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IC: Datrox - Forsi, Po-Wahi

Datrox seemed unfazed by Skyra's claim of being from another reality. People made wild claims all the time on Mata Nui, and the amnesia those "woke up on the beach" types had always resulted in possible delusions. He had picked up there was something odd about her, though. Perhaps he shouldn't discount it yet.

"That armor is special, too," he said, noticing how it adapted to the weather like...adaptive armor, or something. "I've never seen anything like it."

@Snelly@~Xemnas~

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[BZPRPG]
(shout out to max)

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IC: The Hatmaster, Po-Koro

It's awfully hot for Ga-Koro, the Fe-Matoran mused to himself. Could be the ocean humidity.

The sweltering air of the desert twisted and rippled above the sand, entrapping said Fe-Matoran in a visage not unlike that of oneself looking at their own reflection in a funhouse mirror at a two-bit carnival.

And here was the clown.

Sitting outside the gates of Po-Koro was Gabe, straw hat atop his head, brim pulled way low, his feet dug beneath the sand. At his side, propped up against his chair were three or four identical straw hats. In his lap was another - or rather, half of one. Gabe's fingers moved lazily, weaving the straw in a crosshatch pattern that could only come so easy for one who had mastered his craft.

He wondered why he could no longer hear the waves crashing against the shore.

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IC: Skyra NUVA - Po-Wahi - 

"Crazy?" Skyra laughed. "You haven't even heard the crazy part yet. I took a portal with a Ko-Matoran named Nuju to get here. My adaptive armor was made by my boss, a guy named Knichou." 

Skyra pointed at a broken down wagon in the distance, partially covered in sand.

"Not like I expect you just to believe me at my word though. I have fantastical powers that can help prove my story. Watch this!" 

Skyra fired her great disk beam from her hand, striking the wagon. The wagon very quickly become as good as new.

 

OOC: @EmperorWhenua @Tarn @~Xemnas~ @Unreliable Narrator 

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My Bzprpg Profiles

Skyra | Hakari | Oceanna | Taleen | Arisaka | Zanakra | Kaminari | Drakkar

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IC, Atamai: Po-Wahi

"Nuju? Nuju was a Turaga, and he's been dead for a while," Atamai said. And then Skyra fixed a broken-down wagon.

Atamai's eyes widened. No being he had ever heard of had the power to restore broken things, unless it was from a Kanohi Kiril.

"Okay, that does lend some weight to your story," he said.

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Sado, Before the Crash

Another scene at the temple.  Morie had noticed the way the priests looked at her, as if expecting something to happen—a breakdown, or a questioning of faith.  How many others of her station had embarrassed themselves such in the past few days?  Well, she was not them.

She was not looking for salvation.

Morie was accustomed to loosing things.  Her father, to the bloated rotting veins of the same infection that took her consort.  Her mother, to the wracks of old age, the slow shriveling away of her body and mind.  Her warriors, to Fursic tricks and blades.  Life was learning to loose things—it was finding structure to that loss, it was preventing it as much as possible.  Order, Honor, and Power were not things handed to them to be simply locked away.  They needed to be worked, maintained, improved upon.  A cloth, however lovingly dyed at first, faded eventually. She took a seat in front of the alter.  Straight back, eyes forward.  As she had stood before her warriors in the last war, a young Toroshu unblooded.  Even then, even green as she had been, she had known her roll and duty—to lead as an example, to not falter.  She folded her hands in her lap.

Zuto Nui, I do not ask for anything new.   I know what has been given is enough.  I ask only that you make us remember what we have been given.  May our Order not break in the face of fear, but grow stronger, like the pressure that forms the hardest crystal.  May our honor drive us to put aside petty concerns and work, each to our own duty, against annihilation.   May our Power be at its peak, synchronized by the first two virtues as we turn it towards the work of victory.

I will bend my will.  May others do as well.

She sat, meditating in front of the altar, while the time ticked by.  Despite the frantic city all around her, she was content—she had done her work already.  The letter was signed and sealed.

{ To the most esteemed council of Toroshu—
    It is to my great regret that I must commend the dyers and young warriors of my clan to purposes of the strategic retreat we have decided on.  I have considered it much in the past few days and have come to conclusion that both my Honor and wisdom compel me to let them out of my sight. I cannot do the same with the Empire.   As wise as it is to consign the most vulnerable of our society to the possibility of a better future, it is the honor-bound task of those of us heavy in years to not let our present slip away.  As long as the towers of Sado remain standing, as long as the Kanohi Dragons roar in the skies, as long as I draw breath, I will stand with my Empire, as will the most experienced of my warriors.  It is my hope that others of my station will do the same, will not let fear of death shake our hearts.

I leave the contingency that will go to the lands over the sea in the capable hands of my second daughter, Yukie.  Treat her words as mine.
}

After exactly an hour, she got up, returning to the council of war.   She had always known, somewhere deep in her heart, that she would not die a Datsue.

Sado, Waiting

Yuki adjusted the cuff on his sleeves as he watched the Plangori ships drop anchor.  His sister was not up on deck—a clan with as much of a reputation for paranoia as his own did allow their prominent members to sit on top of ships, out in the open.  But he knew she was there. He knew this wasn’t over, as well as she did.

She would be with them, of course.  His sister would not miss a chance to be seen in front of her clan, to gracious accept an advisory position to the acting Toroshu.

Acting Toroshu.   It still didn’t feel like it, but Yukie knew—his mother did not intend to leave Sado, and the probability of her staying there and living— He needed to not think about it.   There was an island ahead of them, and island unknown to them.   There would be new opportunities there, and new problems.   He must stand firm and confident, as a Toroshu would leading their people.   He must find allies in that strange place. d

Akiyo certainly would.

There was an island ahead of us.  And island free from petty clan conflicts, free from the iron grip of the empire. An escape. The ship was cramped, and despite the pleasant assortment of dried herbs smelled a little fishy.  But I didn’t care.   My mother was determined to give Zataka a hug, and my snake of a sister was going in a society of people that could bring a mountain down on her head.

I could sense freedom, just over the horizon.

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There's a dozen selves inside you, trying to be the one to run the dials

[BZPRPG Profiles]

Hatchi - Talli - Ranok - Lucira - FerellisMorie - Fanai - Akiyo - Yukie - Shuuan - Ilykaed - Pradhai - Ipsudir

And some aren't even on your side.

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IC: 

Not for nothing did the god-warriors of Zakaz call this plant the Miracle Cactus, Jennak thought with a shiver – a relieved, involuntary tremor that owed as much to the sweet taste of the juice upon his tongue as it did to the cold feeling permeating everywhere else in his mouth. His teeth would have chattered, if only they could touch, but at that moment death seemed preferable than extracting them from the spiny flesh of the legendary plant. So, he slurped more of the pulpy juice from the cactus; eight bony fingers gripped the plant, like spindly skewers at the ends of maize, and the great bricks of alabaster that lined his bulging jaw continued their transformation into great blocks of ice.

 

For the past four days and three nights the Mantling procession had trudged on without true refreshment. That was not to say they were not provisioned; each of the five-Skakdi band had brought survival packs to last them a fortnight, with other fruits, salted meats, and skins of water and ale plenty to keep them from starving until Jennak had completed his Mantling. At least, that was the case on paper. A popular refrain among his fath--

 

--Warlord Kredak

 

--among Warlord Kredak’s hanse was that they could provision for a year, with a battalion of livestock at their back, and still die starving before Jennak proved himself a true Skakdi. The jests, as jests so often did, had burrowed under Jennak’s skin like insects, sucking away the nutrients from what little meat trudged upon his bones. Like me, he thought, drinking from this cactus. Suddenly, the juice felt like acid in his throat. Or perhaps that was the urban legends about the Cactus, returning unbidden to his mind. Or perhaps it was just the Rift.

 

He turned again to look at it, even though all the veterans in the party warned him not to, and shivered again at the sight of it – crackling with viridian electricity and lined with rocky, stalagmite teeth that oozed Antidermis like pus, it was not a scar on the face of the world. It was something more, something unspeakable; far beyond any wound to an island, or even a world, it felt like the sneering grin of Irnakk –  a terrible rictus, blighting the fabric of reality itself. Even looking at it made his eyes sting with fearful tears. From the way that some of his heralds were rubbing their eyes, Jennak guessed they were stricken by the same terror, even though they would all swear it was ash or silt in the air that brought them to tears.

 

That was the excuse they had used when they stopped being able to swallow food, two days ago – when the meat had started to taste rancid, and the fruit had grown too bitter to even chew. He could still feel the cuts on the roof of his mouth from his last skewer of iguana meat.

 

That was the excuse they had used when they stopped being able to drink water last night, when the ale began to taste like curdled milk and Cronnak touched his leathery canteen for a drink only to find it radiated the heat of a Tahtorak’s scale and the water had boiled inside. The burn still gleamed on his right palm.

 

That was an excuse Jennak recognized for the feeble lie it really was. Such freak accidents were as commonplace in the Rift as those fools who dared to try taming it; thrill-seekers and would-be warlords a-plenty had tried to conquer the Rift in centuries past, and parties would regularly form to search for the treasure that gunslingers, con artists and street preachers swore was buried at the back of the devil’s throat. Casualties and horror stories from these voyages were endless, but still there would always be a few treasure hunters or Lesterin rogues in the slums of Seprilli, trying to get rich quick with the hidden gold of the Rift, and the streets of Irnakk’s Tooth were filled with fundamentalists doom-chanting the same refrain: Run or Crawl, Reclaim or Die. Fan:Dii Balom Skak:Dii – No gods, but for the Skakdi. Until the Skakdi once again controlled all of Zakaz, as they had in the days of the first Ancestors, they could not hope to control all the world.

 

Jennak had always been a superstitious child, fond of stories about Kvere;Ivi, where the palaces of the Lesterin merchant-princes had become their undersea graves. He had grown up on the legends of Lamo-Lyco-Cosa, and the sacrifices made there to the dark god Mata:Nii. But he was fond of the versions Cronnak had told him growing up, the kinds that ended in a jump scare and an affectionate punch in the shoulder. Seeing legends like the Rift up close…well, he would have very much appreciated if they had just stayed legends. Cronnak was right – a Mantling ceremony like this was the best antidote to any stray thoughts of joining the Nakihl.

 

Speaking of Cronnak…his older brother had been gone too long. Jennak nibbled anxiously on the Miracle Cactus. If something had happened to his older brother while he foraged, Jennak had slim odds on outliving him for very long. He knew that his snap decision to undergo his Mantling at the Rift was a foolish one, and likely deadly, but he had spent his whole life being the runt of Kredak’s sons, the bookish one, obsessed with legends of past disasters instead of focusing on the life of glory that awaited all Skakdi. Jennak had only volunteered such a place for his coming-of-age ritual to show that his respect for tradition went beyond the dusty old legends and ghost stories that the Nakihl so zealously guarded in their fortress to the north. He had even thought of challenging his father, reminding him that he himself had never gone to the Rift to undergo the Grand Performance of the Gods and plunge into the Rift. In the ancient days, that ritual was how all true warlords had proved themselves to the Skakdi; nowadays it was a relic, and the Rift was used only for the purposes of terror and execution. To do so on your Mantling, the basic coming-of-age performed by every Skakdi on Zakaz, and for no particular reason…it was akin to suicide. Every veteran warrior, demigods though they might have been, on the island knew it to be so.

 

It was only Cronnak’s intervention to join his party that had shamed other warriors to serve in his Mantling procession, and it was only Cronnak’s reputation that had kept the other Skakdi from leaving him to starve – or, more likely, from just slitting his throat. If something had happened to his brother…

 

Two wolf whistles cut through the air in quick succession. Even in his state of anxiety, Jennak didn’t jump; nothing natural lived or grew in the Rift, so only one of the two scouts could have sent the signal back. He didn’t even jump when he felt the familiar fist slug his shoulder or look up from his Miracle Cactus until he caught the glimpse of scarlet armor that sat unceremoniously on the rock across from him.

 

“Find anything?” Jennak asked, a little petulantly. He found the idea of scouting the Rift to be particularly stupid. This morning, when Cronnak and Grognak had gone off, Jennak mentioned as much – that there was nothing worth seeing in the Rift, and that they would only step in a stray pool of Antidermis without help if they strayed too far from camp, or that something might attack them after all if it did lurk here, or any other number of reasons. Perhaps if he had only stuck to one, honed his argument, it might have had some effect on the others. Skakdi were far from intellectuals, but nor were they brutes; strategy and tactics had been bred into them and brought their Ancestors to the cusp of godhood. If Jennak had put forth a convincing reason, it might have made sense. Ramble on with four or five, and Skakdi began to mistake an abundance of caution for endless excuses. Cronnak, as much as Jennak worshipped him, was no exception.

 

Right now, Mr. No Exception was proving particularly smug about his survival.

 

“Not a thing. What did I say?” Cronnak tossed the sketchpad he had been using to map their progress, as well as a hunk of worn charcoal, onto his younger brother’s lap. Cartography was one of their shared passions, but one of Cronnak’s rules for serving as herald on this Mantling was that there would only be one sketchbook, and he got final say as to when it would be used. That way they could both draw maps to their hearts content, but there would be no use of it as a distraction. Jennak had sworn to their father that he would face the Rift; this was his chance.

“You told me I was a coward. You might as well have said that Irnakk had me now.” That was the worst thing one Skakdi could say to another, equal parts grave insult and death sentence. “A lot about glories old and new, looking good for handsome worshippers someday, and how you would have been raw meat if you had jumped blind into the Burning Steppes. The Tahtorak came up. A lot.”

 

His words were dismissive, but he delivered them with a begrudging smile. He could begrudge his brother almost anything; there was no reason one such as Cronnak;Dii, hewn from all the past glories of their fathers, would have any reason to treat a borderline Nakihl like Jennak with any love, but Cronnak doted on him. He had overseen as much of Jennak’s martial instruction as he had ever gotten, coached him on what to hunt and forage for in survival situations, and even read to him some of Jennak’s favorite legends in his youth. Cronnak had no patience or interest in such things, and made it known as often as possible, but the thought went a long way with him.

 

“Where’s Grognak?” he asked. “You two split up?”

 

Cronnak waved his hand dismissively. “He said he saw some old weaponry up in the east and wanted to check it out. You know him, always swearing up and down he’s right behind you. He was the same way on our Mantling. He’s probably a quarter-bio away just waiting to make it seem like he scouted. Throw me that Miracle Cactus.”

 

“How do you want it?”

 

“Up high.”

 

Jennak threw it down low, another one of the dumb games they always played together. When one asked for something, the other would always be sure to give it to them in the exact opposite fashion they asked for it. Perhaps with other races, like the Lesterin, that was a form of playfulness, but among the Skakdi it was rare. Cronnak was an equal participant in the game and knew just how to catch it. He plucked the Miracle Cactus one-handed from the air and took a bite from it; he made the motion look effortless, but Jennak saw his brother wince slightly as his fingers closed, and he shook his wrist afterwards. His burned hand looked raw and blistered, the Rift’s landscape writ large upon his weathered palm.

 

“Will you be able to fight with that?” Jennak asked, concerned. Cronnak waved him off and took another bite.

 

“Of course I – mm! – will. Besides, nothing to fight out here, right? That’s what you said before we left.” Cronnak gave him a toothy grin and looked down at the Cactus. Juice dribbled down his chin, so viscous that he could see the pulp beneath his lip, and for some reason his stomach churned. He could hardly fault his brother for finding the plant nutritious and delicious, not when he’d done so himself, but…when he watched someone else eat one, he remembered the legends of the Miracle Cactus. The plant was used as a mild hallucinogen during the days of the Valin;Xalt, the forgotten ritual warlords used to use to prove their mettle before jumping headlong into the Rift. But it had a darker origin, according to the more superstitious among Skakdi: given its status as the Rift’s only indigenous plant, the rumor went that the plant flowered with the life force of Skakdi who had died there, succumbed to Antidermis or exhaustion. The juice of every plant was alleged to be the essence of a Skakdi, valor and cunning, fear and rage, all distilled into a goulash and entombed inside a plant forever. Thus, the only way to survive in such an inhospitable spit of land would be to cannibalize those too weak to do so themselves. The irony of the tale was probably deeply rooted in its origin, but it still made Jennak queasy to think about.

 

Especially since the Mantling party had stumbled upon a patch of five in the spot where they’d made camp. One for each of them.

 

“You never take your wounds seriously,” Jennak admonished. “Adrenaline will only get you so far. And we aren’t even talking about how water boiled in a leather—

 

“We don’t need to talk about it,” Cronnak dismissed him. “It happened. Turning back now means you don’t pass your Mantling, and only means we still have to travel another four days before we hit Lesteri;Dak again. Then it’s another three days to Irnakk’s Tooth. No. If either way is a risk, then why go backward?”

 

Jennak opened his mouth to retort, but behind his brother’s broad-shouldered frame, his eyes focused on an earth-toned figure, far from the reds and greys of Warlord Kredak’s sons. Instead of his retort, what came out was: “It’s him.”

 

Cronnak turned around and squinted, confused. “From the west? Did the idiot forget what direction he was supposed to scout? I should beat him to death with my bare hands, that Brakas. He forgot to signal his way back, too. Probably dozed off by a rock and is still shaking off the—”

 

“That’s not it,” Jennak interrupted. His throat had gone dryer than before he’d cracked open his Miracle Cactus. “Cronnak, look at him.”

 

Cronnak looked from his brother, then to the brown dot on the distance. His vision power was laser vision; useful in many a combat situation, but no help now. If Jennak hadn’t been so worthless on his own in survival situations, he probably would have been the one on scouting watch today.

 

“Nektann’s flames…”

 

“Did Grognak get uglier?” Cronnak asked playfully. “What am I missing? You’re the one with telescopic vision, you tell me.”

 

Jennak’s lips trembled. Cronnak’s good-humored eyes, normally red with passion both good and ill, narrowed. By now, golden-armored and Four-Tooth Sabnak, the sage old warrior who had tutored Cronnak at arms since he was still Twelve-Tooth Sabnak, had wandered over. They made up the rest of Jennak’s Mantling procession.

 

“I—I—Ir—"

 

“Spit it out, brother.” There was no humor in Cronnak’s voice anymore.

 

He was acutely aware of the other two warriors glaring at the back of his neck. Jennak whispered at first, but then repeated himself: “Irnakk--has him now.”

 

A tense silence fell over the group.

 

“Jennak?” Cronnak asked, turning his head back to his brother. Jennak had never seen him look at anyone, especially him, so coldly.

 

“You have some nerve, boy,” croaked Trezzik, the bob of his throat straining against the scar where a Skakdi had once slit him end to end. It had ruined his voice forever, made it ghastly to listen to. “I’ve fought at his back in a dozen campaigns while Heu:Nii like you screamed and begged like dogs. I’ve heard his battle roars, loud enough to make Ancestors shake in Kino-Ur. When our blood would rain on Skakdi like you it would rain so heavy you would swear you had been cleaved in half. If your brother wasn’t here—”

 

“He is here,” barked Cronnak, rising to his feet in a flash. Standing there, with the scrapes of every battle he’d survived still looking fresh upon his flame-colored armor, Cronnak looked every inch the young man who had marshaled a rabid Tahtorak through the Burning Steppes during his own Mantling – every inch a future Ancestor. His hand was on his chainsaw, a motion that dared Trezzik to find out if he could survive a slit throat twice.

 

“Stop it!” Jennak was jittering, hands clapping on his knees and the very bones in his fingers clattering like chimes, but his voice had found some steel in its timbre. “Stop it and look. He didn’t signal. He’s staring at the ground, but—but he’s not looking where he’s going. He just tripped on a rock, and…and he’s not even looking for Antidermis. He’s trudging, and he didn’t signal. Irnakk has him now.”

 

Another silence, before Sabnak finally chimed in: “We’ll make a scout of you yet, Heu:Nii.”

 

The words whistled when coming out of Sabnak’s mouth, a Rift unto itself with how many teeth he’d lost in battle over the millennia. But it was still a compliment coming from the Skakdi who had trained his brother and his father, and it would have made him proud to hear. It might even have impressed Warlord Kredak.

 

But today, right this instant, Jennak felt no pride. All he felt was foreboding – foreboding and deep, cold terror. Grognak was at least a hardened warrior; he hadn’t even been Mantled yet. If something in this accursed scar had driven him into the arms of madness, what chance did Jennak fare?

 

The party had been gripped by its longest silence yet – possibly the longest silence of Jennak’s life. By now, telescopic vision was unnecessary. Grognak had shambled close enough to make out the distinguishing features of his face, and every other Skakdi present knew what Jennak said for fact: Irnakk had him now.

 

Irnakk had him now.

 

The four words were the death knell of any Skakdi; it was as good as declaring them dead on their feet. If each Skakdi was a god unto himself, then those words meant that shock, terror, or cowardice had driven a Skakdi to a state of mortality. It meant fearing the same shapes in the dark that a child feared, the same wisps and phantoms that drove young Skakdi into the arms of their mothers. If a Skakdi had plumbed so thoroughly the depths of fear and misery, then his reputation was in ruins; he could never be counted on in a battle again, and he would never go to join the hordes of his ancestors in Kino-Ur, the great staging ground for the Skakdi’s final assault on all the universe. They were, quite possibly, the only people more universally loathed in Skakdi culture more than Sarke referees.

 

Cronnak dared to venture within reach of Grognak, brought so low by terror even his teeth trembled to their roots, and grabbed him by the shoulder roughly. Jennak had been the shoulder grabbed or struck on many an occasion and had come to associate it with fraternity and even love; he had never before seen the world’s most comforting gesture weaponized so. He realized he was no longer the Skakdi most considered scum in this party, but somehow he found no succor in his new place in the world.

 

“Grognak, report.” For the moment, Cronnak’s voice was professional and clipped. “No one told you to head west. What happened to you?”

 

Since his birth, Grognak;Dii’s eyes had a unique, pulsing quality to them – two beating scarlet hearts within his face, they constantly throbbed with fury and a thirst for blood. Now they did not move at all, save for occasional, lagged tracing of Cronnak’s face. Their crimson hue had grown so pink they were almost pale, with only occasional veins to give them color. They look like eclipsed suns, now, the dead eyes of an alcoholic stripped of all his poisons. When his jaw slackened, his reply stolen from his throat, the glimmer of his wolfish-grin had turned the color of bleached skulls.

 

“Cronnak;Dii,” he replied simply, hoarsely.

 

Cronnak had the look of a poisoned man, dark-faced and unswallowing. “Nektann’s flames…” cursed Trezzik softly.

 

“I said report.”

 

Grognak’s eyes had turned to Warlord Kredak’s other heir, and there was a hint of accusation in his pale, fish eyes.

 

“You brought us here,” he whispered. “You killed us all. They’ll find us because of you.”

 

Jennak recoiled slightly from the threat and Grognak’s dead gaze, but he did not have to bear it for long; Cronnak’s meat hook fist struck the beleaguered scout a mighty blow to the body. Any Skakdi in his prime would have had trouble standing, but Grognak’s legs actually seemed grateful for the reprieve, and he buckled without complaint. Jennak remembered the stories of Ahk’rei:Nii, the haggard Lesterin demon worshipper who reunited the phantoms of the dead with their flesh. Grognak seemed proof of one such melding, albeit an imperfect one. Cronnak was not so poetic about the other warrior’s sorry state.

 

“Grognak,” his elder brother roared, blocking Grognak’s slumped body from view. “You were there at my Mantling. You rode with me on that Tahtorak when none else dared, gripped its scales beside me and rode through half the Burning Steppes with more fire on our bodies than armor. You are my friend, and if you’re still in there I grieve for you. But if you ever speak to my brother like that again, or if the next words out of your mouth aren’t telling us what you found, I will kill you. I will knock as many teeth out of your mouth as I need to so my fist will fit, and I will reach down your throat until you choke and die. Now. Report.”

 

Grognak’s eyes focused a little, and Jennak felt relief. Since the days of old, one Skakdi had always required another to channel their once-fearsome elemental powers. Sometimes it was much the same in battle; only the threats and thunder of one could resurrect a man who thought even himself lost to cowardice. He let out a shaky breath that even he hadn’t realized he was holding—

 

Grognak reported. And that breath became a gasp. A rattle escaped Trezzik’s slit throat. Even Cronnak’s pale face had gone ashen.

 

“What did you just say?” he asked quietly. Grognak propped himself against a rock, starting to massage the blow Cronnak had laid upon him. It had knocked some life back into him, clearly, but when he spoke again his voice still shook.

 

“I saw…” He inhaled and held the breath for several painful seconds. “A Vortixx.”

 

The way Cronnak kicked the downed Skakdi’s head was the way a child kicked his ball.

 

“What did you just say?” he asked louder. Grognak’s head lolled, but his voice was absorbing strength from his commander’s furious blows.

 

“I saw…a Vortixx.”

 

The way Cronnak kicked the downed Skakdi’s head was the way a child kicked his ball.

 

“What did you just say?”

 

“I saw a Vortixx.”

 

The way Cronnak kicked the downed Skakdi’s head was the way a child kicked his ball.

 

“What did you just say?” he barked for the final time. Grognak cracked his neck slowly, blood trickling from a face already giving way to swelling. But when he was done cracking his neck, he stood, and pulled himself to his full stature. His eyes had darkened to the color of roses, of blood, and he rubbed at his cheek sullenly.

 

“I saw a Vortixx. I saw a Vortixx. I saw a Vortixx,” he repeated. It was an ancient Skakdi ritual, although Jennak quietly could not comprehend the barbarity of it. When Irnakk gripped a Skakdi by the spine, it became impossible to trust his grasp on the situation that had terrified him so thoroughly. So, under physical and mental duress, a Skakdi would be made to repeat their story over and over in the face of increasing trauma. To stick to their guns and persevere was a sign that they were still demigods at heart, despite a momentary tango with the horrors of mortality.

 

Or the horrors of the Vortixx.

 

Their scout, now reminded of his own greatness, recounted his story. As Cronnak had predicted, he had decided to go off and take a nap, perhaps a little too assured of their solitude in the base of the Rift. They had all been traveling, growing sick of each other and tense in Zakaz’s heart of darkness, so he had thought to steal a few minutes for himself rather than return with the same empty hands they’d returned with every time someone had gone scouting. He hadn’t thought to be gone long, nor had he thought himself very far from camp. But where he had woken up was not the idyllic little spit of wasteland he had chosen to fall asleep in, and what he had awoken to was far from solitude.

 

What he described was a freak of nature with proportions too unnatural to be any living creature; captivating to the eye, but somehow horrific to absorb, too alien to be anything but a nightmare. Her edges were too sharp, her features too angular, and her eyes were as black as her armor; she was a masterpiece, Grognak explained, a miracle of ebonywork that a sculptor had only half-completed; her other half she had carved herself. It was a feat of poetry uncharacteristic for most Skakdi, which made his story ring all the louder with uncomfortable truth.

 

When he finished his report, all five Skakdi had been reduced to statues themselves. None dared to move or speak their nightmare into reality.

 

“We investigate,” Cronnak finally concluded. “Grognak, take us west.”

 

It was the typical Skakdi answer; none of them would dare to openly suggest backing away from a foe, whatever that foe’s origins or prowess, but from the oldest veteran to even the young runt on his Mantling, all of them entertained the thought of just going home in those crucial moments. Cronnak’s orders felt familiar; they rang out in the voice of the horde, simple and dedicated to conquering one and all.

 

They broke camp quickly and began the trek west. Jennak handed over what remained of his Miracle Cactus to Grognak along the way; such a gesture would be considered pitiable by some Skakdi, or an expression of pity itself, but he hoped Grognak would take it in the spirit it was intended – a sign of pride and respect for returning from the clutches of Irnakk. Whatever he thought of it, Grognak didn’t speak. No one spoke. For hours of the march, sky and earth were but different shades on the all-encompassing spectrum of grey, so that as the Skakdi grew more anxious they forgot which they were even marching on – sky or earth. Toothless old Sabnak broke the silence with a brusque order that was half command and half bird call.

 

“Whelp,” he whistled. “Tell us what you know of the Vortixx.”

 

Jennak was surprised to be asked for input. “In the Time Before Time, when the world was in the grip of the demon Mata:Nii and their wicked fingers on earth the Lesterin—”

 

“What, another sermon?” Trezzik grumbled. “Another doom-sayer. There are more of you every year, seems like...makes Irnakk’s Tooth unlivable…”

 

“Ignore the cutthroat, whelp. Keep going,” Sabnak said, not unkindly.

 

“—the Lesterin dominated the Skathi with steel and sorcery. They could not wield the elements without us, and their eyes lacked true vision, but they wore Kanohi capable of powers we were incapable of, and their ships and guile made them a power among the weakling races. The Vortixx were chief among their allies. They were as powerless as the Lesterin in all aspects but one. It was said that whatever they dreamed came to life. Great machines, plagues that could bring low islands, weapons of war the likes of which only gods dared to wield…the Vortixx could conjure these tools with their wits, and the Lesterin would use them to subjugate. After we broke the Lesterin and Irnakk forged Zakaz from their bones, the Vortixx saved themselves by allying with us.”

 

“Until they turned on us,” said Cronnak. “I know this part.”

 

Every Skakdi “knew this part.” First and Cruelest Irnakk:Dii had forged Zakaz and the Skakdi in his own image, but their bid for power had cost them dearly. To try and leech them of their greatness, the Lesterin’s demon spirit had robbed them of their individual elemental control and their vision powers, forcing the once-subservient Skakdi to again be reliant on others. To compensate, the Skakdi horde began trafficking in the Vortixx’s particular, mad brand of creativity – and for centuries upon centuries the synthesis between brutality and ingenuity had been a force to be reckoned with across the known universe.

 

All that had changed centuries ago. The Vortixx had infiltrated Irnakk’s Tooth, the single neutral place in all Zakaz, and dared to dive beneath the frigid, placid surface of Kvere;Ivi to see what secrets the Skakdi had buried alongside the kings and queens of the Lesterin. Perhaps they had not taken the Skakdi at their word when they said no one knew what was at the heart of the great lake in the island’s center; perhaps they had believed them, but ravenous curiosity and the prospect of mystery with no answer had driven them past the point of reason. Regardless of their reasons, a few mad Vortixx took the plunge. Whether they found answers no one knew, but they did find truth.

 

Nothing was at the bottom of Kvere;Ivi. Nothing here not being ‘not a thing,’ but Nothing, a greater, emptier, more horrifying Nothing – Nothing, in the way that the skies and the sea stretched on endlessly with Nothing to fill them. Nothing, in the way that death was Nothing, yet could overwhelm life so easily and outlast it for so long. Nothing was a great, yawning void beneath the heart of Zakaz, and all the universe but Zakaz was doomed to return to it; only the Skakdi, the great cosmic iconoclasts, could stand against Nothing and retain themselves. The Vortixx had proved that in Kvere;Ivi – for those Vortixx never surfaced from the lake to take another breath, no Vortixx ever returned to Zakaz to make another sale, and when ships from Seprilli went in search of the Vortixx homeland to investigate their allies’ absence, they all returned with tales of Nothing.

 

No Skakdi or Lesterin had seen one since until Grognak.

 

“So how did the Ancestors kill Vortixx?” Trezzik asked. “I always heard they were powerless.”

 

“No creature that can pull a trigger is powerless,” Sabnak counseled. “Grognak, did this Vortixx have a gun?”

 

“No.” Single words were about as much as he had been able to manage for the last few hours.

 

“Did this Vortixx have armor?”

 

“No.”

 

“How about limbs?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“My eyes hurt,” grumbled Cronnak. “Does anyone feel that?”

 

“Then that’s what we do. Each grab a limb and pull.”

 

At least we have a plan, Jennak thought wryly, nose crinkling in wry amusement. Then it crinkled for another reason altogether.

 

“My eyes hurt too,” Jennak said. “It’s hard to see.”

 

“It’s ash,” Sabnak replied stolidly, for the hundredth time in five days. “Ash and silt.”

 

Then the smell started, acrid and harsh like flesh aflame; Cronnak was intimately familiar with the aroma in all its forms. He raised his voice to yell: “Antidermis! Move!”

 

The air did not smell like burning flesh; it was the smell of the air itself that was burning as the Antidermis started to fall to earth.

 

They had prepared for this – Antidermis raining down was about as predictably unpredictable as Antidermis welling up from the ground, after all – but they were all tense and uncertain of heart after Grognak’s report. More importantly, the only scouting reports had come from a single delirious, half-sane source, and the Mantling party could only judge the terrain at face value. Reduced to only their animal instinct, each scurried for what they perceived as cover. Behind him, Jennak heard a loud, shrill scream. It was a sound as undignified as it was pained. Instinctually, he knew that Grognak had been too slow. It was a mercy, in some ways; the Vortixx had left him in the grip of Irnakk, and this was merely the disposal of a body. But now Jennak wished he hadn’t wasted the rest of that Miracle Cactus.

 

He wondered if Grognak would become one too someday.

 

The smell of the burning sky brought him to his senses. He had sprinted on autopilot in the direction of a cave system; his footfalls had gone on until what grey, meager light the Rift afforded him had faded into black, until he had taken enough twists and turns and slides that the decomposed smell of the sky had left him. Only then did he feel it safe to drop to his knees and savor his survival. The musty air he was gulping in great mouthfuls was almost sweet by comparison to what was happening outside.

 

He rubbed his palms on the surface below him, and in his mind several things stuck out to him as odd. For starters, the cave was oddly smooth, almost pleasantly so; he was reminded of the way marbles had felt in his hand as a child, or perhaps empty Zamor Spheres. The whole tunnel, in fact –  he had run so far that the rocky outcroppings with their stalactites and stalagmites of Antidermis pockets were but a distant memory. He rubbed the wall beside him and felt certain of it.

 

The second thing he noticed was the black, grainy substance that had smeared on his hands. He’d left a streak of it when he touched the wall.

 

“Hello?” he called out. “Cronnak? Sabnak? Trezzik?”

 

A beat.

 

“Cronnak…?”

 

A miracle from the Ancestors: “Here.” Jennak actually laughed aloud at the sound, resonating deeper into the tunnels. Then he stopped for a second, his superstitious mind overwhelming him. Well did he remember the tales of the city the Rift used to be. The voice could well be some dark magic, attempting to beguile him with the voice of his heroic brother.

 

“Tell me something only we would know!”

 

The darkness was silent.

 

“What the—Kino-Ur. Are you serious?”

 

That was a good start.

 

“Jennak, I’m going to beat you to death if you don’t show yourself. It’s hard enough concentrating as is.”

 

“Just tell me something. Anything.”

 

A loud groan was his response, along with the angry revving of Cronnak’s trademark chainsaw. The sound was getting closer, and Jennak reached behind his back for some weapon, something he had picked up to defend himself before the Antidermis began to fall…

 

“You read too many ghost stories, little whelp,” Cronnak said, an ivory gleam of hope stepping out of the unknown in the cave. “Fine. Remember that Tahtorak scale I gave you when I came back from my Mantling? The one you tried to throw into the lake because Grokk said Tahtoraks gave off pheromones, and his mother would cross the Burning Steppes to find you holding it, and instead you both fell in?”

 

Jennak could have cried. He rushed forward to clap his brother on the shoulder, an action Cronnak mirrored heartily with a relieved breath.

 

“The others…” Jennak started. Cronnak shrugged.

 

“I heard Grognak go down, and saw Trezzik get splashed on. Sabnak was carrying him, and if anyone can stay alive in this desert it’s him. Come on. I’ve been leaving a trail for us to get out of here, but first I think I found something.”

 

Jennak eyed the void behind them uneasily.

 

“You want to go deeper in there?” he asked. Cronnak was glaring unsympathetically.

 

“This is still your Mantling,” his brother reminded him. “If you return alive while veterans are dead, the warlords will only consider you a coward. Just surviving isn’t enough for a Skakdi. You have to prove you survived for a reason. If it’s not bringing back a dead Vortixx, it’ll be something we find down here. Come on.” His brother’s determined face broke into a toothy grin. “Come on. Don’t you want to explore Lamo-Lyco-Cosa?”

 

“That’s not funny.” But like any younger brother, so captivated by the confidence and power of his elder, Jennak followed. He eyed the streak he had left on his brother’s armor during their brief embrace. “Is that Najin dust?”

 

“Told you, I’ve been making a trail,” his brother replied. “We’ll need to watch how much we use if we have to shoot our way back home, but rationing for two is easier than five. Same goes for food and water, way I see it. Maybe three, if we can find Sabnak. More likely than not he put Trezzik out of his misery.”

 

Skakdi would often do the same for other Skakdi in the face of hopeless odds, but to do so out of necessity, or to share rations…well, in a place like the Rift who would really investigate? It was another horrifying thought in a day full of them.

 

“The tunnel’s odd, isn’t it?” Jennak finally asked, after they’d walked for a while with naught but the sifting sound of Najin dust in their ears. “It’s like…an artery, connected to a larger one.”

 

“What, connected to the Rift?”

 

“Yes,” he replied. “This isn’t natural, it’s…infrastructure. These turns all lead somewhere different. How will we know if we’re going in circles?”

 

“Probably when we follow the flames on the way back,” Cronnak said with a wry grin. “Worked for me in the Steppes. Come on, we’re here. Got a Lightstone?”

 

Jennak fumbled in the supply pouch on his right hip and withdrew two Lightstones. “The rest were with Grognak.”

 

“Doesn’t matter. These should do. Use the sketchbook and the charcoal and get some rubbings of the left side.” With the Lightstone in his good hand, Cronnak did a slow rotation in the center of the room – for that was where they stood, a small antechamber where their entrance blended seamlessly into one great, curved wall that enveloped most of the room. The other wall was a flat surface, so broad that ten Skakdi’s wingspans might not have been enough to measure its width.

 

For a couple minutes, Jennak did as his brother instructed – each took a sheet from the sketchbook, snapped the charcoal in half until they each wielded little more than nubs, and began etching whatever symbols they found. Between segments, Jennak would take glances at what they’d copied. The symbols were alien to him, but something about the text made him uneasy.

 

“You know what any of this means?” his brother called to him from across the chamber. Cronnak wasn’t as literary or superstitious as Jennak was, so doubtless he had none of Jennak’s concerns over this –  although, if he had to ask in the first place, maybe something here was getting to him too.

 

“No,” Jennak replied with a shake of his head. “If this was Lamo-Lyco-Cosa, you would think more of the characters would be in Lesterin, but this is a…a creole, almost.” He felt uneasy. “Cronnak, can we go? Surely the Antidermis storms have stopped by now…maybe we can find Sabnak and Trezzik…”

 

“You’ll never get anywhere in life if you’re terrified of an empty room, little brother. What did you call it? A what?”

 

“It’s a creole. A mix of languages, old and new, dead and alive. Like you would hear on Seprilli. Characters, grammar, syntax, borrowed words and idioms…there’s just enough Lesterin in here to recognize, but it’s almost as if other words are shoved between Lesterin characters, breaking up the sentences. Those I don’t understand.”

 

Cronnak sighed. “I already looked at the big wall, too. Looks almost like a door, I thought.”

 

“A door?” Jennak looked over and bit his lip in thought. “…Well…maybe? The room would have to be enormous for that. What could it be guarding?”

 

“Treasure chamber?” Cronnak grinned. “Bringing back the treasure of the Lesterins’ demon gods would be as great as joyriding the Tahtorak.”

 

“Really?” Jennak asked, smiling back. “You’d be willing to admit that?”

 

“Well, almost as great.”

 

Despite the sighting of the Vortixx, the Antidermis storm outside, and the eldritch feeling of the tunnel system they’d spelunked into so heedlessly, Jennak felt at ease like this – bantering with his brother. It had become the fulcrum of what was otherwise a very, very dangerous, confusing world.

 

“Here.” Jennak began walking over to the flat wall. Each of his footsteps scuffed against the smooth surface of the floor. “I’ll get this, and then we can…Cronnak?”

 

“Mm?”

 

Cronnak followed his brother over. Jennak had frozen up in front of the wall.

 

“You said there was text here?” his brother whispered. Cronnak lifted up his Lightstone and blinked.

 

“What in Irnakk’s—”

 

The wall was blank from end to end. Cronnak blinked again. His burnt fist clenched, but he hardly noticed the strain.

 

“From wall to wall,” he responded in confusion. “I didn’t get a single letter of it.”

 

“That’s so weird...” Jennak reached out to touch the wall, but Cronnak caught his wrist with the reflex of a viper. “Cronnak, look!”

 

“Nektann’s flames!” Cronnak cursed. “Here I thought I was the one who didn’t pay attention to all those stories. Are you trying to wind up with your face etched on some ancient demon wall, Heu:Nii?”

 

“No, Cronnak.”

 

Jennak looked to Cronnak, teal eyes wide with a mix of awe and horror; the brothers turned to face the wall together. They may not have stretched wall to wall, as Cronnak had described, but both of them could see the text forming now – carvings so thin they looked etched from thimbles, glowing scarlet as they burnt hot shapes into the smooth surface of the stone. Like the carvings they had etched on their scraps of paper, they appeared to the two Skakdi in a smattering of languages – here some Lesterin, there some ancient Vortixx, some in even the ancient writing of the Skathi from the Time before Time. Other characters were in shapes neither had ever seen before. Worse still was that the text itself felt unfinished; even to the untrained eyes of the two brothers, the meanings of parts of the text felt etched into their very souls. Other parts were completely illegible.

 

Jennak squinted. It was odd; he felt dread, for sure, more than he’d felt at any point during his Mantling. Maybe than any point during his whole life. But he felt fascination, too, woven deep into the complex fabric of his emotions – as though he had arrived at a point in his destiny. With bated breath, he began to read:

 

Across an endless ocean

Whe▂▂ bones

My key rests ▂▃▅

▅▅■■■■▅▅▂▂dead demons ▂▂rones

T▂▃▅▅rkest of my ▂▃▅▅

Will lead you to ▃▃▅▅▃▃

▂▂▃▃▃▃▂▂ abyss remembers

What ▃▃▅▅▃▃ has forgot

Lift ▅▅▅■■■■ ▂▂rown

▂▂▃▃▅▅ tore the heavens down

 

“What does it say?” Jennak asked rhetorically. “No, I know some of it…is that a d there, towards the end? Drown and down? It’s a poem of some sort, or a riddle…Cronnak?”

 

There was a look on his brother’s handsome face he had never seen before. His lips traced the same words that Jennak himself

 

“Jennak?” he finally asked. “You’re right. Cark this place. We’re going home.”

 

He’d never been so happy to hear his brother find reason –  snapped from his reverie over the text, he nodded his assent with a relief too great to speak. Cronnak knelt and struck a match on one of his enormous front teeth, touching it to the Najin dust at their feet. The powder went up as fast as its name; the Skakdi did not call it ‘deathly light’ for nothing, but right now there was nothing deathly about the light and the heat that went up down the tunnels. The road of fire they walked alongside improved their moods considerably, and to fill the time retracing their steps the two brothers found it in them, as brothers do, to chat about absolutely nothing. It was empty banter, and both knew it, but they both felt that the sooner they put the mysterious chamber out of their minds the better. For those two hours, despite the ache in Jennak’s legs and the terror of his Mantling thus far, nothing in the world was wrong.

 

Then, suddenly, he realized something was. His teeth were chattering.

 

“Cronnak?”

 

“What is it?”

 

“The fire is cold.”

 

Cronnak jumped on his feet slightly in surprise. He had thought nothing of it – perhaps discounting it as fresher air from the surface as they neared it, perhaps thinking nothing of it so long as the fire gave off light, or perhaps trying deliberately not to think of it. No one could blame a sane man for doing so. But Jennak had the truth of it; he waved his burnt hand over the flames once, twice, and felt only a chill as though he’d dived into Kvere;Ivi. He knew on an intellectual level that he had burnt his hand again, but it didn’t feel like burning. In fact, the flames had begun to smolder when his limb approached them, only to leap and jump as though fueled when he pulled away.

 

“Nektann’s flames…” It was hardly an appropriate curse given the phenomenon, but it was the only one that leapt to mind. “Jennak, how long have they been cold? Jennak? Jennak.”

 

Jennak had stopped in his tracks, so abruptly that Cronnak with his leaden footfalls and steady pace walked right into his brother’s back. “Jennak!”

 

His brother’s bony finger raised in a point. At the end of the serpent of flames, a black warrior stood, drinking up the light. She had raised a hand curiously to feel their tongues, licking over her slender arm. The flames burnt; she did not. Her hand hovered for long seconds, fingers dancing between the fire like she intended to grasp it. She was a head taller than any Skakdi, even powerfully built Cronnak, but slimmer than both brothers. She was emaciated; she was full-figured; she drank in the light and heat and offered Nothing in return. Both Skakdi found it hard to look upon her, for her poise and idle glare both lacked life. It was the same uncomfortable feeling that had gripped them at the antechamber wall.

 

It was something truly alien – the beautiful Vortixx was merely its mask of choice.

 

This was no ghostly text or Antidermis from the skies; this was a tangible threat, and Cronnak;Dii was hewn from the glories of the Ancestors and his forefathers, made for combat and decisive thinking. He tossed a heap of Najin dust into the air before them and smashed his Lightstone against a stalagmite. Antidermis trickled out of the rock, sizzling a hole as it bled from its pocket and towards the ground. Greenish-black and viscous, it bled into the fire and dyed it the same sickly shade. That same fire struck the Najin dust Cronnak had created as a smokescreen, and the Vortixx became just another black candle of flame among many. Using the distraction, he grabbed his brother by the shoulder – hard – and shook him.

 

“Jennak!”

 

Jennak shook limply, paralyzed with indecision and horror. He had finally reached his threshold – the same as Grognak.

 

Jennak!

 

His little brother looked up; his eyes had the same pale, listless look as Grognak’s had at the sight of the Vortixx, but the expression itself was unmistakable. He was looking for a way out of this that only Cronnak could provide. Cronnak himself was never much for plan Bs – a course, once imagined, would be followed through without regard for the cost. Any doubts he had about his course he kept to himself, if not crushed outright.

 

When he looked for the final time on Jennak’s pleading look, he crushed them outright.             

 

“Help me with the elements,” Cronnak urged him. “It’s going to hurt, but you’re going to make it. After that, you run back the way we came. It’s the carkin’ Rift – a big, straight line back home. Promise me you won’t stop. Promise me you won’t turn back.”

 

Jennak blinked hurriedly; the viridian fire was causing his eyes to singe, and one had begun to water up.

 

“But…my Mantling…” he whispered hoarsely. “They’ll say I abandoned you. They’ll say I was a coward. Fath—Warlord Kredak. He’ kill me.”

 

Cronnak gritted his large teeth in frustration and looked down at his own burnt hand. All doubts were crushed outright.

 

Between those gritted teeth, he set the cord to his buzzsaw and pulled. The chainsaw took three tries to rev to life, but only needed one clean cut. The cord snapped back to the weapon as his teeth unclenched, the echoes of his pained bellow going in both directions – down into the labyrinth and back outside into the Rift. Jennak squealed in shock – at the noise, at the hand falling to the ground, at the blood that splattered his torso and his face, and at horror for his brother’s pain. Cronnak kicked his own dismembered appendage as contemptuously as he would a spider.

 

For her part, the Vortixx seemed curious – not quite unnerved, but certainly taken aback. Notably, she refused to touch the fire now that Antidermis had marked it.

 

“Pick it up,” he hissed, grinning through the pain. “Take it to Kredak. He’ll know you were with me, then. At the end. And if anyone still doubts you, I’ll come back from Kino-Ur myself and drag them back with me, to tell them the truth of how brave you were. Pick it up.

 

Jennak crouched to do so, and when he stood, he did so with a sob. Cronnak wished he could grip his shoulder one last time, the way he had as they were boys, but to do so would mean dropping the chainsaw. And he would die with that in hand.

 

“Listen to me.” Cronnak’s words and voice were not his own anymore; in them was the steel, the fury and fearlessness of two dozen of the Ancestors, all ready to welcome the young phenom into their ranks. There was no such thing as ‘before his time’ for deaths like this. He would die young, and proud; that way he was sure to join their ranks. “I need your help to control the fire. The Antidermis won’t hold her off once the fire breaks, so you take that chance and you run.

 

“Maybe—” Jennak licked his lips nervously. “Maybe you can kill it. I can help. Stab her in the back.”

 

His big brother seemed to take some humor in that, though he still growled in impatience at the suggestion. “You’re wasting time.”

 

His brother gulped.

 

“I love you,” he whispered, voice thin and papery.

 

Just. Run.

 

Jennak turned towards the flames, ashen-faced. One hand he lifted towards the fire, concentrating on the tunnel beneath. The chainsaw in Cronnak’s remaining hand tilted towards the flames. Together, for the final time, the two brothers joined their minds. The tunnel split in half down the middle, fire and rock erupting outwards and towards the Vortixx. She was lost in a haze of flame and dust, completely obscured. Just like Jennak would be, so long as he ran.

 

The two brothers locked eyes. Cronnak knew Jennak didn’t have it in him – now, of all times in his worthless life, he could not run.

 

So he shoved him. With a final yelp, his brother was lost to the burning smokescreen. Cronnak knew he would never see him again and set his mouth into a hard line. He swallowed a lump and waited for their haze to clear. It did, eventually, cinders and chunks of rock beginning to tumble to the ground and stick against the walls. The Vortixx stood where she had before; Jennak’s body was nowhere to be found. Once he’d been given his head start, he took it and ran. Some would call that cowardice, but Cronnak found it comforting. He’d followed his brother’s final order, despite the impulse of every cell in his body to fight. Those impulses, and accepting his command anyway, did him credit.

 

He just might make a good Skakdi someday. Cronnak smiled ruefully, and gripped the cord between his teeth again. Three strong pulls, and the saw roared to life.

 

Ancestors, guide me.

 

The cord snapped back to his blade as he let out a roar and charged. The Vortixx did not flinch – not at his roar, not at his charge, and not as the saw ran clean through her. Cronnak skidded to a halt, kicking up pebbles and the grey, dead soil of the Rift as he slid out of the cave system and spun on his heels.

 

The Vortixx had been cleaved in half; her lower half, long, spindly legs up to a narrow waist, remained planted on the ground. Her top half hung in midair, suspended, arms splayed out and face serene.

 

Then the top half smiled.

 

 

Jennak sobbed.

 

He had always been too skinny. All his life, Cronnak had worked with him personally, helped him with weights, running circles around Irnakk’s Tooth, gone climbing together in various parts of the Lesterin’s Crown…everything that a meathead older brother could think of to toughen his younger brother up.

 

He had always been too weak. The best warriors in Warlord Kredak’s hanse had worked with him personally, with his father’s permission and with Cronnak’s recommendation, had taught him swordplay, marksmanship, and elemental finesse, all to no avail. He was discerning with his vision power and had a mind for tactics and cartography, but in a straight fight Jennak had always been as honest with himself as the rest of Zakaz had been – he was worthless at being a warrior.

 

But sobbing, outright, over the death of anyone? It was humiliating. Cronnak would be appalled to know his brother was responding to his glorious death with tears. Anyone else would have cheered for him. But sobbing was all Jennak had. Sobbing, and his brother’s amputated hand, fingers interlaced with his own to prevent him from dropping it.

 

He had no idea how far he had run. His legs throbbed and ached, and his organs felt like they were doused in Antidermis as he sprinted. He had gone too many hours without any water, and by now it felt like it had been a day – five? Ten? – since Grognak had returned to camp with his tale of the Vortixx. He needed rest. He needed water. He needed his brother.

 

But to stop was to die.

 

Hurriedly, he wiped at his eyes. They had started to burn again, independently of his tears; they ached and stung with the feeling of foreign matter. Ash and silt, he thought madly, it’s just ash and silt. That was what Cronnak and Sabnak had both said. But it was more than that. It was ash and silt, and grief, and terror.

 

Then the buzzing began.

 

At first he thought it was mere insects, mosquitos and fleas that even he was mighty enough to swipe away. But then he remembered where he was – this was the Rift, and nothing but demons could live here. Stupidly, he turned over his shoulder to look at them. Insects in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, were buzzing after him in black swathes that made him long even for the normal, pallid greys of the Rift. They were gaining fast. His eyes widened at the sight.

 

He tripped.

 

His foot caught on one of the spiny arms of a Miracle Cactus, ripping the plant from the ground as he tumbled and rolled. He could feel the pulp on his feet and tried wiping it off out of impulse. He turned back to look for the swarm, sure by now they would overwhelm him. But there was no swarm.

 

Instead, two dozen Vortixx gauged him silently. Twelve they stood, each on one of the craggy lips of the Rift; they gazed down upon him, in the dug-out crater that gulfed them, like an animal in its pen. Each was unique in her own way, like any sculpture, but they shared the same basic template as any race; some male, some female, but all ebony-armored and eyed, all of a body type that was both uniquely appealing and anatomically wrong. The buzzing resumed as another host of insects, maybe hundreds in number, swirled around his head and descended. When they stopped and congealed, they were no more than fifteen feet behind him.

 

From the swarm stepped another Vortixx –  and Jennak realized they were not insects at all, but crystals, infinitesimal in size and infinite in number, and that they were combining to form the Vortixx’s shape.

 

In her hand she held his brother’s saw. Oddly, he did not scream. There was not even any fear anymore –  or perhaps it was the other way around, and he was so afraid he had become numb to all else. That sounded more accurate. Irnakk has me now.

 

He just did what Cronnak had told him to do – he stood, not bothering to dust himself off or pick up the Miracle Cactus, and ran.

 

The buzzing did not resume, but he knew they were watching, because when Jennak looked up at either lip of the Rift there they stood, equal in number and gaze, all still watching him flee. He could do nothing about it, though; he could do nothing but run, and run, and run until he tasted the sweet air beyond the Rift.

 

Or until the demons grew bored of him, at last, and decided to descend.

-Tyler

Edited by Tyler Durden
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GM IC:

 

 

“Lord Rayuke.”

“Umbraline Masayoshi.” My boss, one of the foremost Battlemasters in the Empire, a member of my own clan’s nobility, uncle to the Rora, and the Imperial Executioner said with stiff, unusual formality. In my years of service he had never called me by clan unless introducing me, not once since the day I began my watch. Not a good sign. But if that was a poor sign the long, gleaming blade that rested on a bench next to him was worse. “Kneel.”

But I knew that before I came here.

“Some things have… Happened. Since my time. In contemplation.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

I knew this would come. Despite the results, my transgressions have to be considered. The world may be coming down around us, but Order has to be maintained. I don’t care about that. Not before, but especially not now. Order could follow the entire Empire to the in which we now reside, but I do understand Rayuke’s anger. It isn’t about the laws I broke. Or about the risks I ran. It’s about the trust I betrayed. I could try to run away, I could escape to the Dastana, or try to flee across the sea, but I…

“Explain them to me.”

“I abused the powers of your office. Powers that do not belong to me. I issued instructions to the Hogo in your name.” I don’t want to run. I did what I did knowing there would be consequences, and knowing I would face them. And pay them. I was willing to risk my life to bring the Chojo home safely. A fair trade. I held my shoulders back and my head high, facing straight ahead. “I consorted with a hostile power. I enlisted the aid of a traitor. I have fought, and killed, citizens of the Empire with your authority. I slew a Toroshu. I left you unguarded while I did, and in so doing I have betrayed the vows I swore the day you brought me here from the Umbraline estate.”

The last bothers me the most. I’ve never spoken of it to him. It wouldn’t have been appropriate. But my position at the estate was killing me slowly, piece by piece. With infinite kindness, consideration, and patience. With every act of compassion they drove another nail in my coffin, reinforced again and again that I was to be treated with gentleness, regarded with deference, but never to be respected. I was there to be cared for, to be shown as a pious example of sacrifice for clan and Empire.I didn’t need their sympathy. I didn’t want it. I needed to get mad, I needed to work to pull myself back to my feet and I needed their help to do it. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed anything. But that was the support I needed, and I didn’t get it… Until Rayuke stopped by the estate. He never questioned if I could do the job. Only if I was the right woman for it. From the day I swore my loyalty he never treated me differently from any other Menti, never tried to shield me from danger. I was his guard and he placed in me his confidence. He trusted me not just with his life but that of his nieces, people he valued more than his own safety. And I took advantage of that trust.

“My acts come perilously close to treason.” I drew a deeper breath and tightened my hands on my lap as he remained quiet, silently pressing me to continue. He knew what was coming, just as I did, and I think he wanted to see if I would say it myself. If I could take that last step after walking into my own trial. “I submit myself to your judgement, Lord Rayuke. And if you judge that I have strayed so far, I ask only that I may see the gardens I have spent so long in properly.”

And that you forgive me, I added silently to myself. That was more important than anything but I-

“You… may not.” He rumbled, and for once he was… Taken aback. I had never seen anything like it. He almost rocked back, an immense reaction from a man so controlled, as though I had struck him with all the power in my frame. I couldn’t see his face- a limitation of my ‘eyes’- but I felt at once like I had misjudged the situation entirely.... And that I had wounded him, unintentionally, with my guess. “”It is… In shambles. Those monsters performed… A bombing run. I have not even begun… To correct the damage.”

“Masayoshi… Masa.” He began again, the severity gone from his voice. He sounded gentler than I had ever heard, for once looked every one of his years; as though he had aged a lifetime in mere moments. When he began again it was without the voice that could make him seem so brutish, ‘speaking’ in such a way to properly convey all of the nuance that I could not see. .:You aren’t here for judgement, my guardian. You’ve worked for me so long, I thought…:.

He seemed to resettle, shifting to regard me with his full attention. And his respect.

.:But then you’ve always worked for me, haven’t you? You’ve never considered me your equal. Nor should you have, I know. I’ve always treated you as my underling. But you’re so much more than that. My sister was, and now my niece is, my Rora. My sister could never be close with me after that. Especially not after I was sent to the mines. I have no children. And I have slain too many to truly have friends. They’re all afraid of me.:. His tone softened, mellowed by an untold sadness, and he cocked his head uncertainly. .:I never would have thought you were. But you would be more than mortal if you weren’t, wouldn’t you? Maybe you went too far. The Dastana are not our enemy. You did not aid Inokio, you required him to aid you. You fought those who set themselves against your Rora. And you brought my niece home safe and sound.:.

.:Even if that were not so, do you think I could punish you so casually? Here in my garden, without a trial? Without giving you a chance to appeal to your Rora?:. Rayuke shook his head. .:Masa. You aren’t my servant, or my slave. You have been the closest thing to a friend that I have, and you have been my protege. And I could not be prouder of you.:.

“Lord Rayuke, I…”

.:Please just listen, Masa. You’re rash. You’re bullheaded. And even now I know there’s so much anger inside of you.:. He stood and turned towards a small writing desk tucked into the office just past his garden, and walked towards it with slow deliberate strides. .:It reminds me so much of how I used to be. But you have never acted with any less integrity than you believe your oath requires, even when you wanted to so badly. You have never even broached with me your accident because you knew that if I were to hear the truth I would have no choice but to see justice done.:.

.:It would have been the smallest thing, Masa. Zuto Nui knows I’ve given you the chance to tell me. But you refused to use your position that way. I appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.:. My ward shook his head, a ponderous movement, and picked up a wrapped package and a bottle off of the desk. .:Sit, please.:.

I sank onto the cushion in front of his table, onto the one that had over the years come to be mine. The absurdity of the thought, at this moment, in this uncertainty, brought a laugh bubbling to the surface just barely caught before its escape. At the end of an Empire all I can do is make sure that I have my pillow at the right spot near the table. Rayuke knows it, too. The deep rumble of a chuckle proves that. He’s twitted me with endless politeness about my dedication to Order, at least where my pillow is concerned. He insists that he has to tell guests not to use it lest I know that the shape is wrong. I reached for the bottle out of long habit to pour us both a drink and Rayuke pulled it away, pouring instead for the both of us. Which is blatantly, blatantly wrong. By every standard I should pour for him, just like I always have, and it’s making me a whole lot nervous the way he keeps breaking the rules. When I thought I was coming here to be punished everything made sense. Now I don’t know what is going on.

So I take my drink, raise it in silent toast, and take a good long sip.

.:Better.:. He rumbled, taking a drink of his own. .:Masa. I called you here to release you of your oath.:.

“No!” The outburst escapes before I can rein it in, touching upon wounded pride atop the fear that I know he must feel too. Now. He can’t possibly do this now, not when he will need my help more than ever. He will need it, Desdemona will need it. To escape the archipelago will take a miracle, and he wants to- “My Lord, I don’t think this is the-”

.:Enough.:. The mental plane cracks with the force of command, and he pours again in the silence. .:I’m going to do something foolish. Lethally so, perhaps. I’m an old fool, Masa, old enough to have earned the right to be a fool. I do not have the right to drag you along with me.:.

.:This is my home. All of it.:. He gestured expansively, less I think for my benefit than for his. He knows I can’t see it, but he’s always been one to gesture. It helps him to make his point. Sometimes he can be less sure of his words than he acts, but the eyes can rarely lie. .:The Palace, the Yards, the Gardens, every alley and square and plain between here and the mines in which I labored. This land is what I know. It’s what feels right. I never wanted this job, but my sister needed me. I would have been happier to garden.:.

.:There will be no need for an Imperial Executioner on Mata Nui. We will have to adapt, and I will never be able to do so. Nor will our people do so if I am there to watch them. I am a relic now, part of an era that is ending. And I helped to bring this threat about. I helped to unbalance our land.:. His ‘voice’ hardened. .:I will help to end it if I can. My duty now, Masa, is to right the wrongs that I can while I can.:.

He’s not going to leave.The thought echoes in my brain, a contradiction of a simple truth that I thought I knew. But it wasn’t so shocking, not when I thought about it. My ward could never leave innocents in danger. Not when he could do something about it. Whoever he might once have been, whatever his job was, that was an inviolable truth of Umbraline Rayuke. And there would be innocents left behind, people in danger. Evacuating everyone was simply impossible. 

“What will you do?” I asked simply, instead. It wasn’t up for debate. I couldn’t stop him, and it wasn’t my place to. “And have you told the Rora?”

.:I’ve told both of my nieces.:. He answered, taking a long drink of his own. .:They weren’t happy. I understand why. But even if we did need an Executioner, my badge of office is gone.:.

.:Which is also why I can’t pass it to you.:.

“What? To me?” I choked on my sip, coughing and meeting his gaze as best I could. “Me?”

.:Someone has to take care of my nieces for me, Masa. They’re the only family I have left. They will need guidance, and our people will need help. I don’t think of you as an Executioner, perhaps… Maybe a Justicar. The term doesn’t matter.:. He tapped the package on the table between us. .:I had this made a short time ago, before all of this. I think it’s more important now than it was then. White and black, not a trace of Umbraline purple to be found. You don’t like it, and it would undermine the message.:.

He stopped, tapping the side of his cup gingerly. 

.:I think Zataka has something of a grudge. Towards me, and those Dashi. Take care of them, too. I swore them safe passage and I won’t be there to uphold it.:. The tall Battlemaster smiled, a warm gesture. .:Not as an order. As a request. From a friend to a friend. Equal to equal.:.

... Of course I will.”

.:Thank you. One more thing, actually. Ah…:. He laughed aloud, almost sheepishly. .:On the voyage. Don’t let them eat Kellin’s crab.:.

“His… crab?”

The man who had been Executioner nodded, chuckling.

.:His crab. As much as it galls me, little guy saved my life. Take care of him, too.:.

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The problem was distance, and to a lesser extent time. The Imperial City simply wasn’t built as a city for war, or if it was hundreds of generations of peace and building made it an awful, Zuto- place to defend. Years and years of expansion until the Palace covered all of Sado destroyed any tactical design that had ever gone into the Residences. No, that isn’t quite fair. The Residences still stand, unbroken if not unafraid. But the rest of Sado is not so fortunate. The other parts of the city expand outwards into a ring and none but the Yards are defended so thoroughly as the Residences.

We were lucky for a while. The creatures were slow to come, and as stragglers and refugees reached us we learned why. The monsters scattered as they descended from Mt. Koshiki seeking the most fortified clans first. They did not eradicate… But they did destroy. Walls, crops, supplies, any material goods that might have been of use were destroyed by stave, claw, or teeth. When Menti tried to stop them, they were killed. And they continued until resistance had stopped. Scores dead, ancient lands ravaged, and no knowledge of what had come. This scourge swept over the land for a day, then two, then three, and then it was Sado’s turn. They poured over the walls, through the walls, and deep into the city. Some could pass through barriers like nothing, some could simply chew their way through them. Crystal shattering into dust with nothing more than a touch. And all of them could fly. 

Only the Residences and the Yards were clear with any certainty; the Wards had been hit hardest, the many apartments an infinite number of hiding places for infiltrators that could pass so easily throughout the city. Keeping two sections clear was quite an accomplishment. The trouble with their defensive plan was that even though they were mostly safe, the only place that they could complete their evacuation from was the Imperial Docks attached to the Yards. To evacuate the Rora and her family a path would have to be cleared from the Residences to the Yards.

.:We also serve who sit and read.:.

.:Shut up, Nono, I mean it.:.

.:Thaaat was what you said. When you told me we should come to Sado, instruct others in the things we’ve learned. Nnnnow look at us.:.

.:Nono,:. The taller Menti said, a belt of Eiryu blue with three golden knots about her waist, said to the second just behind her. ‘Nono’s’ belt matched, but tied the other way; a left hand to her Twin’s right. .:If the bugs-:.

.:-don’t kill me, you will?:. She finished cheerfully, sparing a grin while her eyes swept their surroundings. Theirs were the only garments in such a color, but they weren’t outnumbered; the variegation in their little band was shocking for anything but the end of the world. Ageru, Umbraline, Roku, Vilda, and even a couple Fursics who had nowhere left to turn when news of their clan’s dissolution came home. Worse than their disunity was their inexperience; their betters had decided to balance the need for experienced warriors to defend the Residences, and the need for experienced warriors to help clear the paths. To uncover the Residences would invite disaster, to fail to clear a path would be a waste of valuable time. Nono understood, but she didn’t like it. Herself and her Twin were both Battlemasters, but the half dozen Menti under their command were not. Some far from it. It wasn’t their fault, she had to admit. There hadn’t been a real armed conflict since the last Fursic uprising, something none of these girls had been alive for.

Or, if they had been they were too small to pick up a sword. 

.:Aina.:. Words weren’t something they needed, not with each other. But to use her name was a tap on the shoulder, a request for particular attention before the flow of thought began. That intricate exchange of impulse and feeling without need for words. She was worried. Her partner Knew, and answered with understanding without condemnation. It wasn’t quite fear that gripped her heart, not for herself alone. A Battlemaster surpassed fear, without it their will could not possibly be so strong. She felt the deeper dread that only one of them might live. That their spirit would be reduced, would be fractured without hope of healing. Soothing compassion whispered across their bond, carrying with it a touch of will. The feeling of victory and the determination of a warrior to bolster her scholarly Twin, the need to be strong. Without them not one of these Menti would come back alive. More than powerful they needed to be confident and commanding, to bolster the spirits of their little unit. Belief was as important as any sword. And unspoken below their communion was the promise that neither would say aloud; that they would both return or neither would.

It was the briefest of connections, a blink of the eye their cohort didn’t even notice, and their attention snapped back to the present. They hadn’t encountered one of the insects in the hour since they had set out, and the absence was beginning to make them leery. A beast might avoid them if it were timid enough but nothing about these creatures had been timid. Their aggression had been unmatched, uncanny, so why weren’t they striking? They were around somewhere. Saki had detected at least one with her Mask of Sensory Aptitude barely twenty minutes ago, heard the uneasy sound of claws on crystal to the west. Not even a block off of the route they needed to clear for the party coming up the street forty minutes’ walk behind. But the city block went silent as soon as they altered course, so Saki took the lead to search with the Furic Soulsword backing her up. Still nothing. It worked in the back of Nono’s mind, turned over and over looking for the answer. It felt like a trap, but could these monsters plan like that? Nothing about their movements had suggested strategy, but-

Saki never even screamed, only gurgled briefly around the Soulsword that sprouted from her mouth before the wound burned closed. The Fursic’s lips contorted with a snarl of vicious hate as she yanked her blade free, scarcely in time to catch a strike from the shocked Ageru Menti that had been watching her from the beginning. Shimmering energy illuminated her Calix as confusion melted understanding and disgust. 

“Our clan wasn’t enough, you Umbraline sellout? Had to to finish us off?” She snarled, allowing her Soulsword to dissipate and twisting out of the way of the descending Agery scythe with sinuous grace. The blade reappeared in her other hand at the end of the move, carried cleanly into the Ageru’s hamstring. “You make me sick.”

“Me? You killed Saki!” The Ageru gasped, bracing hard on her other leg for balance. “Look at her!”

“What? I didn’t-” The words died in her throat as she saw their Roku guide facedown in the dirt, the color draining from her face. “How-”

Nono never registered Aina’s warning, she simply spun as an extension of her Twin and stopped the stave plunging towards her spine dead with a telekinetic grip. The gray beast’s face split in vicious, soundless cry and it snapped a kick into her midriff with unholy ferocity. In contrast to its silence the crack of her rib was unmistakable. Freed from her grip its stave rose from below to open her from hip to shoulder stopped just short by a shimmering naginata. The stave did not melt, but crackled violently where the energy touched it as it ducked back from a blistering counter strike. 

It was a trap, and one that had already reduced their capable number by two. Saki was dead, and a lamed Soulsword was no help at all. Even as the beast with damaged staff stepped back the rest of the trap snapped shut, as two more with varying sickly yellow highlights simply appeared. An illusion. The first must have silenced the others, while one simply hid them from view. And manipulated them into attacking their own. There was no time to think about it, only hope they lived long enough to pass the word. The beasts weren’t just smart, they were coordinated. The Ageru and Fursic Menti- she wasn’t even sure they had ever been introduced- fell first. Wracked by guilt the latter tried to defend the former, striking at the nearest monster’s open faceplate. But to no avail. Her Soulsword struck, struck home, and the creature simply… Bit down. It faded a second later as she went limp with the creature’s claws around her throat. The hobbled Ageru didn’t even do as well, simply stabbed and tossed aside with no way to properly defend herself.

In less than a minute the insects had very nearly evened the odds, outnumbered only by two. The silent Rahkshi came in again, low and fast, sensing Nono’s weakness in her labored breath. Her eyes widened, she gasped in pain as she tried to evade and the Rahkshi’s staff drove home entirely without resistance. And then she simply disappeared. The Rahkshi had only a second to see her Twin, standing stock-still just to its left, eyes aglow with power, before the naginata in her hand severed its spine and it saw nothing again. 

Nono wasn’t idle, however. Her rib was definitely broken, and her breaths were coming shallow and rapid. So she might have perforated a lung, too. In either case moving vigorously wasn’t a good idea, but one of the beasts had disappeared again. Probably the illusionist. Her remaining band of subordinates were trying to fight the one that had killed the Fursic, but every blow they landed seemed to no avail. It wasn’t even scratched and one of its foes was already losing blood from a wound to the shoulder. She had an idea of how to deal with that, maybe, but the illusionist was a bigger problem. It had played their band like a lute, and seemed able to do it again. A master Sighteye could replace reality with an illusion so lifelike as to be indistinguishable. A Soulsword could be dodged, a Mindarm tired, and a Willhammer resisted for their art was one of subtlety. But a Sighteye, even if detected, could not be stopped. How could you find someone that fooled your every sense?

You struck faster than they could think. 

Nono drew as deep a breath as she could, circles the dirt beneath her foot with a raised sole, and tapped the earth. Silt blasted outwards from the impact, nearly aerosolized so fine was the spray. Two meters in every direction blocking out the view from beyond; but caking the unseen form to her right. It vanished half a second later, its owner catching on to her trick, but too late. Ethereal light cleaved its head from its body, and Aina stepped out of the cloud coughing delicately.

“Nono, are you alright? Let me help you, we need to get out of here.” The naginata dissipated and she stepped forward quickly, arms outstretched to support her Twin just to stagger when Nono drove the Soul dagger into her heart. Betrayal flickered briefly in her eyes, face contorting into rage and clawed fingers rising again to try and lay hands on her killer just once before she passed. But the Eiyu Battlemaster twisted the dagger, and Aina shuddered once, twice, and sagged.

“Clever,” Her voice dripped with hatred as the buckling form melted and gave way to a gray and yellow carapace. “You thought I wouldn’t notice when you stabbed her.”

Only Aina’s pained, wordless affirmation of safety (relatively speaking) stilled the sick churning in her stomach. It was fortune, blind luck, that the beast had been as blinded as her Twin when it struck. It couldn’t see her well enough to manage a killing blow. The illusionist must have been hiding that one, one last trick. But the dust was clearing and the last still stood where one of her Menti did not. 

The creatures clearly could be killed, even if their armor resisted traditional weapons. Soulswords could cut through it if they could get close. But only the head and spine seemed to be of any real vitality. That didn’t matter, what mattered is that this one was different. Its impervious hide wasn’t innate, it was a power like any other. And she could put a stop to that. Green eyes locked on its form, welling with hatred for what these creatures had done to the people she was supposed to lead, and the smell of an old library overwhelmed its senses. 

Its mind was… Evil. Feral. It grappled, pushed, shrieked at the very touch of her mind but it was not in control. Something bigger, something stronger, plucked at its strings. Bent its savagery to her will, coordinated them with precision towards their kills. It did not reside within the monster but outside it, controlling it from afar. All she need do was halt one of those strings for just a moment, coincide it exactly with the moment one of her Menti went to attack. A moment, two, three, and pluck.

The Rahkshi faltered, and in that critical second its power failed. A spear struck into its armor, piercing deeply but not enough to kill. It shrieked with real pain and the other Menti grabbed it, held it in place with her mind while her peer pulled the spear back to finish the job and-

Something Else noticed. She had been so far beneath its notice, a pebble before a god, but in that briefest second that its control was interrupted it noticed. Noticed the same way that a pebble under foot felt different from the rest of the ground it trod upon. It noticed and an ugly, petty something inside It hated the interruption and seethed with sick, uncomplicated enjoyment that the pebble was within her reach. It reached out through its puppet yet to die and grabbed her mind with both hands, fingers wrapped like vises around her skull and squeezed and burrowed with incessant pressure. It looked within her and began to pull her apart to the last fiber, reducing her very soul to its base components slowly and painfully to see what made her tick. Someone screamed, and Nono was distantly aware that it was her; and that she had fallen to the ground and broken her nose. 

Time slowed, the torment seemed to go on forever, and then her Twin was there. A gentle, soothing presence in her mind that even weakened with pain promised support. A bastion of sanity that could not be stripped away, told her that all she had to do was hold on. 

The spear struck home again and the pressure vanished as though it had never been, leaving her panting and trembling upon the dirt. 

“Get the Toroshu forward,” She rattled to the Vilda holding her spear, pushing herself to her knees. “The path won’t stay clear for long. Saori, you need to help me with Aina. She can’t walk without help and I can’t carry her. Leave the dead. We can’t help them.”

 

____________________________________________________________________________


 

Nono breathed and for the first time in nearly an hour it didn’t hurt. It did nothing to combat her exhaustion and nothing to clean the blood that had dribbled from her nose. But she was whole again. So was Aina, and that was something of a mixed blessing at the moment. The other Eiyu’s mouth was set in a hard, grim line as she walked— stalked, more than anything— up to the Toroshu standing on the docks. Neither of them had ever been here before but this particular dock clearly belonged to a Saihoko fisherwoman, not to any Toroshu. The trawler was worn and grubby, not from disuse but from regular use. It had been someone’s livelihood.

Emphasis on the ‘had’, for a handful of bodies had been haphazardly covered up after being shuffled aside. 

“What in Zuto Nui’s name have you done?” She snarled, forcefully enough to raise the Toroshu’s eyebrows. A guard stiffened, reaching for her blade, but stilled at a graceful gesture from the Toroshu. 

“What, the Hoko? Calmly, Lady Eiyu. I informed them that I would require their boat. They refused.”

“It was their ship!”

“And I have need of it.” A note of frost crept into her voice at last, as the Dashi and Menti that bore her colors loaded crates onto the ship. “Order must be enforced by Power, if a Hoko won’t do it for their own honor. A lighter punishment might have been offered in peace, but this is a crisis. In Zuto Nui’s name, as you put it, my family must survive. As must yours, a fact I’m sure your Toroshu would remind you of. In the meantime, mind your tongue.”

Aina stiffened, fuming, as the Toroshu continued.

“Battlemaster you may be but you are a Menti. Mind your betters.”

“My apologies, my lady,” The Eiyu forced out calmly, though Nono felt her simmering under the surface. “But might I politely ask why you’re loading these crates?”

“Child, surely you realize that my family’s resources cannot be left for the Dastana to find. The Rora has no power to command me to abandon my clan’s treasures, and neither do you.” The Toroshu turned away in dismissal, beginning her walk onto the ship’s deck. “You have done your duty admirably, Lady Eiyu, and I have instructed my healer to tend to you and your partner as reward. The rest is not your concern. I am sure others are awaiting your aid.”

The Eiyu’s gaze moved between the Toroshu’s retreating back, the guard that gazed at her with warning, and the pile by the dock. For a brink, Nono knew, she hovered on the brink of the unthinkable. But she couldn’t let that happen. They had a duty to perform, and slaying all of the people here would not undo what had been done. And done legally. Things were different beyond the Eiyu’s walls, something her Twin knew and accepted once the thought had reached her. It allowed her to step back from the precipice, back towards her Twin.

The grim smile they shared acknowledged what both knew the other to think. And acknowledged that no matter what they did here the same thing was happening everywhere.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

 .:Remember the plan, Masa.:.

.:I will. Rayuke.:. It felt wrong to say, still, but the command had been without negotiation. Whether he was the Executioner or not he was the Umbraline’s First Son and his command was to be obeyed… Even if it was to treat him like an equal. .:Good luck.:.

I’m not a fan of this plan and he knows it. But he’s also right. It’s the best we can do. Behind me are arrayed three parties, each dedicated to the protection of a single cause. Myself, and the Menti at my side, formed around the six Dashi that Rayuke had charged me to care for. Behind me another group gathered around the Rora and behind her around Desdemona. For each the highest priority went to their own charge in hope that most would make it through to the Docks even if some were to fall. 

Rayuke would be the distraction. 

The fact, in some oblique way, seemed to amuse him. I can’t fathom why, but his sense of humor was always… Odd. He can’t possibly be as relaxed as he seems but if he isn’t I can’t tell. He’s never been moved easily, not in the time that I’ve served him. And now he has trusted me with his family and his sacred honor.

Zuto Nui, you and I haven’t seen eye to eye. Not in the past, and especially not now. But he believes you have a plan. He believes in you. Don’t let him down.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

There’s no blaming Masayoshi for being worried, he reflected. 

The man who had been Executioner strode out into the open air, down the courtyard of the Residences and past the haggard defenders. Long, easy strides carried him quickly but without hurry; he might simply have been seeking some fresh air had it not been for the tension in the air.

She can’t help but worry because, at the end of the day, Masa had never known him in his youth. She hadn’t even been born. To know his past was one thing. To understand it was impossible, as it was for his own nieces. It didn’t make sense. The man who had borne the heavy burden of justice all their lives, the man who spoke so slowly, the man who spent his leisure carving beautiful statues to fill his garden could not possibly have done what was said. It must have been a misunderstanding, or more likely a coverup. It wouldn’t be the first time. Sometimes niceties had to be preserved even at the cost of one’s reputation. 

Rayuke knew better.

“Zataka…” He rumbled into silence, standing with his feet planted shoulder width apart. His rounded shoulders flexed as he crossed his arms across his chest with the sun catching upon his Rode. “You vengeful harlot.”

“You said your Sons would have no mercy for me, so why am I here?” Deep within a flame long controlled was stoked, fed with the injustice of Her actions. Stoked with the intensity of his determination, his dedication, and his bone deep conviction that everything would happen as it was meant to. Freeing this evil, be she Zataka or an impostor, was his doing. It was meant to be. He had to believe that. That there was a reason, in Zuto Nui’s plan, that she had to prevail just this once. Just as he believed that there had to be a reason that he was spared. 

And in the end, just this once, he was angry. Truly angry. He had learned to control. To temper his anger with compassion and duty, to vent his frustrations into productive pursuits. That his fellow Dasaka were not appropriate targets for the tempers of his youth.

But these were not his fellow Dasaka, and to crush them would be very productive.

“Perhaps… They are not strong enough. A terrible reflection. I am a Son of Zataka, be you she. Surely one of yours must be my equal.”

A low, sibilant hiss came from the dark places around him. The nooks, the crannies, the rubble where once had been beauty. 

“Here… I am. Unarmed. Alone. One that you failed... To kill. Despite the treachery of your gratitude.”

The hiss came again, louder and deeper with the fibrillating undertone of rage. 

“Pathetic.”

Long ago, for Yusanora’s birthday, the Fursics had asked of the Vilda a Rahi. Something big, something powerful, something that could stir a crowd as they had in old. The Vilda knew what would be done. Regretfully they gave to the Fursics the Rahi they asked, and it was raised large and strong. And on the day of the Rora’s birth, as part of the grand spectacle arrayed in the Colosseum to honor her they placed this beast with a single Fursic Menti to goad it into charging. She was permitted no powers, nothing but her wit and her skill. It was barbaric, senseless, and it had filled him with disgust even then. As it had Yusanora, though she had no choice but to applaud the show.

Just as the Fursics had intended, of course. But he remembered the dart, that last jab that provoked the creature at last.

Just as he did.

The first Rahkshi to spring forth slammed into the floor with his pickhammer in its head. The second he bashed against the ground until nothing remained, threw into the fourth, and swung at the fifth. He roared as they shrieked in kind and the battle was joined. With tooth and claw, and staff and Soul, and fist and spirit. Just one he grabbed by the throat, fingers wrapped around its writhing spine, and forced it to meet his gaze with its own.

“Do… Better.”

His voice rumbled like thunder as raw psychic energy wreathed his fingers, melting through its carapace and burning the kraata within to cinders.

Then he turned anew towards his next foe.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

“Move, move, move!”

Why did Dashi have to have such short legs?

I didn’t like it but Rayuke’s distraction worked like a charm for the first half hour or so. Maybe longer. Adrenaline does funny things to time. But for a while we weren’t disturbed. It couldn’t last, but the first assault had been… Gruesome.

A crystalline shard flew from an elevated position, somewhere, and perfectly pierced through the eye of one of my Menti. Then a second. Then a third. We were in a full run, by then, and the fire at my group stopped soon after. Just as the next group entered the monster’s range, I’m sure. The next wasn’t any better. A lightning bolt struck the lead warrior, filling the air with the smell of scorched flesh, and jumped from her to the next and to the next and to the next until one thought quickly enough— or was lucky enough to have it— and triggered her Haunoru to catch the bolt. It hit the focused shield and dissipated, crackling across its surface as it was halted. But the damage was done and there was no time, not at all, to treat the fallen with respect.

It didn’t take long for the pace to become arduous, even for us Dasaka. For the Dashi it was murderous. Keeping pace with us was killing them, and slowing the pace for them was killing us. I growled, unable to contain it, and swatted aside with my mind the next incoming projectile. The Menti with Haus or Haunorus I ordered to the front, to block whatever they could with their very bodies if they had to. And it was working, as far as it went. But this couldn’t last forever. Not with how far we had to go. We had already slowed enough that the other groups, their wards huddled protectively in their middles, were just behind us. Before long we would become encircled. The more they slowed us the longer the creatures had to reach us.

Worse, perhaps, were the Menti that simply were yanked away through solid walls.

Actually, though, I had to laugh. Between the adrenaline, the stress, and the exhaustion it was just too funny.

Huddled inside our group with the Dashi was Inokio, the banished Battlemaster, and he was insensate with rage. His hands were bound, preventing him from doing much himself, but he seemed to have met most of the Menti in our little group at least once. What few he hadn’t, and even some he had, he had very poetic terms for.

“Who in Zataka’s—” Lightning cracked. “—trained you?! Group in tighter! If you’re going to draw fire, be alert for it! If you aren’t drawing fire pick targets and hit them!”

It was almost enough to make my imminent death worth it.

We’d lost almost half our escorts already, and there was no way of telling how many— if any— of the monsters we’d felled. My own breath was starting to come hard, and—

“Umbraline.”

“You there, keep up the pace!”

“Masayoshi.”


A deep breath, as deep as I can with my burning lungs.

“Masa.”

“What?”

“This can’t keep going, Masayoshi, you know it. The pace is untenable. And despite it we’re slowing down. They’ll surround us soon, and there’ll be no way through. We’ll all die.”

“Thank you, Battlemaster of the obvious,” I snapped, a little more harshly than I really meant to. Just because I was hauling him along, because I insisted on keeping my word, doesn’t mean that I’m happy to hear him point out the obvious. “I’m figuring out where to hold them.”

“Anywhere is as good as anywhere with these things, Umbraline. You’re stalling. Looking for another way. Sacrifice a few or kill everyone.”

“I know.” And I’ve known for a while. Nui, I hate it. I hate what this fight has probably already cost. I hate what it has cost good people because their duty requires them to get the Rora out. But he’s right. They’re going to need the defenders to keep pushing, and they won’t matter to me anyway. No one that plays rear guard is getting out alive. Mindarms. Soulswords. Willhammers and Sighteyes won’t do me/i] any good, but if someone can carry a couple Sighteyes they can keep the monsters on their toes. Best to—

“Inokio, stick close to the Dashi. If they get out, you’ll get out. Watch for—”

“Don’t be a moron, Umbraline.” He responded, managing to sound almost insulted. “It will be a cold, cold day before I let a cripple shame me.”

The angry retort was on my lips before the carefully metered sting in his tone struck home. It was a slap in the face, and it was meant to be. He was goading me, flicking my pride to force me to think instead of simply react. The same thing he’d been doing to students— and me— for a long time. 

“We had a deal, Korae. Playing rearguard is just a different death sentence.”

“And I’m rejecting the deal. Exile among the Tajaar may have been acceptable, but among barbarians? Never.” His voice softened, almost immeasurably, but it did. “Masa, my empire is dead. I betrayed it for nothing. I have been stripped, rightfully, of my clan name. My titles. Let me die with it.”


“Don’t force me to live, not like this. Not at this cost. Let me die facing my enemy with weapon in hand like a Battlemaster.”

“And if I don’t trust you?”

The Battlemaster rolled his eyes. I can’t see them, but I can track the way his head tilted, the exasperated breath that went with it. And I could see with ease the way, with a little will, psychophysical energy wrathed his hands and simply burned away his shackles. A pretty clear point, I had to admit. He rubbed his wrists, cracked his neck, and surveyed the group. A true tactician, selecting his tools.

“If I wanted to sabotage you I could do it. You three. And you.” He pointed, rattling off about a dozen names or simply pointing as needed. “You’re going to stay with me. It’s time to show these monsters how a true Dasaka dies.”

“Die well, Battlemaster.”

“Live better,” He said slowing to a stop and allowing the evacuees to pass him by. Turning to face his enemy in defense of an Empire already gone, with warriors at his command. “Masa. Take care of them.”

Nothing left to say after that, for him or for me.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

 

The Docks were never busier, not even when the Ryu was set to sail. Every seaworthy ship was being prepared, every last bit of provisions were being loaded, and of course, Menti kept the peace while evacuees jostled for position. Only one ship was spared that chaos, and that was the Rora’s own vessel.

Not that it was being spared anything else. Despite the size of the crew, and staff, it was meant to accommodate everything that wasn’t essential was being thrown out to make room for supplies and bodies. It was nearly ready to go, and that was the only reason that we had made our move. Defenders had been relaying updates to the Residences from the Docks and vice versa over the days since the evacuation was announced, coordinating when they would make their bid for freedom. And now it was time.

Fewer than half of their original cohorts made it to the Docks. Inokio’s rearguard, for it could be nothing else, drastically slowed the attacks for some time. Gave us time to catch our breath and keep moving into the arms of the Yards’ outer defense. But even so we lost a handful more in the process before we reached the safety of the Yards. Here we could finally catch a rest, though not let down our guard. There were enough fortifications, enough Menti, for us to rest. Me? I hadn’t meant to sleep. Truly. I didn’t think I could, but after the past week…

I was out almost as soon as I sat down, and I did not dream. I only sank into that exhaustion and saw darkness.

When I finally awoke the chaos had died down, and someone had covered me with a blanket. One of the Dashi shook me awake, I can’t truthfully say which one. Without the mental plane I have no easy way to tell them apart. 

“It’s time to board.”

“Right. Yes.” I stretch the weariness from my limbs, grimace at the ache, and rise. “Let’s go.”


“Ah, Miss Masayoshi?” One asks, sounding a touch concerned. “Is it normal in this land for the sun to set so quickly?”


“Pardon?”


“It’s gotten pretty dark.”

It shouldn’t have. Soraya, the one I do know, knows that too. I can ‘see’ her shaking her head nervously. I probably don’t look very reassuring, either, but it should only be a bit after midday. A little cloudy, perhaps, but there was nothing to suggest rain. 

.:Miho? What’s going on?:. I asked the Daikura leader of the Yards’ defense, trying to look unconcerned. .:What’s the situation?:.

.:I’m not sure yet, Lady Masayoshi. We’re seeing it here, too, but there’s no sign of those insects. The horizon looks normal, too.:.

My frown deepened, and that said quite a bit. The past week had thrown a lot of surprises my way specifically, let alone the archipelago. But nothing quite lined up with this. Despite Zataka’s presence we hadn’t seen any unusual darknesses, no unusual weather, nothing to suggest… Something hot landed on my cheek, and almost reflexively I touched it. It gave way easily beneath my finger smearing my cheek with something warm and dry and soft and…

Ashy?

The monsters filled me with adrenaline. A little fear, yes, but only enough to keep me on my toes. Keep me sharp. A little fear is good, it’s Zuto Nui’s way of letting you know you aren’t dead yet.

The bellow that split the heavens did nothing of the sort. It didn’t remind me of my life, or sharpen my mind, it only shouted the imminence of my death and the death of everyone I love. It showered the earth in ash and cinders, startled everyone below into silence and denial. I don’t blame them. Who could have expected this? 

The first pass, the gout of flame hot enough to melt crystal in an instant and reduce bodies to nothingness, claimed a dozen lives and destroyed a supply cabin. A dock went with it, a smaller craft scorched through and left a listing hulk. 

It bellowed again, and I ran. I don’t fear death in defense of the people I care about, or the people I swore to protect. Had Inokio not volunteered myself I would already be gone. But this isn’t something I can fight. This isn’t something anyone can fight. This is something we can only run away from. 

“Get to the ship, get to the ship, get to the ship! Book it midgets!” I snapped, tossing one back onto his crab and hustling the others along. Any slower and I swear to Zuto Nui I’ll just fling them on board. “Get Desdemona, get the Rora, we’re leaving now!”

The mature Kanohi Dragon slammed down upon the Docks, and I’ll never know how many died there. Or how many died in those first swipes of its tail, or snaps of its jaws, or that next breath of flame. Menti, brave as they were, attacked it in droves. Defense of the outer Yards was forgotten. If they didn’t somehow stop this then there would be no point. I hurried up the gangplank, hurried my charges, snapping orders half out of my mind and hoarse with intensity. 

“Infected Kanohi.” One of the Dashi hissed, jabbing a finger at it as I hurried— it would be rude to say shoved— them up the plank. “Look!”

Whatever in the name of ‘Taka’s left cheek that means, I don’t know. But it definitely doesn’t sound good.

“Go, go, go! Talk about it later! Where’s the Rora, where’s the Chojo?”

“The Rora is aboard, the Chojo is coming as fast as she can!”

Umbraline Desdemona, I swear to Zuto Nui, I didn’t go through the process of rescuing you for you to die because you can’t sprint!

“I’ll get her, get the Dashi!”

I snapped, jumping off the plank. I can just[/ii] barely make her out, hurrying towards the ship. I don’t have much of a sprint left in me, so I go for a more direct solution; I grabbed my hapless ward, one of the people Rayuke charged me to protect, telekinetically and yanked her towards me. 

“Weeee can talk about your exercise later, my lady, let’s get you on the ship!” I said as I grabbed her out of the air, only just not throwing her over my shoulders like a particularly unruly feline. “Come on, come on!”

“Masa, we can’t get away if we don’t stop it!”

“Aaaand who’s gonna do that? We have to take our chances!”

The Chojo thought, long and hard, and I felt the world repeat. She slipped a thought into my head, something I neither fought nor consciously understood. But I trusted her intent. As one we shoved off from the ground with our disciplines, attaining a trajectory that carried us clear onto the deck of the ship just as the sailors aboard prepared to give up on us. And just as a breath of flame scorched the earth where we had stood moments before.

“Think I can, Masa.” The Chojo said, and if her voice shook it was also as certain as it had ever been. “I’ve gotta. Get everyone below decks.”

“What are you-”

The psychic shockwave that hit me isn’t something I can describe, not if I used a thousand words and spent a thousand years. It wasn’t simply physical, though there was enough of that. The rush of air as the projection rushed outwards was enough to bowl me over, but my legs had crumpled from the shock already. I think, were I not already, I would have been blinded. The heat alone scorched my face as it passed. I couldn’t perceive it properly, and at first I thought it might have been because of the psychic whammy my brain just took being so close to the eye of the storm.

But it wasn’t. I couldn’t perceive it clearly because its surface was shifting, dripping, and constantly forming itself anew. It was a mass of psychophysical energy the likes of which I have never, not ever in my life, seen and have never heard of. It racked my brain, again and again, being so close. It filled the sky and swept towards the land as the ship set sail as quickly as could be. The Kanohi Dragon roared, beginning to rise into the sky for its prey, before a mass of psychophysical energy in the shape of a massive, winged dragon slammed into it. It didn’t roar, not like its foe, but it bit, and clawed, and the Dragon’s roars of anger quickly turned to pain for nothing it could do would faze it. To bite it or claw it only wounded itself further, and what does fire mean to a projection of psychic plasma? To something that burns all but its creator through mere contact?

I can’t describe it properly because there are no words. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I never will again. The Docks were in ruins, the ships that had been boarded fleeing, but the Kanohi Dragon was gone. Simply gone as if it had never existed. 

The Chojo collapsed, and it was all I could do to catch her. Despite her victory we weren’t out of the woods, not when the monsters could fly. But a cry went up, a shocked announcement, as the captain spotted the Dastana fleet moving in steadily. They were loaded for bear, he said, with decks packed with Dasaka holding stolen staves. 

I wished I could have seen it. And, while I hurried inside with the Chojo in my arms to find a healer, I wished I could see the island that I doubted I ever would again.

Edited by Krayzikk
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On this eve, the thirtieth anniversary of that first colony, many are left to wonder; is the world fast approaching a breaking point?

 

 

  Breaking Point: An OTC Mecha RPG

 

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IC:

For a being previously defined by his mastery of speed and motion, for once the Toa wasn't in a rush.

The last few days had felt like years, and not just for all the walking. His muscles ached from the long trek and he had resolved not to use his Kakama, making sure he felt every bio, every footfall no matter how painful.

He was on a pilgrimage of sorts to the one place on Mata Nui that might bring him some sense of peace and belonging. Kanae Bay, where he naturally gravitated when that need for tranquillity became overwhelming. A place to renew his focus and steel his resolve.

The grasslands gradually gave way to denser and denser jungle as the silver Toa entered Le-Wahi, the crisp afternoon breeze giving way to warm humidity. Passing beneath the village of Le-Koro suspended high above he looked to the sun for direction, oriented himself south-east, and disappeared through the green.

Kios to go before he slept.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

 

"Is this seat taken?"

The voice snapped Zeal out of his head and into reality, his eyes struggling to focus in the dim lights of the tavern, cloistered among the walkways and foliage of Le-Koro. Turning his head towards the voice, before him was a Toa of Air, a tired looking one at that. Not the kind that gets fixed by a good night's rest. There, he resonated with her.

He shook his head with a little smile and the Le-Toa took her seat, gesturing to the barkeep for a cold one. His eyes more in-focus now, Zeal took another glance at the newcomer and saw that she was heavily scarred, almost from head-to-toe. A story in plainer view than most. Curiously, there was a mark-free patch on her upper arm. He minded his business.

For a couple minutes at least, until the newcomer broke the silence again.

"Weren't you in a musical a while back?"

Synapses long-unfired were now ablaze, along with Zeal's cheeks. He laughed a laugh that betrayed deep embarrassment, and a tiny bit of pride.

"You saw that?" Unbelievable. Of all the things to be recognised for on this island, it's the freakin' musical.

The Toa nodded, returning the same slightly embarrassed laugh. "I thought I recognised you, the dashing assassin right?" The barkeep placed a bottle of Salamander's Revenge in front of her, she mouthed a thank you and took a swig. "I won't lie, it needed work in... a lot of areas... but it was genuine. Fun." It was fun. She remembered watching it with her head resting on her best friend's shoulder, felt a pang in her chest. Sharp, but far away now. She'd done her mourning.

"To be honest, I think most of the troupe would agree with you there," Zeal replied with a chuckle, then more earnestly "I'm glad you had fun. Thank you." He thought on his "troupe", the Hau Karda, for a second. How they'd fragmented, how his angst and melodrama had driven away some good mates, how he'd carry that regret for a good while yet. They'd always have the musical though, the traditional pillow fights, the Epic Tea. The good times, even if they weren't together to enjoy them now.

Looking now at the Salamander's in the Toa's scarified hand, he allowed himself a little curiosity. 

"Forgive me for prying, but you don't look the type who comes to a place like the Mighty Muaka for a social drink."

She raised an eyebrow, meeting Zeal's gaze. The same tired look in his eyes. Two can play at that game.

"Perhaps. You don't look the type who comes to a place like the Mighty Muaka for a glass of water unless you've had a bad experience with this stuff," she retorted, gesturing at him with her bottle. A pause, a wry smile. "I suppose we're both the type to dig where we probably shouldn't, though."

Taken aback and honestly a little impressed with her accuracy, Zeal couldn't help but be mildly endeared. "This is beginning to sound an awful lot like a social drink." He raised his glass of water, his new companion's invocation making it somehow more conspicuous.

She shrugged. Couldn't hurt. The Le-Toa raised her bottle as well. The previously sombre atmosphere of the tavern seemed almost friendly.

"Zeal."

"Reaver."

Clink.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

He had not recalled the undergrowth of Le-Wahi's wilds being so thick, borderline unnavigable, and wondered if he was still on the right course. Drawing his Reverse Blade, he began slashing a path deeper into the jungle. At least the Rahi are keeping their distance.

As though to punish his optimism, a horrific buzz rose above the ambiance and closed in on the Toa. He spun around towards the noise and threw himself to the ground just in time to avoid taking a Nui-Rama stinger through the mask. The lone insect ascended high into the tree canopy and hovered there, scouting for its quarry.

The Toa erupted from the brush and thrust his hand out to torch the bug, but caught himself at the last second. If I miss, I incinerate half the Wahi. If I hit, I incinerate half the Wahi.

The Nui-Rama zeroed in on him again, drawing back its stinger.

Run.

He focused, activating his Kanohi for the first time in a long time, picked a direction and allowed himself to be swallowed into the jungle depths. When finally the buzzing was far, far away, he stopped and took inventory of his surroundings. 

Green, lots of green.

Utterly lost.

 

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"So, what's your story?"

The pair conversed late into the night. They bonded over their almost eerily similar tales of their time before Mata Nui, the last survivors of villages razed to the ground by the vile Makuta. Zeal told Reaver about the Le-Matoran he'd travelled with for a time, who called herself Sister. How they'd met when she treated his wounds after the Rahkshi attack on the Koros, though he still bore scars on his left forearm and lost his little and ring fingers on that hand.

He told Reaver of the Mataraka that had robbed him of his Kinetic elemental power, his last link to Ve-Koro, and given him his Fire in return. How they'd near-annihilated the curious little orb trying to crack it open out in the Motara Desert, only for the energy within to reject Zeal; "We were not meant for you. You were never truly one of us."

He eyed the label of Reaver's Salamander's for only a second and could barely stand to look at it. Better keep this part quiet for now.

When Reaver asked to see the Mataraka, the silver Toa gave her only a slight chuckle. "If you can fish it out of the Tren Krom Break you're welcome to it." He shrugged. "Out of sight, out of mind." The only falsehood he'd told all night, to Reaver and himself. He thought on it often, turned the words over in his mind. Surely a trick, a conjuring of whoever created the infernal device. He was a Toa of Kinetics, never been more sure of anything. Yet the doubt had burrowed deep into his core.

Zeal finally got the full rundown on the Mark Bearers he'd only heard of in whispers, learning that Reaver had once worn the Mark of Agony on her untouched shoulder. Among those she had considered kin, Reaver was the poster girl for pain and suffering, and gave herself wholly to the role. Once believing the Mark Bearers supreme on Mata Nui, Reaver fed the Mark again and again as proof of loyalty to her pack, most of all their leader Utu. All she had to show for her fanaticism, her perverse need for validation, were scars and shame.

She recited all this as though it were someone else's story. There was enough distance between Reaver-then and Reaver-now that it may as well have been. It was only when she spoke of Emotia that the cracks began to show, the pain in her heart suddenly very close and real,  her bottom lip quivering as her best friend's name passed over it. The best friend she'd put through Karzahni with worry, rebuked even when she said Reaver was like a sister to her. All the edgy attention-seeking and selfish melodrama and petty jealousy over her marriage to Tillian Juturna.

With Emotia dead, murdered in the most wretched manner, she couldn't take any of it back. Couldn't tell her that she was right, that they were like sisters and that she had loved her just like one. It stung worse than any wound she'd ever carried.

Zeal stared into his drink, parsing everything that Reaver said. Reduced to a pawn in a supernatural plot for ultimate power, defined almost solely by her agony, lashing out in the vain hope that something, someone, would make it all worthwhile. Going through all that, he thought it miraculous she was sitting in the barstool next to him. It would break lesser beings, Zeal thought, counting himself among that number. His mind kept returning to Emotia's gruesome end.

"So your friend, Emotia, got married... pregnant... then eaten?"

"It's so messed up, right?" Said like Zeal had, it sounded almost ridiculous. She laughed a little, if only to keep from crying.

Zeal knew plenty of loss, but not like this. The loss of a home is a horrible thing, something they could both find common ground on. He'd lost companions too, mostly to his own self-importance. But the death of a friend, of family, was out of his league and he knew words wouldn't suffice. All he could do was lay a reassuring hand on the scarred Toa's shoulder, offering her a solemn smile.

Reaver brought her hand up to his, meeting his smile with misty eyes. She hadn't walked into the Mighty Muaka intending to burden a stranger with her story, but she couldn't bring herself to regret it either. Whether it was the drink talking or she just needed to finally burst the dam and let it all flood out, it was a great catharsis, a weight off her shoulders that the silver Toa seemed only too happy to bear.

They sat in silence and gripped each other's hands a little tighter,  a wordless "I'm here."

Suddenly Zeal's features hardened, focusing. Something in the back of his brain had rushed to the forefront at mach speed. In the dim light he hadn't even made the connection, and felt all the more foolish for it.

"Sister was looking for someone. A Toa of Air wearing a Huna... that's you, isn't it?

No sooner had the words left his mouth did Reaver's mind race with the possibility. But she'd seen her fall from their village in the sky, a deadly descent. It couldn't possibly be...

"My sister? Where is she?"

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

He panted and struggled to catch his breath; used to using his Kanohi in quick bursts, he hadn't run that fast or far for some time now.

Looking to the side and through the trees, the Toa saw he was passing close to a clearing in the jungle, and not just any; where he had cried out for help after coming ashore and been answered by Skyra, his first real friend on the island. Back before Mata Nui settled into its rhythm, when things seemed so chaotic, a steadfast comrade was one of the most valuable things one could have.

He regretted how the two had drifted apart, how he'd reacted so childishly to Skyra's rebirth in another body, an immaturity that frustrated him as he stared at the ceiling in the small hours. Still he hope she was well, and that the Great Spirit would afford him the chance to reconcile with her, let her know that he still thought of her as a friend no matter what.

He took the clearing as a good omen; it meant he was on the right track. His breathing steadied, he allowed himself the faintest smile out towards it, and started off again.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

 

"You're not coming with me?"

There was a chill in the night breeze once the barkeep finally kicked the two out and closed up. With Reaver beginning to sway on her feet, Zeal had set her up at his former-favoured digs, the Top of the Tree Inn. Though Zeal himself was still banned for attempting to race a particularly hyperactive Lesterin through its lobby, they had no problem taking his widgets to give Reaver somewhere to stay.

Zeal swallowed. Time to fill in the gaps. "When I saw her last, we were trying to find my..." he held his breath for a moment, finally exhaling the word "...friend. But after the Mataraka, I wasn't in a good way. Self-destructing. When we caught up to her in Po-Koro, I wasn't... I was a mess. Kai'lan kicked me out of the village and had me leave without Sister." A little laugh, laced with bitterness. "That's why I go to the Muaka for their water."

"Well, you don't drink any more, right? Kai'lan should know! I can see my sister again, you can see your girlfriend again! Double reunion, woo!" While Reaver had only good intentions, tonight they were filtered through enough drink to stun an Ash Bear.

Zeal winced at "girlfriend," already tense from letting himself be so vulnerable about such a sticking point. "Look, I don't know if Sister's still in Po-Koro. I don't even know if Sister's your sister! If I'm right, and I hope for your sake I am, then I wish you two long and happy lives together." He caught himself, drained the acid from his tone. "I'm sorry, but Kai'lan was very clear. Count me out."

He hated saying that. He'd have loved nothing more than to ride Aki-Nui along the Path of Prophecies once more. But he knew Kai'lan and even Sister were right not to trust him. The apothecary saw how he was imploding, how his self-destruction could translate to actual destruction. Through a sober lens he saw she had made the right call, loath as he was to admit it.

Zeal saw the disappointment cross Reaver's face and she felt it; she felt for him, and truly couldn't sense any trace of the self-loathing reckless drunk he claimed to have been. The scarred Toa leaned back against her room's door, resigning herself to disappointment and looking to Zeal with a cocktail of clarity, sympathy and gratitude in her stark yellow eyes.

"Thanks for being a friend tonight, Zeal. Don't think I realised how much I needed one."

Caught a little off-guard, it took some seconds for the words to sink in. Once they had, Zeal realised he didn't know how much he needed one either.

He raised a hand to pat her shoulder awkwardly. "Likewise. And I hope you find your sister, Reaver." The silver Toa turned to leave, and heard his one-night friend's door open as he reached the stairs.

A second passed. A die was cast.

Karz it.

Activating his Kakama, Zeal zipped back to the room, jamming his foot in the door just before it closed. Reaver peered through the gap, confused and by no fault of the booze coursing through her bloodstream.

"Tomorrow morning, down at the stables. I have a mount that'll take us all the way to Po-Wahi."

He could see Reaver processing what she said in real time as a grin began slowly spreading across her face. A gentle breeze followed her as she exploded her out of her room and towards Zeal in what could only be described as an attack hug. Once the stun wore off, the silver Toa laughed and returned the gesture. He'd sorely missed hugs.

But it was time to go, the innkeeper yelling up the staircase about Kanohi use indoors and threatening to extend Zeal's ban. Sharing a promise to meet in the morning, the silver Toa was quickly out among Le-Koro's catwalks and gangways again.

It was almost certainly a terrible idea, but it was better than the no-idea he'd been languishing in for what seemed years now. If Reaver was the right Toa, two sisters may finally be reunited. That made it worth the gamble.

He wondered if she'd remember their agreement. She had drank a lot that night.

Come morning and Zeal reached the stable just in time to see a Le-Toa frozen in the gaze of a snorting Kane-Ra. He focused, his Kakama glowing dimly as he dashed over to the pen, flinging the gate wide open before the bull could smash it to splinters. Standing between the two beings, he raised a hand to the Kane-Ra.

"Whoa Aki, whoa. She's a friend, friendly." He slowly approached his steed, looking back to Reaver and gesturing with his head to follow. The silver Toa swung a leg over the saddle, gently rubbing the Rahi's flank. "This is Reaver, friendly friend Reaver, yeah?"

The Kane-Ra, smarter than he looked, made a happy noise and dropped his head in deference to his rider's new buddy. Silver Friend new friend!

Reaver hadn't realised how tense she'd been until she dropped her shoulders with a nervous chuckle, and at Zeal's urging placed a hand on Aki-Nui's nose, before joining him on the bull's back.

It would be the first time in a long time Zeal had left Le-Wahi.

Days and nights of arduous travel passed, but only as the sun set and they rode up the Path of Prophecies into Po-Koro did the gravity of Zeal's choice begin to dawn on him. Though the memory came to him through a haze of drink and bad decisions, Kai'lan's rancour was crystal-clear. He shook the image free and focused on the road ahead. They'd come this far. No going back.

No sooner had he slowed Aki-Nui outside the apothecary's hut did Reaver leap off, sprinting for the door. Zeal hoped they could approach with more tact, but it was out of his hands now.

Reaver pounded on the door like an excited child. She knew there was a chance the Le-Matoran Zeal described wasn't the one she hoped she'd be, and tried desperately to push the creeping doubt back down.

"Coming!" came a little voice, the apothecary's assistant, from inside.

It's her.

It's her it's her it's her.

Reaver's last ember of doubt was snuffed by the door creaking open. She knew the instant she saw the Le-Matoran's Rau, and couldn't help but well up. It had felt like æons and she swore death's icy grip had seized her away. But there stood her twin sister, seemingly unchanged by the years.

The scars and gashes in the Toa's armour were enough that the moment wasn't as instant for the Matoran. The seconds crawled like hours, but finally the widget dropped. She too felt tears sting at her eyes.

"Xanev?"

She gave up blinking back the tears, letting them run down her face like Ga-Wahi rivulets. She could only nod, speechless, grinning like an idiot.

Sister looked Xanev from toe to head, the wounds rent in her sister conjuring all manner of unpleasantries in her mind. A whirlwind of shock, elation and worry spun behind her mask.

"I thought you were... what happened?"

Her grin held steadfast and the tears kept flowing. "Zanev, I... it's a long-"

Another figure appeared in the doorway, an unfamiliar blue-and-white Toa wearing a Calix, and shuffled Zanev behind her. The Le-Toa's ragged appearance made her wary. "Who are you, thumping at my door like a hooligan?"

All at once the unbridled joy, the delight of having years and years to make up for, drained from Xanev's being as she felt who stood before her. There was no mistaking the feeling from years long past and almost forgotten, the terrible presence, the dread that rolled through the ruins like so much smoke and clung to her soul. She reached for her dagger and held it tightly. Rage bubbled up and boiled over.

"You can see we're closed for the evening, you'll have to come back-" Kai'lan stopped as her focus shifted past Xanev's face and to the silver Toa behind her, who was doing his best to become invisible.

"You-!"

"YOU!"

Driven forward by a powerful gust of wind, Xanev exploded through the doorway and seized Kai'lan by the collar, bowling her sister over as they went. She pressed the apothecary's back to the wall and the dagger to her throat.

"Murderer! Defiler! Makutaspawn!" Xanev spat, a ferocity that she hadn't felt since she bore the Mark of Agony taking hold of her. She screamed in Kai'lan's face, ready as she'd ever been to spill another's blood. A firm silver hand clamped down on her arm.

"Reaver, stop!" In only the blink of an eye did the tone of their meeting shift from jubilance to barbarism and though Zeal's grip was unyielding, the rest of his body shook violently, panicked out of his skull. He tightened his grasp on Xanev's arm. "This is Kai'lan, this is my friend! What are you doing?!"

"It was her! She felled my village, she burned them all! It was her!" Tears streamed down Xanev's cheeks, snarling teeth bared, straining against Zeal's grip to take the apothecary's life. "What are you doing with my sister?!"

Kai'lan made no attempt to resist, troublingly serene in the face of her own personal reaper. She welcomed the knife at her neck, surprised it hadn't come sooner. She met Xanev's fury with tired eyes.

"I only gave the word." Again she looked past Xanev to Zeal. She was so tired.

"He burned them."

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

He stood at the edge of the jungle. He could see the sand through the treeline and hear the gentle rushing of the tide. He held his hand out and saw how it shook. It spread through his body and made his knees want to collapse. Oh how he wanted to collapse, curl into a ball and be swallowed by the undergrowth. It never would have been so easy, of course it wouldn't. He couldn't just take a trip to the beach and return absolved of his sins long past.

He turned his hand over, lit a spark in his palm. It would be so easy to drop it, perish along with the jungle. He'd already summoned so many firestorms, one more would only be fitting. But he perished the thought, extinguished the spark with a shake of his hand. Still his chest tightened, his heart pounding in his ears, his breathing quick and shallow.

He looked again through the treeline, to the waters that had brought him here. Gritted his teeth.  Crossed the threshold.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

 

"You... you killed them?"

The dagger clattered to the floor and Xanev faced her friend, her foe, her she-didn't-know-any-more. She bore into his soul with surety and accusation and venom.

"You killed them."

Zeal's heart sank down to Karzahni. He froze like Xanev had in the Le-Koro stables, faced with a wild Rahi. He barely mustered the tiniest "I-I don't know what-" before Xanev loosed another feral scream and drove her trembling fist hard into Zeal's temple. His legs crumpled and he saw stars.

The scarred Toa went to throw another punch into the dazed Zeal's head, but felt the palm on the back of her skull for only a second before she was racked with pain, her muscles seizing beneath her armour as Kai'lan's current ran through them. Xanev dropped to the ground, convulsing.

Stunned by her sister's sudden savagery, Zanev finally managed to pick herself off the ground, slowly as though surrounded by vicious Sand Tarakava. She stumbled over to her long-lost twin, who continued to spasm on the floor, powerless to help. The Matoran looked to her long-time travelling companion, who struggled to keep his grip on consciousness. She began to hyperventilate. A voice called to her, distant though it was right beside her.

"Sister. Sister, focus. I need you here, okay? Sister."

Breathe, breathe. Kai'lan's words became clearer, the hut coming back into focus. She gulped and nodded. "Wh... what do you need me to do?"

Zeal's head throbbed with pain and he wondered if he had concussion. Beside him Xanev had regained control of her body, though not before her arms had been roped up at her sides. At her other side sat Zanev, the diminutive Matoran's eyes fixed on her sister. The three occupied a waiting bench. Kai'lan sitting across the room from them, hunched over and looking down at her clasped hands.

"I owe all of you an apology. I know it's not nearly enough but it's all I can do now." The Vo-Toa raised her head but couldn't quite bring herself to look any of them in the eye. An uncomfortable, viscous silence filled the room.

Zanev's guilt was immense, Kai'lan having directed her to tie her sister up not five minutes after seeing her for the first time in long, lonely years. She reached for Xanev's hand, slid her fingers between her twin's.

The Le-Toa's lips curled almost infinitesimally upwards. She finally returned the Matoran's  loving gaze, and they gripped each other's hands a little tighter. A wordless "I'm here."

"How about an explanation?" Zeal tried to sound brave, authoritative as a Toa should be. But his voice barely rose above a quavering, croaking whisper. For hardly the first time in his life, he was lost and afraid.

Kai'lan's eyes swept the trio. It was to be a long and painful night for them all.

 

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

 

In the time before time, in far off lands, a great terror crawled from the shadows. A ruthless Alchemist, learned in the sciences and skilled in her manipulation of them, extending far beyond her intrinsic command of Lightning and Thunder. She took great delight in her dominion over, her perversion of, all forces natural and synthetic; without remorse in her demonstration of such terrible might. Where she walked, only ruin followed in her wake.

Except for one curiosity. A Toa of Fire whose own village fell before the Alchemist; wiped from the face of the world with such efficiency, such calculated cruelty, that once his grief and lust for vengeance subsided he could not help but be impressed. He sought the Alchemist, following her trail of devastation, and offered her his fire.

The destruction the pair wrought was legendary, and the Ta-Toa's inferno became their calling card. Once the Alchemist was satisfied with her experimentation, whatever eldritch agent or infernal device she had constructed to spit in the face of Mata Nui's creation, her new assistant would raze it all to the ground until nought but ash remained.

An Air village held aloft in the sky by the energy of their Toa ancestors, brought crashing cataclysmically down by the shattering of their Stones. Lost and separated among once-glorious stonework and acrid smoke, a pair of twins mourned each other. The frightened sisters looked into the flames and caught a glimpse of the Alchemist, sensed on a primal level all her darkness and depravity, and could not fathom it belonging to anyone but the Makuta himself.

The last village of Kinetics, hidden away in deep forest, in the most remote of lands.

It was here that the Alchemist deployed her most insidious creation; a small silver sphere, smaller than a Madu fruit. But if one knew exactly the right points to touch on its flawless surface, and aimed it in just the right way, the orb could strip away the very essence of anyone caught in its terrible sight, as though tearing meat from the bone.

A thief of spirits. The Mataraka.

In the Alchemist's palm lay the last energies of Ve-Koro, and its people were powerless to stop her fiendish lieutenant as he burned and burned and burned. Every hut, every being, all reduced to cinders.

But the Alchemist had grown tired of her loyal destructor, bored with his unceasingly simple methods. He would make a fine test subject. And as the flames rose high above the treetops and the smoke blotted out the sun, she had aimed the Mataraka at the Toa of Fire and opened it once more.

What flooded from that device and into his being that day were not only the elemental powers of Kinetics, control over the motion of all things, but all the villagers had felt as their will was ripped from their bodies. Their terror, their sorrow, their torment. The last remnants of a civilisation swirled in his skull, their jumbled memories and emotions threatening to tear it apart.

The new Toa of Kinetics, his silvered armour gleaming like mercury, sunk to his knees amidst the burning ruins. The frightened Toa looked into the flames and caught a glimpse of the Alchemist, sensed on a primal level all her darkness and depravity, and could not fathom it belonging to anyone but the Makuta himself.

The name Zealokan, one of the many villagers, cried out from the maelstrom of his mind and he seized it and it was his own. Another name, Payiges, a lover buried in rubble. He grieved for her though she had died by his hand, affixing to her the image of the Toa of Lightning that gave the command.

The memories of centuries, of a people powerful and humble, stamped out like a colony of insects.

He clung to them and wept, for he had nothing else.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

"..."

Silence settled over Kai'lan's practice as she finished. None dared to move. No one could tell if seconds or hours were passing.

Finally Zeal held his hand out and conjured a small flame, a tiny match-light flickering in his palm. A Toa of Fire, as he had been from the very start.

"We were not meant for you. You were never truly one of us."

He extinguished the spark, almost ashamed that he had dared to summon it. An arsonist. A terrorist. A killer. He watched how his hand began to shake.

Beside him the sisters were frozen, guarded from the apothecary across from them. They held her gaze and she held theirs, neither willing to move or speak first.

"Then... what about you?"

Zeal's question cut through the silence, again a whisper but loud enough to make everyone jump. After a moment's consideration, Kai'lan answered.

"I was caught. I don't know how, I don't know who. But they had toys beyond even the Alchemist's ability to create. Managed to...  I don't know, suppress her, her memories and persona. Packed me in a canister and fired me into the side of a mountain in Ko-Wahi." She turned to Zeal, and when he look into her eyes he saw nothing but tenderness looking back.

"When you found me there, I was scared. When you called me that name, Payiges, I accepted it because maybe it meant not being alone." She managed a tiny smile. "And I loved our time together, Zealokan. I only wish we'd had more."

She broke eye contact and stared at her hands again. "The lightning bursts, the loss of control, I guess were the Alchemist trying to seize it again. When we fought that Hordika-thing and I copped some Shadow from its Rhotuka, it must've... resonated with her, made her stronger. Her memories started becoming mine, and I had to fight hard to keep her down."

Her features hardening, Kai'lan stood and looked between the three of them again. "She's gone, I promise you all that much. Nothing left of her in this Karzed-up head but ghost stories and some potion recipes."

The apothecary strode across the room towards the trio, towards Xanev in particular. She plucked a dagger from the scarred Toa's belt, turned it over in her hand and studied the blade, a nicked and jagged reflection of its owner. She turned it towards Xanev, and for the briefest moment fear filled the Le-Toa's heart before she grabbed the rope, cutting her arms free of their bonds.

Kai'lan began to struggle through tears, fighting them back with all the courage she could muster. Her voice came out quivering as she addressed the sisters. "I can't bring your home back. I can't give you the time you lost together." The Toa of Lightning turned to her former lieutenant, her former lover. "And I can't take back what I did to you. You have an entire village pulling your head every which way but you deserve a life all of your own."

The facade broke for the merest of moments and Kai'lan let out a cry of grief for all who succumbed to her cruelty. "There's so many more I can't even begin to apologise to..." She closed her eyes, inhaled, exhaled, opened her eyes. She flipped the dagger and caught it by its blade, the hilt towards Xanev, the tip aimed at her heartlight.

"If it would bring you even the barest of comforts to know the one responsible for every scar you wear is in a shallow grave out in the Motara..."

Xanev peered through Kai'lan's mask to her misty eyes and saw the terrible burden that thundered behind them. She looked to Zanev and her sister looked to her, and she looked to Zeal and her friend looked to her, and they showed her all she needed to see.

She gripped the hilt tightly.

 

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

 

Breaking the treeline and staggering out onto the beach was like coming up for air, like seeing starlight after so long in the dark. And there were stars, twinkling in their millions from the night's canopy. The Toa fell to his knees and took deep gasping breaths, filling his lungs with salty sea air. 

He had not expected to see his hands, his armour, gradually turning red; the final exhalation from his soul of that to which he had clung for so long, that which was never his to cling to. The final acceptance of his true element.

After a time he rose to his red feet, looking out over the Endless Ocean.

Inhale. Exhale.

Home.

The Toa of Fire started towards the waves with measured steps. Knowing what he knew now, Kanae Bay was the closest thing he had to a birthplace. But his birth had been imperfect, a child clinging to the viscera of a people he'd never earned a place among.

He dropped his Reverse Blade, the razor-sharp tonfa's protosteel making a dull thud as it hit the sand and he kept moving. He unstrapped his widget pouch and his ration pack and his canteen and let them drop to the sand too. The water lapped at his toes and he removed his Kanohi and felt the dizziness hit him immediately, looking down at the Kakama and tracing his fingers over its fine edges. He knelt down and placed the mask in the sand, facing towards the ocean.

Standing up against a surge of weakness, the Toa waded into the water with waves breaking against his body. Deeper, deeper, up to his neck. He took a breath and let his legs drop out from beneath him, immersing himself fully. The Toa of Fire was entirely at home in these waters.

He thought of the name Zealokan and it wasn't his any more and it never was and he released it to be taken away by the ocean currents. He thought of the Payiges, the Kai'lan he had selfishly claimed and released them both too. He let the memories of Ve-Koro flow from his mind like water and they mingled in the water and became one with the world where they had always belonged.

The Toa's lungs burned for air and he surfaced, breathing deeply of the world, nameless and naked and new and entirely himself. He floated on his back, looking up at the million twinkling stars. When he returned to land he didn't know what he would choose to be or what name he would choose for himself or if he would choose to return to land. Such things seemed trivial. 

He was here. He was now. That was enough.

His eyelids grew heavy and he did not fight it.

Darkness. And the gentle bobbing of the waves.

Edited by Zeal
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the Necromancer. 

 

His ambitions had never been, his allegiances had been only to himself. But in a world after the Makuta’s downfall he had been invaluable. His was a name, a presence, a face to which the island ascribed a certain fear. Without that reputation rallying the disparate remnants of Makuta’s followers would have been nearly impossible. It had been a tremendous commitment of resources to siege, and take, Ko-Koro. Holding it forever had always been unlikely, the need to retreat always a possibility but this…

 

His foibles had ruined them and he wasn’t even around to take the blame he so rightly deserved. Perhaps the megalomaniac had finally gotten himself killed. 

 

Eisen began to laugh and choked the sound off as quickly as possible, the stabbing pain in his ribs a pointed reminder of why he was breathing shallowly. Agrone would fix his injuries easily but not until they stopped moving and there was no time for that yet. Karnak, Rorg, and Agrona had all been in Ko and all three were alive. At least the last that he had seen them. Agrona accompanied him now and he was reminded that the affair had not been a total loss; Oreius Maru had been gravely injured, and now the witch had his Kanohi. A small victory, perhaps. But a victory nonetheless. 

 

And something had changed. He could no more describe it than he could turn back time to stop Echelon’s more disastrous decisions but he could feel it. There was an energy in the air, a feeling in the ground beneath his feet that whispered of a victory greater than his present defeat. Makuta would rise again, given time. Eisen believed that before all else. And maybe he’d been right.

 

“Watch ahead of us, Agrona,” He said roughly around an interesting contusion in his neck. “I’ll watch behind. They won’t find us yet, but we can’t be followed back.”

 

There was nothing else for her to say. The droplets of blood Eisen was leaving with every limping step may have made for a trail to follow, but never one that would be picked out amidst the crimson already shed in the village. And before long the snow would be covered afresh.

 

No one was too keen to venture into the Darkwalk either way.

 

____________________________________________________________________________


 

Sergeant Kan, Ta-Koro Guard, surveyed the village with a certain grim satisfaction. This hadn’t been the most exciting duty he’d ever pulled; training the local forces up in this barren wasteland was pretty unpleasant, all things considered. Though the excitement had shot up pretty significantly when Ko-Koro fell and the refugees started pouring into Ihu-Koro. And when the counterattack began he’d been part of the only detachment of the Guard close enough to assist in capitalizing. 

 

And capitalize they had. The Highlanders had taken the lead. He’d called it their final exam, something the lot of them seemed to find pretty funny. They hadn’t ignored the advice of their teachers, though; nor had they gone into battle without asking if they’d be willing to help even the odds a bit. A Ta-Koronan training detachment wasn’t very large but theirs was yet the best trained military on the island; the same reason the Highlanders had wanted a crash course in the first place. So he’d liberally reinterpreted the letter of their orders to support the spirit his Akiri would’ve wanted; go help bash the bad guys’ brains in.


They were pretty well bashed, Kan had to admit. The Maru, what looked suspiciously like some former ILF folks, an eclectic assortment of guardsman, and a solid chunk of the Gukko Force had come down on the Village of Ice like Mata Nui’s own fist. Buildings were trashed, though it was hard to tell which had fallen in which siege. Someone had blown the gate down on their way out (or in) and Nui only knew how long it would take to flush out all the rats that might be hiding out in the Koro’s limits. But the brunt, that weren’t dead or maimed, were in full retreat. Their little haven had been retaken and they knew it.

 

Not bad for a day’s work. But it’d probably be a good idea to arrange for his detachment to stay in Ihu-Koro a little longer, keep an eye on how this panned out.

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fK5oqYf.jpg

 

On this eve, the thirtieth anniversary of that first colony, many are left to wonder; is the world fast approaching a breaking point?

 

 

  Breaking Point: An OTC Mecha RPG

 

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IC Yumiwa Umbraline & Inokio Korae | Sado

Answers... were not quite what awaited me on the other side of that door. I remember swallowing loudly as I stepped through the door into the dim light of the next room over in the apartment. I remember tightly shut blinds, candles burning at the end of their wicks, and the soft scent of wafting incense, and at the center of the floor was the cross-legged shape of the man who my family had once entrusted their entire legacy. 

Inokio, for that was all he was by then after being stripped of his titles and clan name, seemed serene as he always had in my presence. It took me several long seconds—time had lost its meaning—before I realized his eyes had been open and stared expectantly at me as I stood still by the door. His bright teal eyes patiently waited for my acknowledgement, and for however long as it had been it was as if neither of us were in each other's presence yet. The forceful emotional aura I'd sensed from before struck me like a herd of soko suddenly: Shame, withdrawal, reticence, signature sensations of Inokio's but magnified by his present situation. He knew his life was forfeit, but while that recognition bolstered those dauntless men, there was no boldness in him thence.

"Hello, Inokio," I said at last, finally legitimizing his presence before me, and his eyes, the brightest illumination in the room by far, squinted fractionally as he sighed sadly. 

"Yumiwa," he breathed in another exhale. 

I turned on my heel slowly and paced in front of him for a few moments as I tried to think of the things to say. Finally, I broke the fresh silence. I started, "All my life I was told that I could trust you. My family, my mother, all believed you were the single sharpest blade in the armory and the standard on which all other swords were to be measured against, but never equalled to. And yet, I have heard there is proof that all those years of loyalty... were a facade." I stopped and looked at him sternly, but the man did not squirm or beg. He was ashamed but still proud. 

He gave no reply; I'd given no question.

"You once slew a saihoko in the Markets in order to prove a point that the mere act of disrespecting royalty was a capital offense. Disloyalty to the Crown was punishable by death. I did not take that lesson to heart when the Dastana seceded to form their federation, and perhaps things had gone differently had I reacted more sternly than I had, but I had still hoped for a peaceful future so that we could mourn the loss of my mother with rivers of tears instead of blood. But time is a cruel teacher, and I see the world differently than before, I see the wisdom in straightforwardness and the constellations in the nighttime sky. So answer me this, then, Inokio—counsel me this one last time, teacher—what should I do to you for your treason?"

His voice, soft as silk's whisper, came without hesitation. "You should kill me."

It startled me how unshakable his resolve was. This was a man who knew very well the crimes he'd committed and fully embraced his fate, whatever it would be, and had knowingly done his deeds well embracing the possibility of failure and punishment. I wanted to stare at him for hours on end, fascinated by the spirit of this man I considered an honorable stand-in for my father, yet fought that impulse with one to look away in scorn and disgust.

"Join me on the floor, Yumiwa, please," he asked, and once I did so he began to speak further. "Time is the cruelest of teachers, indeed. Retrospect is a... terrifying drug. But, truly, even knowing all that I know now and having seeing all that I've seen, if I were given the chance to redo all the past, I would do it all again."

"But why?"

"Because all paths could only lead to one result: The forging of a future... as I knew it needed to be. Whether that came from my hands directly and the power I'd wield, or by my mind and the tempering of a regnant like you, the future was for me to craft. I have had no delusions that I could truly rest in the world I strive to create, but no price is too high to pay for a prize like that. What I did, I did, and my fate would be the same so why would I do differently?"

It was a slap in my face and a pat on my back. Inokio was good at these things, the backhanded compliments that somehow left you both furious and placated, but beyond that deception was an honesty that defied belief. Inokio was speaking truly enough, his truth, and there was no use arguing with him. I hadn't come to argue, anyway. I'd come to understand and, to another degree, mete out judgement. 

"Yeah... well... about that. The future is not what you wanted it to be," I said at last. "The Empire is under siege by power we cannot match. A darkness came out of the Volcano's depths and has begun to attack everything that lies before it with brutal and sorcerous efficiency. I have ordered the mass evacuation of all Dasaka, Tajaar, and Dastana to Mata Nui as a result."

"A 'darkness?'" Inokio said, his eyes widening with alarm. He had not known of this development. 

"Not Zataka," I quickly added. "Zuto Nui told me so Herself. This is not the sort of darkness you are child of, but—"

"Zuto Nui spoke to you?" Inokio blurted in interruption, a misstep I allowed given the context but still frowned at. I nodded a silent yes. I could see his mind whirring as he thought of all manner of questions to follow up with to satisfy a hundred curiosities and concerns, but in the end he focused his razor-edged eyes back on me and smiled broadly in beaming pride. "Then the future still rests in your hands."

"Maybe," I said. "I hope to steer us return and fight back another day, but for now, we flee. That includes you, Inokio. I strip you of your ranks of Menti and Battlemaster, you are a Korae son no longer, but I will not sentence you to death here. You chose your fate long ago in the pursuit of Power and Order, now you will suffer with the rest of us into tomorrow's chaotic future."

 

— 

 

Spoiler

 

I wanted to stay as long as we could. My war council was small and mostly focused on delaying the inevitable, buying time for our scholars to gather what we could in books and storage crystals to preserve our culture wherever we went. Dashi and Datsue were being ushered to the Docks first regardless of their castes and clans specifically by my directive—we were saving the Dasaka culture, all of it, not just the more privileged among us—while all available Menti were used for defense and policing. Order was not being sacrificed, we had to work in unison; all this while the reports were growing more dour by the hour. These mechanical lizard people were seizing the islands with breakneck speed, unconcerned with orderliness like we were and rampant with chaotic exuberance. Our meager batteries were falling and the tactics we learned were ineffective against this new foe. Our wars were elegant affairs of glistening battleships and dancing duels, making us a soft target for this not-Zataka and her soldiers. Finally, the dial struck the end of its cycle and it was time to go; the walls of Sado had been breached and we were left with no other options.

My handmaiden Zafin had been sent ahead of me to ready my yacht, while the other family members—Desde and Uncle Ray—were already being taken to their evacuation points. We'd decided to split apart to keep at least one of us alive but I had no delusions my uncle was planning to leave Sado. I wished I could have said goodbye to him one last time, but before I could entertain my regrets any more Clan Hogo guards guided me out of the Palace's towers for what we all presumed to be the last time and we fled into the now-dimmed streets with brave faces but no optimism. We were beset by the foul things almost immediately. 

The fighting was brief but intense whenever it happened. Each time one guard fell another took its place in my perimeter, but it still dwindled. Struggle was rampant about us constantly, and the screeches of pain and anger from the enemy's writhing faces echoed through the narrow causeways like a great wailing. Strange powers filled the battlefield—red beams of destructive light that scorched all they touched—spires that towered for generations were falling like castles of sand—and one retainer was turned to dust right before me. All the while, they still kept their tight wedge formation and shielded me from harm with their very souls while the captain yelled commands constantly. It continued like this for what seemed like forever. I could not look back no matter how much I tried, too afraid that it would be my last sighting of Sado and that I would only remember the destruction and death in our wake. 

When we emerged from the complexes' streets and into the relatively open and secure Yards on our march to the sea we hoped to breathe a sigh of relief, but there was none. No reinforcements awaited us, no further assistance was being given; the Menti had stood as long as they could before being withered back to the Docks. We bolted as fast as we could, hoping our legs could carry us fast enough before the enemy caught on to us. They were unceremonious and unselective, attacking Menti regardless of station and rank, so to them we were just more Menti to be slaughtered without any prioritization which was, I realized, our only advantage: I was not important to them for merely being me. 

But then we were caught in a trap just as the Docks and my yacht's tall mast came into view. Crystal shards flew in all directions and more retainers fell in quick succession as enemies seemed to emerge from nothingness and slaughter them with their screeches. And instinctively, I drew my rapier for combat for the first time. I'd never used it to kill before—I'd simply never had to. There were always retainers who delivered justice and protection for me, and the duels I'd partaken in were always either on the playmats or in my head. My sword was a scepter and bauble, no more a part of me than my tunic, hardly a weapon of death, but circumstances had changed and I was being conscripted to my own salvation.

"Your Majesty!" the commander gasped, horrified by the idea of his Rora forced to defend herself as a failure of her part, but I paid no heed to her honorable complaint and my sword, delicate as it was, hovered from my gentle hand and floated in the air by my lazy Mindarm focus.

"You evil... slug... sausage casings... die!!!" The small sword ripped through the air like an arrow, cleanly piercing through the first enemy's face like a needle in a pincushion before it quickly extricated itself and performed the same lobotomy upon the other enemy. They screeched again and then collapsed lifelessly. With my mind I picked their staves from the ground and flung them like javelins at another distant enemy, missing with the first strike but landing with the second, and with a rousing cry our shrinking retinue forged again ahead, but we didn't get much farther before we met our last obstacle.

Smoke and rubble lay everywhere around us as a final line of defense had just fallen as we arrived. Enemies of all kinds prowled just around the corner in every direction and my retinue had shrunk to a tenth it was when we left the palace's halls. The situation was dire, yet we felt we had no choice but to move on as our time grew short. Already the wailings of the enemies that hounded our tails were near again, but just as we cringed in preparation of our final push we heard barks of pain as those wailings were hushed suddenly. Cautiously, we turned the corner to find whatever had happened, and I gasped in surprise.

.:Inokio:.

 

 

.:You did say today would be chaotic, Majesty, but this is some chaotic unko.:.

The branded battlemaster who was Battlemaster in ability alone stood up straight with pride as he tossed the enemy's staff aside lazily. His hands were unencumbered by shackles after he unceremoniously melted them, but there were sores on his wrists from where they had been. In his other hand was a simple tantō, a toy-sized weapon compared to his normal tool but as lethal as any nodachi in the esteemed duelist's possession. Every step he moved was purposeful and each breath he took was measured, and for all the destruction around him he looked as placid as the Gardens in full bloom. His teal linen robes, once ornate and embroidered, swung loosely at his sides like it was a half-donned dressing gown she he was caught just waking up. The telltale nervous tapping was gone and that dastardly scoundrel smile was on his face. This was Inokio at his best in the middle of the worst.

The Hogo retainers paid him no heed, meanwhile. They knew what he had done and of his status as a traitor, but they knew better than almost anyone that Inokio was more than able to carve them like a cake if he cared to and there were far worse foes to keep tabs on than the disgraced First Son. For all their disdain for him, they were gladdened to see him again one last time. 

"There's no use taking the low paths. Take the high pier, to the left. That's where I came from and there aren't any of these things to catch you there. They are fast, though, so they'll be upon you sooner rather than later if you don't keep moving." His words sounded like suggestions from a friendly neighborhood spook but carried the force of law in practice, the same way he carried himself when he was commander of the Rora's guard.

"Come with me," the empress pleaded, but Inokio shook his head once as he cleaned the blood from his knife. 

"I can't. You know that, Yumiwa. I can't live in the world you will make for the Dasaka. This is my birthright and my fate, the chaos of battle and cinder of war are my poetry." He laughed, throwing his head back in a great jolly guffaw as though he recalled some great kneslapper told among the soldiers at peacetime night watch. "I was made for war. I have been looking forward to this for a very looooong time. No, I am not going with you to Mata Nui, but let me die here on Kentoku with my past. Little Yumi, let me suffer by protecting you... one... last time... Now go."

"Majesty, we have to go now."

The empress stared back at Inokio and met his gaze with equal force. She wanted to forgive him and for a fleeting moment she thought she just might if it meant keeping the scholar warrior with her through one last chapter of life, but before she could express any sentiment and ruin his own salvation he cut it short and turned his back on her. He walked into the darkness of the smokescreen across the Yards and into the oncoming rush of enemies who's beady red eyes seemed to flood from every direction behind them. The last thing Rora Yumiwa saw of her greatest champion (and villain) was his tall silhouette standing proudly, and then a bright beam appearing in his hand as his psychophysical nodachi ignited far above his head in a skyward guard. 

The enemies never did catch up to them. They could hear the sound of fighting at their backs, though, and with it came the unadulterated howling hysterics of a man of war who was finally at peace.

 

 

The Tactical Panda II carried Yumiwa and Zafin Umbraline and their meager retinue out of the Docks with incredible swiftness. Theirs was one of the final boats to cast off, yet the speedy yacht quickly surged to join the flagship Yukanna at the core of the fleeing convoy. In the background was Sado, the jewel of Kentoku now dulled to a smoky dark luster. As the reports of casualties and tally of survivors came in to her one by one, the mournful empress did not know what would become of her people, but she hoped that it would be a future worth living. 

Edited by EmperorWhenua
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