Tuma and Stronius rode north over mountain trails long unused. It had been along this very route one year before that the Skrall had fled from their last fortress. The vicious attacks of the baterra had driven them south through the Black Spikes to the borders of Bara Magna’s great desert. Now two of their number were going back.
“This is madness,” Stronius said. “You realize that.”
No one else in the Skrall legions would have dared speak to Tuma like that. But Stronius was an elite warrior known for saying whatever was on his mind. His services to the Skrall led Tuma to be a bit more tolerant of his outbursts than he would have been otherwise.
“Then turn back,” Tuma said calmly. “I did not order you to accompany me.”
“I wasn’t going to let you ride up here on your own,” Stronius replied. He turned from Tuma to look at the path ahead. “I have a duty to protect the life of my leader. And your life is doubly at risk here.”
Stronius shot Tuma an annoyed look. “Baterra pale beside those you would visit, and you know it.”
“We share a common enemy,” Tuma said. “They will be… reasonable.”
“We abandoned them to that enemy,” Stronius snapped. “They will be merciless.”
The two rode for most of two nights and a day. They ran into no baterra, so far as they knew. If the rocks or the trees were their enemies in another shape, well, those enemies chose not to attack. Now and then, they paused at the sight of Skrall armor littering the path where one of their warriors had perished during the long retreat.
Dawn was still a few hours away when they veered sharply eastward. All of the Skrall fortresses in this region had been destroyed by the baterra long ago. Logically, no one here should have survived the last year. But logic had nothing to do with who Tuma was seeking.
Stronius was the first to feel it – an electricity in the air, an oppressive feeling that seemed to slow all movement. His mind felt dull, his body sluggish. He turned to shout a warning to Tuma and it felt like it took an hour to perform that simple action.
Tuma felt less of an effect than Stronius, being a little further away. He spotted a robed figure atop some nearby rocks, wielding a wooden staff. “You!” he shouted. “Tell her I want an audience!”
The robed figure’s head tilted, as if puzzled by the request, then the mysterious being disappeared among the rocks. A few minutes later, Stronius felt his head clear. He glanced at Tuma, who nodded once. Side by side, the two rode on.
The sky darkened. From every side of the pass, more robed figures peered down at the two Skrall. Their faces were hidden, but Tuma could feel their hatred just the same.
Up ahead, a half dozen more figures blocked the way. Beyond them, a seventh sat on a crude throne carved from part of the mountain itself. “Dismount,” she ordered, in a voice that was surprisingly soft. Tuma tensed. He had not realized this one had ascended to leadership. His hope of surviving this journey dwindled considerably.
He and Stronius both got off their rock steeds. The seated figure then said, “The weapons of warriors are not allowed here.”
“No,” Stronius replied immediately. “An elite warrior never surrenders his weapon.”
The robed figure shrugged. “Then he can surrender his life instead.”
Pain exploded in Stronius’ head. It was worse than anything he had ever felt, worse than anything a blade or a Thornax could do. Yet no weapon had ever touched his body. The pain tore a scream from him as he dropped to his knees.
“Stop!” Tuma shouted. “We came here in peace!”
A chorus of whispers came from every side. The sound chilled Tuma as he realized what he was hearing was laughter.
“You came here out of fear,” the seated figure said. “Just as you abandoned us out of fear… just as your kind banished us millennia ago, out of fear. You stink of it, Tuma, despite your mighty legions, despite your conquests. You are a warrior made of straw.”
Tuma took three steps forward, ready to ram his sword into his tormentor. That was as far as he got before the pain hit him too. But he did not leave his feet, not even as the agony increased beyond all imaginable limits. He had made a vow long ago that he intended to keep – he would never kneel before the Sisters of the Skrall.
As quickly as it had appeared, the pain vanished. Tuma saw Stronius slowly standing back up again. He noted the elite warrior’s club still lay on the ground.
The figure on the throne rose and removed her hood. She wore no helmet or armor. Her face was a dark gray in color, wizened and weathered. Tuma knew appearances were deceiving. Though her body might seem feeble in comparison to a Skrall warrior, the energies at her command were more devastating than any sword or axe could ever be.
“You did not fall,” she said to Tuma, matter of factly.
“I prefer to remain standing,” the Skrall leader replied. “That is why I am here.”
“You risked your sanity and your life coming here.” She gestured at the other robed females. “They would see you dead, and worse than dead… I see no reason to deny them.”
Tuma gave the slightest of shrugs, an acknowledgment that the female who faced him could do what she claimed – not an easy admission for him to make, but an honest one. “I thought you were a seeker of knowledge,” he said. “If you kill me, you’ll never learn what I came here to offer you.”
“You have nothing we want,” the female answered dismissively. “And we have nothing left to give you in return.”
She resumed her seat, her gaze never leaving Tuma. She stared straight into his eyes as she addressed her assembled people.
“Kill them,” she said. “Kill them both.”
* * *
Ackar knew there was no time to waste. He and the other Glatorian immediately began organizing the defenses of Tesara. With the aid of Mata Nui and the Agori, they erected crude stone walls, mounted Thornax launchers, and dug pit traps in the sand. Kiina worked with the Agori, teaching them how best to use their weapons against mounted foes.
“What makes you so certain the Skrall will strike here next?” Mata Nui asked Ackar as they worked.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Ackar replied. “As soon as we saw the Bone Hunters are working with them, a lot of things began to make sense.”
“Not long ago, the Bone Hunters started targeting Kiina’s village, Tajun,” Ackar explained. “Raiding trade caravans, killing Agori, doing everything they could to cut the village off from the rest of Bara Magna. Since Tajun sits on an oasis, you hurt them, you hurt everyone, because they run the water trade.”
“That does make sense,” Mata Nui agreed.
“After Tajun, what village has the most valuable resource? Iconox, to the north – they have a huge deposit of exsidian, a metal that resists wear even in the worst sandstorms. It’s much prized for use in weapons. If the Skrall want to eliminate our ability to fight back, that’s the most logical place to strike.”
“Lies right between the two villages,” said Ackar. “The combined Skrall-Bone Hunter legion hit Tajun, and they’ll want Iconox. But they can’t afford to leave Tesara sitting behind their lines. They’ll be out to destroy it before they move on Iconox.”
Mata Nui heard a cheer coming from the other Glatorian. He turned to see that the walls were complete and the pits concealed.
“Well done,” said Tarix. “We did it.”
“The Skrall will never know what hit them,” said Gresh.
I truly hope not, thought Mata Nui. But are the Skrall somewhere even now, saying the same thing about us?
That night was quiet. Kiina stood guard with a group of handpicked Agori, watching for any movement in the desert. The other Glatorian and villagers tried to rest, though sleep proved elusive for most. Bone Hunters were known for making night attacks, often traveling without torches or any other means of illumination. It was frequently the case that by the time a village knew they were coming, it was too late to do anything about it.
Kiina was standing watch on the eastern edge of the village when she heard a sound. It was the barely audible noise of armored feet treading through sand, but it was not coming from beyond Tesara. No, it was from off to her right. Someone was slipping out of the village and into the desert.
The traitor, she said to herself. Now I’ve got you.
She readied her trident and moved off in the direction of the sound. In the pale glow of the village torches, she caught sight of an Agori walking swiftly away from Tesara. Doing her best to stay silent, she followed.
Kiina caught up to the Agori just as he reached the Tesara hot springs. Seizing him from behind, she spun him around. In the moonlight, she could see clearly who it was, and she was not a bit surprised.
“I have to admit, I was hoping I was wrong,” Kiina said. “Don’t move, traitor.”
Berix looked up at her, panic in his eyes. “What? No! You’ve got it all wrong. I was following–”
A soft voice came from behind the Glatorian. “He was following me.”
Berix and Kiina both turned at the sound. “You?!” said Kiina in surprise.
The shadows around them began to move. The next instant, a dozen Skrall and Bone Hunters closed in on them, weapons primed and ready.
“…And this is how you block a Certavus double-strike,” Ackar said, showing off a defensive move it had taken him years to master. Tarix, Vastus, Gresh, and Mata Nui looked on, suitably impressed. Of the lot, only Tarix was agile enough to duplicate the maneuver, and even he doubted he could do it without lots of practice.
The demonstration was interrupted by Metus. “Ackar! Mata Nui!” he shouted. “The Skrall have kidnapped Berix and Kiina!”
“What? How?” said Ackar.
Now Raanu rushed up to the group. “I saw them, too,” he said. “They were being dragged away through the hot springs.”
“We must go after them,” said Mata Nui, “before they get too far. We cannot leave them to the mercies of the Skrall.”
“Agreed,” said Ackar.
“I’m going with you,” said Gresh. “My wound has healed. I’m ready.”
By now, the whole village was roused. The Agori crowded around the Glatorian. Some wondered aloud what was going on, while those who knew looked at the Glatorian with worry on their faces.
“No,” said Raanu. “You can’t leave us. Don’t you see, this is just what the Bone Hunters and the Skrall want. They’ll lead you away, then wipe us out – just like Tajun.”
“He’s right,” an Agori villager shouted.
“You have to stay!” said another. The cry was picked up by the rest of the crowd, born of panic and unreasoning fear.
“I understand your feelings,” Mata Nui said to the assembled Agori. “But we cannot turn our backs on our friends.”
“Kiina is just one Glatorian,” Raanu answered. “And Berix is a worthless thief, everyone knows that.”
“No one is worth sacrificing, no matter how small,” said Mata Nui. “We stand together, as a team.”
“So you’d leave us defenseless?” demanded Raanu. “A fine thing! We trusted you with our lives, and you repay us with betrayal.”
Mata Nui looked at Ackar and Gresh, then back at Raanu. “I was once forced to abandon my own people. I will not do so again. The Glatorian will remain here. I will go after Berix and Kiina… alone.”
“No!” said Gresh. “You can’t!”
“One being alone, even you, Mata Nui, against a horde of Skrall and Bone Hunters?” said Ackar. “It would be suicide, my friend, and it would help Berix and Kiina not at all.”
Mata Nui held up his hand to silence them. “We will see each other again. I promise you.” Then he turned and walked out of the village.
“Let me go with him,” Gresh said to Ackar. “He doesn’t stand a chance alone.”
Ackar watched his friend disappear into the darkness. The last glint of moonlight reflected off the shell of Click, perched on its master’s shoulder. “He’s not alone,” the Glatorian said.
Dawn found Ackar climbing a rise toward a great petrified tree stump. Mata Nui sat atop the stump, deep in meditation.
“I thought I might find you up here,” said Ackar gently.
Mata Nui smiled. “Thank you, Ackar… for everything.”
Ackar shook his head. “I should be thanking you. I’d lost faith in others… and myself.” The Glatorian held a rolled-up piece of parchment out to Mata Nui. “Here. This might help.”
Mata Nui spread the parchment out. It was a map of the world of Bara Magna. Ackar pointed to a spot in the northeast, labeled “Roxtus” on the map.
“My guess is they’ll be there,” said Ackar. “Berix may not be a valuable prisoner, but Kiina is. Of all of us, she’s the only one who ever came close to beating a Skrall in the arena. They’ll make her the star of one of their matches… before they kill her.”
Mata Nui could hear what Ackar was leaving unsaid. Kiina meant a lot to the Glatorian. It was tough on him, leaving her safety in the hands of someone else. But the alternative would be rebellion by the Agori – or worse, their surrender to the Skrall.
“I wish I could go with you,” said Ackar. “I know, I know… you’re ready.” Pointing down to Tesara, he added, “The question is, are they?”
Mata Nui followed his gaze. Down below, the Agori were laboring to pull their two massive shelters together. Two structures separated by an arena were more vulnerable to a “divide and conquer” Skrall attack. One could be more easily defended.
“Uniting the two halves of Tesara is a start,” said Mata Nui.
“Let’s hope the rest of the villages survive long enough to join us,” Ackar answered.
Ackar suddenly feinted a jab at Mata Nui’s face. Mata Nui moved like lightning, bringing his hand up to block Ackar’s fist. Ackar burst out laughing.
“You’ve learned well, my friend,” he said, slapping Mata Nui on the back.
“I had a great teacher,” Mata Nui replied, smiling.
A great boom suddenly rocked the desert. Mata Nui and Ackar looked down below to see that the Agori had succeeded in uniting the two shelters into one. While both large metal structures had looked impressive before, connected together they were a formidable sight that might make even a Skrall hesitate before invading.
But their new appearance had an even more profound effect on Mata Nui. His eyes widened slightly and he gasped. Now he knew why the huge shelters had looked so familiar to him. It had been right in front of him all along, but with all that had been going on, he hadn’t seen it.
“Incredible…” he whispered.
“What is it?” asked Ackar.
Mata Nui wanted to shout the answer to the skies. It was amazing, wonderful… it could be the key to his regaining his lost universe. But now was not the time to reveal what he had learned to Ackar, not when the Glatorian faced such a serious threat. When the Skrall were defeated, there would be time to share his revelation.
“I will explain… later,” he said, beginning his descent back down the mountain.
Ackar watched him go, wondering what had gotten into his friend. Sure, seeing the shelters coming together was a good start, inspiring, even… but hardly “incredible.” Well, sometimes there was no figuring out Mata Nui, he thought, and that was to be expected. He was from a completely different world, after all.
Will he ever make it back home? Ackar asked himself. I know that’s what he wants. But I am not so sure Bara Magna can stand to lose him.
Roxtus was the largest village in all of Bara Magna, big enough to be called a city. Home to the Skrall warriors and the rock tribe Agori, it was a place few had visited even before the war had begun. The Skrall were not friendly or particularly good hosts. Most of the Glatorian or Agori who wound up there did so against their will, having been captured by Bone Hunters and sold into slavery in Roxtus.
Since the attack on Atero, of course, no one had dared come within miles of Roxtus if they could avoid it. The city was an armed camp, with Skrall troops drilling for a planned campaign and Agori guards talking about how they wished they could be there to watch the other villages fall. Outside the walls, Bone Hunters scoured the desert, watching for Agori spies and Glatorian raiders.
Kiina and Berix were getting a look at life inside Roxtus. Hanging in a cage suspended high in the air, Berix was starting to think they might have been better off buried in the rubble of Tajun. It didn’t help that Kiina had decided their captivity was all his fault, not to mention that she was still angry about his activities in the Tajun cave.
“It was my cavern,” she insisted for the third time. “You should have stayed out of it!”
“Oh, really? Your cavern?” snapped Berix. “You stole it! You’re a thief, just like me.”
“That – no!” said Kiina. “And I thought you said you were a collector, you little weasel!”
“Ah-hah, now she remembers. How things change when the metal claw is on the other foot.”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Kiina sputtered. “Look, that cavern was my secret place… my private sanctuary from all the ugliness outside… Can you understand that?”
Berix looked at the expression in Kiina’s eyes and suddenly felt all the anger drain out of him. Bara Magna wasn’t the easiest place to live. Probably everyone needed some kind of an escape. For him, it was “collecting:” for Kiina, the cave and her dreams of someday getting off this planet. Most other Glatorian just threw themselves into training nonstop as a way of ignoring the harsh realities of life in the desert.
“Yeah. I can,” Berix said, after a long moment. “I’ve got feelings, too, you know. And by the way, I didn’t steal them.”
Kiina actually smiled warmly at Berix. He couldn’t believe it. “No,” she said. “You just collected them.”
Berix smiled back. “Didn’t you ever think that maybe you weren’t the only one who needed to believe that there was something more?”
Kiina didn’t reply, just looked away. The silence that followed was uncomfortable. Berix had never seen Kiina so… vulnerable before. He had to admit that he was guilty of the same thing as she: He had never bothered to think about her feelings. Maybe if they had stopped shouting at each other for a minute, they might have settled the cave issue between them long ago.
“I’ve got an idea,” he offered. “Maybe we could share the cavern? It could be our secret place. I mean, once the Glatorian rescue us… Um, they are going to rescue us, aren’t they?”
Kiina gestured at the fortress in which they were held prisoner, bristling as it was with armed Skrall and Agori. “Look where we are, Berix. I wouldn’t count on it.”
Berix’s smile disappeared. Then suddenly it was back, twice as bright as before. “Yeah, well, then what’s that?” he said, pointing toward the gate.
Kiina looked down. Mata Nui, shield in hand, was walking into the city of Roxtus. Mounted Bone Hunters rode behind him, prodding him towards the central arena. But this was no prisoner they were escorting, that was obvious. His head was held high.
Hearing the commotion, Tuma, leader of the Skrall, stepped out of his shelter and walked to the center of the arena. He stood still, sizing Mata Nui up as the hero approached. Tuma had heard stories about this one from the Bone Hunters who survived the Skopio fight. He had been prepared to credit this new Glatorian with skill and daring, but obviously the warrior was lacking in sense if he walked into Roxtus alone.
This stranger will learn a lesson, thought Tuma, and a painful one. He walked into my city – he will not be walking out again.