Slowly, Jaller pushed himself up off the ground. He blinked, but his sight remained blurry. Standing up, he reached out for something to balance himself with and grabbed hold of a tree branch.
“Why am I so dizzy?”
He was starting to see more clearly now. Oddly, however, he couldn’t help but feel everything looked…smaller. Assuming he must not be recovering as fast as he thought, he put a hand to his head. But the hand that responded to his command didn’t look familiar.
Jaller looked down at himself. His body had changed completely, now at least twice as tall as he had been before and looking much more muscular, covered in red and gold armor with cyan lines that started at his extremities and all ran back to meet at the center of his chest. There was also a weight on his back, like he was carrying something.
“I look like…Toa Tahu.”
That was when he remembered. He and the others had been driven to the edge of a cliff by the Enforcers, outnumbered and overpowered. Just before they moved in, Jaller remembered looking up at the sky, and seeing a flash from the six stars that represented the Toa. He remembered bolts of lightning shooting out, striking them all, a sudden rush of energy, and then…nothing.
Wait, where are the others?
Setting the mystery of his appearance aside for the moment, Jaller spun and surveyed the forest clearing, nearly tripping over his new limbs in the process. Walking a short distance, he came upon a river cutting through the trees. Someone was crouched on its bank, someone with a similar build to him but with dark blue and white armor. The metal plating sported the same cyan lines, and she carried a sword with a hook on its tip. Though she didn’t exactly look familiar, Jaller had an idea of who it might be.
“Hahli?” he asked tentatively.
She looked up at him. “…Jaller? Is that you?” Smiling, she stood, stuffing a few seashells into her bag as she did. “I’m glad to see you’re okay.”
“What’re those shells for?”
“These? For trading. There’s someone back at the City who can use these, and if I can grab a few more and handful of seaweed she should be able to make something really useful!”
Jaller sighed. Yep. Only Hahli would collect materials so obsessively.
“Anyway,” Jaller said, “let’s track down the others and see if we can get back to the City. Maybe someone there can explain what’s going on.”
As Hahli nodded in response, they heard a twig snap. A moment later, they heard another. She drew her sword, meanwhile Jaller reached for his back to find out what he was carrying. There were two weapons there, with guards made of jagged gold and blades that looked like crimson tongues of flame. He tried to find a good stance with them, but soon a voice could be heard over the sound of snapping, one Jaller thought he recognized.
“…doesn’t make any sense! They’re specifically programmed not to harm villagers, didn’t look damaged in any way. I mean, even if they were somehow damaged, there are safeguards in place to prevent exactly this! Oh, how in the world did this happen?!”
Jaller and Hahli moved forward to find the source: a tall, broad-shouldered being encased in black armor that bore cyan lines identical to the ones on their armors, with a small, plain-looking metal cylinder mounted on one wrist. He stopped when he saw them, and for a moment they just stared at each other.
“I’m guessing that’s you, Nuparu?” Jaller asked.
Nuparu looked between the two of them. “…Jaller…Hahli. Right. I suppose it would be stranger if I was the only one affected.”
“What happened, Nuparu?” Hahli asked. “Why were those Enforcers chasing us?”
Nuparu threw his arms wide. “That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out! When I built the Enforcers, I programmed them never to harm a villager—well, barring certain very extreme circumstances—and added at least two dozen safety protocols to prevent them from even considering violating that directive. They should have self-destructed before they started firing at us!”
“Take it easy,” Jaller said. “We’ll figure this out later. For now, let’s just find the others.”
Continuing to grumble to himself, Nuparu nonetheless fell into step behind the two of them as they went deeper into the forest. Angry shouting drew their attention, bringing them to where a large being with brown and gunmetal armor was slowly making his way up a tree. The shouting, however, was coming from further up, where someone in green armor was wedged between two branches.
“Hurry it up! When you said you were going to help, I figured you’d actually be of some help!”
The climber grinned. “I am helping, Kongu. But it’d be too easy if I just jumped up there and knocked you loose—it takes a lot more precision this way, and by taking my time it’ll help me build up some greater stamina.”
“And what if those Enforcers come back, huh? What then? You gonna ask them to wait politely while you continue stamina-building? Think they’ll go for that, Hewkii?”
Jaller tried not to smile as he called, “Hewkii!” The brown armored one turned. “Please, just get him down. We shouldn’t waste time.”
“Jaller?” Kongu asked, craning his neck. “Is that you? Finally someone with sense! Hey, you heard him: get me down from here!”
Sighing heavily, Hewkii dropped to the ground and produced his weapon, a long chain with a large metal sphere at either end. After spinning one end for a few seconds, he yanked and sent it flying at the branches clamped around Kongu, splintering them instantly and causing his friend to fall out of the tree with a loud thud.
“…Gee, thanks,” Kongu mumbled as he dusted himself off.
“At least I got practice with this new weapon,” Hewkii said, mostly to himself.
“Yeah, good for you. And it looks like the three of you got something? Huh. Seems like whoever did whatever to us didn’t see fit to give little old me a weapon of my own.”
The tree continued shaking, and soon another object fell out of its branches. Kongu turned to see something resembling the Elemental Blasters of the Protectors, only enlarged and lengthened into a cannon about the same size as him, and with the addition of a second handle under the barrel to provide better grip. For a time he just stood there, his expression frozen in surprise as he stared at the weapon.
Finally looking upward, he whispered, “Thank you.”
Jaller shook his head. He noticed Hahli picking some berries behind him, so he tapped her on the shoulder to let her know they were moving on—she caught up faster than Kongu, who took a while to figure out how to properly lift his cannon and refused to accept any more help from Hewkii.
After a few minutes the trees began to thin. Coming closer to the edge of the forest, they could spot movement nearby and slowed in caution. Jaller prepared to draw his swords as he strafed around a tree to get a better look: it was someone with white armor similar to theirs, with the same cyan pattern, though a bit shorter than any of them, and he carried two small shields on his arms. He was currently producing an odd series of whistles and clicks, and a bird sitting on a nearby branch was mimicking the sounds back at him.
“That’s Matoro, for sure,” Jaller said.
Matoro turned sharply as they came into view. After whistling to the bird once more, he said, “Hello, everyone. At least, I’m assuming it’s you. It’s a bit hard to be sure.”
Jaller greeted Matoro and then looked past him. The plains continued on a short way before turning to foothills, and behind that the mountains steadily rose. Pointing, he said, “The City of the Mask Makers should be that way, if I’m not mistaken. Let’s get home and start figuring out just what’s happened to us.”
“And what’s happened to the Enforcers,” Hahli said.
“Right,” Nuparu said through gritted teeth. “If I tear one of those malfunctioning units apart I should get a pretty good idea.”
As they began to move, the bird Matoro had been talking to started to squawk and flap its wings, causing the Ice villager to take notice. The creature flew away, and he said, “Um, I think we should—“
He was cut off as a blast of energy struck the ground nearby, kicking up a thick cloud of dirt and knocking the six off their feet. Nuparu was the first to get up—he traced the blast’s trajectory and glared at the foothills, spotting something glowing. Attached to a metal base with eight small legs was a gigantic red gun, its barrel composed of several connected plates of thick armor with green light pulsing from its depths.
“It’s an Artillery Model Enforcer!” he shouted. “Darn, that’s malfunctioning too?! Take cover!”
The Enforcer glowed brighter as it prepared another shot. The villagers scrambled back into the forest, and when the next blast hit they were well clear of the impact.
“What’s our best chance, Nuparu?” Jaller asked.
“Any one of us could disable it if we got close enough, but therein lies the trick. We’d be sitting ducks if we tried to approach it!”
Kongu hefted his weapon. “I mean…I could just take it out from right here? I’m sure this thing can match its range.”
“Are you sure you know how to use that?” Jaller asked.
“Point and shoot. How complicated could it be?”
Not waiting for approval, Kongu went to find a better position. Before he could, however, something struck him in the leg, making him crumple and lose his grip on the cannon. The others spun to see three forms moving towards them. Each was made entirely of black and white metal, with a pulsing orange crystal at the center of their broad torso, and had a sleek, narrow head with a vaguely insectoid look. The machines had three long multi-jointed legs, and mounted where their left arm should have been was a rifle that crackled with electricity. The only arm they had was oversized and heavily armored, ending in four flexible claws that were currently being used to uproot the trees that stood in the automata’s way.
“Infantry Model Enforcers,” Matoro identified. He shrank behind his shields, and some of the others followed his lead.
Jaller set a hand on Kongu’s shoulder. “Can you move?”
Kongu watched his leg as he tested it. Slowly, he got upright, saying, “I…actually feel fine. The stun only lasted a few seconds. Think they’re running low on power?”
One of the Enforcers moved forward, swinging its massive arm towards him. Jaller parried the strike with both of his swords while Kongu scrambled back. Above them, a flash and the sound of tree branches breaking notified the team that the Artillery Model hadn’t given up on them yet.
“Kongu, we’re still counting on you to take that one out,” Jaller said as he repelled the Infantry. “Matoro, you go with him and make sure he doesn’t get shot from behind.”
Hesitantly, Matoro nodded. Kongu lifted his cannon and said, “Yeah, getting shot once in a day is enough for me. C’mon, pal.”
As they retreated, one of the Infantry fired another stun bolt at Kongu—leaping forward, Matoro caught it on his shield, and the two of them quickened their pace as their allies moved to form a line. The machine in front of Jaller seemed to regard him curiously as its companions advanced.
“Nuparu, if you have any advice, this is the time,” the Fire villager said.
“Hmm…what are we now, 6 feet, 7?” Nuparu held a hand above his eyes and squinted. “Yeah, that should work. Okay, aim for the top of the chest!”
The Enforcer before Jaller pushed its claws together and lengthened them into a single long blade. It slashed, and Jaller barely had time to block. While he was distracted, it shot him with its stun gun, making him fall to his knees, and then reared back to swing again. However, Jaller regained his bearings near-instantly. Rolling out of the way, he sprang up and made a high swing, missing the target Nuparu had indicated but dealing a solid hit to the machine’s face.
As Hewkii and Hahli engaged the other two, the latter asked, “Is that their weak point?”
“Essentially,” Nuparu replied, edging away. “If enough pressure is applied there, it’ll trigger a mechanism that ejects their power cores, rendering them inactive.”
“Not exactly sporting,” Hewkii said. He dodged the Enforcer’s attack and threw a punch, snapping the barrel off of its stun gun. Taking a moment to duck, he reached up as its arm passed over him and pulled, flipping it over. The Enforcer’s legs twisted and quickly got it back on its feet. Rather than pressing his advantage, Hewkii hung back and let the Enforcer balance itself.
Hahli swung her sword blindly, managing to push the Enforcer back. A stun bolt sailed past her and went on until it struck Nuparu. Narrowly blocking a swipe, she shouted, “You could lend a hand, you know!”
“I’m an engineer, not a fighter!” Nuparu replied, rubbing his numb shoulder.
“Well you’ll have to adapt! You’ve got a weapon, so use it!”
Nuparu grumbled as he looked over the cylinder on his wrist. “Mmm…doesn’t have a trigger…no buttons…how do you use this?”
Hahli made a clean cut through the arm of the Enforcer she was dueling, prompting it to put some distance between them. She watched it closely, but suddenly something bumped into her from behind—Jaller had backed up without realizing she was there, and in a second they were both stunned.
“Darn it,” Jaller said. “Sorry about that.”
“No, it’s—“ Hahli started, cutting herself off to pull Jaller out of the way of another bolt.
Meanwhile, Kongu and Matoro had found a ridge to hide behind to initiate their assault on the Artillery Model Enforcer. Matoro kept an eye on the forest just in case, while Kongu alternated between ducking behind the natural barrier and springing up to unload as many shots as he could. Each time he pulled the cannon’s trigger, its barrel began to rotate ferociously, letting off green-hued energy blasts faster than he could count. To his credit, his aim was excellent, but the Artillery Model’s armor was designed to take quite a bit of punishment and keep returning the favor. Progress was ultimately rather slow.
“Shoot,” Kongu said as he ducked again. The ridge rattled as a shot hit it, shaking loose a layer of dust that floated over him. “How’s a guy to enjoy his shiny new Cannon O’ Death if the target refuses to actually die?”
“W-Well, it seems to be working.”
“But it’s taking forever! Aren’t you getting impatient?”
“I don’t think I’d say that.”
“Okay, just me. I’m gonna get closer.”
Matoro jumped. “What?! But that’s dangerous, and unnecessary! It’ll shoot you for sure!”
Kongu was already peering over the ridge, trying to pick out the best path. “Making sure it doesn’t is your job, remember?”
“My shields can’t block those artillery blasts!”
Another blast rocked their hiding spot, and then Kongu leapt into action. “Don’t worry, I believe in you!”
Frantically, Matoro sprinted after him.
Back in the forest, Jaller and Hahli were still staying low to avoid stun bolts while Hewkii grappled with his chosen foe. Apparently forgotten by the Enforcers, Nuparu continued to poke at his weapon, trying to figure out how it worked. In frustration he grabbed it and pulled, but after it moved back a few inches he heard a click, and the cylinder immediately shot back to its initial position and began to emit a whine. Yellow energy began to gather at the end above his hand.
“Oh,” he said. “Um, okay, then do I just…?”
He spun and pointed at the Enforcers. Nothing happened.
He tried pulling the weapon again only to find it was locked in place. When he clenched his fist, however, an orb of yellow energy launched through the air, landing a few meters behind his targets.
“Ah, I missed.”
The moment the orb hit the ground, it burst into a brilliant explosion of light that reduced at least a dozen trees to ash, the shockwaves enough to knock the two Enforcers attacking Jaller and Hahli off of their feet. Nuparu’s eyed widened as he processed the event.
Hahli wasted no time marveling. She charged at the nearest Enforcer and thrust her blade, the tip piercing straight through the armor beneath its neck and causing its whole body to stiffen. The plating down its chest slid apart suddenly, and its core was unceremoniously dumped onto the forest floor. Hahli pulled back and watched the Enforcer warily—it remained frozen in place, the light gone from its eyes.
Jaller, however, took a little more time getting up. The Enforcer was on him in seconds and swung its arm, sending him sprawling. Hahli turned to help, but the Enforcer spun and aimed its stun gun, delaying her aid. Gripping his swords tightly, Jaller glared up at the Enforcer as it readied its own blade, a powerful rage boiling up from within him. As it swung down, he swung up. Before their blades met, Jaller’s mask glowed faintly, followed by his sword. The Enforcer’s blade snapped in two as a wave of flame and electricity surged forth from Jaller’s weapon, searing off the machine’s head and arcing high into the sky above. The four villagers stared in disbelief as the sparking, charred remains of the disabled Enforcer staggered to the ground.
What just happened? Jaller wondered as he gazed at his sword.
Unfortunately for Hewkii, the final Enforcer wasn’t as easily distracted by the display. With a powerful uppercut, it flung the Stone villager across the clearing, and then took a cautious step forward.
“Stay back!” Nuparu warned, pulling on his weapon. Hahli and Jaller ran in the opposite direction as the Enforcer faced Nuparu, and before it could formulate a plan of attack, an explosive sphere reduced it to scrap.
Hewkii groaned as he sat up. “Hey, that one was mine!”
“And you probably could have beaten it by now if you’d gone for the weak point,” Hahli replied. “You didn’t even use your weapon—were you even trying?”
“Of course I was! I just wanted to put a little extra challenge in it is all.”
Hahli sighed and shook her head. Stooping next to the defeated Enforcer, she picked up its core and stuffed it into her bag, along with a moss-covered rock that was lying nearby. Jaller stored his swords and approached Nuparu.
“Any new insight?” he asked.
The inventor shrugged. “Not at the moment. Hey, what was that, when you…”
“I don’t know.” Jaller looked into the sky for a moment. “But...wait. Where are Kongu and Matoro?”
The four of them ran out of the forest to find their friends running over open field in the general direction of the Artillery Model, weaving back and forth as fast as they could to avoid the energy blasts being hurled towards them. Kongu answered each of the Enforcer’s shots with a few rounds of his own, but then quickly got moving again, while Matoro served mainly as a distraction.
“What are they doing?!” Hahli exclaimed. “They’re going to get themselves killed!”
Jaller pointed a sword at the Enforcer, hoping he could duplicate the electric flamethrower from before. All he got was a faint sizzle. The Enforcer let off another shot, barely missing Kongu; the Jungle villager prepared to retaliate, but his foot caught on a rock in his path, and he fell flat with his cannon pinning him under its enormous weight.
“Kongu!” Nuparu shouted. He ran forward and began charging his weapon, but he wasn’t sure he could launch it far enough to be helpful. Hewkii, Hahli, and Jaller were right behind him, though they had even less of an idea of what to do.
As Kongu struggled to free himself, the Enforcer took note of his vulnerability and prepared another shot. Energy shone along the length of its barrel as it swiveled around, and with a futile grunt, Kongu braced himself.
In all of this, nobody, not even the Enforcer, was paying attention to Matoro. Being the closest to the living gun, he realized he was the one with the best chance to save Kongu. Without thinking much more, he dropped one shield, grabbed the other with both hands, and spun around a few times before hurling it with all his might. The flung shield whizzed through the air towards the Enforcer, and ultimately lodged itself in the cannon’s deadly maw. The firing sequence had already begun, but with the barrel stopped, the energy had nowhere to go. With a terrible roar, the Enforcer’s gun barrel exploded into shrapnel. Matoro fell to his knees and let out a loud breath.
From where he lay, Kongu glanced at Matoro. Slowly, he grinned, and said, “And you said your shields wouldn’t be of any use against the thing.”
The six villagers stood silently in the Temple of Creation. Before them, Ekimu sat at his workbench, carving details into a newly-made mask. Upon returning to the City they had been brought to the Mask Maker and explained what had happened, and now, they waited patiently for his response.
Setting down the mask, Ekimu looked up at the ceiling. “I see…then it seems things are worse than I feared.”
He stood and faced them. “First of all, as for your antagonists, you should know that it is not an isolated incident. I have begun to hear of Enforcers going rogue in every Region.”
Nuparu tensed. “But that…it still doesn’t make any sense! They were built for the sole purpose of protecting villagers! The cores weren’t damaged, their processors were fine, every safeguard should still be functioning! Mask Maker, I swear I did everything—“
Ekimu held up a hand. “I know this is not your fault, Nuparu. But whatever the case, something must be done about this crisis…and it would seem you six have been selected.”
“Selected?” Jaller repeated. “Selected by whom?”
Chuckling, Ekimu said, “Isn’t it obvious? You have been selected by the Toa to act in their stead.”
Everyone exchanged glances. Kongu rolled his eyes.
“It has been only four years since the Toa left us. Since it takes the planets one thousand years to align, they will be unable to help us deal with any new threats that may arise in the meantime—even were we to use the Mask of Time again, it could take years, perhaps decades to bring their arrival. But they would not simply leave us without the means to defend ourselves.”
Pointing at the six, he went on, “You said lightning fell from the Toa’s stars, and transformed you. That bolt ignited something deep within each of you, bringing out a power you did not know you possessed. The Toa have foreseen an impending disaster, and they have granted their power to you so that you may stop it.”
“You’re saying that we have the power of the Toa now?” Hahli asked. “…Jaller did summon fire…”
Jaller shifted. “Maybe, but it wasn’t like Tahu’s fire. It was flame and electricity together—I’ve never heard of him doing that.”
“Is it so surprising that the lightning that transformed you is with you still?” Ekimu asked. “You are a different kind of Toa, created to face a different problem. You may need these different abilities in order to succeed.”
Hewkii flexed one arm, feeling his new strength. “So this is the power of the Toa! Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go be heroes!”
“But…what exactly are we supposed to do?” Matoro asked.
Hewkii opened his mouth to speak, but found he was at a loss. He sheepishly turned to Ekimu.
“For the time being, I believe you should each return to your home Regions,” the Mask Maker advised. “Your Protectors can assist you in learning to control the Elemental Power at your disposal, and more importantly, you must keep your villages safe from the Enforcers. And, once the Protectors feel you are ready…you will undergo a trial to achieve even greater power.”
“Golden masks, probably?” Kongu asked. When Ekimu nodded, he muttered, “Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“I will investigate this matter more closely,” Ekimu said. “Were these simply random malfunctions, we wouldn’t need Toa. I suspect something far more dangerous is behind these rogue machines…”
Ekimu held out his hands, and looked at the new Toa one by one. “Jaller, Star of Fire. Hahli, Star of Water. Hewkii, Star of Stone. Kongu, Star of Jungle. Nuparu, Star of Earth. And Matoro, Star of Ice. You have inherited the mantle of the Toa, and it now falls to you to master the power you have been given and use it to protect your home. I have faith that you will face your task with great courage and perseverance. Best of luck.”
Satisfied, the Toa took their leave. On his way out of the Temple, Jaller stopped in front of a sheet of metal, noticing his reflection. He still had trouble recognizing that it was really him.
He reached out, pressing his hand against the image.
Ekimu says we’ve become Toa. Are we still the people we used to be…or have we really become the Toa? Am I still Jaller? Or has Jaller been replaced by Tahu?
He wondered what his friends would think when they saw him. As he thought of them, it reminded him of the Enforcers, and that even those in the Region of Fire were going rogue. Pulling away, Jaller continued on his way out of the Temple.
Either way, it’s up to me to keep them safe. And I’m going to make sure that I do.