It was a night when the Twin Moons had turned orange in the star-studded sky. It was made even more unique by the fact it was Hero's Eve, the night when those long dead were honored by stories and festivals all over the universe. This area was no different: while the celebrations of the Matoran here were more subdued than those hosted by Metru Nui, a rather large fair was held in the town center, which got plenty of attendance, so no one minded how casual they were in comparison to other areas.
The fact remained: It was Hero's Eve, and for a certain public transport driver, he just wanted get this run out to the bordering plains over with, so he could be back in town when the festivities began.
It started at 7 at night; he checked his dashboard clock, the same way he had been for several times a minutes since he had picked up his only passenger that night (funnily enough, no one else felt like leaving the area tonight). It was 6:33; if his passenger reached his destination within five minutes – wherever that was, since the only instructions had been "Travel west" – he could make it back in time for the celebration to start.
Through the rearview mirror, the Le-Matoran peered at his passenger. It was hard to tell what tribe the other Matoran was (the dark cloak wrapped around himself tended to obscure color perception), but he was pretty sure it was a Ta-Matoran that was paying the fare.
A flash of light appeared, emanating from the eyes of the other, as sharp as if he had sensed the stare, and the Le-Matoran hastily returned his attention to the road that seemed to stretch on to infinity.
He looked again at the clock. 6:34. At 6:35, his palms began to sweat as he frantically tried to figure out if he could make it if the other Matoran got out within three minutes. 6:36 –
"There," the passenger suddenly said, gesturing up ahead and breaking into the driver's thoughts.
To the right of the road was a blocky adobe building, facing the deep plains that made up the western outskirts of the township and the ghostlike mountains in the distance. There were said to be a lot of strange things in the foothills, not the least about the small group of strangers that had moved into the area about six months ago. Hardly anyone saw them – they were beings that kept to themselves – but the only ones that saw them were those summoned by grave invitation to their home, and they were highly reluctant to give details about what they were like … though that never stopped them from returning when another invitation arrived.
Carefully, the driver pulled to a stop before the nondescript building. The passenger opened his door, forked over the fare, and stepped outside into the chilly night.
Frowning, the Le-Matoran watched the other male walk around the building, out of his sight. He'd been this way several times, and he'd never seen this place before. Was the quiet Matoran up to something suspicious?
Not my problem, he decided. Right now, he had bigger things to worry about – like making it back into town in time for the festival. Throwing the vehicle into gear once again, he pulled a wide U-turn and drove back towards civilization without a glance into the rearview mirror. Had he looked, however, he would have noticed the building collapse into dust a minute or so after he had left.
Luja was glad he had brought his cloak tonight. As the tenth month of the year had dragged on, the remaining warmth brought on by summer had been chased away by the bite of looming winter, most noticeable on the plains nights. The Ta-Matoran actually preferred winter over summer, despite his Fire heritage. He had a trade in metals – mostly jewelry, but he repaired a tool or mask once in a while – and in winter, his forge kept him comfortable. The heart of summer, on the other hand, was sweltering enough to fry Gukko eggs on a flat rock outside, and when he was stuck inside the forge from nine to five, even he could become uncomfortable.
He shook the thoughts away as he rounded the corner, vanishing from the view of the Le-Matoran driver. Just like his instructions had detailed, a taller figure – easily Toa-sized – was slouching against the wall, their body language conveying boredom. However, their attention, previously held by the mountains, abruptly shifted to him when they noticed Luja in the corner of their eye.
"You have it?" they asked, and while the voice was very intimidating, Luja was unaffected (he got a few rough types in his work). He could also tell that this Toa-type was female, in spite of the tone, and in reply, he produced what she was talking about from a pouch on his belt. "Here."
The female threw something onto the flat earth, leaving it to smolder as she moved forward to see the document better. Luja felt some slight stirrings of discomfort – she was easily five feet taller than he was. Her face was hidden beneath a cowl (he hadn't been the only person wearing a hooded cloak tonight), but a pale red glow emanated from where her eyes were.
"That works," she said, straightening up. "Come on, but keep that message. You'll need it to persuade the guards to let you in." Turning ninety degrees to her right, not waiting for his reply, she opened a door he hadn't noticed earlier and walked inside the adobe building. Pocketing the tablet again, the Ta-Matoran followed her in.
It was dark inside; aside from the dim light streaming through the door, there was no illumination. It was enough to reveal another transport, blockier than the streamlined version he had exited a few seconds earlier, but much more elegant, in a Gothic sort of way.
The Toa female rose her left hand; a white shine erupted from it, and then the door swung open. Realizing this as his cue to board, Luja scrambled inside and shut the door, even as the carriage rocked when the female leapt to the front. Through a window placed on the door, he watched as she sent a trio of energy beams – one black, one tan, and the last silver – from her raised hand. The silver one wrapped around the carriage, sealing completely, the tan one made the adobe walls whisper back into dust, and the black twisted into complex shapes, finally turning bone-white and forming into a skeletal, four-legged beast of burden, pawing the ground eagerly.
The female lashed leather reins around the creature, pulling a plumed bridle over the skull. Standing up on the driver's seat like a rider from Karzahni, with the reins in one hand she produced a long whip in the other and lashed out, a loud crack! resounding from above the Rahi's head.
With a guttural shriek, the undead beast gathered itself and then sprang, gathering speed until Luja was pressed flat against the carriage seat, the wheels sounding like they were moving at Kakama-speed. His hand clutched at the pocket with the tablet; trying not to reel from the forces against him, he pulled out the letter and reread it, words gracefully written in rich maroon ink.
I doubt you have met us, though we have known of you for some time. We have lived on the fringes since we arrived in this area half a year ago, and there are few from your home that we call friends.
Amongst these are a few of your own friends, who have told us about you. The words they used intrigued us, and due to circumstances both beyond and within our control, we desire the chance to meet you, mask to mask.
On Hero's Eve, take a transport west, until you reach an adobe building. Around the side will be a female, roughly the size of a Toa. Show her this invitation, and she will bring you to our abode.
We await your reply. Meet us on Hero's Eve, or not at all."
There had been no signature, but one of his friends – a Po-Matoran named Kauz – had identified the handwriting as that of the same person that wrote his own, similar invitations. The author was thought to be part of a group of recluses that lived out in the foothills, dwelling in what looked like a giant fortress carved from stone, seeking something that they never spoke of to the visitors they gravely summoned.
Kauz was one of those that had been invited, alongside a few of his friends and co-workers. Oddly enough, the weekend after the invitation had appeared in his home, Kauz and his friends had vanished, but no one had seen them after they had left that night. Feeling that there was a connection between his friends disappearing and his own initial reluctance to accept, the Ta-Matoran had set out on Hero's Eve to the plains, not sure what to expect.
This was not what he had been thinking.
"Whoa!" the driver's voice suddenly cried, and Luja was forced to brace himself as the carriage jolted to a halt. Clicks emanated from the outside, and the door smoothly swung open. More than a little surprised about how fast they had traveled, the Ta-Matoran all but crawled out of the coach, stubbornly clutching the letter in his hands.
His astonishment was increased as he realized they were at the foothills he had just been thinking of, the stars twinkling above his head like spirit lanterns. The female rider jumped off the seat, not even appearing windswept by the speedy trip, though her hood had been blown off by their journey. Now uncloaked, her face was mercifully hidden behind a black Kakama, eyes the color of rubies blazing through her eyeholes. Turning away from him, her gauntleted hand wove through the air, silver energy swirling around it, and Luja watched as horse and buggy collapsed into dust.
"Was that necessary?" he asked.
"My mistress and her brothers have a unique way of seeing the world," came the reply, as his guide walked forward to the pile of sand and began sifting through it. "When they need something temporary – like this method of transport – they create it, but when they no longer require its services, they consign it in-animation, until the day comes that they need it again."
As the words left her lips, the female seemed to find what she needed, fingers emerging with what appeared to be a fist-sized, circular tablet. Before the smith could tell for sure, it vanished under the folds of fabric and they were walking towards the mountains.
Over three hills, they stopped, and Luja could not help but stare as he beheld what appeared to be a fortress of alabaster, colored tan by the winds flinging dust against it. Two towers made up its corners, patrolled with what appeared to be more Toa, though it was hard to tell in the falling night; the parapets were the same, except he could see the wicked spears in their hands. Braziers were alight upon the façade, the orange fires casting smoke and giving the entire place a forbidding fascia.
Curled up in the very center, blocking any view of the gates, was a giant lizard-like creature, its scales the color of the abyss and its eyes like giant emeralds. As the Ta-Matoran and his guide advanced on it (he a bit fearfully), a serpentine neck supporting a frilled head lifted off the ground to better watch their approach.
Boldly, the matte-black female strode forward, snatching the invitation from Luja's nerveless hands as he stopped dead in his tracks. Halting only a bio from it, she raised it up, the better for the creature to read it.
A low hisssss filled the air as the Rahi looked closer at Luja, whom the female beckoned forward; he obeyed numbly. "I was expecting someone … taller," it remarked in a voice that surprised him almost as much as it speaking: a very feminine, dark voice. Extending her head forward, she brushed her snout on Luja's brow before enormous bat wings unfurled, allowing the dragon to take flight, circling higher and higher into the sky before vanishing into the mountains.
"Taller?" he demanded to know once she disappeared, not sure if he ought to be more offended by the comment on his height.
"Ignore her. Most of the heroes Orinda has seen are my size," the Toa-female replied, moving towards the metal-mahogany doors that were now unguarded.
"Wait, wait, wait. I'm just a blacksmith; I'm no –"
"My mistress and her brothers know heroes when they see them. They know what makes a hero, and you fulfill all their expectations … at least, so she told me when I was sent to retrieve you." Lifting a hand to cut off any argument, she added, "I know you do not see it within yourself; few truly do. But they do. It was not on accident or coincidence that you were called to see them on Hero's Eve."
Taking advantage of the brief silence, she turned back towards the doors, knocking three times on the wood before crying out in another language, a tongue that he had no knowledge of. It seemed to have some effect on someone inside, as with a chorus of screeches, coming from hinges that lacked oil, the doors creaked open.
The newly-opened portal revealed an opulent entrance hall, robed in thick rugs and flanked on the opposite end by marble staircases climbing to the next floor. A row of three suits of armor, one on each side, stood at attention as if saluting invisible commanders, plumed masks hollow without a wearer. More torches burned on the walls and in a magnificent crystal chandelier, casting dancing shadows and rainbow sparks upon the walls and floor.
"Much of this was restored when the masters came here," the Toa-female said softly, sensing the inevitable question. "This used to be a fortress for a long-gone king, and many of the trappings here were what remained of the décor when they rebuilt the ruins of what this was. They prefer to have their comfort assured – for themselves, their servants, and their guests – so they may devote their time to more important pursuits. Come; they are waiting."
The Ta-Matoran, feeling numb in the presence of such wealth and luxury, followed her up the stairs. Kauz had told him that the place was beyond imagining, but his wildest imagining could not prepare him for this. He was forced to amend his perception of the plains recluses, because if they were as wealthy as these surroundings hinted they were, they could easily be kings and generals in lives other than this one.
They came to a halt before a door, the cedar wood carved with strange images and marked with an odd copper seal: seven swords in a circle, the points around a Kanohi Hau. The brass doorknob was also shaped like a blade, and when touched, the door smoothly opened to admit them into a parlor as richly bejeweled as the entrance hall.
"Make yourself comfortable," the guide invited as Luja walked in, admiring the room. "I will fetch the mistress and her brothers." With that, she left, the door swinging shut behind her.
Left to his own devices, Luja realized that the beauty surrounding him meant he could not willingly sit; he had to ignore the chairs of ebony and examine the carvings on the wall, read the spines of tablets that detailed stories he had never read before. Each glyph was filled in by a different metal foil – this one gold, another red, and yet another silver – and while the Matoran letters were familiar to him, the titles he was reading were not of stories he had ever read before. Naturally, curiosity got the better of him.
He was deeply engrossed in a tale by an unknown author (all he knew was they had pressed ruby foil into the title) when the silence of the parlor suddenly began feeling oppressive instead of welcoming. The lightstones that were set into wall sconces were dimming somehow, despite that they only could lose light when they were destroyed, and as he looked up and around, concerned by this anomaly, they turned a smoky grey.
What felt like a scaly, clawed hand touched his shoulder plate; it felt slimy enough that he whirled around in fear, the tablet slipping from his hands and cracking into three pieces. He had enough time to worry about what the recluses would think about him breaking one of their tablets when a oily black mist whizzed past his eyes, and he turned again to face what appeared to be a twisted hybrid of a snake, a rock lizard, and a spider of some kind, mainly because it had eight spindly legs, a flat head with giant poison-filled fangs and beady eyes, and a tail long and heavy enough to snap stone.
With a startled yelp, Luja stumbled back, even as the greasy-black monster hissed and slithered forward. The smith cursed himself in his head – thinking that he wouldn't have a battle-to-the-death in a supposedly safe place he hadn't even brought his work hammer, which always suited him as a weapon when needed – but fortunately for the Ta-Matoran, help arrived at that very moment.
Blazing fire, like that from the largest of forges, whipped from his left side and wrapped around the creature, which screamed in pain – which was rather natural, even for a monster. Luja looked towards the source, but the heat waves obscured the true shape of the caster, who was standing within the doorframe.
With a wail, the creature vanished like it had never been there, a strange splotch on the carpet the only marker of its brief presence. The fire vanished with it, and with the heat gone, Luja could watch his savior fully enter the room and examine the space. Unlike his guide, she was lacking a cloak, so he could see that her deep emerald-colored armor was almost completely obscured by images of flame, colored in brightest scarlet and deepest gold. Her Kanohi – a Great Calix, the smith in him noticed – was similarly illustrated, wrapping around blue eyes like they were emanating from those orbs. Hanging from her waist was the largest sword he had seen in the hands of any Toa, an enormous ruby set into its pommel.
"Dark Karzahni. This will take years to get out of the carpet …" she muttered, eyes fixed briefly on the black stain before they snapped up to meet his face. "But I should offer my apologies, Luja – I had not expected such a lethal welcome to the Keep to be extended to you, an honored guest." Pressing her hands against each other, obscuring her heartlight, she bowed from the waist to him.
Luja was starting to lose his store of surprise emotion, so he was not affected by this strange Toa bowing to him. All his lips could speak was, "What was that thing?"
Straightening up, she replied simply, "The reason my brothers and I summoned you here, to this place we call home. But this is moving far too fast for my liking. We will sit and talk then." Smiling to him, she walked to a table surrounded by chairs and waved him into one of the more comfortable-looking ones.
Torpidly, the Ta-Matoran did as she suggested. "Who are you?"
She laughed – a very strange sound, coming from the mouth of a fierce-looking warrior. "Ah, my brothers and I have many names. Which one are you asking for?" Still smiling like she hadn't a care in the world, she seated herself a few chairs to his left. "However, you may call me Inferna."
Author's Note: This is the story that originally started as my 2010 Halloween special, which is a collaboration between myself and a few other friends, two being Kini Hawkeye and Repicheep22 from here. Two chapters were originally posted on BZPower before I suffered from writer's block and it went on hiatus; hopefully having it on other websites will motivate me to break my fatigue.
Disclaimer: Bionicle does not belong to me or to any of my coconspirators, but any OCs that you may see will belong to us. I'll disclaim each of those as we go along.
Reviews are greatly appreciated!