The Darkest Light is the fourth story in the Xaterex Multiverse Storyline.
The cavern was silent. Nothing stirred in the twisted depths of the earth, and no voices broke the quiet. It was as if a dark hand had settled over the caves, draping the entire underground city in a dark shroud. All was still, save the torches that still burned with shallow, feverish red light. For one moment, the light illuminated the tall, thin being that walked through the darkness, features hidden by a hooded cloak.
Almost hesitently, the hooded being stepped forward, corpse-like hands lowered in supplication. Slowly, a shadowy Presence began to fill the room, a presence so palpable with darkness that even the hooded being seemed uneasy for one moment. The being lowered its head as the Presence seemed to intensify, as though growing stronger and stronger, finally obscuring even the torchlight itself.
What news do you bring us? A voice echoed from the shadows. The voice was rasping and cold, and when it spoke, it sounded as if a multitude of beings was speaking together in a disjointed chorus. While it sounded both quiet, loud, and all-pervasive, the hooded being knew only it could hear.
"Our war is going exactly as planned. Neither the Ix nor the Toa suspect anything. Soon, both will be no more. Our forces cannot fail to defeat them."
This we know. The Presence answered. Everything is proceeding as we have forseen.
"Yes, my lord."
What more have you learned? The Presence asked.
"I have located the Beacon." said the hooded being, scrachy voice echoing slightly through the chamber. "He has eluded us thus far...however, all is going according to the plan."
We can feel his aura across the planes. It is one of the strongest we have ever encountered.
"Yes, my lord." said the hooded being. "His aura is bending the strands of time themselves across the planes, but he is still unaware of his own power...soon the endgame shall begin."
Have you gathered our warriors?
"Yes, they have been gathered, as according to your will. A contingency of our warriors has already made preparations for the gathering."
You have done well.
"What shall I do with the Spirit Toa?" asked the hooded being. "He cannot be allowed to continue wandering across the Empire."
Bring him before us.
"And if he will not agree?"
If he cannot be ours, he must be eliminated...go now. The Presence ordered. Finish this game.
Slowly, the Presence began to lift, the voice stopped speaking. The oppressive shadows vanished, to be replaced by the flickering light of the flames once more. For one moment, the hooded being remained standing, alone, in the chamber. Then, slowly, the being turned and vanished once more into the shadows.
The Toa of aura peered through the trees, lime green eyes darting back and forth, alert for any sign of approaching beings. His armor, green and gray, blended well with the cold, uniformly green plant life of the northern forest. Though unwounded, he had a long scar across his shoulder, and carried a long, red scimitar that smouldered with red light.
Shardak heard a twig snap, and turned, alert for any sign of attackers. His training, honed and sharpened by months of practice using the Sword of Fire caused him to raise his weapon in a defensive Lihtne pattern almost instinctively. Tensed, prepared to fight, he lowered his weapon when he realized it was simply a small, catlike Rahi, racing across the forest floor.
It feels as though I've been with the rebellion forever. Shardak reflected, slowly beginning to calm once more.
In reality, it had been four months. Four months since the final day in the bloodthirsty Eternal Game at the heart of the Ix Empire, four months since his battle with the Elemental known as Skorpix, four months since his training as a warrior in the rebellion began.
Now, he was once again about to face the Ix, the enemies who had haunted his nightmares since his narrow escape from Skorpix and the arena. He and his allies had been sent to eliminate a small group of Imperial warriors scouting across the edge of the forest near their base. There was no option but to eliminate them or force them to abandon their mission.
Shardak felt a hand on his shoulder. Panic shot through him as he whirled around, Blade of Arcturas raised. Slowly, he lowered the weapon as he recognized his friend Blast. The Glatorian warrior was too disciplined to question him, but raised his hand in a signal that Shardak recognized well.
"Where are Arkhan and the others?" asked Shardak under his breath.
"He's leading them around, to cut the Imperial soldiers off." answered Blast. "There are eleven Kranr warriors, and two Stalkers."
Shardak almost felt his old shoulder wound sting as he remembered the viscious semi-invisible Rahi used by the Ix. One of them had attacked him when he, Blast, and Kyhrex had escaped an Ix stronghold known only as the Circle. Kyhrex had managed to finish it off, but not before it had torn open Shardak's shoulder. The wound had troubled him until, eight days later, the rebellion was able to heal it completely.
"Here they are." whispered Blast. Shardak followed his gaze toward a grove directly in front of them, and recognized the familiar pale green and white armor that the Kranr wore. There were no sign of any Stalkers-- yet.
Blast raised his weapon, a long scythe. It looked unremarkable, but held far more power then Shardak could even feel in the aura field. Blast had been taught to use it in battle, and could even channel some of its lesser energies, such as using it to attack. However, Shardak was sure it could do much more, he had seen it used once in the hands of a Makuta known as Dredzek, and knew exactly how dangerous the Scythe of Creation could be.
Shardak readied his weapon, ready for the first battle he'd fought since the fateful duel with Skorpix. He was tense, but tried to allow himself to relax, knowing that agility played a great role in allowing him to survive a lightning-fast Stalker attack.
Two more of Shardak's allies moved to stand behind Blast, the Matoran known as Silver and Dust. Both had been present in the emergency council after he, a Toa of Light known as Fairon, and several other beings had escaped the Eternal Game using the Scythe of Creation, and both were highly loyal and deadly warriors.
Shardak had no more time to think, the sense of danger was palpable. Both Toa, Glatorian, and Matoran all readied to face the Imperial soldiers.
Then the Kranr were upon them. Shardak felt his weapon strike against a Kranr's armor, saw the eyes of his enemy glaring at him through the helmeted visor as the Kranr trust his sword at Shardak, alternately blocking and thrusting as Shardak slowly began to force him back, deeper into the foliage.
The Kranr suddenly whirled to one side, tearing past Shardak's guard and tearing through his armor. Shardak felt a brief flash of pain, easily ignored. Reaching out in the aura field, he caused the Kranr to stagger backward, then easily disarmed him.
For one moment, the Kranr froze, suddenly realizing what Shardak had done. The Toa stepped forward, ready to finish his attacker.
Suddenly there was a flash at the corner of his eye, and Shardak, recognizing it at the last second as a Stalker, whirled around, feeling his weapon tear across the Stalker's armor and draw blood. The Stalker snarled quietly, but in doing so had given away its position once more, and the Blade of Arcturas tore deeper into the Stalker's armor.
While Shardak was occupied fighting the Stalker, however, the Kranr had grabbed his weapon. He charged toward Shardak, weapon ready. Shardak deflected his first thrust and managed to keep the stalker away as well, but the Kranr followed his first attack with a series of hammering blows that forced Shardak completely onto the defensive. At that moment, the Stalker struck.
Shardak felt the Stalker's claws dig into his armor, unable to draw blood. However, suddenly, Shardak felt himself fall to the ground, the Stalker leaping at him. Slashing upward with the Blade of Arcturas, Shardak felt the weapon bury itself in the Stalker's throat, saw the Stalker become fully visible in death.
Before Shardak had a chance to recover, the Kranr was upon him, his weapons drawn. Shardak had no time to block the weapon, and suddenly he had once again become the defenseless Toa who had once battled the Ix in the Void.
As the Kranr's weapon descended, Shardak suddenly saw a blur of light flash by him, striking the Kranr through the heartlight. The startled being staggered backward, his eyes glazing over. His body shuddered once and then fell still.
Shardak rose to his feet, looking at his rescuer, the final member of their strike team. Ix warrior Valkyria Rhai gave him a half-smile as he rose to his feet, looking around for any signs of more Kranr. She was wearing the scaled, green armor favored by the scouts in the rebellion's armies. In one hand she carried a long, curved dagger in one hand, her longbow in the other.
Valkyria had been part of the Ix strike team sent to kill Shardak and recover the Shadow Orb. However, when she'd failed, they'd been forced to make a temporary alliance against the dual threats of the Shadow of Ages and the serpent known as Sarkanian. Later, she had been betrayed by the Ix and sentanced to fight in the Eternal Game, and had joined the rebellion after they'd escaped the arena.
Shardak scanned the forest for any signs of Kranr or Stalkers, but saw none. Arkhan strode toward him, white armor stained with blood. Two lean Agori following him, only slightly injured. Shardak noticed one of their team was missing, and knew he'd been killed. He'd barely known the other member of their squadron, he'd been a Glatorian with gray armor. Still, any loss of life in a battle was another warrior who could not be replaced.
"We lost Marad." reported Arkhan. "A Stalker hit him from behind, he didn't have a chance. None of the Kranr escaped."
"None of the Kranr who attacked us fled." said Shardak. "We suffered no losses."
Slowly, the rebellion group made its way back toward the hidden fortress. Shardak walked beside Blast and Valkyria, wondering what the rebellion's leaders would think of their successful defeat of the Kranr. He hoped they would reward him by allowing him to participate in a more useful mission, as his friend Fairon was now doing. For the past four months, they'd simply been either travelling toward the base in the Fells, or being sent on unimportent missions such as these.
Arkhan seemed to notice what he was thinking. "Every strike we deal to the Empire is useful. We cannot match them in strength or weapons, our greatest battle is one of survival."
Shardak cursed inwardly, wishing that for a moment he could cloak his emotions behind a mask of nothingness, as Valkyria could. He could still barely control his aura, and had seen in his battle with Skorpix how risky that could be. Any competant auric user could control him in the aura field without him consiously resisting.
"Come." said Arkhan, as he watched the bodies of the fallen Kranr, Stalkers, and Glatorian be consumed by fire. It was imperative that the rebels left no trace of where they'd been, and watched as Arkhan, after waiting for the fires to consume the fallen, doused the fire. Shardak was surprised to learn that, like his friend Kyhrex, Arkhan was a water Elementalist, one of the few Glatorian who could control an elemental power.
Shardak followed Arkhan toward the hidden base, in his mind wondering what his future would bring.
Wind howled across the open plains below the Fells, and Shardak almost shivered in the chill cold. Above them, the great binary sun Solis Magna was rising, a burning globe of liquid fire in the east. Slowly, the striking pink and red clouds began to vanish as the sun climbed higher. Once again, the plains were being replaced by forest, and ahead, Shardak noticed the base.
The rebellion's base would never have been spotted by the casual observer, and Shardak only recognized it because he'd lived there for nearly four months of his life. It was an ancient building, the foundation and the west wall were slowly being overtaken by vines. However, the most of the building had been restored and nearly completely rebuilt. Even the walls were painted in camouflage, and while he could not see them, Shardak knew that several skilled archers patrolled the wall.
Two spear wielding guards nodded as Arkhan passed them. The Glatorian whispered the password, then the remainder of the strike team did the same. Then they were in.
Shardak strode through the long hall, awaiting instructions. Arkhan disappeared through a paneled door, ready to report their mission's success to the High Council. There, the most senior members of the resistance met, to discuss their many campaigns against the Empire.
Slowly, he walked away from the door, passing by several other armed resistance members. They were being sent to reinforcer Fairon, who was leading a campaign against the city of Gigas Nui, his homeland. While Shardak knew little of the rebellion's long-term war plans, he knew that Fairon's division was one of many, and several others were fighting on Xaterex, trying to take down the large districts nearer to Drakos Capitol.
Shardak was so absorbed in his thoughts he nearly ran into a tall, armored being he recognized as Darvath. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Darvath's species had nearly been completely destroyed during the fall of the ancient Elemental kingdom Arcaea, and had fought against the Empire ever since.
"The High Council wishes to see you." he said, his voice formal and rather flat. "Follow me."
Shardak felt a burning ray of hope rise within him. Finally he would be able to speak with the leaders of the rebellion, as he had not been able to since the first day he'd awoken in the small base at Void's Edge, shocked to find that his rescuers were Silencer's allies.
Darvath opened the paneled door and walked through. Shardak followed, and stepped into the command chamber. The room was ancient, far older then any other in the base, and ancient pictures depicting Arcaea at the height of its glory were carved onto the ceiling, walls, and even the table where five other beings were seated.
Shardak immediately recognized Arkhan, his face slightly grim. To his left sat the Glatorian warrior Saren Naghara, who smiled at Shardak and waved in greeting. The tall, enigmatic being known as Parikon stood to Arkhan's right, his face inscrutable. Facing them were the Skakdi known as Freztrak, a powerful Skakdi warlord from the Fells who had allied his large tribe with the rebellion, and Tiral, the commander of the Rebel's Starcraft fleet.
There was a sixth being standing in the chamber, and Shardak, to his surprise, recognized it as his friend Blast. He waved to the Glatorian, who had been fulfilling similar duties to those of Shardak since their escape from the arena.
"Please be seated." said Saren, waving to a chair on his right. Both Shardak and Blast sat, Blast beside Freztrak, Shardak next to Saren. All of the rebel warriors wore grim expressions, and Shardak wondered what had been troubling them.
"What are the latest updates?" Freztrak asked Saren.
"Still no word from Mersery. He and his detachment are pinned down between the Northern Wastes and the Fells. However, Fairon has captured and destroyed several fortresses in the Scar Mountains, and is ready to strike at several larger targets in the valleys below."
"Any reports from the bases south of Arden, Parikon?" asked Tiral, who seemed slightly annoyed. Shardak guessed she was loathe to abandon her fleets, even for a few days, and wanted to return to the larger cities in the Fells where the rebel fleets were based.
"Yes, but nothing good." said Parikon grimly. "They were overrun, and completely destroyed. Several of our outposts along the Fellsian border are still intact, however, but have no chance of making a counterattack or surviving an assault."
"What of our attack on the Imperial fortresses on the edges of the Fens?" Arkhan asked Freztrak.
The Skakdi stayed silent for a few moments before answering. "We managed to defeat a group of Imperial soldiers, but suffered more casualties then we caused. I am not eager to continue pressing an attack against the Empire in the Fens for fear they will eliminate the neutral tribes that occupy the area."
All of the commanders nodded in understanding. Shardak knew that none of them were eager to alienate more neutral kingdoms by invading the Imperial outposts in the Fens. The tribes that occupied the area, both primitive Kodax, Skakdi, and Glatorian, were all nominally ruled by the Empire, but the Ix would not hesitate to use them as an example to alienate more kingdoms from joining the rebellion.
"So, Shardak, this brings us to you." said Saren. "We are ready to formally accept you as a member of the resistance. However, there are certain things you must know."'
"Until now, the Empire has been tyrannical and oppressive, as well as dangerous." Parikon began. "However, they've seemed distracted recently, preoccupied by something that goes beyond expanding their rule over Noctxia Magna, were the fighting has been thick for the past half century.
"Rumors abound that another force is at work here, something that the Empire has been searching for for many, many years. Have you ever heard of an artifact known as the Annulus?"
"Yes." said Shardak, almost surprised. "Silencer mentioned it once. He said, 'The beings that existed before the coming of the Great Beings, known as the Forerunners or, more commonly, the Ancients, made many creations, principle among them the Annulus.' I barely payed any attention to it, however, I had many far more pressing concerns at the time."
"The Annulus is an ancient legend, but is, like many things across the worlds that were once Arcaea, has more then a little truth to it. The legend is that the Ancients, whose past is shrouded in mystery, created a single ring of power, which contained the spirits of a race that predated the Ancients themselves. The vengeful spirits, sealed within by a mysterious power source, could grant the bearer of the Annulus nearly unimaginable heights of power.
However, eventually, the Annulus was destroyed, shattered into three fragments. The power source was also broken, albeit later, in half. After many bloody civil wars over the fragments of the Annulus, the beings who had fought over it, the Great Beings, turned their talents to creating new life and the Annulus disappeared from history, until it was eventually relegated as a myth.
"This year, we recieved undeniable proof that the Annulus exists."
"What?" asked Shardak, wondering slightly what this had to do with the rebellion.
"You handed it to me." answered Parikon. "The Shadow Orb was the power source of the Annulus, where the beings who lived before the Ancients are sealed. The Shadow Orb is full of both auric and Elemental power, and any Elementalist or aura user could tell you."
Arkhan nodded. "The half of the Shadow Orb you handed Parikon contains enough auric power to tear apart an entire small country. Imagine the power that a being would possess if he reassembled the entire Annulus."
"This is what the Ix want?" asked Shardak. "Do they have any fragments?"
"Yes. They have a single peice of the Shadow Orb, but we do not know who currently posesses it. If they have it, they've certainly not been using it."
"But what about the rest of the Annulus? Do you know where it is?"
"No. That's what we are assigning you to find out." answered Parikon. "Your mission is to track down a large group of Ix warriors whom our spies have recently learned are heading north, toward the Obsidian Cliffs. There are many, many warriors with them, far too many for this to simply be a scouting team. No, they're hunting for something, and our spies seem sure that it is an Annulus fragment."
"But why now?" asked Shardak. "Why has the Empire chosen this moment to try and discover the Annulus."
"Rumors abound that the Empire has a new leader: a tall being who wears a hood pulled over his face. Apparently this leader wishes to spread his rule far beyond Xaterex: he wishes to conquer Noctxia Magna, a planet that has long resisted the Empire.
"Many other unsettling stories are running through the Imperial cities now at war: that a mysterious new enforcer has gained much power across the Empire, that the Imperial warriors are once again using Elimination, and that Shadowdermis is once more out in the open. Things are shaping up to be like what they were last time."
"Last time?" asked Blast, who had stayed silent throughout much of the discussion.
"The fall of Arcaea and the rise of the Empire, as well as the ongoing wars across Noctxia Magna." answered Parikon.
"What is Shadowdermis?" asked Shardak. "Silencer never once mentioned it."
To his surprise it was Saren, not Parikon, who answered. "It was created many, many years ago, and the circumstances of its creation have always been shrouded in mystery. However, we do know this. Shadowdermis is a sentient virus, not at all like Elimination. It is a highly aggressive and intelligent variation of Energized Protodermis, and was used by the Empire's leaders during the Arcaean war to support their insurrection.
"Shadowdermis, supposedly, can do almost anything, and the Empire's leaders used it to seal each kingdom of Arcaea from interdimensional travel, this allowing only their own warriors to pass through the gateways."
"So you see why the rebellion is in danger of falling." finished Parikon. "We stand little or no chance against an enemy with such powerful weapons at their disposal. and with the Annulus in their hands, nothing will be able to stop them."
Shardak paused, allowing this to sink in. He thought about the horrible stories he'd heard about Elimination, and the knowledge he'd gained about Shadowdermis and the Annulus made the Empire seem even more terrifyingly deadly.
"Will you accept this mission, Toa Shardak? We have tried, for too long, to keep you under guard, for fear that the Empire would capture you."
"That's another thing." interrupted Shardak. "Why do the Ix want to capture me alive? What do they want?"
Parikon did not answer at once, and as he was opening his mouth, Saren interrupted him. "So you'll accept? Good. Now, we move on to more pressing matters, such as when we will execute the Ix warrior."
It took Shardak a few moments to grasp that Saren meant Valkyria. He remembered their earlier discussion in the Void, when Blast and Fairon had suggested they do the same thing.
"No." said Shardak. "Valkyria's just as loyal to the rebellion as I am. She saved my life in the Void, and in the 175th Eternal Game."
"I'm sorry, Shardak, but I simply can't believe that. You of all people should know how insidious the Ix are. They lure you in until you trust them completely, then the next thing you know it, one's standing over you with a dagger in his hand."
Shardak remembered Nightshade, the Ix warrior who'd pretended she was his sister for nearly ten years while they both lived with Arcturas. She'd done the same. But surely, after all that they'd been through togetehr, Valkyria would not betray him as she had?
"Yes, but why would she? The Ix sentanced her to the Eternal Game!"
"Yes, but even still, you can't trust the Ix! Why in Mata Nui's name are you defending the Ix warrior who killed your friends in the Sanctum of the Mind?"
"Because we can't just kill her, even if she didn't come willingly and we'd captured her. Killing our enemies in cold blood makes us just like the Ix."
"He's right." answered a new voice. All of the heads at the table turned to look at the speaker who had just entered the room.
"Ion!" yelled Shardak and Blast. The massive mutated Toa nodded a greeting. He turned to Saren. "Sorry I'm late." he said to Saren. "My patrol was...delayed."
"He's right." repeated Ion, taking a seat beside Parikon. "Killing an Ix warrior who has yet done nothing to suggest she is considering betraying us is taking one step toward beings like her. We may not have yet wiped out her entire race, but do you think the Ix themselves started? They didn't plan at first to use Elimination, they probably started out the same way we were considering, by killing a single captive Toa. Once they'd taken the first step, it would be easier for them to use Elimination."
"I cannot argue with that." Saren said. "We'll let your prisoner live, on the condition that she accompanies you on your mission."
Shardak nodded, relieved. Valkyria was one of the deadliest warriors he knew, she'd be a valuable asset to his strike team.
"Who else will come with me?" asked Shardak.
"Two other beings who you know very well. Silver and Dust will accompany you, as will as another being." he backoned to a blue-armored being standing at the door. "Torak, come forward."
A heavily armored Skakdi stepped through the doorway, carrying two massive sickles. He half-smiled at Shardak, who nodded once in acknowledgement. Skakdi had a brutal reputation as unrefined killers, but a large group of Skakdi under Freztrak had allied themselves with the rebellion, and Shardak knew they could be trusted.
Two Matoran, a Toa of aura, an Ix warrior, and a Skakdi. thought Shardak. This might be the most unlikely strike team ever assembled in the history of the rebellion.
Saren seemed to feel the same. "You cannot fail." he said. While Shardak was still quite inexperienced reading the aura field, he could tell the Glatorian still seemed apprehensive.
"Many hopes are following you." said Parikon. "It is imperative that the Ix do not recover another Annulus fragment."
He turned to Blast. "You will have your own mission, in time. Speak to Jareroden, he will tell you of his commands." Blast nodded.
"Are there any other things we need to bring before the council?" asked Parikon. Not one being answered. "Then the meeting is adjourned. Shardak, Torak, gather Silver, Dust, and the Ix warrior and then find Arkhan. He will show you the path."
Slowly, the High Council began to leave, one by one. Finally, only Saren was left, standing half hidden in the shadows.
"Come with me." said Saren, once the last council member had exited the chamber. "There is something I must tell you."
Fairon stood atop the cliffs, surveying his troops below. The division of warriors, Glatorian, Agori, and Skakdi, mainly, were standing below, armed and armored heavily. All had the glint of determination in their eye, ready to face the Ix once more.
Sometimes, Fairon couldn't believe that nearly four months had passed since his escape had passed. The arena always seemed directly behind him, and he almost felt as though the arena loomed ahead of him as well, though he knew he'd never participate in another Eternal Game. The rebellion would never allow the Empire to capture him alive.
Almost immediately after he'd escaped the arena, the rebellion had appointed him leader of a division of warriors, with two other victors, Galika and Kharix, as commanders under him. He'd been sent after two weeks of rest to attempt to force the Ix onto the defensive.
His division had taken three Imperial outposts in the past month, including one along the Shadewater River, which ran through Arden and the Mountains as well as the Fells. It had been a better month then the last two, which involved several defeats along the New Metru Nui front which had forced him into retreat toward the Fells. Recently, he'd regained the offensive and pushed further, across the Shadewater.
Now he stood in the Canyonlands, the wild border between the southern lands known collectively as Arden and the northern provinces of Gigas Nui and the Fells. Several of the canyons were far too deep to pass through, others allowed easy passage between the two areas.
However, every single one of the passable canyons was guarded by heavily armed Ix warriors. The majority of the troops were conscripts, Kranr, Agori, and Matoran making up the bulk of the forces, but Fairon's scouts had reported several Ix warriors with them as well. This was unusual, for the bulk of the elite Ix warriors were currently tied down fighting in Noctxia Magna, where the war was thickest. The other planet the Empire ruled, Calos, was still officially neutral, but Fairon knew it was wavering toward the rebellion.
"Commander." a voice broke through his thoughts. Fairon turned to see Kharix, clad in silver and green armor, walking toward him, two Glatorian warriors following her. "The Ix warriors have been sighted. Three of my scouts have fallen and we are waiting for the order to engage them."
Fairon followed Kharix down the ridge, toward the valleys below. The Canyonlands were filled with his helmeted warriors, numbering just over forty. While he and Kharix been enemies in the Eternal Game, Fairon had been on better terms with her after the Game, when they no longer had anything to fight about. She treated him with respect, if not friendliness.
Kharix turned, gathering her warriors. Fairon nervously began to worry that his force could not defeat the massed group of Kranr below, for there were far more Ix warriors then he had under his command. Most of his battles had been skirmishes, a subtle push and pull back and forth. This was the largest battle he'd ever ventured into, and he realized they had little hope of winning.
He surveyed the battlefield. The Ix warriors would have to come through the narrow openings to reach them, but at the same time, they'd have to do the same to break through their lines. Calling Galika over to him, he whispered an order to the Toa of Water.
"Kharix will be going into the battle first, Use your twenty warriors to defend the pass, and make sure no Ix warriors get through. If Kharix falls back, then reinforce her. I'll follow Kharix, but you'll guard the pass behind us."
Galika nodded, her face grim. Fairon knew she missed Jareroden, her friend who was currently still at the base in the Fells. They hadn't had contact for the past month, since Fairon had been given his newest orders. Once he broke through the canyonlands, he was to meet with the officials in the city on the edge of Arden known as Vatru in an attempt to convince them to join the rebellion, thus giving them a foothold in the south as well.
Fairon had no more time to think of his mission. He could see that Kharix was already leading her troops toward the Canyons, while Galika's warriors took up positions on the cliffs above. Fairon drew his scimitar, a replacement for his lance that he'd used in the Void and lost after the Eternal Game began, and followed Kharix's warriors into the battle.
"It is imperative." began Saren, his voice a low whisper. "That nothing I tell you leaves this room. This is dangerous information, but as you join Jareroden's command, Blast, and your mission begins, Shardak, you cannot afford not to know this."
"What?" asked Blast. "What could be so dangerous that you couldn't mention to the High Council?"
"I believe that there is a traitor in the rebellion, someone in our inner circle." said Saren.
The two beings gasped in shock. "What?" asked Shardak, surprised. "Why?"
"Remember the way Nightwatcher located Jareroden almost too easily, then proceeded to capture you? Do you honestly believe that even a bounty hunter of his caliber could simply locate you that easily? Later, more proof was given of this, when we were forced to evacuate Void's Edge."
Shardak remembered that day, when he'd met with Ion, Atarus, and the rest of the rebellion's high command, and then had to abruptly evacuate the base when a troop of Ix warriors attacked moments later. It had almost seemed uncanny how easily they'd discovered the allegedly well-hidden base.
"Yes, I almost came to the same conclusion." said Shardak. "But how could the two incidents be related? The only member of the rebellion who was with us in the Void was Ion."
"Yes." said Saren. "It pains me to say this, but I believe that Ion is the traitor."
"What?" Shardak exploded. "Ion would never betray the rebellion! He did everything he could to escort us to the rebels until the Shadow of Ages attacked!"
"Yes, I know. Ion has always seemed like one of the most loyal of all our members. If Atarus were here, we would be able to use his Rode to scan his mind, but he'll be in Noctxia Magna for at least another month before he'll be able to return. I can't imagine what motive Ion would have for betraying us, but one thing is certain: you must be on your guard. Trust no one you meet in your mission."
Saren's voice seemed almost hopeless, and Shardak realized how hard this must be for him, to even consider that his friend could be a traitor. He didn't exactly know what to think of this, for he couldn't believe, after everything Ion had done, that he was a traitor.
Yet the Ix found you almost too easily one other time Ion was with you. a small voice whispered within Shardak's mind. Near Void's Edge, the day that Silencer died...
The thought of his first mentor's final sacrifice so that he could join the rebellion always shook Shardak, more so now that he'd heard Saren's suspicions. Silencer had fought to the death against an Ix commander far more skilled then he. His brother, Melnox, had then decoyed the Ix away from Shardak so he, Blast, and Kyhrex could escape them. Sometimes, he wondered about Melnox's final fate. He'd certainly never made it to any of the rebel's bases on Xaterex.
"That is all I have to say." Saren finished. "Be on your guard, Shardak and Blast, and may Mata Nui protect you in your coming trials."
Shardak answered politely, then followed Blast out of the Command chamber. He would have to now gather the rest of his group, Silver, Dust, and Valkyria for their mission. Inwardly, despite Saren's disturbing revelation, he was filled with both happiness and abstract fear at the thought of the quest he had ahead of him.
Finally, after the weeks following his escape from the Circle and the deadly Eternal Game, his quest had begun. Thoughts of the Annulus and the trials he would face raced through his mind faster then he would have normally believed possible. While he'd certainly never have wanted to go back to war, he couldn't let Fairon and Jareroden and his other friends fight for the rebellion while he remained in the Fells.
"So, this is where the war begins." said Blast, his voice oddly emotionless.
"Yes." said Shardak, his voice grim, but resolved as he turned and followed Torak down the narrow corridors of the rebellion's base. Raising the Blade of Arcturas, and examining the ancient, runic designs on the Blade, Shardak knew he was ready. He had to be.
Shardak stared at the massive cliffs that bordered the rebel base in awe as he, Valkyria, and Torak walked toward the gates. Ion and Arkhan stood there waiting for him, both carrying weapons. The usual, uniformly gray-armored guards were conspicuously absent. Since his training had begun, Shardak had sparred many times with both Ion, Arkhan, and Saren at these gates, and he was almost annoyed to leave them after his four months here.
Then he remembered what today would bring. Today was the beginning of his search for the Annulus fragment, today was the start of his first day as a warrior of the rebellion. He looked at Torak, Silver, and Dust, who looked likewise excited, and at Valkyria, whose expression was unreadable. Not for the first time, Shardak wished he could speak to her, tell her that they were among friends and there was no need to continue hiding her emotions, but he could find no way to put it to her.
"You will have to travel south, through the Sourthern Mountains." said Ion. "Eventually, they'd lead into Arden, but you'll stop at a city about midway known as Akkad. The Akkadians have long been able to remain independent from both the Fells and the Southern Kingdoms due to their large supply of iron ore, and this continues to this day. The city is neither ruled by the rebellion or the Empire, much like the northernmost cities of the Fells.
"There you will find the information broker known as Jekart. He, like all of the other Akkadian information brokers, is neutral, but has disturbing ties with a bounty hunter known as Skorr currently employed by the Empire. However, he is the only being who deals in the information that you seek, and the only being brave enough to deal in information about the Empire."
"What information do we need from Jekart?" asked Shardak.
"The latest movements of the Ix's armies." answered Ion. "You can't expect to remain in Akkad and recover the Annulus. He will give you the location of the Obsidian Cliffs as well. We expect they're somewhere north of Arden, perhaps in the Scar Mountains, since that's where the Ix have been seen lately. However, the cliffs have always been heavily guarded by Ix, so no one here knows their exact location."
"How long will the journey to Akkad take?" asked Shardak.
"Ideally, we would send you through the Canyonlands along the Arden border. However, the fighting is too thick there for us to send you that route. It'll take you two or three days to reach the city of Akkad along the Fellsian route. While the Ix presence may not be as thick along the edge of the Fells, but there's still a large possibility you could be attacked, either by Imperials or mercenaries. The Southern Mountains have always been full of bounty hunters, and you can be sure the Ix have a bounty on your head."
Shardak nodded, remembering Nightwatcher. The thought of him, and the Nameless City, suddenly caused him to think of Saren's revelation. What if Ion was trying to get them all killed?
"You'll be fine, Shardak. Arkhan has trained you well, as has Silencer. Torak, Silver, Dust, and Valkyria are all strong fighters." Ion reassured him.
Shardak nodded again, relieved that Ion hadn't been able to read his wariness as well as Arkhan had the day of the High Council meeting.
"How will we deal with this Jekart?" asked Torak, his voice a low growl. "He certainly doesn't sound like the type who'll simply hand over the information freely."
"You're right." said Ion. "Jekart is, perhaps, the most expensive of all the brokers in Akkad. Perhaps this will convince him that you can pay him accordingly."
Ion handed a satchel to Shardak, who opened it. The bag was filled with at least seventy blue diamonds. Even one of these could fetch an exorbitant price of at least one hundred.
"This will certainly be enough." said Shardak. "I'll hand them all over to Jekart, then--"
"No!" interjected Ion. "If you give Jekart the entire bag, he'll simply ask for more. Give him exactly a fourth for the information you seek, and if he does not give a complete answer, give him more. Under no circumstances should you let him see the full contents of the bag, or empty it completely."
"I understand." answered Shardak, and Ion smiled.
"One more thing." the mutated Toa said. "You handed this to Atarus your first night as a rebel warrior. Now I give it back to you, with the hope that you will keep it safe."
He handed Shardak a dark black, ebony stone, one that seemed to absorb light rather then reflect it. Shardak recognized it immediately: the heart of the Ix's power, the fragment of the Annulus' power source. The Shadow Orb.
"But why?" asked Shardak. "It's safer with the rebellion, isn't it?"
"Not any more." Ion said cryptically, and Shardak knew he would not elaborate further. Seeing his expression, Ion said, "You are ready for this, Shardak. We never expected you to simply allow us to keep you safe in the Fells."
Shardak responded politely, still a little wary of Ion. But even still, his mentor's words filled Shardak once again with expectation. He stared once again at the Blade of Arcturas, then at the sack of diamonds, and knew that he was ready for the journey that lay ahead.
Silver, Dust, Valkyria, and Torak had already passed through the gates, and Shardak followed, stepping through the gates and once more into the world beyond.
The clash of weapons rang through the air as Fairon nimbly sidestepped a thrust from a Kranr warrior, followed suddenly by a backslash from the Glatorian standing next to him. Fairon slashed through the Kranr's breastplate, and as the mortally wounded being fell to the ground, he surveyed the battlefield.
Nearly half of Kharix's warriors were dead, but they had slain many more Imperial soldiers in the conflict. Slowly, Kharix was pulling her warriors back, allowing Galika's troops to reinforce them. Here, Fairon knew, the battle was turning in their favor. Nearly twenty dead Imperials lay killed by spears thrown by Galika's warriors hidden among the cliffs, and the remainder of the first wave of attackers were being systematically cut down as they attempted to follow the spearfighters up the cliffs.
Fairon slashed to one side, parrying thrusts and slashes from Kranr and Glatorian alike. The reflexes he'd gained in the months following the Eternal Game took over, and seven Kranr lay at his feet, dead. A Glatorian charged toward him, and the Toa of light tore the weapon from the soldier's hand and felt his weapon bury itself in the attacker's leg. As the Glatorian staggered backward, frantically reaching for his weapon, two spears felled him.
Fairon looked around for any sign of his rescuers, and saw two Agori, armored from head to foot, ready their spears once more and prepare to combat the second wave of attackers. Fairon could see Kharix, surrounded by eight of her warriors, fighting against the onslaught. Galika, despite her tactical advantages. was faring little better-- nearly half of her warriors had fallen to the attackers, either dead or wounded.
"Lieutenant!" he called. "Pull back! Hold the cliffs!" Kharix nodded once, then disappeared back into the fray. Despite Galika's heavy defenses, the second wave had managed to scale the cliff despite losing a third of its warriors. Fairon could see one more wave of perhaps twelve already wounded attackers reinforcing their comrades, but despite their losses, Galika continued to hold the cliffs, leaving Kharix and her surviving warriors able to concentrate on forcing their way through the remnants of the second and first groups of attackers.
Fairon felt his scimitar tear through a Copy of Corpse, causing the machinelike being to stagger backward and collapse, then, in the same motion, deflected a thrust from an onrushing Kranr. As the Kranr forced his way past, Fairon used his elemental light powers to create burst of burning white light. The Kranr staggered backward, momentarily blinded. Fairon easily disarmed him, then turned and vanished back into the fray as Kharix's troops pushed forward, leaving the Kranr and his group of warriors lying dead on the ground.
Fairon could see their forces were about even now-- while the attackers still outnumbered them by maybe ten warriors, he still had at least twelve beings guarding the cliffs, and six of Kharix's warriors were still alive as well. Fairon charged into the battle beside a badly wounded Skakdi, who was firing bolts of heat vision from his eyes every few seconds, while at the same time slashing through the enemies' armor more effectively then Fairon would have believed possible.
Now the Imperials were pulling back. Galika's forces had slain the remaining enemies on the cliffs, and the remnants of the small platoon were pulling back as Galika's remaining warriors charged toward them, slamming into them from the side as the remainder of Kharix's group charged toward them.
The few remaining warriors who still lived had either dropped their weapons and fled, or were pulling back, leaving their dead comrades behind on the battlefield. Only there were only a few fleeing now: of the nearly sixty Imperial warriors who had engaged them at the start of the battle, only about twenty still lived, half of those badly wounded and in no condition to fight them any further.
Fairon watched as the last of his enemies disappeared into the shadows. "Let them go." he ordered. "They won't trouble us any further."
The battlefield after the battle had always disturbed Fairon. The corpses of both allies and enemies lay strewn across the canyon, the conflicts they'd had in their life meaning nothing now in death. The majority of the fallen beings below were Kranr or enemy Glatorian-- most of Kharix's troops had fallen in the canyon beyond, Galika's had died defending the cliffs.
"How many do we have left?" Fairon asked Galika, dreading the answer. He knew that Kharix had lost almost all twenty of the beings under her command, and Galika could not have done much better.
"Fourteen of my group still live." said Galika. "And Kharix has seven who survived the battle. However, at least four of these beings will not recover, and only twelve would be able to fight, including us, if we were attacked."
Fairon nodded acknowledgement; he'd expected far worse. However, with only twelve beings able to fight, he certainly couldn't continue his offensive. He hadn't expected to be able to, either, with only forty beings under his command, he was lucky any of them still lived. They'd be forced to fall back to the Wastelands, where he knew at least several detachments of rebel warriors were, guarding the border between the sourthern portion of Xaterex and the Fells. They'd have to resupply, then return to the Canyonlands, to hold the territory he'd gained from this battle.
The Toa of light could only hope that the Fells were not being attacked along another front. While it was difficult for the Fells to be attacked from the Canyonlands, Fairon knew the border with Arden was dangerously undefended, and the Mountain range in which several of the larger districts were built, while more heavily guarded then the other borders, could probably not hold against attackers from one of the far larger and more powerful Ix strongholds.
Fairon continued thinking about the many fronts of the war, including the battle that raged on Noctxia Magna, and whether they had enough troops to attack the heavily guarded cities just south of the Fells. Slowly, however, he began to gather his surviving warriors. He toyed with the idea of leaving several to guard the border, but realized that there was no way they'd be able to stand against another group of Ix, not even a small one.
Fairon knew they had won a victory against the Ix, but with so few surviving beings under his command and being forced to retreat to the Wastelands felt much more like defeat. For the first time in many days, Fairon thought about his friends still at the base in the Fells. There was Blast, the Glatorian who had been his ally in the first Eternal Game, Jareroden, who'd been an ally in the second Game, and Ion, who had helped train him for the war in the flatlands.
But mainly, he thought of Shardak, the Toa of aura, who, along with himself, Galika, and Jareroden, were the last surviving free Toa in the universe. He wondered, exactly, where Shardak was, and what he was doing now. Had the High Council deemed him ready to join the war effort? Or was he still waiting in the Fells, wondering when they would allow him to begin?
And do you really want Shardak to join us? Fairon thought. Our past three months have been nothing but ceaseless battle along the Fellsian border.
Slowly, night began to fall, and his surviving warriors began to set up camp. Fairon helped, but his mind was elsewhere, lost in memories of the friends he'd lost, and the friends he had left behind. Finally, he began to calm, to relax from the long battle they'd fought.
We have to continue. While I have waded through two bloody arenas and now still fight on. I promised the Ix silently, that night after the first Eternal Game, that I would make sure no other being had to fight in the Eternal Game again. I will not surrender.
The cold Fellsian wind battered against Shardak, the chill seeping through his armor and into the muscle beneath. Shuddering, the Toa drew his black cloak around him, trying to conserve warmth. He hadn't realized the higher mountains of the Fells grew so cold at twilight. Ion had warned him of it, yes, but in the face of the dangers posed by the Ix and Jekart, he'd almost ignored it.
Torak stepped next to him, his eyes fixed on the map Ion had given them. Badly incomplete, it only showed the Fells, the Northern Wastes, and the southern kingdoms, including the Scar Mounatins and Akkad. Torak had to hold the map tightly and later place it in with the blue diamonds, for the winds grew so strong they nearly tore it from his hands.
Shardak stopped at the edge of a gorge, and Valkyria, Blast, and the others did the same. It wasn't large, almost leapable, but Shardak knew at once that the two Matoran could not make the jump. Once again, he wished his element was more useful, or he had sufficient auric control to simply levitate them all across the chasm.
"Should we try to jump it?" asked Shardak.
Valkyria nodded. "You, Torak, and I can easily make it across, and once one of us is on the other side, we can hand the Matoran over from one side to the other."
Torak grunted in agreement. The taciturn Skakdi was not one for a large amount of words, and simply gave a one-word reply or a grunt when he needed to voice his opinions. Shardak had wondered at first if they'd done something to bother him, but Torak certainly didn't seem annoyed.
"I'll go across." said Shardak to Torak. "Then you and Valkyria can hand the Matoran across the chasm to me."
Steeling himself for the jump that he knew he could make, but also knew certain death awaited him if he didn't, Shardak leapt across the void, grabbing onto the jagged edge of the cliff. For one moment, his eyes fixed on the dizzying drop below him, and he almost let go of the cliff in shock. Quickly tightening his grasp, he climbed his way up the jagged edge, and finally rose to his feet on the other end of the gorge.
Now Silver was being passed across the gorge. Shardak knew this had to be done very carefully, for if Valkyria's grasp faltered, even for one minute, he and Silver would both plummet to their deaths in the Void. Shardak leaned over the gorge, Silver now being supported by both Valkyria and Torak, but still unable to bridge the chasm.
Shardak leaned further, abandoning all but the slightest of handholds. He felt his fingers close around Silver's, and he hauled the Matoran onto the surface of the cliff just as Valkyria let go. No sooner was Silver safely across when Torak began helping Dust across. Twice the Skakdi's grip almost faltered, but both times he managed to save himself and the Matoran narrowly, finally letting go when Shardak and Silver pulled Dust across to the other side.
Valkyria easily leapt across the chasm, grabbing hold of one of the jagged handhelds and dragging herself out of the Void. The Ix girl had seemed more at ease on their journey, talking politely to both Silver and Dust, and seemed more relaxed and at ease. Shardak remembered Saren's wishes to kill her before Shardak left the rebel base, and realized how hard it must have been for her to live for four months in a place where her kind were hated and reviled.
Torak seemed more wary, staring down several times into the abyss before finally leaping across. He fell short by several meters, and Shardak had to reach across the chasm and grab his hand in order to pull him across. Torak grabbed hold of the cliff's edge, rising shakily to his feet next to Shardak.
"That was...interesting." said Torak, guarded. "I prefer flat ground to the Fells, though."
Shardak understood how that felt; after years of being raised in the Fells, the flatlands in the Circle and, later, the Nameless City, had seemed strange to him. Shardak drew his cloak once again around his body and began to follow his allies deeper into the Northern Mountains. The mountains were only growing higher, they were far above the rebel base now.
Suddenly Shardak saw more lights, and a dark weapon flashed from the gloom. Shardak reflexively raised the Blade of Arcturas, deflecting the attacker's sweeping scythe. Shardak instantly recognized the heavy black armor and the cold, dark eyes.
Shardak had no more time to think, only time to react. He couldn't even see how many attackers there were, only watch as Torak raised his shield and water spear and charge forward, slamming against a tall Ix warrior. The Blade slashed through the being's armor, but Shardak could see no more, for suddenly he was fighting a second Ix warrior, shorter and less heavily built then the first, but no less fast.
Shardak flung himself forward, launching into a fast but not extremely complex fighting pattern, a vague combination of the Sila and Lihtne combat forms. The Ix seemed surprised at his attack in both the aura field and the physical world, and for one moment he hesitated. However, he quickly recovered, and brought his scythe down on Shardak's shoulder. Blood welled from the wound.
At one time, that would have stopped Shardak. But Shardak was no longer the naïve young warrior who had once sought battle with the Ix and their allies. He'd been trained by some of the greatest weapons instructors alive today, and whatever Saren thought of Ion, the Toa had trained him well. He quickly recovered, forcing the Ix once again on the defensive, and then began to batter at the Ix warrior's already weakening mental defenses.
However, while surprised by his ferocity, the Ix warrior was still far more skilled then Shardak. He quickly lashed out again, his weapon smashing against Shardak's with such ferocity that the Sword of Fire was nearly dragged out of Shardak's hands. The Ix warrior swept his weapon then to one side, following his first attack with a wildly confusing attack pattern that tore through Shardak's defenses and tore a gash along his arm.
Shardak was quickly being forced backward, and suddenly he was fighting not one, but two beings, an Ix and a Kranr. He saw flashes of his allies in the darkness, saw Valkyria battling a Kranr soldier, Silver and Dust mobbing a Glatorian. Neither Torak nor the other Ix warrior was anywhere to be seen.
Within seconds, the Kranr had forced his way past Shardak's defenses, and was battering at his chestplate with his spear. Before he could impale Shardak completely, the Toa brought his weapon down across the Kranr's armored back, feeling it sink through first armor, then muscle. The Kranr staggered backward, opening his mouth in a roar of rage that quickly became a scream as he vanished from view. Shardak was confused for one moment, then realized he'd staggered over the edge of the cliff. Shardak hadn't even noticed the cliff's edge was directly in front of him.
There was no more time to think, only react as the Ix warrior battered against his defenses again and again. Shardak felt him overcome the last of his defenses, heard the Blade of Arcturas fall to the ground. He pulled it toward him in the aura field, felt his fingers close around the handle. The Ix warrior snarled as Shardak deflected his attack once again, then suddenly swung the scythe in the opposite direction.
Confused, Shardak had barely enough time to register a blue blur before Torak slammed into the remaining Ix warrior, slashing open his throat and chestplate. Mortally wounded, the Ix warrior fell to the ground, his weapon falling from his hands.
Shardak looked around for any signs of surviving Ix warriors, but three Kranr lay dead, and he could see the mangled remains of the other Ix lying near the opposite edge of the cliff. He could see both Silver and Dust were alive, though one of the Kranr had torn a gash across Dust's arm. However, none of them were badly wounded, not even Torak.
Shardak looked up at the darkening skies, and knew it was almost time for them to set up camp for that night. They had all suffered light wounds, but even those could become infected without treatment. He wished, not for the first time, he could somehow heal with his Toa powers. It wasn't even a wish--he was sure there was a way-- but neither Arkhan nor Ion had taught him how.
"Lucky that none of us were seriously wounded." he commented to Silver.
"Yes..." answered the Matoran. "But it's strange. Almost as if they knew we were here."
Silver's words sent a chill of foreboding up Shardak's spine as he echoed Saren's words from the day before. Why would any Ix warrior be in the Fells, when nearly all of their elite warriors were based in Drakos Capitol and the surrounding cities? There could only be one explanation.
Someone in the rebellion had told the Ix that they would be there.
Not for the first time, Blast opened his mouth to speak to Shardak, then remembered the Toa wasn't there. As he strode through the flat plateau along the border between the lower cities and the Fells, he reflected on how little he'd been able to speak with his best friend before he was sent away on yet another mission for the rebellion.
He wished he'd been able to explain to him about the dreams he'd had. They seemed so vivid at times that Blast was sure he'd actually lived through them.
His most recent dream had been his most vivid. He'd been fighting on a cliff against a group of tall, heavily armored beings, beside a heavily built being that looked a little like Ion, but wore blue armor and had red eyes. But these eyes were not at all like those of the Ix. They were kind and almost appeared both old and young at the same time.
Then, suddenly, he was somewhere else, standing in a cave beside a being who looked like a Toa, flanked by several Glatorian. The blue-armored being was there as well, holding Blast's scythe and Fairon was there, standing beside a white-and-yellow Makuta.
Then he'd awoken, wondering how much of the dream had been true. He'd wanted to speak with Fairon, but the Toa was far away, fighting against the Ix in the Canyonlands.
Deep in the Void, four months ago, Blast had learned he'd been posessed by an ancient entity known as Millennium, who had wiped all memories of his previous life and, in an elaborate illusion, influenced him to believe he'd always lived in the Fells. He'd been an outcast until he met Shardak a few months later.
Now Blast was desperately trying to make sense of what had been real and what had been false. He still had not recovered his memories, even after the death of Millennium, and while Fairon had told him that he'd once taken part in the Eternal Game, he remembered little else.
"Blast!" a voice broke through the maelstrom raging within Blast's mind. "Blast, follow me. We're ready to continue."
For the past day, he, Jareroden, and Ion had traveled to the borders of rebel territory and crossed once more into the Ix Empire. They were now in the middle of the wild plains generally labeled the Wastelands, though Blast had seen they were far, far more then that. They were roamed by tribes of wild Vorox, Zesk, and Rock Steeds, as well as other creatures far more wild and dangerous.
They now stood atop a large hill, the massive peaks rising in the distance beyond the swamps and the Fells alike. Blast knew that somewhere, high above him, Shardak was traveling, with a Skakdi, his two Matoran friends, and an Ix warrior.
Blast had never been sure what he thought of Valkyria. On one hand, she'd saved Shardak's life in the Void, on another, she was an Ix warrior, who could never be trusted. Despite the fact she'd been sentanced into the 175th Eternal Game, Blast still didn't believe she hadn't gone willingly.
"Coming!" he called back, racing over to join Jareroden and Ion. Both Toa looked grim as the winds grew colder and the skies grew darker.
"We're almost to the camps of the Dargon tribe." said Ion. "Hopefully they will be convinced to join our cause.'
Their mission was to find the camps of the enigmatic Dargon race and convince them to ally with the rebellion. The majority of the rebellion's warriors were of the various Veythari clans, who were all allied against the Ix and lived in the upper regions of the Fells. The next greatest group were disaffected Matoran, Agori, and Kranr, and the remainders were Glatorian or Toa.
They needed more allies before they would be able to assault the Empire's cities. While they may have been able to win several victories in the Fells and the Canyonlands, they had certainly not gathered a stong or large enough force to take on the more powerful of the Ix's cities, certainly not heavily fortified districts like Gigas Nui or Drakos Capitol.
Suddenly, a second flash of light interrupted Blast's thoughts. A tall, blue-armored being stood before them at the base of the cliff. Blast instantly felt vulnerable, for they were standing at the edge of the mountain, and to fall from the cliff at this height would mean certain death.
Blast recognized the being immediately, his cold orange eyes and sapphire armor all too visible in the broad daylight. This was the being who had captured them all those weeks ago in the Circle, the being who had taken them as prisoners to the Circle.
Ion unsheathed his long, curved broadsword, and Jareroden raised his Toa tool.
"Banrax..." Ion hissed.
The Elemental smiled, a cold, grim expression that spoke of little more then death. "I am glad that I have mnet you again, Ion, and you, Glatorian." he said, fixing his gaze on Blast. "Now you shall perish."
Night had begun to fall, the slivers of light beginning to completely disappear beneath a curtain of darkness broken only by several small stars. The moon was hidden behind the dusky clouds, and soon the only light the five travelers possessed were those from their lanterns and the smouldering red glow of the Sword of Fire.
Shardak watched as Torak set the lanterns down beside him, illuminating the small forest below the high mountains that would soon return into the familiar grounds of the Fells. They'd agreed that the forests were by far the safest place to camp at nights, and the only place where they were sure that they'd be safe.
Shardak was reasonably confident their group was too large to be attacked by any wandering predators, even a pack of Shadow Wolves would be no match for all five of them, and with the instinct that had been honed in the years before he and Arcturas had lived in Intax still honed to razor-sharp perfection, Shardak was sure that they were completely protected.
"I'll take watch before you." Shardak said to Torak. The Skakdi nodded gratefully, disappearing behind the makeshift barrier of bushes and trees that made up their camp. Shardak looked around, now noticing only he and Valkyria were still awake. Silver and Dust, tired from the climb, had fallen prey to exhaustion almost immediately, and were both asleep within minutes after setting up camp.
Shardak's thoughts, however, racing through his mind at breakneck speed, left no time for sleep. The sheer gravity of the rebellion's situation pressed down upon him like a massive load of armor. If they faltered, at all, the rebellion's cause was all but over. The Ix would gain control of the Annulus, and the thought of Skorpix in posession of an artifiact of such extreme power was terrifying. Even beings like the skilled Veythari warriors could not stand against Skorpix, he doubted that even an Ix warrior could defeat the Elemental lord.
His thoughts changing once more, he turned to look at the Ix warrior sitting beside him. Valkyria seemed both alert and focused, but her mind seemed elsewhere. Shardak guessed she was also contemplating the enormity of the task ahead of them, and how easily they would find Jekart when they reached Akkad.
"So, how have you liked it?" Shardak asked her. before he could stop himself. "With the rebellion, I mean."
"It's very different from the Empire." answered Valkyria. "But it's certainly been interesting."
There was a note in her slightly musical voice that Shardak didn't hear normally--sadness. Then again, he supposed it should be expected. Despite the fact that Valkyria was a master at concealing her true thoughts and feelings, he knew how hard it must be to turn her back on everything she'd trained for nearly all of her life after being sentanced to the Eternal Game, then live for over three months with her enemies, beings she'd trained to kill as an Ix warrior.
"I'm sorry." he said. "I wish you could have gone back to your people after the Eternal Game. I didn't expect that our alliance in the Void would end up costing you what it did."
Valkyria seemed almost surprised for one moment, then asked, "What gave it away?"
"You need to learn to control your aura more fully. I can read your emotions and ideas far too easily." said Shardak teasingly, echoing her words when they'd been trapped in the arena. Valkyria laughed, and Shardak was almost startled that she'd done so. Quickly, the Ix girl stopped, seeming almost surprised and almost guilty.
"There's no more reason not to be yourself around the others." said Shardak. "There's no one who will punish you for it."
Valkyria nodded, still smiling slightly. Shardak looked at the Ix warrior again, and thought that she seemed much more beautiful now, much more then her usual, slightly arrogant mask. When she smiled, her eyes lit up and she...well, he liked it when she smiled.
A little embarassed in the direction his thoughts were going, Shardak immediately sobered and began to return his aura to its usual uniform gray. He began to focus his thoughts, drawing his knife and carving on a small, fallen branch.
"Who taught you how to do that?" asked Valkyria.
"My father, Arcturas, before we lived in Intax. It was one of our favorite things to do during the winters in the Fells, when there was little better to do. Arcturas always saved several branches for us over the long winter months, when the Fells were bured in snow."
"There were harsh winters in Illeria as well." said Valkyria. "My friends and I often hunted for our own food during those days, so we wouldn't have to rely on the harsher rations in midwinter."
Shardak nodded, but slight uneasiness was creeping into him as he remembered exactly who he was talking to. Valkyria was an Ix warrior, and despite the fact the Ix had betrayed her, she still could not be trusted. He'd come perilously close to telling her about his life with Arcturas, information that any Ix would probably kill to posess. When he spoke again, it was slower, more measured.
"So, the Ix ration food as well in Illeria? What's it like there?"
Valkyria seemed to sense what he was thinking, for she'd reverted once again to her normal expression. "It's interesting enough." she said, smiling again. But this time, Shardak thought it seemed a little forced. He felt as though he'd come closer to bridging the massive chasm that stood between them, only to find that all of his work was once again in vain.
Slowly, both Toa and Ix fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts. Shardak wondered again if Valkyria could be trusted, or if they could ever truly be friends when such a massive abyss of hatred ran between them. Slowly, Shardak stared at the night sky, asking the question over and over again in his mind.
However, tonight the darkened skies held no answers for him.
Banrax laughed, a cackling hiss of mad pleasure as several blasts of water and shadow slammed against Jareroden, engulfing the Toa in shadowy tendrils of elemental power. Drenched by water and entangled by darkness, the Toa staggered backward. With Jareroden momentarily distracted, Banrax lashed out at Ion, his scimitar meating Ion's broadsword with a tremendous clang that reverberated throughout the void below them.
Blast, meanwhile, was having his own problems. The Elemental Prince seemed to easily be able to hold all three of them off at once, forcing Jareroden and Blast to keep at a distance while at the same time fighting Ion in single combat. Banrax was more or less equal to Ion in strength and speed, but neither the Elemental Prince nor the Toa seemed to be faltering.
Jareroden, finally blasting his way free from the tendrils of shadowy water, charged forward, directly at Banrax. The Elemental leapt forward, countering another of Ion's blows and firing several blasts of pure auric energy at the Toa. Banrax turned away, confident that Jareroden would not survive.
What he had not expected, and what Jareroden had counted on, was his Kanohi, the Kezrak, great mask of Reflection. Banrax's attacks were immediately reflected, and as Banrax was struck by his own attack, both Jareroden and Blast struck.
However, despite these setbacks, Banrax was still a deadly fighter. As Jareroden leapt toward him, Banrax stopped him telekinetically midair, allowing him time to counter Ion's furious and blinding attack. Moments later, Jareroden crumpled to the ground, his energy drained by the Elemental. Blast could see the Toa was still breathing, but knew they would have to tend to him after the battle.
Assuming they survived, Blast thought grimly.
As Banrax, still shocked by Jareroden's sudden charge, was facing Ion, Blast leapt forward, his Scythe flashing in the twilight. Blast felt his weapon tear through Banrax's shoulder, then felt pain flash through him as he staggered back, darkness shrouding the world from view. Suddenly he could see once again, but still could not move--Banrax had immobilized him with a Shadow Hand, an ancient technique once often used by the Makuta years ago.
Slowly, Blast began to slash his way free of the web of shadows, finally tearing himself free from the Shadow Hand. He charged toward Banrax, but the Elemental was ready for him again, and easily deflected all but one of his attacks his his scimitar, a hideous weapon of red fire. The final attack struck Banrax across the shoulder, not even denting the being's armor.
Banrax lunged forward, all the while battering at Ion with pulses of both shadow and water. Blast narrowly avoided being cleaved in two, then locked his scythe with Banrax's scimitar, attempting to pull the weapon from the Elemental's hands. However, Banrax was far stronger then even Blast had expected, and managed to tear his weapon free.
At that moment, Ion struck. The Toa, seeing Banrax was beginning to weaken from his massive uses of power, lunged forward, his sword tearing through Banrax's armor and ripping open his chestplate. Banrax staggered backward, and Blast brought his scythe down across the Elemental's back, feeling the weapon slice through Banrax's already damaged armor.
The wounded Elemental charged toward Ion, and Ion smashed his broadsword against Banrax's scimitar, then readied to deal the final blow. At that moment, Banrax vanished, his sapphire body disappearing without a trace.
Ion cursed. "He's gone!" he called to Blast.
"Where?" asked the Glatorian, wondering if Banrax had made himself invisible somehow, perhaps a trick in the aura field. He knew that all Elementals had auric powers, though they were far more limited then those of the Ix or Toa.
"He teleported away." said Ion. "He's virtually the embodiment of water, entwined with that element. All he had to do was envision a body of water some distance away, and he instantaneously was transported there."
"At least we managed to defeat him." said Blast at length, watching as Ion helped Jareroden rise shakily to his feet. The Toa's eyes looked slightly unfocused, but he was alive and complied as Ion lead him up the slopes, toward the Dargon tribe's camps. Night had begun to fall, the entire sky growing dark as clouds began to cover the stars themselves. Blast, Jareroden, and Ion climbed higher up the hills, finally reaching the craggy summit of a small peak covered in trees.
Blast looked around for any sign of the Dargon, but saw nothing. The entire woodland seemed quiet, save for the eerie calls of several Glider Owls in the distance. Blast found it almost eerie, as though a storm was about to break that he was not aware of. He allowed himself a glance at Ion, and saw that the Toa seemed unworried that they'd spotted no other beings yet. He was about to whisper a question to Ion when he heard a rustle in the foliage, coupled by a massive axe descending upon them.
Blast staggered backward and hauled Jareroden with him, but Ion whispered several words in a sharp, staccato tongue that Blast didn't recognize. Slowly, the shadow of the massive being began to retreat, the axe withdrawing as Ion stepped forward.
"Time to make amends, old friend."
The gates of the city of Akkad loomed above Shardak, forbidding in the cold dawn light. Parapets, patrolled by armed guards, surrounded the entire city, reminding Shardak of the Circle in the Void. He knew that despite the war, Akkad was in little danger from either the Ix or the rebellion.
The city was ancient, going back long before the fall of Arcaea and the rise of the Ix Empire. Their city was built atop a massive bed of protosteel ore, allowing them to have sufficient funds to produce their own army and stay independant from both the warring factions surrounding them. As such, it had become a melting pot for many, many different cultures, from the Veythari to the Ix.
And the fact that it was completely neutral made it a perfect haven for bounty hunters, and information brokers such as Jekart.
Now the only difficulty will be finding him. thought Shardak as he appproached the gates. They'd hidden their weapons beneath their cloaks beforehand, and had an excellent cover story that Ion had supplied for them.
"Halt!" the voice rang out, crisp and cold. "State your business in Akkad!"
The voice came from one of the guards standing in front of the gates. Three others strode over to them, their weapons drawn. All of them looked wary and battle ready, and Shardak knew immediately not to underestimate them. They almost certainly had backup from somewhere, probably from the ramparts above them.
"We're traders." Shardak said, remembering the story that Ion had given them. "Miners, here to sell our goods in the prosperous city of Akkad."
"Traders?" the guard asked, running a cynical eye over Shardak, wearing the Ignika, once again disguised as a Glatorian helmet, Torak, a Skakdi, Sliver and Dust, two Matoran, and Valkyria, who looked like an Ix but dressed as a Veythari warrior. "Or spies? None of you look like the usual sort of traders who come to sell to our prosperous city."
"We did hire several guards." Shardak answered, pointing to Torak and Valkyria. "Can't be too careful in the Fells, not now there's a war on."
The guard nodded in stiff agreement. "Let me see your goods." he ordered. In response, Shardak handed over one of the two bags of diamonds, showing him the other. Each one of them were carrying smaller bags with a few diamonds within each.
The guard inspected each of them, nodding in approval. "Deal in any weapons?" he asked, voice still sharp, but less suspicious now.
"No. Bad for profit. We don't want to get involved in the Fells' civil wars." said Shardak.
"You've been profiting from the war, and everyone knows it." snarled the guard. "All right, you can go in, but cause any trouble and you won't get off lightly. Understand?"
Shardak nodded. "We understand."
"Good." grunted the guard. The two beings also guarding the gates opened them, and together the five travelers entered Akkad. The city was built simularly to Intax, as well as nearly all of the other mountain towns. The geography had created the structure of the city, the jagged cliffs and high winds making sure that all houses were made of strudy wood or steel. There were very few tall buildings among them, and none like the massive spires in the city of Seruamaera, also called the Nameless City, in the Void.
The city, like Intax, was filled with beings of all types, including Agori, Matoran, Kranr, Vortixx, and Glatorian. There were no Ix warriors save Valkyria there, and no sign of any Imperial presence at all. Shardak doubted that there were no Imperial warriors there, and knew they were probably undercover. There were many, many beings carrying weapons there, though, Shardak guessed they were mercenaries.
"How do we find Jekart?" asked Torak. "He could be anywhere?"
Shardak led the other four beings through a large crowd of Glatorian and answered, his voice a low whisper. "We'll ask someone, and if they don't volunteer immediately, we try to bribe them into telling us."
Shardak walked over, toward a small group of Agori who were whispering excitedly outside a small tavern. All of them seemed excited, and the Toa was unable to make out anything in their low whispers. He walked inside the taven, the others following. An Agori was turning away from a table and striding toward the door when Shardak blocked his way.
"What do you want?" hissed the Agori. "I'm a busy being, and I don't have time for questions."
"I can make it worth your while." said Shardak raising his sack of diamonds. The Agori stared hungrily at the sachel, as though he could see through the bag and look at the jewels within. Shardak lifted a diamond from the sack.
"All right." said the Agori, his eyes fixed on the diamond. "What do you want to know?"
"Where would we find the information broker, Jekart."
"You know..." said the Agori thoughtfully. "This is a fine diamond. It makes a being wonder if you have any more like it..." his eyes stared hungrily at the bag, as though he was an Iron Wolf who had spotted a particularly excellent kill.
Valkyria's hand strayed toward her cloak, giving the Agori a glimpse of the hilt of her dagger as her fingers closed around the weapon.
"But for me, the one diamond is perfectly adequate." said the Agori hastily. "I will tell you immediately. Jekart lives in the central keep. You can usually find him on the second floor of the tavern known as the Skull. You'll know it immediately because a bloody skull is painted on each door, front and back."
Shardak placed the dagger in the Agori's hand, and the being raced off with his prize. By now, their disussion had attracted the attention of several other beings, and though Shardak had taken care to keep the jewels hidden from all of the beings except the Agori, they'd all seen how quickly he'd leapt to do their bidding.
Shardak knew immediately it was time to go, before they were remembered by all of the beings in the tavern for the rest of the day. Being noticed could be very dangerous in a neutral city-state like Akkad, where any of the beings he spoke to could easily be Ix agents. Turning away, he, Valkyria, and the others left the tavern.
"The Skull, eh?" grunted Torak. "Should have known. Jekart will be there."
"Then you're sure that the Agori wasn't lying?" asked Shardak.
"No, he's not lying. A large tavern like the Skull he mentioned would be a haven for information brokers such as Jekart."
Shardak nodded. "Let's go."
The five beings walked down the narrow stone streets of Akkad, turning the block and passing into the central city. Here the buildings grew more ornate, and the taverns larger. Further on, Shardak knew, they would find the cities' leaders, as well the higher-class beings. Jekart probably owned a house there as well, but no information broker would base himself there.
Rounding a corner, Shardak saw a large tavern, complete with a shabbily painted skull on the doors. Voices of all types rang from the building, and Shardak knew immediately that they would find their quarry there. A large tavern such as this was the perfect place for Jekart to do his business, where many different beings all met to discuss the war and other interesting topics. This was a perfect place for both the higher and lower-class citizens to meet, for it was directly between the inner and outer city sections.
Shardak pushed open the door, entering the darkened room. Torchlight filled the chamber, though it was very dim. The lighting did not seem to bother the patrons at all, however. Almost all of them were talking, and did not even pause to look up and acknowledge their presence. Shardak strode deeper into the tavern, the others following him. All of them seemed slightly apprehensive, and Shardak wondered once again if the Agori had lied to them.
However, Shardak soon noticed stairs leading up to a second floor, and, relieved, followed Torak up to the landing. The upper floor of the tavern was quiet and empty, and Shardak scanned the room, suddenly noticing the small being sitting at a table, a carving knife in his hand. He was carving something onto a thin stone tablet.
"Jekart?" asked Shardak, his voice wavering slightly on the last syllable. The being lifted his head and Shardak had to prevent himself from gasping in shock.
The being's body was twisted horribly, bent forward and hunched. The armor was a shiny silver gray, and looked as though it had once been smashed, then repaired again, only partially successfully. But it was the face that Shardak found even more hideous. The being had large fangs on his lower jaw, that still showed partially even when his mouth was closed. The eyes were a hard, cold red color that was horribly intense and calculating as well as arrogant.
"What do you want?" asked Jekart. His voice was as hideous as his body, sounding like a cross between a rasp and a hiss. However, there was an unmistakeable tone of superiority in his voice as he spoke. "Are you here to bring me the...surely you know?"
"No." said Shardak. "We're here for information."
"Aren't you, now?" asked Jekart, putting down his pen. His calculating gaze passed over Silver and Dust, who looked slightly afraid of the information broker, Torak, whose expression was unreadable, and lastly to Valkyria. Jekart smiled slightly, a hideous expresssion that froze Shardak's heart.
"What will you give me, then? I don't just hand out information to every random stranger who shows up on my doorstep." said Jekart caustically.
"We can pay you well." said Shardak, touching his sachel once to emphasize the point. Jekart's gaze fixed on the bag Shardak was carrying, and the same greedy expresssion that had appeared on the Agori's face appeared on his.
"Well, then." rasped the information broker, a new tone in his voice that Shardak couldn't read, but knew he didn't like. "Sit down. Perhaps we can make arrangements after all."
Blast stared at the being standing before him in shock and not a little awe. The Dargon looked like a cross between a scorpion, a Vorox, and a Glatorian. His clawed hands and prehensile tail that lashed from side to side in excitement. However, the face was pure Glatorian, with wide-set green eyes and a silver helmet. He seemed alert and intelligent, and he looked surprised to see them.
"Hello, Areop." said Ion, his voice calm and cool. "It's been a while."
"So it has, Toa Ion." Areop said, his voice betraying nothing. "What brings you to the Dargon camps?"
"I'll tell you once we're there." answered Ion. "For now, let us return to your camps. This is Blast, an ally of mine, and Toa Jareroden, one of the few remaining Toa still alive here on Xaterex."
Areop nodded. "Pleased to meet you. Any friends of Ion are welcome here." still his voice seemed slightly stiff and oddly formal as he lead them back through the forests, to the entrance of several massive caverns. There were three entrances into the Dargon's camps, and Areop led them through the central entrance, one that led into a massive cavern filled with several more Dargon, all armed with either battleaxes or spears. They all looked up as Areop passed them, curiousity gleaming in their eyes as they saw Ion, Blast, and Jareroden pass them.
Areop led them down a corridor, finally stopping at a second cave. This one was completely abandoned and silent, as well as clean. A table and several chairs stood at the center of the chamber, though they were both in need of repair. Blast guessed that Dargon rarely ever sat down, simply walked on four legs when they needed to.
"Please, sit. We do not use these chairs, but you may." said Areop. "Now, what do you want?"
"I'm sure you know about what happened in the Eternal Game four months ago?" asked Ion.
"The war returned to Xaterex." the Dargon leader said.
Ion nodded. "Yes. The war returned here after many years of fighting on Noctxia Magna. Our cause has attracted many more disaffected beings, especially Kranr, Glatorian, and Agori, then ever before, but all of those beings only number about three hundred. The elite Veythari warriors number under two hundred, and the rest of our force far fewer then both. Altogether, we have under a thousand warriors at our command, insufficient to take on the Empire alone."
"And you wish to ask the assistance of the Dargon tribe?" Areop guessed.
"That is correct." said Ion. "Your warriors are many, as well as fierce. We cannot allow the Empire to win this war again. If we can take more of Xaterex, the Empire will have been dealt a crushing blow, one that they would be hard-pressed to recover from. However, we need help, allies that we know we can depend upon in the coming battles."
Areop sighed. "I was afraid you would ask this." he said. "Your coming could only mean one thing. You do understand that I would be sending my warriors to their deaths in a war that hardly concerns us?"
"If the Empire does not fall, their deaths will be a certainty. Are you telling me that the Ix have never bothered you here?"
"No, they have, many times. But never to the extent that we would rebel against them. We saw what they did to the Toa, and the beings in the Eternal Game. There is no hope for a rebellion on Xaterex."
"And yet we have driven them mostly from the Fells, and invaded the Canyonlands." said Ion. "And even Calos is being swayed toward our side, and we have no troops there at all."
"I know." said Areop. "Maybe you can win this after all. However, the Dargon are a proud people, and we do not wish to sacrifice our lives for your cause. I am sorry, my friend."
"But you--" Blast began, but Ion cut him off. "Not now, Blast." he said. "Areop, please think on what I have said. The Empire threatens all of us. Do you really think the Ix will leave you in peace once the rebellion is destroyed? They know that you have ties to us, and that your people were our allies in the past--"
"And look where that got us." hissed Areop. "We sided with you during the Arcaean War, and we were left with nothing. If the Ix can destroy Arcaea, and the Toa, maybe it's best to obey them, for fear of what they'll do next."
"You said you were a proud people." Ion retorted. "Not one to bow down to other's requests. The Ix believe that they are superior to us as a people. No one is superior to anyone else as a people. There are good and bad found among every race. Join us, Areop. Join us, and we will end the Ix's tyranny forever, and your people will be able to live wherever you wish, with no fear of the Ix destroying you. We will make sure you are protected in the Veythari camps."
Areop still seemed undecided. "I understand you, I really do, and I would consider aiding you seriously if it were against any beings except the Ix. My father was alive during the fall of Arcaea, and he described the entire Earth Kingdom crumbling into nothing. I know how it feels to be helpless against an enemy, and never wish to face that again."
"So it's fear?" asked Ion. "You're afraid of what the Ix will do to your tribes in retaliation? Fear is a weapon that the Ix use, but it only works because you allow it to. If you do not fear the Ix, you will be able to fight them. All of their weapons, Elimination, the Eternal Game, the war-- all based around fear. They wish to hold you all in fear so you can no longer fight against them, even in your thoughts. But we, the Veythari, the remaining Toa, our other allies, have stopped fearing the Ix. Without that fear, they are nothing more then another enemy that threatens our survival."
For a long time, Areop did not speak. His face was shrewd as he studied Blast's face, then Jareroden's. Finally he said, "You're right. I will join your alliance. It would be most unseemly if we remained cowering here while the rest of our allies fought the greatest war in the history of our universe."
If Ion was relieved, he did not show it. "How many warriors do you have under your command?" he asked.
"About two hundred, though as soon as I declare my loyalty to the rebellion, two other vassal tribes will join me. Both of them have about two hundred warriors together. Our complete force will be over four hundred beings, all hardened fighters. You were right, Ion. The time to hide is over. The Dargon are at war."
"So, what is it that you wish to know?" asked Jekart, keeping his voice carefully neutral. "I won't ask questions in return, nor will I tell anyone anything you tell me...if you pay me enough, or unless they pay more then you did."
Shardak felt uncomfortable. He remembered that Jekart had ties to the Ix, and immediately fell silent. He knew their destination was in sight, and all he needed to do was ask the question, but felt almost unable to. He opened his mouth, finally blurting out.
"Do you know the location of the Annulus fragment the Ix are searching for?"
Jekart did not seem surprised at the question. His expresssion did not change in the slightest, he simply answered slowly. "The Annulus fragment that the Ix are searching for. An interesting question, one that raises many others...however, I will keep my word and not ask anything more. Yes, I can answer your question, but I wish to be paid first."
Shardak lay three blue diamonds on Jekart's table. The information broker's eyes stared hungrily at the jewels, red eyes gleaming. "You will be given the rest of your pay upon truthfully answering the question."
Jekart nodded, and his hideous mouth twisted itself into a smile. "I always truthfully answer questions, young Glatorian. The answer is as follows. You shall find the fragment on the moon that orbits Noctxia Magna known as Xiost. The Ix's presence there, as well as that of my allies, has confirmed this many weeks ago."
"Thank you, then." said Shardak, dropping the remainder of the diamonds into Jekart's greedily outstretched claw. He'd made sure that Blast, Torak, and Valkyria were still carrying several diamonds, in case Jekart needed to charge them more. However, he thought that the information broker had volunteered the information far too easily. Still, he seemed truthful.
Shardak felt another aura touch his, and to his surprise he recognized it as Valkyria's. The Ix warrior didn't exactly speak words into his mind, but he could sense distrust within her silvery aura. He has something else planned, some other trap to spring. Be on your guard.
Shardak turned his attention back to Jekart once again. "Then we will be leaving you now. Thank you for your valuable time."
Jekart grunted once, then looked up at the five beings as they were about to leave the room. He smiled, a wide grin that was definitely not friendly. "I'm sorry, Toa Shardak, but I cannot allow you to do that."
Shardak was so shocked he almost dropped the bag with the remaining blue diamonds. "How do you--"
Jekart grinned again. "Let's just say I have informants everywhere, even within the rebellion. Skorr!" he called.
The door opened, and Valkyria, Shardak, and the others whirled around in shock. "What--"
The being standing before them was tall, heavily built being. Shardak recognized him as a Zeverek, a race widely known and feared as ferocious warriors. He carried a massive broadsword in one hand, and stood a good head taller then Shardak. In his other hand he held a blaster, one that Shardak had no doubt he could use effectively. His expression was visciously pleased, like a venomous snake who was seconds away from striking his prey a fatal blow.
"But you said that you wouldn't tell anyone!" Shardak protested. He turned to Skorr. "Surely you know that this being was bound not to reveal any secrets to any other being?"
Skorr smiled. "I know many things, little Toa. Including the fact that I'm being paid by my employers far more then you paid Jekart for your pitiful information. But if you all surrender immediately and allow me to kill you painlessly, I know we can avoid any unpleasantness. However, if you do not, things may become slightly more...complicated."
Shardak saw Valkyria was drawing a dagger from her cloak, about to throw it at Skorr. The bounty hunter seemed so caught up in his discussion that he didn't seem to notice her.
"Who are your employers?" asked Shardak, desperately trying to keep the bounty hunter talking as long as he possibly could. "The Ix?"
"The Ix?" Skorr almost laughed aloud. "No, no. There are forces at play here that are far, far more potent then your little Empire, forces that are certainly beyond the comprehension of you, a mere Toa.
"So what will it be?" asked Skorr, enjoying dragging their torment out as long as he could. "Shall you surrender? Or will I have to kill you the harder way?"
In answer, Valkyria's dagger flashed through the shadows, aimed perfectly at Skorr's heart. The bounty hunter moved faster then Shardak would have believed possible, raising one gloved hand and swatting the dagger from the air as though dispatching an irksome fly.
"I shall take it that you have chosen the latter option." Skorr hissed, not seeming at all concerned. "However, you have much to learn about good distractions, Shardak. In my job, you would not last a day."
No sooner had the final syllable left the Zeverek's mouth when he struck, his blaster firing rapidly at them as his weapon flashed down at Shardak. The Toa dodged quickly, raising the Blade of Arcturas to counter Skorr's next blow. However, the bounty hunter was far stronger then Shardak had anticipated, and his crushing thrust nearly ripped the Blade of Arcturas from his hands.
Shardak, relieved from Skorr's relentless attack for a moment, turned to see how the others were doing. Valkyria had done something to the bullets--redirected them somehow-- and they'd struck the wall, punching several holes in the tavern room.
It was lucky Skorr had a silencer on his blaster, Shardak had time to think, as he parried another of Skorr's thusts. He wondered for a moment if the tavern below could hear the clash of weapons, but doubted it. Jekart's door was so heavy that very little sound would travel through it.
Even with Torak, Silver, Dust, and Valkyria all helping them, the bounty hunter was still fighting, on the defensive but still unwounded. His skill surpassed many of the beings that Shardak had faced, though his heavy, crushing swordstrokes were not as precise and calculated as those of Nightwatcher, the bounty hunter who had captured them in the Void and taken them to the Ix.
Skorr's weapon seemed to slip through the darkness in a blur, countering both Shardak's and Torak's swordthrusts in a single motion. Then the Zeverek followed the attack up with a confusing attack pattern, finally disarming Torak. However, Shardak and Valkyria, were able to take advantage of his momentary preoccupation and lunge forward, managing to dent his armor slightly.
Skorr, seeing that he was fighting a losing battle, turned and managed to quickly regain the offensive, his weapon a blur as it collided with Valkyria's, then Shardak's again. Within seconds, Skorr was forcing them both toward the wall, and Shardak was finding it harder and harder to find room to deflect Skorr's attack. Silver and Dust were unable to help, for whenever they attacked, Skorr simply disarmed them, and they were forced to jump aside to avoid being killed instantly by his broadsword.
Shardak's eyes were fixed on Jekart, the lying information broker who had sold them out, once again, to their enemies. A satisfied smile was on the being's face as he watched them being cornered by Skorr. Shardak knew now that Jekart was probably also working for Skorr's employers, and that there was little hope for them to escape now.
However, seeing Jekart sitting at his desk, no longer paying attention to the battle, gave Shardak an idea. Leaping toward the desk and dodging or blocking Skorr's blows each time, he grabbed Jekart, pressing the Blade of Arcturas against the information broker's throat.
"Stop, or he dies." Shardak snarled. Immediately, the sounds of battle vanished as they all turned to face him. Skorr looked at Shardak with a shocked expression on his face, an expression which quickly became a sneer of disbelieving contempt.
"You're a Toa." Skorr hissed. "Toa don't kill in cold blood, not even a being who has betrayed them."
"I'm also a warrior in the rebellion." said Shardak. "And I will kill him if you attack my friends again."
He was bluffing; he certainly did not have the stomach to kill Jekart. However, he was hoping desperately that the Zeverek bounty hunter did not realize that. He held the bounty hunter's gaze the entire time, his eyes cold and dispassionate.
Skorr sighed. "I certainly have nothing against Jekart." he said at last. "But it is far more profitable to have you both dead."
He lunged forward, tearing the Blade of Arcturas from Shardak's hands. Shardak staggered backward, letting go of Jekart. Within seconds, Skorr was slashing at him, and Shardak felt pain shoot through his arm as the bounty hunter slashed across his shoulder with the massive broadsword.
Shardak rose to his feet, the Blade of Arcturas once again in hand as he blocked Skorr's blinding salvos again and again. As Skorr was about to deal another crushing blow, Shardak leapt to one side and felt his weapon tear through Skorr's armor, drawing blood.
Skorr seemed surprised for an instant, and Shardak took that single moment to push open the doors to Jekart's floor and race down the stairs. He could see that Valkyria, Torak, Silver, and Dust were all following him.
Racing down the stairs, knowing that Skorr was close behind them, Shardak pushed open the doors of the tavern and raced into the streets, knowing that Skorr would not hesitate to follow them.
"Halt!" ordered the guards at the gate. "No one leaves Akkad without permission from the city leaders."
Too late, Shadak remembered that Ion had told them that Jekart had connections with many of the high-ranking Akkadian diplomats. Of course they'd bar them all from exiting, no matter what they protested. Shardak saw a shadow of a being racing toward them, and knew that Skorr was taking aim with his blaster.
Shardak felt another aura touch that of the guards, and saw them crumple to the ground. He looked at Valkyria, and realized she'd stunned them somehow, another handy auric technique that he needed to learn. While he could push and somewhat manipulate others in the aura field, he had little training in the aura field from anyone. The only other being who had attempted to train him was Silencer, and he'd died before he was able to train Shardak in any aggressive techniques at all.
"Hello, Toa." snarled Skorr, and before Shardak could turn around, Skorr brought his weapon down.
Suddenly there was a flash of blue armor, and Torak had slammed into Skorr, taking the bounty hunter by surprise. Skorr's weapon flew from his hands, finally clattering to the ground. Skorr was so shocked by his sudden attack that he almost was disarmed by the Skakdi's furious assault, but soon began to recover and lashed out at Torak.
The Skakdi warrior wasted no time in delaying. Within seconds he was racing through the open gate, ignoring the guards on the walls who were grabbing their crossbows and firing at them. Shardak saw Torak grunt as an arrow hit him in the shoulder, but didn't dare to stop running. He wasn't sure if Skorr or the guards were following them, and he'd been trained well enough not to look back and check.
Shardak lost count of how long they ran. When they stopped, even Valkyria seemed slightly tired, and Torak, Silver, and Dust looked exhausted. Shardak's legs and arms ached, and anger at Jekart's betrayal began to simmer within him once again. The information broker had given them their lead, then attempted to kill them. Any minute now, he expected Skorr to appear, blaster readied to kill them all.
"Should we continue running?" he asked Valkyria. The Ix girl shook her head.
"If Skorr was still following us, he'd had caught us by now. He's probably been delayed by the Akkadian guards, though I'm not sure for how long."
"How did Skorr escape being noticed in the aura field?" asked Shardak. "Surely even I could sense him if he was standing right outside Jekart's door."
In answer, he felt Valkyria's aura begin to fade, then disappear altogether. For one moment he was worried, for it was as though she was dying. But Valkyria was still standing before him, smiling slightly at his baffled expression.
"It's a difficult aura power to master." said Valkyria. "One day, when we're not being chased by bounty hunters and Akkadian guards, I'll teach you."
"You all have much more pressing problems then the Akkadian guards." said a new voice. Suddenly Shardak and the others fell silent.
A group of seven Ix warriors, heavily armed and wearing dark armor, stood before them, their skull-like masks as cold and imposing as usual. However, these were not the same standard Ix warriors who had attacked them the day before in the Fells. These were some of the far more elite Ix, like the beings he'd spotted in the Circle. However, unlike the black-robed Ix, these were soldiers like the Fury, carrying scythelike daggers.
But Shardak barely payed them any attention. His eyes were fixed on the smaller Ix, who wore silver armor and smiled at Shardak as though greeting an old friend. Rage built within Shardak. This was the Ix apprentice who had sold him and Arcturas out to the Ix, the Ix who had spied on them for ten years. He recognized her instantly.
"Hello, Toa Shardak." said Nightshade.
Her voice sounded light and playful, but her eyes, cold as twin shards of green ice, told the real story. The last time Shardak had seen her, they'd been escaping the Spire in the Circle. A friend of Shardak's, a Matoran known as Barit, had sacrificed his life to allow Shardak, Kyhrex, and Blast to escape.
Now they were facing her again, seven Ix warriors with her. The last time, she'd been about to kill them all. And Shardak knew that she would have no qualms about killing all five of them now.
"Nightshade." he said again, his voice flat as he readied his weapon. "What do you want?"
"What I always want, Shardak. The Shadow Orb...and your life."
Shardak did not look at Valkyria, but an unspoken thought passed between them. How does she know we have the Shadow Orb?
There was only one explanation, and Shardak was loathe to admit it. The spy in the resistance is keeping them informed.
Nightshade surveyed the group. "What else do we have here?" she asked. "A rogue Ix warrior, a Skakdi, and two Matoran? I'm surprised you even escaped Skorr."
"So Skorr was working for you." said Shardak. Nightshade smiled.
"No, Skorr does not. However, that doesn't concern you in the slightest, Shardak. Soon you will be dead, and your friends with you. You can surrender, or fight. If you surrender, I will kill you all personally, If not, I assure you these Limiters will not be so lenient."
Limiters? Shardak "asked" Valkyria.
A specialist detachment of the Ix. she answered.
Shardak opened his mouth to reply to Nightshade, then raised the Blade of Arcturas and charged toward the Ix Limiters. He knew that they didn't stand much of a chance against seven Ix warriors, but he had to try. The skills he'd learned in the Eternal Game came back to him: us or them. Kill or be killed. There was no other option for them.
Valkyria leapt forward, her silver scimitar colliding with an Ix warrior's red sword like two colliding meteors. Torak slammed into an Ix warrior, twin blades flashing in horribly sweeping, precise strokes. Silver and Dust charged toward another Limiter, their combined attacks matching, but not overwhelming them.
Then it turned against them. Shardak slashed open a Limiter's arm, then hacked at his armor while he was desperately trying to deflect Shardak's crushing blows. Suddenly, Shardak realized he was no longer fighting one Ix Limiter, but two. Both were forcing him backward, and Shardak felt one Scythe bite into his shoulder, leaving a cold, chill burning feeling in his arm.
Shredsteel. he thought as he blocked another thrust with the Blade of Arcturas. Shredsteel was a Cold Iron, a substance that Shardak had mined for himself during his time as a Glatorian slave in the Circle. Painful and hard to heal, it would deaden his arm and weaken his fighting skills.
As he wildly parried two Limiters' scythe-daggers, he saw that Torak was being overwhelmed by two Ix warriors, and that Silver and Dust were staggering away from the attacks of another. Only Valkyria seemed to be holding her own: one Ix warrior lay facedown in a pool of blood, the other she was fighting was wounded as well.
- "Annulus" is Latin for "ring".
- The city of Akkad is named after the ancient Sumerian civilization known as the Akkadian Empire, whose capital was the city Agade (Later called Akkad by the Greeks).
- Areop is named after Areop-Enap.
- The combat forms were created by Template:User.
- Xiost is named after the Star Wars planet Ziost.
- Skorr's line in Chapter 8 "I know many things, little Toa. Including the fact that I'm being paid by my employers far more then you paid Jekart for your pitiful information." is a tribute to Template:User, who created a simular line for the same character in Chicken Bond's story serial, Journeys of Darkness.