Tuma sat in his chamber, brooding. The news brought back by Branar had been dire indeed. The baterra were closer than he had imagined they would be, and so his plans for Bara Magna had to be advanced. Already, he had moved up the date for the attack on Atero, and laid out ambitious plans to seize control of the other villages. If all went well, his troops would control all of Bara Magna before the baterra emerged from the Black Spike Mountains. But any organized resistance by the Glatorian and Agori would put his plans in jeopardy.
A rap came on the chamber door. One of his guards entered and said softly, “The one you called is here.”
Tuma nodded. The guard withdrew. A moment later, another figure entered the room, one who was not a Skrall. Tuma had been approached by this being some time ago, with an offer to provide useful information on the villages and their defenses as well as to act as a go-between for the Skrall and the Bone Hunters. This arrangement had so far proved profitable to both sides.
“You took a big chance sending me a summons,” the traitor said. “What if someone had stumbled on your message? Where would I be then?”
“That is not my concern,” growled Tuma. “Your safety is your responsibility. The welfare of my people is mine.”
The traitor looked around the chamber, then gestured toward the doorway that led to the fortified city. “Seems to me your people are doing just fine.”
Tuma rose to his full, imposing height. “We attack Atero tomorrow. Be prepared.”
“Tomorrow?” the traitor said, startled. “I thought you were going to wait for the end of the tournament.”
“Our plans have changed,” Tuma answered. The look in his eyes said he had no intention of explaining further.
“On their own, or did someone change them?” asked the traitor. “Let me guess… your neighbors to the north are coming to pay a visit.”
Now it was Tuma’s turn to be surprised. He stalked across the room, grabbed the traitor around the throat, and slammed that being into the wall. “What do you know of the baterra? Speak! Have you betrayed the Skrall to them, as you have betrayed your own people to us?”
“Urrrrk,” croaked the traitor, as the Skrall’s hand cut off all air. Tuma abruptly let go. The traitor crumpled to the ground, hand massaging a painful throat.
“I know… a great deal… about a great many things,” the traitor said hoarsely. “But if you want the benefit of that knowledge… we are going to have to come to a new arrangement.”
Tuma’s mouth curled into a sneer. “Your naked greed ill becomes you.”
“I don’t work for free,” spat the traitor. “Not this kind of work, anyway. Now let’s see if we understand each other – you fled south like a pack of frightened rodents because the baterra were decimating your people. Now they’re closing in on you again, so you’re in a big, fat hurry to seize the desert so you can buy some time and space. How am I doing so far?”
Tuma nodded, but said nothing.
“It’s an excellent plan… for old women,” the traitor said, with a harsh chuckle. “Run, until you can’t run anymore, and hope your enemy exhausts himself running after you. Tell me, Tuma – have you ever killed a baterra?”
“Of course,” said the Skrall leader. “How else do you think we learned they are machines, not living things?”
The traitor wandered to the back of the chamber, running a finger along the arm of Tuma’s throne. “I see. So you downed one by accident and saw it fizzle and spark… and then the baterra killed how many of yours? 100? 200?”
“Your point, sand worm,” hissed Tuma.
“My point, my point… oh, yes,” said the traitor, abruptly sitting down in Tuma’s grand chair. “My point is that I know how to kill the baterra, and you don’t. And I think that puts a new slant on things around here, doesn’t it?”
“You will tell me how to kill those… things,” Tuma said, his voice deathly quiet. “Or I will give you to the Spikit, as a snack. But you will not die, oh, no. We will keep you alive, patch you up, and when you are healed – we will give you to the Spikit again. And again. And again.”
“See, there’s only one problem, Tuma,” the traitor said, leaning forward in the chair and smiling broadly. “You don’t scare me. Sure, you can torture me, kill me… but what’s in my head stays there. Then it’s only a matter of time before the baterra come and finish you off.”
Tuma wanted to bellow in rage. He wanted to tear the traitor’s head off and mount it on a pole, for all to see. He wanted to storm the villages of Bara Magna, burn them to the ground, and slay the Agori the way the baterra had slain his people, little more than a year before. Had he been but a Skrall warrior, he would surely have done that. But he was more than that – he was the lone surviving Skrall leader left alive, and he had a responsibility to the empire.
“What is your price?” the Skrall said, slowly. “And be aware… you tread on dangerous ground. Push too far, and you may find I forget what is in the best interests of my people in favor of what would be most… satisfying… to myself.”
The traitor reclined on the throne. “No need to worry, Tuma. We both want what’s best for the Skrall and the rock tribe. Of course we do. And as of today, I no longer work for you. From now on… we’re partners.”
“Partners? In what?” asked Tuma.
“In the conquest of this pile of sand,” the traitor replied. “With my wits married to your warriors, we are going to carve Bara Magna up between us. Now you had better find a chair for yourself… we have a great deal of planning to do, don’t we?”
Tuma, leader of the Skrall, was feeling quite satisfied.
He had returned to the city of Roxtus following the sack of Tajun, confident that his plans were proceeding. With that village and its oasis in his hands, the Agori of Bara Magna had lost their primary water source. No doubt they would turn on each other now in a fight over what water remained in the wastelands, making them easy pickings for his Skrall warriors. In one swift stroke, he would control the desert.
To an outsider, it might have seemed a strange prize to covet. After all, what was there to Bara Magna? Nothing but scattered metallic shelters that towered hundreds of feet high, with Agori huddled inside them for protection against the wind and sand; deposits of exsidian metal and other semi-valuable minerals here and there; precious little food or water… on the face of it, nothing a conqueror like Tuma would want.
But the desert of Bara Magna offered one thing the Skrall desperately needed: space. No one other than the Skrall knew why they had first moved down from the north into the Black Spike Mountains. Their cities had been raided and destroyed by a race of warriors they had never encountered before, shapeshifters who struck from the shadows and then disappeared. All of the Skrall’s weapons and skill had proven of no use against this enemy. Finally, the Skrall were forced south, taking up residence in the long-abandoned city that became Roxtus.
Here, they were easily the most powerful tribe. But Tuma could not help looking behind. Would their enemies from the north follow them here? If so, how would the Skrall stop them? Fighting the shapeshifters in confined quarters would lead to a second disaster. The Skrall needed room to maneuver, vast tracts of open land they could force the foe to cross. Only then would they have a fighting chance to survive.
Tuma could have simply warned the Agori of Bara Magna of what the Skrall had encountered and made some mutual defense agreement with the other villages. But that was not the Skrall way of doing things. No, instead he plotted, manipulated, and steadily weakened the villages until he was sure they could not stand against his army. Then the Skrall struck at the village of Atero, destroying it, and now Tajun had fallen as well. Complete surrender by the Agori would follow any day now.
Then Tuma would rule not just a city, but an empire… and it would be an empire he would keep, no matter who might dare to attack it.
A pair of Bone Hunters stood guard amid the ruins of Tajun. They were not happy. Their role in life was to ride, hunt, rob, and kill. It was the nature of their people to take from those who were weaker. Bone Hunters saw themselves as akin to the cruel wind that blew out of the Black Spike Mountains, raising sandstorms that blinded and killed those foolish enough to be caught out in the desert. Through their hunts, they eliminated those Glatorian and Agori who were not fit to survive.
That had changed since the alliance with the Skrall. Now they had to take orders from Tuma and his lieutenants, even if doing so meant standing around and watching over a pile of ashes.
As it turned out, the Bone Hunters were right: They were not made for guard duty. If they had been, they might have heard Ackar before he sprang up behind them and knocked their heads together. Instead, both slumped to the ground, unconscious.
Kiina appeared behind Ackar. “You have all the fun,” she chided him. “I get the next two.”
Ackar didn’t smile. “Let’s move. We need to warn the villages about the Skrall and Bone Hunters uniting.”
Kiina nodded. “And that we have a traitor on the inside.”
Mata Nui and Berix emerged from the cave, supporting Gresh between them. The young Glatorian had his arm in a makeshift sling of vine.
“How are you holding up?” Mata Nui asked Gresh.
“I’m fine,” said the wounded Glatorian. “You don’t need to baby me. But I could use a new weapon. The Skrall shredded my shield.”
Ackar and Kiina both looked at their own weapons, each heavily damaged by the recent battle with the Bone Hunters. “Get in line,” said Kiina.
Berix reached for Kiina’s trident. “I might be able to–”
Kiina yanked it away. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Wait,” said Ackar. He turned to Mata Nui. “What you did with the Vorox stinger, and Click. Could it work with my sword and her trident?”
Mata Nui reached up and touched the metal surface of his mask. “I don’t know. This mask… gave me new life. But I still don’t completely understand its power. I am certain it only works on things that are, or were, alive… like the stinger.”
“No problem,” said Berix. “Most Glatorian weapons have bone or claw cores.”
“‘Collected’ a few, have you?” said Kiina.
Mata Nui took Ackar’s sword in hand. “It’s worth a try, anyway.”
The others watched as he raised the sword to his brow. “Together… as one mind,” Mata Nui said, so softly they could barely hear him. Then the sword began to glow, its substance shifting into a larger, more formidable version of its old shape.
When the process was done, Mata Nui handed the sword back to the amazed Ackar. The Glatorian hefted it, testing the balance of the weapon, and admiring the quality of the blade. Suddenly, the sword glowed red-hot in his hand. Flames leapt to life along the blade and shot from the tip, scorching a sand dune nearby.
“What in –” Ackar said.
Mata Nui was not surprised. “Of course,” he said. “Fire is your elemental power… it is the heart of your tribe. The Mask of Life has simply ignited it. You have become a true Toa.”
Ackar had no idea what the term meant, but from the way Mata Nui said, it was obviously meant as a compliment. He put his hand on Mata Nui’s shoulder and said simply, “Thank you, friend.”
Mata Nui looked down at the sand, and then back up at Ackar. “Strange. I have worn many titles, been called many things… but never ‘friend.’”
Kiina stepped forward, holding her trident out to Mata Nui. “Me next.”
Mata Nui took the weapon from her. “I will do what I can for you, but then I must continue my journey. I must find a way to free my people.”
“You’re not going to help us?” asked Gresh.
“No,” said Mata Nui. “I have my own battles to fight.”
“Mata Nui, trust me,” said Ackar. “I’ve seen you fight. You’re quick, you have some style, but… you’re not ready. Stay with us a while and I’ll teach you everything I know.”
Mata Nui considered the proposal. He did not know where his destiny would lead him, and still suspected it was a path he was meant to walk on his own. But this was a world of unknown dangers, and here he had already found a rare treasure: friends who would fight beside him. Having done that, could he really go back to being alone again?
He looked at Ackar, his answer written in his eyes. The veteran Glatorian smiled and clasped Mata Nui’s hand.
“Welcome to the team, other-worlder,” Kiina said. “Now let’s go to work.”
Ackar kept his word. As they traveled toward the village of Tesara, he began schooling Mata Nui in the art of combat.
* * *
From the pages of Mata Nui’s diary…
Ackar is a most unusual being. Despite his own troubles – his fears that his fighting skills are eroding, his concern that he may be forced into retirement – he has offered to aid me in my quest to return home. He says he owes me for saving his life in the arena in Vulcanus, but I sense there is something more to it. Perhaps he wants… or needs… to feel he is part of something greater than himself.
He reminds me of someone I knew of in my own universe – a hero named Onua. He was tremendously strong, but his power was always tempered with wisdom. Like Ackar, he was a strategist… and also like the Glatorian who rides with me now, he was respected by all who knew him. I can tell from the way Kiina speaks with Ackar that both his word and his approval are things she values.
Ackar has pointed out, correctly, that I have a lot to learn about fighting. He has offered to teach me. Of course, his way of doing it is a bit strange. Rather than teach me maneuvers, he has me watching birds in flight. I am to follow their movements and try to predict if they will turn right or left. It is frustrating work and I do not seem to be very good at it.
Later, Ackar takes me up into the rocks and shows me a creature he calls a rock steed. It is a vicious, reptilian beast, and Ackar says it must be fought before it can be tamed. When he tries to do just that, the rock steed strikes him down. I challenge it… and find that I can do what Ackar taught, predict its movements from the smallest signs. I fight and I drive it off, only to learn that Ackar was not so badly hurt – he simply believed that I would learn best if I believed his life depended on it. And he was right – seeing him in danger crystallized his lessons in my mind. I had no time to think about what I was to do, only time to do it.
A wise being, indeed.
* * *
As night fell on the second day of their journey, Berix was in the driver’s seat of Kiina’s chariot, with Gresh riding along beside. Kiina, Ackar, and Mata Nui walked.
“Unfair,” said Gresh. “I score this clawed-out new weapon, and Mata Nui tells me I’ve got awesome ‘Toa’ powers – whatever those are – but none of you will let me test them out.”
Kiina smiled. She had been after Gresh for a while to “lighten up.” For a young Glatorian, he had always been much too grim and serious. It seemed that he had taken her words to heart.
“You mean like this?” she said, laughing as she thrust her trident forward. Three jets of water shot from the tines of the weapon, striking a pile of boulders and blasting the rocks to bits.
Gresh raised his new shield with his good arm. “Come on… just a little test?”
“Patience is the first lesson in becoming a great Glatorian,” said Ackar.
“Oh, I think this is pretty great,” said Kiina, firing another blast of water from her trident.
Ackar stepped right in front of her water jet, fire sword raised. As the water struck his blade, it turned to steam.
“Guess it’s a standoff,” said Kiina.
A sudden blast of sand struck the cloud of steam, blowing it away. Kiina and Ackar turned to see Gresh hurling a mini-cyclone from his shield at the ground. The concentrated air was hurling the sand aloft with amazing force.
“Looks like I can blow you both away,” Gresh said, smiling.
Kiina’s expression brightened. “Better yet – why not combine our powers?”
“Enough,” said Ackar. “There’s more to winning a fight than fancy weapons. And let me tell you, Mata Nui isn’t the only one that could use a few tips. You’ve got raw talent, Gresh, and a lot of courage, but that will only take you so far. Kiina, I saw your last match with Vastus in Tesara. You let your guard down and he almost took your head off.”
Berix burst out laughing. “Ha, Kiina, he got you there!”
Kiina whipped around and smacked Berix out of the driver’s seat with her trident. Gresh leaned forward to grab the wheel and keep the vehicle from veering off course. Ackar stepped forward and grabbed the shaft of Kiina’s weapon.
“Stop it, both of you. Pay attention and you might actually learn something – like this!” Ackar said, as he turned on Mata Nui and slashed downward with his fire blade. Mata Nui barely blocked the blow with his own sword, but the impact knocked him backward into Kiina. Click flew from his shoulder and landed on Kiina’s arm.
“See?” said Ackar. “You have to learn to read your opponent’s next move, before it happens.”
Kiina wasn’t paying attention. She was eyeing the beetle on her arm warily. “Watch it,” she said to Click. “I’m warning you. I’ll bite back.”
Click opened his pincers as if to snap at her, but before it could do so, Ackar had grabbed it by the shell. The Glatorian lifted the beetle into the air.
“Study your opponent’s fighting style,” Ackar continued. “Find their weakness, then use it against them… if you can.”
Click snapped his pincers together angrily. Ackar tossed the insect back to Mata Nui. The beetle settled contentedly on his shoulder once more.
Dawn brought a return of stifling heat to the desert. The group had been spending the days under whatever shelter they could find, but this morning there was no need to hunt for a cave or a rock outcropping. As they came over a rise, they could see two villages in a large patch of jungle. Great trees dominated the landscape, with vines trailing everywhere. A Glatorian arena sat in the center, separating the villages, but it did not look at all like the one Mata Nui had seen in Vulcanus. This arena was constructed of wood and vines, which formed a latticework roof over the fighting area.
“Where are we?” asked Mata Nui.
“The twin villages of Tesara,” said Ackar. “Gresh’s home.”
The sound of cheering drifted up from the villages. “Sounds like a match is about to start,” said Gresh. “Vastus must be fighting today.”
“Not if I can help it,” said Ackar.
The others looked at him, surprised both by his words and the fierce tone in which he said them. The Vulcanus Glatorian ignored them and started marching toward Tesara. After a moment, the rest of the group followed along behind.
In the arena, Metus sat with Raanu and other Agori in the stands, watching as the Glatorian were announced. The main match for the day pitted the very experienced Vastus of Tesara against the reigning champion of all Glatorian, Tarix of Tajun. Had the great tournament in Atero taken place this year, it was possible Tarix would have been robbed of his title by someone else, most likely a Skrall Glatorian. But the Skrall attack on the arena had brought the tournament to a violent halt, so Tarix remained the official champion.
Following the main match, there would be training matches between some of the newer Glatorian Metus was managing. That had brought Raanu here, in hopes of finding a new fighter for Vulcanus.
Ackar and his team had reached the outskirts of the village by now. Berix lagged behind, glancing uneasily from side to side.
“Why so jumpy, thief?” asked Kiina. “Rip someone off around here? Or just looking for a Skrall to tell our plans to?”
“I’m not a traitor or a thief,” Berix answered. Then he added nervously, “But I have done a little… collecting… around here, so best to lie low.” His eyes chanced upon an axe hanging from a nearby doorway and he reached for it, saying, “Oh, I like that…”
Kiina slapped his hand away. “This is not the time, Berix. Got that?”
Metus spotted Ackar, Gresh, and Mata Nui approaching. He rose from his seat, smiling broadly. “What a surprise! Welcome, friends. Isn’t this great? A sold-out crowd. I knew pitting Vastus against Tarix would pack them in. Mata Nui, I hope your appearance means you’re ready to–”
Ackar cut him off. “It’s over.”
“Over?” said Raanu, confused. He turned to Metus. “What is he talking about?”
Metus shrugged. “Who knows, with him? He might still be upset about that match with Strakk… or maybe he’s been out in the sun too long. I’ll talk to him.”
The fight promoter walked over to Ackar. “Uh, listen, Ackar. With all due respect, you don’t have any authority here – this is a match between Tesara and Tajun. And you’re too late anyway.”
Metus gestured toward the arena. The match had indeed already started. Tarix had fired his Thornax launcher, but Vastus dove aside before the explosive sphere could strike him. It slammed into the ground and went off, sending a spray of shattered rock into the air. He hit the ground and rolled, ending up on his feet and firing his own launcher at Tarix.
The Tajun Glatorian saw the Thornax coming at him, but too late to move aside. He brought his weapon up to block it, but the explosive impact still sent him reeling.
Ackar had seen more than enough. He stepped up to the railing, even as Metus tried to block his way. “Wait, what are you doing?” asked Metus, his tone a little frantic. Ackar might have already seen his best days, but Metus knew he was still a Glatorian that others listened to. If he spoke out against the Glatorian system, who knew what might happen?
Gresh, Kiina, and Mata Nui moved to Ackar’s side, pushing Metus out of the way. Ackar leaned over the rail, his eyes scanning the crowd of Agori and the two Glatorian fighters.
“Listen to me,” Ackar said. “All fighting between Glatorian must stop. Our real enemy is out there, in the desert.”
The response of the villagers was shouts of “Sit down, you fool!” and “Mind your own business!” As serious as Glatorian matches were, they were also one of the few sources of entertainment for Agori. Beings who spent each day just trying to scrape together enough resources to survive needed whatever distraction they could get and weren’t in any hurry to give it up.
It was the voice of Tarix that silenced the shouting. “Quiet,” said the Glatorian. “Let him talk.”
Vastus moved to stand beside Tarix. “I agree. Speak, Ackar.”
“Thank you, Vastus. And you, Tarix,” Ackar said. “Now listen to me, everyone. The Bone Hunters and the Skrall have formed an alliance.”
This provoked a chorus of disbelief from the crowd. Some threw their hands up into the air and turned away. One Agori could be heard saying, “Why are they making us listen to some old loser’s fantasies? Get on with the match!”
“It’s true,” said Kiina. “Tarix… our village has been destroyed. I saw it with my own eyes. We arrived too late to help. The Agori who were there escaped, probably out into the sands, but… it’s gone… all of it.”
“Impossible…” Tarix whispered. “I should have been there. I told Metus this match was a bad idea, especially when you would be in Vulcanus, but Tajun needs the food that was at stake here. And now you say there is no more Tajun.”
“Kiina speaks the truth,” said Gresh. “Tajun is gone, and it’s just the beginning.”
“We must unite,” said Ackar. “Time is running out.”
As soon as he said it, Ackar knew he had made a mistake. The Agori – before simply angry and sceptical – had now become a fearful mob. Who could blame them? Many of them had seen firsthand the aftermath of Bone Hunter raids and the Skrall destruction of Atero. They had witnessed Glatorian running before the might of the Skrall army. Why should they believe Glatorian could save them now that their two worst enemies had joined together?
Raanu chose that moment to step forward. He held his hands out to the crowd, gesturing for them to sit down and be silent. “Calm yourselves,” he said. “Your village leaders will know what is best for you. We will do as we always have.”
Mata Nui could no longer stay quiet. He knew all too well the dangers of underestimating an enemy or expecting that the old methods of dealing with a problem would always work. It was thinking like that which had cost him a universe.
“Your old ways will not work,” Mata Nui told the crowd. “You are facing a unified army now. I have seen this before. They will not stop until your people are destroyed.”
“This is crazy,” said Metus. “It can’t be as bad as all that. Maybe… maybe the Skrall and the Bone Hunters just happened to hit Tajun at the same time. There might not be any alliance at all. We could be getting all upset over nothing.”
“Nothing?” said Tarix, outraged. “You call the destruction of my village nothing? Be glad you are not a Glatorian, Metus, or I would have your head for that.”
Raanu turned to Ackar, his voice a harsh whisper. “We have no weapons, Ackar, not any that can stop the Skrall. You know that. How can we fight back?”
“Enough!” yelled Ackar, as he thrust his weapon up into the air. Fire erupted from the blade, lancing high into the morning sky. As one, the crowd gasped and started to back away.
“Yeah, we kinda thought that would get your attention,” said Kiina.
“Toa Mata Nui has offered to help us build up our defenses,” said Ackar. “With him at our side, I know we can prevail.”
Raanu snorted in disbelief. “‘Toa’ Mata Nui? Why should we trust this stranger?”
The crowd echoed Raanu’s sentiments. Mata Nui understood how they felt. After all, he was not one of them. From what he had seen, the Agori lived a hard life. Most likely, trust would not come easily to them, even in the best of circumstances. And this was far from the best of circumstances.
“Tarix, give Mata Nui your weapon,” Ackar said.
The Tajun Glatorian stepped forward reluctantly and handed Mata Nui his crude sword. “What is he going to do with it?”
“Show you the power you already possess,” said Ackar.
Mata Nui brought Tarix’s weapon to his brow. As soon as the weapon touched the Mask of Life, it transformed, becoming a far more ornate and powerful looking sword. Tarix and the Agori looked on, stunned.
“I don’t believe it,” Tarix said, as Mata Nui handed him his new weapon. “It’s… incredible.”
Ackar turned back to the crowd of villagers. “What more proof do you need? The time to unite the villages has come. If we stand together, we will win.”
The Agori burst into cheers, all but Raanu. He still looked unconvinced. Gesturing once more for silence and receiving it, he looked up at Ackar. “If we agree, do you Glatorian and this Mata Nui swear to stay and protect us?”
Kiina, Gresh, Ackar, Tarix, and Vastus nodded their assent. Then all eyes turned to Mata Nui.
“You do not have to ask for the allegiance of the Glatorian. You know where our loyalties lie,” Ackar replied to Raanu. Then he turned to Mata Nui. “But we cannot speak for you. I will not pretend I have anything left to teach you. But I’ll ask: as friend… will you help us?”
Mata Nui reached out and locked arms with Ackar. “Then, as a friend… I will stay.”
The five Glatorian formed a circle around their new ally. Raising their weapons in the air, filled with the hope of victory, they cried out, “We fight together!”
Their shout echoed across the desert, ringing from the mountains and riding the wind across the dunes. Somewhere, a Bone Hunter’s rock steed cocked its head, wondering at the noise. The beast pawed the ground, every sense alert, eager to charge. For though it could not understand the words the Glatorian had spoken, it knew well the meaning of the tone.
It was a battle cry.