringe at the noise. The next moment, a portion of the ceiling slid away and a being sitting in a chair attached to a small platform slowly descended from the hole until she was at a level where they could all see her.

The being was tall and lanky, with a large round head like a boulder. She wore a loose-fitting black poncho that covered her whole body except for her spidery hands and thin legs. Her eyes were as bright and eery as lanterns on a foggy night and her entire form was shivering with excitement.

The being pressed a button on the chair's arms and the music suddenly shut off.

“How amazing,” the being said, rubbing her hands together eagerly. “All four of you made it out of the Maze alive. I cannot believe it. This is a first. I have even recorded this in my diary for posterity.”

Though the being's appearance was unfamiliar to Kiriah, she had no trouble recognizing the voice, even though it was no longer filtered through a speaker.

“Mendos,” Night said, brandishing his sword. “I see you've finally decided to stop hiding behind a speaker and show yourself. Come down from your dumb chair and fight us like a true warrior.”

Mendos laughed. “Why should I? Look at this frail excuse for a body. If I tried to fight you, I'd probably crumble to dust if you poked me hard enough. No, I'm quite happy where I am, thank you very much.”

“Then why show yourself at all?” Night said. “If you are not going to give us an opportunity to fight you, then what's your game?”

Mendos put the tips of her fingers together, as if considering his question. A smile slowly spread across her face as she said, “Well, perhaps I can reward you with that knowledge. After all, you are the first entrants to have made it out of the Maze with all members of your party alive. If I were you, I would be planning a celebration.”

“A celebration?” Masqouth said. “What kind of celebration?”

“We're not celebrating anything, Masqouth,” Night said. “Mendos is just trying to throw us off.”

“How rude,” said Mendos. “I am not trying to throw anyone off. After everything you've been through, I would be a horrible being to trick you.”

Kiriah couldn't trust anyone who named herself after a trickster goddess. At this point, it would be better to take Mendos's thoughts straight from her head, rather than letting her speak them aloud. It would violate Kiriah's own policy of not reading other peoples' minds without their permission, but at this point she was pretty certain that blindly following that policy would not help her or her friends.

She reached out with her mind to touch Mendos's, but without warning a wall shot up on the platform, blocking Kiriah's view of the trickster.

“Now, now, Kiriah,” said Mendos's voice from behind the wall, “there's no need to try to read my mind. If I understand it correctly, you can't read the minds of other beings if something is standing between you and that individual, yes? I believe this wall should do the trick just fine.”

“What are you trying to hide, Mendos?” Kiriah said.

“I simply value my privacy,” said Mendos. “Is that such a difficult concept for you to understand, Kiriah? I suppose for a Toa of Psionics it would be. Toa like you simply have no sense of boundaries, but I digress.”

Kiriah bit her lower lip, but didn't look away.

“Now that we've established some boundaries, let's begin the story, shall we?” said Mendos. “Where to start, where to start . . . ah, I know.”

Mendos clapped her hands and a telescreen lowered from the ceiling. Its blank screen flickered on, revealing the image of a large city that sprawled in every direction for miles. The words 'City of Nenas' were captioned below it in large print.

“This is my home,” said Mendos. “Nenas. The capital of the Skrall Empire.”

“Skrall Empire?” Jetrupi said. “That's impossible. There's no such thing.”

“Of course there is,” said Mendos. “It was established eons ago when the Skrall conquered the Bara Magna region, many years after the Shattering. Admittedly, it did run into some troubles when the Great Giants came from the sky and reformed Spherus Magna, but it recovered from those problems quickly and lasted for a great many years afterward. Those were the days.”

Mendos sounded so wistful that Kiriah almost felt sorry for her. Almost.

“Unfortunately, a variety of factors – including corruption and incompetence on the part of our leaders – caused the Empire to weaken,” Mendos continued. “Then a new empire arose in the south, one comprised of the few Agori and Gadarian nations that had not yet been conquered by the Empire. Our enemies did not have enough manpower to mount a full-scale invasion of the Empire, so they instead unleashed a virus discovered in a hidden Great Beings lab onto us.”

“So everyone died?” Night said.

“Not everyone,” Mendos said. “Some of us mutated. Take me, for example. Once I was the most beautiful member of the Sisters of the Skrall throughout the entire Empire. But now, I look like this . . . this thing. Ugh.”

“Then what about the Maze?” said Jet, pointing back at the doorway from which he had emerged. “Who built it? Seems like an odd thing to have in a skyscraper.”

“It was originally the most popular show in the Empire,” Mendos said. “Every week, three Skrall volunteers would enter the Maze and try to escape alive. It was broadcast on all Skrall telescreen stations across the entire Empire. I myself worked as a producer on it for the entirety of its run.”

“Death as a form of entertainment,” said Jetrupi, shaking his head. “Why am I not surprised that a Skrall society would make something like this?”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Night said, glaring at Jet from his spoke.

“It clearly means he never saw an episode of 'Enter the Maze,' as the show was called during its run,” Mendos said. “Each episode was as thrilling as the last. Take the third season's seventh episode, for example, which featured the hardy Stronius, who made it through the entire Maze with a broken arm and half a rusted sword. The best episode of the series, if I do say so myself.”

“So what, were we on your twisted show?” said Night. “Were people sitting in their homes, watching with bated breath as we all nearly died in a dozen horrible ways?”

“Of course not,” Mendos said. “I mean, that's a good idea, but didn't you hear what I said earlier? Everyone is either dead or horribly mutated, like me. There's not much of an audience for this show anymore. Even the Agori and Gadarians do not care much for it. Alas, the only person watching this episode was me, although I am certain that if the Skrall Empire was still going strong, the ratings for this episode would have gone through the roof.”

“Then why did you put us through the maze at all?” Jet said. “If not for the entertainment of millions of Skrall, then what was the point?”

“I was bored,” said Mendos simply. “Bored straight out of my abnormally large head. When I saw three new people – including, to my surprise, a Skrall – turn up on my rooftop and enter my Maze, well, I couldn't just let you all go. It was even better when Masqouth here entered. If the show was still on air, why, I think this might just be the best episode of the entire series, topping Stronius's episode by far. You'd all be celebrities and would attain great honor for your bravery and wits in navigating the Maze.”

“Honor?” Night said. “There's nothing honorable about it. It's a forced situation. True honor is attained only from battle. This is not battle. This is bad entertainment.”

Mendos shrugged. “Whatever you say. I like to think positive, myself.”

“Okay, then,” said Jet, folding his arms. “Well, we won. All of us survived. Will you let us go now?”

“Don't be silly,” said Mendos with a laugh. “I still have one last trick up my sleeve. Because of this unprecedented event, I have decided that you all deserve one last game. Have fun playing in the sand.

Without warning, the spokes inclined and all four of the participants slid uncontrollably down the metal slides. They shot out from the bottom of the slide and rolled across the sand, but soon everyone recovered and was back on their feet. Kiriah looked back just in time to see the slides rise out of the pit, which didn't make her feel any better about their current situation.

“This is the best one yet,” said Mendos's voice above them. “It will be so fun.”

“Fun?” said Masqouth. “I like fun. When does the fun start?”

Mendos's voice took on a more gleeful tone. “It starts . . . now.”

Something like ants started crawling up Kiriah's legs. At least, she thought it might be ants. But when she looked down at her legs, she was shocked to see the sand itself dragging her into it. She struggled to pull her legs out of it, but the sand was too strong. A quick glanced at her friends told her that they, too, were being dragged into the sand and having about as much luck as she was in escaping.

“This is the Pit of Living Sand,” said Mendos. “Only one person has ever successfully escaped the Pit of Living Sand. And he is not any of you.”
 

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