The team had been traveling for several days when Toa Chiara finally asked Toa Orde the question that had been on her mind. Being a Toa of Psionics, he already knew the question was coming and could have answered it days ago. But he preferred to wait until she came to him.
“So,” Chiara said casually, “why aren’t you female?”
Orde had heard this question more than a few times in his long life and usually didn’t bother to answer. But he knew Chiara wouldn’t leave the issue alone until her curiosity was satisfied.
“I know, I know,” he replied. “All Psionics Matoran, Toa and Turaga are female, and I’m male. Simple answer is, I’m the reason they’re all female.”
Seeing the puzzlement in Chiara’s eyes, Orde smiled.
“I was the first Psionics Toa, and one of the first Toa ever created,” he continued. “But I was, let’s say, a little too… aggressive in using my powers. I had a temper then. A short fuse plus psionics leads to bad things… sometimes very bad things.”
“Like what?” asked Chiara, intrigued.
“You know the Zyglak? Those savage, brutal monstrosities that hate everything to do with Mata Nui and think everyone looks better with a dagger in them? Well, they didn’t used to be that bad. Oh, they were nasty and violent, but… see, my first job was to calm them down a bit. And, well, it didn’t quite work out that way.”
“Oh, no…” said Chiara.
“What can I say? I got annoyed and pushed when I should have pulled.”
“That still doesn’t explain why –”
“After that, someone decided that maybe a gentler touch was needed for Psionics… so all the subsequent Psionics types were made female.”
“Right,” said Chiara. She shot a bolt of electricity from her finger, frying a lizard that had been sunning itself on a rock. “We females are so gentle, after all.”
At the head of the column, Gelu glanced back, annoyed. He had warned the Toa about unnecessary talking as they crossed the border into Bota Magna. There was no telling how much this region had changed in the years since the Shattering or what dangers might be waiting. Bad enough to be saddled with a fool’s errand – finding the Great Beings, indeed, might as well try to find a sweet-natured Skrall – but the Toa seemed to be in no hurry to take his advice.
They were riding into a narrow valley bordered by deep woods. It was lush and green and the cool breeze felt good after so many years in the Bara Magna desert. Most travelers would focus on the fruit-bearing trees or the grasses waving in the wind. All Gelu could see was a perfect spot for an ambush.
“Orde, are you picking anything up?” he asked.
The Toa of Psionics nodded. “I thought I did… a lot of minds, all buzzing at once… but then something blanked it out. Either my power isn’t working right here, or else there’s a really powerful mind in the region that’s interfering with reception.”
“Zaria, Chiara, take the flanks,” Gelu ordered. “Be ready.”
The four adventurers rode in silence down a well-worn path covered with all manner of animal tracks. Gelu guessed they were not far from a water source. The local wildlife must have made the trip many times. The proximity of fresh water was the good news. The bad news was that predators would frequent an area like this, looking for any prey that might be heading for a drink.
There was a sudden flash of lightning off to the right. Gelu, weapon drawn, turned to see it was not a natural phenomenon. Chiara had hurled her electric power at something in the woods, but only succeeded in blasting a tree to splinters.
“I saw something,” she insisted. “But then it was gone.”
Orde shrugged. “I still have nothing.”
Gelu gave Chiara a look that said he didn’t doubt her word. He was getting the familiar feeling of being shadowed. He wished they could get off the path, where they were so exposed, but the woods were too thick for the mounts to make it through. They would have to take their chances.
Something exploded behind Orde’s sand stalker. The beast reared, almost throwing the Toa, then charged forward. Then there were more explosions all around and all the mounts panicked. The three Toa struggled to control their galloping animals, and Gelu found he wasn’t doing much better. The sand stalkers’ flight carried the riders almost to the other end of the valley. Too late, Gelu spotted the net rising up off the ground in front of them.
“Watch out!” he shouted.
The mounts charged into the net, which gave but held. Jolted by the sudden stop, the riders fell, getting tangled up with the net and their animals. The net was pulled roughly backwards and closed around them. Gelu looked back to see who was dragging them across the valley floor and was shocked to see it was Vorox.
“What in Mata Nui’s name are those?” asked Toa Zaria.
“They’re not much better than beasts,” Gelu answered. “We had them in Bara Magna. They live in packs, hunting for fresh meat under the command of the strongest male in the tribe. The Skrall treated them like wild animals, and that’s not far wrong. But this net doesn’t seem like something they would think to use…”
That was when Gelu took a second look at their captors. They weren’t carrying the crude weapons Bara Magnan Vorox sometimes did. Instead, each one wielded a sophisticated ranged weapon of a kind Gelu had not seen since the Core War. It fired spheres of explosive force, and despite the age of the equipment, it obviously still worked well. The tech level should have been well beyond the backwards Vorox, yet here they were using them like professional soldiers.
A single Vorox, taller and stronger than the rest, approached the net. This would be the alpha male, thought Gelu. If he decides we’re a possible meal, he’ll signal and the rest will fall on us before we can make a move. So let’s hope we don’t look appetizing.
The Vorox leader bent over and sniffed the air. Then he shifted position and did it a few more times. Finally, he rose, looked at Gelu, and did something remarkable – he spoke, in perfect Agori, saying, “Your kind, I know. These others are… unfamiliar.”
“You… you can talk?” asked Gelu.
“Naturally,” said the Vorox. “How do you think we communicate, grunts and screeches? You are confusing us with our southern brethren.”
Seeing the question on Gelu’s face, the Vorox continued. “Yes, we know all about the Vorox of Bara Magna and their fall from glory. But we are Bota Magna Vorox. When the Shattering happened, we found ourselves trapped here, in what turned out to be a paradise. There was plentiful food and water and we wanted for very little. Thus we never faced the challenges the desert Vorox did, nor did we fail at them so spectacularly. I am Kabrua, by the way, the leader of this society.”
Chiara had heard enough. She nodded to Zaria. On a whispered count of three, she used her electrical powers to burn through the net, even as Zaria triggered his control over metal to try to seize the weapons of the Vorox. As soon as the first Vorox felt his weapon being pulled from his hand by the Toa’s power, the scorpion-tailed creature opened fire. Both Toa were knocked off their feet by the explosive force. Chiara was knocked unconscious and Zaria lost a chunk of his shoulder armor.
Orde started to rise, struggling against the net. Gelu saw a dozen weapons swing toward him. “Orde, stop!” he yelled. “Just… stop.”
“Very wise,” said Kabrua. “My people are suspicious of strangers at the best of times. Strangers with the ability to create lightning or make objects move – the world would be a far safer place if such beings were dead.”
“Congratulations on speaking complete sentences,” said Orde. “Sounds like you’re just as bad as your barbarian cousins.”
Gelu wasn’t listening to the argument. He was busy thinking. Bota Magna had only rejoined Bara Magna a short while ago, so how did Kabrua know about the state of the Bara Magna Vorox? And where had his people gotten those weapons? They were rare even during the war. Information they shouldn’t know plus tech they shouldn’t have added up to one thing – these Vorox might be in contact with a Great Being or at least have found one of their lairs.
“What do you intend to do with us?” asked Gelu. He was hoping Kabrua planned to keep them alive, so he could get some answers from the Vorox leader.
“I know something of how the Vorox were treated in the desert these past years,” Kabrua answered. “Hunted, hounded, treated like monsters… all by the so-called intelligent races. Perhaps it might be a good idea for you and your companions to experience some of what they experienced… it could prove to be a valuable lesson, if inevitably your last one.”
Kabrua turned to his tribesmen. “Take them to the city. Tonight, we feast…” The Vorox leader eyed Gelu and the Toa with a gleam in his eye that said he was not so very far from the savagery of his brothers after all. “And tomorrow… tomorrow, we hunt.”