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Template:MPTemplate:Writer Template:Fiction The Darkness Returns is a Gigas Magna Storyline novella that chronicles the adventures of Fairon and Rantu, and their separate missions to defeat the Gigas Magna Empire and Order of Darkness. It is the sequel to The Fairon Chronicles and The Leviathos Chronicles.

SynopsisEdit


StoryEdit

PrologueEdit

Continued from The Fairon Chronicles...

The great binary sun of Solis Magna rose into the sky over the sands of the barren Gigas Magna desert. The dawn of the day illuminated the tan sand dunes, forcing the nocturnal creatures that inhabited to scurry into what little shade there was before the ground beneath them began scorching their feet.

A number of these creatures — specifically, a clan of small lizards — were unlucky enough to scurry in exactly the wrong direction. Before they were aware of what was going on, a beam of pure light formed in midair, splitting into several separate lasers that launched themselves at the creatures. None ever saw it coming, and after their sudden premature deaths had been confirmed by the mechanical systems that controlled the lasers, the beams of energy vanished.

Several minutes later, two more beings appeared on the desert sands, coming from what seemed like thin air. Both of them were clearly biomechanical, though their appearances were anything but similar.

The first was tall and muscular, almost every inch of his body covered with a thick layer of black and silver armor. In his clawed hands he carried a long staff with a barbed blade at the end, and on each of his broad shoulders were a pair of what looked like energy launchers, though they were currently in no position to be used. Atop his shoulders was a head that was completely hidden by an evil-looking black helmet. Only his eyes showed, two shining green emeralds that rivaled Solis Magna in their intensity.

The second figure was also heavily armored, though not nearly so much as the first one. Her armor coloration was more inclined to blue and green, and on her face was what looked like a mask. She had another pair of arms extending from her back, carrying what looked like laser launchers; her main pair of hands was unarmed and placed inside handcuffs.

Once again, a beam of energy launched from its mysterious source, targeting the two beings and meaning to destroy them both in one shot. However, before it could ever reach its destination, the black-armored being raised his powerful hand to stop it. Instead of incinerating it, it was abruptly absorbed into the figure's body. Another bolt followed, meeting the same fate as the first.

The machine that controlled it paused for a moment, as if contemplating the best course of action. Then, again seemingly from nowhere, a voice appeared, its rasping, guttural tone resonating thinly through the dry air. “This is Mordrax. You have trespassed on Imperial territory. Identify yourselves.”

“It's Nightwatcher,” hissed the black-armored being in response. “As you know perfectly well, Mordrax, I have universal clearance. Now let me in your little base or I'll break in — and then break everything else.”

There was another brief pause. “Why are you here?”

“To sell fish,” said Nightwatcher sarcastically. He pointed to his silent companion. “The 'fish' would be her. Shayla, top lieutenant of the Gigas Magna Resistance. I believe you're old friends.”

“Yes, I know her,” said Mordrax. “Come in. Cloaking devices off!”

The illusion of a desert landscape vanished, to be replaced with a massive several-story stone and metal fortress. Decent-sized turrets rose into the clear blue sky, and on the top of each was a laser beam launcher; a number of others also lined the stone walls.

“I see that it's larger,” said Nightwatcher in a tone that bordered on contemptuous.

“I'll meet you down there.” The intercom shut off immediately, and Nightwatcher began to move at a brisk pace forward, pulling his prisoner along by the arms.

“You are very lucky that Mordrax wants you alive,” he hissed, swiveling his bestial head around to look at her. “We do not generally appreciate members of the Resistance here.”

“I suppose you think that's merciful,” she shot back. “I would rather die than be imprisoned in a lifeless cell for the rest of my days. And so would you — I still know you, Toa Charon. More than I think you'd like.”

“The name's Nightwatcher,” the being responded as he strode towards a large metal gate. At each of its sides were two red-and-silver robots, and as Nightwatcher made for the gate without breaking his stride, an automated system activated and it opened. “And you don't know me, Shayla. Not anymore.”

“Then prove it,” she responded coolly. “You haven't killed me, after all. If you really were the cold-blooded murderer you pass off as, I would be dead already. After all, there is a significant reward for me dead, isn't there?”

“It's higher alive,” Nightwatcher spat. “They want to extract Resistance secrets from you.”

“You claim that greed is all that inspires you now?” she said. “I don't believe that for a second.”

“Not greed,” said the bounty hunter. “Revenge against my arch-foe.”

“So is that what you think this is?” she shot back, stopping in her tracks to look at him. Her two laser-shooting arms twitched. “Your entire bounty hunting career is just a plot for vengeance? And somehow, you actually think that amassing enough widgets is going to help you defeat an Omega Being?”

Nightwatcher didn't answer. Instead, his gaze had shifted, and he was now looking at the dragon-like being that was coming down the sand-worn steps of the building to meet them. His single crimson eye gleamed as if its owner had polished it regularly, and the large scar on the other side of his face was as apparent as ever in the blazing light of the sun.

“Why, hello, Nightwatcher,” said the being in the customary rasping tone that he had acquired when his vocal cords had been burned during the fight in Tetrack's chambers a year prior. “I'm glad to see you're here.”

“Dispense with the pleasantries, please,” said the bounty hunter briskly. “You're more than eight seconds slow.” Mordrax nodded. “I apologize. I was merely filing some paperwork regarding the... ah... recent incident when the intruders from the Threen-spawning grounds managed to escape.”

Nightwatcher raised an eyebrow. “Your security seems to be particularly lax lately. Perhaps I should instead take my prisoner to Slicer. The Guild's defenses are probably better equipped.”

“Oh, no,” Mordrax rasped. “Our prisons are perfectly secure.”

“I'm sure they are,” said Nightwatcher icily. “Now, at which point in this conversation will I be handed the large pile of widgets so I can be happily on my way?”

“Not yet,” said Mordrax, raising a mechanical finger. “First I must take you both to our new interrogation chamber. I assure you you'll like it, Nightwatcher.”

“And I assure you I won't,” said the Toa. “Now, please, give me the widgets.”

“It is on the way to the main vault,” Mordrax responded. “You can do one of those mental searches I know you enjoy should you wish it. You will find that I am telling the truth.”

Nightwatcher responded with a satisfied grunt and began taking the lead up the steps, pulling Shayla with him by her arms. Mordrax jumped in front and began to guide them through the passageway that opened up in front of them. Shayla looked around nervously, but made no attempt to break free; clearly, she knew that fighting certain opponents would be futile, and Nightwatcher was one of these.

The room that the three sentients entered was relatively small. Unlike the wall of the fortress, it was comprised completely of stone. The only thing inside it was a pool of a silver substance that looked somewhat like Energized Protodermis. Its surface was perfectly calm as they stepped up to it.

“Is this your new Shadowdermis?” said Nightwatcher in a guarded tone. His fingers flexed and then clenched tightly. For what reason Shayla was not sure, though it was certainly not from nervousness.

“Yes,” Mordrax answered in a proud tone. “It is the culmination of a hundred years of effort, infinitely more powerful than the original. With this substance — just this one pool — we can root out the Resistance at last and bring this war to an end.”

“Yes, yes,” said Nightwatcher, opening his mouth wide in a yawn. “Please, no more big speeches. Those can get rather old after some time.”

“Don't you understand?” said Mordrax, almost giddy by now. “Have you tried using your Aura powers on it? Have you seen the Shadowdermis 2.0 in the aura field?”

“Yes,” Nightwatcher answered. “Now hurry up and make your point. I am beginning to become bored.”

“It's a rupture, Nightwatcher!” the Kodax rasped in a way that could have passed off as a laugh. “I have synthesized a rupture in the aura field itself! Imagine!”

“You're going to interrogate her with this?” said Nightwatcher in what appeared to be genuine contempt this time.

“Precisely,” Mordrax answered.

A lone Odina Drone appeared at the doorway. Shayla craned her head farther in its direction, glad to see that Nightwatcher allowed her at least that much freedom, and saw that it was carrying a simple metal chair. She looked back at the Kodax in time to watch him make a clear gesture to the robot, and within a few seconds the Odina Drone had walked in, deposited the chair on the floor by the pool, and promptly walked out again.

“You may sit,” said Mordrax. Nightwatcher relinquished his hold on her chains, and for a brief moment she thought she was free. Then the reality of the situation came upon her, and she knew that Nightwatcher could stop her attempt to escape within half a second.

She tried to run anyway.

Shayla turned to the doorway and prepared to sprint away from the Imperial fortress as fast as her legs could take her, but all of a sudden found herself rooted to the spot, physically unable to take a step. Mordrax laughed loudly, a harsh, cold, obnoxious, almost unbearable noise. “You have to try better than that if you want to escape us!”

Nightwatcher was perfectly silent. She knew it was him that had done this; only he would be able to react to something before it even happened. She gritted her teeth in frustration, and, knowing there were no other options now, walked over towards the chair.

“Good,” said a clearly satisfied Mordrax.

“What do you want?” said Shayla as she sat.

Mordrax leaned over her from behind and whispered in her ear. “I want the total annihilation of your order. I want our takeover of the solar system to be complete. But for both of those things, I need to know: WHERE IS BROMINAX?”

“I don't know,” Shayla answered, quite honestly.

She expected Nightwatcher to intervene and explain to Mordrax that he was telling the truth, but he did not do so. Perhaps it was that he couldn't break through her mental block — it had been made by Brominax himself, after all, a Great Being — but then realized that he probably could have guessed it anyway. No, he was simply holding back from Mordrax, though she couldn't fully explain why.

Mordrax emitted a sound that would have been an annoyed hiss, but it came out more like a gargle. “You went to the Matoran Universe with him. You joined a secret organization there — the Order of Mata Nui, I believe it is called. Then my friend Velnax was kind enough to teleport you back here, and Nightwatcher was able to capture you before you could return to base, wherever that is. So where is your leader? I brought you to this isolated outpost for this purpose. Do not waste my time.” “I don't know.”

“Of course you don't.” Mordrax took a step forward, around Shayla's chair, and indicated the Shadowdermis pool. “You're not stupid enough to give me such information right now. If there's one thing I've learned in this war, you Resistance members never, ever go down without a fight, and you still put up a fight even when you've lost.”

He produced a small cup made of some sort of metal that Shayla hadn't notice before, reaching down and dipping it into the Shadowdermis pool. She began to wonder in earnest what Mordrax had in mind for her — no doubt, it was something very, very painful.

Mordrax brought the little metal cup up to eye level. The material, the Toa of Water noticed, was starting to bubble, and was making some sort of sizzling noise. “Now, Shayla—” He pronounced the name with distaste. “—I would like to let you know that this form of torture has never been used on a sentient being before. But if the results on non-sentient beings are counted, then if this doesn't get you to talk, I can guarantee that absolutely nothing in the universe can.

“Now,” he said, gesturing to the cup, “drink.”

Shayla shook her head in horror. She found herself completely paralyzed, though she didn't know if it was a result of fear or more of Nightwatcher's interference.

“DRINK!” shouted Mordrax, pressing it to her lips.

Shayla tried to shake her head again, but found herself completely paralyzed, feeling as if her body was moving against her will. Knowing what was coming next, she desperately tried to keep her mouth shut with every ounce of willpower, but Nightwatcher shattered her defenses like glass, and slowly, ever so slowly, she began to feel her mouth open. She knew now, any moment, the horrible substance would be pouring down her throat...

And then something incredible happened.

Mordrax's Shadowdermis-powered mechanical suit exploded in a ball of flame. The screaming Kodax dropped the cup and fell to the ground, rolling over to try to put out the flames that were suddenly engulfing his body. But it was no good, and he began to catch fire in earnest. His screeches resonated through the chamber, infinitely worse than his voice, and she saw that he was trying to clutch at her leg—

Then Nightwatcher's telekinetic hold on her dispersed as quickly as it had come, and she stood up from her seat, away from the reach of the Kodax. As she watched, his armor began to melt away, revealing the organic parts below, and he screeched even harder.

“Well,” said Nightwatcher, who looked quite satisfied with the sudden turn of events, “it certainly does not look like you are in a good condition to pay me.” With those words, he grabbed Shayla's still-cuffed wrists and began to drag her out of the building as Mordrax writhed around in agony. Two pairs of Odina Drones, which had rushed to investigate the source of the screaming, suddenly blocked their way, but Nightwatcher waved his hand and they neatly exploded.

“What happened?” asked Shayla as they started to run for the exit.

“The Shadowdermis that powered Mordrax's suit was annihilated,” said the bounty hunter in a voice that clearly indicated that he was not sorry at all for what had happened to him. “It is not my doing, though I would like to applaud the efforts of whoever did get rid of him.”

“Is Mordrax going to die?” she asked, attempting to dodge an energy bolt shot by an Odina Drone at them. However, it never so much as came close to her; Nightwatcher clearly had established some sort of protective energy field around them both.

“Most likely. I do not honestly care.”

“Why'd you save me?” said Shayla. She looked up ahead, past the swarms of attacking Odina Drones, and realized that the gate was closing. However, as they neared it, Nightwatcher simply accelerated, and with a swift hand motion he telekinetically blew the gate apart, sending shrapnel flying in every direction but theirs.

“Your life is hopefully worth some widgets to your organization,” said Nightwatcher, momentarily stopping as they crossed into the desert. Ignoring the laser bolts that pounded relentlessly at their invisible shield, the mutated Toa of Shadow clenched his open hand. Immediately, the entire fortress began compacting as it was gripped by a great force, and the walls were suddenly pushed together. As Shayla watched from outside, the roofs smashed in on top of the buildings, the walls began to shatter under the strain—

And then what was left of the structure was lifted into the air — foundations and all — and repeatedly smashed into the desert ground.

“Because if not,” finished the bounty hunter, a hint of a grin on his face as he began to teleport the two away, “your remains will be just as unrecognizable as this fortress.”

To be continued in Sea of Shadows...

Chapter 1Edit

Two months later...

The humidity of Daxia was carried away on the irregularly chilly breeze that slid gently through the island like a tendril of smoke. A dozen gray birds rode the gentle wind, peering down as they passed over the massive stone and metal structure that rose into the sky near the western shoreline and continued a ways south, until the wind brought them towards the Silver Sea and the island was only a memory in the birds' heads.

Had any of the birds managed to get past the fortress' defenses and enter the main building, there would be a chance that they would encounter a pair of figures clad in adaptive armor—one in a set of armor colored white and silver, the other green and blue—leading a large crowd of what looked like shorter versions of themselves through the gray halls. Those beings who were striding through the corridor stepped back against the walls to allow the group of Sacho Nuian Matoran to pass, and the strange procession continued forward unhindered until it passed through a great pair of twin doors and reached the massive chamber that made up Daxia's council room.

“We freed the Matoran!” said Toa Fairon, bowing his head in a sign of respect as he looked upon the council. The other followed suit, and they stood rigidly to attention as they waited to be addressed. The Matoran crowd behind them stood there, seeming to collectively fidget as if uncomfortable in this new environment that was so different from the prison cells where they had spent the last two months.

Helryx, a lean Toa of Water with scratched, battle-worn blue-black armor, stood up from her seat at the council table and walked over to the three Toa. “Good,” she said, nodding to them in approval as she looked them over. “You have done very well. At last, the final remnants of that horrible war with the Order of Darkness are accounted for.”

“I think this calls for a celebration,” said a voice nearby. Fairon looked to its source to see a strong, yet clearly aged, Toa-sized figure. His armor was a bright yellow, which was neatly contrasted by his white Akaku. He was known all across the Order of Mata Nui as Vinax, a respected Toa of Lightning veteran of the Dark Talon War and member of the Order council.

“A celebration?” said Helryx. “No, a promotion. The two of you especially deserve it. You've done more to fight the Order of Darkness than the rest of us put together.”

More than two months had passed since Fairon and Rantu had defeated Makuta Velnax in a final duel on the island of Xa Nui. Since then, they had gone on various missions to different parts of the Matoran universe, freeing Matoran, Intellians, and Reptisapeans from Order of Darkness prisons scattered across multiple islands. The last of them had now been freed after a lengthy battle with Velnax's robot minions.

Curiously, the leaders of this particular Brotherhood of Makuta splinter faction had been nowhere to be found in the recent conflicts. After Velnax had escaped with his minions during the climax of their battle, when Fairon had single-handedly managed to destroy the Shadowdermis substance that interfered with teleportation, several rumors had sprung up. Some said he was dead; others, that he was injured and was spending his time trying to recuperate from his wounds and amass a new army. Fairon suspected that he was only waiting to make his next move, whatever that might be.

Whatever had happened to him, Fairon wanted no more than to find the cruel murderer of Dorex and give him the fate he deserved.

“So,” whispered Rantu to Fairon, “what do you think will happen to these Matoran?”

“They'll have their memories wiped and be returned to their homelands,” said Fairon. “A pity they won't remember us.”

“Or as Kondius would say, 'Oh, happy-luck. The short-Toa will ever-forget my heroic-deeds!'”

At a nod from Helryx, Vinax led the rest of the council members in standing to attention and leading the Matoran back into the hall. Helryx's face visibly darkened as the last of them left and she turned to face the two Toa. The cracks and scratches on her mask seemed even more prominent now that she looked at them that way.

“Please,” said Helryx. “Sit down.”

She gestured to the council table sitting in the middle of the room. There were six chairs on each side, one for each of the council members, and one at the very head which was reserved for Helryx. This was the place where the thirteen-member group of leaders would regularly meet — unless, of course, a major conflict was taking place, in which case the war room would be used.

Fairon looked questioningly at Rantu, who shrugged. Turning to Helryx, Fairon nodded, choosing a seat at the edge of the table. Rantu took the seat opposite to his, and Fairon couldn't help but notice that he was looking around fervently, eager to take in every detail about the place. Helryx took up her head seat, and both Toa turned to face her.

“I assume you remember your recent mission to Xia, where you found the abandoned Order of Darkness base. Preliminary investigations showed that it had been evacuated only hours before.”

Fairon nodded, wondering where Helryx was going with the conversation.

She leaned closer to them both. “What you probably don't remember is the classified information that I am about to share with you. We found a transmitter in the wreckage that made several communications with someone on this island immediately prior to the time of evacuation.”

“On this island?” Rantu burst out. “Are you saying—”

“Yes,” said Helryx. “There is a traitor in the Order of Mata Nui.”

Fairon was silent—a traitor was a serious matter, after all, and was clearly not something to be taken lightly. Rantu, meanwhile, gasped in surprise. Helryx passed stern eyes over them both, looking as if she expected a response, so Fairon cleared his throat and continued.

“How is that possible?” Fairon responded. “Don't all Order members undergo regular mental scanning?”

“No,” she answered. “Not all of them. We can't scan the minds of beings going on covert operations. Your brains haven't been scanned since you defeated Velnax, one month ago. We've constantly been sending you on missions.”

“Are you implying that you think we're the traitors?” Rantu growled. Out of the corner of his eye, Fairon watched him as he turned warily towards Helryx.

“No,” said Helryx. “We monitored you closely during the last few missions. We would know if you betrayed us. What I'm implying is that someone who knew about your missions sold us out.”

“But only the council has access to all the mission data!” Rantu exploded.

“Exactly,” Helryx answered calmly.

There was a moment of stunned silence.

“The council?” Fairon raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? You think that the traitor is in the council?”

“I've considered all the options,” she conceded with a sigh, “and there are no other reasonable probabilities. We are being threatened from the inside.” She fixed her gaze intently on them both. “I want you to watch Brominax.”

Fairon didn't even bother to hide his emotions this time as he gasped in horror. “Brominax would never betray us! He couldn't—!”

“I'm not saying he did,” said Helryx, raising her hand. “All I'm saying is that we need to consider all possible opportunities. Remember—trust no one on the council, no one, until we find out who the traitor is. We need to keep our eyes open, all of us.”

“But why us?” protested Rantu. “Why not confide this knowledge to someone else?”

“Because the two of you are closer to him than the rest of us—after all, you did rescue him—and are better positioned to watch him.

“It is also my belief,” she continued, gazing sternly at them, “that the traitor, whoever he or she may be, is planning to frame someone else for their actions. We cannot allow that to happen. If we let them think that I suspect you, they might let their guard down and make it easier for us to find them. Therefore, it must appear as if I don't trust you.

“I'll send you on missions separately from now on, so it looks as if I'm trying to keep the two of you apart. I'm also going to pair you with some others, though they will not know about the plan. I don't want you to reveal the details of this to anyone.”

“When do these missions begin?” questioned Fairon.

“Immediately,” Helryx answered. “There are unconfirmed reports of new Order of Darkness activity on Xa Nui and Nynrah. Rantu, you can go with Brominax to the Ghosts' bastion; Fairon, you'll be paired with Harini to investigate the Order's doings on Xa Nui. I don't suppose I have to let you know how important it is that you tell no one about the details of this, especially now. These are troubled times.

“You may go,” she added, standing and walking away from her table to indicate that the two Toa should follow suit. Reluctantly, Fairon stood and begn to walk out of the chamber, Rantu at his side. Once they were back in the corridor and safely out of Helryx's hearing range, Rantu spoke.

“What do you think this means?”

Fairon grimaced. “I don't know, but this can't be good. Especially if the Order of Darkness is back on Xa Nui.”

“I wonder what they're up to,” said Rantu.

“As do I.” Fairon quickened his pace. “And I'm afraid we're bound to find out soon enough.”


The Bounty Hunters' Guild was the most prominent bounty hunting organization in the known universe, so large that it made the Dark Hunters look like a penniless bunch of Matoran living on the street trying to sell their services to passerby. They operated by sending two bounty hunters after a target at the same time, which was intended to put pressure on both of them to find the target first. Treachery and backstabbing were, of course, encouraged. Normally, one bounty hunter won, being elevated to a higher position in the unofficial ranking of the Guild, and the other being forced into shame, until each was sent to another mission.

Rank One was mostly made up of amateurs, making a futile attempt to make a living by doing something they weren't very good at. Most of them never survived their first mission. They were usually considered expendable, and sometimes, just for fun, someone would pair a Rank One hunter with a Rank Three or higher and watch the beings they were supposed to be hunting beat the Karzahni out of them.

Rank Twos were mostly part-time workers, Matoran and Agori usually, every once in a while a rogue Toa or a Glatorian. These made up the greatest percentage of members, as these — unlike the Rank Ones — actually had reasonable life expectancies. They were not, however, often sent out to combat Resistance members; these were sent after low-profile targets such as Imperial political enemies.

Rank Threes were decent fighters, not good enough to combat most Gigas Magna Resistance members, but valuable all the same. these were almost all either massively powerful thugs or somewhat successful ex-freelancers or mercenaries, often sent to foreign planets to keep their populations from rebelling. This was not technically bounty hunting, but as the Guild served as the unofficial military branch of the Empire, and they were paid anyway, most of them didn't really care.

Ranks Four and Five were the elite, highly skilled mercenaries able to fight anything from Krahka to even, in some cases, Great Beings. Most of these were born fighters; powerful beings with great access to elemental powers, great swordsmen with legendary battle skills, and quite a few of both. These were the highest classes (unless, of course, you counted Nightwatcher, who was in a class of his own).

The skinny Rotaxian from Bota Magna striding down the entrance corridor in the Order of Darkness' Xa Nui fortress was a Rank Four. He was also quite angry, and for most beings it is a very bad thing to anger a Rank Four bounty hunter if your intention is to remain alive.

The reason Varzinox was angry was because the one time he had decided to go freelance, he just had to be brought to his employer by a bossy green-armored Kodax who didn't look like he knew the first thing about bounty hunting and an (admittedly strong-looking) Makuta who didn't look like he could handle a Cordak blaster right. Yet here they were, together, being led down a hall by a small Lightning Rahkshi to whoever it was that had summoned them there.

“This had better be good,” he murmured, clenching his teeth in irritation, “or someone's throat is going to get ripped out.”

A major difference between Rank Fours and Rank Fives is that some Rank Fours are not as disciplined, meaning that if the bounty hunter becomes angry at his employer, it usually takes about the equivalent of a small city's army, navy, and air forces to bring him down.

He was stopped short by the Kodax, who grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him around to face him. Varzinox made no move to attack, merely looking at him as if only half-interested while the being hissed, “What did you say, Rotaxian? Tell me now, or...” His silver wings flapping in what he clearly assumed to be a dramatic fashion, the Kodax motioned briefly to his sheathed sword.

Varzinox snorted aloud. Such ridiculous displays might seem threatening to his escort, but the same did not apply to a seasoned bounty hunter. He had worked for the Guild for sixty-five thousand standard years, having seen too much of the same over time to be even remotely impressed, not to mention intimidated.

“I have nothing to hide,” Varzinox responded, not so much as moving anything but his right arm, which he used to tilt his wide-brimmed hat slightly to make his face more visible. If the Kodax wanted to play a little game of subtle intimidation, then he was all for it. “I was merely threatening you.”

“Is that right?” growled the Makuta, who had stopped walking and was now staring at the bounty hunter with a predatory look in his eye. “Then threaten us to our faces, and see how it goes for you!”

“Okay,” said Varzinox in the annoyingly polite tone that he had developed over centuries of usage. “I am going to punch you in the mouth.”

Both the Makuta and the Kodax looked skeptical about this until Varzinox took the liberty to take one of his long, skinny arms—minus his sword-staff—and bring it back, then forward rapidly until his fist finished its journey directly in the middle of the red Makuta's jaw. The response was immediate; the Makuta was knocked backwards onto the smooth metal floor, while the Kodax decided to abandon his attempt at intimidation and drew his weapon to point it at him.

“You dare attack a member of the Order of Darkness?” the Kodax hissed, peering down at him and clenching his teeth in barely sustained anger.

“Why, yes, I do,” Varzinox answered, meeting his gaze evenly, a mocking smile spreading across his lips like a slowly growing puddle of water. “Do you want me to do it again?”

The Makuta stood up, wiping a trickle of blood from his mouth and staring at Varzinox angrily. “I suppose you feel proud of yourself, bounty hunter,” he growled.

“Again,” said Varzinox, “of course I do. There was some witty saying that Nightwatcher came up with when someone paired him with a bounty hunter and he fused him to the bounty... something about how intolerable it is to be in the company of fools, the way it makes you want to take your anger out on them, and the satisfaction you achieve when you do.”

The Makuta was about to spit back a response when the Kodax stepped in between the two beings. “Ralox, that's enough. If we take it out on the bounty hunter now, then there won't be enough of him to take back to Velnax.”

Varzinox snorted again. “You underestimate me. If you're so confident of your own abilities, then go ahead and prove it.”

“Oh, no, you don't,” said the tall Kodax. “We're all going to Velnax together, and I am quite sure that he will not appreciate it very much if he finds either of you have suddenly been injured during a fight in the hallway.”

Ralox suddenly moved as if to punch Varzinox back. The Rotaxian prepared himself to sidestep, grab the Makuta's hand, and then pull him to the ground using his own momentum, but the punch never came. The green Kodax—whom Varzinox was now beginning to take a serious dislike to—had gotten there first, and suddenly Ralox had landed face-first on the floor.

“Will you please stop trying to ruin my fun?” Varzinox glared at him icily. “There. I said please. Now, er—”

Valtrahk.”

“Valtrahk.” He saw that Ralox was getting up again, and Varzinox grinned even wider. He liked the idea of a highly trained Makuta being so easily provoked. “Is there really such a problem with me taking my anger out on him?”

“Yes.”

Varzinox sighed mockingly and stepped aside, facing the Lightning Rahkshi guide again. Ralox had exhausted his enjoyment value for the moment, and besides, the sooner he was away from this Valtrahk, the better. “Oh, very well. Take me to Velnax.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw both Valtrahk and Ralox glare at him angrily, but he ignored them. He didn't care what other beings thought of him so long as they hired him, unless he found it enjoyable to anger them.

They continued forward at a more rapid pace than before. Varzinox's eyes barely flickered as he examined the labels on the doors that branched off of the corridor until they caught upon one that said WEAPONS DEVELOPMENT FACILITY and began to linger there. He quickened his pace ever so slightly, hoping somehow that if something inside there exploded, he might be able to survive the shockwave. Luckily, neither of his companions noticed.

The hallway began to near its end, and the Rotaxian glimpsed an exceptionally large metal door at the end. It had no label of any sort—presumably, everyone in the fortress knew what it was—and a pair of Makuta stood by it, one on each side. As the group approached, they stood rigidly to attention and saluted.

Varzinox almost laughed out loud. The two Makuta were even more pathetic-looking than his escorts. The black-armored one with a Shelek seemed almost too skinny to support his own head, while the other was covered with a layer of silver armor that almost succeeded in making him look competent. He momentarily considered blasting them aside for fun, but decided that if he was going to take his anger out on someone, it would be his employer.

“Come in,” said the skinny one, making a feeble attempt to pretend that he wasn't intimidated. Varzinox looked at him reproachfully while the two of them opened the door. “Velnax is expecting you.”

“Excellent.” Valtrahk's pompous tone filled Varzinox's audioreceptors again, and he almost defied his better instincts by punching him in the mouth in front of his employer.

His employer.

Within the relatively small and dimly illuminated chamber, a powerfully built Kodax awaited them, sitting in a chair and idly tapping his claws on the armrests. He may have been cool and collected, but the powerful muscles visible beneath his armor and long scar that ran across his cheek betrayed him as a real warrior—and there was more to it, too, than external appearance; he had some sort of powerful air about him that Varzinox could not help but respect. No doubt, he had fought in the Kodax War, and probably an impressive number of wars after that. Varzinox wondered how he had gotten so far from Gigas Magna, but decided, as he had with Valtrahk, that it didn't really matter.

He did, however, reconsider his decision to take his anger out on him.

“Ah, Ralox, Valtrahk,” said Velnax, looking at them each in turn with a pair of cold green eyes that Varzinox had an urge to flinch from. “I see you have returned with the bounty hunter. Where did you find him?”

Gigas Magna, my lord,” said Ralox, kneeling down. Varzinox noticed that the Kodax and Lightning Rahkshi were also kneeling, and briefly wondered whether he should kneel as well. “We managed to... coerce him into leaving the planet for this assignment.”

“I assume you were not followed?”

“Of course not.”

“Good.” Velnax raised his eyes and seemed to study Varzinox for the first time. He raised his finger slightly in acknowledgment as he spoke. “Finally, a competent fighter. Those two Makuta you saw guarding the door are Kutrax and Kunaku. Stupid creatures, they couldn't even defeat two Toa, so I posted them on guard duty as a punishment. Tell me, Rotaxian; what is your name?”

“They call me Varzinox,” said the bounty hunter through clenched teeth.

“Well, at least the Guild got rid of its useless code names,” said the Kodax smoothly. “Tell me, how is Slicer? It's been several years since I saw him last.”

“Get to the point,” spat the Rotaxian. He wondered if acting hostile towards his employer was was a good idea, but the thought came too late to stop him.

Velnax, however, seemed unperturbed. He leaned forward out of his chair to look at the bounty hunter. “You see, Varzinox, the Order of Darkness is having a number of... problems... with a Great Being known as Brominax. I assume you've heard of him?”

Varzinox nodded. He had fought against the Great Being in two separate wars; Brominax was known very well among the Guild's members, especially the older ones. “Of course. What does this have to do with my mission?” “He is here in the Matoran universe on a secret mission for the Enforcers,” Velnax explained. “This is an opportunity too great to waste. I want you to kill him.”

The Rotaxian was too stunned to answer, so Velnax continued. “You will be backed by a small force of Rahkshi, of course—all we can spare—but you must be the one to lead them.”

“Why me?” asked Varzinox in surprise, wondering if his abilities would be nearly enough to defeat a member of such a powerful species. “Why can't you send one of your minions?”

Velnax suddenly stiffened as if the bounty hunter had said something wrong, but relaxed again almost as quickly. “We are currently... preoccupied with other matters. We can spare very little of our forces for this task.”

“But if it's as important as you say—” Varzinox spoke before he could stop himself.

“We cannot spare any of our forces,” said Velnax, making it very clear that it was the end of the discussion. “Besides, your reputation precedes you. You are one of the most accomplished bounty hunters in the Guild, are you not?

Varzinox swallowed. Probably, this was an immensely bad decision, but it was too late now to correct it. It had already been made for him before he entered the Xa Nui gates.

“How much?”

“You bounty hunters,” Velnax laughed. “That's the first thing you want to know. Well, we have quite a large amount of funds at our disposal, so let's say... ten thousand widgets?”

Varzinox would have gaped at him in shock had he not been trying as hard as possible to avoid looking like a fool. Instead, he merely nodded. “Dead or alive?”

“Dead, of course,” said Velnax. “He's no use to us alive. Not anymore, at any rate. Oh, and if there's a Toa with him...”

“Yes?”

“Kill him and you get an extra two thousand.”

Varzinox nodded. “Of course, sir. I shall leave immediately.”

The bounty hunter stepped to his feet and turned around, hardly noticing as Velnax gestured for Ralox and Valtrahk to follow. As he walked outside the chamber as calmly as he thought possible, inside, he was shaking with glee. Ten thousand! He had never gotten nearly that much on any mission. This was going to be a good day.

If he survived...

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