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Infernumback2
Madness: Fluctuation
Fluctuation

Information
Setting(s) Xeno Nui
Era, timespan 14-15 years after Reformation
Genre(s) Romance, Slice of Life, Psychological, Comedy
Previous Madness: Continuum
Next Madness: Pandemonium


Table of Contents: Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII | Chapter VIII | Chapter IX | Chapter X | Epilogue

fluc·tu·a·tion, /fləkCHo͞oˈāSHən/
Noun - an irregular rising and falling in number or amount; a variation.


Chapter I


Xaedan
"Hey. Hey! Wake up, sleepyhead! Xaedan!"

I groan as the morning light meets my eyes. And so begins a new day. A day where the sun shines through a crack in the curtains right in my face, mind you.

Luckily, I had the foresight to just drink one glass of Thornax beer, yet a small hangover still managed to catch up to me. But not "Mary". She's peering down at me, cheery and spry as ever.

"Tsukumi and Kaixin are already downstairs, so hurry up, ok?"

I nod and make a shooing motion. Already, I'm tempted to just close my eyes and sleep the headache off.

"Xaedan!" "Mary"'s voice floats from the kitchen. "Kaixin's nearly ready with the breakfast, so come on out already!"

All pretenses of a peaceful morning, and indeed all notions of sleep, were instantly ejected from my brain. I bolt up to my feet, wide-awake. This is bad. This is so very bad. I still remember what happened last time when I ate Kaixin's food. I think I nearly died from the mother of all food poisonings.

I have no wish for a natural disaster to occur so I heed "Mary"'s so-called "advice", nearly sprinting in my own home.

And I gasp. I'm...

I'm too late.

"Nooo!" I roar. Charging through dining room, I make my way to the table where a figure with a white blanket over his head sat slumped, unmoving.

With pounding heart and rapid breaths, I whip the cover off. I brace myself for the worst. Could it be a victim of Kaixin's cooking? Had she finally crossed the thin line between cook and murderer?

Oh. Wow.

It's just a hungover Tsukumi. I hope she did eat some of the Toa of Ice's food and died. I replace the blanket.

"Mornin’, Xaedan!"

"Uh, Kaixin, why are you wearing an apron?" I ask tentatively while staring at her.

"Consider me your personal chef, ok?"

About ten seconds later, "Mary" was desperately trying to stop me from throwing myself out of the nearest window.

"Let me go, let me go! I'd rather commit suicide and die with honour!"

With a sheepish look, "Mary" apologizes to Kaixin who just simply shrugged and continued working on whatever culinary disaster she had started earlier, humming some cheerful tune that really did not go with this deadly scenario.

To me, she hissed, "What are you doing, Xaedan? Stop being stupid!"

I would have continued to wriggle out the window if it weren't for a white-and-black clad Toa standing there, quietly observing. She’s on the small side, lightly armored, and with a Faxon. Two blades are strapped to her upper arms.

"Huh? Who's that?" "Mary" asks. She lets go of me and I tumble out the window, landing on my head.

"Ow, ow! She's Amea, the Toa of Sonics. Amea, this is "Mary", as you probably know already."

The Sonics Toa nods.

A thought suddenly hits me, and I take the time to count with my fingers.

There's "Mary"... Kaixin and Tsukumi... and now Amea.

I frown.

"Why are there always girls in my house every morning?" I thunder. Seriously, it was becoming a pain.

The window closes.

I blink.

Huh?

Tsukumi, apparently over the alcohol, waves from the other side, the correct side, with Amea who follows suit. Whenever did she get inside?

Oh, and that's not all. The Toa of Water is dangling my house keys less than a meter away from me.

"Hey!" I holler. "Let me in! It's my house!"

Tsukumi shrugs while Amea cups a hand to her ear, signalling she couldn't hear what I said.

"You're a Toa of Sonics! I know full well you heard!" I scream indignantly to no avail.

They walk away.

"Get back here you two! This is a criminal case! It's grand theft estate! It's a violation of my unalienable rights as a person!"

Tsukumi snaps the window open for a split second and yells back at me.

"Maggots don't have rights!"

Chapter II


Xaedan
My stomach growls as I plod alongside the rest of the team, sulking.

"You guys suck," I mumble.

"Mary" places an arm around me and it is immediately followed with Kaixin's arm from the other side, though she does it nowhere nearly as gently. "Chin up, Xaedan," "Mary" chides. "We've a little something planned for the next few days."

"Yes, 'tis right, firespitter! We're going on a vacation!" Kaixin exclaims. "It'll be fun, just you see. Summer's halfway over, we really need to stretch our legs."

Well, that was unexpected. "That's very wonderful of you and all, but that still doesn't explain why you lot locked me out of my own home or made me skip breakfast."

"Well, keep mulling it over, 'cuz we aren't going to tell you," Tsukumi replies with a hugely annoying, self-satisfied smirk. "Now, come on. Don't just stand there like a maggot, we need to make a stop at the library."

"Library? Whatever for?" "Mary" asked. I would have said the same thing if I wasn't trying to mentally list ways to erase Tsukumi off the face of the planet.

"Actually, I'm not too sure myself. It's Amea here who wants to go and if we didn't, she wouldn't accompany us on our little vacation." Amea vigourously nods her head.

Out of the blue, we all jump slightly as we hear her speak for the first time this whole morning. "There is a certain... someone... who must join our group."

Kaixin's eyes light up. "Oh? A friend? Perhaps just a friend? Or a friend who is a bit more?" Looks like Kaixin is to up to her old tricks again. Even "Mary" is listening in, clearly interested in gaining more gossip material.

In response, Amea looks at Kaixin with undivided attention, straight into her face.

"No." The Toa of Sonics pauses to allow a serene smile to pass over her face. She clasps her hands together and takes a deep breath.

"He is my fiance."

A collective cry of "Whaaat?" could be heard through the entire street at that moment, drawing a disapproving glare of some wizened old Po-Matoran.

"Young whippersnappers these days...!" he wheezed before tripping on his own cane. That had to be the oldest Matoran I ever clapped eyes on. Replace his cane with a staff, put him in high heels, and you’d have a Turaga.

I let out a relieved murmur of "Oh, thank Mata Nui! There's another guy coming on the trip. I thought I'd be surrounded by you lot, a lone, masculine island in a tumultuous, stormy feminine sea."

"'That's' what you were worried about?" Kaixin splutters incredulously. "And that usage of imagery was... disturbing."

"Am I really all that tumultuous?" "Mary" rubs her chin and frowns. "Kaixin, how might I get less tumultuous?"

Tsukumi marches purposefully over to "Mary" and gives her a light chop over the head. She threatens to do the same for Kaixin and I as well, daring us to contribute more to this idiotic conversation.

With a grunt, Tsukumi beckoned us to follow. "Amea already went up ahead while you two got sucked into the maggot's over-the-top imagination. She should already be in the library."

Meekly, we followed the Toa of Water's hurried footsteps.

In a hushed whisper, Kaixin asked, "How does one becomes less tumultuous, Xaedan? "Mary"'s got a point, you know."

I smile. "You start by asking less dumb questions, Kaixin," I reply warmly.


"Hey, Xaedan."

"Yeah, "Mary"?"

"Why is the library on fire?"

"That's an excellent question. Kaixin, have you information to add to this inquiry?"

"Hmm. Nothing comes to my mind, sorry."

"Hey!" Tsukumi cuts in with a yell. "Don't just stand there, maggot, help me put the fire out!" With the two of us working together, it didn't take long for the raging inferno to die down. On one side, I’d absorb the fire while on the other, Tsukumi would simply just drench everything with her water. Within a minute, all that was left of the churning fire was a pile of smoking ash.

Miraculously, much of the library remained standing, so the four of us charged inside without a second thought, all of us trying to find Amea. Hopefully, she'd have escaped the blaze or wasn't harmed.

"Have you seen him?"

We turn, and luck would have it, we see the Toa of Sonics.

"Have you seen him?" she repeats.

The Toa of Sonics appears to have sustained no fire-related injuries, thankfully. However, what worries me more is the taser she holds in one hand and the singed sheet of parchment she holds in the other.

Amea holds up a finger. "I hear him." As if in confirmation, I notice a frantic scuffling from behind a nearby bookcase. Now holding her raised finger to her lips, Amea tiptoes to the case, ever so quietly. All of us hold our breath. Who could it be? What kind of monster would go so far as to commit arson?

Without warning, she lunges. Time seems to slow. I notice Kaixin bringing her hands to her mouth in horror. Tsukumi is yelling something with her arm stretched out, warning the Toa of Sonics.

A bright flash of blue light is emitted from behind the arsonist's bookcase, accompanied by loud crackles and screams of agony.

She did it! Amea captured the criminal! "Way to go, Amea!" I holler.

"I wouldn't be so happy if I were you, Xaedan..." "Mary" cautions. "Look closer."

Amea drags the now struggling, slightly smoking body of the arsonist before us.

"I never said I'd marry you, dammit!"

...Anzix?

The Toa of Plasma was wriggling on the floor, hog-tied with rope and with Amea's foot on top of his head. "Xaedan... Kaixin... anyone! Stop her! That piece of paper is a civil wedding contract! I tried to burn it with a bit of plasma, but who knew books were so flammable?"

"I feel compelled to ask. How did you even get a marriage contract, Amea? No, wait. How’d you even get that taser? They’ve only just been invented by the Vo-Matoran." Kaixin points out.

"Oh. Tsukumi gave me some of her spare stuff-" At that, the Water Toa rushes forward and clamps a hand over Amea's mouth. "My my, the weather is wonderful to- Hey! Kaixin, "Mary", don't rub your palms so dastardly like that! You two always do that before starting a rumour!"

"Is anyone going to help me out?" Anzix does his best to mumble, seeing as Amea's foot has planted his face in the floor.

"And weren't we supposed to go on a vacation or something?" I pipe up. "I think we are just a little bit behind schedule now."

"Shut up, maggot. Don't you think I know that? But first, we have to deal with Amea's and this wad of meat's marriage first, right? That's important."

With a loud "Noooooo~!" Anzix finally wriggles free. His escape is short-lived, however, as it does not take long for Amea to pounce on top with him and follow up with a quick swipe of her taser.

"Amea's scary..." I hear Kaixin mutter to "Mary". I couldn't agree more.

"All right, I'm ready,” announced the Sonics Toa. “I'll take care of my till-death-do-we-part when we get back."

"Uh..."

"Yes, Kaixin?"

"Why are you dragging Anzix around while he's cuffed to your wrists? And where did you even get those handcuffs...?"

"Oh. Tsukumi gave me one-"

"Ok, let's just go!" the Toa of Water says all too loudly, with a huge forced smile.

"Yay! We're going on a vacation!" "Mary" cries. "It'll be my first time. Xaedan, are vacations fun?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'd say so," I reply as the six of us exit the library, now finally on our way to our destination.

We cheer and set off. Yet, not everyone shared our happiness. Our loud cry had drawn the disapproving glare of the same, wizened old Po-Matoran.

"Is anyone going to help me up?" he spluttered.

One by one, we step over his sprawled body. Except for Tsukumi, who treads on his head.

"Young whippersnappers these days...!"

Chapter III


Xaedan
Walking to the outskirts of Haven took, oh, not more than half an hour. The minutes were passed with a wild cacophony of “Mary”’s and Kaixin’s chatter along with Anzix lamenting about his current situation.

“Amea! You weren’t always like this! What happened to that sweet, gentle girl I used to know? What have you done with my Amea, you vicious scoundrel?”

“Shuddup, meatwad,” Tsukumi replies. “No one cares. Amea’s fine just the way she is, isn’t that right?”

I gasp.

"What is... this?!" At last, we had arrived at the station. In all honesty, I expected a quaint little wooden hut with enlarged Ussal Crabs for us to ride. Something simple. Not... this.

The rest of the team is similarly awestruck. Even Anzix, who's having some difficulty looking up from the ground handcuffed as he is, widens his eyes.

"Oh! I This is a train. I would have never guessed you people already came so far!" "Mary" quickly explained. "Where I used to come from, we actually have stopped using trains. But, still."

"Huh," Tsukumi replied with raised eyebrows. "Me neither. I never knew we were such an advanced race. Seems like the Matoran and Agori have come a long way since the Reformation."

"Well, Xae's told me about his time on Metru Nui. Back in the day, they had gadgets and doodads even more advanced than this rustbucket."

"You call this a rustbucket, "Mary"?" Kaixin exclaimed, clearly aghast. "This is a work of wonder!"

And indeed it was. Even for a former Metru Nui Matoran, this hulking colossus of steel instills me with a sense of powerlessness. It was more of a gleaming, gold-trimmed beast than a mode of transportation. The train was painted a midnight black, the lack of colour only making it seem more solid and robust. Engraved in bold, white letters was this incredible machine's name: "Spirit of Faxis". Ah, so that’s where we’re headed. Faxis Beach.

A southern port city, the second largest on the island. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard of the wonderful weather, the hot springs, the white, pristine beaches… I could go on. As long as it involves anything “tropical”, chances are, it can be found in Faxis Beach.

The train stretched farther than the eye could see. Most of it was hidden behind roiling clouds of acrid steam pouring from the engine smokestack, making the outlines of the cars hazy and rather hard to make out.

At thirty-two, I just gave up. This train seemed to stretch on like nobody's business.

A harrumph. “Sirs, madams. Might I have your attention?”

Thus ensued a great deal of searching as the six of us, or rather, five (Anzix was still hog-tied and on the ground cuffed to Amea), tried to locate the source of the grumpy voice. In the end, we decided it was probably Kaixin playing a joke on us with her insane ventriloquist skills. That, or it was just a figment of our collective imaginations.

“Down here!” came the gruff tone again, this time a bit indignant. “I am going to have to ask all you to get aboard the train at once, even if you happen to be Toa. You are holding up the other passengers.”

Ah, so that was the source of the voice. A rotund little Fire Agori, exceedingly short. He wore an Elda, so the mustache complemented his look well. He was at least three feet below our field of vision. It must be hard to be so tiny.

The Agori was right. Well, eighteen percent right, to be exact. It was just Anzix who was blocking the way, seeing as he was lying right in front of the staircase. Behind him was a crowd of the little people, angrily waving tickets. If this kept up any longer, they'd be brandishing pitchforks and lit torches instead.

Tsukumi sighed. “Perhaps it’s best to just untie the slab of meat before boarding the train, Amea. The shorty’s right.”

The Fire Agori took the insult without flinching. A true professional.

Amea appeared to ponder this latest predicament, staring intently at the handcuffs linking her and the poor Toa of Plasma.

At last, she spoke. “Do you promise to be a good boy, Anzix?”

“I’ll be as good as it takes to not get dragged on the floor for a kilometer again…”


We make ourselves at home in one of the many cars of the train. We, being a little bigger than average, were shown a specially tailored car. It wasn't anything too special really. Just a bit of extra head room.

Honestly, the six of us were happy just to be able to sit fully upright.

"Say, watcha got there, Tsukumi?" Kaixin asked while craning her head forwards. All of us were seated in the same compartment, us two guys across from the girls.

The Toa of Water had her nose deep in some kind of thick brochure. "Some Ce-Matoran shoved this in my hand at the entrance of this station. Apparently, it has a few psychology quizzes. Not sure if they're worth the time, though."

"I'm sure they'll have some degree of plausibility," "Mary" assures her. "After all, those Ce-Matoran do know what they're doing."

"Fine then. I'll test Xaedan for the first one."

I look up in alarm, not unlike a deer in the headlights. "Huh? Me? Why me?"

"Why not you, maggot? So. You have five colours, red, green, blue, orange and yellow. Based on which you think suits us the most, assign one to each of us." Tsukumi is still burying her face in the brochure, but I see a small smile.

"Oh. That doesn't seem too bad," I start, though still wary of that odd smile. "Hm. I think... Maybe green for Amea?" I'd better test the waters with just one colour. Thankfully, the Water Toa hasn't done anything and I'm still alive.

"Then, perhaps orange for... Kaixin. Yes."

"Not orange for me? I'm pretty orange."

"I don't know, Anzix. You seem more... yellow."

I check for any impending danger. None. If anything, Tsukumi’s smile has widened.

I continue. "So, blue and red left."

"I'm red, right, Xaedan?" "Mary predicted.

"Actually, you're blue. Tsukumi is more red."

"Mary" laughed. "What's your deal with messing around all our armor colours?"

A loud tearing noise makes me jump. Tsukumi's smile was gone now, and in its place was a ripped brochure.

"Hey!" Kaixin exclaimed. "How will we know what the colours mean now?"

The Toa of Water huffed and put the two halves next to each other. "Green is a calm colour. It means you're on good terms with that person, neither too friendly nor hostile."

Amea says nothing.

That about sums up Amea and I, seeing as we've exchanged maybe ten words.

"Orange," Tsukumi continues, "is a warm colour. That person is like a source of energy. Kaixin's pretty hyperactive, so that sounds right."

The Ice Toa nods happily. "Maybe I should have orange as my favourite colour now!"

"Then yellow is an in-between colour. You don't think too highly of this person, but you do acknowledge the person, perhaps as an equal."

Anzix dramatically raises his arms to his face. "Oh, is that all I am to you? Just someone to be acknowledged, Xaedan?"

"No, you're a slab of meat. Shut it." Tsukumi narrows her eyes. "Now, maggot. Why did you choose red for me and not blue?"

Oh, Kazahrni’s left buttock. If I tell her...

"Will you get mad in any way, shape or form if I say why?"

Tsukumi puts on a radiant smile that would have charmed an Ash Bear out of hibernation. "Why would I ever do that to you?"

"Well... Anzix, why don't you explain?"

"Wait just a minute, maggot. What does the pile of meat have to do with this?"

I sigh. "Everything."

By now, the Toa of Plasma had scooted over and had his "camera", as he calls it, in hand. He said he bought it for a small fortune from some dodgy Agori who claimed it could freeze time into a little piece of paper.

"The fire-spitter's right. I'm the one behind this. You see, I snuck into your house the other day, Tsukumi-"

"What."

"-so I could update my tabs on you. I also peeked into Kaixin's home, but that's irrelevant."

"I really did not need to know that," the Toa of Ice muttered.

"Anyhow, I showed Xaedan a picture of a two-foot, flaming-red teddy bear with a heart on its belly, situated on the right side of your bed which is made of a dark wood and has a white comforter, along with a-"

Tsukumi punches Anzix. "Why?" the Toa of Water growled.

"Because I am deeply interested in the inner mechanics of the opposite gender. As such, I conduct much-needed research into this obscure field. I am a pioneer in this untapped wealth of information!"

"So, you just want excuses to ogle at girls?" "Mary pipes up.

"If that means smelling Tsukumi’s pillow, sure."

This isn’t the first time Anzix has gone on one of his shenanigans. In fact, on the first day I got here, he’s been trying to sell me all sorts of embarrassing pictures of the girls on our team. Heck, he’s even got a mug shot of Kaixin picking her nose.

Honestly, I’m used to this by now. I just pay no attention to Anzix for the most part.

I sigh, once again. This escalated quickly. "Long story short, after seeing your teddy bear, it makes me associate the colour red with you, Tsukumi. There’s just no way I can get it out of my head now."

I look up, expecting a nod of understanding. What greets my eyes is just a little bit different. Both Tsukumi and Amea are looming over me, their eyes suddenly glowing a rather terrifying shade of crimson.

"Say, uh, Tsukumi? Were your eyes always glowing a really dangerous shade of red? Or is it just me?"

"Oh, no, don't worry about it. It's just a manifestation of my anger and sudden urge to dispose of you."

"Wait, what?"

"You know too much, maggot. After finding about Winston, surely you can't expect me to let you live."

"You named you teddy bear Winston?" Kaixin murmurs in the background. "Winston sounds... cuddly. And cute."

"Shut it."

"Hey!" Making the use of the small distraction Kaixin caused, Anzix hisses in my ear. "Mind helping me out with Amea? She's about to electrocute me."

"Sorry, I'm about to get murdered. How about some other time?"

"Oh, sorry for disturbing you, Xaedan. Let me know you’re available, alright?"

The Toa of Water chops Anzix over the head, putting an end to his shenanigans. True to his word, Amea silently sneaks up from behind him, puts a sleeper hold over him and buries her taser in his back while whispering all sorts of scary things. I catch spine-chilling snippets such as "legally binding", "cheating", "adultery", and "wad of meat".

"Hmph. Your turn, maggot. "Mary", be a dear and help me open the train window."

"Okie-dokie!"

The relative quiet of our train car soon vanished, replaced by the outside wind's roar. The sound was deafening; the volume just went up from nothing to everything in an instant. Tsukumi roughly bundles my head out. I fear for my life and my looks. You never know when some errant sign might smash into my mask.

With the hundred-mio wind flapping my cheeks, I holler, "Hey, Kaixin? You might want to help me! Start by calling the local authorities, there's a murder happening!"

She sticks her tongue out. "No can do, bossman. I'm busy eating popcorn and watching both of you die."

"This really isn't the theatre." I don't even bother asking where she got the popcorn.

"No, it isn't. But it is really entertaining."

"Oh!"

All of our heads swivel towards "Mary", even mine, despite it still being dangerously hanging out of a speeding locomotive. Wait. Anzix's head is hanging back, without response. The poor guy must have been knocked out cold. Well, that's what you get for sneaking into a girl's house and then getting caught.

"See here, everyone!" "Mary" exclaims. "Red is a hot, dangerous colour. You treat this person with caution which may or may not include respect."

Kaixin snickers. "That makes sense, Xaedan's always getting beaten up by a wee lassie."

Well... when you put it that way... I am getting hit pretty often lately...

"Shhh! This part gets good. Blue is a cool, gentle colour. It means that person l-"

Tsukumi wrenches her arm back and desperately, almost maniacally, snatches the brochure back, though she has to take her hands off of me to do so. At last! I drag my still-intact head back in, thanking my lucky stars I managed to live through that ordeal.

"No!" the Toa of Water screeches. And with that, she tosses the entire booklet out the window.

Amea cranes her head towards the heavily-breathing Water Toa. "Why?" she said simply.

Tsukumi regains her composure with a quick clearing of her throat. "I slipped."

"You slipped." Amea's eyebrows are raised, very obviously not buying the lie.

"Yes. Do we have a problem with that?" she challenged us all.

"Yeah... I think my back has a really painful problem..." Anzix croaked from the ground.


"Hm. About time you guys cleaned up your act," Kaixin said cheerfully as we all took our seats once again. "Have I got a treat for you all!"

Anzix, despite still smoking slightly from the repeated taser jabs, brightens. "You have more pictures of Tsukumi's private life? Give those here, I'll make sure they get around."

"Eh, well, no. But I bet this is just as good! I spent all morning making these. That's why we kicked you out of the house, Xaedan. Tsukumi, "Mary" and I wanted to surprise you. I made lunch for all of us!"

A moment of silence.

I look at Anzix.

And he looks at me.

Eyes locked, steady, unblinking, unwavering, unchanging.

Do you know? my face reads.

I know. is plastered over Anzix' features. Good. He is aware of the dire situation.

The Toa of Plasma harrumphs. "Oh, sorry about this, Kaixin. Amea and I brought our own food." At that, he grunts. "I didn't really have a choice in that matter, she forces me to eat whatever she cooks. But it is good, I’ll admit." Amea leans towards Anzix and smiles contentedly as she gets quick pat on the head in appreciation for her efforts.

"Mary" raises a hand, sheepishly. "Tsukumi told me to make my own lunch, so I did. If I knew you were making enough for all of us, I would have said no."

Kaixin sighs. "I'm assuming you made your own meal, as well, Tsukumi?"

"Of course. Why wouldn't I?'

Unexpectedly, the Toa of Ice laughs. "Ah, no matter. That just means more for Xaedan and I! Here, firespitter. Try the pudding, it's a new recipe."

Oh, she's a crafty one, that sly Toa of Water. Trying to catch me unawares so I would have to fall prey to Kaixin's diabolical food. A clever plan, a plan that would fool most men.

But not I. I am not most men.

"Ah, I happen to have brought along some food. What a coincidence!" I snap open a compartment in my armor and rummage around a bit, finally producing a much-mangled bun. There was no guarantee if it was past its expiration date or not.

Still, better than Kaixin's food.

With a blur of movement, the bread is snatched from my hand and stuffed unceremoniously into Tsukumi's mouth. And it was just an inch away from my tongue!

With a sinking heart, I watch as my only lifeline gets slowly dissolved by the digestive enzymes in the Toa of Water's saliva. When I see the lump on her throat bob slightly as she swallows, I feel as if a tiny piece of me died right there and then.

I shake my head indignantly. "Why?!"

"I slipped."

Now it's my turn to raise an eyebrow.

"You slipped. Well, in that case..." I narrow my eyes.

My hand shoots out, seeking to grab the traitorous Water Toa's sandwich. "Oops! I'm slipping!"

"Oh, careful there, Xaedan," Amea says softly. She's clamped my hand with her own, faster than the eye could even follow. "I'll hold onto your arm very tightly so you won't slip. Don’t you worry, I’ll be looking out for you."

What's this? Amea and Tsukumi are in cahoots? The situation takes yet another turn for the worse. I fear for my life. Again. That's two times in the same number of minutes.

I must admit, I lead a very unhealthy lifestyle.

"Hmmm," Anzix hmmm's. "Scoot over here, would you, old chap?" I do so and he leans forward, talking softly.

"I have an idea. Amea's given me some rice rolls filled with some strange green-paste thing. It's mildly spicy, so it might ease the effects of Kaixin's food by messing with your taste buds."

I sigh with relief. "You're a lifesaver, Anzix."

Kaixin blinks. "Uh. What's going on?" "Mary" is just as bewildered. I must tell her the true nature of the Ice Toa's culinary disasters, sooner or later. Preferably the former.

"Nothing!" we all chorus.

I'm handed a roll made of rice wrapped in some dark papery thing. It looks innocent enough, just a sticky white cylinder with a pale green substance in the middle. Down the hatch.

"Mary" snickers.

"What?" I ask, while chewing. I take another bite.

Hm. That's odd. My mouth is tingling.

"Xaedan, that's wasabi."

"Wah... sah bee? What's that, a disease?"

She laughs. "No! It's a spice I introduced to Amea. It's not something you should be taking a mouthful of."

I didn't hear a single word of "Mary"'s explanation since I was desperately spitting and hacking up the contents of the rice roll. Sure, I made a mess of the carpet, but I was out of options. By the spirits, that was brutal! I’m a Toa of Fire, and even I thought that was spicy.

Anzix sniggers. "Well, hey, now that your taste buds are nuked, maybe, you know... you could eat her food."

I widen my eyes. That's right! If I can't taste anything...

I thrust out my chest and face the impending danger like a man. "Alright then, Kaixin. Hit me up!"

She grins and cracks open the tub of pudding. "Say ahh!"

"Ahhhhhh!'


Later that day, there were reports of an explosion aboard the oversize carriage of the afternoon train to Faxis Beach.

Nobody would ever find the culprit.

The authorities had one lead, and one lead only: a spoon, still streaked slightly with chocolate pudding.

Chapter IV


Anzix
"Oho, you're alive! "Mary" and I were getting worried when you started mumbling and confessing your life's sins in your sleep."

Xaedan mumbles from the floor. "...Where?"

"You've been dragged, literally dragged, into the booked room for us three. The girls get their own room. Mata Nui knows what glorious secrets they hide, dead-bolted behind their hotel door." I snicker.

"Three? But..."

I flop on top of the room's only bed. ""Mary"’s with us, she's in your head as of now. Sleeping, I presume."

At last, the fire-spitter sits up, and the first inklings of realization dawn upon him.

"I see. We're at Faxis now, right? Just how long was I out?"

I smirk. "Kaixin's food did you in for a good six hours. It already nighttime and you've missed dinner. And such a fine dinner it was, too. All you can eat."

"That's fine, really. I've lost my appetite," he groans. "Just thinking about eating makes want to curl up in a corner and die. Now what?"

I whip out my camera. "Now, I fulfill my task. I didn't come here to soak in the hot springs, though I'll be doing that, too."

Xaedan's face scrunches up in a grimace as he asks, "Pray tell, what is your task? Though I can guess what it involves." As the Toa of Fire says this, he eyes my camera with wary eyes.

My smirk widens into a full-fledged grin. "It involves delving deep into uncharted territory, let's just say that. It'll be the adventure of a lifetime! You want in?"

The fire-spitter moans from the floor and absently waves a hand. "Maybe tomorrow. Like you said, it's the dead of night. This is no time to go on one of your mentally retarded schemes, Anzix."

I let out a hearty hero's laugh. "You have much to learn, grasshopper. There are certain deeds best done under the cover of darkness, and this is one of them. I'm offering you the chance of a lifetime. Are you really sure you want to pass it up?"



Xaedan
Do I want to pass it up?

Maybe I wouldn’t on a good day. Maybe when my stomach isn't busy hurting like the dickens. Maybe on a day when pigs turn green, or when Tsukumi comes to me with a confession of her love.

“Yes, Anzix, I’m very sure.”

The Plasma Toa lets out a deep sigh, one laced with deep regret and pitying. “Suit yourself, fire-spitter. I guarantee you, you’re making a mistake here.”

I’m sure he had more to say, but by that time, I had already fallen asleep on the floor.



Anzix
Somewhere in the background, I swear I could hear some really epic secret agent theme song going on. Perhaps the one from the movie with that slick Po-Matoran actor in it… what was his name… Thom something. Thom Sail, I think it was.

It’s the wee hours of the morning and all of the good people of Faxis lie sleeping in their cozy little beds, having their sweet dreams and whatnot.

Save for one: Me. I’m hard at work achieving my dream.

Faster than the night wind and twice as quiet, I steal down the third floor corridor, making use of the inky pools of darkness. My target? The basement.

The stairs were out of the question, I’d cause a racket going down those tiny little Agori-sized steps.

But, no fear. Le-Matoran Scout rule number one: Always be prepared. Without haste, I unwind a length of rope, to which a hook was attached. There was no need to be quick. Hurriedness dulls the mind.

Gently, ever so gently, I ease open the nearest window, taking infinite care to make not a sound. A mouse probably would be louder than me right be now.

After securing the grapple, I rappel down not to the ground floor, but to the second. Here, I’ll meet up with a few of my, ah, acquaintances. It helps to have a few trusty sidekicks, after all.

Seasoned warriors all, with at least five years of missions under their belt. Most of them might be Le-Matoran and Jungle Agori, but they weren’t the least bit green when it came to covert operations. They totalled four. Two Le-Matoran, one Jungle Agori, and one Ice Agori. Upon my given signal, our motley group tumbled out the window, one by one, rolling on the ground to soften our impacts. A stroke of luck; We managed to land on the front lawn so the grass was fairly forgiving to our fall.

Onwards we go, silently. Stealth was of the essence here. The night was still young, we had all the time we need.

I signal a stop with a raised fist. Two fingers then rise up, signalling for the pair of Agori, one from the Jungle Tribe, one from the Ice, on our team to spring into action. Their part in this operation was simple. Disable the security of the front doors and wait outside as backup. It takes just under a minute for them to finish.

I, followed by the Le-Matoran, pass through the hotel doors. No alarms, no guards. This is good. Very good, in fact.

Yet, I give the Agori a quick glare. They were rather slow this time around. Normally, this’d be done in ten seconds flat.

With a swift wave of two fingers, I signal the go-ahead. The Le-Matoran and I storm the deserted hotel lobby, heading immediately to the elevators. All done without a trace of sound, of course.

“Boss, will this task-job be ever quick-fast? Others will be open-eyed soon!”

“Quiet, Jata. Your talk-shouting will open-eye everyone.”

I lean down and clamp a hand over their mouths. “If you talk it won’t be very fast, now will it?” I hiss at the two. “Jata, you take one elevator and plant the first camera at the west end. I’ll take Vatura here and we’ll cover the southeastern end. Got it?” The two bumbling Le-Matoran nodded as best as they could behind my massive palms.

“Good. Get going. And don’t forget to contact me if anything goes wrong. You have the radio handset right?” I release the pair and give Jata a light push to send him on his way.

“Yeah, boss, no need to fret-worry,” he calls softly over his shoulder. “Got it right here, safe-sound. I’ll get fast-going, luck-fortune with you!”

I didn’t wait for his reply but it was welcomed all the same.

I click my fingers and a crowbar was instantly handed to me by my trusty combat accessory. The elevators were locked at this hour for security purposes. This was a five-star hotel so security wasn’t exactly a pushover, but it shouldn’t pose a problem for someone like me.

After all, it’s next to impossible to secure anything so it’s Toa-proof.

I grunt as I snap the crowbar. Perhaps that wasn’t the best course of action.

I motion for Vatura to take a step back as I melt two fist-sized holes for handholds in the elevator doors with a bit of my plasma. Already, the Le-Matoran was siphoning off the smoke with a small handheld vacuum. These guys weren’t called the best of the best for nothing.

At last, the elevator doors lay open before the two of us, revealing a pitch-black shaft. That is, it didn’t really reveal anything.

Vatura held up a small flashlight, most likely produced from one of the many, many pockets sewn into his overcoat. Vatura’s trench coat was something of a mystery. It seems to hold everything that’s needed no matter what the situation, the small vacuum being a prime example. I mean, who would carry a portable vacuum around with them?

Only the founder of Vatura, Sons and Co., Mercenary and Demolitions Inc., that’s who.

The little, but bright, ray of light coming from the flashlight showed the two of us everything what would normally be in your garden-variety elevator shaft. A thick, steel cable running down the middle, the elevator itself, and dust. Oh, there was so much dust, such a copious amount of dust.

And there was a dead rat. Delightful.

Dust and rats aside, it was the elevator car that caused Vatura to mutter a curse. I’d murmur a few choice words myself, but such behaviour was unbecoming of a Toa.

“Arthaka’s beard and monocle, now what do we do-plan?” Vatura says to me.

I huff. “We’re going to have to blast our way through.”

“Dammit, boss, the fix-repair fees are going up-through the roof!”

“You got any other better ideas?” At that, I’m met with silence.

The elevator car was halted slightly below the ground floor. Our squad was hoping the elevator would be stopped at any other floor but the ground or basement. Now, instead of just simply rappelling down, we’d have to blow a hole in the elevator’s floor. Looks like our luck had run out.

Well, we’ve come so far, no point in turning back now.

With a click of my fingers, energy envelopes my hand and I press my palm on the elevator floor. Maybe half a minute or so should be enough to melt a good-sized hole.

“Time?” I hiss at Vatura. With a deft flick of his wrist, the Le-Matoran desperado produces a tiny pocket watch from his overcoat. “Three hours ‘til dawn-rise, boss.”

Three hours. Should be enough. “There, got it. Pass me that cable now.” With the metal cables looped over my shoulder, I weld one of the end of the cable to the ceiling. This will allow the two of us to rappel down to the basement. At that thought, I can’t help but grin. This plan has been weeks in the making, and success is nearly within grasp.

“Right. Let’s go.”

The Le-Matoran chuckled. Clearly, he’d been waiting for this moment. “Down into the belly of the monster-beast, huh, boss?”

“Mhhm. Straight down into that belly of the monster-beast.”


“Ugh! Finally. Clear!”

Yet another smoking hole lay in our wake as Vatura and I tumble through the sad remains of the basement elevator doors. “You’re on your own-self, bossman. I must-need to do my part.”

I flash him a quick thumbs up and sprint down the hallway. Silently, of course. He departs down a left, smaller corridor. In just a few short moments, he turned a corner and was lost from sight.

This hotel, the Star of the Sea, was not your ordinary hotel. No, not at all. Even the hallways in the basement were as sumptuous as the rest of the building. Tasteful paintings lined the walls, showing either dead heroes of the past or some rich, pompous Matoran. A rich, shaggy carpet, thick enough to pass for a thin mattress, cushioned my footsteps. This was undoubtedly imported from the famed craftsmen who lived in the northern desert settlements.

Yeah, like I cared about all that.

The only reason that the basement wasn’t some musty, concrete labyrinth was because of the hot springs. The Star of the Sea was famous for its hot baths which drew water from underground reservoirs of steaming water. As such, they made every effort to spice up their basement to entice tourists.

Now, that I cared about. My final destination was indeed the hot baths of this fine hotel. More specifically, half of them.

I gently ease open the door labeled “Women” while preparing a tiny pinhole camera. Mission success!

Ok, so, if the mission was a success, then why did all of the lights suddenly go out? Inky blackness fills the room, plunging me into the thick dark. A power shortage? Of all times…

I stumble around for a bit and meet a new friend, the wall, before finally remembering I’m a Toa of Plasma. I snap my fingers and a right spark heeds my call, dancing around for a bit before resting on my fingertip. The little light it sheds is enough to illuminate a Le-Matoran lying on the floor.

I step over- Wait.

Bending over, I take a good, long, horrified look at the body. The poor fellow’s been bound with strong ropes in the fetal position and gagged. “Jata? Is that you?” His eyes snap open and roll wildly for a second before focusing on me. He begins to shake his head wildly.

“What? Are you having a seizure? I’ll call for a doctor as soon as I finish rigging this here camera. You won’t lose too much mental capacity, don’t you fret, I’ll be just two minutes.”

Jata adds muffled grunts as he tries to spit out the gag. No such luck, however. “What?” I hiss at him. “What do you want? Just give a sec, alright?” Le-Matoran these days. So hyperactive.

I walk into yet another wall. Argh, that Jata. He’s jeopardizing this entire operation by distracting me. At times like these, you have to be at your best, totally focused, not worrying about some squirming Matoran.

I move the right and walk into the wall, yet again. Eh? Just what going on here?

I bring my sparking finger higher up, trying to see what is barring my way. From the blueprints I have, there shouldn’t be anything here…

From behind, I hear Jata moan something that might have been “Told you so!”

“Hello, Anzix,” a soft voice greets me.

I hear the all-too-familiar crackle of a taser.



Tsukumi
My eyes snap open and I sit up, whipping the covers off. I swear I could have heard an unearthly wail echoing through the hotel. And it was much too loud for it to have been in a dream or from my imagination.

“Mmmm, go to shleep, ‘kumi,” Kaixin blearily mumbles. “Just Anzix n’ Amea… ‘n their usual...”

The Toa of Ice yawns widely, smacks once, then snuggles ever deeper into her mountain of quilts.

Ah, yes. Amea did say something about Anzix’s plot to set up a hidden camera in the women’s section of the hot baths. Well, that’s not my problem.

I hear yet another blood-curdling shriek.

With a grunt, I flop over and close my eyes while Kaixin’s soft murmurs about waffles and ice cream, as well as the the eerie screams, lull me asleep.

Chapter V


Xaedan
Something heavy.

Heavy and on top of me. And squirming a bit, too.

“Mmmm..,” I manage to push out through sleep-stiff lips. “Heavy. Geroff…”

An indignant harrumph. “What did you just call me? Heavy, was it? You’re asking for a wallop, mister.”

I let loose a great groan. “Kaixin, if you don’t get off me in the next five seconds, you will be launched off, mark my words.”

“Oh, my my, I get to be launched off by Xaedan! I feel all tingly just thinking about it!”

“Please don’t say such misleading things…”

“Dear me, Kaixin, you’re quite mistaken. I will be the one doing the launching in the next five seconds. And trust me, you’ll feel anything but tingly.”

I crack my eyes open and squint at the rambunctious Ice Toa, who now wears a pout on her face.

“Aww, “Mary”! Quit hogging Xae all to yourself. I get to annoy him too, you know! Plus, you’re with him twenty-four seven, aren’t you?”

“Stop.” I hold up my palm. “One, Kaixin, take that apron off, you’re not cooking a crumb within fifty meters of me, nor are you my personal chef. Two, “Mary”, when did you even get here? Three, I want the lock on our room door re-installed.”

“Mary” blinks at me. “The lock? What, why?”

“Well, if Kaixin got in here, it stands to reason that others will come storming here any minute now.”

“Maggot! Up and at ‘em! Stop wasting my time.” I don’t even have to turn my head to know who that is.

Case in point. Somehow, the girls had managed to break the lock and now they’d colonized my room as their own. Amea’s not far behind, dragging along with her a body bag. She nods curtly to me in greeting, and I reply in turn. Nothing out of the ordinary here.

“Alright, everyone’s here!” Kaixin stands up at last, and I take in a gulp of air.

“Today’s the day where we do vacation things,” Tsukumi begins, pacing about like a drill sergeant. “We’ll be at the beach, then we’ll hoard as much spoils of war as we can-” The Toa of Water coughs. “I mean, we’ll be shopping. Lastly, we’re going to the night market. Is that clear?”

I raise my hand.

“What, maggot?”

“Who died and made you leader?”

Tsukumi chuckles and leans in, her mask not more than a few inches away from mine.

“We can arrange your death, if you want.”

“Shouldn’t we just start arranging for your to-do list now, Tsukumi?” Kaixin points out hurriedly, before anything not fit to describe with words started happening. “We’ve got all our bags ready, but Xae’s needs to prepare too. Amea, is Anzix good to go?”

The Sonics Toa pats the body bag behind her and nods in confirmation.

I don’t see how being stuffed in a body bag qualifies as ready, to be frank.

Taking “Mary”’s proffered hand, I stand. “Out with you all, then. I’ll meet you guys by the front exit in five minutes. How does that sound?”

“If you’re late, I’ll kill you. Maggot.”


With hands on my knees, I gasp and gulp huge breaths of air. I made it! I made it on schedule, with a few seconds to spare. That Toa of Water was actually timing me!

We Toa were gathered just outside of the hotel by the front gardens. Time and care had obviously been put into the many masterfully trimmed hedges and flower arrangements all around us. Oh, and there’s a buck naked statue of a Artakha Bull. He appears to be urinating into a multi-tiered fountain. Lovely.

“We’re all here?” Tsukumi glances around, keeping track of the crew. “Good. Amea, you can take Anzix out now.”

With a single nod, she unzips the body bag and begins to untie the ropes binding the unfortunate Toa of Plasma.

The Toa of Water continues. “As leader of this here squad, I order you to all have as much fun as possible. If you do not, I will have you flogged. Are we clear?”

A resounding cheer comes from us, and we stampede out of the inn’s lobby.

“I thought I was the leader,” I point out.

Kaixin places an arm on my shoulder. “Haha, yeah, no.”

Matoran and Agori are lowering peering at us as we charge out of the hotel’s wrought-iron gates and into the town, some even lowering their sunglasses to get a better look.

“Mary”’s jumps on me, forcing me to piggyback her all the way. Amea’s doing something similar, fireman carrying a protesting Anzix. Tsukumi and Kaixin, however, are causing the most ruckus. The Water Toa brought a huge, four-foot, inflatable dolphin along while Kaixin toted a folded volleyball net in her arms.

The six of us made quite the sight, sprinting through the street on our way to the beach. Our collective cries of excitement could be heard through the entire street at that moment, drawing a disapproving glare of some wizened old Po-Matoran.

"Young whippersnappers these days...!" he wheezed before tripping on his own cane.

Wait a minute…


Tsukumi was the first to reach the ocean. Already finished kicking off her greaves and shoulder armor, she dives into the great blue with gusto. Her inflated dolphin follows with a flop of its plastic tail.

Matoran and Agori dive out of the way, fearing for their lives, as the rest of us follow our, ah, leader’s example. We kick up great clouds of pristine white sand in our haste. Faxis Beach was, as one can probably tell from its name, renowned for its coastal tourist attractions. For nearly half of the year, clear blue skies and sparkling ocean waters coupled with the balmy tropical temperature enticed the entire Xeno Nui populace to take a break from the ordinary humdrum of life.

With Tsukumi laughing and beckoning, the rest of us jump in. I take a more cautious approach and wade in inch by inch, much to my regret. As soon as my leg hit the water’s surface, steam and boiling water surrounds me. “I think I’ll sit this one out, guys.”

“Take a good look at us, maggot,” Tsukumi replies. “Are you really going to let a bit of smoke stop you from having some fun?”

I do so. And I see Anzix enveloped in a veritable halo of energy, undoubtedly brought on by the salty seawater. He’s bright enough to pass as a streetlamp. Amea’s up to her eyes in water. Clearly, she didn’t bother to take off any armor and, as such, sank like a rock. Kaixin’s radiating enough cold to turn the nearby water into ice, which she is desperately punching at to break up. She’s redefining the word “icebreaker”. And though Tsukumi’s not affected by the water, she looks stupid enough as it is with her dolphin.

“Alright,” I conceded. “Fair enough. You all look like idiots anyways, I’ll fit right in.”

A harrumph. “Ok, well, except for you, “Mary”’. She seemed the most happy in the water out of all of us, just bobbing gently up and down with the tides. Like a normal person.

I take another quick glance at the rest of the gang, truly seeing how odd we looked. Oh, and let’s not forget about me. I probably look like I’m farting underwater seeing as there are so many bubbles around me.

But, still. It’s definitely the massive dolphin which sends the idiocy over the top.



Anzix

Amea beckons at me with an outstretched finger. I look up, seeing as she was already out of the water, though I have to shield my eyes to do so. The entire early morning had already passed away, filled with splashing, laughter, and one incident of near-drowning. Ok, so, maybe trying to snap pictures at girls from underwater wasn’t the greatest plan, but I still don’t see why Tsukumi had to hold my head underwater for so long.

“Hurry up,” the Toa of Sonics quietly said, though impatiently. A pity. I actually kind of liked the mild electrocution I caused in the water. It was a fuzzy kind of feeling, kind of like rolling around in Tsukumi’s bedsheets. Oh, she has great bedsheets. I could spend hours in them. Which I have.

I clamber ashore, dripping and sparking as I go. At last, it seems, the volleyball net has been set up, and with great price in sweat, blood and tears. Mostly Xaedan’s though, so that’s okay.

It was to a be a straightforward, sportsmanlike game. Three on three, no dirty tricks, no tomfoolery, and certainly no cheating. None of that. Just volleyball, plain and simple.

Amea grips my upper arm, holding me close. “What?” I ask, looking down at her. She’s clinging to me like one of those limpets I accidentally stepped on earlier.

“You’re on my team.” Her eyes meet mine, and I am powerless to look away. I see a world of pain in store for me if I do not comply.

On the other side of the court, Kaixin and Tsukumi are engaged in a heated match of rock-paper-scissors.

When Toa play this classic game, it’s a little bit different than what most people are used to. You have to beat up your opponent with whatever object you choose. So, despite Kaixin having trumped over Tsukumi’s paper, we have the Ice Toa enveloped in a thick slab of water.

At last, a soaked Kaixin sulkily makes her way to our team. Maybe it’s just me, but she looks a bit disappointed.

“Argh!” My head is wrenched roughly downwards, away from the Toa of Ice.

“The only girl you’re allowed to look at for more than five seconds is me. Got it?”

I manage to twist my way out of Amea’s neck pinch. I mutter darkly to myself but I do as I’m told, out of fear of any further pinches or, Mata Nui forbid, taser shocks. Nasty things, those.

“Service!” Tsukumi’s voice floats from the other side of the net and she tosses the ball upwards, setting herself up for an overhead serve. Xaedan and “Mary” flank her, at the ready and determined to win.

“Hey, Amea, you hear that? Something… something like a big rush of wind.”

“I hear it, yes. What of it?”

“No, no,” I mutter, more to myself than the Toa of Sonics. “Not like a rush of wind. It’s like…” My voice trails off as I look upward. I find my voice a quick moment later and take the opportunity to yell at Tsukumi.

“Hey! You slag-heap Toa of Water!” I scream across the court. “What in Tren Krom’s hamstring do you think you’re doing?” Hurriedly, I wave my arms to gesture my team to look for the ball.

Frantic turning on the spots accompanied by wildly rolling eyes finally bore fruit. Kaixin points to somewhere, oh, maybe thirty feet in the sky. “Up there! The ball is there!”

I blink. “What, you mean at the top of that massive tsunami rolling in? Huh, I wonder how in the world that got there. Oh, wait.” I avert my eyes away from the huge wave and train them on Tsukumi. “That’s right. We’ve got a crazed murderer of a Water Toa with us!”

“Whatever happened to our fair game, Tsukumi? I’m pretty sure we agreed to have a proper match from the get-go.” Kaixin, though busy craning her neck to see just how high the tsunami really was, still found time to be annoyed with the Toa of Water.

“In all honesty, it’ll be no fun if we just toss a ball over and over again across a net. I had to spice it up a little.”

Even Xaedan, one of Tsukumi’s teammates, speaks up. “By definition, a tsunami is not ‘little’. It’s a massive wave that has the capability of leveling a city.”

Amea raises a hand. “We should do something about that wave, then,” she interjects with her usual soft voice, forestalling any maggot-related retort Tsukumi might have come up with.

I snap my fingers. “Oh, yeah, I knew we were forgetting something important. Stopping the deaths of hundreds of Matoran and Agori is pretty vital, isn’t it, Kaixin?”

“You don’t say. I guess I’ll just freeze it up?”

“Hah!” Tsukumi lets out a hearty laugh. “What do you guys take me for? An amateur? Please.” The Toa of Water waves her hand and the towering wall of water instantly vanishes with a loud ‘pop’, sending a few thrill-seeking surfers plummeting down into the ocean.

The poor surfers weren’t the only things that fell once the wave disappeared.

Kaixin elbows me. Locking eyes, we give a nod and clasp hands. In all my years, I’ve never tried combining plasma with ice, but what’s the harm in trying?

The moment our fingers touch, the two of us emit a painfully bright blast of light, searing my eyes and most likely everyone else’s as well. Clearly, our powers weren’t compatible. I could hear a faint buzzing in my ears as well. Rubbing my eyes helps a bit with the sudden flash of light, but there was really nothing I could do about the white noise. Highly annoying.

“What is that? And what happened to the ball?” Kaixin’s voice comes somewhere from my left. My eyesight is returning but much too slowly for my liking. Yet, I can make out the volleyball, encased in a clear cube of some material I’ve never seen before.

I stumble over and poke at it, only to immediately withdraw my finger. It’s hot! No. Rather, it was so cold that it felt like a burn.

“I’ll take care of that, Anzix. Just step back a bit.” Xaedan crawls under the net, fire dancing on his fingertips. “It’ just a block of ice. I’ll melt it, and we’ll get on with our game in no time.”

Kaixin blinks. “That’s not ice…”

Just being near Xaedan’s flames causes the mysterious block to start smoking. “See? Nothing to it,” he says. He hunkers down and adds more fire.

Kaixin was right. That isn’t ice. And even if she didn’t say so, I would have figured it out just by looking at the strange smoke coming from the melting cube. Then… what is this foreign material?

Amea taps my shoulder.

“Can this wait? I’m a bit busy, Amea. I promise, I wasn’t looking at anyone for longer than five seconds, alright?”

“It’s solid hydrogen.”

“What?”

“The volleyball. It’s encased in a block of solid hydrogen. When Kaixin used her ice in conjunction with your plasma, it supercooled and formed hydrogen’s solid state. The gas leaking off is also hydrogen. Impure, since it isn’t colourless, but still of high concentration.”

Silence.

“You know,” Xaedan remarks, “I think that’s the most I’ve heard you talk, Amea.”

“Who cares?” I reply with alarm. “Everyone! Take cover! It’s going to bl-”

The resulting explosion was large enough to make it into North Xeno’s newspapers, thousands of kios away. Luckily, ”Mary” had kept enough of a level head to defuse most of the fire before it spread. Praise be to Mata Nui for a second fire-user on our team. The rest of us just ran about like headless chickens, Xaedan included. In the end, it was only the shockwave that caused most of the damage, none of it too lasting.

The volleyball, somehow, survived the whole ordeal and was launched straight up. I later found out that in a small village in the north, it had been mistaken for a shooting star.

“Mine!” Kaixin positions herself squarely under the ball as it makes its way down from the stratosphere. She glances at me. “Help me out here, Anzix!”

The ball was red-hot with air friction, a literal fireball. I siphon off the heat and the ball bounces harmlessly off of Kaixin’s outstretched arms. A textbook ‘bump’. I follow up with a well-place volley, setting up Amea for a perfect spike, who opens her mouth instead.

“You’ll thank me later,” I grunt as I wrap an arm around the Toa of Ice and bury both our heads into the sand, and not a moment too soon. A ghastly wail erupts from Amea as she uses her amplified voice to hurtle the ball over the net. If Kaixin and I hadn’t protected our ears, I suspect we would have had brain fluid leaking out of them. I saw that once. Not pretty. It’s this horrible gray, runny liquid that-

“Hey! Pay attention!” Kaixin was already on her feet, spitting out sand.

I turn my eyes to the opposing team. Tsukumi successfully received the ball though she had to dive to do so. It’s followed up by a nice pass from “Mary” and finally, Xaedan pushes it over.

“You maggot, that was terrible!”

“What? How? There’s nothing wrong with using another volley instead of a spike.”

“Not that, you’re supposed to use your Toa Powers! Throw some fire, maybe. Or maybe burn the net. You could even melt their faces.”

“Oh? That sounds like a challenge, Tsukumi,” Kaixin calls out as she passes the volleyball to Amea with a well-placed header.

“And what if it is?”

“Then we accept,” Amea replies coolly. The Sonics Toa volleys the ball to me. “Beat the tobacco juice out of them, Anzix,” she continues. “If you mess up, I’ll castrate you.”

“That’s still better than getting married to you,” I retort as I activate my mask. I wear the Kanohi Avalos, the Mask of War. Volleyball, war, same thing. The important thing is that it’ll boost the morale of my team.

“Alright, men! Let’s have a go at it!” I yell. With an almighty punch, I channel my plasma directly into the ball, driving it not over but clean through the net. What was once a harmless little air-filled rubber ball is now a shimmering super-heated orb of doom and destruction, trailing fiery sparks in its wake.

“That’s ‘women’, Anzix,” Kaixin mutters.



Xaedan
First an explosive cube, and now a volatile mass of energy. Why is it always me? Why do I always have to be guy who always takes one for the team? It’s exceedingly painful, that’s what it is.

The superheated volleyball roars past the Toa of Water, who had just managed to dive out of the way in the nick of time. It heads straight for me, heat rolling off of it in hazy waves, searing the air nearby.

With a cry, I extend my hand and seek to bring the roiling orb of energy under my control. All heat is energy, and fire is just another form of it. With enough effort… I might just be able to…

A hand covers my own. I look up to see the smiling face of “Mary”.

“Silly Xae. I control fire too, let me help with that. We’re on the same team for a reason.”

“Hey! No fair!” Kaixin cries. “That’s a double touch!”

“Technically, we haven’t even touched it yet. It’s kind of just floating in the air by itself,” I point out. “None of the rules have been broken.” I have the good graces to not point out that transforming the volleyball into a miniscule star is against the rules, too.

Yet another hand, a blue one this time, overlaps “Mary”’s.

I blink. “Tsukumi, what are you doing this time?”

“What, I can’t hold your hand? Er, I mean, can’t I help as well?” The Water Toa seems a bit flustered.

“Can you manipulate fire, Tsukumi?”

“Well, no, not really.”

“Then you’ve answered your own question.”

I’m expecting some sort of witty comeback, most likely on the topic of baby flies. We’ve been together for weeks now and I think I’ve finally got this Tsukumi girl figured out. She’s just one of your usual nutjobs, rude and not at all civilized.

So, what’s up with that sad frown on her face, then?

“Mary” glances at me pointedly, though her face is otherwise unreadable. Looks like I’ll not be getting her help this time around.

“Fine,” I say with a sigh. “Come on, Tsukumi. Try your best to assist “Mary” and I, then.” The ball between “Mary” and my hands is now reddish, though still brightly glowing. The pair of us had already managed to siphon off much of Anzix’s plasma.

I look up, waiting for Tsukumi.

Huh? Where’d she go?

“Hey, you guys!” Kaixin is waving her arms about, clearly trying to get our attention. “Look at the clouds. We’ll have to wrap up our game for today.”

I feel something cold trickle down my back as the Toa of Ice says this.

It’s raining.

Chapter VI


Xaedan
We spent much of the early hours of that afternoon searching high and low for the Toa of Water. For a loudmouth, she sure can be sneaky when she wants to be. The team and I’ve already combed the area in a two kio radius. Nothing.

Kaixin huffs as she tries to catch her breath. “We’ve been all over town already! Let’s split up, Xaedan. Going as a large group just isn’t feasible.”

Murmurs of consent and nodding of heads from the rest of the team settles the matter. Holding our hands above our heads to avoid getting rain in our eyes, the five of us each head off. Even Amea and Anzix finally become two separate entities again, though the Sonics Toa does make a ‘I’m watching you gesture’ before she leaves. Typical Amea.

So, northward I go. And of course, I had to pick the direction in which the wind was lashing at. I swear, the sudden rainstorm had gotten worse and worse the more we searched, and no matter which direction I face, the rain always seem to be pelting full force at me. My armor’s venting off so much steam, I can barely even see past my hands.

Let’s see… We’ve already looked through the hotel grounds. Oh, and the southern outskirts of the city, along with most of the beaches there. Then we headed to the marketplace, but that was closed for preparations for the night market, if there was even going to be one in this weather. I guess the shopping district would be a good start. Plus, it’s close by. And didn’t Tsukumi say she planned to go shopping earlier?

I bat away at the once again thickening steam around me and push open the doors. Thank goodness I’m finally out of the rain. Warm air and yellowish light given off by thousands of lightstones dotting the walls greet me as soon as I step foot inside. Soaring marble pillars laced with gold and veins of blue, most likely lapis lazuli, support a vaulted ceiling intricately carved in some alphabet I’ve never clapped eyes on, though it does seem a bit like the Matoran language. The floor was of polished black granite, checkered with a contrasting white quartz. I was scared to take even another step, for fear of scratching floor tiles. It’s like I stepped into a palace or something. To be honest, I could just smell the money that went into this place.

From what I’ve seen from the hotel advertisements, the Faxis Beach Plaza was unlike any other facility of its kind. State-of-the-art everything, from their sinks to their hand sanitizers. The shops ranged from huge department stores to self-defense booths selling tasers and handcuffs. I bet that was probably where Tsukumi got her contraband.

I step aside to let a pair of tittering Water Agori in and head over to the directory, which appeared to be hand-drawn on parchment and framed in solid gold. At this point, I’m beyond being impressed. So… what do we have here? Five floors of shops, totalling over seven hundred. Thirty different wings, three indoor amusement parks, and a golf course. I huff. There’s no point in even looking here, I’d get lost in no time. If Tsukumi really was here, then, well, she sure did an outstanding job of avoiding us.

“Looking for me, by any chance?”

The Toa of Water’s standing beside me, also looking at the directory. “Did I keep you waiting long, Xaedan?” she adds.

“Uh, no. No, not at all,” I manage to stammer, taken more than aback at Tsukumi’s sudden appearance.

The two of us stood in the middle of the crowd of shoppers who flowed around us, as would the current against a rock. Stock-still we were, as still as the towering pillars around us. And time did what it did best. It passed.

“Sorry.”

She doesn’t say anything.

I try again. “I’m sorry I brushed you off like that. Please forgive me.”

Tsukumi finally trains her eyes on me and tilts her head. The golden light from the glowstones all around us shines through her translucent mask, turning her eyes light orange and lending the mask itself a luminous warm, yellow brilliance, as if her Kanohi was beaten of the purest gold. The glow looked almost like a halo. “Do you think I’m angry, Xaedan?” she asks at last.

The Toa of Water looked… radiant. There was no other word for it.

“Well… yes?”

She laughs, though it is hard to tell whether it is one borne of humour or not. “I’m an angry person by nature, Xaedan. When you’re from Voya Nui, that can happen to you.”

“You’re from the Southern Continent?”

“I was part of the Resistance under the Onu-Matoran, Garan. You remember that guy, right?”

“Sure. He and I’ve never met but I’ve heard stories about him. How come you were never in any of them?” I clap my hand over my mouth as soon as the words tumbled out. “Sorry, Tsukumi. I meant no offense!”

With her current disposition, I expect a slight rebuke or even another small laugh. Yet, she’s doing neither of those. Tsukumi’s just shaking her head sadly. “I was killed before most of those their stories with the Toa Inika were written.”

“‘Scuse me, come again?”

“I died, Xaedan. It’s hard to believe, I know, but I suffered a fatal head injury when one of the Piraka, Thok, I think, hit me with a Zamor Sphere that didn’t explode, right in the noggin.”

“Then… well, to put it simply, why are you here?”

“There was this little Turaga with the strangest staff I’ve ever seen. Called himself Infernum. As I lay with my skull in smithereens, he passed me a Toa Stone… Xaedan? Are you paying attention? Xaedan?”

No, I was not paying attention, not in the very slightest. Infernum. What does he have to do with Tsukumi? I know the answer already, but I desperately pray I’m mistaken.

On the outside, I hope I don’t look too shaken up though I bet I’d suffer a heart attack at any second with the racing pulse I have now. “Yes, of course I’m listening. Go on.”

“Right. The Toa Stone. Matoran into Toa, all that jazz. But, this is the interesting bit. I can’t say I remembered everything that happened, because I don’t, but the one thing I do know of is this.”

The Toa of Water fishes around in a compartment in her armor, at last producing a tiny stone tablet. Never in my life have I ever felt so much dread seeing a palm-sized hunk of rock. Huh, describing a tablet like that makes it sound pretty stupid, right? It’s like my entire stomach’s turned cold and dropped straight down. Both my throat and mouth feel much too parched while my vision is slightly blued and blurred. Fear does strange things to you.

“See here, Xaedan. I had this really weird dream. I don’t recall much but the next morning, I woke up with this in my right hand. This little thing is pretty neat. I’m not totally sure how it works, but apparently, I can see the locations of others in the future!”

Plastering a fake smile on my mask, I nod gamely, but I’d better change the subject before I collapse from sheer fright. “Ok, ok. Now that I’ve found you, could we head back to the rest of the group? They all must be worried about you.” Best to just shove this whole incident from my head and think about it… later. Much later, preferably.

“Who said I forgave you?”

“Um.”

Tsukumi plants a hand on her hip and points at me with her free arm. Her outstretched index finger hovers not a centimeter away from my mask. “I’ll accept your apology if you spend an hour with me, and just me. That will be your punishment.”

“This really isn’t the time…”

“Take it or leave, Xaedan.”

I pause. With unwavering eyes, Tsukumi stares at me. And I return her stare. I don’t know what she sees but I, for one, no longer see a rude, insufferable girl before me.

I reach up and take the Water Toa’s hand, which had still been aimed at my face. And, it may have been my imagination, but I swear ‘till the end of my days that I could have heard Tsukumi squeak when I grasped her fingers with my own.

“Did you say something?”

She shakes her head violently.

“Well then, let’s go.”

Tsukumi withdraws her hand from mine. “I’m holding your hand, not the other way around.”

I put on a lopsided grin. “Oh yeah? Everyone knows the guy usually takes a girl’s hand first, though.”

“I’m not a usual girl, Xaedan. And you’re a maggot, not a person. Now, come on.”


“Next, I want to check out that department store, Sudstrom. They’ve got so much more stuff in there compared to our tiny little markets in Haven.”

I sigh. “Yeah, sure. Take your time.”

Tsukumi flounces off while I stand outside holding bags full of the most trivial stuff I’ve ever seen. That Water Toa spent about two hundred widgets on a nearly life-size Hewkii-Macku plush combo set. Absolutely insane. What’s worse, I’m getting strange looks and even a few giggles from passing shoppers as they see the blue Huna and burnt-orange Kakama poking out of a bag slung around my back.

“So, how does this look?”

With much difficulty, I shift myself so I at least sort of catch a glimpse of Tsukumi. Moving around with an 10-kilo, multipurpose kitchen mixer under your arm is not at all easy. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

A preposterous hat is perched dangerously on her head. No, no. Preposterous doesn’t even begin to describe the stuffed Vahki Hunter decorating the massive sun hat. Every time Tsukumi moved even the slightest of bits, the Rahi would wave around wildly in a mockery of its true behaviour in nature.

“Yeah, no, that hat isn’t happening.”

She laughs. “I don’t have that bad a fashion sense to really consider getting it, don’t worry. Plus, it’s about three hundred widgets, that’s really too much.”

Tsukumi’s spent nearly three thousand widgets on this shopping spree. Thank Mata Nui we’re nearing the fifty minute mark. My other arm is getting numb trying to keep the bag with the blender from slipping.

“Fine then,” she continues. “You pick something for me. Anything at all.”

“Me? My sense of style is atrocious. I’d probably end up picking that Vahki Hunter hat.”

“Nonsense, I have complete faith in you. Let’s go, we have only ten minutes left so make them count.”

“Can I at least get an idea of what you’re looking for? A hat? An overcoat? But you’re a Toa, a coat wouldn’t last a day.”

“Like I said, Xaedan. You pick for me. Surprise me with your up-till-now hidden fashion sense.”

“Huh. Alright then.” I shift the ten-kilo mixer to free up my hand and I reach to grab the nearest article of clothing I could find, a white faux-fur… thing. I can only assume you drape it around you neck. “How’s this?”

“Do you think that stole would suit me? If you do, then we’ll go with that.”

I try to picture the Toa of Water prancing around with the fur scarf-thing. And apparently, it was called a ‘stole’. I don’t care it was named with a verb, it’s not working out.

Tossing it back, I awkwardly turn to hunt for something less outrageous. Honestly, do Matoran actually wear that kind of stuff?

“Hey, this looks pretty interesting. Over here, Tsukumi!” As she sidles up, I proffer to her a snazzy pair of Bay-Rans. “I saw quite a few of the Agori and Matoran on the beach sporting these, so I think these would look good.”

“Here, pass them over.” I do so and with a deft flick of her wrist, Tsukumi unfurls the pair of sunglasses. “Hm, you know, “ she comments drily, “these would probably look fine if they weren’t Agori-sized.”

“My bad,” I chuckle. “Let’s find something else. The clock is ticking, only three or four minutes to go.” With a huff, I heave up the Macku-Hewkii combo, mixer, blender, and the oversized radio I forgot to mention earlier. At least I’m getting a good workout from all this.

“Right,” I pant, “Moving on. So, not a coat, hat or eyewear. That stole thing is a scarf, so we can drop that as well.” I grunt. It’s so hard to find things to wear for a Toa. We’d tear them to shreds in no time. Plus, winters in Haven are fairly mild, so there was little need of a large coat or even scarves.

My musings are short by a deep rumbling, a loud, reverberating bass gong. Loud enough to shake the floor and send vibrations through my entire body. With its grand echo, it shook me to the very core. And it repeated itself twice more.

“Three o’ clock?” I ask Tsukumi with more than a bit of dismay. Just as I feared; I was unable to keep my promise.

“Yeah. Ah, don’t worry about it, Xaedan. I had tons of fun already, thanks for that.” The Toa of Water was smiling. “Now, let’s meet up with the others. Like you said, I’m sure they’re very worried over little old me.”

I trudge after the Water Toa as the pair of us headed on out of Sudstrom. Thankfully, we hadn’t wandered too far away from the entrance we came through and Tsukumi had a fairly good sense of direction. I hadn’t been concentrating where we had gone, I only made sure the purchases didn’t slip out of my hands.

We pass through the scarves aisle once again on our way out.

“Wait! Wait! Tsukumi, hold on!”

She whirls, fists clenched and her condensers flipped out. “What? Did you drop Hewkii?”

I crane my neck back. Nope, Hewkii’s still snugly held tight by Macku. “Something else. And put your condensers away, you’ll scare the little people.”

Tsukumi comes on over and I shift the blender out of the way to give her a better look. “What do you think of that one?” I ask while using my chin to point at a plain, blue scarf, previously hidden under the white faux fur stole.

“That? It’s a nice shade of blue, I guess… But would it look good on me?”

“Sure, I think the colour blue suits you very well.”

Tsukumi freezes, just as she was about to reach over and try it on. “Does it, now?”

“Yeah. Why would it not?”

With an odd grin on her face, Tsukumi picks up the thin strip of blue cloth. “Well then, I guess I’ll take it.”

“How much is it?”

“Two hundred and seventy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding…”


“Alright ma’am, your grand total today comes to three hundred and ten widgets, all taxes included. How will you be paying today?”

“By Xaedan,” Tsukumi smirks.

With a grunt, I produce the money. That’s it, I’m now officially broke. That’s not an exaggeration either, the only thing inside my money pouch now is a dead fly.

“Very good, sir, ma’am. Would you like a bag for that?”

“Ah, no thanks, I’ll put it on straight away. Thank you very much.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Enjoy your day.”

The minute we step out of Sudstrom, I turn to Tsukumi. “Right then, let’s see it on y- Wait, what are you doing with that?”

“Hm?” She looks up.

“Why… why are you tying it around your waist?”

“I’m going to wear it as a sash. This way, I’m hoping it will last longer.”

“You just ruined the scarf, Tsukumi.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Remember how I said I didn’t care what you chose for me? I didn’t care for the beauty of the item, Xaedan. I only cared because you picked it out. So, making it last longer than looking a little more fancy is a small price to pay, don’t you think?”

“Oh,” I manage to mutter, greatly mollified. “I see.”

She completes the knot and twirls. “I think you made a great decision. See, Xaedan? I told you that you were secretly a fashion designer.”

“Hah, not in a million years.”

A few minutes of companionable silence pass. Past a bookstore. A toy store. I remember that shop; I nearly got mauled by an Onu-Matoran eagerly racing into it. Out of curiosity, Tsukumi and I had peeked inside, only to find it was filled with not toys, but with tiny little plastic parts. Completely absurd.

Then, past the gift shop where Tsukumi gave into the temptation of the huge stuffed toys inside. She’s got a soft spot for those, that Tsukumi.

And, at last, the entrance, or exit, if you will. It was as richly decorated as I remembered when first walking in here. The only difference was a slightly thinned crowd as people made their way to a restaurant for their afternoon tea.

“Say, Tsukumi.”

“Yeah, Xaedan?”

I frown. “That’s exactly what I was going to talk about. Stop calling me that.”

The Toa of Water fully turns to face me. “Call you? What did I say?”

“You’re calling me by my name, that’s so unlike you. To be honest, it actually feels a bit weird that you’ve stopped using my nickname.”

At that, she laughs. “Alright then, maggot. Seriously, hurry up, we’ve spent too much time here already.”

I elbow the door, doing my best to prop it open for the Water Toa. This radio will be the end of me as gravity slowly reclaims it from the edge of my fingers. I hate gravity.

“Huh. Would you look at that, Tsukumi. The rain stopped.”

“Mhhm. How convenient.”



Anzix
“Ahhhh. There they are. The man and woman of the hour. Literally,” I dryly remark. “Where did you even find our prodigal Toa, Xaedan? And why’d you spent a whole hour?”

“In Sudstrom. You know, that massive department store in the Plaza. I just kinda got lost in there, is all.” I see Xaedan’s eyes flick to Tsukumi’s who blinks in response. I wonder at its significance.

But not for long.

“Yeah, that would explain why I heard rumours of a Macku-Hewkii shipping fanboy running around the mall -- I’m kidding!” I add the last bit when Xaedan gives me a good punch on the shoulder. Seriously, though, the Fire Toa looks hilarious with the well-known Huna and Kakama poking out from behind him.

The fire-spitter and Tsukumi had bumped into us, oh, about a minute ago while I met up with Amea, Kaixin, and “Mary” at the outdoor market. Now that the clouds had cleared up, the marketplace was bustling with activity again with Le-Matoran and Jungle Agori were frantically preparing their shops.

“Did you hear?” Kaixin said to “Mary”. “There’s going to be a guest star at around seven. And you guys will never guess who. I’ll give a cookie to whoever guesses correctly.”

“That won’t be necessary, Kaixin,” Xaedan quickly responded. “But I think it’s Thom Sail, that really famous North Xeno actor. There was a poster of him plastered somewhere in the mall. Forget exactly where.” Xeno Nui is split into two islands. The forested South, where we are now, and the more mountainous North.

“Mary” chuckles. “Then I don’t think we should go attend his session. At least, not Tsukumi.”

“What? Is there a problem between me and you, “Mary”?”

Before Xaedan or I could intervene, “Mary”s holds up a clawed hand. “No, no, the problem is between you and Mr. Sail, as well as in your grammar. You stepped on his head, twice. You remember that, right?”

She blinks.

“Oh. So that’s Thom Sail. Snap.”

I reach over and rest my hand on her shoulder in mock concern. “It’s alright, Tsukumi. I’m sure that stepping on someone’s head, and a famous actor’s head no less, shouldn’t be too big of a problem.”

“Well, I don’t care. I, for one, am going,” Kaixin announces. “I’ve seen all of his works. All of them. The Colour of Widgets. Threshold of the Following Day. Equatorial Lightning. A Few Alright Matoran. Every single Operation: Fairly Difficult movie. I could go on!”

“You have way too much spare time on your hands, Kaixin,” I mutter.

“Yeah, I know. You jelly?”

"Not in the slightest, I assure you. And I hate to break it to you, but we can't attend his performance. We'll be at the Night Market by then." Kaixin's shoulders slump.

“Anzix, it’s been more than five seconds.” The soft voice come from out of the blue, surprising not me, but the whole team.

I feel a shiver slowly yet surely crawling up my spine. Starting somewhere at the small of my back, it made its ascent and it would not be stopped. That feared, no, loathed, soft and lilting voice. The hidden meaning behind that short statement. The subtle threat of a violent death. The soft crackling of a taser behind her back.

Slowly, I turn with my hands up. “Y-Yes?”

“You have to come with me now.”

“Yes ma’am…”

I turn back to face the rest of the gang. “We’re going to get some cooking supplies,” I explained. “There are some fruits that are so much cheaper here in the south than in Haven. And stop laughing at me! If anything, you guys need to help me out in those kinds of situations.”

“We’re not exactly laughing at you, Anzix,” Kaixin replies while doing her best to hide a grin. “It’s just that you and Amea seem pretty close.”

“A little too close for comfort, I’d say… Anyways, we’ll be off now. I’d say give us perhaps an hour? We’ll make back in time for the opening of the night market. No, no, it’s this way, Amea.”

“Uh. Did Amea really just walk into that lamppost?” Xaedan asked, voice loaded with concern.

“You bet. Amea’s blind.”

“Whaaaat?” Varying degrees of surprise were etched on my teammates’ masks, Kaixin going as far to opening her mouth.

“Hold on, meatwad. Are you sure she’s blind?”

“What kind of question is that, Tsukumi?”

“I’ve sparred with her before, her movements seem no different from any other person’s. They might even be faster, I dare say.”

“Heh, well, there are a few reasons for that. But, just think about it, all of you. She’s a Sonics Toa. Her hearing is more than good enough to make up for her loss of sight. But, hey, she isn’t perfect. In an unfamiliar location such as this, Amea does occasionally get the odd dent on her forehead from walking into something.”

“That is true, I guess,” the Water Toa agrees.

“Come on, then, Amea.” I call out. “You feeling alright after your date with the lamppost?”

“Pat my head and I’ll feel better.”

Awkwardly, I place a hand on Amea’s forehead. “Is this at all necessary?”

“Yes.”

“No, it really isn’t.”

“Yes.”

You’re just going to keep saying ‘yes’, I presume?”

“Yes.”

Augh! Dealing with a Toa of Sonics is such a bothersome nuisance. “Right then, team, Amea and I’ll be off then. We’ll meet up soon, all. How does the hotel lobby sound?”

Chapter VII


Anzix

“Apples! Lightvine!”

Sunlight, dry and maybe a bit too warm, pounded on my back. Not an hour ago, a fairly heavy storm had been pouring down, and now? Blue skies as far as the eye can see. That’s tropical weather for you.

I fan my face a bit, in a futile attempt to ward away the oppressive summer air. However, I wouldn’t be correct to solely complain about the temperature. Haven gets hot, yet I don’t find a problem with it. It’s the humidity. Yes, that’s it. Moist air and sunlight make for a deadly combination; there was just no escape from this heat! It surrounded you, bore down on you, permeated you, down to the very last gear in your body. It’s so gross.

“Grapefruit! Madu fruit! Watermelons!”

All around us, Matoran and Agori of all elements and tribes brave this sweltering inferno and cry out their wares, welcoming one and all to purchase their goods. This is the Faxis Beach open-air market. It’s filthy, it’s overcrowded, and it’s a breeding ground for flies. Oh, but they do give free samples, that’s a plus. At least the storm earlier had cleared up the market grounds a bit so there weren’t too many Agori roaming around for once.

“‘Kay, Amea, you remember what I told you to get, right? That list of vegetables?”

I get an affirmative nod.

“Nice, so, I’ll get some stuff for the others, surprise them a bit, how does that sound?”

She nods. Again.

“Take care, then, apprentice, and do watch out for lampposts,” as I pat her head again for good measure.

“I’m not your apprentice anymore, Anzix.”

I laugh. “Nonsense! I still view you as my student. And I’ll continue to do so until you I feel you’ve surpassed me, the master. Off you go then!”

Toa of Sonics and Toa of Plasma part ways, the former headed for the produce stalls and I for the butchers’. Apprentice, huh? Even after all these years, we still share that same bond.

I find myself in front of a quaint little meat shop. Secluded behind two other, larger butcher shops, this one had no line-up. It was a bit on the, ah, run-down side, but it can’t be all that bad. I hope.

“Hello there, three pounds of side ribs, please.” I had to stoop quite a bit beneath the white awning to take a look at the shopkeeper. Despite my efforts, his head is down, hanging loosely, so still no clue as to what he looks like. His shop, however, I can easily describe. Roasted pigs and glazed hunks of chicken all hung enticingly from behind glass partitions, while cold cuts were stored behind him. He sells cooked meat? Well, then, that changes my shopping list a bit.

“Eh? What’s tha’? Whaddya want?” the Matoran mumbles blearily. Was he just asleep now?

Ergh. I do my best to not think about the small puddle of animal blood I just stepped in. “Three pounds of your best chicken,” I amend.

“Awight, awight, then, gimme a cotton pickin’ minute.” The Po-Matoran butcher finally stands up and hefts up a-

“Matoran, stop. Look at me.”

“Eh?” He stops halfway through raising his arm and looks at me, a quizzical frown on his mask.

“You. You’re that Komau-wearing Matoran my group and I have run into twice today.”

The Matoran of Stone rubs his chin and sets down his cleaver on a badly scratched, well-worn wooden counter. “Naw, lad. Can’t say I seen ya before. Laddie, mebbe you’ve bin confused me wit’ anotha’?”

“Uh, I guess so, maybe.” I frown, not entirely convinced.

“Well then! Th’ chicken’s done, here ya are. Three pounds o’ me finest meat.”

Still suspicious, I take my order.

“Laddie, any luck wit’ her yet?”

Already nearly out of the alley where I found this shop, I crane my head and look back. “Say what? Who?”

“Th’ girl, me boy! I be old, but I still ‘ave me eyes! I saw ‘er wit’ ya, right ‘fore ya wandered into this ‘ere shop.”

“You mean Amea? Her? No, no, there’s nothing between us. We’re just good friends, that’s all.”

The butcher slides over his counter. Incredible. This aging Matoran has the sprightly legs of a young athlete in his prime.

Reaching up, he gives a good rap on my upper leg. “Laddie, even if ya ‘ave no feelins for her, methinks it ain’t th’ same th’ other way ‘round.”

I open my mouth to retort, but I am silenced by his raised finger. “An’ another thing. Ya gave her a nice pat on th’ ‘ead. Don’t lovebirds do that sort o’ thing?”

“Well, yeah, but I’ve been doing that since I started training her. She didn’t like me talking too much, she’s a Toa of Sonics, see, so I’d give her a pat on the head as a compliment instead.”

“Oho! So you two’ve bin lovey-dovey all this time, eh?” The Komau-bearing Matoran guffaws heartily, but stops when he hacks up some spittle. Him clearing his throat was a messy business and I am reminded of overflowing gutters on a rainy day in Haven.

He continues. “So, the pair o’ ya have an ‘istory, eh? Tell me.”

This Po-Matoran is a lunatic. A crackpot. It’s funny how I find myself sitting on the grimy alley floor with him.

I take a breath.

“Amea and I go way back,” I begin. “I was a Toa long before her, stationed on a Southern Chain island. I’d tell you which one, but you wouldn’t have heard of it. To put it simply, I didn’t really like being a Toa, especially on an island where nothing ever changed. So I decided to explore.”

Surprisingly, this old-timer was an excellent listener. He gave you the feeling that he was hanging on to every word and understood you fully and completely.

I continue. “So, one day, I chanced upon a comparatively large island and I made plans to stay there for a while before heading back to the sea. During my time there, a small strongbox washed ashore. None of the villagers, their Turaga, or even I could open it. At last, as it passed from hand to hand, a De-Matoran tried to open the safe. She did it effortlessly.”

“Ahh, that be Amea,” the Matoran murmured softly.

With a quick nod, I return to my story. “A Toa Stone was inside that vault and the moment her hands touched it, bang, instant Toa of Sonics. I decided, ‘Hey, I can actually do something with my life now!’ So, I trained Amea. Taught her everything I knew. Now, she’s the finest swordsman this side of Spherus Magna. Second to me, of course.”

“An’ that be that, young lad?”

“Yeah, pretty much. There’s this fuzzy gap smack-dab in the middle of my brain and the next thing I knew, the two of us were together again on Xeno Nui.”

“Right, then. An’ ya ain’t gonna take ‘vantage o’ that?

“No, why would I?”

“Well, sonny, she has. As ya prob’ly can tell.”

Saying Amea had “taken advantage” of our reunion would be putting it lightly. If only this old man knew how crazed of a cold-blooded maniac she is with her taser….

“No, sorry, I just don’t see that happening.”

The Po-Matoran finally raises his hands in surrender as a response. “Alrighty then, s’all up to ya.” He turns his back to me and ambles back into his little shop and promptly falls asleep again, his snores loud and slobbery.

I stop.

“Wait a second. How could you see Amea and I if you were asleep earlier?”

A bleary grunt was the only response I got.

I head out, mulling over what the Po-Matoran said. Despite my replies to him, he’s actually given me quite a bit to think about, to be honest. Deep thoughts cause my movements to be somewhat hazy and I end up wandering aimlessly for quite a while, bumping into the odd stall or even Agori, much to their shock. It’s not every day one runs into a pillar to find that it’s actually a Plasma Toa.

“Hey, you good-for-nothin’ Toa! Watch where you’re going!”

Some irate Water Agori is, very rudely, wildly gesticulating at me. He’s poking his head out of his stall which wasn’t much more than a wooden shack on wheels with a colourful canopy overhead.

“You! Yes, you, the one with the ugly face! Pick up that bowl you just knocked over, you spilled the whole darn thing!”

Under his furious, hawk-like gaze, I stoop and hand the now-empty bowl of soup back to him. He snatches it and, with a growl, shoos me off, not unlike an annoying insect.

Moving on.

“Aha! Interested in my wares, are you? I sell only the finest watermelons around, make no mistake!”

“Mhhm. I’ll have… this one, then.”

Amea? I swore I just heard her voice just now. Having a three-foot height advantage over the rest of the crowd, it didn’t take me long to find the Toa of Sonics’ slim figure at a fruit stand, not a hundred meters away. I ford the churning stream of Agori and Matoran and meet up with her.

“Amea! Hey!” I call out, waving my hands in the air to get her attention. “You done yet?”

She turns and shakes her head. “I’ve almost started.”

“Uh, what?”

“I felt like buying this thing, that’s all.” She hefts up the plump, perfectly ripe watermelon.

“What are we even going to do with a watermelon? I guess we’ll eat it for dessert, or make juice out of it.”

“No.”

“No?”

“My watermelon. No one else’s.”

If I had something to say, anything, anything at all, I would’ve. But, no. In all my years, I am truly speechless. See? This is what I meant when dealing with a Toa of Sonics is difficult. I’m pretty easy-going but this is getting a bit ridiculous. I was gone for, what, twenty minutes, and she didn’t even start!

I sigh. What am I even getting angry over?

“Alright, then. We’ll go together, apprentice. Come along.” I take a quick look at the sun. From its position in the sky, I’d say we have maybe thirty minutes left so the two of us will have to hurry.

“Wait up, Anzix.” Impatiently, I turn around and give some time for the blind Toa to catch up. With her arms occupied by the watermelon, however, Amea is having more than a bit of trouble finding her way towards me. Suddenly, even the minutest crack in the ground may very well have been a fissure, or a manhole could pass for a mountain. In the end, it was tuft of exposed weed that did her in.

Powerless and too far away to help, I watch Amea stumble, slowly, slowly, like in some sort of bad comedy show. Her hands shoot out to steady herself and she saves herself from a skid mark.

I sigh with relief, thanking Mata Nui, the Red Star, and anything else big and legendary I can think of. Marching purposefully over to the Sonics Toa, I rebuke her. “You are not letting go of my hand until we return to the hotel, is that clear?”

“No. Look. I hear him, he is telling me to help him.” Though I’m surprised at both her refusal of my hand and her odd request, I gamely comply. Normally, she’d be attached to me like glue, never mind just holding my hand.

My eyes follow Amea’s outstretched finger. The watermelon, dropped while she had stumbled, lay on the marketplace street.

“Wait a sec, then. Don’t you dare move, I’ll go get it and be right back.”

Dashing across the street and deftly sidestepping shoppers, dodging vendors and evading large puddles left from the rainstorm, I reach the end of my arduous quest. There it was, my rightful reward. Amea’s watermelon. So worth it.

Three strides was the distance between the fruit and I. Then two. Ah, but fate is not always kind to adventurers. Upon the final step, a Mukau shambles forwards and extends its long neck down, curiously sniffing at the watermelon. I freeze. What should I do? Grab the watermelon? Grab the Mukau?

The cow Rahi gives final snort, farts, and loses interest in the fruit. It turns tail, quite literally, and ambles back to wherever it came from.

It just so happens that one of Mukau’s hind legs clips the watermelon as it moved away, sending the fruit tumbling down the inclined market street.

I utter a string of very colourful words unfit to be recorded. If any younger Agori or Matoran were nearby, I sincerely apologize. No one should ever have to reach into a septic tank and eat, ah, well, I guess I’ll leave you to imagine the rest.

“Amea! Amea! The watermelon! Your watermelon! It’s-”

Ironically, my words fall upon deaf ears. Amea pays no attention to me as she was already springing into action. With her head angled to one side, she puts on a burst of speed, closing the distance between her and the precious watermelon. Judging by the way she’s craning her head, Amea must be using the sound of the rolling watermelon to find her way around. Incredible.

It was equally incredible, though in a different way, to see her run into another lamppost; I wince as I hear the dull thunk as her Faxon smacks into the protosteel pole for the second time today.

No time for words of comfort or pats on the head, even if she was flat on her back from that collision. A watermelon was at stake here. I roughly seize her hand and we trail the fruit down together. The two of us hurtle through the marketplace, eventually leaving it altogether. Now, where was that melon? If only I had an Akaku or Kakama! I’d spot that melon in no time or just simply outspeed it. How fast does a watermelon even go, anyways?

Ah! There it is! Its rolling had come to a stop at the foot of a nearby tree’s trunk. “Amea, I’ve found it, let’s go!”

“Mooo!”

The same Mukau ambles out of Mata Nui knows where, straight in front of me. What is with me and cows today? Can’t bovines and Toa just coexist peacefully? No, we just simply must collide with each other.

The Mukau, or the Mata Nui Cow, are grazing animals. They spend every day eating nearly a hundred pounds of grass and do nothing else. They’re quadrupedal, fat, and clock in at about one and a half tons. Imagine me, little old me, running into a immovable ton-and-a-half wall. Guess who wins?

Amea and I go flying. In a graceful arc, the pair of us sail across the remaining distance and land in a heap at the tree’s roots. The cow Rahi isn’t in the least bit amused by this whole ordeal and simply moos. I bet it didn’t even feel a thing when I smashed into it.

“Mmm! Geroff me!” I try to slap away at Amea who was fortunate enough to have me as a cushion for landing. Me? No such luck. The only thing I got to protect my head was the watermelon itself, and that really didn’t help.

The Toa of Sonics does her best to get up, blindly waving her arms about. With a mighty heave, I manage to at least partially sit up and extend an arm to help her get her bearings.

“No need to grab my face, Amea, you can hold my hand to help you stand instead. It’ll work out for both of us, I assure you.” The Toa of Sonics was, more or less, scrabbling at my mask and chest to get back on her feet.

“Oh, you still have that little scar on your left eye, Anzix. I never noticed. I felt it just now.”

“And let’s not forget how it got there in the first place. You’re the one who made me stumble off that cliff into the Muaka den, you know. Anyways. Here.” Reaching back, I extricate the watermelon. Astonishingly, it seems as good as new. Not a single bruise or scratch whatsoever. “You know, Amea, you could have just bought a new one.”

“No. My watermelon.”

“Would you mind explaining why that… thing is so important? Will it solve the Vo-Matoran energy crisis? Will it end poverty? Will it solve world hunger? For one person, maybe.”

“I like patting it. That’s why.”

“Well, you could just not bother retrieving this one and just pat another melon, right? It’d be the same thing, not a big deal.”

Amea raises an eyebrow. “Oh, so you wouldn’t care whose head you were patting? But, of course, you don’t think it’s a big deal.”

“Uh. Oh…” Mollified, I clear my throat awkwardly. So that’s why Amea likes that melon; it reminds her of getting a pat on the head.

The two of us sit in an awkward silence as the Mukau shambles up the street, back to the marketplace.

The situation I find myself in isn’t so bad, I guess. Well, the lack of talking notwithstanding, of course. When was the last time the two of us, just the two of us, were able to just sit and have a quiet moment under a tree? Right before I fell into that Muaka den, that’s when.

The silence wears on. I have to say something. Something… dashing. Or witty. Something that would break this awkwardness and put me back in Amea’s good books all in one go.

Something comes to a rest on my shoulder. A taser? Or, Mata Nui forbid, something even worse? I’m too afraid to turn and look. In all honesty, I’d rather be facing down a horde of Muakas, even if they were in their den. It must be some sort of torture device. Amea always tortures me when she’s angry.

The device snores lightly. Maybe it was one that knocks me out! How horrible. Amea’ll kill me in my sleep. Oh! Oh! I hear incoherent murmuring now. By the Great Beings, the machine is alive! Will it eat me? I taste terrible, trust me. And now I feel something running down my shoulder, compounding the fear already growing in me. Slobber? Clearly, this terrible beast can’t wait to devour me.

“U-uh… Amea? W-Would you mind sparing m-my life, just this once? Really, s-sorry for the misunderst-”

“Mmmmm.”

Eh?

I look down to find Amea resting her head on my shoulder, snuffling in her sleep with her mouth hanging slightly open, which accounted for the dribble. Holding back a grin, of both relief and amusement, I shift her head slightly upwards to a more comfortable position.

“Mmmmph,” The Toa of Sonics blearily mumbles, clearly lost in her fantastical dreams. I peer downwards, at first towards her face, but my eyes are drawn towards the watermelon. Even while she’s sleeping, Amea is patting it. Didn’t she say something about her head earlier? About how it was a big deal to pat it?

Gingerly, as to not wake her up, I brush my hands over the top of Amea’s mask. “You know I don’t pat your head as compliment unless you’ve done something good,” I say softly, more to myself than the sleeping Sonics Toa. “But, today, you’ve done something excellent, you know? You, too.” The last bit was addressed to the watermelon. “I don’t make a habit of talking to fruit so don’t get any ideas, Watermelon. Who would of thunk? A melon teaching a Toa one of life’s lessons: Treasure those close to you.”

“Anzix? Mmm…” The pressure on my shoulder eases as the Toa of Sonics leans away to stretch her arms. “Did… I fall asleep?”

“Yeah. Just for a bit. You good to go now? We still haven’t bought everything on the list and the others are expecting us back soo- Hey! Don’t go back to sleep! Honestly…”

Kneeling down and carefully wrapping my arms around her, I heft the Toa of Sonics on my back. With a huff, I shunt her upwards. Alright, ready to go. “Amea, put your hands around me and keep a good hold of that watermelon, I don’t want to go hunting for it if you drop it again.”

With that, I begin the long hike back up the street.

For, oh, about a minute, the only sounds were my footsteps crunching against the gravelly street and Amea’s breathing near my ear.

Crunch, crunch, breath. Crunch, crunch, breath.

“Say, Anzix.” She tightens her hold.

I gasp slightly. “Yeah? And you’re going to suffocate me if you hold on with a bear hug.”

“I heard you talking while I was napping. Were you, by any chance, talking to Watermelon?”

“Hah! What are you talking about? You were dreaming.” I wave my hand, dismissing her claim.

“Mhhm. Watermelon says that you’re a bit dim, but you mean well, by the way.”

Huffing, I plod on, ever closer to the market.

One of these days, I’ll teach that watermelon a lesson...

Chapter VIII


Xaedan
“...and this is for you, yes, that bit. Feel free to cook your boyfriend lunch, and you now owe me six widgets now, Tsukumi.”

“B-b-boyfriend?”

Leaving Tsukumi with a horrified expression plastered across her mask, Anzix dumps a bulging basket full of the five food groups. “And here’s your share, Kaixin. Experiment to your heart’s content.”

True to his word, Anzix and Amea had arrived, hand-in-hand, at the hotel's grandly decorated front doors right on time, with the former hefting enough groceries to last us a week all slung in a bag over his shoulder. I rush forwards and grab some of the load in my arms to help, and with much struggling and near-dropping of apples, he and I managed to bring the whole lot back to our room.

“Right, so, we gotta kill an hour now before heading out to the night market,” Tsukumi said as the team settled in their various seats. “Anyone have any ideas? If not, we’ll just torment the maggot or something.”

“Please,” I immediately blurt, “someone, anyone, say something.”

“Mmm, don’t worry, Xae, I have something in mind. It’s a variation of Truth or Dare.” Kaixin huffs and relinquishes her seat from the sofa. “It’s called ‘Who’s the King?’. Pretty simple to play. We have a bunch of numbered sticks and a numberless stick.”

“Oh! This is the game I told you about, isn’t it? I played this when I was much younger, it’s great fun.” She’s the only one of us standing so she swishes her tail in anticipation of the game.

“Sure is, “Mary”. Anyways, we each start a round and everyone picks a stick. The one with the numberless stick is the ‘King’ announces themselves as so for that round. He, or she, then orders two numbers, say, two and four, to do anything. The catch is, however, the numbers are swapped each round so the King doesn’t know who’s he ordering.”

“It can get pretty awkward at times,” “Mary” warns. “But that’s why it’s fun! Here, Kaixin, I have the sticks.”

I look at Anzix, who just shrugs. “We might as well go along with the flow, fire-spitter. I’m pretty much in the same boat as you. If nothing gets done, Amea will definitely do something exceedingly painful to me.”

The lot of us take a minute to clear away the chairs, crafted from fine wood and apparently handmade from the last century, to create space for us. Like young Matoran students, we sit cross-legged in a circle with the sticks in the middle. They looked innocent enough. Tiny little wooden rods stuck on top a perforated plastic cylinder. Hardly weapons of mass destruction.

“So, to start, we all shout ‘Who is the King?’” Kaixin explains. “Then, we just randomly reach out and pick a stick. Easy!”

Kaixin’s absolutely right. It seems easy enough.

The Ice Toa counts down from three and a hearty chorus of the game’s name resounds through the room.

I take a quick look at my stick. Number two.

“Oh. I am the King. Technically, queen.” Amea stands, sways slightly before balancing herself and waves her stick. Instead of a number, a ‘K’ was written on it. “I pick any two numbers, “Mary”?”

“That’s right.”

“One and four. One will.... No. Both of you will be my servants for the rest of the day.”

Kaixin raises a finger. “Eh… I’m pretty sure that’s not-”

“The queen has spoken, so it shall be done.”

A grunt. Anzix stands and holds aloft his stick, four. “Well, I don’t care much for this, I’m basically Amea’s slave anyways. Who’s one, then?”

“Argghh! I bet you knew it was me when you picked the numbers!” The Toa of Water stands and grudgingly presents stick number one. “It’s all rigged!” With much huffing and complaints, Tsukumi swallows her tremendous pride and finally agrees.

“Again!” Kaixin exclaims.

“Who is the King?” we all cry.

“Oho, I am! Ouch!” “Mary” stands but immediately stoops over when she hits her head on the ceiling. “That’s going to leave a mark. On the ceiling, that is,” she noted. “Alright. Let’s see. Three has to punch five. A good whopper, right in the kisser!”

“Yay! I get to embrace my inner wild side and hit someone!” Kaixin leaps to her feet. “So! Who’s gonna get the ol’ Kaixin special roundhouse?” The Ice Toa bounces on the balls of her feet with raise fists, much like a boxer getting ready for his match.

“Ahem.” Tsukumi, our aggressive and violent Toa of Water, stands.

“...Oh.”

I sheepishly raise a hand for attention and speak. “I think it’s best if you dial the punch back just a few notches, Kaixin. Do keep in mind you hold all of civilization's fate in your hand at the moment.”

“Ahhh, no worries! We’re best friends, right, Tsukumi?”

“‘Friend’ is such a strong and misleading word.”

Kaixin cracks her knuckles and takes a few steps back to wind up. Curling her fingers into a fist, the Toa of Ice is knocked off her feet. With a surprised grunt, she goes flying.

“Wait, hold on, wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around?” Anzix points out. “I’m fairly sure, though I could be mistaken here, that Kaixin was supposed to do the hitting.”

Tsukumi waves her hand and the fist of water she conjured evaporates. “Sorry. Force of habit. I have this weird quirk where I punch others before they punch me. No idea why I do that.”

“Hah!” Soaked from Tsukumi’s water attack and covered in the splinters of the chair she demolished from her fall, but undeterred nonetheless, Kaixin springs up from behind and locks the Water Toa in a sleeper hold. At once, Tsukumi reaches up and prys at the Toa of Ice’s hands, but in vain. She might look thin and fragile, but Kaixin was the Toa who survived my small volcanic explosion with just a bit of singed armor; she’s one tough cookie.

Meanwhile, the rest of us took shelter behind an upturned table, desperately waiting out the battle and hoping it would all blow over, someho- Holy Artahka brother of Karzahni! Why is there a Rahi eating the fallout shelter, ‘scuse me, the table?!

“Tsukumi! Big lizard! Why!” At this point, I’m focused more on warding away the giant jaws than forming complete sentences. This thing has more teeth than mouth!

“Oh! That’s Margaret. And she’s not a lizard, she’s a Swamp Stalker. Take good care of her, I’m a bit busy here!”

With much snarling and munching, bit by bit, chunk by chunk, our sanctuary was being consumed by a seven-foot-long reptile. It would only be a matter of time before us innocent bystanders are exposed to the raging battle between Tsukumi and Kaixin.

Anzix joins in, using his shield to batter away at the Rahi, but soon stops when it gets eaten.

Alas, Margaret the Swamp Stalker eats the last of the wooden table, stretches her jaw, and curls up on my lap. I make a move to get up, but the reptile transfixes me with a single beady eye, full of malice and ill intent. Looks like I wouldn’t be going anywhere for quite some time.

“Got you! I w-win! What are you gonna d-d-do about that, Tsukumi, huh?”

The Toa of Water is holding Kaixin at arm’s length with a well-placed hand on the Ice Toa’s forehead. Despite all of her efforts, however, it seems as though two of Kaixin’s fingers managed to brush Tsukumi’s cheek, resulting in a decisive victory for the former. Apparently, uncontrollable shivering from cold water and having nearly drowned counts as winning as fight.

Still quivering, Kaixin wraps her arms around herself and takes a much-needed seat. “A-al-alright t-then. Let’s h-have another go.”

“You good, Kaixin?” Anzix asks, while keeping a close eye on the Swamp Stalker.

The Toa of Ice nods. “My n-natural resistance to cold stuff will kick in soon, don’t w-worry. You guys ready?”

“Who is the King?”

As a seasoned Tren Krom Hold ‘Em player might, I surreptitiously glance down at my stick. What number would I be this time? Or…

“It is I! I am the ruler of all that I see!”

Amea raises her hand. “It’s time to go.”

What.

“Hm, yeah, she’s right. Sorry, maggot, we’ll let you be King the next time we go on a summer vacation.”

I feel a sense of utter despair as I grudgingly hand over the King’s stick. It’s like my life has lost its fundamental purpose.

Tsukumi purses her lips. “What’s also important is this room. What are we going to do about it? It’s a mess.”

“No, no,” Anzix interjects while waving a hand. “This is a warzone. Do you see that, Tsukumi? That piece of metal sticking out?”

“Yeah? What about it?”

“That’s the main plumbing line for the entire floor. You totalled it. Oh, and you see that? That crocodile? It’s eaten the dining table, two chairs, and it’s working on the toilet now. Look at that thing go...”

The Toa of Water gasps. “Margaret! No! It’s filthy in there!” Tsukumi does her best to wrench the Swamp Stalker from it’s current meal. “We’ll just call room service, then, no need to sweat over it. Heck, I’ll do it.”

With phone to her ear, the Water Toa swiftly dials the concierge two floors below. “You there. We want room service. Yeah. Room 367. For what? We, uh. Hold on a sec.”

Tsukumi pauses to observe the carnage in our room.

“We spilled some water on the bed and carpet.” By Karzahni, she’s totally low-balling it!

“Oh, the janitor? Sure, send the fellow up then. Have him here on the double.” With a satisfied nod, she hangs up. “Now then, let us be off!”

“Mary” slowly raises a tentative finger. “Uh. Wait a bit. How did, ah, Margaret, get here?”

“You guys didn’t see me take her on the train?”

“Mary” blinks.

“C’mon guys, pay a bit more attention next time. Get with the program.”

I join the group in staring at the Toa of Water. Oblivious to our glares, she bends down with a huff and picks up the Rahi with no discernable effort and hauls it over to the sofa. “Here’s dinner. Be a good girl ‘til I get back, alright?”

We continue ogling. I think that’s the first time in my life I’ve used that word.

Looking sideways, Tsukumi catches our collective eyes. “What?” she asks. A simple, innocent question. One asked millions of times each day around the globe. But when the Water Toa says that, it makes me want to ask her if she has any mental disorders.

I take a deep breath. “Nothing, Tsukumi. Nothing at all. Carry on,” I reply softly, letting the air rush out of my lungs in a sigh. This was the right thing to do, even if it meant letting the crocodile roam free.

With stony, world-weary expressions carved into our masks, Anzix and I follow Tsukumi out of the hotel room, gingerly avoiding the feeding Swamp Stalker. In silence and with equally blank faces, Amea, Kaixin, and “Mary” tail us. The latter closes the door, checking it three times if it was locked. Sealing away that reptilian abomination was all that we could do now.

Single file, we march after our squadron leader, our footsteps stifled by a carpet thick to sleep on.

We pass a Onu-Matoran. He’s pushing a trolley full of cleaning supplies.

And though my inner self is screaming at me to keep going, I pause and hold up a fist to tell the others to do the same. Like statues carved from rock, we keep our eyes fixated on the Onu-Matoran janitor as he fumbles with his key ring, drops it, and unlocks our room.

As one, we clamp our hands over our ears as the inevitable shrieks from the Matoran within our room begin.

“Mata Nui bless him,” Kaixin murmurs.

We all solemnly nod in agreement and hurry after Tsukumi.

Chapter IX


Xaedan
“Ooh, ooh! Xaedan! I want that. No, not that, silly, this rubber hammer! Can I have some more money? Please?”

“Over my cold, dead, body. And even then, you can’t have it since my wallet will have been glued to my cold, dead body.” I take a sip of bamboo nectar I was handed free of charge a while back, the accepted substitute for water in this city. Hm. Not half bad. Sweet, but quite mild.

“Whaaat?” Kaixin cries. “Why not?”

“You’ve already spent half of my reserve money on candied apples. And let’s not forget “Mary”’s fifty. Any more junk food and you’ll be as hyperactive as a Le-Matoran. But, then again, you’re more or less hyperactive already. So, if I gave you something like that fake hammer, you’d be maniacally whacking me day in, day out. And I already have Tsukumi to do that.” I huff, slightly irritably, as I end my tirade.

“Hmph. Meanie. Oh! But what about that shooting gallery over there? Can I try it? Please? Pretty please?” That’s our Toa of Ice for you. Irrepressible as ever.

Amidst the glaring neon signs and blinding lightstones than hung in curtains from suspended wires above me, I see a stall with a small group of Matoran and Agori toting tiny rifles, the sort I saw once in the Haven Museum. That must be the shooting booth Kaixin’s talking about.

This is the Faxis Beach Night Market. It is a place where the stall with the biggest neon sign reigns supreme. The countless stars in the sky are stirred in with the hanging lightstones so that the night sky looks more gold than black. Sumptuous smells waft in from left and right, and the constant yelling and laughter is both a nuisance and pleasant to hear.

Open all through the summer and a goodly portion of the fall, it’s the highlight of night life in the port city. The daytime Marketplace magically metamorphosizes in just under an hour from a rabble of produce and meat shops to an even more chaotic cluster of food and game stands. If you can somehow manage to find your way through this veritable maze of glowing, then spending a night here is definitely worth the stay.

But only if you don’t have a Toa of Ice taking all your money. That just sucks.

In the end, I give in to the Ice Toa’s wide eyes and wobbling lip. I hand over enough widgets for just one round, but not without a heavy sigh. Kaixin skips over and immediately hands my, I mean her, money over. The second the widgets exchange hands, a Fire Agori, presumably the proprietor, flips a switch, setting the up-til’-now immobile wooden targets shunting left and right. I hang back with my arms crossed. Let’s see how good of a shot she-

I spray out a mouthful of the bamboo juice. No way! It must be illegal, somehow, in some form, to splinter all five targets with one shot!

Now the Agori of Fire is berating the sheepish Kaixin. Judging by the way he’s pointing at her mask, she must have been cheating! So, that answers my question from way back during our scrimmage. Her mask wasn’t a Kanohi of Agility, it indeed was the very rare Kanohi Calix, the Mask of Fate.

With a glare, the red-armoured Agori hands her back the tiny gun. This time, his keeps his eyes fixated on her. As a result, he’s treated to yet another impossible quintuple bulls-eye. For what it’s worth, I spit out another mouthful of my drink.

Marching over, I spin the Toa of Ice around so we are look each other in the eye. “Are you cheating again, Kaixin?” I wish I had a Kanohi Rode right about now.

She winks and sticks her tongue out at me. “Nope, it’s all skill, fire-spitter. I was a third tier Akilini player for Ga-Metru, so, yeah. I’ll have you know, I had four of my Kanoka forged into masks. And a disk launcher isn’t all that different from a pistol, right?” Kaixin draws her handgun and deftly spins in it with her fingers.

I open my mouth to reply, but something strikes me as odd. Did she say… Ga-Metru?

“Kaixin, what Metru were you from, again?”

She strikes a pose and dramatically raises her arms to her face. “Oh, it is the home of scholars. The peace-filled one, second built, but the one favoured by those above us. Surely, you have heard of the illustrious Ga-Metru?”

“Well, yes, of course I have. I came from Ta-Metru. But… you’re a Toa of Ice.”

“Mhhm. Problem?”

“To put it simply, why aren’t you a Toa of Water?”

“A Water Toa Stone didn’t work on me. Dunno why, but I’d really like to find out. That’s all I know, sadly. I’ve lived in Ga-Matru all my life, so it’s pretty weird.”

“Were you a teacher?”

“What do you think, Xaedan? Do I look like teacher material to you? I’ll give you a hint. The answer is absolutely, positively, and completely no.”

“Uh…”

Kaixin laughs. “It’s alright, I never wanted to stand in front of a classroom lecturing all day, anyways.” She leans in before continuing. “I was in the top twenty-five in my school, you know,” she confides with me. “And I had the second-highest grade in protodermis chemistry. I learned how to create the most amazing compounds you’d never even have heard of. Xaedan, I even know a compound that causes constipation, ok? But I just couldn’t let go of my maverick streak. And I think I was a bit hyperactive back then, too.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Sounds like you had quite the colourful life back in the day. Constipation. Give me a break...”

The Toa of Ice’s head bobs happily. “It was good while it lasted.”

By now, the two of us had wandered away from the shooting range and were just browsing the Night Market, seeing if anything was to attract our attention.

While it lasted…? What did she mean by that?

“Then what happened?” I blurt, after some hesitation. I hope she doesn’t think I’m being too nosy, asking this many questions. 

“I got assigned here, that’s what happened. Life is still pretty good here, so it’s not all that bad.”

I get the feeling Kaixin might be hiding something, but I’ve inquired enough for one day. I don’t want to seem annoying.

Unfortunately, Kaixin doesn’t share the same sentiment and I am annoyingly, very annoyingly, dragged from one booth to another. We end up with cotton candy beards by the time we forged our way through the sweets section, a bucket of fried Husi under each of our arms after plowing through the food stands, and let’s not forget the giant Takua made out of balloons tied around my wrist. Kaixin won after a bout of apple dunking. Her aim with apples was just as good as it is with wooden targets.

“Mmmph! There, ‘aedan. Leth go over there nexth!” She swallows the drumstick with a noisy gulp and tugs at my arm. The Ice Toa is heading towards a stall decorated with fire, some of it painted, some of it real. And there was a poster of a Rau-wearing Ta-Matoran looking like he was about to eat a torch. A fire-breathing booth? I’ll admit it, this might be interesting.

Before making it even halfway there, a pair of Ga-Matoran run out, carrying the poster’s Ta-Matoran, now unconscious, between them. The poor Fire Matoran’s mouth was hanging open and smoke was trailing out of it.

“Sorry, you two. He’ll be out for the rest of the night. Maybe even the next few days.” A Fire Agori comes out from behind the booth, toting a large “Closed” sign. “The lil’ fire-spitter bit off more than he could chew tonight. I told him, butane is for cooking stuff, not fire breathing. But nooooo…

Kaixin sucks in a breath. “You say he used butane? He could have burnt his own lungs! I woulda’ gone for… let’s see… paraffin, its got a high flash point. Uh, I mean temperature where it ignites. That stuff is the lesser of the two evils.”

“You’re surprisingly nerdy, Kaixin,” I remark with a slight chuckle. “I would have never guessed I’d hear science talk from you, not until you told me you were a chemistry whiz.”

Kaixin sticks out her tongue at me.

“You mean this stuff, lass? Found it at the back of the storage shed.” The Toa of Ice shoves her buckets of Husi into my arms and inspects the proffered bottle.

“Right, what do we have here? Refined lamp oil, looks good. Shipped and packaged...ten years ago? Nope, trash this.”

“Bah, thought so.” After being handed the oil, the Agori tosses it over his shoulder. “Well, if you two’d ‘scuse me, I gotta close this joint. No profit for today.”

With a deep scowl on his face, he props up his sign and trundles away, muttering darkly to himself.

I watch his form recede and turn a corner. “C’mon Kaixin, let’s… go?”

The Toa of Ice has broken open the storage shed and is rummaging around, tossing out charred torches and cracked glass vials. Finally, with a triumphant “Aha!” she presents to me an empty jar.

“Hold this, Xaedan.” I do so and she pours a bit of strong smelling, dark brown fluid into it, some of it dripping onto my hands.

“Argh, what is this? It’s so… slimy.”

“Crude petroleum. We’ll use this to make fresh paraffin. Now, heat it up very gently. I’ll find a lid for the jar.”

As she turns away to search I call back to her. “And what are doing with this, exactly? Breathe fire?”

“Well, yeah. And you’re doing it, hotshot. Great idea, huh?”

“I have absolutely no idea how to vomit fire.”

Kaixin returns with the lid and looks me in the eye. “Xaedan. What are you?”

“Uh, a Toa of Fire.”

“Ding, ding, ding! Correct! We have a winner! Trust me, you can’t breathe fire, but you you’re able to eject fire you put into yourself out of any orifice you care to name. I’ve seen Lhikan do it, way back when.”

I grunt at the overly graphic image. “Alright, got it. I really, really don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’ll give it a go. Are you sure I can’t just generate fire from my mouth?” I try and all I get is an awful burnt taste for my troubles. Clearly, a mouth isn’t meant to be a weapon.

“Hush. This is where it gets tricky. We need some water to make steam.” Kaixin snaps her fingers and a perfect sphere of pure ice pops into existence. “Melt that and keep it at six-hundred and seventy-one Kalevan.”

“What? How hot?”

“Three ninety-eight degrees,” Kaixin huffs. “Honestly, you worked in a scrap yard, right? You should know the Kalevan system.”

I don’t bother with a retort. Maintaining a tiny flame at precisely the right temperature is incredibly difficult. It’s like trying to land a paper airplane on a specific grain of desert sand during a sandstorm. But, still, I’m smiling. It’s good to see another, more serious side of Kaixin once in a while.

“Stop! Stop! That’s good. Uhhhh, ok. Then, we need to freeze and distillate it. Here’s the problem. If I freeze it, I can’t concentrate and won’t be able to measure the rate of distillation at the same time. We need a way to lower this thing’s temperature, other than me.”

I tap the side of my mask. “Kanohi Cyros. It won’t be a problem.”

Kaixin raises an eyebrow. “You. A fire-spitter. With a Mask of Freezing? Is that a joke?”

“Not at all. Watch this.” I proceed to encase the jar, and the hand holding it, in a cube of ice. “I guess this mask isn’t the greatest at such a precise operation like this,” I duly note.

The Ice Toa clicks her fingers and shavings of the ice block instantly peel off, leaving my fingers free once again. “As long as it gets the job done, I’m happy. Now we wait until a layer of completely clear fluid forms. It’ll be somewhere in the middle.”

By now, a sizable crowd had gathering, probably expecting the Ta-Matoran to do his nightly routine. Instead, they’re going to get an amateur, even if it is a Toa of Fire. I only hope I can live up to their expectations. Spewing fire from your mouth can’t be that different from throwing a fireball… right?

“Aha! There it is! Quickly! Bring it to room temperature!” Kaixin exclaims.

A tiny pinprick of fire on my fingertip releases the jar from its icy confines. It was as she said. Inside were layers of liquids and in the middle was a completely clear one. I can only assume that’s the paraffin. The Toa of Ice freezes the other layers of refined petroleum and dumps them on the ground, leaving behind the perfect fire-breathing fuel.

Alright. Let’s do this.

“Ladies ‘n gentlemen! Welcome to the moment you’ve all the been waiting for! Give a round of applause for… uh...” The Fire Agori from earlier had appeared from out of nowhere with a loudspeaker in hand.

“Xaedan,” Kaixin whispers to the Agori.

“The Toa of Fire, Xaaaeeeddannnnn!” He’s got a good voice, I’ll give him that. The little guy could easily have been a Kohlii commentator.

Whoops and laughter from the crowd. Cheering, too. The red-armoured Agori did a fine job, perhaps too fine of one, introducing me and working up the swarm of villagers.

Here goes. I tilt the jar into my mouth and immediately regret doing so. It’s disgusting. Abhorrent. Words can’t describe how foul this tastes, partially because I was unable to talk with the oil lining my mouth’s insides. With pained eyes, I cast a glance at Kaixin and the Agori shop owner. All I get in response were a pair of thumbs-ups. I’ll pour this stuff down their throats later and see how much they like it…

Still cringing from the paraffin, I stick a finger into my mouth and generate a couple of sparks. Instantly, I am filled with the overwhelming urge to hawk up as much of the flaming oil as possible. I’m a Toa of Fire, not a walking flame-retardant suit. Ok, well, maybe I am, but I’m still not fireproof on the inside.

“C’mon, Xae! Give it a good breath of air!” Kaixin waves her arms about and mimes breathing.

I puff. And I huff. And I exhale a great plume of flame, easily three feet in length.

“Booooo!”

Eyes smarting and mouth stinging, I look at the disappointed crowd.

“We see that all the time!” a voice rose above the clamour. “Give us something new, eh?” Murmurs of assent and “Yeah!” accompanied the demand.

Something new… something new, huh?

“Kaixin. Give me the jar. I’ll give them something so new, it’ll be from the future!”

“That made no sense. But, go get ‘em, soldier.”

Paraffin in one hand and fire in the other I turn and face the eager crowd. With a swift flick of my wrist I undo the jar’s lid and pour all, yes, all of the purified oil in my mouth. I give it a good swig. A bit of gargling, too. This stuff doesn’t taste nearly as bad the second time around. Plus, it tastes better than Kaixin’s cooking, so that a big plus.

So I gulp it all down, much to the gasping horror of everyone in the vicinity. Kaixin’s raking her palms over her face, murmuring something about “high toxin levels”. Even the Fire Tribe Agori looks flabbergasted.

And I pause. My audience waits, eyes wide, breath bated. Someone at the back faints from the suspense.

Ah. Here it is. A slight tremor runs through my whole body. A rumbling, if you will. A rumbling, not unlike a volcano.

Yes, that’s it. I am the volcano. My mouth is the crater and the fire, the lava.

A question to all Toa of Fire out there. Have you ever burped fire? If not, allow me to enlighten you. It’s like detonating a bomb in your throat. All of the fire rushes out, propelled by the belch, and balloons into a magnificent mushroom cloud, earning you the oooh’s and ahhh’s and Matoran, Agori, and certain bystanding Toa of Ice.

“Thank you, thank you, come again!” The Fire Agori was raking in the widgets by the bucketload. “Here, Toa. Consider it my thanks.” With smoke still leaking from my mouth, I accept about five hundred widgets from him. At least I was able to cover my spendings tonight, if not Tsukumi’s shopping spree.

“That. Was. Insane.” Kaixin runs up to me, eyes sparkling with excitement. “I had no idea you could do that! I mean burp out fire. You’re a real fire-spitter! Not that you aren't already one.”

“Ahhh… it’s nothing, but I’d rather not do that again. Not for a long, long while,” I chuckle.

“But you had fun. That’s what matters,” Kaixin points out with a smile.

“Yeah. For sure.” I pocket the widgets and we go, side-by-side, ever deeper into the Night Market in a companionable silence.

Of course, it’s Kaixin who break the quiet, and barely after just a minute, too.

“You know what, Xaedan?”

“Hmmm? What?”

“I had a lotta fun as well, you know.”

I quizzically glance at the smiling Toa of Ice. That was rather sudden. “Why, of course it was fun. Why did you suddenly say that?”

Kaixin smirks. “Why would I indeed?” She sticks out her tongue at me and swiftly changes the subject. “Next year, we’re coming here again and I fully expect you to put on an even better performance how that I’ve taught you the chemistry of fire-breathing.”

“Over my cold, dead body.”

“Hmph. Meanie.”

Chapter X


Anzix

“It was terrible.”

“Oh, come now, Anzix, Kaixin and I had a great time! I even made some money from this trip, even if it did barely cover the cost of Kaixin’s many snacks.”

I chuckle dryly at that. “Remember, Xaedan? Tsukumi and I have to serve Amea for the rest of the day. Like I said, I’m more or less used to this kind of stuff, but Tsukumi… Wow, she complained every step of the way, man. That was that suckish part.”

The team had all gathered back in our room, tired from the long, long day. Most of us are probably eager to just hit the sack.

“Right. I’m going to the hot springs. Probably not a good idea for a Toa of Ice, but whatever. Tsukumi, Amea, “Mary”, you in?” The latter two chime in with affirmatives in response to Kaixin while the Toa of Water just grumbles.

Kaixin raises an eyebrow at the grumpy Water Toa, who huffs. “Yes, yes, of course I’m going.”

And with that, the four girls bail out of the room with a dreadful ruckus until Amea tells them to shut up.

I hear the Ice Toa’s receding voice floating down from the hallway. “Hah! Only Tsukumi has to shut up. I can do whatever.” I bet Kaixin’s sticking her tongue out at an crabby Tsukumi right about now.

I hurry to the door, close it, lock it, deadbolt it, push a chair up against it, and weld the hinge shut with a bit of plasma.

It was time.

“Xaedan, I will ask you once again. Will you embark with me-”

“No.”

Yikes, rejected!

“Come on, man. You have no idea what you’re missing out on.”

“Taser shocks?”

I grunt. “Fine, fine. Have it your way, fire-spitter.” Turning about-face, I give a shrill whistle with three of my fingers.

Xaedan raises an eyebrow. “Uh… What are you doing, exactly?”

I hold up a finger. “Wait for it. Listen.”

Complete silence falls over the pair of us as we strain our ears till they might burst, and we attune our innermost selves to the minutest of noises.

Ahhh. There it is.

“You hear that Xaedan,” I hiss. “It’s them.”

A rumbling, one so quiet, so distant, it could have easily been mistaken as the night breeze. To a novice’s sense of hearing, the he’d hear nothing at all. Perhaps to someone with more experience, they’d have the notion of a some distant, rapid pattering of feet, but nothing more. To a master, the would easily have identified this mysterious shuddering as the stampede of tens of… something. He wouldn’t be too sure what it was, but he knew it was big.

I am no master. But, I, for one, know exactly what that odd noise was. I was the one who orchestrated it.

It was the thundering footsteps of a hundred Matoran and Agori.

“All hail General Anzix! All hail General Anzix!”

“Come here, Xaedan,” I invite with a lazy wave of my arm. “See the fruits of my efforts and then tell me, do you still doubt me?”

The Fire Toa follows me to the windowsill and his eyes pop open as he stares at the glorious sight that greets him.

“All hail General Anzix! All hail General Anzix!”

Outside was an entire platoon of battle-ready townsmen, chanting my name. All were battle-ready and awaiting my commands.

“What… how?” Xaedan manages to blurt. “You must’ve gathered every single hotel guest out here! And why?”

With a slow nod of my head, I confirm his guess. “I gathered every male here, yes. Why, do you ask?”

I face away from the window and I take a few paces back, hands clasped behind my back.

“Today is a good day, soldier. Today’s the day we change our lives, for the better. A new age is upon is, the dawn of a new epoch!”

I pause, take in a deep, deep, breath. And I turn to look at the Toa of Fire, square in his green eyes.

“Xaedan, this. This. Is-”

“Don’t say it.”

“Fine. But c’mon, there’s nearly three hundred of them!”

“I forbid it.”

As I exhale a disappointed sigh, I begin to unravel my master plan. “Squadron One, with the blue flags, they take the second story. They’re headed by the Mercenaries I hired.”

“Those guys again? I could hear the lot of you making all sorts of noise yesterday.”

“Trust me,” I insist. “This time, we’re ready. Nothing’ll stop us. Anyways. Squadron Two, with the yellow banners. They secure the first floor and they’re led by you. Red standards, Squadron Three, led by me. We take the basement.”

“What? Me? No, no way. The last thing I want to do is get caught up in a scheme of yours and have Tsukumi and Amea kill me at the same time. What’s the plan?”

“Ahhhh. You’re interested.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes, you are, and that’s final. The plan is to launch a full-on, frontal assault on the hot springs. We go where no man has ever gone before! Today, we lead ourselves into the promised land! Onwards!” I shout the last word at the crowd outside. They cheer, three hundred voices mingling to form one, single, collective roar of approval.

Xaedan heaves a heavy sigh. One so deep, so pent-up, it could have been mistaken for the harsh northern winds. “What’s in it for me, then, Anzix?”

I ponder for a while at this. It would take something truly spectacular to bring the Fire Toa over to my side.

“Ok, here’s the deal. You help me out this one time, and I’ll never ask you to join in on my plans ever again.”

Xaedan raises both eyebrows. His interest is clearly piqued. Funny thing is, he’s not actually gaining anything in this deal. But, to be honest… I think he knows. He just doesn’t care anymore. Oh well. Whatever works.

At long last, the fire-spitter reaches a decision. “I’ll do it. But this had better be the last time, you hear?”

“Cross my heartlight and hope to die. I’m a man of honour, you can count on that.”

“No you’re not. But you had better keep your end of the promise all the same.” We clanked our fists in agreement, brother Toa to brother Toa. A historic moment.

I clap my hands and the window snaps open. The Mercenaries tumble in, all kitted up and ready to roll.

“Xaedan, meet your fellow captains. Jata and Vatura are the Le-Matoran.” I pause as they both give little bows in the Toa of Fire’s direction. “The Jungle Agori is Juventas while the Ice is ___.”

“Right. To the nitty-gritty. Here’s the plan. Jata, Vatura, you take groups A through E to the left wing. The Agori secure the stairwell and the south wing with the remaining groups, F to I. Clear?”

“Crystal clear, boss,” the Ice Agori replied. He drew a wicked-looking mace from his back. “Shall we begin?”

I raise a finger. “Do you all still have them? And the handsets?”

As one, the Inc. rummaged around. Four stone tablets and the same number of walkie-talkies were produced. I nod in approval.

“Very good, team. Moving on. Xaedan, your assignment is to… Xaedan?”

The fire-spitter had an… odd look on his face. Allow me to take that back. Odd was too broad of a word. Let’s try… haunted. Yes. That fits.

“Hey? Fire-spitter? Talk to me, man. The clock is ticking, I have to finish briefing you.”

“Anzix? Do you… by any chance… have a stone tablet of your own?”

I cock my head in bewilderment. “Yeah? So? What’s the big deal?” This time, I don’t let Xaedan respond. We’re on a tight schedule and the operation must be perfect down to the very last microsecond. “Xaedan, since you’re a Toa, you’ll be able to hold the entire first floor all on your lonesome. You get four groups with you, J to M. Once both floors are held fast, I take the remaining forces down to the basement where we, hopefully, break in. If not, we’re prepared to lay siege.”

The Toa of Fire, still looking a bit on the spooked side, numbly nods and heads out to meet up with his troops. The mercs follow, brandishing all sorts of metallic pointy things. With a swift, fluid stroke of my arm, I draw my sword. Right after, I activate my mask, the Kanohi Avalos, the Great Mask of War.

After all, it is officially wartime.


“Forward! Forward! We stop at nothing!”

The villagers outside had propped up a long siege ladder outside. Apparently, they had quite a few carpenters amongst them. The branches they used were still green and supple which made climbing that much more difficult. It took time, much more time than I’d have liked, I’ll admit, but all three hundred of my brave soldiers were finally amassed on the third story of the hotel. Xaedan’s and my room will serve as our command post.

All three groups were to charge downwards. At the appropriate floor, groups would stop to take control of their assigned areas while the rest of the troops would march onwards.

Some of the Matoran took the elevator. Many took to the staircases. And a few daring ones followed the Mercenaries by rappelling down the outside of the building.

“Halt! You shall not pass! I’ve always wanted to say that.”

With much shoving and milling about, my army of Matoran finally managed to assess the situation before them. Kaixin, claws extended, with a small contingent of Ga-Matoran in Boxors, is guarding the elevators and staircase to the ground floor.

I elbow my way through to the front. “Kaixin? What are you doing here? Get out of the way!”

“Nuh uh. Amea told me to stop your invasion, and by golly, I’ll do it. Why would you even want take over the hot springs? I’m telling you… its not worth it.”

So. Amea is once again attempting to foil my plans.

“Hah! Someone other than a man shan’t ever comprehend the glories of the hot baths! Onward brave revolutionaries! To the promised land! Groups A to E, you know what to do! F to I, circle around in a pincer movement! Limit Kaixin’s escape routes! We cannot have her call for reinforcements!”

As one, the windows all along the corridor caved inwards. Le-Matoran and Bo-Matoran poured in on grappling hooks with the four mercenaries leading the way.

“Don’t worry-fret, Boss. We can handle-take care of ugly-things from here!”

I throw a salute to Jata. “Your sacrifice shall never be forgotten.” The Le-Matoran smiles serenely in response, already knowing full well what his fate would be from participating in this fight. He throws himself into the fray. And, by Mata Nui, it really was ugly. The Ga-Matoran may have had the Boxors, but I definitely had numbers on my side. Fighting my army would be like fending off a horde of zombies.

With a snap of my fingers, I motion for Xaedan to follow me. His fighting prowess would be needed for the next phase of the operation.

I dive out of the demolished windows, rolling on the soft ground as I land. Those who were not engaged in the Battle of the Second Story dutifully followed their General and jumped. Again, it is the thick grassy lawn that allows us to take such a shortcut.

“Through the front door! Charge!”

Xaedan runs up to me. “Why didn’t you leave my group and yours outside then? Why’d you get them to climb all the way up if they’re just going to jump down?

“Easy, fire-spitter. If only I and you were to charge at Kaixin, who would be there to distract them while the mercs made their entrance from outside? Just us two? The operation is all about the element surprise. We lose it, we lose the war.”

“But Kaixin already stopped us at the second floor. Haven’t we alre-”

“Silence! We forge onward! Break down the doors!” I command. I turn to the Toa of Fire. “You’re needed by your men. Go forth, and make me proud to have known you.”

With dark mutterings, Xaedan makes his way to squad. “Alright, on three,” he calls out.

“One…”

“Two…”



Xaedan
“Three!”

Savage war cries filled the air as the villagers charged as one, once individual entities, now a collective, slavering, beast.

Needless to say, they made short work of the door. It wasn’t even locked.

“Hmm. Look like Amea was right.” Tsukumi sat on one of the sofas in the Lobby’s common area. She was clearly waiting for us.

“Don’t you have any Matoran with you?” I ask. “Kaixin did.”

“I don’t need any.”

“Awfully modest of you, Tsukumi.”

“Xaedan! Don’t just stand there! Beat her up! Here’s your chance to best the legendary Tsukumi in the ring of honour!”

Anzix clambers through what was left of the doorframe, his squad fanning out behind him. “I trust you take care of things on this floor, fire-spitter?”

“I don’t have much of a choice…”

“Great! I appreciate it. Let’s go, men.”

Anzix kicks the stairwell’s door open and the villagers under his command pour in.

“You know, Anzix. It really isn’t worth it, what you’re doing.”

“Kaixin said the same thing. I shall not be dissuaded from my goal!” Without waiting for a reply, the Toa of Plasma turns and makes haste to the basement.

Tsukumi’s condensers are folded away and she’s still on the couch. “Are you, you know, going to start throwing water at me anytime soon?”

“Nah,” she replies with a lazy wave of her hand. “Like I said. It’s really not worth it. Anzix is just being stupid.”

“How so? Well, I mean, he’s already being stupid, but I get the feeling he’s missing out on something.”

The Toa of Water laughs. “Why do you think Kaixin and I are even here?”

My eyes widen. “You haven’t even stepped foot in the baths yet.”

“Bingo! But do you know who has?”

“Who?”

She snickers. “All in due time, fire-spitter. All in due time. While you wait, listen carefully for any screams that come from the basement.”



Anzix
“Over here, Anzix.”

Eh? I hear someone calling me. I motion for the villagers to go first and I bring up the rear.

“It’s me. Amea.”

Oh. Her.

“There she is, men! The mastermind! Get her!”

Nearly sixty Matoran and Agori sprint forwards with a Toa of Plasma egging them along. Amea deftly sidesteps out of the way and we rush past her in our zeal, not unlike a Fader Bull with a skilled Ta-Matoran matador.

With two swift strokes of my sword, I cut down the door to the springs, the final barrier that dares stand in our path.

At long, long last, I have done it. I have ushered in the new age. The world will thank me for this.

I take a look inside.



Xaedan
“Oh yeah, and then he was like, yelling into the phone ‘I will massacre you!’ then, like, ‘Find out who that was.’ My goodness, Thom Sail was great back in the day.”

“Never watched that one, Kaixin. What was it called, again?”

“You’ve never watched Equatorial Lightning, Tsukumi? Its one of those movies you have to see at least once in your lifetime. It's got Blak, Uppey Jr., and that Dark Hunter 'Motionless' in it.”

Kaixin and Tsukumi were both chatting away in the lobby while what was once Anzix’s great army had invaded the complimentary coffee machines and were busy helping themselves. When the girls spilled the beans on what was taking a bath, well, we kind of just… stopped.

I gasp. “Guys! Shhhhh!”

The entire room falls silent.

And there it was. Just as Tsukumi foretold.

Anzix’s cry of utter, complete anguish.



Anzix

“Why is Margaret in the hot tub? Arrrgghhh!”

Epilogue


Xaedan
Morning dawned bright and early for us Toa as we checked out of the hotel. Time to go. It was a short trip, just two days, but it was refreshing. It was something different.

“Hey there, Xaedan.”

“Mary” jogs up, catching up to me while toting Tsukumi’s new stand mixer. It had been decided that we would split up the Water Toa’s many spoils of war amongst ourselves to pack up faster. Fine by me. I would hate to have to carry all of that again. It’s already bad enough I was the one forced to carry the Hewkii-Macku plushies again.

“”Mary”, do you have a minute?”

“Sure. What's up?”

I clear my throat a bit nervously. “Well, it’s just that… I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to spend much time with these past few days… yeah.”

“Mhhm.” I look at “Mary”, but it seems as though she has nothing else to say.

Time to change the subject.

“Uh, oh, look. Looks like it’s going to rain again. Sky’s looking awfully gray. We’d better hurry to the train station, let’s go!”

Two pair of us begin our journey back to Haven as the first droplets of rain fall from the sky.


Bubtrivia

Trivia
•This was the most difficult volume of the Madness Series to write, but one of the most enjoyable.
•The word "fluctuation" was chosen for the title since several new characters introduce throughout the course of this installment. Hence, a fluctuation of characters.
•This volume was beta read by Zanywoop and DeltaStriker.
•This volume is one of two with an Epilogue.

Madnessbar
Book I | Book II | Book III | Book IV | Book V | Book VI | Book VII | Short Stories
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