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Aderia

The Ternion

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Synopsis: A stasis capsule from an era past washes up on the shore of a small coastal town, Uahi, in the north-western region of the Northern Continent. A careful Toa of Fire, the sole guardian of the region so recently desolated by the conquests of the League of Six Kingdoms, is called to investigate. This is the story about what he found that day. 

 


 
The Ternion 
 

 

Chapter 1: Salvaged
 
    “Toa Inokas!” At the shout from a quickly approaching Bo-Matoran, the Toa of Fire cut off the fine jet of his element he had been aiming at the broken joint in the Ussal cart. “Here, put these on, and hold the two ends of the joint together for two minutes. Keep a constant pressure.” He handed a pair of heat-resistant gloves to the Ussal driver he was helping, and turned and stood to face the cry that had interrupted him. 
 
    “Tirpi, is something wrong?” he asked the Matoran of the Green, jogging towards the other to meet him. 
 
    “No, nothing wrong, no danger,” the Matoran replied, catching his breath. “It’s just, Ixie and I, we found a huge stasis tube, we think, and towed it in. Ixie went to go get the historian, and I came to find you. It’s down on the beach, can you come take a look?” The two Matoran had been working salvaging duty that day. It had been over a hundred years since the League conquests stopped, but they were still busy as ever, cleaning their coast and waters of wreckage from the naval battles that had raged along their shores. But this large stasis tube was much older looking, and much more intact than any shipwreckage. 
 
    Inokas glanced at the Ussal driver, who jerked his head toward the beach. “Of course,” the Toa said. “Lead the way.” 
 
    Tirpi set off at a brisk trot, with which the Toa had no trouble keeping pace. 
 
    “Nothing interesting ever happens here,” the Bo-Matoran was saying. “Like, last month, that Le-Matoran over in Dihe had to put down a wounded Kavinika wolf, but that’s really it.” 
 
    “Interesting is just a matter of perspective," Inokas told him. “We’ve made pretty good progress rebuilding and reordering our villages the past couple decades, I’d say.” 
 
    Inokas, Tirpi, Ixie, the Ussal driver and his Ussal, and about a thousand other Matoran lived in the northwestern sector of the Northern Continent, spread between three villages. Toa Inokas, the only Toa who permanently lived there now, oversaw the three villages - Arju, Dihe, and his own village, Uahi. After the League’s conquests had reached their port city, the inhabitants joined many other Northerners who had fled to the central city, complete with a Toa Fortress. And now, slowly, painstakingly, but steadily, villagers were moving back, rebuilding their old settlements, picking up their old trades, or starting new ones. It was almost like a new world, in a way. At first, nobody seemed to want to build anything permanent, for fear of being overrun again. Rumors that the Barraki weren’t really gone ran rampant, and disgruntled remnants of the Barraki armies remained. But as time marched onward, and no conquests ran them over again, and permanent villages began to develop again. Trade between regions was even picking up speed, to everyone’s excitement. 
 
    “Toa, are you ever going to go back to the Fortress?” Tirpi asked. 
 
    “No, most of the Toa there have been reassigned to the Southern Island Chains to continue liberation and restoration efforts. They have more than enough Toa there anyways,” Inokas said. “I can be of more use here.” Welding broken Ussal carts, organizing and overseeing reconstruction projects, advising trade and surveying general safety of the three villages, facilitating council meetings between leaders of his three villages to discuss development, emergency action plans, and so on. After an exhausting age of war and displacement and combat and fear, he and his villagers really were grateful for this reprieve, this time to rebuild the lives they once had but seemed like a long-past dream now. “If I signed on for duty at the Fortress, I’d have to spend at least two weeks of every month patrolling or training with them. There’s really no need for more training or anything. Not right now, anyways.” 
 
    When his village, along with all the others in the region, were forced to flee to Central City, Inokas and his mentor, Toa Zoru, had both joined the ranks in the Toa Fortress, along with about one hundred other Toa from the Continent and surrounding islands. Zoru, an older, experienced Toa of Plasma, had been transferred to the giant citadel on the Southern Continent. Inokas, then a rather young Toa, had stayed at the Northern Fortress and received thorough but combat-based elemental and physical training. Zoru’s mentoring had been more of a day-to-day type deal - dealing with territorial Rahi, occasional smugglers, and so on. 
 
    Unfortunately, after they returned to resettle the remains of their villages, the inhabitants of Uahi received only Toa Zoru’s mask, a Kanohi Volitak, and his combat medals in memoriam. There had also been a Toa of Stone who lived in Arju, which was then a suburb of Uahi, who didn’t return. That left Inokas, now a veteran of well over a dozen battles, to protect and help oversee the three villages. 
 
    “Ixie! Vai!” The Bo-Matoran broke again into a run as he and Inokas emerged onto the sands of the beach from the town path through the sparse, sapling forest. The Ga-Matoran and Onu-Matoran were already there, scrubbing away at sea-grit and plantlife from the large object in question. 
 
    “Toa Inokas!” they greeted him. 
 
    “Ixie, Vai. Good to see you. What do we have here?” 
 
   Ixie and Tirpi again related their short tale of hauling in the container, and turned to Vai. “Right? This is a stasis container?” 
 
    “Well, it’s not like any I’ve seen, but that is what it appears to be,” said the Onu-Matoran. Vai, the resident historian, had spent a few decades on a student visa studying history and even Archiving in Metru Nui, the Great City itself. He also taught history in Central City a few months every decade or so, as well. “It’s pretty old, you can tell because of the opacity level. You can hardly tell what’s inside.” 
 
    “Do you think it’s a Rahi?” Ixie asked. 
 
    “It could be,” answered Vai. “Look at the size of this thing.” 
 
    To a Matoran, the hexagonal container was large, yes. All three of them could have crouched inside with a bit of room to spare, although, if one were standing straight and tall, the top of the container was at about eye-level. “There are also types of stasis tubes I’ve studied that hold specimens of plant-life, or types of machinery that are prone to rust or decay. Here, work on that end,” he said, and tossed a multi-tool to Tirpi, motioning to start unscrewing the two metal plates sealing each end of the stasis tube. 
 
    “Do we want to open this here?” Inokas questioned. 
 
    “If what’s inside is dead, we can just sink it easily in the sea,” Ixie pointed out. “And if it’s something useful, we can just take it back to Uahi.” 
 
    “And if it’s something alive?” the Toa prompted. He wasn’t particularly worried, but he did want these curious and somewhat impulsive Matoran to think through their actions the whole way. Out of all the Matoran to make a discovery, it had to be three of the most excitable ones. He thanked the Great Spirit they actually came to get him before they decided to open the container. 
 
    “If it’s something alive, it probably will take a few hours, at least, for the effects of the stun gas inside to wear off,” replied Vai, wrestling with a particularly stubborn screw. 
 
    Inokas smiled. He also knew that’s why he was here, in case they didn’t like what they found. “Here.” He crouched and placed a hand on the metal cap. “Watch out.” He waited for Vai to step out of the way. 
 
    “Don’t damage the outer shell,” the Onu-Matoran warned. 
 
    “I’m just loosening it, don’t worry,” he reassured him, resting a hand on the grimy metal. With minimal hissing and wisps of steam as the Toa heated the metal cap, it dropped to the sand with a muted thud. Vai immediately knelt to examine the stamp revealed on the underside of the cap.
 
    As he stood and walked the few paces to the other end of the stasis tube, he readied his glaive. “Tirpi, Ixie Vai, I’d like you to stand back, please. Just in case.” 
 
    “Toa, do you always anticipate the worst?” Ixie sighed, but obliged. 
 
    “It’s my job,” the Fire Toa said, even as the second cap dropped to the ground. 
 
    “See, nothing hap-“
 
    Inokas held up one hand to stop her from stepping back up to the container, and with the other, rested his blade on the edge of the container. A thin line of fire blazed down the center, and the two halves of the two layers of stasis tube fell away. 
 
    Inokas lowered his blade slowly, and his hand. The three Matoran rushed up. 
 
    “Is it dead?” Ixie asked. 
 
    “No, look, it’s breathing.” Tirpi pointed. 
 
    “Tirpi, could you go fetch that Ussal cart driver and his cart and his Ussal?” the Toa of Fire directed. A black-armored creature lay crumpled among the remains of its stasis tube, although they couldn’t entirely make out what kind of creature it was. There was a distinguishable tail, head, four limbs, but nothing else remarkable. “Vai, what did the inscription say? Any kind of Rahi or being?” 
 
    “No, just a date. Whatever it is, it’s been in stasis for about 15,000 years. It will take a while to wake up, if at all.” 
 
    The three of them took guesses as to what it was and discussed where to keep it and who would guard it and when to make the call that it wouldn’t wake up if nothing changed for long enough, until the Ussal driver arrived. Moving the limp creature to the cart, which wasn’t an overly difficult task, they found it was a vaguely feline creature. It was smaller than Inokas, but not by much. It wore no Kanohi mask, which made Ixie say it was a Rahi, but the others were pretty sure it wasn’t. “It looks like it could wear a mask,” Vai pointed out.
 
    More discussion spawned and kept the Matoran occupied as they moved the creature to the Ussal stables on the outskirts of the village. Where did it come from? How old was it? Why was it in stasis? Was it an endangered species? Was it a sapient species? Did anyone in town know what it was? Were they allowed to tell other people in the town yet? Were they allowed to tell the other towns? 
 
    When they had gotten the creature settled on a clean pallet in an unused Ussal stall, Inokas said, “We’ll give it three days, don’t make a big deal out of this. I’ll keep watch tonight, and talk to one or two others who might have some insight. I can’t make any of you keep quiet, but I would really appreciate nobody making this into a big deal, until we know what we’re dealing with.”
 
    “You’ll call us if anything changes?” Ixie wanted to know. 
 
    Inokas nodded. Tirpi and the Ussal driver began to wander back to their jobs, still talking excitedly, and Ixie turned to follow. “Vai, could I read over your notes?” Inokas requested. The Onu-Matoran had scribbled almost two whole tablets of notes with questions and observations on the walk from the beach. 
 
    “Of course, Toa.” He handed over the tablets, and promptly didn’t move. 
 
    When Inokas had finished reading over the tablets, impressed with the detail of the observations and insight of the questions, though not so much impressed with the legibility of the Matoran's hurried scrawl, he saw the Onu-Matoran still there. He offered Vai his tablets back, and asked, “Would you like to stay here with me?” 
 
    “Yes, very much,” Vai said quickly. “Do you mind if I go get some materials?” 
 
    “Not at all,” the Toa chuckled. 
 
    And before one could say “Mata Nui!”, the Onu-Matoran was back with two scrolls, a pouch full of stone writing tablets, and a digital scanning device. “What are those for?” Inokas asked. 
 
    “If we’ve discovered a forgotten species, or an entirely new species, I want to document as thoroughly as possible, and update the databases in the City as soon as I can!” 
 
    Inokas nodded, sinking to the floor into as comfortable a sitting position as possible. Even when Vai was seated on a stool, Inokas sat taller than the Matoran. 
 
    “I sent for Ulio so I can fill him in on events today. It might be a while, though. I think he was tied up in a meeting with some of the aspiring merchants from Dihe, and some of our own. Do you mind sharing your observations with him, as well?” Ulio, a Fe-Matoran, was the official leader of Uahi. 
 
    
  “Of course, Toa” Vai said, although he was very busy scanning his notes into his digital files and navigating through the small holo-screens that Inokas wasn’t entirely sure he’d heard. 

 


    That night, a sudden fit of coughing started Inokas to his feet. Vai’s history scroll that the Toa had been reading by lightstone fell to the floor. A clatter of stone tablets across the walkway between rows of stalls told him that Vai was now awake as well. Wasting no time, the Toa tossed his lightstone to the Matoran, took his glaive in one hand, and conjured a fire-light in the other. The Toa made his way to the stall swiftly. The Ussal crabs were chattering nervously in their own stalls now, at the sudden commotion and flickering light.  After another fit of coughing, the creature, awake now and crouching on its pallet, squinted into Inokas’ fire held aloft. 
 
   “Armonger? Is that you? Seja?” Its hoarse voice, unused in over 15,000 years, strained to get the syllables out.
 
    Vai arrived with his lightstone, and yanked the cover off that particular Ussal stall’s light stone. Inokas dimmed but did not put out his flame. He spoke evenly and slowly, motioning with a jerk of his head for Vai to step away. 
 
    “You’re awake,” the Toa said, opening the stall gate. The walls and door of the stall only came up to his waist, but were tall enough to keep most of the Matoran out of sight of the stranger. 
 
    The creature eyed the glaive Inokas held nonthreateningly but in plain view with bright green, very intelligent and very wary, non-Rahi-like eyes. It sat up straighter, and arranged its tail to drape off its pallet. To show it’s not hiding a weapon, Inokas realized, as it moved its hands into plain view as well. “Who are you?” 
 
        Yet another fit of coughing wracked its frame, but when it spoke, it was a bit clearer this time, and definitively female. The caution in her voice mirrored the caution she saw in the Toa’s expression. “My name is Erylist,” she said. 
 
    There was a pause, and it became apparent that she was not going to give more information unless prompted. “Where are you from?” Inokas glanced at Vai, who was still out of this Erylist’s line of sight, and busy scribbling notes, which didn’t go unnoticed by the newcomer. 
 
    “Xamra.” 
 
    “Xamra?” Inokas repeated. Xamra was small island just to the southwest of their continent. It was part of the early conquests of the League, taken over thoroughly by Barraki Pridak's armies as a training ground.
 
    “There hasn’t been anyone living there for over 10,000 years,” Vai spoke up. "Not since the League conquests."
 
    Erylist’s eyes darted toward this new voice, and she asked, “League?” 
 
    Inokas and Vai exchanged a glance. The Toa of Fire tensed as the Onu-Matoran stepped into the opening of the gate, ready for anything. But Erylist’s only reaction was to shift her attention to the Matoran. 
 
    “According to your stasis tube, the vessel we found you in, you’ve been out of commission for over 15,000 years. A lot has happened since you were last with us.” 
 
    “Easy, Vai. We don’t know her intentions,” Inokas murmured.    
 
    “You are Toa and Matoran. You serve the Great Spirit. I’ve worked alongside your kind before,” the stranger said. She spoke in an even tone, one that was informative, not trying to ingratiate herself to them, but not stating things in a distant, matter-of-fact. After a moment, she continued in a tone that had taken on a musing quality, "If what you say is true, and I have missed 15,000 years, then I have no way I can prove any of this to you, I’m sure. What are you going to do with me?” 
 
    “Vai, would you please bring Ulio?” 
 
    Erylist’s gaze shifted from the Toa’s crimson Kanohi Miru to the Matoran’s gray Kanohi Matatu, even as the Matoran scurried off. 
 
    Inokas adjusted his grip on his glaive as Erylist sat back a bit, not relaxed, but not sitting laser-straight at attention. “You’ve learned about me, will I ever learn about you?” she asked him. 
 
    “We’ll see,” the Fire Toa said. “We need to evaluate how much of a threat you may pose.” 
 
    “Why are you so cautious?” she asked. “It’s unlike Toa and Matoran I’ve worked with before."
 
    After a moment of carefully considering his answer, he said, “We’ve been through a fair amount of troubles, these past few hundred years. We’re not eager to invite more into our lives so quickly.” 
 
    “I don’t cause trouble. Not for your folk, at least,” she said. 
 
    Inokas extinguished his flame, and reached slowly with his glaive to uncover the lightstone on the other side of the stall, and then brought his weapon to rest beside him. “What is it that you do, then?” One eye-ridge on his Miru raised ever so slightly in suspicion at her. 
 
    Erylist took a while contemplating her answer, and was interrupted by the bright lightstone lights arriving, carried by not only Vai returning with Ulio, but also Tirpi, Ixie, and the Ussal driver. Inokas looked away for just a moment as the Matoran arrived, and was alarmed to see Erylist had shifted into a ready crouch upon her pallet in the time it took him to glance away and back. Although the defensiveness of her position was only noticeable to one trained to look for such things. 
 
    Inokas steadied his grip on his glaive. 
 
    “Toa Inokas, what do we have here?” Ulio nodded at the Toa in greeting, and was straight to business. 
 
    “We-“ Inokas began. 
 
    “I’m Erylist,” she said at the same time. Inokas let her continue, “I’m from Xamra, and I’m not entirely sure where I am, or when I am."
 
    Ulio’s expression was unreadable. “This is the Northern Continent. I’ve been told you’ve been indisposed for the past 15,000 years. It’s a very different world now. Vai says you mean us no harm. I’m sure you might say the same. In a few hours, it will be daybreak. I apologize, but even if you were a new Toa washed up on our shores, we would be following the same procedure. Tomorrow, you will accompany Toa Inokas, the historian Vai, and myself to Central City. There is a Toa Fortress there, where they are equipped to better assess your character and intentions. I assume you also have no passport or working credentials?” 
 
    She shook her head. 
 
    “In the city, you may apply for any credentials or papers you need to re-enter into society, if you are able, and if you so choose,” Ulio said. He spoke evenly, and assessed her coolly the whole while. 
 
    The Xamran nodded. 
 
    The Fe-Matoran, without turning from her, ordered, “Toa Inokas, Vai. With me. Tirpi, if you will keep our visitor company. The two of you,” he addressed the other two Matoran present, “You may return to your homes, if you wish. We will be next door.” 
 
    Next door, as it turned out, was the Ussalry Driver offices, and was attached right to the stables, so they could hear any commotion that would go on. 
 
    Right inside the offices, Ulio slid closed the thin wooden door, and turned to the Toa and Onu-Matoran. 
 
    “Do either of you have sufficient cause to suspect this stranger is hostile or a threat?” 
 
    Inokas leaned his glaive against the nearest wall, within easy reach, and knelt down in the Matoran-sized office space. About half the public buildings in the town had been constructed with Toa in mind. This was not one of them, as Toa are not typically part of the Ussalry force of a town. For the first time that night, Ulio’s stern Kanohi Komau cracked a hint of a grin, taking in the cramped Toa and the sleepy Onu-Matoran. 
 
    “No, no reason to suspect danger,” Vai answered. “Although she’s not the most forthcoming with information about herself. But then again, I suppose I wouldn’t be either, had I just woken up and learned I missed many thousands of years.” He shrugged. The two Matoran turned to the Toa. 
 
    Inokas said, “I don’t suspect danger. But I wouldn’t let her wander the village unsupervised. We thought she was a Rahi at first. I agree, she’s not an open book, but I don’t suspect any hidden malicious agenda.” 
 
    “If the date on the stasis cap is true,” Vai piped in, “She went into a comatose state before even the League of Six Kingdoms was instantiated into power, let alone when it went corrupt and on conquest. If we’re worried she may be a warlord’s lackey seeking dominion, I think we can rule that out.” Their villages and the like had had their share of ex-soldiers and power-hungry warmongers leftover from the disbanding of the League’s armies try and stake claim on their villages and lands. 
 
    Inokas and Ulio nodded in agreement. “But,” the Fe-Matoran countered, “Corruption and ill-will have been around since the creation of our universe. You know we can’t afford to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone.” 
 
    “Yes, but I remember the days when we could. The days when Unity, Duty, and Destiny weren’t just virtues for us Matoran and Toa, but were virtues that anyone and everyone could and did follow. Whatever happened?” Vai seemed to be talking more to himself at this point, and talking more and more sleepily, at that. 
 
    “Indeed,” Inokas murmured. “Vai, will you be set to travel to Central City with us tomorrow?”
 
    “You mean in a few hours?” the Onu-Matoran laughed shortly. “Of course. I’m always up for a trip to the city. Are we taking Ussal carts? I’m not keen on walking a whole day.” 
 
    “Yes, we can arrange that.” A real smile, but a tired smile of a leader with one too many unexpected events sprung upon him, crossed Ulio’s mask. “Get some rest, brother.” 
 
    Without having to be told twice, Vai doubled checked his satchel for his tablets and scrolls and various Archiving devices he picked up in the Great City,  and headed back out through the Ussal stalls. 
 
    “Thank you, Toa Inokas, for your diligence and caution in protecting us. I know this cold-natured approach to strangers doesn’t come naturally to you.” 
 
    The Toa shrugged. “I’m just protecting my home. I’ve lived on this continent, in this region my whole life. I miss the days where we could be naive and open and friendly to anyone and everyone as well, but trial by fire has taught us better, unfortunately.”
 
    “Unfortunately,” Ulio agreed. “I know you don’t love going to the Fortress. Will you be okay?"
 
    “I’ll make do. They never ask me to join, I always just wonder if I should,” the Toa of Fire answered. 
 
    “I see. Well, if they do give you any trouble tomorrow, you are free to step out.” 
 
    “Thanks, Ulio. I appreciate it,” Inokas said. “No, really. They’re very professional. I just don’t do well with ranks and orders and iron schedules, at least not in a time of peace here.” 
 
     “I trust you let me know if there is ever anything I can do,” the Matoran leader said. “I’ll see you back here at dawn. Get some rest, Toa.” 
 
 
Edited by Aderia

 

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(disclaimer: none of this banner art is original, I just smooshed it together in gimp. Torchic, Matau, turtleduck)
The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 2: Trust but Verify
 
    The party leaving at dawn to Central City - or, it’s official name, Tulekahu City, consisted of one Toa of Fire, one Onu-Matoran historian, one Fe-Matoran, two Ussal crabs, and the Xamran, Erylist. 
   
 “We will be traveling due south along this main road. There’s one small town in between us and the city, Abaki. The road forks, and Abaki is a little more than a half hour from the fork. But we go straight. We hope to be to the city by mid-afternoon,” Ulio informed the travelers. He made everyone double-check their provisions before they set out, and the were off before the twin suns had completely cleared the horizon. 
 
     Ulio rode the lead Ussal, content to listen to the sounds of the morning. The second Ussal, with Vai as a passenger, followed its comrade happily, blissfully unaware of the important trade permits and licenses it carried in one saddlebag, and how full of blank stone writing tablets Vai would fill those saddlebags with on the journey home. But the Ussal was a hardy one, and would, as experience tells, just as blissfully carry the Matoran’s weight in writing tablets all the way home. 
 
    The Toa and the newcomer walked, both declining steeds. Erylist, as it turned out, was quite happy to stretch and use her muscles once more, and seemed rather upbeat in general. She switched naturally from trotting along on her four limbs to walking on two legs, tail swinging a few inches from the ground at either gait. She had taken easily to chatting with the knowledgeable Onu-Matoran. 
 
    “It really can’t have been 15,000 years,” she mused more than once. "I mean, that would explain where all this energy comes from, sleeping for that long. I feel like I could sprint for miles. But I also feel like I could collapse at any moment. It’s so strange.” 
 
    “Yes, most varieties of stun gas inside stasis tubes render the occupant completely comatose,” Vai replied. “I think it would be cruel to design a stasis tube in which the occupant remained conscious throughout their imprisonment.” He went on about speculated effects of long-term stasis stun-gas effects, and was very interested to see how the Xamran recovered. 
 
    The modest, but well-worn path that cut through the land took them initially through hills and grasslands, with countless saplings growing strong. Soon enough the trees became larger, and eventually, full-sized, having been untouched during the conquests. The foliage also grew denser, which would allow for an easy escape or ambush. A few times, Erylist bounded ahead of the group, which made both Ulio and the Toa uneasy. They needn’t have worried, though as she only plucked a leaf from a plant here, or inspect a lazy Rahi-bug there. She brought the leaf back to Vai to identify for her, and then carefully tucked it again in a pouch on a belt, both of which she procured and seemed to have modified from the Ussal stable. 
 
    “Did you sleep at all, last night?” The Toa of Fire asked her, at one point on their journey, about midday. 
 
    “No,” she replied, straightening up from her four-legged trot to walk beside the Toa. Standing tall, she came up a bit past his shoulder. “I’ve had enough sleep for a few lifetimes. I can’t believe I missed out on so many thousands of years, seeing this world.” It had turned out, Tirpi, Ixie, and Vai were just as curious about her as she was about them and the world. They had kept her company for the last few hours of the night, excitedly sharing about their village.
 
   Out of nowhere, she stopped to crouch, turn over a stone along the side of the road, try and dust it off, decide it was uninteresting, and with a shrug, she straightened, and cantered back to catch up with her party. 
 
    “Are you always so curious?” the Toa asked her. 
 
    “No, I'm just trying to get a better idea of where I am and how it works.” 
 
    Her answer surprised him. Now that she had shaken off what seemed to the last of the dreary effects of the stasis gas, he had taken her behavior to be simply curious but erratic, not strategic as her answer implied. “Have you ever been to the Northern Continent before?"
 
    “Yes, but never been to this part. I like knowing things about where I am.” And he watched carefully as she bounded ahead yet again, but this time, effortlessly straight up a fully grown tree along the side of the road. She used her long tail, which was nearly the length of her body, easily for balance. 
 
    Moments later, she scampered down the trunk, head-first, and produced a large, Kanohi-sized fruit. She presented it to Vai. And the two discussed the botany and ecosystem of the region until they hit the second and last fork in the road. 
 
    One fork read and pointed to the City, and one to the Fortress. The outline of both could be seen from where they were. Noise from the city drifted faintly towards them as well. 
 
     Ulio hopped off of his Ussal mount, hitching the reins to the saddle of Vai's own Ussal.
 
    “Vai, you have errands in the City, yes?” Inokas asked. The Onu-Matoran waved goodbye, after reconfirming rendez-vous details with Ulio. They were to meet in the central square of the city at midday the next day. 
 
    “So, if I pass this interrogation,” Erylist asked, as they watched the two Ussal crabs and Vai shrink away towards the gates of the city, “How do I apply for residency, and get working papers and a passport? Do I need that stuff?” During her chats with Vai, and a bit with Ulio and Inokas on the road, it became very apparent that she had no idea how the world worked anymore. 
 
    “You don’t technically need any of those things, no. But they open more doors for you in the long run,” Ulio told her, and answered succinctly a string of her questions that followed. Almost everyone in Uahi had at least a passport or a less versatile transport permit. As a port town, it was almost impossible to get any significant business or vendor transaction or get transport anywhere without one.
 
    Both Ulio and Inokas felt a great deal less apprehensive about the newcomer since traveling together. But that was not sufficient cause to trust the benefit of the doubt. For all they knew, she could still be some old League agent sent to scout weaknesses in readjusting societies, and the stasis thing be a ruse. I never used to be so paranoid, the Toa of Fire lamented to himself. He found, to his distaste, his distrust and need to question every motive, whether it be his own or others’, growing as they neared the Fortress. It had been almost a dozen years since he last had been there. They had been offering specific training for Fire, Plasma, and Electricity Toa from renowned combat veterans, which was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. 
 
    The three of them turned to face the looming Toa Fortress ahead.     
 
    “Onward?” Inokas looked at the Fe-Matoran. 
 
    “Onward,” he said. 
 
 


 

 
    “Ulio, Inokas, yes. We received your correspondence late last night. You made great time from Uahi,” the Ko-Matoran guard at the main entrance of the Toa Fortress greeted them. At any given time, there were a dozen or so Toa out on patrols among various villages on the continent, and the structure itself could house upwards of eighty Toa, if need be. However, during this time of relative peace on the continent, Inokas estimated there weren't more than twenty of his brothers and sisters present. 
 
    Erylist, who was standing somewhat behind the Matoran and Toa had calmed down since leaving the forested path. There wasn’t that much interesting along the plain dirt road and field surrounding it, leading up to the City and Fortress. But also the gravity of the interrogation and dark bulk of the Fortress before them was weighing on her. Whatever had happened in the world during her sleep, it had not made it any kinder. 
 
    The Ko-Matoran glanced at her. “Your guest?” he addressed Inokas. The Toa of Fire nodded.
 
    “Erylist,” she supplied her name, spelling it out for him upon request. 
 
    “Wonderful,” the Matoran scribbled on his stone tablet. “Toa Hadia and Toa Shau will meet you just through this gate.” He stepped aside and gestured them through the gate in the side of the huge wall. 
 
    Erylist nodded to the Matoran, and didn’t fail to notice the inconspicuous security monitors and lenses stationed at and behind the Matoran’s kiosk. 
 
    Through the gate, which was almost like a small hallway, the wall was so thick, was a large, open courtyard. Inokas had spent many hours training, sparring, running drills, laughing, grumbling, and learning in that particular courtyard. Four watch towers rose above the walls of the fortress, with patrolmen somewhere between. About a dozen Toa could be seen throughout the courtyard, lounging outside the barracks, or coming and going from the training rooms or offices, all of which were attached to the courtyard. Some Matoran were also hurrying around, and a few other warrior species could be seen on occasion. It was much emptier than Inokas remembered it, although that was a good thing. Toa, in general, only congregated in huge numbers during times of war. 
 
  Two Toa who had emerged from the small office wing had started making a beeline for them. Inokas and Ulio started walking to meet them. The Xamran trailed behind them, half intimidated, half curious about everything else going on around her.
 
    “Erylist,” Inokas gestured to her, as though inviting her into their circle. “This is Toa Hadia, and this is Toa Shau. We’ll be working with them this afternoon.” 
 
    Erylist looked from Inokas first to the Toa of Psionics, Toa Hadia, and then to a gray-armored Toa, Toa Shau. Toa Hadia smiled quickly at her, and said, “We just have some questions to ask you, it’s a basic security check. It’s completely non-invasive, by law. If you all will come with me, we’ll be using an open training room.” 
 
    “The training rooms neutralize most powers, elemental or otherwise, as well as give us readings of energy output,” the gray Toa said. 
 
    “The good thing is,” the Toa of Psionics continued, and Erylist realized the Ce-Toa was talking to her specifically, so she quickened her pace to catch up. “Is that this screening will clear the way for most documents you’d want to obtain in the city. At least, a basic passport that makes travel between established cities a lot easier.” Although there weren't many passenger vessels up and running yet, many trading ships accepted passengers, but travel documentation greatly expedited either method of travel. 
 
    Erylist nodded, and followed the Toa through a door that opened itself. Whether it opened electronically by device or psionically by the Toa, Erylist couldn’t tell. 
 
    Erylist let the two Fortress Toa take the lead down a long, well-lit corridor. Many doors with large windows lined the hallway, and a few rooms also had one large tinted window looking in. In a few rooms, some warriors were sparring, practicing kata forms, or in one room, a green Toa was flipping off of walls almost faster than an untrained eye could follow. 
 
    “Are you okay?” Inokas asked her. The subtle hunch of her shoulders and deliberate angle of her tail and careful steps told him that she was much more uneasy. 
 
    “I don’t like walls,” was her only reply. 
 
    The gray Toa, who Erylist learned was a Toa of Sonics, opened the door to an unoccupied room, it was room with one large window on one wall. There was a table with four chairs. 
 
    Ulio and Toa Shau were talking in quiet voices. Toa Hadia entered, donning a magnetized badge that she placed slightly above and to the left of her heart light. A green light glowed in the middle of it, and a few mechanical components seemed to be whirring quietly.  Erylist saw that the Toa of Sonics also was wearing an identical badge. The Toa of Psionics noticed Erylist eyeing the badges. “These rooms neutralize powers, but these badges neutralize the neutralization,” she said. "Toa Shau and I are going to ask you questions about yourself, and I really do encourage you to answer honestly and to the best of your ability. I’m required to inform you that both myself and Toa Shau are able to detect lies.” 
 
    “So this is an interrogation,” Erylist grumbled to herself. 
 
    “Nobody said it wasn’t,” Ulio answered with an amused smile. 
 
    Inokas supplied, “It’s all confidential. Any Toa, Matoran, or citizen who does business with the Toa Fortress here or any of them on the Southern Continent go through this screening. It helps with risk assessment, especially if anyone decides to go rogue.” Unfortunately they had all learned during the war that Toa are not immune to the allure of power, and could be bought.
 
    “It is a completely voluntary process,” Toa Shau told her.
 
    “It wasn’t at all like this before the League Wars,” Toa Hadia said, sadness hanging drearily in her words. “But every faction and many towns, even, had their own trouble with double crossings and betrayals for money, promises of power and dominion. It’s not easy on anyone, but we’re working on recovering, on all fronts.” 
 
    “No, I have nothing to hide. A passport sounds useful,” Erylist said, as she walked into the room and sat down at the table with the Toa of Psionics. 
 
    Toa Shau closed the door, as Ulio took a seat next to Erylist. The two Fortress Toa sat across, and Toa Inokas, with no seat, quietly found a nice corner to lean against. Erylist noted that the door remained unlocked. 
 
    Toa Hadia again explained the confidentiality of the screening, and said, "Toa Shau and I will alternate asking you questions. Are you ready?” 
 
    Erylist nodded.
 
  “What is your name?” the Toa of Psionics began simply, to establish a baseline response.
 
    “Erylist,” she said, and spelled it out for the sake of any records. 
 
    “Where are you from?”
 
    “The Island of Xamra.” 
 
    “And what did you do there?” 
 
    “I was a builder.”
 
    “Tell us more about that. Give us some of your history,” the Toa of Sonics prompted her.  
 
    Erylist, at this, took a moment to think. “I was created a long time ago, before a lot of cities were built. I was created to be good at helping to build those cities. Nothing fancy or powerful like powers of Creation with a capital “C”, but kind of like construction. But not the heavy lifting. I’m good at climbing and tinkering. I’m fast. I’m stronger than I look, I can carry almost my bodyweight up and down skyscrapers if I need to.” 
 
    “I see. Are you still a ‘builder’, as you say?”
 
    “No, after a while, nothing more needed to be built.” 
 
    “So what did you do?”
 
    Erylist shrugged. “The world was a lot younger, so there were a lot of needs. I did what I could - myself, and I had a brother and sister, to put it in Toa terms. We worked well together.” 
 
    “It must be strange knowing that was so long ago. I’m sure it seems like just yesterday to you,” the Toa of Psionics smiled sympathetically. “We can move on. Your brother and sister, are they like you?” 
 
    “As in, the same species? I’m not sure if any of us really have species. But no, we’re all different.” Erylist didn’t love talking about them, because that meant she had to think about them. 
 
    “Where are they now?” 
 
    “I wish I knew,” she said, dropping her gaze to the metal table. 
 
    The two Toa glanced at one another, and decided to move on. “How did you end up here today?” 
 
    “Well, two of the villagers from Uahi, they told me they found me washed up on their beach in a… in a stasis container, that’s so strange to say. I remember waking up on a pallet, and Inokas was there, and another Matoran. That was just yesterday. And they brought me here to make sure I’m not dangerous.” 
 
    “Do you have any idea how you ended up in a stasis tube?” 
 
    “Yes.” 
 
    There was a silence as they waited for her to elaborate. 
 
    It stretched into an uncomfortably long silence. 
 
    Erylist lifted her gaze from the table to meet the Toa of Psionics’ eyes. “If you want to know, I give you permission to look. But make it so I don’t have to look with you.” 
 
    Toa Hadia considered for a moment, and asked, “Is it important to know, just for the sake of obtaining documents? Is it anything incriminating, to your knowledge, that would prevent legitimacy of work or travel visas?” 
 
    Erylist shook her head. The two Toa seemed to reach a silent agreement between one another that it was okay to proceed.
 
    “Then we can move on. Why did you decide to stay with the people from the village, and accompany them here, and subject yourself to this screening?” 
 
    “I’ve worked with Toa and Matoran before. They’re generally good folk. They do honest work and take joy in it, and they’re worth protecting when they need it. Matoran, that is. I know you Toa do a good job of that,” she nodded to the three Toa before her in a small way of salute. "I also have missed out on a lot of what’s gone one, or so I’m told. I’ve had the luck to run into a historian. I’d like to learn what I can, help where I can. This seems like the most straightforward way to do that.” 
 
    "Thank you, Erylist. Now, for some simpler questions, along the lines of skills assessment. Have you ever received formal military training by any organization, faction, or institution?” 
 
    “No, I have not.” 
 
    “Have you had any combat training?” Toa Shau asked. 
 
    “Yes, I have,” she replied cautiously.
 
    The Toa of Psionics followed up, "To what extent? How long? For any specific reason?” 
 
    After consideration, Erylist said to Toa Hadia, “I’m not saying this to be difficult or secretive. Is there a way you can get the information out of my head without extracting the locations or people involved?"
 
    Toa Hadia looked to Toa Shau, who assented with a slight incline of his head. “Yes, but-“
 
    Some of that information I believe may be confidential, and would put yourself at risk if you knew the identities and locations, she thought directly at the Ce-Toa, who nodded in response. I’ve also received limited mental training from the same people, so you’re not surprised if you encounter any blocks. It shouldn’t be anything too complicated, just rudimentary. 
 
    For the slightest moment, Toa Hadia’s eyes went unfocused, and when she blinked, she was back. 
 
    “Thank you. I’m impressed you’ve had mind-shielding training. Good work, very tidy. Now, to your knowledge, do you have access to any elemental, or non-elemental powers?” 
 
    “No, not to my knowledge. I mean, I can hide and move silently when I want to, and I have pretty good night-vision, but I’m not sure if those are powers. Does that count?"
 
    “Sure. Noted. Now, have you ever tried to or have been able to access the power of any type of Kanohi mask?” 
 
    “Never tried,” she laughed shortly. “Masks of Power aren’t as easy to come by for those of us who don’t absolutely need them.” 
 
    “It’s okay, even for Toa who have them, it takes some of them decades until they can access their mask powers. It takes a lot of mental discipline, training it looks like you’ve already had some of,” Toa Shau told her. 
 
    “That concludes our screening, Erylist, thank you,” Toa Hadia said. “Is there any thing else you’d like to disclose or share with us?” 
 
    “No, nothing.” 
 
    “Then, thank you for your time,” Toa Shau said, in a voice that was formal but not serious. He stood up from the table, and the others followed suit. 
 
    “Wow. I’m exhausted, that was so much talking,” Erylist said as she followed Toa Shau out of the room. 
 
    “You talked the entire way here on the road,” Ulio pointed out.
 
    “Yes, but that’s different. This was personal talking.” Her face crumpled in an expression of mock distaste. “Anyways. Did I pass?” 
 
    In his way of answering, Ulio said, “I appreciate you cooperating and being open with the Toa. I don’t know if you’ll want to stay in Central City, once you see it, but we could use your help rebuilding our towns, both in our region and around the continent. Your background as a builder could really help us out.” 
 
    “I’ll think about it. I do want to see the city first,” she replied. 
 
    “Of course.” Ulio nodded. "There are a lot of opportunities in the city, as well. Let us know if you have anything specific in mind, perhaps we have a connection here or there."
 
    “Ulio, what’s the plan?” Inokas asked, as they stepped back out into the courtyard. The Fire Toa saluted a group of Toa he knew across the courtyard. Toa Hadia and Toa Shau made their exit back towards the office wing of the fortress, with a quick word to wait a moment.
 
    “We still have about an hour of daylight,” the Fe-Matoran said. “There are a few decent inns on the outskirts of the city, we can make it there in plenty of time. First thing in the morning, I can go with Erylist to the bureau and get her started on her documentation. It shouldn’t take more than two hours. If you have errands you need to run, Toa, or friends you want to meet up with, that’s fine. I hope to be done by midday, and hit the road. We can make it to Abaki by evening, I believe. Or, if we want to travel into the night, we can, but that also depends on how much Vai has decided to purchase. He may be on some vendor errands for some of our businesses, so there's no telling.” 
 
    “What is Central City like?” Erylist wanted to know. 
 
    “Well,” the Toa of Fire answered, “It’s not like Uahi, or Dihe or Arju, the other two small villages near us. There, it’s almost all Matoran living and working there. In Tulekahu, it’s about fifty-fifty, Matoran and other races. There are four main districts, business, bureau, trade, and residential, as well as the outskirts, where we’ll be staying. Ulio will probably show you most of the areas tomorrow. The Toa Fortress could technically count as a suburb of the city. Like any other area, it’s working on finding stability now that things are settling down after the League conquests.” 
 
    “What about the other town, in between your home and the city?”
 
    “Abaki? They’re a small town, probably not even two hundred residents. But it’s right along the main north-to-south road, and along a river that flows down to the Tren Krom Peninsula, so it’s a diverse and prosperous town," Ulio said. “They used to be a modest trade city, they’re on a convenient crossroads of the continent, but they’ve had a lot of trouble rebuilding and getting people to resettle.” 
 
    “Erylist!” They turned as Toa Hadia emerged once more from the offices, and waved Erylist toward her. “I have the documentation for you.” 
 
    As she obligingly trotted over to the Toa of Psionics, the Fe-Matoran turned to his own Toa. 
 
    “If you want to spend the night here and meet up with us at the crossroads tomorrow, we can make that happen,” he offered. 
 
    “No, thank you.” He shook his head. “It’s simplest to stay as together as possible.” 
 
    Ulio nodded, and shouted a thank you to Toa Hadia, as the Ce-Toa sent Erylist back towards them. 
 
    “So what do I do with this?” Erylist asked, presenting a simple, small stone tablet she’d received from Toa Hadia. 
 
    “Tomorrow, we’ll take it to a bureau in the city.” They waved to the Ko-Matoran sentry as they strode out of the fortress, and Ulio continued, “Now, you don’t really need working papers unless you’re interested in signing on with a company or establishment. But a passport, as you’ll see, should give access to cities from Metru Nui down to the Southern Islands. You’ll need to establish residency in a settlement for the passport to be valid, whether that’s here in Central City, or elsewhere. Like I said, we’d be happy to have you in Uahi.”
 
    “What does residency mean? I never needed any of this, you know, before,” Erylist waved vaguely. She didn’t quite know how to talk about or conceptualize her situation. 
 
    “It basically means you have a place where people know you, can vouch for you, and a place you can come back to,” Inokas said. 
 
    “It’s not binding,” the Fe-Matoran told her. “In the city tomorrow, we can take a look at some of the districts, to see if there’s any work you might be interested in.”
 
    The three of them, Toa, Matoran, and city-builder, turned back onto the main path, toward Central City. Erylist was just as delighted to listen to their explanations about their world as they were to give them. Something about explaining even the little things about the world in which one lives, especially to the right audience, really has a way of making one appreciate that world. It seemed almost too soon Ulio had checked them into a modestly trafficked inn on the outskirts of the city, and was handing them each a room key, with instructions to Erylist about ‘when's and ‘where's for the next day. 

 


 

 

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The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 3: Abaki 
 

   “Is this your entire life? Just waiting on people to show up? "Erylist said, sitting down on the lip of the large fountain next to Ulio. They sat in Central City’s main square, in the heart of the bureau district, mid-day had come and gone, with no sign of either Vai, or Inokas. "This is worse than herding Muaka tigers.” Despite her turn-of-phrase, Erylist was actually quite fond of Muaka tigers, regarding them as distant cousins. 
 
    A glance told Ulio this was her way of teasing. Only that morning, himself and the Toa of Fire had started making plans to contact the authorities in the city, because, after waiting more than half an hour in the first floor pub of their inn, they had finally gone upstairs to knock on Erylist’s door, only to find it had never been occupied. Ulio feared she had gotten into trouble, Inokas feared she was the trouble. To their relief, though, she met them just as they were leaving the inn, with a sheepish grin, a pouch that was considerably more full than the night before, and a quick apology. Now, the Fe-Matoran half-shrugged, and replied, “It took me a while, but I’ve learned how to choose my battles.” 
 
    The two sat in the square, content to watch the midday rush of Matoran, a few Toa, and countless other races of all shapes and sizes go by. The flood of people, however was beginning to die down as they all settled into their afternoon business. 
 
    “I take it you got to see some of the city’s nightlife?” Ulio asked her. 
 
    “Yes, I got a bit turned around towards dawn,” she admitted. "I’m sorry I was late.” 
 
    “There’s no need to keep apologizing,” he assured her. "I’m glad you got to see the city. But I also am glad you decided to come back to Uahi with us.” They had made it to the bureau early enough to get in and out quickly, and Erylist now proudly carried her small metal passport plaque in her pouch. She also had shown Ulio a heavy-hilted switch blade for which she had apparently bartered, about as long as her forearm when the blade was engaged. 
 
    “Yes, if I've been learning anything, it’s how little of this world I understand. It’s so strange. It’s like everything has changed, all the big things. History was written, messed up, rewritten. It’s a world full of people that are more or less the same as I remember them, but none of them I know, personally. And these conquests, the war that everyone is recovering from, it seems so alien. It feels like it will take a lifetime to catch up,” she said sadly. “It would be overwhelming to start in a city like this.”
 
    “The peace that we do have, that we’re working towards building, is yours while you need it. I hope-“
 
    He stopped short, just as Erylist exclaimed, “Vai!” and the black and gray Matoran careened into the square, shouting, “Sorry, sorry!! I lost my Ussal voucher, the attendant wouldn’t even let me into the stable without it!”
 
    Erylist and Ulio rose to meet him, as Toa Inokas, leading their two Ussal crabs, also emerged into the square. The Fe-Matoran, Erylist found, had a gift for getting the whole group on the move almost without them realizing he was doing so. Vai had only really just begun explaining yet more trouble he’d had with some of the trade route moderators and regulators when they were waved through the northern gate exiting the city. They hoped to arrive in Abaki before sundown.  
 
    “You only have one case of writing tablets,” Ulio remarked to the Onu-Matoran, hoping for a change in subject. The Onu-Matoran had systematically been assessing the interactions with and problems of every vendor he had spoken to, either for himself or on business for someone back in Uahi. Erylist was completely content to listen, like a sponge absorbing the information about this new-but-not-new world. Ulio asked a question here or there, not overly invested, but not entirely disengaged, and Toa Inokas walked at the head of the party silently. They weren’t sure if he was deep in thought or very intently listening. All four of them were on foot, as one Ussal was laden with a basket of produce and some scrolls, and the other bore Vai’s troublesome writing slates. 
 
    “Yet another fiasco,” Vai replied, shoulders even drooping a bit. “The quarries on the Southern Continent have apparently had some setbacks, they wouldn’t tell me what. So, supply is short, and they were asking entirely too much for any type of stoneware.” Only a few of the trade systems were left intact through the League conquests, and they were the businesses that were okay with dirty dealing, warmongering, and throat cutting, literal or otherwise. Honest, respectable businesses and investors either had to change with the times and stoop to play to their level or be snuffed out. But now that life was getting back to normal, the shady businesses that made it through the war were the most powerful businesses. Some of them had profited quite handsomely. It was becoming hard to stop them from expanding and corrupting more and more of the overall trade system, whether it be unfair prices, unfair labor, counterfeit, false claims about dangerously low-quality products, and Mata Nui knows what else. 
 
   They paused at the branch off the main road for the sake of the Ussal. Here, they would turn east toward Abaki, and Ulio had said, the sparsely forested hills would begin to turn into simply hills. The further east one went, he said, the more desolate and inhospitable the terrain became, most notably after crossing Auros River that essentially split the continent into east and west. Following this branch of the road would take them to that river, and just across lay Abaki. Vai had talked briefly about how it used to sprawl across both banks. It had been almost completely leveled during the conquests, as the open hills and fields that covered a fair amount of the Northern Continent served often as battlefields for League armies against one another, as well as resistance armies against the League. 
 
    “And get this,” Vai was saying, “When I was in the manufacturing sub-district looking at Ussalry supplies for our stable master, I even saw Vortixx there!” Xia had earned itself quite the reputation during the war - one of ruthless and lethal profiteering.
 
    “Xians,” Erylist cut in for the first time since they had left the city, almost two hours ago now. They expected to be within sight of Abaki within the hour.“What else has been going on with Xia?” She had been walking toward the back of their small band, quietly alongside the Ussal that bore the box of a dozen of Vai’s tablets. At the mention of the weapon-manufacturing island, she was at Vai’s side in the blink of an eye. 
 
    “Oh, during the war they quickly became infamous for their dealings with any and all players. And, I mean, before the conquest and fighting even began, they were already the best in the business. But, in a business like that, war is nothing but opportunity. Xia really flourished, especially after the Barraki Pridak set up a secondary headquarters for his forces there.”
 
    “Pridak?” Not even an earthquake could have broken Erylist’s sudden, laser-keen attention with which she now regarded the Onu-Matoran. “Barraki?” 
 
    Erylist had already been very curious about the League war and conquests and resistance battles that seemed to have so deeply shaped the inhabitants of this continent, and the rest of the inhabited islands. But now questions about the war, the warlords especially, and the resistance battles came almost non-stop. She asked questions about the war cautiously at first, not wanting to irritate any wounds still fresh. As she tried to keep her questions impersonal and focused on cause and effect on the world around them, she found that the two Matoran, could easily begin a thorough back-and-forth in way of answering. Toa Inokas chimed in once or twice, as well. 
 
    All too soon, the last of the trees along the snaking road cleared, and the gentle grassland hills stretched out before them. “Look, you can see Abaki.” The Toa of Fire pointed ahead. “We should be able to hear the river soon. Hopefully we can be at the bridge in half an hour, tops.” 
 
    It had been an overcast day to begin with, but now they were really starting to lose daylight. The continued in a natural silence, Erylist processing what she’d learned and dismaying at how many more questions it all raised. Vai assured her that he would personally help her all make sense of it with his collection of records and scrolls back in Uahi. 
 
     Ulio had just called for them to pick up their pace a bit when Erylist, who had switched to walking with the Toa at the head of the group, halted suddenly, peering in the direction of the village. “Is something wrong?” the Toa asked, as the Ussal and Matoran slowed their pace. 
 
    “Do you smell-“ she began. Suddenly she crouched to the ground, leaning forward. “I see smoke.” 
 
    “What? I don’t see anything.” Before Vai had finished his sentence, Erylist had taken off, streaking down the road at a startling speed. 
 
    “I see it too,” the Toa of Fire said, squinting, and gave up hope of a quiet evening in Abaki after long days of travel and meetings. “Don’t cross into the village unless I give you the ‘okay’.” He started jogging, as the Matoran and Ussal also trotted down the road. “I really hope it’s nothing, just another warehouse fire to clear debris. If I don’t meet you before moons-rise, continue back to Uahi!” The Toa shouted this last bit, as he broke into a sprint. Erylist was nowhere to be seen, either out of sight between the crest of the hills, or moving too fast and too low to the ground in the fading light to be seen easily. 
 
    The Toa’s gut told him to be ready for a fight. In the past, he’d told himself that it was just his training and time fighting the conquests that had conditioned him to expect the worst. But, after telling himself that enough times, and being wrong enough times, he had given up being so optimistic, even now, over a century after the fighting had officially stopped.

    Before it had become a battleground in the latter half of the conquests, Abaki was one of the cities that had made a decent profit from the war.  By that time, most of the Matoran inhabitants had fled to Tulekahu, and mercenaries and some Barraki forces had moved in. Even after desolation had come and gone, and a few brave Matoran and other citizens had moved back, corruption has a way of sticking around. 
 
    The rushing of the river now was loud enough to nearly drown out the Toa’s hurried footfalls, and the rising smoke was now unmistakable, and would be almost choking at the source. Inokas wondered how much the smoke was contributing to the quickly-falling darkness. It was the rainy season, so he wasn’t worried about how much damage the fire could have already caused. There was no way it would blaze out of control, even without a Toa of Fire to wrangle it in. 
 
    As he rounded the last bend in the path, the Toa’s heart sank. Where there had recently been a newly-constructed bridge across the Auros River, melted, reeking heaps of metal and wood lay on each bank, and debris could be seen downriver, being pushed along by the current, and littering both banks. The smoke and stench of melted metals was almost strong enough to be a physical force. Inokas slowed to catch his breath and survey the scene, his glaive at the ready. But nothing besides himself moved. There was no sign of whomever or whatever had caused this destruction, but from the softness of some of the melted crossbars, it must have happened recently. Still, there was no sign of Erylist, even when he called her name. The river, not quite at flood stage, but definitely not a happy babbling brook, was about five bio across at this point. As surprising as her bursts of speed on land or up trees may be, Inokas highly doubted she would be able to make the leap across the river. 
 
    Across the river, he could make out the pillars along main road leading into town, and buildings that were a mix of recently rebuilt, and heavily patched up. He had no more time to wonder where the newcomer had gotten herself to, as shouts and some crashes, as well as new plumes of smoke rose from what couldn’t have been more than a few blocks into the village. 
 
    Inokas circled back around the last bend in the road, stowing his glaive and activating his Kanohi Miru. Without even a mental countdown, he sprinted once more around the bend and onto the wide bank of the river, straight toward the churning waters. At the last moment before he would have rushed headlong into the Auros, a mighty leap propelled the Toa into the air. Kept aloft by his Mask of Levitation, and propelled by sudden, bright jets of fire, the Toa cleared the width of the river easily. It was a trick he had learned from his mentor, Toa Zoru.
 
    He landed ungracefully, and dashed into the village, turning off the main road as soon as he was under cover of the buildings. Following the shouts, he made his way to the source of commotion. Inokas was very glad he had taken a path off the main road. In the otherwise abandoned street, three Nehrian marched toward the center of town.      
 
    Nehrian, or natives of the small southern island of Nehrio, had been common mercenaries for at least two of the Barraki armies. The average Nehrian stood half a height taller than a Toa. They were strong, but not overly fast. Generally, they were well-armored, well-armed, and intimidating in force. Members of the species had, at random, either three arms or three legs. Perhaps one of their greatest weapons, though, was that they chose not to speak Common. Communicating in their own native Nehrian tongue made it tricky to out-maneuver and out-strategize them, especially in on-the-fly situations. 
 
    There were two Nehrian with three arms, which lent them more reach and range, and one with three legs, which meant it was stronger and more agile. All three carried Southern Island styled blasters, which weren’t powerful enough to deal lethal damage to a Toa. Matoran, though, that was different. If they still carried their weapons from their time as mercenary soldiers, they were probably laser-based weapons, good for destruction of organic materials. 
 
    A quick glance down the street told the Toa all he needed to know. They had advanced, setting fire to buildings along the street, seemingly at random. Inokas wondered where the shouts had come from, when the Nehrian with three legs fired its blaster into the building it was passing. The interior burst into flames, and several Matoran and a few Skakdi and other species he couldn’t identify on the spot ran from the building, fleeing deeper toward the town center.
 
    The three Nehrian aimed at the fleeing inhabitants, shouting among themselves. With a cry and a well-timed burst of the brightest flame he could muster, the Toa of Fire ran into the street, straight at the three ex-soldiers, swinging his spear in a wide arc. Perhaps a more vain Toa would have yelled some brave-sounding words as he joined the battle. Toa Inokas was not one for shouting much at all, and that he wasn’t even sure if Nehrian understood common.
 
    Instinctively, the Toa targeted the Nerhians’ weapons, which posed the greatest danger to both himself, the buildings, and most of all, the inhabitants. Although Toa of Fire were heat-resistant, and more or less fireproof, they were definitely not laser-proof. Inokas called down a concentrated rain of fire around his enemies. In their short-lived confusion of the sudden assault, he was able to disarm one of the three-armed Nehrian with a blue fireball, melting the blaster past any hope of use, as well as sending the weapon flying two blocks down the street. The Toa kept up a barrage of red fireballs, as well as the rain of flames, advancing as he dodged bolts from the other two. They began retreating, matching the pace of his advance. At this rate, they had the entire main street to retreat down, taking them farther into the heart of the village, where most of the villagers he had seen had fled, and the direction they had seemed to be headed anyways. He also could not keep dodging their blasters forever. 
 
     Inokas stopped the fire-rain, and replaced it with a wall of flame across the street, at their back. It burned blue up to their shoulders, and almost white near the bottom. He couldn’t keep it up for very long. A well-placed fireball left a nice scorch on the shoulder and chest armor of the disarmed Nehrian. All at once, the three-legged Nehrian darted down a side street, as Inokas called up another white and blue wall of flame to separate the injured and disarmed Nehrian from its fellows, and a harpoon of flame spouting from the end his glaive partially melted the other three-armed Nehrian’s blaster. 
 
    They shouted more, and before Inokas could react, the Nehrian with the damaged weapon hurled it to the ground at the Toa’s feet while whirling with a yell, and ran through the wall of fire down the main street, as the injured one dove into an alley of a side street. 
 
    The Toa of Fire was blown off his feet in the explosion from the damaged weapon as it hit the ground. He landed hard, but rolled to his feet as quickly as he could, winded and a bit dizzy. He had definitely had better days. He was relieved, to see, however, that the fleeing Nehrian who had thrown his explosive weapon lay in the street, stirring weakly. It looked as though the Nehrian had been struck with large chunks of stray debris-turned-projectile in the explosion. The Toa quickly melted a makeshift shackle around the knees of the downed Nehrian from some of the scrap metal littering the streets. Once he was confident it wouldn’t be able to escape without help, he stood, leaning on the pole of his glaive for support.  He was alarmed when a heat scan of the area revealed a cluster of about half a dozen small heat signatures he knew to be Matoran that were trapped halfway down an alleyway, two streets ahead, and there were not two, but three larger heat signatures closing in on them. 
 
    A curse slipped out under his breath as he galloped a bit unsteadily down the main street, keeping careful watch for any more enemies he might have missed. Situations like these, Inokas really hated wielding such a destructive element. Even though he could keep impressive control of his element, fire was never safe in close quarters with innocent lives in proximity. Throw volatile enemies in the mix, and Fire Toa always were fighting an uphill battle. The three-legged Nehrian stood nearest Inokas, and the injured, three-armed one stood at the other end of the narrow side street, both boxing in a petrified group of Matoran. 
 
    The Toa knew that his enemies knew he was there. Although the stand-off lasted only moments, it felt like it stretched on forever. The Toa made eye contact with one of the scared Matoran, and motioned with a jerk of his head to a doorway down the alley from the group of Matoran, almost imperceptible in the near-darkness now. The Matoran nodded to him, even as the two Nehrian called to one another. Only the one closest to the Toa had a weapon, from what he could tell. Several things happened all at once.
 
    A wall of white hot flame, reaching up the two stories of the alleyway, erupted with a roar between the injured Nehrian at the far end of the alleyway and the group of Matoran. 
 
    The group of Matoran, with commendable coordination and bravery for a terrified group of civilians, rushed toward the now-lit doorway, but also toward the wall of flame.
 
    Inokas launched a blue-white geyser of flame straight into the back of the Nehrian closest to him, drawing agonized screams and its total attention. It dropped its weapon, as Inokas expected, and he aimed his jet of flame to melt it, increasing the flame intensity to bright white, melting the weapon without an explosion. 
 
    But it wasn’t right. 
 
    An uncannily swift barrage of blows from his three-legged Nehrian broke the Toa’s concentration, weapon forgotten. 
 
    The wall of flame keeping the injured Nehrian at the far end of the narrow street vanished. 
 
    The Matoran couldn’t get through the doorway. 
 
    The Toa of Fire parried, absorbed, and danced around strikes falling from all angles from his opponent. He had forgotten how cursed strong these things were. What he didn’t see, or rather, only saw briefly out of the corner of his eye, was a dark shape launch itself from the rooftop into the other Nehrian, a short, silver blade flashing in the last of the daylight. The Toa of Fire barely registered the guttural scream that cut off abruptly, followed by a crash, before the black-armored fighter leapt with ease back up the alley wall, and again flung itself from the rooftop into the Nehrian soldier battling the Toa. 
 
    “Erylist!” the Toa of Fire cried, realizing who had joined the fight. 
 
    The Xamran had crashed into the Nehrian, and would have knocked it off it’s feet, if it hadn’t had three of them. Having misjudged this, she now clung onto the huge warrior, somehow having latched herself onto its torso, and managing to pin one arm to its side, with great difficulty, searching for a place to stab. “Look out, I don’t want to-“ the Toa began aiming lower, at his foe’s three legs, not wanting to slice his ally. 
 
    With a sharp cry of pain and surprise, though, Erylist was flung halfway down the block. 
 
    Toa Inokas also quickly found himself mask-first in the street, not prepared for the full power of the Nehrian’s kick. As he staggered to his feet just in time to fall out of the way of another enraged lash of an armored leg, he saw the street where Erylist had fallen was empty. 
 
    “Get the Matoran out!” he yelled, ducking a strike and hoping she was still within earshot. A flash of movement on the flat rooftops caught his eye. He parried another kick with his glaive, hoping to throw this thing off balance somehow, and saw Erylist, yet again on top of a building. She motioned frantically, indicating to try and get his enemy situated underneath her. 
 
    He did not want her to try and drop down on the Nehrian again. He almost shouted to her as much, but thought better of giving away her location as he fell out of range and made another jab with his spear. 
 
    Erylist stood, and leaned on a large, wheeled wire cage full of metal scraps she had pushed the edge of the flat roof. Inokas understood. 
 
    It was not easy, and Inokas paid by taking some solid blows, but he was able to taunt and lead the last Nehrian alongside the two-story building, right under where Erylist stood. 
 
    “Go, now!” he shouted. With a heave, she pushed the cart and metal from the rooftop, the debris melting into slag before it hit the Nehrian. The hissing the slag made as it came into contact with the Nehrian was almost drowned out in its screams. The cage itself toppled of the rooftop, and melted into a glowing puddle, trapping two its three feet. Inokas absorbed the heat from the cooling metal, solidifying it. He worried briefly that he had cooled the metal too quickly, and it would be brittle and breakable. But the Nehrian had stopped moving, almost completely encased in recently-molten metal.
 
    Finally, in what felt like hours but had really only been minutes, nothing was moving. The Toa of Fire caught is breath and steadying himself, again grasping his polearm for support. He limped over to the corner of the alley that adjoined with the main street, although he wasn’t sure what hurt or why. 
 
    “Are you okay?” he addressed the group of Matoran. Another heat scan told him that they were the only heat-emitting life-forms in a fifteen bio radius. “We’re safe. Where is everyone else in this town?” 
 
    “Town hall,” one of the Matoran answered. 
 
    “Can you get yourselves there?” he asked them. "Is it safe? Do you know if there were any more of them?” 
 
    Erylist landed at the other end of the alleyway, making the Matoran collectively jump. She knelt and yanked her blade from the neck of her Nehrian. “These are the last of them, I only saw four.”    
    “Four? I only saw three.” Inokas frowned, and looked up and down the street. 
 
    “I caught up to them before they finished off the bridge,” she told him, walking up to stand with the group of Matoran. “One ended up in the river.” 
 
    Inokas’ eye ridge shot up in surprise. “And you’re okay?” 
 
    “I had the element of surprise,” she said, in manner of reply. “But yes, right as rain.” 
 
    “Do you know who they are, or what they want?” 
 
    “They’ve had a few meetings in town hall over the past few months,” another Matoran offered. 
 
    “Okay. Go together to town hall,” Inokas instructed them. “Tell whoever is in charge that it’s safe, and tell them that I’ll be there shortly to speak with them, to find out more about these mercenaries. Or ex-soldiers. Whatever they are. I just need to secure the living ones properly. Hopefully we can get an interrogation going.” 
 
    The group of Matoran cautiously began making their way down the ruined street, expressing their thanks to the Toa and Erylist as they left. 
 
    “You fight well,” the Toa said to the Xamran, who was busy wiping her blade clean. 
 
    She gave him a deferential nod. “It takes one to know one.” She also didn’t say that he was the first one to ever tell her as much. In fights, especially against such large opponents, her speed and agility only took her so far, and she knew from experience that she couldn’t last long in sustained combat. She relied more on surprise all-or-nothing attacks, which left little room for error. 
 
    “Is it dead?” The Toa indicated the unmoving Nehrian at the end of the alleyway that Erylist had taken care of. 
 
    “I know you Toa have an aversion to killing,” she began. 
 
    “It's not about killing or not killing,” the Toa held up a hand to stop her. He began walking towards the dead Nehrian. “I just want to make sure the threat is completely neutralized before moving on.”  
 
    The Xamran was slightly surprised, and asked, "Has the Toa Code changed in the past 15,000 years?” 
 
    Toa Inokas shook his head. “Certain parts of the Toa Code became a luxury even we couldn’t afford in a time of war. And even now that it’s over, some still haven’t come back to it. War is horrible, fighting is horrible. There are always things worth protecting, but when life’s inherent value becomes negotiable to both sides, then it becomes nothing but a lose-lose.” He knelt to examine the body. “We do what we have to do.” 
 
    The two exited the alleyway, Inokas now holding a firelight aloft. “I told Vai and Ulio I would meet them at the bridge before moons-rise. There is clearly no bridge. I need to go see what I can do about getting them across.” He began walking toward the last Nehrian they had incapacitated. It was still alive, but there was no way to tell how much. Inokas and Erylist dragged over more debris, and the Toa smelted together a strong makeshift prison, trapping the Nehrian’s three legs halfway up its shins. "There’s a second, smaller bridge, a few kio north of here, maybe we can have them cross there.” He turned back toward the entrance of town, and spotted the third Nehrian, the first he had incapacitated, still lying where the Toa had left it. Walking straight for it, he continued, “Ulio will want to know as much-“ The Toa spun around at the sound of a singular crash to see Erylist crumpled in the street, motionless. 
 
 


 

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The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 4 - The Ternion 
 
Over 15,000 years ago . . .
 
    Two sharp raps on his workshop door didn’t faze Armonger. He called, “Come in!” as he meticulously placed wire after wire in preparation to solder them to the small circuit board, almost comically small compared to Armonger himself. But he worked with practiced dexterity and expertise. But as soon as he heard the footsteps that accompanied the door being pushed open, he exclaimed, “Seja! I thought you got called away on-“ 
 
    A graceful figure, bearing a stylized Kanohi Suletu and clad in dark armor that looked black without sunlight ducked through the doorway, not because of her height, but to fit her two large wings through the doorframe behind her. 
 
    “On mission,” she finished what her comrade had been saying. “I am.” She stepped aside to let a slightly smaller, ebon-armored warrior enter behind her.
 
    “Johmak. It’s been a while,” Armonger greeted her, deftly starting to put his soldering iron and project away. He carefully eyed a third and final visitor - a hulking, gold-armored being whom he didn’t recognize. This last titan barely fit through the door, and stood with arms crossed. If Armonger didn’t know better, he would have said this newcomer was purposely trying to make everything and everyone else look puny in comparison, and take up as much room as was physically possible, if not more. 
 
    “Only a few decades,” Johmak replied. "Allow me to introduce a new associate. This is Brutaka.” 
 
    Now, Armonger was not small. He normally stood at about Seja’s height, with his four limbs planted on the ground, and his upper torso and arms upright. But, on the occasion he needed extra height, he could stand on only his hind-most limbs, and use his mid-limbs as another set of arms, albeit clumsier. This was one of the occasions he felt uneasy enough to rise onto his hind legs to get a better look at this huge stranger. Even standing as tall as he could, using his long serpentine tail for balance, Armonger only just look this Brutaka in the eye. To his chagrin, his set of silver frills that ringed his face stood on end, betraying his alarm. “Armonger,” he introduced himself, offering a cursory salute. “Pleasure.” 
 
   “Indeed,” the warrior said. He turned to Seja. “This is the one?”
 
    “Yes, Armonger is the most familiar with the Xians and their business. The Vortixx seem to have a soft spot for fellow a weapon-smith.”
 
    Armonger frowned at her, his frills flattening themselves in annoyance with a snap. “I’m not a weaponsmith,” he said adamantly. Seja didn’t bother to hide her amused smile - they both knew Armonger had long ago given up his original name, now forgotten, in lieu of his title of Armsmonger, or Armonger. Even if he didn’t exclusively create weapons, or, as he claimed, create weapons at all, the devices he did create were easily weaponized or otherwise used as such. He lowered himself down to four legs, and crossed his arms, shifting to stand between Seja and his recent project. 
 
    “And what’s that you’ve been working on?” Johmak asked him, amusedly gesturing to that project. 
 
    Armonger grumbled something indistinct, sweeping the rest of his project into the box. 
 
    “What’s that? I can’t hear you when you mutter like that, dear friend,” Seja laughed. It had been much too long since she’d been in his workshop. 
 
    “I said, it’s supposed to be a handheld sonic cannon,” he repeated, dorsal spines rattling in mock irritation. 
 
    Seja and Armonger fell easily into conversation, beginning with him explaining that it wasn’t meant as a weapon, just a device to confuse those pesky Rahi birds that kept nesting in the scaffolding of unfinished buildings. Johmak put in a word here or there as the conversation expanded to recent happenings in their lives, as Armonger hurriedly put his workshop in order. The large golden warrior stood statue-like, watching the activity around him. He was not here for chatter and catching up. 
 
    “I do take it,” Armonger said to Johmak at one point, “That you’re here for the same reason you’re always here.” 
 
    “Yes,” the Order agent said. "She has another assignment for you.” 
 
    “She does now. I see, I see.” The blue and silver armored ‘not-a-weapon-smith’ theatrically waved a midlimb in the air as he stood on his hind legs to put his project in a box on a top shelf, and spoke just as melodramatically. “I'm good enough to call upon every few years, but between that, I may as well be one of those busy-body Matoran drones.” 
 
    “You love those Matoran and you know it,” Seja told him. “Can I put out your forge?” Armonger nodded, and with a whumph, the heavy iron door to the small furnace in the corner of the workshop closed, and the fires died out as Armonger locked up the last of his electronics boxes. 
 
    “To be fair,” Seja pointed out, “We did offer you a position as a full agent with us. Not everybody was offered one.” 
 
    “There was no evidence that anything would be different,” Armonger replied, as though he’d been through this a thousand times, which he had. 
 
    “It really is different than how the Hand was,” the winged agent insisted. "Helryx is proving herself to be an extremely capable leader. And it helps that we've all learned a lot about how not to run missions.” 
 
    Armonger looked to Seja, who had initially declined Toa Helryx’s offer to old agents of the Hand of Artakha to join her new organization. They called themselves The Order of Mata Nui. Seja, however, had a slightly more useful skillset than any of them, and was more frequently approached for missions, and accepted more and more often. In their time together working for the Hand of Artakha, Seja and the legendary Toa of Water seemed to have been mutually impressed with one another.
 
    Seja shrugged, metallic wings rustling. “They’ve really changed how they do things,” she said, even as Armonger began ushering them all back out of his workshop. “Everything is much more covert, much less messy.” Beneath her words, he knew, lay the unspoken warning - knowing about the Order’s existence was a privilege only a select few held, especially those not members.  And the subsequent the knowledge that the Order had the complete capability to make one’s death look like a complete accident were one to betray the secret of their existence was generally enough to keep mouths shut. There was a short list of names on memorial plaques should anyone start to doubt that. 
 
    They paused in the street outside Armonger’s shop while he locked the door. “You’ll like this assignment, Armonger. It will be just like old times.” 
 
    “Hmm. I can hardly wait. Remember that one-“ Armonger paused and frowned, the slit-pupils in his silver eyes narrowing. “Wait, does that mean what I think it means?” 
 
    Seja and Johmak both nodded, the latter turning down the road, toward the center of the small city. It meant the Ternion was going on mission again. They were on their way to collect the third and final member of their team. 
 
    “Erylist will not be happy,” Armonger said to Seja, as they fell into step behind Johmak and Brutaka. It had been nearly a month since he had seen her. It had been even longer for Seja, who couldn't legally claim residency on Xamra anymore, she was away so often. 
 
  The three of them, Armonger, Seja, and Erylist had been working together since almost the beginning of the known world, quite literally. 
 
    The Creator Titan, Artakha, after having been commissioned to create a team of Toa by the Great Beings themselves, had then set his sights on Rahi creation. Filling the need of creating sentient inhabitants for the young world, as well as using up spare materials leftover from Toa-construction, Seja, Armonger, Erylist, and a handful other creatures had come into being. Luckily for the three of them, they had been some of the earlier attempts between Toa and Rahi, and were significantly less Rahi-like than others they knew. Somewhere during the few thousand years of constructing the first cities on the first islands, as more and more inhabitants were created for the world, disorder grew to the point where someone or something needed to step in and control it, before the new world’s population began declining faster than the Great Beings and Creator Titan themselves could construct more inhabitants.
 
    The Hand of Artakha was born out of that need. Seja was recruited for her versatility and adeptness in battle, diplomacy, and travel; Armonger, for his generally fearsome appearance, quick and resourceful mind that gave him the upper hand in many types of conflict, and for being as at home in the sea as on land; and Erylist for her speed, stealth, agility, precision in combat, and her ability to blend in and work well with a civilian population. Although the three of them knew each other from working on cities throughout the ages, they hadn’t always been a team. They had earned their reputation together after uncovering and taking down a Kaxian slave ring that had branches on almost every western island of the Southern Island chains. After that, they had run almost two dozen successful missions together, although none so long-running or involved. Between then, they made a living working on city-building on different islands, and were able to use that occupation as cover to investigate many other islands and cities.
 
    When the Hand of Artakha had been forced to disband, however, a stealth operative like Erylist was not high on the list of types of agents that the new Order of Mata Nui had a great need for. 
 
    For the past century, give or take a decade, the three of them had been living on the island of Xamra, directly south of their creation place, Artakha. As an island still technically under construction, Xamra was a melting pot for all sorts of beings and species looking for work and a new place to settle, to make their own. There were only a few Matoran, although with their hard work and uplifting virtues, they were almost impossible to dislike, despite Armonger thinking they were almost too small to be taken seriously. The city in which they all lived, they had all helped construct. Plans for a large port city on the far southern coast of the island were in the works, which would keep them and the other builders busy for at least another few centuries. 
 
    Armonger personally liked the quieter, builder’s life, where he had leisure time to create this or that gadget or device or contraption, and adapt it to help whatever needs happened to be present in his community at the time. These assignments and missions, especially the longer ones, took him away from the community population and disrupted any type of influence he had been able to build. But he did love a good covert mission for the greater good of the universe as a whole. Who didn’t? 
 
    Erylist, on the other hand, was a strange mix. She could function well and even excel and enjoy civilian life, because she tended to see everything as a challenge she needed to overcome or an adventure she needed to wrangle, which kept her occupied and more or less content in one place for any given period of time. But she also grew restless easily and had an unquenchable need to know things about the world and find things out about anything and everything. That’s how Armonger knew that, despite herself, Erylist would join them for whatever assignment they were being recruited for. 
 
    “Armonger,” Johmak squinted toward the skeletons of a block of skyscrapers, a dozen blocks ahead of them. The two suns had just passed their zenith. “Is this where she’s working?” 
 
    “Yes, last she told me,” he replied. 
 
    “I see her,” Seja pointed up, assured by her keen raptor’s vision. “Take care of these, I’ll get her,” she told Armonger. With a huge, running leap, she took off, leaving behind a pair of armored boots in the street. From the sunlight glinting off her armor, one could see it was a very dark, blood-violet. Armonger smiled, and picked up the boots, twisting a mechanism in the arches, as they collapsed into two interlocking halves of a disc that he could carry comfortably under one arm. One of his gadgets, and one that he was rather proud of. Seja, to go along with her raptor’s wings, also had been graced with the deadly and powerful talons of a bird of prey, which served her well in battle. However, they did not serve her well for walking, and so Armonger had crafted portable, armored, knee-height boots for her to allow for flat-land travel as easily as any natural walk-er. It had taken a few decades to get the design right, but they both agreed it was worth it. Although she could walk more or less normally, it did catch an occasional onlooker off guard to see her knee-joints bending backwards, as a bird’s do. 
 
    The trio of warriors waited at the base of the skyscraper-to-be, where they couldn’t quite make out what the dark shape of Seja was saying to a smaller figure hanging off the vertical side of the building at an angle that mocked the catwalk scaffolding around it. Seja, who was not created for sustained hovering, circled back down toward the street, landing on an overhanging lightstone-pole extending partly over the street. 
 
    “As predicted,” she said, as she folded her wings behind her with a scowl. “She is unhappy and uncooperative.” 
 
    Both Armonger and Johmak offered to go up and talk to her, and they were trying to work out how best to talk their wall-scaling friend down, when Brutaka, who had kept his silence until that point, placed a hand on Armonger’s shoulder and held out a hand. “We don’t have time for this. May I?” Armonger handed him the heavy disc that were Seja’s boots, not voicing any questions he might have.
 
     As the titan walked back the way they had come, and stopped about a block away. Johmak shrugged in way of disclaimer when Armonger looked at her skeptically. “Axonn recruited him. I haven’t worked much with him yet.” 
 
    They could just make out the shape of Erylist beginning to quickly make her way up toward the spot on the building where the wall ended and the support beams were exposed, where she had been busy recording measurements. 
 
    Seja let out a cry of surprise as, without warning, Brutaka, almost impossibly fast, launched his makeshift weapon - her boots- with frightening accuracy at the ascending Erylist, who never saw it coming. They faintly heard a sharp yelp as the projectile struck her square in the back, and saw her and the disc falling, but before Seja could even launch into the air to go after her, a swirling dimensional hole opened right beneath the falling objects, and immediately dumped them unceremoniously on the sidewalk, not even a bio from where Armonger and Johmak stood, shocked. 
 
    “So that’s what his mask does,” Armonger blinked his surprise away, and went to help a sputtering Erylist to her feet. “Olmak.” 
 
    By the time the golden titan rejoined them, Erylist had gotten most of her choice profanities out, and stalked toward her attacker, a long piece of pipe from the building held like a weapon in her hands. Only when she got close enough to fully realize how ridiculously small she was in comparison to him, she cast away the pipe with a loud clatter, and seemed content to try and glare him into retreat instead, but to no avail. 
 
    “If you’re quite done,” Johmak cut between Erylist and Brutaka. The latter’s calm, impassive stance and stare was almost comical in comparison to the seething frustration that roiled off of the former. “We should go somewhere private to talk business.” 
 
 

 

 
    In the end, it was made clear that the Order would have Erylist’s cooperation, willingly or not. She tried every protest, from being out of practice to being out of shape, although they all knew she was neither. But whether she liked it or not, the chance to effect change for a good cause outside herself was hard to pass up, as Armonger pointed out to here, in about as many words. Her protests died out. The five of them sat on the deck of the ordinary trade ship, one a small private business might own. They were docked in a nearly-empty harbor, only work barges loaded with construction materials floated around them. 
 
    “I’ve never heard of this ‘Brotherhood',” Erylist said, punctuating with air-quotes. “But if they’re just Rahi-makers, what’s the need to investigate them? And why not just ask them directly?” 
 
    “They’ve been interested, highly interested, in Vortixx trade lately,” Johmak began counting off reasons on her hand. "That, combined with the power level of the Rahi we’ve already seem them produce, and the fact that they’ve been accessing a pocket dimension much too frequently, are cause for concern.” Brutaka tapped his Mask of Dimensional Gates here. 
 
    “Your travel arrangements are made,” Brutaka cut in before Erylist could launch another barrage of questions. “We’re here to brief you. There’s a time and place for your questions, but it’s not now.” 
 
    The two Order agents laid out the plan. Seja and Armonger were ambassadors from the developing island of Xamra, hoping to establish initial trade relations with Xia. Nothing too far-fetched. “There will be a Brotherhood envoy already there,” Brutaka said. “Two Makuta - Makuta Mutran and Makuta Icarax. They’re high-ranking members of their organization.” He quickly highlighted the vast array of powers Makuta had at their disposal, and emphasized the need to not rouse suspicion. While the two Makuta were dealing with whatever negotiations they had arranged with the Xians, Erylist was to sneak aboard their ship and plant listening devices and trackers, ideally at night. Sources said that the Makuta had plans to stay on Xia for at least three days and two nights. Clearly, they didn’t expect to make a quick deal. Armonger and Seja would be done their negations by that time, as Xians were always eager to sign on a new client or client city, and would be able to keep watch.  Seja, with her Mask of Telepathy and eagle eye, would be vital for lookout communications. 
 
    Erylist was handed a small pouch with the aforementioned trackers and listening devices. She eagerly picked through it, despite herself and the image of stubborn disdain she was trying to uphold. But she did love a good mission. 
 
    “An agent will follow up with you, back here, in a week,” Brutaka told them. “You know how to contact us, otherwise."
 
    Johmak opened her mouth to say something, but a dimensional gate from Brutaka’s mask swallowed them up. 
 
    “Well, he’s rude.” Erylist frowned at the place the two agents disappeared. 
 
    “I’m sure he’d say the same about you,” Seja buffeted her sister lightly with one of her wings. She and Erylist walked to the side of the ship, and began hauling up the anchor. 
 
    Armonger had already made his way to the travel controls of the small vessel, rapidly paging through screens on his holo-map device, a leftover luxury from their days in as part of the Hand of Artakha. He busily punched away at buttons and turned dials on the ship's control panel. The boat pulled away from the dock, casting a long shadow in the suns-set. 
 
    “I still don’t like it,” Erylist grouched, putting all the little devices back in the pouch. 
 
    “You’re all bark, no bite,” Seja retorted. “You know as well as I do that there’s a high turnover rate in this line of work. Sooner rather than later, Helryx will need more agents. Don’t pretend you don’t want to make the short-list.” 
 
    “That’s rich, coming from you. You're everyone's first choice,” she shot back. “They'd ask you to do jobs a dozen times a day, if they could.” If she was upset that Order work took Seja away more and more often, this was her way of admitting it. 
 
    “You’re going to have to grow out of that resentment, sooner or later, Erylist,” Seja told her curtly. “And believe it or not, I like the work I do both on assignment for Helryx, and on my own. It's two ways of getting the same thing done. I like helping inhabitants make a life for themselves, I like helping create a world where beings can live and make a way for themselves in a society that makes sense.” Seja knew Erylist already knew all this. This was not a new squabble for them. “This assignment, establishing trade between Xia and Xamra, it’s not a ruse.” 
 
    “I know that,” Erylist dug through a small crate of her belongings she had brought on board. She selected a slightly curved protosteel blade with no hilt, but attached at her wrist and elbow, running along the length of the outside of her forearm, and would jut out a few inches past a closed fist. And although it took time to charge up, it also could disorient a target with a concentrated magnetic pulses. A gift from Armonger. “And it’s easy for you to say, towns and cities are always having you carry messages from this important person to that important person, or consulting you for diplomacy advice, or-“
 
    “You know you hate board meetings,” the winged warrior pointed out. Erylist had an old slew of jokes about such "bored meetings". 
 
    “We all know it,” Armonger called with a grin, from his control post at the stern of the boat.  “You can’t stand diplomacy missions. Do you remember that one mission to Ibonar?” 
 
    “I had everything under control,” Erylist protested. 
 
    Seja smiled too, Armonger’s diversion welcome. Working together was a perishable skill, and it had been a while since the three of them had been out on assignment together. “You were about to sell them the entire island as slaves.” 
 
    “Not on purpose! How was I supposed to know that’s what they meant?” 
 
    “It’s all in the fine print,” Armonger chuckled. He and Seja had stepped in to re-negotiate and take the situation back. 
 
    The ternion sailed on toward Xia as the twin suns disappeared, recounting old missions together late into the night. Although none of them said as much, it felt akin to coming home after a long time away, to be setting out together once more. 
 

 


 
  
    The twin suns were setting, and Erylist was so restless she was nearly crawling out of her armor. The three of them had pulled into the south eastern port of Xia early in the morning. Seja and Armonger had disembarked to their meeting with one of Armonger’s long-time trade associates. The Vortixx really did like the six-legged dragon, and on a few occasions had invited him to consult for some of their production processes and prototype draftings and tests. 
 
    There were two docks between their ship and the Brotherhood vessel, which was hard to miss. While waiting for nightfall, it was Erylist’s job to monitor activity at the port, from three tinted windows in the common chamber below deck. A few vessels had come and gone, and in the distance, cargo freighters could be seen constantly arriving and departing as well. Although Erylist had never seen any Makuta, she had not seen any species she didn’t recognize. And, as evening fell, the activity on all the docks in the port had come crawling to a near-standstill. And there was no activity whatsoever to be seen to, from, or on the ostentatious, gleaming Brotherhood ship. 
 
    The fact that her brother and sister were better at diplomacy than she didn’t bother Erylist. But she suspected it had something to do with them being recruited for mission after mission by former agents they’d all worked with at one point or another. That, and they both outmatched her in physical prowess and abilities. She hadn’t told Armonger that she had hidden herself in his workshop, camping out for almost a week, once. She had witnessed Hydraxon, an old associate from the Hand of Artakha appear, give Armonger an assignment and some weapon blueprints to look over, and then leave. That was how she'd found out about the First Toa's clandestine organization, although she had suspected something of the sort, when Armonger and Seja kept disappearing for varying stretches of time. Then, a few weeks later, Armonger came back with the ability to breathe water just as easily as he did air, and a venomous bite that could make a Doom Viper insecure about its own abilities. A few years later, Seja had returned with forcefield technology built into her wings. Erylist had confronted them, at this point. They told her that they were bound to secrecy, but neither denied that they were going out on assignments again, or working with the same agents, and that was confirmation enough. Their relationship grew strained, as Erylist threw herself more and more into the cities they worked on. She even told them she was going to go back and settle in this city or that city, but she never followed through. 
 
    Incoming, Seja’s Suletu-voice spoke in Erylist’s mind, and a thud from the ships deck above her roused her from her brooding, all at once. 
 
    Erylist poked her head up from the trap door in the ship’s deck just as Armonger arrived, towing a wheeled cart full of smaller containers. Since she wasn’t supposed to be seen, she emerged no further, even though there really wasn’t anyone else around, and hadn’t been for at least an hour. She reported to Seja exactly that.
 
    “I take it your negotiations went well?” she asked, after briefing them on the astounding lack of events she’d observed. 
 
    “Exceedingly well,” the dragon grinned, sharp teeth glinting. He began unloading the cart. “Prototypes and scraps. No cost!” He always left Xia with more than he had arrived with, and more than he planned to leave with. 
 
    By the time they had gotten their ship ready to depart, night had almost completely fallen. In the common chamber, below deck, where Erylist could keep an eye out for movement in the port-yard, they briefed one last time before moving into action. 
 
    “There are two levels of chambers on the ship,” Seja was saying, pointing on the schematic she’d sketched out quickly. “One level on the deck, one level below deck. Erylist, we’re looking to bug anything that the Makuta might take with them from the ship into their headquarters.” 
 
    She nodded in acknowledgment, craning her neck to watch the last of the suns’ rays sink into the ocean. She knew that of the three of them, she was the best for this particular job. She worked well in tight spaces, in the dark, and in secrecy. She wasn’t sure if she necessarily liked the surreptitious jobs, but she did like that she was good at them. 
 
    “Armonger will be circling below the ship the whole time,” Seja was saying. "Any sign of movement or danger, and, Erylist, that includes keeping an eye out for traps or recording devices, get out of there.” 
 
    “Dive overboard, I'll get you. That will be fastest,” he said. His whip-like tail and six limbs gave him strength and stability on land, and gave him agility and speed in the water. He also had a heavier duty tracking device that he would be attaching to the hull of the Brotherhood vessel. As well as transmitting the ship’s coordinates in real-time back to a corresponding device in the Order’s hands, it monitored any radio communications to and from the ship. 
 
    “I’ll need you to be giving me a play by play, Erylist,” Seja continued, tapping her Kanohi mask. Seja herself, she explained, would be perched on the cliffs that led from the port and small beach up to the island itself, where she could see anyone coming down the steep path to the shipyard, and any movement on the docks themselves. Their assignment had been timed well, with almost no light shining from the thin crescents of the moons in the sky. Even Seja’s raptorial vision would be pushed to its limits. 
 
    “I’m ready,” Erylist cut in, before Seja could ask if she had any questions about what had been explained. “I’ve been ready.” Although she had listened carefully to everything Seja had said, she didn’t think the level of caution at which they would be operating was necessary. She had seen literally no movement on the Brotherhood ship all day. Xians were notorious for driving hard bargains, and could keep new clients tangled up in negations for weeks, if they thought they could outmaneuver the client into a more profitable contract. During their time in the Hand, they had taken down Rahi smugglers and a host of other threats that surely paled in comparison to this obscure group of Rahi-makers. 
 
    Armonger and Seja exchanged a concerned glance. They knew Erylist was very good at what she did, but it was true that she hadn’t been an active stealth operative for a while. On their short voyage to Xia, it was a relief to see Erylist was as sharp and eager for action as ever. What worried Armonger, though, was that they knew next to nothing about these Makuta. Armonger had asked his Vortixx friends as casually as possible about the Brotherhood vessel in the port, but they had shrugged, and simply said, “New clients.” 
 
    He confirmed a few details with Seja and reviewed the extraction plan with Erylist one last time, before ascending the ladder onto the ship’s deck. His blue and silver armor gleamed even in the faint starlight, but he would be near-invisible in the water. Seja and Erylist followed him up, and with a salute, he dove overboard with barely a splash. 
 
   Seja knelt to speak to Erylist, who was crouching low on the deck. “Get in, plant the bugs, get out,” Seja said firmly, one last time to her sister. “Nothing fancy, nobody to impress.” 
 
    “I still don’t get it,” Erylist said, adjusting her stun-blade on her wrist. "Why all this secrecy? Why does Helryx feel the need to keep tabs on any and every faction in the universe, like they’re out to get her?” 
 
    “Not now, Erylist. It’s not like that. You can ask these things at the debriefing back home,” Seja told her. 
 
    “Oh! So it is her in charge of this whole operation,” Erylist whispered triumphantly. "You didn’t deny it.”
 
    “Not now,” Seja repeated sternly. “We have a job to do, and none of us likes failure. Now, go.” And without another word, she ran and launched herself off the bow of the ship and into the night sky on silent wings. Wait for my ‘go-ahead’, came her mind-voice. 
 
    Erylist crept to the edge of the deck, peering down the landing ramp, and mentally tracing out the path she would take to the imposing Brotherhood vessel, but at this point, she was sure she could navigate there blind. 
 
    Armonger is in place, and he gives the all clear. There’s no movement up here, Seja said. Tell me when you go.
 
    Seja’s thought had barely finished transmitting when Erylist’s reply came, Going. 
 
    She ran silently, low, on all fours, belly nearly brushing the dock she ran across. 
 
    Talk to me, Erylist, Seja prompted. I can barely see you. 
 
    Good, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Turning down the last dock now. And she was. 
 
    What is the ship like? Can you board? Seja asked. 
 
    As she approached the large ship, Erylist never slowed. The last thing she wanted was to take the time to crouch, exposed out on the docks, to look for the ideal entry point. Not a problem, she sent back. Without slowing, she began counting down her steps. She leapt. Two easy, vertical bounds up the dark metal sides of the vessel, and she rolled onto the wide, open deck, ready for anything.
 
    Did you just- 
 

    I’m on board, Erylist said. No movement. Also, nothing on deck, not even shipping crates. Moving to the first level of chambers. The two levels of chambers were located at the stern, making up the back third of the ship. I don’t see a way to get below deck from here. It must be inside. I’m at the door. 
 
    Seja asked, Any way to get in? I don’t have eyes on you now, talk to me. 
 
    I can’t focus with you jabbering on in my head, Erylist snapped. She pulled the heavy metal door open, slipping her lock-pick tools back into their built-in compartment in her shoulder armor. I’m in. Leaving it unlocked for now. 
 
    It was nearly pitch dark inside. Erylist’s night vision served her well. She was in a short hallway, and there were three doors before her. She told Seja as much. I’m trying the portside door first.  And then, It’s just a navigation room. Unlocked, at that. She carefully closed the door behind her, as she’d found it. She said to Seja, Next room, now. She paused, fiddling with the lock. It must be a personal chamber or something. Working on the lock. It was an electric lock, so she reached for her lock picking tool that could scramble electrical signals, yet another device Armonger had come up with. He was also the one who had strategically hollowed out snug niches in her armor for these. 
 
    Wow, Erylist exclaimed. Look at all this stuff! Nice blade. Expensive cloak. Bugging these. And I think a tracker can fit here. Mysterious box. She crouched to take a better look at it. 
 
    A heavy case below an ornate desk caught her eye. Maybe armor? 
 
    Erylist, remember, nothing fancy, Seja reminded her. We want you done and out three minutes from the first bug you plant. 
 

    Yes, yes, she murmured, turning from the case. Scrolls, some vials, some tablets. Ah! A blade-sharpening set. Seja, do you want me to find another chamber? 
 
    How many devices have you planted? 

    I have three left, she said. If there are two Makuta, like they said, I’ve only gotten to one’s things. 
 
    Try one more chamber, maybe belowdecks, then, Seja said. But if the locks take too long, get out. Armonger has installed his tracking device. 
 
    On it. Erylist turned, glancing once more around the room for useful-looking items to bug. Nothing. She paused at the doorway to reset the electrical lock from a panel on the wall, a standard-model lock. A quick scan of the hallway outside, which was all clear. She could see  out to the deck of the ship, through the first door as well. Nothing had changed. She stepped out of the dark personal chambers, hunching over the door handle as she closed the door. She had to physically hold back the magnetized locking mechanisms as she pulled the door closed, to keep the door from clanging as it locked itself. 
 
    She straightened, turned back to the hallway, and froze.
 
    She was no longer alone.
 
    A tall, powerfully built warrior stood between her and her exit, white armor giving off a dull gleam in the star light. He had appeared out of nowhere, holding a bladed staff in one hand. 
 
    Seja! Abort! She dropped to a defensive crouch, ready for anything. 
 
    “Now, now,” the stranger spoke in a cold, calm voice. “Isn’t this something."
 
    Erylist slowly began extending her arm, readying her wrist blade, never taking her eyes off of him. 
 
    But his movements, just two impossibly fast flicks of his wrist, were too fast for even Erylist’s trained eye to follow, or her cat-like reflexes to counter. She hissed in pain as a paralyzing jolt of electricity shot through her entire frame. As she crashed to the floor, she was dimly aware of the sharp pain from a sharp-edged metal throwing star embedded in the tissue between her neck and shoulder. “No need for a mess. Makuta Icarax would never stand for it.” 
 
    She could barely think, couldn’t move, and could only watch with foggy eyes as the white armored warrior spun to face Seja, who had landed like a black comet on the deck of the ship. She saw blood-red highlights on his armor, as he whirled effortlessly to meet her blades with a heavy staff that began sparking with green energy.
 
    Seja spun her curved swords, swinging in rushed, defensive patterns. The localized force fields hummed to life, covering her wings and moving with them like a skin. 
 
    The white-armored warrior ran straight at her, his speed and deft movements unnatural. It was suddenly clear, as angry green energy crackled around his staff, that Seja was outmatched. She had never encountered a fighting style like this, and was on a defensive retreat from the first jab.
 
    She blocked the first swing of the staff with her wing shields, barely. The blow glanced off, and the force fields crackled as they absorbed the green lightning-like energy. She flipped away, using her wings as cover, airborne once more. 
 
    The warrior whirled, looking concerned for the first time, as a snarling Armonger barreled onto the deck, and dashing straight for him, low and quick, on all six legs. Simultaneously, Seja dove for him, swords-first. 
 
    As the white-armored being dodged the plummeting winged warrior, he was caught by a sweep of Armonger’s great tail. He and Seja rolled to their feet at the same time, as Armonger rushed to retrieve Erylist, at Seja’s telepathic instruction. 
 
    Seja and her enemy began slowly circling one another. It was clear that even together, the three of them stood no chance, not with Erylist incapacitated and the element of surprise gone. They had not come prepared for a fight like this.
 
    “Who are you?” Seja demanded, stopping her circle to keep herself between the stranger and Armonger. Don’t wait for me. Get her and  get out! she commanded. “A Makuta?” 
 
    Armonger dashed behind Seja, with Erylist’s paralyzed form slung over his shoulders, making for the side of the ship. 
 
    “That just won’t do,” the warrior said, ignoring Seja. A concussive blast from his staff threw her against the wall of the ship’s chambers, and she lay still. 
 
    A second blast glanced off of Armonger’s armor. Another stunning shuriken lodged itself in Armonger’s armor, but the electric current crackled harmlessly on the surface of the dragon’s armor. He had almost made it to the side of the ship, warding off jabs from the warrior with his lashing tail, when seething tentacles of shadow wrapped themselves around both him and Erylist, throwing them both to the deck of the ship. A blast of green energy to the head, and Armonger, too, was rendered unconscious. Erylist, still paralyzed, lay beside Armonger. She could see their assailant deactivate his staff, and straighten. He turned to face the two dark armored titans who had manifested on the deck of their vessel, but they were out of Erylist’s line of sight. 
 
    “Makuta Mutran. Makuta Icarax,” he bowed curtly to his superiors. 
 
    “Pridak. You raised the alarm,” the larger of the two, Makuta, Icarax, said. “You couldn’t have handled this? What is this? A Rahi invasion?” 
 
    “Makuta, I caught the small one planting spying devices in Makuta Mutran’s chambers. The other two appeared shortly after.” 
 
    “A spy?” Makuta Icarax asked. 
 
    “Not a very good one,” the second Makuta scoffed. 
 
    “I was handling the situation,” Pridak said. “But I knew you’d want to see for yourself.”
 
    “What do you think,” Icarax turned to Mutran. “I’m sure we have space in our dissection lab. I’ve never seen Rahi designs quite like these. They look almost Artakhan. I’m sure there’s a lot to be learned.” The Makuta chuckled, resonant and terrifying to any lesser being. 
 
    “The last time we gave Makuta Spiriah a project to dissect, we were cleaning up for a week,” Makuta Mutran replied, distaste souring his tone. 
 
    “I’ve heard that the Archivists will pay a handsome sum if you bring them an undiscovered species,” Pridak said after a moment of contemplation.
 
    "The Steltian syndicates are always looking for coliseum bait," Makuta Mutran offered. 
 
    “Very well, Pridak,” the first Makuta spoke. "We’ll treat them as your capture. Collect what reward you want.” 
 
    The last thing Erylist saw was Pridak turning toward her, and the heartless, cold gleam in his eyes, as he closed in on his prey. Darkness engulfed her. 
 
 
 

 
Back in Abaki . . .


 
    Toa Inokas sat down heavily on the sidewalk. The last of the street fires had been extinguished, and he felt like he could sleep for a day or two straight. He hadn’t had a battle like that in a couple years, since a mutated Kikanalo had been dumped in their region. Although he felt more mentally drained than anything, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to make a trip to the Fortress every couple months for some training. Using his fire, especially white fire, had been more draining that he expected. 
 
    He cast his gaze down the main street, toward the center of town. He could just make out the outline of the town hall against the night. Lightstone lamps lit the road sporadically, some having been damaged or demolished in the battle, and some never having been repaired at all since the town’s rebuilding. Ulio was meeting with the residents of the town who were in charge, and Vai was also there, seeking a place for them all to rest, and consulting with a physician about Erylist. 
 
    “If we had any doubts about her,” the Toa had told Ulio, as they had transported the unconscious Xamran by Ussal to the town hall. “I think we can put them to rest.” He related an abbreviated version of the battle, emphasizing Erylist putting herself in danger both to help the Matoran and himself. 
 
    Inokas sighed, and stood up with an effort, already sore, although he did thank the Great Spirit he hadn’t sustained any serious injury. He hoped the same for Erylist, in part because it’s never fun when an ally is injured, but also in part because he would inevitably blame himself. He had given an account of the battle to the physician, a skittish Ba-Matoran. He began making his way back to town hall, seeking Ulio.
 
    “Ah, here he is now,” the Fe-Matoran welcomed the Toa. A small group of about a dozen beings stood congregated around a table in the corner of an open floor that was the entrance hall of the building. The group was about half Matoran, half other races.
 
    The Abakians explained to the Toa how the group of antagonizing Nehrians were representative of the remaining mercenary force that had inhabited Abaki during the League conquests. Now, they were thugs like any other, and weren’t happy when the returning citizens of Abaki wouldn’t charge the taxes they wanted, and wouldn’t trade with the companies they wanted, and so on. A small group of the more action-oriented Nehrian had decided to take matters into their own hands, the remainder of that group being the two who lay unconscious in chains outside the building. 
 
    Incidents like this, the Toa of Fire shared with the Abakians, weren’t uncommon. It was also why a thorough vetting process, like the one Erylist went through with at the Fortress, were worth it. While in Central City, he had met with two of his Toa brothers stationed in the city. They told him criminal activity like this was still rampant, though disorganized, especially in the Southern Islands, even as far north as the Southern Continent. Most of the Toa, if they weren’t already assigned to a region to help reestablish order and implement and uphold legitimate and upright power structures, were busy actively fighting for that. Every time Inokas left his beloved Uahi, it seemed more and more like a paradise, and he felt more and more like he didn’t deserve to live there in relative peace while his fellow Toa were spread thin. 
 
    Nobody completely blamed him, though. During the war, Toa of Fire, Toa of Plasma, and Toa of Lighting were responsible for more than three quarters of enemy deaths on any given battlefield - the energy-based elements. Toa of Gravity, Toa of Iron, and Toa of Magnetism were much fewer in number. While they could probably induce a similar or greater amount of enemy casualties with a lesser amount of collateral damage and less energy expenditure, they had been used mainly to undermine heavy enemy weaponry, fortresses, and transportation. 
 
    “Toa Inokas!” Vai trotted toward him from a side room, with the physician close behind him, interrupting the Toa’s spiraling musings, that had been gradually getting darker and darker. Inokas had missed entirely what the beings in the meeting had been talking about. “Toa, we wanted to update you,” Vai said. 
 
    "Well, we can’t find anything wrong with the patient,” the Ba-Matoran began.
 
    Vai interrupted, "I think what makes the most sense is simple overexertion after thousands of years in stasis. There’s no way anyone can function normally, let alone function so actively and intensely, after that much time not functioning at all, with no side effects.” 
 
    The Toa nodded along, relieved to hear the relatively good news. Vai and the Matoran of Gravity went on for a bit, Inokas nodding where it seemed appropriate. Even if he were in a state of mind to listen, he was no medic, and would not have understood a lot of what they were telling him. “Listen, Vai. We all need some rest. Can you fill me in again tomorrow morning on the road?” 
 
    “Of course, Toa,” the Ba-Matoran said. “I’ll come get you, if anything changes with the patient.”
 
    "Yes, please do,” Inokas saluted them as the two Matoran left. He wasn’t entirely sure what the residents of Abaki expected from a Toa, if anything, but after two days of travel and an unexpected battle, fallout, and clean up, the Toa of Fire had no qualms about stumbling into the adjacent unoccupied meeting room, and falling asleep in the most comfortable looking of the chairs around the table. 

 

 

 
 
If you want to read more of the Ternion in action, see Water's Will , a short story about the last battle of the Hand of Artakha. 
Edited by Aderia

 

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Those pesky firespitters
(disclaimer: none of this banner art is original, I just smooshed it together in gimp. Torchic, Matau, turtleduck)
The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 5: Year One
 
    Erylist slept for a week - real, natural, deep, restorative sleep. When she did wake up, it was in a a small, one-room hut in Uahi. It was well-lit, with round windows that let in sunlight from two directions, and a breeze. She could hear and smell the ocean, not far away. She had a plain wooden table with two chairs, a freestanding shelf that rose to her middle with two hooks on each side, and a lightstone fixture complete with a lightstone and cover screwed into the metal frame of her hut. She sat up on her pallet, which lay on a low platform in one corner of the hut. But she also woke up tired. Not sleepy-tired, but a tired like she really was suddenly 15,000 years older.
 
    Vai had mentioned a warlord Pridak on their way to Central City. And the last thing she remembered, which almost felt like yesterday, was being paralyzed by a white-armored being addressed as Pridak, on the shadowy Brotherhood ship. There couldn’t be that many ‘Pridak's gallivanting around the world. Since the first time since waking up, she felt like she could breathe, turn off survival mode, so to speak. She had time to think. And she didn’t like it.
 
    Where had she gone wrong? She had been so careful. 
 
    The adrenaline and fear that had been frozen in her system for 15,000 years in stasis had finally worn off after her skirmish in Abaki, and she realized how alone she felt. Even more crushing, as she wrapped her mind around the even worse fear, was that Armonger and Seja had not escaped. Her survival, and subsequent revival, were some twist of fate. The fear that they were dead or trapped, and that it was her fault, weighed heavily on her mind, and made getting up seem impossible and unimportant. With no one around to pull her out of her spiral, she could have gone on indefinitely, following endless ‘what-if’s and other fruitless dust darter trails. 
 
   Mercifully, her brooding was interrupted by a knock on her doorframe. Before she could respond, an Onu-Matoran shuffled backwards into her hut, dragging a small, two-wheeled cart, as he pushed open the woven rush door. 
 
    “Vai!” Erylist sat up, safely tucking away any feelings of despair or guilt or self-pity in a heart-flash.
 
    “Erylist! You’re awake,” the Matoran exclaimed, excited but embarrassed. “I’m so sorry to barge in. I’m just dropping off another lightstone and a stand, for the table.” 
 
    “Thanks,” she said, and got off her bed to help the Matoran dig the lightstone stand out of the jumble of odds and ends thrown into his cart. She was reminded of Armonger’s workshop. “Vai? What happened? The last thing I remember is finishing off the Nehrian in Abaki.” 
 
    “You’ve been out for almost a week. This is day six. We had the physician keep an eye on you for about half a day, but nothing seemed wrong, we figured you just needed rest. We moved you back here, and this is your place.” Vai gestured widely and excitedly to the interior of the hut. It seemed to be a conglomerate of metal frame, clay and wood walls and sides, and various plantlife serving as furniture and fixings.  Vai stretched on tiptoe to place the lampstand on her table, which was larger than Matoran-sized. Erylist stepped in to help him.
 
    “Is everything in Abaki okay?”
 
     “Yes, and they say you’re welcome back any time,” Vai replied. “Even though it was unpleasant, and it would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for you and Toa Inokas, we Northerners know the drill when it comes to these incidents. The criminals were shipped to the city for processing, and probably incarceration. The Abakians are set back a few years in rebuilding. They’ll be more careful and more assertive, next time, in trade deals, I think. They’ve been presenting themselves as a an easy-to-manipulate target, we’ve been telling them that for years now.” Vai started going off about more vigilant vendor and trade contract regulations, picking up steam as he went on. 
 
    “Vai,” Erylist interrupted gently. “Where is Toa Inokas? He’s okay?”
 
    “Oh, yes. The Toa is fine. He was called to Dihe, they’re having trouble routing some Nui Rama looking to nest. He should be back in a few days, at most.”
 
    “And Ulio?” 
 
    “He’s been holed up in his apartment, most of yesterday and all of today so far. He has a big meeting to prepare for, with the other Matoran leaders of the region.” The region comprised of the three settlements - Uahi, the largest; Dihe, and Arju. “But how are you feeling?” 
 
    “Feeling?” She laughed, a bit bitterly, but only she could taste it. “I feel like I can breathe again. This is Uahi?” 
 
    “This is Uahi.” As if in introduction, Vai gestured out her rush-mat door to the sunny, cobbled street outside. “The sea, if you haven’t guessed, is that way,” he said, pointing out the opposite window, through which the breeze was flowing. “Xamra is that way too. It's almost two days by ship from here. Are you going to go back?” 
 
    She had been hatching plans to do just that, before he’d arrived. Of course, she had no idea how she could get there, now. If it cost money, she had none. “I’m not sure. I’d like to go back, and maybe see what’s become of Bahrza and Peitaro."
 
    After Vai uncharacteristically said nothing for a few moments, she tilted her head intently at him. He wore a solemn expression on his Matatu. “Those cities haven’t existed since the early days of the conquests, Erylist. I’m sorry. The island became a large barracks and training ground for League armies, desolated after the fighting stopped. I’m sorry."
 
    Erylist sat wordlessly on her bed pallet, and sat still for a long moment. Her trance broke of its own accord, before Vai became too uncomfortable. She snapped her bright green gaze to him, bright and driven. “So what is there that I can do around here, then? I wanted to ask Ulio.” 
 
    “Oh, I can help you with that!” Vai clapped his hands once, enthusiastically. “The divers always need help.”
 
    “The divers?” Erylist asked. 
 
    “Divers, salvagers, the same. Tirpi and Ixie, the two Matoran who found you - that’s part of what they do. Actually, if you’re up for it, walk with me. It’s easier to show you.” 
 
    “Of course!” Erylist slid off her bed, following the Matoran out of her new home, telling him that of course she didn’t mind if he left his cart there for the time being. 
 
    Vai explained the current projects in the town as they turned onto a small street, heading for a larger one at the end of the row of other small huts that were the same size as Erylists. He was saying, “A large part of our current rebuilding phase is environmental restoration. The Barraki carved up the Northern Continent until there was hardly anything left. Here, there were a lot of naval battles right in our harbor. There are tons of ships sunken in the bay, and hardly any rahi fish or beasts.” They turned onto the large, cobbled street, lined with larger buildings that seemed to be businesses or public buildings. The bigger the building, the more metal it seemed to be comprised of. “The frame of your home, for example, the metal parts, all salvaged from ship wreckage. They made another turn down another street. “These buildings here, they’re Matoran homes. See, they’re bigger than yours because it’s actually four small apartments in one.” 
 
    “Are we going to the beach?” Erylist asked, as the smell of salt water and seaweed was definitely growing stronger as they progressed down the street. 
 
    Vai nodded. “That’s the Ussalry, up there,” and he pointed up another road as they passed. “It was a nightmare trying to round them all back up and redomesticate them. We had to set them loose before we fled to Tulekahu. They didn’t have room there.” He led them to the end of a street, where the end was marked not by the cutting off of the road, but by the abrupt end to the modest rows of buildings, and the cobbled road turning into a dirt path, leading through a young, sparse forest. “See, you can see the water.” 
 
   They emerged out onto the beach. The beginnings of a shipyard was under construction. Temporary, floating docks with vine-like moorings were spaced out at the workers’ convenience all the way down the beach, until the coastline turned too rocky and eventually, craggy, for the small, Matoran-powered fishing boats. There weren’t any larger ships in sight, but there was a large, floating platform about a kio offshore, where a few more boats could be seen tied off. Erylist also saw half a dozen boats, each with one cheerful, triangle sail out on the water, with busy Matoran of all kinds aboard. “Look,” Vai said to her, and pointed to an empty stretch of beach to their left. “That’s about where they hauled you in.” 
 
    “Tirpi and Ixie? Are they salvagers, then?” Erylist squinted into the sun playing off of the waves, trying to see if her rescuers were again out on the water. The tide was coming in. 
 
    “Well, everybody helps out where’s needed,” the Onu-Matoran said. “I’m not entirely sure what they were working on that day.”
 
    “Whatever it was, I’m glad they did,” she murmured, giving up trying to identify any Matoran in the boats, partially because she only knew about four Matoran out of the couple hundred in the settlement, and partially because most of the boats were too far away to see the occupants clearly anyways. It already felt like years ago she had woken up in the Ussal stable.
 
   With a few questions here and there, and relatively little prompting, Vai explained many duties fisher Matoran had taken on, as well as many other Matoran from the settlement. Wreckage clearing and salvaging, salvage recycling and repurposing, seaweed farming and harvesting, getting rid of invasive and toxic sea slug and explosive sea urchins, ship building, repair, maintenance, net and diving material maintenance and repair. The Matoran used the tough, fibrous seaweed for a multitude of things, it was easily woven, and tough when dried. A specific drying process with controlled humidity and heat rendered it pliable to produce ropes and nets. The list went on and on. He pointed down this way and over there and at that as he described various duties Matoran were performing. 
 
    “What was that about the sea urchins an sea slugs?” Erylist asked at one point. 
 
    “Well, they’re both invasive. We think they came up with Barraki Ehlek’s armies, from the south. We think the slugs were the source of Barraki Ehlek’s neurotoxin weapons.” Vai shuddered at the memory. Thankfully, with the disappearance of the seafaring warlord, the knowledge of how to weaponize the creatures had also vanished. "They eat any seaweed we try to cultivate, and we think they’re part of what’s keeping the native fish and crustacean populations from making a comeback. The urchins don’t have any natural predators, so their population is running out of control.” Harvesting or trading any of these urchins was highly regulated, and forbidden without express written and vetted permit from Central City itself. Their explosive properties, when processed correctly, nearly broke through the walls of the Toa Fortress during the siege.
 
  Vai explained how Uahi and Dihe used to be Uahi City before the war, and Arju a residential suburb, but now each was a much more humble settlement. Uahi City was a sprawling port city, a big producer of marine commodities, from nets to ships to harpoons. It remained relatively simple, and what kept it from expanding to a huge metropolis power was the relatively controversial decision made season after season to not over-cultivate or over-fish their precious coast. To keep businesses growing, the city poured effort into trade, becoming a big player in the naval trade of the both of the western island chains and the Southern Continent, as well as developing main roads leading to all of the other cities and large towns on the continent. Because of this, Uahi had been a strategic target for the power-hungry League, and had consequently seen much destruction.
 
    Their walk had taken them in a loop to the south entrance of Uahi that linked up with the main road. A low wall of flat, stacked stones ran a few kio in each direction, across the front of the settlement, only coming up to the average Matoran’s chest. A polished driftwood archway served as the town’s front gate. 
 
    Vai proceeded through the town, full of information, pointing out names and businesses, giving a few introductions here and there. It was sweet to see how well-liked the diligent Onu-Matoran was in his community. 
 
    There were units of Matoran and some various seasonal workers of various races who worked closely with the Ussalry to transport building materials to the town, and the two neighboring towns for construction. They were also beginning to run trade carts and mobile vendor stands. Each town had multiple assembly teams, various development committees, and so on. There were learning centers, some sports teams, and even some libraries in the works. 
 
    “And you’re welcome to jump in on any project or team that interests you. We have a lot of temporary residents helping with the construction of the settlements who hope to become a permanent part of the trade market eventually. Of course, it’s up to you to work out fair wages or compensation, but we’re pretty honest folk. Can’t afford not to be,” Vai told her. “Otherwise, how could we hope to rebuild a home?” 
 
    Home. Vai’s use of the word struck a chord down where Erylist had tucked away her fears and insecurities. She’d never helped build a city that had inhabitants, let along build alongside them. Vai’s explanations of his world and his dreams for it were captivating and sufficiently distracting from any despair she had been flirting with earlier. She did love learning new skills, and being able to do so as she helped build a better world was always an alluring prospect. “Vai,” she said, as they turned down the street where she recognized her humble hut. “Where can I start out? And, more importantly, is there anything I can specifically help you out with, in return for history lessons? You know, all the stuff I’ve missed?” 
 
    The expression of elation that lit up Vai’s mask put any lightstone to shame. “I thought you would never ask. I’m actually working on updating the history of the Northern Continent that’s currently in the Archives.” 
 
    “Perfect,” she said, helping the Matoran drag his little wheeled cart from her hut. “Can we start tomorrow?” 
 
    The Onu-Matoran laughed. “If I hadn’t promised Wisida I’d help him in the Ussalry this afternoon, I’d say we could start then. Do you remember where town hall is? The other big building, right next to it, the common hall. You’ll find me there, tomorrow, any time that’s three hours after suns-rise.” 
 
    And so began Erylist’s first of many years on the Northern Continent. 
 

 
    Year Forty-Seven
   
       “Okay, toss it!” Erylist called down from near the top of the tree. The trees in the region, which had been just saplings when she’d arrived, were now taller than two story buildings. “Hey! I’m not a Brakas!” She barely caught the grappling hook that Toa Inokas had thrown, balancing between two precariously thin branches. 
 
    “Sorry, I don’t have a good line of sight,” the Toa called back. 
 
    “You’re just lucky I’m not scared of heights,” she returned, and began hauling up the net that was attached to the grappling hook. Inokas, as it turned out, wasn’t the rusty-armored, by-the-book, grumpy old war rahi she had initially taken him to be. He was just an introvert. It had taken him a year or so to let down his guard around her, but she found she genuinely enjoyed working alongside him, most days. 
 
    “Slower! It’ll get tangled again,” Inokas warned her. The two of them, and a small team of Bo-Matoran and Le-Matoran had been working for the better part of a month, putting up nets around the fruiting trees between Dihe and Uahi. The Nui Rama infestation around Dihe had not improved. Well, they had gone away for a few decades, and then come back in greater numbers, and the Matoran swore that they were stronger and smarter.  The insects were destroying what fruit the Matoran could harvest. The fruit mostly went to the Ussalry, but there were two fish nurseries that had started within the last decade, and the Matoran farmers also used the fruit in their feed mixes. 
 
    “It won’t get tangled,” Erylist said with mock exasperation. Only hours ago, she had indeed gotten one of the seaweed nets tangled, and if it hadn’t been for Inokas’ Mask of Levitation and precise control over his fire, it would have taken hours to untangle. On days when Inokas had other, more Toa-like duties to attend to, Erylist and the Matoran did indeed spend hours untangling nets. “I helped make this one, you know!” 
 
    The Toa of Fire laughed, “So that’s why there are so many holes.” 
 
    “It’s a net, it’s made of holes,” she snapped, although she knew what he meant. 
 
    Inokas’ reply was drowned out by a huge blast of wind that flew in with an equally loud, whooping battle-cry, although there was no battle around. 
 
    Grinning, Inokas turned to see viridian-armored Toa of Air drop to the forest floor. He’d recognize that war-cry anywhere. 
 
    “Brother! You’re back from the Southern Islands!” Inokas greeted his comrade more enthusiastically than he’d greeted anyone in years. “When did you get back?” 
 
    “Inokas!” the Toa of Air returned his salute with a clang of their fists. “Almost a month ago now. But you know how it is, at the Fortress. Lots of reports and debriefings. All day, if you let them.” 
 
    “Yes, I remember,” Inokas chuckled drily. “And-“ 
 
    Together, they turned as movement in their peripheral vision drew their attention. 
 
    “Great Spirit!” the Toa of Air exclaimed. His gusty arrival had knocked Erylist and the net out of her tree, and she hung tangled in the net, a good dozen feet off the ground.
 
    “No, by all means,” she called, “Keep catching up. Don’t mind me.” She spoke sarcastically, although nothing in her falsely cordial tone suggested it, which confused the Toa of Air. She reached again for the tree trunk, using her tail to build swinging momentum. “I’ll just hang out here.” 
 
    Suppressing a smile, Inokas said to the other Toa, “She’s fine, don’t worry.” 
 
    He raised a hand to free her with a fine jet-of fire, but the Le-Toa cut in. “Let me,” he said, activating his Kanohi. 
 
    There was a quick flash, a yelp and crash, and Erylist was free. “What in Karzahni’s name was that?” she hauled herself, still tangled in net, over to the two Toa. 
 
    “Mask of Laser Vision,” the Toa of Air replied. “Toa Dustro. Pleasure to meet you.” Inokas had mentioned this old war-time comrade a few times, she was fairly certain. 
 
    Erylist scowled at him. “I’m going to go see how many Matoran you knocked out of trees, thanks.” She tossed the net at his feet, and handed Inokas his grappling hook back, and stalked away, tip of her tail twitching irately. 
 
    Dustro glanced at Inokas, concerned. The Toa of Fire shurgged. “So, that’s Erylist. She’s been helping rebuild, lately. Really, though. She’ll be fine.” he said. "Wounded pride, I suspect.” 
 
    Dustro was skeptical. “Also, do you really think I knocked Matoran out of trees? I’m so sorry, I had no idea it was a tree-climbing day.” Although, if he were in charge, every day would be tree-climbing day. 
 
    “It’s nothing the Matoran can’t handle, or haven’t done before.” Inokas knelt and began gathering the now-ruined net in his arms. “Are you here visiting? Or. . .” 
 
    “I’d rip my own heartlight out if I visited your Continent and didn’t stop by to see you,” he said, clapping a hand over his heartlight dramatically. "But yes, I’m also here on Fortress business.” He helped Inokas gather the unruly net, using his mask to slice it into more manageable halves. "They mentioned that they send a Toa or two out every few months to get updates and bring updates to you, and how much you don't welcome them. They practically paid me to come out here. I should have let them.” The Toa of Air hailed from Pasari, a small island to the east of the Southern Continent. He and Inokas had spent many decades battling the League alongside one another. Inokas considered Dustro to be one of his closest comrades and friends. 
 
    “Well, then. I’d love to show you the work we’ve done on Uahi.” Inokas began walking that way. 
 
    A handful of Matoran scampered out of their trees, coming to greet the green Toa. The Le-Matoran, in particular, were excited. What should have been an easy half-hour walk back to Uahi turned into almost two hours, as the theatrical Toa of Air told them tales of heroics from the Southern Island liberation campaigns. Only a handful of islands now remained under militant control of former League powers. Although the armies had been dissolved, corruption was a deeper set disease, and many profits from the war had been pooled by aspiring barraki to hire mercenaries or ex-soldiers with nowhere to go. Ibonar and Kax, the last two islands that had been under the control of Barraki Mantax, were now free. 
 
    Ulio met them, along with two other Matoran he kept council with, at the eastern entrance to Uahi. “Toa Dustro,” the Fe-Matoran greeted the Toa. “We knew there was a Fortress envoy coming this week, but what luck that it’s you!” 
 
    Ulio, with his subtle talent of getting groups moving without them completely realizing it, asked, “Toa Inokas, are you helping the salvagers tonight? We’ll update Toa Dustro on our projects and progress here, for today, so you won’t miss any updates from their end.” 
 
    “I don’t have to be back for a week,” the Toa of Air told them happily. “We’ll have plenty of time for catching up.” 
 
    “Yes, I’ll skip out when we make our way around toward the shipyard,” Inokas said. Then, he explained to his brother, “The divers, the ones who salvage what’s left of the naval battle wreckage, have reported some damaged equipment recently. It’s checked back into the equipment station in good shape, and damaged the next morning.” The fourth report had come in just yesterday, from Tirpi. And, especially since almost all of the salvaging work that required diving equipment was done, now, there should be no reason equipment was being used heavily enough to be damaged. 
 
    The small party of Toa and Matoran came to a stop behind Toa Dustro, who had stopped outside of the town hall. There, along the side of the road, a cold, gray Kanohi Volitak watched over the town from within a small shrine with a commemorative plaque. The Matoran discreetly filed into the building, with mumblings about reports and files. 
 
     “Toa Zoru.” The Toa of Air bowed his head respectfully. While Dustro had not known Toa Zoru well, he knew of the Plasma Toa's great heroics, and knew a lot of his wisdom and legacy lived on in his prodigy, Inokas. “I know I haven’t seen much of this new Uahi yet, but from what I have seen, Zoru would be so proud.” The Toa of Air told his brother.
 
    The Toa of Fire smiled half-heartedly, appreciating Dustro’s way of encouragement. “But,” he said, “Zoru was never around to see Uahi burn, in the first place.”  He wouldn’t have been proud then, Inokas was sure. 
 
    “Stop it,” Toa Dustro said, taking hold of Inokas’ shoulder firmly, ready to shake sense into him. “You did what you had to do. We all did. Don’t go there.” 
 
    At the end of the League conquests, though nobody knew it was near the end, the Northern and half of the Southern Continent were the only two remaining regions in resistance. Barraki Ehlek and Barraki Pridak had joined forces, and were advancing on the north western half of the Northern Continent, where both Uahi, which had been Uahi City at the time, and the mouth of the Auros River were situated. Gaining control of the river and the port city would give them nearly unlimited reach and influence in the north, as well as access to the rest of the Northern Continent in resistance. If they were successful in taking Uahi, there was nothing to stop them from joining up with Barraki Takadox and Barraki Kalmah’s forces in the east, and marching together on the Southern Continent Citadel. Making the call to destroy his city was the most difficult decision Inokas had ever had to make, and when he closed his eyes at the end of a bad day, he could remember it like it was yesterday. 
 

 
 
Be sure to check out Vai's Northern Continent Compendium that he was working on! 
Edited by Aderia

 

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Chapter 6: Raze 
 
Uahi City
120 Years Ago
 
    Toa Inokas leaned over the map spread on the table. If Toa Roveka’s reports were correct, she’d spotted what must have been half of Barraki Ehlek’s legions making their way to the Northern Continent’s northwestern coast. Barraki Ehlek’s armies were particularly terrifying, known to wreak havoc on not only inhabitants, but their entire ecosystems, taking over the water supply. 
 
    “Here?” Inokas traced a sketched out current that contoured the curve of the continent. 
 
    “Yes, I think they’ll ride this current past us, and make for the mouth of the Auros,” Toa Roveka said, tracing the current to the source of the river, swiftly inland, straight to Central City. The Toa of Water was an excellent scout - one of the best. 
 
    “But if we move our forces to defend the Auros, that leaves Uahi wide open.” Inokas crossed his arms, slouching a bit, and frowned. He spoke a bit ironically. Their ‘forces’ consisted of four Toa: himself; Roveka, Toa of Water; Dustro, Toa of Air; and Kapias, Toa of Stone. 
 
    “So call for reinforcements,” Roveka said, iron undergirding her tone. She’d been telling him to send to the Fortress for reinforcements for almost two weeks now, when Barraki Pridak’s fleet from the Western Islands had started arriving on their coast. 
 
    “They don’t have any Toa to spare. Not for the kind of assault force we'd need, and not based on scouting and 'maybe's,” Inokas told her. They’d been through this before. They were spread so agonizingly thin as it was.
 
    “You won’t know that until you ask,” she practically growled. 
 
    “What I know is that most of the Toa who aren’t protecting Tulekahu are fighting to the death on the Tren Krom Peninsula,” Inokas said stiffly. The Matoran on the peninsula had refused to evacuate and flee to the much better fortified Central City, claiming that they could effectively guerrilla fight on their own turf. They had not been prepared for Barraki Takadox himself to show up. And the Matoran and Toa there had learned first-hand how terrifying and real the Barraki’s rumored powers of hypnosis were, as they fought their own brothers and sisters. It was also reported that Barraki Kalmah’s forces were closing in from the northeast. 
 
    “We can’t let Barraki Ehlek’s armies take the Auros. They’ll poison the entire continent, and it gives them a highway straight to the city.” The Toa of Water sat down, away from the map table. 
 
    “If Pridak moves to take Uahi,” Inokas said, "they’ll have a major port that gives them free access to the entire northern region, including the rest of the Continent.” 
 
    “It’s possible that Barraki Ehlek and Barraki Pridak’s armies will work together, either on our front or to take the Auros. Either way, they can not get to Tulekahu.” Roveka leaned forward, grasping her spear for support, head hanging. They were all battle-battered, and just the day before, she’d had a nasty run in with a poisoned pack of Hapaka wolves. 
 
    “I know, Roveka. We don’t have any good options.” Inokas sat down beside her, feeling similarly defeated. 
 
    The one, last, desperate course of action that they could take loomed above him, inevitable. 
 
    The two Toa sat together in dejected silence. 
 
    “Are you going to do it?” Roveka asked. 
 
    Inokas met her gaze, unsurprised that she knew exactly what decision was haunting him. Even though she wasn’t a Toa of Psionics, she could read him like a scroll. “It’s slowly becoming the only option. But…”
 
    “I know,” she spoke gently, the expression on her battered Kanohi Arthron softening as well. “Inokas, it’s your city. You call the shots. I’ll follow.” 
 
    The Toa of Fire smiled emptily, and said, “Thank you, although that doesn’t make it easier."
 
    The Toa of Water quickly wrapped an arm around his shoulders in a one-armed hug. “It’s war. Nobody wins.” And she stood up, walking toward the door. They had set up their makeshift tactics hut in an abandoned ship repair shop. “Here comes Ulio.” 
 
    The Fe-Matoran hurried up to the door of the shop that stood at the entrance to the city’s main shipyard. He carried a small net in one hand. Bowing cursorily to Toa Roveka at the door, he entered, speaking to Inokas. “The few fishers that went out today found these.” He tossed his net at Inokas’ feet. The Toa picked it up, examining the two creatures squirming inside. One was a large, slimy sea-slug - completely organic and brightly colored. The other was a small sea urchin. “I talked with the historian, and some Bo-Matoran and Ga-Matoran. They’re-“
 
    “They’re Barraki Ehlek’s.” Toa Roveka said, also peering at the creatures. “Do the other Matoran know this?” 
 
    “They know the rumors,” Ulio said. “Unease is turning to restlessness and distrust, and it’s spreading.” The Matoran hopped up onto a chair to look at the Toa’s map. “Are they using the northwest currents to move to the Auros?” 
 
    “That’s what we think,” the Toa of Water said, nodding. 
 
    If Matoran began to panic, then it would be too late to evacuate. They already knew Barraki Pridak’s fleet waited ominously off their coast. The idea of a second Barraki army moving in around them would send many over the edge. 
 
    More than anything, Inokas wished Toa Zoru were here. Even if Inokas was still the one who had to make the call, it would still mean the world to him to have his mentor at his back. But the Toa of Plasma had been summoned to the Southern Citadel almost a decade ago. The last news they’d gotten from him had been eight years ago. Nobody was holding out hope of another message from their beloved hero. 
 
    Toa Inokas stood up, incinerating the net and the two sea creatures with a bright flash of fire. “Where are Dustro and Kapias?” 
 
    “Dustro is scouting, still. I think Kapias is in Arju,” Roveka said. 
 
    “Yes, Kapias is helping reinforce walls in Arju,” Ulio said. 
 
    Inokas smiled, a genuine smile, this time. “Ulio, you should have been a Toa.” 
 
    “No time for ‘should have’s in war, Toa,” Ulio replied, but also smiled. It was high praise from an old, trusted friend. “Are you going to call it?” 
 
    The Toa of Fire said nothing, but nodded once, gravely. 
 
    “Inokas.” Roveka stared at him. 
 
    “Homes mean nothing to the dead. Ulio, get the evacuation plan moving. Send a runner to Arju, we need Kapias to get the evacuation started there. Roveka will join him shortly. If the Matoran all evacuate quickly, we can get our work done within a day.” Inokas lay out a large, detailed map of the city, and surrounding landscape, including the suburb of Arju, that sat on the bank of the Auros. 
 
    With only a whoosh of wind as a warning, Toa Dustro burst into the shop. “Brother, sister,” he panted. “Brothers.” He corrected himself, acknowledging Ulio. “Ships flying Barraki Ehlek’s sigil, coming from the south. I counted sixty-four.” He pointed haphazardly in a direction that was vaguely south. 
 
    “And I saw his aquatic armies making for the Auros,” Roveka said grimly. 
 
    “Dustro. Perfect timing, as always. I need you to fly to Tulekahu.” Inokas tossed him a pre-packed rucksack.
 
    The Toa of Air pulled out a stone tablet with Inokas’ sigil stamped on the top, reading it. “You’re asking for a Toa of Iron, a Toa of Fire, and a Toa of Earth? How long have you had this ready?” 
 
    “About two weeks. I’m fairly sure the city can spare three Toa. They’re listed by priority.  You also have a copy of our evacuation route and estimate of our population and housing needs, including any Ussal we’ll be bringing.”  Unfortunately, a majority of the Ussal crabs would be turned loose in the forest. “There’s also a writ requesting any spare Toa to guard our caravan on the road, while we do our work here. But speed is of the essence. If sending caravan guards will delay your arrival back here past midnight, you and Roveka will be in charge of getting everyone to the city safely. I’ve also requested use of any emergency Kadin or Kakama they keep, to get the Toa I need here before suns-set.”  His sigil was stamped marking this correspondence as highest of urgencies.
 
    “Ulio. We need to get the evacuation moving. I want everyone packed by suns-set, and on the move by suns-rise. Ulio, send anyone with a disagreement directly to me. If I’m not here, I’ll be at the Ussalry.”  Ulio left immediately. 
 
    “Roveka, Dustro. If we don’t get caravan guards, you will be responsible for keeping the Matoran safe on the road until the rest of us can catch up.” 
 
    “Where do you want me to begin?” Roveka asked, grabbing her spear. 
 
   Inokas looked at his map of the region, and then flipped back to the map of the entire continent. “Go to Arju. Find Kapias, fill him in. Then start the evacuation there. Here’s a copy of the plans, if you need. Send the villagers to rally here, I don’t want anyone leaving alone for the city. Then start damming as close to the mouth of the river as you can. I want as much of a bottleneck for any waterborne Barraki army as possible.” 
 
    “What?!” Roveka exclaimed. “Was this always part of the plan?” 
 
    “If you can figure out a way to make it impassable for Barraki Ehlek’s forces, then do so. But we have permission from the city, if we need to dam up the mouth completely.  There should be enough run-off to keep the river alive for a few months.” 
 
    “Yes, the rainy season,” the Toa of Water murmured, although the loss of life in terms of rahi and plantlife would be drastic. But it would be more, if the Barraki had their way, she had to remind herself. 
   
    “After the mouth of the river is taken care of, work your way down the coast. I don’t want any Barraki fleet able to harbor along our coastlines. I’ll send the Toa of Earth to you when he arrives,” Inokas said. Roveka turned on her heel and disappeared out the door. Inokas shook off his momentary confusion. Why was she upset about damming the river? There were much more drastic sacrifices they’d all made before. Perhaps it was that he hadn’t told her that had been the plan from the start. He shook off the worry - although he did care what the brave, independent  Ga-Toa thought of him, moreso than he wanted to admit, there was no time to pander to that care.
 
    Inokas picked up a stick of charcoal, and bent over the map of the region once more. The landscape around Uahi and Arju was moderately forested, with many fruiting trees and vines. There were gently rolling hills that turned to plains the farther south one went, but still covered in trees and foliage. Across the Auros River, the landscape almost too abruptly became a sparse grassland, and, traveling east, turned into the Tren Krom Badlands. There, giant spikes of stone echoed with shrieks of unknown Rahi. Rock slides were a common cause of death. The rocks had an uncanny knack for targeting travelers. Winds howled through the jagged monoliths, sometimes pushing along the razor sharp husks of dead Amula shrubs at dangerous speeds. Any runoff from the rain released noxious gases when the water interacted with the stone and earth around it, and runoff was dangerously acidic. And those were only a few of the dangers the inhospitable east held. Inokas had only traveled there a few times. But he sketched out in charcoal on the map how similarly inhospitable he wanted the Uahi region to be. Especially the coastline. While Uahi didn’t have a sheltered bay for a harbor, they did sit at the junction of two favorable currents that ships could easily ride to anywhere in the north. If they had the resources and time to disrupt the currents, that would have been his first choice. But there were too many variables and risk of irreversible consequences, and he wasn’t sure his small team could disrupt an entire ocean’s flow. 
 
    The burdened Toa of Fire barely noticed the precious time slipping away. No Matoran came to interrupt him.  It was the arrival of four Toa, led by Toa Dustro finally, that brought him out of his strategizing. 
 
    “Brothers, welcome,” Inokas greeted them each with a salute. There was still about an hour of daylight left. “You made remarkable time, coming here.” 
 
    “Great Spirit’s blessing,” the Toa of Iron said. This was Toa Meyco, he and Inokas had worked together before. He wore more ornate armor from the Southern Island chains, and his own Kanohi Kadin. “Inokas, this is Toa Baridi.” Meyco introduced the Toa of Earth, who wore a Mask of Emulation. “And this,” he slung his other arm around a younger Toa of Fire, who held one of the Fortresses emergency Kakama in one hand, having just re-donned his Mask of Regeration, “is Toa Dume.” 
 
    “How familiar are you with this region?” Inokas addressed the Toa of Earth and the other Toa of Fire, to business immediately. 
 
    Inokas outlined his plan. The small team of seven would work nonstop for the next 48 hours, transforming the region so no Barraki could establish a base. 
 
    “As we speak,” Inokas was saying, “Toa Roveka is dehydrating as much of the forest as she can. She and Toa Kapias are working on barring the mouth of the Auros River, about here.” He pointed to the map. “Toa Baridi,” he addressed the stoic Toa of Earth. "I understand you’ve done terraforming work before? Roveka said they’re trying to make a series of terraces and waterfalls. They want to keep the river from completely dying, but make as much of a bottle neck for waterborne armies as possible. Unless they’re an amphibious force, Roveka’s plan should work.” 
 
    Inokas also handed the Toa of Earth a diagram of where he planned for the Toa of Earth and the Toa of Stone to raise huge earthen and stone spikes, some towering out of the water, and some lurking just below the surface, all along the coast, to slow and disable any enemy ships. The diagram also had markings along the coast, where Roveka and Dustro were to work together to erode as much of the beach as they could. Uahi would completely lose any shipyards and docks. “Any defenses you can raise along the coastline, do so. The Matoran are slated to move out at dawn. If we can accompany them, we will.” He doubted that would be the case, but if he could fit in a bit of optimism for these Toa, he would.
 
    He sent Baridi and Dustro toward Arju to meet up with Roveka and Kapias. 
 
    “Now,” Inokas turned to Toa Meyco and Toa Dume. “Let me show you the city.” 
 
    The three Toa made their way from the shipyard into the city, occasionally stopped by a flustered or dismayed Matoran. They knew they were about to lose their home. Inokas explained, in short, that once the Matoran and inhabitants were on the road, the three of them would go to work, leveling the city. There were few questions. This was not new work for any of them, though they’d never worked on such a large scale like this. 
 
    “Any metallic protodermis, use for barriers,” he told the Toa of Iron. “If Toa Kapias and Toa Baridi are done on the coast by then, they’ll join you. You’ve been through the Tren Krom Badlands, right?” Both the other Toa nodded, understanding his point. 
 
    “You and I,” Inokas addressed the junior Toa of Fire. “Everything Roveka dehydrates and Meyco dismantles. We burn.” He needed a second Toa of Fire to handle the burning within the settlements. Inokas himself would handle incinerating the dehydrated plant-life. He emphasized not letting the fires blaze out of control. 
 
    The other Ta-Toa gazed around at the busy Matoran, some of them now carrying lightstones as the dusk deepened. “Do they know?” 
 
    Inokas sighed. “I think they have an idea. Why else would we be ordering a complete evacuation?” It was painful, how some of them looked at him as they hurried past now, like a monster out of Karzahni. 
 
    “There’s no other way?” Dume asked, but his tone was not one of disrespect, but one that felt the weight of both the Matoran’s loss, and their Toa’s decision. 
 
    “I don’t want any Barraki army able to set up camp here and gain a foothold in this region. Otherwise, we’ll fall as quickly as the east.” Inokas led them around the city, laying out more of his plan as they went. “Ulio, what’s the matter?” 
 
    The Fe-Matoran hurriedly approached them, from the direction of the Ussalry with a bickering Onu-Matoran and Fa-Matoran in tow. Before Ulio could answer, the Fa-Matoran pointed accusingly at the Onu-Matoran. “Vai here is trying to claim four Ussal for himself. He doesn’t even-“
 
    “That’s not true,” the Onu-Matoran historian interrupted. “Ideally I’d want five.”
 
    “Since when are your scrolls and writing tablets more important than my foundry equipment,” the Matoran of Magnetism shot back. 
 
    “They’ve been arguing for almost an hour,” Ulio said, as the other two Matoran again fell into squabbling. “Neither is packed.” 
 
    “Vai,” Inokas cut in sternly. “Tulekahu barely has enough room for us, let alone our whole Ussalry. As it is, most of our Ussal are going to be released before we hit Abaki.” 
 
    “But-“ Vai began to protest. 
 
    “You get one Ussal and a cart,” the Toa of Fire said to both Matoran. “One.” 
 
    “You can burry items you can’t take with you,” Toa Meyco suggested. "That’s what a lot of Matoran did, from the Peninsula.” 
 
    “Thank you, Toa.” Ulio ushered the disgruntled Matoran away, scolding, “You two have lost a lot of time, you won’t be able to save anything of yours if you don’t get a move on.” 
 
    “Ulio!” Inokas called, “As Matoran are finishing up, where are you sending them?” 
 
    “Town Centre! I’d say we’re at about thirty percent,” the Fe-Matoran called back through the din. “I also received a runner from Arju saying that they should be here within the next two hours.” 
 
    As they passed they walked through the crafters district, Meyco told Dume more about Central City before the war. Inokas was silent. This was his old neighborhood, where he’d lived as a Matoran artisan. It was clear, now that the Matoran knew the rumors were true, that the Toa were taking the most drastic measure, and destroying their city to try and save their continent. Deep inside, Inokas’ heart-light sputtered sadly, as a Ta-Matoran, an old co-worker and friend, hurried across the street right in front of them to his forge, and deliberately refused to acknowledge him. A few other masks wearing expressions of disdain or fear or despair also gazed at him as they passed through. 
 
    It was going to be a long night. 
 

 
   Present Day
 
    Inokas crouched among crates of Matoran diving equipment, in a small hut in Uahi’s new shipyard. It was similar to the shipwright shop where he once pored over his maps and charts endlessly. The Matoran had made it safely to Central City, able to see the towers of smoke rising from their old city the entire way. Before the week was out, the combined armies of Barraki Ehlek and Barraki Pridak had indeed launched an offensive against the Uahi region. Inokas’ team’s defensive efforts had slowed down the armies enough for reinforcements - almost forty Toa, to arrive from the city. Much of Barraki Pridak’s fleet was destroyed by some vengeful Ga- and Le-Toa. It took almost two months of hard-fought battles and costly victories, but the Toa were able to hold the coastline. By the time the Barraki’s armies were forced to retreat, though, the region had been completely desolated, both the coastline and the land itself. The force of Toa stayed, fearing another attack after the armies regrouped, but none came. Almost a month went by, and reports that the Barraki and high-ranking League officials had all disappeared or been killed swirled. Nobody believed it, but soon, armies began to disband. Toa left to help restore order or liberate their homelands. A few Toa stayed to help dismantle the giant pillars of earth and stone and metal that scarred the region, an effort led by Toa Meyco. But soon, pleas for help from the Southern Islands that had fallen into post-war chaos, drew most of the Toa south. Uahi was abandoned, as Inokas also traveled south, spending almost four decades in the south-western chain with various Toa teams working to protect and establish structure to rebuild societies. 
 
    When he returned to Tulekahu, more than half of the old citizens of Uahi had made lives for themselves in the city, which had permanently expanded its borders. It had been Vai and Ulio and a handful of other Uahians who had organized a resettlement movement. Even then, it took almost a decade to get a population back to the region. They returned to find it still barren. It took months of correspondence with the Fortress to get just a single Toa of the Green to help with revegetation efforts, much to Inokas’ frustration. 
 
    His melancholy reminiscing was cut short as the door to the diver’s hut swung open, flooding the room with moons-light. He’d dealt with a few cases of burglary since they’d rebuilt, but nothing surreptitious like this. Usually a stern talking to from the Toa was enough to shape up the offending Matoran. But as a bright but harmless flare of fire erupted in the doorway, meant to startle the interloper and prevent escape, Inokas exclaimed, “Erylist!” 
 
    “Inokas!” she hissed, blinking fiercely in the sudden light. He extinguished it. “What in Karzahni's twisted name are you doing here?” 
 
    “I’m investigating reports of damaged equipment,” he told her, gesturing to the assortment of flippers and snorkels and harnesses and buoyancy devices that were piled and hung around them. “It’s you?”
 
    “Yes, it’s me. Is it illegal?” she demanded, now rubbing her eyes. 
 
    “Well, it’s not theft. But, why? You said you didn’t like diving, when you tried salvaging.” 
 
    She made no reply, and crossed her arms with one stubborn lash of her tail. 
 
    “Erylist, talk to me.” 
 
    “I just-“ she trailed off with a frustrated harrumph, unsure of how to express her frustration in words. 
 
    The Toa of Fire sighed. He and the Xamran had become good friends over the past few decades. She was very dedicated to helping rebuild the city, and had a solid work ethic that helped motivate some of the more slothful Matoran. And, although most of the Matoran didn’t hold his actions in the war against him, they were very conscious of maintaining their distance from him in one way or another.  They mostly came to him with problems to fix and requests to grant, or disputes to settle. With a few notable exceptions in Vai and Ulio and some others, most of Inokas’ interactions with his villagers had become strictly duty based, and it was sometimes tiring and a bit lonely. So, as a fellow non-Matoran, he and Erylist were able to find a sort of camaraderie and peerage. However, Erylist didn’t usually have trouble integrating with the Matoran. She was genuinely curious about their lives, how they did their work, and how to improve the city based on their needs and ideas. Not that Inokas wasn’t, but because she was a relative newcomer with fresh ideas, and no societally structured rank to fit into, she found it easy to integrate. He also suspected her natural friendship with the influential and beloved historian had secured her a place of acceptance in the town. But sometimes, Inokas suspected, she used the busy-ness of new projects and learning new trades to avoid being honest with others, and herself. 
 
    “Walk with me,” he said, passing her and walking out into the street. “You’re not in trouble.” He kept walking, suspecting she’d inevitably follow. 
 
    “You said that last time,” she grumbled, catching up to him. “And then you kicked me off of the Nui-Rama task force.” 
 
    “That’s because you kept taking unnecessary risks and became more of a liability than a help,” he replied. 
 
    “Spoil-sport,” she muttered. Indeed, she had enjoyed the catch-disorient-and-release method of Nui-Rama riddance much too thoroughly, and had given many of the adventurous Le-Matoran on the task force in Arju some bad ideas about Nui-Rama riding. 
 
    “Night diving?” he prompted, steering her away from her Nui-Rama grudge. She’d go on about it for a good twenty minutes, if left unchecked. 
 
    “Nobody asked you to care,” she snapped. 
 
    The Toa of Fire frowned. It was rare she was this hostile. “So, are you doing something illegal, then?” The only thing he could think of was harvesting the remaining toxic sea slugs or sea urchins, leftover from Barraki Ehlek’s invasion. 
 
    “Of course not!” she said indignantly. 
 
    “I’m not going to beg, Erylist. And I’m not going to make you tell me. But you can’t keep using the Matoran’s equipment without permission. Why can’t you just ask them to use it?” 
 
    “Because I don’t like them asking questions, like you are,” came the irate reply. 
 
    “Listen. I’m not walking with you because I enjoy being needled. If you want to keep your secrets fine. I’m asking because it’s my job to care about those under my protection, and I know secrets have a tendency to fester and rot. And I know you’re better than that.” 
 
    “Yes, yes, you care because it’s your duty, like a good Toa-hero.” Her shoulders hunched resentfully. 
 
    “Why are you trying to pick a fight? This isn’t about me. I know something is up. If you won’t tell me, that’s fine. Vai will be back from Tulekahu next week. He’s a good listener.” The Onu-Matoran was finding fulfillment as a very successful economic advisor and trade advocate, in this blooming society. If Inokas had to count, he’d say that almost half the business in Uahi now, had consulted with the historian on trade policies or deals, among many other things.
 
    The two had made their way to the end of the shipyard, and now turned toward Uahi, heading for the north-western most entrance. They walked in silence for a while. 
 
    “I don’t understand why you won’t join a team,” Erylist said finally, with a trace of “I’m sorry” in her tone. 
 
    “Have you talked to Toa Dustro, then?” Inokas asked. 
 
    “Yes, a bit,” she said. "He says at the Fortress, you have a reputation for avoiding them. And I’ve seen you when other Toa visit. You’re all walls.” 
 
    “I know my duty is here, helping rebuild,” he told her. Somehow, she had turned this around on him.  
 
    “You like doing mundane things, like netting trees and welding Ussal carts?” she asked, incredulous. “You’re a Toa, you have so much power, though.” 
 
    After some thought, he said, “It’s easy for fire to be used destructively. I’ve had enough of that for a few lifetimes.  I can use my powers as a Toa for bigger things, sure, like scorching enemies. But I can also use my power as an individual here to build up what’s good. So, in that regard, I don’t mind doing the ‘mundane’ things. Why do you ask?”
 
    “I don’t get it, though. You have so many brothers and sisters willing to fight alongside you, to make a better world, side by side, but you choose to isolate yourself from them here, fighting insect infestations and unfair trade agreements.” 
 
    “Uahi is my home. I want to help rebuild it as much as they do,” he gestured to the rows of Matoran apartments they walked past. 
 
    “You feel your duty is to rebuild? Don’t the Matoran do a good enough job?” she pressed. Was it pride that drove the Toa of Fire to stay, that only he could oversee the rebuilding the ‘right’ way? 
 
    “I feel it’s my duty to help rebuild, because I made the call to destroy Uahi in the first place, during the war. I don’t know if Vai or anyone told you.” 
 
    “Oh,” was all Erylist said, now feeling rather guilty, assuming the worst of him. “I’m sorry. No, I had no idea.”  She had learned well enough about the League fighting that had gone on in the region, but she hadn’t learned much about Inokas’ role specifically. 
 
    Their relaxed pace had taken them toward the town hall, down the main street of the settlement. 
 
    “I was looking for my brother and sister,” Erylist said suddenly. Inokas looked at her, puzzled, not completely understanding her statement. But this was how many of their conversations went, with different pieces ending up tied together in a way he couldn't have predicted. She continued, “I don’t get why you choose not to be with your brothers and sisters, when I would give anything to have mine beside me again. I keep searching the sea floor for another stasis container, like the one you found me in.” 
 
    Erylist didn’t talk about Armonger and Seja much. “They were captured trying to save me,” she said sadly. 
 
    Inokas had dozens of questions, but decided against pushing. Erylist saying as much as she already had was progress enough. 
 
    “You haven’t found anything?” he went with the simplest, least invasive question. 
 
    She shook her head. 
 
    “You’ve been searching the entire coastline?” As he thought more about it, the absurdity of the idea hit him. It was not a small area to search. 
 
    “Well, places marked down where lots of wreckage was,” she shrugged. “But I don’t think I’ll find anything. Tonight was probably going to be one of my last dives anyways.” 
 
    “You’ve been night diving for a while, then?”
 
    “Only a few years.” 
 
    The Toa of Fire let out a small laugh. “And it took them this long to notice?” 
 
    “I kind of gave up and got sloppy,” she also chuckled a bit.
 
    “Erylist, if you want help, I hope you know that you can ask - myself, any of the Matoran. That’s why you chose to stay here, isn’t it? To establish a home?” 
 
    She shrugged once more. 
 
    They had reached the crossroads that would take the Toa of Fire to his own hut at the eastern end of the village. 
 
    “Ask for help if you need it,” he repeated. “Get some rest. And listen. If you want to come with Dustro and I to work on the Nui-Rama infestation later this week, we’d love to have you. There won’t be any Matoran working with us this time. We’re going to rout them Toa-style. More your speed.” 
 
    At this, Erylist grinned widely. 
 
    “I take that as a ‘yes’,” Inokas returned the smile, and turned to head home, satisfied with a good night's work. 
 

 
 
 

 

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The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 7: Sister
 
    Erylist would always remember her one-hundred and third year in Uahi. For one thing, it was a year that began with three straight weeks of rain, which was unheard of, even in the rainy season. But it was memorable much moreso because it wasn’t every day you saw a Vortixx striding purposefully toward Town Hall. Erylist dropped her crafter's mallet, and darted out of the crafter’s workshop with a shouted apology over her shoulder to her teacher, an old Fa-Matoran. Erylist also did a terrible job of looking like she wasn’t following the Xian. But she wasn’t particularly trying to do a good job. She had picked up craftmanship while waiting for Vai to return from a business voyage. She had opted out of this one, having no interest, as it would be mostly negotiation and document-based meetings with some eastern island settlements. They had plans at the end of that month to go to the Tren Krom Peninsula to do some rahi documentation. Erylist, who had never been to the Peninsula, was getting restless. He should have been back a week ago. 
 
    But the arrival of the Vortixx was sufficiently distracting. You always went to the Vortixx with a trade offer. They never came to you. Everyone knew that. So what in the world was one doing in Uahi? Sure, the town had grown in repute, but nothing close to attracting the eye of the Xian market. As far as Erylist knew, Uahi wasn’t in that line of work, or anywhere near that level of prowess. 
 
    The Xamran caught Toa Inokas’ eye through one of Town Hall’s large windows, and gestured questioningly at the Vortixx entering the hall. Inokas shrugged, and turned, with Ulio and some other Matoran leaders, to greet the newcomer. Erylist stepped under the veranda of an artisan’s shop, directly across from the hall. 
 
    “Erylist, I’ve told you a thousand times. If you’re not going to buy something and you’re not here on vendor business, then you can’t just take up space,” the shopkeeper sighed. His shop was proportioned for Matoran, not for Erylist. 
 
    “Hi Gilo, great to see you as well. Love the new trinkets,” Erylist replied distractedly, never taking her eyes from the window across the street. The glare from the mid-day suns made it near impossible to make out what was happening, anyways. 
 
    “Be glad I’m not busy this time of day,” the Po-Matoran told her. Hardly anyone was out in the steady rain, though. 
 
    “Shh,” Erylist hissed. “Something interesting is happening. For once.” 
 
    The Matoran rolled his eyes and went back to cataloging a new order that had arrived earlier that day. 
 
    Not even ten minutes went by, when Ulio cracked open one of the doors to the main entrance of Town Hall, motioning for Erylist to join them. She trotted across the street, surprised. 
 
    “You’re not subtle,” the Fe-Matoran told her. “Come on. You should hear this.” 
 
    Erylist joined the serious-looking group around a table piled high with tablets, scrolls, a few books, and some maps. She craned her neck to get a good look at the Vortixx, who was taller than even Toa Inokas. 
 
    The Vortixx was nodding as a Ko-Matoran tactician and Toa Inokas pointed here and there on a map of the northern islands and continents. 
 
    “The Xians had one of their shipping vessels captured, and saw our trading ship in custody of the same marauders,” Ulio told her gravely. 
 
    “Marauders?” Erylist asked, excitement snuffed out and replaced with a sense of dread. She wasn’t aware there were any pirates this far north. 
 
    “There’s been a lot of upheaval on Stelt, recently. What we think happened is that a newer gang looking to leverage itself into a position of power is consolidating its resources. The fastest way to make capital there is weapon trading and providing captives for … entertainment in gladiator rings.” The violence and aggression of the many factions vying for dominance on Stelt had only gotten worse after the League wars, where many of the officers and soldiers alike felt at home, and could easily climb corrupt ladders once more. 
 
    “So, Vai…” Erylist deflated, looking at the map and at Ulio, and back again. 
 
    The Fe-Matoran shook his head sadly. “He was on that ship. Along with four more of our merchants, two from Arju, and one from Abaki.” 
 
    “So what are we going to do?” she asked. 
 
    “Well, Zimna,” Ulio gestured politely to the Vortixx, “Came all this way in person to give us this news, as soon as she heard that her ship wasn’t the only one captured.” 
 
    “I have the name of a trader in the southeast quadrant of Stelt with whom I normally conduct business,” the Vortixx chimed in. She and the leadership council had been swapping info and confirming or denying rumors about the current state of Stelt, trying to get an accurate picture. “The north, the entire north half of the island, is in complete upheaval. Two of the largest gangs are in an all out war. The smaller ones that can’t compete are waiting it out in the south, biding their time to make power plays for territory and capital when the dust settles.” 
 
    “The chances of our traders being held somewhere in the southeast are pretty good,” the Ko-Matoran said. 
 
    “Yes, most of the gladiator fights have stopped, since there’s actual fighting going on.” Zimna scowled. “But it makes sense to stockpile captives and weapons while the largest threats are at war with each other and can’t steal them from you, and then you can hit the ground running after they’ve annihilated each other.” Everyone knew Steltian turf wars never ended up any other way, besides near total destruction on both sides. There were civil wars there periodically, about every decade. But one this big was rare. As the Matoran and Vortixx took turns pointing here and there around a large map of the island of Stelt, Erylist crouched to examine and commit to memory as much of the landscape as she could. 
 
    “Erylist, I want you to come with me to the Toa Fortress,” Inokas spoke up, finally finding a break in the tactician’s talk.
 
    “What? Why? Now?” 
 
    “As soon as possible,” the Toa of Fire said. “We’re going to Stelt.” 
 
    “A rescue mission?” she breathed. Somewhere deep down, the old Erylist, the pre-stasis Erylist was stirring. She could almost feel her senses sharpening again, images registering more clearly, sounds becoming more distinct. 
 
    “Hopefully a rescue mission,” Inokas affirmed. They had no way of knowing their Matoran were really there, or even alive. 
 
    “Why do we have to go to the Fortress? Can’t we just go from here?” she wanted to know. 
 
    “I know you’re a decent fighter. But if we’re going to be going into unpredictable territory in upheaval, we need to get you some better weapons. That old switchblade isn’t going to be much help.”
 
    Erylist sprang to her feet. “Okay. I’m ready. I’m ready right now.” 
 
    Ulio looked at her quizzically. “You don’t have a single item you want to bring with you from your home?” 
 
    “No, not if I’m getting new stuff,” she said, with an excited flick of her tail that almost smacked the Ko-Matoran. 
 
    “We’re leaving in an hour,” Inokas told her, resting a hand on her shoulder in hopes of calming her. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, Erylist. But I need to know that you can handle this. It’s not all Muaka wrangling and Kane-Ra baiting. It’s serious.” 
 
    “Yes. I know. I know, I know,” she shrugged his hand off. She’d been on a few assignments before, with him. Inokas was called on by the Toa of the Fortress to handle some more trouble in Abaki, a few years back, as well as join them to quell some raids on the coast of Zakaz. At his request, Erylist had joined them, and done quite well. And, of course, there was the periodic rahi infestation or nuisance to take care of, as well. “You know I can handle it.” 
 
    “It’s higher stakes, this time. We Toa usually try to stay out of Steltian squabbles, so I’m not entirely sure what we’re walking into. It’s not going to be a quick mission. We’re going to have to camp out and do some digging,” he said. 
 
    “Perfect. Who else is coming?” 
 
    “Zimna and Ulio are joining us on the road,” the Toa said. 
 
    “I have some deals in Tulekahu to seal,” the Vortixx told her. 
 
    “I’m to see you off, and make arrangements for an interim Toa to stay in Uahi in Inokas' absence,” Ulio said, hurriedly scribbling with charcoal on a blank scroll. 
 
     “That’s it? Nobody else? We're not picking up any other Toa on the way?” 
 
    “Toa aren’t exactly welcome on Stelt,” Inokas told her. "We want to keep the lowest profile possible.” As though to emphasize his point, and much to Erylist’s surprise, he removed his Kanohi Miru, and donned a Mask of Stealth she hadn’t even noticed he held. She watched, mesmerized as the cold mask flared to life, adopting the same deep crimson as the Toa’s old Miru had. 
 
    “Is that-“
 
    “Yes. Toa Zoru’s old mask. It will be more useful,” he said, although he felt slightly immoral wearing it. Was it dishonorable to use his dead mentor’s Kanohi? But he and Ulio had agreed it was the best choice of action. “I’ll see you here in one hour.” Unlike Erylist, he had affects to pack, and loose ends to tie up. Their mission on Stelt would take as long as it needed to. There were duties to delegate. 
 

 
    “What are you smirking at?” Toa Inokas grumbled. 
 
    “You look so … different,” Erylist stifled a laugh. He was almost unrecognizable, now. They had made record time to the Toa Fortress, only an hour past suns-set. This was only her fourth time inside. 
 
    They had been met immediately by a Toa of Iron that Erylist had never met, and Inokas had only talked to twice before. But with a simple mineral-plating technique, Inokas’ crimson and gold armor was now a dull, unremarkable gray-brown. The shape of his armor, also, was modified to look much lower-quality. In passing, one wouldn’t have even known he was a Toa, except, perhaps, for the Kanohi Volitak. 
 
    “It’s only temporary,” he said. His normal, brightly colored armor would undoubtedly bring trouble on Stelt. 
 
    “This was a common tactic used in the League wars, actually,” Ulio told her, although he was similarly amused. “When units of Toa were up against the Barraki armies, it give us a distinct tactical advantage to have one standard armor color. Although, I believe it was black and silver back then. Who want’s to announce to their enemies what elements they can control, anyways?” 
 
    “It wasn't that common, just for dire situations,” Inokas put in. “We’re proud of our elements, and don’t normally need to disguise ourselves.” 
 
    “I never pegged you for a vain one,” Erylist snickered. “I’ve never been to Stelt, but from what I hear, I’m sure you’ll fit right in.” 
 
    The Toa of Fire glared at her. 
 
    “Think of an Assembler’s Village, if you’ve seen pictures of Po-Metru, and some of the boat shacks in our shipyard, but without the water. Most of the settlements on Stelt are like that. Temporary, because they get destroyed so often. There are a couple storage facilities that are more permanent, and some trading centers and small ports, but those are mostly for passers-through,” Ulio informed her. And even the temporary residents are pretty rough-and-tumble. 
 
    The Toa of Iron unlocked the armory for them, and left with a solemn salute. 
 
    “We have permission to take what we need,” Inokas said, uncovering the large and only lightstone in the armory. 
 
    Grinning, Erylist reached for the largest halberd in sight, which probably weighed more than her. 
 
    “No.” Inokas shook his head.
 
    “I was kidding anyways,” she muttered. 
 
    Inokas made quick, practical choices. A completely unostentatious quarterstaff, and twin dagger-axes, which could be thrown like boomerangs, or attached to the end or ends of his staff to form a double-headed polearm. He also took a handful of small explosives from a crate. Intrigued, Erylist promptly stuffed two handfuls of the same into her travel pouch. She had changed her mind and packed a few things from her hut, in the end.  It was the same pouch she’d made for herself her first night in Uahi, from the Ussal stable. She also had a hand-held smelting multi-tool, some scrap metal, some dried berries from Arju that she’d forgotten about, and her old switchblade. It was a rather full travel pouch. 
 
    “Okay, now actual weapons,” the Toa urged her, swatting away her grab for yet another handful of explosives. 
 
    “So many choices,” she murmured. 
 
    “We’re going for low profile,” he reminded her. 
 
    Even as she reached for twin sabres that reminded her of Seja, Ulio handed her a weighted baton. In the Matoran’s grasp, it could have been his walking stick. Erylist swooshed it through the air. “Good weight. Definitely could crack some masks with this.” 
 
    “But look,” Ulio took it from her, showing her she was actually holding it upside down. “Twist this, see?” An almost invisible seamline marked what was the handle of the baton. Ulio gave it a quarter twist. The end of the baton crackled and left a trail of lightning as he swung it though the air. “Toa-caliber stun baton,” he said. 
 
    “Not bad. I think it’s meant for a Toa of Lightning. Looks like they can easily recharge it,” Inokas hefted the baton. “But let me try.” As he channeled his elemental fire power into the grip, arcs of electricity did indeed leap from the end of it. “Fascinating. I’m willing to bet a Toa of Plasma can also charge it up.” They were three sister elements, after all. 
 
    Erylist also picked out a combat knife with an easily concealable sheath. A small switch on the hilt, and the edges of the blade hummed to life with plasma-energy, turning it into a double-edged plasma knife. 
 
    Glancing around once more, Erylist saw nothing else easily concealable. 
 
    “Take these,” Ulio also stuffed a handful of what looked like small metallic straws, sealed on both ends into her travel pouch, which sat next to the bin of small explosives. “They’re flares.” 
 
    “Flares? Isn’t that what I have a Toa of Fire for?”     
 
    “Funny,” Inokas said flatly. "No. The less I need to use fire, the better. That’s a great way to draw attention.” 
 
    “On Stelt, they don’t usually ask questions. They don’t care unless you give them a reason to. It’s good, and it’s bad,” Ulio said. 
 
    “It will make getting intel difficult, but make it easier to move around,” Inokas agreed. 
 
    “Okay. Well, I’m ready when you are,” Erylist said, snapping the magnetic sheath for her new knife to her hip, next to her baton, trying to decide where she wanted to keep them. 
 
    “We have a ship that will be ready for us at dawn, at the southern harbor,” Inokas said, covering the armor’s lightstone, and waving them out the door, latching it behind them. 
 
    Erylist’s bright green eyes lit up enthusiastically. “Are we going back to that inn?” 
 
    Ulio smiled, and asked, “How did you know?” 
 
    “I can’t believe it was so long ago,” Erylist sighed. She could remember like it was yesterday. The three of them had stopped at the Toa Fortress, over a century ago now, and then made their way to an inn on the outskirts of Tulekahu, planning to meet up with Vai in the morning, in the ornate central square of the city. She said wistfully, “If only finding him could be as easy as that, this time around.” 
 
    She had a nagging feeling in her gut, though, that it would be much more difficult.  
 

 
    Ulio was correct, as it turned out, about Stelt. Nobody cared who Erylist and Inokas were, or why they were there, or that they took over an abandoned merchant’s shop on the outskirts of the port town they landed at. Along the main road and surrounding the shipyard, businesses drove hard bargains and an amazingly diverse range of races could be seen on any given day. Taverns and inns sprawled off the main drag. Beyond that, the structures became more and more makeshift. 
 
  Indeed, all anyone talked about, was the civil war in the north. Spending their days traveling to other nearby towns, if one could call them that, and their nights eavesdropping or nonchalantly chatting, Inokas and Erylist painstakingly pieced together a list of names to start investigating. 
 
    Sometimes they worked together, but found it much easier to investigate separately, and meet back at their headquarters to update one another. 
 
    “You have to stop betting on Kinloka fights,” Inokas shook his head, as Erylist came limping into their headquarters one evening. 
 
    “People let their guard down and talk more if they think you’re a dolt,” Erylist replied wearily. She had, once again, started a tavern brawl, being a sore loser who wouldn't pay up. It had been a small skirmish, by Steltian standards. Inokas was glad he hadn't been there, this time. It was not an experience he wished to repeat. It was the only time he had come dangerously close to unleashing his fire. 
 
    “Well, was it worth it?” 
 
    “No, just confirming what I already know. I think we should definitely home in on the Lohrak Eaters. It sounds like they’re hiding out near South Port.” It was almost half a day’s journey to South Port. 
  
    “You limped all the way from South Port?” the Toa asked, concerned. 
 
    Erylist flopped onto the ground, exhausted, with a huge huff. “Mhm.” 
 
    “Well, if it helps, I agree. The Lohrak Eaters,” Inokas said. "I’ve been as far north as I can, and none of the other crews that direction have ships capable of overtaking a Xian barge. A lot of them don’t even have ships at all.” They had gone to Zimna’s contact upon arrival, but he had no interest talking with a Toa. 
 
    They had narrowed their investigation down to three suspect gangs - the Lohrak Eaters, the Kavinikas, and a group referred to as The Menagerie. The Kavinikas, though the most ambitious and established of the up and coming gangs, seemed to be focusing on gaining prowess by taking over gambling and betting rings based around rahi fights and races. The Menagerie was being eaten up by in-fighting, but had suspicious marine capacity. Many of their members had been part of Barraki Ehlek and Barraki Takadox’s forces, both know for their naval prowess. But the Lohrak Eaters were the fastest growing and best organized group they’d uncovered, even in their three short weeks on Stelt, although it felt like ages. 
 
    Inokas analyzed the list and charts Erylist had tossed to him. Then she promptly curled up right on the floor for a nap.
 
    “To South Port, it is,” he murmured, hours later, having cross referenced their notes. He made short work of packing up his things, and slinging them in a large bundle into the corner, in case they needed to make a quick run for it. Just last week, Erylist had sniffed under the wrong rock, and it had taken all her skill and former training as a stealth operative for the Hand of Artakha, so long ago, to lose the slinking Steltian tail that had begun to follow her. Just to be safe, she and Inokas temporarily moved their headquarters to their small boat from Central City, and had docked it hidden between the largest trading barges they could find. 
 
    “Erylist,” he nudged her gently with his boot. “Erylist, it’s morning.” 
 
    “Good one, yeah,” she mumbled, curling up into a tighter ball. 
 
    “Come on, we’re going to South Port, and I know you can’t travel fast today,” he said. He picked up his bundle of his affects, tucking it under one arm, and tossed Erylist’s travel pouch to her. She had since added at least three pockets to it, and picked up an assortment of interesting knick-knacks.
 
    She finally sat up groggily, and stretched. “Ow. I think someone broke my tail.” It had been stomped upon more than once, since arrival. 
 
    “You’re tough,” he assured her. 
 
    “Is this yours?” she asked, holding up what she knew to be his cloak. She stood, tossing his cloak to him. “Thanks. It wasn’t even cold, though.” 
 
    Inokas shrugged, and shook his head, watching her lurch stiffly around the room. “I don’t know how you manage to get so beat up.” 
 
    “It’s called ‘blending in’,” she replied curtly. 
 
    The Toa of Fire offered Erylist his quarterstaff to lean on, still not entirely sure which injury was causing her limp. She accepted begrudgingly. 
 
    He threw his cloak over one shoulder, and his bundle of things on top of that. One last inspection of the shop, and he pushed the door open one last time. “We’re taking the boat, don’t worry,” he said. “It’s only a short walk.” He had been on the fence about just hiking them both down to South Port, but when Erylist had indeed accepted a walking stick, he knew traveling the eight hours it took to get there by foot was out of the question for her. 
 
    South Port, as its creative name implied, was the main port in the south of Stelt. It was large, dirty, rough, and unpredictable. There were many abandoned neighborhoods, and some small cave networks, a perfect breeding ground for the societal squalor that fueled the corrupt system of Stelt. 
 
    It was early, and almost nobody was out and about at this hour. Inokas steered their small vessel out of the harbor. He set course, and went to stand by Erylist, sitting with her legs dangling over the starboard side of the ship, examining what did appear to be a distinct crimp close to the tip of her tail. 
 
    “Poking at it makes it worse.” He sat down beside her. 
 
    “You said that last time,” she muttered. 
 
    “Yet you still continue to do so,” he said. 
 
    “I like to make my own mistakes, thanks,” she replied. 
 
    “We should be there in less than an hour,” the Toa changed the subject. Erylist nodded, a bit absentmindedly. 
 
    “Erylist, I need to ask you something,” Inokas said, turning serious. 
 
    She met his gaze suspiciously. 
 
    “We trust each other, right?” he asked, in a carefully measured tone. 
 
    “Yes,” she said slowly, trying to figure out where he was going with this. 
 
    “Then, for the sake of the trust between us, tell me what you know about Barraki Pridak.” 
 
    She physically jerked away from him, as if he’d slapped her. “I-“ she closed her mouth abruptly, brow furrowed in an unreadable expression. 
 
    Inokas continued calmly. “I’ve been cross-referencing our list of names and our notes, as you know, as well as doing some follow-up work of my own. I’ve noticed you’ve been specifically targeting names that were associated with Pridak, during the League conquests. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, out of all the gangs we’re choosing to focus on, it’s the one that had the most ties to his army.” 
 
    Perhaps it was her battered state of exhaustion, but she slumped into a slouch, and spoke in a low, monotone voice. “I can’t prove it yet, but I’m certain he’s the one who put me in stasis.” 
 
    Seeing the fight snuffed out of his friend was almost heartbreaking, if not a bit frightening. “But that was over 15,000 years ago. Barraki Pridak wasn’t in power until well after that.” 
 
    “Conquerers have to start somewhere, don’t they?” she said. “I’ve read as much as I can about his armies, and Vai said he’d have me exiled to Arju if I ask one more time about Pridak.” Mentioning her dear friends name, she chuckled, but it sounded hollow. “So, I know a lot about him, to answer your question.” 
 
    “So what are you doing, going after his associates?” 
 
    “I need to know what happened to Armonger and Seja.” He heard the spark in her voice, when she said this - weak, but there. He could count on one hand the number of times she’d mentioned Armonger or Seja to him before. 
 
    “What I don’t understand,” he said, after a moment, “Is how you ended up crossing paths with a Barraki, before he was a barraki.” 
 
    Erylist didn’t know how much she could tell him without putting him in danger. She herself didn't entirely know the extent to which Helryx was running operatives and missions, but what she remembered from Armonger and Seja's secrecy and avoidance over the years, it was no small operation.   She didn’t particularly want to tell him, either, but his appeal to mutual trust that was between them somehow made her want to tell him. He was right, and had been right. She had found a home in Uahi, alongside him, Ulio, Vai, and many others. A home, as he had once told her, is where the most people care about you, and you care about them. And his appeal to her trust was a nod to the sense of kinship and affectionate affiliation that came from having a home. 
 
    After much though, she said, “We got on the wrong side of some powerful folks that Pridak used to work for.” Her answer seemed to satisfy him. 
 
    When he spoke, it was a considerably lighter tone. “So, you did a lot more than build cities.” 
 
    She smiled half-heartedly. “I did a lot more than build cities. Maybe someday, I’ll tell you more.” 
 
    “Maybe someday,” he agreed. He stood, clapping her on the shoulder. “We have some hard work ahead of us. Rest up while you can, sister.” 
 
 

 
 
Edited by Aderia

 

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(disclaimer: none of this banner art is original, I just smooshed it together in gimp. Torchic, Matau, turtleduck)
The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 8: Hounded
 
    Erylist scrambled along the ceiling-supports of the abandoned warehouse. Rows and rows and rows of empty, floor-to-ceiling shelves stretched on monotonously. There was no sign of any illicit activity. Then again, this was Stelt, and almost any activity was illicit. It would also be unsurprising if her informant had lied to her, and there had never been Lohrak Eater activity in this warehouse. Another former, low-ranking officer of Pridak’s, this thug had specialized in exotic Rahi smuggling. Not the worst of the worst, but he definitely wasn’t helping anybody. They’d considered him worth investigating. 
 
    Below her, a steady trail of poof, poof, poof in the accumulated dust betrayed the Volitak-using Inokas’ every movement. While it had been invaluable in gathering other information, she saw no point in him using it, here. 
 
    They had been investigating in South Port for almost two weeks now. Some days, they investigated their own leads, but some days, like this one, they investigated together. On the plus side, nobody was talking about gladiator fights. That meant that any Uahian captives probably weren’t being used as coliseum bait. But, on the downside, nobody was talking about gladiator fights, so any information on where coliseum bait might be being held captive was proving impossible to find. 
 
    At long last, Erylist reached the end of the rows of dust-laden shelving. The huge, open space, dotted with cracked pillars, was cut off from the back of the warehouse by a floor-to-ceiling mesh fence. The meshing was fine enough that it had kept the Rahi rats out, for the most part. 
 
    Erylist sliced through the mesh easily with her plasma knife, and crawled through the hole, scampering head-first down the fence, and jumping to the floor. A cloud of dust rose around her. Inokas, probably not wanting to use his fire, left a dust trail heading toward the eastern most wall, searching for a more subtle entry point. Desks and old, dead telescreens lined the walls, with a cluster of tables in the center of the space. Empty. Another quick scan, and she made her way over to a pile of tablets and scrolls beside one of the monitors. Perhaps some leads. 
 
    Trade records, purchase orders, expense files, boring, boring, boring. Erylist shifted the scrolls aside and rifled through the stone tablets. 
 
    A faint scuffling sound was the only warning she had before a dark, spiny shape burst through the already-cracked window behind her, dust flying and obscuring her vision. She leapt, clinging to the cables halfway up the wall and activated her stunning baton. 
 
    The creature that had burst in now paced below her, growling. It was just about her size, swinging a spiked tail. She couldn't for the life of her get a clear view of it. It hunched down to leap at her.  She bounded higher up the wall, hissing at it, and made her way in a wide arc along the walls, around the creature, leaping to the floor easily. With a sweep of her tail, she gave herself more cover, as a shower of dust sprayed into the air. She was faster and more agile.  With two bounds and a snarl, she engaged the creature, jabbing with her baton. She wasn’t prepared for its strength. She had intended to pin it and stun it, but her first jab had been knocked aside by the creature’s tail, and now she was too close in range to use any explosives. 
 
    She struggled to switch to a defensive grip and de-power her baton to avoid shocking herself, as she scuffled with the creature. They were more evenly matched than she would have liked. 
 
    An earsplitting whistle out of nowhere ended the tussle before either could land an honest blow.  A voice that Erylist hadn’t heard in many thousands of years snapped, “Govak, enough! Back.” And the attacking creature bounded away with one last snarl, to its master. 
 
    Erylist straightened, and began charging her baton once more. She turned to face the speaker, incredulous. 
 
    The two looked equally surprised to see each other.
 
    “Hydraxon.” Erylist had always been uneasy around the hound master. It was to him she owed what formal combat training and skills she had to his expert instruction. With the combination of training and the handful of missions together, he was probably the being who most thoroughly knew her weaknesses. And, obviously, 15,000 years in stasis and a century-odd respite in a pleasant Northern Continent coastal town hadn't done anything to sharpen her lethality or effectiveness. Unfortunately, her time on Stelt had revealed that to her, and it unnerved her. She was painfully aware that she should be nowhere near as equally matched to an Energy Hound as she had just been. 
 
    “Erylist.” The combat expert also held a now-visible Toa Inokas in an uncomfortable looking headlock. 
 
    “Erylist?” The Toa of Fire was baffled. “What-“
 
    “What are you doing here?” Erylist demanded, cutting the Toa off. The warrior made no move to release him. 
 
    “I should be asking you the same," Hydraxon replied in the same hostile tone. Then, he continued after a brief pause, reigning in the flurry of thoughts memories and this former comrade's sudden appearance had riled up. "I thought you were dead. We all thought so. All of you, gone.” 
 
    “You didn’t bother looking?” she asked, accusingly. Like it was just last week, the shadowy deck of the Brotherhood vessel flashed before her mind’s eye, and Pridak’s bone-white armored figure loomed above her. 
 
    “We did, for months," he said, in no rush. There were a lot of years to sift through, but he remembered. "There was no trace, not even of your ship. The Vortixx said they saw it sailing away, but it never arrived on Xamra.” 
 
    “Well, I’m here,” she deactivated her baton, but didn’t stow it. 
 
    “Armonger? Seja?” Hydraxon asked. The weaponsmaster and Seja were particularly fond of sparring and going on dangerous missions together. 
 
    “I know nothing,” Erylist said coldly. “Release the Toa. He’s with me.” 
 
    Hydraxon glared at Inokas, and said, “No funny business,” and released him. To Inokas’ credit, he stumbled away and made a speedy recovery. Erylist had also been on the receiving end of many of Hydraxon’s choke holds, albeit in training. Although he was not known to be cruel, he was not known to be gentle either. She couldn’t image the years had changed that. 
 
    Inokas regarded both of them warily. 
 
    Hydraxon tossed a dried Ruki fish to the young Energy Hound, now lying patiently at his feet - a new trainee of his. “We have a small task force on the north half of the island. The riots are horrendous there, we’re evacuating civilians to Ozica. Your turn.”
 
    “One of our trading ships was captured by marauders. We have it on good authority they ended up here.” 
 
    “Coliseum bait,” Hydraxon said grimly, nodding. The Steltians gave good money for captives, so pirates captured and sold indiscriminately. They usually left Matoran alone, for fear of drawing the wrath of the Toa, but nothing was completely sacred. 
 
    “Well, we’ve been operating out of the southeast. The riots are on the complete opposite end of the island. Why are you here?” she asked again. 
 
    “Three out of the five of our informants have been found dead in their homes, this past week,” Hydraxon said, eyeing her plasma knife sheath knowingly. “We were concerned someone was trying to get to us. Govak scented your energy signature from a crime scene, and here we are.” 
 
    “Hate those mutts,” Erylist growled. 
 
    “So, why are you targeting our informants,” Hydraxon inquired, looking between Erylist and Inokas. 
 
    “We’re working off our own list. Spent more than a month gathering intel and names. We’re just trying to find where our villagers are being held.” 
 
    “They’re not in the north,” the Order member said. “We haven’t extracted any Matoran captives. All coliseum activity there stopped when the riots began a few months ago, anyways.” 
 
    “You can’t be sure, though,” Erylist challenged him. 
 
    “Nothing is sure. I’ll keep an eye out, and let the others know.” 
 
    “You really haven’t heard anything about Matoran captives?” she asked. 
 
    “We’re not here for detail work,” Hydraxon said, a hint of apology softening his voice. “We're here to prevent loss of life on a genocidal scale. But, like I said, I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” 
 
    “That’s it? You leave us for dead on Xia, then hunt me down like some rahi here, and now that’s all you’ve got for me?” she cried, as the warrior began to leave. 
 
     “I didn’t even know she’d send you out on mission,” Hydraxon said. “Erylist, take care of yourself. It’s getting bad in the north. You need to do what you came here to do, and get out. It gets nasty, when they carve up old territory. I would look into the tidal caves, if I were you.” 
 
  “Listen! You tell her that as soon as I’m done here, I’m coming for her. I’ll need a cursed good explanation why she sent us on that suicide mission,” Erylist ranted at Hydraxon’s back.    
 
    “I’ll pass that along,” Hydraxon said cooly. “And, Erylist. You need to leave our informants alive.” A not-so-veiled threat. He disappeared through the shattered window with graceful, lethal ease, his Energy Hound bounding after him. 
 
    The Toa and the Xamran were alone once more. Neither could meet the other’s eye. 
 
    Seething, Erylist stalked to mesh fencing, slicing through it too aggressively with her plasma knife, leaving a cloud of dust heading for the exit. 
 
    Inokas followed at long last. 
 

 
    It was not uncommon for merchants and traders visiting South Port to live on their ships during their stay, which is where Erylist and Inokas had been staying.  However, Erylist was not on the ship when Inokas got back. But he wasn’t sure if it was more of a relief or a concern. Even after triple checking the small storage quarters below deck, where he kept their equipment locked away, and slept when he needed, and checking the one small cabin above deck that served as Erylist’s quarters, there was no sign she had even come back to the ship.
 
    Rain began to fall steadily from the dark sky, and Inokas took shelter beneath the tarp he had hung from the outcropping of Erylist’s cabin, and stretched out like a makeshift canopy to partially cover the deck of the ship, an idea they’d gotten from the other small ships. Sitting crosslegged on the deck, he added another stone tablets to one of the growing piles to his left. It was a longer chore than he would have liked, sorting back through her notes to try and figure out which names on her lists she had killed. That had been news to him, and rather unwelcome. Undoubtedly, his Toa Code had something to do with it. But the driving force of his growing frustration was trust - or rather, the lack of trust that had recently and aggressively manifested, in the form of Erylist's past life.
 
    His instinct to protect his people had led himself and Erylist to the Toa Fortress, all those years ago, when she had first appeared.  His instinct to protect himself had led him to shy away from prying into personal matters with most people. Especially when they tended to become hostile and turned conversations accusingly back on him when he did stick his neck out. But, the Toa thought, perhaps it was time for him to grow out of that. He didn't feel like he even knew enough about Erylist's past to begin asking questions, now. And now, unfortunately, was when it mattered, because it seemed that it would directly affect their mission. 
 
    But how could a team function when life and trust were shared and pursued only out of situational necessity? Clearly, it couldn't. And so, this predicament was, in part due to his failings as a leader. Teammate. Brother. Whatever it was. 
 
    He sat up, surprised, when Erylist stalked up the gangplank to their ship. She was covered in grit and mud, some seaweed clinging to her armor. The rain was now only a light mist, and was doing nothing to wash the grit off her. Without meeting his eye, she wordlessly tossed him a tablet of notes from the day, and disappeared into her small cabin. Although stung, Inokas said nothing, and made no move to follow. He wasn't sure why, but he didn't feel ready to confront his companion yet. Whether she was angry with him, herself, their mission, or whatever else, only the Great Spirit could guess. 
 
    He examined her new notes. One side of the tablet was a rough etching of the South Port coastline, with four distinct X marks. He flipped over the tablet, reading her scrawl, which had evidently been etched in the rain, as there were numerous, uncharacteristic slip-marks. She had scouted out the four tidal cave entrances along the coast. The two easternmost caves were connected, somehow, according to some seasonal merchants. The caves also seemed to have been claimed as Menagerie territory. Inokas most certainly did not trust Erylist’s friend with the Energy Hound, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a good lead. He made his way below deck, on a mission to find every bit of information they’d collected so far pertaining to The Menagerie. 
 
    It went on like that for more than two whole days, the two of them barely speaking, and passing information they’d uncovered through swapped scrolls and tablets. Undoubtedly, their progress slowed. Besides, that, it was agonizing. Her sullen mood did not improve, and his own investigations just spawned more and more doubts and second guesses about anything and everything. She had left a larger trail of bodies than he had feared. At first, Inokas was shocked, discovering this, and afraid. How could someone who had done so much in Uahi, laughing and working easily alongside Matoran and himself, then rend open the throats of vendors and merchant snakes so easily on Stelt? But perhaps therein lay an explanation. Riffling through what vague mentions she had made about her life before stasis, it was conceivable. He recalled vague snippets about moving from city to city to build, and that she mentioned having stealth training. Which meant espionage. Which meant knowing how to fit in. A happy helper fit into Uahi. A furtive cut-throat fit into Stelt. This was not a revelation that brought the Toa any joy or relief. There were some long, dogged talks that the two of them would need to have, before returning to Uahi.
 
    But first, the missing Matoran. The distraction of the civil war raging in the north would only last so long, before the smaller syndicates would start swooping. They needed to be long gone, with the Matoran, before that. 
 
    “Erylist,” the Toa of Fire stood in her way, the third afternoon, barring the gangplank she was trying to exit by. “This has to stop. We have to communicate.” 
 
    “We do communicate.” She waved a blank stone tablet and her smelting multi-tool, which she’d been using to write. 
 
    “It’s slowing down the job,” he said. It was low tide, and he knew she was going to investigate the third cave today. Inokas, meanwhile, had been to three inns and a tavern known to be Menagerie hangouts, gleaning what information he could. Just earlier that day, he had taken time to investigate one of the names on Erylist’s list that she had crossed off,  and found finding an old Steltian with a cut throat behind his own home. While he was in no position to force her to abide by the Toa Code, he most certainly could not go on working with her, if this was the way she chose to get things done. It was reckless and brutal and unnecessary, and he somehow had to communicate this to her in a way she would listen. He'd spent distracted hours trying to figure out how he wanted this confrontation to go. But it's always easier to argue with the idea of someone that exists in your mind. 
 
    “You’re in my way, Inokas,” she spoke in a monotone voice, but glared at him. 
 
    “Your selfish behavior is in both of our ways,” he retorted. That was not at all what he had wanted to say. But, clearly, his frustration had spoken faster than his rationality. It wasn't supposed to go like this. 
 
    Her eyes widened, then crumpled into a disdainful scowl. “I’m just trying to do my job. How can you say I’m being selfish?” 
 
    “It’s not just your job. We’re in this together, like it or not.” Despite himself, the Toa of Fire felt his temper slipping. It was almost like the acidity in her tone and words and entire posture fueled his own anger. “You, going off without any notice or word when you’ll be back, or if you’ll be back. And, when you do, just flinging a report at me like I’m some filing automaton.” 
 
    “Well, it’s not like you’ve been forthcoming with me, what you’ve been up to. You just leave your notes for the day piled outside my door, and expect me to look through them?” 
 
    “You haven’t been reading them?” He threw up his arms in frustration. 
 
    She smirked, her vengeful side quite liking the reactions she was finally able to provoke from the level-headed Toa of Fire. 
 
    “It’s not my job,” he said through gritted teeth and rigid posture, “to come after you every time you decide to hide behind your immaturities and insecurities.” 
 
    She lashed her tail once, with a loud slam on the metal deck of the ship, and cast aside her blank tablet. It broke against the door of her cabin. “No, it’s your job to be a Toa, and save your Matoran. Don’t let me get in your way, hero.” Her tone was more venomous than a Visorak, and every syllable cut deep. 
 
    “I know you care about them too,” he told her, his temper cooling into an icy ball that settled in the pit of his abdomen. It was a bluff. He couldn't say with confidence, now, whether or not she cared. Although Inokas was the one wearing someone else's Kanohi, it was Erylist who could switch between masks more completely. Deep down, he was afraid that the dramatic meeting with the Hydraxon from her past had unmasked her, and he was not at all about to trust who she was showing herself to be. 
 
    “I’m not a Toa. Stop expecting me to be,” she hissed. She began to push past him, and he let her. 
 
    “I know you’re not, Erylist," he said.
 
    She stepped onto the gangplank with an air of finality. I'm leaving, her movements said. IndefinitelyAnd you don't even have the guts to watch. But, if Inokas had been facing her, he also would have seen the smallest of hesitancies in her last step. Please watch, it would have said to him, with the same note of hurt and betrayal and pleading she had let slip to Hydraxon, when she demanded to know why nobody had come to rescue herself, Seja, and Armonger, all those years ago. 
 
    He didn’t turn to face her. He knew that for their mission to have any chance of success here, they would have to work together. One of them would have to be the bigger person, and take the first step to trust again. Perhaps it was a bit of arrogance that made him jump to speak, when he realized this. Nonetheless, softly he said, “I've learned I don’t know a lot about who you were. As much as I want to know, that doesn’t matter. We have a job to do. I trust who I know you to be. I mean it, when I say you’re my sister in arms.”  As he spoke, he had lost confidence that she was still there, and his voice had fallen to barely above a whisper. He was sure she had slipped away without him hearing, which she could do in his sleep.
 
   He shook his head once, at his own foolishness, and began to head belowdecks for his quarterstaff and cloak. 
 
   It was the dreamer in him that made him glance back, only to see an empty gangplank. 
 
   She was long gone, as he should have known. 
 

 
    But, Erylist had heard every word. She clung to the side of their ship, just under the gangplank. 
 
    Sister in arms. The Toa's final words rang in her ears. But what did that really mean. Had she not been sister to Armonger and Seja? And yet, toward the end, had they not been more and more distant from her? Deliberately? Together? The only reason they'd wanted her for that last mission was because she was a sneak. Not because she was a capable warrior or a crafty inventor or a savvy negotiator. And, as it turned out, she wasn't even good at the one thing they'd needed her to do. She was the one who had been caught, unprepared and overconfident and overeager to prove herself. Undisciplined and out of practice. Weak. Inconsistent. Knowing how to promise much, and promise convincingly, but deliver little. But that was nothing new. And nearly losing to an Energy Hound earlier that week. Shameful. Since then, she'd barely been able to keep herself from spiraling. 
 
    She knew, early on, after settling in Uahi, that she couldn't run from her failures forever. Weaknesses. Living with the Matoran was wonderfully distracting. They were always so productive and busy and productive. It was so easy to get lost in that. And, deeper down, she liked the safety that it afforded. Moreover, in a town of small, powerless civilians meant that she would never be the weak link again. 
 
    But here she was again, blindsided on Stelt by a powerful warrior from her past. There were a lot of those, in her life. And now she was fleeing from an honest friend, which were much harder to come by. Why was it so much easier to shout to the word that she didn't care, than to whisper to herself that she did? 
    
   By force of will, Erylist pushed the swirling thoughts aside, and dropped into the harbor with barely a splash. There was no use overthinking herself into oblivion. Not today, at least. 
 
    It was much faster to swim to the caves from their dock at the edge of the shipyard, than go all the way through South Port. The tide was ebbing out, and a steady drizzle began. 
 
    As she swam away, sufficiently distracted by her own frustrations and regrets, Erylist failed to notice the dark shadow detach itself from the hull of their ship, snaking lazily after her in the water. 
 
 

 
 
 
(in-topic fun fact: this was the first chapter written!.) 
Edited by Aderia
added fun fact

 

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Those pesky firespitters
(disclaimer: none of this banner art is original, I just smooshed it together in gimp. Torchic, Matau, turtleduck)
The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 9: The Historian
 
    Erylist shook the seawater from herself, emerging after the short swim from the shipyard onto the jagged, rocky beach at the mouth of the third tidal cave. The cave’s mouth was situated at the base of an unfriendly bluff, sheltered away in a small alcove in the coastline. Double checking her stun baton was fully charged, she crunched up the beach, and crouched behind a larger boulder at the mouth of the cave, peering inside. Her keen eyes detected no movement inside. She crept forward carefully, not wanting to knock loose any rocks, staying low to the ground, on all fours. The shadows of the tidal cave swallowed her whole, as a downpour fell from the sky. 
 
    As she cautiously padded through the near-pitch black cave, she questioned for the thousandth time her sanity. What reason, really, did she have, to trust anything Hydraxon had told them? Because she’d known him once, thousands and thousands of years ago? She’d almost gotten lost and completely flooded by the rising tide in the first cave. The second cave held a hibernating, foul-smelling slime Rahi.  She did not have much faith in this third cave. 
 
    She rounded the first bend in the cave, the little daylight that was streaming in was cut off. Night vision is useless without any light source. She sighed, and stood to her full height. She unsheathed her plasma knife, and flipped the switch. A gentle hum and dull orange glow provided just enough light for her to navigate safely by. She made a mental note of the turn she’d made, and pressed on. If she wasn’t claustrophobic before this trip to Stelt, she was sure she would be, by the end of it. 
 
        No part of the passageway’s floor was flat. If the constant threat of ankle-twisting rocks and steps weren’t enough, there were occasional, shallow pools of cave sludge that she tripped into. Her grumbling curses were picked up by the rocks around her and passed around like gossip. She found the echoes of her frustration particularly mocking. It was probably a good thing that the plasma-glow didn’t provide enough light for her to see what the sludge pools actually contained. But it didn’t smell good. 
 
    The ocean echoes were cut off suddenly, as she squeezed around, and slightly up, a sharp corner, and thankfully, the sludge puddles came to an end as well. But the passageway was definitely getting smaller as she went, and more rocky. It was slow going. 
 
    She could swear that her hesitant footsteps were echoing more loudly as she went on. And longer. And more irregularly. Were they echoing from in front of her? Behind? 
 
    Did that rock formation exhale and compress itself the slightest bit, to let her squeeze by? Or was that her own breath, squashed out of her, as the passageway became more and more narrow and jagged? 
 
    More than once, she had to take off her pouch and toss it ahead of her, to keep it from being ripped from her as she squeezed around a corner, or wedge her glowing blade into a crack in the wall, and use her hands to leverage herself at an uncomfortable angle to wriggle beneath an ambitious stalactite. 
 
    “For all the love in Karzahni!” she cursed, rolling off the pointy rock formation onto which she had tripped. She reached for her dropped knife, and crouched, pivoting to glare at the other stone she knew had tripped her.  But it wasn’t there. 
 
    She narrowed her eyes, trying her best to look angry, rather than afraid, in case anything was watching.  She poked the other rock formation beside her with her blade, just to make sure it wouldn’t run away on her as well. Nothing happened. 
 
    The walls around her still reverberated with her angry invocation of Karzahni’s name. Time to keep moving. 
 
    Finally, the passageway came to a dead end. Secretly, she was thankful, because she was practically crawling again.  It would be quite the feat, figuring out how to turn around in the cramped space, and then, doing so. 
 
    Grumbling to herself about Hydraxon’s trustworthiness, or apparent lack thereof, she paused. 
 
    No. There was definitely a draft. 
 
    Craning her neck and raising her blade, although it came dangerously close to her face with the low ceiling, she saw it. The low ceiling was actually a false ceiling, probably the underside of a large overhang. A crack ran between the wall and the edge of the lip. It was easily missed. 
 
    Backtracking slightly, she reached a spot where she could squirm up and over the trick ledge. She tossed her pouch up ahead of her, and carefully placed her glowing knife up there as well, where she could still see by its light, but where she wouldn’t accidentally cut herself, as she struggled to pull herself up and onto the ledge. But when she did, she was quite relieved to find herself standing in a large cavern, almost like one you would find in an undeveloped branch of a lightstone mine. One would never have guessed the unwelcoming crack where the floor and wall of the cavern should have met was a treacherous tidal tunnel. She slung her pouch over her shoulder once more, and held her blade aloft, but wasn’t able to see the edges of the large chamber by its faint light. She began walking its perimeter, counting her paces carefully. 
 
    Not even twenty paces in, the unmistakable ringing of falling stones from the direction of the vent she’d just crawled through reverberated around the cavern, followed by the sound of scrabbling and then more falling rocks. 
 
    She extinguished her light immediately, and leapt up to an outcropping on the cavern wall, clinging on the far side of it, so it was between her and the vent. Fear pricked, ice cold, down her spine, with the sudden, panicked sureness that she was not alone. 
 
    As silently as she could, she sheathed her plasma knife, and reached for her stun baton. It was not easy, with no vision, and while trying to keep her precarious position on the ledge wall. 
 
    More stones falling, and more scraping sounds echoed in the cave. 
 
    She waited for what seemed like an eternity, paralyzed. 
 
    “Erylist,” an all too familiar voice cut like a sword through the darkness. 
 
    She actually did let out a laugh of relief, scrambling onto her ledge, and once again unsheathing and activating her plasma knife. She bounded back down the wall, and crouched at the vent, where Toa Inokas was quite stuck. The relief in her eyes matched his own, and she couldn’t say anything, but doubled over in a fit of stifled, joyful laughter. It seemed like the most natural thing to do, when the crushing weight of fear is so suddenly dispelled. And it wasn't just the enclosure of the cave that had been stifling her, she realized. Inokas, a friend she had pushed away frequently, and most recently, rather forcefully, was here. For her. 
 
    For the mission, she tried to remind herself. But still. For some reason, she couldn't stop grinning, and her exhales kept coming out in short, reassured laughs.
 
    “Stop. Erylist, stop. Please don’t make me beg,” the Toa of Fire rested the forehead of his Volitak on the cavern floor, admitting defeat. He strained forward with his torso once more, but his feet had slipped from their unreliable foothold, and he couldn’t find any handholds in the dark to pull himself through. 
 
    “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I’ve just never been so happy to see anyone.” She caught her breath.  It was amazing how the darkness and unknown of the cave had all but smothered the resentment and anger she had recently felt toward the Toa, not even hours before. 
 
    She knelt and wedged the hilt of her blade in between two rocks, where it stayed. Grasping both of Inokas’ forearms, she leaned back and heaved with all her might. 
 
    Nothing. 
 
    Scrabbling at the stone floor, she tried in vain to walk backwards, and drag the Toa with her, to no avail. 
 
    “Okay,” he grunted. “It’s okay. I’ll just have to do this the messy way.” 
 
    “These?” Erylist enthusiastically produced one of the small explosives from her pouch. 
 
    “No! You’d be carrying me out of here in pieces,” Inokas cried. But then, he smiled, realizing she was joking.  “Here,” he said, reaching out to her with one arm, and reaching back with the other to press his hand to the side of the vent. “Ready?” 
 
    “Ready.” 
 
    It took a moment, but soon, part of the ledge glowed molten, and Erylist felt the Toa slide forward, ever so slightly. Again, she pulled with her whole body weight. She fell backward onto the cavern floor, pulling the rest of the Toa up into the cavern with her. He stood, brushing bit of molten rock from his lower half like it was nothing. He helped her up, deactivating and handing her back her plasma knife, hilt first. “Thanks.” 
 
    “It’s nothing. You’d have done the same for me,” she said. Very briefly, she thought about apologizing for her behavior over the past week. But no. Perhaps later, after she’d had time to think more on what was upsetting her, and after they’d put this tortuous cave behind them. There was still tension between them, she could feel it, but it was nothing they couldn’t work around, at least for now, she decided. Even if navigating the slimy, constricting tidal cave alone had been slightly terrifying and slightly mind-warping, it had also in a way been sobering, and helped put some of her other fears into perspective. 
 
    As the molten rock lost its glow, she once again activated her plasma knife. Inokas held aloft the smallest, weakest yellow flame he could sustain. Even then, it outshone her blade like the twin suns. 
 
    “Show off,” she grumbled. 
 
    “And look,” he pointed with his other hand at the flame, which was being blown away from the direction of the faintest draft that would have taken her ages to detect by pacing around the cavern in the dark. With a word of warning to look away, he steadily increased the brightness of his fire. “Up there.” 
 
    Another vent, that looked like it led to a tunnel, was situated at the back of the cavern, very close to the ceiling, but not quite in the ceiling. Thankfully, it looked large enough for even Inokas to comfortably crawl through. 
 
    “I’ll check it out,” Erylist said, scaling the craggy rock wall with ease, but sending a couple rocks falling with loud klacks down the wall. 
 
    “Anything?” he called, picking his way gingerly to stand beneath the vent. 
 
  “It’s dirt!” came her reply. “There’s definitely fresh air flowing through here. I think it’s a way out!” There was indeed a shower of dirt, and Erylist’s head poked back down out of the steeply angled tunnel. “Can you make it up here?” 
 
    Inokas studied the rock wall before him, dearly wishing he’d brought his trusty Mask of Levitation with him. With a shake of his head, he took four large steps back. “Give me some space, but be ready,” he called. 
 
    “Wait, what?” 
 
    But, without waiting, the Toa had taken two large leaps, and, with painfully bright blasts of flame, he propelled himself with impressive accuracy toward the ceiling tunnel. And Erylist caught him instinctively. Again, grasping both his forearms, she strained to pull his torso into the tunnel entrance. As soon as he’d found a foothold, he grinned up at her. “I knew I could trust you.” 
 
    “Don’t make me want to drop you,” she panted, eyes squeezed shut. He was not light. 
 
    Using his footholds, the Toa wormed his way into the dirt tunnel. It wasn’t quite large enough for him to kneel in, but it would do. 
 
    “Lead the way,” he said to Erylist, gesturing onward. She made a retching sound, pressing the heels of her palms into her eyes. 
 
    “No more fire. Mata Nui, that hurt! You couldn’t have given me a warning?” 
 
    “I did.” 
 
    “But I didn’t know you’d do that,” she complained. 
 
    “If I’d told you, you would have closed your eyes. Much harder to catch with your eyes closed,” he pointed out.
 
    “I thought you trusted me.” 
 
    “I’m also a realist,” the Toa said, and leaned away as she turned, almost knocking him back out of the tunnel with her tail. 
 
    The tunnel, thankfully, never became too narrow that Erylist couldn’t wriggle through, and then widen it for the Toa. The slope, however, only became steeper. The dirt began to stick to them, as it became mud, and rainwater began trickling down the sides of the tunnel. Soon, the walls around them squelched, saturated with rainwater. And, all of the sudden, Erylist could see the rainclouds, and realized her head had popped above ground, like some rahi gopher. 
 
    She ducked her head back underground, and peered out cautiously. Based on the steady stream of pollution that could even be seen though the light rainfall, they were beyond the outskirts of South Port, past the small warehouse district. It smelled like Ussal pens. 
 
    Indeed, not more than 500 bio away, she could see the back of what looked like a wall of large rahi pens. She took her time, slowly scanning their surroundings for any sign of danger. The only moving things in sight were the occupants of the rahi pens. She could see two large Lava Apes from the Southern Continent, and a small Ash Bear. Looming precipices of stone rose up on three sides of them, and dense, dead, ashy forest led toward the far-off port town. It was an extremely well-hidden alcove. 
 
    “What’s the hold up?” Inokas’ muted voice from below was impatient. Every turn her head or shifting of her weight showered him with mud and stones. 
 
    “Nothing! I think we’re clear.” She pulled herself out of the tunnel, crouching low in the knee-high grass. There were a few old canvas canopies in the clearing where they’d emerged, but they had nothing beneath them. “Where are we?” she asked. 
 
    Inokas took a moment to conduct a heat scan of their surroundings. There must have been almost fifty immobile heat signatures of what could only be the caged rahi,  but nothing else. He staggered to the surface, and wasted no time making his way to a small waterfall created by a dripping pool of water collected in one of the canopies, washing his armor mostly clean, although it was roughly the same color as the mud, anyways. Erylist followed suit. “This is one of the Menagerie’s menageries,” he told her. If you’d read my reports, you would have been able to figure that out. But he didn’t say as much. “Well, one of them, at least.” They specialized in exotic rahi trade and smuggling, as well as contraband rahi byproducts. 
 
    Erylist was still cautious, though. “Why is nobody here?” 
 
    “They’re not known to be the greatest caretakers, from what I hear. These Rahi are lucky if they get fed twice a year.” Inokas smelted his way though the back of an empty holding cage. The Ash Bear in the adjacent cage glowered at him, but made no movement besides him. The Lava Apes watched him warily. He reached through the gate of the cage, melted the lock, and pushed open the door. One of the Apes grunted at him. 
 
    “Erylist, the coast is clear.” He motioned her to follow him. He now stood between rows of cages, some occupied by live Rahi, some by rotting Rahi. 
 
    “This is barbaric,” she said, slinking low toward the entrance Inokas had created. “I feel sick.” 
 
    The Lava Apes grumbled at her as she passed. She couldn’t bring herself to look at them. 
 
    Joining the Toa, they began walking in the dismal hallway formed between two rows of what the Menagerie would consider ‘capital’. 
 
    Strangely colored Dermis Turtles, many-armed Brakas, rare dragon rahi and dragon rahi remains, once-majestic birds of prey with clipped wings, a few well-preserved corpses of foreign looking aquatic creatures, a cruelly shackled Kikanalo, a four-winged, three-eyed Muaka tiger, the horrors stretched on. Erylist deflated more and more, with each one they passed. Through it all, the captives barely acknowledged them. 
 
    Keeping a wary eye on a gurgling Kuma Nui rat, Inokas tripped over Erylist, who had stopped to crouch abruptly. She peered into the cage she’d stopped in front of, hissing sharply. 
 
     “Erylist?” 
 
     She ignored him, and reached into the cage, which did not seem like a good idea. There was a large, black-armored thing curled up in the far corner. She couldn’t reach the creature. A foreign chattering, interspersed with some trills and growls, poured out of her mouth, and if Inokas didn’t know better, he’d have said she was trying to speak to it. 
 
    And, to his amazement, the dark rahi in the corner raised its head, and fixed Erylist with a bright green, slit-pupiled stare. It rumbled, wiry whiskers twitching, and lay its head back down, but didn’t take its eyes off of her. The two went through a few more brief iterations of their growling and chattering and grumbling exchange. Finally, Erylist stood, and turned to Inokas, who was trying his best to wait patiently.  “I thought they were extinct,” she murmured, dazed. She hadn’t seen one of these powerful hunters since her training days on the island of Artakha, her creation-place. “It’s a midnighter cat," she told the Toa. 
 
    “I’ve never heard of them. A friend of yours?” 
 
    “Yes, you can call her a friend, I guess.” There was no easy way to tell him that it was a species of jaguar rahi based off of Artakha’s original design for her, bulked up a bit, and brought to life by the Great Beings themselves at the dawn of their universe. 
   
    “She says they’ve been drugged,” Erylist growled. “All of them. Sedated.” 
 
    “Erylist, we have to focus.” 
 
    “They just took her kits away,” she said sadly. She gazed forlornly at the broken-spirited rahi. 
 
    “We have to keep moving,” Inokas said quickly, as he saw plans starting to form in her mind. “We can’t save them all.” 
 
    “No, not right now,” she agreed, a bit absentmindedly. But then, she brightened suddenly, almost like her old self. Or, at least the Erylist he knew from Uahi. “She says there are Matoran here, they arrived just over a month ago.” She set off at a trot, tip of her tail twitching in anticipation. 
 
    Inokas glanced at the midnighter cat and to Erylist, and back to the strange cat. It watched him without moving. He turned abruptly and followed Erylist. 
 
 
    He caught up to her easily, because she had stopped at yet another cage, and was leveraging against the base of the bar with her plasma knife, leaning with all her weight. Inside, four Matoran sat calmly, with glazed eyes. It was unsettling. 
 
    Vai smiled goofily up at him, and attempted a bleary wave. “A Toa-hero! I knew we’d get out of here,” his speech was discombobulated, like the syllables didn’t want to work together. The three other Matoran mumbled incoherently and disinterestedly.
 
    “What’s wrong with them?” Erylist asked, looking up at Inokas, aghast. This was, by far the worst horror here. 
 
    “I think the ‘drugs’ your friend mentioned are the hypnosis powers that many of Barraki Takadox’s commanders and compatriots had. It makes sense that some of them ended up here on Stelt.” It was another interesting tidbit he’d picked up in a gambling tavern.
 
    “There's a way to fix it, right? How do we fix it?” she demanded, refusing to look into Vai’s mask. 
 
    “Just give it time, I think,” Inokas said. 
 
    “Vai would know,” Erylist said, sadly. The historian was so close, but so far away. 
 
    “Let’s get them out of here.” The lock on the Matoran’s door melted away, and Inokas entered their cage, squatting to meet Vai’s eye level. “Vai, it’s me, Inokas. Where are the others?” There should have been four more Matoran, and two Vortixx. 
 
    “Inokas! Inokas... no, no. He’s a Fire Toa. You look like…you look like mud.” 
 
    “The others, Vai,” the Toa prompted him patiently. 
 
    “Others, the others,” he repeated, sing-song. “They never left the boat. Never left.” He began to hum an old Matoran sailing song from the Southern Islands. 
 
    “Vai. Are you listening? Vai, I want you to go to Erylist.” 
 
    Erylist now stood warily in the open door of the cage. Vai turned and cocked his head curiously at her. “You’re here, too. Not the Peninsula.”
 
    Erylist knelt to his level, and extended a hand to him, smiling even as her heart fell. He still remembered - they’d planned a rahi-scouting trip to the Tren Krom Peninsula, before he had left Uahi. It felt like a lifetime ago. “I wouldn’t go without you,” she assured him. 
 
    It was worse than trying to teach a Dikapi to fly, getting all four Matoran on their feet. It took almost twenty minutes to even get them out of their horrible cage. 
 
    “We’re not supposed to go,” one of them mumbled, gazing wistfully back into the cage. 
 
    “We’re going to a better place,” Inokas assured the Ba-Matoran. 
 
    “How in Mata Nui’s name are we going to take them through that cave?” she asked, practically dragging Vai and a Vo-Matoran from Abaki that she’d never met. 
 
    “By my estimation, we have about three hours until the tides change. Most of the cave is a downward slope. It will probably be fastest to carry them through. Then, I think it will be best if you wait with them at the cave entrance, and I’ll bring the ship to you.” 
 
    “Then home,” she said, expression brightening. 
 
    “Then home,” Vai repeated, cracking a vapid grin. 
 
    “Home,” the Vo-Matoran echoed, but wandered back toward the cage, to Erylist’s dismay. 
 
    Erylist sighed, and emptied the contents of her travel pouch. Working quickly, she cut much of the leather into strips, and tied them together, looping the makeshift rope around each of her two Matoran’s torsos.  She kept only her smelting multi-tool and her silver switchblade from her first stay in Central City, so long ago. 
 
    “I can’t believe you’re keeping that,” Inokas shook his head, carrying a Le-Matoran under one arm, and the Ba-Matoran under another. The two were chuckling between themselves about something, or perhaps nothing. 
 
    “It’s been through a lot,” she protested. He just didn’t like it because he considered switchblades a ’sneak’s weapon’.  Erylist tried taking a step, but quickly found she was in no shape to drag two shambling Matoran. “Wait.” 
 
    Vai was content enough to walk with her, alternating at will between holding her hand, or the end of her tail. There was no one else in the universe she would let hold onto her tail. The more difficult Vo-Matoran ended up strapped into a makeshift sling, made from the remains of her travel pouch. “Okay. I’m ready.” 
 
    They made their way back to the opening in the ground with no problem. Erylist stopped only briefly to promise the midnighter cat that she’d be back. It was harder locating the entrance to the cave than they would have liked, and extra caution had to be taken to prevent the addled Matoran from falling down the vent. 
 
    “I’ll go first,” Inokas said, helping Erylist remove the Vo-Matoran, who seemed to think she had been swimming through the air, and place her on the ground, where her lackadaisical swimming motions stopped. 
 
    Erylist was so preoccupied, keeping the Matoran together, she never saw how the Toa managed to squirm into the cave’s entrance. 
 
    “Erylist!” he called, voice very muffled by the earth. “Send the first Matoran down. I’m about halfway through.” 
 
    The Matoran, as it turned out, had no fear of the gaping hole in the ground. Erylist suspected because they didn’t fully notice it existed, until she guided them over the edge, where they tumbled and slid with confused protests and shouts down the slope. They came to rest naturally, as the slope lessened, and where the Toa had wedged himself as a roadblock of sorts, to prevent anyone accidentally falling out of the vent into the large cavern below, to be dashed on the rocks. 
 
    “It’s so dark.”, “Yuck-nasty, mud-filth,” and a few other grumblings from the Matoran were exchanged. 
 
    “Just follow the Toa,” Erylist told them, crawling in behind them in the tunnel. The Vo-Matoran sang a small song to herself about 'following the Toa'. A few times, they had to wait while Inokas dug himself more space to squeeze through. At one point, the Le-Matoran began sobbing softly. Nobody blamed him. 
 
    “Wait here,” Inokas told the Ba-Matoran behind him firmly. “Wait.” 
 
    “Wait,” the Matoran of Gravity repeated, then giggled. “Weight, weight, heavy weight.” 
 
    The Toa of Fire had reached the end of the tunnel, and dropped into the cavern below, slowing his descent with jets of flame. He conjured a small, orange fireball to hang, suspended beside him, illuminating most of the cavern. “Can you drop them down, one by one, to me?” the Toa called. 
 
    “Yes, let me-“
 
    The two rescuers let out shouts of alarm as the Ba-Matoran wandered over the lip of the ledge, still talking to himself about ‘weight’. The Toa’s quick reflexes kept the Matoran from hitting the hard stone floor, but Inokas was not thrilled. It had been too close of a call. 
 
    “Ready for the Le-Matoran?” 
 
    And Inokas caught the Le-Matoran easily, and set him next to the Ba-Matoran. The two stood calmly transfixed by his glow-light. “Don’t stare straight into it,” the Toa told them, but knew they wouldn’t listen. 
 
    “Okay, now Vai,” Erylist said. The Onu-Matoran yelped as he was dropped over the ledge, but had decided it was all a grand joke as Inokas placed him with the other two. 
 
    “Last one.” 
 
    Inokas drew in a breath sharply, as the Vo-Matoran narrowly missed hitting a jutting rock on her way down. But he caught her with no problem, and with a bit of resistance, set her on her feet. 
 
    “Sorry,” Erylist said, already standing beside him. “She bit me. I lost my grip.” She turned to see the four Matoran gathered around the fireball, and slapped Vai’s hand away as he reached to touch it. 
 
    As Erylist picked her way to the next opening in the floor that would take them back to the first tunnel, then to the sea, Inokas slowly floated his firelight after her. It was so much easier to navigate with his light. The Matoran stumbled their way after it, captivated, and mumbling among themselves or to themselves. If only they’d known this was the best way to get the Matoran moving in the first place. They reached Erylist, who had watched their approach, concerned. “I hope this wears off soon.” 
 
    “This is why Barraki Takadox’s forces were the most terrifying,” the Toa told her. “Imagine whole villages like this.” Erylist shuddered. 
 
    Inokas widened the small crack in which he had only recently been stuck, allowing for easy passage this time. He again, went first, taking his firelight with him. Erylist was able to directly hand the Matoran to him. The Toa and his light led the way through the tunnel, navigating around stalagmites and other obstacles. The Le-Matoran got stuck a few times around the tight corners, and they began to suspect it was deliberate on his part. If the Toa could fit through the twisting parts, surely the Matoran could. But they couldn’t leave him stuck. Their progress was slower than ideal. 
 
   The walls became more and more plastered with barnacles, which Erylist hadn’t noticed before. She took a moment to inspect them, as she brought up the rear of their group. She grew more upbeat, as she recognized the turns they were taking. 
 
    “Vai, by the time you’re back to normal, I’ll have a rahi species for you that I think you’ll love,” she said to the Onu-Matoran, although it didn’t look like he was listening. “They’re called midnighter cats. I think they’re related to Muaka. Well, maybe you do know about them. But-“
 
    “Erylist,” Inokas hissed to her. “Did you hear-“
 
    Even as he spoke, she head, and suddenly felt a rumbling beneath them, as if the large cavern behind them was collapsing. Or, maybe, in front of them? 
 
    She turned back to the Toa, just as another explosion ripped around the corner, slamming  them into the roof of the cave, and it all collapsed around them. 
 

 
    Erylist opened her eyes, and immediately regretted it. She had a splitting headache, and she felt like she’d lost a fight with a alpha Kikanalo . She was surprised to find herself lying on a lightweight cot, under a canvas roof. But the surprise of her new surroundings paled in comparison to the shock that gave her the energy to sit bolt upright, to see an Energy Hound sitting beside her, and the deep blue mask of a Toa of Water she hadn’t seen in many, many years, sitting with the hound.    
 
    Toa Helryx, she tried to say, but only a strangled croak came out. 
 
    “Erylist. Welcome to the Steltian North,” the Toa of Water said. Indeed, shouts and sounds and scents of fighting could be heard in the distance, or perhaps not that far away. 
 
    Erylist reached toward the Toa, with so many questions, but her energy failed her, and she slumped back into her cot, unconscious once more. 
 
    “Keep watch,” the Toa told the Energy Hound, and scratched once under the rahi’s chin. 
 

 
    When Erylist woke up once more, it was night, and Helryx and her warriors didn’t return for well over an hour. It sapped most of Erylist’s strength to sit upright on her own, when they did. 
 
    But, this time, she found she could speak, albeit in a hoarse, labored whisper. 
 
    “Toa Helryx,” she said, as the legendary Toa once again sat down beside her. “I…” she had no idea where to begin, or what to ask. She began to piece together what she thought happened, seeing the Toa of Water, and Hydraxon under an adjacent canopy, cleaning his blades, his Energy Hound lying at his feet. About half a dozen other warriors she didn’t recognize also milled about, cleaning up from what had clearly been some large street battle. Although, there was one hulking, golden-armored titan who looked foggily familiar. 
 
    “You’ve been a busy one,” Helryx said, Mask of Psychometry unreadable. “You might like to know that you’ve incited a completely new gang war in the south, between the Menagerie and the Lohrak Eaters. You killing some of the Lohrak Eater members - some of our informants, mind you, turned a few heads. What we think happened is the Lohraks thought the Menagerie was paying you to kill of their members, especially when they saw you poking around the Menagerie caves. So they set the explosion in the caves, last week, when they saw you go in.” 
 
    “Last week?” Erylist wheezed. 
 
    “Last week,” the Toa confirmed. “But, of course, when the Menagerie found some of their captives missing, and their cave collapsed, they were out for blood. It wasn't hard to trace the explosion back to the Lohrak Eaters. The fighting in South Port is a much smaller scale than all this,” she gestured to the remnants of havoc around them. “But there’s nothing to say it won’t escalate. We’re hoping the two gangs eliminate each other. If so, good work.” 
 
    “How did we get out?” she asked. Helryx explained, in more or less detail, how Hydraxon had contacted her with the unexpected news that he’d stumbled across one of their old operatives thought to be dead - Erylist, along with his weekly updates from their situation running damage control and civilian extraction on northern Stelt. The fighting was spreading wider than his team could manage, and they requested backup, specifically their Olmak user, to move civilians to safety. Helryx, very intrigued at Erylist’s reappearance, had come to Stelt herself. If at all possible, the Order needed to know what happened on their fateful mission to Xia, and what went wrong with their encounter with the Brotherhood of Makuta. Once Brutaka, Trinuma, and the rest of the team had a handle on the evacuation, she and Hydraxon and his hound had set off after Erylist, finding them less than an hour after the explosion. Helryx had held back the rising tide as Hydraxon and Govak worked on digging them out. 
 
    “Your friend, the Toa of Fire, is in critical condition. He’s been stabilized, but he’s shown no signs of waking,” Helryx said, and apologized gently, “I’m not the strongest healer.”  
 
    Erylist glanced around for the Fire Toa. 
 
    “We moved him indoors,” Helryx said. 
 
    “The Matoran?” Erylist breathed, dread starting gnaw at her. She met the Toa’s intense amber gaze, pleading. 
 
    “None of them survived.” 
 
    None of them survived. 
 
    Something, some part of Erylist shut down, somewhere inside her. In its place, darker, more sinister parts of her arose, that fed on despair and fears, and snuffed out any desire for hope. There was a lot to feed on.  If she hadn’t rashly killed those Lohrak Eaters they'd been investigating, and kept a low profile like Inokas kept saying, they wouldn’t have been targeted in the first place. 
 
    “Erylist?” the Toa of Water repeated. The Xamran dazedly tuned back, idly wondering if the hypnosis Vai and the other Matoran had been under felt detached like this. What a horrible state of mind to die in. She wished she could erase her last memories of him, in his addled state. Helryx wanted a report of what had happened to her, Armonger, and Seja, on Xia, so long ago. 
 
    “They'll be here for another week, at the most,” the Toa of Water said, referring to her agents. She, on the other hand, had more pressing matters on Daxia, and would be leaving in the morning. 
 
    “I can get them the write-up,” Erylist said, nodding slowly. Neither of the two were entire confident that she knew what she was saying. 
 
    “Thank you.” 
 
    “Helryx.” She grabbed the Toa’s arm, although Helryx had made no move to leave. “Take Inokas with you. I know your people can heal him and get him back to Uahi.” 
 
    Helryx regarded the Xamran, calculating risks and consequences carefully but deftly. 
 
    “You owe me,” Erylist told her. 
 
    The Toa disagreed, but knew Erylist was in no shape to hear a disagreement. Helryx nodded once. “I’ll take him. What will you do?” 
 
    Erylist blinked at her, blankly. She hadn’t thought much about it. “I have no idea.” 
 
    “I don’t advise staying on Stelt any longer than you have to,” Helryx said. "Hydraxon and his task force can offer you solace as long as they're here. A week more, at most," she repeated. She took her leave, now having arrangements to make for a critically injured Toa in her custody. 
 
    Erylist watched her go, trying to remember why impressing Helryx and her agents had once been so important to her. 
 
    What felt like, and may well have been hours later, although she couldn’t be sure, Erylist had dragged herself into the small, long-abandoned crafter’s hut amidst the canopies, and sat beside the comatose Toa of Fire. He looked terrible - battered, and not breathing well, after having borne the raw brunt of the explosion and rockslide. Glancing at the sky out the one window, Erylist judged it must almost be dawn. She wanted to say something important to him, anything, although she could’t think of anything in particular, and knew he was worlds away. She did, however, pick up his now-battered quarterstaff that lay beside him, figuring that he wouldn’t mind if she borrowed it again to help her walk. With a shrug, she left her old switchblade from Tulekahu in its place. She remembered saving some Matoran in Abaki, with that same blade and that same Toa, once upon a time.    
 
    With a sigh, she finally said, “It was a mistake to trust me, and think I could be a hero like you, brother.” 
 
    She staggered out of the small shelter, clumsily working out the an acceptable gait with which to use the staff. She turned south, and with only a cursory nod to Helryx and Hydraxon, picked her way slowly and unsteadily out of their makeshift camp. 
 
    Hydraxon cast an inquisitive glance to his commander. 
 
    Helryx shook her head, saying, “Let her go. She has more important things to focus on, and so do we.” 
 
 
 

 
 
 

 

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(disclaimer: none of this banner art is original, I just smooshed it together in gimp. Torchic, Matau, turtleduck)
The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 10: Lawless
 
    “You know I’m not due at the Fortress for another month, brother.” Toa Inokas closed the door to the Matoran council meeting, stepping out of the meeting room in the town hall when, unexpectedly as per his style, Toa Dustro had poked his head in on the meeting and said that Inokas was being summoned to the Fortress. 
 
    Sometimes the entire ordeal on Stelt felt like just last week, and sometimes it felt like a lifetime ago. It had been nearly seventy years since the Toa of Fire had returned to Uahi after the tragedy on Stelt. He had woken in his own home, wearing his old Kanohi Miru, and his armor was back to normal. He almost felt like a new Toa, even old wounds from League battles long past seemed to have vanished. Toa Zoru’s mask sat neatly placed on the wooden table in his hut. But next to it sat Vai's orphaned Matatu, along with the Kanohi of the three other they had failed to save, inscribed delicately on the backs with a short in memoriam and a date. And, as a devastating surprise, that familiar silver switchblade lay beside the masks. The year immediately following his mysterious return was an indistinct, morose haze of questions that led to nowhere. 
 
    Life, of course, marched on. But Uahi never quite felt the same. A sense of grieving for their lost brothers lingered in every memento and remembrance, even now. The learning center was renamed in honor of the cherished historian, and his Kanohi was kept in a shrine similar to Toa Zoru’s, in the corner of the center’s small courtyard, which had been his favorite place to study and tutor. Inokas, although no stranger to loss, had never lost civilians in a time of peace before. He periodically met with a Toa of Psionics from the Fortress, seeking help after his heavy-hearted insomnia refused to leave him. 
 
    As Uahi developed and grew strong and healthy, Inokas did spend more and more time working with Toa from the Fortress, and taking more and more assignments with them. More and more islands were having problems with natural disasters, which kept many of the Fortress Toa busy, himself included. Even though things in Uahi were on the up and up, despite the occasional flood season after a month straight of rain, the town was well on its way to reclaiming its prominent cityhood. He considered once or twice the implications of Turaga-hood; his village didn’t seem to need him in the same way, and then, less and less. He accepted a few assignments as part of temporary Toa teams, throughout the years. He had even spent half a decade training and studying at the renowned Southern Continent Citadel.  Even though his travels took him all over the north, and sometimes even down into the Southern Islands, Uahi was still home. He didn’t particularly appreciate his increasingly more limited time he was spending in Uahi being cut short by demands from the Fortress. They knew that, and that was probably why they had sent Toa Dustro. They knew Inokas wouldn’t say no. 
 
    “What do they need now?” He had only just returned from a short stint on the mountain-island of Malohi, with a small team of Toa, driving away a pair of Manas crabs back up the mountain, away from the villages. 
 
    “It’s not just the Fortress asking you, it’s me. Do you remember that merchant from Pasari who ‘accidentally’ wandered into the mud crawler nest and died?” 
 
    Inokas nodded. Pasari, Dustro’s island home, was a peaceful island, so any news was big news. Another vendor had washed up on the shores of Pasari a week later, also dead. But that had been more than twenty years ago. 
 
    The Toa of Air continued, “Well, there’s a small team of Matoran who arrived at the Fortress yesterday afternoon, with a whole list of other deaths from islands all around here. They have some pretty far-fetched theories.” 
 
    “Some Matoran have a lot of spare time,” Inokas said with a shrug. “I don’t get why they need me, then. Is there something about me that screams ‘conspiracy theorist’, they think I can weigh in?” 
 
   “The Matoran have been able to tie more than half of the victims they’ve investigated to the Lohrak Eaters,” Dustro told him. “I know that’s one of the rings you investigated, once.” 
 
    Inokas’ interest was indeed piqued. He told Ulio quietly where he was headed, so as not to disrupt the rest of their meeting, and met the Le-Toa outside the town hall. “So, a group of Matoran?” 
 
    “They’re from the Tren Krom Peninsula,” Dustro said, as way of explanation. Matoran from the Peninsula were a particularly hardy bunch - some would say foolhardy.  “Talozha. Also, where are you going?” 
 
    The Toa of Fire turned, giving his brother a puzzled stare. “The road to Tulekahu is that way.” 
 
    Dustro found that quite humorous. “You’re with a Toa of Air. You have a Mask of Levitation. We’re not walking.” 
 
    Inokas was not a fan of travel by flight. He was rather fond of the ritual route through the heart of his homeland, and the set amount of time it took to travel by foot, like any normal being, from Uahi to Tulekahu. He and Dustro did not see mask-to-mask, when it came to time management and time boundaries. “Great Spirit protect you, if you drop me again,” he warned the Toa of Air. 
 
    “That was an accident. There was a lot of natural wind! And that was still my first year as a Toa!” 
 
    Activating his Mask of Levitation, Inokas gave himself a generous running start, and launched himself high above the buildings and treetops with his fire, where Dustro’s strong updraft caught him. Whooping joyfully, the Toa of Air soared loops around him. 
 

 
    “It always feels like I never left,” Inokas muttered, yet again walking through the gateway to the imposing Toa Fortress. As far as he was aware, there were no major upheavals or disasters nearby, so the Fortress was bustling with Toa looking to get some training or upgrades, and see old comrades from other regions while doing so. He followed Dustro into the office wing, the smallest wing of the Fortress, and into the sole conference room. Three Matoran and a Toa of Sonics that he recognized stood around the conference table, which was covered with maps and diagrams and lists and drawings. 
 
    “Toa Shau,” Inokas greeted the Toa of Sonics with the customary Toa’s salute. He remembered, now, that Shau also hailed from the Tren Krom Peninsula, where there was a small settlement of De-Matoran. 
 
    “Toa Inokas, Toa Dustro.” 
 
    “So, what have you brought us?” the Toa of Fire inquired, leaning over the table. 
 
    The young, excited Le-Matoran in the room shoved a stack of heavily scrawled upon tablets off of his map of the northern islands, and moved two of the tablets to hold down the ends of a scroll with a bulleted list on it, explaining as he did so. “Two years ago, a Steltian was found dead in a dumpster behind one of the inns in Talozha. Owner’s a close friend of mine. Nobody thought too much of it. Since we’re just across the strait from Stelt, we occasionally get some of their runoff. There was some investigation, but nothing came of it. Just some syndicate drama.” Talozha was the trader city of the Tren Krom Peninsula, and the most diverse settlement on the Northern Continent. The Matoran pointed to a small mark on his map, with the corresponding date written next to it. 
 
    The Matoran went on, tilting his head at the Ce-Matoran beside him. “Then, about eight months ago, Tengi here found another body tucked away on the razor cliffs while she was Mahi-wrangling. I was at the station when she came to report it, and what she was describing sounded awful familiar.” 
 
    The Toa of Fire peered at the other marks on the map. They corresponded with the listed items on the scroll. 
 
   “Got a hunch, so I went to go see Koer.” The Le-Matoran elbowed the gruff looking Matoran of Stone on his other side. 
 
    “Yeah, we were in the trade business, a while back. Used a lot of the same vendors,” the Po-Matoran said. “Caught a break in the market, and have been dealing out of Stelt for the pas' fifty years, about.” 
 
    “He’s an ambitious one, he’s trying to work his way up to the Vortixx,” the Le-Matoran bragged. “Don’t let his dusty old armor fool you.” 
 
    “Well, you know there’s trouble when Nidhiki rolls into your shop out of the blue,” Koer continued. “Example, he starts asking all these questions about what crews are runnin’ strong, who’s got the drop on who, right in the middle of the market, like a complete brakas.” 
 
    “Careful who you call a brakas!” 
 
    “But,” the Po-Matoran shouted over his friend, “his ideas usually turn up to be the good ones. We did a lot o’ digging, here, there, all over. And I mean a lot. A ton.” 
 
    “And here we are,” Nidhiki spread his arms proudly, indicating the piles of their compiled information. “Talked to some pretty shady folk, trying to get names and dates for this map. Don’t tell me there’s not a pattern.” 
 
    “Tengi says there’s not one,” Koer grumbled. 
 
    “I said that even if there was one, what could we do about it,” she clarified, speaking for the first time, shaking her head at her rowdy company. She had been the one to first point out the pattern. 
 
    “And so, this is what we’re doing! Here we are,” the Le-Matoran said, with an air of finality. 
 
    Inokas glanced between the Matoran, and then his fellow Toa. “So,” he said slowly. “What claim are you trying to make?” 
 
    Nidhiki punched Koer in the arm. “You left out the main part!” 
 
    “You kept interrupting me,” the other shot back. 
 
    “We think it’s the same killer who’s been taking out all these crime ring affiliates. And we think our Peninsula is their new hunting ground,” the Ce-Matoran said calmly. “Not good for business.” 
 
    “Indeed,” Toa Dustro agreed, tracing the trail of marks on the map from his home island, up through Odina, then Kaugua, to the northeastern coast of the Southern Continent, then to the Tren Krom Peninsula. “What are these?” He tapped three outlying marks; one on Xia, and two on Zakaz. The marks also had question marks beside them. 
 
    “Some hunches,” Nidhiki chirped. 
 
    “Some of the rings have branches on Zakaz, so it makes sense,” Koer supplied. He looked up at the Toa of Fire. “They say you did some scouting out and nosing around on Stelt, recently.” 
 
    “I wouldn’t say it was ‘recent’,” the Toa replied. “I investigated the Menagerie and the Lohrak Eaters, about seventy years ago.” He also didn’t have any of the notes or reports from his time there. The ship, along with all of his equipment and records, he’d piloted to Stelt was not in Uahi’s harbor, nor Tulekahu’s harbor, when he returned. 
 
    “You must’a been there right as they were getting big,” Koer whistled, impressed. The two groups had absorbed members and grown, feeding off of those who had fled the civil war raging in the north, at the time, and fueled by competition. Now powerful, they vied for control of the island, and control of the import and export routes. 
 
    Most Matoran steered wide and clear of any crime ring activity. These Peninsula investigators really were something else. 
 
    “Why would you want to get mixed up with the Steltians?” Toa Shau questioned. “It sounds like typical infighting, just spread a bit beyond its boundaries.” 
 
    “Look at this,” Koer handed the De-Toa a small parchment, with a detailed sketch on it. “A lot of victims were reported to have wounds like that one. Not any kind of weapon can do damage like that.” 
 
    “Plasma blades?” 
 
    “That’s what we think, too. And only Toa and Xians have those kinds of weapons readily available,” Tengi spoke carefully, trying not to imply they suspected a Toa was behind these thirty-odd killings. 
 
    “It’s not easy to get an audience with the Vortixx, you know," Koer lamented. 
 
    “Well, that’s what we’re here for,” Toa Dustro said, taking a turn examining the sketch, leaning sideways to let Inokas look at the same time. “Knife?”
 
    “Looks like it,” Inokas agreed. A suspicion was growing like an itch. 
 
    “Koer has a shortlist of Talozhans we think might be targets,” the Le-Matoran was saying, presenting a tablet to Toa Shau proudly. 
 
    “So, are you asking for an arrest?” Toa Shau wanted to know. 
 
   The Matoran made various ‘I don’t know’ gestures and noises. “Nobody wants a rising body count in their city,” Tengi said, which was a reasonable assertion. “I think most of us would at least feel more at peace if we knew a Toa had at least looked into it all.” 
 
    “I see,” the Toa of Sonics mused.
 
    At the same time, Inokas said, “I’ll do it.” 
 
    “What?” more than one voice asked. 
 
    “I’ll do it,” he repeated. "I can meet you in Talozha in three days. Can you make me a copy of this master list, and add the names of your shortlist of suspects?” 
 
    The Matoran agreed excitedly, not daring to believe it was that easy. Tengi had kept saying that this wasn’t worth bothering a Toa about, so Koer and Nidhiki had spent the better part of their journey there coming up with impassioned but questionably persuasive arguments as to why their case was a good one. 
 
    “We’ll have the list ready for you, but the volcanoes have been grumbling a ton, recently. All the rahi are riled up. You might need more than three days to get to us,” Koer advised. 
 
    Toa Shau had more questions and needed more clarifications and details from the Matoran. Before he followed Dustro out into the training yard, Inokas got the name of an inn where they would plan to rendez-vous. 
 
    “So, are you going back to Uahi first?” the Toa of Air asked. 
 
    “Yes, there are a few projects that I need to delegate, and I also didn’t bring anything with me, here,” Inokas answered. 
 
    Dustro scrutinized the Toa of Fire, saying, “I’ve never known you to take an assignment on impulse.” 
 
    Inokas shook his head. “I wish it were impulse. No. As the Matoran would say, it’s a hunch.” 
 

 
    The Tren Krom Peninsula was in the midst of a lightstone shortage. A series of bioquakes had destroyed the lightstone mines in the north a few years ago. Toa Inokas found himself reviewing the reports by expensive candle. He had indeed made it to Talozha in three days time. The Matoran had given him a more thorough run-down and a bigger picture of their findings and the state of the small city in the first two days. They had since talked with the vendor at the highest risk, according to Koer - a freelancing male Vortixx. Koer had fabricated some elaborate trade deal between Zakaz and Stelt for the vendor to chase after, and that week, the Vortixx began closing up his rented-out shop. They hoped to incite a strike, if the suspected targets began leaving. The Toa of Fire sat in the back portion of the Vortixx’s shop, where the vendor lived while in Talozha on business. They had since, as discreetly as possible, arranged for the vendor to stay in the most populated inn in the city, where he would be more difficult to get to, hopefully. Inokas asked only that the Vortixx leave his hooded travel cloak for the Toa to use, as the Toa’s crimson and gold armor was not easily mistaken for the Vortixx’s black and silver armor, even at a distance. 
 
    This was the end of his first week in Talozha. Inokas had brought a decent amount of work with him to review, since there was no guarantee how long this search would take. He did wish that he’d brought a lightstone from Uahi. The candle’s unsteady, dramatic flickering made it hard to keep his place while reading. Also, the large hood of the cloak he sat wrapped in had almost caught fire more than once. He knew there were many luxuries in Uahi he took for granted, but his stay on the Peninsula was giving him a whole new understanding. 
 
    There was one door and one window in the room. The Toa sat in the corner where he had a clear view of both. It must have been nearing midnight, and he considered turning in for the night. Tomorrow they would begin looking into the second name on Koer’s shortlist. He turned slightly, to set the stone tablet he’d been reading on the stand beside him, with the others. 
 
    The candle on his other side went out immediately, and he froze. In the time it took to blink once, there was one footstep to warn him, before a plasma-edged blade glowed to life, not even a hand’s breadth beneath his chin. 
 
    “It’s been worse than an acid-fly in the armor, trying to hunt you down. And I’ll do much worse than an acid fly if you don’t-“
 
    His assailant stumbled back with a cry, as bright, ceiling-to-floor orange flames burst into life along the whole perimeter of the room. 
 
    “Erylist.” He had never been so miserable to be right. Although the snarl that twisted her face and the frantic darting of her green eyes almost merited a second guess, there was no one else it could be. 
 
    “You!” She crouched low, tail lashing, and weapon held at the ready. “Where’s the Vortixx?” she demanded. 
 
    After all these years, this is how you greet me? he wanted to demand. "He's not here," was all Inokas told her. 
 
    “I’m on a time-sensitive assignment,” she snapped. "Where is he?" 
 
    The Toa regarded her carefully and sadly in the bright lights of his fires. “What in Mata Nui’s name have you been doing?” 
 
    With an impatient snarl, she began pacing the floor, staying low to the ground. “Let me out of here.” 
 
    “Erylist, if the reports are true, you’ve been terrorizing island settlements all over the region.” 
 
    “Just doing business,” she growled. 
 
    “Business.” he repeated, skeptically, raising an eye-ridge. 
 
    She stopped her restless pacing, and crouched, rahi-like, directly in front of him, still as a statue. “Menagerie business, if you’re that curious.” 
 
    “What? You’re working for them?” The Toa of Fire was shocked. 
 
    “They pay me to perform...risk assessment," she said carefully. They both knew it meant hunting down and killing off any potential liabilities or threats. "They think they have me hypnotized like the rest. I can leave anytime I want, though,” she told him. The hypnosis that the crime ring so effectively utilized wasn’t strong enough to break Erylist’s mind-shielding that he'd almost forgotten about. But he'd taken the time to read her old file kept at the Toa Fortress, following his suspicions after meeting with the Matoran. 
 
    “But you don’t have any desire to leave,” Inokas guessed. 
 
    “They send me after their Lohrak rivals,” she said, as way of explanation. It was almost too easy a role to slip back into, reminding her of her days working with the Hand of Artakha, but less chaotic and a bit lonelier. She also had a hidden cache of notes encrypted in old Artakhan shorthand, detailing both crime rings networks, supply lines, and dependencies. In the right hands, one could make short work of both the Lohrak Eaters and The Menagerie. It was a type of work that suited her skillset much better, she told herself.
 
    “Vengeance?” he asked. 
 
   She narrowed her eyes.“So what if it is? At least I chose to do something about what happened." What was the point of any of the work she'd done in Uahi, if it could all be stripped away in an instant by criminals like the ones she was working simultaneously with and against? Still, her accusation against the Toa was unfair, unfounded, and untrue, and they both knew it. But it was too late to take back those words, now. She faced him, unwavering on the outside, but something like guilt beginning to flicker to life inside. She didn't like that feeling - it had something to do with his earnest Kanohi and words, in a time when she'd indeed become more virtuous and selfless. She'd changed to become more like them, like the chameleon she was. And it had gotten Vai killed. 
 
     The Toa spoke guardedly. “If you had come back to Uahi, you would have been able to see how we chose to ‘do something’ about what happened. It’s how the Matoran would have wanted to be remembered and honored. Not this.” 
 
    “You never thought I was dead?” she asked. She stopped her pacing and settled in a ready crouch once more. She seemed curious, peering at him in the bright lights of his fires.
 
     No, Inokas realized with a jolt. A plea. 'You never came to even look for me,' she might as well have said. 'You said I was your sister.'  "No," he told her. "I did think you were dead. I thought this was your memento. It was right there, with Vai's mask, and the others, when I woke up back in Uahi." He tossed her old silver switchblade to her.
 
    “I can’t believe you kept it.” She turned it over once, and then disdainfully threw it into a corner. There was no room for sentimentality in her current line of work. 
 
    The two analyzed one another in uneasy silence. 
 
    “You have to stop this killing,” he said, finally. 
 
    “Are you here to arrest me?” she asked. “I haven’t touched any Matoran. You have no reason.” 
 
    “I know. But a ragtag group of Matoran were able to piece together your patterns. So it’s only a matter of time before the Toa send someone to bring you in.” This may or may not be true. It would depend on Inokas’ report of this mission. He knew if the Toa decided to send someone else after her, they would not hesitate to use force to subdue her.  
 
    “Is that a threat?” she asked quietly. 
 
    “It's a warning. Erylist, I know you’re better than this,” he said, with a certainty in his voice that hurt both of them. There was more than just truth and conviction in his words - they carried an echo of their last falling-out.  And she remembered. And that gave the Toa hope. If she truly hadn't cared, she would have long ago forgotten their time together. 
 
    “You don’t know me,” was all she said. “Not anymore.” 
 
    “Perhaps. But this isn’t you. Anyone who knew you would say the same,” he said. It took a moment, wracking his memory for the names of her brother and sister, but he took a risk, continuing. “What would Seja say? Or Armonger? Or Vai?” 
 
    Erylist shot to her feet, hissing. She whipped around in a tight circle, still finding no exit that didn't involve sustaining burns. “Let me out, you monster!” The flames along the perimeter of the room only blazed higher, although the room itself never burned. 
 
    “There has to be someone who you’ll listen to,” the Toa said, ducking as a sharp, mechanical dart whizzed over his head, seemingly from nowhere. It lodged itself in the wall behind him. He shifted his stance, ready for action, eying the wrist-mounted dart-launcher that Erylist now wore. She disengaged it, and it folded flat to her forearm, practically unnoticeable.  “I’m not your enemy.”  Although they hadn't been separated on Stelt on good terms, there had been the beginnings of reconciliation at the end. 
 
    “I said, let me out.” She had resumed pacing, growling as his fires leapt at her if she reached for the door or window. 
 
    “Only a creature out of Karzahni would continue like you are,” he said, a hint of desperation leaking into his words. 
 
    “What do you know about Karzahni?” she spat. “One last warning. Kill the fires.” 
 
     “If you stop your war path.” 
 
    “And what? It’s not like you’ll welcome me back into your idyllic Uahi and we can go back to netting Nui Rama in the treetops.” She spoke disdainfully, but almost too much so, like she had to keep reminding herself that it hadn't been something she had genuinely enjoyed. But she did have a point. 
 
    “It’s true, you’ve been gone a long time." They both knew he wouldn't be comfortable welcoming her back into his village. She wanted him to admit that much, to force a rejection. Instead, Inokas said, "I can’t imagine you can call a dingy Steltian hideout a home." 
 
    “Get out of my way, Toa," she snarled. 
 
    Inokas didn’t move.
 
    “Fine,” she scoffed. 
 
    Inokas stumbled and was thrown to the side as the dart in the wall behind him exploded. His fires sputtered momentarily in his confusion. He sat up just in time to see Erylist leap through the new hole in the wall and disappear.
 
    Inokas let his fire out, laying back in what felt like defeat. He stared at the ceiling, flickering shadows from the singular candle dancing in a cheerful way that he found mocking. What in the Great Spirit’s name was he going to tell the Matoran investigators? 
 

 
 

 

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(disclaimer: none of this banner art is original, I just smooshed it together in gimp. Torchic, Matau, turtleduck)
The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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Chapter 11: The Creator Titan
 
    Erylist scaled the huge, impeccably crafted silver protodermis bricks, which were more like slabs, that made up the outer wall of the citadel-fortress. They were frustratingly smooth, testing the upper limits of her climbing capabilities. She was nearly invisible in the shadow of the huge wall, and it was recently new-moons. It wasn't as good as being fully invisible in shadows cast by moons-light, which was an ability she'd learned from the midnighter cat and her kits.  In the years following her ordeal on Stelt, Erylist had made short work of rescuing the midnighter cat she'd discovered in the menagerie. It had taken a few years to track down the cat's offspring, but together, they had managed to recover all three kits. They then retired to the mysterious forests of Kaugua, a nearby island, where they all could recover in relative peace. The midnighter cats understood very little about loss or guilt, and so, in their company, it was easy for Erylist to ignore the torn up pieces inside, and simply rule the forest from the shadows together, for the few years it took until the kits reached maturity.
 
    They had taught her many things about how they could use natural darkness to their advantage. The full extent of their shadow invisibility, according to the cat, was that it only worked when both moons were completely above the horizon, but not touched by the moons-light. It had been frustrating to see how easily the three midnighter kits picked up the ability, making her progress seem glacial, but she got it eventually. It had proven an invaluable ability, and one that contributed the most to her being the member of the Menagerie with the most successful strike rate. For some reason, though, the ability wasn’t working here in the realm of Artakha at all. 
 
    She reached the top of the wall, snaking over the top of the low parapet, and began to creep in its shadow toward the nearest watch tower. Below her, the mythical courtyard of Artakha sprawled inside the walls, complete with the fabled fountain of pure protodermis that bubbled endlessly and fed three golden trees representing Unity, Duty, and Destiny. A few contraptions, no doubt projects that Artakha himself or perhaps any of his various workmen, lay in the courtyard, abandoned for the night. Once, Erylist had to pause, laying low and out of sight of a singular guardian drone as it passed. There wasn’t a high need for security, in this alleged paradise. Erylist easily scrambled up the side of the watch tower, made of much smaller bricks. She coiled on the edge of the intricately-shingled roof, and leapt to the inner wall, heading for what she knew to be the eastern astronomy tower. 
 
    Her time in the forest, and then her time with the Menagerie had also helped her get her stealth abilities back up to snuff. Perhaps she'd even surpassed her old Hand of Artakha capabilities. She suspected, though, she just had easier targets and assignments. As she snuck along in the clear, crisp night air, focusing on keeping her steps silent, her mind wandered.  Even after all the time and distance apart, Inokas still had a knack for bringing out the best in her, or at least trying. She had always chalked it up to part of his job description as Toa-hero, but was never sure if it was something he tried to do consciously, or if that's just who he was. During her time rebuilding Uahi, it had been an endearing quality of his, and easy to see how he used it to build up others in the village as well. But now, his appeal to her better nature in Talozha had poked and prodded that better nature out of hibernation. After losing the Matoran on Stelt, she had walked away from the Toa of Fire whom she had considered a brother, and then the Toa of Water she had considered an idol. She had tucked away that part of herself that wanted to reach out and effect change for a purportedly ‘good’ cause, like protecting those who needed protecting, or building up functioning systems in which others could live safely and thrive, or establish and grow friendships in a place one could call home. That was the part that was, admittedly, the most difficult and the most rewarding to grow, but also the most easily hurt. It was easier than she would have liked to admit, to put it to sleep as she picked up more and more work with the Menagerie on Stelt, working her way up its ranks.
 
    Erylist remembered, with sharp pangs of guilt every time, spitting the word “monster” at the Toa of Fire. But the word echoed now, in her own mind, and sometimes she couldn’t get it to stop. Perhaps it hadn’t been him she had been calling a monster. A slew of other accusations and jumbled thoughts flew around in her head, now.  She had the ability to spiral downward indefinitely, inside her own head, and the farther down she went, the less logical and rational her thoughts became. And after the tragedy on Stelt, there had been nobody to stop her. Because she didn't want there to be. But that cursed earnest Toa was just enough reminder of some vaguely remembered ideal outside of herself. Although she wouldn't admit it, she wouldn't want to spend any extended amount of time with someone like herself - eaten up with selfish and short term ambitions, a misplaced desire for vengeance that had once been seeking justice, a short temper, and unchecked insecurities that leaked into every idea of self. But, everyone on Stelt was like that. In Uahi, she had wanted to be like them. With Seja and Armonger, she had wanted to be like them. Not the same, but there had been so many admirable things she had wanted to imitate and incorporate, it had been hard to take them all in.  But she really had tried. Perhaps that had been a mistake. Perhaps it all was.
 
    She was confused, and deep down she knew she was not okay, and she needed help to change that. Although the Toa of Fire hadn't told her as much outright, in their short, tense encounter in Talozha, he had made her see it was so.
 
    She found herself in her creation-place, Artakha, seeking with a vengeance answers from the wisest being she knew - the Creator Titan himself. 
 
    Having summited the astronomy tower, she swung in through the arched, pane-less window, landing silently in a crouch, ready for anything.  Telescopes with whirring gadget-attachments, blinking, wire-threaded maps of the seas and skies, and an assortment of other scopes lined the walls and shelves. 
 
    “Welcome home, little one.” Artakha stood looking out the opposite window in a relaxed stance, hands clasped behind him. His deep voice reminded her of ocean tides. He turned only his great, masked face to acknowledge her, the profile of his mythical Mask of Creation dramatically etched in the moons-light. “What brings you in from your venturing?” 
 
    Erylist stood cautiously. “You’re not surprised to see me?” she asked. He had been expecting her, clearly. 
 
    He turned to face her fully, seating himself in the sill of the large window. He picked up his great staff, which had been leaning on the sill beside him, and rotated it idly. “I knew the moment you set foot in my realm. I know where all my creations are, here.” He gently tapped his Kanohi with his staff. 
 
    Of course he did. Under the perceptive, piercing gray eyes of the Creator Titan, Erylist thought herself to look and feel rather like the bumbling midnighter kits when she’d first met them, washed in a hypnosis spell. Any resolution for pretense fell away, suddenly and so clearly vain. Her muddled and neglectfully overgrown misunderstanding-of-self squirmed uncomfortably in his presence, begging to be untangled. “I just…” she flailed her arms aimlessly, in what was intended to have been a simple shrug. “Artakha, I just don’t understand.” 
 
    “You’ve not had the kindest sojourn,” he acknowledged. He didn’t need telepathy to see that. “Walk with me, little one.” He rose, and pushed open the heavy wooden door to the tower. “Tell me what’s on your mind.” It was an invitation and a command. Perhaps it was his solemn listener’s presence, or subtle employment of soothing, prompting psionic power he exuded as she began talking, or the clear air in his realm that was rumored to be more potent than any Mask of Healing, but as soon as Erylist began speaking, she found it impossible to stop. 
 
    She was sure she told her tales disjointedly, but she rambled from missions with the early Hand of Artakha, to the assignment that went so wrong on Xia, through her time on the Northern Continent, her descent into the Steltian crime network, and finally, she was back, looping slowly along the top of the inner wall of Artakha’s fortress-citadel. She knew somehow it was his psionic abilities, that they’d both journeyed swiftly through her past as she’d described it. The light from the suns was now creeping over the horizon, heralding a new day in the creator’s paradise. 
 
    The two came to a halt at the bottom of a flight of stairs that led up to another tower, which used to be the western astronomy tower, but now served as a recordkeeping tower and a study - Artakha’s Library. 
 
    “So, what is it that you want from me?” he asked simply, leaning on his staff. 
 
    Perched on a gargoyle that jutted from the parapet, she heaved a sigh, noticing that she felt physically lighter, and her head somehow clearer. “I don’t know why you thought it was a good idea to create me.” 
 
    Artakha took his time before answering. “Creation,” he said finally, “is a self-perpetuating force, or power, if you will. The Great Beings, who know infinitely more about it than I, created me to create. Most of that is in the form of islands, cities, buildings, vehicles, tools, contraptions, and so on. But, with the Great Beings blessing, I’ve been able to create many sapient beings, as you well know. And thus is their legacy of creation perpetuated.
 
    "When you were young, the joy and sense of fulfillment you found in helping to physically construct many of the cities of our early world, that’s the echo of the Great Beings within you. And, as you grew, it was natural that you would seek more profound ways to create - that is, maintain and develop a rich, thriving world. Of course, as the world aged, and corruption within it also inevitably grew, sometimes creating and keeping a better world became more difficult, and sometimes involved getting messy. You learned this firsthand, working with the Hand. This is where our friends, the Matoran, and their Toa with their Toa Code have something right, I think. In fending off darkness, does it help to fight fire with fire, so to speak? Your friend, the Fire Toa, understands this principle well, on many levels. Their Toa Code prevents them from becoming destroyers. While it’s not realistic for all of us who seek greater good to abide by such a code, they help us all by providing a standard to reference. 
 
    "I want you to think of 'good' and 'bad' as 'north', and 'south'. And 'east' and 'west' are 'creation' and 'destruction', respectively. A moral compass, of sorts. In the center is stability, but also stagnation." As he spoke, he etched a compass rose into the wall beside him, with the new 'directions' labeled at the points. "Now, as for you. You’ve lodged yourself in quite the doom viper’s pit, with the Steltians, and it's offset your compass. I understand that you are destroying bad to protect good, but too much destruction, no matter what it’s for, becomes all-consuming and heart-twisting. And then, what do you become?  I think you know.  It’s not something anyone should make a habit of. I want you to learn the worth of seeking good, and seeking it well. " 
 
  There was a brief flare of his Legendary Kanohi, and the etching peeled from the wall, leaving unmarred stone behind, and the intact etching as a river-smooth stone that could be held comfortable in the palm of her hand. As he gave her the stone,  he asked, What direction are you headed? Where do you want to go?  His pointed questions flowing directly into her mind, and lodging themselves there.
 
    Erylist took her time, mulling over his words and looking at his compass. He waited patiently and silently, fiddling with her old stunning baton, which she’d placed almost unconsciously into his extended hand. It had long since lost it’s electrical charge, but she still was able to make use of it, here and there. She said, eventually, “I don’t know where I would start.” She noticed that the Creator Titan had added one score along the edge of the etching, where north-east would be, but said "create-good" instead. 
 
    Artakha began ascending the library stairs, bidding her follow, and tossing her weapon to her. “I was hoping you’d say something like that.” Her baton crackled to life. After the Creator Titan’s tinkering, it would never need recharging again, and would activate only at her command, and her's only. “I have the perfect place for you to start, and the perfect person to brief you.” He pushed open the library door, and Erylist entered warily. 
 
    The Toa of Water waited for her, knowing amber eyes glowing with the hint of a smile behind her Mask of Psychometry, as Artakha also stepped into the room.  
 
    “Helryx.” Erylist frowned at the Toa, feeling rather like she had been set up. 
 
    “It’s taken a while, and it took even longer to track you down,” the Toa began, and Erylist detected excited anticipation behind her measured tone. “But we’ve located them on Metru Nui. Seja and Armonger, Erylist. They’re alive, in Metru Nui. We think they’re in stasis, like said you were. We want you, with the resources and training of a full member of the Order of Mata Nui to extract them.” The Toa told Erylist how they’d dug around Uahi, after discovering Erylist on Stelt, and one of Hydraxon’s Energy Hounds had picked up a trace of Seja, most likely the signature from her Kanohi Suletu. The Order, impressed with Erylist’s work that could be used to dismantle two of the largest Steltian syndicates, had begun efforts to bring her in and recruit her, starting with dropped hints to three Matoran investigators from the Tren Krom Peninsula, and culminating in this very meeting, in the Library of Artakha. 
 
    “If you have an entire Order at your disposal,” Erylist asked, “then why are you sending me?” 
 
    “You know cities. You know stealth. You know Armonger and Seja,” the Toa listed smoothly. 
 
    “Reports are unclear, but things in Metru Nui are not going well," Artakha said.
 
     "Trade to and from the city has become erratic, and there are even rumors of inter-Matoran conflict arising. Nobody outside the city has heard from the Turaga in years. There are also reports of undocumented rahi running loose in certain sectors of the city. You have experience documenting rahi. We can give you access to our databases - there’s a small base of operations in the city, but it hasn’t been used in centuries. Anyways, we suspect the loose rahi are Brotherhood experiments that shouldn’t be there, but have no proof.” There were more and more troubles cropping up, in countless regions, that seemed to involve the mysterious Brotherhood. Her intelligence networks and investigations, as well as her gut, told her that the spike in natural disasters throughout the known world were no coincidence. 
 
    “So you want eyes in the city?” Erylist clarified. 
 
    “Yes, to put it simply,” the Toa said, choosing to ignore the accusation in Erylist’s words.  "We haven’t heard from our agent stationed there in almost a century, when the reports of strange Rahi attacks also started drifting in from other sources. As you're aware, the Brotherhood is more than capable of neutralizing our operatives. Eyes in the city, reports, especially about any Matoran fighting, and two incapacitated agents restored. Our interests align here, Erylist, almost indisputably.” 
 
    This was true. It was everything, or at least the most prominent of things, Erylist had wanted for the majority of her existence. A chance to prove herself as an independently capable agent to the Toa of Water before her, and to rescue Armonger and Seja from the stasis prison that her recklessness had put them in so long ago. The Xamran nodded, a million more thoughts flying through her mind. “I’ve never been to the Great City. I’m going to need a lot more information, if I’m going to be an informant.” 
 
    The Creator Titan smiled, gesturing to the floor-to-ceiling rows of shelves that ringed the tower, stuffed with scrolls and books and tablets. Erylist gaped at him, and at the horribly disorganized library. She was no scholar, and she nursed no dreams of becoming one anytime soon.
 
    “Not here,"  Helryx shook her head, to Erylist’s relief. “We can properly brief you and get you a few upgrades. We’re going to Daxia.” 
 

 

End of Part One

 


 
 

For those who like visual aids, here's an illustration of Artakha's compass :)

2085949862_ScreenShot2020-01-17at9_52_17AM.png.15404d9cd578f48a6b12c9e56ba079d4.png

 

 

Also, if you haven't already, go read up on a bit of the hubbub that's been going on in the Great City

 

Thanks for reading! 

 


 

590980963_ScreenShot2020-06-14at11_24_25AM.png.b46595d9b56075d4f0d1b51132a7c693.png
Those pesky firespitters
(disclaimer: none of this banner art is original, I just smooshed it together in gimp. Torchic, Matau, turtleduck)
The Sculptors and the SmeltersThe Ternion | Review Topic  | Library | Game: The Duchess | Settlers of Mata Nui
 

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