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Turning Tides[]

Makuta Cekadax was watching the battle at Altronia Fortress through the eyes of Zracknar, her chief lieutenant. He was currently fighting Faxhuun, and winning. This was something of a surprise to her. It seemed that the high and mighty leader of the Order of Altronia was not so tough as everyone had thought. After all, while Zracknar was certainly formidable, he was not quite a top-class warrior. It was a bit disappointing, since she would not have the glory of defeating her long-time rival, but there was always the pleasure of punishing Zracknar for overstepping his boundaries. Makuta always found ways to amuse themselves.

“Well, what’s going on?” Makuta Burtok, standing a few feet behind her, asked.

“My lieutenant is pulverizing that pathetic old relic,” she replied. “Faxhuun will get what has been coming to him, but so will Zracknar when he returns.”

Burtok smiled hollowly. Cekadax was extremely jealous of glory and bragging rights, so Burtok had to be very careful how he referred to the results of their teamwork as they progressed through the battle. Cekadax had constantly reminded him that it was her army out there doing the work, under her command, and Burtok was nothing more than a bank of inside knowledge that was only used every so often. Being a bit of an egomaniac, Burtok was not happy about this arrangement, and planned to make sure that this battle would go down in the records of the Brotherhood as one of Makuta Burtok’s greatest moments, in which Cekadax assisted him, not the other way around.

“I mean with the army,” Burtok clarified. “How stand our – I mean, your forces?”

“They are completely demolishing the Toa and their allies,” Cekadax replied.

“Ikirro and Recapar by themselves have wiped out several dozen troops already. Zortak is doing surprisingly well. I might need to increase his pay.” She thought about this for a moment. “No, I guess not. Best to not tell him how well he did. It makes them mercenaries complacent.”

“Of course,” Burtok replied, keeping his sarcastic tone reined in as best he could.

“Whoop, now the crusty old man is getting back up,” Cekadax announced. “He is really asking for it. He’s got to be half dead already after what Zracknar has been doing to him.”

“One would think,” Burtok agreed. It was best to agree with Cekadax when she got like this.

“Get him, you fool!” Cekadax shouted at her lieutenant, even though he could not hear her. “Kill him! Run him through!”

Burtok was intrigued. “What’s happening?”

Cekadax was flummoxed. “He’s losing! Faxhuun must have been holding back before, or he’s just lost all care for his own safety in his desperation. He’s actually driving Zracknar back all of a sudden! Hit him! Swing! Swing! No!”

There was a pause, silent except for Cekadax hissing in frustration. Finally, Cekadax must have seen something, for her expression went from enraged to surprised, then to cold and emotionless. She cut off the telepathic link and turned to face her Makuta brother.

“Better get a new lieutenant,” was all she said. She appeared calm, but in reality, she was burning inside. Faxhuun dared to oppose her even by eliminating her trusted lieutenant, a warrior worth four Toa in battle! He would pay for that, but best to keep focused on the task at hand. With her lieutenant gone, her primary link to the battle was now Ikirro, and she needed an update on the conflict.

Surprisingly, Ikirro did not wait for Cekadax to make contact, but sent her and Butok a telepathic flash. Once they received it, it was obvious why Ikirro had decided to make first contact. A new army had descended from the sky, and it was not there to help the Makuta’s effort. Hundreds of Yelnir warriors had joined forces with the Order of Altronia, and had already begun to beat back Cekadax’s mercenaries. They were not beating back her Rahkshi because they saw it easier just to exterminate the reptilian creatures.

The two Makuta looked at each other, anger of their faces. Burtok was angry because his day of glory was about to go up in smoke. Cekadax was angry because Burtok had not informed her of this alliance between the Order and the Yalnam militia. Truth be told, the alliance was improvised, but Cekadax did not know that, and neither did Burtok. However, if Burtok were to tell her that, she would never believe him. She would think he set her up so that she would be defamed in the sight of the Brotherhood’s leaders, and there was no way she would let that happen.

“You didn’t tell me the Order was allied with Yalnam.”

“I had no idea!” Burtok replied, stepping back. For a Makuta, fairly cowardly, but one can be excused if they feel like stepping back from an enraged Cekadax.

“You withheld information from me,” Cekadax continued, taking a step forward.

“Of course not! Do you think I want the Toa to win!? Absurd!”

“You want them to win so that I will be taken down a few pegs in relation to you, don’t you?”

“Would I honestly do that? Seriously?”

Cekadax took another step forward.

“I mean, would I do that if it meant letting the Toa win, and letting live those I have spent eight months trying to kill?”

“You have betrayed me, and in doing so have betrayed the Brotherhood by costing us a victory against our enemies,” Cekadax said, with another step forward. She was in Burtok’s face now. “There can only be one fate for traitors.”

Burtok knocked Cekadax back with a sonic force wall, and tried to flee, but found himself magnetized to the floor. He turned around to see Cekadax firing a large, anger-fueled blast of fragmentation at his chest plate. A big hole in his armor opened up as a chunk of it was shattered, and his energy began to spill out into the atmosphere.

“Goodbye, Burtok,” Cekadax sneered as she fired plasma into Burtok’s armor. “Can’t say I’ll miss you much.” Burtok’s essence was enveloped by the unfathomably hot plasma and incinerated, leaving only a charred, hollow shell behind. All the power, all the intelligence, all the willpower that had driven that twisted mind to live an unfortunate, wasteful life was gone, replaced with a lifeless metal shell, which bore a chillingly realistic expression of shock and well- deserved anguish.

Was Cekadax remorseful, grieved or even the slightest bit repentant about ending her brother’s life? Not at all. All she knew was that she wasn’t about to let Burtok’s old armor go to waste. Coldly, with not regard for her deceased brother’s memory, she loosed her magnetic power on the metal shell, compacting it into a mangled ball of protosteel, which she took with her to her weapon smithy, prepared to melt it down and use in weapons. She had left only Burtok’s mask intact, and that she planned to hang on her wall as a warning.

It’s funny, she thought. After all that, Burtok will end up being useful after all, but not quite in the way he intended.

The surprise addition of the Yelnir soldiers and their Vahki-like robotic drones to the Order of Altronia’s troops stunned the mercenary soldiers for a time, as they decided how best to react, but soon the fighting exploded with new vigor as both sides increased their efforts, the Altronians since they found new hope and drive to continue fighting, the mercenaries because the stakes had just gotten higher. As the ship descended, fresh, eager warriors poured from their sides and dropped to the snow-glazed ground, accompanied by their mechanical underlings. A few groups of the less-smart mercs decided to chase the airships around from below and try to deter the Yelnir from landing, to which the Yelnir responded by parking their ships on top of the mercs who attempted that. Immediately the mercenaries began to be driven back as the Yelnir ships landed inside and outside the fortress. However, as the troops were forced toward the gate, they were forced closer together, and so were better able to defend themselves from charging enemy troops. On the other hand, their being bunched up made firing giant zamor cannons from the fortress walls and the Yelnir airships an option once again. Previously, the cannons had not been used since the troops were so mingled, but now, since they were separated into two main fronts, the cannoneers were ordered to open fire.

As all this was happening, there was still the factor of Recapar running interference inside the Order/Yelnir lines. Ikirro had retreated to a perch on one of the walls of the fortress to better see the big picture of the battle and relay information back to Cekadax. He was still firing bolts of power into the enemy troops, but at this point was not physically engaging them, which was fortunate for the enemy, but necessary to maintain surveillance. Sometimes a Makuta has to make hard choices like this, Ikirro had reflected at the time.

Soon, the mercenary troops had been driven into and through the gateway of the fortress. They were still in firing range of the walls, but unable to make up any of their lost ground at the time. Suddenly Recapar came seemingly out of nowhere to land a surprise blow to the front lines, which allowed the mercs to surge forward a few yards. At that point the two forces deadlocked, but the Makuta’s army was badly weakened from both the earlier fight and the sudden renewal of their enemies’ forces. The deadlock could not last.

Zortak, toward the rear of the mercenary troops, decided he had best be elsewhere. Ikirro and Recapar couldn’t make him stay; they were too busy, Recapar with fighting, Ikirro with strategizing and conferencing with Cekadax. Once he had assured himself the coast was clear, the Skakdi turned and fled across the snow-laden savanna.

He had made it about halfway back to the fortress when he started hearing noises in the nearby forest. They could very well have been some Rahi making a nest in the trees, but there was just something…different about them. Zortak crept toward the forest to take a look. There was a whoosh, and a being clad in red and black dropped from one of the trees, standing square on to Zortak.

“Taking early leave?” the being asked in a calm, smooth, yet somehow intense-sounding voice.

Zortak turned his permanent grin up slightly. “Just taking a break. The scenery around here is so pretty with this new snow, it just begs for a nice, relaxing walkabout to take it all in.”

The being smiled in return. It was a flat, humorless smile, one that conveyed genuine pleasant emotion but zero amusement at Zortak’s joke, all the while hinting that the Skakdi should watch it. “Let me make sure you understand something. I have been watching the battle out there from these trees for hours, and have been instructed to intercept any possible mercenary deserters that have come out my way. I saw you leave, and I have been watching you closely ever since. You were not taking a relaxing walkabout. You were fleeing. I know it. You know it. Now let’s stop playing games.”

“Yes,” the Skakdi replied, his smile losing its good humor. “Now, let me make sure you understand something. It’s very simple. I’m going exactly where I want to, and you can’t stop me, no matter what you try.”

The visitor sighed and shook his head. “So much you don’t understand. If you would like to try to back up those words, I’m more than game, but if you would just like to either go right back to that battle you left or surrender right here and now, I’ll appreciate it. I’ve been in a lot of fights lately.”

“As I recall, you said you were sitting in a tree all day on order from Faxhuun,” the Skakdi sneered.

“Not from Faxhuun,” the being responded.

“Ah!” Zortak said as his face brightened up. “Then maybe we can deal.”

The being smiled again. “Oh, if only you knew my boss, you’d know that he would never allow that.”

Zortak was unimpressed, and simply continued. “Look, I’m only trying to get away from all fighting. I’m tired of it, like you. It’s taken a toll on me.” He paused to make sure his visitor was listening, which of course he was, before continuing. “I get the feeling that you disagree with my employer. What does it matter to you if I flee, as long as there’s one less guy on the other side?”

The being was still impassive. Zortak continued talking. “I’m only leaving ‘cause I see it’s not worth it. I’m not going to go down fighting for the Makuta’s plan. Their plan can go to the Ussal crabs for all I care. I’m gonna find some other way a’ livin’.”

What Zortak could not know was that this particular being was the Hokanuka named Slaryka. He was a bit moved by Zortak’s speech, and recognized that some who previously side with the Makuta might want to change their minds and go down another path. Maybe this Skakdi wished to do just that. Slaryka decided to do something his boos would not approve of. It was not the first time, and probably would not be the last either.

"All right. Carry on your way,” he said with a gesture.

Zortak nodded, winked, and dashed off. Slaryka watched him go, pondering to himself. He had not long ago realized that he might want to abandon the Hokanuka because he did not agree with all their practices. Since Zortak claimed to have similar reasons for abandoning the Makuta, Slaryka did what he would have wanted done to him if he were in Zortak’s place. It was only right.

Slaryka flashed that cold smile once more, this time to himself. But I’m not in the Skakdi’s place. He is, he thought. As the Skakdi began to fade into the snowfall-created haze, Slaryka took to the sky to continue watching him. It wasn’t what Slaryka would have wanted done to himself, but he had his orders, and he wanted to make sure his feelings about his own situation in life didn’t interfere with his judgment. I’m still obeying Zalkatrex, he told himself, but I’m being more rational and merciful about it than he would.

No one in the mercenary troops, not even the perceptive Makuta leading them, had noticed Zortak’s flight. However, the battle had shifted again. Recapar had suddenly disappeared, apparently being distracted by someone who knew how to put up a good fight. With his efforts now absent from the mercenary troops’ might, the army was steadily being pushed back.

One of the being on the front lines making the advance happen was Ferrak. His buzzsaw had been ruined in an earlier skirmish, but he was still knocking mercenaries every which way with his powerful limbs. He swatted one to the side with the back of his palm, kicked one into the air, and landed a devastating punch on the shield of another, knocking the shield’s owner ten feet backward and into a few of his comrades. One mercenary came up behind him and landed a slash from a sword, carving a good-sized groove in Ferrak’s shoulder armor and sending him reeling. To this, Ferrak responded by grabbing another mercenary, one that had charged him from the other side, rearing back, and throwing the merc into his sword-wielding companion.

The Hordika Nurtox stood back to survey the battle once again and take stock of his situation. The others on the front line were holding out nicely, seeing as they comprised mostly of the most powerful Order warriors and fresh soldier drones brought by the Yelnir. As for Ferrak’s own team, Lohrua had been injured in the side by a piece of shrapnel and been carried off the battlefield by Panuko, who was now tending to his wounded partner. Suntrah and Lihee were still fighting back-to-back and holding out strongly. The Toa Tronux were fighting as a powerful unit, as were Levuku and Vohk. Most importantly of all, the entire army as a whole was advancing on the enemy. They were beginning to win. It looked, finally, like all would work out by the end of the day.

With a sigh of relief, Ferrak threw himself back into the struggle. New strength welled in him as he fought back, the strength of confidence and newfound hope. There was now a door open, a way to get through the struggle and find triumph on the other side. He would push through, he would find triumph, and he would help others to do the same.

Zallirix was enjoying the sudden shift in the battle. It was making this fight a less hopeless endeavor, and thus something Zallirix could afford to invest more strength in. He was expressing his newfound enthusiasm by trying to be as annoying as possible to everyone he got into combat with. As one might expect, he was saying “your face” a lot.

In fact, at the moment he was using his spear to take hacking swings at a mercenary soldier, shouting “your face” with each swing. Eventually his opponent went down, and once Zallirix finished him off, he turned to the others around and asked, “Any of your faces, too?”

Ferrak, nearby, had been hearing this. He had had just about enough. When Zallirix asked “Any of your faces, too?” Ferrak responded by saying, “Mine.”

Zallirix backed away a step as Ferrak advanced. He remembered what Ferrak had done to the Chilas in the desert last month, and wasn’t ready to have that happen to him.

Ferrak kept coming. “Look. I, and everyone else, don’t need any more of your deliberate annoyance. In fact, we’d be happier without it. I’m going to speak for everyone you are annoying and have annoyed so far today by saying…” he leaned in close, “’If you don’t stop this pointless aggravation in the next instant, I’ll make sure that you do the next.’”

Zallirix smiled. “How can you ever be sure that I’ll stop? I’m a pretty daring fellow.”

“You won’t be so daring anymore if you incur my wrath,” Ferrak said with a smile and clenched fists.

“Oh, I think I will,” Zallirix smiled back.

“Why’s that?” Ferrak asked.

Zallirix was not one to give up the chance to get one last lick in. “Nothing you can do to me could ever be as bad as what’s being done to me by your face.”

True to his word, Ferrak didn’t hold back. With impossible speed, he landed a piston-like blow to Zallirix’s chin. The immense power behind the blow sent Zallirix on a high-speed tour of the local air space, which ended with a nice, loud, upside-down smack into the fortress wall.

“Ow. My face,” was all Zallirix said as he slowly slid back to the ground.

Ferrak watched the nutcase slide to the ground with amusement. He turned to get back to the fight, but before he could begin, Levuku appeared beside him, offering his hand to give Ferrak a high-five.

Ferrak obliged. “Glad I got rid of your haunting spirit?” Ferrak asked with a smile.

Levuku laughed. “No, he’s not a haunting spirit. Zallirix is more like one of those itchy spots you get when an insect bites you. You can’t get rid of him, and he just gets worse if you try to scratch away the irritation.”

Ferrak laughed in response. “Come on, Levuku,” he said as he turned back toward the fight. “Let’s get this finished.”

The battle did not last too much longer. Cekadax’s force had really taken a pounding from the new arrivals on the other side, and with Zracknar’s leadership gone, Ikirro and Recapar were somewhat unable to gather the remainder of their forces together well enough to enact a winning strategy. Eventually, with grudging consent from Cekadax and eager consent from the mercenaries, Ikirro ordered a retreat. The fight was pointless to continue. The Order of Altronia had won the day.

As the last of the troops pulled away, the gates were closed back up, the troops gathered together, and losses were tallied. It had been a battle with heavy casualties on both sides, but most of the Order’s troops had been lost in the first part of the fight, whereas the mercenaries started dying off toward the end. Many of the Yelnir’s Vahki drones had been destroyed, but hardly any, if any at all, Yelnir soldiers had actually perished.

As for the Vindicators and Universal Alliance, they had all had a rough time, they had all taken bruises, and they had all had several hear-death experiences, but they had all survived. Suntrah and Lihee were both exhausted, as were the rest of the Universal Alliance and the Toa Tronux. Levuku, Ferrak, and Vohk had all had both times when they were almost about to die, and times when they were having a lot of fun. Ferrak’s strength had proved a great asset, but he had grown tired from all the battle shad had had to be a part of because of that. Bultrox was not tired in the slightest, but that was to be expected. What was also expected was that he had a nearly one hundred percent success rate for skirmishes during the battle. The only one that he had not won was one that ended with his opponent launching him too far away to continue the battle. Vaturi had come out of the struggle looking different, but relatively unharmed. Lohrua had taken the worst damage, having a large hole in his side armor and a gash in the tissue beneath, both from a piece of stone shrapnel flung by a Cordak Blaster explosion. Panuko, in better shape, had scooped up Lohrua and taken him inside the fortress. The technically minded Runask would recover completely, but not for a while, and he had to be kept off the battlefield and out of the training ring until then.

Suntrah, as leader of the Vindicators, was amazed and beyond relieved that his teammates had made it through all this alive. It had been such a huge burden on him through the fight that, more likely than ever before, one or more of them would not live to the end, and that they would only be a casualty in a massive conflict, not a heroic member of a team dedicated to resisting the tyranny of evil. Now that they had all made it through the battle, Suntrah felt the burden lifted.

Did the Order celebrate? Did they rejoice in the fact that they had just prevailed over the forces of Makuta Cekadax and won a decisive battle in the preservation of their organization, as well as the Toa kind everywhere? The answer was yes and no. Yes, there were celebrations, but no, they were not a great out-letting of all the pent-up stress and tension that they had all been under. Why? Because Faxhuun was planning something, a feat greater than simply surviving a battle, greater than merely maintaining the status quo. Faxhuun was planning to wipe Makuta Cekadax from existence for good.

Of course, Faxhuun needed resources to be able to do this. The fact was, however, that these resources had already arrived. Faxhuun needed backup troops to aid his weary forces, but that had already arrived in the form of the Yelnir and their robotic drones, more of which were already on their way. The next thing he needed was inside intelligence. Fortunately, good old Sybeko has already taken care of that for me,” Faxhuun thought as he made his way toward said being’s residence in the fortress.

Faxhuun rapped on his subordinate’s door in his signature way, to let him know who exactly was calling on him. In a moment, Sybeko had thrust the door open and assumed an attentive stance. “Sir! Looking quite spiffy in light of all that has happened in the past day.”

“Thank you, Sybeko,” Faxhuun nodded. “You may be at ease. I came looking for that new recruit you managed to acquire from the opposite side --- what was his name again?”

Sybeko relaxed. “He calls himself Jardel, but he makes it clear that that’s not his real name. His reason for using a false name is really quite moving, in a sullen sort of way. Do you wish to hear?”

“No,” Faxhuun replied flatly. “I frankly don’t care very much, in light of what I am seeking him out for.”

Sybeko was not fazed by Faxhuun’s cold response at all. “And what may that be?”

“I want as much inside knowledge as he can give me, as soon as he can give it to me,” Faxhuun replied intensely.

Sybeko smiled as he gestured for Faxhuun to follow. “That’s what I suspected you wanted. Good old Faxhuun, always on task, wasting no time. You’re a very inspiring person, don’t let anyone tell you differently.”