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The Darkest Light
Xaterex Multiverse
Date Set
175-176 AYD

The Darkest Light is the fourth story in the Xaterex Multiverse Storyline. It follows the separate missions of Shardak, Fairon, and Blast during the Second Xaterex Civil War.



The cavern was silent. Nothing stirred in the twisted depths of the earth, and no voices broke the quiet. It was as if a dark hand had settled over the caves, draping the entire underground city in a dark shroud. All was still, save the torches that still burned with shallow, feverish red light. For one moment, the light illuminated the tall, thin being that walked through the darkness, features hidden by a hooded cloak.

Almost hesitently, the hooded being stepped forward, corpse-like hands lowered in supplication. Slowly, a shadowy Presence began to fill the room, a presence so palpable with darkness that even the hooded being seemed uneasy for one moment. The being lowered its head as the Presence seemed to intensify, as though growing stronger and stronger, finally obscuring even the torchlight itself.

What news do you bring us? A voice echoed from the shadows. The voice was rasping and cold, and when it spoke, it sounded as if a multitude of beings was speaking together in a disjointed chorus. While it sounded both quiet, loud, and all-pervasive, the hooded being knew only it could hear.

"Our war is going exactly as planned. Neither the Ix nor the Toa suspect anything. Soon, both will be no more. Our forces cannot fail to defeat them."

This we know. The Presence answered. Everything is proceeding as we have forseen.

"Yes, my lord."

What more have you learned? The Presence asked.

"I have located the Beacon." said the hooded being, scrachy voice echoing slightly through the chamber. "He has eluded us thus far...however, all is going according to the plan."

We can feel his aura across the planes. It is one of the strongest we have ever encountered.

"Yes, my lord." said the hooded being. "His aura is bending the strands of time themselves across the planes, but he is still unaware of his own power...soon the endgame shall begin."

Have you gathered our warriors?

"Yes, they have been gathered, as according to your will. A contingency of our warriors has already made preparations for the gathering."

You have done well.

"What shall I do with the Spirit Toa?" asked the hooded being. "He cannot be allowed to continue wandering across the Empire."

Bring him before us.

"And if he will not agree?"

If he cannot be ours, he must be eliminated...go now. The Presence ordered. Finish this game.

Slowly, the Presence began to lift, the voice stopped speaking. The oppressive shadows vanished, to be replaced by the flickering light of the flames once more. For one moment, the hooded being remained standing, alone, in the chamber. Then, slowly, the being turned and vanished once more into the shadows.

Chapter 1[]

The Toa of aura peered through the trees, lime green eyes darting back and forth, alert for any sign of approaching beings. His armor, green and gray, blended well with the cold, uniformly green plant life of the northern forest. Though unwounded, he had a long scar across his shoulder, and carried a long, red scimitar that smouldered with red light.

Shardak heard a twig snap, and turned, alert for any sign of attackers. His training, honed and sharpened by months of practice using the Sword of Fire caused him to raise his weapon in a defensive Lihtne pattern almost instinctively. Tensed, prepared to fight, he lowered his weapon when he realized it was simply a small, catlike Rahi, racing across the forest floor.

It feels as though I've been with the rebellion forever. Shardak reflected, slowly beginning to calm once more.

In reality, it had been four months. Four months since the final day in the bloodthirsty Eternal Game at the heart of the Ix Empire, four months since his battle with the Elemental known as Skorpix, four months since his training as a warrior in the rebellion began.

Now, he was once again about to face the Ix, the enemies who had haunted his nightmares since his narrow escape from Skorpix and the arena. He and his allies had been sent to eliminate a small group of Imperial warriors scouting across the edge of the forest near their base. There was no option but to eliminate them or force them to abandon their mission.

Shardak felt a hand on his shoulder. Panic shot through him as he whirled around, Blade of Arcturas raised. Slowly, he lowered the weapon as he recognized his friend Blast. The Glatorian warrior was too disciplined to question him, but raised his hand in a signal that Shardak recognized well.

Enemies near.

"Where are Arkhan and the others?" asked Shardak under his breath.

"He's leading them around, to cut the Imperial soldiers off." answered Blast. "There are eleven Kranr warriors, and two Stalkers."

Shardak almost felt his old shoulder wound sting as he remembered the viscious semi-invisible Rahi used by the Ix. One of them had attacked him when he, Blast, and Kyhrex had escaped an Ix stronghold known only as the Circle. Kyhrex had managed to finish it off, but not before it had torn open Shardak's shoulder. The wound had troubled him until, eight days later, the rebellion was able to heal it completely.

"Here they are." whispered Blast. Shardak followed his gaze toward a grove directly in front of them, and recognized the familiar pale green and white armor that the Kranr wore. There were no sign of any Stalkers-- yet.

Blast raised his weapon, a long scythe. It looked unremarkable, but held far more power then Shardak could even feel in the aura field. Blast had been taught to use it in battle, and could even channel some of its lesser energies, such as using it to attack. However, Shardak was sure it could do much more, he had seen it used once in the hands of a Makuta known as Dredzek, and knew exactly how dangerous the Scythe of Creation could be.

Shardak readied his weapon, ready for the first battle he'd fought since the fateful duel with Skorpix. He was tense, but tried to allow himself to relax, knowing that agility played a great role in allowing him to survive a lightning-fast Stalker attack.

Two more of Shardak's allies moved to stand behind Blast, the Matoran known as Silver and Dust. Both had been present in the emergency council after he, a Toa of Light known as Fairon, and several other beings had escaped the Eternal Game using the Scythe of Creation, and both were highly loyal and deadly warriors.

Shardak had no more time to think, the sense of danger was palpable. Both Toa, Glatorian, and Matoran all readied to face the Imperial soldiers.

Then the Kranr were upon them. Shardak felt his weapon strike against a Kranr's armor, saw the eyes of his enemy glaring at him through the helmeted visor as the Kranr trust his sword at Shardak, alternately blocking and thrusting as Shardak slowly began to force him back, deeper into the foliage.

The Kranr suddenly whirled to one side, tearing past Shardak's guard and tearing through his armor. Shardak felt a brief flash of pain, easily ignored. Reaching out in the aura field, he caused the Kranr to stagger backward, then easily disarmed him.

For one moment, the Kranr froze, suddenly realizing what Shardak had done. The Toa stepped forward, ready to finish his attacker.

Suddenly there was a flash at the corner of his eye, and Shardak, recognizing it at the last second as a Stalker, whirled around, feeling his weapon tear across the Stalker's armor and draw blood. The Stalker snarled quietly, but in doing so had given away its position once more, and the Blade of Arcturas tore deeper into the Stalker's armor.

While Shardak was occupied fighting the Stalker, however, the Kranr had grabbed his weapon. He charged toward Shardak, weapon ready. Shardak deflected his first thrust and managed to keep the stalker away as well, but the Kranr followed his first attack with a series of hammering blows that forced Shardak completely onto the defensive. At that moment, the Stalker struck.

Shardak felt the Stalker's claws dig into his armor, unable to draw blood. However, suddenly, Shardak felt himself fall to the ground, the Stalker leaping at him. Slashing upward with the Blade of Arcturas, Shardak felt the weapon bury itself in the Stalker's throat, saw the Stalker become fully visible in death.

Before Shardak had a chance to recover, the Kranr was upon him, his weapons drawn. Shardak had no time to block the weapon, and suddenly he had once again become the defenseless Toa who had once battled the Ix in the Void.

As the Kranr's weapon descended, Shardak suddenly saw a blur of light flash by him, striking the Kranr through the heartlight. The startled being staggered backward, his eyes glazing over. His body shuddered once and then fell still.

Shardak rose to his feet, looking at his rescuer, the final member of their strike team. Ix warrior Valkyria Rhai gave him a half-smile as he rose to his feet, looking around for any signs of more Kranr. She was wearing the scaled, green armor favored by the scouts in the rebellion's armies. In one hand she carried a long, curved dagger in one hand, her longbow in the other.

Valkyria had been part of the Ix strike team sent to kill Shardak and recover the Shadow Orb. However, when she'd failed, they'd been forced to make a temporary alliance against the dual threats of the Shadow of Ages and the serpent known as Sarkanian. Later, she had been betrayed by the Ix and sentanced to fight in the Eternal Game, and had joined the rebellion after they'd escaped the arena.

Shardak scanned the forest for any signs of Kranr or Stalkers, but saw none. Arkhan strode toward him, white armor stained with blood. Two lean Agori following him, only slightly injured. Shardak noticed one of their team was missing, and knew he'd been killed. He'd barely known the other member of their squadron, he'd been a Glatorian with gray armor. Still, any loss of life in a battle was another warrior who could not be replaced.

"We lost Marad." reported Arkhan. "A Stalker hit him from behind, he didn't have a chance. None of the Kranr escaped."

"None of the Kranr who attacked us fled." said Shardak. "We suffered no losses."

Slowly, the rebellion group made its way back toward the hidden fortress. Shardak walked beside Blast and Valkyria, wondering what the rebellion's leaders would think of their successful defeat of the Kranr. He hoped they would reward him by allowing him to participate in a more useful mission, as his friend Fairon was now doing. For the past four months, they'd simply been either travelling toward the base in the Fells, or being sent on unimportent missions such as these.

Arkhan seemed to notice what he was thinking. "Every strike we deal to the Empire is useful. We cannot match them in strength or weapons, our greatest battle is one of survival."

Shardak cursed inwardly, wishing that for a moment he could cloak his emotions behind a mask of nothingness, as Valkyria could. He could still barely control his aura, and had seen in his battle with Skorpix how risky that could be. Any competant auric user could control him in the aura field without him consiously resisting.

"Come." said Arkhan, as he watched the bodies of the fallen Kranr, Stalkers, and Glatorian be consumed by fire. It was imperative that the rebels left no trace of where they'd been, and watched as Arkhan, after waiting for the fires to consume the fallen, doused the fire. Shardak was surprised to learn that, like his friend Kyhrex, Arkhan was a water Elementalist, one of the few Glatorian who could control an elemental power.

Shardak followed Arkhan toward the hidden base, in his mind wondering what his future would bring.

Chapter 2[]

Wind howled across the open plains below the Fells, and Shardak almost shivered in the chill cold. Above them, the great binary sun Solis Magna was rising, a burning globe of liquid fire in the east. Slowly, the striking pink and red clouds began to vanish as the sun climbed higher. Once again, the plains were being replaced by forest, and ahead, Shardak noticed the base.

The rebellion's base would never have been spotted by the casual observer, and Shardak only recognized it because he'd lived there for nearly four months of his life. It was an ancient building, the foundation and the west wall were slowly being overtaken by vines. However, the most of the building had been restored and nearly completely rebuilt. Even the walls were painted in camouflage, and while he could not see them, Shardak knew that several skilled archers patrolled the wall.

Two spear wielding guards nodded as Arkhan passed them. The Glatorian whispered the password, then the remainder of the strike team did the same. Then they were in.

Shardak strode through the long hall, awaiting instructions. Arkhan disappeared through a paneled door, ready to report their mission's success to the High Council. There, the most senior members of the resistance met, to discuss their many campaigns against the Empire.

Slowly, he walked away from the door, passing by several other armed resistance members. They were being sent to reinforcer Fairon, who was leading a campaign against the city of Gigas Nui, his homeland. While Shardak knew little of the rebellion's long-term war plans, he knew that Fairon's division was one of many, and several others were fighting on Xaterex, trying to take down the large districts nearer to Drakos Capitol.

Shardak was so absorbed in his thoughts he nearly ran into a tall, armored being he recognized as Darvath. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Darvath's species had nearly been completely destroyed during the fall of the ancient Elemental kingdom Arcaea, and had fought against the Empire ever since.

"The High Council wishes to see you." he said, his voice formal and rather flat. "Follow me."

Shardak felt a burning ray of hope rise within him. Finally he would be able to speak with the leaders of the rebellion, as he had not been able to since the first day he'd awoken in the small base at Void's Edge, shocked to find that his rescuers were Silencer's allies.

Darvath opened the paneled door and walked through. Shardak followed, and stepped into the command chamber. The room was ancient, far older then any other in the base, and ancient pictures depicting Arcaea at the height of its glory were carved onto the ceiling, walls, and even the table where five other beings were seated.

Shardak immediately recognized Arkhan, his face slightly grim. To his left sat the Glatorian warrior Saren Naghara, who smiled at Shardak and waved in greeting. The tall, enigmatic being known as Parikon stood to Arkhan's right, his face inscrutable. Facing them were the Skakdi known as Freztrak, a powerful Skakdi warlord from the Fells who had allied his large tribe with the rebellion, and Tiral, the commander of the Rebel's Starcraft fleet.

There was a sixth being standing in the chamber, and Shardak, to his surprise, recognized it as his friend Blast. He waved to the Glatorian, who had been fulfilling similar duties to those of Shardak since their escape from the arena.

"Please be seated." said Saren, waving to a chair on his right. Both Shardak and Blast sat, Blast beside Freztrak, Shardak next to Saren. All of the rebel warriors wore grim expressions, and Shardak wondered what had been troubling them.

"What are the latest updates?" Freztrak asked Saren.

"Still no word from Mersery. He and his detachment are pinned down between the Northern Wastes and the Fells. However, Fairon has captured and destroyed several fortresses in the Scar Mountains, and is ready to strike at several larger targets in the valleys below."

"Any reports from the bases south of Arden, Parikon?" asked Tiral, who seemed slightly annoyed. Shardak guessed she was loathe to abandon her fleets, even for a few days, and wanted to return to the larger cities in the Fells where the rebel fleets were based.

"Yes, but nothing good." said Parikon grimly. "They were overrun, and completely destroyed. Several of our outposts along the Fellsian border are still intact, however, but have no chance of making a counterattack or surviving an assault."

"What of our attack on the Imperial fortresses on the edges of the Fens?" Arkhan asked Freztrak.

The Skakdi stayed silent for a few moments before answering. "We managed to defeat a group of Imperial soldiers, but suffered more casualties then we caused. I am not eager to continue pressing an attack against the Empire in the Fens for fear they will eliminate the neutral tribes that occupy the area."

All of the commanders nodded in understanding. Shardak knew that none of them were eager to alienate more neutral kingdoms by invading the Imperial outposts in the Fens. The tribes that occupied the area, both primitive Kodax, Skakdi, and Glatorian, were all nominally ruled by the Empire, but the Ix would not hesitate to use them as an example to alienate more kingdoms from joining the rebellion.

"So, Shardak, this brings us to you." said Saren. "We are ready to formally accept you as a member of the resistance. However, there are certain things you must know."'

"Until now, the Empire has been tyrannical and oppressive, as well as dangerous." Parikon began. "However, they've seemed distracted recently, preoccupied by something that goes beyond expanding their rule over Noctxia Magna, were the fighting has been thick for the past half century.

"Rumors abound that another force is at work here, something that the Empire has been searching for for many, many years. Have you ever heard of an artifact known as the Annulus?"

"Yes." said Shardak, almost surprised. "Silencer mentioned it once. He said, 'The beings that existed before the coming of the Great Beings, known as the Forerunners or, more commonly, the Ancients, made many creations, principle among them the Annulus.' I barely payed any attention to it, however, I had many far more pressing concerns at the time."

"The Annulus is an ancient legend, but is, like many things across the worlds that were once Arcaea, has more then a little truth to it. The legend is that the Ancients, whose past is shrouded in mystery, created a single ring of power, which contained the spirits of a race that predated the Ancients themselves. The vengeful spirits, sealed within by a mysterious power source, could grant the bearer of the Annulus nearly unimaginable heights of power.

However, eventually, the Annulus was destroyed, shattered into three fragments. The power source was also broken, albeit later, in half. After many bloody civil wars over the fragments of the Annulus, the beings who had fought over it, the Great Beings, turned their talents to creating new life and the Annulus disappeared from history, until it was eventually relegated as a myth.

"This year, we recieved undeniable proof that the Annulus exists."

"What?" asked Shardak, wondering slightly what this had to do with the rebellion.

"You handed it to me." answered Parikon. "The Shadow Orb was the power source of the Annulus, where the beings who lived before the Ancients are sealed. The Shadow Orb is full of both auric and Elemental power, and any Elementalist or aura user could tell you."

Arkhan nodded. "The half of the Shadow Orb you handed Parikon contains enough auric power to tear apart an entire small country. Imagine the power that a being would possess if he reassembled the entire Annulus."

"This is what the Ix want?" asked Shardak. "Do they have any fragments?"

"Yes. They have a single peice of the Shadow Orb, but we do not know who currently posesses it. If they have it, they've certainly not been using it."

"But what about the rest of the Annulus? Do you know where it is?"

"No. That's what we are assigning you to find out." answered Parikon. "Your mission is to track down a large group of Ix warriors whom our spies have recently learned are heading north, toward the Obsidian Cliffs. There are many, many warriors with them, far too many for this to simply be a scouting team. No, they're hunting for something, and our spies seem sure that it is an Annulus fragment."

"But why now?" asked Shardak. "Why has the Empire chosen this moment to try and discover the Annulus."

"Rumors abound that the Empire has a new leader: a tall being who wears a hood pulled over his face. Apparently this leader wishes to spread his rule far beyond Xaterex: he wishes to conquer Noctxia Magna, a planet that has long resisted the Empire.

"Many other unsettling stories are running through the Imperial cities now at war: that a mysterious new enforcer has gained much power across the Empire, that the Imperial warriors are once again using Elimination, and that Shadowdermis is once more out in the open. Things are shaping up to be like what they were last time."

"Last time?" asked Blast, who had stayed silent throughout much of the discussion.

"The fall of Arcaea and the rise of the Empire, as well as the ongoing wars across Noctxia Magna." answered Parikon.

"What is Shadowdermis?" asked Shardak. "Silencer never once mentioned it."

To his surprise it was Saren, not Parikon, who answered. "It was created many, many years ago, and the circumstances of its creation have always been shrouded in mystery. However, we do know this. Shadowdermis is a sentient virus, not at all like Elimination. It is a highly aggressive and intelligent variation of Energized Protodermis, and was used by the Empire's leaders during the Arcaean war to support their insurrection.

"Shadowdermis, supposedly, can do almost anything, and the Empire's leaders used it to seal each kingdom of Arcaea from interdimensional travel, this allowing only their own warriors to pass through the gateways."

"So you see why the rebellion is in danger of falling." finished Parikon. "We stand little or no chance against an enemy with such powerful weapons at their disposal. and with the Annulus in their hands, nothing will be able to stop them."

Shardak paused, allowing this to sink in. He thought about the horrible stories he'd heard about Elimination, and the knowledge he'd gained about Shadowdermis and the Annulus made the Empire seem even more terrifyingly deadly.

"Will you accept this mission, Toa Shardak? We have tried, for too long, to keep you under guard, for fear that the Empire would capture you."

"That's another thing." interrupted Shardak. "Why do the Ix want to capture me alive? What do they want?"

Parikon did not answer at once, and as he was opening his mouth, Saren interrupted him. "So you'll accept? Good. Now, we move on to more pressing matters, such as when we will execute the Ix warrior."

It took Shardak a few moments to grasp that Saren meant Valkyria. He remembered their earlier discussion in the Void, when Blast and Fairon had suggested they do the same thing.

"No." said Shardak. "Valkyria's just as loyal to the rebellion as I am. She saved my life in the Void, and in the 175th Eternal Game."

"I'm sorry, Shardak, but I simply can't believe that. You of all people should know how insidious the Ix are. They lure you in until you trust them completely, then the next thing you know it, one's standing over you with a dagger in his hand."

Shardak remembered Nightshade, the Ix warrior who'd pretended she was his sister for nearly ten years while they both lived with Arcturas. She'd done the same. But surely, after all that they'd been through togetehr, Valkyria would not betray him as she had?

"Yes, but why would she? The Ix sentanced her to the Eternal Game!"

"Yes, but even still, you can't trust the Ix! Why in Mata Nui's name are you defending the Ix warrior who killed your friends in the Sanctum of the Mind?"

"Because we can't just kill her, even if she didn't come willingly and we'd captured her. Killing our enemies in cold blood makes us just like the Ix."

"He's right." answered a new voice. All of the heads at the table turned to look at the speaker who had just entered the room.

"Ion!" yelled Shardak and Blast. The massive mutated Toa nodded a greeting. He turned to Saren. "Sorry I'm late." he said to Saren. "My patrol was...delayed."

"He's right." repeated Ion, taking a seat beside Parikon. "Killing an Ix warrior who has yet done nothing to suggest she is considering betraying us is taking one step toward beings like her. We may not have yet wiped out her entire race, but do you think the Ix themselves started? They didn't plan at first to use Elimination, they probably started out the same way we were considering, by killing a single captive Toa. Once they'd taken the first step, it would be easier for them to use Elimination."

"I cannot argue with that." Saren said. "We'll let your prisoner live, on the condition that she accompanies you on your mission."

Shardak nodded, relieved. Valkyria was one of the deadliest warriors he knew, she'd be a valuable asset to his strike team.

"Who else will come with me?" asked Shardak.

"Two other beings who you know very well. Silver and Dust will accompany you, as will as another being." he backoned to a blue-armored being standing at the door. "Torak, come forward."

A heavily armored Skakdi stepped through the doorway, carrying two massive sickles. He half-smiled at Shardak, who nodded once in acknowledgement. Skakdi had a brutal reputation as unrefined killers, but a large group of Skakdi under Freztrak had allied themselves with the rebellion, and Shardak knew they could be trusted.

Two Matoran, a Toa of aura, an Ix warrior, and a Skakdi. thought Shardak. This might be the most unlikely strike team ever assembled in the history of the rebellion.

Saren seemed to feel the same. "You cannot fail." he said. While Shardak was still quite inexperienced reading the aura field, he could tell the Glatorian still seemed apprehensive.

"Many hopes are following you." said Parikon. "It is imperative that the Ix do not recover another Annulus fragment."

He turned to Blast. "You will have your own mission, in time. Speak to Jarodin, he will tell you of his commands." Blast nodded.

"Are there any other things we need to bring before the council?" asked Parikon. Not one being answered. "Then the meeting is adjourned. Shardak, Torak, gather Silver, Dust, and the Ix warrior and then find Arkhan. He will show you the path."

Slowly, the High Council began to leave, one by one. Finally, only Saren was left, standing half hidden in the shadows.

"Come with me." said Saren, once the last council member had exited the chamber. "There is something I must tell you."

Chapter 3[]

Fairon stood atop the cliffs, surveying his troops below. The division of warriors, Glatorian, Agori, and Skakdi, mainly, were standing below, armed and armored heavily. All had the glint of determination in their eye, ready to face the Ix once more.

Sometimes, Fairon couldn't believe that nearly four months had passed since his escape had passed. The arena always seemed directly behind him, and he almost felt as though the arena loomed ahead of him as well, though he knew he'd never participate in another Eternal Game. The rebellion would never allow the Empire to capture him alive.

Almost immediately after he'd escaped the arena, the rebellion had appointed him leader of a division of warriors, with two other victors, Galika and Kharix, as commanders under him. He'd been sent after two weeks of rest to attempt to force the Ix onto the defensive.

His division had taken three Imperial outposts in the past month, including one along the Shadewater River, which ran through Arden and the Mountains as well as the Fells. It had been a better month then the last two, which involved several defeats along the New Metru Nui front which had forced him into retreat toward the Fells. Recently, he'd regained the offensive and pushed further, across the Shadewater.

Now he stood in the Canyonlands, the wild border between the southern lands known collectively as Arden and the northern provinces of Gigas Nui and the Fells. Several of the canyons were far too deep to pass through, others allowed easy passage between the two areas.

However, every single one of the passable canyons was guarded by heavily armed Ix warriors. The majority of the troops were conscripts, Kranr, Agori, and Matoran making up the bulk of the forces, but Fairon's scouts had reported several Ix warriors with them as well. This was unusual, for the bulk of the elite Ix warriors were currently tied down fighting in Noctxia Magna, where the war was thickest. The other planet the Empire ruled, Calos, was still officially neutral, but Fairon knew it was wavering toward the rebellion.

"Commander." a voice broke through his thoughts. Fairon turned to see Kharix, clad in silver and green armor, walking toward him, two Glatorian warriors following her. "The Ix warriors have been sighted. Three of my scouts have fallen and we are waiting for the order to engage them."

Fairon followed Kharix down the ridge, toward the valleys below. The Canyonlands were filled with his helmeted warriors, numbering just over forty. While he and Kharix been enemies in the Eternal Game, Fairon had been on better terms with her after the Game, when they no longer had anything to fight about. She treated him with respect, if not friendliness.

Kharix turned, gathering her warriors. Fairon nervously began to worry that his force could not defeat the massed group of Kranr below, for there were far more Ix warriors then he had under his command. Most of his battles had been skirmishes, a subtle push and pull back and forth. This was the largest battle he'd ever ventured into, and he realized they had little hope of winning.

He surveyed the battlefield. The Ix warriors would have to come through the narrow openings to reach them, but at the same time, they'd have to do the same to break through their lines. Calling Galika over to him, he whispered an order to the Toa of Water.

"Kharix will be going into the battle first, Use your twenty warriors to defend the pass, and make sure no Ix warriors get through. If Kharix falls back, then reinforce her. I'll follow Kharix, but you'll guard the pass behind us."

Galika nodded, her face grim. Fairon knew she missed Jarodin, her friend who was currently still at the base in the Fells. They hadn't had contact for the past month, since Fairon had been given his newest orders. Once he broke through the canyonlands, he was to meet with the officials in the city on the edge of Arden known as Vatru in an attempt to convince them to join the rebellion, thus giving them a foothold in the south as well.

Fairon had no more time to think of his mission. He could see that Kharix was already leading her troops toward the Canyons, while Galika's warriors took up positions on the cliffs above. Fairon drew his scimitar, a replacement for his lance that he'd used in the Void and lost after the Eternal Game began, and followed Kharix's warriors into the battle.

"It is imperative." began Saren, his voice a low whisper. "That nothing I tell you leaves this room. This is dangerous information, but as you join Jarodin's command, Blast, and your mission begins, Shardak, you cannot afford not to know this."

"What?" asked Blast. "What could be so dangerous that you couldn't mention to the High Council?"

"I believe that there is a traitor in the rebellion, someone in our inner circle." said Saren.

The two beings gasped in shock. "What?" asked Shardak, surprised. "Why?"

"Remember the way Nightwatcher located Jarodin almost too easily, then proceeded to capture you? Do you honestly believe that even a bounty hunter of his caliber could simply locate you that easily? Later, more proof was given of this, when we were forced to evacuate Void's Edge."

Shardak remembered that day, when he'd met with Ion, Atarus, and the rest of the rebellion's high command, and then had to abruptly evacuate the base when a troop of Ix warriors attacked moments later. It had almost seemed uncanny how easily they'd discovered the allegedly well-hidden base.

"Yes, I almost came to the same conclusion." said Shardak. "But how could the two incidents be related? The only member of the rebellion who was with us in the Void was Ion."

"Yes." said Saren. "It pains me to say this, but I believe that Ion is the traitor."

"What?" Shardak exploded. "Ion would never betray the rebellion! He did everything he could to escort us to the rebels until the Shadow of Ages attacked!"

"Yes, I know. Ion has always seemed like one of the most loyal of all our members. If Atarus were here, we would be able to use his Rode to scan his mind, but he'll be in Noctxia Magna for at least another month before he'll be able to return. I can't imagine what motive Ion would have for betraying us, but one thing is certain: you must be on your guard. Trust no one you meet in your mission."

Saren's voice seemed almost hopeless, and Shardak realized how hard this must be for him, to even consider that his friend could be a traitor. He didn't exactly know what to think of this, for he couldn't believe, after everything Ion had done, that he was a traitor.

Yet the Ix found you almost too easily one other time Ion was with you. a small voice whispered within Shardak's mind. Near Void's Edge, the day that Silencer died...

The thought of his first mentor's final sacrifice so that he could join the rebellion always shook Shardak, more so now that he'd heard Saren's suspicions. Silencer had fought to the death against an Ix commander far more skilled then he. His brother, Melnox, had then decoyed the Ix away from Shardak so he, Blast, and Kyhrex could escape them. Sometimes, he wondered about Melnox's final fate. He'd certainly never made it to any of the rebel's bases on Xaterex.

"That is all I have to say." Saren finished. "Be on your guard, Shardak and Blast, and may Mata Nui protect you in your coming trials."

Shardak answered politely, then followed Blast out of the Command chamber. He would have to now gather the rest of his group, Silver, Dust, and Valkyria for their mission. Inwardly, despite Saren's disturbing revelation, he was filled with both happiness and abstract fear at the thought of the quest he had ahead of him.

Finally, after the weeks following his escape from the Circle and the deadly Eternal Game, his quest had begun. Thoughts of the Annulus and the trials he would face raced through his mind faster then he would have normally believed possible. While he'd certainly never have wanted to go back to war, he couldn't let Fairon and Jarodin and his other friends fight for the rebellion while he remained in the Fells.

"So, this is where the war begins." said Blast, his voice oddly emotionless.

"Yes." said Shardak, his voice grim, but resolved as he turned and followed Torak down the narrow corridors of the rebellion's base. Raising the Blade of Arcturas, and examining the ancient, runic designs on the Blade, Shardak knew he was ready. He had to be.

Chapter 4[]

Shardak stared at the massive cliffs that bordered the rebel base in awe as he, Valkyria, and Torak walked toward the gates. Ion and Arkhan stood there waiting for him, both carrying weapons. The usual, uniformly gray-armored guards were conspicuously absent. Since his training had begun, Shardak had sparred many times with both Ion, Arkhan, and Saren at these gates, and he was almost annoyed to leave them after his four months here.

Then he remembered what today would bring. Today was the beginning of his search for the Annulus fragment, today was the start of his first day as a warrior of the rebellion. He looked at Torak, Silver, and Dust, who looked likewise excited, and at Valkyria, whose expression was unreadable. Not for the first time, Shardak wished he could speak to her, tell her that they were among friends and there was no need to continue hiding her emotions, but he could find no way to put it to her.

"You will have to travel south, through the Sourthern Mountains." said Ion. "Eventually, they'd lead into Arden, but you'll stop at a city about midway known as Akkad. The Akkadians have long been able to remain independent from both the Fells and the Southern Kingdoms due to their large supply of iron ore, and this continues to this day. The city is neither ruled by the rebellion or the Empire, much like the northernmost cities of the Fells.

"There you will find the information broker known as Jekart. He, like all of the other Akkadian information brokers, is neutral, but has disturbing ties with a bounty hunter known as Skorr currently employed by the Empire. However, he is the only being who deals in the information that you seek, and the only being brave enough to deal in information about the Empire."

"What information do we need from Jekart?" asked Shardak.

"The latest movements of the Ix's armies." answered Ion. "You can't expect to remain in Akkad and recover the Annulus. He will give you the location of the Obsidian Cliffs as well. We expect they're somewhere north of Arden, perhaps in the Scar Mountains, since that's where the Ix have been seen lately. However, the cliffs have always been heavily guarded by Ix, so no one here knows their exact location."

"How long will the journey to Akkad take?" asked Shardak.

"Ideally, we would send you through the Canyonlands along the Arden border. However, the fighting is too thick there for us to send you that route. It'll take you two or three days to reach the city of Akkad along the Fellsian route. While the Ix presence may not be as thick along the edge of the Fells, but there's still a large possibility you could be attacked, either by Imperials or mercenaries. The Southern Mountains have always been full of bounty hunters, and you can be sure the Ix have a bounty on your head."

Shardak nodded, remembering Nightwatcher. The thought of him, and the Nameless City, suddenly caused him to think of Saren's revelation. What if Ion was trying to get them all killed?

"You'll be fine, Shardak. Arkhan has trained you well, as has Silencer. Torak, Silver, Dust, and Valkyria are all strong fighters." Ion reassured him.

Shardak nodded again, relieved that Ion hadn't been able to read his wariness as well as Arkhan had the day of the High Council meeting.

"How will we deal with this Jekart?" asked Torak, his voice a low growl. "He certainly doesn't sound like the type who'll simply hand over the information freely."

"You're right." said Ion. "Jekart is, perhaps, the most expensive of all the brokers in Akkad. Perhaps this will convince him that you can pay him accordingly."

Ion handed a satchel to Shardak, who opened it. The bag was filled with at least seventy blue diamonds. Even one of these could fetch an exorbitant price of at least one hundred.

"This will certainly be enough." said Shardak. "I'll hand them all over to Jekart, then--"

"No!" interjected Ion. "If you give Jekart the entire bag, he'll simply ask for more. Give him exactly a fourth for the information you seek, and if he does not give a complete answer, give him more. Under no circumstances should you let him see the full contents of the bag, or empty it completely."

"I understand." answered Shardak, and Ion smiled.

"One more thing." the mutated Toa said. "You handed this to Atarus your first night as a rebel warrior. Now I give it back to you, with the hope that you will keep it safe."

He handed Shardak a dark black, ebony stone, one that seemed to absorb light rather then reflect it. Shardak recognized it immediately: the heart of the Ix's power, the fragment of the Annulus' power source. The Shadow Orb.

"But why?" asked Shardak. "It's safer with the rebellion, isn't it?"

"Not any more." Ion said cryptically, and Shardak knew he would not elaborate further. Seeing his expression, Ion said, "You are ready for this, Shardak. We never expected you to simply allow us to keep you safe in the Fells."

Shardak responded politely, still a little wary of Ion. But even still, his mentor's words filled Shardak once again with expectation. He stared once again at the Blade of Arcturas, then at the sack of diamonds, and knew that he was ready for the journey that lay ahead.

Silver, Dust, Valkyria, and Torak had already passed through the gates, and Shardak followed, stepping through the gates and once more into the world beyond.

The clash of weapons rang through the air as Fairon nimbly sidestepped a thrust from a Kranr warrior, followed suddenly by a backslash from the Glatorian standing next to him. Fairon slashed through the Kranr's breastplate, and as the mortally wounded being fell to the ground, he surveyed the battlefield.

Nearly half of Kharix's warriors were dead, but they had slain many more Imperial soldiers in the conflict. Slowly, Kharix was pulling her warriors back, allowing Galika's troops to reinforce them. Here, Fairon knew, the battle was turning in their favor. Nearly twenty dead Imperials lay killed by spears thrown by Galika's warriors hidden among the cliffs, and the remainder of the first wave of attackers were being systematically cut down as they attempted to follow the spearfighters up the cliffs.

Fairon slashed to one side, parrying thrusts and slashes from Kranr and Glatorian alike. The reflexes he'd gained in the months following the Eternal Game took over, and seven Kranr lay at his feet, dead. A Glatorian charged toward him, and the Toa of light tore the weapon from the soldier's hand and felt his weapon bury itself in the attacker's leg. As the Glatorian staggered backward, frantically reaching for his weapon, two spears felled him.

Fairon looked around for any sign of his rescuers, and saw two Agori, armored from head to foot, ready their spears once more and prepare to combat the second wave of attackers. Fairon could see Kharix, surrounded by eight of her warriors, fighting against the onslaught. Galika, despite her tactical advantages. was faring little better-- nearly half of her warriors had fallen to the attackers, either dead or wounded.

"Lieutenant!" he called. "Pull back! Hold the cliffs!" Kharix nodded once, then disappeared back into the fray. Despite Galika's heavy defenses, the second wave had managed to scale the cliff despite losing a third of its warriors. Fairon could see one more wave of perhaps twelve already wounded attackers reinforcing their comrades, but despite their losses, Galika continued to hold the cliffs, leaving Kharix and her surviving warriors able to concentrate on forcing their way through the remnants of the second and first groups of attackers.

Fairon felt his scimitar tear through a Copy of Corpse, causing the machinelike being to stagger backward and collapse, then, in the same motion, deflected a thrust from an onrushing Kranr. As the Kranr forced his way past, Fairon used his elemental light powers to create burst of burning white light. The Kranr staggered backward, momentarily blinded. Fairon easily disarmed him, then turned and vanished back into the fray as Kharix's troops pushed forward, leaving the Kranr and his group of warriors lying dead on the ground.

Fairon could see their forces were about even now-- while the attackers still outnumbered them by maybe ten warriors, he still had at least twelve beings guarding the cliffs, and six of Kharix's warriors were still alive as well. Fairon charged into the battle beside a badly wounded Skakdi, who was firing bolts of heat vision from his eyes every few seconds, while at the same time slashing through the enemies' armor more effectively then Fairon would have believed possible.

Now the Imperials were pulling back. Galika's forces had slain the remaining enemies on the cliffs, and the remnants of the small platoon were pulling back as Galika's remaining warriors charged toward them, slamming into them from the side as the remainder of Kharix's group charged toward them.

The few remaining warriors who still lived had either dropped their weapons and fled, or were pulling back, leaving their dead comrades behind on the battlefield. Only there were only a few fleeing now: of the nearly sixty Imperial warriors who had engaged them at the start of the battle, only about twenty still lived, half of those badly wounded and in no condition to fight them any further.

Fairon watched as the last of his enemies disappeared into the shadows. "Let them go." he ordered. "They won't trouble us any further."

The battlefield after the battle had always disturbed Fairon. The corpses of both allies and enemies lay strewn across the canyon, the conflicts they'd had in their life meaning nothing now in death. The majority of the fallen beings below were Kranr or enemy Glatorian-- most of Kharix's troops had fallen in the canyon beyond, Galika's had died defending the cliffs.

"How many do we have left?" Fairon asked Galika, dreading the answer. He knew that Kharix had lost almost all twenty of the beings under her command, and Galika could not have done much better.

"Fourteen of my group still live." said Galika. "And Kharix has seven who survived the battle. However, at least four of these beings will not recover, and only twelve would be able to fight, including us, if we were attacked."

Fairon nodded acknowledgement; he'd expected far worse. However, with only twelve beings able to fight, he certainly couldn't continue his offensive. He hadn't expected to be able to, either, with only forty beings under his command, he was lucky any of them still lived. They'd be forced to fall back to the Wastelands, where he knew at least several detachments of rebel warriors were, guarding the border between the sourthern portion of Xaterex and the Fells. They'd have to resupply, then return to the Canyonlands, to hold the territory he'd gained from this battle.

The Toa of light could only hope that the Fells were not being attacked along another front. While it was difficult for the Fells to be attacked from the Canyonlands, Fairon knew the border with Arden was dangerously undefended, and the Mountain range in which several of the larger districts were built, while more heavily guarded then the other borders, could probably not hold against attackers from one of the far larger and more powerful Ix strongholds.

Fairon continued thinking about the many fronts of the war, including the battle that raged on Noctxia Magna, and whether they had enough troops to attack the heavily guarded cities just south of the Fells. Slowly, however, he began to gather his surviving warriors. He toyed with the idea of leaving several to guard the border, but realized that there was no way they'd be able to stand against another group of Ix, not even a small one.

Fairon knew they had won a victory against the Ix, but with so few surviving beings under his command and being forced to retreat to the Wastelands felt much more like defeat. For the first time in many days, Fairon thought about his friends still at the base in the Fells. There was Blast, the Glatorian who had been his ally in the first Eternal Game, Jarodin, who'd been an ally in the second Game, and Ion, who had helped train him for the war in the flatlands.

But mainly, he thought of Shardak, the Toa of aura, who, along with himself, Galika, and Jarodin, were the last surviving free Toa in the universe. He wondered, exactly, where Shardak was, and what he was doing now. Had the High Council deemed him ready to join the war effort? Or was he still waiting in the Fells, wondering when they would allow him to begin?

And do you really want Shardak to join us? Fairon thought. Our past three months have been nothing but ceaseless battle along the Fellsian border.

Slowly, night began to fall, and his surviving warriors began to set up camp. Fairon helped, but his mind was elsewhere, lost in memories of the friends he'd lost, and the friends he had left behind. Finally, he began to calm, to relax from the long battle they'd fought.

We have to continue. While I have waded through two bloody arenas and now still fight on. I promised the Ix silently, that night after the first Eternal Game, that I would make sure no other being had to fight in the Eternal Game again. I will not surrender.

Chapter 5[]

The cold Fellsian wind battered against Shardak, the chill seeping through his armor and into the muscle beneath. Shuddering, the Toa drew his black cloak around him, trying to conserve warmth. He hadn't realized the higher mountains of the Fells grew so cold at twilight. Ion had warned him of it, yes, but in the face of the dangers posed by the Ix and Jekart, he'd almost ignored it.

Torak stepped next to him, his eyes fixed on the map Ion had given them. Badly incomplete, it only showed the Fells, the Northern Wastes, and the southern kingdoms, including the Scar Mounatins and Akkad. Torak had to hold the map tightly and later place it in with the blue diamonds, for the winds grew so strong they nearly tore it from his hands.

Shardak stopped at the edge of a gorge, and Valkyria, Blast, and the others did the same. It wasn't large, almost leapable, but Shardak knew at once that the two Matoran could not make the jump. Once again, he wished his element was more useful, or he had sufficient auric control to simply levitate them all across the chasm.

"Should we try to jump it?" asked Shardak.

Valkyria nodded. "You, Torak, and I can easily make it across, and once one of us is on the other side, we can hand the Matoran over from one side to the other."

Torak grunted in agreement. The taciturn Skakdi was not one for a large amount of words, and simply gave a one-word reply or a grunt when he needed to voice his opinions. Shardak had wondered at first if they'd done something to bother him, but Torak certainly didn't seem annoyed.

"I'll go across." said Shardak to Torak. "Then you and Valkyria can hand the Matoran across the chasm to me."

Steeling himself for the jump that he knew he could make, but also knew certain death awaited him if he didn't, Shardak leapt across the void, grabbing onto the jagged edge of the cliff. For one moment, his eyes fixed on the dizzying drop below him, and he almost let go of the cliff in shock. Quickly tightening his grasp, he climbed his way up the jagged edge, and finally rose to his feet on the other end of the gorge.

Now Silver was being passed across the gorge. Shardak knew this had to be done very carefully, for if Valkyria's grasp faltered, even for one minute, he and Silver would both plummet to their deaths in the Void. Shardak leaned over the gorge, Silver now being supported by both Valkyria and Torak, but still unable to bridge the chasm.

Shardak leaned further, abandoning all but the slightest of handholds. He felt his fingers close around Silver's, and he hauled the Matoran onto the surface of the cliff just as Valkyria let go. No sooner was Silver safely across when Torak began helping Dust across. Twice the Skakdi's grip almost faltered, but both times he managed to save himself and the Matoran narrowly, finally letting go when Shardak and Silver pulled Dust across to the other side.

Valkyria easily leapt across the chasm, grabbing hold of one of the jagged handhelds and dragging herself out of the Void. The Ix girl had seemed more at ease on their journey, talking politely to both Silver and Dust, and seemed more relaxed and at ease. Shardak remembered Saren's wishes to kill her before Shardak left the rebel base, and realized how hard it must have been for her to live for four months in a place where her kind were hated and reviled.

Torak seemed more wary, staring down several times into the abyss before finally leaping across. He fell short by several meters, and Shardak had to reach across the chasm and grab his hand in order to pull him across. Torak grabbed hold of the cliff's edge, rising shakily to his feet next to Shardak.

"That was...interesting." said Torak, guarded. "I prefer flat ground to the Fells, though."

Shardak understood how that felt; after years of being raised in the Fells, the flatlands in the Circle and, later, the Nameless City, had seemed strange to him. Shardak drew his cloak once again around his body and began to follow his allies deeper into the Northern Mountains. The mountains were only growing higher, they were far above the rebel base now.

Suddenly Shardak saw more lights, and a dark weapon flashed from the gloom. Shardak reflexively raised the Blade of Arcturas, deflecting the attacker's sweeping scythe. Shardak instantly recognized the heavy black armor and the cold, dark eyes.

Ix warriors.

Shardak had no more time to think, only time to react. He couldn't even see how many attackers there were, only watch as Torak raised his shield and water spear and charge forward, slamming against a tall Ix warrior. The Blade slashed through the being's armor, but Shardak could see no more, for suddenly he was fighting a second Ix warrior, shorter and less heavily built then the first, but no less fast.

Shardak flung himself forward, launching into a fast but not extremely complex fighting pattern, a vague combination of the Sila and Lihtne combat forms. The Ix seemed surprised at his attack in both the aura field and the physical world, and for one moment he hesitated. However, he quickly recovered, and brought his scythe down on Shardak's shoulder. Blood welled from the wound.

At one time, that would have stopped Shardak. But Shardak was no longer the naïve young warrior who had once sought battle with the Ix and their allies. He'd been trained by some of the greatest weapons instructors alive today, and whatever Saren thought of Ion, the Toa had trained him well. He quickly recovered, forcing the Ix once again on the defensive, and then began to batter at the Ix warrior's already weakening mental defenses.

However, while surprised by his ferocity, the Ix warrior was still far more skilled then Shardak. He quickly lashed out again, his weapon smashing against Shardak's with such ferocity that the Sword of Fire was nearly dragged out of Shardak's hands. The Ix warrior swept his weapon then to one side, following his first attack with a wildly confusing attack pattern that tore through Shardak's defenses and tore a gash along his arm.

Shardak was quickly being forced backward, and suddenly he was fighting not one, but two beings, an Ix and a Kranr. He saw flashes of his allies in the darkness, saw Valkyria battling a Kranr soldier, Silver and Dust mobbing a Glatorian. Neither Torak nor the other Ix warrior was anywhere to be seen.

Within seconds, the Kranr had forced his way past Shardak's defenses, and was battering at his chestplate with his spear. Before he could impale Shardak completely, the Toa brought his weapon down across the Kranr's armored back, feeling it sink through first armor, then muscle. The Kranr staggered backward, opening his mouth in a roar of rage that quickly became a scream as he vanished from view. Shardak was confused for one moment, then realized he'd staggered over the edge of the cliff. Shardak hadn't even noticed the cliff's edge was directly in front of him.

There was no more time to think, only react as the Ix warrior battered against his defenses again and again. Shardak felt him overcome the last of his defenses, heard the Blade of Arcturas fall to the ground. He pulled it toward him in the aura field, felt his fingers close around the handle. The Ix warrior snarled as Shardak deflected his attack once again, then suddenly swung the scythe in the opposite direction.

Confused, Shardak had barely enough time to register a blue blur before Torak slammed into the remaining Ix warrior, slashing open his throat and chestplate. Mortally wounded, the Ix warrior fell to the ground, his weapon falling from his hands.

Shardak looked around for any signs of surviving Ix warriors, but three Kranr lay dead, and he could see the mangled remains of the other Ix lying near the opposite edge of the cliff. He could see both Silver and Dust were alive, though one of the Kranr had torn a gash across Dust's arm. However, none of them were badly wounded, not even Torak.

Shardak looked up at the darkening skies, and knew it was almost time for them to set up camp for that night. They had all suffered light wounds, but even those could become infected without treatment. He wished, not for the first time, he could somehow heal with his Toa powers. It wasn't even a wish--he was sure there was a way-- but neither Arkhan nor Ion had taught him how.

"Lucky that none of us were seriously wounded." he commented to Silver.

"Yes..." answered the Matoran. "But it's strange. Almost as if they knew we were here."

Silver's words sent a chill of foreboding up Shardak's spine as he echoed Saren's words from the day before. Why would any Ix warrior be in the Fells, when nearly all of their elite warriors were based in Drakos Capitol and the surrounding cities? There could only be one explanation.

Someone in the rebellion had told the Ix that they would be there.

Not for the first time, Blast opened his mouth to speak to Shardak, then remembered the Toa wasn't there. As he strode through the flat plateau along the border between the lower cities and the Fells, he reflected on how little he'd been able to speak with his best friend before he was sent away on yet another mission for the rebellion.

He wished he'd been able to explain to him about the dreams he'd had. They seemed so vivid at times that Blast was sure he'd actually lived through them.

His most recent dream had been his most vivid. He'd been fighting on a cliff against a group of tall, heavily armored beings, beside a heavily built being that looked a little like Ion, but wore blue armor and had red eyes. But these eyes were not at all like those of the Ix. They were kind and almost appeared both old and young at the same time.

Then, suddenly, he was somewhere else, standing in a cave beside a being who looked like a Toa, flanked by several Glatorian. The blue-armored being was there as well, holding Blast's scythe and Fairon was there, standing beside a white-and-yellow Makuta.

Then he'd awoken, wondering how much of the dream had been true. He'd wanted to speak with Fairon, but the Toa was far away, fighting against the Ix in the Canyonlands.

Deep in the Void, four months ago, Blast had learned he'd been posessed by an ancient entity known as Millennium, who had wiped all memories of his previous life and, in an elaborate illusion, influenced him to believe he'd always lived in the Fells. He'd been an outcast until he met Shardak a few months later.

Now Blast was desperately trying to make sense of what had been real and what had been false. He still had not recovered his memories, even after the death of Millennium, and while Fairon had told him that he'd once taken part in the Eternal Game, he remembered little else.

"Blast!" a voice broke through the maelstrom raging within Blast's mind. "Blast, follow me. We're ready to continue."

For the past day, he, Jarodin, and Ion had traveled to the borders of rebel territory and crossed once more into the Ix Empire. They were now in the middle of the wild plains generally labeled the Wastelands, though Blast had seen they were far, far more then that. They were roamed by tribes of wild Vorox, Zesk, and Rock Steeds, as well as other creatures far more wild and dangerous.

They now stood atop a large hill, the massive peaks rising in the distance beyond the swamps and the Fells alike. Blast knew that somewhere, high above him, Shardak was traveling, with a Skakdi, his two Matoran friends, and an Ix warrior.

Blast had never been sure what he thought of Valkyria. On one hand, she'd saved Shardak's life in the Void, on another, she was an Ix warrior, who could never be trusted. Despite the fact she'd been sentanced into the 175th Eternal Game, Blast still didn't believe she hadn't gone willingly.

"Coming!" he called back, racing over to join Jarodin and Ion. Both Toa looked grim as the winds grew colder and the skies grew darker.

"We're almost to the camps of the Dargon tribe." said Ion. "Hopefully they will be convinced to join our cause.'

Their mission was to find the camps of the enigmatic Dargon race and convince them to ally with the rebellion. The majority of the rebellion's warriors were of the various Veythari clans, who were all allied against the Ix and lived in the upper regions of the Fells. The next greatest group were disaffected Matoran, Agori, and Kranr, and the remainders were Glatorian or Toa.

They needed more allies before they would be able to assault the Empire's cities. While they may have been able to win several victories in the Fells and the Canyonlands, they had certainly not gathered a stong or large enough force to take on the more powerful of the Ix's cities, certainly not heavily fortified districts like Gigas Nui or Drakos Capitol.

Suddenly, a second flash of light interrupted Blast's thoughts. A tall, blue-armored being stood before them at the base of the cliff. Blast instantly felt vulnerable, for they were standing at the edge of the mountain, and to fall from the cliff at this height would mean certain death.

Blast recognized the being immediately, his cold orange eyes and sapphire armor all too visible in the broad daylight. This was the being who had captured them all those weeks ago in the Circle, the being who had taken them as prisoners to the Circle.

Ion unsheathed his long, curved broadsword, and Jarodin raised his Toa tool.

"Banrax..." Ion hissed.

The Elemental smiled, a cold, grim expression that spoke of little more then death. "I am glad that I have mnet you again, Ion, and you, Glatorian." he said, fixing his gaze on Blast. "Now you shall perish."

Chapter 6[]

Night had begun to fall, the slivers of light beginning to completely disappear beneath a curtain of darkness broken only by several small stars. The moon was hidden behind the dusky clouds, and soon the only light the five travelers possessed were those from their lanterns and the smouldering red glow of the Sword of Fire.

Shardak watched as Torak set the lanterns down beside him, illuminating the small forest below the high mountains that would soon return into the familiar grounds of the Fells. They'd agreed that the forests were by far the safest place to camp at nights, and the only place where they were sure that they'd be safe.

Shardak was reasonably confident their group was too large to be attacked by any wandering predators, even a pack of Shadow Wolves would be no match for all five of them, and with the instinct that had been honed in the years before he and Arcturas had lived in Intax still honed to razor-sharp perfection, Shardak was sure that they were completely protected.

"I'll take watch before you." Shardak said to Torak. The Skakdi nodded gratefully, disappearing behind the makeshift barrier of bushes and trees that made up their camp. Shardak looked around, now noticing only he and Valkyria were still awake. Silver and Dust, tired from the climb, had fallen prey to exhaustion almost immediately, and were both asleep within minutes after setting up camp.

Shardak's thoughts, however, racing through his mind at breakneck speed, left no time for sleep. The sheer gravity of the rebellion's situation pressed down upon him like a massive load of armor. If they faltered, at all, the rebellion's cause was all but over. The Ix would gain control of the Annulus, and the thought of Skorpix in posession of an artifiact of such extreme power was terrifying. Even beings like the skilled Veythari warriors could not stand against Skorpix, he doubted that even an Ix warrior could defeat the Elemental lord.

His thoughts changing once more, he turned to look at the Ix warrior sitting beside him. Valkyria seemed both alert and focused, but her mind seemed elsewhere. Shardak guessed she was also contemplating the enormity of the task ahead of them, and how easily they would find Jekart when they reached Akkad.

"So, how have you liked it?" Shardak asked her. before he could stop himself. "With the rebellion, I mean."

"It's very different from the Empire." answered Valkyria. "But it's certainly been interesting."

There was a note in her slightly musical voice that Shardak didn't hear normally--sadness. Then again, he supposed it should be expected. Despite the fact that Valkyria was a master at concealing her true thoughts and feelings, he knew how hard it must be to turn her back on everything she'd trained for nearly all of her life after being sentanced to the Eternal Game, then live for over three months with her enemies, beings she'd trained to kill as an Ix warrior.

"I'm sorry." he said. "I wish you could have gone back to your people after the Eternal Game. I didn't expect that our alliance in the Void would end up costing you what it did."

Valkyria seemed almost surprised for one moment, then asked, "What gave it away?"

"You need to learn to control your aura more fully. I can read your emotions and ideas far too easily." said Shardak teasingly, echoing her words when they'd been trapped in the arena. Valkyria laughed, and Shardak was almost startled that she'd done so. Quickly, the Ix girl stopped, seeming almost surprised and almost guilty.

"There's no more reason not to be yourself around the others." said Shardak. "There's no one who will punish you for it."

Valkyria nodded, still smiling slightly. Shardak looked at the Ix warrior again, and thought that she seemed much more beautiful now, much more then her usual, slightly arrogant mask. When she smiled, her eyes lit up and she...well, he liked it when she smiled.

A little embarassed in the direction his thoughts were going, Shardak immediately sobered and began to return his aura to its usual uniform gray. He began to focus his thoughts, drawing his knife and carving on a small, fallen branch.

"Who taught you how to do that?" asked Valkyria.

"My father, Arcturas, before we lived in Intax. It was one of our favorite things to do during the winters in the Fells, when there was little better to do. Arcturas always saved several branches for us over the long winter months, when the Fells were bured in snow."

"There were harsh winters in Illeria as well." said Valkyria. "My friends and I often hunted for our own food during those days, so we wouldn't have to rely on the harsher rations in midwinter."

Shardak nodded, but slight uneasiness was creeping into him as he remembered exactly who he was talking to. Valkyria was an Ix warrior, and despite the fact the Ix had betrayed her, she still could not be trusted. He'd come perilously close to telling her about his life with Arcturas, information that any Ix would probably kill to posess. When he spoke again, it was slower, more measured.

"So, the Ix ration food as well in Illeria? What's it like there?"

Valkyria seemed to sense what he was thinking, for she'd reverted once again to her normal expression. "It's interesting enough." she said, smiling again. But this time, Shardak thought it seemed a little forced. He felt as though he'd come closer to bridging the massive chasm that stood between them, only to find that all of his work was once again in vain.

Slowly, both Toa and Ix fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts. Shardak wondered again if Valkyria could be trusted, or if they could ever truly be friends when such a massive abyss of hatred ran between them. Slowly, Shardak stared at the night sky, asking the question over and over again in his mind.

However, tonight the darkened skies held no answers for him.

Banrax laughed, a cackling hiss of mad pleasure as several blasts of water and shadow slammed against Jarodin, engulfing the Toa in shadowy tendrils of elemental power. Drenched by water and entangled by darkness, the Toa staggered backward. With Jarodin momentarily distracted, Banrax lashed out at Ion, his scimitar meating Ion's broadsword with a tremendous clang that reverberated throughout the void below them.

Blast, meanwhile, was having his own problems. The Elemental Prince seemed to easily be able to hold all three of them off at once, forcing Jarodin and Blast to keep at a distance while at the same time fighting Ion in single combat. Banrax was more or less equal to Ion in strength and speed, but neither the Elemental Prince nor the Toa seemed to be faltering.

Jarodin, finally blasting his way free from the tendrils of shadowy water, charged forward, directly at Banrax. The Elemental leapt forward, countering another of Ion's blows and firing several blasts of pure auric energy at the Toa. Banrax turned away, confident that Jarodin would not survive.

What he had not expected, and what Jarodin had counted on, was his Kanohi, the Kezrak, great mask of Reflection. Banrax's attacks were immediately reflected, and as Banrax was struck by his own attack, both Jarodin and Blast struck.

However, despite these setbacks, Banrax was still a deadly fighter. As Jarodin leapt toward him, Banrax stopped him telekinetically midair, allowing him time to counter Ion's furious and blinding attack. Moments later, Jarodin crumpled to the ground, his energy drained by the Elemental. Blast could see the Toa was still breathing, but knew they would have to tend to him after the battle.

Assuming they survived, Blast thought grimly.

As Banrax, still shocked by Jarodin's sudden charge, was facing Ion, Blast leapt forward, his Scythe flashing in the twilight. Blast felt his weapon tear through Banrax's shoulder, then felt pain flash through him as he staggered back, darkness shrouding the world from view. Suddenly he could see once again, but still could not move--Banrax had immobilized him with a Shadow Hand, an ancient technique once often used by the Makuta years ago.

Slowly, Blast began to slash his way free of the web of shadows, finally tearing himself free from the Shadow Hand. He charged toward Banrax, but the Elemental was ready for him again, and easily deflected all but one of his attacks his his scimitar, a hideous weapon of red fire. The final attack struck Banrax across the shoulder, not even denting the being's armor.

Banrax lunged forward, all the while battering at Ion with pulses of both shadow and water. Blast narrowly avoided being cleaved in two, then locked his scythe with Banrax's scimitar, attempting to pull the weapon from the Elemental's hands. However, Banrax was far stronger then even Blast had expected, and managed to tear his weapon free.

At that moment, Ion struck. The Toa, seeing Banrax was beginning to weaken from his massive uses of power, lunged forward, his sword tearing through Banrax's armor and ripping open his chestplate. Banrax staggered backward, and Blast brought his scythe down across the Elemental's back, feeling the weapon slice through Banrax's already damaged armor.

The wounded Elemental charged toward Ion, and Ion smashed his broadsword against Banrax's scimitar, then readied to deal the final blow. At that moment, Banrax vanished, his sapphire body disappearing without a trace.

Ion cursed. "He's gone!" he called to Blast.

"Where?" asked the Glatorian, wondering if Banrax had made himself invisible somehow, perhaps a trick in the aura field. He knew that all Elementals had auric powers, though they were far more limited then those of the Ix or Toa.

"He teleported away." said Ion. "He's virtually the embodiment of water, entwined with that element. All he had to do was envision a body of water some distance away, and he instantaneously was transported there."

"At least we managed to defeat him." said Blast at length, watching as Ion helped Jarodin rise shakily to his feet. The Toa's eyes looked slightly unfocused, but he was alive and complied as Ion lead him up the slopes, toward the Dargon tribe's camps. Night had begun to fall, the entire sky growing dark as clouds began to cover the stars themselves. Blast, Jarodin, and Ion climbed higher up the hills, finally reaching the craggy summit of a small peak covered in trees.

Blast looked around for any sign of the Dargon, but saw nothing. The entire woodland seemed quiet, save for the eerie calls of several Glider Owls in the distance. Blast found it almost eerie, as though a storm was about to break that he was not aware of. He allowed himself a glance at Ion, and saw that the Toa seemed unworried that they'd spotted no other beings yet. He was about to whisper a question to Ion when he heard a rustle in the foliage, coupled by a massive axe descending upon them.

Blast staggered backward and hauled Jarodin with him, but Ion whispered several words in a sharp, staccato tongue that Blast didn't recognize. Slowly, the shadow of the massive being began to retreat, the axe withdrawing as Ion stepped forward.

"Time to make amends, old friend."

Chapter 7[]

The gates of the city of Akkad loomed above Shardak, forbidding in the cold dawn light. Parapets, patrolled by armed guards, surrounded the entire city, reminding Shardak of the Circle in the Void. He knew that despite the war, Akkad was in little danger from either the Ix or the rebellion.

The city was ancient, going back long before the fall of Arcaea and the rise of the Ix Empire. Their city was built atop a massive bed of protosteel ore, allowing them to have sufficient funds to produce their own army and stay independant from both the warring factions surrounding them. As such, it had become a melting pot for many, many different cultures, from the Veythari to the Ix.

And the fact that it was completely neutral made it a perfect haven for bounty hunters, and information brokers such as Jekart.

Now the only difficulty will be finding him. thought Shardak as he appproached the gates. They'd hidden their weapons beneath their cloaks beforehand, and had an excellent cover story that Ion had supplied for them.

"Halt!" the voice rang out, crisp and cold. "State your business in Akkad!"

The voice came from one of the guards standing in front of the gates. Three others strode over to them, their weapons drawn. All of them looked wary and battle ready, and Shardak knew immediately not to underestimate them. They almost certainly had backup from somewhere, probably from the ramparts above them.

"We're traders." Shardak said, remembering the story that Ion had given them. "Miners, here to sell our goods in the prosperous city of Akkad."

"Traders?" the guard asked, running a cynical eye over Shardak, wearing the Ignika, once again disguised as a Glatorian helmet, Torak, a Skakdi, Sliver and Dust, two Matoran, and Valkyria, who looked like an Ix but dressed as a Veythari warrior. "Or spies? None of you look like the usual sort of traders who come to sell to our prosperous city."

"We did hire several guards." Shardak answered, pointing to Torak and Valkyria. "Can't be too careful in the Fells, not now there's a war on."

The guard nodded in stiff agreement. "Let me see your goods." he ordered. In response, Shardak handed over one of the two bags of diamonds, showing him the other. Each one of them were carrying smaller bags with a few diamonds within each.

The guard inspected each of them, nodding in approval. "Deal in any weapons?" he asked, voice still sharp, but less suspicious now.

"No. Bad for profit. We don't want to get involved in the Fells' civil wars." said Shardak.

"You've been profiting from the war, and everyone knows it." snarled the guard. "All right, you can go in, but cause any trouble and you won't get off lightly. Understand?"

Shardak nodded. "We understand."

"Good." grunted the guard. The two beings also guarding the gates opened them, and together the five travelers entered Akkad. The city was built simularly to Intax, as well as nearly all of the other mountain towns. The geography had created the structure of the city, the jagged cliffs and high winds making sure that all houses were made of strudy wood or steel. There were very few tall buildings among them, and none like the massive spires in the city of Seruamaera, also called the Nameless City, in the Void.

The city, like Intax, was filled with beings of all types, including Agori, Matoran, Kranr, Vortixx, and Glatorian. There were no Ix warriors save Valkyria there, and no sign of any Imperial presence at all. Shardak doubted that there were no Imperial warriors there, and knew they were probably undercover. There were many, many beings carrying weapons there, though, Shardak guessed they were mercenaries.

"How do we find Jekart?" asked Torak. "He could be anywhere?"

Shardak led the other four beings through a large crowd of Glatorian and answered, his voice a low whisper. "We'll ask someone, and if they don't volunteer immediately, we try to bribe them into telling us."

Shardak walked over, toward a small group of Agori who were whispering excitedly outside a small tavern. All of them seemed excited, and the Toa was unable to make out anything in their low whispers. He walked inside the taven, the others following. An Agori was turning away from a table and striding toward the door when Shardak blocked his way.

"What do you want?" hissed the Agori. "I'm a busy being, and I don't have time for questions."

"I can make it worth your while." said Shardak raising his sack of diamonds. The Agori stared hungrily at the sachel, as though he could see through the bag and look at the jewels within. Shardak lifted a diamond from the sack.

"All right." said the Agori, his eyes fixed on the diamond. "What do you want to know?"

"Where would we find the information broker, Jekart."

"You know..." said the Agori thoughtfully. "This is a fine diamond. It makes a being wonder if you have any more like it..." his eyes stared hungrily at the bag, as though he was an Iron Wolf who had spotted a particularly excellent kill.

Valkyria's hand strayed toward her cloak, giving the Agori a glimpse of the hilt of her dagger as her fingers closed around the weapon.

"But for me, the one diamond is perfectly adequate." said the Agori hastily. "I will tell you immediately. Jekart lives in the central keep. You can usually find him on the second floor of the tavern known as the Skull. You'll know it immediately because a bloody skull is painted on each door, front and back."

Shardak placed the dagger in the Agori's hand, and the being raced off with his prize. By now, their disussion had attracted the attention of several other beings, and though Shardak had taken care to keep the jewels hidden from all of the beings except the Agori, they'd all seen how quickly he'd leapt to do their bidding.

Shardak knew immediately it was time to go, before they were remembered by all of the beings in the tavern for the rest of the day. Being noticed could be very dangerous in a neutral city-state like Akkad, where any of the beings he spoke to could easily be Ix agents. Turning away, he, Valkyria, and the others left the tavern.

"The Skull, eh?" grunted Torak. "Should have known. Jekart will be there."

"Then you're sure that the Agori wasn't lying?" asked Shardak.

"No, he's not lying. A large tavern like the Skull he mentioned would be a haven for information brokers such as Jekart."

Shardak nodded. "Let's go."

The five beings walked down the narrow stone streets of Akkad, turning the block and passing into the central city. Here the buildings grew more ornate, and the taverns larger. Further on, Shardak knew, they would find the cities' leaders, as well the higher-class beings. Jekart probably owned a house there as well, but no information broker would base himself there.

Rounding a corner, Shardak saw a large tavern, complete with a shabbily painted skull on the doors. Voices of all types rang from the building, and Shardak knew immediately that they would find their quarry there. A large tavern such as this was the perfect place for Jekart to do his business, where many different beings all met to discuss the war and other interesting topics. This was a perfect place for both the higher and lower-class citizens to meet, for it was directly between the inner and outer city sections.

Shardak pushed open the door, entering the darkened room. Torchlight filled the chamber, though it was very dim. The lighting did not seem to bother the patrons at all, however. Almost all of them were talking, and did not even pause to look up and acknowledge their presence. Shardak strode deeper into the tavern, the others following him. All of them seemed slightly apprehensive, and Shardak wondered once again if the Agori had lied to them.

However, Shardak soon noticed stairs leading up to a second floor, and, relieved, followed Torak up to the landing. The upper floor of the tavern was quiet and empty, and Shardak scanned the room, suddenly noticing the small being sitting at a table, a carving knife in his hand. He was carving something onto a thin stone tablet.

"Jekart?" asked Shardak, his voice wavering slightly on the last syllable. The being lifted his head and Shardak had to prevent himself from gasping in shock.

The being's body was twisted horribly, bent forward and hunched. The armor was a shiny silver gray, and looked as though it had once been smashed, then repaired again, only partially successfully. But it was the face that Shardak found even more hideous. The being had large fangs on his lower jaw, that still showed partially even when his mouth was closed. The eyes were a hard, cold red color that was horribly intense and calculating as well as arrogant.

"What do you want?" asked Jekart. His voice was as hideous as his body, sounding like a cross between a rasp and a hiss. However, there was an unmistakeable tone of superiority in his voice as he spoke. "Are you here to bring me the...surely you know?"

"No." said Shardak. "We're here for information."

"Aren't you, now?" asked Jekart, putting down his pen. His calculating gaze passed over Silver and Dust, who looked slightly afraid of the information broker, Torak, whose expression was unreadable, and lastly to Valkyria. Jekart smiled slightly, a hideous expresssion that froze Shardak's heart.

"What will you give me, then? I don't just hand out information to every random stranger who shows up on my doorstep." said Jekart caustically.

"We can pay you well." said Shardak, touching his sachel once to emphasize the point. Jekart's gaze fixed on the bag Shardak was carrying, and the same greedy expresssion that had appeared on the Agori's face appeared on his.

"Well, then." rasped the information broker, a new tone in his voice that Shardak couldn't read, but knew he didn't like. "Sit down. Perhaps we can make arrangements after all."

Blast stared at the being standing before him in shock and not a little awe. The Dargon looked like a cross between a scorpion, a Vorox, and a Glatorian. His clawed hands and prehensile tail that lashed from side to side in excitement. However, the face was pure Glatorian, with wide-set green eyes and a silver helmet. He seemed alert and intelligent, and he looked surprised to see them.

"Hello, Areop." said Ion, his voice calm and cool. "It's been a while."

"So it has, Toa Ion." Areop said, his voice betraying nothing. "What brings you to the Dargon camps?"

"I'll tell you once we're there." answered Ion. "For now, let us return to your camps. This is Blast, an ally of mine, and Toa Jarodin, one of the few remaining Toa still alive here on Xaterex."

Areop nodded. "Pleased to meet you. Any friends of Ion are welcome here." still his voice seemed slightly stiff and oddly formal as he lead them back through the forests, to the entrance of several massive caverns. There were three entrances into the Dargon's camps, and Areop led them through the central entrance, one that led into a massive cavern filled with several more Dargon, all armed with either battleaxes or spears. They all looked up as Areop passed them, curiousity gleaming in their eyes as they saw Ion, Blast, and Jarodin pass them.

Areop led them down a corridor, finally stopping at a second cave. This one was completely abandoned and silent, as well as clean. A table and several chairs stood at the center of the chamber, though they were both in need of repair. Blast guessed that Dargon rarely ever sat down, simply walked on four legs when they needed to.

"Please, sit. We do not use these chairs, but you may." said Areop. "Now, what do you want?"

"I'm sure you know about what happened in the Eternal Game four months ago?" asked Ion.

"The war returned to Xaterex." the Dargon leader said.

Ion nodded. "Yes. The war returned here after many years of fighting on Noctxia Magna. Our cause has attracted many more disaffected beings, especially Kranr, Glatorian, and Agori, then ever before, but all of those beings only number about three hundred. The elite Veythari warriors number under two hundred, and the rest of our force far fewer then both. Altogether, we have under a thousand warriors at our command, insufficient to take on the Empire alone."

"And you wish to ask the assistance of the Dargon tribe?" Areop guessed.

"That is correct." said Ion. "Your warriors are many, as well as fierce. We cannot allow the Empire to win this war again. If we can take more of Xaterex, the Empire will have been dealt a crushing blow, one that they would be hard-pressed to recover from. However, we need help, allies that we know we can depend upon in the coming battles."

Areop sighed. "I was afraid you would ask this." he said. "Your coming could only mean one thing. You do understand that I would be sending my warriors to their deaths in a war that hardly concerns us?"

"If the Empire does not fall, their deaths will be a certainty. Are you telling me that the Ix have never bothered you here?"

"No, they have, many times. But never to the extent that we would rebel against them. We saw what they did to the Toa, and the beings in the Eternal Game. There is no hope for a rebellion on Xaterex."

"And yet we have driven them mostly from the Fells, and invaded the Canyonlands." said Ion. "And even Calos is being swayed toward our side, and we have no troops there at all."

"I know." said Areop. "Maybe you can win this after all. However, the Dargon are a proud people, and we do not wish to sacrifice our lives for your cause. I am sorry, my friend."

"But you--" Blast began, but Ion cut him off. "Not now, Blast." he said. "Areop, please think on what I have said. The Empire threatens all of us. Do you really think the Ix will leave you in peace once the rebellion is destroyed? They know that you have ties to us, and that your people were our allies in the past--"

"And look where that got us." hissed Areop. "We sided with you during the Arcaean War, and we were left with nothing. If the Ix can destroy Arcaea, and the Toa, maybe it's best to obey them, for fear of what they'll do next."

"You said you were a proud people." Ion retorted. "Not one to bow down to other's requests. The Ix believe that they are superior to us as a people. No one is superior to anyone else as a people. There are good and bad found among every race. Join us, Areop. Join us, and we will end the Ix's tyranny forever, and your people will be able to live wherever you wish, with no fear of the Ix destroying you. We will make sure you are protected in the Veythari camps."

Areop still seemed undecided. "I understand you, I really do, and I would consider aiding you seriously if it were against any beings except the Ix. My father was alive during the fall of Arcaea, and he described the entire Earth Kingdom crumbling into nothing. I know how it feels to be helpless against an enemy, and never wish to face that again."

"So it's fear?" asked Ion. "You're afraid of what the Ix will do to your tribes in retaliation? Fear is a weapon that the Ix use, but it only works because you allow it to. If you do not fear the Ix, you will be able to fight them. All of their weapons, Elimination, the Eternal Game, the war-- all based around fear. They wish to hold you all in fear so you can no longer fight against them, even in your thoughts. But we, the Veythari, the remaining Toa, our other allies, have stopped fearing the Ix. Without that fear, they are nothing more then another enemy that threatens our survival."

For a long time, Areop did not speak. His face was shrewd as he studied Blast's face, then Jarodin's. Finally he said, "You're right. I will join your alliance. It would be most unseemly if we remained cowering here while the rest of our allies fought the greatest war in the history of our universe."

If Ion was relieved, he did not show it. "How many warriors do you have under your command?" he asked.

"About two hundred, though as soon as I declare my loyalty to the rebellion, two other vassal tribes will join me. Both of them have about two hundred warriors together. Our complete force will be over four hundred beings, all hardened fighters. You were right, Ion. The time to hide is over. The Dargon are at war."

Chapter 8[]

"So, what is it that you wish to know?" asked Jekart, keeping his voice carefully neutral. "I won't ask questions in return, nor will I tell anyone anything you tell me...if you pay me enough, or unless they pay more then you did."

Shardak felt uncomfortable. He remembered that Jekart had ties to the Ix, and immediately fell silent. He knew their destination was in sight, and all he needed to do was ask the question, but felt almost unable to. He opened his mouth, finally blurting out.

"Do you know the location of the Annulus fragment the Ix are searching for?"

Jekart did not seem surprised at the question. His expresssion did not change in the slightest, he simply answered slowly. "The Annulus fragment that the Ix are searching for. An interesting question, one that raises many others...however, I will keep my word and not ask anything more. Yes, I can answer your question, but I wish to be paid first."

Shardak lay three blue diamonds on Jekart's table. The information broker's eyes stared hungrily at the jewels, red eyes gleaming. "You will be given the rest of your pay upon truthfully answering the question."

Jekart nodded, and his hideous mouth twisted itself into a smile. "I always truthfully answer questions, young Glatorian. The answer is as follows. You shall find the fragment on the moon that orbits Noctxia Magna known as Xiost. The Ix's presence there, as well as that of my allies, has confirmed this many weeks ago."

"Thank you, then." said Shardak, dropping the remainder of the diamonds into Jekart's greedily outstretched claw. He'd made sure that Blast, Torak, and Valkyria were still carrying several diamonds, in case Jekart needed to charge them more. However, he thought that the information broker had volunteered the information far too easily. Still, he seemed truthful.

Shardak felt another aura touch his, and to his surprise he recognized it as Valkyria's. The Ix warrior didn't exactly speak words into his mind, but he could sense distrust within her silvery aura. He has something else planned, some other trap to spring. Be on your guard.

I understand.

Shardak turned his attention back to Jekart once again. "Then we will be leaving you now. Thank you for your valuable time."

Jekart grunted once, then looked up at the five beings as they were about to leave the room. He smiled, a wide grin that was definitely not friendly. "I'm sorry, Toa Shardak, but I cannot allow you to do that."

Shardak was so shocked he almost dropped the bag with the remaining blue diamonds. "How do you--"

Jekart grinned again. "Let's just say I have informants everywhere, even within the rebellion. Skorr!" he called.

The door opened, and Valkyria, Shardak, and the others whirled around in shock. "What--"

The being standing before them was tall, heavily built being. Shardak recognized him as a Zeverek, a race widely known and feared as ferocious warriors. He carried a massive broadsword in one hand, and stood a good head taller then Shardak. In his other hand he held a blaster, one that Shardak had no doubt he could use effectively. His expression was visciously pleased, like a venomous snake who was seconds away from striking his prey a fatal blow.

"But you said that you wouldn't tell anyone!" Shardak protested. He turned to Skorr. "Surely you know that this being was bound not to reveal any secrets to any other being?"

Skorr smiled. "I know many things, little Toa. Including the fact that I'm being paid by my employers far more then you paid Jekart for your pitiful information. But if you all surrender immediately and allow me to kill you painlessly, I know we can avoid any unpleasantness. However, if you do not, things may become slightly more...complicated."

Shardak saw Valkyria was drawing a dagger from her cloak, about to throw it at Skorr. The bounty hunter seemed so caught up in his discussion that he didn't seem to notice her.

"Who are your employers?" asked Shardak, desperately trying to keep the bounty hunter talking as long as he possibly could. "The Ix?"

"The Ix?" Skorr almost laughed aloud. "No, no. There are forces at play here that are far, far more potent then your little Empire, forces that are certainly beyond the comprehension of you, a mere Toa.

"So what will it be?" asked Skorr, enjoying dragging their torment out as long as he could. "Shall you surrender? Or will I have to kill you the harder way?"

In answer, Valkyria's dagger flashed through the shadows, aimed perfectly at Skorr's heart. The bounty hunter moved faster then Shardak would have believed possible, raising one gloved hand and swatting the dagger from the air as though dispatching an irksome fly.

"I shall take it that you have chosen the latter option." Skorr hissed, not seeming at all concerned. "However, you have much to learn about good distractions, Shardak. In my job, you would not last a day."

No sooner had the final syllable left the Zeverek's mouth when he struck, his blaster firing rapidly at them as his weapon flashed down at Shardak. The Toa dodged quickly, raising the Blade of Arcturas to counter Skorr's next blow. However, the bounty hunter was far stronger then Shardak had anticipated, and his crushing thrust nearly ripped the Blade of Arcturas from his hands.

Shardak, relieved from Skorr's relentless attack for a moment, turned to see how the others were doing. Valkyria had done something to the bullets--redirected them somehow-- and they'd struck the wall, punching several holes in the tavern room.

It was lucky Skorr had a silencer on his blaster, Shardak had time to think, as he parried another of Skorr's thusts. He wondered for a moment if the tavern below could hear the clash of weapons, but doubted it. Jekart's door was so heavy that very little sound would travel through it.

Even with Torak, Silver, Dust, and Valkyria all helping them, the bounty hunter was still fighting, on the defensive but still unwounded. His skill surpassed many of the beings that Shardak had faced, though his heavy, crushing swordstrokes were not as precise and calculated as those of Nightwatcher, the bounty hunter who had captured them in the Void and taken them to the Ix.

Skorr's weapon seemed to slip through the darkness in a blur, countering both Shardak's and Torak's swordthrusts in a single motion. Then the Zeverek followed the attack up with a confusing attack pattern, finally disarming Torak. However, Shardak and Valkyria, were able to take advantage of his momentary preoccupation and lunge forward, managing to dent his armor slightly.

Skorr, seeing that he was fighting a losing battle, turned and managed to quickly regain the offensive, his weapon a blur as it collided with Valkyria's, then Shardak's again. Within seconds, Skorr was forcing them both toward the wall, and Shardak was finding it harder and harder to find room to deflect Skorr's attack. Silver and Dust were unable to help, for whenever they attacked, Skorr simply disarmed them, and they were forced to jump aside to avoid being killed instantly by his broadsword.

Shardak's eyes were fixed on Jekart, the lying information broker who had sold them out, once again, to their enemies. A satisfied smile was on the being's face as he watched them being cornered by Skorr. Shardak knew now that Jekart was probably also working for Skorr's employers, and that there was little hope for them to escape now.

However, seeing Jekart sitting at his desk, no longer paying attention to the battle, gave Shardak an idea. Leaping toward the desk and dodging or blocking Skorr's blows each time, he grabbed Jekart, pressing the Blade of Arcturas against the information broker's throat.

"Stop, or he dies." Shardak snarled. Immediately, the sounds of battle vanished as they all turned to face him. Skorr looked at Shardak with a shocked expression on his face, an expression which quickly became a sneer of disbelieving contempt.

"You're a Toa." Skorr hissed. "Toa don't kill in cold blood, not even a being who has betrayed them."

"I'm also a warrior in the rebellion." said Shardak. "And I will kill him if you attack my friends again."

He was bluffing; he certainly did not have the stomach to kill Jekart. However, he was hoping desperately that the Zeverek bounty hunter did not realize that. He held the bounty hunter's gaze the entire time, his eyes cold and dispassionate.

Skorr sighed. "I certainly have nothing against Jekart." he said at last. "But it is far more profitable to have you both dead."

He lunged forward, tearing the Blade of Arcturas from Shardak's hands. Shardak staggered backward, letting go of Jekart. Within seconds, Skorr was slashing at him, and Shardak felt pain shoot through his arm as the bounty hunter slashed across his shoulder with the massive broadsword.

Shardak rose to his feet, the Blade of Arcturas once again in hand as he blocked Skorr's blinding salvos again and again. As Skorr was about to deal another crushing blow, Shardak leapt to one side and felt his weapon tear through Skorr's armor, drawing blood.

Skorr seemed surprised for an instant, and Shardak took that single moment to push open the doors to Jekart's floor and race down the stairs. He could see that Valkyria, Torak, Silver, and Dust were all following him.

Racing down the stairs, knowing that Skorr was close behind them, Shardak pushed open the doors of the tavern and raced into the streets, knowing that Skorr would not hesitate to follow them.

"Halt!" ordered the guards at the gate. "No one leaves Akkad without permission from the city leaders."

Too late, Shadak remembered that Ion had told them that Jekart had connections with many of the high-ranking Akkadian diplomats. Of course they'd bar them all from exiting, no matter what they protested. Shardak saw a shadow of a being racing toward them, and knew that Skorr was taking aim with his blaster.

Shardak felt another aura touch that of the guards, and saw them crumple to the ground. He looked at Valkyria, and realized she'd stunned them somehow, another handy auric technique that he needed to learn. While he could push and somewhat manipulate others in the aura field, he had little training in the aura field from anyone. The only other being who had attempted to train him was Silencer, and he'd died before he was able to train Shardak in any aggressive techniques at all.

"Hello, Toa." snarled Skorr, and before Shardak could turn around, Skorr brought his weapon down.

Suddenly there was a flash of blue armor, and Torak had slammed into Skorr, taking the bounty hunter by surprise. Skorr's weapon flew from his hands, finally clattering to the ground. Skorr was so shocked by his sudden attack that he almost was disarmed by the Skakdi's furious assault, but soon began to recover and lashed out at Torak.

The Skakdi warrior wasted no time in delaying. Within seconds he was racing through the open gate, ignoring the guards on the walls who were grabbing their crossbows and firing at them. Shardak saw Torak grunt as an arrow hit him in the shoulder, but didn't dare to stop running. He wasn't sure if Skorr or the guards were following them, and he'd been trained well enough not to look back and check.

Shardak lost count of how long they ran. When they stopped, even Valkyria seemed slightly tired, and Torak, Silver, and Dust looked exhausted. Shardak's legs and arms ached, and anger at Jekart's betrayal began to simmer within him once again. The information broker had given them their lead, then attempted to kill them. Any minute now, he expected Skorr to appear, blaster readied to kill them all.

"Should we continue running?" he asked Valkyria. The Ix girl shook her head.

"If Skorr was still following us, he'd had caught us by now. He's probably been delayed by the Akkadian guards, though I'm not sure for how long."

"How did Skorr escape being noticed in the aura field?" asked Shardak. "Surely even I could sense him if he was standing right outside Jekart's door."

In answer, he felt Valkyria's aura begin to fade, then disappear altogether. For one moment he was worried, for it was as though she was dying. But Valkyria was still standing before him, smiling slightly at his baffled expression.

"It's a difficult aura power to master." said Valkyria. "One day, when we're not being chased by bounty hunters and Akkadian guards, I'll teach you."

"You all have much more pressing problems then the Akkadian guards." said a new voice. Suddenly Shardak and the others fell silent.

A group of seven Ix warriors, heavily armed and wearing dark armor, stood before them, their skull-like masks as cold and imposing as usual. However, these were not the same standard Ix warriors who had attacked them the day before in the Fells. These were some of the far more elite Ix, like the beings he'd spotted in the Circle. However, unlike the black-robed Ix, these were soldiers like the Fury, carrying scythelike daggers.

But Shardak barely payed them any attention. His eyes were fixed on the smaller Ix, who wore silver armor and smiled at Shardak as though greeting an old friend. Rage built within Shardak. This was the Ix apprentice who had sold him and Arcturas out to the Ix, the Ix who had spied on them for ten years. He recognized her instantly.


Chapter 9[]

"Hello, Toa Shardak." said Nightshade.

Her voice sounded light and playful, but her eyes, cold as twin shards of green ice, told the real story. The last time Shardak had seen her, they'd been escaping the Spire in the Circle. A friend of Shardak's, a Matoran known as Barit, had sacrificed his life to allow Shardak, Kyhrex, and Blast to escape.

Now they were facing her again, seven Ix warriors with her. The last time, she'd been about to kill them all. And Shardak knew that she would have no qualms about killing all five of them now.

"Nightshade." he said again, his voice flat as he readied his weapon. "What do you want?"

"What I always want, Shardak. The Shadow Orb...and your life."

Shardak did not look at Valkyria, but an unspoken thought passed between them. How does she know we have the Shadow Orb?

There was only one explanation, and Shardak was loathe to admit it. The spy in the resistance is keeping them informed.

Nightshade surveyed the group. "What else do we have here?" she asked. "A rogue Ix warrior, a Skakdi, and two Matoran? I'm surprised you even escaped Skorr."

"So Skorr was working for you." said Shardak. Nightshade smiled.

"No, Skorr does not. However, that doesn't concern you in the slightest, Shardak. Soon you will be dead, and your friends with you. You can surrender, or fight. If you surrender, I will kill you all personally, If not, I assure you these Limiters will not be so lenient."

Limiters? Shardak "asked" Valkyria.

A specialist detachment of the Ix. she answered.

Shardak opened his mouth to reply to Nightshade, then raised the Blade of Arcturas and charged toward the Ix Limiters. He knew that they didn't stand much of a chance against seven Ix warriors, but he had to try. The skills he'd learned in the Eternal Game came back to him: us or them. Kill or be killed. There was no other option for them.

Valkyria leapt forward, her silver scimitar colliding with an Ix warrior's red sword like two colliding meteors. Torak slammed into an Ix warrior, twin blades flashing in horribly sweeping, precise strokes. Silver and Dust charged toward another Limiter, their combined attacks matching, but not overwhelming them.

Then it turned against them. Shardak slashed open a Limiter's arm, then hacked at his armor while he was desperately trying to deflect Shardak's crushing blows. Suddenly, Shardak realized he was no longer fighting one Ix Limiter, but two. Both were forcing him backward, and Shardak felt one Scythe bite into his shoulder, leaving a cold, chill burning feeling in his arm.

Shredsteel. he thought as he blocked another thrust with the Blade of Arcturas. Shredsteel was a Cold Iron, a substance that Shardak had mined for himself during his time as a Glatorian slave in the Circle. Painful and hard to heal, it would deaden his arm and weaken his fighting skills.

As he wildly parried two Limiters' scythe-daggers, he saw that Torak was being overwhelmed by two Ix warriors, and that Silver and Dust were staggering away from the attacks of another. Only Valkyria seemed to be holding her own: one Ix warrior lay facedown in a pool of blood, the other she was fighting was wounded as well.

Shardak slashed open a Limiter's arm, then followed the first blow with an uppercut, aiming for the Veiled One's neck. The Ix warrior leapt to one side to avoid instant death, and Shardak felt pain shoot through his arm as the Ix's armor deflected his attack. Shardak continued to batter at both Ix warriors, managing to hold his own barely but knowing that, in the end, he stood little chance against them both.

For one thing, they were far too fast and well-trained. Every Ix Shardak had encountered were almost supernaturally agile, and could land three blows in the span of time it took Shardak to land one. Valkyria could fire three arrows faster then Kyhrex could fire one. These Limiters were some of the most skilled Ix warriors on Xaterex, and Shardak knew that any minute now his guard would falter and they'd kill him instantly.

Shardak felt pain race through his arm once again as the Ix warriors began to batter his weapon downward weakening his defenses. One scythe bypassed his guard completely and tore through his other arm, his sword arm. Now holding the Blade of Arcturas in two hands, Shardak saw the Limiters lunge forward, faster then his eyes could follow, and the Toa staggered out of reach of their scythes by about an centimeter.

Seeing his initially strong defense begin to disintegrate, the second Limiter leaned toward him, aiming to destroy him with the same attack that had killed Silencer. However, Shardak had learned to block that attack pattern many times, and deflected the blow easily.

Too late, he realized his mistake as the second Limiter's weapon slammed against his, ripping it from his grasp. Shardak knew, then, it was over.

Torak slammed into one of the Ix warriors like a blue streak of lightning, slashing open the Limiter's back with a single stroke of his heavy broadsword. The Skakdi was covered in wounds, but his eyes were full of almost maniacal bloodlust as the Ix warrior staggered away from him, wounded mortally.

The second Ix warrior quickly recovered from the shock of Torak's sudden assault, and slammed into the Skakdi, his precise and fast strokes countering the wild, hammering blows that Torak rained down upon him. Shardak picked up the Blade of Arcturas, then surveyed the battlefield. Silver and Dust were fighting an Ix warrior, two others lay dead, one stabbed by Valkyria, the other killed by Torak. One other Limiter was battling Silver and Dust, but the two Matoran seemed to be holding their own despite their wounds.

Valkyria, however, had been cornered by the two other Limiters and Nightshade. All three of the Ix warriors were fighting her, and despite her speed with her silver scimitar, she was fighting a losing battle. Her face was grim and she looked almost tired as she fought the three Ix, barely holding her own against them.

Shardak charged toward Valkyria's attackers, feeling the Blade of Arcturas sink deep into the Limiter's chest. Blood welled from the Ix warrior's body as his heartlight went dark. Nightshade whirled around, raising her weapon just in time to block Shardak's next attack. The other Ix warrior leapt forward, his weapon ready to run Valkyria through--

No. thought Shardak, desperate. He charged forward, the Blade of Arcturas meeting the Limiter's scythe with a resounding clang. As the Limiter, confused for one moment, staggered backward, Shardak shoved him backward in the aura field. The Limiter fell to the ground.

"That's the second time I've saved the life of an Ix warrior." Shardak teased, expecting a playful retort. But Valkyria continued looking at him, her expression unreadable. However, her eyes were sparkling and she was smiling slightly.

"Thanks." whispered Valkyria, and for a moment their faces were very close, her bright emerald eyes looking into his--

The Ix warrior charged toward Shardak just as Nightshade's weapon descended upon him. Shardak deflected them both, countering the Ix warrior's attack with a jab in the aura field and Nightshade's with the Blade of Arcturas.

He and Valkyria fought side by side, trying to stem the relentless tide of thrusts and slashes that seemed to rain down upon them from all sides. While they, at first, were holding their own, slowly the Ix warriors began to overwhelm them. Shardak felt as though every drop of vitality he possesed was being drained from him; he could tell that Valkyria was wounded and tired. Shardak saw flashes of the battle raging all around them, but was powerless to help them.

Suddenly, as though he had known this would happen all along, Shardak felt a pulling sensation, one he recognized all too well-- the feeling of teleportation. His instinct, as it usually was, was to fight it, but he knew that it would not be denied. He could see the rift shimmer between the real world, and that of the millions of myriad possibilities that awaited him on the other side of the gateway.

"Stop them!" he heard Nightshade yell, saw the Ix warriors lunge toward them--

Then he could see nothing at all.

Chapter 10[]

Shardak felt himself begin to rematerialize on the opposite side of the gateway, still reeling with shock from what had just occurred. One minute he and Valkyria had been facing certain death at the hands of the Ix, the next they'd vanished, pulled through a gateway to...somewhere. Every time he'd teleported somewhere, he'd always been transported there by someone or something. Had Valkyria used the aura field to help them escape?

For the first time, Shardak became aware that Valkyria was standing next to him, dagger in hand. She had a long cut on one arm, but seemed otherwise unharmed. Of Torak, Silver, and Dust there was no sign.

"Where are we?" Shardak asked Valkyria. The Ix girl shook her head, mystified.

They were standing on a large plateau, with several mountains rising in the distance. It was warm, and the twin suns of Solis Magna shown in the distance, as they did on Xaterex. Still, there was something...odd about this place, something that Shardak couldn't quite comprehend. They didn't seem to be anywhere he recognized, certainly not in the mountain town of Akkad or the Fells. And, while the land was flat all around them, Shardak didn't think they were in the flatlands either.

Suddenly, Shardak heard footsteps, the familiar sound of metal-shod feet scraping against the rocky plateau. Both he and Valkyria turned, to see Torak striding toward them. The Skakdi's armor was badly dented, and he looked in no condition to walk, much less fight.

"Those...Limiters." he groaned. "Shredsteel daggers."

"He needs help." said Valkyria. "Xyrr, what you call Shredsteel, can damage a being's nerves permenantly if left untreated."

For the first time, Shardak noticed that Valkyria's scimitar, Silverblade, was made of Shredsteel as well. Was that how Turaga Pierra had died in the Sanctum of the Mind? In pain while Valkyria and her allies--

"Where should we go, then?" asked Shardak, unable to meet Valkyria's eyes. The Ix warrior seemed slightly surprised at his rather flat, toneless question, but answered it quickly.

"We'll have to scout around the area, and make sure that none of the Limiters have followed us, as well as see if we can locate Silver and Dust."

Shardak had almost forgotten about the two Matoran in the confusion. Torn between wanting to seek out immediate help for Torak and look for the Matoran, Shardak hardly noticed another presence in the aura field.

"Shardak--" Valkyria began.

She never got any further. Arrows, black like Valkyria's, sped out of the darkness. Shardak called a warning to Torak, but the wounded Skakdi was unable to move out of the way in time. It seemed to happen in slow motion. First an arrow hit Torak in the shoulder, then the leg, then the chest. Torak gasped as the arrow buried itself in his heartlight, then staggered toward them, falling to the ground.

"TORAK!" He yelled. Valkyria grabbed his hand, and half-dragged Shardak away from Torak. He fought her grasp, but Valkyria's fingers tightened around his arm warningly.

"What are you doing?" Shardak asked incoherently, his voice angry. "Torak's back there, they'll kill him, what are you--"

"He's already dead." Valkyria hissed under her breath. "Nothing will help him. You'd simply die with him, and what would happen to your rebellion without the Spirit Toa?"

Shardak opened his mouth to argue, but he knew Valkyria was right. Torak was beyond help; if they'd stayed behind, the mysterious archers would have killed them as well. If Silver and Dust were alive, they would have to find them to prevent them from suffering the same fate.

Suddenly he realized that Valkyria had saved his life, as he'd saved hers during the battle with Nightshade and the Limiters. Ashamed now, he mumbled an apology.

"Sorry." he said. "I just didn't want to leave him there, like that."

"That's the third time I've save the life of a Toa." Valkyria whispered, her voice playful and mocking now. "I really need to stop doing that."

"Come on, if you don't save me, who will?" Shardak asked her, relaxing.

"That's another thing." said Valkyria, her voice serious now. "Why did you--"

A quarrel whizzed past them, and immediately Shardak and Valkyria were running again. The crossbow bolt had missed them by inches, and Shardak wondered exactly who was trying to kill them. Not the Ix. The Ix never used crossbows, they weren't favored by flatand warriors either, Shardak, once again, did not look back. The sounds of the crossbow bolts flying inches behind them were proof enough that their enemies were still after them.

"Why does it always seem that everyone is trying to kill us?" Shardak asked Valkyria, as a crossbow bolt missed his shoulder by centimeters.

"You're one to talk." Valkyria retorted. "On our first meeting, you tried to slice me in half with that sword."

She was referring to the battle in the Sanctum of the Mind, when Shardak and Ion had been fighting her and the Ix commander. The Ix had underestimated the sheer power of the ancient Turaga and their Matoran allies, and only Valkyria had made it out alive, though not after stealing the Shadow Orb from Shardak.

The Orb he now carried. The heart of the Empire's power. For one moment, he wondered why Ion had given it to him.

Then, once again, he was racing across the flatlands, feeling horribly vulnerable. Despite the fact, that his enemies had no cover, they didn't either. And, unlike their enemies, they had no way of shooting back at their foes.

Up ahead, Shardak saw a few small cliffs rising above them. While not high hills, their craggy, rocky caverns would provide perfect cover for himself and Valkyria. He dared not even turn his head to look at the Ix warrior, but he could feel her in the field, her aura an arrowhead of determination.

Suddenly he heard the clang of a crossbow bolt smashing through armor, and saw a quarrel had hit Valkyria in the shoulder on her sword arm. He opened his mouth, but Valkyria, while he could tell she was in pain, had not faltered her stride or slowed at all.

"Keep going." she hissed. "I'll be fine."

Shardak wasn't sure, but he had to keep running or suffer the same fate. He could see that the cliffs were directly ahead of them, and raced forward, tired but still keeping pace was Valkyria, who had slowed slightly as they climbed up the narrow footpath that lead to the summit of the small mountain. He could see a cavern ahead, and knew that while the crossbow bolts could not reach them from here, Valkyria's longbow could easily do so.

He and Valkyria finally sat down on the cavern floor. Both he and the Ix warrior were breathing heavily, something that surprised Shardak. While the run would have been tiring for her, surely it wouldn't have exhaused her the way it had him?

Too late, he remembered the crossbow bolt that had hit Valkyria in the shoulder. The quarrel was still buried there, and Shardak could tell that, while she tried to disguise it, it hurt very badly.

"Here, let me have a look at that." he said to the Ix girl. Valkyria shook her head.

"No, I'll be fine. It doesn't hurt that badly."

"Yes, it does." said Shardak. "Now stop arguing and let me have a look at that."

Valkyria did not argue any further, and Shardak examined the wound. It certainly wasn't good. The shaft of the crossbow bolt had buried itself deep within her shoulder, probably to the bone. It had stopped bleeding, but still, there was something more...

"Poison." Shardak realized, worried now. "The crossbow bolts were poisoned."

He could see Valkyria's eyes were unfocused, and that she looked weaker. While not extremely experienced in dealing with poisons, Shardak knew that, if left untreated, the wound would kill her. It was a certainty. No assassin would allow their victim to survive even one hit from a poisoned arrow.

Valkyria nodded. "I can slow it, but not stop it completely. With any luck, I'll survive long enough for you to escape and find Silver and Dust."

"No." said Shardak. "I'm not leaving you here to die. You saved my life many times over, and you need to survive this."

"There's no way to get help, and no way you'll make it very far with me following you." said Valkyria. "I'll only slow you down."

"There is one other option." said Shardak. "I'll fight them, using your longbow. They can't hit us from here with their weapons, and they certainly don't know that one of their quarrels hit you. If they try to scale the cliffs, I can easily pick them off."

Valkyria looked as though she wanted to argue further, but Shardak silenced her with a wave of his hand. "Save your strength. Once I defeat these assassins, I'll need you alive to help me find a cure for you."

His mind said it was pointless. There was no hope of finding a cure, wherever they were. But his heart refused to allow him to abandon hope. There was a chance that allies were in the area, allies that could save Valkyria if he could but find them. Not for the first time, he wondered who these assassins were, and what motives they had for attacking him.

"You there!" a voice, harsh and grating, rang out. "Surrender, and you will be spared. If you do not, we will kill you both."

Yeah, right. thought Shardak. I saw what you did to Torak. I'll be full of poisoned crossbow bolts the moment I step out of the shadows.

Shardak could hear the beings below discussing their options. He could see them, they were all Glatorian, garbed in black robes. His first thought was that they were Ix loyalists. Then he remembered how almost all of the Ix he'd encountered seemed to want him alive. There was something he was missing here, a piece that didn't fit-- was it possible there was another set of enemies he had to watch out for, as well?

He didn't have a chance to continue thinking, for he could see that a Glatorian, sword drawn, was scaling the slopes, two others close behind him. Shardak raised Valkyria's longbow, feeling a tremor of doubt begin to grow within him. While Kyhrex had trained him with a crossbow before the mission, he'd never used a longbow, and found it alien and hard to keep under control. Finally, he raised the weapon and fired.

His first arrow, aimed at the Glatorian leader's heart, missed and hit him in the shoulder. The Glatorian staggered backward, and Shardak knocked another arrow to the bow and released before the Glatorian realized what had hit him. This arrow missed the first Glatorian, but, by lucky chance, buried itself in the chest of one of the Glatorian following the first. Mortally wounded, the Glatorian fell from the slope, vanishing from view.

The Glatorian commander quickly realized what had happened, but, on the slope he was so vulnerable that even Shardak could hardly miss him. He let the third arrow fly, striking the Glatorian leader in the neck. The assassin staggered backward, then vanished. The third Glatorian knew it was hopeless, and began a retreat, but Shardak was not about to let him escape. His arrow hit the Glatorian in the arm, causing him to lose his grip on the ledge. The Glatorian gave a scream of terror that was abruptly cut off by a jarring crunch.

"Nice work." said Valkyria, smiling weakly. Shardak looked at the Ix girl in alarm. Her face was pale, her eyes seemed more unfocused, and she blinked often. Shardak knew the poison was spreading, despite her best efforts to contain it. She would not live to see the morning if Shardak could not help her somehow.

Shardak felt horribly helpless. They were trapped. The beings would not attempt to scale the cliffs again, knowing that they'd only have to wait until either of them needed to eat or drink. What they did not know was that Valkyria had been hit by one of their poisoned arrows, and would die far sooner. And Shardak knew he would not abandon Valkyria.

They were trapped.

The cold green eyes of Nightwatcher stared at the beings massed below the cliffs, wondering what motives they had for attempting to steal his bounty. He'd seen the chase through the flatlands, and saw the two beings, a Toa and an Ix warrior, working together to escape a common enemy. He knew that this was certainly the being he was looking for: Toa Shardak, a warrior of the rebellion.

Nightwatcher had not initially wanted to get involved in another mission against a target that had escaped the Ix. He'd just completed another deal that was far too similar to that, the recovery of Toa Fairon and his allies from the Void. He'd suceeded in that mission, though the Ix had failed to keep Fairon prisoner. The Toa had escaped using a scythe of power that had once belonged to Dredzek, a member of the destroyed cult known as the Shadow of Ages.

Once again the Ix's ultimate weapon, the Eternal Game, had backfired on them, and now, one hundred and seventy-six years after the last war had ended, the Empire was at war once again, against a ragtag alliance of disaffected rebels on Xaterex and Noctxia Magna, led by the Veythari clans of the Fells. For now, Calos, the other planet under the Empire's control, was not at war, but Nightwatcher knew it was only a matter of time before they were as well.

Nightwatcher's attention turned once again to the crossbow-wielding Glatorian assassins, who were calling something to the two beings on the ledge above.

"Surrender, and you will be spared." One said. "If you do not, we will kill you both."

Nightwatcher almost rolled his eyes. The two beings had seen what had happened to their Skakdi comrade. They'd be fools to take that offer. Thus, the bounty hunter was not at all surprised when neither the Toa nor the Ix warrior answered him.

The Glatorian commander shrugged, then turned to three of his Glatorian warriors. "You there. Go up and eliminate them. Three should be enough to take them on."

Nightwatcher was sure now that the assassins were either inept or had not gotten close enough to the two beings to see their weapons. The Ix warrior had a bow and quiver strapped across the back of her scaled armor. Certainly they would not have sent three men to scale the cliff if they'd known that.

The bounty hunter was again proven correct when several arrows flashed out of the darkness, eliminating the assassins one by one. The third attempted to scale his way down the cliff, but an arrow hit him in the arm and he fell, his spine snapping on the rocks below. Nightwatcher nodded in satisfaction, then saw a flash of yellow armor as the archer disappeared into the caverns.

Yellow? Nightwatcher remembered that was the armor color of the Toa, not the green-armored Ix girl. She was the one who'd been carrying the bow, and looking back on it, he realized that the shots that had felled the Glatorian assassins had not at all been as precise and deadly as the Ix usually were.

There were two explanations for that. One, the Ix warrior had been carrying the Toa's gear when they'd come through the portal. Nightwatcher found this highly unlikely, for a multitude of reasons. The other was far more realistic, and would explain why the assassins were not willing to fire hundreds of quarells in the hope that they'd hit their enemies.

Poison. The bolt's shaft that had buried itself in the Ix's girl's arm was poisoned. She was dying now, maybe dead already. The more Nightwatcher thought on it, the more it made sense. He smiled, a horribly predatory grin. It would make his job--of apprehending the Spirit Toa-- far, far easier.

For now, he would settle for eliminating the five surviving assasins. The leader was barking orders in a low undertone, telling his guards that they'd set up camp here, knowing that the Toa and the Ix warrior had no way out. Nightwatcher was surprised twice: once that they recognized the Spirit Toa as a Toa, the other that they didn't know the Ix girl was wounded. Dark power crackling at the tips of his fingers, Nightwatcher smiled. Unlike the enigmatic assassins, he certainly did not need a crossbow to kill from a distance. Slowly, the darkness coalesced into a spear.

The dark energy struck the lead Glatorian directly over the heartlight, crushing every bone in his chest as he fell to the ground. Two others rushed to their master's side. Nightwatcher drew a spear from his cloak. Ordinarily, these weapons were used as short stabbing tools, but a being of Nightwatcher's strength could hurl them much farther and accurately then a huge javelin.

His first spear took a Glatorian through the neck before he could reach his fallen master. The other had just enough time to register that his commander and his fellow warrior were both dead before a second stabbing spear impaled him through the back. The two others began to scatter from this unseen threat, but Nightwatcher had prepared for that. One of them fell, killed by the same shadow bolts he'd used to destroy their leader.

The other was a few bio away by now, but Nightwatcher couldn't allow him to escape and return to his masters. Racing after the Glatorian and quickly catching up to him, Nightwatcher gave him the mercy of a quick death by lopping off his head with his longsword. As the Glatorian's body fell to the ground, Nightwatcher sighed. He took no pleasure in killing them, but simply couldn't let them escape. They'd interfered with his bounty, and no one was allowed to do that when it was Nightwatcher doing the hunting.

"Val!" Shardak called to the Ix warrior, his voice sounding full of hope once again. "Something's happened! Someone's killed the Glatorian!"

"Who?" asked Valkyria, looking even weaker then she had a few moments ago, but still desperately trying to stay her usual, alert self.

"I can't tell, but it looks almost like..." Shardak began, then trailed off. For Nightwatcher to have been the one who'd killed the assassins would simply be too outlandish. "No, it's nothing."

Normally, Valkyria would have asked him exactly who he'd thought the being was, but she looked too tired to argue. It was her aura that worried Shardak the most though, it was no longer fighting the poison. She'd exhausted all of her defenses fighting it, and only halted it for a few minutes. In the past thirty minutes, Shardak had busied himself keeping watch on the assassins, wondering if he could reach them using Valkyria's longbow. Now they were dead, and Shardak finally realized there was a chance that they could survive.

"Let's go!" he hissed to Valkyria. The Ix warrior quickly rose to her feet, allowing Shardak to lead her out of the cavern and down the opposite side of the cliffs. To his surprise, Shardak could see a sparse forest ahead, eventually becoming a far deeper forest as he raced through the trees. Not for the first time, Shardak wished the rebellion had provided them with mounts that they could use to travel across the Akkadian Mountains. Mounts were in such scarce supply that nearly all of them were used for the war effort alone.

Shardak didn't dare to look back, for fear that the being that had killed the Glatorian would be after them as well. He could hear footsteps in the distance, and Valkyria was weakening quickly. There was, perhaps, only one thing he could do to slow the poison further, a topic that Silencer had been loathe to discuss with him.

Healing in the aura field his exceedingly difficult. It requires a being to absorb the injured being's pain and injuries to some degree, and cannot bring a being back from the dead. However, be wary about ever using this technique, Shardak. Aura healers are exceedingly rare today, and were rare even during the time of Arcaea. he remembered Silencer, clear as day, standing before him and saying those words. Had it really been a year since his death? It seemed like yesterday.

Shardak knew he had to try. There had to be a way. He had no idea how far away he was from other rebel warriors, or who, even, was on their side. The black and silver being had saved them, of course, but Shardak wondered whether it was out of self-interest or not.

I'm the Spirit Toa. he thought as he looked at Valkyria, who was now almost completely unconsious. What use is all my power if I can't even save my friends?

Touching his fingers to Valkyria's wounded shoulder, where he knew the poison had entered her body, he allowed his auric powers to flow through his fingertips, recoiled as he realized how deadly the poison truly was. And for such a deep wound...

There was little he could do to heal it, he knew. The most he could do was halt its progress, keeping it quarantined in her already poisoned arm and body. It would keep the poison from spreading further through her bloodstream, and halt its spread. However, if left untreated, she would still die. He'd brought Valkyria an hour, maybe a little more.

But at what cost? Shardak stood, surprised at how little it hurt him. Then it grew worse. He could almost feel the poison within him now, spreading slowly as it began to flood through, past his meager auric guards and into his body. The effect worsened as he ran. He blinked away a double image as he passed a tree. He felt jarring flashes of pain every few minutes. The only thing he knew was real was Valkyria's hand, which he held tightly as he pulled the semiconscious Ix warrior through the forest.

Suddenly he heard shouts, and there were beings all around them, beings he thought were Veythari and Glatorian, but he couldn't tell for sure. They were calling someone, and suddenly Shardak saw several weapons raised on them.

"I'm not your enemy." he gasped. "She needs help. And healing. Poisoned crossbow the shoulder." he said, gesturing to Valkyria.

There was a pause as the beings around him raced forward, seeming to notice, for the first time, the blood on Valkyria's arm. The beings began to go quiet, and suddenly one of them raced from the crowd, his voice one that he recognized.

"Stop! Hold your fire! It's Toa Shardak!"

"Atarus?" Shardak muttered, seeing the golden blur before him, not able to focus on the image before him. The poison was spreading, faster now...

"Valkyria...she needs help." Shardak moaned, voice quieter now. "The Glatorian...poisoned bolt..."

Then Shardak felt his world spin around him, his blurring vision being replaced by darkness. Then the world vanished and went black.

Chapter 11[]

The world was spinning. The world had become a horrible, purple-black void of colors and emotions, thoughts and ideas. Within the heart of this maelstrom, Silver wondered if he and Dust would ever be free of it, as he often did when they were teleported. However, this time it seemed different, for reasons that Silver could not comprehend. It was as though the transportation was happening exaggeratedly slow, as though they'd started out one way then ended up going another.

Thus, Silver was relieved when he and Dust rematerialized, despite the fact the world was dark all around him. He could see the faint outline of his friend in the shadows, but beyond Dust, everything lay in darkness. Now Silver began to worry. What had begun as a simple mission to Akkad had turned into something far more dangerous, something that Silver could not hope to comprehend.

"Where are we?" Dust whispered to him, finally voicing the question that both of them were thinking. Silver simply shook his head, confused. One thing was certain. The Limiters were no longer attacking them. And they were certainly no longer in the Akkadian mountains. The Matoran looked around. Torak, Shardak, and Valkyria were no longer with them either.

They wouldn't abandon us. Silver thought. Shardak's a decent and noble Toa, he'd find a way to return.

Another, more worrying thought occurred to him. What if Valkyria had joined the Ix, and killed them all?

He quickly discounted the idea. If the rebel leaders trusted Valkyria enough to send them with Shardak, the Spirit Toa, that was enough for Silver. For a moment, however, Silver wondered if he'd died. He quickly discounted that idea as well. If he was dead, he wouldn't, in all honesty, probably be standing around wondering who killed him.

"Come on." whispered Silver, drawing a lantern from his pack and fumbling through his bags in an attempt to light it. When it suddenly burst into light, Silver was almost surprised, and staggered back, covering his eyes against the glare. Dust was right beside him, his eyes scared. Silver wondered, again, where they were.

Suddenly, Silver heard a voice whisper, You are in the caverns. the voice said. It sounded cold and almost mechanical in its intensity. He turned to Dust, who looked puzzled.

"Did you..." he began, but Dust nodded immediately.

"What caverns?" Silver asked, his voice echoing across the long, winding tunnels, sounding scared, lost, and alone.

The caverns. The thought-voice said again. This place was once a crossroads, that spanned all of the planes of existance.

"Who are you?" Silver asked, worried now. He'd expected to face many dangers on this mission, but despite the fact he had no master over the aura field like Shardak and Valkyria, he sensed that his presence was more fearsome and deadly then any he'd encountered.

I am the Arcaean Entity. answered the being. My duty is to guide travelers through the caverns and into the Elemental Kingdoms. Be at peace, travelers. Your journey is nearly complete.

Toa Shardak opened is eyes to the dim candlelight that was common in every Veythari upland camp. His first thought, as it always was when he awoke, was confusion, confusion that was replaced within seconds by reality crashing once again on his shoulders. Torak was dead, Silver and Dust were missing, and Valkyria...he didn't even know if she was still alive. He tried to remember his tortured walk through the forest, but the memories still eluded him.

"You're awake." said a new voice, cutting through his confusion. His head still pained him slightly, but he was otherwise once again alert.

Slowly her mask came into focus, and he recognized her. His friend Kyhrex, the being who had helped him free Blast from the Spire and saved his life twice: against the Stalker and the Elemental Flareus, both servants of the Ix. Then, in the Void, she'd helped him against the Shadow of Ages and the mercenaries known as the Sharidir, then fought beside him, and escaped with him, in the Eternal Game.

"Kyhrex!" he gasped in surprise. He hadn't seen her since their meeting with Atraus and Arkhan, that first day when he'd awoken after escaping Skorpix and the Eternal Game. Either way, he was glad to see she was alive.

Instantly several hundred questions pushed their way into his mind, about Fairon, Atraus, and all of his friends who were scattered across the Empire. But there was one overriding concern that he addressed first.

"Valkyria...his she okay?"

Kyhrex's eyes became colder. "The Ix warrior? She'll be fine. Why did you do it, Shardak?" she asked, puzzled and afraid. "You almost killed yourself to halt the spread of the poison that was within the Ix. She's been fine for the past two days, but you... At least she seems genuinely worried about you." Kyhrex's eyes were disbelieving, however, as she looked at Shardak in concern.

"I'll be fine." said Shardak. "How long have I been asleep? Where are we? And what is this place? Am I back in the Fells?"

Kyhrex looked surprised for a moment, then answered, "You don't know? Shardak, we all assumed Parikon had sent you here in a starcraft to aid our war effort, and you were wounded by the Ix. You're at one of our bases, on Noctxia Magna."

"Noctxia Magna?" Shardak gasped. "How did we..."

"How did you get here, then?" asked Kyhrex. "What was it that Parikon sent you here for?"

"He didn't send me here for anything. We were on a mission, to locate an information broker in Akkad. Then, in a battle with a group of Ix, we disappeared and reappeared here."

Shardak went on to tell her about Torak's death, Silver and Dust's disappearence, and Valkyria being wounded. He then told how he'd seen a being kill the assassins for them, then how they'd ran from the same being, who'd pursued them across the forest. He finished by telling her that he'd seen Atarus and a group of Veythari standing outside the gates, then fallen unconscious.

Kyhrex nodded. "Atarus was there. He was the one who told us to hold our fire, when we didn't recognize you. We didn't see any sign of the black-armored being, though. Are you sure he was even following you?"

"Yes." said Shardak. "I remember him. I thought he looked like Nightwatcher, you know, the bounty hunter who captured us in Void? But it couldn't have been him, if we're on Noctxia Magna."

"Nightwatcher was last sighted on this planet." said Kyhrex. "But it couldn't have been him, Nightwatcher would never risk his life to save that of a Toa and an Ix warrior.

"That reminds me. The council here wishes to speak with you and Valkyria about what happened to you on Noctxia Magna. We found the corpses of the Glatorian crossbowmen, and we're almost certain they don't work for the Ix? Who would they work for, is there another group that wants you dead?"

With a slight shiver, Shardak recalled Skorr's words, There are forces at play here that are far, far more potent then your little Empire, forces that are certainly beyond the comprehension of you, a mere Toa.

Did Skorr and the assassins serve the same master? If so, then why had Skorr tried to take him alive, while the assassins had attempted to kill them?

There were too many questions, and far too few answers. Shardak felt as though he was trying to construct a puzzle in his mind, a puzzle that was missing more then half the pieces. Hopefully the council would be able to answer some of his questions, though if even they didn't know whom the assassins served--

"Can you walk?" Kyhrex asked. Shardak rose to his feet, feeling a stab of pain as his limbs cried out in protest. However, the sounds died before they reached his throat. He was a Toa, the leader of his strike team. He would finish this job, and then find what had happened to Silver and Dust, and the poison would not stop him.

"Yes." he answered, and Kyhrex led him down the corridors of the rebellion's base. It was sculpted from stone, like an ancient castle. At some sections, the roof disappeared completely, allowing faint rays of soft dawn sunlight to touch the floors, illuminating the countless scratches on the floor, the remnants of an ancient pattern of runes. It was at one such section that Kyhrex paused before a paneled door, obviously far newer then the fortress itself.

She pushed the door open and walked into a room made of stone, like the rest of the fortress, but unlike the Veythari camp that the rebels used as their de facto base in the Fells, this room was obviously built to be a command center, with equipment that Shardak couldn't hope to guess at the purpose of, and others that he knew were for common security protocol.

His eyes were almost immediately drawn to the walls, where he saw an ancient set of Matoran runes enscribed there. It was a glyph, a symbol that was a strange oxymoron: "the darkest light." Pausing to look it over, he noticed another phrase, one he recognized, "coil of shadows". He'd had a firsthand experience with Shadow Coils in the Eternal Game.

Shardak felt his eyes begin to wander again, and for a moment, was so absorbed in looking at the different equipment that he almost didn't notice the being standing before him.

He was a tall Ko-Matoran wearing a Noble Iden and white armor. His hands were clasped behind his back, and his eyes met Shardak's, and Shardak sensed both great intellegence and kindness within them. He smiled a relieved smile as he saw Shardak looked perfectly healed. Two other beings caught his attention, a tall Glatorian, and of course, Valkyria, who seemed her usual confident self again, touching him briefly in the aura field to assure him she was fine.

Shardak noticed she was missing her dagger, bow, and quiver. Had the rebellion taken it from her? For the first time, he noticed the Blade of Arcturas was also missing from its sheath.

"Welcome, Kyhrex. I wondered if you'd bring him today, I calculated there was a 53.5% chance of--" the Matoran broke off, turning to Shardak. "But I forgot to introduce myself to you. I am Ixtil, the leader of the Hand of Mata Nui. Welcome to our base."

"The Hand of Mata Nui?" Shardak asked. "They were destroyed during the war during the Year of Darkness."

Ixtil smiled. "Yes, we would like the Empire to think that. Unfortunately, we've been at war with the Ix for several decades. Now, however, the tide is turning, thanks to your reinforcements to our starcraft fleet. What is your name?"

"I am Toa Shardak." he said.

Ixtil raised an eyebrow. "The Spirit Toa? Extrordinary. I calculated a 75.4% chance that Ion would send you here one day, but I certainly didn't expect you to arrive now, when you are almost certainly still needed on Xaterex."

"It didn't quite happen like that." said Shardak, and he told Ixtil everything he told Kyhrex, from the beginning of their mission to Torak's death and his healing attempt. He ended with awaking here, three days later, and Kyhrex's revelation that they were on Noctxia Magna.

"So you were pulled through a dimensional gateway. The chances of that occuring natrually are less then .0001%, so I will have to assume that someone pulled you through the gatway, which is marginally more logical."

"Someone on Noctxia Magna pulled us through a dimensional gateway?" Shardak asked. "Who would have the power--"

"About 57.24% of Noctxia Magna yet eludes our understanding." answered Ixtil. "There is a good 32.7 percent chance that someone could have pulled you through a portal."

"True enough." said Shardak. He had no idea if the Matoran's calculations were correct, but he assumed that if Ixtil was leader of the Hand of Mata Nui, he was probably accurate.

Suddenly he saw a shadow of another being appear over Ixtil, shrouding the Ko-Matoran's face in shadow. His golden armor and mask gleamed in the light, and his lime green eyes sparkled with relief as he saw Shardak.

"Shardak!" Atarus said, his voice sounding relieved. "And Valkyria, as well." he said, acknowkedging the Ix warrior. "I see you've recovered."

His voice turned serious. "I heard what you said to Ixtil. We found the bodies of the assassins, but no sign of the black-armored being you mentioned. Is it possible you imagined--"

"No." answered Shardak firmly. "Someone killed those assassins, and it wasn't me or Valkyria. He killed two with shadow blasts, then two more fell to throwing spears, and the last one he ran down and killed personally. So, no, I did not imagine him."

"I don't doubt you." said Atarus. "Welcome to the base of the Seekers, Toa Shardak. I trust our healers have treated you well?"

Shardak nodded. "The Seekers? I thought this was the base of the remnants of the Hand of Mata Nui?"

"They are one and the same, in the end. The Hand of Mata Nui are often called the Seekers, because they have been given a task so difficult that it may be the only thing that will ever bring this war to an end."

"What are they looking for? A weapon that could be used against the Ix?" asked Valkyria.

"No." said Atarus. "For years after the Fall, the Hand of Mata Nui has been searching for the beings who ruled the universe before Arcaea rose to power. They are looking for the Ancients."

"The Ancients?" asked Shardak incredulosly. "They've been gone for centuries, disappearing long before the Great Beings rose to power and created what became Arcaea."

"Yes. However, unlike the Great Beings, who were mysteriously wiped out during the Fall by the Empire, the Ancients disappeared long before. If we could reach out to them somehow, tell them that the beings they left behind are in horrible danger, I am sure they would answer. The Ancients were widely believed to be benevolent and trustworthy."

"You're risking a lot." said Shardak. "If you have no idea where the Ancients even are."

"We have gained, however, a solid, logical calculation which I estimate has a 63.2% chance of being correct." said Ixtil. "We believe that the Ancients have something to do with a small satellite that orbits Xaterex known as Xiost. It is also noteworthy because it contains a fragment of the ring of power known as the Annulus--"

"That was what our mission was." said Shardak. "To find the Annulus fragment on Xiost before the Ix did. Have you sent spacecraft there?"

"No." said Atarus, immediately crushing Shardak's hopes that they could be closer then ever to completing their mission. "Xiost is completely surrounded by a massive fleet of Ix starcraft, one that our fleet surely die if we tried and fought it. All of the starcraft your commander Tiral sent to reinforce us are pinned down over Calos at the moment, about as far away from Xiost as possible."

Shardak felt his hopes immediately evaporate. "Then there's no hope. If we don't get there today, then the Annulus fragment will be lost forever to the Ix, who we know already have half the Shadow Orb. If we cannot find it--"

"There is one way." said Ixtil. "One way you could get there. But it is--"

"Ixtil, what are you thinking. What you suggest is exceedingly dangerous!" protested Atraus. "If it fails, then they will certainly die."

"Their deaths would not be certain." said Ixtil. "There is a 43.7% chance that they may survive it without having to sacrifice something to--"

"No." said Atarus. "Even if this would lead to the Ancients, I forbid it. It's simply far too likely that he'll--"

"Tell us what you mean." said Shardak. "We need to know. This cannot be good, and it certainly effects us. I told Ion that I would complete my mission no matter the setbacks."

Shardak met Atarus' eye, and for a moment he thought he saw something-- familiar in Atarus' gaze, something he'd seen many times before in his life but couldn't quite put a finger on what it was. Then it was gone, as quickly as it had come.

"Very well, then." said Atarus. "The being we have been discussing is known in legend as Moru Kul. He is an ancient being, who lives alone in the wilderness beyond the cliffs and possesses the power to return you to Xaterex. However, he is unpredictable at best, and may very well simply decide to kill you first."

"Whose side is he on?" asked Shardak. "The rebels or the Empire?"

"Neither." said Atarus. "Moru Kul has never taken sides. He simply is. He is, however, highly dangerous, and fighting him is certainly beyond yours or Valkyria's capability. One of the powers he knows is to create dimensional gateways. If anyone can transport you to Xiost, he can."

"It's our only chance." said Shardak. "Are you sure you have no way of getting us to Xaterex any other way?"

"No." said Atarus heavily. "If we did, I would have never mentioned Moru Kul."

"Then we will have to go." said Shardak. "Thank you--"

"No." said Atarus. "You are tired, and it is late afternoon. You and Valkyria both need to rest before facing a being as ancient and powerful as Kul. I understand you are worried about the Ix recovering the Annulus first, but what good are you to the rebellion if you get yourself killed? Rest easy, Toa Shardak. Tomarrow I will take you, in person, to Moru Kul. And we'll also send out scouting patrols to find your friends, Silver and Dust."

Shardak nodded once, then was about to walk out the door when he remembered the runes on the wall he'd seen. "What did they mean?" he asked Ixtil, "The darkest light? I've never heard that phrase before."

"It has eluded our understanding for many years. It is one of the Ancient's prophecies, one that mentions a "coil of shadows" as well. I know of Shadow Coils, as I know you do from the Eternal Game. That is all of the prophecy that remains today, but when we find the Ancients I will have to ask them."

After saying goodbye to both of their allies, he and Valkyria turned and left the chamber. They walked down the stone corridors, toward Shardak's room. Against his will, Shardak shivered. A cold night wind was blowing through the somewhat open fortress.

"So, have you ever heard of this Moru Kul?" Shardak asked, aware that they were alone now. Unconsciously his eyes strayed toward her arm, which was healing well. He remembered Kyhrex's words about how he'd risked his life to save Valkyria's and wondered--

"No, I've never heard of a being known as Moru Kul." said Valkyria, her voice thoughtful. "However, the discription sounds like the Keeper of Balance, an ancient figure in Illieran myths."

"Do you think they could be one and the same?" asked Shardak. "The Keeper of Balance and Moru Kul?"

"I doubt it." said Valkyria. "It's just a myth. Anyway..." she paused, looking uncomfortable. "Thank you for saving me by halting the poison. The healers here told me what you did, and I know I would have died if you hadn't been there."

"I know." said Shardak, his voice heavy with mock regret at first, intending to tease her about how he'd saved an Ix warrior again. However, his voice changed as he spoke, and finally he said. "I would risk my life for you any day."

Valkyria seemed almost surprised, and she asked him. "That was what I was going to ask you, before we were attacked by the assassins. Why did you save my life in the Void? And then, again, on the cliffs? I certainly have done nothing for you."

"It's not like that." he said. "When Sarkanian almost killed you, in the Void, and again, three days ago on the cliffs, I just knew...I couldn't let you die. No matter what you'd done to me before."

"If I was you, I would have saved myself and let you die, then." Valkyria confessed at last, seeming uncomfortable and almost guilty. "I didn't understand, and sometimes I still don't."

"We'll work on that." said Shardak. "I won't let you give up that easily."

In the soft amber glow of the Veythari candles, Valkyria's face looked even more beautiful then it usually did. Shardak watched for a few moments as she began to accept what he had said, and he could see that her eyes were gleaming and she appeared more happy then he'd seen her since the night before their journey into Akkad. She even leaned into him a little, and Shardak allowed her to touch him, for the first time, in the aura field willingly in a way that was neither warning nor attack.

For a moment, Shardak simply enjoyed the moment, but soon, once again, it was replaced by another emotion, not wariness this time, but longing. He wished, once again, that either he was an Ix or she was a Toa. How could they ever trust one another, if they were trapped on opposite sides of the war? Ix killed Toa, Toa killed Ix. That was how it had been since Arcaea. And Valkyria being on his side did not change that.

Once again, Shardak wished that someone, somehow, he would be able to resolve the chasm that lay between them. And once again, there was no answer from the night, except the chill winds that blew through the Seeker fortress on Noctxia Magna.

Returning to her small room within the Noctxia Magna base, Valkyria lay down on the small bed and breathed in deaply, trying to return her aura to its normal steel-gray shield. She tried to convince herself it was from her injury, but Valkyria knew that it had nothing to do with her wound, which no longer hurt her at all. No, injury was something she'd faced before, something she'd overcome many times.

Shardak had said that he would help her, something so alien to an Ix warrior it had almost caused Valkyria to recoil in shock. And he had helped her, he'd saved her life from the assassins by using his aura to halt the poison that would have otherwise killed her. They'd talked for a few more minutes, then Valkyria felt far too uneasy to continue talking and forced herself to leave him.

At first she'd simply been at ease, acting out the role that the Empire had given her. Then she became uneasy as she and Shardak began discussing what had happened those three days ago on the cliff, when he'd risked his life to save hers. She'd felt both elated and sad at the same time, a strange combination for one who had attempted to bury her emotions forever during her rigorous training as an Ix warrior.

Valkyria paused, finally daring to whisper to the being she now knew was reaching out to her in the aura field, from many miles away.

"Yes?" she whispered.

"Warrior Rhai." said the voice, cold and raspy. Valkyria felt a shiver run through her body as she recognized the voice, a voice she knew very well. "I see that you are making progress. Noctxia Magna..." he let his voice trail off into nothingness, allowing her time to respond.

"Our mission changed when we were dragged through a dimensional portal after encountering the Ix squadron." answered Valkyria, her voice calm now. "I assume you had something to do with that?"

"In a manner of speaking." said the being. "Are you aware of how the plan has changed, Warrior Rhai?"

"Yes." answered Valkyria. In her horribly blurred world where she walked the edge between rebel and Ix, that was one of the few things she was certain of. "I know."

"You sound unsure..." mused the being, his voice a low echo in Valkyria's aura. Valkyria knew this technique took incredible skill and power, only an extremely skilled master of the aura field could reach across worlds to reach a single Ix warrior. "Perhaps you are having second thoughts now that you are experiencing firsthand how it feels to be a member of the rebellion?"

"Never, my lord." said Valkyria. "I would never betray the Ix! I am as loyal to the Empire as I was the day I became an apprentice, and no being can force me to."

"That is not what I mean." hissed the being. "I do not believe the rebels could force you to betray our plan. However, you may yet be turned in other ways, such as by Toa Shardak."

"What do you mean?" Valkyria asked, but deep within her she knew exactly what the being meant.

"You have let your emotions rule you, as I have always cautioned you against. I've seen it in the way Shardak looks at you, the way your aura is scattered and horribly easy to read, even by me, light years away. You have faced the Eternal Game itself, yet you allow one Toa to distract you from your mission."

"It is nothing but role-playing." said Valkyria. "As you advised me to do. I will never let anything distract me from fullfilling the plan."

But Valkyria's voice rang horribly false. She didn't even believe it herself any more.

"You cannot lie to me. I have spies, even in the ranks of the so-called "Hand of Mata Nui". However, you can still allow this to serve your purpose, as I told you many months ago. If Shardak belives, truly believes, that you are falling for him, his fate is sealed."

"Yes, commander." answered Valkyria. She still sounded terribly easy to read, and inwardly she was berating herself for allowing this to happen. When she spoke again, her voice had a cold edge to it. "I will complete my portion of the plan. There is nothing that Shardak, or any other being, can do to stop me."

"If you believed that, Valkyria, I would accept that answer. Continue your current strategy, but do not allow your emotions to control you. I will be watching."

Valkyria opened her mouth to answer, but the presence of the dark being had already vanished. She lay her head back, trying to calm herself once again. But she could tell almost immediately it was useless. She certainly didn't mind pretending to be in love with Shardak. It certainly made her job far easier.

However, it had become more then that now. She felt as though guilt at her actions was strangling her heart, making even breathing difficult.

I just knew...I couldn't let you die. No matter what you'd done to me before. Shardak had said. Would he still say the same if he knew that she was not on his side, but still an Ix warrior to the core? Was it possible he'd...

No. He'd hate her more then any being he'd ever encountered. There was nothing she could do to change that. For a few moments, she tried to convince herself that this was just another job, another mission the Ix had sent her on. But it wasn't, and she knew it now.

Valkyria wondered if, at least, they could enjoy the few days of time they still had together as friends. But how could she ever build a relationship on deception?

Rising to her feet, Valkyria walked to the small mirror that hung on the wall of her room. She looked at her reflection inside. She looked wounded and scared, with a small, recently healed scar on her shoulder. Her eyes looked haunted by pain, and her face was easily readable. There were no traces of the confident, powerful Ix warrior who had set out on the mission two years ago to kill Shardak. In her scaled Veythari armor, she didn't even appear to be an Ix warrior.

She no longer knew what was right anymore.

She no longer even knew who she was anymore.

Once again, Valkyria began to calm, trying to tell herself that this was nothing, that it was simply another pointless emotion that she would conquer, as she had so many times in the past. She was an Ix warrior, one of the greatest of her generation. She would not surrender to this. She would triumph over it, and savor her victory when it was done.

But it was another lie, this time to herself. Like the lie she now used against Shardak. Or was it a lie at all anymore, or was her commander right?

There was no answer to any of those questions.

Chapter 12[]

The midday sun, oddly distant and cold, stared down on the plateau below the massive cliffs that stood above Shardak like grim sentinels. Their massive shadows enveloped Shardak, Valkyria, Atarus, and Kyhrex completely as they took their leave from the base, thanking Ixtil for allowing them to stay.

Shardak wished that their visit had not been so brief, that he could have stayed longer, at peace with Valkyria and Atarus. However, the fact that Fairon, Jarodin, and all of his other friends were counting on then to finish the mission did not allow him time to rest. He was ready to meet with Moru Kul. As they left, Ixtil promised to continue searching for Silver and Dust.

"Though there is, perhaps, about a 33.2% chance that you will be killed during your meeting with Kul, it is logical that the odds--"

"Just wish them luck, Ixtil." said Atarus finally, cutting the Matoran off.

"The common hypothosis of luck is rather illogical. My calculation is based on--"

Shardak said his farewells to the Matoran, cutting him off once again. While he found Ixtil's mannerisms rather exacting and emotionless, he certainly felt that the Matoran cared about what happened to them. Though, Shardak reflected, a 33.2% chance that they would die was not that bad. He'd beaten the odds many times in the past two years.

The other Seekers, polite but slightly withdrawn, wished them farewell, and Shardak hoped that one day, if he survived, he would be able to return here and meet with Ixtil and the others again, perhaps once the conflict grew to encompass Calos as well.

Despite himself, Shardak felt a pang of sadness. His life was now based around the war, completely and irrevocably. He quickly recovered, however, realizing that while fate had dealt him many blows, it had given him many friends to weather the challenges he would now face. Blast, now free of Millennium, Fairon, Jarodin, and Valkyria would all stand beside him as he fought, and he would not trade their friendship for anything.

"Moru Kul dwells within the caverns below this rise." said Atarus. He paused for a moment, then said. "Ixtil and I have decided that I will accompany you, provided that Kul allows you to pass through a portal."

Shardak felt surprise, quickly followed by happiness, flash through him. With Atarus by their side, perhaps they stood a fighting chance against the Ix forces that were gathering near Xiost. Once their mission was complete, then, perhaps, Shardak would be able to join Fairon's small army, who were currently fighting in the Canyonlands south of Arden.

"Are you sure that is a wise decision?" asked Kyhrex, sounding concerned.

"Ixtil and I have discussed it, and we have decided we have a better chance of prevailing against the Empire if I am with you."

"Exactly how much of a better chance?" asked Shardak, now becoming used to Ixtil's exacting calculations.

"27.3%, I believe." answered Atarus. "Though Ixtil did add that his calculations could be slightly inaccurate, as he does not have intelligence on the latest Imperial and rebel movements."

Shardak, again, wondered exactly how correct Ixtil's calculations were, then he decided they had to be. There was something undoubtedly extremely intelligent in the Matoran's eyes, something that made Shardak sure that Ixtil was correct.

Apprehension seethed within Shardak now, and he could tell Valkyria felt the same. Moru Kul had been described by Ixtil as a deadly being, neither Toa nor Ix, Glatorian or Matoran, and surely none of the other common species that roamed either Noctxia Magna or Xaterex. Nor was he an Ancient or a Great Being. He simply was.

And that almost certainly meant he couldn't be trusted.

"You'll do fine." said Atarus. "There's no reason that you should fail to reason with Moru Kul. While he may be unpredictable, he will not kill you on sight. He will certainly, at least, first find out why you have come to seek him, and when you tell him your request I'm sure he will ask for something in return."

"Which is where these come in." said Shardak, holding up the only remaining bag of blue diamonds.

"With luck, this entire bag will persuade Moru Kul to open the portal." said Atarus.

"But what if it doesn't?" asked Valkyria. This was the first time she'd spoken during their entire journey, and Shardak thought she seemed slightly scared and withdrawn. He decided not to push the matter any further, for he knew that she was probably just as fearful of Moru Kul as he was.

"I have other ways of persuading him." said Atarus. "Come. I am sure that we will find a way to convince him."

Shardak still wasn't sure, but with Atarus and Valkyria by his side, he knew that if it came to violence, they would still have a chance of escaping. Ready to face Moru Kul, Shardak stepped forward into the cavern, Kyhrex, Atarus, and Valkyria following close behind him. He could sense a powerful aura within the cavern, and was not at all surprised when a tall, black armored being stepped from the shadows.

He was thin, wearing jagged dark armor that matched the dark cliffs almost exactly. He wore a Kanohi mask, one that Shardak did not recognize, and his eyes were bright and blue, sparking with enigmatic intelligence. His eyes scanned each of them in turn, not betraying any emotion whatsoever.

But it was the aura that frightened Shardak most of all. It was not horribly heavy or crushing, but seemed fractured and splintered, scattered in all directions. Shardak could sense emotions and ideas so alien he recoiled. However, Moru Kul did not seem to notice. His eyes fixed on Atarus.

"Greetings, travelers." he said. His voice was rich and well modulated, with just the slightest hint of an accent that Shardak could not place. "What brings you to seek answers from Moru Kul?"

Though Kul had done nothing outwardly threatening, Shardak still felt intimidated. His aura was the strangest he'd ever encountered, and he was loathe to pry into it further. It seemed as though Moru Kul could read them easily, like an open book. Even Valkyria seemed uncomfortable.

"We have been sent on a mission." said Atarus. "By the rebellion on Xaterex. I trust you know what is going on there now?"

Moru Kul waved a heavily armored hand. "Of course. I can travel easily across Calos, Noctxia Magna, and the other satellites that surround Xaterex. Is your cause as hopeless as it seems?"

"No." said Atarus. "The Ix are weakening. We have a chance now, a fighting chance."

"Your rebellion faces far more deadly dangers then the Ix." said Moru Kul. "I trust it that you know that?"

Atarus nodded slightly. "However, that is beyond the point. We have come to ask a favor of you."

"A favor?" Moru Kul seemed not at all surprised. "What would you like me to do?"

Atarus turned the tale over to Shardak, who seemed hesitant to tell Kul at first. What if Atarus was wrong, and Moru Kul was an Ix agent. If that was the case, then the Ix would know...everything.

"There is nothing you need fear yet, Toa Shardak." said Moru Kul. Shardak almost jumped in surprise when he realized Kul had called him by name. "You should look for your Ix spies closer to home."

Shardak told Moru Kul of how they'd been on the outskirts of Akkad when they were pulled through a dimensional portal and seperated from Silver and Dust. He omitted the part about the assassins, and jumped to his meeting with Atarus and Ixtil in the rebel base. He finished with Atarus telling them that Moru Kul was their only hope for their escape in time to Xiost.

"So you seek the Annulus." said Moru Kul. It was impossible for Shardak to tell whether Kul had known this before their meeting or if they'd surprised him. "On Xiost...yes, I can get you there." he said, seeing Shardak's expression. "I can easily create a dimensional gateway. Do not worry about that. However, you must give me something in return."

"Will you accept these?" asked Shardak, handing Kul six blue diamonds.

Moru Kul shook his head, a faint smile playing behind his mask. "No, no. You'll have to do better then that, Toa."

Unwillingly, Shardak handed over the entire bag. "Take these, then."

"Very well. You will be transported to Xiost in two months time." said Kul.

"Two months?" asked Atarus. "We need to go today! What could we possibly give you that will get you to send us now?"

Kul looked pointedly at Shardak, who, against his will, undid the string tied around his satchel.

"I wager...the Shadow Orb." he said, raising it so it absorbed the light. "If you can get us to Xiost today, the Shadow Orb is yours."

Moru Kul's eyes fixed greedily on the Shadow Orb, and he said three words. "It's a deal."

Shardak felt hatred for Kul rise within him as the enigmatic being allowed him to read his aura for the first time.

"You wanted the Shadow Orb all along. That was the only thing that you would have accepted." It was a statement, not a question.

Moru Kul smiled. "Of course. It was the only thing you had of value."

"And you were also the one who transported us to Noctxia Magna in the first place." said Shardak. "Because of you, Valkyria nearly died."

"Yes." said Kul. "Let's just say I gave you a you would have to bring the Orb to me."

Shardak felt anger surge through him, but felt Valkyria's aura touch his. Warning him to stay calm. That there was no other way.

"Have I just traded one Annulus fragment for another?" asked Shardak, desperately.

"It would seem so." said Moru Kul, satisfied. "Now, for me to keep my end of the bargain. I will send you back to Xaterex."

"Xaterex!" asked Shardak. "You promised to send us to Xiost, you--"

"I have seen what is to come on Xaterex." said Kul. "There is something there that you must attend to first, and I would not be keeping my promise if I did not send you there first. The rebels will surely arrange transportation for you to Xiost...if that is truly where they want you to go."

"How can we trust you?" challenged Shardak. "Because of you, Torak and Silver and Dust are dead."

"No, to the best of my knowledge, the two Matoran are not dead...merely removed from the picture, by a being more powerful then me."

Shardak stabbed a spearpoint of auric energy into Moru Kul's fragmented aura, and was almost surprised when he saw images of a being, hooded and cloaked, extending a single, bone-white hand to reach out and touch another being, a Glatorian. Then it was gone as quickly as it had come, and Shardak stood facing the torn gap in the space-time continuum that preceded the purple-black void of teleportation.

The last thing Shardak saw before he, Valkyria, Atarus, and Kyhrex vanished into the darkness was Moru Kul's satisfied smile.

From above the cliffs overlooking the vales below, Blast watched the Dargon prepare for war. Weapons of all types were being gathered, from maces to spears to swords to massive, heavy war clubs. Every one of the Dargon, male and female, old and young, were mobilizing their force. Blast counted three hundred Dargon warriors alone, and Areop seemed confident that two more tribes of one hundred each would join them before they left camp.

So this is what it means to the Dargon when they go to war. thought Blast grimly. The bestial soldiers looked merciless and deadly, yet also completely resolved that this was their fate. Not one of them appeared to be fearful or resentful.

"They're ready to fight." said Jarodin, noticing his expression. "Their legions will easily augment the Veythari, who are unused to flatland warfare."

Blast nodded, turning to see Ion approaching them. The mutated Toa had been deep in conversation with Areop and his war commanders for the past few days, during which they'd planned their offensive. First they'd pass through the Wastelands to reinforce the weakened resistance warriors there, then rendezvous with the rebellion commanders outside the city of Gigas Nui. With the combined Veythari force of one hundred elite warriors, six hundred Glatorian, and nearly four hundred Dargon, they would be able to take the city.

With Gigas Nui firmly under the control of the rebellion, and the Canyonlands free of Imperial warriors, a gateway into Arden would at last be opened. Then, with luck, they could subdue the heartland of the Empire, and their power over Xaterex would be broken.

However, as Ion walked beside them, Blast was filled with doubt. The Dargon may be great warriors, but would their sizable strength be enough to breach the walls of a city that had not been breached since the days of the ancient Gigas Magna Empire? Blast simply didn't know.

Blast turned toward the massive slab of rock, where Areop stood, flanked by two of his generals. The Dargon leader looked tired, but flames of pride and rage at the Ix were burning in his green eyes.

"People of our tribe." Areop began speaking. Blast had learned that the Dargon never used tribal names, referring to all tribes as "that tribe" or "our tribe," or "Vassal tribe" to refer to their servants. Never did they ever call themselves anything else but "Dargon."

"For far too long we have been forced to dwell in these wastelands, away from the rest of the races who dwell in the Fells and the southern lands. The Ix Empire have raided our lands and done nothing to give us their support. It has become known to us recently that they believe we are "savages", like they consider the Veythari to be. We are a proud and ancient people and will not stand by while the Ix Empire extends its rule over the remainder of Xaterex!"

The chanting and rattling of weapons grew louder, and cries of "death to the Empire!" and "For the rebellion!" rang through the air. Areop silenced them with a raise of his clawed hand.

"This is our chance to make our clawmarks forever on the history of not just Xaterex, but on the entire Solis Magna star system. Will it be said that the Dargon cowered in fear while the Veythari and their allies fought the Ix? I, for one, know my answer. I stand with the rebellion!"

The roars of assent grew to fever-pitch, and Jarodin smiled in satisfaction. "With the Dargon and the Veythari on our side, we will be able to stand against nearly any Imperial force that awaits us at Gigas Nui."

Blast nodded once, warmed by the praise of the Dargon. But uneasiness began to stir within him as well, uneasiness that had nothing to do with the chill Fellsian air. The Dargon were strong, but could they even stand against the massive armies of Ix?

What if we've sent them all to their deaths?

Chapter 13[]

Shardak felt the void of teleportation vanish as the world appeared all around him, the massive mountains in the distance, the dark earth beneath a shining canopy of stars. In the rays of moonlight, he could make out the Fells, and several smaller mountains above. He could see several beings walking toward them, then saw a massive group of beings following behind. He tensed, as did Atarus. Valkyria readied her bow, no doubt remembering what had happened to her during the attack of the Glatorian assassins.

"Who are they?" he whispered to Atarus, but the Elemental shook his head, warning him to stay silent. He could sense them in the aura field now, razor sharp and purposeful. Not Ix... but he still didn't know if they were hostile.

Then they were upon them. "Drop your weapons!" snarled a voice, with an accent that Shardak couldn't place. "Are you Ix? Surrender!"

Then another voice, one Shardak recognized, called out his name.


The Toa turned to see Blast racing toward them, eyes blazing with surprise and happiness. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Shouldn't you be in Akkad?"

"It's a long story." said Shardak, as the hostility began to thaw. Shardak saw Ion and Jarodin were standing behind Blast, along with a being with a long tail and clawed hands. However, Shardak could see this being was not a Vorox or desert predator. Intelligence gleamed in his eyes, and he carried a massive mace in one hand, a shield in the other.

"What are you doing with these beings?" he asked, confused, as Ion rushed to greet Atarus. Blast nodded a greeting to Valkyria, and smiled and greeted Kyhrex. She and Shardak were some of his oldest friends, since their daring escape from the Circle nearly two years ago.

"The Dargon, you mean? It's a long story." said Blast. "I'll tell you on our way to Gigas Nui."

"Gigas Nui?" asked Shardak. "You and these Dargon are going to attempt to capture the city?"

"Not alone." said Blast. "One hundred beings, including a large group of Veythari warriors, are waiting for us, as well as the rest of the rebel army. With the Dargon, we'll have nearly a thousand troops, enough to take the city and march into Arden."

Shardak surveyed the massive crowd of Dargon, and saw there were nearly six hundred soldiers, easily enough to take on any Imperial army, and certainly enough to reinforce the battered rebel army, which had under two hundred soldiers. All of the Dargon carried weapons, most simply spears, but the elite wielding swords, axes, maces, and other weaponry. All looked ready for combat.

"How did you come to be here, Shardak?" Blast asked him, as he, Kyhrex, and Valkyria strode through the Wastelands at the head of a large group of Dargon.

Shardak launched into the story about how they'd journeyed to Akkad, their meeting with Jekart, the information broker's betrayal and the fight with Skorr, followed immediately by the battle with Nightshade and the Limiters. He then told of how they'd been pulled through a dimensional gateway to Noctxia Magna, and how they'd been attacked by assassins. His voice faltered a little when he told of Torak's horrible death, and Valkyria's injury.

He followed this by telling him about the meeting with Ixtil, Kyhrex, and Atarus, and finally their meeting with Moru Kul and his revelation that he had pulled them through the portal in search of the Shadow Orb. He finished by telling Blast how he'd given Kul the Shadow Orb so that they could return to Xaterex, and of Moru Kul's revelation that Silver and Dust had been taken by a being even more powerful then Kul himself.

"So there's another force out there, even more powerful then the Elementals and the Ix?" asked Blast, as though he'd known and dreaded it. "We ran into Banrax on our way to the Dargon camps. He said much the same."

"Banrax?" asked Shardak. "Interesting. And all of these Dargon are willing to fight for the rebellion?"

"Yes." said Blast. "Five hundred soldiers, all trained. With luck, we'll meet the Veythari armies in the Fells, then prepare for the Battle of Gigas Nui."

The command chamber was more packed then Shardak had seen it since his narrow escape from the Ix in the Eternal Game. He could see that a large patrol of Veythari warriors stood conversing with the Dargon commander, Areop, and around the table Parikon, Atarus, Saren, and Reid Vaethar, the Veythari commander, were deep in conversation, discussing how they could use the Dargon troops in combat. Many able bodied Glatorian were there, including Arkhan and Ion. All wore the same grim expressions that showed they were ready for war.

"We will encircle Gigas Magna." Parikon was saying. "The Dargon armies will reinforce Fairon and Stradax, who are currently outside Gigas Magna with the rebel army."

"As will the Veythari warriors. We have a force of fifty Veythari ready for battle now, as well as a hundred Glatorian soldiers." said Reid, his voice terse and controlled. Shardak felt cheered by the news, with fifty Veythari warriors on their side, as well as the massive Dargon army, the chances of subduing Gigas Nui were growing higher.

"What is the conditions of your division, Ion?" asked Arkhan. "Mine is ready for action."

"As is mine." said Ion. "I have thirty warriors still under my direct command."

Shardak leaned in to look at the stone tablets which described the attack pattern. It showed the Dargon and Stradax's battered army leading the assault, while Reid's Veythari warriors followed. Fairon's, Ion's, and Arkhan's divisions were relagated into smaller platoons, led by Parikon. The remainder of their fighting force, which included mainly Agori and Matoran, would join the Glatorian force of one hundred.

All and all, Shardak saw they had nearly eight hundred able-bodied warriors at their disposal, five hundred of them Dargon. He hoped, now that the Dargon could lead the fight on Xaterex, he would be able to return the conflict to Noctxia Magna. He was eager to see Ixtil again.

Tiral was speaking now, as commander of the rebellion's fleets, Shardak knew it would be up to her whether they continued searching for the Annulus fragment.

"I will lead a strike force to Xiost, consisting of the remainder of Shardak's Annulus recovery team, including warrior Kyhrex."

"Two Veythari warriors will also accompany you." said Reid Vaether. Tiral nodded. "The remainder of my spacefleet will engage the Imperial fleet at Xiost above Xaterex, luring them away from Xaterex. We have less then thirty working aircraft at our disposal now, so this will likely be a battle played out on the grounds of Gigas Nui and the skies of Xiost, not above the city."

"We would not ask you to risk the lives of your warriors needlessly. Our aircraft will not play a role in this battle." said Atarus.

"But isn't that dangerous?" objected Saren. "The Empire has a large force of working aircraft, some that have the potential to destroy divisions of our ground force easily. We need, then, more antiaircraft weapons."

"You know we do not have enough for an effective destruction of the Imperial ships." snapped Tiral. "It would be a thowaway gesture, and I am loathe to sacrifice lives needlessly."

"We'll manage it." said Arkhan. "If only there was a way for us to remove the threat of the Odina Drone army, however. Without them on their side, the enemy force would be more then halved."

He was referring to the massive army of droids that were programmed to defend the city at all costs. The rebellion had been discussing a way to eliminate them before the conflict began, but had found no easy way to do so.

"We will have to accept there is no way to remove the threat." answered Arkhan. "We have eight hundred soldiers under our command, more then we have had in many years. Now is, perhaps, our only chance to capture a city that has been ruled by the Empire for nearly a century. When it falls, we will be able to bring our army into Arden, something we have not been able to do since the beginning of the Eternal Game."

The discussion continued for several minutes, then finally Ion said. "This will get us no where. We are ready for the battle, and now we go to reinforce Stradax and Fairon."

Parikon nodded once. "This meeting is adjourned. Saren, Arkhan, Vaethar, come with me. The rest of you may go."

Shardak followed Arkhan outside, toward the army of Dargon and Glatorian that was readying for the battle. Within a day, they would reach Gigas Nui. The battle would truly begin. And Shardak would recover the Annulus fragment, as he'd planned.

If only he hadn't been forced to give up the Shadow Orb...

He felt someone touch him in the aura field, and saw Valkyria walking toward him. She was dressed as a Veythari warrior, in scaled armor and a helmet. She carried her dagger, Silverblade, in one hand, her bow in the other.

Even as tired as he was, the sight of Valkyria in full Veythari armor made him smile. "Ready?" he asked her.

"I'm ready." she smiled. She seemed relaxed again, despite the fact they were heading once more into battle. Shardak was glad she'd shaken off whatever had been troubling her, and that she was finally beginning to talk with her allies. In the haste of preparations for battle, no one seemed to remember she was an Ix warrior.

"Just be careful." he whispered to her. "I--"

Valkyria jabbed him lightly in the aura field. "Quiet." she hissed. "Parikon's about to speak."

"Warriors of the rebellion." the being said. His voice was not overly loud, but carried across the ranks of the gathering army. "We are gathered here, Dargon, Veythari, Toa, Glatorian, Agori, Matoran, Ix, Kranr,and many others, for one purpose.

"For many years the Empire has been a black hand of oppression over Xaterex, a darkened shadow that has corrupted all that it has touched. We have gathered to challenge their right to rule over the lands beyond the Fells, especially the land of Arden.

"The Empire has refused to listen to us, and declared war on all organized rebellion. For the past century, the beings of Noctxia Magna have been at war with the Empire, as have the Veythari and their allies. We have fought for many years now, and now, joined by new allies, we are ready to conquer the city that borders the Fells, the city known as Gigas Nui.

"The Ix Empire is based on the erroneous conclusion that one race is superior to the others. This is wrong. No race is superior to any others. All of us are willing soldiers for a just cause, a cause we are willing to fight for, and die for if necessary. Together, as allies, we will fight, and together, as allies, we will prevail over the shadows!"'

Parikon's last words were drowned out by a wave of applause that rose across the Fells, reaching for the stars themselves above. Shardak saw that dawn was nearly breaking, and soon, they would be forced to fight once more.

"Shardak." said a voice behind him. Shardak whirled around to see Ion standing there, looking at both of them. "Blast, Valkyria." he said, gesturing to both of his friends in turn. "Follow me. We have to talk."

Puzzled, the three beings followed Ion past the gathered soldiers and into the shadows. "Listen." said Ion. "There is another thing you must attend to, before you go to Xiost."

"Yes?" asked Shardak, confused. Suspicion of Ion rose within him. Ion had given them the Shadow Orb, and as he'd accepted it, Moru Kul had said, you should look for your Ix spies closer to home. Did that mean that Saren was correct? That Ion was a traitor, after all? There were too many questions, and no satisfactory answers.

"We have discovered tracks outside Gigas Nui, clues that we managed to recover despite the creator doing his best to hide them. This was not unusal, as many beings pass by the city daily, but we have a reason to believe that they are a group of assasins. Apparently they has been hired by the Ix to aid with the defense of their city, along with several other bounty hunters."

Shardak remembered how many beings Nightwatcher had been able to hold off and then capture in the Void, and knew that this was grim news. If these bounty hunters were of the same calibur as Nightwatcher, if the Ix wanted to eliminate several leaders of the rebellion, such as Reid Vaethar, Parikon, or even Shardak himself, there was very little they could do to stop him.

"So you see why we're concerned." said Ion. "It has been decided, then, that you, Kyhrex, Valkyria, and Arkhan will track down the bounty hunter team and eliminate them."

"But surely we must make it to Xiost at all haste." said Shardak. "If we do not, then they--"

"Shardak, Tiral's fleet is based thirty miles away from the rebellion's base, and will not arrive until late afternoon tomarrow. I have absolute confidence that you, led by Arkhan, will be able to do the job effectively."

Suspicion rose once again within Shardak. Why did Ion seem so eager to keep them away from Xiost? A team of bounty hunters was a dangerous threat, yes, but surely Vaethar or another elite commander could handle it. It was almost as though Ion was trying to keep them as far from Xiost as possible. Then it vanished when he realized Ion was correct, Tiral would not arrive with her full starcraft fleet until late tomarrow afternoon, and the battle would be fought almost all day and certainly well into that night.

"We agree." he said. Valkyria nodded, and Blast grunted his assent. Neither of them seemed to have even considered what he had, and the thought disturbed him. Had he become so paranoid he was suspecting his own allies of betrayal?

Ion wished them good luck, and their meeting dissolved as the rebel commander returned to the armies, where Reid, Arkhan, and Parikon were deep in conversation.

"Come with me." said Blast, his voice slightly tense. Shardak looked at Valkyria, who nodded agreement. While he certainly did not want to leave her before the battle, he needed to speak with his best friend as well. They hadn't been able to seriously talk to one another since that day at Void's Edge, seven days after Silencer's death and their jump into the Void.

"Yes, Blast?" asked Shardak when they were a safe distance away, his voice friendly. But when his eyes met Blast's he saw they were angry and confused.

"What are you playing at, Shardak?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" Shardak replied, wondering what Blast could possibly be annoyed with him for.

"They'll surely kill you for it. Reid is Veythari first, and if he finds out you're in love with her--"

"Who?" asked Shardak, surprised.

"Valkyria. If he finds out--"

"I'm not in love with Valkyria." protested Shardak. "What are you talking about?"

"I didn't spend six summers with you in Intax for nothing, Shardak." said Blast. "I can read you easily. I've seen it in the way your eyes follow the Ix girl, how you pay close attention to everything she says. I know you wanted to spare her life in the Void, but you cannot allow yourself to fall for her. She's--"

"My friend." said Shardak. "Who saved my life in the Void. Nothing more."

"You can't lie to me." hissed Blast, his voice angry now. "Shardak, you're the Spirit Toa, the hero of the rebellion. She's an Ix warrior, one who we know for a fact cannot be trusted."

"How can you say that?" said Shardak, angry now as well. "Valkyria's own people betrayed her. They sentanced her to the Eternal Game, and she's fought and killed Ix for the rebellion."

"But she's an Ix." said Blast. "And that is the heart of the problem. You cannot fall for an Ix warrior and not expect serious repercussions from both the Empire and the rebellion. Admittedly, she's quite beautiful, but she's an extremely competant warrior, not to mention the fact that she's a dangerous, convincing liar. Have you learned nothing from Nightshade's betrayal?"

"Why does this matter to you?" snarled Shardak. "How I feel about Valkyria is my business, not yours, and I don't know why you care. Now leave me alone."

He turned away, leaving Blast standing alone at the gates of the rebel base. He walked over to Kyhrex and Valkyria, both of whom were now readying their weapons for the journey to Gigas Nui, and the rest of the rebel force was being divided into their respective divisions.

Valkyria could sense his anger, and reached out a calming hand in the field to him. He didn't want to explain to her what was wrong, and almost immediately withdrew his aura to himself, confident that Valkyria could not read his emotions. Valkyria, seeing that he didn't want to discuss it, left him alone.

But as the armies of the rebellion began to depart the Fells, knowing that many of them would never return, Shardak felt Blast's words coming back to him. He scanned the crowd for any sign of the dark-armored Glatorian, but did not see him anywhere.

"She's an extremely competent warrior,and a dangerous, convincing liar. How can you ever trust her?"

Blast's accusation that he was in love with Valkyria had struck him to the core, mostly because he knew it was somewhat true. He couldn't even admit what he felt for the Ix girl to himself. But Blast was right, there was a horrible gulf running between them, and the fact she stood right next to him made it horribly unfair.

I don't want to fight with her. There's enough violence out there already, and tomarrow we could easily both lose our lives. One day, I want you to take a step into my world, and no longer be even slightly loyal to the Ix. But for now...can't we at least be friends?

Shardak remembered Blast's words, echoing again in his mind, and once again knew he could not answer that question. As the sun Solis Magna began to rise above the clouds, the first rays of dawn bathing the massive rebel army in pale light, Shardak knew that today the tension would break once again.

Today, battles would be fought and lives would be lost. Today, victory was far from certain. But Shardak would have one more morning of peace before the city ran red with the blood of friends and foes alike.

Gigas Nui was built between two massive cliffs known as the Final Sentinels. The last two peaks in the Fells, this city barred travel from the Fells into Arden. Its massive spires and badly damaged buildings reminded Fairon slightly of the Seruamera, the Nameless City of the Mindeaters in the Void. However, this city was heavily armed, and the central keep, still in perfect condition. Fortified by an army of Odina Drones and Ix warriors, Gigas Nui looked impenetrable.

However, Fairon reflected, that was exactly what he and Stradax planned to do: breach the walls of the city and occupy it. He and Stradax had poured over the information tablets, discussing the different possibilities and problems the city could throw at their approaching army, which numbered barely one hundred. Even without the massive army of Odina Drones, the Ix still outnumbered them at least two to one.

And, of course, they do have the Odina Drones, and they'll just throw them at us until all of our troops are destroyed. Less then one hundred were simply not enough to conquer the city.

Fairon knew these words to be true. No innovative tactics, nothing would be enough for a force of one hundred to take on a force of one thousand Odina Drones and two hundred Ix warriors. They simply had no chance.

"Commander Fairon!"

Fairon whirled around to see a Agori in in white-gray armor standing there, a being he recognized as Artonix, one of the subcommanders of Stradax's army. For Artonix to disturb him, Fairon knew, it must be something highly urgent.

"Yes?" he asked, immediately alert.

"There's an army approaching us! With over six hundred troops!"

Fairon felt crushing despair settle over him. Now, at last, the Ix's tactics of remaining behind the walls of the city made horrible sense. Another army, probably from the Akkadian Mountains, had come across the Fellsian border to attack them from behind.

"Follow me." he said tersely, and he and Artonix exited the small command tent. An army was indeed approaching them, but it was not at all what Fairon had expected. Rather then facing a horde if Kranr, Glatorian, and Ix, he could see a massive vanguard of Dargon marching toward them, followed by beings carrying a standard he recognized all too well: that of the Veythari warriors.

"It's the resistance!" Artonix called. "The Veythari!"

Fairon breathed a massive sigh of relief and happiness. Finally, the rebellion had arrived in force to help them take Gigas Nui. While they were still outnumbered by maybe two hundred soldiers, they had far, far more able warriors who would fight to their last breath to stop the Ix, something that Fairon knew was still more valuable then an Odina Drone defense force.

Massive numbers can be replicated, but true courage...that is impossible to imitate. Fairon thought, as he rushed to greet the commanders of the attack force. Saren Naghara and Reid Vaethar were leading them, standing beside a Dargon in ornate armor that he did not recognize. Behind them, Arkhan and Ion followed, and Parikon himself bringing up the rear.

"We've arrived, Fairon." said the being, his voice making it clear that he was happy to see him. "I trust that we are not late for the battle?"

"No, high commander." said Fairon, then turned his gaze to another figure, who stood behind Parikon. He recoiled in surprise.

"Atarus?" he asked. "But you're..."

"We ran into Shardak on Noctxia Magna." said Atarus. "Ixtil and I both agreed I need to be on Gigas Magna, to supervise recovery of a fragment of a ring of power known as the Annulus."

"The Annulus?" asked Fairon. He'd never heard of it before. "Is that--"

"We'll explain everything at the command tent. For now, I'll order the Dargon to assist with the seige, provided Commander Areop here agrees."

He gestured to the Dargon leader, who nodded a fomal greeting to Fairon. "Greetings." he said. "I trust that your tribe is well and your weapons are sharp?"

"Yes." said Fairon. "We are ready for the battle. If you need anything, Areop, you can ask Stradax, my commander. He is overseeing the seige operation."

Areop nodded, then turned away, to gather his warriors. In what seemed like a few moments, Fairon was seated around the command table, Vaethar, Parikon, Atarus, and Saren gathered around him. Freztrak and Tiral were nowhere to be seen, nor was Arkhan.

"Tiral is gathering her spacefleet to attack Xiost." said Atarus. "And Freztrak has agreed to aid Stradax and Areop in overseeing the battle. For now, I must explain to you about how Shardak and Valkyria arrived on Noctixa Magna, and how they were able to return."

Atarus launched into a tale of Shardak's journey to Akkad, his battle with the Ix, the events on Noctxia Magna, and the revelation that the Annulus fragment was on Xiost. He finished by telling Fairon of their meeting with Moru Kul, and how Shardak had been forced to surrender the Annulus fragment to allow passage back to Xaterex."

"Where is Shardak now?" asked Fairon, anxious to speak with him. "And Arkhan and Valkyria?"

"Arkhan, Kyhrex, Shardak, and Valkyria are currently eliminating a group of assassins who have been spotted near Gigas Nui. Then they'll be heading to Xiost."

"To recover the Annulus." Fairon guessed. "What of Torak, Silver and Dust?"

Atarus' face turned somber. "Torak was killed outside the rebel fortress on Noctixa Magna by the assassins that persued Shardak and Valkyria there. Silver and Dust went missing during the teleportation, and we've heard nothing from them since."

Fairon felt a wave of emotions run through him, first horror, then sadness, then, perhaps most shocking of all, indifference. It was slightly worrying that he hadn't felt more sadness at the death of Torak and the possible deaths of Silver and Dust, but had seen so many die in the past months since his victory in the Games that he could barely register that they were gone. To him, they were always around a corner, their faces imprinted in his memory forever.

"There is nothing we can do for them now, however." said Atarus. "We must begin preparations for the battle."

Fairon nodded. He could see that already the Dargon were ready to attack. There was no reason to told the tension any longer. He could see the defenders, already on watch, were waiting for them. Stepping outside the command tent, Fairon raised his hand in the unmistakable signal: attack.

The Dargon surged forward, their front line charging toward the gates and slamming them to the ground with a massive crash. Stepping through, they struck the Odina Drone guards like a thunderbolt, their raw ferocity leaving nothing but scraps of metal behind. The Veythari archers, their accuracy with their bows and crossbows almost matching that of Valkyria, were managing to eliminate many of the guards on the walls, preventing them from aiding the Odina Drones.

Fairon watched all this, hoping that Shardak was okay, wherever he was now. Mata Nui, keep them safe. he thought. Then there was no more time for thinking, only the rush of battle as Fairon charged foward, shield in one hand and scimitar in the other, to face the oncoming army of Odina Drones. They'd already broken through the gates by the time Fairon arrived, and fighting was intensifying. Fairon had no doubt of the stakes here. If the Empire lost this battle, they had lost one city.

But if the rebellion lost this battle, they would lose not only their Dargon allies, but also any hope for their cause, for their army would be no more.

Chapter 14[]

Shardak strode across the plains surrounding the border between the Fells and Arden, staring at the mountains in the distance. Beside him, Arkhan surveyed the forest ahead of them, his face set in a grim line.

"This doesn't look good." he said. "We've lost the trail."

They'd been following the tracks of a clawed being, whose trail veered toward Gigas Nui, then back onto the flatlands near the border between the Fells, Gigas Nui, and the Akkadian mountains. His trail had been hard to find, and now that they'd lost it, Shardak had no idea where to go next.

"Should we backtrack?" asked Kyhrex. "It may be our only hope of finding him."

Arkhan shook his head. "Backtracking will only give him more time to escape, possibly to reunite with the rest of the bounty hunters spotted. We'll have to continue looking. Shardak--"

He stopped, and Shardak could hear yells and the clash of weapons rising in the distance. "The battle has begun." Valkyria said, her voice almost a whisper. Shardak wondered if she hoped the rebellion would win, or if she still believed, at heart, that the ix were superior and would win this battle, as they had so many times in the past.

"Do you think we can win?" Shardak asked Arkhan, worried now. He knew that the rebellion had nearly seven hundred beings under their command, most of them Dargon, but there were eight hundred Odina Drone guards within the city and some Ix warriors as well. "The Ix--"

"You have far more pressing problems then the Ix." A dry, familiarly cynical voice interrupted. Shardak whirled around to see at tall being in black armor standing before then, a dark, helmetlike mask on his face, obscuring his features save his brilliant green eyes.

"Nightwatcher!" he yelled, and immediately Arkhan had raised his sword, and Valkryia had knocked an arrow to her bow, ready to shoot. Despite the fact he only carried one weapon, a long silver scimitar, Nightwatcher seemed completely at ease."

"How nice to he recognized by you, Spirit Toa. It's been a while, has it not?"

Shardak opened his mouth to reply, but Nighwatcher cut him off with a wave of his hand. "You needn't deal with all the pleasentries first, because I already know what you're going to say. Now, let's skip forward a few sentances. I have been hired to eliminate you all, save the Spirit Toa, who will return with me to the city of Gigas Magna. This, time, I assure you, he will not slip through their fingers again."

"How?" asked Arkhan. "We were expecting a team of bounty hunters. It seems you are outnumbered, Nightwatcher, and you'll die the moment you make a single aggressive movement."

Nightwatcher waved a hand, seemingly unbothered. "I am worth more then one hundred bounty hunters, am I not? I captured Shardak, when Sarkanian, Asgard, the Sharidir, and the Ix had all failed. That should be reason enough for you to surrender and come with me quietly."

"Go to Karzahni." snarled Arkhan.

Nightwatcher sighed. "I knew you would say that. Glatorian are so predictable."

Valkyria raised her bow, intending to fire an arrow at Nighwatcher's throat, but suddenly a shadow loomed over them. Shardak looked up to see the massive figure standing above them, armored in green and black. It looked like a Rahkshi, but surely no Rahkshi was ever that large.

Valkyria did not hesitate for more then a moment. She fired a single arrow from her bow, but Nightwatcher dodged it easily and raced toward Arkhan, his weapon meeting the Glatorian's longsword like a silver bolt of lightning. Shardak knew Arkhan stood little chance against the bounty hunter. Nightwatcher was, perhaps, the most skilled of all the bounty hunters who roamed Xaterex, and would not hesitate to kill Arkhan.

Shardak had no more time to think on that, however, as the Rahkshi's weapon slammed against his, the sheer force of the blow forcing him back. Kyhrex hacked at the Rahkshi's armor, but the Rahkshi seemed to be even larger then it had been before. Shardak could only deflect each attack, hoping desperately that the Rahkshi could not coordinate its attacks as quickly in its larger form.

However, Shardak soon discovered it was almost as fast as he was, and far, far stronger. Kyhrex brought her protosteel weapon against the Rahkshi's armor, only to feel it shatter against the Rahkshi's plating. It was only the Blade of Arcturas' almost supernatural toughness that allowed it to emerge unscathed each time. Shardak could feel, however, that this time the weapon was doing something different. It was growing warmer, and the Blade gleamed with energy.

Shardak, hoping desperately that this time it would work as it had for Arcturas, willed the weapon, brought his aura down upon it-- and the weapon burst into flames. Blue and orange fire collided with the Rahkshi's staff as Shardak, feeling as though the warmth was spreading through his body, fought the Rahkshi across the forest. He could see glimpses of the fight going on around him, Valkyria firing arrows at both the massive Rahkshi and Nightwatcher, having little effect on the massive suit of armor. Nightwatcher seemed to be able to dodge her attacks easily, all the while fighting Arkhan.

Nightwatcher was overpowering the Glatorian completely, and Shardak could see Arkhan was already badly wounded. Shardak could see time and space blurring along the edges of the forest behind Nighwatcher, and wondered for a moment what it was. A portal? A death trap? Either way, Arkhan was about to be forced into it.

"No!" yelled Kyhrex, leaping forward. Nightwatcher whirled around, quicker then Shardak would have believed possible, and tore the weapon from her hands.

"Hello, Elementalist." he said to her, then shoved her kinetically into the blurred lines of space.

Shardak screamed as Kyhrex's body struck the rift, suddenly shattering into thousands of fragments that all disappeared through the gateway. Then she was gone, no trace of her except her weapon, lying discarded next to Nightwatcher.

Rage at Kyhrex's death made Shardak reckless, and he slammed his weapon against the Rahkshi with renewed vigor, feeling it slice through the hard metal as though it were made of butter. The Rahkshi's staff suddenly exploded into fire, fire that began spreading up its arms and across its body as Shardak continued hacking at the armor with the Blade of Arcturas. The Rahkshi was unable to wound him further, his attacks becoming wilder as the fire spread toward his eyes. Slowly, it was growing smaller, and Shardak now found that the Rahkshi, while taller then him, was no longer the giant it had been moments before.

Seeing what was happening to his ally caused Nighwatcher to leap away from Arkhan's wounded body and slash his weapon across Shardak's shoulder. Shardak felt burning pain lance through him, but he ignored it. There was no way he could be distracted from his relentless attack against the Rahkshi.

An idea leapt to the forefront of Shardak's mind, and he began driving the Rahkshi toward the strange rift, the one that had absorbed Kyhrex. The Rahkshi, now almost blinded as well as badly wounded, was staggering backward, growing and shrinking seemingly randomly now. Valkyria's arrows were still coming strong, denting his faceplate and making coordinated attacks all but impossible.

Nightwatcher was now fighting Valkyria, but the bounty hunter easily had the upper hand. Valkyria was dodging death by centimeters each time his silver weapon slashed out at her. His sheer strength and speed was simply too powerful, and even with Arkhan's help, she still stood no chance. Shardak had seen how Nightwatcher had defeated nearly triple that many in the Void, and even then he had been toying with them. Now he was desperate to save his ally from destruction.

The Rahkshi, meanwhile, was beginning to recover slightly. The flames were dying down now, and while his vision was badly impaired, he remained a deadly combatant nonetheless. Shardak once again found himself on the defensive, despite his best attempts to force the Rahkshi into the rift. Shardak began forcing his weapon forward, despiration to defeat the Rahkshi before Nightwatcher killed his friends driving all other thoughts from his mind.

As though reading his despiration, the flames, still burning along the edge of the Blade of Arcturas, grew in size and strength once more, and as the massive Rahkshi's mangled staff struck his sword, Shardak leapt forward and slammed the weapon against the Rahkshi's faceplate.

The Rahkshi staggered backward, dropping its staff. Defenseless, Shardak slammed his weapon again and again against the Rahkshi's chestplate, finally forcing the Rahkshi backward-- and into the Rift.

Noiselessly, the Rahkshi vanished, body disolving in the same way Kyhrex's had. Nightwatcher snarled in rage and slashed Arkhan backward, flinging the Glatorian to the ground. Shardak charged toward Nightwatcher, his sword a flaming brand of light to match the midafternoon sun. Shardak felt impact rattle through his body as their weapons struck like two colliding meteors.

Shardak was skilled in both the Lihtne and Sila combat forms, but Nightwatcher was using Vauhti, Kracht, Lihtne, and Ruch simultaneously; his brute strength was easily overwhelming him, and combined with the speed of Vauhti, it became all but impossible to penetrate his defenses. He would not have been surprised if he had known and mastered each and every single one of the seven combat forms.

Nightwatcher staggered backward from the sheer force of the impact, and Shardak felt power, for the first time in his life, power like the strength he'd used to escape Skorpix, rage through him once more. Nighwatcher regained the offensive quickly, however, and Shardak felt pain once again in his shoulder as Nightwatcher's sword slashed across his arm.

Shardak charged forward, Blade of Arcturas flashing in quick, simple strokes. He had little time to register the fact he was utilizing Sila and Lihtne at the same time, he simply deflected every one of Nightwatcher's thrusts, knowing that now it was kill or be killed. His rage at their current situation began to die, finally being replaced by something stronger still: determination. Despite the fact he was tired, close to defeat, he would not surrender, and his weapon, more attuned to his wishes then it had ever been, was responding.

Nightwatcher's eyes widened in surprise as Shardak countered the same horrible thrust that had destroyed Kyhrex. However, the bounty hunter's attacks never faltered, nor did his attacks cease. He was barely conscious of the fact that Valkyria was standing beside him, her scimitar complementing his own weapon perfectly. It was Nightwatcher who was now on the defensive, and the bounty hunter was drawing nearer to the portal.

However, Nightwatcher was far too skilled to be defeated that easily. As Valkyria slashed downward, ready to deal a final blow that would almost certainly kill the bounty hunter, Nightwatcher leapt to one side, almost slamming into Shardak and slashing wildly at the Toa. Valkyria raised the scimitar, realizing he was aiming now to kill Shardak, and Shardak knew there was no way her weapon could fail to kill the bounty hunter this time.

Quick as lightning, Nighwatcher switched his grip on the sword and, as Valkyria raised her scimitar to deflect the wild backslash that never landed, Nighwatcher lashed out, allowing his raw kinetic power to strike the Ix warrior dead-on, flinging her backward, toward the fatal rift. Valkyria narrowly managed to leap to one side in midair, escaping certain death, before falling to the ground, stunned.

Alone now, Shardak faced Nightwatcher, the bounty hunter who would take him captive. Shardak looked at Arkhan's fallen form and Valkyria, lying unconscious and possibly badly wounded, and knew there was no chance he'd have any outside help now. It was just him and Nightwatcher now.

For once, Nighwatcher said nothing. His face was simply a mask of grim determination as he charged toward Shardak, his powerful attacks forcing Shardak almost to his knees. Nightwatcher's weapon met his burning blade, and he could feel the flames evaporate as soon as they touched Nightwatcher's weapon.

"Your Sword of Fire will not work against my armor." said Nightwatcher, as he easily deflected another of Shardak's now weakening attacks. "Now, I think it is time to end this."

"No." said Shardak. For the first time, Nightwatcher seemed surprised, baffled even. "What is it you want to tell me? Say it, at least, before you kill me."

Nightwatcher seemed even more surprised then before now. "I was ordered to take you prisoner. Why do you think I would want to ask you anything?"

"Because I can read auras." said Shardak. "And you can, as well. There was something you want from me, something that you couldn't tell me while the others were here."

Nightwatcher said nothing, and during that moment of indesision, Shardak struck, his aura touching Nighwatcher's. The bounty hunter seemed unable to even register what he'd done, though Shardak saw that the bounty hunter easily had enough power to deflect his auric probe. However, Nightwatcher allowed him to read his aura, allowing him to see small fragments of his past, but never emotions.

Nightwatcher, lost and alone, within a massive void still darker then the one he himself had traveled through three months ago, then suddenly, the world appeared all around him...

Nightwatcher, two beings by his side, a Toa of Water and a Toa of Stone, watching a massive horde of Kodax gather below the rise, his weapon, the same silver scimitar, held in one hand...

Nightwatcher, standing alone over the fallen forms of both friends and enemies alike, his features shrouded behund the same Kanohi he wore now...

Nightwatcher, bounty hunter, standing before a tall, cloaked Ix in the Void, then suddenly, facing Fairon, Flardrek, Galika, and Shardak himself at the edge of the Nameless City...

"You see?" said Nightwatcher, his voice quiet. "I am a Toa as well. A Toa, with the blood of the great Elemental Princes running through my veins. Yet I am never mentioned, when you speak of Jarodin, of Galika, and Fairon, the other surviving Toa besides you yourself."

"No Toa could ever do what you do for a living." said Shardak. Nightwatcher took a step back and almost flinched. Shardak could feel his aura now, and finally it became apparent to him. At last it made sense.

Fear. Fear of the nightmares that stalked him, fear of the beings who had once defeated him, fear that he would one day perish at the hand of a being more powerful.

Loss. Countless friends, hundreds of innocents, still more enemies. All dead.

Anger. The overriding emotion was anger, a horribly calculated, cold furious rage.

Nighwatcher' fury suddenly became blindingly apparent to him, and Shardak saw the bounty hunter suddenly lunge forward without warning, his eyes twin cold green orbs of ice as the weapon descended. Shardak easily blocked his attacks, lashing out in both the aura field and with the Blade of Arctutas as he forced Nightwatcher backward. Even now, however, Nightwatcher was a skilled warrior, and his weapon flashed in the cold sunlight as their battle became a horribly feirce mêlée as both combatants strove to deal a final, crushing blow to the other.

Shardak felt as though everything was happening too quickly, that the only thing saving him from certain death was his skills, and that Nightwatcher could kill him at any time, but was simply trying to force him through the rift, to give him the same death that he'd given Kyhrex, and that Shardak had given the Rahkshi of Growth. However, suddenly Nighwatcher changed tactics. He lunged forward, and as Shardak raised his weapon to counter it, Nightwatcher easily switched his grip on the scimitar and aimed to run him through completely.

Time seemed to begin to slow. Shardak's eyes no longer registered the world around him, only the tip of Nightwatcher's weapon, about to impale him. Fear, rage, and power began to seethe within him, and Shardak, knowing there was no way he could ever counter Nightwatcher's attack otherwise, allowed his aura to become a solid wall of force, causing an explosion of auric energy to erupt as Nightwatcher was flung backward.

For one brief moment, everything was still, then Shardak had slammed the Blade of Arcturas' against Nighwatcher's scimitar, tearing it from his hands, and Nightwatcher was staggering backward, armor disintegrating into nothingness as he disappeared through the rift.

Shardak looked around, him, startled. Nightwatcher was gone, and he could see Arkhan rise to his feet, Valkyria following soon after. Arkhan was grinning widely, and even Valkyria was smiling slightly.

"Shardak, how on Xaterex did you do that?" the white Glatorian asked in awe. "Surely I never taught you those Vauhti and Sila moves you were using?"

Shardak shook his head. "No, I think it was this weapon." he raised the Blade of Arcturas, which now appeared as it always had, save for the fact a small tongue of fire raced down the Blade when Arkhan touched it. Aside from that, it was no longer even warm, the fire now gone.

Night had begun to fall; the shadowy halflight vanishing completely now. It was a dark, moonless night, and a chill Fellsian wind blew from the mountains high in the distance. Now and then the silence was broken by the clash of arms or a yell in the distance, but that was all. The fighting had subsided slightly, and Shardak guessed that the battle was dissolving once again into smaller skirmishes.

Shardak had been eager to immediately return to Tiral, who would provide them with the starcraft they needed for the trip to Xiost, but Arkhan was wounded badly from his fight with Nighwatcher, as had Valkyria. The white-armored Glatorian was half-asleep now, his face illuminated by the small campfire Shardak had started using the Blade of Arcturas. He was glad that, at last, the weapon was responding to his commands, but his gain paled in comparision to his loss.

Yet another of his friends had passed on into the Void, one who had been with him from the beginning. Silencer, Melnox, Duuril, Treedaka, Sayna, and now Kyhrex-- when would it end? Shardak could hardly even believe that Silencer was gone, to him all of his friends were still waiting around a corner.

He could feel Valkyria, a small, muted presence in the aura field, reaching out to him, inviting him to speak with her.

"Shardak, I'm sorry...about your friend."

For no apparent reason, Shardak was angry with Valkyria. "Don't act like you care." he snarled.

Real pain flashed through Valkyria's aura, so defined and real that it almost took his breath away. Then she was once again in control, though her green eyes still betrayed her sadness.

"Shardak, of course I care." she said. "You saved my life in the Void, and I will never forget that. It's okay. We'll help you. Arkhan, me...Blast."

Shardak felt almost physical pain as he was reminded of his friend, the friend he'd parted with in anger, the friend he might never see again. He could be dead already, killed in the battle, and never be seen again. But Valkyria was right. She was still there, and Arkhan. Staring into her eyes, he could see real warmth within them, something that he'd not seen since their journey to the rebel base on Noctixa Magna.

"I'm sorry." he said at last. "It's just...I've lost Silencer, and Duuril, and now Kyhrex as well. It just seems like it will never stop."

Valkyria seemed lost for words, Shardak guessed grief was an emotion that she'd rarely felt or even registered. She did not speak, instead laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. Shardak felt cold seep through her fingers, auric energy she was using to restore his aura and drive away his sadness.

"Tell me about your mentors." she said, her voice light once again. "What was Silencer like?"

"He was very brave. He saved my life in the Circle, when I was taken prisoner by Banrax." said Shardak. "And he died in a battle with the Fury, and his Toa-brother, Melnox, helped us escape into the Void. He himself fled to distract the Ix's armies...he could be dead now, for all I know."

Valkyria's face looked sad and almost guilty, as though she was about to say something more. Shardak realized, again, how hard it must be for her, to learn how many horrible things the Ix, her own people, had done to him. Now it was his turn to reach out in the aura field, reassuring her he held nothing against her for what the Ix had done to them.

Valkyria smiled. "I know. But thank you, Shardak.

"You escaped with Ion, then, didn't you?" said Arkhan, speaking for the first time. "And you, Kyhrex, Ion, and Blast journeyed to the Sanctum of the Mind."

"Where he tried to kill me." said Valkyria.

"You were trying to kill me too!" protested Shardak, and Valkyria and Arkhan both laughed. Shardak joined in moments later as well, then he asked Valkyria, "What were you doing at the Sanctum? I know you were hunting me, but how did you find us there?"

"Some of our most powerful aura users sensed the presence of the Kanohi Ignika in the Void." said Valkyria, "And I was chosen to go recover it with them. My mentor, Scrall Vhokyn, was in charge of the patrol. In the Void, however, we were attacked by Shadow of Ages soldiers, working for Millennium."

Shardak was once again reminded of Blast as Valkyria spoke of the being who had dwelled within the Glatorian's body after Blast's escape from the Eternal Game, and he hoped desperately that Blast was still alive.

"We defeated many of their patrols." Valkyria continued, "We eventually captured a Shadow soldier, who told us that you were in the building known as the Sanctum of the Mind. He didn't tell us how heavily guarded it was. Many of the patrol were killed, and the rest captured. I escaped with the Shadow Orb."

"But later, you had to ally against the Shadow?" Arkhan asked. Shardak nodded, and Valkyria told him of their battles with Millennium, Dredzek, the Sharidir, and Sarkanian, the massive world-eating serpent who served the Ix. Shardak occasionally added a word or two, but mostly left the talking to Valkyria.

"Were you always a soldier in the rebellion, Arkhan?" asked Shardak. Arkhan nodded.

"Grew up in the Fells with the Veythari clans." he said. "So fighting the Ix seemed as natural to me as breathing. Eventually I was promoted to lieutenant, and was based at Void's Edge. I was one of the team that was scouting out the signs of battle in the Nameless City that found you and the other victors."

For a few more minutes, they continued discussing various incidents that had happened before they'd met, Arkhan sharing a story of how he'd been beaten badly by a group of Glatorian gangsters in Intax, Shardak's home city, and Valkyria told them how she'd defeated an elite Kodax guard to finally become an Ix warrior.

"We need to go, now." said Arkhan, rising to his feet. He winced a little at the pain, but seemed otherwise okay. "We've wasted enough time as it is. I need to see to it that you two make it to Tiral's headquarters, where you can be sent on your mission to Xiost."

Shardak had almost forgotten where they were, he'd been so absorbed in what they were discussing. In fact, for a few moments, he even forgot what they'd been doing there, and suddenly felt the crushing weight of the final stage of their mission fall once again on his shoulders. As he, Arkhan, and Valkyria walked through the trees and back toward the command tents of the rebellion outside Gigas Nui, Shardak began to once again fear that Blast had been killed, that Fairon had been killed, or the rebellion had lost the battle.

Valkyria's words then came back to him, and as he stepped into the torchlight of the Veythari camp, he was ready for what was to come. Had he not said the same thing on his first day as a full member of the rebellion? It had only been a week ago, but it seemed like a lifetime.

I am ready. Now is the time to see if we can ever defeat the Empire.

Chapter 15[]

The first engagement had gone badly.

The Dargon, who would always fight in large groups uncoordinatedly, had been no match for the cool, mechanical strength of the Odina Drones. They'd fought to the end, but nearly fifty Dargon were killed and twice as many wounded. Fairon had lead his own unit of Glatorian into battle, and they'd fought furiously against the defending Drones, but the sheer strength and numbers had, in the end, prevailed. He'd been forced to retreat, leaving nearly half his command trapped and scattered within the city.

Reid Vaethar was in deep conversation with Parikon, both of whom looked grim. The deadly Veythari archers had managed to eliminate most of the guards on the walls, with only scattered fire in return. Vaethar himself had led an attack on the city gates, but had been driven back.

Fairon surveyed their remaining forces. Nearly half the Dargon were still waiting in the reserve, and he still had thirty beings, including Galika and his friend, Flardrek. He scanned the cliffs for any sign of Jarodin or Blast, the other two rebel commanders, but saw neither.

"Jarodin and Blast are still inside the city." he said to Vaethar. Reid fingered his bow, as though ready to attack once again.

"Which proves my point. Another frontal assault will break their power!"

"But it will also cause undue casualties on the front line." said Parikon. "Many, including some of your own Veythari warriors, will die. And we are still not certain that we will be victorious. There are still at least six hundred Odina Drones within the city, and they are the defenders."

"Then allow me to take a detachment of twenty Veythari warriors to the other side of the city." said Reid. "We will eliminate the remainder of the guards on the walls, allowing you to send in the Dargon."

"No." interjected Saren. "We must--"

"The time we waste arguing here is more time for our allies to die!" Reid almost snarled. "We have to attack as soon as the city is surrounded."

"Yes." said Parikon. "Take fifty Dargon with you as well as your Veythari, Reid. We don't know how many guards are still out there."

Reid nodded once in acknowledgement of the being's words, then turned and vanished into the darkness, gathering his Veythari warriors. Parikon turned to Fairon, who quickly reported their current situation.

"We still have two groups of attackers, led by Jarodin and Kharix, are still inside the city. We were seperated during our offensive once the main gate was destroyed."

Parikon's face looked grim. "Take at patrol of warriors and attack once again, after the Odina Drones are distracted attacking Reid's strike force. They're machines, and are all programmed to head toward the source of the violence. You may have to face several Drones and Gigas Nui militia there, however."

Fairon nodded acknowledgement, then gathered Flardrek's strike team, which was waiting for him at the rebellion's command tent. Beside him, Galika stood, a worried look on her face. Fairon knew that she must have learned Jarodin was still trapped within the city, and was obviously worried. The remainder of his attack force, which numbered about thirty, was being reinforced by one hundred fresh new Dargon recruits.

Fairon realized he was now in command of more beings then he'd ever been, and the thought both scared and shocked him. He knew that many of them, perhaps including him, would not live to see the day dawn. Saren, Parikon, and the others were counting on him, however, and Fairon knew he had to be ready.


Fairon whirled around, his expression relaxing when he recognized Shardak. The Toa of Aura's face looked grim and tired, as did Arkhan's. There was no sign of either Kyhrex or Valkyria.

"What happened?" he asked. "Did you defeat the bounty hunters?"

"Bounty hunter." Arkhan corrected. "It was Nighwatcher, along with a massive mechanical Rahkshi. Yes, we defeated him, but Kyhrex was killed."

Fairon felt another wince inside as he realized that yet another being he'd known had died, fighting for the rebellion. Then it was replaced once again by his horrible, shocking indifference as he asked, "But you're sure Nighwatcher's dead?"

"Certainly seems so." said Arkhan. "It was Shardak who defeated him-- I've never seen him use such skill before. He says it's all because of his weapon, the Sword of Fire."

Shardak nodded. "Yes. The Sword of Fire somehow-- gave me enough energy to keep fighting him, even after Valkyria and Arkhan were knocked unconcsious. It's never done that before. Where's Blast?" he asked, as though realizing with alarm his friend wasn't there. "He was with you, right?"

Fairon felt real emotion rise within him now-- pity for his friend, who may have lost two of his oldest comrades in a single night. "He's...still inside the city."

"What?" asked Shardak in disbelief. "You left him there?"

"There was no choice." said Fairon. "Nearly half of my squadron's still pinned down in there. Vaethar and I are--"

"You'll never get in in time." snarled Shardak. "How could you just abandon them there, you--"

Fairon was taken aback at Shardak's behavior, this was extremely uncharacteristic of him, to become so angry. He opened his mouth to answer, but Arkhan spoke first.

"Shardak." Arkhan said, a warning in his voice. "I know you're scared. But Fairon's doing all he can to help those still trapped within the city."

Valkyria walked over to them, darkly beautiful in the torchlight. Fairon still felt shivers of mistrust toward her, in the shadows of the night, she appeared to be an Imperial warrior once again, but he smiled and greeted her politely anyway.

"Tiral's ready." the Ix girl reported. "She's not in the mood to wait, so you'd better hurry."

Arkhan led Shardak away, and Shardak did not once look back or speak with Fairon. For a few moments, Fairon was concerned, but knew he had far more pressing things to worry about. Turning his attention back to the city, he wondered when Vaethar would strike.

He certainly didn't have to wait long. Within seconds, the shouts and yells coming from the opposite side of the city confirmed that Vaethar was attacking. Fairon knew that if he waited for too long, they would be eliminated. He needed to reinforce Vaethar before the city commanders realized this was a diversion and fortified the main gates fully once again.

"Charge." the order was deathly quiet, a single whisper on the wind. But it seemed that every one of his soldiers heard it, for within minutes Fairon was racing toward the gate. Veythari arrows whizzed through the air, striking down targets from a distance as Fairon raced forward, slashing apart an Odina Drone in a single blow, then using his elemental powers to rip apart another. All around him the soldiers of the rebellion, Dargon, Glatorian, Agori, and many others, all fought beside him, their weapons forming a wall of impenetrable steel.

Fairon could see that Vaethar was pulling back, as they'd planned. While many Odina Drones and several guards had fallen to his attack, Fairon knew that within minutes they'd be facing the full might of the guards once again, as soon as they realized it was a diversion. Sure enough, the Ix warriors were shouting orders in reedy, nasal voices, ordering the Drones to return to the gates once again.

Fairon was easily holding his own against the attackers, and he could see that several scattered rebel units had once again joined them. To his relief, he could see that Blast was among them, scythe in both hands as he fought desperately to stem the oncoming tide of Odina Drone warriors. Fairon raised his shield to deflect an oncoming axe, then slashed open the Kranr guard's armorplate and slashed him to the ground in two quick strikes.

The skills that he'd learned in the arena, the skills he could no longer afford to forget, returned to Fairon as he and his soldier fought their way through the city of Gigas Nui. He could see Saren's command charging into the battle, the remaining one hundred fresh troops smashing through the side of the Odina Drone vanguard and scattering the Kranr and Ix commanders. The final battle for control of the city had begun.

Shardak felt apprehensive and slightly nauseous as the starcraft's moniters began to show the blue skies dwindling, replaced by the black and white expanse of nothingness before him. Starcraft had always been heavily restricted in the Empire, and interplanetary travel was strictly forbidden. Tiral, however, had said it would be easy to master, and so far Shardak had been able to keep the starcraft under control so far.

He could feel the faint hum of the engines as the ship continued on its way, at an amazing number of bio per second. He knew that, somewhere behind the vehicle's thick hull, perhaps several miles away, there was another ship belonging to the resistance, as well as Tiral's own ship, flying ahead of them.

All three of them were flying toward Xiost, one of the smaller moons that circled Xaterex. There, Shardak knew, the final battle would be fought, the battle for control of yet another of the fragments of the Annulus. Once again, Shardak wished that he had not been forced to give the Shadow Orb to Moru Kul in exchange for safe passage out of Noctxia Magna. One day, if he survived this, he vowed he would return and convince Moru Kul to return what he'd taken.

I will survive. Shardak thought, willing himself to believe it. Even if he failed to maintain control of the ship, three of Tiral's agents, Artonix, Chameleo, and Zhrek, were there to make sure that he did not fail, as well as help him pilot the massive transport. All three of them wore grim expressions.

Valkyria seemed more at ease, however, and Shardak asked her, "Have you ever flown on one of these before?"

"Yes." said the Ix warrior. "It's standard training, though I've never handled anything like this before."

The starcraft they were currently flying was a light, Phantom- class transport, primarily used by the Ix. However, Tiral's fleet contained several outdated Ix ships as well as the latest rebel warcraft. Shardak could see Tiral's starcraft ahead of them, flying toward Xiost.

The planet of Xaterex was a blue, cloudy blur below them now, and Shardak knew that they'd be heading still further from it to reach Xiost. It was the farthest of all of Xaterex's satellites, and was beyond even Calos. He could see a small planet he thought might be Noctxia Magna, but couldn't be quite sure.

Not for the first time, he wondered how Ixtil was doing, and if he could see them now, what chance he'd say they had to survive.

Less then .0001, probably. thought Shardak. I doubt that--

"Starcraft! Incoming!" yelled Valkyria to him, and Shardak's eyes immediately returned to the moniter. Sure enough, two heavily armed ships were barring their path, armed to the teeth in heavy weaponry and laser cannons. These were not resistance transport. These were elite Fighter craft, the Imperial insignia on their wings confirmed that.

Shardak didn't even have time to shout a warning before he saw the bolts of pure energy flash through the darkness, lancing directly toward their ship. He was thrown around in his harness sharply as the ship rocked from a tremendous impact. Shardak could hear their commlinks blare static as he and the other rebels desperately attempted to regain control over the damaged vessal.

Within seconds, the ship shook violently once more. A brief glimpse that Shardak got out of the viewport was enough to tell him that Chameleo, a heavily armored Reptisapean, was desperately attempting to evade the enemy fire that would destroy their shields within seconds if they didn't escape the line of fire.

Another planet flashed before him as the ship spun wildly out of control, cold, gray, and frozen in the middle of nothingness. He could hear Artonix shouting orders, and could see that one of the beings, he believed it was Zhrek, was desperately attempting to return the fire. While Shardak knew next to nothing about space battles, he realized quickly that their ship was simply not armed for this battle.

Shardak saw the gray world-- which he knew could only be Xiost-- flash before him once again as their ship spiraled once again out of control. Artonix finally managed to once again regain control of the vessal, and evade certain destruction as a second laser ray, inches from their hull, flashed past them. Many of their shields were already down, another direct hit would kill them all.

"We're going to land on Xiost. Now." hissed Artonix through the commlink. "There's no other choice. Brace for impact."

Shardak felt their vehicle hover above the two warcraft for maybe a second, then drop from the air like a plunging bird of prey and spiral toward the gray orb of darkness that was rapidly growing larger on the moniter. Within seconds, Shardak knew, they would land on the planet.

Control. Picture yourself in control and you will suceed as a starcraft pilot.

Tiral's voice, from what seemed like so long ago, echoed within his mind. He could no longer see anything, for the moniter had gone dark. He had to trust that the aura field knew where it had to land, knew where it must land, and that the presence he sensed nearby was Xiost. If he'd miscalculated, they'd all die.

Any minute, he expected their shields to vanish. He could feel now that the lasers were hitting the hull itself, and would, in seconds, drive through the hull, killing them all instantly.With any luck, he'd enter the atmosphere of Xiost before that happened.

Desperately, he willed every last drop of vitality he still possessed, every last minute scrap of energy, into his action, the only thing he could do to support the ship. But his aura no longer was responding, and his energy was slowly draining away.

Faces swam before him. Silencer, standing before the Fury, who looked like a dark reaper of souls in the shallow torchlight. Melnox, eyes pleading as he told them the Void was their only chance to survive. His thoughts, so focused on the aura field, began to wander as he brought the starcraft hurling toward Xiost. He still hoped that the ix had not recovered the Annulus yet...

He could no longer see anything but the gunmetal gray walls of the ship, but he could see the faces of Artonix and the others in his mind's eye. He could sense Valkyria's presence in the aura field, scared and fearful and desperately hoping there was a way they could survive this. The thought of her gave him strength once again. if he died, she would as well. Her only hope of life was in his hands.

Then, as quickly as it had come, it was over. Their ship glided, slowly, easily, once again into an atmosphere, that of Xiost. While there were dangers below, they could not be as bad as what he'd faced above.

Shardak felt the world begin to appear once again around him, the dark, craggy ground beneath him was reflected on the smaller, backup moniters. He looked around for any sign of the Ix ships, but saw none. Artonix and Valkyria were sitting on either side of him, relieved disbelief on their faces.

"Nice work." said Artonix. "How did you do that? Your aura was literally reinforcing the sheilding around the starcraft!"

"I'm...not sure." said Shardak at last, drawing in a shaky breath. "It was the only thing I could save you all."

"Can you fight?" asked Artonix. "You look exhausted."

"I'll fight." said Shardak confidently, but inwardly he knew that Artonix was right. The fight with Nightwatcher had not tired him, due to the energy he'd gained from the Blade of Arcturas, but the most recent battle had weakened him badly, and he had no idea if he could face the full might of the Ix after what he'd done. "I have no choice."

Touching the Blade of Arcturas as they landed on a barren cliff beside the two other starcraft, Shardak felt warmth spread through his arm. Not energy, exactly, but he hoped that it would return, in time.

"I know that." said Artonix. There was new respect in the Agori's gaze as he looked Shardak in the eye. "And I think I speak for all of us when I say that I am proud to fight beside my friend Shardak, the Spirit Toa."

What are you? Silver asked. What do you want?

I have told you. whispered the Arcaean Entity. My purpose is to send travelers to the Elemental Kingdoms of Arcaea. Your journey will now be completed.

"But Arcaea has been gone for nearly two centuries!" protested Dust, speaking aloud. "The Kingdoms were destroyed during the Great War!"

That is immaterial. My duty is to transport beings to the Elemental Kingdoms of Arcaea. It is time for your transportation to begin. Please remain calm as your atoms are transferred manually.

But we don't--

Beginning immediate transfer to Arcaea The Arcaean Entity hissed, louder now. It has been approved. The city leaders have approved your entry to the Elemental Kingdom of Earth.

But-- Silver began, but again the Entity interrupted them.

What you want is immaterial. Transporting atoms to Aracea immediately.

Then, suddenly, Silver and Dust were gone, and satisfied that the transfer was complete, the Arcaean Entity returned to its slumber.

Chapter 16[]

Ion strode through the Northern Mountains, alone. Below him, he could see the cities, the small cliffs of the lower mountains seeming horribly, insignificantly small at this height. No Rahi stirred here, and there was no sign of any being standing before him. However, Ion knew that the being he was searching for would be there. There was no chance that he wouldn't come.

The confrontation was inevitable, he knew that now. Everything he'd done, from training Shardak to facing the Fury to the battles in the Void, had been in preparation for this final battle.


The voice, cold and raspy, rang out across the massive mountains, and Ion lifted his head, facing the speaker. He could see the being clearly now. He was approaching at a reasonable pace, a massive black longsword held in one clawed hand. But even from that distance, his red eyes were visible, all at once cold and smouldering with rage.

"I knew a confrontation was one day inevitable." said Ion, voice calm. He forced it to be calm. If he panicked, he stood no chance of ending the evil once and for all here. The being he now would feed on his fear, and then destroy him. "Let us finish this."

"I think that this is already over." said the red-eyed being, and smiled coldly...

The Battle of Gigas Nui had grown still larger, as more and more beings raced into the center of the city. There, the rebel army stood, locked in combat with a horde of nearly two hundred Odina Drones. The air rang with the clash of steel on steel and screams of pain.

Fairon knew that as soon as the last of the Drones fell, their path to take the city would at last be open. However, the Drones would fight to the last, and he knew their enemies hoped to weaken the rebel army sufficiently enough so that it would be easily destroyed by the one hundred or so remaining Ix.

The rest of the surviving Odina Drones were scattered across the city, fighting either strike teams of Veythari warriors or small, isolated groups of rebel warriors. It was unlikely that reinforcements would arrive. Fairon's four hundred warriors would prevail. If they did not, the war was already lost.

Fairon slashed his weapon through an Odina Drone's faceplate, effectively decapitating the attacker. However, for every Drone he killed, three more seemed to rise to take its place. Despite the fact that Fairon's forces still outnumbered the Odina Drones nearly two to one, the mindless efficiency of the Drones was horribly effective against the Dargon, who, scattered among the rest of the rebellion's warriors, were beginning to scatter.

"Keep fighting!" Fairon yelled. "We can still win this!"

His call seemed to embolden the rebel soldiers, who charged forward once again. Once again they began to fall back as the Drone's systematic strength took its toll. This time, however, Fairon continued to charged forward, Jarodin and Flardrek by his side. More of the rebel warriors followed, including Areop, who seemed in his element at the heart of the battle. The Dargon chieftain was a whirlwind of unstoppable force, no Odina Drone or Ix warrior could stand against him. His courage and that of his lieutenants emboldened the army, which continued its wild charge into the midst of the Drones.

Very quickly now, the Drones were scattering. Fairon unleashed two massive bursts of raw elemental power, melting an entire group of Odina Drones. The remaining columns had lost their efficiency, and as Saren's team weighed in, tearing through the Drones' flanking side, Fairon knew it was over. The remaining Drones, unable to flee, stood and fought and were finally destroyed.

Fairon observed the city central, where the remaining Ix forces had barricaded themselves and the citizens of the city. Only one more skirmish remained. Knowing that he had the full might of the rebellion's army behind him, Fairon charged toward the inner gates. However, Areop beat him there, smashing them both down with help from several Dargon commanders.

Within minutes, the city had descended once again into the anarchy of battle, but Fairon already knew that the defender's last line of defense was breaking. The massive army was like a scythe, cutting through the already faltering city's defenses easily and efficiently. The Ix commanders had either abandoned the army to try and rally more remaining defenders or were fighting to the last, and without the Ix, the Kranr defenders were doomed.

Within minutes, Fairon's force had breached the central keep, then Vaethar's, then Saren's. The defenders scattered before them, all hope for battle forgotten. Reid Vaethar issued orders to two of his deputies to take a Veythari patrol to round up the remaining defenders. But, for all intents and purposes, the city had fallen.

It would not be a peaceful occupation, Fairon knew, for the city was far too near to another great Ix military base: New Metru Nui, where the massive arena that haunted his worst nightmares remained to this day. But now, as he watched Saren and Parikon dicussing the final stages of the battle, he knew that Gigas Nui had fallen. The battle, for now, was over.

Xiost was a world under occupation.

Shardak could see several hundred Ix starcraft transports were landed there, and he knew that there were many warcraft patrolling Xiost from space as well. From his viewpoint atop the cliffs, he could see the Ix and a group of slaves as well in the cold, distant lights of Solis Magna and Xaterex. They were no longer mining.

"Does that mean they already have the Annulus?" asked Shardak, worried that they could be too late.

"Possibly." said Tiral. "We'd better go down and see what they've found. If it's the Annulus, we have to attack."

Shardak nodded, and, Valkyria and Artonix by his side, climbed down the dark, craggy cliffs. Xiost was nothing but gray rock, for miles around, excepting the Ix ships, which blended well with the rest of the planet. The small command tents and groups of heavily armored Imperial warriors were the only dwellings he could see for miles around, though he guessed it was, or had been at one time, inhabited.

Valkyria seemed just as uneasy as he was, but was ready to fight. Artonix, Chameleo, Zhrek, and Tiral, as well as Tiral's six other guards, had steeled their nerves against any fear. Shardak knew that they would all fight to the end to escape with the Annulus fragment, and the thought slightly unnerved him. He knew the same was expected of him: to fight to the death if it came to that.

And the more that Shardak saw of the Ix's defense force, the less he believed they could ever hope to triumph. There were twelve of them, and maybe fifty Ix guards, all heavily armed and far, far more powerful then himself or even Valkyria. If they already had found the Annulus, there was little chance that they would be able to recover it. The sheer strength of the Ix would overwhelm them.

"Ready?" whispered Tiral, drawing her weapon of choice, a large heavy crossbow. Two other beings, as well as Valkyria, carried longbows, and aimed them at the Ix warriors. No one had noticed them yet, despite the fact they were standing in the middle of the plain, and Tiral hoped to attack before they did.

At that moment, one of the Kranr guards whirled around. He was tall and thin, and he opened his mouth to scream a warning--

Two arrows hit him simultaneously. Seconds later, a heavy crossbow bolt took another guard between the shoulders, and several more fell wounded. Lifting the Blade of Arcturas, Shardak raced forward, toward the Ix defenders. There didn't seem to be any archers there at all, and for that Shardak was grateful. A group of archer's with Valkyria's speed could easily and quickly eliminate them all.

Valkyria had shouldered her bow, and was fighting the Ix warriors in hand to hand combat now. Tiral, meanwhile, was still firing bolts from her crossbow, while Chameleo and Artonix charged into the fray. Shardak felt his arm go numb for a moment as he parried a massive Ix warrior's scythe. The warrior charged toward him, but Shardak leapt to one side. Quicker then he would have believed possible, the Ix warrior's scythe changed directions--

Only for it to fall from his grasp as Zhrek ran him through. Shardak had no time to thank the Glatorian before the battle began again, this time with the Ix pushing them backward. Shardak knew they needed to break through the lines now, before the solid wall of Ix warriors became impenetrable.

Shardak dodged a Kranr's axe, then slashed off his head as the Kranr turned to face him once more. A Copy of Corpse charged toward him, but two sharp jabs to the chestplate caused it to collapse. Suddenly, Shardak was fighting three Kranr all at once, and was beginning to weaken under their ceaseless attacks. Within minutes they would overwhelm his defenses and kill him.

An idea sprang to his mind, and he staggered backward, seemingly wounded. Sensing easy prey, two Kranr closed in on him. In those seconds, Shardak lashed out in the aura field, slamming them against each other with such force they both fell unconscious. The remaining Kranr had no time to even wonder what had happened to his comrades before Shardak's weapon ran him through as well. The Blade of Arcturas seemed to glow with bloody fire in the perpetual twilight of Xiost.

Breaking through the lines, Shardak could see that both Tiral and Chameleo had broken through as well. There was no time to worry about the others. The three rebel soldiers charged toward the cave, which was guarded by two Limiters. Tiral's axe and Chameleo's flashing claws took them both down, one of them falling on top of the mine. Shardak saw what had happened, and suddenly it made sense.

"The cave! The mine is a decoy! The Annulus is in the cave!"

Hearing him, Tiral whirled around, her axe slashing through a Kranr as she nodded acknowledgement. Chameleo and Artonix fought beside her, and he could see Valkyria and Zhrek battling another group of Ix warriors as well. Of the others there was no sign.

"Where are the others?" he called to Tiral. The rebel starcraft commander pointed to the line of Kranr and Ix warriors, and Shardak could see six beings desperately trying to hold them off.

"We have to help them!" he yelled. Tiral shook her head. "Don't waste their lives, Shardak! They gave them willingly so we could have time to recover the Annnulus."

Shardak could see Zhrek and Valkyria were standing beside him now, Valkyria supporting Tiral, Chameleo, and Artonix by eliminating Limiters behind the lines.

"We have to go in there." hissed Valkyria. "Can you feel the Annulus' power?"

Shardak nodded. The Annulus was a burning brand of raw power, an incomprehensible force which took his breath away. It would have been impossible not to sense it. Turning toward the cavern entrance, he raced into the darkness, Valkyria and Zhrek right behind him.

Further away he could hear the thunder of pursuit. The Ix were following them. Too late, Shardak realized there were probably Ix warriors ahead of them as well, and that he, Valkyria, and Zhrek had just trapped themselves in a horrible cul-de-sac. His suspicion was confirmed as he saw twin scythes flash out of the gloom. Not pausing to think, Shardak brought his weapon down again and again in desperation on the Ix warrior, who collapsed within minutes. Racing over his fallen form, Valkyria, Shardak, and Zhrek were once again alone in the gloom, save for the shallow Cold Fire torches.

It only lasted a moment. More Ix warriors were behind them, and he heard Zhrek cry out as a scythe tore through his shoulder. A spear landed centimeters from his foot, and he gasped in shock as another impaled itself through the walls of the cave. Another Ix warrior was ahead of them, his features thrown into stark relief in the cold torchlight. With no options, Shardak snatched a torch from the wall and rammed it into the Ix warrior's face. The being collapsed.

Then the darkness became a place of horror as Kranr spears and Ix scythes seemed to riochet off walls. He no longer could look back at Valkyria and Zhrek, though he knew they were both following him down the winding tunnels to the Annulus fragment.

Suddenly, Zhrek whirled around. His eyes were resolved. "I'll hold them off, Shardak!" he yelled. "You and Valkyria get to the Annulus!"

"What--" Shardak began, but a well-thrown spear that missed him again narrowly cut him off. Valkyria grabbed his hand and pulled him through the darkness, and Shardak was once again running. Zhrek would not be able to hold off the Ix warriors for long, and he had no idea how many were pursuing them. The raw power of the Annulus was closer now, and Shardak rounded a corner-- and gasped.

He was standing in a massive cavern far below the Xiost's surface. The cavern roof rose nearly fifty feet above him, and several torches burned in the wall. But Shardak only had eyes for the two Limiter standing alone in the gloom. One carried a curved piece of gray steel covered in runic symbols. The raw power, which was both eating and augmenting his auric power, meant it could only be one thing.

The Annulus fragment.

Valkyria opened her mouth to speak, but words failed her. She and Shardak simply stared for a few moments at the Annulus, in the hands of the Limiter. It was closer, closer then it had ever been.

"Surrender." said Shardak. "You cannot win against us."

The Limiter merely gave a laugh, and rasped something in the nasal Ix language. They charged forward, and Shardak slashed outward with the Blade of Arcturas, decapitating one within seconds. The other Limiter, the one holding the Annulus, charged forward, and at that moment, Shardak slammed against him. The raw power of the Annulus almost overwhelmed him, but he ignored it and slashed at the Limiter, who collapsed on the ground. His throat slashed open.

Shardak grabbed the Annulus from the fallen Ix warrior, and turned to face Valkyria. "Let's go!" he said. "I need to get the Annulus back to the rebellion!"

"Oh, I wouldn't do that, if I were you." said Valkyria, turning to face Shardak. "If I were you, I'd want to focus on staying alive."

Shardak had no time to register anything but surprised shock before the Ix girl raised a hand. Raw kinetic power blasted him backward, slamming him against the walls of the cliff. Pain-- sharp, horrible pain greater then he'd felt in a long time-- surged through him, and he could see Valkyria was standing in front of the Limiters' corpses. She looked both sad and resolved at the same time.

"Val?" he asked, uncomprehendingly.

"Yes, Toa Shardak." said Valkyria, calm and cold. "I see you've figured it out at last. Blast and Ion were right, after all. I am still an Ix warrior."

"What!" Shardak exploded. "But they betrayed you! They sentenced you to--"

"What you and Fairon interpreted as a death sentence was actually an order." said Valkyria. He voice sounded like a stranger's, it was no longer his friend speaking, but an Ix warrior. "It was an order to spy on you in the arena, and then kill you and win the Game. At first, the Ix were furious when they realized that Fairon had helped you escape. But we still managed to salvage the plan, and build a better one: I was to be a spy in the rebellion."

"You--" Shardak began, anger and hatred in his voice now, but Valkyria interrupted him.

"So here it ends." she said, drawing her bow. Despite her resolve, something seemed to be bothering her. Knocking an arrow to her weapon, she aimed it at Shardak's throat. "Hand over the Annulus."

"No." said Shardak. "You'll kill me anyway."

"It's what Ix do." said Valkyria, flatly. "Ix kill Toa. You should have realized that before."

"So all the while, it was you." Shardak realized, anger now making his voice rise. "All the while, I suspected the traitor was Ion-- and it was actually you all along."

Valkyria looked surprised for a moment, then recovered. "Saren's traitor?" she asked. "No. There are many, many spies in the resistance. I was just here to make sure that you died once you'd served your purpose."

"So you lied?" snarled Shardak. "And pretended to be my friend for three months while all the while you were just trying to take information from me?"

"It wasn't--" said Valkyria, her voice cracking slightly.

"It must have been so amusing to you, to hear me prattle on like a lovestruck idiot." snarled Shardak. "Blast was right. I should have killed you when I had the chance."

For a moment, there was real hurt in Valkyria's eyes, pain so real that Shardak almost felt sorry for her. She didn't want this anymore then he did, he could see that now. Then he remembered who he was talking to and simply glared at her through the furious red haze of bloody rage.

"How could you do that?" he asked her. "How could you--"

Valkyria did not answer, simply grabbed the Annulus from his hands. He tried to resist, but her grip was cold and stronger then him, now that he was overtired and horribly weakened. Once the Annulus was in her hands, she opened her bag, which was still filled with several blue diamonds, and placed the Annulus within.

Blue diamonds. The last reminder of what they'd meant to each other on their quest. Shardak stared at her in contempt and disgust. She held his gaze for a few moments, then flinched and looked away.

"Goodbye, Toa Shardak." she said, raising her weapon. But as she raised the arrow, her grip faltered. Shardak took advantage of her confusion and said,

"No one will ever know, Val. Just come with me, back to the rebellion, and your name will be praised as one of the beings who recovered the Annulus, rather then hated as a traitor."

"Shardak--" she began

"You have to!" he said, cutting her off. "You'll--"

"Shardak!" Valkyria said, her voice sad, scared, and alone. "Shardak--I can't!"

"Fine then." snarled Shardak, once again angry. "Kill me then. Like you killed Pierra, and Korst. Kill me, you traitor." He knew that she, personally, had not killed them, but hatred left no room for rational thought.

Valkyria's fingers did not pull the string, they did not move. She was wearing her coldly beautiful mask again. Her eyes met Shardak's, and he could see regret, and sadness there, but also a steely determination to complete the task that she'd been given. Valkyria raised the weapon--

"Wait!" he yelled. Valkyria cautiously lowered the weapon. "Yes?" she asked, her voice calm once more. But her eyes, filled with pain at what she was about to do, told the real story.

"Valkyria, I know you're not a heartless murderer. Let me go." he said. "There's no reason for you to kill me, now that you have the Annulus."

"You are the Spirit Toa." said Valkyria. "You are a risk to my order as long as you live."

"No," said Shardak. "You can't. How could you spend three months with us, then--just--" his voice broke. "I know you have to go back. But you do not have to kill me now. Please, Val."

"Shardak, I've--"

"Valkyria." he said, trying to keep his voice calm as he faced the being he hated more then he hated Skorpix himself. "You might be a traitor, a liar, and a murderer. But you won't kill me here. I can still read your aura far too easily."

He could see her resolve wavering, and he could feel her bone-deep guilt and sadness in the aura field as well now. She would not kill him, he was sure of it now. Her weapon was lowered, and she stood facing Shardak, whose life now was in her hands. Shardak could see little through the haze of tears of sadness and rage and hatred, but he knew that he had said enough. Now it was Valkyria's turn to make a choice.

"I was ordered to try and kill the Spirit Toa." said Valkyria, the detached tone that the Ix often used now present in her voice. "I have tried...Farewell, Toa Shardak. For your sake, I hope we do not meet again. Next time, I will be forced to kill you."

Then she was gone, leaving Shardak awake, tired, angry, and completely empty of dreams.

Shardak awoke to almost blinding white light.

As always, his first thought was confusion, and this time the confusion was coupled by another sensation-- fear. Fear of wherever he was, fear of what had happened to him. Had Valkyria killed him after all? He doubted it-- he'd seen her leave, down the passageway.

Another, more worrying thought occurred for him. Had the Ix warriors who'd attacked Zhrek finally caught up to him? Where was he?

"Welcome, Toa Shardak."

The deep voice resounded from the gloom, and Shardak turned around, where he saw two beings standing, both surrounded by ethereal white light. They were like no beings he'd ever seen before. White light surrounded them. and their armor was bright silver. One was male, heavily built, and the other was a lean silver female. But it was the eyes that held his attention, they were perhaps the most intense and at once most unfocused of any being he'd ever seen.

Then he probed them in the aura field, and gasped in shock. Their auras, rather then being attached to their bodies, were scattered wildly among the golden light which they all seemed to walk on. It was slightly like Moru Kul's fragmented aura, but far, far more beautiful and pure. Who were these beings?

"Who are you?" he asked, voice filled with awe and more then a little suspicion.

The male being smiled, for the first time since Shardak had seen him. "Ah, but Spirit Toa, who do you think we are?"

"The Ancients." he said. "The beings who built Seruamera."

"It has been a long time since I've heard that name." said the female being. "But, yes, you are correct. I am Niha, and this is Darax. We are the last of the race you know as the Ancients."

"The last?" asked Shardak, disappointed for a brief moment. Then hope rose within him. "My friend Ixtil said that you might be our only hope to defeat the Ix! Could you help us, then? Could you return with me to Xaterex?"

Niha shook her silvery head sadly. "Shardak, I know you want us to come. But there are far, far more powerful beings then the Ix who threaten your survival, and that of the Toa. And while even we do not know who these beings are, we know of them, and that they must not triumph."

"But surely you can help us?" asked Shardak, puzzled. "You're real, aren't you? And powerful?"

"Yes, we are real." this time it was Darax who spoke. His deep, baritone voice sounded comforting and sad all at once. "But we are also dead, and have been for centuries. Only our task has kept us alive, and now even that is gone."

"What was your task?" he asked them, already knowing the answer.

"To guard the fragment of the Annulus, one of the three shards. We owned it for many years, did we not?"

"You didn't...create it?" asked Shardak. "I've always heard that the Ancients created the Annulus, and the Shadow Orb."

"We made neither." said Darax. "The Annulus is far, far more ancient then you or I can was already in fragments when we came to power."

Shardak was still reeling from he revelation that the two ancients believed, as Moru Kul had, that the darkness extended far beyond the reaches of the Ix Empire. But he understood now. Only their will to defend the Annulus from intruders had kept the imprints of their presence in this form so long. And now that the Annulus' raw auric power was gone, their small, self-contained dimension was disappearing before their eyes.

"Fortunately enough, we have absorbed enough auric power over the years for one act-- to contact the last Spirit Toa on the planes of thought."

"You mean, I'm not the first Spirit Toa?" asked Shardak. "There were more?"

"There were many in the past. You are the only one who remains now."

Well, he knew that already. But still, the revelation that there were more Spirit Toa before him shocked Shardak. Had they all been killed by the Ix? The answer, he knew, had to be yes.

"So you cannot help?" he asked. "Your self-created prison is disintegrating?"

Niha nodded sadly. "Yes. The Annulus kept us alive, and when you took it, the Spirit Toa, we allowed you to, for we know of your destiny."

"What is my destiny?"

"Time will tell." said Darax. "But it is not as impossible as it will seem at first."

"There's one thing I don't understand, though." said Shardak. "I lost the Annulus. An...Ix warrior...took it from me. She plans to return it to her masters."

Niha gave Shardak a sad smile. "I know. We see all that goes on in the chamber, and we know what she plans to do with it. But your friend's cause it not as hopeless as it seems."

He could see a vision forming through the curtain of gold light, one of Valkyria, racing through the tunnels, past the bodies of Zhrek and the dead Limiters, toward the dim light of Xiost at the end of the cave. Her aura was gray, miserable. She didn't look at all like an Ix warrior who'd won a great victory.

"Good. Serves her right." he said bluntly. Seeing Valkyria again simply felt as though someone had stabbed a dagger into his heart and was twisting it around, and to his relief the vision vanished.

"Shardak. Do not allow hatred to blind you to the world around you." said Darax. "I understand how you feel. Really, I do. I, too have been betrayed."

There was real pain in Darax's eyes, and something about his expression told Shardak he wasn't lying. Niha walked over to stand beside him, and said. "No, the Ix girl is not beyond help. Not yet. But other friends need you now."

Another vision swam before him, Ion fighting two beings, one red and one blue, and then of Arkhan, scaling the cliffs above the city of Gigas Nui, racing toward Ion to help him--

Then the vision vanished. Shardak could see that the world was growing steadily darker, the Ancient's power was unraveling. Losing strength with each vision they showed Shardak. Now, only the light surrounding the ancients still kept their surroundings intact.

"Now, Toa Shardak, it is time for you to return. Your friend, Ion, needs you now." said Niha.

"Yes." Darax concurred. "We will give you one final gift...the gift of teleportation. We will use the last of our strength to return you to the realm of the living."

"No!" Shardak cried. "You can't die now! I have so many questions for--"

"Shardak." Niha cut him off, her voice calm as slow-moving water. "We are already dead, and if you remain here any longer, you will die as well. Your body lies abandoned below; how long do you think it will take the Ix to send a strike team in after you?"

"You must go." said Darax. "May Mata Nui be with you, Toa Shardak. Always."

The two Ancients seemed to grow brighter and brighter as Shardak began to lose his sight. Slowly, his eyes fixed on Darax and Niha's faces as, finally, the last of their power was converted into white light which burst through the darkness. Suddenly Shardak was falling through a dark abyss, a purple void. Slowly, he gasped as the world appeared all around him.

He was standing within a building, one with glass walls and a tall, There was no north wall, only a massive entrance. Lying on the ground was Ion, two beings, red and blue, standing over him. Shardak opened his mouth to call for help, but then he saw the real danger. An Elemental with dark armor and red eyes was standing at the entrance, a massive weapon in his hand. Arkhan stood before him, though Shardak could not make out his features in the gloom.

Shardak had just enough time to scream before Skorpix's sword entered Arkhan's body.

Chapter 17[]

Arkhan fell noiselessly to the ground, his body collapsing on the ground as blood, cold and stark in the cold Fellsian air, poured from his chest. Skorpix tore free his bloodied weapon almost contemptously and turned to face Shardak. His armor shone in the shadows like a thousand stars of raw obsidian.

His eyes were as cold and as burning as Shardak remembered. Their red gaze fell upon him, and Shardak almost shivered. This could not be happening, this could not be--

But it was. Skorpix, who had haunted his nightmares since his narrow escape in the arena, stood before him, as real as he'd been before. Skorpix, the murderer whose Ix warriors had killed Arcturas, was standing before him, red eyes gleaming like twin pits of bottomless fire in the darkness. Hatred and fear made Shardak shiver at the raw intensity of his gaze.

"So, we meet again, Spirit Toa." said Skorpix, his voice the same cold rasp as it had been before. "I knew you could come to save your friends. You have, this time, arrived too late."

"No!" Shardak screamed, for the first time noticing the blood that stained Ion's armor. "You--"

"He is dying." said Skorpix. "He thought he could defeat me. He was wrong."

Shardak raced to Ion's side, not caring that Skorpix was standing before him. He knelt beside Arkhan, whose eyes were glazed in death, an expression of horror still fixed on his face. Ion, however, was still drawing breath, though it came in quick, shuddering gasps.

"Shardak..." gasped Ion, then coughed, the effort of speaking causing more blood to pour from his mortal wounds.

"Yes?" asked Shardak.

"I was wrong..." Ion gasped out. "The Order...will stop at nothing to see you dead. They will kill you if they find you."

"The Order?" asked Shardak. "Who--"

"Here." said the dying Toa, interrupting him. "Take this." he handed Shardak a familiar bloodred stone, which gleamed in the cold predawn air. The Shadow Orb.

"How—" Shardak began, but Ion cut him off. "The Orb I gave you was a fake." he said. "Packed with enough power to fool anyone who was able to take it."

"But why didn't you tell me?" asked Shardak.

"Because if a being such as Moru Kul took it from you, he'd scan your aura to find out whether it was a fake. The fact that you believed it was real allowed you to triumph."


"Silencer would be proud of you." whispered Ion, reaching out a hand to grasp Shardak's weakly. "May Mata Nui be with— you—, Toa— Shardak."

His grasp went limp. Toa Ion's head rolled to one side, his eyes staring unseeingly at the sky. Shardak gasped out a sob as the last of his oldest mentors vanished forever into the void beyond.

"Are you ready to join him, Toa Shardak?" asked Skorpix, his voice mocking but quiet. Laughter rang out from the two beings standing next to him, Shardak recognized them dimly as Banrax and Flareus, two of the Elemental's who they'd battled in the Circle.

"I can't believe I ever thought Ion was a spy for the Ix." Shardak snarled at Skorpix. "All the while, it was Valkyria, wasn't it?"

Skorpix rolled his eyes. "I have spies in the resistance, far, far more powerful spies then Warrior Rhai. A pity she didn't finish you off, though. Are you ready to die?"

"No." snarled Shardak. "You'll have to fight me if you want to see me dead."

"Then you have reconsidered?" asked Skorpix. "You have decided to accept the offer I made to you in the Void? You will join the Ix?" his voice was heavy with mockery.

"No." hissed Shardak, jaw clenched. "I will never surrender to you."

"A shame." snarled Skorpix. "Unfortunately, this time I will not be doing the fighting. Mordrax!"

A being crept from the shadows, and Shardak gasped again in shock. Mordrax was a horribly twisted Kodax, who was wearing a suit of pure blackness, somewhat like that of Skorpix but somehow even darker. His whole being emenated shadow, including his aura, which was a heavy, almost startling presence in the field. But unlike Skorpix, whose powerful aura gleamed with throbbing energy, Mordrax's aura seemed augmented by another power, a power that had an intelligence all on its own.

"Yes, Skorpix?" asked Mordrax. His voice was a horrible rasping cough, and Shardak noticed, for the first time, that more then half his body was completely made of prosthetic armor, and the same heavy power he sensed within the aura field was emanating from Mordrax's armor.

"Show this Toa what we have created."

Mordrax turned to face Shardak, his red eyes, snakelike, fixing on Shardak. It was as though he could read Shardak's aura and mind as easily as a stone tablet. His fanged mouth and helmet covered the rest of his hideously deformed face. "This is a project we have been working on for many years, a project that we have tried many times without success.

"Then you and the Sharidir presented us the perfect oppurtunity." said Mordrax, his voice quiet but authoritive and full of venom. "You wounded Sarkanian, the world-eating serpent, almost mortally, and left him buried beneath a tomb of glass.

"Look." said Mordrax, turning to the glass chamber beyond. Shardak could see a massive, predatory maw he knew all too well reflected within.

"You captured Sarkanian?" gasped Shardak. "And brought him here?"

"No, no." said Mordrax. "We simply cloned him, using the power of Shadowdermis."

"Shadowdermis?" asked Shardak, remembering what Ion had told him about. "The living virus?"

"Yes..." rasped Mordrax. "At last, it as returned to Xaterex. I control it, and these clones we have made of Sarkanian are diluted with raw Shadowdermis energy. While they cannot use it as excellently as I can, and it almost controlls them, Skorpix and I can command them though a telepathic link that I have forged with them."

"The difference is." said Skorpix, as glass shattered from within. "The real Sarkanian is wounded beyond healing. These clones are not."

As if to prove his words true, one of the clones suddenly tore free of its glass prison, slithering out from within the massive building, Mordrax, seeing it alive and well, whispered a single word, a command.


Sarkanian's eyes fixed on Shardak, and Shardak saw that rather then the red eyes that the original Sarkanian possessed, this Sarkanian's eyes were black pits of midnight intensity, of raw Shadowdermis. Then, uncoiling its massive body like a whip, it flung itself at Shardak.

Shardak had just enough time to raise the Blade of Arcturas before the Sarkanian clone was upon him, his aura crushing Shardak's beneath its horrible, raw power. Shardak felt Sarkanian's tail tear through his shoulder like butter, then brought it around to slash open his legs. Shardak almost gasped again in shock. Had he not leapt aside at the last minute, the Sarkanian clone would have slashed off his legs.

The Sarkanian clone then flung itself at Shardak, its mouth opening as it tore through his arm. Shardak had just enough time to bring his weapon down for a counterstrike on Sarkanian's massive mouth, perhaps its only vulnerable area. To his surprise and shock, however, the weapon's flames sizzled out as soon as they touched Sarkanian, and the weapon failed to penetrate its body at all.

Now Shardak felt a real tremor of fear. Was this being invincible? It was only his reflexes keeping him alive now as he dodged Sarkanian's massive jaws narrowly again. Sarkanian reared up, acid breath descending upon Shardak and scorching his armor. Remembering how poisonous it could be, Shardak brought his aura down around him like a protective shield, barring out most of the poison. Sarkanian snarled, and fire flew from its jaws.

Shardak was unable to dodge in time, and closed his eyes as the cone of flame enveloped him. Suddenly, to his surprise, it was gone, and he was standing there, as though the flames had never touched him. The only indication the fires had ever been there was the Blade of Arcturas, which gleamed with the flames that it had absorbed.

Shardak had no time to think about what had just happened. He could hear glass shattering from within the chamber again, an indication that any minute, another Sarkanian clone would be unleashed upon him. He could see Skorpix and Mordrax standing there, and wondered how, exactly, they'd transported such powerful beings here, to the Fells, at the heart of rebel territory.

He soon found his answer. Banrax was holding a golden mask in one hand, an Olmak, a mask of dimensional gates. Shardak had been trained in the use of those Kanohi before, and knew that if he could just reach Banrax, he would have a small chance of escape, But he'd have to get past the massive Sarkanian clone first, then Skorpix and Mordrax, who he doubted would allow him to pass them alive. Shardak knew it was almost impossible--

But Shardak also knew it was his only hope for survival.

Leaping forward, he dodged to one side as the Sarkanian clone's tail passed centimeters above his head. Sarkanian whirled around, and without thinking Shardak brought the weapon down on its eye.

The clone's reaction was unexpected. Rather then screaming in pain, the weapon simply passed through the creature's eye, darkness reforming within the being's socket already. Then, before Shardak could even move, raw power leapt from the socket and slammed into Shardak, flinging him backward at the foot of Skorpix.

He could see a second Sarkanian clone was emerging from the shadows. Unless he escaped now, he had no chance of survival. The Sarkanian clone was growing even stronger every moment it fought him, and as he leapt to his feet, his weapon meeting Skorpix's, Shardak lunged at Banrax.

Skorpix's and Flareus' elemental powers struck him simultaneously, fire evaporating as it touched his armor and the darkness tearing through his already wounded body. Before Mordrax or Banrax could even move, Shardak had ripped the Kanohi from Banrax's grasp. He whirled around--

Acid sprayed from the mouth of a second Sarkanian clone and hit him full in the face.

By a stroke of luck, the acid missed his eyes, striking the lower part of the Kanohi Olmak. The Olmak sizzled as the corrosive acid burned through it, and Shardak knew it was damaged badly. He willed it to work, needed it to work--

But nothing happened. The Olmak flickered, then the light vanished. It had been broken, and now his fate was sealed. Mordrax's eyes gleamed with darkness.

"You have gotten better at fighting, Spirit Toa." said Skorpix. "I will give you that. But this time, you cannot escape."

Shardak knew he was right. Crushing despair enveloped him. It was over. The rebellion's last hope had died, the Sarkanian clones would be unleashed upon Xaterex, and the Ix would triumph. It had ended.

"It was always your destiny to fight the Ix, Toa." said Melnox quietly.

"Shardak, you are a Toa. A Toa of Aura." whispered Silencer.

"May Mata Nui be with you, Toa Shardak." Ion's last words.

Silencer, Melnox, Ion... All dead now. They had all died to save him, and for what? He would now join them. He had failed, despite their trust in him. As he faced Mordrax and Skorpix for the last time, he knew it was all over. He was finished. Or worse still, they wouldn't kill him, but take him prisoner.

Dawn was breaking over the Fells, light streaming forth, but to Shardak it was the darkest light he'd ever seen, the last light he'd see before he died.

Something clicked in his memory, and he remembered the writing on the wall Ixtil had seen him, that of the Ancient's prophecy. While he'd never asked either Darax or Niha about the mysterious writings, the strange oxymoron was now clear to him.

It's the darkest light. The last light a being sees before he dies. Shardak realized.

All this raced through his mind in the span of a few seconds. Shardak had almost accepted his death...but he had to keep fighting. For Blast. He couldn't surrender. Toa didn't have the luxury of allowing death to enfold them. He needed to survive and warn the rebellion about the threat of the Sarkanian clones, or it was all over.

That thought gave him strength. Skorpix lashed out, Mordrax flung a spinning arc of Shadowdermis from his clawed hand, Flareus and Banrax charged forward...and Shardak willed his aura to feed the Olmak's power, to grow in strength and allow him his only possible escape route. He'd done this before. If it worked now, he would live.

Suddenly the world was spinning, the void returning, and Mordrax was shouting something and Skorpix was lunging forward. Too late, Shardak remembered how Ion said that Shadowdermis interfered with teleportation, and knew that Mordrax would do anything to stop his escape.

Shardak fought the current of darkness that was threatening to envelop him, fighting against it desperately. But it was as though he was swimming upstream, and his body was flickering between two dimensions, the void of teleportation and the real world, where he knew the Sarkanian clones, Mordrax, and Skorpix were waiting for him. He could once more see Silencer and Ion and Melnox before him, urging him to keep fighting, whatever the cost.

And Shardak did. He would not surrender. He could not surrender. It was no longer a question of his own survival, but of the survival of the Resistance. The thought emboldened him once again, and the power from the Blade of Arcturas, the Ignika, and the Olmak merged with that of his aura to shatter the barrier of Shadowdermis at last.

Mordrax screamed in rage as the last outline of Shardak's body vanished, but Skorpix's eyes remained fixed on Shardak's as he disappeared. There was hatred in his cold ember eyes, but also something more. A promise.

"Another time, Toa Shardak." he whispered.

Then Shardak was gone, falling through the void of darkness once more. Never before had he been so glad to feel the rush of wind as darkness blacked out the world around him, and Shardak willed the Olmak to return him to Gigas Nui, where he hoped desperately the Resistance had triumphed.

Chapter 18[]

Shardak staggered, weak and tired, toward the command center of the rebellion's base outside Gigas Nui. Almost immediately, he could tell that the Resistance had won, though the fact had not at all done anything to cheer him. Too much had been lost today for him to ever feel that this had been a victory.

When they'd seen him, they'd gasped in relief, which quickly turned to shock and horror at his wounds and the hollow, vacant expression in his eyes.

"Shardak!" It was Atarus, racing toward him with Blast and Fairon by his side. Shardak barely registered the fact that they were both alive, that they had survived the battle, things were happening so quickly. "Tiral, Chameleo, and Artonix made it back a few hours ago. Do you know what happened to Valkyria and Zhrek?"

"Yes." said Shardak, wordlessly telling them that it was far more horrible then they already believed. "I'll tell you everything."

Shardak barely knew how he'd gotten there, but suddenly he was sitting around the command table within Reid Vaethar's tent. Saren, Vaethar, Parikon, Blast, and his friends and the other leaders of the Resistance were all watching him.

In halting tones, Shardak described how he, Valkyria, and Zhrek had fought their way through the Limiter forces, then how Zhrek had died so they could enter the inner sanctum and take the Annulus. He told of their fight with the Limiters, then, voice lowered, how Valkyria had betrayed them and taken the Annulus. He said this all while looking directly at Blast.

There was no judgement or knowing look in the Glatorian's eyes, only shocked horror, horror that was mirrored in all of the leaders of the rebellion's eyes. Shardak blinked away tears, then felt steel rise within him. He was done being sad about what had happened to Valkyria.

"I'm sure you all knew already." he said, looking at Saren and Parikon in turn. "I was wrong about her, after all."

"No, Shardak, what Valkyria did is not your fault!" objected Parikon.

"Yes it is." Shardak said. "I should have just let Saren execute her, like you'd originally planned."

"Shardak, no one would have listened to that." said Parikon. "Do you not think we would have let Valkyria join your mission had we not been absolutely sure she was our ally? The arguement that the Ix would not have sentanced her to the Games if she was not absolutely loyal to us had seemed undefeatable."

"We thought that she might be dangerous, and possibly an enemy." said Saren. "But we never expected that she'd--"

Blast nodded, and silently looked at Shardak, asking for his forgiveness. Shardak nodded. I'll tell you everything later.

"There's more." Now that Shardak had begun his story, He felt determined to finish it. He told of his meeting with the Ancients, their revalation that they were the only two now alive, and their ultimate sacrifice to allow him to go help Ion in his battle in the mountains above Gigas Nui. He told them how he'd arrived moments too late to save Arkhan, and Ion's revelation about the Shadow Orb, as well as his final, mysterious words.

Lastly, he told the leaders of the rebellion of Mordrax's and Skorpix's experiments, and how the Sarkanian clones had been unleashed upon Xaterex. His escape, even now, seemed surreal, as though his senses still believed he should have died at the hands of Mordrax, or one of the clones.

For a few moments, all was silent as they looked at Shardak, desperate not to believe what they had told him. But his eyes, haunted by pain, told the real story. Ion, Arkhan, and Zhrek were all dead.

"This is grave news." said Parikon, at last. "If, indeed, this is true, then we need to prepare immediately for the evacuation of the city. You can be sure that Skorpix's first move will be to send one of the clones to Gigas Nui, and the base in the Fells needs to be fortified against attack."

The discussion began to turn to the tactical impact that the Sarkanian clones could have on the conflict, and how the attack on the Fells could best be countered, or if abandoning Gigas Nui was the safest course of action. Now all of them seemed grim. They had won little, and stood to lose everything. But Shardak could hardly even feel elated at anything that they had won today.

They had lost far more then they had gained. The fact that he had recovered the Shadow Orb meant little now. And with the new threat of Shadowdermis and the Sarkanian clones, as well as the horrible menace that Ion had identified as the Order, it was anyone's guess how long the rebellion would last.

Atarus rose to his feet at last. He said, "This meeting is dismissed. Shardak, please come with me."

Apprehension slithered down Shardak's spine. What did the Resistance leader want from him? To chastise him for ever trusting Valkyria? He didn't know if he could stand to hear her name spoken again, much less discuss what had happened after Ion and Arkhan's death.

Following Atarus back to his private quarters, Shardak numbly allowed himself to be seated by Atarus. The being's eyes were kind as he stared at Shardak, and once again Shardak felt as though there was something familiar in his eyes, something that he recognized.

"Shardak." Atarus began. "I know how hard this has been for you. I am sorry about—"

"Don't be." Shardak said bitterly. "I was a fool to ever trust an Ix warrior."

"I, too, have suffered through this." said Atarus. Shardak wanted to yell, to protest that he could not possibly have lost as many friends in the war as he had, but the being's eyes told the real story. Atarus had suffered far more then he ever had, and for the first time Shardak saw exactly how acute this being's pain was. "You will heal. You have lost many friends, to either death or to betrayal. But you will recover. Arcturas would have wanted you to."

"Arcturas?" asked Shardak, staring up at Atarus' features. He'd almost forgotten through the haze of rage and betrayal his life before the Ix had poisoned it, and as he remembered Arcturas' face in his mind's eye, the holes filled in. Now he knew exactly who Atarus reminded him of, who the being who had betrayed Atarus was.

"Arcturas." he whispered.

"He was my brother." said Atarus at last. "But I lost him to the Ix. He believed they were the true path to victory, that they would heal Arcaea of all of its wounds. He would not listen to me when I protested against his friends. They were evil, Shardak. They only wanted power, and more Elementals on their side. Arcturas joined them to do good, and they poisoned his mind against what was right.

"He never was truly able to break away from it." said Atarus. "When he visited me after the Fall of Arcaea, after he'd taken the Shadow Orb fragment, he was broken inside. he'd seen and done too much evil to continue fighting. Instead, he vanished forever into the Fells, never returning to the Resistance base again."

Atarus paused for a moment, then said, "He left the only thing he had, the Shadow Orb fragment, in the hands of a friend of his, the mutated Toa known as Silencer, an agent of the Resistance. Silencer was an undercover spy in the underground Ix outpost known as the Circle, and it seemed perfectly safe with him."

Somehow, Atarus' revelation didn't shock Shardak. It was all to easy to see he was telling the truth, though there was obviously something more he was hiding. Shardak decided against prying further, however. Recalling these ancient battles had taken its toll on the Elemental, he stared into Shardak's eyes, but the pain had faded, replaced by determination.

"Long ago," said Atarus. "I met a being, a being with a single skeletal hand. He told me my destiny, and the fate of the universe. I know you have a major role to play in what is to come.

"You will recover." said the Elemental at last. "You will heal, in time. May Mata Nui be with you, Toa Shardak."

The starcraft, which bore no insignia of either the rebellion or the Empire, slipped through the shadows of space, the faint sounds of the ion engines heard only by the craft's sole occupant, an Ix girl in a dark cloak and Veythari armor.

Her name was Valkyria Rhai, and she was returning successfully from the longest mission she'd ever undertaken. Only—she'd expected to feel better that it was over. Now all she felt was blank emptiness, where her friendship with Shardak had once been. She hadn't anticipated his reaction, his pleading for her to return with him to the rebellion. She'd expected for him to accept she was lost to him forever.

The raw power of the Annulus fragment burned within her other hand, feeding her aura with power and authority. Slowly, she felt her features once more become the blank mask she'd been trained to use during her days as an Ix apprentice.

Then, it had been easy, and she'd done it unconsciously. Now, she had to force her features back into the mask of impassiveness. Once again, she thought of how Shardak had—

It's over. she thought, trying to accept it. But nothing she could do made the feeling of sadness leave her.

"Imperial Star Command to unidentified Phantom-class transport." an Ix warrior's rasp cackled over the intercom system. Valkyria could see through the craft's viewscreen that she had entered Xaterex's atmosphere, and was drawing near to New Metru Nui. "State your business and allegiance, or we attack."

"Hold your fire." said Valkyria. "I am Valkyria Rhai, Ix warrior. I have returned with the Annulus fragment."


At the rebellion's base in the Fells, there was a room devoted to listing all of the identified threats the rebellion faced from the Ix Empire. Surveying the names carved into the wall, Shardak noticed Skorpix's name. Flareus' and Banrax's were also there, as well as many other high-ranking Ix warriors and commanders. More recently listed were Mordrax and the Sarkanian clones.

And now another name had joined them. Valkyria Rhai, Ix warrior. A known traitor and enemy of the rebellion.

Despite the fact it had been three days since the battle within the caverns of Xiost, being reminded once again of what Valkyria had done made Shardak feel worse then if she'd stabbed her scimitar through him.

"Was it all a lie?" he whispered, though he knew Valkyria could not hear him. "Everything? Were you ever even, truly, my friend, or was that a lie as well?"


A new voice broke through his thoughts. He could see Blast and Fairon walking toward him. Both looked sad, but resolved and ready for the battles ahead.

"Yes?" he asked them, the anger in his voice palpable. "What do you want?"

"Shardak, I'm sorry." Blast whispered. "I acted badly, simply caused you not to trust me in the first place. But it's all right now. We've won a great victory here, a victory that shows we can defeat the Empire."

"A victory?" Shardak almost spat out the last word. "How could you call that a victory? Arkhan is dead. Kyhrex is dead. Ion is dead. Silver and Dust could very well be dead, and Valkyria--"

Blast lay a hand onto Shardak's shoulder.

"She's an Ix warrior." he said. "Betrayal comes as naturally to her as breathing. In a way, it isn't even her fault. You just need to learn from this, and be ready to face your next challenges when they come."

Shardak nodded, unable to speak. Slowly, a small spark of hope began to light once more within him.

"Besides, you haven't lost everything." said Blast. "We're still here."

Shardak nodded again, finally feeling more happy then he had since the battles on Xiost. Blast was right, he still had Fairon, and Parikon, and Atarus. They would help him in any way they could, and Blast would remain his best friend and greatest companion.

"Which reminds me." said Fairon, speaking for the first time. "There's been a small group of Kranr spotted on the outside of the Fellsian border. I'm gathering a patrol to stop them. Would you like to join us?"

Shardak nodded, turning to face the rising sun. Blast was right. Despite the Sarkanian clones, the unseen threat of the order, and Valkyria's devastating betrayal, he would go on.

As Solis Magna rose above the Fells, shining down on the three beings standing below, Shardak knew Blast was right. He was once again ready to be a member of the rebellion. He knew that more challenges were to come in the days ahead, and that he would face them when they did.

Kyhrex stood beside the massive, wounded Rahkshi of Growth, which stared down at her through its mechanical eyes. She wondered, for a few brief moments, where she was and what had happened. She'd been thrown through a dimensional gateway, then--

Nothing. She remembered nothing. Instinctively, the Glatorian Elementalist reached for her crossbow, and was surprised to find nothing there.

"Hello, Glatorian." said a new voice, and Kyhrex turned and gasped.

It was Nightwatcher, green eyes as bright and cold as ever. Behind his mask, the bounty hunter smiled. With surprising strength, he grabbed her arms, tying them behind her back.

"What are you--" she gasped, but he cut her off.

"Members of the Resistance fetch a good price in the Ix Empire." he said, "I think they will pay highly for the Elementalist who nearly killed Commander Flareus of the Circle, do you not?"

Silver opened his eyes to light, streaming forth from the great sun of Solis Magna. Astonished, he saw Dust was standing beside him, taking in their surroundings with a shocked, awed expression on his face.

They were standing in the middle of a massive jungle-city. A great pyramid rose in the distance, surrounded by beings of all types, Ix, Glatorian, Vortixx, even Toa, to Silver's shock and surprise. Trees of all shades and colors of green rose above them, and the sun was far brighter and warmer then it ever was on Xaterex.

But it was the being standing directly in front of them that held Silver's attention the longest.

He was armored all in blue, with red eyes and fangs. Silver instantly recognized him as a Noctian, though he didn't recognize his features personally. However, unlike the eyes of an Ix warrior, the Noctian had warmth, compassion, and not a little shock and awe in his gaze as his eyes met Silver's.

"Who are you?" Silver asked. "What is this place?"

"My name is Leviathos." said the Noctian. "As for where I am, I do not know. I thought I'd surely die in a battle in the Eternal Game, when suddenly--"

Another voice interrupted them, and all three beings whirled around to stare at the speaker.

He was tall, and was cloaked all in black which seemed to absorb rather then reflect the sunlight. His eyes were emerald green, though a hood obscured the rest of his features. Standing beside him was a heavily built, Skrall-like being.

The hooded being raised a single hand to point at the pyramid, and Silver gasped. The being's hand was completely skeletal, with neither muscle nor bone holding it together.

"You are looking at the legendary City of Light." said the being. "Welcome, my friends, to the land now known as Lost Arcaea."

To be continued in Shattering...



  • This page won Featured Story.
  • "Annulus" is Latin for "ring".
  • The city of Akkad is named after the ancient Sumerian civilization known as the Akkadian Empire, whose capital was the city Agade (Later called Akkad by the Greeks).
  • Areop is named after Areop-Enap.
  • The combat forms were created by TheSlicer.
  • Xiost is named after the Star Wars planet Ziost.
  • Skorr's line in Chapter 8 "I know many things, little Toa. Including the fact that I'm being paid by my employers far more then you paid Jekart for your pitiful information." is a tribute to Chicken Bond, who created a simular line for the same character in Chicken Bond's story serial, Journeys of Darkness.
  • The Darkest Light is the 19th longest page on the wiki.

Xaterex Multiverse Storyline
The Fall of Arcaea Rebellion | Sacrifice | Redemption
Xaterex Chronicles The Eternal Game | Into the Darkness | The Shadows Coil | The Darkest Light | Shattering | The Final Prophecy | Eternal Darkness
Short Stories Shadowfell | Twisted Dreams | The Night Vulture