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An Even Exchange

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I am the Makuta of Stelt.

I keep this record not for vanity’s sake. I keep it as a record of all transactions I have made, what goods for what services, to whom, amidst all the other details of such exchanges. It helps me remember the few debts I owe to others… and the many that are owed me.

Deals are, all things considered, what keeps this universe running. Everything in life, from the physics of protodermis to the movements of nations, is expressed in a series of even exchanges, and our society knows this, as is reflected in our many sayings and bits of knowledge. ‘Time is money.’ ‘What goes around comes around.’ ‘Destiny answers every action with consequence.’

Throughout all barter and trade, there is no escaping this equilibrium. Oh, it is easy enough for any merchant to overcharge you, but that is not unfair. The swindled customer pays with their money for both the useless purchase and their lapse of judgment. The bigger the lapse, the more time, money, or effort is expended -- and the more upset feels the fool when all is said and done.

I am a master of deals and exchanges. One would hope so, for I reign over the center of all trade in our world: Stelt. Our connections extend to the smog-filled metropolis of Xia and the bustling city of Metru Nui, and to stranger places still -- mysterious islands lost to history, the secluded workshops of the Nynrah Ghosts, and even, I suspect, the mystical foundries of Artakha. Here, where the law is strong but flexible, you truly can buy anything... though you may not pay for it with widgets.

Yes, deals are the arithmetic on which our universe functions. And if one knows how to control those exchanges -- to ensure that one pays little but purchases much -- well, one could do mostly anything. I keep this record to track all of my transactions, gains, and losses, for all but the most trivial will someday factor into my grand plan.

Such thoughts were on my mind as I reclined in my dark chamber, counting out a series of widgets paid to me by the arena for the renewal of their slave-holding license. Strong, robust slaves were a valuable commodity, and entirely wasted on the arena, who threw dozens after dozens of perfectly good ones into glorified deaths for the amusement of the crowds. Still, it was their money, not mine, and I had not outlawed careless wasting of potential servitors, so I allowed them to continue.

What concerned me about the arena was not their practices, but rather, the intrigue unfolding behind their most famous champion. Gladiator was a massive creature, his armor stuffed to bursting with muscle and might, with a multitude of long and sharp talons ready to grasp and shred his opponents in a most spectacular manner. He was a peak physical specimen, a crowd favorite… and an illegal fugitive and spy.

Oh, I knew all about Gladiator’s escape. It had been a quite sensational story -- he lost control during a match and went on a destructive rampage, incurring both great expenses and great publicity, none of it good, for the arena. For them, it was a catastrophe; for me, an opportunity. After his handlers abjectly failed to contain him, Gladiator roared through the market district, destroying several weapons shipments I’d had my eyes on. The loss of the shipments would be compensated by the arena’s hefty fee -- and their surrender of the slave in question. As I mentioned, I hate wasted potential.

However, it seems someone else had their eyes on the same prize, and weren’t as committed to doing things by the book. While I was going over the legal documents with the arena owner, Gladiator vanished from his cell, and was not seen again for a good fourteen millennia. My officers -- those of them who were still alive after his escape -- investigated the crime, but came up empty-handed. I let the matter slide. There were greater profits to be made at the time.

A few years ago, Gladiator was returned to the arena by three Dark Hunters. They claimed to have confiscated him from a mysterious third party, which had been responsible for his abduction, and demanded the reward money. I knew it immediately as a ploy. Gladiator had been inducted by the Dark Hunters, and he was here to carry out some nefarious task. The arena had made another lapse in judgment, and I would see to it that they paid a price -- but first, I would settle the debts owed me by Gladiator.

I found Gladiator in the arena, training against an Exo-Toa, one of several dozen I had sold to the arena last month. Trying to ignore the painful sounds of costly machinery being disemboweled, I crossed to the arena owner, who was watching the proceedings with a more cautious eye.

“M-my lord Makuta!” he stammered, sinking into a bow. “W-what brings you here?”

“Cease your trembling,” I replied, tossing him a parcel of widgets. “I am not here to take Gladiator from you. I simply want to talk.”

Gladiator saw me coming, but he couldn’t dodge my magnetic pulse, which locked up his limbs and sent him toppling to the ground. As he lay sprawled on the sandy rock, I set my boot on his head and produced a stone tablet.

“I didn’t break any of your precious laws,” he snarled, “but I can break something else of yours if you like.”

“In general, threats work best when you are not at the other party’s mercy,” I replied.

“Get out,” Gladiator growled. “The Dark Hunters returned me, fair and square. I’m back in the arena, no funny business about it. You have no right to be here.”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” I gestured to the tablet I held in my gauntlet. “Under Steltian law, when investigating the escape of a slave, a government official has every right to take the slave in question into custody, no matter how much time has passed since the escape. And who am I but the highest of all government officials?”

Gladiator thought that over for a moment. “Go ahead and grill me. Ask me how I got out of here. I won’t give you any answers, no matter what you do to me.”

“That’s fortunate,” I said, lowering my voice, “because the question I want answered doesn’t pertain to your escape at all.”

(Not too long ago, my Rahi spies had reported some very interesting news: after a thousand years of absence, the Matoran of Metru Nui had returned to the island city, along with six Turaga, seven Toa… and one very important mask.)

“Go to Karzahni, Makuta. I’m not telling you anything.”

“Time is money, slave, and you are wasting both of mine. But I will give you one more chance to reconsider. The answer to this question is worth a lot to me. Far more than widgets… more, even, than solving the ‘mystery’ of your escape all those years ago.”

Gladiator’s tone switched from growling reticence to wary curiosity. “If I answer this question… you’ll call off the investigation?”

“Yes,” I said, withdrawing my boot from his head, “and I’ll do you one better. If you should happen to... ‘go missing’... with your Dark Hunter friends in a few months, I will remember the service you did me this day. You can sail away from here without even a warrant out for your lawful return.”

“...I’m listening,” said Gladiator.

I leaned in close, keeping my magnetic hold as strong as ever -- stronger, even, enough to cause Gladiator some pain. “Where. is. Voporak?”

~~~~~

Voporak was my masterpiece, my proudest achievement as a Makuta. Oh, I had made my fair share of Rahi and other experiments -- the frost beetles, for example, and the creature later called Minion. But none of them were quite so important, powerful, or majestic as Voporak. He was a being entirely attuned to the flow of time in our universe, which afforded him a variety of terrifying powers… and made him integral to my plans.

The study of the Kanohi had been a profitable venture for Matoran scholars since time immemorial. It was their work that allowed the development of advanced mask powers, such as my own. And their work concluded that our universe would eventually see the rise of a third Legendary Kanohi: the Mask of Time.

I needed that mask. I had always known that; now I needed it more than ever. Teridax’s plan was nearing fruition; soon, he would travel to the place beneath Metru Nui to usurp command of the universe. He had promised the Brotherhood an exchange: we would help him attain ultimate power, and he would reward us with positions of power in a new age.

Only I saw the truth of this arrangement. Once ultimate power was his, Teridax would need the Brotherhood no longer, and we would pay the price: our lives in exchange for blind trust of our power-hungry leader. Unless, of course, one of us possessed power to rival his. Teridax would control the universe, but I would control time. Attack me, and he would risk the disruption of the time flow, throwing his reign into utter, illogical chaos. I would have earned my survival -- no, more than survival -- my position as Teridax’s equal in the rule of two Makuta.

And so I sought out Voporak, following the best directions Gladiator could give. And thus, accompanied by a retinue of a dozen Exo-Toa, several handpicked Rahkshi, and one very skilled energy hound, I traveled outside the known universe, to the island of Mata Nui.

The island was a paradise that should never have existed, where our esteemed leader had wasted a millennium playing with children. Despite Teridax’s folly, I could not help but marvel at the beauty of the landscape. It was quiet, too; the Matoran had left this place some months ago, leaving the place truly wild and free for the few Rahi that remained.

My energy hound led the way. Shortly after bringing it into being, I had introduced it to the scent of Voporak. Obviously, I could not produce his exact aroma, but I did as well as I could, gathering his old possessions as a clan leader, as well as the laboratory equipment I had used to modify him. It seemed this had been sufficient, as the hound faithfully led us to my creation.

The trail plunged into the heart of the Bohrok nest, into a deep, dark cavern lit by the eldritch glow of a protodermis cage. Inside writhed the two queens of the swarms, the Bahrag, hissing and snarling at the enigmatic cube that hovered before their prison. A ruby-armored Bohrok was sprawled near the cube, among scraps of armor from Exo-Toa and Bohrok alike. Some bio away stood Voporak himself, tracing wisps of golden energy in the air.

He had not heard our approach; my Rahkshi’s power had blanketed our patrol in utter silence. Now, at my command, my daughter lowered her staff, and I spoke.

“Voporak.”

He turned, lazily, and regarded my group with an inscrutable expression. He gave off the relaxed confidence that true power affords, but he knew he was looking on the being that had given him that power -- I could take it away just as well.

“The Vahi was used here,” he said slowly. “Sloppily. Without skill. But still, its power reverberates.” I could hear his longing, see it in the way he caressed the air that had felt the touch of time.

“The mask lies in Metru Nui, guarded by a handful of Matoran and one naive Toa team,” I said. “Why have you not stormed the city and claimed your prize?”

Voporak curled his claws into a fist and snarled. “The Shadowed One forbids it. You and your kind covet the mask for yourselves, and he is cautious.”

“Cowardly, I would say. Has one scuffle with Teridax struck such fear into his heart?”

Voporak whirled, rhotuka blazing in his claws. The Rahkshi moved to guard me, though I knew they would afford little protection against his power. “The Shadowed One fears no Makuta! Least of all you. Give me one reason I should not age you and your spawn to dust, right now.”

“We share a common enemy,” I said. “You and I both know that Teridax craves the Vahi, but only I know when his careful gaze will be lifted. Help me, and I can help you.”

A conflicted snarl on his face, Voporak lowered his rhotuka, though it still remained at the ready. “I remember what happened the last time I made a deal,” he said bitterly.

“Yes -- I gifted you with incredible power. But it is not everything.” I left the matter hanging in the air. The Kanohi Vahi was within his grasp, and Voporak knew it.

“What do you ask for in return?”

“I should think it would be obvious. I want the Vahi,” I said. “I will tell you when to act, and in return, you will bring the mask to my residence on Stelt. Once you have handed it over, I will supply you with whatever transport and supplies you request, and you can leave my island in peace.”

“You are delusional,” Voporak hissed. “To surrender the mask to a Makuta would dishonor me in the eyes of the Shadowed One.”

With a glimmer of thought, I gave strength to the shadows of the room, and darkness crawled across the Bahrag’s cage. “Little one,” I growled, disemboweling the felled Bohrok with tendrils of shadow, “I made you what you are today. I can do far worse than dishonor you.”

It really made no difference to me whether he turned over the Vahi of his own will or not, and Voporak knew it. He saw the energy hound, drawing in his scent and memorizing his unique energy signature, and knew there was no place to hide. Bring the Vahi to me, and he would live to see another day. Bring it to the Shadowed One, and he would bring the wrath of Stelt to the Dark Hunters’ hidden isle. One way or another, I would have my payment.

“...Very well,” Voporak sighed, hanging his head. “On my honor, I will bring you the Vahi. But do not think for a moment I will forget this, Makuta.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I smiled. Of course, shortly after Voporak handed me the Vahi, Teridax would assume control and do me the favor of wiping out the Dark Hunters -- Voporak included. Until then, Voporak would follow my instructions. “Soon, the Great Spirit will die, and live again. Teridax will make his way to a place beyond the known universe, where he must remain to carry out his plan. Wait some weeks after the resurrection, and then will be the time to strike.”

Voporak nodded in understanding. With nothing more to say, I turned my thoughts to my retinue and willed us back to Stelt. As I departed the nest, I could see hatred gleaming in Voporak’s golden eyes. No doubt he was already formulating some plan for how to strike back at me… a plan that he would never have the time to carry out.

~~~~~

The deal was done, and the pieces had begun to fall into place. I returned to my estate on Stelt and began my preparations to wield the Mask of Time. Kanohi scholars had correctly predicted the mask’s creation; now I studied their notes and conclusions on its function. The successful use of a Legendary Mask would require great willpower and a fundamental understanding of the power it controlled. In short, I had much study before me.

My studying was not without its interruptions. A few weeks later, Gladiator disappeared mysteriously into the night, causing the arena owner some distress. Lacking the patience to create an alibi, I had him executed for his general incompetence. I hear the new arena owner has poured most of her funds into doubling the guard; whether this is to keep the slaves in or to keep me out, I know not, but I really couldn’t care less. Soon enough, I will have all of time at my command, and then I will need not bother with the arena’s antics.

I had not seen the last of my interruptions, however. Not a few months later, a trader had the audacity to demand a personal audience with me. He claimed that his most prized boat had been stolen by a group of criminals, including Roodaka herself. The trader demanded that I send my officers to recapture the boat before it got too far south, but I couldn’t be bothered with the bizarre affairs of common merchants. Time is money, after all. It made no difference to me if one boat and a few miscreants wandered off to sea.

The time is nearly at hand. Mata Nui’s resurrection was only a month ago -- or was it two? Down here with only the tablets for company, time seems slow and fast simultaneously. No matter. Soon, I will be the master of how long any task takes.

Of course, this studying would be more easily done without all these condemned interruptions. There is a tremendous racket echoing from the street; if I didn’t know better, I’d say a Tahtorak had been loosed in the market district. I suppose I had better go and investigate...

~~~~~

The ground shakes, and my palace trembles. What in darkness’ name is going on out there? Quickly, I set down my stylus and hide my tablets within their protective container. It would not do to have them crushed by the tremors of some minor quake.

As I stride through the halls, I am thrown by a crashing explosion. I can hear and feel the palace shudder and crumble. Dimly, I can sense my daughters dying outside, though their deaths are not from impact -- they are being… eaten?

A burst of disruption scatters the rubble blocking my path, and I rise into the shattered entrance of my estate. I see quickly the source of this confusion: a gargantuan, scarlet dragon stands tall in the street, buildings and Steltians strewn around it.

“Ah. I had heard the Kanohi Dragon was recently loosed,” I recall, activating my power to control wild beasts -- truly, one of a Makuta’s most helpful abilities. “Back to thy kennel on Xia, overgrown lizard.”

I exert my will over the dragon, bidding it return to its prison. I wait a moment for my command to take hold. And another. Any moment now…

An enormous bellow erupts from the dragon, a sonic pulse so low in pitch that buildings are leveled and I am thrown to the dented stairs beneath me. Any lesser creature would have been deafened, but as I begin to rise from the Makuta-shaped hole in the stairs, I process the immense noise and realize that it carries within it two words: You fool.

“You’re… not… the Kanohi… Dragon…” I gasp, rising to my feet.

“Of course not. I am its maker,” proclaims the dragon, “and your ruler, in days past. My form may be different, but look on me and know me for Makuta Miserix!”

“This is -- preposterous -- I -- we thought you dead!” I stammer. Then, thinking better of it, I add, “But -- that is no matter. You have returned just in time. Teridax needs to be stopped, or we will all be doomed!”

“So said I when he called the convocation,” Miserix growls. “Yet you did not stand with me. No, do not give me excuses. I could read your mind to verify your claims, but I need not.”

I can see the shape of this. Miserix, however he survived, is here to revenge himself on Teridax. “Do you want information? I can supply it,” I say quickly. “What do you offer in return?” I add reflexively, and immediately regret it.

Miserix leans in close, smoke curling from his fiery maw. “You are a despicable weasel, but since you have such a penchant for deals, I will strike one with you now. Tell me where Teridax is, and in return, I will not tear you limb from limb, as I am tempted to do.”

My mind races. I know a promise against dismemberment means nothing; there are a thousand ways Miserix could kill me right now. “Just knowing where Teridax is won’t be enough. He’s made preparations, but I know some of his plans. You’ll need me to -- ”

“I only need one answer from you, rat. Where -- is -- Teridax??”

My heart sinks, or it would if I had one. I need a plan of escape, and quickly, but that I do not have. An attack from a fellow Makuta was never anticipated. Miserix is an unknown variable that has swooped in at the last possible moment -- how was I supposed to have planned for that?

The moments slow to a crawl, even as thoughts dance at lightning speed through my head. None of them carry a coherent plan. Light and thunder, thinking on my feet has never been my specialty!

“The Core Processor,” I spit, “beneath the Metru Nui Coliseum. He is there, but I -- ”

“You have supplied your end of the bargain,” Miserix nods. “And as I am a Makuta of my word, I shall uphold mine.”

A crimson tendril of energy leaps from Miserix’s chest, and in a fraction of an instant, I am seized.

Miserix’s essence is a roiling cauldron of black rage, stemming from a crimson core of pride and lost authority. Above all else, the thought of Teridax’s demise is overpowering… overwhelming.

Within the maelstrom, I sense the remnants of my slain Rahkshi, and -- Spiriah -- among others. At the sight of Spiriah’s crushed desire for revenge, I remember bitterly my designs for the Mask of Time -- potential now lost forever.

I just… didn’t have… enough… time.

Ebb i ng…

F ad i ng…

~~~~~

Beneath a crimson Steltian sky, Voporak walked in the remnants of a once-grand estate, a bundle of cloth clutched close to his chest. As he strode, stone turned to rubble and rubble to dust, clearing a path through the broken building.

A shattered doorway peered into a darkened laboratory. Voporak shuddered at the sight, for it carried painful memories. This was the place of his death and birth, simultaneously, in this shadowed place of vials and viruses. The virus vat was long empty now. All for the better.

Another corridor brought him to the study. This had been ransacked some days before: drawers and chests were strewn on the ground, and any hint of money or wealth stolen away into the markets. Absent was an ebon stylus, a preserved Rahi, and a stock of rare Kanohi, all claimed by Stelt’s ravenous merchants.

Yet one treasure remained, within a protosteel box. The lock’s combinations were too many to bypass, and its metallic hide too thick to pierce -- but not too strong for Voporak’s power. It rusted and disintegrated to reveal within it a stack of tablets, all carved in the same meticulous hand. Urged on by sentiment, Voporak took a seat and began to read.

"The project is complete, and it is well done indeed. Very few remnants of the original being remain in its mind, but instead, a single-minded focus on the ebb and flow of time. Gone, too, is the clan leader’s willful authority, replaced with the weak-willed drive of a follower. Sidorak did well to recommend me this subject; in exchange, I shall see if I cannot arrange a job for him with the Brotherhood. That is only fair."

For some hours yet, Voporak read, until he had devoured the last sentence. He then gathered up the tablets and crossed to the laboratory, ignoring the revulsion that shuddered down his spine. Here, at the work desk, had been scribed the formulas and recipes that gave him his new life. Here, in the harness near the vat, had a proud clan leader become a devoted servant. Here, in the dungeon, had a being of time energy been born.

The hiss of a Rahkshi echoed from the street. Presumably, some merchant had been caught hiding Toa or Order members, and would soon be paid their due.

Voporak set the tablets down on the desk and turned away, clutching the Vahi close. The Makuta of Stelt had given him power and purpose, in exchange for his former life. Now he held the Vahi, Mask of Time itself, the artifact that gave him meaning. He would be sure to make good use of it.

After all, that was only fair.