Of Poisons and Poisoners
The six Toa sat in a circle in the middle of Vineon’s living room, such as it was. It was quite spartan, with not a trace of decoration, and barely any furniture to speak of. His bed and a cracked mirror was in an alcove off to one side, but that was basically it. The late morning sun barely shone through a small window in the door, which Vineon promptly covered with tree bark.
“Alright, we can take a quick breather here.” He said, relaxing a little. “I know Maerkon and Friana especially used up a lot of their powers.”
Kerila turned to Maerkon, questioningly.
“Hey Maerkon, why was summoning that fog cloud so much more taxing for you than it was for Yeela to create that dust cloud?”
The Water Toa shrugged. “I’m not quite sure myself, to be honest. Maybe Yeela just has that much more power?”
Grillon shook his head. “Actually, it’s simple physics. Yeela was just stirring up layers of dust that were already there, Maerkon had to not only call upon a much larger mass of water, he had to cause it to change forms, not to mention water is a much less stable element than-” a pinecone hit him in the head, cutting him off.
“No one cares, Fire-spitter!” Vineon shouted, but not nearly as malicious as normal. Friana turned to Yeela.
“Hey, did you bring the-”
“Yeah yeah, fine, I brought your stupid snacks.” Yeela said grumpily, as if they’d argued about this earlier.
She reached into her sack and pulled out six carefully wrapped packages, handing one to each Toa, and one for herself.
“What are these-?” Maerkon wondered out loud, unwrapping his package. “Wait. Actual snacks?”
Indeed, inside each package was a small meal, with kane-steak sandwiches and a small cookie.
“Oh yeah!” Friana cheered as she unwrapped her package (her and Yeela’s cookies were noticeably larger than everyone else’s). “My friends, prepare for a true treat! For while you may know my friend Yeela as a crazy killer blacksmith, she’s actually a crazy killer cook!” Yeela glared at the Air Toa.
“You know, one day I might get tired of bringing you meals and just poison you.” Friana chattered on like Yeela hadn’t spoken. “When I was little and my friends and I went exploring, it was always Yeela who brought the snacks. She was basically Team Mom.” As Friana began regaling the Keata with tales of old adventures, Grillon looked around, noticing that Kerila had left their circle and was hanging close to the door. He got up and walked over to her.
“Hey, is something the matter?”
Kerila shook her head, but her eyes glittered, as if she’d been wiping away tears.
“Oh, it’s nothing really,” she stammered, her voice strained. “It’s just, you know… I’ve never been close to my family, haven’t even seen them in a few years. When I started working with Maerkon, he was like the father I’d never really had. And now, well, I’ve got a whole new family!”
“Hear hear!” Friana cheered from behind Grillon. The two jumped in surprise as the Air Toa laughed and pulled them back towards the rest of the group. “You’re exactly right! After all, we’re the only Toa in existence, so it makes sense to stick together! And we already know we work great together.”
The Air Toa’s enthusiasm was infectious. Grillon found himself unable to stop smiling as he listened to her.
“I like the sound of that. More than a team: a family!”
“Yeah, that’s the spirit! We’ve got a Team Mom,” (Yeela rolled her eyes) “the wise old Gramps,” (Maerkon raised an eyebrow but didn’t comment) “that one cousin that no-one likes” (“Hey!” Vineon protested) “and you two could easily be my younger siblings.” She laughed, grabbing on to Grillon and Kerila, who eyed each-other awkwardly.
“Yeah yeah, that’s great.” sniped Vineon, still annoyed about that ‘one cousin’ comment. “As you’ve clearly recovered your strength, I suggest we get moving.”
He tapped a seemingly random tile in the wall. Without a sound, the wall slid away, revealing a passage that dove down until it faded away in the dark. Just above the entranceway, on the lintel, the image of a snake’s head baring its fangs was carved. Grillon and the others could only assume it was an insignia of some kind for the Poisoners, but didn’t comment.
“Follow me, into the fifth locus, and the Hall of Madness.” Silence fell for a second, till Grillon stepped forward, light glowing gently in his palm.
“So, you going first, or me?”
Vineon led the way down a byzantine labyrinth of passages, creeping cautiously in seemingly random directions as surely as if he’d been born here… which he practically had, of course. Every tunnel was almost indistinguishable from the one before: perfectly spherical, the heartwood of the tree was a bright green, and sap was everywhere… but the dim light coming from Grillon’s palm left so much in shadow that even the green seemed menacing, and every drip-drop echoed around till it sounded like the banging of a gong. The silence was a thick and oppressive shroud, actively trying to choke any living thing.
Occasionally Vineon or Friana would wave for them to stop, not daring to break the silence themselves. They could hear the thump of distant footsteps and the muffled chatter of voices, waiting with bated breath for the illusion of safety to return. The silence became less frequent as they ventured further into the maze of chambers, subliminal mutterings and the echoing of busy feet following them like a malevolent phantom. It was even more oppressive than the silence, a feeling that discovery was just around the corner, that the very trees were conspiring against them. As if the conspiratorial nature of the place bred paranoia.
The group cringed slightly as the faint sounds of agonized screams started to reach them, echoing through the winding corridors. “We’re getting close,” Vineon remarked grimly.
“I’ve never heard anyone scream like that, not even on the battlefield.” Grillon grimaced.
“What do they actually-?” Vineon put up a hand to quiet the Air Toa.
“You don’t wanna know.”
The screams grew louder and louder as they approached the Hall. Soon, the sobs and frightened whimpers of prisoners fearing their own fates could also be heard, and Grillon could feel a boil rising in him from the pain and distress surrounding them. “We need to do something about this.”
“Like what, Fire-spitter? Anything we try will blow our cover. I know it’ll bother your little goody two-shoes conscience, but they’re not our problem.” Vineon snapped. Grillon sighed and reluctantly conceded. As they hid behind the cover of the entrance, they could distinctly hear a torture in progress.
“Do you know why you get this?” A growl echoed from far off.
“I swear, I didn’t do anythi-!” The voice was cut off by a scream of agony.
“The poison is in your bloodstream now. It’s been specially made just for little criminals like you to go as slowly… and painfully… as possible.” The torturer spoke with a tone that was both matter of fact and sickeningly satisfied, as if the speaker enjoyed what they were doing. It took a moment for Grillon to realize that was probably the case.
Most of the Toa gritted their teeth, though Vineon seemed unmoved.
“When they called themselves the Poisoners they weren’t screwing around, were they?” Friana hissed.
“This’ll make for decent cover, they won’t notice us with all this noise.” Vineon reasoned.
“Vineon!” Grillon snapped.
“What? I’m thinking tactically.”
“Guys, focus!” Kerila interrupted in the same hushed tone.
“Okay, the guards have just gone by. We should probably move now before they come back.” Friana pointed out. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for the team to unanimously agree.
They crept quickly but quietly from their cover, passing row after row of bewildered prisoners, who they urged to keep quiet. Some of them showed clear signs of having been already been through it at least once.
Vineon led the others down one way that did not include blood-curdling screams. It still led to a torture chamber.
“Avert your eyes, wimps: they don’t always leave their subjects alive. Or in one piece, for that matter.”
Kerila shivered, “This is j-just totally messed up.”
“Well, they’d hardly be hiding sunshine and rainbows down here, now would they?”
Wandering through the room, various chairs with a choicy selection of bindings and horrific implements of torture were at the user’s disposal. Implements that could bend, crush, pierce, pull or tear pretty much any part of their subject.
“If this is just the Hall of Madness, I’m scared to think what the Hall of Agony is like.” Friana remarked.
“Just a little further will get us into locus 6 and the Hall of Despair.”
“Oh, great.” Yeela muttered sarcastically.
The team suddenly stopped dead as they saw the… shape, in front of them. Slumped in its chair, the only indication that it had once been alive was the mask lying cracked beside it. Above it on the wall was the cold, unfeeling stare of the snake's head - the mark of the Poisoners.
Kerila clamped her mouth and hand around a small scream, Friana leapt backwards and took an instinctive defensive stance, Maerkon’s eyes betrayed his horror, even Yeela bristled at the sight. And Grillon? He doubled over, unable to look. “I think I’m gonna throw up.” He groaned.
“Oh, can it, you cowards.” Vineon snorted, “The way to the next locus is just up ahead. And you’ll see worse crap yet.”
The Toa were quick to learn why this next place was called the Hall of Despair.
“NO! PLEASE! ANYTHING BUT THAT! KILL ME INSTEAD! JUST PLEASE DON’T HURT MY LITTLE DEMI!”
“THEN TELL US-”
“D-daddy, what’s going on?!”
“SHE’S ONLY A CHILD, PLEASE!”
A sickening scream was heard, followed by a plaintive moan of despair.
Grillon was fighting the urge not to break down completely or yell himself hoarse in the face of the horrors he could hear taking place such a tiny distance away. He was shaking. The others were taking it hard too, even Vineon was wincing a little. Kerila put a hand on the Fire Toa’s shoulder, trying to comfort him, with little success.
“This is horrible,” He choked.
“Sure are some sick sons of ce.” Yeela agreed, ignoring the glare from Friana.
“And do you wanna know the worst part?” Vineon added.
“No!” Hissed the other five as one Toa.
“Well, anyway, I know a side-entrance through here. That way we won't have to see any of the corpses-”
At that moment Grillon hunched over and started quietly retching, gaining Vineon a death-glare from Kerila, who was now supporting him. “I-I’m sorry Grillon, but there’s nothing we can do.” Kerila said in what she hoped was a soothing voice.
“Th-that’s the worst thing… a-about it.” Grillon managed, before falling back into retching again.
“Listen to me Grillon, look at me.” Maerkon prompted his younger leader to look up, he complied. “I know this is horrible, we all do, and we want to do something about it. And we will. But first, we need to end this war.”
“Okay,” Grillon nodded shakily, drawing himself back up to his full height, “Lead the way Vineon, let’s get this over with.”