Hahli looked around at her five friends, now both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Each had been given a new mask by Karzahni in place of the ones they had surrendered. Kongu had been quick enough to ditch the one he was handed and put on the Kanohi Suletu the party had been carrying. The rest were stuck with what they were given, and chose not to ask to whom the masks had once belonged.
Karzahni beamed at them like a proud crafter seeing his creation for the first time. “Far better. Who you once were does not matter, you see… now you are here, and so you become whoever I want you to be.”
Jaller said nothing, just stared at the ground, a grim expression on his face. Kongu, too, was silent. He had attempted to run away earlier. His punishment had been to see what would have happened had he continued to defy the Dark Hunters on Metru Nui a thousand years before. Multiple abrupt changes in the flow of a transport chute could do very interesting things to a Matoran body, as he discovered to his distress.
“So what now?” asked Nuparu. “Lock us up? Kill us? Turn us into one of these empty-shell Matoran you have walking around?”
“These ‘empty shells’ have been with me for over a thousand centuries, toiling away for the day ones like you would return,” Karzahni replied, so softly he could barely be heard. “Now you are here and, no doubt, are but the first of many. The furnaces must be stoked, the tools made ready, and to do that I need fresh workers. You will relieve them of their duties and wait for the legions to come.”
Hewkii smiled to himself. They would be alive, and they would have access to tools. That was all he needed to know. Put a hammer or a chisel in his hands and he would fight his way out of this place in no time.
“You will go and tend the fires now. All except this one,” Karzahni said, pointing to Hahli. “I heard you call yourself a Chronicler. You are a keeper of histories?”
“Yes,” the Ga-Matoran responded. “I record the triumphs of the Toa Nuva.”
“Toa… Nuva?” Karzahni said, a trace of wonder in his voice. “All these new terms… the world outside must have changed much since I came here. You will remain with me and teach me about the new world, so that I may more efficiently expand my realm.”
“I would tell you where you can go, but I think we are already there,” Hahli shot back in reply. “I stay with my friends.”
Karzahni shook his head sadly. “Such spirit – it will be a shame to snap it like a twig. I could show you horrors, Matoran, that would render you a mindless, screaming hulk. Will your friends show you the same loyalty when you are a gibbering lunatic, or will they turn away in disgust? It might be interesting to find out.”
“Don’t, Hahli,” said Hewkii. “Your sacrifice won’t help anyone. We’ll be all right.”
Hahli looked at Jaller. The Ta-Matoran nodded.
“All right, then,” said the Chronicler. “I’ll teach you more than you want to know, Karzahni. I’ll explain to you exactly how this kingdom of yours will be brought to ruin the instant the Toa arrive, and I hope you choke on the knowledge.”
The hours crawled by. The five Matoran had been tending the giant furnace, a furnace so huge that it made Metru Nui’s legendary one seem puny in comparison. They had expected the former laborers at the site to drift away once they were relieved, but instead they sat on rocks and watched the newcomers with the barest flickers of interest.
“At least the fire’s hot,” said Hewkii. “Something works the way it should around here.”
“What… what do you think he needs this thing for?” asked Matoro. “Do you think it’s for –”
“No,” said Jaller, cutting him off. “I don’t.”
Kongu looked around. “Hey, where’s Nuparu? Did anyone see him wander off?”
“Does anyone ever?” asked Hewkii. “But he should know better than to look for things to tinker with around here. The tools might bite his hand off or something.”
“Guys!” Nuparu came running down a slope from the north. “You need to see this. Now!”
Hahli paused to take a breath. She had been talking almost nonstop since the others left, with Karzahni only occasionally interrupting with questions. She made a point of detailing the Toa Nuva’s great powers and how they had triumphed over so many powerful foes. Maybe he’ll get the hint, she thought.
“Go on,” he urged. “There must be more.”
“I think it’s your turn,” Hahli replied. “As you said, it is my job to write histories. I would like to know yours.”
Karzahni gave a slight smile. “It would take most of your lifespan to relate all that I have experienced, Matoran. I was one of the first creations of the Great Beings, I and my brother. I was given a land of my own to rule, and so was he. I chose to make it a place where those who had transgressed could find redemption… or punishment… or perhaps that was chosen for me?”
Hahli waited for him to continue, surprised that he seemed honestly confused.
“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another,” he said with a shrug. “My brother chose to name his land Artakha and make it a refuge for Matoran.”
“Wait,” interrupted Hahli. “There is a Matoran legend about a place called Artakha… a land where Matoran can be safe from all harm. Are you saying this place really exists?”
“It is as real as the rock you are sitting on,” he replied. “Which, by the way, is an action you might want to rethink.”
Hahli looked down to see that her legs had slowly begun transforming to stone. At the same time, the rock had begun to squirm as if taking on life. With a cry, she bolted up and ran several paces away from her former seat. After a few moments, the process reversed itself.
“A very effective way to combat laziness,” said Karzahni. “Those who prefer to sit around all day unmoving as a stone… eventually become one.”
“Then those stone statues of Matoran we saw on the way in were –?”
“Formerly willful and disobedient Matoran,” he finished for her, “now fulfilling a valuable role as examples of the consequences of such behavior.”
“I prefer the term ‘creative,’” Karzahni replied. “Though I suppose there is not much difference between the two in the end, is there?”
“So what did you seek-find?” asked Kongu. “A new kind of bolt driver? A really great wrench?”
“Look for yourself,” answered Nuparu. He had led them into a vaulted chamber that looked as if no one but their little group had entered it in centuries. It was immediately obvious to Hewkii’s eyes that this had once been a busy crafting center, though he had no clue what they might have made here. Whatever it was, they were making a lot of it, he thought. Look at the size of this place!
Nuparu had walked all the way to the back of the chamber and pulled open a sliding door. Inside were a series of long tables, with stone tablets scattered about on top of them. Piled in the corners were dust-covered pieces of armor.
The Onu-Matoran pointed to one of the tablets. “I found this. It shows a Matoran, one resembling us, being rebuilt… even some of the organic tissue is being replaced. And see here? When they were done, he was smaller and thinner. Then the writing on the tablet trails off – parts have even been scraped away.”
He searched briefly and grabbed a second tablet. “Here! The same Matoran, only this time with tools, items that can double as weapons. Then here he is, along with hundreds of others, being transported somewhere.”
“I don’t get it,” said Kongu. “What does this have to do with anything?”
“If I’m reading this correctly, something is really wrong here, and has been for century upon century,” Nuparu said, excitement in his voice. “Remember the legend? Matoran who were poor workers were sent here, but why was never explained in any of the tales. Don’t you see? Karzahni wasn’t supposed to imprison or punish them – he was supposed to repair them!”
Matoro took a closer look at the image of the Matoran carved into the tablet. “He didn’t do a very good job, did he?”
“That’s the point,” said Nuparu. “He didn’t. To compensate, he gave them weapons they could use to defend themselves. And then he adopted other methods to fix Matoran sent to him… and we’ve seen the results of that. He could have made them better, stronger, more efficient, the same way the Turaga did with us. But he chose another path.”
“When the Matoran sent here never returned, they stopped being sent,” said Jaller. “He’s been waiting 100,000 years for Matoran who never came… until we showed up.”
“Lucky us,” muttered Kongu.
“We have to get Hahli and get out of here,” said Hewkii. “When he realizes there aren’t any more coming, he might decide to ‘fix’ us.”
“Question,” said Matoro. “I’ve never seen Matoran who looked like this. Certainly there were none on Mata Nui. Where are they?”
“Wherever he sent them so they would be out of his sight,” Nuparu answered. “And wherever it is, I hope they’re happy and at peace.”
Garan shook his head in wonder. He had spent the last few hours talking with Onua Nuva, sharing tales of their respective lands. What the Toa of Earth had to say was quite amazing. An island called Mata Nui? Swarms of Bohrok? And even more amazing, taller, stronger Matoran who carried tools, but not weapons?
Stunning, he said to himself. How would a Matoran survive without the kind of power we have? They would be at the mercy of every Rahi that came along! Well, I hope wherever those poor unfortunates are, they are managing to be happy. Personally, I’ll take pulse bolts over a little more muscle any day…