Five Thousand Years Ago…
“In or out?” asked Zaktan. “Decide.”
Vezok looked around the small chamber. It was cramped and damp and smelled of dead Rahi. If greed and ambition had scents, it would have reeked of those, too.
Hakann, Thok, and Reidak were standing in the back of the room, their eyes locked onto Vezok. Only Avak was missing, deemed too untrustworthy to be included in this conversation.
“If I go in with you?” answered Vezok.
“Then we strike tonight. By morning, the Shadowed One will be a memory, his allies will be in chains, and we will be running the Dark Hunters.” When Zaktan put it that way, it sounded easy – so easy that it made Vezok even more nervous.
“And if I’m out?”
Reidak bared his teeth in a wolfish grin that left no doubt Vezok would not be leaving the chamber under his own power if he gave the wrong answer.
“We have the numbers?” asked Vezok.
Zaktan nodded. “Enough so that we really don’t need you. We are only making the offer out of… species loyalty, so to speak. Discontent with the Shadowed One’s rule has been spreading among the Dark Hunters for years. Wander the island and try and find someone who doesn’t resent handing over every treasure they find, or who hasn’t been imprisoned – or worse – for offending our leader. The Shadowed One is ripe for overthrow.”
“His spies –”
“Are known,” Hakann finished. “And will be dealt with, when the time comes.”
Vezok snarled, angry at himself for having such a hard time with this decision. After all, he owed the Shadowed One no loyalty. He had never wanted to be part of this organization in the first place. He had been perfectly happy as an independent thief. He was free to live the way he pleased. Now it was looking like just staying alive might be a challenge.
“All right,” he said. “I’m in.”
At any given time, there were anywhere from fifty to a hundred Dark Hunters based on the Shadowed One’s island. Some were there for rest and recreation between missions, others for training, and a few the Dark Hunter’s leader just wanted to keep where he could see them. Zaktan’s plan hinged on the theory that most of the island’s inhabitants were either sick of the Shadowed One’s rule or really didn’t care who was in charge.
The five conspirators split up after their meeting and spent the rest of the day trying to remain inconspicuous. Zaktan had suggested they approach the Shadowed One’s fortress in pairs, coming from different directions and at slightly different times. Two Dark Hunters reporting in was not unusual, but five showing up at once would seem suspicious.
There were only a small number of guards on duty at the fortress gates, led by a bizarre figure nicknamed Prototype. He was the product of a forced merge between a Toa of Fire and a Toa of Earth, which somehow resulted in a hybrid entity possessing enormous power, very little sanity, and really big claws. Still, it wasn’t Prototype or the guards he could see that worried Vezok – it was the ones he couldn’t see that would be the problem.
As discussed, Vezok approached Prototype and struck up a conversation to give Zaktan the chance to ambush him. This was not an easy task, since Prototype was not much of a conversationalist. Still, Vezok succeeded in getting him to turn his back to Zaktan.
Zaktan glanced around, made sure no one was looking, and fired a blast of his laser vision at Prototype. To his shock, the beams just bounced off harmlessly. Prototype noticed the attack, though, for he turned to Zaktan and said, “Not nice.” Then he batted his attacker away.
“Stupid,” Prototype said, shaking his head. “Bright lights don’t bother me. Nothing bothers me.”
Vezok’s first instinct was to attack and try to knock Prototype out. Then he remembered the sight of the half-conscious Zaktan flying through the air. “You’re right,” Vezok said. “He is stupid. In fact, I think he’s a traitor to the Dark Hunters.”
“Yes,” Vezok answered. “You need to go tell the Shadowed One about this now. He’s in the training facility on the far side of the island.”
“But I thought he was inside?”
“Do you think the Shadowed One is going to stop and tell you every place he’s going?” Vezok asked harshly. “Now get going! If Zaktan hurts anyone because you didn’t give a warning, you know who will get blamed.”
It took Prototype a solid minute to realize the answer was him. Then he shrugged and lumbered away in search of the Shadowed One. With luck, Vezok thought, it will be a while before he remembers there is no training facility on the far side of the island.
By then, Zaktan had staggered back, looking for the massive guard. His rage only grew when he couldn’t find Prototype. “Where is he?” he seethed.
“Gone,” Vezok answered. “I did what you should have done in the first place. We needed him away from the gate, Zaktan, that’s all. We don’t need to start a war.”
Zaktan eyed Vezok warily. “And if there were a war, are you quite sure whose side you would be on?”
“The same side I’m always on,” Vezok replied, opening the iron gate. “My own.”
A few minutes later, they were joined by Hakann, followed by Thok and Reidak. They reported that no one on the island seemed to suspect that anything strange was going on. Those Dark Hunters most loyal to the Shadowed One had been summoned by Hakann to a secret meeting to discuss security concerns. Once they were all assembled, he had slipped out and informed a half dozen of the more powerful guards that a group of traitors was conspiring against the Shadowed One. He pointed them to the chamber where the loyalists were meeting and insisted that no one inside should be allowed to leave under any circumstances. The Shadowed One would be coming personally to see to their arrest and punishment.
“Very well,” whispered Zaktan. “We will head to the central chamber and take the Shadowed One and any of his lieutenants who may be present. Then the island will be ours.”
“Hold it!” said Vezok. “Where are all the rest? I thought you said you had the numbers to do this.”
“We do,” answered Hakann. “Five is a very good number. Of course, four has its appeal, too…”
“Power divided in too many ways is no longer worth having,” said Zaktan. “It would be as if your body were to be split into a million pieces, each capable of acting independently. You would be formidable… but never again whole.”
Zaktan beckoned the others to follow him. It was only a short journey through the dank corridors to reach the central chamber. Down one hallway, turn right, down another, turn left, and…
They were facing a blank stone wall. It hadn’t been there the day before. Instead, there had been a long corridor leading directly to the Shadowed One’s chamber.
“We… we must have made a wrong turn,” said Hakann nervously.
The party went back the way they had come. But they could not retrace their steps exactly, for another blank wall had appeared where a hallway had been moments before. They were forced to turn right instead of left, then keep turning left as they followed a new path along the inside edge of the fortress. Every time it seemed they must be coming close to an exit, another wall would block their way.
“We’re going in a circle!” Reidak snapped “What are you up to, Zaktan?”
“It’s not my doing!” Zaktan replied, his voice ragged. “It’s this place. Nothing is like it was yesterday!”
“Not even you.”
The voice came from up above. The five Dark Hunters looked up to see one of the most dreaded figures on the island, the stalker in the shadows, called Darkness. His traditional place of residence was among the stone beams of the ceiling above the Shadowed One’s throne. If the Dark Hunter leader showed the slightest sign of weakness, remorse, or compassion, it would be Darkness’s job to slay him so that another could take his place. He left the chamber only rarely, to “sharpen his claws” by disciplining disobedient members of the organization. His presence here and now represented nothing short of total disaster.
“Then the Shadowed One knows…?” asked Zaktan. It was the first time Vezok had ever heard fear in his voice.
Darkness nodded once.
“We have to get out of here!” Hakann yelled, already running in what he thought was the direction of the exit. Reidak and Thok followed him, but Vezok paused for a moment.
“You know what will happen to us,” he said to Zaktan. “Why aren’t you fleeing?”
“This is an island. Where would I run?” Zaktan replied. “Where could I go where he will not find me?”
Vezok knew he was right. The Dark Hunters had a long reach. There was nowhere in the known universe to conceal yourself from them. But he ran anyway, because that is what one does when destruction is drawing near.
None of them got very far, of course. The appearance of new walls effectively herded them into the central chamber where the Shadowed One, Darkness, Ancient, and the yellow-armored figure called Sentrakh waited.
Vezok expected the Shadowed One to lash out at them, accuse them of being traitors, and threaten them with all sorts of horrible punishments. But he said nothing. He simply sat on his throne and stared at each one of them in turn. Vezok had thought there might be disappointment or rage in his eyes, but they were flat and dead. Somehow, that seemed much worse than if he had been in a fury.
Finally, he beckoned Zaktan to step forward. The Shadowed One exhaled, smiled, and visibly relaxed. For a moment, Vezok thought that maybe they might be okay.
Then the Shadowed One’s eyes turned crimson. Twin beams of power lanced out and struck Zaktan. There was a blinding flash of light.
When it faded, Zaktan still stood there, but he had changed in a terrible way. He was standing still, but his body was moving, as if each individual cell had taken on a life of its own. Panicked, Zaktan lost control and his mass began to dissipate. Like a swarm of fireflyers broken up by a windstorm, fragments of Zaktan began to drift away. It was the most terrible thing Vezok had ever seen, in a lifetime filled with many awful sights.
He looked at the Shadowed One and was surprised to see that the Dark Hunter leader looked stunned as well. Apparently, this was not the effect the beams were supposed to have had. Something had gone very wrong.
Zaktan suddenly calmed down. Exerting a force of will Vezok never imagined any being had, he drew the disconnected parts of himself back together. He was whole again, or at least as whole as any being in his condition could be.
The Shadowed One, too, had regained his composure. He settled back in his chair and gazed around at the assembled conspirators. “Remember,” he said, in the soft tone of a doom viper’s hiss.
Zaktan would eventually discover that his body had been converted to billions of microscopic protodites. Each contained a portion of his consciousness and could function independently of his body as a whole. This allowed him to send parts of himself on the attack as a swarm, to fly, to evade physical attacks more easily, and to slip through spaces too small for even an insect.
He never spoke about what happened to him that night, nor did he ever allow anyone else to speak of it. He learned to adapt to his new condition and harness the powers it gave him. Eventually, he became a hundred times more effective as a Dark Hunter than he had ever been before.
And he never, not even for a moment, stopped hating the Shadowed One.