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Justice or Ambition[]

Zortak was hot. He was sweating under his armor and breathing heavily, even though he was trodding through freshly fallen snow and a crisp, wintry wind. Why was he hot, then? Simple. Zortak was far from alone. He was surrounded by dozens of beings, surrounded on all sides by hot-bodied warriors over whose heads the bulk of the winter wind blew, never reaching Zortak or embracing him in its chilly grasp.

What was he doing here? Well, Zortak was a mercenary, just like the rest of the intelligent beings here. There were unintelligent beings, as well, those stupid worms-in-armor called Rahkshi. Zortak did not despise them, but did think lowly of them. One can think himself superior to the minions of one's employer, but one never despises their employer's "sons."

Being a Skakdi, Zortak was itching for a good fight. He was one of the more skilled mercenaries that Makuta Cekadax had hired to do her bidding, and didn't want to waste his skill on random Toa trainees. Zortak wanted to go after someone of true fighting prowess.

But that would never happen if Zortak didn't keep on walking. So he continued trudging through snow that got deeper by the minute. There was a shout from up ahead. Someone had seen a figure in a cloak running past. A group of voices rose up, questioning who it was. The witnesses said it wasn't a Toa, and they could tell because he had no mask on. Zortak noted this. Cekadax had warned that not only did the Toa have a stronghold here, but the dangerous race called the Hokanuka did as well. Zortak's permanent grin grew broader. Hokanuka were known for their skill. Zortak hoped to meet one. Hopefully, they would be difficult enough to worth fighting.

Another shout. Someone was rendezvousing with the army. A blast of fire and shadow intertwined into one shot overhead. Recapar, Zortak thought. And from the particular sound of the commotion, it appears Zracknar is there, too. Suddenly the noise quieted down. The army stopped walking. All eyes and ears were turned to Zracknar and Recapar. Zracknar spoke after a moment.

"Loyal members of Makuta Cekadax's army, the day has come. Today the Brotherhood will finally be rid of the annoying Toa Faxhuun and his Order. We are grateful to Makuta Ikirro for assisting us in this battle," Zracknar said, gesturing to someone whom Zortak could not see, "and Makuta Burtok for supplying us with inside information about the Order of Altronia."

Zracknar raised his tool, and the crowd erupted with cheers. "And the commander herself has granted us the service of her zealous lieutenant, Recapar, the master of Fire and Darkness!" Again the crowd exploded. "And of course, I am present as well. I will strike the Order of Altronia at its root! With such a group of commanders, and such a great army, victory is assured!"

Zortak smiled. He knew that victory was at least quite likely, but he was smart enough to know that when fighting Toa, no victory was truly assured. He was sure the others knew that as well. Still, he could see why Zracknar had lied. No point in being bluntly realistic to a bunch of people you need motivated to fight for you. Around him, the crowd cheered once more. Zracknar gestured with his tool toward the distant fortress. "We advance now, and show these infidel the power of the Brotherhood!"

Zortak and the army charged. The conflict was at hand. It wouldn't be long now.

Varoak stood at his post, unmoving, silent. He was always like that while on duty. It made him all the more intimidating to potential trespassers. As the cold eyes of the giant looked out across the Altronian landscape, they spotted something odd. A plume of dust was rising off the desert. Not only that, a shadow was crossing the ground. Varoak grimaced. It was a shadow all right, but it was the shadow of war, by the hand of the Brotherhood. Varoak had been warned, and Varoak had been told to stay at his post. The Brotherhood's army would have to go through him to get into Altronia Fortress. Varoak knew that he couldn't hold them off forever. He hopefully didn't have to. But whatever the case, he would go down fighting.

Varoak started at something unexpected. The Brotherhood had sent an advance party. Consisting of about a dozen mercs, it had managed to get close to the fortress walls without Varoak noticing. Not only that, they appeared to have been ordered to subdue any guards they encountered, for they charged Varoak at first sight. The giant gripped his spear and met their charge head-on. Varoak first charged at the party with his spear leveled at them. They broke formation to permit him to pass between them, as any intelligent beings would do. Varoak was smarter than they suspected, though. He swung his massive spear, its reach surprising the mercs, and its bladed tip spelling the end for two of them. The other ten attacked in a V-shaped formation, with the two sides passing Varoak first, then the center reaching him, and finally the entire thing closing into a circle, with Varoak in the middle.

"You greatly overestimate yourselves," Varoak snorted. With a twirl of his spear, he flattened the five mercs to the front of him, then swung his fifteen-foot long spear over his head and brought it down on the center merc in the group behind him. The mercenary never saw a thing ever again.

The other four backed up, not willing to bear the brunt of Varoak's spear anytime soon. That didn't stop him. He hurled the weapon straight at one of them, barely missing. Varoak then rushed the merc nearest him, reaching for the enemy with his massive hand. Varoak's fingers closed on the merc's head, his palm covering the enemy's face. With a windup, and a heave, the massive warrior drove the head of his enemy into the dirt, knocking him out immediately. There were three mercs left. Varoak's spear was across the field from its owner, with the mercs between them. It was just the setup Varoak needed.

"You must be ignorant to challenge me. Allow me to educate you," he said, as the spear began to quiver. "I am a member of the Order of Altronia," he continued. The spear began to slide across the ground, then flew through the air toward its master, spinning rapidly as it did so. "I am a defender of justice." The mercs had taken no notice of the spear, all their attention focused on Varoak's monologue. "I have been a warrior for millenia, and a hero for centuries. I was vanquishing the wicked long before you existed. Therefore,--"

The whirling spear collided with the mercenaries, smashing them into unconsciousness and scattering them across the landscape. Varoak smiled grimly as the weapon returned to his hand. "Therefore I am out of your class."

News travels quickly in Altronia Fortress. Other guards immediately learned of Varoak's conflict. They knew Varoak had it well under control, so the sentries instead alerted the inhabitants of the fortress. Others also came to Varoak's side of the building, keeping watch for the approaching army. The army had gone below a dip in the plain, to the sentries could not see the troops well. One of them squinted, trying to see through the falling snow and spot something that would give him a clue as to where the army was.

That was when it happened. A shape alighted to the surface of the walkway on top of Altronia Fortress's walls. The figure made little noise, apparently trying to be stealthy. The Sentry tried to alert his comrades. That was when he noticed that there was no noise coming from his mouth, the snowstorm, or even background ambiance. He was in a silence field.

That made it all the more haunting when he heard a crisp, yet dark-sounding voice in his head. No noise out of you, Toa, the voice said.

The Sentry tried again to alert his comrades, but this time found that his efforts were not only in vain, but unnecessary. A blue and silver Skakdi was assaulting one of the other Toa, attacking with a gun-like weapon that fired tiny, metallic projectiles at a rapid pace. The Toa, being a Gravity Toa, drove the projectiles into the stone walkway, but was taken off-guard by the Skakdi's eyebeams. The first Toa looked around for the figure, but the thing had escaped. When the Sentry looked back for the Skakdi, he was gone too. Not only that, the silence field was fading. This was odd. Why did the attackers go after the sentry's comrades, but leave him alive?

Oh, I'm getting around to you, the Voice said coldly.

"Show yourself!" the Toa shouted.

His attacker did. He was clad in black and silver armor, red eyes blazing behind a one-way visor, wrapped in an aura of shadows. I am Makuta Ikirro, his mental voice announced. I never forget a target.

The Makuta attacked with his sword, slashing at the Sentry. The Toa barely defended in time, and was shoved to the side by the Makuta's surprising strength. Ikirro attacked again, swiftly as a flitting shadow. The Sentry held out as best he could, but a blow from the side, a power strike from the front, and one last blow to the head from the impossibly fast Makuta drove the valiant Toa to the ground. Ikirro never changed his expression. He simply looked at the Toa for a moment, then aimed a bolt of Molecular Disruption. That was the last thing the Toa ever saw.

The Vindicators were almost packed. They had spare weapons, provisions, and bandages collected, and now they just needed to gather in the rendezvous spot, a particular hallway that Suntrah and Rajal had specified. As Suntrah waited, his team, composed of Bultrox, Lohrua, Panuko, Vaturi, Levuku, Vohk, Ferrak, and the Toa Tronux, who were composed of Runik, Xovar, Bartha, Yurdil, Jahvoka, and now Rewta as well, gathered in the hallway. They were joined by Sybeko, Jardel, and Zallirix, who were also part of their battle unit.

Suntrah looked them over to make sure they were all present, then turned to Rajal, awaiting commands form the Order of Altronia. Rajal opened his mouth to speak, but almost at once cocked his head at a noise only he could hear. Immediately he whipped out his blades and prepared for conflict. "Someone's breakin' in!" he shouted.

The Vindicators went for their weapons, and made sure they were ready. Rajal listened for a time, then shouted, "Split up! They're in multiple hallways!" He and the rest of the unit rushed off to confront their attackers.

Suntrah himself traveled along with Bultrox, Panuko, and Vaturi. They went down the hallway that led past the Universal Alliance's dorms, which were of course vacant. Or they should have been. There wee crashing sounds coming from inside the dormitory, Which Suntrah and his partners investigated. Upon entering the room, they found a Skakdi rampaging around, trashing anything he found.

"Stand down!" Suntrah shouted at him.

The Skakdi whirled and flashed a grin. "At last! A challenge!" With that, he pulled out his weapons. One was a machine gun, which he fired at the small group of Vindicators. They all dove to avoid the bulletlike projectiles. His other weapon was a broadsword, which he swung at Vaturi when she tried to get close. She got her wing blades up in time to block, but was thrown back.

Suntrah took advantage of the Skakdi's distraction to fire a bolt of black lightning at him. The Skakdi's sword flared up with electricity, the two types of electron-based energy exploding in a bright flash upon contact with each other. Both Suntrah and the Skakdi were sent reeling, and all the occupants of the room were blinded. The Skakdi may have been blinded, but he still put his eyes to use. He fired his eyebeams at the sound of Bultrox cursing. The Beams missed wildly, but ricocheted upon contact with the wall and then again upon contact with the others. Soon the beams were bouncing all around the chamber, and the people inside, with their sight returning, could see the danger they were in. That is, until Bultrox, in the eyebeams' path, calmly put up his sword to diffuse the beams. The Runask then charged the Skakdi, the latter grinning in anticipation of the conflict.

He got more than he bargained for. Bultrox whirled his sword around, striking from the bottom-left. As the Skakdi was blocking that, Bultrox employed a new toy. He had had Lohrua turn a wrecked Nektann robot into a rotating protosteel shield, which the warrior activated and attacked the Skakdi with. The Skakdi deflected the shield with his thickly armored gun, but had other problems to deal with. Bultrox attacked again with his sword, which he followed up closely with another shield blow. The Skakdi barely blocked the two blows before Bultrox attacked again. This time, the Skakdi was overwhelmed. Bultrox slashed off some of his enemy's shoulder armor, then carved a gash in his side armor with the Nektann Shield, and finally downed the Skakdi with a blow from his sword's pommel. He kicked the Skakdi, sending him sliding across the floor to Suntrah, who conjured a chain of black lightning to bind his foe.

With a gesture, Suntrah had Panuko imprison the Skadki's hands in diamond crystals, while Vaturi put her wing blade to his neck. Suntrah leaned in to speak with their captive.

"Who are you and who do you work for?" the Runask asked.

The Skakdi smiled, as always. "I am Zortak," he replied. "And you are about to meet some of my friends. Oh, here they come now!"

The four Vindicators turned to look. Zortak grinned broadly and fired his Ricochet Vision, which he aimed at the back of Suntrah's head. The Skakdi's eyeblast bounced off Suntrah and struck Vaturi, then Bultrox, then finally Panuko. "Made you look!" the Skakdi laughed.

With his foes stunned, Zortak then used a combination of his muscles and his eyebeams to break his hands free. Gathering up his weapons, he exited the room, slamming the door in the face of a pursuing Bultrox. Behind Zortak, the Runask's Disruptor Sword plunged through the door and cleaved it in half, but failed to open it. By the time this was accomplished, Zortak was gone.

Bultrox used his Nektann Shield to shred the rest of the door to bits as his teammates approached. Looking down one hallway, then the next, they concluded that their quarry had escaped. Suntrah led the way down the hallways as the group continued their search for enemies to purge form the fortress.

Rajal was tense. He, Levuku, Ferrak, Vohk, and Zallirix had teamed up to go search for invaders. Why Zallirix had chosen to join with the group containing Levuku, his archnemesis, no one was sure, not even Zallirix. At any rate, Rajal had gotten stuck with the newbie-wad against who-knows-how-many who-knows-whats. No, Rajal didn't dislike any of the group particularly. Except Zallirix, but that's expected. He had full respect for Levuku, Vohk, and Ferrak, but also knew each was somewhat new to the perils and challenges of war and heroism. True, Ferrak's past was still largely a mystery, but from Rajal's knowledge of Nurtox education, a disciplined fighting course was nonexistent in their curriculum. And Levuku, he was still a bit raw in his skill, but far from a bad fighter. Vohk was skilled, a bit more experienced than the others, though he often didn't show it, and had speed on his side in battle. He also had impulse, immaturity, and flamboyancy as well. It was up to Rajal to be the level-headed one with the experience.

That experience was serving him well. Rajal was well-versed in battle tactics, and that allowed him to better deduce the possible strategy of his opponents. If he were to find a Makuta, they could be anywhere. Makuta took pride in their ability to act unpredictably. Still, Rajal could deduce a possible destination or two for a wielder of darkness. They moved deceptively, but always arrived predictably.

As for a subordinate of the Makuta, which Rajal was more likely to find, they would most likely make straight for a place of importance. Places such as Nytrix's weapons store, Faxhuun's war room, and the transport garage were prime destinations for sabotagers. A Makuta may be found there as well, but the chances were not as likely.

Ferrak had been silent for the whole trip so far, but his thirst for knowledge could not be kept in check any longer. "Who are we dealing with here?" he asked Rajal.

The former Toa glanced over his shoulder at Ferrak. "Makuta Cekadax and her army," he replied. "Rahkshi, mercenaries, who knows what else.”

"That's more or less what I expected from a Brotherhood army," Ferrak said. "What of this Cekadax?"

Rajal smashed open a dormitory door with his shoulder, and brandished his sword at an enemy that, after a moment, turned out to be a lingering Toa. Rajal scolded him for tarrying and directed the Order of Altronia member out the door in search of intruders. "She is a particularly brutal Makuta, one who commands a deadly army. She herself is quite powerful, and nasty in a fight. She specially crafted her armored shell from an alloy harder than protosteel."

"Harder than protosteel?" Ferrak asked. "Is that possible?”

"It is, actually," Rajal answered. "Cekadax used all her knowledge of chemistry to arrive at an alloy of about a dozen metals that is stronger than the former strongest material in the universe. The only other object made of this stuff is Sybeko's sword."

"If it's so strong, why aren't all Makuta clad in this stuff now?" Ferrak inquired.

"Simply put, Cekadax doesn't like to share," Rajal replied. "Other Makuta have tried to sample her armor to reverse-engineer it, but she never lets them. In case you're wondering, we only know this because she ranted about it during a battle years ago."

"Sounds like a Makuta," Vohk commented. "They ramble on about stuff we don't know a lot. Burtok did that way too much."

Rajal sniffed the air, his enhanced senses searching for an intruder in the vicinity. His eyes widened. "I smell antidermis!" he exclaimed. "There's a Makuta in the fortress!"

"Could it be Cekadax?" Levuku asked. "Would she be running interference?"

"No," Rajal shook his head. "That's not her style. She prefers to lead from the background, to let others take her risks as often as possible. She's a nasty fighter, but a reluctant one sometimes. That is, when it comes to fighting one-on-one." He bent down to sniff the floor. "No, this is another Makuta. I know Burtok escaped. You guys are the experts on him. Could it be him running interference?"

"I'd say not," Levuku answered. "He's too lazy. Besides, he's also an egomaniac. He wouldn't be going around being stealthy and avoiding the chance to kill some of his enemies. No, you're right, it's not Cekadax, but it's not Burtok, either."

"Okay," Vohk added. "So there's all of a sudden a third Makuta. Why is this going from bad to worse?" Rajal stood up and pointed. "He went this way. C'mon. We'll see what we can do to slow him down on his mission."

"Great, Vohk," Ferrak commented. "You just had to say that. Now look. It's gotten even worse now."

"Both of you shut up before I make it even worse," Rajal growled as they took off in the direction he indicated.

"With all due respect, Rajal, I'm not sure that anything you can do is worse than what a Makuta could do to us," Levuku replied.

"Well, I'm not sure about Rajal, but I sure could do something to you that no Makuta could ever manage," Zallirix bragged with a nutty grin.

"Yeah, like annoy me to death," Levuku countered. "No one in the history of existence has been as aggravating as you have been in the last month."

"Wow!" Zallirix exclaimed as he leaped while running and preformed a midair double somersault for no reason. "And I wasn't even trying!"

Vohk's head turned quickly to look at Zallirix. "If that was you not trying, I don't want to see what it's like when you do."

Zallirix smiled. "That's all the temptation I needed, Vohk. Thank you for that motivation. Now I will start trying."

Ferrak grimaced. "Now look what you've done!" He shouted at Vohk.

"It wasn't his fault," Zallirix assured him.

"Then whose fault was it?" Ferrak asked.

"Your face," Zallirix answered with a grin.

Rajal held up his hand to order a halt. "He's nearby," he whispered. "The smell of antidermis is very strong here."

"Rajal, how do you stay on topic when we have conversations like that near you? Don't we interfere with your concentration?" Levuku asked.

"Lots of practice, kid," Rajal answered. "I've been ignoring annoying people for centuries. And stay down until we come up with a plan to fight this Makuta."

Zallirix shrugged. "Who needs plans? I never use them."

Ferrak grinned, happy for the chance to get back at Zallirix. "And look where that got you," he said.

"I have the privilege of gazing upon your glorious countenance, yes," Zallirix replied sarcastically. "The rewards are clear. One should never use plans. So I'm just gonna go for it."

"Don't be a fool!" Levuku whispered harshly.

"So you're asking him to deny his core nature?" Ferrak asked.

"No, he's giving me advice form his own experience," Zallirix sneered as he began to leave.

"Oooooh, burn," Vohk murmured.

Rajal gripped Zallirix's wrist to halt his departure. "And exactly what do you plan to accomplish with this move?" Zallirix smiled. "I'll expose the radiance of my presence," He answered. "Our visitor'll shrivel up into a little shadow crumple just from the magnificence of my face." With that, he leaped over Rajal and began flipping down the hallway, laughing all the while.

Ikirro was a very patient Makuta. He was methodical, cunning, and ruthlessly cold as well. These qualities made for a very effective leader of his forces. Currently, however, he was on a mission to help another. It suited his purposes to aid his sister Cekadax, and therefore he was. Ikirro had gone with the advance party of Cekadax's army and infiltrated Altronia Fortress with Zortak and a few other highly trained mercenaries. Zortak and the others were to simply breed a little chaos, but Ikirro had a more important task in mind. He was going to open Altronia Fortress's gate from the inside.

This would allow the full might of Cekadax's army to invade the Order of Altronia's stronghold and seal a Makuta victory. Ikirro once in a while would telepathically scan the mind of Zracknar, who was in charge of the main army, to see if the time was right or not. The right time would be just as the army arrived in front of the fortress. Too early and others may re-seal the gate. Too late and here may not be enough of the army left to prevail over the Toa. It was very simple logic. Any Matoran could have come up with such a strategy, but no Matoran could ever implement it. It required telepathy for communication and the might of a Makuta to ensure that the gate-opener survived his entire stay in the fortress. The Toa should never have made the Makuta their archnemeses, Ikirro thought. We have might they cannot imagine. Powers none of them have. The only reason any are still alive today is because we need them alive for our Plan to work. Otherwise...

The outcome of a theoretical fight between Toa and Makuta who had no use for the heroes was obvious. The Toa would be eliminated insanely quickly, which is what the plan was here. The Altronia Toa were unnecessary to the Plan. They were sport. Why this fortress had lasted so long Ikirro was sure. Cekadax is too cowardly to do her own dirty work, Ikirro thought. If she had any sense she would realize that the best way, when you have the power of a Makuta, to do anything is to do it yourself.

And that was why Ikirro was out in the world doing his own dirty work. He actually found a kind of satisfaction in defeating his foes personally. It felt good to have accomplished something, and besides that, it was good to know that your tasks were in the most capable hands possible. The hands of a genius demi-god.

Ikirro ran another telepathic scan. Zracknar was still not ready yet, but at the pace Ikirro was walking, he and his lackey would both reach the gate at the same time. That was when the Makuta heard something. He turned at the sound of metal striking the walls behind him, down the hall some distance behind him. The source of the noise turned out to be a lanky, smiling creature in green and black armor that was literally bouncing off the walls. It was apparently agile enough to propel itself from a vertical face at another and repeat the motion without touching the floor.

The strange being was also laughing. Maybe that was its hunting call. Ikirro wasn't sure what kind of attack Rahi the Order of Altronia might have. As a Makuta, it was a simple matter to utilize his control of animals to subdue this creature's will with Ikirro's own.

When it didn't work, Ikirro tried to read its mind, but failed at that, too. This occurrence surprised him enough to make him stand still long enough for the creature to leap off a wall straight at the Makuta, swinging the odd tool it carried. Ikirro dodged with a reflexive teleport. The creature landed on its feet and laughed. "I always get the teleporting enemies, don't I?"

Ikirro reappeared only a few feet form where he had been standing as the creature said this. "I don't know. I don't care. Stand aside, infidel."

The creature tossed hits tool, which sailed straight through the now-intangible Ikirro. "No, and don't call me that. Call me Zallirix," he said. "But I guess you'd be better to refer to me as your doom."

Ikirro chuckled in response to that. Zallirix lunged at that moment. The Makuta's sword came up and swatted Zallirix aside with surprising force. The maniac hit the wall feet-first and backflipped back toward Ikirro. Ikirro aimed a bolt of shadow, which Zallirix accidentally dodged by flipping to the side. He only did it for show, but it happened to save him form a lot of pain. Ikirro wasn't standing around waiting, however. The Makuta lunged in swiftly, his sword swinging with massive, killer force. Zallirix twisted his flexible body out of the way, and ducked under the next blow. He used the opportunity to grab Ikirro's legs and, using all of his unnatural strength, smash the Makuta's head into the ceiling. Ikirro pulled back his legs and thrust them downward, smashing Zallirix into the floor.

"That was good, little annoyance," he remarked. "Still, you simply lack the power to stand against me." Zallirix mumbled something weakly.

"What was that?" Ikirro asked. He again tried to read Zallirix's mind to find out what it was, but again failed.

"Your face lacks the power to stand against me," Zallirix scowled.

"That neither makes sense nor interests me enough to continue this conversation. After I accomplish my purpose here, we will--"

Ikirro's sentence was cut off by an orange blur delivering a spinning drill kick to his head. The Makuta caught a glimpse of Vohk as he slowed for a sharp turn and headed back for the Makuta. Vohk aimed another kick, but the Makuta slowed him slightly using his power, gripped Vohk's leg, whipped around, and flung him at the stone wall. Vohk croaked in pain.

Zallirix used this moment to get back up, but fell right back down again afet Ikirro increased his gravity by twenty times. "So impatient," The Makuta chided. "Oh, well. If you want to die right now I can oblige you."

The next thing out of Ikirro's mouth was a scream as a burst of acid venom ate away at his back armor. Levuku began to follow it up with a blow from his quarter staff, but Ikirro whirled, swinging his sword at Levuku. A reflexive teleport and Levuku was gone, behind the Makuta. However reflexive mind read had allowed Ikirro to anticipate this and teleport as well. Levuku was at first confused at the disappearance of the Makuta, but then he was unconscious after a smashing blow in the back from the Makuta's shield.

Ikirro turned to be on his way, this time not stopping to talk. Instead he searched Zracknar's mind for a telepathic update. Ikirro had fallen a bit behind, so it was time to get going.

That proved to be a bit of a challenge. Ikirro was able to hear Rajal coming and dodge the buzzsaw-like wheel from of the Altronia Trainer, but Rajal proved extremely swift and soon engaged Ikirro in combat with blades. "You've made a deadly mistake invading our fortress," He shouted at the Makuta as they fought.

"If I die, it will not be your doing," Ikirro stated coldly. The Makuta had to admit, though only to himself, that Rajal was good. The mutant Toa was swift and ferocious enough to keep Ikirro from getting ample time to concentrate enough to trigger his powers, yet skilled enough to make Ikirro work hard defending himself.

That was why Zallirix felt the pull of gravity ease on his body. He rose to his knees and watched the battle as if it were a performance.

Vohk looked at Zallirix. "Wonder why we followed you?"

"No," Zallirix smiled. "You decided to use my rashness as a distraction, then rush in after me. You were hoping that I'd distract the Makuta long enough to give you four the opportunity to attack him without his various powers interfering with your approach. I'd do the same in your position. Of course, I predicted that you would do that if I charged in madly, so I pretended to charge in madly, just so you'd follow me and we'd have a good fight."

"Did you really just punk us?" Vohk asked, shocked. "I mean, really. Did you?"

Zallirix simply smiled at Vohk and lifted his eyebrows twice in succession rapidly.

Rajal was still fighting Ikirro well for one who is going against one much stronger than himself, and the fight had lasted about the length of Zallirix and Vohk's conversation. It ended about the same time, though. As the two spectators returned their attention to the fight, Ikirro was about done. Rajal swung to the left with his right sword, which Ikirro parried. A blow to the right from Rajal's left was blocked with the Makuta's shield, which left Rajal's guard wide open. The Makuta then screamed, driving Rajal back into a wall surrounding a doorway.

"Pathetic," Ikirro scoffed. "After all that, you fall so easily? If all of you Altronia agents are so weak, I am even more surprised that Cekadax has wasted so much time on you."

This statement proved to be of great prophetic irony. Ikirro didn't even get the chance to begin his departure before Ferrak entered the section of hallway behind the Makuta, preformed a flying leap, and brought a double-fist down in the Makuta literally a quarter of a second after he finished speaking. The power behind the blow was so great it smashed Ikirro into the floor about two feet, letting loose a cloud of rock dust.

Levuku, Vohk, and Zallirix were all back on their feet, and were now making their way back into the fight. The dust obscured their view for a moment or two, but they were in no doubt that behind the veil of dirt, Ferrak was winning. They heard Ikirro shout a few times, metal striking metal and the Makuta's weapons go flying out of the dust even as sparks flew from the impact of Ferrak's fists on Ikirro's armor.

Ikirro hadn't effectively retaliated by now because the blows from the super-strong Hordika Nurtox were jarring his head, jumbling his thoughts. Ikirro managed to force his mind to organize itself, then teleported out from under Ferrak. The dust was almost clear when Ikirro struck. He unleashed a sonic force wave, which slammed into Ferrak's back and sent him sailing over the hole in the floor and almost, if not for fast reflexes from the youth, into Levuku. Ikirro did a quick mind-scan to find that these five were the only ones in their little team. Good that meant the random sneak attacks had reached an end. Smiling with satisfaction, the greatly ticked-off Makuta activated his control of magnetism, sending all five Altronia agents flying toward each other and smashing into a half-conscious pile.

"And this time, stay down," he said as he quickly turned around and departed, this time without interruption. Levuku struggled to force the others' bodies off of himself. He had been physically close to Zallirix before, such as when the nut had used his teeth to pull Levuku's mask off, but having the nut lying on him was a bit too much. He failed to free himself from the pile, though, until Ikirro had gone out of range of his own magnetism power and the five were no longer being pulled together.

"Ah!" Levuku gasped as he shoved Zallirix off him. "That's a relief."

Rajal groaned and rolled onto his side. "Where's the Makuta?" he asked. After a glance around, he said, "Oh, he's gone."

"Yep," Ferrak replied. "And I'm glad. I've never fought anything like that before."

"That was insane!" Levuku exclaimed. "Even Burtok at full power wasn't that powerful!"

"I hear ya," Vohk agreed. "He just shrugged each of us off and moved on, each time. It's like we weren't even making him sweat, until Ferrak joined in, that is."

"Actually, Makuta don't sweat," Ferrak corrected. "And thanks. Actually, it appeared as if, physically at least, I was stronger than him. Not by much, though."

"And yet he still painted the floor with you," Vohk added. "That guy's crazy powerful. And good. He's got serious skill, too."

"That makes sense if you know who that was," Rajal said, rising.

"You know that Makuta?" Levuku asked.

"No, but I know of him," Rajal answered. "He's Makuta Ikirro. A warrior. One of the best. Crazy strong. Epic skill. Good work ethic. Likes to do things himself. He's way more dangerous than Burtok, maybe even Cekadax. Some of our members have encountered him on missions, and barely lived to tell the tale. He's fast, he's strong, and he's smart. If he's here, the Order of Altronia may cease to exist."

Levuku frowned. "That's pretty much exactly what I hoped you wouldn't say about him."

"Get used to it," Rajal replied. "The Order of Altronia has a lot of powerful foes."

"Already got that vibe, thanks," Ferrak commented.

"So we just got floored by Makuta Ikirro," Vohk began, "we are all about to die, and we just got punked by Zallirix."

"What!?" Levuku asked.

"What is 'punked'?" Rajal asked.

"Pranked," Vohk replied. "Zallirix just pretended to rush in without a plan. He really just was impatient to fight, so he tricked us into following him. That way he'd get a fight, but not an early death."

The other three turned to Zallirix, shocked. Zallirix just smiled. "Told you I'd start trying to be annoying."

"Your face is annoying," Vohk retorted, smiling.

"Your face," Zallirix responded.

"Both of your faces," Levuku added, grinning.

Rajal had had enough of this pointless banter. "All of you shut up within the next second or I'll--"

"Shutting up," Levuku and Vohk said simultaneously.

Zallirix shut up for a moment, but couldn't resist the urge to get one last lick in. "Your face is shutting up," he said quietly.

Rajal's gaze darted toward Zallirix. "I said shut up," he repeated. "Now I am forced to employ punitive measures. Zallirix, until this battle is over, you will be under Ferrak's supervision. Ferrak, you have authority to employ any means necessary to shut Zallirix up if he starts being annoying again."

Zallirix cursed under his breath. Ferrak looked at Zallirix and threateningly cracked his knuckles. Zallirix gave the Nurtox an over-emphasized grin and stood up straight in sarcastic attentiveness.

Rajal opened his mouth to speak, but a deep, extremely loud voice, which happened to be Varoak's, rumbled through the fortress then, saying "THE ENEMY IS HERE!"

Rajal's keen ears picked up on a second rumble that all the others with him missed. It was the rumble of over a thousand pairs of feet rushing to battle.

"Come," he said, gesturing in the direction Ikirro had gone. "We will--"

All Vindicators meet at the northwest corner of the courtyard, a female mental voice rang out. Rajal recognized it as Yurdil's. He also noticed that the four with him also had heard the mental voice. Rajal and his teammates exchanged nods and rushed off to rejoin their team.

Six Order of Altronia warriors guarded the gatehouse. One of them, a newbie Toa of Fire, looked out a window for a few seconds, and then tensely walked back and forth. He wasn't used to this. Waiting for an attack at every moment, it scared the initiate. And it scared him enough that when two large beings in black and gray armor suddenly appeared, he jumped in surprise.

The two beings acted quickly, the larger striking down the nearest warrior, teleporting and striking down another, and then using magnetism and his sword to finish the last in a violent fashion. The smaller enemy swung his shield around, knocking down a warrior. As another charged forward at the smaller being, the initiate attacked, sending fireball after fireball at the larger enemy. The larger simply blocked the fireballs, and then with a blast of shadow sent the initiate careening into the wall.

The initiate painfully looked up at the two beings, as the smaller finished off the warrior he had been fighting and turned his attention to the initiate. Pointing his mace at the initiate, the being grinned evilly. There was a flash of light, and then darkness.

Ikirro surveyed the work he and Recapar had done. Satisfied, the two got to work opening the gate, as Ikirro sent a mental signal to Zracknar, the commander. With the gate opening and the signal given, Zracknar sounded the charge and the army surged forward, either charging through the gate, climbing, or flying over the walls next to it. Several Altronia warriors were appearing from various buildings, charging forward toward the gate.

Zracknar was getting a bit worried. After his big speech to the troops, Ikirro, Recapar, and few dozen highly skilled mercenaries had split off in an advance party, with the main army following close behind under Zracknar's leadership. Now the eight-foot Varen had reached the gates of Altronia Fortress, and they were not open. Apparently Ikirro had been detained and would be there soon. In the meantime, the forces of Makuta Cekadax were taking casualties from Varoak and the like. If the gate didn't get open soon, the army would be severely weakened.

Zracknar fired his projectile weapon at a Toa on the wall of the fortress. Naturally, he did not miss.

I'm sure Ikirro will get his job done, Zracknar mentally reassured himself. The information Burtok gathered while being a slave for the Order of Altronia has to go to some useful purpose.

As if on cue, the gates began to open, with Ikirro and Recapar, now rejoined with each other, standing satisfied-looking in the gateway. Zracknar ginned maliciously. Now the fun can begin.

Suntrah, Bultrox, Vaturi, and Panuko were the first to reach the meeting place. Soon the Toa Tronux, who had added Rewta to their ranks, joined Suntrah's group, followed by Rajal's group, then the trio of Sybeko, Jardel, and Lohrua. Suntrah counted them up. Eighteen. Good. They were all here.

"Anybody have troubles?" he asked his teammates.

"A little," Sybeko piped up. "We found an unscrupulous mercenary who was causing damage to the gymnasium. It was a simple matter to fight him into submission, remove his armor from him with Lohrua's weapon, and use the pieces to create a twisted up, metal restraining device."

“I see, so one mercenary was captured," Suntrah concluded. "We met a Skakdi who was tearing up the dorms. He escaped, though. Anyone else find anyone and fight them?"

Runik shook his head. "We Toa Tronux didn't find anyone. We had an uneventful search."

"How about you, Rajal?" Suntrah asked. "You have a more eventful time?"

"Quite," Rajal answered. "We fought a Makuta named Ikirro. He is very powerful and beat the Karzahni out of us. Then he left, like he had just found us annoying. He looked like he was on his way to do something important, but what that may be I have no idea."

"Wow," Suntrah started. "Okay, then. That was a bit more surprising that I expected."

"There's a Makuta here?" Lohrua asked, shocked.

Rajal nodded. "One of the worst ones that could be here, right now. Ikirro seems to specialize in fighting multiple opponents at once."

"So where did he go?" Suntrah asked. "Toward the front of the fortress," Rajal replied. "Maybe he was leaving. The gate's the only really interesting thing in that direction."

Be reminded that the Vindicators were assembled in the corner of the courtyard. Specifically, the front-right corner. From there the heroes could see the gate of the fortress quite clearly. Its dull, black, metal rear surface gleamed with strangely increasing brightness. Lohrua, with a visor built into his mask, noticed this. True, the sun was barely visible through the snow clouds, and its light was dispersed by the cloud cover, but enough of the sun's light got straight through the clouds to cause a reflection on the door. But if the reflection was increasing in brightness, that implied the sun was getting brighter, right? Were the clouds clearing? No, Lohura found. They actually seemed to be growing thicker. The only other thing that could cause the reflection on the gate to grow brighter would be a change in the angle of reflection. And that meant...

It's opening, Lohrua realized with dread.

This was bad. Lohrua took one last look to make sure he wasn't mistaken. He wasn't about the door, but he was about something else. The clouds, which were sprinkling the landscape with snow, were not thickening. What Lohrua had thought were clouds rolling in were shadows, trailing behind the army of Makuta Cekadax. It was strangely symbolic. The shadow of death had been hanging over the fortress for some time, but now there was an actual shadow hanging over it to hammer home the point: For many, perhaps all, of the Order of Altronia, this battle would be their last. That was when all the Vindicators heard the shouts. The crashes. The firing of power blasts. The enemy had entered the premises.

"Uh, Rajal," Xovar announced, "I think I know what Ikirro was on his way to do."

"Well, Suntrah?" Bultrox asked. "What do we do? We join the struggle, or look for a witty way to fight this battle, one that takes longer, but kills more people?"

Suntrah pressed his lips shut tight. All were looking to him for leadership. He hated making decisions like this. Thankfully, he had Rajal, Sybeko, and Runik to help him in his decision. However, even they were looking at him, expecting an executive command from the Vindicators' leader.

In the end, Suntrah gathered all his confidence, and made his proclamation. "If there were a witty way to win, it would take too long. Give Cekadax time to deplete the Order's forces, and any tricky plan will be forced to use too little manpower to be effective."

"We have to fight now," he continued. "We have no time to conceive of any kind of master plan, only enough time to fight like maniacs for our very lives."

Zallirix grinned. "I'm good at that."

Ferrak backhand-slapped Zallirix's mouth to shut him up.

"Those in this battle fight for justice or ambition," Suntrah continued. "Our enemies fight for ambition. They wish to force their twisted agenda on us an beings like us. We fight for justice. We wish to see the right and the true be hailed across the universe. We won't stop fighting until that happens! Now let's go show them what we're made of! Am I right!?"

Suntrah raised his fist to accentuate the last sentence. The Vindicators responded with powerful cheers and their own fists raised. Again Suntrah shouted, "Am I right!?" Again the cheer exploded from his teammates.

"Then let's go fight for what's worth fighting for!" Suntrah shouted as he leaped into the air and began flying toward the opening gate. Cheering with zeal, his teammates followed him into the rapidly darkening fortress grounds, ready to join perhaps their last crusade of justice.

To Be Continued...[]