Fear always gripped Mataku’s heartlight in a cloying embrace. It held, strong, sometimes stronger than whatever might the greatest Kanohi Pakari could bestow upon you. The grip of an acquaintance from formative years, too insecure to grow beyond him. He could fight it, resist it, but it always found its way back eventually. It marked him a coward, but that was no surprise. Mataku already knew he was that, a coward.
He saw it, he felt it, wherever he went, for whatever he did. When he pined for the easiest tasks in the village, when he refused to step a foot past the main gate after dark, when he wouldn’t risk even a finger on his shop’s own forge. The little Ta-Matoran held no illusions as to why he did these things, or why people looked at him with such contempt every time he did them. He was a coward, out for himself and his own hide. Plain and simple.
And that silent resignation held true even now, as his legs desperately tried to propel his aching body across a scarred battlefield far from home. The rest of his squad was dubiously absent, and best left out of mind.
Quakes shook the ground with increasing vigor.
Best left out of mind.
Fire seared crimson scars across the black sky as ordnance roared overhead.
Best left out of mind.
The unstained dagger at his belt rattled, singing for action.
Best left out of mind.
Rusted metal clanked, warriors grunted and cheered, somewhere, everywhere, behind a hill or a rock Mataku refused to narrow down.
Best left out of mind.
Better to run. Better to hide, if the opportunity ever presented itself. Even surrender had occurred to him once or twice, but at the very least that felt like a line even Mataku wouldn’t cross. Not that the aggressively and violently single-minded laborers of Stelt would ever give him the chance.
It was hard to believe the Matoran’s little makeshift rebellion had only kicked off a month ago. Tren Krom Peninsula notwithstanding, the Northern Continent was famous for being so much more lush and fertile than the regions Mataku knew of its southern counterpart, his arid home of Atu-Koro most of all. But you’d be forgiven for mistaking the contrary now. Weeks of thoughtless battle had razed the green to ashen boughs and bare wooden limbs. What settlements had stood here stood no more, now only as good as the stones that comprised them, so much less than the sum of their parts.
A putrid black smoke hung in the air now, the afterparty of relentless artillery. Its all-encompassing mass put the skylights to rest, casting the land in a brackish dusk without end. And as above, so below, choking Mataku’s lungs with soot and powder. Every breath burned as he tried to push his run further with another bound. But still he ran, for he knew nothing before him, nor fatigue waylaying him, could compare to what marched behind him.
Not long ago, six warlords dubbing themselves “Barraki” had taken one look upon the universe in all its expanse and potential, and saw it owed to them. A crown by birthright for their newly founded League of Six Kingdoms. They had no trouble swaying others to that cause, or their authority. It was an aimless time, far removed from the inspiring legends of the first Toa and their mythical deeds. Toa these days were mundane, cold, and decidedly detached from the Matoran. They’d come, they’d protect, they’d depart, without ceremony. Over and onward to the next damsel.
Something felt different now, as if more gnawed on the mind than ever before. Elusive swirls of thought and desire, fluttering pieces of sand that menial labor just couldn’t grasp, let alone make solid. There was a unanimous loss of deeper purpose to serving the Great Spirit’s will, and Matoran, Toa, and everyone beyond and between, didn’t know what to do about it. But the Barraki knew. Or at least, they knew how to exploit it. If anything, even their own ambition likely owed something to it. After all, what more reinvigorating purpose than to hold the whole world in the palm of your hand?
As for their legions, some wanted certainty, others safety, but many simply wanted an excuse to finally unshackle themselves: one freedom sacrificed for another. The underclasses of Stelt were one such many. Bulky by design, brutish by trade, they found little use for themselves on their island home beyond shouldering the businesses of their upper class. Often they’d even resort to their own gladiatorial fights for no other reason, no other stake, than to simply feel the euphoria of unadulterated strength against another. Fist to fist, foot to throat, a chance, however brief, to experience the primacy their might deserved. Beings after the Barraki Carapar’s own heart: elegantly simple, viciously primal, and easily malleable.
Now they formed the backbone of his army, the strongest of the six where pure brawn was concerned, a status that suited Carapar just fine. A legion of strongmen for the Barraki’s strongman. Serendipity at its finest. And when unruly Matoran came knocking on the League’s plans in the north, his seemed the perfect fit to efficiently stamp out the would-be threat. Looking across the blistered plains, Mataku couldn’t argue with the results.
A thought hit him again. Some fit of insanity had conscripted him into taking part in all this. Him. The Ta-Matoran too afraid to come within five feet of an open flame, and yet here he was, the soldier marching on behalf of the homeland, through a hell worthy of Karzahni himself. How did he let this happen?
Kamate, Mataku bitterly thought to himself all too readily.
Kamate had been the one to convince him this was a good idea. Kamate. The bolder one. The manager. The leader. And now the wannabe freedom fighter. Kamate. The Matoran that refused to sit by when the League’s armies rolled across the land. Theirs was a quiet village to the southwest, dwellings of craftsmen with barely enough material to sustain themselves, let alone some misbegotten war machine. They were well out of the way, well out of riches, and easily ignored. Such was Atu-Koro life. It was doubtful the Barraki would have ever set foot there, but it wasn’t a chance Kamate ever intended to take.
He went out of his way to instill that rationale in every villager, inside the koro and out, Mataku especially: wouldn’t it be more dangerous to sit home in waiting, not knowing when the enemy could come knocking at their door as they had for so many before?
“Would you really want that sword left hanging over your head?” he had said.
It was that visual in particular that finally swayed Mataku over. In some ways, beneath the nest of resentment and frustration, he respected him, even envied him. After all, in a world so resigned and bored with its duties, Kamate still held pride in everything he did. Running a forge? Light it the brightest for mios. Crafting tools? Craft them the sharpest for kios. All that said…that resentment and frustration still came from somewhere. Because he also hated him. Hated the way he always tried to push him, to assign him dangerous tasks about the village. Cool a red-hot blade, lure a rogue Kane-Ra bull into a pitfall, run deliveries through the middle of a raging storm. He was even the one to gift Mataku the dagger now strapped to his side, practically rusting from disuse, only action seen being the times Mataku almost fell upon it. Perhaps Kamate saw something braver in him, bold as he.
Or perhaps he’s got too much soot in his optics, Mataku silently dismissed.
Another quake rattled the earth, closer this time. To his immediate regret, Mataku chanced a look behind him. A nearby hill had erupted, rendered fragments of dirt and ash. The culprits, a pair of the usual Steltian brutes: beady red eyes of beaked white faces glaring down from a mass of navy blue armor, torsos lugging bulbous metal tanks masquerading as arms and fists. They saw him. Sized him. Targeted him. Another kill for their count.
The muscles in Mataku’s legs screamed as he tried to wrangle one last burst of speed from their sinew, darting back on course. The ground trembled in a steady heartbeat, no doubt the two bruisers attempting pursuit. It took all Mataku’s strength not to let his flashing heartlight leap out his chest in fright. He had to remind himself: Steltians were immensely powerful, but those mighty frames were carried by a rather unassuming pair of legs. If he could keep just far enough ahead, he might reach his escape route yet. And just a ways away…
Yes! Mataku almost blurted aloud. His gaze found it, his destination only a hundred feet to go: a metal hatch tucked away in the soil. Easily missed to the untrained eye. It was how he and his fellows had gotten around the battlefield unseen. Their greatest advantage, and right now, Mataku’s greatest hope. There was just one problem: it was closed. Locked from the inside no doubt, as was protocol.
They left me, Mataku realized. For a moment he was almost angry. A passing reflex, undone by the reminder of what he was already guilty of. By the reminder that this was probably what he deserved.
His pursuers didn’t give him time to process the thought. One opted to find another way to close the distance. With a mighty heave, the winds blew a baritone tune for the soldier that chose to take to the air, his tiny legs granting him a surprisingly high bound. A KA-CRASH brought him back down to earth, planted squarely between Mataku and the hatch. The impact sent the Matoran falling off his feet, the momentum of his sprint rolling his body through the soil. Down, and soon out.
Mataku groggily looked up to the Steltian in front of him, too stunned to run or fear or even make a half-baked attempt to brandish his dagger. Like a dream of danger bearing down upon you, closer and closer, all while your body refuses to escape. Despite the lethargy, there was still one thought that managed to piece itself together in Mataku’s frazzled mind.
This is it. This is the end.
The closest Steltian didn’t even get a chance to turn to the interloper before a Kanoka disk struck him square in the torso. One FWIP later and the 10-foot bruiser barely dwarfed a Hoto bug. The unfortunate victim of a shrinking disk, one of many eccentric Kanoka variants. Mataku had the sense to quickly flick him away, the poor thing letting out a high-pitched squeal as a light breeze plucked him up and carried him into the sky.
“Durva!” the other Steltian cried. His eyes turned a murderous glare to the shooter: Kamate, Kanoka launcher in hand, standing atop the now open hatch.
He waited for me, Mataku realized, not entirely believing it. Whole army turns tail and he waits for me.
The defiant Onu-Matoran slid another disk into his launcher with the smooth liquid precision of a machine. He coldly held it back aloft, ready to fire.
“Care to join your friend?” The ebon Kanohi Akaku upon his face betrayed nothing but steely confidence. The Steltian’s glare remained undeterred.
“You’ll pay for that, half-bio,” he growled.
“What does that make your friend? A quarter?”
The soldier roared. Kamate fired. In razor-sharp response, panels shifted aside on the Steltian’s left shoulder. A launcher of his own quickly flung itself into position, firing its own disk to meet his opponent’s. Both barreled, straight and true through the air. Flying, soaring, until--
Mataku could feel his heartlight sink into the dirt. Kanoka disks were a prized export from the island city of Metru Nui, and each section of that city prided itself on the unique characteristics they imbued their disks with upon manufacture. Po-Metru’s, for instance, could hone on other disks mid-flight and knock them off course with ease. And evidently, they were one of this bruiser's favorites.
Kamate’s disk was flung to the side, sputtering off into the hills like a dizzy insect. But the Steltian’s disk wasn’t done. Its path now unobstructed, it finished its flight on its true target: Kamate’s launcher. Another FWIP rattled the little mechanism in the Matoran’s hands. Before he could even register what just happened, the metal shattered to dust with a faint PUFF, as if it’d been no better than ill-kept glass all along. The work of a weakening disk, no doubt. The Steltian grinned with a biting cruelty.
“No more tricks.” He stomped forward. “No more games.” Another stomp more. “We crush you here, and now.” Turning over his shoulder, he whistled into the ragged air. On prompt command, a dozen more bruisers arose from the various hills and wooded debris around them.
At last, they all surely thought. Some entertainment.
Mataku hadn’t even thought to get to his feet. He panickedly looked back to Kamate for some sign, some hint of a plan that’d get them out of this. The Onu-Matoran merely stood his ground, frozen. If he chose to dash back into the tunnels right now, Mataku wouldn’t blame him. He didn’t need to stay behind to begin with. And yet here he remained.
Get up, a voice chided. So similar to Mataku’s, and yet entirely alien in its tone and assertion. It disturbed him, but at the same time it called to him, stirred something within him, all the same. Get up you idiot. He couldn’t. Stand with him. He shouldn’t. They’d die either way. Exactly. So die standing.
Mataku’s legs remained frozen, stricken with the same fear that gripped his heart. His hand reached down, grasping the hilt of the dagger at his side, ready to inch it from its sheath. Only a token gesture, surely.
It doesn’t have to be, the voice assured.
Perhaps. No plans, no arms, but at least he and Kamate could go down with some fledgling dignity. Or stupidity.
It didn’t matter. He still couldn’t stand. He still couldn’t move. He couldn’t even draw his own blade. He could already feel that small flicker of steel in his nerves rust away, as good as the dust the enemy trod upon before them.
I was wrong. This is it. There it was, his own voice now. Much more familiar. Pitiably so. Of that he was as sure as he was of his own doom. The only thing he wasn’t sure about was whether to cover his eyes, or cover his ears to smother the horrible shrieking that was filling the air.
Wait, shrieking? Why would the Steltians be--?
Mataku’s head darted up, hand relinquishing his blade back out of thought. It was no Steltian this time, but he wasn’t imagining it either. Kamate could clearly hear it, the Steltians could clearly hear it. All heads swiveled about in confusion trying to find the source. The bruisers fidgeted, the noise putting even them a bit at unease. Mataku couldn’t even put a proper analogy to it. Just a strange light whistle cutting into the back of his head, prickling his Kanohi mask. Too soft to be deafening, too loud to be ignored. But there was one thing he knew: it was getting louder.
Heads turned upward. As the whine grew, so did its apparent source: skyward, still unseen among the black and gray. The sound was becoming increasingly more familiar, and Mataku felt like an idiot that his mind kept coming up empty fishing for the word. He could feel his franticness only making the task clumsier.
It’s like…like a firecracker, or…or a mortar, or... Mataku’s heartlight froze. A falling star.
High above, the looming array of smog began to part, a clean circular window opening to the skylights beyond. The first light in ages finally shown down upon the land, a heavenly column of gold and luster, almost blinding to eyes so numbed by shadow. And through the window, two streaks of color flew with grace, red and white in hue. Searing as fire. Chilling as ice. The light they beckoned only added to their sheen. They were coming, falling, straight for the group with unrelenting aim and purpose, the shriek that foretold their arrival as loud and unambiguous as ever. Mataku knew he should be afraid, and yet, all he could muster was awe. Somewhere deep down with an almost religious certainty, he knew…he wasn’t the one who needed to be afraid.
A FWAM shook the earth as the stars found impact. A storm of dust blinded all, particulates of ice and fire only adding to the fray. The Steltians stumbled back, trying to find footing and ground in the torrent. As the dust cleared, two figures stood bathed in light in its stead, clad in curved, utilitarian armor. A pearly white figure held aloft a silver scythe, the other ashen black and dark crimson, bearing an impossibly massive hammer belching fire from its core. The right word finally found Mataku’s lips.
“Toa,” he whispered.
The red-and-black Toa glared down upon the surrounding warriors. They did their best to hide the cowering twitches in their posture beneath his gaze. They had three or four feet on him at least, but the pure vengeful determination in his eyes did that gap of height away with gusto. He towered over them, and each of them felt it.
He slammed the hilt of his hammer into the ground, carrying the hard FOOM of a gavel bearing judgment.
“You have brought a blight here. Harm and sorrow upon innocents undeserving,” his voice boomed, its bass rattling the armor of the enemy before him. He raised his hammer overhead. “No more.”
His hammer shook the earth harder than their arrival ever had. Its flames from within erupted outward, flailing every which-way in celebration of their newfound freedom. The Steltians tried to mount a charge, and failed as quickly as their plan came. Fire and magma swatted them away like flies. Any that attempted to foil the Toa of Fire from a distance with Kanoka disks were quickly met by his partner, streaks of ice from the tip of his scythe freezing their arms in place. Their actions synchronous, their duty synonymous, the two Toa moved as one.
The struggle was furious, but almost tragically one-sided.
And in all the chaos, and all the battle, as Mataku watched at the center of the storm, he never felt more safe. A new certainty had put every fear that rattled his heartlight to rest. The Toa were here, and soon, all would be right.