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Toa of Italy

End of a Universe, Birth of a Kingdom

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FORTY

“There they are,” said Solek.

Tanma nodded. He could see them too: a party of Ta-Matoran, their red and orange armor contrasting sharply with the beach they were standing upon. The supply carts they were escorting and the Ussal crabs pulling them were also clearly visible.

“It’s amazing…” kept talking Solek as the Av-Matoran party approached the northern tip of the beach. “Every time I come here, I can’t help but think about all the amazing events that took place on this very beach. This is where Toa Tahu’s canister first landed, you know?”

“You might have mentioned it a couple of times…” Tanma replied tightly.

“And one of Takanuva’s greatest adventures began here shortly afterwards. He awoke just over there, with no memory of who he was or how he had got here…”

Tanma had already stopped listening: after all, this must have been at least the tenth time Solek started recounting the history of Ta-Wahi beach. Ever since he had learnt from Toa Takanuva that the six Toa who had appeared on Mata Nui to protect it from the threat of the Makuta of Metru Nui were the same ones who had supposedly lived in Karda Nui back in the time before time, he had made a point of gathering as many tales about them as he could, first from Takanuva himself and then from the Matoran he had met on Mata Nui… though to his great regret, he had not yet managed to meet one of the Toa Nuva in person.

The Av-Matoran party passed under the great stone archway that towered over the beach. According to Solek, there was a telescope on top of the archway, as well as a complex of monoliths: the whole site was naturally shrouded in legend and mystery.

Though it’s true that, unlike everything else, this archway seems to have been spared by the Bohrok swarms… as has the carved stone face where the Ta-Matoran are waiting for us.

Other than that, though, the handiwork of the Bohrok was visible everywhere. Even Tanma, who had never seen a beach until the departure of the Av-Matoran from Karda Nui, guessed that the black sand and the rubble and boulders that lay everywhere were the result of the Bohrok having largely collapsed the cliffs that must have once risen tall above the beach. And the sea had also changed, though in this case the reason was very different: when Tanma had first been here, it had been an amazingly vast and blue expanse stretching out to the horizon, but now the waters were no longer visible, obscured beneath a grayish, featureless layer of floating material, which extended outwards for a number of Kio before once again giving way to the blue sea.

The floating platforms.

By now, they lined a good portion of the coastline: processed Protodermis had been pumped from Metru Nui and sprayed over large patches of sea, instantly solidifying and thus creating space for the new arrivals to settle. More than once, Tanma had wondered if it had been worth the trouble: the platform certainly didn’t look like any place fit for habitation. There was no water and the only source of food was fishing: promises had been made to build energy wells in the new settlements, powered by power plants built on the mainland, but so far plants and wells had both failed to materialize. The new settlements were therefore largely dependent on whatever supplies the settlements of the mainland cared to make available.

That was Tanma’s mission today: along with some Ta-Matoran from Ta-Koro, the Av-Matoran were going to resupply the three settlements that had so far been established on the platform that stretched out from Ta-Wahi. They had already done so twice since the settlers had arrived, about a week earlier, but this third expedition was critical, for the day before, a storm had engulfed most of Mata Nui, including the floating platforms. On the mainland, it had brought much-needed rain, but Tanma feared that out on the platforms it had done more harm than good: while the platforms themselves were too large and too well-anchored to be damaged, he didn’t think the makeshift settlements had weathered the storm well.

The Av-Matoran drew up beside the Ta-Matoran party. Some amongst the Matoran of Fire, such as Vohon the trader, had been on the previous expeditions as well, but Tanma couldn’t help notice that there were fewer guards than usual.

“Is Kapura not coming himself, today?” he asked.

“There is some trouble with the other Fire village,” said a guard Tanma identified as Kalama. “The Captain has gone to handle it.”

Tanma nodded in understanding. The village Kalama was talking about had been founded by Matoran from the Eastern Islands, who, after a clash with the Ta-Matoran from Metru Nui, had left Ta-Koro to build their own village. Their territory now bordered with that of the Matoran of Light, whose town, Av-Koro, was just north of the fire region, where the newly-grown grasslands began. Overall, they weren’t very friendly and had provoked a number of border disputes; Tanma had suggested retaliating in some form, but Kirop had vetoed the suggestion.

And now they’re brewing trouble for the Ta-Koronans as well. I just hope Kapura is capable of dealing with it.

“Shall we go?” asked the trader, Vohon, eyeing the sky uncomfortably. It wasn’t raining, but it was quite cloudy. Tanma had never seen clouds in his life until the Av-Matoran had left Karda Nui, but he had recently learnt that dark grey clouds meant that there was rain to come… and the ones shrouding the sky certainly seemed to fit the description.

A simple gangway connected the beach to the platform, passing over the water that sloshed in from beneath the floating material to wash upon the sands. Then began the march upon the uniform grey platform, made slippery by the rain, though the puddles that might have been expected after such a storm were nowhere to be seen.

The nearest and largest settlement wasn’t too far from the coast: Tanma had set his eyes upon it even before they had left the beach. Then it got close enough for him to get a more detailed look.

It’s bad. Very bad.

Soon, the truth of that became obvious to all. The settlement had never been very resilient from the start: with no construction materials available, the settlers, all Matoran from the Western Islands, had simply camped upon the platform, setting up row after row of simple tents.

The storm had not treated such makeshift shelters well, leaving the camp in total disarray: many tents had been blown over by the wind and a flood seemed to have swept through others, though the water appeared to have drained away; even the ones that were still intact were soaked wet and seemed on the verge of collapse.

As the expedition advanced through the camp, faces poked out of the tents to watch them pass… but the expressions were sullen, tired, resentful and angry; nowhere could Tanma see a smile or a sign that they were welcome.

Once they reached the center of the camp, the Matoran of Light and Fire started unloading their carts, trying to ignore the glares of the crowd that had gathered around them. The Ta-Koronans had brought food, as well as tools and materials to repair the tents; the Av-Matoran, on the other hand, could offer no more than flasks of fresh water and lightstones.

“Lightstones,” muttered one of the first Matoran to approach. “Why is it always lightstones? Can’t you freaks of Light do anything apart from making stones shine?”

“That’s what we have,” replied Tanma. “Take it or leave it.”

The other villager stared at him angrily, then shrugged, grabbed a lightstone and stalked away.

“He has a point,” whispered Solek.

“So what?” shot back Tanma. Yes, the Matoran had hit upon a truth of sorts. It had all begun when the Matoran of Light had settled on Mata Nui and immediately realized that few of them possessed a vital skill to survive on the island: the ability to forage or hunt for food. Before the Great Cataclysm, the Av-Matoran had lived in a network of caverns featuring natural energy wells… while in Karda Nui, for some reason, none of them had felt any need to feed, the energies of the core of the universe being enough to sustain them. But here on Mata Nui, food was the only energy source available so far… and food had to be scavenged for.

Fortunately, however, Kirop already had the answer, having discussed it with Toa Takanuva during the flight to Metru Nui: by using a small portion of his or her power, an Av-Matoran could restore the glow of a doused lightstone, at least for some time… and since the death of the Great Spirit had caused nearly all lightstones to go dark, such a skill would be greatly prized on Mata Nui. And so it had been: word had quickly spread and now people were coming from all over the island to Av-Koro to trade supplies of all kinds in exchange for restored lightstones… even though that seemed to be only thing the Av-Matoran had to offer at the moment.

More settlers were queuing up before the Av-Matoran cart. Some grabbed a lightstone, others contented themselves with a flask of water; none uttered a word of thanks, though there was plenty of muttering, scowling and the occasional angry remark.

They hate us, Tanma couldn’t help but think. We’ve spent the night on solid ground, sheltered beneath a real roof, whereas they are exiled out here… but what other choice is there? We can’t house them all on our territory, there are too few resources as it is and most of all…

There was some jostling near one of the Ta-Koronan cart, followed by a few shouts. Tanma arched his head around to see better: a party of Po-Matoran had made their way to the cart and was exchanging angry words with Kalama. Tanma instantly realized that they did not come from this camp, which hosted mainly Ta-Matoran and Le-Matoran, though other tribes were represented as well.

“You are not from this camp, so I can’t give you supplies,” Kalama was saying. “We’ll make our way to your camp after we’re finished here…”

“Save yourself the effort!” snapped the Po-Matoran leader. “The camp is gone, swept away by the storm. What’s the point of food if we have no place to eat it? Especially since there’s so little of it…”

Murmurs of approval came from the crowd.

“When we return to Ta-Koro,” started saying Kalama, “we can collect some materials to help you rebuild…”

“Rebuild?” shouted the Po-Matoran. “Rebuild what? Tents again? To see them destroyed when the next storm comes around? We want land. Solid, real land! And I spit upon your help! You grudge us even your leftovers and you expect us to thank you for it? The problem is this platform of yours. We did not survive the storms and the Rahkshi to get this!”

“That’s right!” shouted someone from the crowd.

“Why is that you can live on real land and we can’t?”

“We can’t live here!”

Tanma took a step forward.

“The congress of representatives decided how to partition the land,” he said firmly. “And it is only a temporary…”

“I did not ask for your opinion, you unnatural freak!” yelled the Po-Matoran.

“Unnatural? You take that back!” shouted an Av-Matoran.

Tanma gestured for her to back down. The situation was getting nastier and nastier. He had warned his people that there might be insults of this kind. Ever since their arrival on Mata Nui the Matoran of Light had found that there were some Matoran amongst the other tribes who found them strange, even frightening and repelling. Their ability to fire bolts of light, the fact that they could change their armor color at will, not to mention the dreadful mutations that many amongst those who had become Shadow Matoran still displayed… all this set them apart; most of all, though, the existence of Av-Matoran of both genders seemed to be abhorrent to the Matoran from the other tribes, whose gender was fixed. Even in Ta-Koro, with whose inhabitants the Av-Matoran were on very good terms, Tanma had heard some people whisper behind his back, and out here, where the settlers had more than one reason to be angry…

“Unnatural, yes!” exclaimed the Po-Matoran. “And yet, because you’re Matoran of Light, because you’re the ‘natural enemies’ of the Makuta, you get special treatment. Well, I say no! We deserve real land as much as you do!”

The crowd was rumbling and clamoring and jostling forward. Kalama gave quick orders and his guards drew their shields. And then suddenly a Le-Matoran at the front of the crowd hurled one of the very lightstones the Av-Matoran had just delivered. It struck one of Tanma’s Av-Matoran.

“No!” shouted Tanma as he saw her instinctively raise her arm.

Too late. A bolt of light shot out of her hand, sending the Le-Matoran sprawling. The crowd roared and fury and to Tanma’s horror started pouring forward.

“Let’s get out of here!” Tanma yelled to Kalama. The Ta-Matoran nodded and at his command the Ta-Koro Guards upended their carts, spilling all their supplies but temporarily stemming the crowd’s advance.

“Go!” ordered Tanma and the Av-Matoran went, following the Ta-Koronans as they rushed past the tents. Some Matoran tried to stop them, but bolts of light brought them down. Fortunately, the settlers had all gathered around the camp’s center, leaving almost no one in the surrounding tents. Tanma was just starting to think they had escaped the worst when he heard Solek cry out. He whirled around. Some settlers were pursuing, led by the Po-Matoran who had started all the trouble… and he felt cold when he saw that the Matoran of Stone were armed with guns of some kind.

They came here armed.

Then he found Solek: the white Av-Matoran was sprawled upon the ground, the Po-Matoran leader looming over him. Solek was saying something, though Tanma couldn’t hear what. The Po-Matoran laughed, said something, then brought his hand down… Tanma saw the gleam of a blade…

“No!” he screamed. The Po-Matoran looked up just as ten light bolts fired by as many Av-Matoran struck him simultaneously, sending him flying. Solek climbed to his feet and rejoined them, even as the Av-Matoran used their power again, driving their pursuers back.

“Enough!” ordered Tanma. “Let’s go!”

Once again, Ta-Matoran and Av-Matoran fled. This time, they were not pursued. After a few moments, they slowed down and Solek came up to Tanma.

“Are you all right?” asked the green Av-Matoran.

“Fine,” panted Solek. “Tanma, before you hit him… that Po-Matoran said something. I asked him why he was doing this, told him we were only trying to help. And he said: ‘We have more powerful help than yours.’.”

“Something’s wrong!” exclaimed suddenly Kalama from up ahead. “There, on the beach, do you see them?”

Tanma pushed past Solek. Yes, he could see them: several dozen Ta-Matoran, running upon the beach, rushing at each other…

“There’s something going on here,” he then said. “Those Po-Matoran were armed, they came to the camp expecting to start a fight. They told Solek they had powerful help. And now… there, on the south of the beach, that’s Kapura and his guards. But there are also Matoran from the other Fire village… and if I’m not mistaken, they are fighting each other.”

 -----

Nektann, warlord of the Skakdi, stepped forward and beheld the island that lay before him. It wasn’t large, a mere speck compared to the territory that had once been his.

But it is a start. I will retake all that I have lost and this is the first step.

The recollection was still fresh, the bitterness unabated. Just a month earlier, the Great Spirit had still been alive and Nektann had been the most powerful warlord of Zakaz. He had won battle after battle, achieved conquest after conquest; dozens of lesser lords owed him their allegiance, the might of his armies was dreaded across the whole island and his fame had even travelled beyond the borders of Zakaz, a feat that few Skakdi could boast of.

Now he was an exile, his lands forever lost, his army reduced to a shadow of what it had been. Even the Alliance that he had joined, for which he had sacrificed everything, regarded him as little more than a beggar, as the territory he had been assigned on the island above proved.

The Allied Skakdi had been sailing through the waterway leading to Metru Nui when Dweller had finally seen fit to reveal that particular detail. He had listened with increasing anger as the Dark Hunter explained that the Skakdi would be settled on floating platforms, artificial, barren land that lacked any sort of resource and floating over the sea, which the average Skakdi feared and shunned, even more so after the harrowing crossing they had undertaken to escape Zakaz. By the time Dweller had finished, Nektann had been seriously considering killing the Dark Hunter there and then, and the respect he had developed for him could go to blazes.

Of course, Dweller had easily predicted what his reaction to the news would be... and so after presenting the problem he had outlined a solution. To that Nektann had listened with far greater interest.

The rest of the journey had been spent preparing his people for what was to come. A veteran warlord, Nektann demanded absolute obedience from his followers... but he was smart enough to realize that there were times when simply demanding was not enough. Of course, not every warlord possessed his experience: at least two of the minor lords had been facing revolts in their ranks over the last few days and one had already been killed by his own enraged soldiers. In Nektann’s case, there had been one uncertain moment when the floating platforms had first come into sight, but eventually his soldiers had submitted and followed him across.

But Nektann had no illusions about how long it would last. Even on Zakaz, at the height of his power, he had always taken care not to keep his soldiers inactive for long, for inactivity bred thoughts of rebellion. And here, on the floating platform, he knew he had even less time. While Skakdi were used to hardship, Nektann knew that his people had not suffered their most terrible defeat ever and fled across the sea, abandoning the only home they had ever known, to end up in this situation... and neither had he. If the Allies were not going to give the land and power that he deserved, he was going to seize it himself. He would keep his warriors occupied all right... in the same he had always done, through war.

Fortunately, the floating platforms assigned to the Skakdi were located on the southern coast of the island of Mata Nui... and, in particular, the one where Nektann and his followers had been settled was on the southernmost tip of the island. 

Here lay a small archipelago that the Matoran apparently called the Kumu Islets. Surprisingly, they were mostly uninhabited, nearly no one amongst the many migrants to Mata Nui had thought to settle there... even though, unlike the mainland, the islets had largely been spared from the destruction caused by the robotic Bohrok.

When the Skakdi had arrived here, Nektann had immediately set his eyes upon one of the largest islets... only to be anticipated by another warlord, the brown one who had concocted the escape of the Allied Skakdi from Zakaz. After seizing the islet, this warlord had started fortifying it... and invited other minor warlords to join him.

Nektann would not let the challenge go unanswered. On Zakaz, the forces of the brown warlord had been insignificant compared to Nektann’s, but he had taken less losses than the other Allied lords and his role in their escape from Zakaz had considerably augmented his prestige. Now he was gathering allies... but that was as far as Nektann was willing to let him go.

I will crush the upstart once and for all.

His victory over the brown warlord would show the other minor lords just who, amongst the Skakdi, had the upper hand... and once they pledged their allegiance to him the Allies would have no choice but to accept the fait accompli.

Outsiders never understand. To them, this will be just a settling of scores between tribes of barbaric Skakdi.

He could have done more, of course. But Nektann had not survived for so long by being foolish. He had received promises, but words were wind... until the balance of power on Mata Nui was clearer to him, Nektann was not going to risk an open confrontation with the Allies.

Though it might be that they’re right... and if they are, by the time I’m done here there will be only ashes left of the Alliance.

He spied movement on the island, as the soldiers of the brown warlord took up defensive positions. It was time.

“Attack!” he roared.

 -----

Turaga Matau stood atop a wooden platform built at the top of the tallest tree of the new village of Le-Koro. From his vantage point, his sight could roam over the lands that lay to the north and to the west, where the lush, green jungle of Le-Wahi had grown before the coming of the Bohrok.  Or he could let his gaze turn south, towards the waters of Kanae Bay… or rather, towards the floating platform that now covered them.

From this very spot Matau had watched the platform take form, as the processed protodermis produced in Metru Nui was pumped all the way to Le-Wahi through great tubes and mixed with sea water before congealing and turning into a great expanse of floating material. The sight had been disturbing, even for someone like Matau, who had never particularly loved the sight of seawater. More than once, he had wondered whether he had not made a mistake when, in the congress of representatives, he had gone along with Dume’s wishes and voted in favor of the platforms.

Then, just a few days earlier, he had finally learned just who the occupants of the Kanae Bay platform were going to be… and had realized that he had definitely made a mistake. And it had not taken long for things to turn out as he had feared.

“Matau.”

The elder of Le-Koro turned to see a Turaga of Plant Life clamber onto the platform, followed by a Toa of the same element. He knew them both well: they were, respectively, the leader and the protector of the village of Bo-Koro, the settlement of Bo-Matoran that had sprung up at the base of Le-Koro’s trees.

“How is the situation?”

“As we dread-feared. Take a gaze-look.”

He waited as the Turaga and the Toa took turns at using the small telescope that stood upon the observation platform. For the past hour, the instrument had allowed Matau to monitor every movement of the Skakdi that were settled on the floating platform. The unrest had started early in the morning: from the biggest Skakdi camp, large bands of warriors had started sallying out, headed for the smaller camps that had been set up by lesser warlords. Their mission, as had quickly become clear, was to summon the said warlords and their forces back to the larger camp, where, amongst the storm-drenched tents, an army was unmistakably starting to take form.

Most warlords had acquiesced; a few had defiantly refused. Their defiance had not served them well: it had taken just a couple of hours of fighting for every camp that had not responded to the summons to be torched, its occupants routed or massacred.

Now the Skakdi army to the south was free to march and Matau had no doubt it would do so. Nor was there any doubt as to the direction it would take: north, towards the island of Mata Nui… and Le-Koro stood right in its way.

“They’re coming,” nodded the Turaga of Plant Life, his voice calm, almost resigned. “And, barring a miracle, they will get here far before any help arrives. Do we evacuate the villages?”

“We can’t just leave!” exclaimed the Toa of Plant Life heatedly. “This is our home now… and after all our efforts, are we just going to abandon everything to the Skakdi?”

Matau didn’t answer immediately. He felt the same way, of course. When, after the migration to Mata Nui, he had led his Le-Matoran back to the region of Le-Wahi, all they had found had been a barren wasteland: the great jungle that had once covered almost half of the island was gone, its trees uprooted, poisoned by acid or gutted by fire, its rivers and swamps dried up, frozen or vaporized. After a few survey flights, however, the Gukko Force had discovered that the Bohrok had not quite had the time to destroy everything: scattered groups of trees had survived. Matau had thus led his people to the largest of these, which grew upon the large islet that overlooked Kanae Bay. There, they had begun their efforts to rebuild their tree-borne village, but the task had been far from easy: although they had not managed to bring down every tree, the Bohrok had still done great damage to the vegetation and the land. Thus, when the Turaga of Air had learned that a tribe of Matoran of Plant Life, accompanied by a Toa, had arrived on Mata Nui, he had invited them to settle on the islet, in return for their help in restoring the forest.

Seldom, in his career as a Turaga, had he taken a wiser decision. The cooperation between the two tribes had been incredibly successful: their twin villages, Le-Koro up within the canopy and Bo-Koro down amidst the tree roots, had grown in tandem, even as the forest slowly returned to life around them. In this, the Toa of Plant Life had played a fundamental role: using his power, he had nurtured the trees, accelerating their growth and shaping them to the needs of the Matoran. Matau could easily understand his wish to protect all that they had built from the rage of the Skakdi.

And yet…

“The Skakdi are too powerful for us to fight,” the Turaga of Plant Life was saying. “It would a massacre… you know this.”

“Turaga, I don’t want the villagers to fight, that’s obvious. But I’m their protector, it is my duty…”

“To protect the Matoran. How are you going to do that if you get yourself killed? There are some fights that just cannot be won.”

“I’ve won against worse odds!” objected the Toa.

“No, you haven’t. This is a far more powerful enemy than any you have ever faced.”

The Toa opened his mouth to object, but the sharp cry of a Taku drew his attention. The bird was fluttering nearby, chirping and whistling. The Toa answered, his Mask of Translation turning his words into the bird’s language. After a short exchange, the Taku flew away.

“Well?” asked the Turaga.

“They’re coming… and the birds, the insects, they’re fleeing.”

“Of course they are. And so must we. Matau?”

The Turaga of Air was staring out at the platform. He had no need to use the telescope to spot the line of advancing Skakdi.

“They’re fast-marching. They’ll come-arrive in a half-hour. We need every Matoran to up-climb to the green-branches. The Gukko Force will fly-carry some away, the rest should use the cable car.”

The other Turaga nodded. The cable car Matau was speaking of connected the islet to the mainland. He was not sure if the Skakdi knew of its existence, but it should not be visible from their perspective… and the trees would conceal the Matoran as they made their way towards it.

“Oh, and be deep-quiet. If the Skakdi march-pass through, they might think the village is void-deserted and walk-move on.”

The Turaga of Plant Life nodded again and made his way down the ladder. The Toa hesitated for a moment, then also stomped away. Matau checked again the position of the Skakdi army, then followed.

When he arrived in the main square of the village, he found the evacuation already in progress. Elevators were going up and down, bringing the Bo-Matoran up from below. Matau quickly instructed the villagers to start making their way across the bridges and walkways that led to the cable car, then walked to the Le-Suva and started collecting Lewa Nuva’s masks and the other artifacts stored within the shrine. Everything was done in absolute silence: the Le-Matoran might love music and noise, but over the past millennium they had learned to move stealthily across the trees whenever Makuta’s Rahi came calling. The Bo-Matoran were also used to this: they came from the Northern Continent, which for the last thousand years had been plagued by war. Armed bands and armies would often cross the forest where the original village of Bo-Koro was situated and would sometimes set their sights on the village. Whenever that happened, the Matoran would melt away into the forest and return to their homes once the danger was past. According to their Turaga, that strategy had saved them countless times.

The only sound came from the Toa of Plant Life, but it was indistinguishable from that produced by forest Rahi, for the Toa was using his Kanohi Rau to confer with several birds, a Brakas monkey and even a Nui-Rama. That was another debt Matau owed him: when Rahi of every kind had started flocking to the islet, attracted by its lush and healthy, if small, forest, the Toa had used his mask power to communicate with them, preventing any conflict with the Matoran residents and instead arranging for the species to coexist in harmony. He had done pretty much the same on the Northern Continent, apparently, and had even managed to enlist the creatures’ help in his battles. Three years earlier, his control over the Bo-Koro forest and his allegiance with the Rahi that called it home had allowed him to trap and utterly defeat a large party of raiders, thus saving his village… though according to his Turaga, that success had made him somewhat too overconfident about his own abilities.

About one third of the Matoran had made their way to the cable car when footfalls began to echo across the trees, accompanied by grunts, laughs and a few harsh voices yelling orders. Matau’s heart fell: part of him had been hoping that the Skakdi would avoid the village and proceed directly over the floating material to the mainland, rather than head for the high ground upon which the trees of Le-Koro grew. He gestured for absolute silence and fixed his eyes upon the ground down below. After a few moments, the first Skakdi appeared. Matau’s concern grew. Seen from up close, with their savage grins and powerful frames, the warriors looked even more dangerous than they had at a distance. Worse, there were far more than he had expected. This was no simple raiding party, but a true army and a well-armed one: Matau spied a couple of four-legged robots and some pieces of artillery. That was also worrying: from what he had heard, the Skakdi had reached Mata Nui completely bereft of all their weapons and possessions; obviously, someone had re-armed them.

More and more Skakdi filtered through the trees, carelessly trampling over the orchards and gardens of the Bo-Matoran. By now, there were warriors in every alley of Bo-Koro. Matau heard a loud female voice shout out something and then follow up with more words. She had to be speaking some Skakdi dialect, for he could not understand her, but her tone was commanding. Other Skakdi answered her and then the female said something else. The Toa of Plant Life gasped. When Matau turned towards him, he whispered:

“She ordered one of her lieutenants to stay here and fortify the village whilst she leads the army north.”

Matau grimaced. If the Skakdi truly planned on settling here, there was no way the Matoran could reclaim the villages without a fight. They would have to call upon the Toa and possibly the Bohrok… and the resulting battle would most likely wreck both Bo-Koro and Le-Koro and demolish the forest they had worked so hard to restore.

The voice of another Skakdi intruded upon his fears. He heard the warlady respond, then the other Skakdi spoke again. And without warning the Toa of Plant Life stood up and drew his staff.

“They know we’re here,” was all he said.

Matau’s eyes widened. Through the gap in the leaves, he finally spotted the green warlady: her frame was bulging with muscle and she had a savage grin on her face that didn’t forebode anything good. She was obviously trying to spot them, but after a few moments she gave up. It didn’t matter. She knew they were there.

“Fast-lead everyone out of here,” Matau ordered the Matoran of the Gukko Force, struggling to prevent his fear from seeping into his voice. “By cable car and by fly-bird. No point in keeping still-quiet anymore.”

The Matoran exploded into motion. As the sound of their footsteps resonated in the forest, many of their Skakdi raised their heads. Some aimed their weapons towards the trees, others simply smiled in anticipation. The warlady herself laughed and spoke again… and this time the language she used was ordinary Matoran, and her words were shouted out, so that her prey would hear her, and tremble.

“Hiding, are they? We’ll soon flush them out! I have changed my mind. We don’t need these trees after all. Burn everything to the ground!”

“No!” shouted the Toa of Plant Life. Matau whirled towards him, but it was too late: the Toa had grabbed a vine and used it to slide down to the ground. He dropped right in front of the warlady, slammed his staff into the ground… and the forest came alive, its roots exploding out of the ground and its vines snaking down from above to wrap themselves around the limbs of the closest Skakdi, whilst the rest stepped back in confusion, startled by the sudden attack. Then the trees stopped moving and the Toa advanced towards the warlady and her bound soldiers; the long retractable blade embedded in his staff was abruptly released and pointed straight at her heart.

“This land belongs to the Matoran,” he declared. “You have violated the agreements in invading it. Return to your territory. Stay, and you’ll soon wish you hadn’t.”

On cue, the roots tightened.

The female warlord stared at him for a few moments. Then laughter started echoing from her throat, mocking, confident laughter, with not a trace of fear. The Toa’s face morphed in anger.

“You think this is funny?” he snapped. “Let’s see…”

And then all of a sudden he was screaming, a long, continuous scream of utter pain. Matau watched his knees buckle and saw him collapse onto the ground in utter torment. His concentration lost, the tree roots released the Skakdi. The warlady advanced towards him; her eyes, Matau saw, had turned crimson and were fixed upon the writhing Toa.

“Lead the army north!” she told an unseen Skakdi. “But leave a small group here to burn down all this shrubbery. And bring me my weapon! I’ve heard much about the power of Toa. I want to see how this one fights.”

The Skakdi hastened to obey their leader. While most of them marched away, pairs of red-armored warriors approached the trees and bathed them in flames, even as other Skakdi trained their vision powers on the canopy. Up above, Matoran were scrambling for the bridges leading to the cable car. Most of them were gone by now and more were following. Matau was now relatively certain that they would be able to get away before the fires spread too much.

That just left the Toa of Plant Life. The warlady had released him from her power and allowed him to pick himself up. Now he was eyeing her warily. A Skakdi attendant brought the warlady her weapon: a thick lance, so long and heavy that the attendant struggled to lift it. Yet the green warlady clasped it with a single hand and waved it around as if it weighed no more than a twig. Thus armed, she smiled at her opponent:  

“Well, little Toa. Let’s see how much power you’ve really got.”

“Don’t underestimate me,” growled the Toa. He raised his axe, ready to unleash his power… but once again, he was too slow: a second beam of pain vision brought him to his knees.

“Is that the best you can do?” laughed the Skakdi.

The Toa didn’t answer… but his power did. Somehow, amidst his torment, he found the strength to unleash his energies… and the warlady’s laugh was immediately cut off, as was her attack. Her free hand flew to her eyes, where thick, green moss had suddenly grown, blinding her completely.

Now free, the Toa got back to his feet. The warlady heard him coming: she swung her lance blindly, but the Toa dodged it easily. The Devastator’s tip struck a tree instead and instantly detonated, unleashing an explosion that split the trunk and caused the whole plant to collapse. It forced the Toa to step away, giving the warlady the respite she needed to claw her eyes free of the moss. But before she could attack, the Toa unleashed his elemental power, causing vines to wrap around the Skakdi’s lance and ripping it from her hand.

The warlady’s surprise quickly turned to fury: she charged, almost as if she hadn’t realized she was now weaponless. The Toa evaded her and sent her sprawling with a swing of his staff. From the ground, she unleashed another burst of pain vision, but the Toa waved his hand and a gigantic leaf materialized between them, effectively acting as a shield. Then it was the Toa’s turn to charge, bringing his bladed staff down on the female.

As quick as lightning, her hand shot up and she grabbed the staff, wresting it from its owner. Then she rose and Matau gasped, for she had changed. For a start, she had grown in size. In addition, her hands had become sharp claws and the expression on her face was even more savage.

“I’ve had enough of this!” she roared, crushing the staff between her hands. Then she advanced on the Toa and as her fury grew, her size did as well. Now she was towering over him and her teeth had become sharp fangs.

He dodged her first blow and retreated. A spear of wood grew from his hand and he thrust it at her, but she batted it aside. Then she struck him and sent him flying into a tree, with such force that he was knocked unconscious. Now he was at her mercy and she loomed over him, like a beast ready to sink its teeth into its prey.

But now the two Turaga were on the move. Apart from three pilots of the Gukko Force, the Matoran had all evacuated the village. But the two elders were not going to leave the Toa to his fate, reckless and foolish though he might have been.

Sliding down a vine, Matau activated his Mask of Illusion. Instantly, the whole Bo-Koro was filled with images of him. The female Skakdi was confused for a moment and that was all the Turaga of Plant Life needed to activate his Noble Mask of Speed and grab the fallen Toa.

Now they had to flee, but it was easier said than done. Skakdi warriors were everywhere and the fires they had triggered were raging across the forest, cutting off every avenue of escape. Matau turned around frantically, seeking a way out. And then from above two great Gukko birds and a smaller Kewa came swooping down, ridden by the pilots of the Gukko Force. One grabbed Matau’s outstretched hand and hoisted him onto his bird, while the other did the same for the fallen Toa and the Turaga carrying him. The Skakdi tried to train their vision power on them, but the pilots flew straight into the flames’ smoke cloud, using it to conceal themselves. And then they were away, the powerful wings of the Gukko carrying them away from the threat of the Skakdi.

Behind them, down below, the trees of Le-Koro burned.

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Edited by Toa of Italy

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My collection of epics: The Sanctum of Writing

 

 

 

 

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FORTY-ONE

“What is going on?” asked Dume, closing the door of the small room behind him. Helryx and the Shadowed One were already inside, as were Botar and the Recorder. The moment Dume crossed the threshold, Helryx nodded at the tall teleporter, who vanished into thin air, whilst the Recorder bowed before creeping out.

“Unrest,” replied Helryx, “violence, conflict, you name it,” replied Helryx. “Reports of clashes and riots are starting to come in from all over the island. Some neighboring settlements seem to have gone to war with each other.”

Dume nodded. Just before his summons to the council, he had been speaking to Le-Matoran Gukko riders who had come bearing similar news.

“How widespread is this?”

“Take a look,” replied the Shadowed One, gesturing at a map of Mata Nui. “The Recorder was just now pinpointing the various hotspots.” His voice had an oddly satisfied tone to it. The moment Dume glanced at the map he realized why: the unrest was almost entirely concentrated on or near the floating platforms. He suddenly felt sick.

“Why... why did we have no warning of this? Helryx...”

“Don’t even try,” shot back the Toa of Water, anger in her voice. “What warning could we have given you? Most of my agents are down below, protecting the sea gates... the Brotherhood attack is coming or have you forgotten?”

“The signs were there for everyone to see them,” added the Shadowed One disparagingly. “The floating platforms were a disaster waiting to happen, everyone could see that.”

“This can’t be blamed solely on the floating platforms,” Dume retorted. It was not that the Shadowed One was wrong... the platforms, which Dume had supported with all his heart, had worsened the problem rather than solve it... but he couldn’t just yield to the leader of the Dark Hunters without a fight. “Do you really expect me to believe that it’s a coincidence that these incidents are all happening on the same day? There is someone behind this, someone who’s riling up the settlers all over Mata Nui.”

“Nonsense,” replied the Shadowed One. “These people are not acting on someone’s behalf, the riots are just a chance for them to roar out their petty concerns and take them out on their neighbors... and don’t try to tell me that Matoran are too honest and peaceful to behave like that; you, of all people, should know better. Or is it that you do not want to admit that your floating platforms have failed?”

Dume was about to snap back a retort, but Helryx anticipated him.

“The floating platforms have been a disaster, that much is obvious. Nevertheless, Dume is right... the coincidence is too suspicious. The platforms are just a pretext: someone is using the tensions on this island to sow chaos amongst us.”

“Someone, again... any idea who?”

“You tell us,” replied the Toa of Water. “Your operatives have spent more than enough time enflaming the tensions between the settlers.”

“Are you implying something, Helryx?” the Shadowed One asked, his voice grown more dangerous. “May I remind you just who it was that attacked my fortress in broad daylight and in blatant violation of our treaty?”

“That has nothing to do with this,” said Dume furiously.

“It has everything to do with this. You are trying to blame the Dark Hunters for something that your own mistakes have caused. Who proposed the platforms? Who summoned that ridiculous congress of representatives, allowing them to shout out all their little problems rather than sit back and do as they were told?”

Dume opened his mouth to reply, but the Shadowed One had already turned upon Helryx.

“And speaking of mistakes... Helryx, you say someone is aiming to cause chaos on the island. Then why don’t you name the most obvious candidate? It is the Brotherhood of Makuta that stands to gain the most from this unrest. And if they are behind this, then it means they have at least one spy on this island... and whoever it is, I would wager that they come from within your ranks.”

Helryx’s eyes widened. Her fists were clenched, but she didn’t speak. Dume, on the other hand, was suddenly seized by doubt. The Shadowed One’s theory did make sense...

Before their silence, the Shadowed One smiled.

“Let us be frank. I know everything about your attempt to deceive me, to conceal the disaster of Daxia. Oh, it worked at the very beginning, but you couldn’t expect such a blatant deception to remain in place for long. I never brought it up because I didn’t want to create useless tension between us... but now I have no choice, because these accusations of yours are merely an attempt to conceal your own mistakes. If someone is riling the settlers up, it is either the Brotherhood spy that has infiltrated the Order or a group of settler leaders who got together without us knowing during a congress session and plotted the whole thing to make themselves heard... and if there’s no one, as I believe, then it means these riots are a spontaneous reaction to the floating platforms. In all scenarios, the mistakes are yours, not mine. But I won’t hold that against you... as long as, instead of trying to blame this on each other, we start working towards a solution.”

Dume felt a sense of defeat. He wanted to rebut the Shadowed One’s words, yet they had a truth that he could not deny. It was Dume who had authorized the attack on the Dark Hunters’ fortress, agreed to the Daxia deception, summoned the congress of representatives and brought forward the floating platform strategy.

And could he be right? Through my actions, could I have given the Makuta a chance to sow conflict within our ranks?

To be sure, the Shadowed One had his own share of responsibility: deny it as he might, his agents had undermined the peace deal from the very first day, fueling mistrust and disputes as it suited the Dark Hunters. Yet it was clear that Dume and Helryx had neither the evidence nor the moral standing to accuse him.

We have no choice other than do as he says, concluded the Turaga of Fire. Put the past behind us and work towards a common solution.

“Very well,” he said. “We will do as you say.” When Helryx said nothing, he took it for acquiescence and continued:

“But it isn’t going to be easy. For a start, we are once again deciding on a course of action without consulting the congress… the representatives are not going to be pleased.”

“Irrelevant,” said the Shadowed One. “The whole congress business was a mistake.”

“It is not as easy as that,” insisted Dume. “It might have been a mistake, but now that the congress has been created, it cannot simply be eliminated. If we do this without the representatives’ approval, we risk creating even more tensions.”

“It would take too long to summon a new congress session,” retorted the Shadowed One. “Many of the representatives aren’t in Kini-Koro right now… and I’d wager some are taking part in the clashes even as we speak. And even if we did manage to get them together, they’d be at each other’s throats, just as before. We’ll solve nothing that way. I say we pacify the island first, and then get the representatives to approve what we’ve done.”

There was a moment of silence as Dume pondered his response, but it was Helryx who replied first.

“It does seem to be the only solution. But if we are to ‘pacify’ the island, then we must enforce that peace. Most of the Order is deployed within the waterways, however. The Dark Hunters on Mata Nui are more numerous…”

“Not by much,” replied the Shadowed One immediately. “And besides, most of these clashes are not occurring near Dark Hunter territory.”

“Yes, I had wondered about that…” said Helryx. “Dume,” she then told the Turaga of Fire, “it is up to the Toa. We’ve held them in reserve until now, sending only a few of them down below. It is time to make use of them.”

Dume had been thinking along the same lines.

“I will talk with them. Takanuva is in fact meeting with the Toa right now, in fact, else he would have been here. Of course, some of the Toa on the island came with the settlers who are involved in the clashes… but I am hoping the Toa will remain united even if their Matoran do not.”

“Hoping?” said the Shadowed One. “And if your ‘hopes’ are not enough?”

“We will deal with that if it happens,” said Dume, trying not to think about that possibility. “There is another problem, however: while I am confident the Toa should be able to placate any Matoran involved in these clashes, I am not so sure about the other species.”

“Your Toa do not wield their power just for show, do they?” said the Shadowed One. “We are not talking about negotiating a peace, but about enforcing one… in whatever way is needed.”

“And if instead of enforcing peace we end up starting a new war, what then?”

“As you said before, we will deal with that if it happens,” interjected Helryx. “If the Toa are not fools… and most of them are not… they will find ways to make the conflict cease without harming the combatants. There are many ways elemental powers can be used to achieve that.”

“As you say,” said Dume. “Yet for at least one species that might not be enough…”

“The Skakdi,” said Helryx immediately.

“Le-Matoran Gukko riders were sent from Le-Koro earlier in the morning,” Dume told them. “They told me that a Skakdi army was forming up on the floating platform directly south of them. That was a few hours ago. By now… they might well have advanced onto the village. I wanted to send a teleporter to Le-Koro to check… but it seems none can be found.”

“Most of our messengers are down at the sea gates as well,” said Helryx. “Still… I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you,” Dume told her. Then he turned to the Shadowed One. “It was one of your Hunters who negotiated with them. Could he persuade them to stand down?”

“Unlikely,” said the Shadowed One. “It is a miracle he managed to keep them together for so long. Why not send in the Bohrok? Against the Skakdi, and against anyone else opposing your Toa.”

“Most settlers mistrust the Bohrok. If we unleash the Bohrok against them, their fears will be confirmed.”

“It is a risk we have to take,” said Helryx. “The Toa will make an attempt to solve this peacefully. If it doesn’t work, then they will use force. And if their strength is not sufficient, they will be allowed to summon the Bohrok to their aid.”

 -----

The sounds of battle echoed across the divide, clearly audible despite the distance. The combatants were visible as well: the besieged fort clearly stood out on the hill on which it was built and the Skakdi army besieging it could easily be distinguished. From her vantage point on top of the hill opposite to the besieged one, Varian, Toa of Psionics, extended her powers, probing the thoughts of the fighters. It was an operation that had to be carried out carefully: none of the Skakdi were accomplished telepaths, but several did have mental powers and there was a chance they might sense her intrusion and discover her position. But then again, the emotions of the combatants weren’t exactly difficult to sense.

“What do you think, Onua?” asked Tahu. He was next to Varian, crouching, as she was, behind a rock formation that concealed them from the sight of the fighting armies.

“The same thing as you, I believe,” replied the Toa of Earth. “Those warriors may hold out for some more time, but the Skakdi will eventually break through.”

“He’s right,” said Varian. Both sides had courage and determination to offer, there was a fury burning within the Skakdi that their foes could not hope to match. “And when they do, it’ll be a massacre.”

“Unless we hard-fight on their side,” interjected Lewa.

“Just the six of us, brother?” asked Onua. “May I remind of what happened the last time we went up against Skakdi? And back then there were only six of them. Besides, are we so sure those warriors would welcome our help?”

Lewa was silent. The Toa of Earth had a point: the besieged fighters were the same ones that, less than two weeks earlier, had threatened Le-Koro when a Gahlok swarm directed by Turaga Matau had inadvertently caused their settlement to be flooded. At the time, Lewa himself, backed by a Lehvak swarm, had been forced to intervene to stop them.

Now, though, the sides seemed to be reversed. The warriors in question were settled on the hills to the west of Kanae Bay, which had placed them straight in the path of the Skakdi army that had destroyed Le-Koro. The objective of the Skakdi was obvious by now: they wanted to reach the plain that surrounded Lake Kanae and that lay on the other side of these heights. It was a fertile land, where many settlements had sprung up over the last few weeks, and while their inhabitants might have been quarrelsome, they were also mostly peaceful and would hardly be able to withstand a Skakdi invasion.

That was why, when a teleporter had brought news of Skakdi movements in the south, Varian, the Toa Nuva and several others had abandoned the assembly of Toa that they had been attending near Ga-Wahi and hurried south to confront them. Back then, they had still been hoping to save Le-Koro: the message that the teleporter had brought from Turaga Matau had after all simply spoken of Skakdi gathering south of the village. But even sharing the power of the Kanohi Kakama Nuva had not allowed the Toa to move fast enough; by the time they reached the river that fed into Kanae Bay, they had learned from a Gukko pilot intercepted by a flying Lewa that Le-Koro and its twin village Bo-Koro had been burned to the ground.

From that moment on, Lewa’s rage had been growing, only slightly mitigated by the fact that the villages’ inhabitants had escaped. Varian didn’t even need to actively read his mind to perceive it. It made her uneasy. Ever since her rescue from the Shadowed One’s fortress, she had spent much of her time in the company of the Toa Nuva, who had supported her through her recovery… and Lewa had been the one she had grown the closest to, not just because he had rescued her, but also because his flippant, carefree personality had reminded her of what she herself had been like before her capture. She would never have expected such a fury from him… yet there it was. Lewa, she now knew, would have no problem fighting on the side of the besieged warriors… in fact, he would fight on anyone’s side, so long as it was against those who had burned down his village, turning to ash all that his people had worked so hard to accomplish.

That was why his eventual response to Onua’s remarks was no surprise:

“Even so, I think-believe we should fast-attack.”

“Too many of them, too few of us,” replied Kopaka Nuva curtly. He wasn’t wrong. After learning of Le-Koro’s destruction, only the Toa Nuva, plus Varian, had gone south to intercept the Skakdi; the rest had turned towards Lake Kanae, to make sure the settlements there were protected.

“Not head-on,” replied the Toa of Air immediately. “If sister Varian can mind-locate the boss-leaders, we can then use our elemental powers to down-take them. Then the Skakdi army will be left leaderless.”

“Uhm… not bad,” commented Pohatu. “Only, how are we going to take them down? We’d have to wade into their midst to get close enough to their leaders.”

“I could high-fly and sneak-attack from above,” insisted Lewa, “while brother Onua comes at them from the deep-ground. And Varian could mind-attack them from afar.”

Yes, I could do that, thought the Toa of Psionics. I could even create illusions to conceal the rest of you. But I won’t.

It was strange. At one time, Varian would have been the first to endorse Lewa’s plan. Daring, even reckless… just how she liked it. But not anymore. In the weeks that had passed since her rescue at Lewa’s hands, she had realized that her old quirky, free-spirited nature had deserted her. She just didn’t seem to be the Varian she had been less than a month earlier.

The problem, of course, was that it had been less than a month for her… for everyone else, almost 8000 years had passed. Varian had awakened into a very different world from the one she had left. Mata Nui, the Great Spirit whose glory and power she had always taken for granted, who had established the Three Virtues that were the guiding principles of every Matoran, Toa and Turaga, was dead. As a result, the universe where she had lived her entire life would soon be completely destroyed and the only safety lay on Mata Nui, an island she had never heard of before. The Brotherhood of Makuta, in her time a powerful and benevolent organization, had betrayed the Great Spirit and cast him down and as a result were now the sworn enemy of every living Toa… whether the Dark Hunters, who had been the most dangerous foes of the Toa, who had bound her inside a stasis tube for millennia just to have a new trophy to display, were now allies.

Thankfully, she had learned that her best friend, Norik, still lived and would also eventually travel to Mata Nui… but apparently Norik was now the leader of a team of Toa, who had been the first to discover the treachery of the Makuta and had been dreadfully mutated as a result, only to be turned back into Toa less than two months earlier. How much had those experiences changed him? Would he still be the Norik she remembered?

Faced with such a powerful shock, it wasn’t perhaps so surprising that she had changed. Coupled with that were the considerations she had made as she recovered from her ordeal: she had realized that her capture had been caused in no small part by her own recklessness and had resolved never to make the same mistake again… even if that meant burying the old Varian for good.

That was why, when Onua once again voiced his doubts over Lewa’s plan, she curtly gave him her support, enduring the spike of disappointment she felt coming from Lewa. Pohatu however had apparently been swayed by the Toa of Air’s arguments and had now sided with him. Kopaka, as he often did, guarded his silence, refusing to be drawn into the discussion. Gali was absent: at the assembly, a message had also come from Turaga Nokama speaking of unrest in the Ga-Wahi region and she had agreed to lead some more Toa to Naho Bay to confront it. That left Tahu. A true leader, he waited for each of his teammates to speak out, but then put an end to the debate.

“It is true the Skakdi might keep coming even if we defeat their leader,” stated the Toa of Fire, “yet Lewa’s plan might work as a temporary solution. But we won’t try it immediately. Onua is right, we should first summon the Toa who are guarding the villages of Lake Kanae: that’s your job, Lewa.”

“But brother…” exclaimed the Toa of Air.

Tahu didn’t give him a chance to continue.

“That stronghold will hold out for a while longer… and by now Takanuva should have reached Kini-Koro. Before trying out your plan I want to give him a chance to speak with Turaga Dume and send us word. Remember, we aren’t just fighting an enemy who has invaded us. The Skakdi are supposed to be our allies.”

“Allies!” exclaimed Lewa. “After what…”

“I’m aware of what they did to Le-Koro, Lewa,” Tahu said firmly. “But this is a complex situation and we cannot afford to take any rash action.”

“A truer word has never been spoken, Toa Tahu.”

The Toa all turned to see two beings walk towards them. Varian moved especially quickly, suddenly perceiving the presence of danger. A moment later, she recognized the identity of their visitors and relaxed, though she silently cursed herself for having failed to perceive them; rather than keep watch for potential enemies, she had remained focused on the Skakdi and on her own thoughts. Fortunately, these weren’t enemies. One was a member of Botar’s species; and the other was Turaga Dume.

“Turaga,” said Tahu. “What are you doing here? It’s dangerous.”

“I’m aware of that, Toa Tahu, but I felt it necessary to bring you this message myself. Helryx, the Shadowed One and I have conferred and decided that the Skakdi must be pushed back into their territory, with force if necessary. What they have done cannot be ignored.”

“Very well, Turaga,” replied Tahu. “However, even with the help of some other Toa, I must confess I’m not sure we can do this on our own.”

“The other Toa will not be coming,” answered Dume. “There are clashes blossoming all across Mata Nui. I visited your fellow Toa before coming to you and dispatched them to try and soothe the unrest, at least where Matoran are involved.”

Varian suddenly felt uneasy.

There is something wrong here.

Meanwhile, the Toa Nuva, even Kopaka, greeted this announcement with surprise and concern. Tahu was unable to avoid asking:

“Turaga, are any of our villages…?”

“It is hard to be sure. This could not have come at a worst time: most of our messengers are at the sea gates, so communication across the island is particularly difficult… I didn’t know about Le-Koro’s destruction until I met the other Toa. I can tell you that there have been clashes near Ta-Koro… but I have already sent Takanuva there, Tahu. He reached Kini-Nui just before I left. You, on the other hand, are needed here. There won’t be any more Toa coming, but the Bahrag have already sent some swarms to help. They will get here shortly. It’ll then be your job to lead them… and ensure that the least possible force is used.”

“I understand.”

“I must also stay here. I will leave every decision about the battle to you, but this is a delicate moment and I must oversee the situation. I will thus watch you from afar. Do not worry,” he then added, anticipating Tahu’s objections, “if any danger arises I can easily be teleported away.”

Tahu hesitated. Varian could feel his concern, both for Dume and for his village. She herself could not shake off a growing feeling of unease. Was it Dume’s news that had triggered it?

“Very well, Turaga,” Tahu said at last.

He then turned to the other Toa:

“You’ve heard Turaga Dume, brothers. We wait for the Bohrok to arrive. Then we attack.”

“And the leader of that big-army is mine,” said Lewa darkly.

 -----

Clasping the controls of his speeder, the Shadowed One dashed across the sky. His vehicle’s prow was turned to the northeast, headed straight towards the conical shape of the Mangai Volcano. As he approached the great mountain, he accelerated, gaining height as he went around its northern flank. The cold winds blowing down from the mountains to the north buffeted his vehicle, but the Dark Hunter leader himself never shivered.

Past the volcano, the island of Mata Nui was divided neatly in two: to the west rose the mountains of Ko-Wahi, culminating in the peak of Mount Ihu, whilst to the east were the hills and the plains that lay between Ta-Wahi and Naho Bay. Many times had the Shadowed One’s glance fallen upon this land over the past few weeks… and though he had neither time nor interest for scenery, even he had been impressed by how rapidly the landscape had changed.

Granted, there were still virtually no trees to be seen, nor had the wounds inflicted by the Bohrok upon the island’s geological features miraculously healed. But land that mere weeks ago had been bleak and barren was now covered by a green carpet of grass and streambeds that had been dry were now roaring with water. By far, though, the greatest change had occurred up the mountain range: over the last few days, snow had fallen copiously over the peaks, even as rain cascaded on the rest of the island. The precipitations had caused the reappearance of the snowbanks that had once covered most of Ko-Wahi, easing the recreation of the glaciers that the Kohrak were attempting and, most importantly, giving new life to the rivers and streams flowing out of the mountains. It was no longer necessary for swarms of Gahlok to periodically reinforce them: when the Shadowed One passed over Naho Bay, he had glimpsed more water flowing over the Naho Falls than ever before, fueled by the newfound power of the Hura Mafa River.

Could this be the ‘island paradise’ the Matoran spoke of? The triumph of unspoiled nature, of virgin wilderness? Astonishing… but then again the Matoran are known for their idiotic, romantic notions. The Dark Hunters have a very different idea of paradise… one that is for everyone else, if necessary.

His thoughts turned back to the meeting. Just as he had foreseen, Dume and Helryx had tried to use the unrest as an excuse to attack him and expose the actions of his Dark Hunters over the past few weeks; but their own mistakes and responsibilities had weakened them and in the end they had been forced to back down and once more agree to preserve the Alliance’s unity.

Unity… the first of the Three Virtues, the source of true strength. Unfortunately for his followers, the Great Spirit never taught them that unity can also be a source of weakness.

His musings were interrupted by the sight of the Dark Hunters’ stronghold, rising out from its canyon. By now, it was nearly finished. Most of the passages within the canyon wall had been dug and the fortifications at each end of the valley stood complete, as did the watchtowers above the canyon rim. Three weeks earlier, Lewa Nuva had managed to sneak into the fortress, but that would never happen again.

As always, the Shadowed One brought his speeder down on the platform positioned close to the top of the central tower. Then he descended down to the tower’s base, entered the throne room and sat upon the great seat. Servants were summoned and then immediately sent off again with orders. It took only a few minutes for the being the Shadowed One wanted to see to appear. When Ancient walked into the chamber, he rose to greet him.

“Welcome back, my friend. You returned more than one day ago, but we haven’t yet had the opportunity to talk.”

“You summoned me back from Xia. I take it you have a new task for me?” asked Ancient.

“Eventually… but first I want to hear your report: about Xia, and about your journey to the Southern Island. We never did get the chance to discuss it when I myself came to Xia.”

So Ancient began. The Shadowed One listened carefully, never interrupting, as he described the battle of Xia, speaking concisely but honestly, never seeking to conceal a mistake or a defeat. Only at the end did the leader of the Dark Hunters speak:

“You left Toa Norik in command, then?”

Ancient nodded.

“With Gatherer dead, there was no other option. Norik is a skilled leader as well as a fighter. He gained the respect of many a Dark Hunter during the battle… all the Toa Hagah did. And he in turn seems to have agreed to put old feuds aside. Besides, his command will only last until the ships from Xia reach the central sea gate… after that, he will be subordinate to the commander of those forces.”

“I see. And now tell me about the Southern Islands. I gave you a special task in that regard.”

“I remember,” nodded Ancient. “And I followed your orders. Amongst the islands that we visited was our old homeland. But there was no one there anymore. The island was uninhabited… nor did I find signs of our people elsewhere. They might have been destroyed by a natural cataclysm, a volcanic eruption, maybe… or perhaps they simply wiped each other out.”

“Well, I won’t shed any tears over them. Go on, tell me the rest.”

Ancient did. When he was finished, the Shadowed One mused:

“It seems from your reports that my operatives got along quite well with the Toa and the Order, both on Xia and during your expedition.”

“After a few initial frictions, they did, yes. It was either that or be killed by our foes.”

“You even saved Kopaka Nuva’s life.”

“I did,” replied Ancient, unflinching. “And he saved ours, while we were fleeing across the ice. We would have never made it back otherwise.”

“Not to mention the fact that without him our Skakdi friends would have all perished at the hands of their fellow barbarians. Still, it seems we’re starting to get somewhat too close to these Toa. It might be a problem later.”

“Later?”

“When the time comes to get rid of the Toa, the Order and this whole Alliance.”

Ancient frowned, though he did not look surprised.

“Do you really think they will hesitate?” he asked. “An alliance of a few months can’t erase millennia of enmity. The Hunters will do as you command… and we will make examples of those who don’t, as always.”

“Will they? I would have thought so too, but now… I’m no longer certain. Comradeship creates certain bonds, it seems… even between heroes and bloodthirsty killers.”

“Well, it isn’t as if we can do anything about it. Until the Brotherhood is defeated, Dark Hunters, Order agents and Toa will have to fight side by side. There is no way to avoid it.”

The Shadowed One fixed his eyes upon his old friend.

“Unless we strike first.”

Ancient frowned again.

“I don’t follow you. You mean… before the Brotherhood is defeated?”

“That’s right. Even if this comradeship problem didn’t exist, we must remember that Helryx, at least, is not stupid. She knows we won’t accept this situation forever. The instant the Brotherhood is gone, she will turn on us. We need to act before she does.”

“You’ve always valued my opinion,” said Ancient carefully. “Allow me to speak it out once more. I think you’re overestimating the danger posed by Order and underestimating the Brotherhood. Defeating the Makuta must remain our priority. I… don’t think we should do anything foolish.”

“Oh, that’s for sure. And since I’ve recently realized that I’ve been a fool ever since the Dark Hunters were first created, I’ll stop right now.”

Ancient might have realized then that something was wrong, but it didn’t matter: the Shadowed One was simply too fast. In a split second, he pointed his staff at his old friend and unleashed a flow of crystalline protodermis. Ancient’s whole body was enveloped in a matter of seconds, but the Shadowed One kept the protodermis flow going until a shell no one could possibly hope to break through had formed. Only Ancient’s head was left free. His eyes watched as the leader of the Dark Hunters descended from his throne, his crimson stare fixed upon him… and for the first time in centuries, true fear clutched his heart.

“The moment I learned of the Order’s existence and of its power,” the Shadowed One softly said, “I knew they had to have at least one spy within our ranks. It didn’t take me much reasoning to figure out that for me not to have found out, the spy needed to be a Dark Hunter I relatively trusted. That didn’t leave many options. Still, I hesitated to get rid of you without proof… after all, you’ve been extremely valuable in the past. So I sent you to the Southern Islands and immediately discovered that the Order was no longer receiving information on our activities. That confirmed what I needed to know.”

“I won’t deny it,” said Ancient, struggling to speak with the crystal encasing his chest. “At the beginning, it was just a paid job, one like those we used to take up. Gradually, it became more than that. But I was only a spy; I never did anything to sabotage the Dark Hunters. All the advice I gave you in the past, I did it in good faith. And the same is true now. Don’t risk everything by breaking the Alliance. If a conflict ensues, the only ones who will profit from it will be the Makuta.”

“What I’m going to do is a risk, true. But I did not gain my power without taking risks. Yes, I should have acted sooner, when a Brotherhood attack wasn’t quite so imminent… but the settlers proved more difficult to control than I anticipated and besides, it took me time to reconstruct just what the Order was capable of… to realize that they are far weaker than I had originally feared. No matter. My plan will still work.”

“Plan?” gasped Ancient. “What plan? It’s madness! You will throw this island into chaos just as the Brotherhood attacks. And they will!”

“Of course they will. They have a spy in the Order of Mata Nui and possibly other ones as well. But the sea gates’ defenses are strong… the Makuta won’t get past them easily. And the Dark Hunters posted at the sea gates will fight with the Order and our other ‘allies’… nothing will change in that regard. They may be all killed, of course, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

“Madness,” repeated Ancient. “Do you truly believe that you can seize complete control of this island before the Brotherhood reaches Metru Nui?”

“Yes, I do. I have not been idle, you know. My agents have been sowing the seeds of conflict for weeks now… immensely aided by the anger that has arisen over the floating platforms and the whole settlement issue. It was no chance I placed the Recorder in charge of that business. Once I reveal my intentions, I will have plenty of allies, starting from the Skakdi warlords and ending with whoever has some sort of grudge to settle with their new neighbors… even some pitiful Matoran will side with me. And that’s not all.”

He snapped his fingers and on cue the doors opened. Ancient’s eyes widened as four members of Botar’s species walked in.

“Your leader Helryx thought she could keep all the teleporters of the Southern Islands faithful to her simply because they revere Botar as a legendary hero, almost a god,” laughed the Shadowed One. “But, as in every society, there are doubters and opportunists, who will gladly change sides for the right enticement. These four are not the only ones who have joined me and I’ll be sure to put their power to good use. Very soon, in fact. There is one last group of beings I need to win to my side and I must now leave for Kini-Koro to do just that. Don’t try to free yourself, for you know it is futile. And this room is shielded against mental power and teleportation, so summoning Botar is out. I will return soon. I most certainly won’t let you miss the fate of your Order friends.”

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Edited by Toa of Italy
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My collection of epics: The Sanctum of Writing

 

 

 

 

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FORTY-TWO

The dungeons of the Dark Hunters’ new fortress were only a fraction of the size of the old ones on Odina. After all, when the stronghold’s construction had begun, they had hardly been a priority: the Dark Hunters had arrived on Mata Nui with virtually no prisoners, having either slaughtered or abandoned to their fate the captives that had been imprisoned on Odina, and the Shadowed One had ordered that efforts be concentrated on the fortress’s defenses, especially following Lewa Nuva’s daring raid. Only a single corridor had been devoted to the prison cells that would eventually house the organization’s new captives… and in the beginning, those cells had mostly lingered empty. Not completely: as the Dark Hunters worked to keep their allies in line and broker deals with the myriad of factions, prisoners had come and gone; after all, the abduction of leaders who might require ‘persuading’ and the taking of hostages were key aspects of the organization’s negotiating strategies. But in the first few weeks the Shadowed One had ordered his operatives to keep a low profile and avoid any excessively blatant kidnappings.

All that had now changed. Over the last day or so, the organization had begun clearing the way for its new campaign, which entailed kidnapping and bringing a whole new host of prisoners. When the leader of the Dark Hunters reached the bottom of the dungeons’ staircase, he was therefore unsurprised to find the prison’s corridor crowded with blindfolded captives being crammed into the cells. The guards were being none too gentle about it: any prisoner who tried to protest or resist would be savagely beaten and possibly scheduled for an additional session of torment.

When the Dark Hunter leader appeared, his subordinates immediately slammed the prisoners against the walls to make a path for him. The Shadowed One spared no glance for the captives’ suffering; in another situation, he would have taken time to visit some of the prison cells and decide whether a prisoner should be threatened, tortured, released or executed, but today timing was critical. Walking quickly, he reached the door at the end of the corridor and passed through.

He found himself in a natural cavern, lit by great flames. The Dark Hunters had discovered this space while building the fortress and the Shadowed One had decided to incorporate it into the dungeons. Back then, it had been dark and silent; now it was lit by great flames and alive with the sound of screams, weeping and begging.

For a moment, even his task’s urgency could not prevent the Shadowed One from stopping to admire the sight that lay before him: the new torture chamber, at least, had nothing to envy the old one on Odina. Here, more than anywhere, he could perceive the power that lay within his hands: the screaming prisoners that were being tormented using the torture devices spread across the floor were completely at his mercy, a mere word from him could free them, sentence them to death or subject them to indescribable agony. They knew it too: the captives that in the cages hanging from the ceiling where awaiting their turn had turned their eyes upon him the moment he had come in, knowing that their fate depended completely and solely on him. The Shadowed One met the eyes of the Matoran of Plasma who some time before had so bravely denounced him in the congress: now all that he could see in his eyes was terror.

Dweller fell in behind him as he made his way across the chamber: in a short while, he was going to join the strike squad the Shadowed One was assembling. And so was someone else, someone who didn’t know it yet. He was being tortured at the far end of the chamber, using purpose-built devices. Their construction had been somewhat challenging for the Dark Hunters’ crafters, but it had been worth the effort, for the six Skakdi who had called themselves Piraka had been the most serious challenge to his authority in millennia and now that they lay in his hands he intended for them to know the cost of such an act. The horrifying mutation that they had already suffered before being delivered to him and that had turned them into water-breathing snakes was not sufficient, not in the least.

The crafters had done a good job: the Piraka snakes were swimming in tanks full of boiling or freezing water and were being subjected to a variety of torments. The Shadowed One particularly enjoyed the sight of Zaktan, reduced to a swirling cloud of maddened protodites through the use of ear-splitting sounds. Once the takeover of Mata Nui and the war with the Brotherhood was complete, what was left of Zaktan would be dissected in an effort to discover just what had allowed him to survive when, five thousand years earlier, the Shadowed One had blasted him with his eyebeams. Hakann, Thok, Vezok and Reidak would be tortured for weeks before finally being executed, so as to act as an example to other Hunters plotting treachery or desertion. Vezon, the seventh Piraka, who had been delivered to him as well by an Order of Mata Nui clearly wishing to get rid of him, had already been deemed useless and summarily put to death. And that just left Avak. The Shadowed One would have gladly let him enjoy the fate of his fellow traitors, but it so happened that he had a use for him.

When his torture was interrupted, it took Avak a few minutes to recover. But recover he did: the Shadowed One had ordered his torture to last less and be lighter. And then the Piraka finally beheld him and recognized him. The fear that appeared within his eyes was a delight to see.

“Avak,” he said calmly. “It is such a pleasure to see you again. You and your fellow traitors had probably hoped never to see my face again… or did you actually think you would one day return to cast me down?”

Avak did not answer.

“Not that it matters. You should have known better. Now the six of you are in my grasp once more. I have forgiven traitors before, but not this time. Your fellow… Piraka, was it?... are going to die in the most painful and terrifying way we can think of. But you still have a chance.”

Avak remained silent. It didn’t matter: the Shadowed One could see the sudden hope in his eyes.

“I have a use for you, Avak, so this is what is going to happen: you are going to put your power to the service of the Dark Hunters for as long as I see fit, executing my orders to the letter and doing so efficiently and obediently. If you do so, once I no longer need you will be awarded your freedom; once you have it, I suggest that you get away from this island as fast as that spine of yours can propel you. Is everything understood?”

Avak hesitated, but just for a moment. The Shadowed One’s offer was incredibly generous; both of them knew it. His answer was therefore virtually certain.

“What am I supposed to do… sir?”

“Your job, naturally. You’ll be a jailer. Dweller will fill you in on who your captives will be. Oh, and one more thing…”

His hand moved as fast as lightning and yanked Avak out of his tank. As the Piraka gasped, trying in vain to breathe, the leader of the Dark Hunters hissed:

“Do not delude yourself. You are not essential and I never forget treachery. Try anything, anything at all, and you will die, slowly and painfully. The deaths of your fellow traitors will be a mercy compared to what I am going to do to you.”

He threw Avak in a water-filled bowl that one of his servants were carrying him.

“We will be leaving within the hour.”

-----

As night descended upon Mata Nui the clouds that for the better part of the day had loomed over most of the island of Mata Nui at last began to discharge their rain onto the lands below. In the south of the island, the hills that lay between Lake Kanae and the sea were subjected to a powerful downpour that lasted about half an hour. The rain subsequently weakened, but kept nevertheless falling even as the sky turned black.

Neither darkness nor rain were however going to dampen the fighting ardor of the Skakdi. As night fell, the green warlady ordered a portion of her troops to make their way through the hills and try to infiltrate the plain of Lake Kanae under the cover of the night. But the bulk of her forces remained deployed around the besieged stronghold. The fierce resistance of its occupants, which had prolonged the siege beyond her expectations, had simply inflamed her desire to blast her way into the fort, seize it for herself and exterminate her foes in the process. She would not be defeated here… she would not retreat. Never.

The combined sound of dozens of war cries split the air as the Skakdi army made yet another. Other Skakdi remained behind, using weapons and eyebeams to target the defenders upon the walls. So far, the fort’s occupants had managed to beat back every attack because of their more numerous cannons, but if their artillery could be stalled for a few more moments the Skakdi would be right under the walls and the stronghold would fall. The warlady could see it happening already. The section of the wall they were aiming for had been weakened by previous attacks. A couple of well-placed explosions would open a breach. She raised her Devastator lance, ready to strike…

Light exploded out of nowhere, blazing light, so strong and bright that it seemed for a moment that the sun had come up. Blinded by the abrupt radiance, the Skakdi were stopped in their tracks, if only for a few moments. And then a wall of fire rushed up in front of them, the flames towering over the attacking warriors, burning the closest ones, their sheer heat forcing the rest to retreat. The entire assault floundered.

Standing upon the walls, Tahu Nuva fired another bright flare into the sky. This time, it was a signal. From deep beneath the ground, Onua generated a localized quake, the tremors throwing the Skakdi off their feet. And no sooner had they recovered that it was Lewa’s turn: down from the air he came, sending screaming gales rushing towards the ground, scattering the Skakdi as if they weighed no more than dry leaves. Twin tornadoes followed, sucking up everything and everyone in their path. Pohatu took advantage of the confusion to make hands of stone rise from the ground immediately before the fort to seize the closest Skakdi and hurl them away. And then the fort’s artillery opened fire, seeking to exploit the enemy’s confusion.

From the air, Lewa singled out the green warlady. She was roaring out orders, striving to regain control, but it wasn’t easy, for now cries of alarm were coming from further down the hill as well. Amidst the ranks of the Skakdi rearguard, a fiery inferno was blossoming, though there was no clear reason why.

“Ignore it!” he heard the warlady shout. “Get those robots in line. Concentrate on the fort.”

Now, we would not wish-want that, would we? thought Lewa, calling upon the winds once more. No sooner had the Nektann robots lined up that another tornado came down, smashing through the robots’ ranks, upturning even the heavy cannons. Lewa smiled mockingly as he watched the green warlady frantically look around, trying in vain to spot the source of the attack; amidst the darkness, the Toa of Air was nearly invisible.

Though you will spot-see me soon. Just short-wait.

And then Varian dropped the illusion she had created and Lewa smiled again. He, of course, had been able to see them all along, but the Skakdi rearguard was caught completely by surprise as a swarm of Tahnok appeared in their very midst, their fire shields radiating flame and scorching heat. They gave the Skakdi no chance to react and went immediately on the offensive, creating walls of flame that pushed their foes towards the top of the hill. Watching from above, Lewa smiled triumphantly as he saw the Skakdi rearguard disintegrate completely before the fires of the Bohrok, which seemed unhindered by the rain and the wet soil. At the same time, inside the fortress, he could see the warriors reading a sortie. Tahu, Onua and Pohatu, who had tunneled into the fort to negotiate with them, had not managed to convince them to attack before the Bohrok arrival, but now that the first swarm was here it should only be a matter of time. Then the Skakdi would be crushed between the two armies.

And my home-village will be avenged.

But the Skakdi had other ideas. The Tahnok were halfway up the hill when some warriors finally managed to combine their elemental powers and unleash a wave of water and ice that for a moment doused the swarm’s flames. And then, all of a sudden, it was the Skakdi who were charging: roaring their battle cry, they rushed at the fire Bohrok. Lewa was suddenly seized by dismay, as he saw the Tahnok give way before them. Exploiting the perfect night vision provided by his Adaptive Armor, he located the blue Skakdi leading the attack, but he didn’t get a chance to strike: twin energy eyebeams suddenly grazed his arm, disrupting his concentration. More beams followed, not all from the same direction. Cursing, the Toa of Air shot up, trying to confuse his attackers, but only when he shot into the clouds did he manage to escape detection.

By the time he was able to glance below again, the situation had changed for the worse. Robbed of the element of surprise, the Tahnok were heavily outpowered by the Skakdi and seemed unable to halt their offensive. Meanwhile, on the top of the hill, more Skakdi were lining up, clearly aware of the sortie about to be launched and ready to meet it.

This is dark-bad, thought Lewa. Maybe we should have long-waited from more swarms to march-arrive before quick-launching the attack.

To be sure, there was a Lehvak swarm closing in, led by Kopaka. But if the Skakdi managed to get rid of the Tahnok and beat back the sortie before the green Bohrok arrived, then what?

Lewa’s eyes found the green warlady again. She was standing conspicuously before the fort gate, ready to meet the enemy attack. His hatred suddenly came back and he knew what he had to do.

She’s the key. Trash-crush her and the Skakdi will apart-fall.

There was no time for sophisticated plans. Pushing the rockets of his Adaptive Armor to their limit, Lewa power-dived straight down, his eyes fixed on his target. About halfway to the ground, he unleashed a shockwave of air that flattened the warlady and the warriors surrounding her. He was on the ground before they could get up, using his power again to blow the other Skakdi away, leaving the warlady isolated. He watched as she picked herself to her feet, found him and grinned savagely.

“Another Toa! Let’s see if you fare any better than the other one I fought a while back.”

Lewa grinned as well, his smile almost as wide and ferocious as his opponent’s.

“Don’t much-worry. I will.”

The warlady swung her lance. Lewa somersaulted and dodged, then, before she could swing her weapon again, jumped at her, aiming a kick for her face. She swung her other hand, striking him in midair and hurling him to the ground. The Toa of Air didn’t bother getting up. Instead, he directed a concentrated beam of air at her chest, which sent her sprawling. Then he aimed his new adaptive weapon and fired three slim darts which pierced her body. The warlady stumbled, suddenly seeming to have trouble keeping her balance. Lewa immediately vaulted forward and pinned her to the ground.

He was dimly aware that there was more fighting around him. Clearly, the warriors had taken advantage of his attack to launch their sortie. He even glimpsed Pohatu dart forward out of the corner of his eye, but he almost did not care. His full attention was on the Skakdi who had ordered the destruction of Le-Koro. Her expression was dazed and she was blinking furiously, as if having trouble staying awake. Clearly, the darts had contained some kind of narcotic substance. But as Lewa raised a hand to strike and knock her unconscious, she finally managed to fix her eyes upon him.

There was no warning: excruciating pain shot through Lewa’s body, making him stumble back. Keeping her eyebeams trained on him, the warlady slowly picked herself up. The effect of the darts already seemed to be wearing off: her daze was rapidly giving way to fury. But she still wasn’t fully steady on her feet and when she suddenly stumbled, her gaze slipped away from Lewa for a moment. The Toa of Air gasped, but he knew he had to move. Raising his hand, he unleashed a gust of air to blow the warlady back. His attack struck home, but it was also just what the Skakdi needed to shake off the last effects of the darts’ drug. Picking up her Devastator lance, she slammed it onto the ground, unleashing an explosion that blasted Lewa off his feet. Then she ran straight at him, forcing him to jet into the air. A beam of pain vision brought him crashing back onto the ground. The warlady swung her Devastator straight at him, but Lewa rolled sideways, then suddenly sprung, caught the lance in midair and wrested it from its owner. Roaring in rage, the warlady charged and Lewa saw her changing as she did: somehow, she was growing in size, her teeth sharpening, her muscles bulging up, her hands turning into claws. She plowed into Lewa, talons arching for his neck; the Toa of Air caught her wrist and tried to force it back, but he could feel her strength growing with her fury and knew he could not match her for long. If he had had access to the Pakari Nuva it would have been a different fight, but his Suva had gone up with Le-Koro.

Unless…

Without warning the Toa of Air stopped pushing back and instead pulled. Caught by surprise, the Skakdi was unable to stop herself from falling forwards. Lewa moved out of the way and then fired his adaptive weapon again and again. As the narcotic darts rained upon her, the warlady shrank in size. She stumbled and collapsed, desperately trying to retain consciousness. Lewa summoned his power, preparing to create a vacuum that would cause her to pass away from lack of air.

And then a scream filled his ears and mind, a noise so strong and powerful that it drowned out everything else. For a moment, the Toa of Air no longer knew where he was or what was happening. The warlady seized her chance: putting all her remaining strength into one last blow, she swung a powerhouse fist that lifted Lewa off his feet and catapulted him backwards. Reeling from the blow and from the noise, the Toa of Air spotted more Skakdi rushing towards him. He didn’t even try to face them: instead, he took to the sky. The noise had already vanished, lasting barely a second before being abruptly cut off, yet still Lewa knew that whatever had caused it was important, far more important than his vengeance. And when he finally managed to concentrate and glanced back at the ground, and saw what was happening, he realized it had been no real scream at all. It had been a telepathic message. A cry for help.

-----

The hut was as common and nondescript as the ones that surrounded it. Located, with respect to the Kini-Nui temple, on the far side of the ravine which bisected the plateau where Kini-Koro had arisen, it lay amongst a group of dwellings that housed members of a species native to the Northern Continent. Since many of these individuals were skilled builders or crafters, they had soon been coopted to contribute to the construction of the defenses that would protect Metru Nui from the Brotherhood’s attack: for the past weeks they had thus worked in shifts, with about half of them traveling down to the island city and spending a few days working there and then returning to Mata Nui to be replaced by their kindred. The owner of this particular hut had returned two days earlier, but hadn’t managed to spend much time in her house, for during her stays in Kini-Koro she was employed at the construction site of one of great buildings that were being erected on the other side of the ravine and would return only as the sun fell, often too tired to do anything but rest. Just as she was doing right now… or so everyone thought.

When Dweller materialized inside the hut, the first thing he saw was the lithe figure of Lariska, leaning against a wall and toying with a dagger. An instant later, his mind also found the Dark Hunter Silence. As for Dweller’s own companions, they had all materialized at the same time as he: the two teleporters from Botar’s species, Avak, whose water bowl Dweller himself was holding, Guardian… and the Shadowed One himself.

“Well, look who’s here,” said Lariska. “I was about to take matters into my own hand.”

“Problems?” asked the Shadowed One. Had another one of his operatives spoken to him that way, they would have been in at the very least for a painful session of torture… but Lariska was the one person from whom he regularly tolerated impertinence, even in public.

“None. Usual routine: a Kanoka Disk of Illusion to mask my appearance when I go out and come in and no one’s any wiser to the fact that I buried the owner two days ago. Half the neighborhood is deserted anyway. As for our target, there has been no change in the guards’ movements.”

“Good. Dweller?”

“All clear, sir.

“Let’s go, then.”

Once outside, the Dark Hunters quickly made their way through the streets. There was no lack of shadows to use as concealment: though lightstones had been installed in some places, they were few and far between. Nonetheless, the Dark Hunters took care to move as quietly as possible… and the Shadowed One most of all. It was astonishing to watch him: despite the long centuries spent behind the lines, acting through others, the Dark Hunters’ leader had lost none of the ability that had allowed him, in a past so distant it was legend, to found the organization. Only Lariska seemed to match him in agility… and barely at that.

Dweller was using his power to conceal their presence from the minds of any potential onlooker… though in truth there were almost none to be perceived. Everyone was inside, sheltering from the rain… and he also perceived a diffuse sense of uncertainty, even fear: though there had been no disorders in Kini-Koro so far, the rumors from the rest of the island had spread within the town, where virtually every species and faction had at least a few representatives.

And who’s to say they are wrong? Once our plans go into full motion, this place might very well tear itself apart.

Such doubts were unlike him: ever since he had joined the Dark Hunters, he had been a loyal follower of the Shadowed One and had obeyed every order without question. Yet the terrifying experiences of Zakaz had changed him, there was no denying it: after fighting so hard to save the Allied Skakdi, it had been with difficulty that he had gone along with his leader’s instructions to persuade the warlords to rise up as soon as they reached Mata Nui; after all, knew very well that for the Shadowed One the Zakaz natives were no more than a tool and that, should they be slaughtered as they unwittingly carried out his plans, the leader of the Dark Hunters would shed no tears. Besides, the whole plan struck him as highly risky: with the Brotherhood about to attack the sea gates of Metru Nui, what was to be gained by tearing the Alliance apart?

He wasn’t the only one with such thoughts; plenty of Dark Hunters had pretty much the same opinion. He had even detected strong reluctance in the mind of Lariska, normally one of the Dark Hunters who most relished violence and risk. Fortunately for Dweller, upon his arrival to Mata Nui, it had been to him, and to Guardian, that the Shadowed One had turned to identify potential traitors. He had thus been able to expose the Hunters having potentially disloyal thoughts whilst keeping his own concealed. Only in the case of Lariska had he neglected to inform the Shadowed One: the assassin was after all the Hunters’ best operative, not easily replaced… not to mention the fact that Dweller might as well start digging his own tomb if Lariska found out he had outed her.

Up ahead, the Shadowed One called a halt. Dweller immediately banished his doubts: there would be time enough to ponder them later. Right now, he had to devote his whole focus to the task at hand.

They had reached their destination; the building they were targeting, far larger than the nearby huts, was up ahead, surrounded by a wide plaza. That alone made it unique in Kini-Koro: everywhere else, buildings were clustered together. Not so here, where the residents had gladly left this space unoccupied: no one dared to live too close to the Bahrag, queens of the Bohrok swarms.

Dweller gulped silently. He could perceive the Bahrag easily enough: thousands of telepathic messages were issuing out of the building with every second that passed, relaying the queens’ will to the swarms scattered across the entire island of Mata Nui. It was a frightening display of power, to say the least; compared to the Bahrag, his own telepathic powers were negligible. It was all he could do to shield the strike squad from their perception… and there was certainly no question of concealing them from the eyes of the Bohrok Kaita guarding the building: should he attempt to interfere with the minds of the Krana guiding the Kaita, he was certain the Bahrag would sense it immediately.

But the Dark Hunters had come prepared for this. Lariska unlimbered the Kanoka Disk of Concealment she had brought specifically for this and immediately struck first Silence and then herself with it, vanishing from view. Dweller himself saw their minds easily enough as they ventured out towards the Kaita and pushed himself to the limit to shield them from the Bahrag’s telepathy.

Everything unfolded swiftly. Without giving any warning, Lariska and Silence attacked a Bohrok Kaita each, yanking out its Krana. At the same time, the Shadowed One unleashed his devastating eyebeams, vaporizing in rapid succession two more Kaita. The Bahrag felt it instantly: Dweller perceived them becoming aware, felt the power that controlled thousands of Bohrok seeking whoever had dared to destroy their minions. But the strike team was already on the move, dashing towards the building. Guardian’s Rhotuka spinner allowed him to seize control of the stone wall and create a gap within it. The Dark Hunters dashed inside… and found themselves in a vast hall, face to face with the twin Bohrok queens.

For a moment, Dweller faltered. The Bahrag were huge: smaller than the Tahtorak, admittedly, but far more powerful. Worse, he could feel Avak and the teleporters faltering as well… and the entire plan relied on them.

“Who are you?” thundered the red Bahrag, Gahdok.

In answer, the Shadowed One unleashed his disintegrating eyebeams. They did little damage: the leader of the Dark Hunters had purposefully reduced their power. But the Bahrag still felt them. As the Shadowed One attacked again and again, they screeched in pain and fury and summoned their power, preparing to obliterate their tiny attacker.

But now the first teleporter was on the move. Frightening though the Bahrag might be, this one had long ago learned to control his fear: an experienced hunter and warrior, he had joined the Dark Hunters because he was dissatisfied with the role of mere messengers his kindred had been given. Among the defectors’ minds, his had shone with the greatest courage, which had led Dweller to advise the Shadowed One to select him for the strike team. Now his judgment proved correct: as the attention of the Bahrag was focused on the Shadowed One, twin energy tendrils lashed out from a weapon the teleporter was holding, given to him by the Dark Hunters, and each one coiled around a claw of one Bahrag. The queens tensed, their great strength more than sufficient to free them.

But they did not get the chance. For there was a wall appearing now around them, transparent and translucent. Dweller felt the twins’ puzzlement, perceived it turn to alarm as they felt their telepathic links to the Bohrok swarms being cut off. Fire, water, stone, acid and more crashed against the strange barrier that was enveloping them, but to no avail; Avak’s ability allowed him to create the perfect cage for any being, even one as powerful as the two sisters. The last emotions Dweller detected were fear and panic… and then the cage’s telepathic screen fully established itself: the queens were cut off from his perception and even their formidable mental powers were blocked. Every single link to the Krana scattered across Mata Nui was instantly cut off.

The building was now shaking violently, masonry raining from the ceiling. Guardian and Silence had not been idle during the struggle. Using respectively Rhotuka spinners and a Cordak Blaster stolen from the Order of Mata Nui, they had been attacking the walls and roof of the building, attempting to disable the embedded wards that made the place teleport-proof. They had to hurry: with the Bahrag bound, the Bohrok Kaita were no longer a threat, but Dweller knew that now the whole of Kini-Koro was aware that a battle was taking place here; the Order of Mata Nui might arrive within moments. An entire wall suddenly caved in and the teleporters nodded to the Shadowed One: “It is enough!”

“Take us out!” ordered the Dark Hunter leader. The Dark Hunters clustered around one teleporter, whilst the other one willed his power to flow out along the energy tendrils that connected him to the Bahrag. Only Lariska was left out: to her, the Shadowed One had now given another task. The other Hunters, the two teleporters and the Bahrag disappeared as one.

A moment later, they were deep underground, in a bunker built under the Dark Hunter fortress; a bunker designed specifically for this. Dweller leaned against the wall, panting heavily, incredulous that everything had gone according to plan. The other squad members were reacting similarly.

All but the Shadowed One. The leader of the Dark Hunters marched towards the caged Bahrag and stared straight at them.

“Release us!” roared the blue one, Cahdok.

“Do you recognize me?” replied the Shadowed One calmly.

The sisters hesitated.

“You call yourself the Shadowed One,” said then Gahdok.

“Correct. I am the leader of the Dark Hunters. And the two of you are now in my power.”

He gestured at several more Dark Hunters that had been waiting in the bunker. On cue, they raised a series of long staffs and approached the Bahrag. Avak modified his cage in order to allow them through and the instruments were pressed against the bodies of the queens, who were powerless to prevent it.

“Do it,” said the Shadowed One.

The staffs were activated… and the energy began to course through them and flow into the bodies of the Bahrag. The queens screeched in agony. The Shadowed One waited a few minutes, then ordered the torture devices to be withdrawn.

“This is just a taste of what is in store if you choose to defy me. The torture can begin again and continue as long as necessary. Unless you agree to serve me and to put the Bohrok under my command.”

“We have a duty to perform!” roared Cahdok. “We will never bow to you!”

“Fine. Avak, separate them.”

The Piraka nodded. A moment later, the two queens were locked in separate cages. These were harder for the Piraka to maintain, but since his captives were identical, it was not impossible.

Now the torture began again, but this time only on Gahdok. Cahdok watched as her sister was once more forced to suffer the worst pain imaginable… and shared the pain. Dweller could see it well: the two queens were bound together, two halves of the same being, a link that even the cages could not destroy. For Cahdok, the knowledge that her sister was in torment and that she was powerless to prevent was agony in itself. Ultimately, she held out for even less than Dweller would have expected.

“Stop! Stop, I beg you! We’ll do what you ask.”

The Shadowed One smiled.

“Good. But not both of you. I will release you, Cahdok, so that you can control the Bohrok. But your sister remains caged. Do anything against my will, and she will endure the worst pain imaginable. You will also allow Dweller to monitor all your mental communications, so that we can be sure you’re not sending requests for help. Is everything clear?”

Cahdok hesitated. But then the instruments of torture were once more pointed at her sister and she thus answered:

“Yes.”

And so it was that the gamble of the Shadowed One proved successful. For with Cahdok’s assent, the full might of the Bohrok swarms was now in the hands of the Dark Hunters.

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Edited by Toa of Italy

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My collection of epics: The Sanctum of Writing

 

 

 

 

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