“Damned Matoran! Sneaky Matoran! Stupid Matoran!”
Mataku backed away as fast as he could without tripping on his own feet. By his side, his dagger dripped gray internal protodermis. To his front, its bleeder, a Steltian marching and cursing uncivilized vows for payback. He still clutched his wound, a deep gash at the center of his ankle. It’d make pursuit difficult; or at least that was the hope.
The corners of Mataku’s eyes could barely catch their surroundings: the interior of a small cubic fort, walls the dull gray of cheap metal, the grounds carelessly dotted with weapon stands and huts of canvas. More than a few other warriors occupied it, and his presence wasn’t a secret to any of them. And yet they all just…stood there. Watching. He might’ve even caught a chuckle or a smirk in the audience. Seems they were amused, and curious how a proper one-on-one could play out. Great Spirit knows they had nothing else to entertain their days.
Just as well. Mataku wasn’t confident in his chances as it was.
Dume wished he could voice superior faith on his end. In truth, Carapar had him on perilous ropes. Melee was no good, and his list of tricks was running thin. His latest in the line, a whip of fire extended straight from his palm. Keeping any elemental construct so solid and precise was taxing without a proper weapon, but not impossible. It couldn't afford to be.
Dume’s mind was weathered, a cliff ashore carved by relentless waves into a sharp concavity fit to collapse, but he still had a job to do. They all did. So he’d hold his flame, lash his whip, lasso his foe, throw him, pound him, again and again, as many times as it took to bring Carapar down.
But he, like any Barraki, could always smell weakness, as surely as a Takea shark smelled blood in the water. And it only took one clasp of the whip with his own hand, searing pain ignored, to turn Dume’s tactic on its head. One lash in reverse sent the Toa deep into rubble without another thought.
Another trick off the list it seems.
Further still out in the field, a lance of ice pierced a Steltian in his right shoulder, cleaving armor and muscle just enough to make his mounted Kanoka launcher as good as slag. Aidau gave his hand a sharp swipe to the left. The tip of the lance followed, its end veering into a hooked curve. It wasn’t leaving its victim just yet.
Aidau puppeted the ice one step more, thrusting his arm to himself. The ice, too, followed, guided towards him, and carrying a very unwilling Steltian in tow. Aidau let the train of metal pass, its new destination one of the warrior's comrades, who’d picked an unfortunate time to try and sneak behind him. The two collided in a cacophony of scrap and fell for the hills. Aidau almost felt proud of himself.
Aidau cursed himself, even more than he cursed the Steltian that had just sucker punched him in the gut, or his two pals closing in on either side. His groove was gone, and they were just finding theirs.
Aidau let his breath find its way back into his lungs. The precious moments to do so allowed his enemies another few feet of ground. They grew closer, bolder, no doubt certain they’d struck the critical blow that’d bring their stubborn Toa down.
Here’s the part where I disappoint them.
He twirled his scythe in hand, faster and faster in expert rotations. The air chilled, adding an extra hoarse whistle to his scythe’s circular dance. The Steltians slowed; should they stop this? Could they? Or would that only make it worse? An explosion of frost ensured they wouldn’t need to worry about that any longer.
Mataku caught his breath behind a tent. He hoped he’d earned himself that much a reprieve. He couldn’t keep this going for long. To some extent he always knew that, since the moment his knife found Steltian flesh - a memory already unreal in his head, product of some other sneaky, stupid Matoran. But what he didn’t know was how much longer Kamate needed to finish the mission. And so this would go on as long as it needed to.
Inelegant claws ripped through canvas. What little shadow the tent cast upon Mataku fell away, its form slave to his Steltian pursuer now, draping his person in sandy cloth. His unhappiness hadn’t improved.
Mataku stabbed his other foot before a better idea could take root. The Steltian howled. The Matoran ran.
Fear guide me. Fear push me. Fear do something. Just keep me ahead.
Time for a dirtier tactic. Dume hadn’t wanted it to come to this, but his options had long since been exhausted. Even the color of his armor was noticeably dimmed now, etiolated as blossoms strangled by drought. A glaring symptom of elemental subsidence. This was all he had left. And he hoped, and frankly was quite sure, that these creatures would appreciate the opportunity.
He raised a flattened hand overhead, its edges glowing orange with a restrained heat. He sliced it down, cutting air and chain in equivalent ease. At last, from their chariot and decades of service, the Rock Lions were free. They huffed and sniffed about, investigating this new sensation the only way they knew how. It was strange, alien, and that begged the question: what to do with it?
The growl of a rampaging Barraki provided a possible answer. Carapar climbed to his feet not a few yards away, batting off soot and rubble from another in a long line of failed assaults his fiery opponent had wrought. His dents shallow, his strength unemptied, he had plenty of fight left to give, which suited at least one of the Rock Lions just fine.
And suited Dume even more so. The lions’ release was only part of his plan, the distraction to cloak the goal. The shattered remains of his hammer laid just a ways to the left, towards Carapar. Not an easy mend even for a skilled craftsman, but Dume’s Kanohi Kiril - a Mask of Regeneration - had a habit of defying such things. If he could reach it, he could repair it, and if he could repair it, this fight may yet yield favor. He only needed the opening, which the lion was more than ready to give.
It charged, its mane bursting back to life with a vibrant cornucopia of flame that honored Dume’s patronage. It roared, years of toil shirked off in one triumphant gesture of sound and fury. And it leaped, claws borne, straight for Carapar’s throat. Dume couldn’t dream a more fitting end.
But dreams, of course, seldom matched the reality. This reality being a very angry Carapar catching the lion midair by the throat, beating it senseless aloft, and tossing its broken corpse aside with candid indifference. The other lion eyed the body of its sibling, then the taunting eyes of its killer. In that silence, in those eyes, a choice.
Defy me or join him.
If vengeance ever crossed the lion’s mind, it never showed it. Not for the Barraki at least. Now Dume, it had a few choice words for. It pounced for him, mane ablaze with cerise. He could barely duck away in time, the lion instead planting itself firmly between him and the hammer. Another dirty tactic then.
The Toa thrust out an instinctive hand, fingers arched and crooked to claw an unseen edge. The lion’s newfound glow slowly faded, its flames fluttering into tepid sparks. Confronted with his own element in play, Dume had himself another Toa trick to call upon. When lacking, power could come from anywhere, or be reaped from anything. The lion shook its head profusely. It could sense the transaction, fire ebbing and leaving a telltale trail in its wake to the buyer.
It turned enraged eyes on Dume, and charged once more regardless. It had no idea how the Toa was doing it, but it required few guesses as to why, and had no intent of being made a pawn any longer. But new strength already surged through the Toa’s frame, instilling healthy luster back to his dulled hues. He thrust both hands forward now, outstretched, and carried with them a torrent of flame. A Rock Lion’s hide could endure heat of any measure, but the sheer force of the blast was enough to knock it right off its feet and send it into a tumbling roll, all the way to back to its master.
Carapar made no effort to hide his disdain. No mew or yelp from the pitiful creature would sway that. Nor would it sway the heavy foot he placed on its head, or the flex in his thighs as he pushed down with merciless force. The giant wad of broken hammer smashing into his chest, however, may be better suited.
Dume threw its remaining hilt close behind, straight and true as a javelin. It found a new home in Carapar’s shoulder, thrusting him off his already dubious balance and back to the ground. The Toa nodded to the creature below as it opened its eyes, a little surprised the end hadn’t already come. Not a word of Matoran lurked on a Rock Lion’s tongue, but such a gesture was immediately understood even to it. And it ran as fast as its paws could carry it.
“Nothing is sacred to you, is it?” Dume observed, weaponless once again.
“Says the low-blower siccing beasts on their own master,” Carapar growled, climbing to his feet. He plucked the broken handle from his shoulder, and crushed it to splinters in his hand for good measure. With any luck, the Toa’s spine would be next.
Dume steadied himself into a stauch pose that hopefully better hid the fatigue weighing his arms down. “If all their loyalty rested on was an unbroken chain, you were never their master.”
Carapar could be quite fast when he wanted to be. And Dume’s thin illusion of vigor held little stance before a shrewd eye. Carapar broke through it with ease, and wrapped an annoyed claw around the Toa’s throat.
“It’s funny. You remind me of my boss,” he spat to a gasping Dume. “I hate my boss.” He threw Dume into the ground, leaving a Toa-shaped print in the dirt. He kept his grip on the Toa’s throat tight.
“This…will not…avail you…” Dume whispered.
Dume thrust a bent leg between them, high and hard enough to implant a knee into Carapar’s face. It dazed him just enough to slacken his grip. A push from Dume’s other foot broke it entirely.
“No.” Dume shifted himself back, buying more precious space between them. “You keep making the same mistake.”
Carapar rubbed his chin, more amused now. There were only so many more ways this could go. “And what’s that, fire-spitter?”
“The same mistake your kind always makes.” He began to circle him, eyes still trained. “That strength comes from domination and rule.”
Carapar rolled his eyes. This again. He remained still in Dume’s circle - his paltry attempt at assertion - only following his moves with a patient gaze.
“And let me guess. It really comes from coddling the weak, swathing them in little Matoran cradles, put to sleep with lullabies of false promise, blah-dee blah-dee blah.” His disgust made itself no secret. “It’s like you Toa share a script.”
“It’s more than that.” Carapar cocked his head to the side, curious. “It’s about giving them a chance to be more than what they are. There is no ‘the weak,’ Barraki, only the strong, and those that haven’t yet found their strength.”
Carapar scoffed. “What is it you think we do, Toa?” He gestured a clawed hand to the fields, to the undoubtable armies of brute lying in wait. “Do you think those bruisers had a life before we found them? A real life? We uplifted them! We gave them power!”
“The only power you ‘give’ anyone is the power to take…and that is no power at all.”
Dume tried to punctuate the statement with a twisted kick to the head. Carapar caught it as easily as he had the last dozen. It was swatting a fly at this point.
"Is that right?”
He clutched his ankle tight and pulled him overhead. As his body found impact at the end of the arc, Dume’s mask decided it’d finally had enough. It wrested itself from the Toa’s rattled face and plopped into a safer patch of dirt a few feet away. His weak body went even limper without a Kanohi to empower it. And yet despite it all, his voice held firm.
“It’s a farce, Barraki, and it will fall,” Dume growled. “As every empire of glass idols has before you, and will after you.”
He did his best to upstage whatever meekness he could with defiance. Carapar dropped the rest of him, letting the Toa lie in the dust. Such a pathetic sight alongside such bold words was almost worth a laugh. Instead he opted to humor him.
“It’ll last as long as it suits us, and it’ll be remembered long after. And our name…our very name will be synonymous with conquest itself.” He looked away, higher, to the darkened sky, as if its lights still twinkled just for him. “And when we’ve risen high enough, Mata Nui Himself will see us.” It was as unabashedly sentimental as his voice had ever sounded.
Dume had to stifle his own laugh. His body wasn’t in any state to handle one. “If Mata Nui ever had that pleasure, He’d spit on you.”
Carapar placed a foot on Dume’s head, a fine enough substitute for his rogue beast of burden. “Let me worry about that.” His muscles tensed, beginning to press.
A blast of ice cut the act short, colliding into Carapar’s back and launching him a few yards over. Its sender stood tall behind him: a very weary but victorious Aidau, steaming scythe in hand. Carapar pushed his humiliated face off the dirt and scowled at the interloper. One strong push of his shoulder blades cast the ice from his back.
“You Toa never learn.” He charged.
Aidau twirled his scythe, letting parallel streams of ice fly. They coiled themselves at different targets: legs, arms, and chest. From impact, expansion, entombing the Barraki in a growing cocoon of ice. No limbs left to carry him, he tumbled to the ground mid-run. He wretched. He fought. But every space made, every crack rendered, was immediately undone with fits of icy growth more.
“You’d be surprised,” Aidau replied, surely but tired, and too tired to even hide it. He plucked Dume’s mask from the dirt, and shook off any debris that hurt its sheen. He let his brother find his own way to his knees, only kneeling down to meet him halfway. “I think this works better on your face.”
Dume clasped it, and thrust it back to his face unceremoniously. “Thank you, brother.”
Aidau smirked. “What else are we for?”
Dume returned it. “Shining my boots, polishing my hammer, but this will do for now.”
Neither laughed, but they didn’t need to. The heart of one was felt, in tone, in smile, and in tight embrace as they grabbed each other’s wrists, Aidau hoisting Dume back up to steady feet. Silence was all they needed.
“Toa! Toa please!” They turned. The moment was gone but in its stead came someone much more important: Kamate, body shaking, lungs gasping. He barely had enough energy to stop safely at their feet. “We need…it’s time…we…he…” The Onu-Matoran’s breaths were taking heavier priority.
“Easy miner. Start slow,” Aidau comforted, less attitude in his tone this time. It was hard to say whether it was sincerity or fatigue that kept it at bay.
Kamate let a deeper breath enter. It stilled the shivers in his armor, if nothing else. Dume looked up, to the hatch Kamate’s footprints led back to. He seemed hopeful for another sight, and simultaneously expectant that he wouldn’t find it. All the same, it beared asking outright.
“The skittish one?” Aidau asked, surprised the Matoran was even relevant. “I thought he ran.”
“He did,” Kamate confirmed, his voice finally finding some clarity. “To the tunnels. To…to me…” Dume placed a hand on his shoulder, guiding the Matoran’s gaze up to his.
“Kamate, answer me. Where is he?”
Kamate shook his head. “We need to finish this. We need to finish it now.”
“But what—“ Aidau tried to interject.
“You don’t understand! He won’t hold out forever. It has to be now!”
Dume finally understood. More bitterly, Aidau did too.
The Steltian grew tired now. Leaking fluids, sheer pain, plain exhaustion, something slowed his feet, and it filled Mataku with the first oasis of relief he’d felt in quite some time. At long last, his pursuer fell on weary knees, his weight enough to shake mountains. Mataku wondered if now was worth a cheer.
Then he was somewhere else.
He was on the ground now, and his arm…why couldn’t he move his arm? Something felt wrong, an entire body built improper. Metal and muscle tucked into uncomfortable places. Made that way, by…by…
Someone hit me.
Mataku’s head still moved, and his eyes still worked, and with both he could see; another Steltian towered over him, interchangeable as the rest, separated only by the cold boredom on his face.
“That got old,” he said plainly, as if he’d done something as mundane as switch up a tune at the bar, not brutally cripple a Matoran with one blow.
A finality dawned on Mataku, more real, more sure than any time his nerves had tried to insist it before: he was about to die. And all he could do was laugh. It hurt to laugh. It was more of a cough. His lungs felt too misplaced to manage a proper one, but still he laughed. The bored bruiser cocked his head, perplexed.
“If that…got old…” Mataku rasped, answering the unasked question. “...have we got the show for you.”
Dume and Aidau placed parallel hands upon the ground. Their entire bodies tensed and arched with concentration. A few feet away, Carapar managed to roll his cocoon over to face them from behind. His still-free head darted about, trying to make sense of what was about to happen.
“W-what do you think you’re doing?”
Dume smiled to himself. “You said you wanted Mata Nui to see you.”
“And He will.” His fingers dug into the soil, glowing red with elemental power. “He could use a laugh.”
Aidau’s hands matched them. In one smooth motion, their muscles released all at once. Their actions synchronous, their duty synonymous, the two Toa moved as one. Their power poured through the soil, twin streams of fire and ice bursting to life and snaking towards the tunnel, and diving into the shadows. Deep inside, the two coalesced, letting a bubble of whistling steam gather between them. Building, fuming, until they were fit a good POP to propel each either way. And the rest was torn asunder.
Columns of red and white shot into the sky across the plains. Forts all around fell away to rubble, ice impaling some with frosty spikes, fire melting others to pools of magma and slag, as their streams surged throughout the tunnels. The earth laid itself bare, its wounds raw and free, as ruins flew for the sky. Soldiers not already tossed away in the maelstrom were left only one choice: run. Carapar roared in anguish as his halcyon shrines fell to ash around him.
Mataku could only see so much from his resting place, merely the columns piercing the clouds. But he knew what it meant, and even now, could feel the flood of elements coursing below, destined as much for this place as all the rest. The Steltian felt it too, the quakes strong enough to rattle even him. His panicked eyes turned to the Matoran for some sort of comforting answer. He had none to give.
He did. Right out the gate. His fellows soon followed.
Mataku let his broken body lie back, as relaxed as his state could allow him. He watched as the towers of fire and ice stabbed the polluted heavens. Their wake cast aside the smog and ebon clouds, bracks at first glance expanding forthwith until, at last, all the sky shined with light. The fort and ground shook with a growing finality. This place, too, would soon part the sky. Mataku closed his eyes. He couldn’t wait. Nor would he need to for much longer.
For someone so quick to dissuade others from a lost cause, Kamate always seemed to find himself flag-bearer to one or another. At home it was for the simpler things, forging a launcher last minute for the next hunt, catching a bovine Mukau despite it being well out of reach. Later it was the war, already cast as the underdog with the odds stacked only higher with time. And now it was searching for anything living amongst a smoking desolate pit, where nothing living could possibly dwell.
But a Matoran was out here - a neighbor, an employee, a friend - and he was only here because of him. Despite sending everyone else packing, he’d singled him out to stay. Perhaps not by force, but Kamate knew all too well the power of words and coercion. No one would say it, but this was his fault.
“Mataku!” he cried, hands vainly cupped for further volume. He’d done so many times already to the same silent result, but he wasn’t ready to give up now.
Dume and Aidau followed behind him. Their efforts were less vocal, but their strength proved useful parsing the rubble littering the place. But not even they had found anything, living or…not.
“Mataku!” Kamate cried again. They had to be here by now. The land was almost unrecognizable, but his map still had enough left to work with. This had to be where they parted. Where Mataku had saved him, and stayed to keep it so.
Dume loomed behind him. His arm was bent but restrained, unsure to stretch a comforting hand. There would be a finality in that act, and he knew the Onu-Matoran wasn’t bereft of hope just yet. But for Dume…it dwindled. He and Aidau hadn’t held back, and he knew what they were capable of.
Something gasped in the rancid air. Kamate bolted for the sound, Dume and Aidau close in tow. Dume almost dared to hope.
“Here! It came from here!” Kamate gestured to a small patch of broken metal and burnt canvas. Dume and Aidau nodded to one-another, their tasks already assigned. One clasped an end of the metal fragment, the other another, and together they lifted the wreckage. Held high, they tossed it to the rest, to reveal its guarded treasure: Mataku. Battered, misshapen, heartlight flashing faintly, but it was him.
“Ka…mate…” Mataku whispered, voice distorted. Despite his state, he inched his head to the side to properly face him.
“I’m here, Mataku. I’m— it’ll be alright.” Kamate grabbed a hand and held it in both of his. His grip was tight and constricted, as if the effort alone could keep the life in him.
“Yes…it is…” Mataku’s head rolled back, eyes facing upward to the clear-blue sky. “Blue…”
“Yeah, it’s…it’s blue now. The skylights can shine for you.” He held Mataku’s hand closer, against his heartlight. “We did it.”
“Red…I see red too…up there…red…like they say the suns set over Metru Nui…red…lovely red…a hearth…bright and warm and…Kamate…it’s…”
“Hang tight. We can fix you. We just need— we need…” He looked up to Aidau, to Dume, for an answer. They had none. He looked back down to Mataku. “Home. W-we’ll get you home. To Atu-Koro. Remember home?”
“What?” He sounded hurt. You would think Kamate had offered all the riches of the world, only to be refused.
“...warm…red…hearth…” Mataku whispered for the last time. His heartlight faded to black.
Kamate clutched the Matoran’s body to himself without a word, every muscle begging some higher power to bestow life back to it. Dume only watched, while Aidau watched him. He wouldn’t say it aloud - not here, now, in front of the Matoran - but the accusatory look to his brother said all it needed to: This is your fault.