Mata Nui followed Ackar to his shelter in the village. The Glatorian began packing items into a satchel, explaining that he was due to fight another match in the village of Tesara.
The walls of the shelter were lined with Glatorian shields, trophies of Ackar’s past victories. “You won all these?” asked Mata Nui.
“Yes. And look what good they do me,” Ackar answered, making no attempt to hide his bitterness. “Should have packed it in long ago.”
“But you stayed. Why?”
Ackar paused a moment before answering. When he spoke again, he sounded less bitter than sad. “Duty. Pride. But a Glatorian past his prime’s no good to anyone.”
“To be defeated without a fight would be dishonor. You carry this truth inside you, as do I. You are a true Toa,” said Mata Nui.
“Where I come from…” Mata Nui began. Then he stopped, as if not sure how to explain himself. Finally, he said, “It is a name given to a select few warriors, worthy of –”
Metus burst into the shelter, practically leaping in the air with excitement. “Mata Nui! You were brilliant! Raanu will pay anything we ask. And if you don’t like this village – no problem! I’ll get the other leaders to bid for you.”
“That is very kind,” said Mata Nui. “But… no.”
Metus looked at Mata Nui as if he had just said he wanted to be a target dummy for the Skrall. “Are you crazy? Do you realize what you’re passing up? The life of a First Glatorian!”
“Yes, just look how great it worked out for me,” Ackar muttered.
“The answer is still no.”
“Okay, okay, I hear you. But when you change your mind –”
Mata Nui held firm. “I will not.”
“Playing hard to get, eh? I can respect that. Soon enough, you’ll come around, begging me to take you back.”
Mata Nui took a step toward Metus, obviously not amused by the suggestion. Metus took a step back.
“Okay, that’s a joke. You’d never beg. Heh, heh… I’m going now.” Metus turned and rushed out of the shelter. Ackar laughed at the sight, and after a moment, Mata Nui joined him.
“So, stranger, what are your plans?” asked Ackar.
“I must begin searching for a way back to my homeland.”
“You will think it sounds crazy…”
“No crazier than jumping into an arena armed with only a stinger tail and that thing,” Ackar said, gesturing toward the scarabax perched on Mata Nui’s shoulder.
“True. My home is far from this place… on another world entirely,” said Mata Nui. “I was once its protector, until I lost everything to a powerful evil that has enslaved my people. That is why I must find a way back.”
A blue-armored Glatorian suddenly sprang from the shadows near the door, startling them both. “I knew it! Woo-hoo! Proof! Proof of what I’ve been saying for years!” shouted the newcomer.
“Kiina–!? What are you–!?” Ackar snapped. “This is not the place!”
Their visitor was female. She was tall and wiry, and looked as if she would be a formidable foe in a fight. Right now, though, she was either extremely happy or completely insane; Mata Nui wasn’t sure which. And he wasn’t in the mood to take chances. Mata Nui went for his weapon.
“Just who is this?”
Ackar reached out to restrain Mata Nui. “Wait, she’s –”
The female Glatorian came right up close to Mata Nui. “Name’s Kiina. A Glatorian. One of the best. And you just won me a lot of bets.” She turned to Ackar. “‘Kiina’s delusional. There’s no such thing as other worlds.’ Yeah, well, he proves there are!”
Ackar gently guided Mata Nui’s arm down, so that his sword was pointed at the floor. “It’s okay. Although I don’t always agree with her methods – such as lurking in the shadows – as Glatorian go, Kiina ranks. I’d trust her with my life… and have, more than once.”
Mata Nui looked from Ackar to Kiina. He still thought she was unbalanced, but if she was a friend of Ackar’s… well, he had to take his allies where he could find them now. “Good to meet you, Kiina,” he said.
The scarabax on his shoulder clicked its approval. Kiina looked at the insect with undisguised revulsion. “So what they’re saying is true?” she asked Ackar.
She turned back to Mata Nui. “Let me guess. You call him ‘Click,’” she said, more than a little sarcasm in her voice.
The scarabax, as if sensing her contempt, lashed out with a pincer and clicked angrily. She took a step back. “Hey, I was just kidding.”
Mata Nui smiled. “Actually, I like it. Click it is.”
Kiina walked in a wide circle around Mata Nui, checking him out from every angle. She had always dreamed of meeting someone from another planet. Somehow, though, she had thought they would look less like the other Glatorian she knew. It was an exciting moment just the same.
“Wow – a real other-worlder,” she said. “Finally, someone to convince the Agori there’s a better place than this miserable wasteland.”
Ackar frowned. He considered Kiina a good friend, but he also knew she could be selfish. He didn’t want to see Mata Nui used. “He needs our help, Kiina. I owe him,” he said.
Kiina looked right at Mata Nui. “Help, huh? I might be able to do something for you. But I’m going to want something in return.” She moved closer, her helmet practically touching Mata Nui’s mask. “I want out of this dump. You have to take me with you.”
“Kiina…” said Ackar, shaking his head.
“It’s all right,” said Mata Nui. He studied Kiina for a moment, then said, “If it’s within my power, I will take you. But the time to help my people is running out.”
“No problem,” Kiina said, smiling. “I work fast.”
“What do you have in mind, Kiina?” asked Ackar. He didn’t know of any way to get off Bara Magna.
“Well, I discovered an enormous cavern under my village. It’s filled with weird, ancient equipment and tools. It might have something you can use. Word of warning, though…” She pointed an armored finger at Mata Nui. “Don’t even think of pulling a fast one – ’cause you’re my ticket out of here.”
Whose bright idea was this again? Kiina asked herself. She, Ackar, and Mata Nui were in a borrowed dune chariot, on their way to the water village of Tajun. It was dawn.
Traveling in daylight was not Kiina’s idea of a good time. It didn’t take long for the temperature to soar in the desert of Bara Magna. If the vehicle kept running, they would make it to the village before high sun. But dune chariots were notoriously unreliable – and this one looked to be patched and repaired a dozen times over. She would have been happier riding her sand stalker, but the animal was ill.
Heat wasn’t the only worry. There was no cover out in the middle of the trackless wastes. Granted, the savage Vorox would be more likely to hunt at night, but in full sunshine, Bone Hunters could see potential victims coming a mile away.
Of course, there is some good news, thought Kiina. You can see them, too.
Mata Nui pointed toward a canyon up ahead. “Is the cavern in that canyon?”
Kiina shook her head. “No. It’s near Tajun, my village, just beyond that canyon.”
Ackar wasn’t listening. His eyes were scanning the horizon, looking for threats. It had not been that long ago that Bone Hunters had attacked Vulcanus, and Skrall had sacked the free city of Atero. No place on Bara Magna was safe, least of all the wastelands between villages.
Had he been able to see what was going on behind him, Ackar would have been even more worried. Shortly after their departure from Vulcanus, an Agori slipped out of the village. Making his way up into the rocks, he ran into two Bone Hunters on their rock steeds.
Bone Hunters were an unusual breed. Distantly related to the rock tribe of Roxtus, they were nomadic bandits. They lived in the desert, surviving on stew made from the Thornax plant – and whatever they could steal. They were excellent trackers and unafraid to go after prey even in the worst heat of the day. Normally, they robbed and killed their victims. Lately, they had begun kidnapping Glatorian, for reasons unknown.
Under ordinary circumstances, an Agori who encountered a Bone Hunter would scream and run. But these weren’t ordinary circumstances, and this Agori was right where he had planned to be.
“The Glatorian are heading for Tajun,” he told the two riders. “You know what to do.”
The two Bone Hunters glanced at each other. They weren’t used to taking orders from villagers. Agori were for robbing, after all. But it had been made clear to them that this Agori’s word was to be obeyed. So they grunted something close to a “yes” and rode off.
The Agori watched them go. He didn’t trust the Bone Hunters – what sane being would? – but he needed them. Left on their own, they were a dangerous element, unpredictable and wild. But bribed with weapons and water, they could be “tamed” and used. And once they were no longer useful…
He smiled, then, a little smile with no cheer in it. Then he turned back to Vulcanus. He couldn’t let his absence be noticed by anyone, not when he was so close to achieving his goals. So it was time to go back to playing the role of trusted Agori: a little eccentric, maybe, but all in all, a good being to have around. And all the while, he would be laughing inside at the thought of what waited for the fools of the fire village.
* * *
From the pages of Mata Nui’s diary…
It soon became obvious that this world had its own share of problems. In addition to a lack of resources and a harsh climate, they were menaced by roving bands of Bone Hunters, savage Vorox like the one I fought, and a violent invasion by a race called the Skrall. It sounded all too familiar.
As I listened to the Glatorian tell me of these things, I struggled with myself. I had not come to Bara Magna of my own free will – I had been exiled here. The problems of these people were not mine. My own universe was in danger, because of my failings, and it was my responsibility to save it. Could I afford to get myself embroiled in the crises of another world?
The simple answer was no. What if the struggle here on Bara Magna took years? What if I was wounded or killed, who would there be to save my own universe? These Glatorian seem smart and capable, surely they could handle things here. And what help could I be? Stripped of my great powers, was I even the equal of Ackar or Strakk or any of the others? They had years of experience here… I had been here less than a day.
And yet… I turned away once before. I paid so much attention to the worlds I was visiting and the mission I had to carry out for the Great Beings that I ignored what was going on inside my own universe. Too late, I realized that there were hostile forces arrayed against me. It was because I was so oblivious that evil was able to take root in the place I was supposed to protect. Could I walk away again? Could I really turn my back on these people who had welcomed me into their midst? By doing nothing, would I not be allowing evil to triumph here as well?
This was something I would need to think long and hard about. The decision I made might change the course of two worlds. And I could not help but think – if the only way I could save my home was to leave this place to its doom, would I be able to do it?