Ku-Koro baked at high noon. Bone-dry air blew along the face of the rocky escarpment the town was carved from. There was little activity; even the Su-Matoran took it easy around this time of day, while the heat brought their less adapted companions to a near-shutdown state. The few Matoran out and about kept to the shadows of rocky outcrops, alleys, and verandas. Hunters, their tents pitched around the base of the escarpment, checked their tools and vehicles at a leisurely pace while the rhythmic clanging of a smith at work rang out over everything. Some talk could be heard from inside the Halfway Cave Saloon, where many sought refuge from the heat.
A Vo-Matoran riding a buggy with trailer rode in from an eastern trail. She parked at the base of a stairway leading into the town proper, got out, and cast a scowling glance over the hunters’ encampment. The hunters in turn eyed the contents of the trailer, where a collection of chitinous body segments and two large, blue fangs told tale of what she’d caught: azemi-fen, a giant burrowing spider. Some impressed murmuring attested to the difficulty of tackling such a creature alone, but she paid it little heed. Turning to head up the stairway, she spotted two nuvatoran playing in the shade. They’d been carving something into the wall, but now appeared captivated by the visitor in her elaborate white-and-blue getup. She smiled at them, a sharp-toothed grin conveying not so much friendliness as haughty intimidation. They shrunk back as she passed before watching her march up to the town proper.
Ilani didn’t mind the attention; it came with the reputation she maintained. Reaching the lowest ledge of the town, which played the role of town square, she made straight for the largest shop around: the butcher. Ku-koro subsisted on the creatures hunted on the surrounding plains, and hence the shop, carved deep into the rock face, never had a shortage of work. On entry, she immediately attracted curious looks from several of the working Matoran. The most senior among them made his way over to the shop counter.
“You’re back,” he greeted with a gruff voice. “What’s in the wagon this time?”
“Spider,” she answered curtly.
“Full car, left the bad stuff behind.”
The butcher assumed a skeptical expression. “I’ll have to check it.”
“What, have I lied to you?” She flashed a momentary grin.
The butcher took a moment to consider the matter. “No, ’course not.”
“I know what you use and what you don’t. Yours for seventy, else I’ll carve it up myself and take it to Gol-Rui. They’ll pay me double.”
“Full spider, then,” the butcher unlocked a drawer and produced the requisite widgets.
Ilani swept them into a coat pocket. “Pleasure doing business.” The butcher gave a nod of understanding. They’d done this plenty of times.
She vacated the shop without another word and made her way back to the edge. Looking down, she could tell the precious cargo hadn’t been tampered with. Not that anyone would dare to, but it was good to check all the same; other hunters had been eyeing it enviously before. She was in no position to pay for repairs or a lost catch; the spider was impressive, sure, but pickings had been meager lately and her kit needed repairs. To that end, she made her way to the shop from which the clanging sounds were emanating. Inside, a Fe- and Su-Matoran appeared to be on break while a second Su-Matoran was hammering a red-hot piece of armor back into shape. The Fe-Matoran got up at her appearance.
“Welcome,” she greeted. “Need something made?”
“Fixed,” Ilani corrected. “Chain tensioner.”
“Alright, let me take a look.” The smith held out her hand.
Ilani pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “It’s at the base.”
“Well, bring it up here, then.”
Ilani rolled her eyes and reached into her pocket, audibly running her fingers through the widgets contained within. Suddenly, she scowled and slammed a couple of them onto the counter with a loud crash. The Fe-Matoran recoiled in shock. Both Su-Matoran looked her way. “You can carry your tools,” Ilani sneered as she pointed to a toolbox on the shop floor. “Get down there, take it off, fix it.” She turned to head out but paused halfway and looked back to the widgets. With a quick grunt, she reached into her pocket again and pulled out two more. She flicked them onto the counter; both landed perfectly among the others. She flashed a smile to the astonished Fe-Matoran. “Get it done by tonight.” With that, she was out the door.
“We’ll get to it if we can!”
Ilani made her way across the square again. Yeah, they’d get to it. She knew they didn’t get eight widgets for such basic repairs every day, even if she had to drive that point home with a bit of showmanship. Two of the butcher’s assistants were already busy unloading the various parts from the trailer to take into the shop; they knew how to get things done on time. The perishable nature of their working material required it.
On the west end of the square, carved stairs led up to the next level, from where a wooden set led up to the Halfway Cave saloon. Carved from a natural cave about halfway up the escarpment and built out with a wooden façade, it was the central hub of Ku-Koro in more ways than one. She made her way in and headed straight for the bar.
“He gave me the runaround for three days, Paimat. Guess I owe you.”
“Well-disguised burrow?” the Su-Matoran tending bar questioned.
“Very well,” she confirmed as she placed a ten-widget coin on the counter. “I’m pretty parched, too.”
Paimat was already on it, pouring a mug from a barrel set into the stone wall behind him. “Rotten luck, but you can earn it back tonight. We’re bringing out the kanoka. Lots in town with lots to bet.”
“You don’t say…” Ilani cast a glance over the room. Half a dozen Matoran were scattered about the premises, some eating midday meals, others apparently just escaping the heat. Paimat unlocked the coin drawer. Ilani pulled out two more widgets and, just as he opened the drawer, flicked them over to it. Both landed nicely in the single widget partition.
Paimat nodded approvingly. “Not bad, but I’ve seen you do better.”
“I’ll get more to practice with tonight,” she assured him. “Got a feeling luck’ll be on my side for a change.”
“Welcome back.” Letono glanced up at the station clock. It wasn’t accurate per se, but he knew Telzin’d been gone for close to half an hour.
“Took a while to find ‘m,” she explained.
“What did they want?”
“Ehm…” Well, he knew about its existence already anyways, right? “You know that thing I found on line 2?”
“The glowing stick?”
“Yeah. I did some asking around, and they wanted to check it out.”
“They know what it is?”
“Eh… not really.” Garta and Tykal had stressed secrecy, she remembered. She’d already decided not to tell Letono that she’d dropped by Turaga Florei’s place on the way back to ask him about Toa Stones. The Turaga wasn’t home, nor was his assistant. They hadn’t even left a note to say where they were.
Thankfully, Letono didn’t press the point further. “Well, now that you’re here, you get to take part in morning checks.” He slid a checklist across the desk. “If anything gives you trouble…”
“I’ll fix it.” Telzin picked up the list, scanned it for a moment, then put it down and got on with it. Who needed a list? She knew the station forwards and backwards, including every bodge she’d made to keep it running. Everything prone to failure had failed several times over in her few years here, and everything else was as bulletproof as she could make it. Moving parts were the main concern, but apart from a few squirts of oil needed nothing seemed amiss. All engines started and ran fine. The elevator was slow as always but reliable. All this she confirmed in no time. She reported to Letono, who insisted on the checklist being filled out all the same. Important for the daily documentation and all that. With that, the long wait began.
She watched the signal board for a while, but the lightstones stayed down. Though the sounds of industry from up north and city life from the south and east could readily be heard, station 8 was an island of tranquil inactivity. Absent anything else to take her attention, her imagination was running wild around the Toa stone again. By this point, most of the scenarios she could think up involved the appearance of monsters from stories whose names she could only vaguely remember… Vuki? Prika? Her inability to recall anything specific about them did little to put them out of her mind. Wearily she strung up the hammock again. She wasn’t expecting to get much rest, but comfort and some distraction from the goings-on at ground level could help kill time. Below, she could see lots of Matoran moving about, buying, selling, making, and moving things. At one point she spotted one with a bright, glowing object, but realized moments later that it was just a regular lightstone. How disappointing. And just like that, her eyes were cast to the distance and her mind on the Toa Stone again.
She was out for a while after that, out enough that she wasn’t sure what time it was when some movement in the canopy caught her eye. Looking southwest, she could just see the halfway station of line 2. Few places were more pointless to visit, yet there was someone there now. Telzin couldn’t tell who at this range, though their stature was Le-Matoran and their colors indicated a plain sense of fashion. She watched for a minute as the Matoran picked over the platform from top to bottom, especially around the engine. Was it a surprise inspection? Surely she’d have been told if anything was to be checked. Best to check for herself.
She climbed back to the station proper and sought out Letono. “Hey, are we getting an inspection?”
He glanced over his schedule. “Not that I’ve heard… why?”
“Someone’s snooping around line 2.”
Letono looked out the window in the direction she pointed but saw nothing. “Where at?”
Telzin moved outside to get a clearer view. “The halfway station…” Her voice trailed off when she got a clear view. The Matoran was gone.
Letono joined her at the doorway. “I don’t see anything.”
“It was just a minute ago…” She moved towards a bridge to get a better look, but still nothing.
“I’m certain. There was someone there. Le-Matoran, definitely. Was checking it pretty good.” She scanned up and down the line and the ladder to ground level from the platform. Still no sign.
“I’ll look into it.” Letono headed back inside. “Maybe I missed something.” He sounded far from convinced. Telzin looked for the mystery Matoran for a bit longer, but they seemed to have vanished completely. She had no idea how they got away so quickly; the space around that halfway station was empty, and outside of the long-disused ladder and the rail, here were no obvious ways to get to it. Nor was there anything of interest there… She gasped with a sudden realization. There was nothing of interest there now.
Quickly, she made her way back to the station’s lower levels and checked the backpack she’d stowed there. The Toa stone was safe inside. There was no doubt in her mind now. There’d never been anything of interest on that platform except the Toa stone. That Matoran had to be looking for it. Who were they? What did they want it for? Already the possibilities were bubbling up in the back of her mind. Maybe they wanted to steal it? Good thing she’d kept it with her rather than leaving it at home… Come to think of it, would they search there next? Good thing for once that there was nothing there either…
She caught herself before pushing that line of thought any further. This was silly. Maybe that Matoran was looking for the Toa stone, but she had it and that was final. And maybe they were actually just checking the station. Surprise inspections did happen, though not often… Letono would figure it out.
Following a coast now dominated by dark, jagged cliffs, Garta spotted the Kini-Kofo from miles away. Perched on top of a rocky outcrop at least sixty meters above sea level, it was every bit as impressive at first sight as had been described to him. Its name, “Small Temple,” was only true in comparison to the Great Temple of legend; this was a monumental structure in its own right. Its center section, a truncated ellipsoid, was as large as any building in Gol-Rui, not to speak of the six towers connected to it by flying buttresses. Polished metal inlays on the walls shone bright in the afternoon sun, making the temple a beacon even in daylight. Even the grandeur of the snow-covered peak of Ino-Urui in the background was muted in comparison.
As he sailed closer, more of the town came into view, or as least as much as one could see from his low vantage point. Most of it was behind the cliff, but the thatched roofs of some huts were visible close to the edge. More important was the harbor, built some distance east of the temple at a spot where partial collapse of the cliff allowed easier travel up the shoreline. Though the few fishermen that lived in town had likely all returned already, Garta had no difficulty finding a good spot to tie up his boat with some help from a quiet Ce-Matoran harbormaster. With the rod stashed safely in his backpack, he proceeded up a long, winding set of stairs built over the rocky rubble. A gate with prominent inscription at the top marked the entrance to the town proper.
I-Kini-Koro-a Ou Rongala
Beyond the gate, a small square offered a good overview of the eastern half of the town. A winding, cobblestone road led from the square to a park that divided Kini-Koro in two, right in front of the temple. Arranged somewhat haphazardly around it were huts of all shapes and sizes, only similar in their framed wattle-and-daub construction. Some had small rahi pens attached to them, others had awnings under which the Ce-Matoran were working on one thing or another. Garta followed the road, occasionally replying to the odd look or gesture with a restrained nod and smile of his own. This was a very different place than Gol-Rui, more relaxed, more open. He could walk from one end of that city to the other without anyone paying the least bit of attention, but here the new arrival seemed cause enough for everyone to take a moment to acknowledge it. He was glad that the park, the last bit of his journey to the temple, was mostly devoid of huts or their residents; the temple was the center of the town, sure, but the town kept a respectful distance.
The temple’s doors, built of heavy timber and easily four times the height of a Matoran, were wide open to receive visitors. Stopping in the doorway, Garta took in the interior. The core of the temple had two levels, the lower taking up the whole footprint of the structure and the upper a wide walkway supported by pillars and the wall. Metal fixtures around the room held a constellation of candles, but the bulk of the lighting was provided by a large opening in the center of the roof, shining like a spotlight pointed down on a large table set in the center of the temple. A Ce-Matoran was tending to the candles while another moved about the walkway; both acknowledged Garta’s arrival with warm smiles before getting back to the tasks at hand.
Uncertain of where to look for a suva or anything like it, Garta decided to start with the centerpiece. The table was a work of art in itself: a thick, circular slab of black volcanic glass several meters across, it was gorgeously engraved with a symbol that Garta readily recognized: the outline of the great robot, the Matoran Universe, standing with arms wide. Arrayed in circles behind it was a huge collection of astrological symbols, few of which he could identify. Only one, the red star, as signified by a red gemstone set into the table right above the great spirit’s head, jumped out at him. Smaller gemstones studded other parts of the table, but what they were meant to signify escaped him. The arrangement was bordered by an inscription that circled the whole table.
Ar-isira ai i-atukanomai aorok-ko, ar-vebarra ilavase-i ikarla-ko, ar-fugnika i-aki vuata-ko. Mata Nui’i no moni ana’i rohi-o vunseya, ai avoter-ko. O maya-su ki i-kai-a ai ako yiya. O maya-su ki ai ako terya ki o lhiya. O maya-su ki ai ako ikarya ki o va-o mayiya.
“… to achieve our destiny.” Garta whispered as he finished reading. The temple was so quiet that he could hear a faint echo of even that. He took a step back to get a view of the whole table. Its surface rested on six legs, stone pillars composed of three distinct segments stacked one on top of the other. The symbol of the three virtues was carved into each middle segment. Beyond that, there was little to note. Sure, the table occupied the same spot in the temple as the suva had in the diagram of Metru Nui’s, but it showed no signs of any function beyond looking impressive. Slightly disappointed, Garta looked around for other objects of interest. There were many: the walls were heavily engraved with a wide variety of symbols, maps, and other icons of legend.
The other prominent thing was an elaborately carved stone pedestal positioned opposite the entrance. Set on top of it was a mask that he readily recognized: the Kanohi Ignika. Well, a replica of it, but a very intricate one, no doubt the work of the most skilled of smiths of the Tahai. Surrounding the pedestal was an ornate display of flowers and greens, well-kept in pots set on small pedestals of their own. The wall behind it played host to a painted engraving of the Great Spirit in the form of a giant robot bringing life to barren lands. Carved underneath was a short description of the events, along with the name of the carver: Pulata. Garta’d never heard of her, though the inscription mentioned that she was a Po-Matoran and that the Great Spirit had guided her hand in the making of the carving. Somewhat sectioned off from the rest of the temple by pillars supporting the walkway, the pedestal and its surroundings appeared a cozy shrine within the larger temple.
Surveying some of the other sections, which featured sparse coloring and replica artifacts but no less detail in the carvings, Garta found the temple as much a monument to Matoran history as to the Great Spirit and the virtues. He read each description and at times found himself transfixed by one carving or another. Nearer the entrance of the temple, farther from the shrine, dark times such as the Matoran Civil War, Great Cataclysm, and Reign of Shadows were depicted. Closer to the shrine came the hopeful and triumphant moments, the victories of Toa teams and the Great Spirit. Some he’d read about recently, others he’d only heard of long ago, back on the Old World. Now much of it was flooding back, in this monument to all that Matoran were and could be.
“Not bad, is it?”
Caught up in a collage depicting events on the island of Mata Nui, Garta was shaken even by the soft, gentle voice that posed the question. Turning around, he found another Ce-Matoran had entered the premises and was regarding him with keen interest.
“Forgive me, I didn’t mean shake you.” The Matoran raised his hands.
“No, not at all.” Garta shook his head and gestured back to the collage. “Just looking up some things.”
“Of course.” The Ce-Matoran stepped forward and cast his eyes to the carvings. “Ah, yes, the island of Mata Nui, one of the more relevant pieces.”
“Relevant?” Garta gave him a questioning look.
“Many visitors have compared it to our own situation. A handful of Matoran stuck in a paradise they don’t know much about. Parallels are easily drawn.”
“I could see that,” Garta nodded. “Do you work here?”
“I used to, but no, I’m just checking in.” The Ce-Matoran reached out with a fist. “I’m Celan,” he introduced himself. “I run the inn.”
“Garta.” They bumped fists in greeting.
“Welcome to Kini-Koro. Long journey here?”
“Two days, with decent weather.”
“A pleasant trip,” Celan smiled. “If you’re interested, dinner’ll soon be served at the inn.”
“Ah…” Garta looked past Celan out the entrance. The sun was setting. He’d been checking out the temple for a good hour or two without even realizing it. “Dinner would be nice.”
“Come with me, then,” Celan invited. “This will all still be here in the morning.”
Garta looked back to the mural for the moment. With how long he’d been in the temple, he’d inadvertently searched a fair bit of it in great detail and found no sign of anything that might work with the Toa Stone. Before long he’d be searching by candlelight only. Perhaps it was better to call it a day. He motioned for the doorway. “Lead on.”
“Ka’ifa!” Ilani’s call was accompanied by a ‘clack!’ sound as six dice in front of her suddenly flew towards each other, impacting into a small pile in the center of the kanoka disk. Unity of Magnetism had been achieved in three rolls, a very quick round. It was not well received by the rest of the table.
“I swear you’re doing it on purpose,” Avtaki grumbled. “Three was a low bet and you know it.” He’d bet on six rolls and didn’t stand to gain any of the stash of widgets on the table from it.
“Told you I was lucky tonight,” Ilani grinned as she swept what remained of the stash her way and started counting the contents.
“Luck? Vatra!” Avtaki got up. “New dice or I’m out.”
“Again?” Mavyal, who stood to gain at least something from her bet on four, counted out a few widgets of her own. “Good luck getting a third set from Paimat.” She had a point. The saloon was packed for the evening with a bunch of roaming hunters that happened to all be in town at the same time. With such a confluence came Ka, the gambling game that consumed a solid chunk of their earnings. Five tables were going; most of the die sets that hadn’t been through the group yet were already in use by another. Avtaki surveyed the space momentarily before sitting back down and downing a big gulp of Bo-Matoran brew.
“Nowhere near enough in the stash,” Ilani announced. “I’m taking donations.”
“How much over?” Mavyal enquired.
“Thirty-seven.” Only part of a big win. Ilani leant back in a clear display of satisfaction.
“So much for my winnings.” Mavyal slid nine widgets Ilani’s way. Reluctantly, Avtaki counted out the same amount. Silent throughout the exchange so far had been the fourth member of the table, Kor, who’d struck out farthest with his bet on nine rounds. His silence did not go unnoticed.
“You’re on the hook for nineteen, Turaga.” Ilani stacked the widgets into small piles.
“Yeah, that I am,” Kor sighed and raised his hands. “More than I’ve got on me.”
“I’ll call Paimat…” Mavyal got up to look for the proprietor.
“Not so fast,” Kor said, getting up as well. “I said I didn’t have nineteen on me. I’ve got more at home.”
“Much good that’ll do you,” Ilani grinned. “No leaving ‘till after the game’s paid out.”
“Sure, that’s the rules,” Kor nodded, “but only with whoever I owe. Which means you’re coming with me.”
Ilani shot him an incredulous look. “…and leave a winning streak behind?”
“As Turaga, I’ll have to insist.” Kor’s tone had lost its conviviality. “It’ll be worth your time, promise.”
“Well… a Turaga’s promise’s gotta be worth something,” Ilani shrugged and swept her earnings into her coat. Though she was loath to leave the table now, Kor wasn’t known to make promises or stand on his authority as Turaga. Something worth playing along with, most likely. “Alright then, after you,” she pointed to the door.
Kor made his way out with her close behind, Avtaki shooting her a dirty look as she passed. They proceeded directly towards the Turaga’s hut, located on an outcrop with a near-perfect view of the whole town. Location aside, though, there was little to indicate that this was a Turaga’s residence. A small cobblestone hut with a leather roof, it was no larger than the town’s average home. Its door was always open when Kor was there, or so he advertised, but Ilani’d never seen the inside of the place. There wasn’t much to it, little more than a crash pad with some token nods to his official position. The Turaga spent most of his time hunting with friends, and as such his badge and stole of office were stored largely unused on a chair in the corner. A couple of crates contained some tools and a few documents. There were three rooms, but the two not containing the entrance were barely big enough to lie down in. Ilani’s field tent had almost as many amenities.
“The great Turaga’s home…” she remarked as she looked around. “I must say I expected more.”
“It suffices,” Kor replied as he rooted around under the bed in another room. He returned with something wrapped in numerous layers of parchment and handed it to Ilani. “Here you go.”
“Don’t look like widgets,” Ilani observed.
She shrugged but obliged, easily pulling apart the parchment to reveal a faintly translucent rod. “A dead lightstone?”
“Not dead,” Kor said as he reached out and put a finger on the rod, which suddenly lit up in bright orange. He pulled back, and the glow faded. “Very much alive, with the right trigger.”
“Now there’s something…” Curious, Ilani put her own finger on the rod and watched it glow bright yellow. She pulled back immediately. “Weird… What is it?”
“Not sure,” Kor admitted. “Got it from the barraki in Gol-Rui two weeks ago. It’s worth a lot.”
“You don’t say…” Ilani mused. Her eyes remained focused on it. No doubt it was worth a lot, much more than a measly nineteen widgets. “This your payment?”
“Yup. You know it’s worth what I owe you and then some.”
“Probably…” Ilani kept it cool, but she knew this was something else, worth a lot more. She could feel it.
“He said I should make sure it ended up in the hands of someone I trust.”
“So, you’re saddling me with a mystery?” Ilani wrapped the rod back up.
“You can figure it out in Gol-Rui, I reckon. That or someone will pay you through the nose for it. I know I can trust you to do either, don’t matter much to me.”
Ilani pretended to mull over the offer, then gave a nod and stuck the rod in her pocket with the other winnings. “Alright, your debt’s done for. Pleasure doing business.”
“I’ll say.” Kor gave a wry smile. “I’d better catch something good to make up for all the business we’ve done.”
“If it helps,” Ilani returned the smile, “I know at least two hunters who lost big this evening. They’re probably up for a ride.”
She wasted no time doing just that. Keeping her composure was part of the act, but inside she was fit to burst. Kor didn’t know much about this thing, but he was right on one point: it was valuable. Hundreds of widgets perhaps, as much as she could make out here in a month or more. There was no time to waste: she had to get it to Gol-Rui and appraised properly. As for what she’d spend the money on… Gol-Rui offered many possibilities.
Took a break for December 'cause I was busy with other things, but the new year has brought new time to write.