Into the Woods
The Toa had reached the edge of Borrara when Vineon stopped them.
“Alright, this is where things get tricky. From this point on, Poisoners could be anywhere. We’ll have to be really stealthy.”
“Relax, this is my specialty.” Before anyone could stop her, she disappeared into the trees. Vineon paled.
“You half-wit!” he spat, “She better know what she’s doing.”
Yeela patted him on the shoulder.
“One time she ran from one end of Ga-veza to the other without being spotted by anyone. Becoming a Toa hasn’t made her any less stealthy. Don’t worry, she’ll be back soon.” A few tense minutes passed. Finally, Friana appeared at the edge of the undergrowth.
“Don’t worry, there aren’t any sentries in a five-hundred yard radius.”
“What if they have patrol circuits and you just missed them?” Vineon questioned, fretting.
“I thought of that, don’t worry. Unless they have stupidly long patrols, we’re in the clear.”
Vineon sighed in relief, and the rest of the Keata followed Friana into the wood, taking care to make as little noise as possible. It was eerily dark on the forest floor. As they went, the temperature rapidly rose, and what had been a pleasant day rapidly became unbearably hot… to Kerila and Maerkon, at least. This was typical for Grillon and Vineon, Friana lived in an arguably hotter climate (though windier), and Yeela had spent lots of time in the desert as well.
In portions of Borrara such as this were hotsprings, small offshoots of the Lake of Fire, causing the sudden rise in heat. A sickly sweet smell filled the air as they passed patches of rotted vegetation. The still living plants had unnaturally long branches and leaves reaching high into the air, as if desperately clawing for a bit of sun. Kerila shivered.
“I thought Borrara was supposed to be some fount of natural life and beauty, but this is… creepy.”
“It’s not like this everywhere,” Vineon whispered, “the main roads in and out, as well as the canopy province, are exactly what you’d expect. And most of the kingdom isn’t nearly this bad. I deliberately choose this route through Flormortem. Only exiles and cripples live here, so surveillance is light even during wartime. Heck, we don’t even properly guard this province. If an enemy wants to charge in and take some useless baggage off our hands, the better for us. And if these rejects somehow repel the enemy, well then we win anyway.”
“That’s… horrifying.” Friana whispered, looking askance at the Ironwood Knight.
“But it is strategically sound.” Maerkon supplied.
“I’m not agreeing with it, but there’s some logic to it.”
They cautiously crept from tree to tree, scanning their surroundings with every step. Fearful eyes peered out from ramshackle huts and hollows, but a fierce glare from Vineon caused them to draw back into shadow. About half an hour passed with no change in scenery, with Friana frequently consulting with Vineon before disappearing ahead. They changed course seven times, with little explanation from either of them, till finally Vineon held up his hand to stop everyone. Friana returned from another recon, a troubled look on her face.
“Yep, it’s right where you said it’d be.”
Vineon turned to the others. “Alright, up ahead is the first guard. You all know about mata-ra, right?”
“But they’re extinct everywhere but the sea, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, not exactly…” Vineon gestured ahead, and they continued on till they could hear scratching and growling. And there, in a clearing up ahead, they could see the mata-ra.
It was chained to a post, with thorny vines digging deep into its skin. It was a little taller than a matoran, with a huge pair of spiralling horns and a thick hide. His scaled legs, hoofed feet, and stubby arms further marked him as separate.
“The Poisoners have a small group of captive mata-ra that they’ve bred for guard posts like this. It marks the border between Flormortem and the part of Borrara that actually matters. During the Festival, matoran aren’t allowed to cause harm to any living thing except in self defense. Mata-ra, however, have no such compulsions, so they make handy guards during the Festival.”
Maerkon shook his head. “I’ve battled the mata-ra all my life, and this still repulses me. This Clove, whoever he is, sure is a sadistic tactician.”
Yeela set down her weapon case.
“Yeela, what are you doing?” Friana hissed.
“Come on Fri, can’t you see this is wrong? We’ve got to free this thing!”
“NO!” Vineon yelped, nearly loud enough to alert the mata-ra. “You’ll alert the Poisoners that we were here!”
“Yeah, come on Yeela, we can free it later!” Friana protested.
“No, Yeela’s right.” Grillon interjected. “We can’t let this stand. Even if it makes our task more dangerous, mata-ra are living creatures too!”
“Grillon, maybe…” Maerkon began, but Kerila elbowed him in the side.
“Don’t worry, I got this.”
Kerila held out her hands, focusing her power. A small lens made of ice formed in her hand, and then another, and another, till she had a strange network of connected lenses that she held in one hand.
“A little light, please?” Grillon sent a small stream of light into the first lens, which split the light and sent it rocketing and ricocheting into the other lenses like a mini light show till three small lasers shot out, burning away the vines and chains that bound the mata-ra. The beast looked around, surprised. It opened its mouth to roar, but no sound came out. It looked confused, stumbled forward, then fell unconscious to the ground. Friana exhaled in relief.
“Guys, do you know how much effort it takes to prevent air from entering someone’s lungs?” The Air Toa growled. “A lot, that’s how much!”
“Wait…” Grillon looked at her fearfully. “You did that? You can keep someone from breathing?”
“Of course I can. Toa of Air, remember? I just hate doing it, cause it’s gwirin tiring, and it makes me feel… weird.”
Four Toa took a collective step backwards. “Also it freaks out my friends, and that’s annoying.”
Yeela grinned. “That’s Fri for ya! Strongest person on the island, but weaker than even Fire-spitter here!”
“Hey! I’m not weak!”
“Ahem.” Maerkon and Vineon both glared at the two of them. “A little loud for a stealth mission. We have less time now that the mata-ra is down, so we’ll have to hurry.”
“And onto worse news, there’s more guards up ahead. We’ll be caught for sure!” Vineon growled.
“Wait, why don’t we just cut through the Charred Forest?” Grillon suggested. “It shouldn’t be too far ahead, and it cuts a straight line towards the center of Borrara. Plus, the Poisoners probably aren’t watching it as intently, right?”
“Yeah, because there’s NO FRIGGING COVER. They wouldn’t have to be looking and we’d still be caught. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re a colorful bunch.”
“But even a small breeze stirs up these clouds of ash, right? Friana could create an ash cloud to hide us.”
“Blynydd idea, but I’m afraid I’m still tapped. Like I said, that fancy trick used up a lot of power.”
The Keata stopped to think.
“I can do it.” Yeela supplied. “I might not control ash, but I can stir up an actual dust cloud.”
Vineon sighed. “Whatever, Scraps.”
Scraps? Grillon wondered to himself. Maybe Vineon just isn’t paying attention to our actual names…
Yeela cracked her knuckles, and dust rose up in a huge cloud around them, swirling and spinning till they could barely see where they were going.
“Wait. How are we going to see where we’re going?” Kerila asked.
The dust cloud spread and thinned a bit. It was still hard to see, but they could at least make out what was in front of them.
“Oh. That’s better.”
It was disorienting, at first. Grillon realized that this must have been what it was like to be in an actual sandstorm, or a blizzard, for that matter. Dust clouded around them, obscuring even the sun. The others around him were indistinct shadows, charred husks of trees fading in and out of view around them. They trudged through it without a word, as if each in their own world.
Grillon was relieved when Yeela finally let the dust settle. It still took them an hour, but they were able to cross over the Charred Forest with little incident.
Vineon looked around warily as they re-entered the treeline.
“Alright, now we’re in Florcen, the central district. You can almost see the redwoods from here. Our little shortcut has bypassed so many layers of security that we might not need to worry as much about running into trouble, but let’s keep our guard up.” Or at least, Friana kept her guard up for the rest of them. It took about fifteen minutes for them to reach the outer edge of one of the redwoods. While there weren’t any Borran in sight, they could hear the sounds of celebration.
Vineon growled in frustration.
“Grrrrrrrr, I forgot about that blasted party! There’s no way we’ll get to my house without being spotted!”
“Not necessarily.” Maerkon said. “Grillon, do you know the way to Vineon’s house?”
“Of course, why?”
“Vineon, you go on ahead and make the path to your house as clear as possible. I can create a fog bank to conceal us, but I can’t maintain it for long. Grillon, you’ll have to hurry and guide us to his house.”
“I can help with that,” Friana supplied; “I have enough power built up to at least help a little-”
“Relax, Air Toa, you’ve done more than enough. I’m perfectly capable of holding this for as long as we need, and we may need your powers more when we reach the Poisoners.” Vineon nodded and ran ahead.
A few seconds later, and a scream echoes through the air. Then another, and another, and there was an audible stampede of panicked Borran. Above it all, they could hear Vineon shouting.
“THAT’S RIGHT, AND STAY AWAY FROM ME, YOU PATHETIC SHRIMPS!”
“All that secret organization training, and he didn’t learn a lick of subtlety.” Maerkon shook his head, then stretched out his arms. The air began to glow and glitter as all the water vapor coalesced into shining droplets, extending outward like an endless airborne sea. Then it began to mix and thicken and change, till it was a great fogbank.
“Alright, let’s go!” Maerkon said, strain evident in his voice.
“Follow me guys!” Grillon whispered loudly and plunged forward into the mist. They rounded the tree and started up the ramp that circled it, Yeela supporting Maerkon as they ran. The Diamond Knight gritted his teeth with effort, arms shaking as azure power flowed out of him.
They were halfway up the tree before the fog began to thin, little by little. Hardly noticeable at first, it soon became clear that their cover was rapidly deteriorating. A Borran walked out in front of them, straining his eyes.
“Eh? Who’s that!” He called. His eyes widened with recognition, but Yeela hit him with a club and he collapsed unconscious.
“Let’s hurry it up!” She growled, practically dragging Maerkon forward as he began to stumble. The fog had a radius of barely ten feet at this point, and was starting to thin.
“There! His house is less than a hundred feet ahead!” Grillon called. The Keata were sprinting forward at this point, the mist barely able to keep up. Finally they reached his house and piled inside, slamming the door shut behind them as the last of the mist dissipated.
“That,” Kerila said, gasping, “was a terrible plan.”