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This article was written by Toa Roden. Please do not add to it without the writer's permission.
Fate Unknown
Story
Setting
Date Set
Approximately 30,000 years ago
Timeline
Previous
Next
N/A


Fate Unknown is the third book in the Protosteel Saga. It is currently being written.

Story[]

Part I[]

Chapter I: Restless Shadows[]

The Shadowed One sighed wearily, tapped a clawed finger against the cold stone armrest of his throne. His shrewd red eyes drifted, for the eighteenth time, to the sleek stasis tube in the corner, a tube containing a lithe Toa of Psionics, face frozen forever into the exact instant when her fate began to register in her mind. Like the other odds and ends contained in glass cases and scattered throughout The Shadowed One's torch-lit throne room, the Toa was more than a decoration: she was a symbol. A grim reminder from The Shadowed One, to himself, of his power.

He rose from his seat and stalked about, tail twitching restlessly. Cold rain pattered on the thick stone above his head, barely audible, but enough. He growled, an ominous rumble deep in his throat.

The Recorder, seated at his desk beside the large stone throne, watched this display of restless boredom with wary eyes, nervously folding and unfolding a yellowed strip of parchment. Boredom and rain and cold temperatures... he shivered. The Shadowed One was in a killing mood.

A short, well-muscled Ta-Matoran appeared in the doorway, cleared his throat a little anxiously. "Sir?"

The Shadowed One spun to face him, a spark of interest gleaming in his blood-red eyes. "Yes?"

"There is a visitor... She-" The Matoran coughed nervously. "She demands an audience with you."

"Her name?"

"Makuta Keelara, mistress of science and unchallenged ruler of the wilds."

The Ta-Matoran shuffled his feet. "At least, that is what she told me to tell you."

The Shadowed One smiled, sharp white teeth glinting in the torchlight. "Keelara, you say? I don't doubt it. Tell her to come in."

The Ta-Matoran nodded, hurried away. The Shadowed One paced slowly back to his throne and seated himself, glancing over at the small figure behind the wooden desk. "Recorder."

"Yes, sir?"

"Keelara will have business in mind. I want every word of our conversation recorded, with notes on body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Do you understand?"

"Yessir. I understand, sir."

Footsteps sounded in the hall, and The Recorder picked up a fresh quill, hurriedly pried the top off a bottle of ink. He glanced up just as the Ta-Matoran entered the room, accompanied by a second being, presumably Keelara.

She was about the size of a small Toa, slender and agile, and wore a stylized Kanohi Rau, Mask of Translation. Her blue and white armor was wet with rain and smeared with mud, and her sharp green eyes blazed with intelligence. On her shoulder perched a black-feathered falcon, silent, watchful.

The Shadowed One leaned forward, genuine welcome in his eyes. "Greetings, Keelara. I trust your journey was not too unpleasant?"

"No, not at all." Keelara's voice was polite, but cool. "Quite enjoyable, in fact."

"I see." The Shadowed One stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I assume you came by ship?"

"On the contrary," said Keelara. "I flew."

The muscular Dark Hunter leaned back in his throne and closed his eyes. "You flew. I see." There was a long pause, and then his eyes opened. "Really, Keelara, just how gullible do you think I am? If an air-ship of any type approaches this island at any time, my guards make sure I know about it within minutes. And I knew nothing of your arrival until sixty-four seconds ago."

Keelara smiled, but said nothing.

There was a long, uncomfortable moment of silence, and then The Shadowed One leaned forward, his eyes shrewd and intense. "But enough of that. You came here for a reason, Keelara. What is it?"

"I am here-" Keelara paused deliberately, wiped a smear of mud from her left forearm. "-to hire one of your Hunters."

"For a specific job?"

"That-" Keelara's eyes were suddenly cold. "-is none of your business. I said I wanted to hire one of your Hunters, and I have the money to do so, no questions asked."

Another long, uncomfortable pause. Keelara's eyes showed no signs of thawing, and the scratching of The Recorder's quill-pen was very loud in the sudden silence.

"Very well." The Shadowed One's voice was stiff with suppressed anger, and irritation danced a war-dance behind his blood-red eyes. "You may hire one of my Dark Hunters. You will, I assume, require one of the elite?"

Keelara nodded. "Elite. Yes."

"There is a Hunter available who may suit your purpose. A Skakdi of Fire, very experienced and capable. His name is Torak."

"The price?"

"Thirty thousand widgets, twenty to me and ten to the Hunter. And, of course, an additional ten thousand widgets per half-year, seven to me and three to the Hunter."

Keelara thoughtfully stroked her falcon's ebony feathers. "The Hunter provides his own weapons and equipment?"

"Weapons, yes. Equipment... perhaps. It depends on the circumstances, and the price."

A long pause. Keelara stroked her falcon, The Recorder scratched away with his quill-pen, The Shadowed One tapped his fingers against cold stone, waiting...

"Tell me more about this 'Torak'." said Keelara slowly.

The Shadowed One glanced over at the quill-scratcher behind the desk. "Recorder, fetch me Torak's file."

The Recorder pulled open a desk drawer, flipped through dozens of sheets of parchment. He slid the drawer shut, opened another. After a few moments, he removed a file and handed it silently to his leader, who cleared his throat and began reading in a dry, monotone voice. "Name: Torak. Code Name: 'The Reaper'. Species: Skakdi. Element: Fire. Powers: Laser Vision, limited Invulnerability. Weapon of Choice: Magma Scythe. Mission Success Ratio: 92%. Missions Completed: 1,478."

The Shadowed One raised his eyes. "That is, I believe, enough information for you?"

"That's enough statistical information." corrected Keelara. "But I was thinking more of what he looks like, what his personality is, his history."

"I respect you very much, Keelara, but you do tend to be too inquisitive for your own good."

The words hung in the air, and then Keelara took three steps forward and jammed a throwing dagger against the Dark Hunter's chest. "Listen, you overgrown Makika toad. Enough bluffing. You could kill me, sure, and you know it, but I'd take you with me, and you know that, too." She leaned forward, her green eyes crackling with intensity. "But you won't fight, because you don't want to die; you just want to throw your weight around like the arrogant, posturing lump of pond-scum that you are. Did you hear me, Shadow? Put up or shut up, but do it now!"

The Shadowed One smacked Keelara away with a single heavy blow that echoed harshly around the room. She hit the ground, rolled, and came up in a crouch, her dagger clenched tight in her fist. The black-feathered falcon, knocked from her shoulder, cruised silently in long, lazy spirals against the ceiling.

"Don't. Call. Me. Shadow!" roared the Dark Hunter, coming to his feet in a single smooth motion, eyes flaming in the sudden darkness.

The short, muscular Ta-Matoran gave a strangled squeak and disappeared into the hall.

"Don't tell me what to do, you pompous bag of hot air!" hissed Keelara. Chain lightning flickered over her fingertips.

"You just can't keep your temper, can you, Shadow?" The voice was mocking, sarcastic, yet strangely solemn.

"What in-?" The Shadowed One's head snapped around towards the door.

The new arrival slouched against the wall just inside the doorway, muscular arms folded across his chest. He was fairly tall, of rugged build, and his heavy jaw and smouldering eyes marked him as a Skakdi, although he lacked several of the reptilian characteristics generally associated with the species. His red and black armor was without decoration or frills of any sort, but obviously of fine quality and much use, as was the scarlet-bladed scythe strapped to his back.

"Look at her." The tall being gestured towards Keelara, untroubled by the latter's aura of cold, calculating hostility. "You're fighting a Toa? Of Lightning?" He shook his head sorrowfully. "To think I should see the day when my leader began bullying females. Aye, 'tis indeed a sorrow."

"She's a Makuta, fool, not a Toa of Lightning!" snarled The Shadowed One. "And anyway, it's none of your business who I fight with!"

"'Tis not? Tsk, tsk, such a temper. But if you insist..." The tall being peeled himself off the wall and began slouching towards the doorway. When he reached it, he glanced back, a wicked light dancing in his red-orange eyes. "You realize, of course, that everyone I meet in the next hour or two will learn that The Shadowed One has been picking fights with girls?"

The Shadowed One cursed loudly. "Torak, you fiend! Get back here this instant!"

Torak grinned devilishly. "Aye, aye, sir. Right away, sir." He slouched back inside, leaned against the wall.

Keelara stepped forward. "You're Torak?"

Torak sprang away from the wall and made a low bow. "Indeed, ma'am, this is Torak."

She studied him for a brief moment, then her gaze flickered to The Shadowed One. "He'll do. Excuse me a moment whilst I fetch the money."

For a brief instant her mouth tightened with concentration, a vortex of shadows swirled around her, and then she was gone, vanished into the unknown limits of teleportation.

There was a short silence, and then Torak spoke, a thread of mild admiration--or was it merely sarcasm?--running through his voice.

"Gets right to the point, does she not?"

* * *

The female Makuta returned a few minutes later, a small steel strong-box in her arms. Torak studied it with undisguised curiosity.

"Surely, ma'am, you did not teleport all the way back to... er... wherever it is you came from, to get that?" he asked.

Keelara snapped open the strong-box's lid and peered inside. "Of course not. My powers of teleportation are not nearly that strong; very few Makuta's are. Instead, I carried it with me and hid it here on your island before I came in to talk business with your leader."

Curiosity satisfied, Torak closed his eyes, slumped himself more comfortably against the wall. He was not interested in the money-trading that would follow Keelara's unlocking of her strong-box, having seen it occur thousands of times. And quite honestly, he found it boring, at least when compared to the prospect of a good nap... In a few moments the Skakdi was dozing quietly, but his battle-honed subconsciousness kept him on his feet, carefully filtered the sounds that reached his ears, critiqued the slightest flicker of light and shadow, analyzed the vibrations caused by a hundred different objects. He was asleep, yet prepared, like a well-fed panther dozing in the midday sun.

Meanwhile, The Shadowed One and Keelara counted money, placing it in stacks on The Recorder's desk. The glittering columns grew higher and higher, and presently Keelara snapped the strong-box's lid shut with an air of finality.

"Thirty thousand widgets." she remarked, rather wistfully. "A fine sum indeed."

The Shadowed One held a coin up to the light and inspected it carefully. "Don't worry, Keelara. You've kept your end of the deal, and I'll keep mine."

Keelara's green eyes glittered ominously. "See that you do."

The Shadowed One attempted to give her a reassuring smile, but it transformed into an expression strongly resembling the threat display of a werewolf. His voice was tense and strained. "When do you want Torak to report for duty? And where?"

Keelara considered the question a moment. "In ten days, at Xia."

"Xia? Where at Xia?"

"Doesn't matter. I'll have someone there to meet him."

"Very well." grunted The Shadowed One. "Good-bye."

Keelara smiled coolly. "Farewell, Shadow."

And then she spun on her heel and slipped out of the room, strong-box under her left arm, falcon perched grimly on her shoulder.

Like a wraith, the darkness followed.

Chapter II: Silent Streets[]

The night was dark and silent and airless and humid. Not a single draft of cool air, not a single arrogant mosquito, not a single cautious footstep disturbed the brooding stillness.

Roden took a step forward, peering blindly into the narrow, rubbish-strewn depths of the Xian alleyway. He swore softly, fluently, not caring if the sound was heard. If they came for him, let them come. It would be a welcome relief to bash some skulls together.

He was drenched in sweat, although the night was not unusually warm. He was a creature of the endless desert sky, of the wind-carved dunes, of the sun-parched canyons. He feared the city as the wild beasts feared it, with the same nerve-wracking anxiety. And besides the stress that came from being cut off from the primeval wilderness, he was somewhat claustrophobic, and this alleyway was... narrow. Dark. Twisted. Silent. And probably hazardous to his health, in more ways than one.

The whole city's narrow and dark and twisted and silent and dangerous, he reminded himself. No use swearing about it.

He set his jaw grimly, calling on his elemental abilities to create a low-voltage electrical field around his body. This energy field, which was similar, though quite superior, to those possessed by certain species of fish and eels, would allow him to navigate easily in the utter blackness of the alleyway, although not without revealing his presence to an electricity-sensitive enemy. It was a risk he would have to take.

The Bone Hunter started forward again, moving with a bit more confidence as his electrical field began revealing even the smallest obstacles in his path.

A small rat-like Rahi, very much alive; a scattered heap of broken protodermis, probably from a gaping gunshot crater in the left-hand wall; a puddle of stagnant rainwater, slightly radioactive. Then several dozen feet of empty alley, then a few more puddles of rainwater (non-radioactive); a chunk of moldy cloth, blood-stained; a dusty heap of long-empty wine bottles; a scattering of Rahi droppings, some fairly recent, some as ancient as the city itself...

And then a tall, cloaked being, dagger in hand, standing silently in the center of the alleyway, grim and strong and formidable.

Roden froze, his mind spinning feverishly. He didn't know if he'd been seen; probably not, since his black armor blended perfectly with the shadows. He didn't possess a heart-light, which further minimized the possibility, and his helmet was specially equipped with an eyeglow-filtering visor. Maybe he'd been heard, but-

The being spoke then, his voice quiet and amused. "Greetings, Roden. How kind of you to drop in. In truth, we-"

The being waved his hand casually, and Roden's heart skipped a beat as two more tall, cloaked figures, both armed with loaded crossbows, stepped silently into the range of his electrical field.

"-we were beginning to feel rather lonely. Not much traffic this time of night, you must admit."

Roden's voice was cold, hard, to-the-point. "What d'you want?"

He already knew what they wanted, but he was playing for time; time to think, to take a step backwards, to draw a weapon.

The being's voice was still amused, but there was a sudden hint of steel behind it, and his greenish-yellow eyes were cold embers in the darkness. "Surely you know. It's something we can only get from you, something that we'll have to fight to take."

The dagger lifted, a faint splash of cold starlight flickering on its blade. Roden's own weapon swung out of its scabbard, blue shafts of lightning crackling eagerly along its length, and as he settled into a classic Lihtne defensive position, he heard the being's voice once more...

"Your head, Roden. I beg pardon for not asking permission."

* * *

Helryx scowled, nervously tapping her steel-clad knuckles on the cold stone tabletop of the second-rate Xian tavern. For the third time in as many minutes, her eyes slid easily around the surprisingly well-lit room, taking in the nondescript handful of work-weary customers at the bar, the quiet card game in the corner table, the grey-armored Onu-Matoran wiping tables near the center of the room. Nothing had changed, at least nothing of importance.

She scowled again, glanced over at the heavy steel door in the rear of the tavern. There were no windows, and the only other entrance was through a small wooden door in the kitchen, a door that opened onto a narrow alleyway.

A minute passed, then another. The Onu-Matoran approached her and inquired as to whether she wanted something to drink; Helryx waved him away with a polite smile.

Zora was unusually late, a fact that bothered the Toa of Water. Order of Mata Nui members were very punctual, and Zora more so than many.

She's probably lost in a maze of Mata Nui-forsaken alleyways somewhere, thought Helryx. Either that, or she's in combat, or injured, or unconscious, or kidnapped, or dead.

She shook her head, slightly amused. The negative possibilities were, she had to admit, endless. Particularly in a city such as this; a place that even the Rahi avoided, provided they were sane.

* * *

Zora was not unconscious, nor was she kidnapped, dead, or in combat. Helryx's first deduction had been correct.

At the moment, the slender, athletic Agori-Kal was striding irritably over a dimly-lit section of deserted street that more than vaguely resembled several dozen other sections of deserted street, all of which she had traversed several times over the last two hours.

"And Mata Nui forbid that there might be a roadsign anywhere." she grumbled, keeping her voice as quiet as her feelings would allow. "Or a friendly construction worker willing to point someone in the right direction. Or even a properly-lit street! I mean, how many widgets would it cost to have, say, two lightstones per alleyway, instead of one? Surely the city's-"

The street twisted sharply to the right, a turn of nearly ninety degrees. Zora followed it, falling silent and grasping the handle of the long-bladed throwing knife at her belt. She'd been jumped by gang members on seven different occasions during her first days in Xia, and by now, they left her strictly alone. Probably they were occupied with lamenting their dead, or mending broken arms, or something of the sort.

But it didn't hurt to be cautious, as Trinuma always said. Who knew what scarred Vortixx, firearm in hand, might be lurking in the shadows, anxious to revenge a fallen comrade? Or there might be, perhaps, even a member of Team Red, eager to advance the war games by the increment of one hostage taken.

Or Team Black, for that matter, amended Zora. Can't forget them.

The street beyond the turn was deserted, and lit with two pole-mounted lightstones that managed to produce just enough illumination to make the darkness seem more oppressive. A solitary moth fluttered aimlessly past, vanishing into the starless sky.

Zora sighed. She didn't recognize this street, but in a way, she was horribly familiar with it. For the umpteenth time, she wondered how in Karzahni the Vortixx managed to find their way around the city. And for that matter, how did the non-native visitors, such as the weapons-dealers, the bounty hunters, and the cargo sailors?

"Probably they get maps from their underworld cronies." muttered Zora, quickening her pace slightly as she passed beneath a streetlight. "But of course, I don't get one. All I get is three days to 'become familiar with the city's layout'. Ha! More like three years, if you ask anyone but ol' high-and-mighty hersel-"

The arrow came from somewhere above, completely silent and undeniably effective. It struck the Agori-Kal's helmet an inch and half above her right eye, denting the relatively thin sheet of prototsteel, then spun casually to the ground, its blunt nose gleaming in the dirty yellow glow of the streetlight.

Unconsciousness was nearly instantaneous, but reflexive action was marvelous: when Zora crumpled to the grimy surface of the street, her blue-and-silver protosteel trident was already in her grasp.

Alas, it could not do battle on its own.

Helryx's appointment would have to wait.

Chapter III: A Matter of Speed[]

Quite honestly, Roden had seen better days. Days in which he could successfully disarm a group of over half-a-dozen skilled antagonists, all of them nearly twice his size. A feat easier said than done, but Roden had accomplished it more than once.

He was not accomplishing it now, and there weren't even half-a-dozen antagonists.

To be exact, there were three. Not bad odds, really, admitted Roden. If only they weren't able to withstand repeated electrical shocks... or so cursed fast!

His black protosteel blade flickered in, out, parried, spun to the right, feinted, slashed up and to the left-

Empty air. Roden's teeth flashed in a silent snarl of frustration, but his electrically-charged sword was already whirling round in a lightning-quick arc, slamming squarely into the dagger-thrust of his smirking opponent. For a brief instant they locked blades and tested each other's strength, then the Bone Hunter reluctantly gave ground, brain calculating furiously.

His defenses were still holding strong, but for how long? And what if the other two beings, who at the moment seemed content to stand in the shadows and fire their crossbows at him, decided to join their leader in melee combat? Roden wasn't sure he could take on all three of them, not if they were all as skilled as-

His eyes blazed with sudden realization. Skill! He, Roden, was a newly-initiated Order of Mata Nui agent, Bone Hunter-Kal of Lightning, Core War veteran, and these three warriors were battering down his defenses as if they did it every day! There was no way, no way at all, unless...

A slight disruption of the energy field to his right, an instinctive back-handed sword stroke, a spattering of sparks as the arrow ricocheted off the razor-edged protosteel-

And in that single, flash-frozen moment, the yellow-eyed being's dagger slashed past the weapon that, an instant too late, was whirling to protect its master's vulnerable left side, slammed through a quarter-centimeter of high-grade chain-mail, and bit deep into the organic chest tissues beneath.

There was no pain, not yet, but the sound of the blow, the impact of it, the realization, was enough to shatter the Bone Hunter-Kal's civilized ponderings like dry clay beneath a steel-toed boot. And in their place came an arrow-quick sequence of thoughts and actions, a sequence as natural as it was bestial.

The first reaction was instinctive, crude, and very effective. Roden's blade, already moving with incredible speed, simply shifted directions and smashed downwards, striking his antagonist's outstretched arm just behind the wrist. The being's chain-mail gauntlets neutralized the sword's razor edge, but not the powerhouse of energy behind it, and organic and mechanical components alike bent and shattered with a gut-twisting crunch. The yellow-eyed being let out a hoarse rasp of agony and staggered backwards, cursing.

The other two warriors instinctively sprang to the aid of their injured leader, and Roden swung his blade around his head, one, twice, then brought it level and sent two and a half million volts of raw electrical energy slamming into the threesome like a raging meteor. A brief, blinding flash of blue-tongued fire lit the alleyway as it had never been lit before, followed by a sputtering crackle of disintegrating organic compounds, and then both died away into a suffocating haze of smoke and ozone.

Roden's scarlet eyes were cold, and he reached up and carefully extracted the dagger from his chest, twirled it casually in his hand. He wondered, for a fleeting second, if perhaps he should take advantage of the moment and retreat into the shadows, but his Bone Hunter instincts thrust the thought away and bid it be gone. He was an insane predator, first and foremost and unwillingly, and when attacked, he fought, and when he fought, he won... or died trying.

The dagger felt strange and foreign in his hand, and he dropped it to the ground without hesitation. It was a good weapon, perfectly balanced and razor-edged, but it wasn't his... he would do better with a sword.

He slid forward like a cat, blade poised to strike.

The yellow-eyed warrior was unconscious, or nearly so, but Roden could sense the movements of the other two individuals (from what the Order agent could discern, they were both Skakdi; one hulking and heavy-jawed; the other shorter, and of somewhat lighter build) as they coughed and blinked and staggered to their feet with surprising speed. In a matter of milliseconds, they retrieved their melee weapons, located their target, then separated and converged on the Bone Hunter-Kal from opposite sides.

Had his mind been functioning properly, Roden might have hesitated--at least for a moment--upon realizing that both warriors were at least twice his size and weight, equipped with a dangerous array of sharp objects, apparently invulnerable to large amounts of electrical energy, and extremely annoyed. But an angered Bone Hunter heeds not the odds, and when injured, he is the most reckless and potentially dangerous of creatures.

Such was Roden. Controlling his Bone Hunter rage was, as he knew from experience, a near-futile task, and it took all his willpower to prevent even a mere war game from becoming more realistic than was acceptable...

But enough long-winded description. Fueled by pain and shock and a murderous rage, Roden's deeply-ingrained instincts took full control of his mind and body with a violent jolt, his blade lifted, and the first Skakdi's sudden forward rush was cut short by a savage whirlwind of woe and fury and quickfoot destruction.

The being was strong, however, and not for nothing were his people known as the most effective fighting race in the universe. He set his heavy jaw and bored in, fending off the constant frenzied slashing of Roden's blade with short, well-placed strokes of his own weapon, a long-handled mace. One, twice, then a few times more, the Bone Hunter's weapon flickered in and found its mark in the Skakdi's thick hide and armor, but more often than not it was battered aside in a shower of sparks and lightning and kinetic energy.

It couldn't last.

Every last ounce of Roden's pent-up stress was coming out in a sudden frigid blast of dark fury, and a mere Skakdi, however skilled, had neither the speed nor the reflexes needed to stand against it.

Three strokes, each flowing into the next with a speed and dexterity and calm accuracy that rivaled the lightning itself, and the hulking Skakdi staggered, blinked in confusion, then toppled slowly backwards, landed with a hollow thud. The mace slid silently from his weakening grasp, clanked softly on the filth-caked street, and Roden was already swinging round to face the belated offensive charge of the second Skakdi. Their weapons met with a wrist-numbing crash, then a pause, then a cautious feint, a thrust, a skillful parry.

This Skakdi, although of smaller frame and lighter build than his fallen comrade, was nearly as strong, and much faster as well. Several minutes of intense swordplay passed before the Bone Hunter was able to gain the upper hand, and several minutes more before the flat of his black protosteel blade slammed into his opponent's jaw. The being faltered, and Roden followed up with a rapid sequence of martial arts blows that battered the Skakdi to the ground.

The sudden stillness was as a tangible substance, settling over the alleyway like the thick folds of a heavy cloak. A sudden wave of nausea swept over the Bone Hunter as adrenaline began working its way out of his muscles and nervous system, and for a few moments all he could do was slump weakly against the alleyway wall and gulp great lungfuls of air. Gradually, his nerves began to steady, and then, slowly, the dark thing within drifted into slumber and he was Roden once more.

The first Skakdi stirred slightly, mumbling incoherently, and the Bone Hunter-Kal walked slowly towards him, weapon ready.

"We didn't... I don't..." gasped the Skakdi hoarsely. He blinked blearily, winced as the muscles attached to his throbbing skull protested loudly. "Didn't think you was thet dange'rous, to beat all three o' us. You're kinda short an' puny-like, see, an' we didn't realize..."

"You weren't the first." Roden's voice was quiet, and as he spoke, he was gathering up the two Skakdi's weapons, piling them carefully against the alley wall.

"Well, I reckon' we're pris'ners, then, eh?"

Roden snapped a handful of arrows over his knee, dropped the splintered fragments to the ground. "Yes, you are."

"Then you bit off more an' you could chew, Roden. The Reds won' stand fer this, an' they'll hunt you 'till they get you. You can't take 'em all."

There it was again... Roden glanced up, eyes narrow. "How d'you know my name, and what d'you mean by 'the Reds'?"

The Skakdi grinned maliciously, struggling weakly to heave himself to his feet. "I'm a member of Team Red, mud-head! Don't tell me it took you s'long to figure it out! What you got, the brains of an eel?"

Of course... For a moment, Roden wondered bleakly if he really did have the brains of an eel, but then again, he'd been under a lot of stress, and his Bone Hunter instincts tended to interfere with deep thought. No matter, it was all perfectly clear...

Approximately sixty Order of Mata Nui agents of varying skill levels, each one specifically assigned to one of four different teams, were currently active within the city of Xia, taking part in a month-long war game. The scenario, designed by Helryx to represent a real-life operation, was rather complex: Team Red, numbering about thirty warriors of various species and led by the experienced assassin Tobduk, was playing the part of a ruthless, powerful street gang, currently the 'ruling faction' of Xia. Team Black, led by Roden and made up of fifteen Vortixx, three Matoran, and a mutated Skakdi, was cast in the role of a second street gang, the main rival of Team Red. Team Blue, consisting of twelve female beings led by Helryx herself, was acting as the hypothetical 'overworked, understaffed police force'. The fourth and last team, Team Silver, represented the Order agents themselves. (Or possibly only a single agent; the exact number and identity of the team's members was classified, as was their mission.)

Each of the four teams, with the possible exception of Team Silver, had been assigned with essentially the same objective: render all opposing factions incapable of combative action. Thus, injuries tended to be uncomfortably commonplace, although the mortality rate was, fortunately, almost nonexistent.

Mortality rate. Roden was struck by a sudden, uncomfortable thought: perhaps his electrical attack had accidentally killed the tall, yellow-eyed being. It was a horrible possibility, but not at all unlikely... What if, but no, it couldn't be... could it?

Strange, how quickly one's stomach could freeze solid.

Despite the darkness, the heavy-jawed Skakdi was able to sense the shift in Roden's emotions. His eyes, a bluish-gold in color, became wary, questioning, almost fearful. When he spoke, his rough voice held no trace of play-acting or bravado, only a deadly seriousness.

"Roden. Speak!"

It was an unmistakable command, and Roden found himself obeying without even considering it. "The tall one, with the yellow eyes... d'you think that lightnin' bolt killed him?"

For a few frozen seconds they stared at each other, locked in place by a desperate, dawning horror, and then the Skakdi swore.

"Mata Nui, no... It couldn't have." he breathed. "I don't-"

But Roden was already moving, running, bending over the limp form that lay huddled against the alley wall, groping frantically in his cloak pocket for a lightstone. It seemed an eternity before his fingers finally closed around it and drew it forth, and then the sudden brightness stabbed painfully into his eyes and made him squint. Yet he could see, and the lightstone's pleasant yellow glow did nothing to warm his inward parts.

It was Tobduk. There was no mistaking the intricate ridges of the steel-grey Kanohi Sanok, the lanky build, the dark red armor that was clearly visible through the lightning-charred tatters of cloak.

It was Tobduk. And the lack of light in his greenish-yellow eyes could mean only one thing.

He was dead.

Chapter IV: Fangs[]

"Excellent shot, Viper." The De-Matoran's voice was hesitant, almost nervous, and very quiet. But the low volume was expected, and if one thing was certain, it was that his present companion did not mind at all...

Jallar, crouching in the rooftop shadows like a sinister bird of prey, grunted in acknowledgement and began oiling the string-gears of a sleek, midnight-black crossbow that might have been forged of solid gold, judging by the loving care with which he handled it.

A minute slipped by, then another... There was no sound except the occasional soft rustle of an oily rag, and a distant angry shout from the direction of the Xian waterfront.

The De-Matoran restlessly shifted a pair of energy-resistant wristcuffs from hand to hand. "Viper? Shouldn't you hurry up a mite?"

Jallar did not look up. "Why?"

The Matoran paced to the edge of the roof and glanced down as the dimly-lit street below. "That arrow won't keep her down for long. As a matter of fact, I believe she's already starting to revive."

"Peace, Echo." growled Jallar. "A weapon must be treated well, if you wish to depend upon it. Surely you know this?"

"Yes, yes, of course I do. But honestly, is it really necessary to oil a crossbow after every shot?"

The sand-hued Agori-Kal said nothing, but somehow the silence managed to convey, with perfect clarity, his annoyance... and an unmistakable warning.

Echo's eyes, a deep turquoise beneath his pearl-white Kanohi Kualsi, glowed with a rising anger. His fingers twitched restlessly on the hilt of a short-bladed combat saber, relaxed, twitched again. "Come, Viper, be reasonable. Fighting won't solve this, but if you just give in and cooperate, everythi- I mean, I-"

Echo's voice wavered as he realized the unintended meaning of his words, and then it was choked away in an instant as Jallar's blood-red eyes flicked upwards and stabbed into the Matoran's mind with an unsettling calmness, hypnotic flames burning in their icy depths...

Echo's heart thudded in his throat. Too late, he remembered Tobduk word's: "Viper can be a bit... eccentric, at times. It would be wise to humor him, I think... What? No, he's not insane. Far from it. He's just, well, as I said. Eccentric. But he's one of the most capable warriors I've ever seen, and if you keep on his good side, everything'll be perfectly fine..."

A sudden bead of sweat slid down along Echo's organic jaw tissues. The cold wetness of it seem to rouse him, and with a mighty effort, he wrenched his gaze away from the twin orbs of sinister, blood-red flame.

Jallar spoke, and his voice was cold. "Next time, Echo, you will choose your words with care."

The Matoran of Sonics swallowed hard, but he knew a lifeline when he saw one. "Y-yes, I-"

"I do not think," continued Jallar. "that you meant exactly what you said. I will let it slid, this time. But in future..."

The Agori-Kal of Gravity rose swiftly to his feet, shifting both the crossbow and oil-rag to his left hand. Echo took a hasty step backwards, but Jallar's chain-mailed right lashed out and snagged him by the front of his iron-grey cloak.

"In future, Echo, you will not have the opportunity. How long have you been passing messages to Black Team?"

Echo blinked in surprise. "W-what? I never-"

Jallar's weathered face split in a wolfish grin. It was not a comforting sight. "Of course you didn't. You wouldn't think of it at all, would you?"

"No, of course I wouldn-"

"Then why," hissed Jallar, "have Black Team warriors ambushed us four times in the last two hours? Why, on each occasion, did you fight worse than I've ever seen you fight, almost as if you were hoping to get both of us captured? Why, when it seemed that we had finally managed to throw them off our trail, and silence was of the essence, did you 'accidently' knock over that six-foot stack of oil cans, making enough noise to wake the dead? And why-" Jallar paused a moment, slipped a small metallic cylinder from his leather belt-pouch, and brandished it before the De-Matoran's startled eyes. "-why, may I ask, would you carry a thermal-energy marking device, save for the purpose of revealing your path and location?"

Echo coughed uneasily. He knew perfectly well that this was, essentially, nothing more than an unplanned scene in a very long and complex stage-play, but there was something unnerving about Jallar's level of realism. And as for the marking device... he coughed again, trying to think of a plausible explanation, and yet knowing that it woudn't help him in the least, because Jallar had discovered the truth, and they both knew it.

"Face it, Echo. It was already obvious, and that marking device merely confirmed it."

Jallar paused a moment, smiled grimly. "You didn't know I have powers of thermal vision, did you? And that my pickpocketing abilities are phenomenal? But it doesn't matter so much, not now. The game's up, rookie. You lose."

The white-masked De-Matoran sighed wearily. "Well, I guess. Did I really do such a poor job of it? I tried very hard, but I haven't even completed basic training yet, and I never did care much for the undercover work-"

"Which is, no doubt, exactly why Helryx gave you the role that she did." finished Jallar, tactfully ignoring the first part of Echo's question. "Don't worry; you've got the potential and the brains. All you need is experience. But in the meantime..."

Quicker than thought, his right hand released the marking device and streaked upwards, smacking into Echo's jaw with an ugly thud. The De-Matoran staggered, sparks dancing across his vision, and Jallar wrenched the pair of wristcuffs from his palsied grip, then followed up with a forearm blow that knocked the turquoise-eyed agent flat on his back.

And then, working with a quiet efficiency, Jallar calmly finished the oiling of his crossbow.

* * *

Zora was falling, plummeting... Deathly blackness swirled around her, groping and clutching like the tentacles of some prehistoric monster. She lashed out, struggling with all her might, but the shadows only parted around her fists and then reformed, as strong and horrible as ever. Her elemental powers of sound would not respond to her call, she had no weapons, no protection, nothing... and still she was falling, plummeting, hurtling down into a green-tinged abyss of fear. In the distance, she seemed to hear voices, voices she recognized, but they were far away, and her jaw refused to move, refused to call out in reply.

The shadows intensified, flickered vehemently, shifted and swirled in an ever-changing aura of menace. Zora's movements were slowing down, she was suffocating, choking, and then the harsh scream of an eagle shredded through the blackness, scattering it, and she felt the rushing downdraft of heavy wings...

Movement. Something was moving... She could hear a faint rustle of sound, not dream-sound, but real, solid sound.

The darkness was fragmenting, and she was clawing her way up, out, and she felt the great bird slid past her like a wisp of shadow, vanishing, and then a stab of pain blasted through her skull like a searing thunderbolt, and she was free...

Mata Nui, did her head hurt. Dazed, her vision fuzzy, she pushed herself instinctively to her knees, tried to rise, collapsed as a fresh blast of agony sent a shock-wave of nausea through her stomach. She tried again, and failed, but at the third attempt she felt a strong, chain-mailed hand grasp her upper arm and pull her awkwardly to her feet.

"Easy does it, kid." warned the being, not releasing his hold on Zora's arm. "Head injuries are not to be taken lightly."

Weak and sick though she was, Zora felt a surge of mingled relief and exasperation. "Ja- I mean, Viper? Is- is that really you?"

"Maybe. Are you pleased to see me?" Jallar's voice, although terse and sharp as ever, held the faintest touch of amusement.

Zora's vision was beginning to clear a bit, and with difficulty, she forced her eyes to swivel and focus on the sand-hued Agori's face. "Not- not exactly. I mean, I'm glad you're not some murderous street-thug, but you are from a different team, so..."

Her voice trailed away into a gasp of pain, and Jallar scooped her into his arms before she could protest. "Look here, kid. I think that arrow had more punch to it than I thought. Team Red's base camp is only two or three miles from here; I'll carry you over and get you fixed up. Echo, you lead the way, in case of ambush. And stop trying to get those wrist-cuffs off; you'll only hurt yourself!"

And the three beings slipped silently away up the shadowed street.

Chapter V: Uneasy Truce[]

After several minutes of rapid walking the dark sidestreets began to give way to a more open and well-light quarter of the city. Row after row of hulking warehouses and factories crouched along the street, smears of ancient graffiti etched upon their dingy sides. A handful of unused transport vehicles, many of them with varying degrees of structural damage, were parked haphazardly in the shadows, waiting for the dawn.

It was the perfect location for a large-scale street battle, and judging from the faded blood-stains on the ground, it had had its share.

"Careful of the doorways." muttered Jallar. His powers of thermal vision had been fully activated for some time, but that was no excuse not to exercise caution. And anyway, it was quite possible that the heat signature of the average sniper would be invisible against that of a recently-active factory building.

Echo, trudging wearily along in the lead position, glanced right and left a few times, then lapsed back into what appeared to be the uttermost depths of gloom and despair. But his hands were working quietly away at the wrist-cuffs, and his face was tight with concentration. All he needed was an opportunity... that, and a decent lock-pick.

Zora had fallen back into the depths of unconsciousness, and Jallar had taken the opportunity to confiscate her weapons and gear. He left her wrists unshackled, partly out of gentlemanly courtesy and partly because he had only one pair of cuffs left and felt it would be a waste to use them on an invalid. He only hoped she wouldn't recover sooner than desired, and nearly blow his eardrums out with a blast of sound waves... At the thought, his step quickened. It was always best to let someone else deal with Zora's anger, and he'd learned the fact from experience.

Ten minutes later, a faint horizontal slash of golden-yellow was beginning to rise wearily from the depths of the eastern sea. Gloomy tendrils of greyish smog slithered off the waterfront and mingled with the still-strong shadows, producing a deadly haze that shrouded depth, blurred outlines, and muffled sound. Jallar's pace slowed; his eyes moved warily, probing the mist.

It was morning in Xia.

* * *

Three hours before...

The instant the situation registered in his mind, Roden dropped the lightstone, checked Tobduk's breathing passages, and began emergency chest compressions.

Deliberately, the Bone Hunter-Kal kept his mind blank of thought and void of emotion, focused on maintaining the steady rise and fall of the biomechanical chest. It had only been a few minutes, there was still a chance. Slight, yes, but a chance.

"There's a pulse." grunted the heavy-jawed Skakdi. He, too, was bent over the limp body. "It's irregular, though. Kinda goes in fits and starts, and it's weak, terrible weak."

Fits and starts... Roden's head snapped up. "Here, you do this. I think I can get his heart goin' straight again."

Wordlessly, they switched places. The Skakdi set to work with short, jerky movements of his powerful shoulders, and Roden placed the three middle fingers of his right hand directly over Tobduk's heartlight.

The Skakdi was right; Roden could feel the faint, off-beat twitching of the fist-size chunk of muscle known as a heart. But there was something else, something that he alone had the ability to sense, something much more life-threatening than an irregular heartbeat.

To an organism consisting largely of electro-mechanical components, a severe power surge could wreak extensive physiological havoc. The Great Beings had, of course, designed the Matoran Universe inhabitants with several internal safety mechanisms in order to prevent such an occurence, but there was always a slight chance that it would happen anyway.

This time, the odds had been beaten. Rogue waves of power rippled through Tobduk's nerve system, eccentric, uncontrolled, overriding and interfering and completely random. The central nerve clusters, including the pacemaker of the heart, were struggling bravely to regain control, but Roden could sense the futility of it, and he knew that in a few short minutes it would be too late. Deprived of the proper power levels, and too weak to regain them, the vital organs would begin to shut down, and if that happened... It was a vicious circle, with Death as the helmsman.

The Bone Hunter-Kal closed his eyes and concentrated, gathering all the electrical essence he possessed. He knew little of the body's inner workings, but he knew the lightning, and he knew what life was like in its natural, ordered state. He hoped desperately that it would be enough.

A minute passed, then half of another... Sweat dripped down Roden's furrowed brow, fell silently onto Tobduk's tattered cloak. Now and again, a faint flicker of blue-tinged energy rippled over his fingertips and into the throbbing glow of the heartlight, rippled, fell still, rippled again.

Ninety seconds... ninety-five... one hundred.. The ripples of energy were less frequent now, and Roden's wiry frame was beginning to droop with exhaustion.

One hundred ten... one hundred fifteen... two minutes... Still the energy rippled, and then Roden heaved a sudden, gasping sigh and slumped sideways against the alley wall.

"It's enough." he whispered, but with satisfaction and not despair. "Stop crushin' his lungs, you great brute."

The heavy-jawed agent desisted. For a few moments there was a tense silence as both gazed unblinkingly at Tobduk's unconscious body, and then...

"By the First Blade," grunted the Skakdi."Yeh did it! Look at his 'eartlight!"

"Yes," agreed Roden softly. "Look at his heartlight..."

His words trailed away into silence, but they said it all. The few short minutes (or were they hours?) of horror-struck despair, of agonized desperation, of sudden inspiration, of mind-numbing effort, of joy and relief and a touch of guilt...

Tobduk's chest rose and fell, steadily, echoing the smooth and constant rhythm of the brightly-glowing heartlight. His eyes were closed, his war-battered hands lay relaxed and still, he coughed faintly in his sleep; he was very much alive.

A sudden rustling from the depths of the alleyway, the soft grating of a boot on stone... Roden spun round in an instant, blade out, electrical field warily probing the darkness.

The second, lighter-built Skakdi was on his feet, swaying groggily. He had the distinct appearance of a punch-drunk gladiator, but his sea-green eyes were clear and sharp, and Roden could see a hint of his species' infamous temper burning in their hostile depths.

"Greetings, Switchblade!" exclaimed the heavy-jawed Skakdi cheerfully. "Awake s' soon?"

Switchblade's voice was quiet, with a slight rasp. "Yes, Shockwave. I am awake, although in a certain amount of... pain."

"Ah, pain! 'Tis nothin' but the aftereffects of stupidity." replied Shockwave grandly, with the air of one who has just discovered a shining nugget of mystical wisdom. "And anyway, it's very little compared to the aches an' woes that this poor fool here" -he indicated the limp form of Tobduk- "will be sufferin' from in a few hours."

Switchblade studied Tobduk with narrowed eyes. "Severe electrical shock, I presume?"

Shockwave opened his mouth to reply, but Roden beat him to it.

"Yes, electrical shock. I honestly hadn't intended to hurt him so badly, but you know how it is..."

Switchblade's expression was unfathomable, yet Roden felt quite sure that the Skakdi would like nothing better than to beat his skull into a quivering mass of cytoplasm. "Yes, yes, quite... understandable. I assume you had the same intentions, when you nearly shattered my jaw?"

An uneasy silence, then Shockwave spoke.

"Lightfoot here... he's taken us pris'ner. Mebbe you should shut yer fat mouth an' play the part."

"Like Karzahni I will, you muscle-bound fool!" snarled Switchblade savagely.

Shockwave rose swiftly, menacingly, to his feet, white-hot fire crackling in his blue-gold eyes. His voice was a low rumble, dark and furious. "Switchblade... What did you jus' call me?"

"I called you a muscle-bound fool, and I spoke the truth!" was the reply, and then, quite suddenly, the two Skakdi of Lightning hurled themselves at each other's throats like a pair of dueling Iron Wolves, eyes hot with fury, heavy jaws set with the blood-lust of combat.

Roden took a wary step backwards, watching the battle speechlessly. His instincts told him firmly not to interfere, and his brain seconded the motion. It would be nothing less than suicide, for bestial combatants never took kindly to being separated...

A sudden, violent explosion of blue-white energy hissed against the shadows. Switchblade staggered backwards, fell, rolled to his feet in an instant. Shockwave lunged after him, roaring, incoherent with fury.

A second explosion. For a brief instant, Switchblade's snarling features were illuminated in stark white relief, and then the darkness closed around the brawling figures and Roden could see only their flaming eyes, could hear only their hoarse breathing and the dull thud of heavy blows.

Now, while the two Skakdi were occupied with a quarrel that might last for a painfully long amount of time, was the time to exit the scene.

The black-armored Hunter returned his blade to its scabbard, retrieved his lightstone, turned to leave...

And then he halted, suddenly. It would never do to leave without some sort of trophy, some memento of the events of the past hour, of his unquestionable victory.

Not that he was fond of bragging and boasting and gloating, of course. Far from it. But he and Tobduk had always been the most dedicated of rivals, and this was just too amusing a story not to be told, and re-told, and told again, until it joined the time-worn ranks of the immortal legends... His scarlet eyes glinted devilishly.

And when, a few moments later, he faded silently into the night, he was carrying Tobduk's protosteel dagger in his belt... and a wicked half-smile etched upon his battered features.

The thing about legends is that they nearly always end well, at least (and here I pause) from the protagonist's point of view.

Chapter VI: Birds of a Feather[]

The bird circled slowly, easily, a midnight-feathered phantom against the soot-streaked wall of stars.

Far below, four black-cloaked Vortixx slipped silently through the empty streets, moving in single file, keeping to the shadows, eyes restless, wary, hunted.

This was the Black Team hit squad, four of the most elite warriors under Roden's command. Each was a distinct individual, with an individual's unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, and yet all held a few things in common:

...a natural, instinctive superiority in combat, marksmanship, assassination, battlefield tactics, sabotage, and everything else connected with intentional disintegration.

...a near-perfect biological physique, one that they had not intentionally worked to achieve, but one that had developed as a natural result of their rugged lifestyle.

...the successful completion of training courses that would have made the most leather-necked bounty hunter raise an incredulous eyeblow.

...mental shielding, numerous physical upgrades, and equipment that the average civilian had never heard of.

...as well as the final, all-important factor: an absolute dedication to the service of the Great Spirit Mata Nui, his universe, and the inhabitants thereof.

In other words, they were the ideal rank-and-file of the Order of Mata Nui.

* * *

The captain of the Black Team hit squad halted suddenly, armored left hand raised for silence, intelligent green eyes sharp and alert. His features were indistinguishable in the darkness, but when he spoke, his voice was quiet and clear and strangely reassuring. "We got a shadow on the left, sounds like he's burrowed. Blades out, assume circular defense."

Whispers of well-oiled protosteel against leathern scabbards, a faint flicker of starlight on the hilt of a throwing knife. Silent as panthers, the hit squad members shifted to form a back-to-back ring of four, each being's weapon poised to strike.

For a few long moments, not a sound was heard, no movement save the restless shifting of glowing eyes. Then...

The advancing warrior was nothing more than a vague silhouette in the darkness, his footsteps quiet and confident and easy as a cat's...

The hit squad captain stepped forward threateningly, leveling a black protosteel sai at the being's chest. "Stop right there, street-thug. Name and business?"

The being's eyes and expression were indiscernible beneath his visored helm. He wore a tattered grey-black cloak, the hood of which was flipped carelessly back onto his shoulders, and his chain-mailed left hand held a single-bladed survival knife, cutting edge up. His voice was rough, slightly guttural... and dangerously quiet.

"My name, and business, is not public information... unless you happen to know the endin' to a certain phrase, which goes like this: darkness, or the absence of light, is the-"

"-default stage of the universe." finished the hit squad captain smoothly, a wry smile breaking across his scarred face. "Is that you, Lightfoot? I thouht I recognized your voice, you sly old fox!"

Roden flipped up his visor, revealing an amused glint in his luminous scarlet eyes. "Sly old fox, am I now? Ha! Last time you spoke to me, I seem to faintly recall that I was a 'cold-slimy invertebrate with a set of mouthparts four times bigger than his central nerve cluster', or somethin' of that sort."

The Vortixx's smile faded ever so slightly, but his voice was still calm and good-humored. "Captain, you know you're the one who provoked that argument, so I'd thank you not to start emphasizing my hand in it. It's quite unnecessary, and digging up graves never yielded good to anyone... but to change the subject, how'd the recon go?"

Roden shrugged. "Well enough, I suppose. All I saw were a few drunken Vortixx, a Le-Matoran pickpocket, and three Reds over in the southeast industrial area, only a few streets away from that abandoned airship factory. Looked suspiciously like they were on sentry duty, so a follow-up recon migh' be in order."

"Yes, that'd be a wise move. Did the Reds detect you, by any chance?"

"Well... yes, actually, they did. And then we exchanged a few words, and they attacked me. I didn't realize exactly who they were at first, so we fought up and down and around for a few minutes, and then I got rather carried away and... well, it was Warchief, to be exact; you know, the Red Team captain? Anyways, I accidentally killed Warchief with an electri-"

"You what?!"

"It's alright; we managed to revive him later on. But the other two Reds were Skakdi of Lightnin', and of course the blast didn't hurt them at all. So we fought for awhile longer, and I managed to beat them both, but only because they didn't synchronize their attacks. Then I collected their weapons, and by that time, the first Skakdi I'd beaten was comin' round..."

By this time, the other three Vortixx had sidled up alongside the hit squad captain and were listening intently. Roden kept on, occasionally gesturing in order to emphasize some part of his experience.

"So I questioned him a bit, and finally realized that he was actually an Order agent, not a gang member, although he would have made a particularly fine one, what with his muscles and scars and hot temper. I took him prisoner, but then I remembered the third Red warrior, the one that didn't get back up when he hit the ground..."

Roden paused a few moments, lost in thought, eyes semi-focused on some far-distant, vaguely-formed object of the mind... A slender, lightly-built Vortixx, the only female of the group, broke the silence.

"Lightfoot?" Her voice was quiet and clear, but slightly hesitating, as if rarely used.

"Hmm?"

"Did you happen to get their codenames?"

"Yes, Wraith, that I did. The two Skakdi were Switchblade and Shockwave, and the third was Warchief, like I said. No one called him by name when we were fightin', but it was him. I know it."

Wraith's piercing gaze searchd his face soberly; like each of the four Vortixx, she was at least a head taller than the Bone Hunter-Kal and wore greyish-black armor designed specifically for twilight stealth operations, besides which her eyes were an unusual, vaguely sinister shade of reddish-purple. Her midnight-black cloak was unfastened in front so that it formed a sort of cape, which draped itself around her willowy frame like an aura transplanted from Makuta himself. The long-bladed protosteel katana at her belt was just barely visible though the darkness, she moved with an incredibly absolute silence; and, on the whole, she did not appear to be an entity your instincts would soon let you forget about, not if you preferred to keep your throat in an undamaged condition...

Roden cleared his throat and spoke on, describing Tobduk's resurrection in a few short sentences, spending a bit more time on Switchblade and Shockwave's foolish brawl, finishing with the words "...an' to prove it, just before I left, I picked up this..." and then casually producing Tobduk's dagger from beneath his cloak and passing it around for inspection.

The hit squad captain, who went by the codename of 'Chaos' and had never revealed his true name to anyone, ran an armored forefinger over the weapon's simply-crafted hilt and grunted approvingly. "No frills, no unnecessary weight. I like that-- what is it, Wraith?"

For the female Vortixx had cast a sudden wary glance over her shoulder and now lifted a hand for silence, searching the darkness with narrowed eyes... Chaos and the two other members of the hit squad followed her example, but Roden spun instinctively to face the direction from which he had come, the direction towards which his four teammates had just turned their backs.

Just beyond the feeble glow produced by the nearest lightpost, something moved. It was merely a subtle, soundless ripple in the night, nothing more, but the Bone Hunter well knew the nature of such ripples.

Out there, in the night, something was lurking, watching...

A brief electrical pulse revealed little. Roden could sense the lightpost quite clearly, and the details of the street beyond, but where the ripple had been there was only a blank void, apparently deserted.

His eyes narrowed. His empty right hand flipped down his visor, shrouding his face, and then he stepped casually sideways, placing his body close against the left-hand wall. He said nothing to the Vortixx, knowing well that they would back him whether he liked it or not.

Another faint ripple in the night, and Roden knew that he had not imagined it this time.

Three steps forward, silent as a phantom, his Bone Hunter instincts humming warningly at the back of his skull. Then he halted, casually lifted one hand to his face as if desiring only to wipe away a cold trickle of sweat-- then brought it down in a sudden blazing slash of lightning, raw energy surging from his fingertips!

For a brief instant, the electrified lightpost and its immediate surroundings were brightly lit with an eerie, flickering, blue-white glow, as the Bone Hunter-Kal had intended. And this time the maker of ripples was revealed.

Roden's first impression was of a small, twisted, Burnak-like creature, crouching fearfully against the grimy surface of the street. It was coal-black in color, with a vague hint of transparency, as if it spent most of its time in an invisible world and found it hard to leave. The eyes of the beast were large, slightly bulging, and opaque as marble; they were not luminous, unlike those of most Rahi. Its claws were short, stout, and slightly curved, as if for burrowing.

All this entered Roden's mind in less than second; then the electrical energy dissipated and he was left standing in utter blackness, listening to a faint patter of retreating paw-steps, a low growl, and then... complete silence.

Something about the Rahi... beast... whatever it was, it had set frigid fingers of ice a-tapping at his spine. If he closed his eyes, he could still see it; a crouching, twisted, sinister thing, opaque-eyed and hideous...

Chaos spoke, and his voice was hoarse. "What, in Mata Nui's name, was that?"

Chapter VII: Home Turf[]

"Whatever it was, captain, let's only take the time to talk about it once we're safely back at camp." suggested one of the hit squad Vortixx, who up to that point had remained silent. "Dawn'll be coming soon, and we really ought to be under cover by then. And anyway, this street plays havoc with my spine."

Chaos, still focused on the the area in which the Burnak-creature had vanished out of hearing range, did not reply, but Roden took the hint. Motioning wordlessly for his teammates to follow, he withdrew into a pitch-black alleyway and, holding his lightstone clenched in one fist so that only a faint sliver of light escaped to reveal their path, began moving rapidly through the tight, twisted, open-roofed tunnels of Xia.

A fifteen minutes' walk brought the group to a desolate four-way intersection, streets splattered with grime and dimly illuminated by a solitary lightpost. The curbs wore a surprisingly thick coating of soot-dust, and a few scattered pieces of rubbish lent texture to the scene. At the intersection's center, concealed by a battered, rust-eaten trapdoor, was an abandoned maintenance shaft, leading downwards into the network of pipes, tunnels, and toxic sludge that served as Xia's drainage system.

Roden, a native of the wind-swept wastelands, abhorred the network with all his brain and heart and soul, but on the other hand, no sapient hostile in his right mind would ever choose to enter it, thus making it an ideal location for Black Team's long-term base camp.

Of course, reflected the Bone Hunter grimly, it also means that we, the inhabitants, are all insane.

A brief electrical probe assured him that no unwanted eyes were lurking in the shadows, and then he bent down and brushed away the grime from the trapdoor's surface, revealing a small metal handhold just large enough to permit a one-handed grip.

Roden clamped his fingers over the cold steel, gave a single powerful heave, and the door creaked reluctantly upwards, showers of rust trickling from its hinges.

The newly-revealed shaft was just wide enough to allow a broad-shouldered Vortixx to pass through, albeit uncomfortably. Metal rungs had been set in the wall for foot- and hand-holds, but most of them were bent and broken and coated with a unknown slime. About twenty feet down, a small red lightstone hung by a chain from a projecting bolt, left there by some long-ago maintenance worker. And beyond that was only an airless black abyss, reeking of various objects and substances that were illegal in every land but Xia.

Roden grimaced. Home sweet home.

* * *

"Password?" growled the burly Po-Matoran, not a trace of warmth in his voice. An abandoned airship factory, current headquarters of Team Red, loomed up behind him, dark and solid and dignified, despite its many decades of neglect.

Jallar stepped forward, letting a watery shaft of early-morning sunlight illuminate his helmet. "Crash-and-burn."

The Po-Matoran grunted in acknowledgement and moved aside to let them pass, although his eyes lingered suspiciously on the unconscious Agori-Kal of Sonics, and then on the woebegone De-Matoran.

If the sentry had hoped for an explanation, he was disappointed. Jallar strode, purposefully and without another word, up to a side door marked PRIVATE PROPERTY - NO TRESPASSING - NO LOITERING, and knocked; two soft taps, one loud rap, another soft tap. There was a moment's pause while the echos faded, then the door swung silently outwards on well-oiled hinges. In the darkened corridor beyond, a figure loomed...

"Viper, is it?" rasped Switchblade softly, eyes glittering with a chill shrewdness. "And Echo, yes, and who might this unconscious female be? Well, well... not the first injury this game, nor the last, I'll wager. Step right in."

* * *

Fresh beads of sweat trickled slowly down Roden's forehead, doing nothing to relieve his frayed nerves and growing nausea. His undergarments were soaked completely through, his chain-mail body armor was encrusted with salt residue; he felt a dim wonderment that his body was still hydrated enough for its natural cooling functions to continue so efficiently.

Twenty feet, twenty-two... the red lightstone was drifting up out of the foul depths, casting a blood-red glow over his back and legs. The steel-cored climbing rope slid smoothly through his armored hands, whispering softly in the darkness... his left boot came down hard on a rust-eaten metal rung, too hard, and he felt it bend and twist and give way, plummeting downwards into the endless shaft...

Thirty feet, thirty-one... the lightstone was past, receding, and the hostile blackness closed around his body like scum-laden water, like rank oil.

Forty feet, forty-five, fifty... he could feel the bottom of the shaft rising up to meet him, could sense its solid presence even without the aid of an electrical field.

Fifty-one feet, fifty-three, fifty-five... his right boot hit solid ground, then his left, and then, finally able to release his grip on the rope, he felt for his lightstone.

A few seconds later, after his eyes adjusted to the sudden cheerful glow, Roden surveyed his surroundings warily, feeling a slight uneasiness trickle through his veins. He had only traveled through this area of the network once before, and although he retained a rough idea of its paths and intricacies, he did not know what dangerous organisms might lurk in the stifling tunnels, endlessly patient, eternally hungry...

All the more reason, he reflected, to win these cursed war games as soon as possible.

The climbing rope vibrated slightly; the Vortixx had seen the far-off yellow glint of the lightstone, and one of them was now descending to join him. Roden hoped he (or she) wouldn't take too long, for the shaft had placed him in a location that a lone warrior could defend only with difficulty. He unsheathed his blade, just in case, and took another glance in all directions.

He was standing in a small room, which he guessed was meant to be a sort of control chamber, for gauges, dials, and levers of all sorts lined the walls, along with numerous (and incredibly ancient, by the look of them) pipes running in all directions. The wall behind him was solid stone, but the left- and right-hand walls each contained a pitch-black tunnel entrance, and the wall directly in front contained two. Set in the floor were three rust-eaten metallic trapdoors, each one of them closed and padlocked securely.

Nothing about the scene was particularly unusual, by Xian standards, but Roden was unable to shake off a sudden sense of being watched. Scowling in irritation, he probed the room using an electrical field and, once again, discovered nothing unusual. Even the thin coating of dust on the floor was unmarked, save for his own footprints.

And yet the feeling still remained. Somewhere, somehow, something was aware of him, and pondered his every move...

The Bone Hunter-Kal cursed suddenly, abruptly, and shoved his blade back into its sheath with unusual venom. If something wanted to watch him, let it. He didn't care, not a bit, and if the thing was hungry, then it would have to starve. He had no intentions of being something's dinner, and he was ready to prove it with his blade, his powers, and his fists, too, if need be.

A faint footfall from behind warned of Wraith's arrival. After a brief moment spent performing her own inspection of the room, the female Vortixx tugged several times at the climbing rope to signal the next agent to descend, and then leaned casually against the wall next to the black-armored Hunter. For a minute or two, neither spoke, then Roden took a breath, hesitated an instant, and glanced over at his teammate.

"Do you," he asked, speaking slowly and carefully so as to insure he gave his words their intended meaning, "get the feelin' that someone, or somethin', is watchin' us right now? Or aware of us, at any rate?"

Wraith was silent for a time, then shook her head. "No, Lightfoot. I am afraid I do not."

As the words sunk in, Roden closed his eyes wearily. What, he wondered, is wrong with me? I've never been this... this nervous-tense before. Never. Not even during that Core War infiltration strike, and that was a night to make the bravest hesitate.

Aloud he said, "I think... I think I need a nap, when we get back. Maybe somethin' to eat, too. I'm not feelin' all that well."

"Have you been drinking enough water?"

"Yes, of course I have." growled Roden. "I'm no sludge-brained rookie, and I'll wager I've spent more time in the desert than you've spent breathin' air. I know the worth of water."

Wraith said nothing.

* * *

Jallar had never cared much for talking, singing, speech-making and such like, so by the time he finished thoroughly explaining Echo's role as a Black Team double agent, he felt as stressed and uncomfortable as a small flightless bird in a city of serpents. It didn't help that the sentries changed shifts at dawn, and thus new agents kept arriving and loudly demanding to know what all the discussion was about.

Finally, however, he managed to satisfy his audience enough to make a hurried escape to the building's makeshift sleeping quarters. Located down a length of hallway from the cavernous assembly room, the sleeping quarters consisted of little more than a handful of Order-issued bedrolls spread out in neat rows on the cold stone floor of what had been a thruster storage area. Add a few crates to sit on, hang a lightstone from the massive metallic rafters, scatter pieces of wicked-looking weaponry all about-- hey presto! Home away from home!

Well, sort of. But Jallar wasn't complaining, and as far he knew, neither was anyone else. It was more comfortable than most of Xia's inns, and cheaper, too.

Deep in thought, the sand-hued Agori-Kal was nonetheless fully aware of the two Matoran agents talking quietly in the left rear corner of the room. His eyes glittered irritably. Was solitude a forgotten privilege?

The shorter of the two agents, a heavy-shouldered Onu-Matoran with red eyes and a Great Kanohi Kadin, flashed Jallar a half-hearted smile. "G' mornin', Viper. How goes th' battle?"

Jallar merely grunted in reply and moved to the corner opposite the Matoran, where he divested himself of his knapsack, quiver and crossbow, then settled himself comfortably on his ancient and dust-colored bedroll. Closing his eyes, he pondered...

Echo would be fine. Out of action for a week or two, yes, but physically comfortable. The airship factory had a fairly secure room in the basement which would serve as a prison cell, and apart from a bit of mild teasing, the De-Matoran would probably be better off than his captors.

The same could not be said for Zora, and Jallar felt a sudden, unaccustomed pang of guilt. At this moment, he supposed, her level of head trauma was being determined by some Team Red agent who happened to specialize in healing, and in an hour or two she would either be enroute to Daxia or lying on a cot in the basement. In both scenarios, she would be suffering, and it was his arrow that had done it. His weapon.

He, Jallar, was responsible for the injury of an Order of Mata Nui agent, of his friend.

There's nothing you can do about it now, fool, he told himself. Get some sleep.

And so, being who he was, he did.

Chapter VIII: Gathering Dusk[]

The days crept pass, days filled with soot-streaked sunshine and the heavy throb of Xian machinery. The Order lay low, avoiding the sensitive feelers of the crime lords and factory bosses, but as night fell over the city and shadows made cover in the twisted alleys, the war games continued.

It became a long campaign, with Team Black and Team Red fighting each other to a standstill at every turn. Lightfoot's guerrilla tactics were counterbalanced by Warchief's superior numbers and varieties of agents, and both 'street gangs' were constantly plagued by endless ambushes and raids on the part of the elusive Team Blue.

Nearly two weeks had passed since the night of Lightfoot's duel with Warchief and the two Skakdi of Lightning, and still... still there was no sign of Team Silver.

Zora had not been sent back to Daxia and, although having sustained a minor concussion, she was largely recovered and back on her feet again within three days. In a makeshift Team Red prison cell, of course, with a weather-beaten Turaga of Sonics patrolling the hallway.

She could have broken out of the cell itself with very little effort, but after that? There was that grim-looking Turaga, and she had very little desire to tangle with him, not when he was largely immune to her elemental powers and equipped with enough throwing knives to take down a small army. And beyond him was the rest of Team Red, well-armed, well-trained, and thirty members strong... maybe. Zora had no idea how many prisoners of any team had been taken, had been exchanged, or had escaped since her own capture. For that matter, she had no idea of anything; all she could do was wait patiently for an opportunity for her to slip away like wind in the swamp-grass. She hoped, judging by the somewhat-relaxed nature of such war games, that one would come... eventually.

The only flaw was that Zora was not, by nature, a patient entity.

* * *

Priduk's feet hurt. So did his legs, his shoulders, his arms, his back, and about a dozen other areas of his body, including what seemed to be his very bones and cartilage. It didn't help that he was ravenously hungry, suffering from three broken ribs, and had only slept two hours out of the past twenty-seven. He felt pretty rotten, to put it bluntly.

A total of approximately one hundred twenty-five miles lay behind him, all of it in the form of endless circles around the Xian waterfront. He was supposed to have been relieved by another Team Red scout about fifteen hours ago, but hadn't been, and his anger, although always slow to waken, was beginning to bare its fangs. Who did Warchief think he was, an untiring automaton? Admittedly, his levels of strength and endurance were naturally remarkable, and had been greatly enhanced by his elemental powers of Iron, but what of it? He was still a living, breathing organism, and he had his limits... both physical and otherwise.

Inwardly fuming, he pressed forward through the gathering dusk, salt-spray dripping off his boots. To his left, blunt-bowed cargo freighters rode at anchor in a restless sea; to his right, rows of weather-beaten shops and taverns waited for the night. Below him were the rough-hewn planks of the boardwalk; above him, a steel-grey sky.

At his side hung a machete-like dagger, forged of a smoky-black metallic alloy, serrated near the hilt. It was an excellent weapon, easily a match for those possessed by the finest of mercenaries, and worth a small fortune on the black market. Priduk, however, preferred to use his fists. There was much less chance of unintentionally killing someone that way, and it came more naturally to him than did the wielding of a blade.

His thoughts turned to Zora. The last time he had seen her was maybe three days ago, about the time Jallar had finally found the time to make her a brief but adequate apology for the mishap, and although she appeared to have been accepting her captivity with light-hearted indifference, Priduk was not fooled in the least. The Agori-Kal of Sonics was one who liked to be out and doing, especially during matters of warfare, and the mere fact that she could not go where she liked, and when she wanted, would irritate her immensely. If she had not escaped by now, she would be well on her way to doing so.

He grinned. She was an intelligent Ice Agori with a mind of her own, and uncommonly beautiful. Back in her northern homeland, among her own kind, she must have been quite a heart-breaker. Not that those sharp-eyed frostwalkers were the only ones. There'd been a time, long ago, when he and Zora had thought, maybe... but that was in the past, and although they had remained close friends, wisdom came with the years.

Years. There had been many of them since he and his three companions had departed their homeworld; endless decades, it seemed, and yet it seemed also as the mere blink of an eye. A strange thing, time was, and life itself, stranger yet.

A voice, loud, hearty, and a bit demanding, yet not at all unfriendly, broke into his thoughts.

"Hey! You there! Need somethin' to eat? I got the freshest roast meat, best imported wine, tastiest soup, an' cheap as you'll find it anywheres! Step up, sir, step up; only five widgets a bowl of skipjack chowder, twenty for a bottle of well-aged thornberry, straight from the fruityards of the Southern Continent!"

Priduk hesitated. He had only seven widgets in his pocket, besides a small pearl he'd picked up from a would-be gambler, and prices were always higher on the waterfront. If one wanted to be thrifty... the upper-class restaurants nearer the center of Xia offered a much higher-quality selection of foodstuffs, and at fairly reasonable prices... there was always the chance of picking up a valuable bit of information while mingling with the more well-off citizens; the factory bosses, crime lords, professional sellswords, foreign nobility, and anyone else with a bit of currency to back up their social standing... information was what he was wandering about for in the first place...

The food-stand owner, seeing the reluctance in his potential customer, said nothing, but a faint smile played around the corners of his mouth. Scooping up a well-seasoned slab of Mukau meat, he dropped it casually onto the smoking charcoal fire-grill; the warm, tantalizing aroma drifted out across the boardwalk and cured Priduk's indecision at once.

As the Agori-Kal walked over to the large open window of the food-stand, his eyes made a quick sweep up and down the largely-deserted waterfront on either side, then over the rough-hewn, soot-stained timbers of the food-stand's walls, then the food-stand owner himself. Only a single glance, perhaps less than a second in length, but it was enough. Priduk had registered the location of each surrounding building, the routes to and from each one, the current position and threat level of each sapient being within eyeshot, and the overall cleanliness of the small business he was buying his supper from.

"You'll be wantin' a slice or two of this roast Mukau, then, I suppose?" inquired the owner of the establishment in question, waving a large butcher's knife in the air to emphasize his point. He was a red-and-black armored Ta-Matoran, broad of shoulder and shrewd of eye, and wore a grease-stained Kanohi Rau, Noble Mask of Translation. He may have been a good cook, Priduk decided, but he was most certainly a thieving scoundrel, and that butcher's knife had some deep notches in the blade that sure enough didn't come from slicing up dead animals.

"Yes, please." replied the Agori-Kal, keeping several feet away from the open window. "And a bowl of that skipjack chowder, with a bit of bread, if you have any."

"I got some dry ship's biscuit." grunted the Ta-Matoran. "Will that do for ya?"

"Yes, that'll be fine."

"Alright, then... Two slices roast Mukau, one bowl chowder, bit of bread. Eight widgets."

Priduk's face held no expression; his gaze was level. "Six."

"Eight."

"Six."

"Eight widgets. Take it or leave it."

Without a word, Priduk turned and began walking quickly away. He had only taken three steps when the Ta-Matoran's voice reached his ears. "Alright! Seven!"

Priduk turned, seemed to consider a moment, then shrugged and walked back. "Seven widgets? Fair enough..."

* * *

The Ta-Matoran watched curiously as Priduk rapidly ingested the meal. This was a somewhat unusual custom among the sapient inhabitants of the Matoran Universe, most of whom would have simply absorbed, via their hands, the raw energy contained in the foodstuffs; but then, there were all kinds of citizens. In Xia, no one asked very many questions about your personal habits.

This was fortunate, for Priduk knew that he (like all natives of Spherus Magna) was physically incapable of absorbing the raw energy, even had he wished to. It had made for awkward questions on more than one occasion, and he was pleased that the food-stand owner kept his mouth shut.

Handing the empty dishes back through the window, Priduk made a few polite words of thanks, loosened his sword-belt a fraction, and continued on his way.

It was growing dark. A few scattered rainclouds had drifted out of the horizon, and cold tendrils of mist curled across the streets. Three drunken Vortixx staggered past, chanting a vulgar sea-song at the top of their lungs, and from the opposite direction scurried a cloaked Matoran of Plasma, arms filled with mysterious packages. Farther up the waterfront, a few wall-mounted torches burned with a strange greenish tint, illuminating scrawls of graffiti and the name of the business they belonged to: Muscle-bound Aezog's Secondhand Arms & Weaponry - Low Prices, Hi Quality - Open All Hours.

In the alley to his right, a cloak rustled softly.

Priduk spun, his blade materializing in his left hand as if by magic. His right arm was poised, chain-mailed fingers slightly curled, muscles tensed.

There were no arrogant words, no empty taunts. They came with a rush, at least six of them, of average Matoran height and cloaked in deep blue, and Priduk caught the front-runner by the throat, heaved him off his feet, and hurled him bodily backwards into the others. Someone swore, starlight glinted on a knife-edge, and then the Agori-Kal of Iron walked straight into them, smashing right and left with short, vicious blows.

They had not expected him to take the offensive, but they recovered surprisingly quickly.

Too quickly, for Xian gangsters. Unease prickled at the base of Priduk's skull, but he kept smashing the blue-cloaked Matoran backwards, hurling them to the ground, meeting and notching their blades with his own, wheeling and dodging and battering with raw strength and lithe agility.

And then, too late, he realized their gambit. Drawn deeper into the alleyway by the defensive retreat of his attackers, he had placed his nearest escape route out of easy reach, and hampered his mobility severely... a tall dark figure appeared at his back, outlined against the mouth of the alley, and then, from the other direction, came the sound of running footsteps.

He was boxed.

And these were not Order agents; they were deadly serious.

Chapter IX: Arrogant Blades[]

Zora lay on her narrow cot, staring thoughtfully at the ceiling. It was built of massive wooden planks, well-oiled, tightly fitted, and probably a foot thick. They were dusty with age and shrouded with spiderwebs, but their incredible strength was undiminished; several centuries would pass before it was.

No escape in the upwards direction, that was certain. And the floor... the floor was a solid slab of reinforced concrete, and beneath that, only dirt.

The walls. The rear wall, nearest her cot and directly opposite the door, was solid concrete, like the floor, but the two side walls were built of timbers, like the roof. There was a weak spot in the corner where the front and left walls joined; water had soaked into the base of the wood, rotting the outer layers.

A weak spot, but not weak enough.

That left only the door, which opened outwards. Zora already knew how it was built, having studied it several times before, but she got to her feet and examined it again.

The door itself was quite large, having been designed for the average Vortixx, and was built of wood, with thin horizontal strips of metal bolted on as reinforcement. It had no window, but Zora's acute sense of hearing could easily pick up the sounds made by the sentry without; his breathing, his heartbeat, the faint impact of his feet as he paced the hall.

The door's hinges, all three of them, were massive, and solidly bolted to the wall and door. They were on the outside, however, which left only the latching and locking mechanisms to be considered.

The latch was of the lever type, constructed of a low-grade metallic alloy and operated from both the inside and outside. The lock, a simple deadbolt, was on the outside of the door, high up, but a focused blast of sound waves would take care of that. The only problem was the guard.

Feeling restless, Zora did a few stretching exercises, then began to pace the floor. The guard was a Turaga of Sonics, which meant that he would be able to use his limited elemental abilities to protect himself, temporarily, from a sound-based offensive. He was a grim, weather-beaten character, scarred by countless battles, and, quite possibly, a more experienced fighter than Zora had ever dared to dream of becoming. His array of protosteel throwing knives had a serious, no-nonsense look about it, and every square inch of him, from the steel-grey Noble Miru to the turquoise highlights on his sword-belt, practically screamed: VETERAN!

Escape through the door? Not an option.

Picking up a earthenware pitcher from the floor, Zora sloshed its contents around for a moment, then drank deeply. One thing about Xia, the upper-class's drinking water was some of the best in the Matoran Universe. Probably imported, like the food supply.

She was just setting the pitcher back down when she was startled by an abrupt thud from the hallway. Then came a faint gasp, another thud, then silence...

The deadbolt slid back with a sharp metallic rasp. The door opened quietly, and a large male Vortixx stood framed against the dimly-lit hall.

Seeing her expression, he grinned. "Evening, ma'am. They call me Chaos."

* * *

Priduk fought on, grimly, alone and outnumbered. Sweat beaded his brow and cold fear clutched at his innards, for the blue-cloaked warriors were of a caliber he had rarely fought before, at least not in serious combat. They were fast, agile, intelligent, and highly skilled; only his superior physical strength and endurance was holding them at bay. Three or four, he could have beaten. Five or six... possibly. But now there were eight of them, along with a tall, powerfully-built being who was, like the Matoran, cloaked in deep blue, but was at least twice their size.

And although the tall being had not yet entered the fray (he merely leaned against the alley wall, watching with smouldering red-orange eyes), Priduk knew he was doomed. There was no way out, none at all, for even his elemental abilities seemed to have little effect on the relentless warriors. Time and again, he had desperately attempted to seize control of their mechanical components, but they merely staggered a little and kept on. When he tried to summon, shatter, or otherwise manipulate their metallic weapons, he met with the same results; and now, already weakened by lack of sleep and inadequate meals, his Iron energies were nearly exhausted.

A yellow-eyed Le-Matoran loomed up on Priduk's left, swinging a tomahawk, and Priduk hooked a solid left to the gut, then clubbed the Matoran alongside the skull with a roundhouse right that would have felled a full-grown Sand Stalker. The being staggered, gasping in agony, and went down, tripping up two of his comrades as he fell. Priduk spun, elbowing another Matoran in the face, and then something hit him with incredible force on the left hip and, despite the protosteel plate armor, his whole leg went instantly numb.

He rolled as he fell, a sudden low humming noise throbbing in his eardrums, and out of the corner of his eye glimpsed a glowing blue flash of energy; probably some sort of heavy Xian firearm. He had just enough time to hope it wasn't a lethal weapon, and then an armored knee planted itself squarely in his stomach, instantly forcing every last ounce of air out of his lungs.

A pair of red-orange eyes, flaming like hot embers in the night, and then a voice, low and hard and rasping.

"Soak 'im, Reaper. Now."

Priduk struggled desperately for breath, dark haze already gathering at the corners of his vision, and then there was a single quick movement--a well-placed blow to the chin.

The Agori-Kal's last thought was sharp and clear: Please, don't let them find the lockpick. Anything but that. Anything.

And then the world went black.

* * *

Roden paced the floor, his stomach sick, his primeval sense of foresight humming at the base of his skull.

Something was wrong, and badly.

There was no way to prove it, no way to explain, but any true-blooded Bone Hunter would know exactly what he was feeling. It was one of their common traits; the eerie, animal-like ability to sense impending disaster, often with a surprising level of accuracy. It was not entirely reliable, however, and could easily be influenced by one's inner emotional state. There had been many occasions, in fact, when Roden had been caught completely unawares by the ill fortune of himself or a comrade, and vice versa, as well.

He hoped desperately that this was one of those times, but something deep in his gut told him it wasn't.

Had someone been killed? No, death had an unmistakable feel about it; he would know.

Severely injured, then, or in imminent danger of it? Possibly... but who was the being in question? Jallar? Priduk? They were strong, intelligent, and level-headed; even if alone, they would be able to take care of themselves. Zora? She was known to be in the watchful custody of Team Red, and they wouldn't let her die even had she wished to.

Stretching out on his patched and faded bedroll, Roden lay on his back and stared gloomily at the ceiling. It was skillfully constructed of mortar and stone, like most other areas of the Xian drainage system, but had the advantage of being relatively clean and pollutant-free. Team Black had chosen their base camp carefully: an unused storm-drain maintenance room, with only two main entry points (both easily-defendable), a fairly large amount of living space, and a direct shaft to the surface, for emergencies. At the moment, all of the team's members were absent except for himself, a one-eyed male Vortixx, and an injured Matoran of Magnetism. Not exactly the ideal defense force; but Chaos, strategical specialist and Roden's unofficial deputy, had assured him there would be no trouble.

That was then. This was now.

Biting back a curse, Roden jumped to his feet and began pacing again. Once he stopped to drink a few swallows of water and gnaw half-heartedly at a strip of jerked meat, which did nothing to cure his unease. Why didn't the strike party hurry? And the recon squad?

Footsteps sounded, soft against the cool stone floor. It was the one-eyed Vortixx, spear in hand, grim-faced, and something in his voice, some unnamed fear, sent a quick chill up Roden's spine. "Captain? I think you'd better come look at this."

Drawing his sword, the Bone Hunter-Kal followed him back along the western tunnel to where a bright red lightstone hung above a makeshift roadblock constructed of scrap metal, old crates, and stone-block fragments.

Halting, the Vortixx pointed silently into the gloom beyond the waist-high barrier. About twenty feet away down the tunnel, at the very edge of the light, something seemed to move, rippled... very slightly.

And Roden's heart throbbed like a trip-hammer in his chest, adrenaline hummed in his veins; but his mind was clear and cold as ice. His scarlet eyes sparked and flamed with a hot, dark fury, the eyes of a flesh-wounded predator.

Vaulting the roadblock in a single easy motion, he lifted his blade and stalked forward, moving with an instinctive dueler's grace. The one-eyed Vortixx was beside him, spear clenched in both hands, poised for a gut-stabbing thrust.

Three steps... a fourth...

Raw electrical energy crackled suddenly to life around Roden's weapon, illuminating their target in a flickering blue-white glow. The Vortixx tensed, dropping into a half-crouch, teeth bared in a inaudible snarl... Something moved, scurried, flashed dimly against the tunnel floor, vanished in the dark.

"Well, for-- A rat! A filthy sewer-rat, an' half-starved to boot!" burst out Roden, and then swore violently in Bone Hunter, laughed madly, swore again. The Vortixx stared incredulously after the tiny animal, slowly straightened up to his full height, still staring, and suddenly began to chuckle, than to laugh, and then they were both roaring and shaking with mirth, until the tears ran down their cheeks and their insides hurt and the storm drain echoed with the sound, until the bed-ridden Matoran awoke and shouted to know what was going on and Roden bellowed an oath in answer, and the Vortixx pounded his fist against the wall and laughed some more.

And then the recon squad arrived, and decided they were all three either drunk or insane, and swiftly emptied the contents of their canteens over their heads in an attempt to sober them. The Matoran protested, but got a mouthful of luke-warm water down his windpipe for his pains; the sight of his angry sputterings sent them all into fresh roars and bellows and howlings; until, finally, all had to stop and sit down so as to catch their breath.

Roden, still a little shaky from the adrenaline rush, pulled off his midnight-black helmet and wiped his face with a corner of his bedroll. He chuckled once more, suddenly, then leaned back against the wall and drew in a few deep, calming breaths. This was not a time for joking and foolish antics, it was a time of business.

And anyway, something still is wrong, hissed his instincts suddenly, forcibly. Bad wrong. Be serious.

The recon squad was led by the female Vortixx known as 'Wraith', and consisted of two other Xian natives, neither worthy of specific description.

Wraith spoke, her reddish-purple eyes glittering strangely in the shadows. "We have much to report, Lightfoot. Much."

"Speak on, then."

"Team Red's headquarters is in a state of peaceful ignorance; nearly everyone is outside enjoying the 'fresh air'... or so it seems."

Roden grinned wickedly. "Ha. There is no 'fresh air' here, certainly not outside. They must be a-plottin' somethin', which they don't want the prisoners to overhear."

The corners of Wraith's mouth twitched in amused agreement. "Most certainly. They will not be expecting an attack from below, I think."

"Very good. But you've more to say, I can see it in your eyes."

"Yes. To be blunt about it, we also stumbled upon what seems to be the main headquarters of Team Blue, and without being detected ourselves. It was touch-and-go for a minute, though; Riptide herself was lurking about on guard duty, along with that green-eyed ex-Dark Hunter."

"Better and better. Details?"

"They seem to have posed themselves as a party of filthy-rich weapons dealers, and have rented the top three floors of what is one of the finest restaurant-inns in the city. Genuine crystal lightstone fixtures, complimentary energy wall, a statue-fountain in the common room. Very nice."

Strangely, everyone present hastened to mention the fact that they, Team Black, were living in what was most certainly one of the finest sections of sewer system in the city, and 'wouldn't stay in a Xian inn if someone gave the whole thing to me, for free'.

Sour grapes, undoubtedly.

Chapter X: Sting[]

Zora blinked, massaged the skin beneath her eye sockets, blinked again. The green-eyed male Vortixx remained where he was, still grinning.

"C-chaos?" stammered the Agori-Kal, then, swiftly regaining her composure, snapped, "Who are you, and what in Karzahni are you doing here?"

"I'm the unofficial deputy of Team Black, as well as the leader of the strike team that is just now engaged in occupying this building." replied Chaos coolly, grin fading a bit. "As for what I'm doing, well, I'm taking custody of all Team Red-captured individuals, including you. Gather up any personal possessions and come along immediately."

"Anything of that sort I carry on my person."

"Very wise. No false moves now, and don't even think of using elemental powers on me; it won't get you anywhere."

Something in his voice told Zora he wasn't joking.

* * *

Quartz had never been the most intellectual Po-Matoran, admittedly, but he knew how to fight, was the most reliable sentry in Team Red, and wasted no breath on questions.

Awakened from sound sleep by the muffled clatter of steel on steel, he twisted to his feet, grabbed his warhammer, and bolted for the stairs, taking them two at a time. A Vortixx met him coming up, hesitated, sprang hastily aside to avoid the semi-airborne Matoran's flying kick. Quartz landed solidly on his feet a few steps down and hurtled on around the corner without pausing.

In the basement, all fury was breaking loose. Combatants were everywhere, most of them grim-faced Vortixx whom he knew only by sight, which meant that they were both Order agents (a good thing) and Team Black members (not-so-good). It was, obviously, an enclosed-area-adapted Sting-class strike maneuver, but how...?

No time to think. Only act.

Due to their physical superiority, their cynical intelligence, and a natural feel for weaponry, Vortixx made excellent Order agents, and were the second most commonly-represented species in the organization, after Matoran. Males (and some lower-ranking females) of the breed, being confined to, and sorely mistreated in, their homeland of Xia, often attempted to escape the island via ocean-going trade routes, sometimes stowing away on board cargo ships, sometimes attempting the dangerous journey in homebuilt rafts. Only the strong survived; only the cunning were successful.

Their new lives were often the same in respect to strength and intelligence, although factions of all sorts were constantly on the watch for promising recruits. Bounty hunter leagues, criminal organizations, law enforcement agencies, hired-muscle mongers, weaponsmiths... and last but not least, the Order of Mata Nui. Helryx chose her potential agents carefully, and not a single Vortixx had ever proven unloyal to the cause.

Quartz side-stepped to avoid a whirling shuriken, parried a spear-thrust, and charged headlong into the fray.

* * *

"Black Team! Regroup and retreat!" barked Chaos, keeping a firm grip on Zora's shoulder. "We have a green stat on the prisoner op; occupation op is hereby aborted! Green stat on prisoners, red stat on occupation! Mossyhorn, to me!"

A massive red-eyed Skakdi, clad in spiked green-and-brown armor, battered his way free of the conflict and was at Chaos' side in an instant. "Aye?"

"Secure the exit, and now!"

Mossyhorn nodded in understanding; thundered past them and down the hall. Chaos growled, "Now, blast it, where'd that De-Matoran get to?"

"He's-- over there." pointed Zora. "Lying on the floor next to that maniac Po-Matoran."

"The fool! I told him-- Ah, what's the use? Stay there, and don't go anywhere, y'hear me?"

He sprinted off, smashing right and left with the handle of his sai, and Zora stayed put. After all, where could she go?

In a moment, Chaos was back, the unconscious De-Matoran called 'Echo' slung limply over his shoulder like a sack of ground protodermis. "This'll teach him to run off without weapons, the hollow-headed halfwit! More zeal than he knows what to do with, if you ask me... down the hall, ma'am, and double-quick."

They galloped along, scattered Vortixx joining them on every side, the stalwart rear guard still holding back the surging tide of Team Red responders.

Around a corner, another short stretch of hallway... then the cavern-like engine assembly room loomed up all around them, cold and ill-lit and massive. Near the far wall, in the shadow of an enormous automated crane, two figures were circling each other warily, weapons poised.

The first was Mossyback. He looked even bigger in the gloom, indomitable, primeval, and Zora realized, suddenly, that he was more than just a Skakdi... that he was something more akin to an Elemental Lord, an ancient, raw, untamed force of nature. You could see it in his stance, in his physical coloration, in his ocean-deep gaze, in the way he seemed to sprout from the earth like a moss-draped oak. In his hands he held a carven, twisted staff, studded with six-inch spikes and fully as tall as Zora herself.

Facing him, acid-blade poised in an unorthodox Vauhti defensive position, was Jallar. His red eyes were narrowed slits behind his sand-hued helmet, but Zora could see the cold flames rippling in their depths, could feel the immensity of the silent power throbbing in the air about him, and she felt a sudden chill. By weight, the Agori-Kal of Gravity was less than a third of Mossyhorn's size, built lean as a razor and lithe as a bullwhip, and an expectant hush fell over the watching warriors, Red and Black alike.

Mossyhorn spun his staff easily in one massive hand, green sparks of energy trailing along its length, wind whistling softly amidst its wicked thorny spikes. His deep voice seemed to reverberate from the earth itself, each word a thousand pounds of solid stone. "Stand aside, Viper. I do not wish to harm you."

Jallar planted one clawed foot firmly on the round steel drain-cover that was Team Black's escape route, shifted his grip on his sword. "No."

Mossyhorn's eyes gleamed brighter, blood-red in the shadows. "This is your last chance. Stand aside."

"No."

"Very well." growled the mutant Skakdi, and spun his staff once more, caught it firmly in both fists, slammed it against the ground with an ominous, echoing boom. The floor trembled, shuddered, trembled again, and Jallar tensed, waiting...

For a moment, all was still.

The steel-reinforced concrete rippled suddenly upwards, cracked, shattered like glass, fist-sized fragments spinning wildly in all directions. Thick clouds of dust billowed and wafted on the air, obscuring the scene, but Zora caught a hazy glimpse of something moving darkly on the ground between the two warriors, writhing, unfolding, groping outwards... she took an involuntary step backwards, blue eyes wide with horror; as if in a nightmare, saw Mossyhorn level his staff at Jallar's chest, green sparks swirling, flickering, charged with menace.

And now Jallar was moving, silent, deadly. His blade slashed, spun, slashed again, and something--a tentacle? a vine?--flipped in the air, fell twitching to the ground, rolled over. He stepped over it, sword transformed into a spinning, scything blur of protosteel, eyes cold and intense, saying nothing as the rapidly-growing vines shredded into countless pieces and scattered on the floor. Zora's keen sense of hearing picked up the sputtering hiss of acid, Jallar's advancing footsteps, then Mossyhorn's low growl of fury and the sudden heavy thwack as staff met blade.

A pause, a swift thrust, a wrist-numbing parry. The Skakdi was strong, terrifyingly strong... but quick, too.

Jallar circled warily, feinting, searching for an opening. There was none.

Behind him, something scraped softly on stone.

No time to dodge. The thorn-studded vine, hastily grown and hastily animated, lashed out like a whip, curling towards the Agori-Kal's neck with malign intelligence. He sensed it coming, felt the dust-laden air shift with its passage, half-turned to meet it... his eyes glittered in the darkness like a snake's. The dust rippled, froze.

Three feet from his chain-mail neck-guard, the vine slowed as if submersed in cold airship oil, halted, quivered feebly... Jallar's blade slashed it cleanly in half, then again, then a third time for good measure. And then the dust rippled once more, the air thawed, and the fragments fell twitching to the floor and Jallar spun easily, sword poised, to face the Skakdi.

Mossyhorn leaned on his staff, eyes cold. "Gravity. I see. Nicely done, Viper, nicely done."

He took a slow step forward, deep voice turning dangerously soft. "But I am much, much more than a city-bound wielder of Plantlife, fool. I warned you, did I not?"

And as quicksilver lightning, so their weapons met, and so they dueled.

* * *

"If this was a Steltian arena match, we'd be paying double admission for third-class seats." whispered Zora in appreciative awe. Her gaze was intense, carefully tracking every skillful movement of the circling, weaving combatants, their combat styles, their unique strengths, every stroke, every parry, every step.

Chaos flashed her a thin smile. "Certainly. And they've been going at it for at least fifteen minutes now, which would get us an 'extended battle' payment at the exit. Thing about Steltians, they're never so drunk that they forget the worship of money... there! Nice gambit, that! Now follow through, follow through... yes!"

Mossyhorn staggered, but he was a tough as rawhide and solid as an oak; it would take more than a glancing blow to the jaw to put him down. Red eyes flaming with the infamous Skakdi rage, he countered Jallar's second stroke with a powerhouse swing of his thorned staff, then a rib-crushing body-slam. Jallar rolled swiftly aside, kicking his opponent in the knee as he did so, and the offensive rush met only air.

He was on his feet again in an instant, Mossyhorn wheeling to meet him, staff as a slicing blur amid the shadows. The Agori-Kal of Gravity waited, tensed... leapt nimbly aside as the ground shuddered under the heavy impact of the Skakdi's overhand blow.

A single hit like that, and he would be finished, unconscious for hours and recovering for days.

The thought stood out suddenly in Jallar's mind, but he felt no emotion with it. Only a calm focus, a cold surety. This was what he was built to do, to fight, to make war, to win, to pull the very whiskers of destruction and emerge triumphant. This was his world, his purpose... no matter what the conflict.

And it is not so bad, really, the Agori-Kal admitted, feinting a thrust at Mossyhorn's left side. Always interesting, at least, and I do rather enjoy it. The fighting, that is; not the killing, unless truly deserved...

Their weapons clashed squarely together and locked, the sword sinking a quarter-inch deep into the staff; Jallar heard the sputtering hiss of acid as it bit and gnawed at the polished wood. He skillfully twisted the blade free, feinted, side-stepped, whirled, slashed suddenly at his foe's right arm and shoulder. Mossyhorn growled with half-amused fury, took the blow on his heavy plate-armor, lashed out with a deft, unexpected jump-kick.

Jallar fell hastily to one side, rolling to absorb the glancing impact, came up in a half-crouch. The killing, he remarked inwardly. Yes. That, and the healer's bill.

Chapter XI: Anvil and the Snake[]

"Lightfoot, I believe the strike team is encountering difficulties." remarked Wraith quietly.

They were sitting in a rough semi-circle, cleaning their weapons, talking, laughing quietly; but gradually these activities had dwindled away into an uneasy silence. Ten minutes had dragged past, torturously slow, the half-dozen agents avoiding each other's gazes, glancing up expectantly at every half-heard sound. But still, still no messenger had come.

The strike team had been gone approximately two hours; estimated mission time had been set at forty-five minutes.

Roden got abruptly to his feet; all eyes followed him. "I been thinkin' the same. Grip, Delta, stay here with Ratchet; the rest of you, come with me. We'll move fast, strike from the rear."

"Anvil-class offensive maneuver?"

"Correct."

Nothing more was said; nothing more needed to be. Roden, Wraith, and the one-eyed Vortixx picked up their weapons (longsword, katana, and spear, respectively), faded like mist into the tunnels, and an uneasy hush lay heavy in their wake.

They walked in silence for a time, left down a side-sewer, straight on over an acid-burned gangplank, sharp right through a battered metal door that swung softly on its hinges as they passed. Roden's yellow lightstone lit the way, and the winding route was familiar underfoot. Each of them had traveled this way many times in the last few weeks; the surface beckoned.

Several hundred feet of grimy maintenance tunnel, another door, another gangplank. Something rippled unnoticed in the gloom as they passed, perhaps a rat, perhaps not.

Four hundred yards of open storm drain lay before them now, and after that, a direct shaft upwards to the central industrial section of Xia, only a mile or so from the grim, soot-smeared flanks of The Mountain.

It was thirty-seven minutes past midnight. Oily shadow lay heavy on the land, shrouding the greed, the ambition, the caculated plots in the hearts of its people.

"'...and out of the darkness, a hero returns...'" muttered Roden suddenly, under his breath. "What's the next line? '...his blade lies broken, his heart lies burned...'"

"Sounds depressing to me, that's for sure!" exclaimed the one-eyed Vortixx jovially. (Roden winced slightly, not having realized he was speaking his thoughts aloud.) "It's got a certain ring to it, though... like a legend, or a prophecy. Something a Turaga might say."

Wraith's gaze was sharp. "'Twould be a prophecy; legends are spoken in the past-tense. Where did you hear the words, Lightfoot?"

"Oh... far from here. In a desert." remarked Roden casually. "Long, long time ago, it was... look, here's the shaft."

They fell silent, and the Bone Hunter-Kal was glad of it. Usually, he was able to parry questions about his early life with a few vague references to an arid homeland and a largely-extinct species... but mysterious rhymes and legends, they were slippery things altogether. Best to change the subject as hastily as possible.

Come to think of it, why had that prophecy reared its shadowed head now, of all times? He hadn't pondered it for... well, decades.

Did it have something to do with the chill warning-sense humming at the base of his skull?

Or...

...what?

The dark, stagnant tunnel held no answers, and Roden flexed his chain-mailed hands in anticipation of the climb ahead. For the moment, duty called.

* * *

Blade in his right hand, heavy-linked chain clenched tight in his left, Jallar swung in a long, fast, downward-sweeping arc, fifteen feet high off the solid concrete floor. His face was expressionless, his eyes cold.

Below him, Mossyhorn raged and roared and spat incoherent curses into the heavy, dust-laden air. His massive, spike-studded staff was held in a two-handed grip, like an axe, and if Jallar had been more prone to emotion, his gut would have twisted at the sight. The infuriated Skakdi had already smashed three portable generators into half-pound chunks, put a two-foot hole in a reinforced, near-protosteel-grade toxic-liquid tank, and cracked the floor in seven different places. How the wooden staff had held up to such usage, Jallar had no idea, but there was barely a fresh scratch on the thing, let alone the beginnings of fragmentation. Dust and oil and choking fumes were everywhere, but the duel went on, for only a thirty-pound sledge to the Skakdi's skull could have stopped it.

He swung up, up, hung sickeningly in the air for what seem an endless time, hurtled back down, down, leveled off, began to rise again...

Twenty-three feet off the ground, he let go.

Mossyhorn went temporarily mute with rage, and the silence was deafening.

A tight somersault; the soot-stained wall loomed up, only inches away. Jallar's momentum carried him on, feet first, and he made a solid two-point landing against the completely-vertical concrete barrier... and stuck.

Zora's blue eyes sparkled. Chaos swore.

* * *

Roden hit the ground in a duelist's crouch, blade drawn. His eyes moved, testing the night.

No sound. No movement.

Nothing...

He turned, called softly back down the narrow shaft. A pause, the faint rustle of a cloak; and then Wraith was standing beside him and the one-eyed Vortixx was carefully replacing the battered metal trapdoor.

"Two blocks due north." whispered the Bone Hunter-Kal. "Weapons out; I'll take point. Keep an eye out for sentries."

* * *

Jallar had to smile, at least inwardly. Mossyhorn's half-enraged, half-stunned expression? Priceless.

Sheathing his acid blade, the Agori-Kal of Gravity strolled casually up the wall, almost to the ceiling, then pushed off into the air and drifted, as if submerged in water, to a position directly above the mutant Skakdi. He somersaulted into a 'standing' position, and then simply hung there and gazed down at his opponent with no emotion whatsoever. It was the easiest method of irritating someone, and Jallar knew it.

Mossyhorn stared back, flames re-kindling in his eyes. A minute passed, then another, and then he broke. No swearing, no insults; just a single, primal, rumbling roar of challenge and fury that echoed off the walls, echoed again, stirred the fighting blood of every warrior in the room. Jallar's eyes narrowed ever-so-slightly, for he recognized the sound.

It was the battle-cry of a full-grown male Muaka, only... deeper. More powerful, with an underlying note of dominance in it that he had never heard, and he had studied dangerous Rahi for thousands of years.

He thought, Who... what... is this being?

And then he thought, A dangerous beast, ready to be put down.

And his smile was a taunt, and the watching agents stirred restlessly when they saw it. Zora's smile faded; she could feel the raw tension in the air, and the healer's intuition in her said, Storm's gonna break. Get out now.

Her eyes narrowed.

Jallar gestured slightly with his left index finger, and Mossyhorn levitated off the ground until the two beings hung face-to-face in the center of the room, about fifteen feet apart.

The Skakdi's gaze was calm, level. He showed no fear at Jallar's power over him, only a slight wariness.

Jallar met his gaze, and spoke, softly. "You thought I was less than you."

It was a statement, not a question. Mossyhorn did not reply.

Jallar slowly raised his hand, his chain-mailed fingers curling into a fist. "You were wrong."

And just like that, Mossyhorn hurtled backwards at forty miles per hour and smashed straight into the reinforced-concrete wall with a sickening crunch, hung there a second, fell thirty feet onto the reinforced-concrete floor. Things broke. Not the concrete.

The Skakdi stirred, muttered something, and lay still.

Utter silence.

And then, fast as chain lightning, Zora spun in place, drove her fist straight into Chaos' midsection with all the strength she possessed. The Vortixx doubled over, choking for breath, and she face-planted him into the ground with a deft martial artist's move, kicked him in the ribs for good measure, and sprinted away up the hall towards the stairs.

Behind her, the storm crashed with thunder. Battle-cries, shouts, the clash of protosteel and the soft thud of hurrying footsteps; her acute hearing picked up them all, but she was running, moving, and she was fast.

Thirty feet, twenty, ten... she took the stairs three at a time, wind rushing in her face, mentally figuring the location of Team Red's makeshift weapons cache. It would be on the ground floor, probably just across from the sleeping quarters... and her trident would be there, waiting for someone who actually knew how to wield it.

There were no guards at the top of the stairway. Zora slowed, probing her surroundings with a quick sonic pulse.

To her left, a short stretch of hallway opening into a much larger room. To her right... a longer stretch of hallway, with two doorways in each wall and one at the very end.

Ka-ching. Right it is.

The first door on the left was unlocked, and a quick glance inside revealed nothing but cobwebs. The first door on the right was also unlocked, and the room beyond was stacked with dusty crates. There were no fresh tracks, and she moved on.

Second door on the left was ajar, revealing Team Red's deserted sleeping quarters. Second door on the right was not only locked, but boarded up and padlocked... no, that wouldn't be it. Weapons would be kept in easily-accessed locations.

Last door, the one on the very end of the hallway. Zora approached it warily, listening intently.

Nothing.

She reached out, grasped the handle, turned it slowly...

Nothing. Not a sound, not a movement.

The door opened easily, quietly, swung inwards. The room beyond was black as pitch, but a sonic pulse revea--

Stark white search-lights flashed on with a thousand lightstones' worth of raw power, freezing Zora in her tracks. She blinked in pain, hands automatically going up to shield her face, blinked again.

In the center of the room, a tall dark figure loomed, yellow eyes gleaming with malice. In his left hand was a combat staff; in his right hand, a coiled blacksnake whip.

"Tobduk." gasped Zora. "I mean, Warchief. What--?"

Tobduk smirked. "Reckless, reckless... as always. Will you never learn, my dear?"

He took an easy step forward, flicked the whip out to its full length, cracked it thoughtfully. "I suppose not... but no harm in trying, is there?"

Zora clenched her fists. "I'm warning you, Muaka's dung. Use that thing on me, and you'll never live to regret it."

Tobduk eyed her with amusement. "I'd never live to regret it, eh? Killing isn't as easy as you think it is."

"You'd risk your worthless, flea-bitten hide on that assumption?"

"Maybe. But here... catch!"

It was the combat staff. Zora snagged it out of the air, spun it once, grasped it tightly in both hands. She glanced up at Tobduk, her eyes asking 'why?'

He grinned. "If we're both armed, you can't kill me in 'self-defense' and get away with it. Order of Mata Nui law. You know it, I know it... and so does everyone else."

"To Karzahni with the Order!" flared Zora.

"Dangerous words, rookie... now, here's your first lesson. No one in the universe touches my team's weapons cache without my express permission, and that includes sticky-fingered flea-bait such as you!"

Like black lightning, the whip hissed outwards.

Chapter XII:[]

Coming soon...

Author's Note[]

As of September 2013, the Riptide Alternate Universe was permanently discontinued, due to factors described in my Early Fall 2013 blog update.

As follows, is a brief outline of what I had planned for the future of the storyline. All of this may be considered canonical to the said storyline, despite not having been 'written'.

  • Priduk, as you may have already guessed, was kidnapped by hired agents of Makuta Keelara, with the Dark Hunter Torak supervising the operation. Priduk was transported to Keelara’s island headquarters, and there imprisoned. Keelara’s HQ is a blend of natural and technological, set deep in the rugged jungle wilderness yet equipped with all the cutting-edge laboratory equipment, weaponry, and machines she can get her hands on. The island is prowled by numerous Rahi of her own creation, including several... shall we say, uncontrollable accidents. Priduk was kidnapped for use as a bait for an expected OoMN rescue attempt, but of course no one knows this but Keelara herself. Keelara had suspected the existence of a shadowy, unknown faction for some time, and had been working out its details for decades, but only the events detailed in Law of the Jungle, relayed through the remnants of the Visorak swarm, finally cinched the mystery. Keelara now has many important members of the OoMN under constant surveillance by her Rahi forces. Black-feathered falcons, anyone? ;-)
  • The OoMN war games come to head, with Team Black kicking down the doors of the warehouse and engaging Team Red in a running battle through the streets of Xia. Roden appears just as Zora is beginning to lose her duel with Tobduk; the two Agori-Kal proceed to systematically kick the Sanok-wearing assassin’s butt. Eventually, Black puts Red to bay, but right in the middle of the final standoff, Team Blue warriors encircle the entire melee under cover of darkness and get the drop on everybody. Team Blue, led by Helryx, wins.
  • Priduk’s disappearance is discovered. An angry argument follows between Roden and Tobduk, with the former accusing the latter of carelessness. Helryx intervenes, and orders everyone home to Daxia.
  • On Daxia, the three remaining Agori-Kal try to get clearance for a rescue operation. They intend to pick up Priduk’s trail in Xia and, with aid of certain OoMN affiliates, follow it to the source. Helryx flatly refuses, explaining that Priduk’s disappearance means someone individual and/or faction may be aware of the OoMN’s existence, and that sending a rescue party would only confirm it. The secrecy of the OoMN, naturally, means much more to her than the life of a mere trainee agent. A dramatic argument follows, with Roden himself nearly coming to blows with the Toa of Water. Helryx will not be persuaded, and eventually the three give up and leave her office in despair. Helryx logs Priduk’s status as ‘MIA; fate unknown’; hence the story’s title.
  • The three Agori-Kal decide to go ahead with their operation anyway. They desert the OoMN HQ, and use one of the organization’s own airships to travel to Xia.
  • A ‘who dunnit’ mystery now commences, with the Agori-Kal trying to keep one step ahead of their infuriated commander’s pursuing agents and simultaneously track their missing comrade. Possibly (this was just an idea), they pick up a few old friends along the way, including a rebuilt Turaga of Stone?
  • Eventually, they lose their pursuers and make it to Keelara’s island. In some order or another (the finer details of this part of the plot were still under development at the time of the storyline’s discontinuation) Keelara notes their arrival, and sends Torak to eliminate them. Her ultimate purpose is to have OoMN agents slay the Dark Hunter, thus provoking the Shadow One’s wrath and sparking a Dark Hunter/OoMN war. Keelara fears both factions, but knows both will have to be eliminated if her plots of world conquest are to be realized. So, she wishes to set both at each other’s throats and use the situation to her own advantage. Additionally, she wishes to slay the OoMN rescue team and pin the blame on the Dark Hunters, increasing the chances of all-out war.
  • Much action, drama, and violence ensues. The Agori-Kal encounter numerous traps and Rahi. Their transport vehicle is sabotaged by Torak, leaving them with no way of escape unless they overcome the rogue Makuta and her forces.
  • The Agori-Kal battle Torak. Torak falls off a cliff into the darkness into an inaccessible, maze-like ravine and is presumed dead. Keelara is pleased, and redoubles her efforts to eliminate the Agori-Kal. Canjar, one of her most trusted lackeys, is sent to stalk the trio.
  • The Agori-Kal encounter a mysterious entity, who claims to be a failed experiment of Keelara’s. This entity (whose MOC form is the winning entry in the Keelara MOC Contest I ran a while back) refers to herself as a ‘guardian of the wilds’, and seems to be on a self-appointed quest to counter Keelara’s machinations, working from the shadows and attempting to preserve the ‘natural’ wildlife of the region. She does not join forces with the Agori-Kal, but does reveal the location of the rogue Makuta’s HQ.
  • The Agori-Kal are ambushed by Canjar. All survive; Canjar retreats after a brief skirmish. Jallar becomes separated from Zora and Roden, and sets off to infiltrate the HQ independently, as is his style.
  • In some manner or another (again, the finer plot details were still under development, and as I haven’t thought about them for months, what I did have planned is now rather foggy in my mind), all the Agori-Kal turn up alive and free in the top-security inner laboratory of the lair. Here, Makuta Keelara and the four Agori-Kal battle to a stalemate. Keelara, confident of eventual victory, reveals her plot.
  • Torak walks into the lab, battered and weary, but very much alive. Much drama ensues.
  • Eventually, Keelara manages to win a bit of good feeling from the other five beings, despite her plans to kill them all. She’s really not an evil individual at heart, she says, and she speaks the truth. Torak enjoys the discussion, teasing and irritating the Makuta at every turn. She forks over an extravagant sum in order to keep his mouth shut about the failed plot, and arranges for a boat to transport him to the nearest civilized area. The Agori-Kal decide to give her ‘a second chance’, which is somewhat ironic, considering as how she could feasibly kill them all in mere hours using her armies of Rahi. Keelara, however, arranges a boat for them as well, on condition that they do their best to keep the OoMN from sending forces against her. In effect, she requests a makeshift alliance with the Order. The Agori-Kal, relieved at being granted escape for so little a cost, immediately agree. Everyone departs the island on relatively good terms.
  • Keelara immediately relocates, satisfied at having pulled off a narrow escape. She has not sparked the OoMN/DH war, but has learned much about the Order, and at least has arranged a treaty with them, allowing her greater freedom of operation in the future. Naturally, she still intends to crush all other factions save her own.
  • Fate Unknown ends.
  • Many vague and only half-planned adventures were to ensue, centering on the lives of Torak, Keelara, and the Agori-Kal up to, and during, the Reformation of Spherus Magna, after which the Order disbanded and all began new lifestyles of their choosing. Again, these plans were all very vague and only half-formed in my mind. There is no point in further description.

Characters[]

Coming Soon...

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