"You're a lonely moon in love with an ocean. Is that ocean in love with you?" -Carolina Liar
Episode 10: A Royal Tryst with Arrogance
We rode the Icodron along the edge of the mountain range, keeping our destination in sight the entire time. As we drew near and the sun slowly fell across the sky, I could begin to make out the features of the mining facility. There was a noticeable contrast in its architecture when compared to the town Diroux was from. Silver and black metal wrapped around the outside of the mine, dotted by tiny cerulean lights. The dark metals had been built in a way that it appeared long, winding veins of technological influence were infecting the simplicity of the Crezeran landscape, extending out from the tramway. I should've expected Artakha or the denizens of his land would've given the tramway's surroundings a personal touch.
The mining facility was surrounded by a perimeter fence, likely to ensure none of the native Crezerans would tamper with the tramway. When we arrived at the gates, everyone dismounted their Icodron and Rovaius strode up to the Gekalan guard, giving a short wave as he approached.
"Good evening," the guard said cautiously. "What brings foreigners like yourselves out to this facility?"
Rovaius chuckled. "We came to Crezera by a ship that, well…won't be coming back for us. Ranger Diroux told us to leave these Icodron in your care and that we could use the tramway to reach Artakha and return to Xia."
"Xia…" the guard trailed off. "You came a long way to assist Diroux, don't you think?"
"In my line of work, there's no destination too far. That's my motto on this side of the Southern Islands anyway."
"Yeah, Mata Nui only knows what's further south of those dark, mysterious lands," the guard replied. "So, how do you know Diroux exactly?"
"We met today," Rovaius said, grinning. "My team was hired to assist him in dealing with some troublesome Crezerans. The mission was a success."
"Good to hear it," the guard said with a short nod. "I used to be a ranger myself, but I decided to retire when the strenuous activity began to argue with my age. Diroux is a good friend though and one of the finest rangers on this island. Tell me, does he still have that painting in his office from when I shot a Fader Bull from several kio out?"
"So that was you," Rovaius replied, a quiet laugh escaping his mouth. "Last Fader Bull on Crezera, huh?"
"That's right," the guard told him. "I'd still be out there riding, but life has a way of making you old without your consent." He stared off dreamily for a moment, probably thinking back on his days with Diroux and the rangers. He looked back at Rovaius and added, "You'd better head on through now; the tramway will be shutting down for the night soon."
"Thank you," Rovaius replied. "Let's get going."
We quietly entered the mining facility, catching a few Gekalan chatting with one another or reclining against large boulders. The work day had concluded, though a couple workers were still using their mining tools to blast through rock. The tools were clearly from Artakha, too elegant to have originated anywhere else. More Gekalan were pouring out of the mine, bathed in the dark blue lights that hung from the stone ceilings. We headed past the workers, coming near the cliffside where the tramway station was located. It was a transparent building, a dome-shape wrapped in rounded silver support beams. The entrance was an enormous pair of doors, presumably to allow large amounts of raw material to be loaded onto the trams with ease. The doors automatically slid to the sides when we were near enough, smoothly opening the way for us. Inside the dome were a couple Gekalan watching a hologram of the aerial tramway line, likely the system engineers on the Crezera end of the link. Beyond them were five docks, two of which contained massive capsules. The capsules could've easily held four of the huge cargo crates Rovaius and I hid in during our escape from Zakaz.
"Can we help you with something?" one of the engineers asked.
"We were cleared for travel to Artakha," Rovaius explained. "We're heading to Xia after that."
The engineer nodded, glancing back at the holographic line again for a second. "Board the capsule on the far left end. It's due to leave for Artakha in a few minutes anyway."
"I'll activate the doors for them," the other engineer said, touching a finger to the hologram.
The far left capsule pushed the rounded end of itself forward, separating in half around to each side of the capsule. The inside of the capsule was two levels, with the bottom entirely filled with crates, mining tools, and large chunks of raw material. Assuming the upper level was designed for passenger transport (with a ladder being the only means of reaching it), Rovaius climbed to the second floor and took a seat near the end facing Artakha. Several sturdy-looking metal wires were in place to prevent us from falling down to the first level, with the rounded edges of the capsule possessing no floor. I sat across from Rovaius, next to Stalgrax, with Elendra and Trylac opting to stand.
"Welcome aboard the Crezera-Artakha aerial tramway," the engineer said over the intercom, closing the capsule. "Please engage the safety wires on the side you entered from." Trylac walked back and pressed a green button on the wall, watching several wires fly out of the wall and connect to the other side.
"Safety wires appear to be connected," the engineer continued. "For those of you standing during your travel, there are cables hanging from the ceiling to allow you more balance as the tram moves. Your travel time will be approximately two hours. During this time we ask that you keep your hands and feet inside the designated passenger area and behind the safety cables. Thank you and welcome aboard."
The capsule lurched forward, unloaded from the station and propelled beyond the cliffside. The tramway was a notably smooth ride. The builders (most likely Matoran from Artakha and perhaps a few Gekalan) had placed serious concern in ensuring freight and passengers would be secure while traveling between the islands and their efforts paid off. I found myself beginning to doze off when something pushed me from my seat.
I turned my head side to side, getting to my feet. "What happened?"
"You were falling asleep," Trylac replied, "and I pushed you. I was curious if you'd catch yourself."
"It's been a long day," I replied groggily. "I woke up in an escape pod, got my weapon repaired on Stelt, and got shot at by angry sailors and Crezerans. I think I've earned a little shuteye."
Trylac nodded. "True as that may be, isn't ranch work a dawn to dusk business? You're always so tired and I can't imagine that was tolerated in your former occupation."
"Ranch work didn't leave me tired the way this job does," I replied, laughing quietly. "I guess I still need time to fully adapt, you know what I mean?"
"I understand," Trylac said. "Ranching wouldn't prepare me for this line of work."
"What was your first job anyway?" I asked.
"I was a hunter," Trylac muttered. "I stalked creatures and kept my brethren safe from particularly dangerous ones."
"I wish sometimes I had started life as a hunter," Elendra piped up. "Would've been a much better position than doing engineering work on Trelbin."
"Your tech knowledge serves you well, Elendra," Trylac replied. "Take pride in that."
Elendra clicked the hammer back and forth on her left revolver a few times. "I do. There are just other occupations I wish I'd pursued in my younger days."
I looked to Stalgrax and Rovaius. "What did you do for work in your early years?"
Stalgrax smirked. "Well, I used to be a guide for travelers to Nohtal and for those Nohtalians unfamiliar with certain regions of the island. I enjoyed talking to biomechs and hearing new stories. I eventually retired when Rovaius approached me about the gang."
Rovaius glanced at the floor before replying, slowly raising his head and staring me in the eyes. "I was a scholar. My job was to study the universe and interpret what the Great Spirit was trying to tell us. I could see the importance of the virtues Matoran hold dear and how they each played a role in every biomech's life. Then came a day when I was visited by three entities, interrupting the quiet of my life. They invited me to join them, to join a group that would act on behalf of Mata Nui himself. I declined, finding more value in my job than running off with them. I never saw the entities again, but I became frustrated with my scholar position, considering it may have been a mistake to have passed up the offer. I eventually resigned, knowing the entities had Mata Nui's interests in mind and that studying the universe might be a task better suited to them. After that, I took a variety of odd jobs before starting the gang with Stalgrax and the others."
"Do you think the entities are still out there?" I wondered.
"Most likely," Rovaius replied. "There's always someone out there acting on Mata Nui's behalf. Toa are a fine example."
The remainder of our journey was uneventful. I think the exhaustion of the day that had worn me down hours before was starting to hit the rest of the gang. It was nice to relax for the evening.
As the final traces of day were swallowed into the black of the night sky, I watched the island of Artakha begin to undergo an astonishing change. The fine, sharp edges of the architecture began to shift, entire portions of the city-island launching into the air, suspended by what appeared to be air propulsion firing out through exhaust ports located beneath the buildings. The brilliant lights of Artakha bathed the propulsion in every color I could imagine, still amazed as the buildings on the ground shifted around one another, continuing to warp their shapes. Large gear components rose from the ground and extended from the skyscrapers, clicking in time with one another like a perfect machine. Finally, the ascended structures began to meet near the center of the island, blasting a trail of charged air along the ground as they repositioned. Airships large and small moved about the cities without difficulty and I could see one more piece rising to join the structures. It fit perfectly between the others, a trail of propulsion energy launching it above the rest. Situated on the colossal platform was a fortress, just as wondrous as the rest of the city, molded into soft edges and adorned with its own functioning gears. I knew without a doubt it was Artakha's dwelling, a lofty tower from where he could preside over his domain.
It was tough to make out at first, but I noticed something about the airships traveling in the night that set them apart from any other I had encountered before. Rather than utilize the power of levitation through Kanoka disks, these ships ran on propulsion and propellers, releasing steam from their exhaust ports. They seemed to exist as a flying counterpart to the terrestrial steam stacks below, illuminated in bronze and gold, blasting foggy emissions harmlessly into the atmosphere. The cities put the Gekalan idea of paradise to shame, every building presented as a work of nobility, each crafted as their own piece of art. The roads and streets were impossibly pristine, the product of Artakha's nascent transformation. The bridges were metallic archways, extending onto the paths they were born to connect, allowing steam-powered personal transports to make their way through the metropolises.
"Impressive," Stalgrax said casually, narrowing his eyes on the island. "Could you imagine what the League might achieve with Artakha under their control?"
Trylac shook his head. "Artakha is widely regarded as one of the most powerful entities in existence. Looking at what he is capable of doing to the structure of his island, the Barraki would be wise not to exhaust resources trying to conquer it."
The capsule completed its course to Artakha shortly after their brief exchange, safely docking in the tramway station. As I stood up, an unexpected blast of static rang through the intercom. I cringed, searching for a sign of what happened.
"My apologies," someone told us. "That happens now and again when I engage the speakers. Um, please stand back from the safety cables as I will be separating them in a few seconds."
We kept a fair distance from the cables, watching them retract as the capsule opened wide. We leapt down to the station floor and I couldn't help but admire the architecture, amazed by the sheer detail involved.
A Ko-Matoran looked up from the engineering desk and raised an eyebrow at us. "You're not Gekalan. Who are you?"
"We were hired by local Gekalan law enforcement to handle some problems they couldn't manage alone," Rovaius replied. "After being stranded on Crezera, the Gekalan informed us the only means of transport off the island was their aerial tramway."
"I don't think Artakha will be very pleased with you staying on his island," the Matoran said warily. "He is very particular about guests."
"We won't be staying any longer than we need to," Rovaius assured him. "We need transport to the island of Xia. Do you know how I would go about doing that?"
"Xia?" The Matoran asked, nearly laughing. "That's quite a distance from here. I don't think even our cargo airships travel to Xia. Still, someone might be able to take you in a smaller craft. Let me contact a friend of mine and I can get you on your way."
Rovaius nodded. "I think we're going to step outside, catch some fresh air. We'll be waiting when you're finished."
We marched out the massive doorway, taking in the sights and sounds of the beautiful night. All across the cities, Matoran of different elements worked together, crafting and building. Down below the propulsion lines where the city sections had joined to meet Artakha's fortress, I could see the lights in the air jets were shimmering across a colossal Kanohi Hau, amplifying the sleekness of the object. The entire island was nothing short of amazing and we had a perfect view from the aerial tramway platform, elevated high above the street level.
The Matoran joined us out on the platform, politely tapping Rovaius on the side. The Nohtalian glanced down and smirked. "Any luck?"
The Matoran chuckled. "I have a friend on his way to pick you up right now. His transport comfortably seats ten biomechs, even Toa-sized ones like yourselves. It was not by luck that he was available - you were destined to depart Artakha this night."
"If you say so," Rovaius replied.
The engineer Matoran returned to the station and we spent a few more minutes watching other Matoran go about their night in the cities below. A transport airship finally drove up to the platform and landed near us, opening the side entry doors. A Matoran of the green exited the craft and looked us over for a moment.
"You must be the biomechs I was asked to pick up," he said. "C'mon, let's get going."
"You heard him," Rovaius said, leading the way onto the transport.
We boarded and strapped ourselves into the seats and I watched Rovaius sit down next to the pilot's chair. The Matoran returned to his seat as well, strapping himself in and engaging the steam thrusters. We were hovering over the platform, but we weren't going anywhere.
"So we're going to Xia?" he asked.
"That's right," Rovaius replied. "Do you know where it is?"
"I used to pilot airships all over the universe, Nohtalian," he said. "I know Xia well. By the way, my name is Holmdir."
The Matoran offered a hand and Rovaius shook it, replying with, "I'm Rovaius." Holmdir looked back at us, pointing to each of us and waiting for us to reveal our names. Our assignment didn't bring us into conflict with any other Barraki, so giving our names under the circumstances wasn't an issue.
"Just out of curiosity, what is this going to cost us?" Elendra questioned. "I can't imagine burning fuel all the way to Xia is cheap."
Holmdir laughed. "We may not use levitation Kanoka to achieve flight, but our steam-powered airships do not require fuel. I won't bore you with the particulars behind it, but the most you owe me for is spending my time on a trip to Xia."
"Fair enough," Rovaius said with a nod. "As a biomech that doesn't typically act on anything that isn't worth my while, I can respect that."
While Rovaius fumbled for money in the relatively dark airship, I stared out the window, still marveling at what a sight Artakha was. I could also see the other end of the island was connected to a barren, uninhabited mass joined by a land bridge. I thought about asking Holmdir why the land was so vacant, but I also thought about getting some sleep. Sleep won.
I spent a dreamless night aboard Holmdir's airship, remembering the soft sound of the engine humming in my head. A burst of sunlight and a sudden swerve to the left finally roused me from my slumber. I glanced out the windshield and could see Xia below us, still as grimy as ever.
"Where do you want me to land?" Holmdir asked.
Rovaius pointed just beyond the dock, outside of the city. "Take the ship down by that street. If you come within about ten bio of the ground, we can jump from there."
"Sounds good. I'm opening the rear hatch now," Holmdir replied, veering down at an angle for Xia.
"We don't encounter a lot of free rides in our line of work," Rovaius said to the Matoran. "Thanks for helping us out."
"What did you say you do again?" Holmdir asked, continuing to steer toward the street Rovaius designated.
"I didn't," Rovaius said with a smirk, leaving for the rear hatch.
We followed the Nohtalian and right when Holmdir had us over the street, we leapt down out of the air. I landed hard on the road, watching Trylac descend gracefully. Elendra performed a roll once she hit the ground, while Rovaius and Stalgrax seemed to be just fine with a simple jump. I watched the craft pull a sharp turn over the Xian skies and double back for its island of origin, engaging a cloaking shield that must've been active while I slept. Artakha was capable of designing some truly incredible technology.
"Nothing like the scent of the Xian air, huh?" Stalgrax said, chuckling.
Rovaius gazed out at the Mountain, into the thick fog of polluted atmosphere above the industrious island. "Let's see what Pridak is up to this morning."
He led us into the city and up to the steps of Anxious Solitude where we went through the standard procedure of having to inform the guards we were on our way up. After that, it was a quick stroll through the lobby, a trip on the elevator, and an uneasy walk through the hallway to Pridak's chamber that separated us from taking our next mission. The guards activated the doorway as they always did and we stepped inside, finding Pridak busy at his desk. The Barraki was known to leave Xia for many matters he liked to handle personally, but there were plenty of documents involved with running the universe.
"Good morning, Your Eminence," I said politely. "Keeping busy, I see."
"You dropped a sky fortress out of the air the other night," Pridak said. "I have been dealing with a logistic nightmare since I returned to Xia and I have been very busy."
"Not that it's any of my business, but why are you handling Mantax's affairs?" Elendra asked.
Pridak turned away from the desk and faced us, looking exhausted. I had always known Pridak to be the face of strength, elegance, and command. It was odd to see him appear so unkempt and drained of life. "It wasn't until well into the tour of the facility that Mantax revealed his first intention for the Midnight. He wished to use it as part of our fleet in a coming invasion."
"Invasion?" I repeated. "What's left to invade of any worth?"
"I made a name for myself when you were nothing," Pridak replied. "I worked hard every day of my life and then a day came where I was rewarded for that work. The universe was turned over to me…to me and five others. We merely intend to take what is ours."
I thought to myself for a moment, wondering what the Barraki didn't already own, occupy, or wipe out. I only had one guess. "You want Destral or Artakha?"
"They might as well be ours," Pridak said casually. "No, we want a prize far greater than an island full of Rahi-makers or crafters. Tell me Adrinor, what would you say if I suggested that there existed a conquest of such unparalleled worth, that any mere island could only pale in comparison?"
"So you want…a thing?" I asked skeptically.
"In a manner of speaking, yes," Pridak replied. "A very big thing. I am intentionally cryptic only because I am careful. Rest assured, you will know of my victory in time." Pridak shot me a grin, a wicked smile not unlike the one during our first meeting - the one only a Takea could love. "And then the light, the air, the sea…every element known to the universe will be mine to wield."
There was something disturbed about Pridak's last sentence. He sounded enlightened, but the notion was insane. I couldn't imagine what he meant, all I knew was that from his description, failure would be disastrous. If I had known that would be our last conversation, if I had known what I know now, the state of the universe would be very different today. What a teasing word "hindsight" is, don't you agree?
"I suppose you have a mission for us in the meantime?" Rovaius wondered.
"Always straight to business with you, Rovaius," Pridak replied with a laugh. "Yes, I have an assignment for you on the Southern Continent. You will be visiting a cave network not far north of some hole-in-the-wall town named Kinatra. I had to look at a map just to make sure I had the name right."
"I'm from Kinatra," I blurted out.
"Meldin are from Meldio," Pridak replied in his most superior tone.
"I thought I told you the story of how the gang picked me up in Kinatra?"
Pridak chuckled. "I oversee thousands of soldiers and have more important locations to keep at the front of my mind. Forgive me if I forget one story and one worthless town in the middle of nowhere."
"So why are we visiting a cave in some remote location Takadox barely concerns himself with?" Stalgrax asked.
"The cave is a former meeting place for the other warlords and myself. Each of the Barraki assisted me in perfecting a weapon that Takadox supposedly finished a week before the tour of the Midnight. The armies of the League have orders to be on the Northern Continent at dawn in two days on my command. We will be meeting outside the city of Valantru, in the northwest of the continent. I want the weapon in my hands that night, understood?"
"All the armies of the League amassed in one place?" Trylac asked in shock. "What sort of game are you playing at, Pridak?"
"Conquest," Pridak breathed. "It is the same one I have been playing for millennia. Now run along - you have your mission."
We departed Xia uninterestedly that morning, arriving in the northwest of the Southern Continent that evening. With plenty of time at our disposal to retrieve Pridak's weapon and present it to him, we were hardly in a hurry. Still, there was an air of suspicion on the watercraft. Pridak was keeping something from us and—while it wasn't the first time—none of us were ever particularly keen on getting half the facts. Reaching land on Mantax's portion of the Southern Continent allowed us greater access to transport resources, rather than traveling by Rahi. Even taking the additional distance into account, a motorized vehicle would make the journey much faster. As the ship's captain began his route south to meet us as near to the cave as possible, we approached a small port town. The streetlamps were dimly lit and the ground was paved with cobblestones, suggesting we had stumbled upon a sleepy little place. I found an inn on the outskirts of the town and we stepped inside, catching the attention of an alarmed Ba-Matoran.
"Guests!" he shouted, nearly cowering below the desk.
"This is an inn, right?" Rovaius asked. "Why are you so surprised?"
"We don't receive many non-Matoran around here, despite being a port. Mantax set up the trade routes in this area long ago, and the only ships we see are usually full of Matoran from other lands. Mind if I ask what brings you to our town?"
"We're on business," Rovaius explained. "My friend here spotted your inn and we decided to see if we could spend the night here. We'll be heading south of the Tren Krom River tomorrow, into Takadox's territory. As secretive as I'm sure you know Barraki Mantax can be, I know you realize that's all the information I'm allowed to divulge."
"Absolutely, Mantax is famous for his private nature," the Matoran said with a nod, his black and violet armor glowing in the dim light of the inn. "We're completely vacant tonight, so take any rooms you like. I'll just need your payment, please."
Stalgrax awkwardly stepped up to the desk, staring down at the Matoran. "I'm sorry to say we actually don't have any money with us. It's fairly cold out there tonight though and it would be very kind of you to let us stay the night for free. I can promise that we will all recommend your inn to anyone we come across in our travels."
The Matoran gave Stalgrax an apprehensive look, meeting the Nohtalian's expression of utter misery. "Please. Help us out."
The Ba-Matoran sighed. "I cannot, in good conscience, let the Great Spirit watch me throw you out into the cold," he said softly. "Head on up and have a good, warm night."
"Mata Nui will reward you for your generosity," Stalgrax said, quietly ascending the inn's stairway. "Thank you much."
I followed him up and we all stood before our chosen rooms. Trylac and Elendra gave Stalgrax a telling nod while Rovaius pat him on the back a couple times. I extended a hand to him and Stalgrax accepted, whispering, "A display of force never appeals to me the way playing on someone's emotions does."
I awoke the next morning full of energy, following the gang downstairs and off into town. The skies were bright and blue, full of clouds and warmed by the sun above. The climate was so reminiscent of my time on the ranch, it was nice to see some things remained constant in an ever-changing universe.
"Okay, first priority of the morning is to find transport to Kinatra," Stalgrax declared, examining the town's shops. "Nothing that growls or grows weak as the day wears on."
Trylac pointed near the far end of town. "Seaside Vehicles. I think that's what we want."
"Sounds like they specialize in seafaring transport," I said.
"Or their shop is merely next to the sea," Stalgrax suggested. "It's worth checking out."
Stalgrax turned out to be correct. The inside of the building led out to a small dock where several watercraft were parked. Inside the shop were a number of land vehicles, utilizing wheels built to handle tough terrain. A Le-Matoran hurried our way, grinning hopefully at us.
"Morning, travelers!" he said happily. "How can I help you?"
I stepped forward, slightly chuckling at the Matoran as I pulled out a laser shell. "I think we can help you more than you can help us." I glanced at the other Matoran workers and shouted, "This laser shell is taking out the first Matoran in here that chooses not to follow our instructions!"
The Le-Matoran frowned. "Okay, okay, be sensible for a moment. What do you want from us?"
I sighed, clicking the shell into my laser rifle. "I want you to live. The way that happens is by listening to me. I need an all-terrain vehicle, something swift, but a smooth ride too. Recommend me something, and remember, a poor recommendation will bring me back. You don't want me to come back."
The Le-Matoran shakily pointed to a vehicle in the corner. It could seat six and, although it lacked a windshield, windows, or a roof, it looked sturdy enough.
"I'll take it," I said with a smile before turning to Stalgrax. "Start it up for us and we'll be on our way."
The Le-Matoran took a few more steps back, finally breaking into a run. I watched him with a hint of curiosity, loading my rifle in anticipation. He drew a Kanoka launcher from behind a desk and took aim at me. I narrowed my eyes on him and trained my rifle on his position.
"Any chance you're going to tell me what that disk does?" I asked.
"One way to find out," he replied, launching it at me.
I fired and watched the laser blast hit the disk, passing straight through it. The blast hit the Le-Matoran, barely pushing him backwards and leaving a slight mark on his armor. The disk hit me directly and I felt my legs buckle right before I collapsed. Elendra drew a revolver and shot the Le-Matoran dead in an instant, glancing down at me with a laugh.
"Weakness disk," she said. "Not a bad choice."
Trylac dragged me to the transport, letting Rovaius keep his gunblade aimed at the other Matoran while we made our escape. Once Stalgrax started up our transport and we were all onboard, he turned it around and smashed through the doorway, careening out into the street and leaving town in a hurry.
"Well, I've seen negotiations turn worse before!" Rovaius hollered to me over the wind. "It looked like you were having fun until you got hit!"
"I don't see biomechs use weakness disks very often," I said faintly. "To say I was surprised is definitely an understatement."
We spent the entire trip with Stalgrax at the wheel, giving me plenty of time to recover from the effects of the Kanoka. The fields and hills were at peace as we drove along, splashing through the Tren Krom River into Takadox's territory and continuing on our way. I didn't take time to enjoy a lot of warm, sunny days with the gang, but being so close to the place I called home for centuries, I made a point of kicking back and taking in the scenery. Right around dusk, I knew we had to be coming close to our destination and I started paying more attention to our surroundings. Kinatra was in the distance when I noticed a cave off to the left of us. It blended so well with the green of the hills that I almost didn't catch it. I leaned forward, shouting to Stalgrax, "I think we just passed the cave!"
"It's not going anywhere!" Stalgrax yelled back, a smile plastered on his face. "Let's stop over in Kinatra real quick. I didn't get to see this town when we picked you up!"
Stalgrax parked our transport outside of Kinatra, leading the way to a small diner. The staff had a knack for making some excellent energy combinations and, though Matoran and many biomech species could absorb the energy through their hands (Meldin included), the experience deprived biomechs of tasting the complete artistry. While some species found absorbing energy through the mouth to be repulsive, the rest of the gang never had much of a problem with the idea.
We took a seat by the diner's front window, waiting only a minute or two before a smiling Ce-Matoran came up to us, the setting sun reflecting off the gold of her armor. "Hello, everyone. What can I get you this evening?"
"I'm honestly not very hungry," Rovaius told her. "Have them make me a Manas claw, particularly strong."
"I'll take the same," Stalgrax chimed in.
"I won't be ordering anything," Trylac noted to the Ce-Matoran.
"Me either," I told her.
"I'll take an Artidax sunset," Elendra said.
The waitress finished taking down the orders and smiled at us again. "I'll be right back with your drinks."
In a matter of moments, the Ce-Matoran returned with our drinks, giving one to Rovaius, Stalgrax, and Elendra.
"Well that was fast," Rovaius said, chuckling. He glanced my way and said, "You didn't tell me this place had such speedy service."
The Ce-Matoran looked at me and asked, "Oh, do you live around here?"
"I…I used to," I said uneasily. "Is the ranch still nearby?"
"Sure is," she replied. "I've only lived here a couple years myself, but yeah, the Torema Mahi Ranch isn't too far of a walk from Kinatra."
I froze in my seat. "The…what? What did you just say?"
"The Torema Mahi Ranch," she repeated. "I'm not sure how long you've been away from the area, but the ranch owner was shot and killed by outlaws about five years ago. At least, that's the rumor. The ranch was named in his honor."
I stared hard at the table, unsure of how to respond. "He was a good biomech."
I must've made the Ce-Matoran uncomfortable, because her next words were, "Well…okay. If you all need anything, don't hesitate to come tap my shoulder."
Rovaius swished his drink around in its glass, blending the deep purple and orange shades around one another. He took a drink and smiled. "Quick and well done. We really should've come here after you joined, Adrinor."
Elendra took a sip of her own bright red drink, nodding in approval. "They're very good."
Trylac fixed his gaze on me, very aware of my change in attitude. "They honored your former boss by naming the place after him. That's not a bad deal, really. I'd be tempted to pull a gun on someone to have my name immortalized for it. Of course, I'd probably choose a more urbanized location, but beggars can't be choosers I suppose."
"You going to be all right?" Stalgrax asked me.
I looked up from the table. "Yeah. I'll be fine. It's just…being here, and bringing up Torema. It's nostalgic for me, like going back to Nohtal for you."
"I've departed the shores of Nohtal twice in my life," Rovaius replied. "There's nothing left for me there now."
Stalgrax swallowed some of his drink and pointed the glass toward me. "Same here - two departures and one alongside Rovaius. Don't get too attached to the home you once knew, Adrinor. If life ever takes you back there, it'll impair your abilities."
"You don't see any irony in talking about impaired abilities while holding a Manas claw at me?" I said with a laugh.
Stalgrax put his head back and downed the rest of his drink, slamming the glass onto the table before chuckling at me. "It'll take a lot more than a drink to make me feel like I'm back on Nohtal."
The gang finished their drinks and we headed out, letting Stalgrax backtrack to the cave I pointed out earlier. An overgrowth of grass and vines obscured the entrance, making for an excellent hidden meeting spot. Kinatra was so far out of the way and without the presence of Takadox's military in the area, it was a perfect location. Trylac pushed his way through the wild plants and we followed him in, entering the pitch black darkness with nothing but his eyes glowing back at us. They were our only sight as we traversed much of the cave, letting Trylac guide us with his powerful vision. We held hands behind the Dectraz, ensuring no one would be lost or slam into a wall or something. Much of the journey was spent in the dark, but after a while, we starting seeing a Lightstone here or there.
"At least we know someone has been through here," Stalgrax muttered.
"And they were smart enough not to light up the entire cave," Elendra replied. "I'd bet my last bullet that was Ehlek's idea. He lived in dark waters before the League, I doubt he required much light to walk through here."
"Wouldn't surprise me," I said.
The occasional Lightstone managed to keep us in what we assumed was the right direction, but it was barely enough illumination. The Barraki practically owned the universe, so to use a cave for a meeting rather than speak at one of their countless fortresses, I could only imagine what they had to discuss in the darkness outside of Kinatra. I thought back to the evening aboard the Midnight, Pridak's warning to Kalmah about keeping quiet, and even Voporak's message from Mantax not to leave Stelt. The Barraki were going to set something terrible in motion, that much was certain.
Without warning, I heard Rovaius stumble and slide into the dark, tumbling down through the cavern. Elendra followed and I could hear Trylac engaging his wings. Stalgrax grabbed my arm and we fell down into another room. The chamber contained enough Lightstones to allow us to see one another, as well as a crude ladder that led back up to the entrance. I picked myself up, examining the chamber in wonder. The walls were full of drawings and descriptions, mostly etched or burned away. Worktables had been thrown about, chairs as well, countless destroyed tablets littering the cavern floors. Even some of the Lightstones had been crushed into pieces, the entire room in shambles.
"This place is a mess," Rovaius growled, walking up to the wall and brushing his hand against it. "They really didn't want anyone to see what they were working on."
"I don't think Pridak had anything to do with this," Trylac replied before pointing to the far corner. "I believe those are the remains of the weapon we were sent to retrieve."
We cautiously approached the broken weapon, a cannon that required two hands to operate. Someone had torn it to shreds, pulling out entire pieces and ripping them away. Elendra knelt down before the cannon, grabbing some busted Lightstone bits and throwing them into the weapon. The extensive damage had left it beyond repair, but I knew Elendra wouldn't pass up a chance to analyze weapon tech.
"Let's see what Pridak was working on," Elendra muttered, digging through the weapon's inner components. As she tinkered around, I glanced back at the walls, trying to make out some of the untouched words. Whoever had done so much damage to the room had been pretty thorough, leaving a few words like "invade," "Toa," and "islands."
"Mata Nui," Elendra whispered. I whirled back to her and she glanced up at us. "This can't be right."
"What does it do?" Rovaius asked.
Elendra paused, almost lost for words. "It's a modified version of the prototype Toa Rifles we picked up on Nynrah about a century back."
"Really!?" Stalgrax said, just as surprised. "I thought Pridak concluded the process would never work because the weapon couldn't remain stable after absorbing energy."
"It does explain why it was modified into a cannon," Trylac said quietly.
"What's a Toa Rifle?" I wondered.
"It was an experiment the Barraki were looking into over a hundred years ago. They believed the energy that allowed Matoran to become Toa was possible to absorb and manipulate," Elendra told me. "They did extensive tests, successfully turning a Toa back into a Matoran and then back into a Toa again. While the process was never able to do anything with Turaga other than outright kill them, the Barraki thought the mass production of Toa Rifles would prevent any problems if the Toa ever decided to rebel against the League."
"Unfortunately, the rifle usually exploded while absorbing Toa energy or right after completing a drain. It would kill the user and no one wanted to carry a weapon that killed them once activated. The project was shut down, but the research was apparently saved. Whether he could use it on the battlefield or not, Pridak had a way to manipulate destiny. The original absorption process was done in stasis tubes, but with no way to hold an enemy still in a war, the Barraki had no use for it. This cannon seems to suggest someone finished the work done all those years ago, perhaps even perfecting it."
"For all we know, that cannon is in its current condition because someone tried to use it," Stalgrax spoke up. "Pridak would be using these already if they worked, don't you think?"
"Whatever the case, someone arrived here before we did," I said, somewhat unnerved by my own words. "And since the Barraki are supposed to be meeting on the Northern Continent tomorrow, I'm going to go ahead and say it wasn't them."
"Maybe the visitor or visitors left some evidence behind," Stalgrax suggested.
"Have you seen this room?" Elendra replied, raising an eyebrow at him.
"Even if Stalgrax is wrong, we don't gain anything by standing around," Rovaius said.
I returned to staring at the walls, looking for words I could make out. Stalgrax pushed away the ruins of a few tablets and picked something out of the remains. I watched him brush the dust from it and hold it to one of the Lightstones on the wall.
"Agent Takadox," Stalgrax began curiously. He continued reading in silence for a few more seconds before lowering the tablet. "You're going to want to hear this."
"Is that so?" Rovaius asked with a chuckle. "Surprise us."
Stalgrax went back to looking at the letter and continued. "I apologize that I could not reply directly, but this Rahi is a fine messenger in my place. Having made your intentions clear, I am prepared to take the next step. You informed me that Pridak has scheduled his timetable for assembling the League's armies and I will be sending a fleet to have him and the other Barraki arrested before they begin their warpath to Metru Nui. Do not lose the Tablet of Transit you received with our insignia upon it, as the Makuta being deployed to handle this situation has no knowledge of your contribution. I would prefer to keep this matter as private as possible, a fact I'm sure you can appreciate. By the will of Mata Nui, we will put down these would-be usurpers to the Great Spirit's throne and return peace to the universe. Respectfully, Miserix."
And Pridak's comment from the morning prior was suddenly too clear. The Barraki wanted the entire universe without Mata Nui above them on the chain of command. Pridak wished to become the new Great Spirit and occupy his throne. I had never considered that Mata Nui could actually exist in one physical place, given that he was described as being the living seas, skies, and earth all around us.
Elendra stifled a laugh. "The Great Spirit is in Metru Nui? Since when?"
"Miserix is the head of the Brotherhood," Trylac reminded her. "He wouldn't just say something like this. The Matoran are more blessed by Mata Nui than any other biomechs in the universe and Metru Nui is their greatest achievement. Even if the Great Spirit isn't there, I'm willing to bet that his power is accessible somewhere in that city. The Barraki wouldn't go through all this trouble if there wasn't a prize to be won. They could've taken Metru Nui if they really wanted it about seven thousand years ago, instead of signing a trade deal with those worthless little heroes-to-be. If they're really heading to Metru Nui, there's no doubt in my mind the Barraki will find the Great Spirit's throne there."
"We need to warn Pridak then," I said at once.
"He wanted his armies assembled on the Northern Continent in the morning. We'll never make it in time," Rovaius replied.
"If we can't remove the Brotherhood's element of surprise, we can at least fight for the League. We could be on the verge of a very lengthy war," Trylac added.
Stalgrax nodded. "You have a point. The League has the numbers, but the Brotherhood probably has some nasty Rahi locked up on Destral."
"What about all this Great Spirit business?" Elendra asked. "I mean, there's no guarantee that Pridak can even replace Mata Nui. It sounds like more of a theory than anything else."
"I'm not concerned about that," Rovaius said flatly. "We're going to the Northern Continent and we're going to speak with Pridak. Hold on to that tablet, Stalgrax. I want to see Takadox executed for his deception."
"You have fun with that then," Elendra muttered. "I'm out."
Rovaius turned and stared in disbelief at her for a moment. "You're really going to fight us on this? Killing and stealing are fine, but you can't defend our"-
"Our what!?" Elendra interrupted. "He's not our friend, Rovaius. He's not one of us! Pridak is a Barraki - someone who lets others build his weapons, make his money, and do his fighting. He didn't work for what he has, it was given to him by Mata Nui! Pridak is the second-in-command of the universe right now and you need to ask yourself something."
"Go ahead, tell me," Rovaius spat, folding his arms.
"Do you really want a universe controlled by the Great Spirit Pridak?"
We all stared at Elendra, taking in what she said for a moment. Mata Nui was a benevolent entity, providing us with the warmth of day and allowing us to roam his universe. Pridak's universe would be nightmarish by comparison, because I had a vague idea of how his mind worked. If that were to become the very universe, there would no longer be a need for The League of Six Kingdoms. Pridak would annihilate resistance without hesitation and every land would obey his commands or die in defiance.
Despite the bleakness of that future, I had to be clear with her. "You said it yourself that there's no guarantee Pridak can really replace Mata Nui, but it isn't right to turn our backs on him like this. The League will surely defeat the Brotherhood's army. Then what? The other warlords may not know who we are, but if Pridak wanted to, he could have all of their forces actively hunting us. The Great Spirit can see all we do, that's all I ever here. Pridak will find out that we knew about the Brotherhood attack and chose not to warn him. I don't know about you, but Pridak as the Great Spirit sounds a lot better than living in fear!"
Elendra cursed under her breath. "We're taking a serious risk either way then. If we save him, he'll become the Great Spirit and we'll be constantly watched by him. If we don't save him, he'll have us running for the rest of our lives. There's also a chance that the Brotherhood will actually manage to overpower the League, but that's a slim chance."
"So what're we going to do about this?" I questioned. "The League is summoning their armies and they're walking right into a trap."
Elendra flashed us a silver coin, flipping it through the air at me. I caught it and looked it over. There was a Kanohi Calix on one side and the number fifty on the other. I looked back up at Elendra and caught her smirk.
"Flip it," Elendra commanded. "If it lands on the Calix, I'll help you save Pridak. If not, consider it my resignation."
<Concluded in next post due to length>