By the time the trio reached the village, it was too late. The once-proud village of Tajun was a pile of ashes, or soon would be. Kiina stood in the middle of the chaos, looking around desperately, stricken with grief.
“Looks like the Agori got away,” said Ackar. “A daylight raid… one of their sentries must have spotted the attackers in time.”
“The village… our homes… this is my fault! I should have been here to help. Where’s Tarix? And Gresh? We had a training session scheduled for today. He’s just a rookie. He wouldn’t be prepared for–”
Gresh was a young Glatorian from the jungle village of Tesara. Although new to the sport, he was highly skilled and had been fast gaining a reputation as a potential champion. But not even a veteran Glatorian could win against a Skrall war party.
“There!” yelled Ackar, pointing to the western side of the village.
Gresh staggered out of the smoke, clutching his shoulder. His armor was battered and one arm hung limply at his side.
“He’s hurt!” said Kiina. She, Ackar, and Mata Nui rushed to his side.
“Easy, son,” said Ackar, reaching out to support him.
Gresh pushed them away. “I’m fine. I’ll be fine,” he said, his voice weak. Then his face contorted and he grabbed at his injured shoulder. His knees buckled and only fast action by Ackar and Mata Nui kept him from collapsing.
“Just shut up and let us help you,” growled Ackar.
“We need to get him out of sight,” said Mata Nui. “Kiina, your cavern–”
“Right,” said Kiina. “The entrance is this way.”
The party made its way through the thick smoke, moving as quickly as they could with the injured Gresh in tow. The young Glatorian, gasping for breath, was still trying to talk.
“Stay quiet,” said Mata Nui. “You will be safe soon.”
“No,” Gresh answered. “You don’t understand… Skrall and Bone Hunters… they’re working together.”
“Impossible,” replied Ackar. “They’re rival tribes. Neither allies with anyone, least of all each other.”
Gresh grabbed Ackar’s arm. “No! I watched them destroy our village… I…” His eyes went wide for an instant, then suddenly closed. He sagged in Ackar’s arms.
“Gresh!” said Kiina. “He isn’t…?”
“Still alive,” Ackar reassured her.
“But not for long, if that savage sees us,” Mata Nui said.
The others turned at his words. Moving through the smoke was a giant of a being, a warrior clad in black-and-green armor and carrying a huge sword. Kiina had seen him only once before, but it was impossible to forget the sight.
“Tuma,” she breathed. “Leader of the Skrall.”
Now more figures appeared behind him, a combination of Skrall warriors on foot and mounted Bone Hunters. Kiina felt sick. This was every Agori’s worst nightmare, coming true before her eyes.
“The boy was telling the truth,” said Ackar quietly. “The Bone Hunters have joined forces with the Skrall.”
Indistinct figures lurk in the sands north of the water village of Tajun. Skrall warriors hunch behind dunes, while nearby dozens of Bone Hunters dart among the dunes, heedless of who sees them. Growls between the two groups drift on the wind, but do not reach the unsuspecting village. A shrouded figure exchanges hushed words with leaders of both factions and gestures toward Tajun. Nodding, Tuma and his Bone Hunter counterpart stalk back to their warriors. Dust plumes rise from their feet as both groups start to run toward the village.
In the Tajun arena, Gresh stands waiting for Tarix to show up for a practice bout, when he sees above the canyon walls a dust cloud heading directly for him. Although still a rookie, Gresh takes only a moment to understand, and shouts for everyone to get out. Startled Agori drop what they are doing and immediately dart for the nearby hills of Knee Island, but a few stay to help defend their homes. Grabbing his weathered weapons, Gresh hurries to the oncoming dust cloud. He has no hope of defeating them all, but he will make their victory as expensive as he can.
Bone Hunters fall under Gresh’s blade as the first wave of attackers stream past him. Grimly, Gresh prepares for the next wave of Bone Hunters, and is shocked when Skrall warriors thunder past him, raiding and looting the Agori homes before destroying them. One Skrall knocks Gresh down, and he fights for his life against the dark warrior, managing to evade powerful sword strokes until he can stumble into a narrow crevice and lose the Skrall. Panting, badly wounded, Gresh watches in misery as the combined force tears the village apart. Even worse, he looks on as they head straight for hidden doorways and places where Gresh knows valuables are stored.
Slowly, the raiders finish their work and filter out through the deep crevices that form Tajun village. Gresh, barely able to walk, is forced to wait until help arrives.
* * *
From the pages of Mata Nui’s diary…
My first view of the “work” of the Skrall was when Ackar, Kiina and I arrived in Tajun. I have seen entire worlds devastated by war before, but this was something different. The Agori did not choose this fight. It was forced upon them by the greed and ambition of the Skrall and Bone Hunters. And… perhaps it makes a difference to see a battle from the midst of it, rather than from the great distances I have known before. I saw the young Glatorian, Gresh, badly wounded; saw the shelters burning; and realized that the water tribes had just had their lives shattered as surely as their planet once had been.
I have experienced many new emotions since coming to Bara Magna. Oh, the Great Beings gave me the capacity to feel when they created me, but I was always so far removed from everything around me that I have had no reason to experience emotion. Now I have known fear, facing the Vorox… friendship, with Ackar and Kiina… and now, anger at the senseless violence I see all about me.
The Skrall do not realize it, but in a strange way, they have done me a favor. I have wrestled with the choice before me – whether to leave Bara Magna as quickly as possible to go and save my universe, or to stay and help these people. Now I know what I must do. What the Skrall did today must be avenged.
Kiina pointed out Tuma, leader of the Skrall, to me as he walked amid the carnage. He is tall, strong, and obviously filled with enormous confidence. He shows no sign of regret for what his soldiers have done here, only pride and satisfaction. He reminds me of someone else I have known, an enemy I still must bring down. I think I will enjoy bringing this Tuma to face Agori justice one day.
In the meantime, there is work to be done. Kiina says there is a place we can go to where Gresh will be safe. It is the same cavern she spoke of, filled with ancient technology and strange inscriptions. I have a hunch that I am about to discover I am not so very far from home as I thought.
* * *
Kiina pushed on a jutting piece of stone and a portion of the rock wall slid open. The group rushed inside and the door slid in place behind them. “They won’t find us in here.”
She led her friends down a gently sloping tunnel. The stone walls were marked with strange glyphs and symbols, carved with care. Mata Nui found he could not take his eyes off them, despite the danger that surrounded him.
“Wait,” he said. “These glyphs… I…”
“Later,” snapped Kiina. “First we have to take care of Gresh. The cavern is just ahead.”
The tunnel opened onto a massive cave. This was no natural formation. Huge, opaque, marble obelisks dominated the center of the space, illuminating a central area. Six entrances opened onto what looked like miniature ecosystems.
It looks like a… place of creation, thought Mata Nui. A lab, perhaps? But why create six environments in this place? For what purpose? If it was a test… what were they testing?
As they moved farther in, Mata Nui saw more evidence for his theory. Tables made of stone were scattered about, covered with tools and machine parts. Someone had been working here and perhaps not so long ago – he noted disturbances in the ancient dust.
Kiina gestured to one of the tables. “Lay him down over here.”
Gresh’s breathing was steady, but one arm was badly injured. Mata Nui felt helpless. He knew nothing about how to care for another being. He wasn’t even certain how serious the damage to Gresh might be – would he die from this wound? Or was this the kind of injury Glatorian received in the arena all the time? He guessed not, given how worried Kiina appeared to be.
The keen ears of Ackar picked up a sound from the shadows. He drew his sword in a flash, saying, “Show yourself. Now!”
There was a long moment of stillness and silence. Then a villager clad in blue armor stepped into the light. He was short and his body seemed to be in constant nervous motion. He held his hands out defensively, looking from Ackar to Kiina and back again.
“Okay, okay, relax,” the Agori villager said. “Everything’s okay. It’s just me – Berix.”
Now Kiina had her trident in hand, pointing it toward Berix. Her features were tight with anger. “You filthy little thief! I told you if I ever caught you down here again, I’d–”
Berix ducked behind Mata Nui’s legs. “This place doesn’t belong to you. And I’m no thief – I’m a collector.” He glanced up at Mata Nui then, noticing his “protector” for the first time. “Ooh… like your mask. Can I have it?”
The villager reached up to touch the Mask of Life. But before his fingers could make contact, Berix spotted Kiina rushing toward him. He withdrew his hand quickly, as if the mask might bite him.
“Come here, you!” snapped Kiina.
Berix sidestepped, keeping Mata Nui between him and the enraged Glatorian. “I have a right to collect anything I want. It’s just junk anyway.”
“Then why do you want it?” asked Kiina.
“‘Cause I like fixing things,” said Berix. He gestured at the lights on the ceiling. “Who do you think got those lights working?”
“I was wondering about that…” Kiina grumbled.
Berix looked up at Mata Nui again. Spotting the scarabax perched on the warrior’s shoulder, he took a step back. “Hey, you’ve got a–”
“He knows!” Kiina and Ackar said in unison.
There was too much anger in this chamber, Mata Nui decided. It wasn’t helping Gresh or anyone else. “Berix, have you ever fixed an injured Glatorian?”
“Oh, no,” Kiina said immediately. “No way. He’s not touching Gresh.”
“The boy needs help, Kiina,” Ackar said quietly.
Kiina started to say something, then stopped. Slowly, the tension left her body. Ackar was right, she knew. Gresh was injured badly – she would not be able to help him on her own.
Berix gestured to his own battered armor. “Well, I’ve had to patch myself up a few times.”
“Right,” said Kiina. “Like every time you’ve been pounded on for stealing.”
Berix moved to the table to take a look at Gresh, but couldn’t resist snapping back, “Collecting. Maybe you should let me work on your ears next, Kiina.”
“Enough,” Mata Nui said. “Can you fix him?”
Berix shrugged. “Yeah. Okay, yeah… I think I can.”
The Agori tapped his arm. A small panel opened in his armor. Inside was a compartment stuffed with various tools, wires, and odds and ends. He reached inside and took out a crude knife.
“Gresh better pull through,” Kiina said. “You got that?”
“Great,” Berix muttered. “No pressure or anything.” He took the knife and sliced off a portion of a strange vine that grew on the nearby wall.
Ackar took Kiina’s arm gently and led her a few steps away from the table. She never took her eyes off of Berix, watching him with the look of a mother sand stalker ready to spring to the defense of its young. “What if he’s the traitor?” she whispered.
“Then he’ll pay,” Ackar replied.
The two Glatorian moved to join Mata Nui, who was examining the cavern with undisguised curiosity. He moved hesitantly, as if he were trying to capture a memory that was just out of reach.
“Something wrong?” asked Kiina.
“I don’t know,” Mata Nui answered. “There’s a familiarity about this place.”
“Must have been created by the old rulers of Bara Magna,” said Ackar, looking around.
“The Great Beings,” nodded Kiina.
Mata Nui’s head snapped around at the sound of the name. “The Great Beings were here?”
It was too incredible to believe. The Great Beings were at the core of Mata Nui’s earliest recollections. They had constructed the massive robot body that had once belonged to him. They had created his consciousness and placed it inside that body, and then sent him forth to do… what? He still did not recall. That had been more than 100,000 years ago and he had given up hoping he would ever find them again. It might have been chance that brought him to this world, where the Great Beings had once walked, but he preferred to think it was destiny.
It was obvious that Kiina did not share Mata Nui’s reverence for the Great Beings, though. “Great Destroyers is more like it,” she said.
“Why do you speak against them?” demanded Mata Nui.
“Why? They wrecked our world, that’s why,” Kiina shot back. Gesturing toward the six chambers containing mini-environments, she continued, “This was Bara Magna before the Great Beings left us here to rot.”
“You have no proof of that, Kiina,” said Ackar. “They could have just as easily ended up buried in the ruins. A lot of others did, you know.”
“No,” Mata Nui said, shaking his head. “The Great Beings did not fall here. That much I am sure of.”
He walked deeper into the cave, examining every inch of the walls, until he came to a great door. Inscribed on it was a symbol – three dots flanked by two curved lines. Mata Nui had seen the symbol before, for it had been inscribed in places on his old robotic body as well. But he did not know what it stood for.
“What lies beyond here?” he asked.
“No idea,” Kiina replied. “Never been able to get it open.”
Berix had been eavesdropping on the conversation as he worked. Now he called over his shoulder, “Me, neither! But I bet there’s something good back there.”
“Keep dreaming,” Kiina said sharply. “And pay attention to what you’re doing, thief.”
Mata Nui stepped close to the door. As he did so, his mask began to glow, casting golden light on the inscribed image. “I recognize this symbol,” he said softly.
He reached out and touched one of the three dots. As soon as he did so, it began to glow, and there was a loud click, as if a lock was coming undone. The symbol rotated beneath Mata Nui’s hand, and the two halves of the door began to slide apart.
“It’s opening,” said Kiina. “You did it!”
Behind the door there was a stone staircase leading down. Mata Nui and the two Glatorian followed it into an antechamber farther beneath the earth. A variety of symbols covered the walls, most of them circles with lines or other circles inside of them. Kiina and Ackar examined these as Mata Nui moved farther into the chamber. Then they heard him cry out, “It cannot be!”
Ackar and Kiina were at his side instantly. He was standing in front of the far wall. Carved into the wall were what looked like building plans for a giant being made of metal. It was clear from the dust all around that the carving had been made long, long ago.
“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Kiina.
“I have,” replied Mata Nui, his eyes riveted by the carving.
“You know that thing?”
“Yes. A gigantic mechanical being,” Mata Nui said, his tone filled with frustration and anger. “Just like the one now enslaving my people.”
“Wait,” said Kiina. “You think the Great Beings had something to do with that? Did they harm your people too?”
“No. The responsibility lies on my shoulders alone,” said Mata Nui. “But this place… these symbols… we are on the right track.”