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Cast of Characters

  • Ishi Polzin, Kughii
  • Ventra/Syvkii, Kughii
  • Lt. Serrac, Kughii
  • Merchant in Bazaar, Kughii
  • Singer ins Bazaar, Kughii
  • Jyatopa, Kughii
  • Poku, Kughii
  • Rongo-Rongo, Kughii
  • Onu-Matoran woman, Eyru

Chapter 1: Onu-Koro

ISHI BUMBLED IN THE CART, body rolling amidst richly embroidered textiles with each clattering pothole in the subterranean road.  Hundreds of feet below sharp picks struck against stone, echoing with the chiming sound of bells at harvest time.  The drilling for precious lightstone and protodermis became an ambient lull settling into a recess of unconscious acknowledgement.  He focused on the new vision laid before him in the turquoise light.  Lambent radiance tugged at the back of his mind with the same warping of a dream lost, yet never entirely forgotten.  He beheld the product of industry with a widening smile.

“Incredible.”  

Akiri Nuparu’s ascension of leadership had been the catalyst for a technological renaissance.  Long metal pipes large enough to climb inside were vining up the sheer cliffs of earth and stone of Onu-Wahi’s enormous caverns, their great bodies snaking into the tenebrous ceiling far from civilization’s light.  Some twisted deep into the earth like the roots of an enormous tree.  Ishi had no doubt they filtered clean air into the Great Mine, a system of abyssal tunnels the Onu-Matoran refused to abandon and continued to sink ever-deeper into the roots of the world. Other pipes shrank in size before fastening to factories.  The astounding amount of machining left a metallic taste in Ishi’s mouth as the cart rumbled past the closest foundry.  

“Can we take a look?”  His curiosity piqued as the cart continued past a pair of doors, the fabricated surface gleaming with ruddy orange shadows.  The shouted discussions of workers floated to the foray, alongside the great blowing of bellows.  The matoran driving shook her head, leading the ussal down another path to the right by shifting saddle weight. 

“No.”  Her voice was reprimanding, yet quiet.  “I did not travel from Onu-koro to Po-Koro and back simply to sate your fetish for machines.”

Your problem not mine, Ishi thought, but held his words and laid back in the textiles, a hand playing along the bamboo rail of the cart.  Ishi had learned early since his bail to keep such remarks to himself.  His escort’s tolerance for jocular calumny was markedly scant.  With any luck, the being who paid his bail had greater tolerance for snide commentary than their subordinate.  Not for the first time, Ishi attempted to piece together who this being was. Toa?  Skakdi?  Matoran?  He couldn’t tell.  The evidence was too measly for any clear deduction. He only knew they were enormously wealthy, being able to pop his lock and drag him here. The cart jostled Ishi back to reality as a metal wheel dipped low in a rut with the crunch of silt and well trodden earth.  The crustaceous rahi chittered about the increased resistance, surged forward, then balked as the wheel refused to budge.  Giving up, he let out a meek whimper and sank his belly to the road.  Eight spindly legs curled feebly. 

“Karz forsaken -- Hapaka, give a hand here,” She said and hopped from the leather driving seat.  Ishi rolled his eyes and slid out of the cart.  A cursory glance revealed the damage.  

“I think you bent the wheel,” he said, but braced his shoulder against the frame and waited.  When they were this close, Ishi had to admit she had a certain physique.  Her red armor stood out in the hazy lightstones along the side of the road, the shadows clinging to her curves, leaving the Amazonian details up to his imagination.  

“What are you looking at?”  She asked, a sharp glare in her fiery eyes.  Ishi shook his head, longing for the past.  When had Nakumiir been his life?  Once long ago, but the vivid memories had begun to slip away, even the color of her eyes had begun to elude recall.  Ishi was left to chase the ghosts of his past.   

“Nothing.”  He blinked and shifted his feet into a better stance. A few pebbles slipped underneath Ishi’s heel.  “Ready when you are.”

“On the count of three,” She stated and placed herself in a similar stance.  Ishi nodded as if his opinion mattered.  It didn’t, but he had gotten tired of pretending he didn’t exist.

  “One.  Two.  Three.”  

With a shout, the two matoran shoved upwards, and the wheel raised clear from the rut.  “Now!  Over to the left,” She said with strained for words, even though Ishi was hoisting most of the load.  He leaned outwards and the wheel was free.  With a sigh he let the cart back down, shoulders stinging from exertion.  Though healed, his left arm still yelped with a cold nerve pain, forcing the Po-matoran to grimace as the cart touched soft ground.  What I would give for some proper healing from a Kanohi Sana; Ishi let out a deep sigh at the thought.  She wiped her brow and smiled at their handiwork.

“Not bad Hapaka.  I’ve got a leaky sink back home, maybe you could fix it,” She wisecracked while walking back to her saddle.  

“Any time,” Ishi said sarcastically.  On flat ground Ishi saw how the closest side deviated markedly.  “About the wheel,” Ishi started to say, then a blindingly fast object eliminated his field of vision.  She smirked with satisfaction, watching as he bounced down the side of the road like some impromptu comedy routine, her back leaned against the cart and arms folded across her chest to suppress the giggles. 

“THAT HURT, YOU VICIOUS LITTLE -- GAAAH,” Ishi yelled from where he sat in the dust, a bruise forming on his chest.  He touched the dent with his hand, frowning at the new scratch in his carapace.   Part of the orange stripe stretching across his body was ruined, one vowel in the Great Prophecy effaced.  Standing up from where he sat in a pile of falling dirt clods, Ishi stomped back towards the cart with the hammer held tight.  Her face was impassive as he brought his kanohi inches from hers.

“What was that about?  Are you trying to kill me?” Ishi nearly spat each syllable.  They stared unblinking, invisible sparks flying between their minds.  Finally, she smirked.

“Well, at least you have high pain tolerance, though you may need to get your ears checked.”

“And what does THAT have to do with getting a hammer chucked at my chest?!”

“Wanted to know if you could catch.”

“Let me get this straight.  You think you should test my hand-eye coordination and reaction speed, So you throw a metal hammer from four strides away?”  

“Basically.”

Ishi paused, his mind deviously refusing to produce a valid retort.  She had deftly deflected his lunge, forcing the barb away from her with something akin to the wrecking ball of logic.  His anger slowly subsided as the pain was replaced by a throbbing ache.  

“Just fix the wheel.”  She snorted and walked back to her saddle, mounting her ussal in a single bound.  Ishi stared at the hammer in his right hand. It was more like a carpenter’s mallet, but there was a hook for prying nails loose on the back of the head. Or for puncturing armor...  Shrugging off the thought of revenge, Ishi set about hammering the metal wheel back into alignment.  The handle only fit one hand, and Ishi found himself wishing for something more in length to the gnarled archivist staff he’d left in the cart. The soft thrumming of beating metal echoed softly as he swung the hammer, body bent in a contortionist’s dance for a good angle, one leg sticking through the sides of the cart.  Finally he gave up, deciding any more tampering would only compound the hitch or break the axle.  Walking back to his escort, Ishi gingerly handed over the hammer headfirst, but not before playing a subtle game of tug-of-war.  Her eyes glowered at the resistance, but Ishi released momentarily.

“It’s fixed best as I could with this.” Ishi’s disappointment with inferior tools was blatantly obvious.

“Off to see the wizard.”  Her brusqueness would have won her appointment to the Sentinels of Po-Koro. No, the Sanctum Guard. Frankly, little altered since his bail, save the effluvia of his cell from tenants past exchanged for the gag-inducing stench of ussal sweat.  Ishi rolled his eyes and jumped into the back, pondering which stench took home the gold as the ussal perked up and scuttled forward.  Ishi spent the next few moments unconsciously tugging his brilliant coat into a more comfortable position, chewing the bilious paste of leaves in his mouth to alleviate insufferable motion sickness while mutually enhancing halitosis.  Can’t wait to start talking again, he thought.  Ishi had a fleeting urge to exhale in her general direction.

TIME CREAKED BY without definition in the dreamy illumination of underdark, foundries and mine shafts fading into the past without event.  Ishi reached for the small instrument strapped to his leg, inspired by the oppressive air and never-ending fissures running along both sides of the road.  The bamboo flute whispered to life, ventilating his misery with a fatigued, floating suggestion sustained above the rumbling of the cart.  His fingers fell gently on the open holes, sealing off the channel to create a deep and earthen starting note.  A descending triad, a trill, another long, throated note; its deep and lustrous timbre pulling a shiver from his escort, as if a spirit had intersected their path.

“Do you have to prlay that thing,” She asked, native dialect stealing into her voice.  Ishi responded by ascending in scale and tempo, before falling back into a soft melody reminiscing sand and sunlight, breaking waves on the shore, and soft light beneath the palms.  It was a song of Ga-Koro, a melody of eternal summer.  It’s warmth seemed to change his companion’s mood, and the two continued down the dimly lit road, lone travelers in the early morning.  Ishi tapped his foot on the rail, keeping a steady tempo.  Even the ussal seemed affected by the bubbly notes.  He had completed the song once already, when she opened her mouth and warbled the lyrics in a magnificent alto, nearly making Ishi fall off the cart in shock.

Sunshine and sand,

Sunshine and sand,

Beaches full of sunshine and sand.

Waters full of fish,

Sky full of birds,

Artahka is right here,

Don’t make me mark my words, Cause,

Sunshine and sand,

Sunshine and sand,

A turaga told me once that there’s nothing so grand as,

Beaches full of sunshine and sand.  

Cast your nets into the sea,

You jolly frilly girls who lead,

A life of laughter and release,

Upon Ga-Koro’s summer beach,

So spread upon the sandy shores,

Laugh and play forget all chores,

Let the world begin to soar,

Oh, let’s here the chorus just once more.

Sunshine and sand,

Sunshine and sand,

Beaches full of sunshine and sand.

A PARTY OF ODIOUS GUARDS loitered alongside a strange contraption, their instruments of justice glittering with depraved luminescence against the dismal backdrop of clay huts.  Tubes ran from beneath into a large system of bellows, ending in a fiendish-looking nozzle.  Each wore a spiked sallet and mailed poncho of dull silver over their sharp black carapace; a swaying lantern flickered with different colored lights from poles mounted on the backs of their saddles.  A grim countenance greeted the party of travelings informants, Ishi’s companion leaning back in her saddle to stop the forward scuttle.  The lead ussalry guard raised a fist to herald the driver, a sharp motion bent ninety degrees at the elbow.  The movement was a jagged blur of purple after images.  Ishi briefly wondered if it was the start to an interpretive dance.

“I am lieütenant Zerrac, of ze Onü-Koro üzzülry.  Vhat iz yoür cargo and pürpose in Onü-Koro?” Serrac leaned forward in the saddle, his ussal responding by stepping closer to barricade the path with its clay speckled girth.  Kukuji, the ussal pulling the cart, leaned his eyestalks outwards, attempting to determine the relationship with this new cousin.  Lieutenant Serrac’s mount’s sibilant whine prompted a sinister hiss from Kukuji. 

“I am Ventra, a textiles merchant.  The man in the back is Hafja, a hired hand.  We’ve been traveling from Po-Koro to trade,” Ventra replied, her voice charming and innocent.  She waved her hand in a crude imitation of the guard’s own motion, letting her hand flap like a mangled flipper in the air.  His eyes dimmed with disdain.

“Zat is quite a wayz for zuch a zmall load of fabric,” the lieutenant continued, gaze lingering over the technicolor dream cart.  Ishi smirked at Ventra’s cunning as he lay on his back.  Before this checkpoint she was Irumii.  In the desert she killed a merchant for his cart as Rotu.  All informants must have been actors in Artahka, Ishi mused, then again, we probably came from Karzhani, ‘cause Great Beings knows it’s where we’re headed.  Somehow, the idea of perpetual servitude seemed like a sardonic recourse for his actions in life.

“Well,” said Ventra, attempting to explain; “I am part of a textiles guild.  You’ve heard of us, surely.  The Mata-Nui Textile Association. We meet within each Koro regularly, sharing knowledge of fine textiles and weavers.”

“Can’t zay zat I haven’t.”

“I and my guild-friends are convening to trade between ourselves at an inn in Onu-Koro.  I’m already a day late, given some trouble on the road...”

“Vhat kindz of troüble,” Serrac asked, falling into the baited pause.  He scrutinized Ventra as a hungry man does spoiled groceries.

Ventra’s face fell, a pitying sight as she recounted the tale.  “We were part of a larger group, but got separated in a sandstorm.  Hafja and I salvaged what we could from the disaster, but met a party of bandits along the mountain pass in Onu-Wahi.  They took everything but the fabrics.  Go ahead and check if you don’t believe me.”

He paused, debating whether her story was valid.  Turning in his saddle, Serrac addressed a guard who barely fit on his own mount.  “Iz Zis true?  Za banditz in ze mountainz?”

“Ve have had reportz, zir,” the portly poncho responded quickly, his words sharply biting through the stale air.  “Ze have been giving ze regimentz zome troüble vith caravanz.”

“Ah, treble is as treble dose.” Ishi called out from the cart, his arms stretched above his head as he lounged casually on the cargo, although the rough scratch of raw flaxen cloth annoyed him like a small insect.   “Give ‘em whack with ‘ere shtick an’ treble’s gone.”  He waved his gnarled archivist’s staff in the air like a flagpole.  Despite the utilitarian design of the tool, the ussalry guards bristled at its raising, halberds angling downwards in preparation of engagement.

Ventra raised her hands halfway. “Hey, hey!  Let’s all just calm down.  Hafja’s just a little rough around the edges, but he means well.  Do I need to translate him for you?”

Lieutenant Serrac paused for a moment, then made a face as if a bad odor had wafted nearby, hand returning to the rim of his saddle, halberds to their marks.  “No, zis is fine, da. I underztand ‘iz akcent. Zough it iz rough and uncivilized.”

Ishi sat up at the comment, flaring his chest for all it was worth.  He was the epitome of bristling ego. “I ‘eared jat!”

“Hafja!  Shut up and lay down.  You’re being rude.”

Ishi frowned comically, then turned around and flopped in the cart with a humph.  Ventra reached for a linen bag, her hand sounding the depths as she spoke. “Is there a toll here, or are we free to pass?”

“Toll?  Zer iz no toll.”

“Then may we pass,” Ventra asked, sweet smile never leaving her face.  The officer paused, glowering at the red matoran’s logic, yet tempted by the leather bag she held.  Behind, his squad looked on, whispering small words amongst themselves.  Conceding defeat, Serrac arched his back and spat.  Leaning back and to the right, he guided his ussal away and off to the side, opening a space big enough for ussal and cart.  With a rumble of metal wheels they rolled forwards through the gap, squeaking ungainly from the wheel’s defect.  As the guards’ backs drew out of sight Ishi twisted his mask and made a rude gesture. 

“BLEEEEh.” 

Like a sports arena emptied during the middle of a season Kohlii championship, matoran shoved themselves about the bazaar, cajoling merchants for lower prices, rarely succeeding. Hucksters hawked their wares in open patches on the ground, market vultures following clusters of naive matoran. Skakdi moved in plodding herds, sticking to their own heavy-jawed kin, working down prices until they walked the line between licit and criminal.   Ishi admired that. Occasionally, the avaricious scrutiny by a lone vortixx would ignite the shadowy depths of a stall with shouted curses.  All around was the smell of spices, hot and heavy on his tongue.  Ishi could taste the salt in the air, the paprika, the pepper.

“It’s fantastic,” Ishi remarked, feeling the mirth spreading like a virus from the crowds.

“It’s a nightmare is what it is,” Ventra retorted; “You can go into one booth, be there for an hour, and end up paying far more than you intended due to their smart-talking.  The Main Bazaar of Onu-Koro is home to the smoothest tongues on the island.”

“Maybe they have a place for me then.”

“Don’t push your luck Hapaka, we need to keep going so you’re on schedule.”

“Schedule for what,” Ishi called over the cacophony produced from a farmer’s wheel-cart.  “I’ve known nothing about where I’m going since you ripped me from that cell.  Not that I’m ungrateful, mind; some of my inmates had stared giving me that glare.  But what am I even doing here?”

Ventra rolled her eyes and steered around a throng of calligraphers carrying scrolls under their arms.  “I’d have figured you’d known by now, being the Great Hapaka: informant, genius, ayada ayada.”

“Ha,” Ishi laughed; “I’m only a genius when it’s worth it.  I’m not being paid for this little rendezvous, so I find no need to pick my mind when I could just pick yours.”  

“There’s not much to pick, and of what there is, I’d have to kill you afterwards.  Unfortunately, that’s not in my contract.  Guess I’ll have to wait until my papers expire before you do.”  Ventra waved at a Ta-Matoran in the crowd, who frowned and made a rude gesture.  “He always was a sore loser at dice.”

“Owe you money,” Ishi asked curiously.

“He owes me his apartment in Ta-Koro, wife, and just about everything else except himself.  Pathetic, but he doesn’t know when to quit.  I’ll probably be getting him as a butler sometime soon.”

“You’re vicious.” Ishi decided to never bet with her as an opponent.  Gambling over dice was not a place he wanted to lose his sovereignty.  Eventually, the smells, sounds, and mirth became irresistible.  “I can’t stand it anymore -- I gotta buy something.  I’ll see you around,” Ishi called over his shoulder before hopping off the back of the textile cart, swept into the pool of shoving shoppers.

“Wait -- WAIT!”  Ventra fumed, standing in her saddle with a pestilential glare as she searched for the Po-matoran’s red, lava-eel coat among the throng.  Ishi chuckled and serpentined inward like a foxtail until he had vanished within the mass.  Over jabbered life issues of his cramped compatriots, Ishi heard Ventra screaming, “HAFJA!  GET BACK HERE HAFJA!”

The closest tent was filled with gizmos, a plethora of whistling teakettles, and portable sundials which doubled as music boxes.  Beyond the rainbow steam ushering forth from machines, the ceiling could be seen littered with wires of all sorts, braided into cords thick as Ishi’s arm.  He blinked as the psychedelic fumes overtook him, coughing at the bitter taste of compounds. Smoke machines, Ishi thought with excitement.  Magnificent!  The gear-crazy matoran enraptured by Onu-Koran technology floated ever deeper into the merchandise. Flickering orbs of light guided Ishi into the back of the store.  The sparkling aura enthralled him.  

“What are these?” His jaw hung loose, body leaning over the source of such bright illumination.  Ishi gently tapped the object with his finger, regretting the light burn that followed.  A portly Onu-Matoran waddled over with a sound of gears needing much attention while Ishi cooled his index finger in his mouth.  The merchant’s inactive noble huna drooped across his carapace, as if his head attached directly to his belly.

“Hmm?” He said, breathing raspy and deep; a dry sound between big gulps of air, like a beached fish. “Vhat?  Zeze electrobülbs? Zey are nozing müch.  We üze zem in ze minez.”  

“The mines?”  Ishi filed the information away for later.  Information was information, no matter how mundane.

“Yoü are not from here, are yoü,” The matoran questioned, frowning as he blinked the light spots from his eyes and gazed more lucidly at the spunky informant in the red coat, occasionally flicking his gaze towards the other customers about his stall.  Ishi shrugged, then replied in good nature; “I’m a reporter for the Mata Nui Daily relocating from Ta-Koro.  It’s been a while since my last stay.  Perhaps you could help, um,” Ishi paused a moment while choosing his verb, “pad out my knowledge?”  

The merchant looked at him with his beady red eyes, then let out a long, slow whistle.  “Dependz on vhat iz in for me.” He thumbed his nose and winked once.  

“I could give you a free advertisement in the locals section, and maybe a mention in my article,” Ishi rambled, pretending to know the business like the back of his hand.  It helped to have worked for the Journalists guild producing the paper in the past.  The bangles of metal ringlets strung into a long chain around his neck jangled softly while the merchant shifted from foot to foot, sizing up the options. 

“Okay, zo letz zay yez.  Vhat do you vant?”

“Just an iStone to write on and your thoughts about Onu-Koro and business.”

The merchant nodded.  “Alright, I like it.  Vhen zhall ve ztart?”

Ishi paused to think, scratching the back of his head.  “I’ve got to get to another interview soon, but I’d love to swing by tomorrow morning.  Can we do that?  I’m happy to put down a lien for the iStone in the meantime.”  He reached into his thigh bags and rummaged through the pockets for coins.  “Let’s say I put down ten percent, and uh, I get it back when I drop by tomorrow when you open.”

“I open early,” The merchant warned, his sausage finger wagging warning.  “You don’t come, you owe everyzing.”

“Sure, sure,” Ishi said quickly, walking back toward the counter to finish their deal.  Momentarily Ishi was holding a small tablet in his hands, longest side barely passing just poking beyond his fingers.  A soft hum vibrated from the internal components, forcing Ishi to look at the merchant quizzically.

“It’z a zecret.  I von’t tell vhat iz in it.”

“I was gonna’ ask how to start it up actually,” Ishi commented with a nonchalant motion of his shoulders.  The screen was black, despite the obvious movement inside.  

“Oh,” He nodded his head to wave off the misunderstanding; “Zhat’s eazy part.  Push za button.  Yez, zhat one.  Zee?”

The screen jolted to life; a gray line zapped across the middle before blossoming into a full screen of isolated light.  Ishi jumped slightly and almost dropped the device.   The merchant continued to explain, and Ishi followed his instructions, the iStone whirring happily with use.  

“This is fantastic,” Ishi stated, holding his new tablet above himself dramatically; “You can do so much with this and carry so little.  How do I keep it running?”

It’z zolar.  Just keep it near zome lightz.”

“Did you really expect he wouldn’t attempt to run?”  Jyatopa said boldly.  His hand roved along the pearly white stem of his kanohi subconsciously. The Ta-Matoran hunched farther over the bar and muttered insults, her red hands spasmodically clenching the lip of the slate surface.  He wondered if she’d break it.

“Don’t pester Syvkii about it.  It’s not like she had him chained up or anything -- though I’m surprised you didn’t, given your tastes.  I personally would have locked Hapaka in a box and smuggled him among produce or with tools, that’s all he is after all: a tool,” A Po-matoran said with a devious chuckle, his voice smooth as honey.   Syvkii glared at her brown armored companion, weighing if his head would look good over her fireplace back home.  His kakama didn’t match the molding, unfortunately.

Syvkii rolled her eyes at the lewd jokes while tossing back another swig of her drink.  She coughed up the ice cube that slipped past her defenses. “I didn’t have much of a choice Poku.  We were caught by ussalry on the way in, border patrol,” Syvkii stated, returning to the drink on the counter.  “I couldn’t well have a box that talked.  The stupid radios hidden all over the highways would have caught on, and Customs would confiscate it for research.  What was I gonna say to them; ‘no you can’t have my talking box?’  Come on Poku, use your head for something besides ingesting alcohol.  Besides, have you ever tried herding a flock of mahi on your own?  Hapaka’s like that, multiplied by every drink you’ve downed today, you insufferable pickle.”

“Excuses,” Poku apologized as he pulled the tumbler out of Syvkii’s reach, his face never losing it’s suave smirk; “but I think you’ll get physical with any more of that stuff.  Let me help you clean that up.” He tossed back the drink and continued.  “Jyatopa can patch up the delay with Above, but you need to get your naughty body back on the streets and baiting that hapaka.  He’s out there alone, and probably figuring everything out.  Every second that freak has is a second towards us losing one of his infernal games.  And by losing --” Poku drew the tumbler across his throat -- “I mean our lives.  He practically ripped my jugulars out the last time we crossed paths; I was hired to kill him of course, but the point is he’s murderously insane.”

Jyatopa continued to stroke his kanohi.  Poku’s womanizing charms annoyed the barkeep like a festering splinter.  The assassin would drink until opening, then leave before the bouncers showed up to force the bill.  He talked, and he drank.  There wasn’t much else to the Po-matoran besides a macho complex.  “Thank you Poku for the enlightening monologue.   If I stage a play about drunk, failed mercenaries I will give you a call.  All this talk and hustle to get Hapaka better be worth it -- besides the widgets lining my pocket for being the depot.”  He began cleaning the glasses with a murky bucket of water and a towel of questionable origins.  “Syvkii, If you catch Hapaka you will undoubtedly get a raise. Let him go and I will be carting you to Ko-Koro’s hospital as anatomical research.  No pressure.”

“You two are such killjoys,” Syvkii moaned as she pushed herself off the slate surface.  “Try and get someone my type in here before I’m back.  Maybe Rongo-Rongo.  I could use a care package after this ends.”

“You mean the type arrested for indecent exposure?”

“Bite me Poku.  I dare you.”  She stalked off down the stairs without waiting for his reply, nearly slamming the door off its hinges as she left.  There was an eerie silence in the room as the two men stared at each other.

“You know, I lie in bed some nights wondering if she was a mistake,” Jyatopa divulged with a nervous quiver.  

“I know why,” Poku answered as he spun back to look at the door, arms propped against the bar.

“Why?”

Poku wolf whistled.

A new fountain gurgled from the bazaar’s axis, rising in black marble over the populace.  Turaga Whenua’s likeness graced the mount of dusky stone exuding the same benevolent charm he had in life, his sable shawl of leadership sewn with stygian water.  Ishi stared only long enough to identify the craftsmanship, then diverted his attention to the musicians below.  A Ta-matoran’s silky voice sang above the shopping list conversations, demanding an audience of those present as he strutted about the circular lip of the fountain, his flaming armor contrasting against the darkness of the sculpture behind.

Whistle me a melody my darling, 

Short-quick a tune with a range I can hit-sing,

Whistle me a melody my darling,

Of Le-Koro in the green spring!

Kahu whistle in the canopy,

Tweet-tree-tweet,

Gukko chortle in the eyrie,

Gurdle-gurdle-gee,

Le-matoran whistle while they’re working,

You can trust in little-old me!

Whistle me a melody my darling, 

Short-quick a tune with a range I can hit-sing,

Whistle me a melody my darling,

Of Le-Koro in the green spring!

Some days are cold and dreary,

So love-cuddle up with me my Deary,

Let the rain pittle-pattle on the roof so quiet-softly,

  Laugh ‘til the big-Sun comes back: easy!

Whistle me a melody my darling, 

Short-quick a tune with a range I can hit-sing,

Whistle me a melody my darling,

Of Le-Koro in the green spring!

Take a length of rope and hold on to hope,

Take a quick-jump to the hard-ground,

I will catch you set you soft-down,

In a little reed boat made for you and I both,

Just the two of us loving and singing, SO!

Whistle me a melody my darling, 

Short-quick a tune with a range I can hit-sing,

Whistle me a melody my darling,

Of Le-Koro in the green spring!  

“YES, ONE MORE TIME!  EVERYONE JOIN IN, COME ON!” 

Whistle me a melody my darling, 

Short-quick a tune with a range I can hit-sing,

Whistle me a melody my darling,

Of Le-Koro in the green spring!

Two pipers danced about a linen tarp amidst the eclectic melody, their feet clicking together metallically in a traditional partner dance common to the gukko force. Their movements were like a pair of rubber balls, bouncing in celestially governed arcs. The drummer sat with crossed legs, fingers blurring the stretched hide as he kept the group on tempo.  Ishi buoyantly fluttered away on tiptoe, his mind sedated until the words faded with distance.   

The edge of the bazaar was the memory of a dream slowly running away.  Huts devoured the multicolored fabric stalls with dismal walls of slate and mud bricks.  Matoran shifted uncomfortably when Ishi past by, unused to foreigners venturing so far into their Koro.  Occasionally he’d wave incredulously, but otherwise he fiddled with his iStone.  

Remembering the brisk tutorial from the merchant, Ishi slid his fingers across the surface, drawing a black line on a white screen.  This is the line, He thought, beginning to divide the current facts from fiction.  Ishi started from the beginning, working from the court hearing and Ventra’s first appearance as his representative.  The bail had been paid in full, an enormous sum requiring little more than a metal-bound chest filled with gems.  Whoever paid this is extremely wealthy, and knew exactly how much my bail was going to be before the trial.  It’s almost like they set the number themselves. Ishi contemplated the idea before deciding it was a plausible reality and hastily typed his thoughts with a pattering of soft-keys.  He turned a corner around a hut and walked over someone’s cooking fire, oblivious.  

Next is, He paused, stopping mid-stride to coalesce the details, funnel them into a pattern on his line, eradicate the outliers; I’m brought to Onu-Koro expediently, supposedly to meet the being, or group, who paid for me.  Somehow, they needed me free and available: they need to hire me.  I’m an informant, so they’re looking for information or espionage.  Probably both, going by the past few deals I’ve done, and what landed me in that pestilential prison.  Ishi continued to walk, his thoughts regaining composure.  The document he was manipulating on the screen helped his thought process, speeding what would have otherwise taken more than a few minutes of concentrated effort.  The only chore was getting used to typing.  He poked with his thumbs until they grew sore, fiddled with his index finger until it was a hot poker, then settled on a one handed pattern similar to flute technique.  Finishing the last sentence, Ishi paused and read over his hypothesis:

Onu-Koro  Wealthy  Patron is singular  Runs intel  Not military

Fikou Nex

Ishi stared for a moment, realizing the obvious flaw as he continued to trudge on with no particular destination.  If they’re not from Onu-Koro though and simply chose to meet here.  But then what’s the point of sending me through the desert and the mountains and then underground?  It’s a much faster trip to Ko or Ta-Koro -- No, they have to be ingrained in Onu-Koro. Decided, Ishi removed the iStone from his sight and stepped forwards into a hole. 

“I’m thinking of letting you drop,” Ventra growled as Ishi dangled precipitously, one leg dangling in the air, the toes of his other breaching the edge.  Despite her words, the Ta-Matoran pulled her charge back to safety.  

“Didn’t your mother tell you to watch where you walked?”

“I stopped listening to my mother,” Ishi replied sardonically; “Otherwise I would have married, settled down, made some spawn, and gotten on with old age and death.”

Ventra pursed her lips.  “Now that you mention it, maybe it’s better to ignore those terms.”

“That and finish your food.  What if it’s poisoned?  I’ve run into that far too often in my profession.”

“Good point!”  Ventra laughed, then slapped Ishi on the shoulder, almost sending him tumbling back into the hole where a pale miner’s lantern flickered hundreds of feet below.  “Look.  I’ve been a real hard ball on you the past week.  Why don’t we go to a place I know and just relax for a while?  We were late, so everything’s being rescheduled for later this evening.  In the meantime, follow me.”

Ishi blinked, stunned by her sudden change of spirits.  “You want me to follow you by my own free will?”

“No,” Ventra concluded; “You’ll follow me because you have no choice.  Now, you can walk like a grown up, or I can just drag you their in a produce box.”

“I’ll walk,” Ishi quickly decided and scurried after her lead.

A well lit building crawled three stories up the side of the cavern wall like abstract art.  The ground floor was raised several feet, and each consecutive floor burst like the prow of a ship from the back of its predecessor.  The deep sounds of electronic manipulation rumbled steadily from the shuttered windows, a thrumming boom of bass drops juxtaposed with rabid, altisimo filigree.

“Home sweet home,” Ventra joked as she pushed open a wooden door set into the cavern wall several feet away, revealing a flight of stone cut stairs crawling through the earth.  The passageway cut up and to the right, illuminated by flickering electro-bulb lanterns.  Seventeen steps later Ishi was standing in a dimly lit establishment, the sounds of couples crawling up his spine, auditory receptors nearly drowned by the music’s volume

“Why did I agree to wait here?” Ishi remarked as close to Ventra as he dared.  She bit her lip and squeezed his arm slightly, pulling him forward all the while.  She winked and turned her face to the crowd.

“You’ll warm up to it after a couple drinks.  Besides, I thought hapakas liked a pack.” 

“A pack maybe but not a horde!”  Ishi stood still among the dancers freaking all around.  He felt locked in, chained to his escort, unable to escape.   The beat drummed at regular intervals, marking the time in 4/4.  The melody seemed murderous, as if at any moment it would slit his throat.  Ishi stared at Ventra, her body already smoothly rolling with the beats, hands carving jagged patterns through the air.

“Come on, Dance!”

“I’m not feeling this track,” Ishi muttered.  “I think I’ll go sit by the bar or something.”

“I couldn’t hear you!  What did you say,” Ventra shouted, her breath perilously close.  Ishi shrugged and tried to walk away.   Her hands clamped about his waist, spinning him towards the floor.  “Oh no you don’t!”  Ishi felt himself pulled close enough to feel the heat off her armor, the beat of her heartlight, the rumble of her lust, then she dropped him.  He watched her eyes as he fell.  

One moment he was free falling, then next bridging over into a halo, his feet flashing like stars in a circle of after images.  The bass dropped, thrusting Ishi into a forward brake, curled into a packed mass before exploding into a stream of hands-on-the-floor foot twists.  He rose with the treble, corkscrewing his way to stand upright.  Without missing a beat, he shifted into an eight step pattern of random movements, flowing from one into the next without any thought.  Ishi felt like a puppet pulled by the strings of each note, unable to control his actions.  

“I didn’t know you could dance like that!” Ventra shouted when he finally allowed her through the airspace and calmed himself down from the double-time.  

“Next time you want your mind blown, find me.”  

A Ko-matoran calmly answered the warlike shouts of orders from the club with a mental addition to his queue, hands blurred in he smooth dance of mixology.  Shoving another patron off her stool, Ventra sat down and laughed.   “That was incredible!  I mean it!  Who taught you that stuff?”

“I just made it up right then; never had any dance lessons besides traditional stuff,” Ishi replied, as he viewed the room from the raised bar section.

“Oh shut up,” Ventra snapped.  Raising a hand over the bar, she waved avidly to gain the Zen barkeep’s attention.  “Jyatopa, give us a couple warmers.”

The lights were dimmer from the inside, casting pale shadows across the dancers on the floor, strobing lanterns flashed their colors in random patterns, like Ishi’s dancing.  A pair of Le-matoran women were sauntering saucily through the couched crowd, their bodies loosely tied together by the neck and hip.  He turned back to the bar as the first drink slid his way, remembering everyone’s placement.

“We’re stuck here until Above is ready,” Ventra nearly shouted in his ear.  “Might as well have some fun!”

Ishi blinked, eyes refusing to adjust to the strobes.   “I’d prefer not to have too much fun,” Ishi replied, leaning closer than he expected to the Ta-matoran.  Or did she just lean into me?  “I want to get out of here ASAP and get on with this meeting thing.”

“We will, we will,” Ventra agreed while she slurped the concoction in the tall, orange glass.  “Just relax all right?  It’s been a hard week and I’m taking some time off.  You should too.”

“Hello Syvkii,” the duet softly chimed, their whiny croon making Ishi feel sick.  

“Rongo-Rongo!”  Ventra/Syvkii beamed at the twins and opened her arms, knocking Ishi’s face towards the bar.  They jumped into the hug without prompting, laughing uproariously as the ropes wrapped around Syvkii like necklaces.

“It’s been so long.”  Their sultry words were perfectly matched, synced better than any copy.  It was as if they were simply doubled and overlaid.  Ishi found himself pushed apart as the twins slid on either side of what had been his warden, their fingers slowly tracing her to get reacquainted.  Before him was a giggly matoran of fire with two even gigglier Le-matoran.

“Wait a minute,” Ishi said; “I need her to show me someplace.  Could you just hold up while she draws me a map or something?”  They ignored him, slipping through the crowd and to a higher floor.  Ishi stole the stool Ventra abdicated before someone else could crawl on.  He felt like an unlawfully crowned monarch amidst rebellious peasants. Ishi stared at the wall of bottles behind the bar, naming each without looking at the labels.  He was quickly bored watching Jyatopa, and pulled out his iStone for company.  

The minutes slid by, measured in the number of repetitious phrases brutally pummeled into his audio receptors.   He was beginning to wonder if this was nothing more than a joke.  It’d be perfect if the Ussalry walked in right now; I just got out of jail and could go right back in again.  Would be quiet there, save for moaning inmates down the hall.  Why can’t they just be quiet?

“Hello Hapaka.”  Ishi looked to his right, seeing someone he would have loved to miss sidling onto the adjacent stool.  “Jyatopa: the usual.  Interesting finding you here, alone, with your gizmos.  You know, there’s a whole new world just three inches above those screens. You just gotta look up.”  

Ishi stared at the assassin with obvious disgust.  The same beeswaxed armor glittered smoothly in the club lights.  The informant’s eyes quickly noted the black holster poking from the other side of Poku’s seat.

“Go die in a hole,” Ishi spat; “That’s the nicest greeting I could think of.  “Syvkii’s busy right now, but you know that already.”

Poku belched from the carbonation in his drink.  If the words stung him, he didn’t show their mark.  “You know, to say Syvkii had a hard time getting you to cooperate is an understatement of monumental proportions.  She mentioned thinking of using chains -- no joke.”

“Oh, she did, don’t fret yourself.  I had some rough nights in transit,” Ishi admitted.  “New acquisition?”

“What?  Oh yeah, you mean this,” Poku said.  He pulled the weapon slightly out of its place, letting the gunmetal glimmer under the slate counter.  “Got it off a dead vortixx; best thing about it is you got three shots before you need to reload.”

“A repeating crossbow can dole twenty.”

“One bullet is worth three clips from a crossbow.”

“I’m glad you’ve worked out your inferiority complex” Ishi said.  Poku slapped him on the back heartily, letting a throaty laugh jump his chin as Ishi collapsed onto the counter.  

“Sorry there!  Didn’t know you’d had that much drink in you.”

“You just hit harder than you think is all, brakas.  Why are we even talking?”

“Lie: because I want your forgiveness and wanna’ be fwiends.  Truth: I’m your new escort, so shove it.  You can follow me, or I can blow your legs off.  Why don’t we hit the exit and get you to your destination?” 

“Wouldn’t put it past you,” Ishi replied, turning his back to Jyatopa.  “Okay, I’ll roll with the punches and pretend you’re not going to attempt to kill me.  Again.”

“I think I can manage that,” Poku jested, then led the way back into the streets.  

Four feet crunched down the dirt paths between huts, slowly winding their way towards Poku’s destination.  Ishi took the time to look over his new shepherd.  Poku was broad shouldered, taller by a good six inches, and swaggered his way down the center of the road.  His left knee still had the characteristic in-turn from the last time they’d crossed paths.  Ishi mentally noted his handiwork with a sense of pride.

“So, how long have you been traveling,” Poku said, attempting small talk.

“A week.”  Ishi’s voice was bland. 

“Nothing like sand stretching out for miles like a dead corpse,” Poku said, trying again.

“You said it.”

They continued to move leisurely, passing a few matoran who gave them little to know attention.  Ishi glanced at the holster on occasion, Poku’s fingers playing with the grip.  “So tell me about your recent acquisition.”

Poku looked at him for a second, then down at his weapon.  “Nothing much behind it.  I poisoned a vortixx.  It was just part of the contract; hilarious how us matoran can do so much.  Helps being short, powerless, and um, seemingly impossible of causing harm I guess.”

Ishi laughed at that, a well rounded tenor, his head lifted back into the air.  “Probably does.  Toa get confused when they’re backstabbed by the little-ones.  Then again, they’ve been stabbing us in the front for decades.”

Poku nodded, a smile splitting his lips.  Unholstering the pistol he showed it off lazily, the gun lax in his right hand.  Ishi was tempted to swipe it, but restrained the action.  “It’s a three chamber revolver.  That’s what the engineer said when I showed it to him.  That Matan guy really knows his stuff.  I have to custom make the projectiles though -- pity it doesn’t shoot river rocks.  I’m half tempted to just go back to my old slingshot, but I watched a toa of gravity explode from a single bullet, and, well, I just can’t go back.”

“Really?  Explode?” 

“Yeah, they go all over the place, big mess for the first responders.  Of course, I almost sprain my wrist from the kick. Oh, here we are.”  Poku stopped at an alleyway, the walls looming inwards.  “There’s a door just about halfway down on the right.  I’ll go first, just so you can trust me.”

“I’d trust you about as far as I could throw you,” Ishi responded, his stride following in line equally with his enemy’s.  The alley quickly darkened into black, save the single flickering electro-bulb above a doorway like an angler fish’s beacon. Poku nodded and said; “It’s right through there.  I’m supposed to wait outside.”  

“Hilarious how the hapaka goes in but the man stays out.”  Ishi placed his hand on the door and pushed.  It didn’t open.  He waited a moment then shoved with his shoulder.  “You’re a really bad liar Poku.”

“Oh yeah.”  There was the subtle click of the hammer being primed.  “I forgot to give you a practical demonstration.”

“Hey Poku,” Ishi said, his voice dangerously calm.  Poku stared at him blankly.  “What, got a last paragraph you want published.  Maybe the secret to that freak trick you can do?”

“It’s not a freak trick.”

“It’s so a freak trick.  See you in Karzhani, Ishi.

Before Poku could draw the trigger down and end Ishi’s life, the informant slammed his left forearm into Poku’s gun wrist.  The gun went off as Poku yelped, but the alignment was wrong.  The world plunged into darkness with a bright flash as the solitary lantern dispersed into the wind with a crash of exploding glass.  Ishi spun, letting his left foot drag until it connected with the back of Poku’s knee while he stole the handle with a right palm.  His ankle twisted from the move, giving off a smarting pain.  Hobbling to the side to maintain balance, he followed the glow of Poku’s eyes in the dark.  Just below the two brown orbs hung a small orange light, fluctuating wildly at an alarming rate.

“Where did you learn that name,” Ishi shouted as Poku scrambled in the darkness on all fours.  

“Wait, wait, please...”

“Where did you learn that name, Makuta-spawn!”

“You think I haven’t done my research?  Hapaka’s history is blank, but fits the physical description of an ex-reporter for the Mata-Nui Daily.  I had to look through Ta-Koro hospital records as well; getting the medical information was a cinch.  Sorry about your eye, by the way.  I never knew you h--”

“Poku,” Ishi cut him off with a bitter laugh; “It’s too bad we give off so much light in the dark.  Of all the races, protoderms are really too easy a target.  It’s the eyes.  Even if we can’t see in the dark, our eyes and heart-light glow softly.  I can’t see where you’re body is, but I can see between your eyes.”  There was another shot, then the wet splatter across Ishi’s komau.  

Ishi waited for the lantern to grow, the light bobbing at the edge of the alleyway until her face became apparent. 

“I’m over here,” He called.  As she drew nearer the light’s arc flashed across Ishi’s body.  He sat gingerly on a dumpster, a pistol loosely spinning around his finger.  Something was smeared across his mask, but the lightstone wasn’t bright enough to make out exactly what.  “Hey Syvkii.”

“Who told you my name?”  Ishi smirked at her shocked response, feeling nothing.  He pointed with the pistol out of out the lantern light.  

“He did.”  His words were numb, coming off his tongue with far less emotion than Ishi had expected.  Syvkii’s light briefly extended over the mess, before she covered her mouth and backed away.  

“What in Karzahni did you do to Poku,” She asked.

“Only what he wanted to do to me,” he replied, then hopped off the dumpster into a crouch.  He stood and stared at the foreign weapon. “I’m just shocked at how powerful this is, and pissed I can’t keep it.  The last thing I want is something of his.”  Ishi tossed the foreign weapon out of the light, listening to the light splash as if landed.

“You look horrible,” Syvkii muttered, casting more light across his body.  “Are you hurt?”

“Sprained my ankle clipping his leg, but nothing serious.  I’m fine.”  

“Okay you’re fine, but you look horrible.” She motioned for him to follow, but Ishi remained rooted.  “Hapaka?”

“I don’t get it,” he scratched the back of his head emphatically; “The whole killing thing.  What’s the point of ripping each other into gears and bolts when there’s so many more pressing things in life?  So many more juicy ways to hurt a being in the most horrible ways.”

Syvkii was silent a moment.  “I think,” she finally replied; “that you’re a little knocked in the head.  Matoran and toa and skakdi and everyone kills because it’s our nature.  We’re violent by nature.  We all create violence outside to deal with the violence within.”  She tapped her kanohi.  “I’d keep going, but you’re late for a very important date, and I’m not going to get my commission bonus at this rate unless we run.  I’ve already got you a hotel room near the main bazaar, but you don’t have time to get washed up.  Come on.”

“Figures I’d ask Philosopher Girl,” Ishi joked and trudged afterwards, coat billowing as he turned to follow.

THE WELL OILED latch slid open as he turned the knob, his feet echoing coldly off the dark marble floor.  A ruddy glow from from a fireplace on the opposite wall banished the night; Ishi's face harbored what remained of the room's shadows.  The walls were draped in fine silks, a heavy brocade curtain split the room in half, leaving him in a makeshift foyer.  Peeking from the edge was the arm of a dark stained piece of furniture.  

Gentle fingers stroked the arm of the mahogany chair. The curtains ruffled in a breeze that came from nowhere that Ishi could see, carrying a soft, sensuous voice.

  “I was wondering when you would come.”

  The fingers slipped behind the curtain as the seated being stood; a moment later, an Onu-Matoran stepped out into full view. She was not tall nor especially attractive, but she carried herself with a certain poise and grace that suggested authority; her confidence was palpable. Despite her size, she managed to look down at Ishi, waiting for his reply.

"I will assume, given your gender, that you are not my direct benefactor," Ishi replied after a moment of calculation.  Gracefully, he continued; "however, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Hand of Spider."  He nodded his head in greeting, keeping his hands within the pockets of his long coat.  As he spoke, Ishi felt the calm of incense settling into his marrow, a pungent aroma far more soothing than the odors he carried.  Before her, Ishi realized he must look like he’d walked through a mine field.  "Is there someplace I can take a bath?  I haven’t had a bath since bail, and jail didn't believe in hygiene."

“A logical assumption on the surface,” the woman replied with a sly twist of her lips. “But lying is as easy as breathing to us. Gender can be a falsehood, and assumptions can kill, my friend.”

  The air was perfumed; as she moved closer to Ishi, the disturbed air carried with it the scent of oranges, spices and incense.

  “Inconsequential. Whether I am the Spider or not is just another variable. What is not a variable, however, is the location of the baths.”  Her eyes twinkled. “The door to your left. You will find hot water and soap. I will await you here.”

“Ladies first.”

Her eyes hardened in an instant. "I can put you back where you came from as quickly as you got out. Be careful."

"Ooh, touchy -- no touchy," Ishi said, leaning back slightly from the figure.  He shrugged, eyes glancing toward the door she mentioned.  Unlike the plain facade he had faced when entering, the door was carved and with ornate patterns, loops and triangles facing off in a battle of mental strain.  Ishi spoke as he walked towards the door; "I'm not alive today because I assume."

The Onu-Matoran watched as the door closed behind him, then return to her chair. Behind the curtain, it sat before a crackling fire. A round table at her elbow was furnished with two crystal glasses and a bottle of dark red wine.  She poured herself a glass, and settled back into her chair, watching the flames.  She didn't wait long before the po-matoran emerged, coat slung over his shoulder, hand-towel used to clean his auditory sensors of stowaway water.  His scent had become like hers, orange and spice mixed decadently with the incense of the room.  Ishi's thigh bags jangled slightly as he sat in the chair opposite. 

"So," Ishi said after a moment, staring at the glass of wine pursed between her fingers; "Where does this leave us?  I am grateful for being bailed, but why have Syvkii drag me halfway across the island to sit and sip wine, unless there was something more to the story?"

“Assumptions, again,” she chuckled softly, pouring Ishi a glass of wine. “Perhaps I merely wish to enjoy your company, and for you to enjoy this excellent wine.”

  She delicately passed the glass of scarlet liquid to the Po-Matoran. “Try some. You'll like it.”

  Sipping at her own wine, the Onu-Matoran turned back to the regard the flames again. She was silent for a long moment.

  “Still... You are correct. I've had my eye on you for some time.”

Eyes never leaving hers, Ishi brought the glass to his lips, letting a waft of its fruity aroma filter into his palate before rolling the wine across his tongue.  

“It’s a fine bula berry wine,” He said bluntly, ignoring the obvious question.

“I'm glad you think so,” the Matoran replied. She swirled the wine around in her glass, then lifted it to her lips and took a sip.

  “You would be incorrect if you said otherwise,” she continued, trailing her forefinger on the rim of her glass. “This wine is widely regarded as the island's best. Some vintages are simply better than others: this one is eight years old, and is absolutely divine.

  “You see, my friend, I don't settle for second-best. If I drink wine, I will only drink this one. If I watch a Kolhii game, I will watch Po-Koro play. And if I need to hire someone, then I will scour the island and find...”  Her eyes lifted to meet Ishi's.

  “...The best.”

The wine slid down Ishi’s throat as if swallowing silk, leaving him dry and craving more.  Taking another sip, he sucked air between his teeth, pulling out the subtler flavors from the bouquet as one might remove the individual flower. It was crisp, though full-bodied, a unique trait of Bula-Berry vineyards along the eastern coast of Le-wahi, where sunshine and soil mixed into a chemistry unlike anywhere else.  Ishi glanced to the decanter, then smirked when he realized the subtle test. 

“The berries were grown in the eastern region, though the distinct finish of cherry leads me to believe it’s one of the more sought after vintages from the massif’s personal cellars,” Ishi let out a sigh then finished off his glass, setting it gently on the mahogany table separating the two matoran.  Placing his hands together, the informant leaned forwards, his posture capturing the intrigue within his mind.  “You want to hire me?  An interesting thought, being a real hapaka again.  If you want the best, why not hire Dorian Shaddix, or any number of vortixx?  They have superior physique, and are more than capable of killing half the island’s population in drunken bouts of romanticism.  Unless, of course, you’re wanting someone unknown and discrete.  Someone who the world thinks dead for thirty years; someone like me.”

“You answered your question for me.” The Matoran smiled approvingly. “Dorian Shaddix couldn't tell me where this wine came from. I have soldiers enough and to spare.”

  She paused here. “What I need, however, are eyes. Discreet eyes that see what others miss. And I need brains. A sharp mind.

  “You have all of these in spades,” she continued, taking another sip of scarlet wine. “So I'll be blunt: I want you to work for me.”

Ishi leaned back in his chair, eyes closed halfway in soft squint, ignoring the second glass he had finished pouring.   His mind slowly picked over the words as one would pull the choice olives from a bowl.  

“You need my eyes,” Ishi repeated, letting the words vibrate about the chamber, smash against the marble floor; “you need my brains.  I enjoy the fact you said need, as opposed to wanting to watch a Kohlii game or sip wine with a prospective employee; although you do only want my services.”  He paused with a disappointed frown, a clucking sound fluttering past his lips.  He let the message ferment, reading for any shifts in this woman’s stoic facade of power.  Ishi realized the futility of his observance and shifted his gaze to the flames, their orange glow wafting across his face like freshly dried linens.

“If you need me, you’re obviously becoming outdated.  Maybe your leads are being iced, or things are becoming harder to see,” the Po-matoran mused as he twirled a finger in the air, “Or maybe the other players are getting smarter.  Sound right?”  Ishi’s fingers tapped a brief flute pattern on the lacquered mahogany arm, then he rose from the chair, moving toward the fire.  “Right...”

Ever since he’d disappeared from the island’s consciousness, Ishi had scraped and carved out secret truths from the meanest of resources.  If he declined, Ishi would be turning down perhaps the greatest offer of access his life would produce, and be right back in prison by next Monday.  That’s to assume I survived turning down the job, Ishi thought wryly.  And it’s already been established: “assumptions can kill.”  He could see her lips forming those seductive words in the flames, felt her breath linger against his throat intimate and persuasive.  Sap cracked like Karzhani’s whip, lashing Ishi back to the present.   She knew the outcome right from the start, that vixen.  Ishi’s trademark smile blossomed across his komau as he twirled about on his heels.  Hands clasped behind his back, Ishi was a roguish imp’s silhouette, his coat catching the little breeze.  

“A turaga once said, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’  Of course, he was referring to the cult of Makuta before giving up his old ways and becoming a mindless thrall.”  Ishi took slow steps towards the matoran still sipping her wine.  He was impressed by her complete control, how she knew he would have never turned her down.  She’s certainly a force to reckon with, He thought before finishing what had been known from the beginning.  Destiny and fate worked in strange ways.   Ishi had never intended his code-name to become reality.

“I’ll join you, but I’m no thrall.  This little engagement is a two-way street: I get access to the same network you do, a full tour of your properties and hideaways, equipment and a line of credit to run the trenches, along with a monthly pay of six thousand widgets.  And you’ll be frank with me, starting with your name and position in this web I’ll be playing fly to...  

“Dishonesty is a necessary part of our business, I won’t deny that.  However, if you want my skills treat me like your tongue.  You can stick it out at the world, but you don’t dare bite it off.”

The Matoran smiled in amusement, as though Ishi were a child who had just asked to take three cookies instead of the one he was offered. Setting her half-finished wine down on the table, she stood, and slowly moved towards Ishi, until the two were inches apart.

  “A bold request,” she said huskily, her face lit by firelight. “I've always admired...  Confident men.”

  Reaching into her jacket, she withdrew a small token: a brass brooch made in the shape of a rose. Her face showing only the faintest hint of a smile, she pinned it to Ishi's lapel, her fingers lingering for a moment on his chest.

  “This souvenir will identify you to my network. Anyone who works for me will work for you.

  “As for a grand tour... I'm afraid you've overestimated me.” She chuckled lightly. “I have no need for secret places; I hide in plain sight. Equipment you may purchase on your own: I will reimburse you.”

  Still looking Ishi in the eyes, she reached for her glass of wine and brought it to her lips, wetting her throat.

  “You will receive five thousand widgets per month for your work, and a bonus of five hundred for every valuable piece of information you return. Is that satisfactory?”

Ishi nodded, feeling the cold metal tug at the hide of his coat.  Absently, he did the clasp to compensate for the new badge.  “I can live with that.”  He slid back into the chair, legs tossed over the left arm.  Ishi smiled and nodded.  “Where do you want me to start,” He said, a hand softly gesturing to his new patron.  

The Matoran smiled, and returned to her seat, picking up her glass of wine again. "Po-Koro," she replied, before taking a sip

  "The Lost Koro has tried to make itself an enigma; I want that to change. Do so however you like: I trust your abilities and your judgment."

"Let me be clear," Ishi replied, picking a fleck of dust from his coat.  He was somewhat shocked at the desert’s persistence to stay in contact. "You want Po-Koro reopened to the island and the roads relaid?"

"Not necessarily reopened," she replied. "But I want its secrets. I want to know what it's hiding, and I want to know why Hewkii has decided to wipe away the roads. And if I decide to release that information to the island, then I will. But, for now, all I need is its secrets."

 

She paused, then smiled coyly. "If you're up to the challenge, I also want to know Hewkii's strategies and movements. If Po-Koro decides to move against another village or begins constructing new technology, I want to be informed. The size and strength of its military, its resources, and its plans. Everything you can get.”

“If Hewkii’s hiding anything, it’s how to turn sand into gold.  It’s the only thing in ready supply besides jocks,” Ishi quipped, still settling into the responsibility she had laid on his shoulders.  Her complete trust in him was a new experience, one Ishi decided not to lull him into negligence.   “Well, a toast then; to out joining.”

The Matoran lifted her glass and smiled. "To our partnership."

Ishi chuckled.  "Not quite the same thing, but I'll take it."  He enjoyed the flavorful bouquet, then let his glass rest on the table, his reflection glittering along the crystal rim.

"Do you have a map to locate the hidden city?  Or perhaps I can make use of that Syvkii?”  

"I've prepared a transport for you - unless you feel like braving the Dark Walk," she chuckled softly. "A Po-Matoran trade caravan will be leaving Onu-Koro shortly; you may join them. Their leader is no agent of mine, but he knows the desert, and will see you safely to Po-Koro."

“I was joking.  You can hardly expect a Po-Koroan, let alone me, to forget the location of his homeland city.   I know every rocky pinnacle and boulder along the route across those accursed sands to Po-Koro like the back of my kanohi.  My earliest memories are of sand in my gears, and a whispering wind scented by the sweat of Kohlii champions.   Safety, however, is appreciated.  I would rather travel with some shield against the freak forces of nature, rahi or otherwise. Not that matoran are much match for a rogue toa gone merc, as most seem to do these days,” Ishi answered, his footsteps echoing softly around the disorienting room until he was at the front entrance, “Although I look forward to seeing my homeland again, do remember you’re sending a bailed criminal back into the Koro of his incarceration.  I’m going to need a very good alibi.” With a final nod, Ishi left the room of his purchase by the woman he would come to both love and hate.  

Large wasn’t a capable enough adjective for the trunk sitting in the middle of room 05.  Obese was the only phrase Ishi could conjure as he stared intently at the heavy iron framework (with rose-petals forming the corners), the rungs for poles (as if designed for being carried on the shoulders of four).  He tapped it with a toe, listening intently at the sound produced.  Inside there was something equally burdensome as the container. Ishi’s gaze momentarily pierce the lock sealing the contents.  I wonder, he thought, hand slipping into a pocket around his thigh.  The keyring jangled softly at eye-level, lightstones in their lanterns by the bed abominating the true shape.  Two keys hung on the rung: bronze and iron.  

“Bronze for the door,” Ishi muttered, already slipping the key into the lock, “Iron... For the trunk.”  His words clicked true with a forceful turn, the semicircle of iron defense sliding away and landed with a thud on the ornate rug.  Ishi gazed keenly at the latch, enjoying the symbols engraved into the metal. It lifted smoothly.  The reflection glittered in his asymmetrically colored eyes.

“She’s got all the bases covered.”

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