"Uhh … Moana?"
Maui stared into the darkness between the trees, his blood rapidly becoming ice cold within his veins.
Even Tamatoa had fallen silent. He took several steps back to ensure that the human girl hadn't fallen underneath him, but she was nowhere in sight. At the slight rustling of leaves off to one side, he immediately raised himself up to his full, extremely imposing height and held his claws open to intimidate anything that could appear from the shadows.
His hair raising on his skin, Maui deftly climbed up onto Tamatoa's head and surveyed the chilling nothingness. Aside from the occasional rustle, the world had fallen silent, too, and the light of the Manaia had since abandoned them to whatever creatures lurked beyond the trees. His heart was urging him to delve into the unknown and save his best friend from whatever had stolen her, but his cunning managed to take precedence over all else; coming face to face with another corrupted monster would likely spell the end for him, given that he could barely see anything.
"How're you holding up?" he asked lowly, nudging the giant crab in the side of the head.
Tamatoa's suspicion was perhaps a given.
"Why? Are you going to fly away and leave me as a chew toy for these terrifying little Kakamora?"
"No, but that's plan B," Maui hissed. "I meant this whole corruption thing, 'cause I'm gonna suggest we go off course and find Moana before they take her too far. I ain't leaving Lalotai without her, 'kay? If you want your treasure back, you're gonna have to help me find the person you made the deal with, 'cause I did not agree to working with you."
"Yes, yes, that's true," Tamatoa agreed, surprisingly amiable. "She did say she would demand my treasure back. Or else. She can hardly do that if she's in teeny tiny little bits."
The pair glanced at each other. It was important that they kept their cool, stayed calm, because there was probably something out there watching them that could do some serious damage if they lost their heads and barged into the trees.
They did that, anyway.
With the picture of an injured Moana fresh in his mind, Maui yelped her name and dove deeper into the forest, urgently cutting his way through the monstrous fauna with his fish hook. The impacts of the weapon against leering, fanged plants sent teeth and green goo flying this way and that, splattering across his skin and hair, but he couldn't care when he had one sudden and very important mission: find Moana, whatever the cost, and bring her back into safety. Even he didn't know the true extent of what eldritch monstrosities dwelled in Lalotai, and with those very beings rapidly becoming corrupted by a dark magic, there was no telling just what they would do with a human.
There was another impending danger a little closer to home, but Tamatoa, thundering along behind Maui as he cut his way past the trees with his claws, seemed to have recovered a little from his moment of discomfort and was also making chase, albeit noisily. Even in his panic, Maui acknowledged that the dumb crab had forsaken his penchant for running away in the face of danger.
Leaping high into the air, Maui grabbed hold of Tamatoa as he raucously approached and planted himself on the side of the monster's head, holding onto an eyestalk to support himself while keeping his other hand free for his fish hook.
"This way!" he demanded, aiming his weapon in the direction he deemed best. "C'mon, use these gross wriggly things on your head and sniff 'em out. Aren't you getting anything?"
The flashing antennae moved forwards, tasting the trees and the ground they passed.
"I'm getting ..." Tamatoa began, deliberating. "I smell … demons, though this entire plane of reality has smelt like demons for the past week! I smell …. eurgh, rotting fish! And I'm getting a waft of what might be sulphur, or you've eaten too much shellfish again, Maui," he added accusingly, momentarily distracted from his barrage through the forest. "That human limpet stank of the plant that tried to gobble her up when she fell into Lalotai, but I can't smell it anywhere! All I'm getting is … yeuch, the rising stench of eau de misère."
Maui didn't need to be told that something smelt fishy, in every sense of the word.
The pungent odour had already started assaulting his nostrils, and the source of the all too familiar smell was quickly becoming apparent.
The magical light shining from Tamatoa's shell and markings illuminated a fog blooming around them. The trees were becoming sparse the further they ventured forwards, but it quickly became that any remaining were swiftly swallowed up by the thick, smelly fog that floated ominously in from the darkness around them.
"Oh, pee-yew!" the crab spluttered, wafting a claw in front of his antennae. "It smells like dinner at my Grandma's house."
"Shut up a minute, will ya?" Maui urged, boldly clambering over Tamatoa's face to keep the creature's mouth firmly shut between his fingers. "Same thing happened when Te Po turned up back on the surface. Either we're getting close to Abokas, or she's trying to throw us off course!"
Scrabbling to the top of his companion's head, the demigod tried to make sense of anything occurring around them. One thing was for sure, and it was that there was no way they could find Moana through the thick layers of fog that hung silently around them. They would only find themselves getting lost, and then they would be in even more trouble.
Maui was desperate. With each passing moment, Moana was taken further and further away.
First, he took a great breath and exhaled with enough force that in normal circumstances, the fog would have been blown away and dispersed into the air. There it remained, however, unaffected by the godly power within his lungs, as if nothing he did had any real impact in the cursed land. It was surely a design of the fog that they weren't supposed to escape, but was Te Po near and drawing amusement from their imprisonment, or was the land growing increasingly corrupted the closer they got to the entrance to her domain? Did the curse manifest in such a way as to toy with their weaknesses?
They had bested everything Lalotai had thrown at them thus far. Demons, falling torrents of ocean, monsters … Maui knew what Moana would say, however: the real monsters hadn't been conquered yet, and maybe that was the only way forwards.
She was always right.
Leaping down to the ground, the man turned to face his friend-turned-nemesis, the greedy, power-hungry crab that had once fit easily into the palm of his hand. The creature stared back at him in turn, something expectant in that enormous, beady gaze. Neither of them spoke for a time, as the thickness of the fog settled in their throats uncomfortably, stifling their words – or was it simply a reluctance to speak?
Maui cleared his throat, but Tamatoa butted in before he had a chance to say anything.
"Are you leaving me here?" the monster asked anxiously. "I suppose – yes, it's easy for you, you can just turn into a hawk and fly away."
"No, don't try to sugarcoat it for me!" Tamatoa beseeched, flinging a claw dramatically over his eyes. "I know you, Maui! So, go on, fly away, but do me one last favour before you abandon me to stinky fog and inevitable doom. It's not like I'll be able to ask one of anybody ever again!"
With an irritated huff, he lowered a claw to his shoulder and pried something off of it before flinging it at Maui.
The man caught the object easily after it impacted his chest. Opening his fingers, he found a solid lump of pounamu, the very same piece that Moana's father gifted her before seeing her depart across the ocean a second time. It was supposed to be carved, usually with the image of a Manaia, but it had been left blank for Moana to etch her own idea into the stone.
"I didn't steal it," the crab continued, as if reading Maui's mind. "She gave it to me, and now I'm giving it back."
Genuinely perplexed, Maui blinked up at his companion cluelessly.
"Since when have you given things to anybody?"
"I don't care what you do with it! I just don't want that lovely, shiny pounamu to get ruined! It'll get crushed or shattered or dunked in mud and drowned -" Appearing truly disheartened, Tamatoa lowered to the ground and dropped his face onto folded claws. "So, you should probably get going and save her before she's eaten, or something."
Maui found himself smirking. Folding his arms, he shook his head with disbelief.
"Man, I really did think you were just pretending to care about her." He flipped the pounamu and caught it before tying it onto the end of his fish hook. "Treasure ain't just gold and gems and super rare action figures – but you don't need me to tell you that, right?"
"Treasure ..." Tamatoa murmured, perking up for a moment. "You should have been there, Maui. She said she liked having me around! And I felt – I felt like I was gonna throw up, but I didn't, 'cause I hated kindness until she showed it to me." Drooping yet further, the monster offered a rare, defeated kind of smile. "Anyways, treasure doesn't go so well with corruption. I don't want gems for eyes! I set my own style, even when transformed by dark magic! You'll kill me if I look hideous, won't you? I couldn't bear to be even uglier than I am without my gold!"
There came a pang deep within the demigod's chest. What was it? Guilt? Regret? Perhaps it was both, crawling down from the deepest recesses of his mind. The creepy fog slowly roiling around them likely wasn't helping, either, but Maui steeled himself and accepted his feelings without once trying to shun or escape them. With something of a grimace, he stepped forwards and patted a hand against Tamatoa's face.
"Ugly or not, the likes of me and you have hearts of gold beneath it all. That's why we were given second chances."
Tamatoa blinked in confusion, his mismatched eyes focusing on Maui.
"But I wasn't given a second chance, I don't know what you're -" The crab paused, then, eyes widening as realisation struck. "Are you -?"
"Yeah, let's spare the sentiment, buddy. I'm still angry, and I know you are, too, and that's fine. That doesn't mean we can't be ..." Maui's voice cracked. Taking a deep breath, he continued, "friends. If Moana trusts you, then I do, too." With a glance downwards, he scuffed his heel against the dirt distractedly. "I wasn't gonna leave you here. We'll figure it out, just like old times, huh?"
And there it was. Relief .
Saying it had been difficult, and he wasn't quite ready to afford the creature an apology (unless he received one, first). Whether it was a mistake or not, the heaviness of his heart lifted more than he expected it too, allowing him to breathe and to consider how good it felt to actually do what he thought was the right thing.
"Pah!" Tamatoa responded ungratefully, folding his claws with an air of belligerence. "And my name's Sebastian!"
"Hey, c'mon! I really mean it!" Maui insisted. "Look, why are ya here, ya great big idiot? What do you want? Be honest, 'cause I can tell when you're lying! Your antennae do this twitchy thing -"
"They do not!"
"They're doing it right now!"
Tamatoa immediately grabbed hold of his long antennae and held them fast, glaring down at the demigod with a frown so heavy it made his entire face droop.
"You're the one that's lying. You don't want to be my friend, you're just pretending, because … because."
"Don't change the subject, caviar-for-brains. Just say it out loud. C'mon. You can do it. Once you say it, it makes ya feel a whole lot better. Just let it out. I'm all ears."
Evidently struggling, Tamatoa pulled various strange faces as he tried to figure out how to vocalise exactly what was being asked of him.
"I – I want … uhh … I want to be beautiful again! No, wait, wait, I can't help it, it just came out! Let me try again!" The crab took a deep breath as if to steady himself. "I want … fish for dinner! Gold and silver! Pearls on strings and paintings from across the sea. I wanna glitter like a disco ball in sunlight. Is that too much to ask, Maui? Is it?!"
Maui raised an eyebrow, patient despite his urgent desire to escape the fog surrounding them.
"Try again. Be for real, this time. There's nobody here but me and you. I just need ya to say it!"
"Uh … carapace polish -"
"A nice charm bracelet!"
"A mother's love!" the monster burst out suddenly, his eyes wild. Slamming his claws down either side of the demigod, his supposed steely exterior swiftly began to crack and crumble. "Just like you! I wanna be liked but I can't do it without showing off, just like you! I wanna squish that Kamamora that's stolen the tiny, annoying little human, and I don't know why!" With that, Tamatoa began blubbing loudly into the sand, pressing Maui tightly against his cheek. "I was never really going to eat her, I was just trying to look tough and scary!"
Near asphyxiating against rubbery flesh, Maui barely managed to turn his head and gasp for air. He weakly patted Tamatoa's face in an attempt to end the sudden display of emotion.
"I-it's okay, buddy, but – ow – my head's going into my body. Can't breath -!"
Worse, he felt a fat, crustacean tear splash over the top of his head, dousing him in salt water.
"S-so this is what c-crying feels like!" Tamatoa wailed hysterically. "Oh, woe is me! And that poor little human thingy is probably fighting off endless demons as we speak! We'll be finding parts of her all over Lalotai. A hand over here, a foot over there, and then she'll have to moult to grow back her limbs and she'll be all soft and squishy for ages -"
"Then let's figure a way outta here, huh?!" Maui interjected before the imagery could become too gruesome. Barely managing to yank himself out of the crab's hold, he realigned his now crooked spine before clambering back up onto the creature's head to search for a way out of their predicament.
A small voice arose. A pair of enormous, fearful eyes swivelled around to watch him.
"What? Have ya seen a way out?"
"No, I'm ..." Tamatoa mumbled, struggling yet again with his words. "I don't want to be corrupted. It looks like it kind of stinks."
Maui sighed, feeling a pang of reluctant but genuine sympathy.
"Can you feel it?
"Yes, yes, right in my chest, where my heart is. At least, I think that's where my heart is. It could be in my butt, just like my lungs. Who really knows? It would be just my luck to be cursed butt-first. Is bringing the Moon back going to stop it? Maybe?"
Not knowing how to respond, Maui remained in silence. He wasn't going to lie and say that yes, saving the Moon from the Underworld and putting her back into the sky would heal the damage already done, but he didn't want the monster to fall into a state of despair, either. There was every chance that the Moon's power would restore balance to Lalotai and protect everything within from the shadows that had long lain dormant underneath it.
But what if it was too late?
"I don't know," he replied honestly, shrugging weakly. "I know that Moana will fight to help you, so if there's a way, we'll do it. We just need to find her, first."
A thick film of fluid welled up within Tamatoa's eyes again. One might have suspected another dramatic outburst of emotion was forthcoming, but the creature managed to collect himself before such a thing occurred.
"Right!" The crab thoughtfully rubbed a claw against his lower lip, as if considering something. "Well, this smelly fog is invincible to your wind-breath and my flashy shininess. I thought it might have lifted by now, because ... metaphor. Looks like we're gonna have to hitchhike our way out of here on a bigger, scarier monster. Quickly, wield your opposable thumbs, mammal!"
Convinced they would have to resort to such desperate measures, Maui swiftly became distracted by a sudden shift in their environment.
The fog was suddenly being illuminated a variety of colours, flashing through the spectrum in a hypnotic fashion. He realised it was because the bioluminescent light that radiated from the monster he was stood upon was shifting, sifting through a magnitude of bright colours as easily as an octopus, various shapes and patterns manifesting over the creature's hard shell until at last it settled on an inky black littered with white spots.
"Uh -" Maui began, sliding down Tamatoa's neck to stand on the shell, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. "Crabcake, you're changing colour!"
"What?!" the monster barked, peering over his shoulder to stare at the spots slowly roaming over his back.
His facial markings had vanished, as had his blue stripes, for whatever magic fuelled them had since moved to gather primarily on his shell in an odd display. The spots moved slowly and in perfect unison, like stars travelling across the night sky.
"Oh, what's this?" Tamatoa immediately panicked, desperately reaching back to try and catch some of the glowing spots in his claws. "Plague! You and your human have brought disease to this realm!"
The glowing spots were mostly white, but some sparkled different colours, too. There were long, milky arms of them stretching from one side of the shell to another, bands of light glittering, and it was then Maui realised what he was looking at. With a rising smile, he glanced upwards and saw that the spots of light were shining against the heavy thickness of the fog over their heads, creating a perfect illusion that mimicked the night sky.
"It's not plague," the demigod reassured his companion. He held a hand up to the false stars, measuring them with his palm and fingers. "It's our way forwards. Man, I had no idea you could do that, but it's awesome! Which way were you heading before we got sidetracked?"
Enthralled with the subconscious display of magic, Tamatoa stared up at the shining stars, then back towards his own shell.
"Uh, south, I guess."
"Then we'll head that way. We've got no other leads on where Moana could be. C'mon!" Bounding joyfully back up onto Tamatoa's head, Maui grabbed the antennae there and used them to steer the monster in a southern direction. "Che-hooooo! Yip-yip, ya giant ball of genius! Let's go get our friend back!"
With that, the pair made off through the thickness of fog and forest with purpose, no longer fearing the watch of malicious entities now that their confidence was restored. Maui in particular felt stronger now that he knew where he was, for the lack of stars in Lalotai had always been stifling, but now he had power in the knowledge of direction. For a moment, he could convince himself he was steering a canoe upon a dark stretch of ocean.
All that was missing was the Moon.
It was a small while later that Tamatoa's colours returned to normal, flooding back to his face and legs. Only when the darkness of the forest began to alleviate did they vanish altogether.
The end of the fog rested at the edge of the tropical forest. Once they travelled through it, they were hit with a wall of fresh air and clarity to their vision. Upon looking back, the unnatural stretch of heavy mist clung to the trees, unmoving, settled across them like a ghost of great size. It was enough to make Maui feel highly uncomfortable, but then again, the dreary place was preferable to what he faced in Abokas.
The clearing they had escaped into was irregular in shape. It featured hundreds of enormous jagged, stone spires that stretched from the ground like claws. In the very centre of them was the largest tree that occupied the forest, but had clearly long since been drained of life, for its dark branches sagged to the extent that they touched the earth. Its exterior was black as volcanic stone. It was a lonely thing, without a doubt, secluded from its peers, and in death it had become something else entirely.
A gateway. At the base of the tree was a sealed wound. Maui knew that upon the time of a full moon, the wound would open and reveal the way to the Underworld.
He could hardly pay it any attention, however, because Moana was nowhere in sight.
"Got any more cool magic tricks up your sleeve?" he asked Tamatoa, trying not to sound as small as he felt.
"Look, man, I've got no idea how I did that. I must've just -"
"Panicked. Yeah, I know, I've done crazy things when I'm stressed out, too. I guess all monsters are a bit magical, huh? Something to do with the fact you're all powered by a goddess' shattered heart? So, yeah, think fast, buddy, 'cause Moana isn't here and we've gotta find her."
"What am I gonna do, Maui? Grow wings and then find her with my mind powers? That's not how it works! I can't smell her 'cause of all this nasty fog, and I definitely can't see her. Pah, she's so small, I couldn't see her even when she was around!"
Ignoring his companion, Maui transformed into a hawk and flew up to the top of one of the stone spires, grasping its pointed tip as he used his enhanced vision to gaze fretfully out across the clearing. There was no sight of Moana. There was no sight of anything. She was gone, and he had failed her because he had allowed her to get taken away in the first place. If he hadn't been so set on arguing, it wouldn't have happened at all.
"What do I do?" he asked aloud, feathered head lowering. He was asking anybody that was listening, which unfortunately for him, amounted to a being who knew no more than he did. "I can't let anything happen to her. She's the Ocean's Chosen! I was meant to protect her! What kind of lousy friend am I if something terrible happens, huh?"
Tamatoa, as adept at climbing as his much smaller kin, clambered the short distance up the stone spire it took to match Maui's height.
"We're at the place she kept blabbering on about," the crab attempted. "Blah, blah, blah, Underworld this, heroism that. Who else is going to find their way better than her? I mean, you bipeds, you all think you're so great at finding your way around, and she's the most insistent little thingy I've ever met."
Maui turned his eyes to the sky. It was dark and unyielding.
"A master Wayfinder still needs the stars."
There was the ocean, again.
Moana must have been dreaming. She always saw the ocean in her dreams. Once upon a time, she had always been placed on the shore, watching the horizon forlornly. Now? She skated across it on her precious canoe, one hand trailing through the gentle waves as she sped onwards towards an unknown destination.
The place was rife with magic. She knew that much. The sun, now sinking below the horizon, did not shine golden, but an eerie green-blue. The stars swam in the sky like spirits, and when the sun vanished, they awoke and gathered into the forms of various animals. Moana gazed upwards in awe as sharks, whales, turtles, and various birds and lizards unstuck themselves from the heavens and soared through the blackness of the sky.
Some of them descended down and dove into the ocean. The creatures, now taking a more solid form, travelled with the young chief, beautiful constellations glittering across their bodies. They were infused with an unknown blue magic, the very same aura of light that encompassed Gramma Tala's manta ray spirit. These creatures were no doubt the Aumakua of legend, the guardian ancestors that watched over and protected their families.
Gramma Tala was amongst them. She was was sure of it. She could feel her presence, even if she couldn't see her amongst the hundreds upon hundreds of other spirits.
Ahead, the tiniest island that Moana had ever seen grew ever closer, and it was there that a glowing figure in the shape of a bird landed. Steering towards it, she saw that the bit of land was no larger than her canoe, boasting a single palm tree and a rather disgruntled spirit that she realised wasn't one of the Aumakua, but of the Manaia, the shape-shifting messengers of the gods. She was able to make the differentiation because she knew from the tales her grandma told her that the Manaia bore the bodies of birds and the heads of men.
With the canoe now safely parked partly on the island, Moana stepped cautiously onto the sand, confusedly eyeing the Manaia. It easily one of the oddest things that she had ever seen, and that was saying something. With the beautiful white feathers of an owl and the head of a stern, perhaps angry woman, it stood at near equal height with her, with large, unnatural eyes staring unblinkingly forwards.
The young chief awkwardly bowed, unsure whether it was the correct thing to do, but the Manaia seemed satisfied with that.
"Um -" Moana attempted, breaking the silence, but she was swiftly interrupted.
"Where's your pass?"
"I … my what?"
"Your pass. Everybody gets one! It means I can grant you passage to the afterlife."
The girl's blood suddenly ran cold. Feeling sick with horror, all she could do was look down at her hands and confirm that she was indeed pass-less.
"I'm dead?" she managed, running a hand through her hair. "But – I wasn't – I can't remember what -"
"Most people can't remember. It's normal! What isn't normal is that you just look, well, human. Pac-caaahh!" The Manaia covered her mouth with her wings, apparently offended by the noise that had just escaped her. "Oh! Pardon me. That happens when I get angry."
Filled with dismay, poor Moana felt the heat of tears rise to her eyes. She lowered back down onto the sand of the tiny island and leant against the palm tree, wrapping her arms around herself.
"I'm sorry, I don't know why I don't have a pass."
"Yes. Unusual," the Manaia harrumphed, rustling her feathers. "Well, you're probably not dead, then, but your spirit is here and your body is somewhere else. Very unusual. As if I needed another spirit trapped in this place! You see, you're not the first unusual thing to have happened as of late. The Aumakua aren't supposed to be here, either, but without the Moon's power, they can't exist within the mortal realm. Now I have thousands of bickering idiots all squashed into my realm. Caaaww!"
Horribly confused and still fearful, Moana took several deep breaths, steadying herself. If she was indeed still alive, then she was in this place for a reason, and it was yet another hurdle within her adventure. She had bound across so many others that to fall now would only be a travesty.
"I was on my way to retrieve the Moon," she said firmly, her tone now much calmer than it was moments previously. "I am Moana. I was venturing to Abokas to bring a flame to Te Po in exchange for the Moon. Something happened, and now I'm here."
"Oooh!" the creature hooted, the feathers around her neck rising with interest. "Moana, familiar of the Ocean! Just as I am a familiar of the Moon herself," she announced proudly. "Yes, that's right. I guide the spirits of passed islanders to where they need to go, but without the power of the tides, the clockwork is all clogged, so to speak. That Te Po has really ruffled my feathers! I'd show her a thing or two if I ever got my – caaahh - talons on her!"
The girl raised her head, suddenly determined.
"I need you to tell me everything about them," she murmured. "Talalelei and Te Po. I need their history. I need to be able to understand."
Understanding was, after all, the only way to help them both.