Contrary to what Luja was expecting, Inferna didn't immediately begin talking about the whole reason of his visit. Instead, she glanced distastefully at the dulled lightstones – which stubbornly remained the color of a smoky glass – and then conjured up an orb of flame in her palm. It split into seven copies, seven clones of the original, and then they flew towards the sconces, wrapping around the dull stones and turning them into more torches. The room was once again brightly lit, but the light flickered like dancing wraiths, putting the Ta-Matoran in the uneasy frame of mind that the fortress might be haunted.
"There," the Toa said, much more relaxed now that the room was brightly lit. "The atmosphere is set."
"What's the big deal about the ambiance?"
She smiled again, a hint of mystique in her expression. "When you are a being like my brothers and I, you'll know that the mood is a key part of what we do."
As if to make a point he didn't understand, she withdrew something and set it gently on the table. Luja felt his facial temperature climb in embarrassment: it was the pieces of tablet he had broken. If his host noticed the guilt upon his face, she didn't make mention of it; her eyes remained focused on the pieces as she lovingly fit the jagged edges back together, soon leaving only cracks to indicate it had been damaged.
He was about to apologize for the accident when more energy – not fire, even though it had the same ruby sheen – poured from her hand, making the fractures blaze. When the glare faded, it revealed the tablet, as good as new.
"How –?" he began, impressed; this was nothing like what a Toa he'd met once could do.
"I have power over what I create, Luja," she replied softly, pushing the slab away and looking at him again. "That goes for the physical, as well as the meta-physical."
"You wrote that story." It was a statement, not a question, and the host answered it as such. "The art on the walls, the tablets that line the shelves, the chair you sit on – my brothers and I created it all, save for the foundations of this place."
Her face darkened, and her tone became far more serious. "And it is because of those foundations that we sought you out, Luja."
Before he could ask, before his questions could be answered at last, the door to the parlor opened to admit the female who had brought him her. A tray was in her hands as she made her way towards the table, eyes un-obscured by her cloak hood – she had clearly disposed of it somewhere.
"I tried to rouse the others, Inferna," she reported, setting down the tray and placing crystal glasses before them; six others rested there, like they were expecting others. A glass decanter, filled with a gold liquid, was then unstoppered and the contents poured generously into both flutes as she added, "However, the others informed me that they have retired for the night, and they had given strict instructions to not be disturbed."
Inferna muttered a few words under her breath that Luja was sure were not compliments to her housemates. "I would've thought they would want to be here … oh well; it's their loss. Very well, Nemesis; you may rest."
The female – Nemesis – bowed from the waist and left the room, closing the door behind her, but it was not fast enough to deter a small, four-legged creature that darted through the shutting gap and into the room. Luja twisted around to get a better glimpse at the creature, and found himself peering at a gold-armored Muaka cub, who paid zero attention to him as it weaved between the wooden legs, clambered up into Inferna's lap, and made itself at home there, purring contentedly.
"As I said," she said, returning to their previous topic as she lightly sipped the gold liquid in her goblet, "the foundations of Seneca's Keep are why I and my brothers asked for the pleasure of your company. To better explain our predicament to you, I must go a rather long way back and explain some of our history to you, if only to explain some of our own actions."
"Fire away," the Ta-Matoran replied, taking a quick swallow of the liquid, which tasted something like honey. "The night is young."
"Not young enough, unfortunately," was his response, as Inferna glanced over at another timestone. "I'll make this fast."
We originally did not come from here (she said). My brothers and I first encountered each other in another realm, far from your home. In each other, we saw similar traits, sparks that lead to a love for stories in all of us, and in time, we became a group. We dubbed ourselves the Toa Seneca (in another language, it means the place of stones – we were the Toa of the Amaja Circle in more ways than one), and built ourselves a home similar to this one. We fed off each other's strengths, and discovered that our greatest powers lay within our minds. All of us were storytellers, in one way or another, and with the discovery of our new shared power, we could bring our stories to life.
It made us powerful, but it came at a price. Our might made us wealthy, but some of our neighbors grew jealous of what we had – the fame, the power, the wealth – and wanted it for themselves. Our danger grew, until we came to the sad realization that to save ourselves and what we had gained, we had to leave that land forever.
We slipped away one night, with nothing but what we needed with us on our backs, and we traveled far. As for our jealous rivals, all they gained from our departure was bitterness and dust: without our powers to sustain it, our fortress and everything we left inside it vanished like a mirage.
We settled here, repairing the destroyed foundations and building a replica of our original Keep from them. But it was after we completed the construction and furnishing of our new home – about three months after we discovered the foundations – that we stumbled upon the hidden entrance to a ruined temple, buried in the mountains we rest against.
Our curiosity is sometimes our greatest strength, but in this case, it was our weakness. We broke the seal that locked the doors into the inner rooms and moved through, disabling the traps laid inside to deter – or kill – whatever unsuspecting beings entered it. We persevered, and we finally made it to the Rune Gates, which lie at the opposite end of the temple. In our greatest folly, we undid the protective rune-seal that locked the gates … and we unleashed what we never expected.
To this day, we are not sure what we released from the inner sanctum beyond the gates; however, we know it was malevolent, powerful … and even after untold years of imprisonment, strong enough to nearly destroy us. Its evil seeped past us through the doors we left unguarded, unlocked, and up above-ground into the stones that make up Seneca's Keep.
We were able to force it back beyond the gates, and sealed it with our own powers, but the damage had been done. Its darkness, its evil, had infected our sanctuary, and it was able to reach out to affect our guests. Try as we might, we could not banish it from our walls to protect ourselves and our visitors.
It was the most senior of us that discovered how to dilute the darkness. By using our unique powers on the chambers we had passed through, we used what we had created to fight the darkness and absorb it into their bodies; as they are borne from ourselves, they cannot be truly affected by it, though they can interact with the real world. By filtration through the seven rooms we created, we could protect those we invited much better than we could otherwise … and by making our rooms as lethal as possible, we could make sure no inquisitive being would live to make the same mistake we did.
Our method worked for the next three months, but we are having difficulties now. The Toa Seneca are losing contact with our brainchildren in the temple, and we cannot cleanse them of the darkness they are absorbing. We fear that the evil is taking over, and that our own creations will rebel against us to release the monster beyond the Rune Gates.
We needed a hero to banish the shadows; someone who could succeed where we have failed. That is why we called for you.
Throughout the entire narration, Inferna's voice that not changed from its calm, matter-of-fact tone, not even when she had declared him to be the "chosen hero" the Toa Seneca had been seeking for. Luja, for his part, was rather skeptical. For one thing, he doubted his own chances against the darkness if someone – or multiple persons – as strong as Inferna could not destroy such an evil as the one they claimed to be facing. For another, if they really were as powerful as the Fire Toa claimed, why could they not create someone to do the job in their stead, or his?
And then there was his own, silent denial; the conviction that – despite what Nemesis had told him at the gates – he was not cut out to be some hero.
"Why you? We know the ways of heroes. We know the characteristics of the ones that make things right. You carry a legacy that you have no knowledge of, and we knew it would require that legacy to defeat our enemy.
"There is another reason, though. The darkness was sealed by an ancient hero, also named Luja. Only those that bear his name can defeat his monster. And if it is not subdued or destroyed, even we Seneca might fall under its influence."
Luja thought this was very far-fetched. Surely there were more people that had the same name as him, and one of them had to be a Toa. If they wanted help, a Toa would be a better choice. Since he was reluctant to say this out loud, though, he simply began to get up and leave.
"I thought you would take it this way," Inferna said, her eyes unreadable. As Luja started to his feet, she continued on as if he were still seated. "If you won't do it for us, perhaps you will do it for the others."
Something about how the female Toa said theothersmade the Ta-Matoran freeze. "The others?"
Seemingly ignoring him, the tattooed Toa looked past him and addressed someone behind his chair. "You can come out," she said softly, in a gentle tone that seemed out of character for her. "He's the one you've been waiting for."
Wheeling, Luja found himself mask-to-mask with – he stared in alarm, recoiling on reflex. "What are they?"
"Phantasms. They have been waiting for you to come." Inferna's cool, in-control voice was a direct contrast to Luja's panicky voice.
His heartlight flashing at a greater speed, the Matoran stared at the pale, transparent, almost ghostly figures that had appeared in the sitting room, staring at him with nearly-lifeless eyes. They seemed to be trying to reach out, trying to touch his shoulder and speak to him, but he could not understand their voices. They were made up of nearly every species: in one corner, a Skakdi was paying a minimal amount of attention to him; in another, two Toa of indistinguishable elements were watching him raptly. And the furthest from him …
His fear leapt to a new height as he looked upon three Matoran, huddled together near the door. Unlike the others, they retained some of their natural colors amongst the grey, as the faintest of undertones. As he watched, one of them – a Po-Matoran wearing a Noble-style Rau – looked up from the fold, his eyes locking with Luja's.
Even in this state, he could recognize this Phantasm. "Kauz," he whispered.
He whirled around to face Inferna again, whose face had not changed expression. "How?" was the only word he could muster, but she understood his implications.
"The evil that infests our walls target our guests – more specifically, the energy that gives them life. If their protections fail, they are reduced to this sorry state, the husks of what they once were: more dead than alive. Only by destroying the evil can they be restored to their true shapes."
Just like that, he knew he was caught, shackled by the conscience that cried out for him to help the trapped ones, including his friend. All the same … "You planned this, didn't you? You knew that if I saw them, I'd have to say yes."
His hostess inclined her head slightly. "We have seen many heroes – created, met, and broken them – and we know how to best push their buttons. If a plea does not move them, we show them the victims. If they are hardhearted enough to not rise to that bait, we make it personal. We strike at their hearts, and it takes a very strong-willed individual to not do what we wish them to.
"Your friends received an invitation three days after we sent yours. It bade them to meet us here the next weekend, and since they have been here before, they saw nothing suspicious. They came, they spent the night … and we dropped enough of their protections so they would become Phantasms."
Luja's mouth had become very dry; it took a few moments before he could articulate what he wanted to say. "You're evil."
"That's a strong word, wouldn't you say? I prefer diabolical, though there really isn't much of a difference between the two words. The point remains: we require your help, and we are willing to stoop that low to get you to cooperate with us."
Luja was forced to amend his perception of his hostess. He could tell she meant what she said – that she would place his friends at risk to gain his assistance. There had been no doubt about her forcefulness; he just hadn't perceived just how cogent she and her brothers were.
With a sigh to testify to his heavy reluctance, he agreed. "Very well. I will try to accomplish this – but for my friends' sake, not yours."
Inferna surely heard the suppressed anger in his voice, but she did not seem affected by it; she continued to speak in her even tones. "We wish only for your assistance, Luja – if we must become anti-heroes or minor villains to make you step up to your role of hero, then we will."
After that lofty proclamation, Inferna quickly led Luja out of the room, leaving their drinks at the mercy of the Muaka cub's inquisitive tongue. The Phantasms followed them out of the sitting room for a while, but they finally fell away from their tails to other rooms.
Inferna's feet moved with fast and long strides, one of hers matching three of his. The female Toa seemed grimly focused on the hallways that stretched down into the third floor of the east wing. Her calm façade had disappeared once they had left the room, just another mask that she wore alongside her metal one.
They finally paused before a room sealed with a metal door. When Inferna withdrew a key ring and unlocked the door, Luja found himself stepping into a brightly-lit armory, with Kanohi lining shelves near the ceiling, pieces of armor taking up the back, and weapons galore occupying racks at the fore.
Luja wanted to stop and admire the craftsmanship on some of the pieces he saw, but the Fire Toa had no time to spare. Muttering under her breath, mentally measuring the swords and armor against her champion, she delved deep into the stores, finally surfacing with pieces of plate metal that she used to replace his own. Luja submitted to her work, knowing that she knew how to best prepare him for the ordeal ahead.
"Do you have any knowledge with swordplay?"
"I'll take that as a no." A new pulse of ruby energy flared from her hands and into his body, and when she placed a longsword into his hands, Luja could tell that – as opposed to this morning, when he would've regarded it as just a piece of steel – he now felt it as a long, sharp extension of his arms.
By now Inferna had moved away from weapons for the moment and was rummaging through the Kanohi. "You'll definitely need some Kanohi powers down there," she murmured, talking more to herself than to her guest. There was some sort of manic energy in her tone, like she was considering multiple options and was rejecting most of them. "Hau, Akaku, Calix, Pakari, Kakama, Volitak … that should be enough to cover the bases." Grabbing Great versions of those masks, she pressed them onto his face in the place of his powerless Kanohi, and then sent another ruby energy burst into his skull. Luja didn't need an explanation for that one: she was wielding her power over her creations to make the masks work for him.
The Toa stepped back for a view of her handiwork, and then shook her head. "You'll need some sort of ranged weapon down there," was her next piece of criticism, leading him down a side-alley of the armor where seven metal cabinets were rested, each with a different emblem pressed into it. She flung open one, only to be greeted by what appeared to be cloaks. Scowling, she slammed it shut with a loud, metallic bang, then flung it open again. The cloaks were gone, but they were replaced by shields, which were not what Inferna had wanted. Five reopenings later got her what she was looking for, and she withdrew what appeared to be a small, compact crossbow that could be mounted on the wrist. (Some of the others had been what appeared to be jars of something red, severed heads, and what resembled a heavily bejeweled crown.)
"The most senior of us built this weapon," she explained, fitting the leather straps around his left hand. "The bolts regenerate quickly, and can change their energy composition at your will. It should be able to help you if you need breathing room."
Footsteps echoed on the floor, and Nemesis rounded the corner, apparently on the orders of her mistress. A large orange key was spinning on her left index finger, and a small knapsack was slung over her shoulders.
Whatever she had been about to say died upon examining Luja, who was admiring his new array, and then she glared at Inferna and hissed, "That's all you're giving him? He'll –"
"Mata Nui always sides with the heroes," was the sharp retort. "Luja is the hero of this story, and his support, as with ours, will be a greater protection than any other we could give him."
Still holding Nemesis in her blue-eyed gaze, Inferna continued. "Nemesis, you are to lead Luja to the first antechamber and break the seal. Give him a quick overview of what he should look for in the rooms, and then return as needed. Do I make myself clear?"
A rebellious-looking Nemesis nodded sullenly. Satisfied, Inferna swept out of the armory, the others behind her, and paused to give Luja one last word: "Good luck. We are counting on you."
Then she was gone.
Disclaimer:Inferna, Luja, Nemesis, and Tamu (the Muaka cub) belong to me. The crossbow is a modified weapon borrowed from Repicheep22's stories.