Stronius stood at the edge of a glassy lake. It was a calm, clear day, warm for the mountains, with a soft breeze. Rock Agori were working nearby, building weapons of war. Not far away, a horde of Vorox, each chained to the other, was being marched off to labor in the mines.
Life was good.
Well, almost. As he looked down at his reflection in the water, Stronius noticed a small crack in the chestplate of his armor. When had that happened? Skrall armor was some of the toughest around and he couldn’t recall an opponent landing any blows lately that might have damaged it. This was puzzling.
Even more confusing – and disturbing – was that the crack was growing bigger as he watched. It was already more than two inches long, and spreading into a spider-web of tiny fractures. He staggered back a step. The crack was big enough now that he could see something through it. It looked like another layer of armor, this one silver.
The crack accelerated its pace. Before Stronius’ startled eyes, his chest armor split open, followed by his arm and leg plate. With a loud crack, his helmet shattered. He stared at his reflection in horror – something was emerging from inside the ruin of his armor – a baterra!
And Stronius could do nothing but scream.
Not far away, Tuma heard Stronius’ ragged cry. The female Skrall weren’t satisfied to just execute their prisoners. No, they wanted to torture them first, using their mental powers to create illusions. He had no idea what Stronius was seeing now, but it was a good guess that his elite warrior’s sanity would go before his life did.
Tuma’s weapon was on the ground, just out of his reach. The women had left it there to mock him. His mind told his arm to reach for it, but his arm wouldn’t move. His body was paralyzed by the mental force of his captors. Only his mouth still worked. When the time came, they wanted to hear his screams, too.
But a good warrior always had more than one strategy in mind. He’d hoped to use the threat of the baterra to talk the females into allying with him. If that wouldn’t work, he knew something that would… something that the females wouldn’t be able to resist.
He tried to rise. A stabbing pain tore through his mind. It was time, then. He opened his mouth and yelled one word: “Angonce.”
For a moment, the pain increased and he thought he would surely go mad or die. Then it eased, just enough for him to take a breath. The leader of the female Skrall approached. She grabbed Tuma’s jaw roughly and forced his head up to look at her.
“What do you know of Angonce?”
Tuma flicked his eyes toward Stronius. “Stop… whatever… you’re doing to him… and we’ll talk.”
The female Skrall nodded to one of the others. The next instant, Stronius stopped screaming and collapsed in a heap.
“I know where he might be,” said Tuma. “At least, where he once was.”
“Is that all?” the female Skrall spat. “We all know that. The great tower… the burning place… in the Valley of the Maze. That is where they all were.”
“And they all fled,” answered Tuma. “No one knows where. But Angonce always had more of a… curiosity… about the Agori than the others. He would stay close enough to keep an eye on them.”
The leader of the Sisters of the Skrall considered his words. The females of her species had been gifted from birth with psionic powers, strong enough to enable them to withstand the hatred and violence of the males and to resist the baterra. But the legends said that one female Skrall had once encountered the Great Being named Angonce, and Angonce had taught her how to ascend to a whole new level of power. Some said entire civilizations rose and fell on her whims now. She had evolved far past her own species and had no contact with them ever again. Still, every Skrall female hoped to one day find Angonce and learn his secrets.
“Why would you share this with us?” asked the female. “You know what we could do with that kind of power.”
“I could lie to you,” said Tuma, “and say I think greater power would make you virtuous and good. But the truth is, I think the whole story is a pile of rock steed droppings. It’s a load of nonsense you and your sisters tell each other to stay warm on cold nights in the mountains. Even if you find a Great Being, he will laugh in your face – that’s what they do best.”
“And if you’re wrong?” the female said, a wicked smile curving the edges of her mouth upward.
Tuma returned her smile. “Then I won’t live long enough to regret it, will I?”
“And what do you want in exchange?”
“Our freedom,” answered Tuma. “And your pledge to destroy any baterra you encounter on your journey.”
“The baterra pose no threat to us,” she countered. “We carry no weapons that they would recognize as such. Why should we start a war with them?”
“Because the alternative is two dead Skrall you have to bury, and no more idea of where Angonce is than you had before,” said Tuma. “You know, the problem with revenge is it is over so quickly. And when you are done, what is there left to do? Even miserable creatures like the Sisters of the Skrall need something to aspire to, to strive for… isn’t that true?”
Of course, thought the female. In this case, we aspire to the destruction of you and yours. So we will seek out baterra for you… and make sure they know just where you are.
She nodded. “We have a bargain, Tuma. You and Stronius can leave… but once we find our Great Being, we will see you two again. Be sure of that.”
That is what you think, witch, thought Tuma. As soon as we have seized the Bara Magna desert and destroyed any baterra that are left, we will find a way to eliminate you too.
“A bargain it is,” said Tuma. “And when – if – you return from your quest, be sure we will give you a… memorable welcome home.”
* * *
“I don’t believe it,” said Kiina. Her thoughts were a jumble. There was excitement, relief, and surprise that someone had actually come to their rescue. There was puzzlement – where were Ackar, Gresh, Tarix, and the others? Why had Mata Nui come alone? And there was fear, too. She knew what Mata Nui had let himself in to do, and she worried about what might happen to him in this nest of sand snakes.
“Neither does Tuma,” Berix replied.
That might have been true, but if it was, Tuma was careful not to show it. The Skrall chief radiated power and confidence as Mata Nui approached. “I’d hoped all the Glatorian would come,” he said. “But it seems they are even bigger cowards than I thought.”
Mata Nui ignored the jibe. He marched up the ramp that led into the arena, paying no attention to the chained Vorox on either side of it who tried to claw at him, or the laughter of nearby Skrall warriors. Tuma reminded him of someone else he had known, in his past, so full of belief in his own might. Beings like Tuma, he knew, drew their power from the fear they provoked in those around them. Confronted by someone who felt no such fear, they often crumbled.
In the cage, Berix gave a little wave to Mata Nui as he passed underneath. “Is he–?” he began.
“Alone,” Kiina finished for him. “I’m not sure I want to look.”
Tuma turned to look at the crowd of Skrall and Agori. Gesturing toward Mata Nui, he said, “Either he’s a madman or he wants to join the winning side.” He turned to look at Mata Nui, an evil grin plastered on his features. “Which is it?”
Mata Nui walked right up to Tuma. The Skrall leader towered over him, but Mata Nui was not intimidated. He looked Tuma in the eyes and said, “I am here to fight for my friends’ freedom, one-on-one. Unless the leader of the Skrall is the true coward?”
Anger flashed in Tuma’s eyes, but his tone of voice stayed amused, even a little bored. “I’m going to enjoy tearing that fancy mask from your face.”
Before Mata Nui could reply, Tuma lashed out, landing a solid blow and sending his opponent sprawling in the sand. The Skrall and Bone Hunters cheered wildly. This was going to be a good fight, if a short one.
“Hey! No fair!” yelled Berix.
“Dirty, cheating Skrall,” Kiina said.
Tuma wasn’t letting up. He brought his huge sword down hard on Mata Nui’s shield. Mata Nui rolled away and got to his feet, but Tuma was on him in an instant. The Skrall leader struck again and again, battering Mata Nui around the arena at will. Tuma was enjoying this, but some part of him wondered – could it be this easy? Why wasn’t this Glatorian fighting back?
Above, Berix covered his eyes with his hands. “Oh, I can’t watch. Mata Nui’s getting shredded.”
“No, no, don’t you see?” said Kiina. “Watch. He’s doing what Ackar taught us – study your opponent, find his weakness.”
“Well, he’d better find it fast!” Berix replied.
In the arena, Tuma was feeling more confident than ever of victory. He wasn’t even bothering to keep his shield up anymore. This Glatorian was broken, too much of a coward to even raise his sword in defense. He was certainly far from being a worthy opponent for the leader of the warrior Skrall, but perhaps he could be a chew toy for the Vorox after Tuma was done with him.
“Did this pathetic weakling really believe he could bring down the mighty Tuma?” the Skrall leader bellowed to the crowd.
“Be careful,” said Mata Nui. “Arrogance can topple giants. Trust me… I know.”
Tuma had grown tired of this sport. It was time to end it. He swung his sword in what would surely be the killing blow.
But the strike did not connect. Mata Nui moved so fast he was almost a blur, ducking under the sword and slipping past his attacker. As Tuma’s momentum carried the Skrall leader forward, Mata Nui helped his opponent along with a sharp elbow to the back. Tuma grunted and staggered a few steps.
The Skrall leader turned on Mata Nui, enraged. He swung his sword wildly, but where his blows had never missed before, now hitting Mata Nui was like trying to strike a desert wind. Mata Nui ducked and dodged each blow, then took advantage of his opponent’s being off-balance to land solid shots of his own. Each one rocked Tuma a little more, causing the Skrall chief to slow down just a bit. Faster and more agile, Mata Nui took full advantage of his foe’s fatigue, striking and then backing away before Tuma’s sword could hit.
In the cage, Kiina was so excited she was shaking Berix. “That’s it! Tuma’s huge, but he’s slow. Mata Nui’s using the Skrall’s own strength as leverage against him.”
“I get it! I get it!” Berix said, feeling like she was going to rattle his brains loose in a second.
The tide of battle had turned, and even Tuma knew it. With each blow Mata Nui evaded, his fury and his carelessness grew. “I’ll crush you like an insect!” he raged.
Remembering the origins of his shield, Mata Nui smiled. “Don’t be so fast to knock insects, Tuma. Sure, they’re small – but their sting can fell a giant, wouldn’t you agree?”
Tuma swung at Mata Nui’s head and missed once more; Mata Nui ducked inside his guard to strike two more hard blows. Tuma was exhausted and reeling. Mata Nui knew it was time to finish this fight.
Summoning all his remaining strength, Mata Nui brought his blade down in a final sweeping blow, shattering Tuma’s weapon to bits. Without pausing, Mata Nui spun, lashing out with a kick that sent Tuma crashing to his knees. Tuma looked up at Mata Nui, his body teetering for a moment. Then the Skrall leader collapsed into the sand.
All around, the Skrall, Bone Hunters, and Agori gasped in shock. Mata Nui ignored them, instead reaching down to pick up the fallen Tuma’s shield. Raising it high over his head, he proclaimed, “I claim Tuma’s shield in victory! Release my friends.”
In the cage above, Berix and Kiina embraced in wild celebration. “He did it!” shouted Berix.
“He really did it! Woo-hoo!” cried Kiina.
Silence reigned in the Skrall arena now. Tuma was conscious, but too weak to rise. The Skrall, amazingly, had not charged Mata Nui, perhaps too in shock that their leader had fallen. Mata Nui still held the shield aloft, waiting for his foes to honor the deal he had made with their leader.
Then there came the strange sound of one pair of hands clapping and all too familiar laughter. Mata Nui turned to see Metus standing at the entrance to the arena, Kiina’s trident in his hand. All around, the Skrall drew their weapons.
“I could always pick a winner. Now throw down your shield and your sword,” said Metus. When Mata Nui did not respond, Metus’ smile abruptly disappeared. “That’s not a joke.”
Mata Nui tossed his blade onto the sand and then gently laid down his shield. There was a flash of light as the shield transformed back into Click. “Save yourself,” Mata Nui whispered to the insect. The beetle gave a quick click of its mandibles and then vanished underground.
Metus hurled Kiina’s trident at the spot where the scarabax had vanished, but too late. The head of the trident stabbed into the sand, leaving the weapon sticking out of the ground.
“So you were the traitor all along,” said Mata Nui coldly.
“Coward!” Kiina screamed from above. “Keeping tabs on the Glatorian so you could sell us out to the Bone Hunters.”
“Not a coward,” Metus said, smiling. “Just a good businessman.”
“You were the one who convinced the Skrall and the Bone Hunters to unite,” said Mata Nui.
Metus gestured to the assembled army of Skrall warriors and nomadic bandits. “Of course I did. You think they’d come up with that idea on their own? As rival tribes, they did little damage, always having to be watchful of each other, but together… under one ruler…”
Kiina couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “You’d lead them against your own people?”
Metus spat on the ground. “What have the Agori ever done for me?”
“Uh, let’s see,” said Berix. “We trusted you?”
“The Glatorian will tear you apart for this,” Kiina said through gritted teeth.
Metus glanced at Kiina, then back to Mata Nui. “She still doesn’t understand.”
“We are the only ones that know your role in this,” agreed Mata Nui. “The other Glatorian still see you as an ally.”
“Exactly,” said Metus. “And by the time the Glatorian realize it, the battle will already be over. I win.”
Metus turned to his army. “Finish them! I’ve wasted enough time here; I have to get back to–”
His orders were interrupted by the sound of Bone Hunters grunting in alarm. The nomads were pointing toward the desert, their bodies actually shaking with fear. Metus turned and immediately saw why – there was a Glatorian heading for the city. But not just any Glatorian; no, this one shimmered in the sunlight and was easily 100 feet high.
That sight was more than enough for the Bone Hunters, who broke ranks and raced away in terror. Some didn’t even pause to mount their rock steeds, just took off into the desert on foot.
“Where are you going?” screamed Metus. “Don’t run, you idiots, fight!”
The traitorous Agori pointed at the Vorox, still chained near the entrance to the arena. “Unleash these wretched beasts. Make them fight. If that giant crushes them, so be it!”
Roused from their shock, the Skrall moved to carry out his orders. Loading their Thornax launchers, they prepared for battle with the giant attacker.
Mata Nui took advantage of his captors’ distraction. Grabbing both his sword and Kiina’s trident, he moved swiftly to the chain that held the cage in the air. With one swift stroke, he shattered the chain, sending the cage crashing down into the sand. The impact shattered the prison, freeing Berix and Kiina.
Mata Nui rushed to join them. “Are you all right?” he asked Kiina, handing her the trident.
“I am now that I’ve got this back,” Kiina answered. “Thanks.”
Berix didn’t share her relief at escaping. His attention was focused on the giant Glatorian who was still marching toward Roxtus. “What is that?”
Mata Nui glanced at the giant. In the distance, he could hear a familiar sound – the clicking of a scarabax beetle, multiplied millions of times. He smiled. “I believe, Berix, we are witnessing the true power of unity.”
The clicking could be heard by everyone now, so loud it drowned out every other sound. Before the startled eyes of the Skrall, the Glatorian dissolved into a swarm of scarabax beetles. With the giant construct gone, it was now possible to see what had been behind it all along.
“And loyalty…” said Mata Nui.
They emerged from the center of a sandstorm like avenging desert spirits. Tarix, Vastus, Ackar, Gresh, and so many more. Glatorian and Agori of every tribe united into one great army. Some were on foot, others in dune chariots and other vehicles. Their weapons ranged from Thornax launchers to rocks and clubs. It was a ragtag force, undisciplined, wild, maybe even suicidal, to dare challenge the Skrall – and it was the most beautiful sight Mata Nui had ever seen.
The Glatorian-led army swept into the city, clashing with the defending Skrall in fierce combat. Atop a wall, Mata Nui, Kiina, and Berix saw the battle begin. Mata Nui handed Tuma’s shield to Berix. “Here. You may need this.”
“Really?” Berix answered, grinning. “Wow, nobody ever actually gave me something before. Can I… keep it?”
“Only if you survive,” said Kiina. Seeing the worried expression on the Agori’s face, she smiled. “Don’t worry. Just stay close to me. But hold up – aren’t we missing part of the team?”
As if in answer, Click leapt from the sand, landing on the tip of Kiina’s trident. Mata Nui reached out as the beetle vanished in a flash of light, transforming back into his shield. Mata Nui’s eyes met the single eye in the center of the shield.
“Now we’re ready,” said Mata Nui.
Mata Nui and Kiina jumped from the wall, Berix following right after. “Wait for me!” the Agori shouted.
Two Skrall mounted on Bone Hunter rock steeds spotted Kiina and Mata Nui leaping down toward them. Before they could fire their Thornax launchers, they had been unseated by a combined attack. Berix, sailing through the air behind them, landed backward on the back of one of the steeds. It immediately took off in a gallop, with Berix hanging on for dear life.
The Agori glanced over his shoulder and saw he was headed right for a Skrall. “Oh, what the heck,” Berix said, closing his eyes tightly and swinging his shield downward. “No trial–”
The shield bashed the Skrall on the head, staggering him.
“–no treasure!” Berix smiled, already looking for another target.
Nearby, Mata Nui was in trouble. A mounted Skrall had him pinned down with Thornax launcher blasts. He had managed to dodge them so far, but he was running out of room to maneuver. His shield would protect him for a while, but enough direct hits would shatter it. He needed help.
It came from an unexpected source – Gresh, tearing across the sand, riding his shield down the dunes. As Mata Nui watched, Gresh launched himself into the air, flipped, and slammed shield-first into the Skrall. The impact knocked the Thornax launcher out of the Skrall’s hand. Mata Nui charged, stabbed his sword into the ground, and used it to vault himself into the air and snag the launcher.
As he fell toward the ground, Mata Nui saw the image of an attacking Skrall reflected in the metal surface of the launcher. He landed on his feet, whirled, and smashed his shield into the Skrall. As the warrior went down, Mata Nui saw Kiina with a mounted Skrall riding after her. He tossed her the Thornax launcher. She caught it and fired in one smooth motion, blasting the ground in front of the rock steed. Animal and rider flew into the air and landed with a heavy thud.
Still, the element of surprise could only work against the Skrall for so long. These were trained and disciplined warriors. Regrouping, they surrounded the Glatorian and pressed in. Mata Nui, Ackar, Gresh, and Kiina found themselves fighting back to back, with their comrades in the same situation not far away.
“They have us outnumbered ten to one,” said Ackar, fending off multiple attacks at once.
“More like twenty!” said Kiina.
“Yeah,” Gresh added, “but who’s counting?”
“Let it be a hundred,” said Mata Nui. “We have the true power. We fight with honor and purpose.”
Mata Nui brought his sword down against a Skrall shield with such force that the shield exploded into fragments. “For unity!” Mata Nui cried.
“For unity!” the Glatorian echoed, surging forward.
Mata Nui battered two Skrall aside, opening the first gap in the enemy lines. Through it, he saw Metus trying to run.
“So the coward flees…” Mata Nui muttered to himself. He charged toward Metus, who was climbing into his dune chariot accompanied by two Skrall warriors.
Spotting Mata Nui, Metus shouted to his guards, “Well, what are you waiting for? Destroy him!”
But there was no stopping Mata Nui this day. Mata Nui slammed into the two Skrall, knocking them off their feet. With each blow, he thought of his lost universe and people. He remembered the evil that held them captive… the same kind of thoughtless cruelty and arrogance that lived in Metus. In his own way, the traitorous Agori was just as bad as the darkness that had overtaken Mata Nui’s universe. The Agori wanted power, and he didn’t care who had to suffer for it.
Right now, though, all Metus wanted was to put some distance between himself and this battle. He fired up the dune chariot and was about to ride out of the city when he saw two Vorox blocking the way. “Out of my way, you filthy–”
The Vorox grabbed the dune chariot and tipped it over, dumping Metus out onto the sand. Before he could get up again, Mata Nui was upon him, yanking him into the air.
“Wait,” pleaded Metus. “We can make a deal. I’ll give you whatever you want!”
Mata Nui lifted Metus higher, so the two were at eye level. “I have what I want. You.”
The Mask of Life Mata Nui wore began to glow. He brought Metus closer, until the Agori’s helmet touched the mask.
“Stop! What are you doing??” screamed Metus.
There was a blinding flash of light. When it dissipated, the Agori was gone, replaced by a hissing serpent with the face of Metus. The mask had done its work well, Mata Nui decided – justice had been done.
“Now everyone will see you for what you truly are,” Mata Nui said to the Metus serpent.
Behind him, the Skrall were closing in on Ackar, Kiina, and Gresh. “There’s too many!” shouted Kiina over the din of battle.
“We can’t fight them all!” said Gresh.
“Our weapons!” said Ackar. “Quick! Combine their power!”
The three Glatorian stood side by side, their sword, trident, and shield touching. A blast erupted from the combined weapons, air, fire, and water together in one devastating force. It blew the Skrall back, but they charged again.
“They’re still coming!” said Gresh.
Mata Nui vaulted over the Skrall to land beside his allies. He touched his sword to their weapons. “Now – as one!” he said.
Once more, they fired, this time with the power of Life itself added to their energies. The explosive blast flattened the Skrall attackers. Those few who still remained on their feet fled at the sight of so much raw power unleashed. On vehicles, on foot, and on rock steeds, they deserted Roxtus, leaving the Glatorian and Agori the victors.
“We did it!” yelled Gresh.
Mata Nui looked into the eye on his shield. “Thank you,” he said.
There was a bright flash of light, and then the shield was gone and Click was sitting on Mata Nui’s shoulder once more. Ackar looked at the insect and smiled.
“And I used to think scarabax were just annoying little pests,” Ackar said.
The beetle responded with rapid clicks of its mandibles. Ackar laughed at the sight, saying, “Click, I will never doubt you again.”
“I can’t believe it’s over,” said Vastus.
“And that all of us are still in one piece,” added Tarix.
“Wait,” said Kiina, looking around. “Where’s Berix?”
“I haven’t seen the little guy,” said Gresh.
Kiina was frantic now. “I told him to stick close to me.”
“Kiina–” Ackar said, resting a hand on her shoulder.
“No!” said Kiina. “He was my responsibility. Berix!”
A muffled voice cried out in response. “Down here!”
The Glatorian glanced to the right. Berix’s hand was sticking up out of a pile of rubble. “Little… help… here… please!” the Agori said.
Kiina rushed over, grabbed his hand, and yanked Berix free. “You jerk! I thought–” Then she paused and hugged the Agori tight to her chest. “Don’t ever do that again.”
Berix gasped for air in her too-tight embrace. “You know, I think I liked it better when you hated me.”