Helryx sat in a small, dimly lit chamber. There was no one else within the room, a fact that ordinarily wouldn’t have bothered her; Helryx had spent a substantial portion of her life alone, contemplating from her chambers the events taking place within the universe and orchestrating the actions of the organization that she led. Solitude was a condition that she usually welcomed, for it gave her the chance to confront and overcome her doubts, fears and everything else that might get in the way of her duty. Alone, she could reason clearly, analyze the situation and eventually come to a final, definitive decision over that which was necessary that the Order do.
On some rare days, however, solitude revealed its downsides. Today was one of those days. Today, the sheer magnitude of what had occurred was threatening to overwhelm even her immense willpower and even she was finding herself wishing that there was someone beside her, someone she could truly confide with and with whom she could share her burden.
Botar materialized in front of her. Helryx didn’t move; she had been expecting him. The monstrous Order agent said nothing and simply moved to her side, allowing the Toa of Water’s eyes to fall upon the person he had brought with him.
“Helryx! What is the meaning of this?” asked Dume, his tone rather incensed.
“I’m sorry for calling upon you at this late hour, Dume, but it is urgent we speak.”
“That doesn’t justify teleporting me here without any warning or explanation!”
“Yes, it does. No one must know of this meeting… and I am sure the Dark Hunters are watching you. There was no other way.”
Dume glared at her for a few more moments, then sat down onto the second chair in the room.
“Might I know at least where we are?”
“In an underground chamber of our new fortress. This place is as secure as we could make it. We can speak freely here.”
“And what is it that you so urgently have to tell me?”
Helryx hesitated. A moment later, she cursed herself for having done so. The situation was already dire; she couldn’t show any indecision now.
“A few hours ago,” she finally said, “the Brotherhood of Makuta launched a raid on our base. Most of our fleet was destroyed in the attack.”
It took her only a few seconds to say the words, but each was a struggle. The Order of Mata Nui’s greatest strength had always been its secrecy; had they not guarded the knowledge of their existence so jealously, their enemies would have wiped them out long before. To reveal such a catastrophic weakness to an outsider went against every rule of the Order and against all her instincts as well.
It took Dume a few moments to absorb the news.
“How could this happen?” he finally asked.
“They took us by surprise,” Helryx admitted. “We haven’t yet been able to fully reconstruct what happened.”
“How many ships survived?”
“Not many. And when the warships sank they carried with them all the weapons we had loaded them with. There is no time to recover them. The only positive note is that most of our agents and robots survived.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Is an attack likely now?” asked Dume then. “Will the Makuta exploit their advantage and attack Metru Nui again?”
“I cannot say. They are massing their forces, as I told you and the Shadowed One yesterday, but if our intelligence is correct, they haven’t yet marshaled the strength to launch a full-blown assault.”
“Your intelligence didn’t predict this raid.”
“Obviously,” said Helryx bitterly.
Dume’s eyes narrowed as he analyzed the situation.
“If the Makuta attack now,” he said, “they will find us at our weakest. Many of our fighters are about to leave on the expeditions… too many, perhaps.”
The previous day had seen the two of them, along with the Shadowed One, set up the expeditions that would be sent to make contact with the universe’s inhabitants and arrange their migration to Mata Nui. Some had already left and the others would soon follow.
“No. The expeditions must proceed as planned. We must save the universe’s inhabitants and we also need them to bolster our forces… and not just to face the Brotherhood.”
Dume understood immediately.
“Do you really think the Shadowed One might try something? None of us would benefit from an internal conflict at this stage.”
“He might think differently. The only reason he agreed to this alliance was that he didn’t want to risk a confrontation with us. But if he learns of our defeat, he might reconsider… which is why he must not find out.”
“You can’t hide this from him. This alliance can only work if the position and status of all our forces are shared between us.”
“This is no time to be naïve, Dume,” hissed Helryx.
“And no time to be ridiculous, either,” replied the Turaga. “Do you really think you can keep this a secret? A defeat this big? He’ll find out from another source… he may have spies of his own within the Brotherhood. Besides, we had agreed that your ships would sail to Metru Nui to reinforce our fleet. What happens when they don’t arrive?”
“I will tell him that the fleet has been delayed in order to counter Brotherhood operations in the Southern Continent. That is not too far from the truth. The ships that survived the raid will have left Daxia by now, but they are not coming here. I’ve ordered them to secure one of the sea gates leading to the Southern Continent. If we don’t do that, then the Brotherhood will soon control every sea route and we can forget about evacuating the southern half of the universe altogether.”
“I still don’t like this.”
“It doesn’t need to be for long. I can use my agents to speed up the expeditions to the islands where there are Toa and other allies of ours to be found. Once they reach Mata Nui, the Shadowed One will have to think twice before violating our deal.”
The Turaga of Fire sighed.
“Fine. I will do my best to uphold this deception… I do not wish to show weakness before the Shadowed One any more than you do. But if it becomes clear that this policy does us more harm than good, I may reconsider my decision.”
Helryx clenched her fists in anger, but she resisted the impulse to lash out.
“So be it.”
Dume glanced at Botar, who was still standing at Helryx’s side, motionless.
“Is there anything else we must speak about?”
“Yes: the Bohrok. From what I have seen, the loyalties of the Bahrag lie with the Toa Nuva.”
“So it seems. They have done everything the Toa Nuva have asked.”
“It has to stay that way. Talk to the Toa Nuva, make sure that they keep an eye on the Bahrag and that the queens remain faithful to them. If conflict breaks out now, the Bohrok might ultimately be all that stands between us and the Brotherhood… or the Dark Hunters.”
“I will talk to them,” nodded the Turaga.
“Good. Thank you for your time, Dume. Botar will see you back to your lodge.”
The tall teleporter had already taken a step forward. Without further ado, he called upon his power and de-materialized along with Dume; Helryx was left behind, once again alone with her thoughts and doubts. She still couldn’t be sure she had made the right choice. So far, he and Dume had mostly formed a common front, yet their differences kept coming to light and the reason Dume had agreed to overlook them was ultimately that he needed the strength and power of the Order. Might he reconsider now that the organization’s weakness was laid bare?
It’s a risk I had to take. I couldn’t gain his support without telling him at least part of the truth.
Of course, there were some things she had kept to herself. It would have been one sign of weakness too many to reveal that the reason that the Order had had no warning of the Brotherhood raid was that the Makuta had identified and eliminated most of their spies. As for the security breach that had allowed the enemy to steal the Staff of Artakha and the Heart of the Visorak and sabotage Daxia’s artillery, that was an internal matter and there was no point in involving an outsider.
Because that’s what he is, ultimately. He may be a trustworthy ally and a capable leader, yet there are some things he cannot know about; he simply wouldn’t understand. I cannot share my burden with him; ultimately, the responsibility to do what must be done falls on me and me alone.
The cold wind howled as it swept across the plain. Dust and dark sand were lifted up and scattered by the powerful gusts, which would have seized and uprooted trees and shrubs as well, had there been any growing from the black soil. As far as Tahu Nuva could see, however, there was no trace of vegetation; a barren desert of black rock extended in every direction. The land was coarse, undulating and irregular, the result of volcanic activity which over the millennia had sent lava flow after lava flow surging across the plain. Rising in the distance he could glimpse the island’s central volcanic cone.
He glanced back at the two airships that had brought them to the island. When the wind had picked up speed, Tahu had given the order to land them, though he had done so reluctantly; the airships had saved them considerable time on the other islands they had visited, allowing them to search for inhabited settlements simply by flying over the land. This time, they would have to conduct the exploration on foot, a prospect that Tahu didn’t fancy in this weather: while he could move relatively easily, thanks to the aerodynamic shape his Adaptive Armor had assumed, he could see that his companions were having trouble making headway against the wind.
“What’s the point of this?” shouted the Dark Hunter codenamed Lurker. “We can barely move. We should wait.”
“There is no guarantee the wind will abate,” replied Tahu, raising his voice to make himself heard above the howl of the air, “and we have no time to waste. We go.”
“What’s the hurry?” insisted Lurker. “The island’s inhabitants aren’t going anywhere… if they even exist.”
Tahu turned back to stare at Lurker. The Dark Hunter had been a problem since they had set out, constantly mocking him and challenging his authority.
“Maybe they don’t,” he said, “but we’re here to make sure of that. My Mask of Speed will allow us to move quickly, even with this wind. We go on.”
Lurker stared right back at him, an expression of contempt on his face, but he didn’t say anything. Tahu took that for assent.
“We make for the central volcano,” he told them all. “Follow me.”
The Suva shrines containing the masks of Tahu’s Toa team had been rebuilt as soon as the Matoran had reached Mata Nui, with the help especially of those from Artakha. By rights, there should have been no masks on Tahu’s own Ta-Suva, for his Kanohi Nuva had been lost several months before, when Makuta’s Rahkshi had destroyed Ta-Koro; however, for this mission, the four Toa Nuva who had remained on Mata Nui had insisted upon loaning him some of their masks. Sparing a grateful thought for his teammates, Tahu summoned the power of the Kakama Nuva and shared it with his companions.
They flashed along the plain, moving too fast for the wind to stop them. To Tahu's surprise, however, the gales still managed to slow them down. Their strength was abnormal, unnatural, just like the storms they had run across after setting off from Daxia. Add to that the eerie red light that within this dome seemed to have replaced ordinary daylight and there was only one possible conclusion he could come to.
They reached the summit of the volcano. Tahu gazed across the landscape. He had stood upon this very spot about two weeks before, when he and Kopaka had used their powers to cap this same crater. At the time, however, they had stayed there only long enough to complete their task, without bothering to examine the rest of the island. This time, they would have to be more thorough.
Lurker did have a point. The island they had previously visited had been inhabited by Rahi, often monstrous and strangely twisted, but by no intelligent beings, though the presence of ruins suggested that settlements had existed in the past. An explanation had been provided by one of the Order agents traveling with them: before revealing their treason to the universe, the Brotherhood of Makuta had for millennia concealed most of its Visorak army in the Southern Islands. During that time, the Horde had repeatedly ravaged the isles and toppled many of the civilizations that had once inhabited them. More than two thousand years had passed since the spiders had left, but some of the islands had most likely never been repopulated.
After hearing that tale, Tahu had wondered whether some of the Rahi they had seen might have once been sentient beings mutated by Hordika venom, but he had ultimately decided against trying to find out, instead focusing on finding signs of current inhabitation by intelligent life. They had not been lucky so far, but he had reason to believe this island might be different.
“Were the Frostelus sure?” he asked Subterranean. The idea of a Dark Hunter he had defeated being under his command had not appealed to him, but, unlike Lurker, Subterranean had proven no trouble at all. In fact, he had proven most useful when, the previous day, they had come across a flotilla of Frostelus icebergs: the Dark Hunter had spoken to them in their own language and, after instructing them to set sail for Metru Nui, had managed to obtain some information on the lands further to the south.
“They were sure,” replied Subterranean. “Tall, powerful teleporters can be found on this island and on several others to the south.”
“Botar’s species,” said one of the agents of the Order.
Tahu nodded. It had been hinted to them that they might come across Botar’s species on their journey.
“What do you know about them?” he asked.
“Not much,” answered the agent. “They were supposedly a race of warriors once, but the Visorak destroyed them. The survivors are said to have become nomadic wanderers. Toa Helryx has emphasized the need to gain their allegiance; it would be a great advantage to have an entire species of teleporters on our side.”
“We need to find them first. Spread out across the summit. This is the highest point on the island. We might spot some sign of their presence.”
Lurker snickered audibly, but complied, as did the others. As they moved out of sight, Tahu turned back to the landscape and summoned the Kanohi Akaku Nuva, using its telescopic lenses to boost his vision. The land had changed considerably in the past two weeks. Gone were the fumes rising from the many volcanic fissures and fumaroles that dotted the island, replaced by dust and sandstorms created by the powerful gales that were blowing across the island. The temperature had also dropped considerably and the pervasive red light was disconcerting, to say the least.
These islands are coming to an end. I only hope we can…
There! Behind a rock formation, shielded from the wind, but not from the power of his Mask of Vision, he glimpsed movement. He focused his mask power on that spot. Yes, a camp of sorts had been set up behind the rocks and he could see someone moving, a single, tall being, whose mouth…
And then the figure whirled around to stare straight at him. Their eyes met, as if thin air had replaced the thick rock that lay between them… and suddenly the figure was gone.
Tahu did not have the time to wonder how he had been detected. A crushing blow suddenly landed on the back of his head. He stumbled, barely managing to stay on his feet, and turned around to see the tall being standing behind him, a long spear in hand. He acted instinctively, unleashing a flurry of fire bolts, but his opponent disappeared again. Before the Toa of Fire could react, there was a claw clutching his throat, its grip unbreakable. A female voice hissed out a number of words in a language he didn’t recognize. The spear’s tip glinted as it darted towards him.
Lurker came out of nowhere. Before the female could spot him, he had launched himself at her back and clung to her body. The teleporter roared in fury, trying to shake him off, but Lurker wasn’t letting go. His stingers stabbed down, wounding the female and making her lose her balance. Before she could either teleport or rise again, Lurker was upon her once more, savagely exploiting his multiple armaments to counter her superior strength.
“Stop!” yelled Tahu.
Lurker ignored him. A dagger was in his hand and he brought it down onto the female’s body. Tahu had seen enough. He fired his adaptive weapon, entangling Lurker in an energy web and preventing him from dealing a fatal blow.
“That’s enough,” he said. “Now, will you obey or do I have to keep you in there for the rest of this journey?”
“Without me, you’d already be in pieces, Toa,” mocked Lurker.
“Is that your answer?”
“Fine,” shrugged the Dark Hunter. Tahu banished the web. Then he turned to the female, who was pushing herself up and watching him warily.
His companions had by then been drawn to the scene. Tahu singled out the Order agent who was equipped with a Mask of Translation.
“I need to talk to her myself,” he said.
The teleporter had started speaking in her language. Tahu donned the agent’s Kanohi Rau and suddenly found he could understand her words.
“We come in peace,” he told her. “Why did you attack us?”
“This is my hunting ground.”
“You’re a hunter?”
“Yes. I hunt the beasts that roam this land. They give me food. When I find no more, I wish myself to another place.”
“Do you know that the Great Spirit Mata Nui has died?”
The female’s monstrous face assumed an expression that Tahu interpreted as puzzlement.
“Great Spirit? I do not understand you.”
Tahu’s eyes widened. He had known that the inhabitants of the Southern Islands had had little contact over the millennia with the rest of the universe, but he had never considered that they might even have forgotten about the Great Spirit himself.
“The universe is ending,” he tried to explain. “This island and all the others you’ve been to… they will all be destroyed.”
The teleporter didn’t answer immediately. Eventually, she said:
“I have felt something, a great change. The daylight has turned red, the wind has gone mad, my prey has disappeared. Is this the reason?”
“Yes. We need you to contact your people…”
“No. Each of us hunts alone. It is very rare for us to meet.”
“But this is important. We are here to tell you how to escape the destruction. Can’t you call such a meeting?”
The female hesitated.
“Perhaps. I do not know if the others will come. And I do not trust you.”
“I did save you,” said Tahu softly.
The female stared at him. After a while, she nodded.
“I will do what I can.”
“Botar’s report came in just before this meeting began,” Helryx told the council. “Tahu Nuva’s expedition has made contact with his own species. They will hold a meeting shortly and Tahu will explain the situation to them and try to gain their allegiance.”
“Will he persuade them?” asked the Shadowed One.
“Botar will. I’ve ordered him to attend the meeting. Among his people, he is a legendary figure and we think he is still remembered, even though he left them a long time ago. His presence alone should be enough to convince them.”
“You want to use these teleporters as messengers, like Botar?” asked Dume. “Can they be trusted?”
“Yes, I am confident they can. However, there are a number of problems. Their abilities are not as developed as Botar’s, so they are going to require some training. The real issue, however, is that they know little about the universe and most of them don’t speak our language.”
“We could supply them with Masks of Translation,” said Dume.
“It would take too long to craft them,” countered the Shadowed One.
“Not necessarily. The Matoran from Artakha might be able to help; they have skills the rest of us can only dream of. Can these teleporters use Kanohi, however?”
“In theory,” replied Helryx, “but I doubt most of them know how.”
“The Artakha Matoran might still be able to work around this problem,” said Dume. “Mask making is Vakama’s province, but since he is absent, I will talk to them myself.”
“Good,” said the Toa of Water. “We will wait for their response. We should now discuss the flotillas. Now that our sensors have been installed on all the sea gates, it is time for us to let them in.”
Dume nodded. The past few days had seen a multitude of vessels appear before Metru Nui’s sea gates. Their size, passengers and provenance were extremely varied, ranging from a Matoran fishing boat to the small fleet carrying the army of a warlord, but they all wanted the same thing: to be allowed to sail to Metru Nui and to migrate from there to Mata Nui.
So far, the mixed force of Dark Hunters and Order troops that guarded the sea gates had allowed only a few ships to pass. The risk of Brotherhood infiltration was too high and, besides, these migrants might have heard about the existence of an escape route passing through Metru Nui, but few of them knew what awaited them on Mata Nui and the conditions they would have to agree to in order to be admitted to the island. The explanations, negotiations and inspections of the vessels and their passengers had taken some time, during which the Order had also installed on the sea gates sensors that could in theory detect shapeshifters.
“And what will we do once they get here?” asked the Shadowed One. “Where do we put them?”
“We decided on that days ago,” said Helryx. “The areas that will be assigned to new settlers have already been designated.”
“I remember, Helryx, thank you. However, the situation on the ground has already evolved beyond those borders. And there have already been far too many incidents.”
Says the one who caused them, thought Dume. Only a few days had passed since the evacuation’s beginning, but already he had lost count of how many times the Dark Hunters and their allies had violated the established borders. Thankfully, nothing more serious than the episode which had involved Pohatu had occurred, but there had been several close calls, most recently when a squad of Kohrak had been destroyed by Frostelus claiming the Bohrok were invading their territory. Tensions were running high and the Shadowed One was doing nothing to defuse them.
Still, he had to admit that not everything could be blamed on the Dark Hunters. It was rapidly becoming clear that they had gravely underestimated the devastation that the Bohrok had wreaked on Mata Nui. Resources that had once been abundant had become extremely limited and entire swaths of territory that had previously been lush and fertile were now barren and almost uninhabitable. The swarms were working round the clock to restore that which they had destroyed, but their power had limits: Gahlok and Kohrak were gradually managing to restore the glaciers and rivers, but it would take far longer for the lands that had been contaminated by fire and acid to regain their fertility. As for the vegetation, significant amounts of plant life had survived only on some of the isles off the coast of Le-Wahi, such as the location overlooking Kanae Bay where Matau was building the new village of Le-Koro; the mainland was virtually devoid of plants.
Consequently, only a fraction of the space available on the island was actually suitable for settlement. People were congregating along the water courses, competing for vital space with Rahi and with each other; and while Rahi attacks could be warded off, and swarms of Lehvak had been assigned to do just that, the other type of conflict was far more difficult to deal with.
“I have been thinking about this,” Dume told them. “As the evacuation progresses, the allocation of territory will become increasingly complicated; this council cannot be expected to define every single detail. We should create a separate body to take these decisions, as well as to solve minor controversies; only the most serious issues will be brought before this council.”
“And will this body of yours have the authority to take away territory as well?” challenged the Shadowed One. “I warn you, I won’t give up one bio of Dark Hunter territory, nor will my allies relinquish what is theirs. Besides, who is going to be in charge of it? One of your fellow Turaga? That would make it slightly biased towards Matoran, wouldn’t it? What about the rest of the universe’s inhabitants?”
Since when do you care so much about the universe’s inhabitants? Dume would have like to shoot back, but the Shadowed One was just trying to provoke him and there was no point in rising to the bait. Instead, he opted for a more diplomatic tone:
“I admit the other Turaga would be my first choice. I understand your concerns, but they do know the island better than anyone. Or do you have a better candidate?”
“I do, as a matter of fact,” said the Shadowed One with a victorious smile. “Scribbler! The task is yours.”
Ever since the terms of the alliance had been agreed upon, the leader of the Dark Hunters had stopped coming to council meetings escorted by bodyguards, apparently as a sign of trust. His Recorder, however, had attended every council session, meticulously annotating every word they were saying. Now the twisted being raised his head, as startled as Dume himself; his surprise lasted only an instant, however.
“As you command, my lord," groveled the Recorder, bowing deeply.
“This is absurd,” intervened Helryx. “Such a task should be entrusted to a neutral figure. This… he… is your servant. He follows your commands and yours alone.”
“Neutral?” shot back the Shadowed One. “Search this whole island and you won’t find a single individual you can call neutral. Pathetic and disgusting though he may be, my Recorder has overseen the workings of my organization for millennia; he is perfectly suited to this task.”
Dume didn’t speak immediately. He shared Helryx’s concerns, of course; from what he had seen, the Recorder lived in mortal fear of the Shadowed One and would never defy his orders. Yet, ultimately, it would always be possible to block or overturn his decisions… and he could see that the leader of the Dark Hunters was going to stand firm over this appointment.
“Fine, your Recorder will be in charge,” he said. “However, I still want one of my fellow Turaga to flank him and assist him.”
“Very well, that is acceptable,” said the Shadowed One.
Dume could see that Helryx was far from satisfied, but to his relief she chose not to push the issue further.
“And now,” resumed the Shadowed One, “it is time to talk about the war, I believe.”
Dume did his best to keep his expression neutral. It was time. Helryx was going to attempt the deception they had agreed upon, in the hopes of concealing from the Shadowed One the true fate of the Order of Mata Nui fleet. Would it work? He couldn't help being skeptical. Might the Shadowed One have already learned the truth? If so, would he challenge her there and then?
“Yes,” nodded Helryx. “The Brotherhood is massing its forces. Already, their troops in the Southern Continent are mobilizing. The fleet of the Order of Mata Nui is keeping them in check and will ensure that at least one sea route from the south remains under our control.”
The leader of the Dark Hunters remained silent, to Dume's relief. Perhaps he didn't know, after all, or if he did, he was choosing to play along and not to risk disrupting their alliance. Helryx had resumed speaking. Still distracted by his thoughts, Dume didn't truly listen to her first few words... until he realized what she was saying. His eyes widened in surpise.
“Now we must take a step further. The Brotherhood won’t sit idly while we attempt to win the populations of the universe to our cause. We must strike first, show our strength.”
Surprise was quickly replaced by anger. Helryx had told him nothing about this at their secret meeting. Why hadn’t she consulted with him before making this move? He was fairly sure that she had already been planning it.
She only ever tells me what she thinks I need to know, doesn’t she?
The Shadowed One, on the other hand, was suddenly looking interested.
“What are you proposing?” he asked.
When the meeting ended, Dume was the first to leave. Helryx’s proposal had been discussed and ultimately accepted. They were going to implement it as soon as possible.
The insect rose from his body just as he stepped out of the building, where it had sat for the last two days, watching and hearing everything; throughout that time, Dume had never noticed it, nor did he notice it now.
But the Shadowed One was aware of it. His head never moved, but his eyes followed the small creature as it came to rest upon his shoulder. He made no attempt to dislodge it.
The journey back to his base was brief. The leader of the Dark Hunter boarded his personal speeder, a one-person aerial vehicle that had been crafted in Le-Metru more than a thousand years before. He quickly rose into the air and then turned to the north. As he streaked through the sky, the island of Mata Nui spread out below him, gray and bleak. He passed over the summit of the Mangai volcano, where swarms of Tahnok were trying to revive the lava flows that had once heated the region of Ta-Wahi, flew past the peak of Mount Ihu, which thanks to the efforts of the Kohrak was once more covered in ice and finally left the foothills of the mountains behind as he headed out towards Po-Wahi.
His final destination was a canyon, one of the few that had survived mostly intact the onslaught of the Bohrok. Now, the canyon had become the center of Dark Hunter power on Mata Nui. A tower had already risen within it, the embryo of their new fortress. The Shadowed One landed the speeder on a dedicated platform located close to the tower’s summit, then made his way into his chamber. As he sat onto his throne, the insect lifted from his shoulder. The Shadowed One tracked it, watched it as it reached the center of the room and beheld it as it started to shapeshift into the familiar form of one of his operatives.
“Report,” said the leader of the Dark Hunters, a cruel smile appearing on his lips.