When they reached the boat, Ancient explained to Vezok that no outsider was permitted to know the location of the Shadowed One’s fortress. Ordinarily, someone being brought for an audience would have their eyes covered in some way to prevent their seeing anything they should not.

“Unfortunately for you, I don’t have a blindfold,” Ancient said, just before he knocked Vezok unconscious.

The master thief awoke to find himself in a large stone chamber. Although a fire raged in a fireplace, the room was icy cold. The walls were decorated with Kanohi masks, some of them badly damaged. Most striking was what appeared to be a stasis tube in one corner with a Toa inside, trapped in suspended animation.

Vezok did a quick scan of the room, noting exits and how many others stood between him and the way out. Ancient was present, as were four others of Vezok’s species, but his attention was drawn to a dark, almost bestial figure sitting on what appeared to be a throne. This, Vezok knew, must be the Shadowed One.

Before anyone could speak, the chamber door opened. An unseen form unceremoniously tossed Hakann inside. The crimson-armored figure sprawled on the stone floor. Rising, he started to charge for the door, only to be brought up short by the appearance of an ice cage all around him. Heat beams shot from his eyes, but they had no effect on the supercold ice bars.

Noting the expression of surprise on Vezok’s face, Hakann snapped, “I escaped!”

“And a wonderful job you’re doing of it, too,” Vezok muttered in response.

“Be silent, little Piraka,” Ancient said. “Listen, that you may hear.”

In the moments before the Shadowed One began to speak, Vezok considered the word Piraka. In the Matoran language, it meant “thief,” among other things, but much more than that as well. A common thief might sneak into a village to steal something of value – a Piraka would set the whole village ablaze to cover up his theft. A robber would normally make an effort to slip in and out unnoticed – a Piraka would destroy whatever or whoever was in sight, purely out of spite.

Piraka were criminals, looked down upon, even by other criminals, as scum. Calling someone by that name was a great way to start a centuries-long feud, usually peppered with violence. There were few words more vile that could come from an intelligent being’s mouth.

Strangely, though, Vezok found himself actually liking the term.

He glanced up to see that Ancient had handed the Makoki stone to the Shadowed One. The seated figure examined the tablet for a few moments, then handed it to an aide in bright yellow armor.

“Ambitious,” the Shadowed One said, his dark eyes darting from Vezok to Hakann and back. “Tell me, how did you know there was anything worth stealing in that tower?”

Hakann said nothing. Guessing that keeping silent would only lead to a reduction in their life spans, Vezok spoke up. “Hakann got the information from a Matoran.”

“Really?” said the Shadowed One, smiling. “What a wise Matoran that must have been.”

The chamber door opened again. A tall, thin, winged figure entered, looking confused and hesitant. The Shadowed One beckoned him to come into the chamber.

“This is one of my most effective operatives,” the Shadowed One said. He turned to look at Hakann. “But then, I am sure you already know that.”

Puzzled by the statement, Vezok glanced at his partner. Hakann was looking at the ceiling, the floor, anywhere but at the newcomer.

Oh, no. He didn’t, thought Vezok. If Hakann’s “Matoran informer” was a fiction and his true source of information was one of the Shadowed One’s agents, things were about to get very, very messy.

“My avian friend here was assigned to steal that very same stone from that very same tower,” the Shadowed One continued. “But before he could do so, you two made off with it.”

The Shadowed One’s expression remained impassive, but his voice hardened. “You see, he was delayed by the time spent selling information to the two of you.”

Ancient grabbed the arms of the winged figure before he could move. The Shadowed One rose, eyes crackling with energy.

“You betrayed the Dark Hunters,” he said to the struggling prisoner. Then beams of power shot from his eyes. They struck the informer, destroying the bonds of molecular cohesion that kept his body intact. With nothing to hold them together, the unlucky Dark Hunter’s atoms shot off in a million different directions, effectively disintegrating him.

“I dislike a traitor,” the Shadowed One said, looking directly at his two prisoners. “But I despise an incompetent one. So a word to the wise: If you ever harbor any ideas of betrayal… don’t let me catch you.”

Vezok nodded, unable to think of anything to say. Hakann didn’t even do that.

“I now have a vacancy in my organization,” the Shadowed One went on. “Your lives are about to change, my two thieves… or end.”

Hakann, Vezok, and the Shadowed One stood on a terrace overlooking a training arena. The leader of the Dark Hunters had briefly explained his organization’s reason for being. They gained power and profit by doing the jobs others found too dangerous or too illegal to attempt. There were no limits to how far a Dark Hunter would go if the price was right.

“Picture,” he said, “beings with the power and the organization of the Toa, yet unfettered by their consciences or morality.”

Down below, Dark Hunters of various species were engaging in mock combat to hone their skills. The Shadowed One pointed to two trainees in the midst of furious sparring. “The one on the right is called Gladiator. His opponent is a recent recruit named Sidorak. Observe.”

The battle that followed was intense, but short. The crimson-armored Sidorak was powerful, but his fighting style was crude, limited to charging forward in hopes of landing a blow. Gladiator dove, dodged, and showed amazing agility despite his impressive size. When Sidorak, exhausted, gave him an opening, Gladiator struck with two swift blows. Sidorak hit the ground and lay still.

“He’s dead?” asked Vezok.

“He wishes he were,” the Shadowed One replied.

Other Dark Hunters appeared, to drag Sidorak from the arena like so much trash. “What happens to him now?” asked Hakann.

“It so happens I may have use for him,” said the Shadowed One. “He will be allowed to leave alive, though, of course, our location will be kept concealed from him. If he did not serve some potential purpose, he would be executed and his body returned to his home island as a warning to others.”

Hakann watched the failed recruit being taken away and muttered, “Weakling.”

“You think so?” asked the Shadowed One. “Good. Because now it’s your turn.”

With that, he shoved Hakann over the railing. The thief landed with a hard thud on the sand. When Hakann looked up, it was to see a female Dark Hunter smiling down at him and twirling a dagger.

“Get up, Rahi bones,” she said with mock sweetness. “Lariska’s class is now in session.”

Hakann vaulted forward, grabbing a handful of sand as he did so and throwing it in Lariska’s eyes. As she staggered back, he used a leg sweep to knock her off her feet. Once she was down, he took aim with his lava launcher.

Half blind, Lariska hurled a dagger. It struck the launcher, shattering the delicate internal mechanism. With no way now to release the built-up molten energy, the launcher exploded.

When Lariska’s vision cleared, she saw Hakann cradling an injured arm. She hurled a dagger right at him. His eyes flashed and beams of heat melted the knife in midair. A second pair of beams lanced toward her. She did a backflip from a standing start, allowing the heat rays to pass beneath her. As soon as her feet hit the ground, she charged, leaped, and executed a perfect flying kick. Slamming into Hakann, she sent him sprawling in the sand.

“Nobody… nobody moves that fast,” he said, shaken.

“Oh, I bet you say that to all the females,” Lariska answered. “Especially the ones that beat you senseless.”

Hakann held up his hand. “I’m a thief, not a warrior. I know when I’m outclassed.”

Lariska shrugged and sheathed her dagger.

“And it’s not today,” Hakann added, as he unleashed a mental blast.

Lariska grabbed her head and reeled. Her very thoughts were now weapons being used against her. She fumbled for a dagger. Hakann increased the power of his blast and drove her to her knees. A few moments more and she pitched forward onto the ground.

Hakann rose and brushed the sand off his armor. It had taken more power than he expected to put Lariska down. But he gathered himself and stood ramrod straight, not wanting to show any sign of weakness. Satisfied that the battle was over, he turned and looked up at the Shadowed One.

“If this is the best you Dark Hunters can offer,” he began, “I’ll be running this place within a week, and –”

Hakann’s remarks were cut off by the feel of a blade at his throat.

“First lesson, Rahi bones,” Lariska whispered in his ear. “Don’t turn your back on an enemy until you’re sure she’s stopped breathing. And don’t turn your back on a Dark Hunter until her body has rotted in the sun and her armor’s been scattered to the winds.”

The Shadowed One turned to Vezok. “Decide. Does he live, or does he die?”

Vezok didn’t hesitate even for a moment. “Kill him.”

The Shadowed One nodded, satisfied. Then he glanced down at Lariska and said, “Let him go. They have both passed their tests.”

Reluctantly, Lariska withdrew her knife. Hakann turned and his eyes met hers. There was no respect or regard in his orbs – just pure hatred. “If I were you, I’d keep an eye on those daggers,” he said softly. “Or one may wind up in your back someday.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she answered. “I know where all my enemies are. After all, I’m the one who buried them.”

Up above, the Shadowed One had summoned Ancient to look after the new recruits and then departed. Vezok watched him go. “How much am I going to regret this?” he wondered aloud.

“Follow orders and do your job, and you will have nothing to regret,” Ancient replied. “You’ll have food, shelter, protection from your enemies, and the chance to do what you do best: steal, kill, and get away with it. Just one piece of advice…”

Ancient leaned in close, looming over Vezok. “You’re going to get your hands on a lot of treasure, everything from jewels to secret knowledge. You’ll be tempted to keep some of it and use it for yourself. Don’t. The downfall of every Dark Hunter follows the same path, Vezok. First they get greedy… then they get dead.”

Hakann and Vezok spent their first night as Dark Hunters sleeping in a rough barracks with a few dozen others. In the morning, they sought out the four other members of their species they had seen in the Shadowed One’s chamber.

The first they encountered was Reidak, a brutal sort who was rumored to be a skilled tracker. It wasn’t a talent he used often, preferring to simply destroy entire towns until he found the being he was searching for. The Dark Hunters had recruited him after he had done just that, in a fit of temper, to an entire island civilization.

Two others, Thok and Avak, had similar origins. Both had opposed the Dark Hunters in some way, Avak as a jailer, Thok as a thief who tried to steal from them. Both had talents the Dark Hunters could use, and so they were recruited instead of killed.

Only the last, an emerald-armored being named Zaktan, proved reluctant to talk with the newcomers. “He doesn’t talk much,” said Avak. “But there are rumors. Some say he was a slave in a protodermis mine when the Shadowed One found him. You’d think he would be grateful for being saved from a life like that… but he’s constantly being reminded that he used to be a slave and could go back to being one in a heartflash if the Shadowed One willed it.”

“There are worse things than slavery, right?” asked Vezok.

“You’ve obviously never been in a proto mine,” Reidak answered. “I don’t mean the kind Matoran work in – I mean real protodermis mines, where it’s not just a job, it’s a death sentence.”

Vezok eyed Zaktan carefully. He had seen more than his share of dangerous beings, but something about Zaktan gave him a chill. It was as if someone had taken rage and evil and given those qualities a body to walk around in.

One day, he’s going to do something beyond what we can imagine, Vezok thought. Maybe replace the Shadowed One… maybe get his hands on something that will make the Toa and the Brotherhood bow down to him… or maybe just lead us into the fire and destroy us all.

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