Stone Against The Sea
Notes: This was a novel I wrote and self-published when I lived in New Zealand. It is my attempt at a pulp-inspired sword and sorcery adventure set in a fantasy version of early New Zealand (and beyond). I wrote it while active at my university's Maori student club, learning kapa haka. As I immersed myself into Maoritanga and traveled the country to see historic sites, I excitedly wrote all about it. While I don't think this novel is as good as my current projects, it's got a lot of sentimental value to me. I hope you enjoy!
Summary: Toka is an island warrior cast into battle against cruel cults, colonial powers, and warped monsters. He voyages across his homeland, and beyond, at the whim of an otherworldly entity.
"Waiho ma te tangata e mihi."
(Leave your praises for another.)
The Ebon Tide
Toka stumbled between the lands of the living and the dead, his battered form pushed beyond its limit. Sanguine lifeblood caked his olive skin like rusted iron. His rounded face was bruised beyond recognition, and his dark brown eyes struggled to focus on the forest around him. His shoulder-length obsidian-black hair was matted and fraying, having been not been washed in days. His broad nose was assaulted by the odor of drying blood as he forced himself forwards. Blood caked his arms and upper torso, and his vision blurred as he staggered onwards. His well-muscled legs swung from side to side like a bent willow in a storm. Spiral patterns flowed from his round face to his muscular arms, green tattoos granted to him for prowess in battle. His tattered flax overcoat clung to his body, held by his sweat and dried blood, as it had been ripped to shreds by enemy weapons. Toka labored with each step forwards, using his spear as a walking stick.
He trudged through the forest, stepping through a verdant bank of ferns. His bare feet greeted the soft ground, but Toka forced himself to continue onwards. The urge to rest gnawed at his mind like a siren's song, but he realized falling asleep now could be the last time he did so. The playful calls of distant birds were the only animals he heard, save the odd breeze rustling the branches. He pressed onwards, seeing a woman gathering fern roots.
The curved tattoos on her chin marked her as part of an allied hapu, the Western Forest, another clan in his iwi. Her dark brown eyes stared at him, and her body slowly stepped away from the wounded warrior. Toka dropped his spear and opened his mouth, preparing to explain. However, no words left his lips. Instead, his consciousness abandoned him, and he collapsed onto the ground. Darkness overtook him, and recent memories rushed to fill the void like water flowing downhill.
Toka remembered leading the scouting party less than two days ago. He stood beside his brother Arana on the edge of a hill. The sun's rays beat down on them, sizzling the grasses on the hillside. The hissing of insects was a suitable background. Beyond the hills, the snow-capped peak of Koinga stood proudly above the lesser peaks like the stature and reputation of the warrior who beheld it.
The rest of the party rested at the base of the hill, recuperating from the long trek from their pa. His younger brother lacked the moko, ornate tattoos, of his older sibling, but stood nearly as massive, towering over his peers by at least a head. The young man held his taiaha proudly, smashing at imaginary foes.
"Toka, do you think we will find anything?" he asked. "There has been no fighting for almost a year, not even a Bloody Hands raid."
"Hence, why we must always be wary, brother," Toka replied, "for our neighbors may be planning a sneak attack, or perhaps even worse fates could befall us."
"Only the foolish would attack us with a feared warrior like you leading us," Arana sighed. "I wish for a grand battle, so I may receive the honor that you did."
"Honor, mana, comes not merely from war or our family heritage, our whakapapa," Toka said. "but knowing when not to fight. We Great Hunters trap our prey before ever drawing blood, and I would not relish another war."
"Stop being so modest!" Arana grinned. "There are none in the land of Ipukarea that could stand before us!"
"Then we may be humbled by those from outside," Toka quietly noted. "I have heard stories, brother, of the tau iwi and their strange weapons."
"Mere stories, brother." Arana rolled his eyes. "I cannot believe you take them seriously!"
"A careless warrior is a dead warrior," Toka said. "Now come, someone approaches."
Toka saw the glint of the sun against metal somewhere in the sea of grass beneath them. He gestured to Arana, and told him to signal the scout party below. His brother waved his spear high, while Toka pointed out the strange glint. Below them, the rested warriors grabbed their weapons and formed a circle facing outwards across the plains. Toka squinted through the heat haze to see them.
They marched in a single column, shouldering spear-like weapons of wood and metal. They were clad in strange robes, dark fabrics the color of the night. Hoods covered their faces, but Toka could see their skin had a ghostly pallor. He did not need to consult the tohunga to know that these men were warriors. Behind the men trotted a strange beast, a massive monster bearing the weight of an entire person on its back. It had four legs, and fur as black as an obsidian blade. The exposed face and upright posture of the rider indicated his status as a leader, perhaps even a rangatira. The man's mount had fur as dark as his disheveled hair, and he wore a dark overcoat instead of a robe. He clasped a leather strap in one hand, and an edged metal weapon in the other. The enemy war-chief shouted something in a foreign language, raised his blade at the scouting party, and his soldiers advanced in a line. They clasped their weapons and would not stop advancing. The peculiar men were obviously not here to parley.
The buzzing of insects stopped for a moment as an ethereal stillness crept into the valley, and Toka swore he could hear their voices.
"Brother Talbot, what are your orders?" one of the men uttered.
"Slay them in the Master's name!" the pale-skinned commander shouted, flecks of spittle flying from his lips. "Ready muskets!"
The buzzing of insects returned a split second later as Arana's hand gently rubbed his shoulder. A dreamlike reverie still momentarily clouded his consciousness as the adrenaline rush of battle stirred. Toka felt a fire in his stomach as his scouting party moved into position, and prepared to perform the peruperu, a war haka.
"Arana, head back to the pa," Toka ordered his brother. "Warn them the foreigners are here."
"But what of the others?" Arana winced. "I am not a coward!"
"No, but you are swift of feet," Toka said. "I will join you later."
His brother's lips prepared to pout, but were silenced by Toka's stern gaze. Arana darted up the hill, and Toka descended the hill to join the others. He only hoped he bought his hapu valuable time to prepare. The white-skinned men formed a line of their own, and fiddled with their strange weapons. Adrenaline surged through his body as he sprinted down the hillside, turning the scenery into a blur. The tohunga believed it to be a bad omen if the haka was performed poorly, and Toka did not want lower the morale of his comrades.
Toka had almost reached the others when thunder and fire erupted from the robed men. Acrid clouds stung his eyes and choked the air from his lungs as his ears rang. He coughed and wheezed as the enemy advanced, emerging from the smoke like demons from the underworld. He dove to the ground, to see his comrades dead or dying. He saw the lean face of Ruru, with whom he had played as a boy and fought alongside as a warrior, spit up blood as his body stopped twitching. He barely recognized his former rival Tane, with a chunk of his head cleaved off by some unseen blade. A split second looking at the carnage was enough to harden Toka's heart for battle and seeking utu, retribution.
He wordlessly ran his spear through the chest of the first enemy he saw. The man gurgled for a long second as his blue eyes rolled back into his head, but Toka had already moved onto the next target. He swung his jade mere into the temple of another man, drawing a crimson arc across the ground. He felt a blow to his back that dropped him, but a back-handed bash with the short club cracked another musketeer's skull. The next enemy who had the misfortune of seeing Toka fumbled with his musket, pouring black powder into its muzzle. Toka hurled his cut-down hoeroa at him, and the short whalebone throwing club's tether wrapped around his leg. Toka yanked the rope as hard as he could, sending his victim tumbling to the ground. His mere arced through the air, delivering a deathblow to his helpless target.
Suddenly, Toka heard the pounding of four hooves on the ground nearby. He looked up to see the enemy leader riding his mount hard, driving it on with his boots. The beast galloped on all fours, chasing down a target in the distance. The cavalryman raised his blade, and Toka stood helplessly as he realized the enemy's target. Arana ran up the hill, but the beast-rider was faster. Time slowed down as Arana was kissed by the steel blade and fell dead on the ground. Rage surged through Toka's veins and clouded his mind.
He turned his attention back to the musketeers, who were aiming rows of their weapons at him. He dove to the ground as lead balls whizzed above his head. There was a sting of pain on his shoulder, but Toka ignored it. As they struggled to reload, he grabbed a spear from a fallen warrior and again charged into their ranks. His mind began to blur as fury overtook him, but all he remembered was his arms painting the ground blood red. Composing the poetry of violence was his task as a warrior, and he blacked out from exhaustion soon afterwards.
He awoke an unknown amount of time later, as the sun sank in the sky. Toka felt sore, as the adrenaline surge had abandoned him to the ravages of his own wounds. The rancid stink of caked blood and sweat filled his nostrils, but his attention was elsewhere. The enemy had retrieved their dead and weapons, leaving his own comrades to rot on the hill. The valley was now tapu, blessed with the blood of his allies and enemies. Over the hills, a pillar of black smoke arose from a direction that made Toka's heart sink. Even the carnage of battle was nothing compared to the horrors he felt could happen to their village. He recalled that his people had made an agreement with their kin, to shelter survivors in the event of an attack.
Toka knew it would be foolish to return home now, as the strangers or opportunistic rivals might be lurking nearby. He took a long look at the direction of home, and prepared to head to his allies' camp. At best, he would find other survivors, and at worst, he would warn them of the strange men who attacked them. While their weapons were powerful and strange, they could bleed and die as surely as any other man. He gathered supplies, treated his wounds as best he could, and headed away from the battlefield.
As the memories concluded in Toka's brain, his eyes began to open. He found himself lying on a flax mat under a thatched rooftop. An elderly woman reached for a pot of medicine, but something seemed wrong. Toka noticed she was frozen in place, perpetually grasping with her open hands. Toka's gaze shifted to outside of the hut, to see raindrops seemed frozen in mid-air. It immediately felt as surreal as that prior moment when he had heard the strangers speak. The march of time had frozen in a single moment, a violation of his entire life's experiences until the present. Deep within his own mind, he felt as if his entire being was laid naked before something vastly unknowable to a mere man. Something unnatural and sinister was definitely afoot, even if he was not dead already.
"No, you are not dead, Toka," came a voice from behind him. Each word felt as though it wormed his way through his ears, squirming and violating his mind. "Not yet."
A chill came over the prone warrior. He looked for something to use as a weapon, but his body would not respond to his will. Toka spotted a shadow moving across the floor of the hut, superficially human but greatly distorted. The proportions and numbers of limbs changed every time Toka shifted his gaze, and the figure did not match the light coming into the hut. The amorphous blob of darkness fluxed and shifted, as the speaker gnawed at his brain like writhing maggots. Toka felt like a helpless chick before a hawk, as every fiber of his essence was probed by an eldritch power far greater than he.
"What do you desire, tipua?" Toka asked. "I have no patience for foul tricks or illusions."
"Oh, Toka, so defiant." A mocking, discordant laughter echoed through his ears. "You desire utu for the deaths of your brother and hapu. I may assist you."
"I do not need to be a tohunga to suspect the generosity of spirits," Toka replied. "Give me your name, so I may address you properly."
"Very well." A hiss reverberated through his head, causing him to feel dizzy for a second. "I am Matarere, the Harbinger and Keeper of Secrets and Shadows."
"How will you assist me?" Toka asked. "Even if I were to believe a word you say, I would break tapu by serving you."
"I will grant you the Elder Speech, so you may know the languages of the foreigners," the voice said. "I have already given you a taste of it. Your enemy is located southeast of here. Travel there if you do not believe me."
"If the enemy is there, then I shall slay them," Toka said. "But I will not be your slave, Harbinger."
"You shall serve me, whether you realize it or not," The Secret Keeper conjured forth the apparition of Arana, his bloody and battered corpse standing silently at the front of the hut. The phantom glared at Toka with empty eyes and an expressionless face. The scars ran across his body like sanguine rivers, gradually healing and then opening again. His brother's eyes began to flow with a trickle of tears, as Matarere's illusion rubbed Toka's nose. The false Arana's skin was painfully frigid to the slightest touch, as if sliding his hand on a sliver of the Void itself.
"Do not mock me with the face of my brother," Toka said. "I know not why you assist me, but I will not stand for treachery."
"Oh, Toka." The Secret Keeper's reply sounded condescending, as an adult would address a child. "Things far worse than me exist. You would do well to remember that."
It was then Toka woke up in a cold sweat. The woman who leaned over him gasped and stepped back, almost knocking over a rack of baskets behind her. The soft pounding of rain outside soothed and relaxed him. Toka looked down to see his wounds had been cleaned and the blood removed.
"Thank you," he said to the old woman. "Take me to your rangatira. I bring grim tidings."
"You are welcome," she handed him a new set of clothes, similar to his old garments. "Since we found you, we have had nothing but questions."
The woman left, and Toka slipped into the new clothing. He recalled that in the Western Forest hapu, women led the men in battle. He walked out of the hut into the center of the village. He heard barking dogs and giggling children, but paid them no heed. The squat huts around him had ornately carved wooden beams, detailing patterns similar to their tattoos. Their roofs were thatched and angled, some bearing totems at the front. Each door guardian was a caricature of a warrior, some bearing spears and others bearing taiaha. Some huts were partially built into the ground and stuffed with baskets of foodstuffs and supplies. Other storehouses were raised on pillars to keep their contents off the ground.
In the center of town was a community well, ringed by stones and muddy footprints. Next to it was a partially enclosed hagi. The fires in the earthen oven were cold, but the aroma of baked goods still wafted from within. Near the entrance was a long cylindrical wooden gong, carved from the trunk of a fallen tree. Around the village proper was a palisade made of puriri trunks that had been partially sunk into the ground. Toka walked towards the meeting hut, the wharenui, as villagers stared at him from inside their dwellings. The meeting hall itself had red angled struts on the roof, and bore the most ornate carvings he had seen in the village. The roof extended out over a small open area, where a group of villagers stood. Due to the rain, he assumed, they were not meeting in the marae in front.
Suddenly, a warrior leapt from behind a hut. Toka felt for his weapons, but they had been taken. The spearman shouted a challenge, but Toka stood unmoved. The spearman took his weapon and stepped away, as another warrior leapt out and brandished an even longer spear, before pointing it up at the sky. He performed a haka, but Toka did not flinch. A third warrior jumped out with an obsidian-lined club, but laid the weapon down. He quietly set a rautapu, a carved piece of wood, onto the ground. Toka picked it up to signify he came in peace, and the warriors stepped away.
A trio of women began singing from within the wharenui. They called out in karanga, welcoming him to their home. Their voices were otherworldly and haunting, like sirens in the rain. As the cool drizzle soaked his skin and clothing, Toka exhaled deeply. Out of the hut came an old woman with a mere at her side and taiaha in her hands. She rested her scarred hands on the weighted end, and stuck the pointed end into the ground. A dog-skin coat, covered with bits of jadestone, hung across her shoulders. An aura of authority was obvious with the woman, and notches carved into her weapon indicated she had once been a fearsome warrior. For all Toka knew, she still was. He was not here to make enemies.
She walked forward, and pressed her forehead against Toka's. Her skin was warm but firm. She leaned back from the hongi and began to speak as all the onlookers went silent. "Honor to you, fellow Great Hunter. I am Iritana," she said. "What brings you to our village? We are always glad to shelter those of our iwi."
"I am Toka of the Eastern Plains marae, before Koinga mountain and by the waters of the Pounamu River, and I am here humbly to beg your assistance," he replied. "My scouting party was annihilated, my brother among them. Have any of my hapu arrived here?"
"No," her eyebrows raised and eyes grew wide on Iritana's wrinkled face. "Has some fate befallen them?"
Anger shot through Toka's face. His teeth clenched, and fire burned within his stomach. An army of the foreigners and their strange weapons would not be enough to quell the inferno that welled within him. "Then they have been slain," he balled his fists up. "Tell me, have you heard of any foreigners? They attacked us with bizarre weapons and rode giant beasts."
"Our scouts saw such foreigners landing along the coast southeast of here," Iritana answered. "We have witnessed them taking captives."
"Our kin may be imprisoned there," Toka said. "I would lead a war party to free them."
"Come now, Toka," Iritana asked. "Do you think you can march into our home and demand we march to war?"
"No, rangatira," Toka answered. "I am only requesting the honor of avenging and liberating our kin. We will take their fire weapons and slay their strange beasts. Our ancestors, our tupuna, fled slavery in service to the Blood Hands. Would they not find it disgusting to allow that same fate to befall us again?"
"I like the fire in you, young one," Iritana replied. "You remind me of myself at your age."
"Thank you," Toka saw a grin play on the old woman's broad face.
She turned to a spear-toting woman beside her. "Hunapo, organize a raiding party," she ordered. "We must better know our enemy, so bring your fastest scouts. Lead Toka to their encampment and find out whatever you can about them."
"Thank you very much, rangatira," Toka beat his chest, a sign of gratitude. "I have learned they can bleed as much as any man."
"If they bleed, you may kill them," Iritana noted.
"Rangatira, with respect," Hunapo interjected. "These foreigners may attack us in revenge."
"That is why you are scouting for us," Iritana stated. "Nothing ventured, nothing slain. Toka's people would march for us, and now we should do the same for them."
"I would request a spear," Toka added, "if you would spare one."
"Very well," Hunapo said. "Tell us your story, so we may better prepare."
Toka explained the details of the encounter as the raiding party readied themselves. He let his emotions dissipate against his mind like the ocean against the rocks. Clarity would come now, and violence would soon follow. A group of warriors with tattoo-covered faces, flax coats, and muscular builds marched in front of Toka onto the marae, ignoring the cool rain as their blood boiled. As they practiced different blows and bellowed shouts, Hunapo turned to Iritana, and handed her the taiaha.
"Go forth, my daughter, and come home safe." She bowed her head to Hunapo. The young woman lifted the weapon and twirled it around.
"Thank you," Hunapo said. "May the Battle-Mother grant us fortune."
"Or let us to make our own fortune," Toka said. "The gods are fickle beings."
"Then do your best, warriors," Iritana waved. "Bring freedom to our kin and death to our enemies!"
A cry went out amongst the troops, and the warband began chanting. The weapons raised into the air formed a sea of spears and taiaha points, shifting up and down as chants resounded through the marae. Toka lined up behind the sweat-soaked, glistening bodies of his clansmen as they began a haka. Feet pulverized the ground below as hands slapped thighs.
"We are the Great Hunters, and we march to war!" a young man shouted. "Our foes are our prey!"
The man was lean and had few moko on his face, like many of the younger warriors eager to prove themselves. He followed the movements of the Western Forest warriors, letting instinct move his body. He pounded his fists together and stomped his right foot in rhythm with the others, as though he was a segment of some titanic centipede.
"Come now, for glory and mana await!" the young warrior cried. Toka shouted in agreement as loud as he could, drowning out the voices of the others.
"Hohepa, follow me!" Hunapo lead the war party towards the edge of the village, as the others bid them goodbye. Toka followed Hunapo, while the rest of the warriors formed ranks behind them. The leader of the previous haka, Hohepa, vanished amongst the ranks of his peers. Many wore flax overcoats with foliage sewn in, to better camouflage themselves with their surroundings. Toka hoped that all of them would come back safely, for they risked their lives for his cause.
The group set out from the pa, marching down the terraced earthen ramp leading to the entrance. Below them was the forested area, and beyond that was the coast. Toka found the forest far more comforting than his first trek through. The green vortex unfolded before them, with ferns growing tall and wide. Tree roots coiled beneath his feet, and vines snaked up towards the heavens. Birds sang their playful calls, a natural contrast to the war-march beneath the boughs. His feet felt the cool, muddied ground, of which his brother and kin would soon be a part. Toka wished to turn his enemy into compost, to thoroughly destroy them. He looked at the woman leading the raiding party.
Hunapo returned his gaze with eyes of ice. She did not wish to talk, instead keeping her attention focused on her surroundings. Toka understood, and was in no mood to talk himself. Questions stewed inside his brain like venomous snakes. He had no idea if the Harbinger, or the claimant, was real or some figure of his imagination. He had not known about the location of the enemy camp at the time, but he had only one way of finding out the entity's other claim. If he could comprehend their speech and language, then he would know for sure.
The rain halted as the sun sank from the sky. As they made camp for the night, Toka thought he heard laughing below the whisper of the wind. Whenever he would turn his head or look, the sound would cease as abruptly as it had started. He could not help but feel that an unwanted observer was stalking his every move, taking some perverse amusement in his quest. Part of his mind wondered if the foreigners had some method of toying with him, if this were not some dark magic of theirs. Their weapons and beasts were merely strange, but the Harbinger was purely unnatural.
Three days of marching later, they arrived at the edge of the forest. They had traveled through arches of roots and vines, arboreal cathedrals formed when the land was young. Now, the verdant and bountiful woodlands gave way as the great blue plains of the ocean unfolded over the horizon. Thick foliage gave way to high grass as the land sank towards the coarse brown beach sands strewn with pebbles and driftwood. In the sky, gray clouds marched over the horizon as if fleeing an unseen foe. Hunapo waved him forward, and Toka beheld the enemy encampment.
The foreigners' stronghold stuck out of the beach like a blade ravaging a wound. On the coastal plains were a set of wooden pens holding strange creatures. Quadruped creatures with white fur the texture of clouds grazed upon the grass, uttering nonsensical calls. In a nearby pen, Toka saw the large war beasts upon which his brother's slayer had ridden. These, however, were covered in brown and white fur, unlike the jet-black one his target used. Welts and bruises covered their bodies, indicating abuse at the hands of their owners.
A wooden barricade surrounded the inner keep, a series of trunks sharpened into points. Toka could see squat, angular structures made of wood, where he presumed they lived. Just beyond the ramshackle fortifications, however, was something in the ocean. It was a vessel that bobbed upon the waves, with massive wooden pilings protruding from its deck like trees in winter. White cloth dangled from them, billowing like smoke in the wind. The shape reminded Toka of the waka he saw plying lakes and rivers, only much larger. The vessel, however, did not move from its place. It reminded Toka of a beached whale, a mighty behemoth helpless outside its domain. On the side, Toka saw strange symbols that his mind instantly understood translated as "Intrepid." He shuddered inside before continuing his survey.
Toka felt Hunapo tug on his shoulder. She pointed to the edge of the settlement, where a forest of poles protruded from the ground. He had to squint to see them in greater detail. A flag fluttered in the wind, a red field with a stylized black cresting wave in the center. Below it, spherical objects were jammed unto the poles. Seabirds landed upon them, calling as they picked at them. It took Toka a second to realize that he stared at a forest of severed heads. From the cast of the remaining faces, the heads comprised both the foreigners and natives. Toka considered for a moment that the foreigners may have their own feuds, which may prove useful.
Suddenly, the gates to the central fortress creaked open. A small party of robed individuals led a bound prisoner towards the spikes. The prisoner had scars across his face, bruises from being battered and beaten. He was clad in a torn white shirt and brown pants, stained dark with his own blood. His dirty golden hair was matted and clumped, his wrists were cut from the heavy ropes that bound them, and his frame was small and famished. The guards beat the starving man with the butts of their weapons, spitting on him as they walked towards their destination. The group leader had a long metal blade sheathed at his side, likely to add his prisoner's head to the pikes with. The black-robed minions flanking him and the prisoner on either side carried the strange weapons from before, including a short one-hand version Toka had not encountered previously. As the gate shut behind the party, Toka had an idea.
"Hunapo, have half your warriors free those animals." He gestured to the pen. "I will lead the others to free that captive and take their weapons."
"A bold plan," Hunapo said. "At the very least, it will let us test their mettle."
Hunapo gestured to a group of her warriors, who organized themselves into a staggered line near the edge of the undergrowth. Toka crouched as he advanced, signaling his own followers to attack when the time was right. A volley of such weapons had cut down an entire scouting party, so the utmost care was required. Toka readied his own spear, for it would taste blood soon. The foreigners gathered around their victim, and began chanting in their native tongue. Toka approached slowly and deliberately along the ground, listening to their half-rambling litany. He slowed his breathing to a steady pace, inhaling and exhaling as the tide came in and out. The tallest among them set down his hood, revealing a silver-haired man with a tanned face and bulging eyes.
"The Ebon Tide will sweep away all before us!" the old man raised his sword and raved as flecks of spittle flew from his mouth. He hefted it in both hands, as the prisoner closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. "Brother Talbot shall lead us to glory, and the Dreamer shall devour the souls of our enemies!"
Suddenly, Toka saw movement across the plains. Hunapo had climbed atop one of the white four-legged animals, and shouted as she rode the war beast. Behind her, the other warriors chased the livestock out of its pens. Hohepa began forming a line, performing a peruperu to taunt them.
"Those savages stole my horse!" the mad priest shouted. "Shoot them!"
"Yes, sir!" a cultist shouted as he fumbled with his weapon. "Ready muskets!"
The cultists formed a firing line, just as Toka remembered. He gestured to the warriors behind him, who charged the cultists from behind. He shouted and charged their leader, adrenaline coming over him as hate raced through his arteries. His inner warrior slipped off all restraints, and he could almost taste the fear and panic of his first target.
He ran his spear through the old man, twisting his hips to add power. The stone point came out the rear of the man's robe, painting the ground red. Toka kicked the madman away as he choked to death on his own bile. As the body fell, Toka's mere emerged and dashed a cultist in the temple. Blood spiraled on the ground in patterns reminiscent of his tattoos. A nearby musket discharged into the air, as the firing line descended into a mad melee.
Foes swarmed at Toka from both sides, but he did not need to think. His hoeroa whistled as it hurled through the air, wrapping around a musket in an unfortunate cultist's grip. He pulled the rope taut, and the weapon flew into his hands. The warrior felt the reassuring weight of the weapon as he grasped it in his hands. The cultist's face turned pale white as Toka aimed and pulled the trigger. A cloud of smoke and the clap of thunder rang through the battle as Toka exercised his own command of fire. He spun around, cracking the head of another cultist with the heavy stock of the weapon. A grin played across his face as he realized the many flavors of death he could now deal.
Suddenly, a shot rang out too close to his ears, deafening him. Toka howled with pain as a bullet grazed his shoulder, and he turned to see a frightened cultist feebly clutching a pistol in hand. He dropped the musket, and ripped the empty firearm away with his good hand. Toka flipped it around in his hand, realizing why the end was capped in metal. In a sweep of his good arm, the pistol cracked a skull open.
Toka fell to the ground after that, overcome with the pain that burnt from his wound. Above him, another musketeer trained his weapon on him as a smug grin marched across his face. Toka did not have time to react as the man's finger moved towards the trigger. It was then that a steel blade erupted from the cultist's chest, a lethal butterfly emerging from its crimson cocoon. The cultist's body went limp, and Toka looked up to see the prisoner from before, clutching the sword that almost ended his life. He picked up a pistol from the ground, and pulled Toka to his feet.
"We have to go!" he shouted. "I can treat you!"
Toka looked to see the gates of the fortress were opening. Shouting and commotion from inside the fort echoed down the beach, as more cloaked figures climbed to the top of the cultist ramparts.
"Grab what you can, and retreat to the forest!" Toka ordered. "I'll escort the prisoner!"
The warriors grabbed guns and powder from the fallen cultists, and Toka clasped his shoulder as he darted to the woods. Behind him, the distant cracks of gunfire faded through the forest. He ignored the pain from his lungs as they yearned for air. He darted through dense undergrowth, dense enough to prevent horses from pursuing. He leaned himself against a tree, and greedily sucked down air. The prisoner's eyes stared forward with fear and apprehension, as if he had seen things that would test even Toka's resolve.
"Thanks, mate," the freed prisoner moved towards Toka, his hands raised in the air. "I would've been done for back there."
"I know not whether you can understand me," Toka reached out with his good hand. "But I am Toka, of the Eastern Plains marae, and my iwi is known as the Great Hunters."
"William Burke, from Dorchester in Anglavia," the prisoner said, introducing himself. "Never dreamt I'd almost die like that."
"Tell me, William," Toka said. "Do you know how to heal?"
"Aye," William nodded. "I was surgeon and carpenter on the Intrepid. In need of mending?"
Toka turned to his new companion, revealing his wound to him. His blood clotted against his flax coat, but the wound was not as bad as Toka had first thought. William tore off part of his shirt, and knelt down.
"I'm impressed ye can understand me," William said as he tied his makeshift bandage.
"I had help, William." Toka decided against explaining more. "What brought you to our land?"
"The Intrepid was a merchantman hired by the Church of the Ebon Tide," William explained. "We were to sail them to the ends of the world."
"But did you know what they intended?" Toka asked. "How did you end up as their prisoner?"
"They were an odd bunch," William replied. "But as we saw land, they mutinied and ran us aground. We were their slaves, then their sacrifices."
"Tell me, William, would you want to avenge your crew?" Toka inquired. "We seek to destroy this Church for their savage attacks upon my people."
"Ain't much of a fighter, friend." William shook his head. "But I be a healer. I fix wood and wounds alike, as carpenters also be surgeons at sea."
"Very well," Toka said, drawing his empty pistol. "But could you train my warriors and I to use this?"
"Aye." William nodded. "Just give me a place to lay my head, and I'll help ye. I think this'll help send them to their god."
William's hand took the sword from his belt and handed it to Toka. The warrior twirled the cutlass in his hands. The blade hummed as he slashed through the air, an enticing song of sharpened steel. Toka slipped the weapon onto his belt, fantasizing about cleaving cultist heads. He savored the thoughts before returning to reality. His hand reached for his new weapon as he heard a horse trotting behind him.
"I see you have a new friend, Toka." Hearing Hunapo's voice made Toka relax. Toka turned around to see her riding the stolen mount. The fur of the horse was as soft and white as the snow that capped the distant mountains. Hunapo leaned forward, stroking the side of the creature.
"So do you," Toka replied. "Come, we have much to discuss."
"I am surprised you understand his language," Hunapo noted.
"As am I," Toka lied. "But the foreigners have been known for some time now."
"Ask him about his captivity." Hunapo turned towards William. "Did he see any of our people as slaves?"
William sat blankly until Toka repeated the question.
"Some." William stared at the ground. Toka saw signs of nausea on his face. His imagination conjured nightmares of what the captivity consisted of. "But they were sacrificed first. I was to be their last victim, since they forced me to help build that fort. Now, they seek to end more lives in their bloodthirsty rituals."
Toka translated back. Hunapo's eyes moved to the blade at Toka's side. A look of envy crossed her face until Toka withdrew the weapon. He recalled how his brother had met his demise, and he handed the weapon to Hunapo.
"It works better from horseback," he watched grinning Hunapo twirl the blade. She took her horse to the front of the group, and they began the trek home.
"Tell me, William," Toka said. "Do you know who rides the black stallion?"
"That'd be Brother Talbot, one of the leaders," William replied. "Why?"
"He has slain my brother." Toka said. "And I will slay him."
The group headed back to the village, while William treated Toka and the other wounded. The prisoner demonstrated how to use the captured guns, but Toka told him to save their ammunition and powder for later. While he was at the rear of the group, Toka would constantly try to obscure their trail to make them harder to track. While he saw no sign of the cultists, he could not help but feel he was being spied upon. Toka knew that the Harbinger was likely out there somewhere, observing him for unfathomable reasons.
The trek back to the village was shorter than the trip there in Toka's mind. The anticipation of battle no longer weighed on his heart, but Toka knew that the conflict was not yet over. Instead, a torturous dread crept into his mind, making his stomach churn whenever he considered the cultists' reprisal. As Toka approached the pa they had departed from, he was reminded that the entire village was built to withstand a siege. While some tribes constructed a pa separate from living space, the terraced hill allowed the Western Forest hapu to live on and hold the high ground. Storehouses rose on posts above the ground, while the hollowed log hung over a watchtower by the main entrance. Behind him, he noticed William gawking upwards at the hillside, eying the fortifications.
"What do you think, William?" Toka asked. "Can the Church defeat our pa?"
"Not easily," William remarked. "They could bring heavy cannon from the ship, but they lack the numbers to storm it."
"Then they may try drive us into the open," Toka noted. "I would ask you to help the rangatira in improving these walls."
"Of course," William nodded. "Practicing my craft willingly is a welcome change."
Hunapo's horse trotted up behind them, and she dismounted. The horse began to graze on grass at the foot of the hill, and the warrior walked up the side of the pa. As the warriors approached, Toka heard welcome cries of "Haere mai!" from within. The villagers greeted the returning raiding party, and Toka saw Iritana standing in front of the wharenui. The victorious warriors stepped forwards, reveling in the admiration. Hunapo proudly strode, a spring in her step, towards her grinning mother, setting down a musket before the woman.
"We have returned victorious," Hunapo said. "We have captured weapons and a war-beast from the enemy, and saved a prisoner from their perverse rituals."
"Where is this prisoner?" Iritana asked. "Can he speak our language?"
"He is here," Toka raised his hand. He gestured to William, who followed behind him. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead as he gazed around him. "I will translate for him."
"Very well, Toka," Iritana said. "Who is this man you present before us?"
"His name is William Burke," Toka replied. "He was a healer and a woodworker, forced into slavery by our foes."
"And can you vouch for his honor?" Iritana asked.
"Yes," Toka said. "He saved my life in battle, and seeks only shelter."
"He is welcomed to stay here, so long as he abides by our customs," Iritana nodded. "His knowledge of healing and craft would be greatly appreciated."
"He has shown me to how to use the new weapons," Toka added. "In addition, he may shed light on the strangers' motives and culture."
"Have him explain his homeland," Iritana stared at the ground. "We must prepare ourselves, since I fear more foreigners arrive."
Toka translated, and waited for William's reply.
"Dorchester's the capital of Anglavia, and built on wooden stilts in a swamp," William said. "Nary a sunny day is to be had, and rich merchants run the Republic off the backs of plantation slaves."
"Would they try to take our land?" Toka asked. "Or war against us?"
"If ye had something they wanted, of course," William explained. "And to the south be the Kingdom of Bordeaux, who'd spread their faith at the edge of a sword."
Toka translated and saw Hunapo grit her teeth and continue growing impatient.
"Mother, these cultists are nothing compared to an entire nation marching upon us," Hunapo said. "We must unify with the other iwi to drive them out."
"Hush, child," Iritana said. "You may lead one day, but today brings its own problems. Toka, take your companion and prepare our walls. Hunapo, demonstrate this weapon to the other warriors."
Toka translated, and left with William to examine the fortifications.
"They're eager to make you feel comfortable here, William," Toka told his companion. "But they seek your advice on defending themselves."
"So long as I can rest me weary bones, it's good on me." William exhaled a sigh of relief. "Come now, we've got work to do."
The next few days were a blur of activity punctuated by the sounds of construction and gunfire. William led the villagers in making improvements to the walls, while explaining his homeland to the curious. Toka found it strange a nation would measure wealth in small metal discs called 'coins,' but had other more pressing concerns. The trees around the village were felled, and used for buttressing, as flax-cloth flaps were hung to conceal new firing ports for their muskets. Toka drilled the warriors with the guns they had captured, as much as their limited supplies of gunpowder and ammunition would allow. Outside of the pa, Toka could see Hunapo caring for or riding her warhorse, cleaving branches off of trees as practice with her new sword. Even in his free time, he instructed William in his own language. From dawn to dusk, Toka had little time to rest in the pa.
One morning, Toka woke up in a cold sweat. Outside of the hut was the ocean-blue pre-dawn light. All Toka heard were the birdcalls echoing through the trees. His gaze shifted downwards to the doorway, where impossible shadows danced upon the ground. A hint of unnatural laughter reminded Toka he was not alone.
"Come, Toka," the Harbinger chided. "It is time to awaken."
Toka said nothing as he climbed from bed. Part of him had the urge to curl up and fall back into the safely of unconsciousness, but something was very wrong outside. It was then his ear caught a distant whistling in the air, a sound like a large bird's death-screech. A split second later, the wall of the hut exploded outwards, spraying wooden splinters across the floor of the cottage. Having missed the lethal barrage by centimeters, Toka knew it was time to fight. The Harbinger had saved him from the cannonball, but Toka had no time to consider why.
"Wake up!" he shouted as loud as he could. "The enemy is here!"
The frantic sounds of battle crashed upon the camp like a tsunami. A low, thunderous pounding resounded from the watchtower as sentries battered the hollowed log. Dogs began barking, and rustling came from within huts. Weapons were brought out as the warriors rallied. Toka grabbed his weapons as he frantically threw on his clothing. Hunapo rode out on her warhorse with a sword in one hand and pistol in the other.
"It is good you are okay, Toka," Hunapo said. "I will rally the others. You check on William."
"Very well," Toka replied. "Good hunting."
"And to you," she said as she galloped off.
Toka ran a nearby storehouse, a cool and quiet place where William had sat up his bedroll. He clutched a pistol in one hand and knife in the other.
"The bastards returned." William said, staring blankly at the ground. "They've come for us."
"No, we are coming for them." Toka extended his hand. "Come; they shell us from afar like cowards."
"Ye can go, but I've no stomach for more bloodshed." He began to gather up various woven baskets and ceramic pots on nearby shelves. "I'd rather heal than kill. But this is for you."
William presented a weapon to Toka. It was a pistol, but with ornate patterns carved into the wooden handle. They were indicative of the tattoos on Toka's skin, and small jade stones were set around the metal cap at the end of the handle. It was a beautiful weapon that naturally complemented his mere, and the cleaned lock indicated it was undoubtedly an effective one as well.
"Thank you, William." He slipped the pistol onto his belt. "I shall avenge your crew with this pu hurihuri."
"Ye saved my life," he replied. "Least I could do."
"You saved mine," Toka added. "We are even."
"I be treating the wounded here, mate," he said. "Tell the others."
Toka realized the storehouse was a logical location, as the underground construction shielded it from incoming artillery. He waved a hasty goodbye to his friend as he left. He directed a pair of children towards the storehouse, and then raced out to join the fight with his spear held high. More cannonballs exploded around him, and portions of the wall barely held against the pounding artillery. Outside, the unmistakable crack of gunfire sounded from outside their walls. Their own gunners returned fire with what seemed to be a few wisps of gunfire compared to the torrent of lead outside. He peeked through an unoccupied firing port to see about two dozen men standing around the primary earthen ramp leading up to the pa. Behind them was a large gun on wheels, likely a cannon salvaged from the ship.
Behind the artillery crew was a familiar man on a familiar horse. Brother Talbot's face was a grotesque mask of hatred, his eyes locked upwards at the village. His clothing was noticeably more disheveled and dirty than before. Some of his men tried to charge up the ramp with torches, but were driven back by the tribe's gunfire each time. It seemed like the Church's entire congregation had assembled for the destruction of the pa. Spying a gap in the walls on the side of the pa, Toka realized he had a perfect opening.
Toka climbed through the flax mat covering one of the larger firing ports, and climbed down the hillside out of view of the cultists. The ground was moist and muddy, and each step tested his footing and his nerve. He jammed his spear's end into the ground for support as he descended towards the ground. He darted into the forest, and felt confidence surge over him. This was his fight now. In his territory, he vanished like a ghost into the underbrush and readied his weapons for battle.
He flanked the cultists' lines until he came to their rear. In the early dawn, he was as silent and as invisible as a mischievous spirit. From the shadows, Toka gazed upon the camp the cultists had hastily constructed. The jury-rigged camp resembled a dumping ground more than military camp, with torn canvas tents, moth-eaten bedrolls, and translucent glass jars of rancid food. The stench of decaying organic matter was thick enough to be embedded in everything Toka saw, from the dying campfire to the supply caches. Through distant trees, Toka saw Talbot's horse trotting restlessly in circles, while Talbot muttered nonsensically to himself.
"Master, how much longer will you sleep?" he murmured. "Does your other half still stir?"
Toka noted exposed barrels of gunpowder under a tattered cloth and had an idea. He pulled a burning stick from the cooling campfire, and hurled it into an open barrel.
By the time the explosion came an instant later, Toka had already vanished into his arboreal sanctuary. Some of the cultists had broken ranks out of curiosity, while Talbot charged into the camp on his midnight-black stallion. His eyes searched every angle for signs of an intruder, only to realize too late what had happened. Toka exploited the lull in the fighting to find the cannon crew scratching their heads. He fell upon them like a mighty avalanche, blasting his pistol in one hand and hurling his shortened hoeroa with the other. As the bullet claimed one soldier's life, he broke the knee of the other with his club and dashed his head with the pistol's metal end. The last man stumbled with a dagger before Toka's mere met the back of his head.
Diving to the ground was what saved Toka from the salvo of gunfire above his previous position. It took him a second to realize how surrounded he was, with the cultists besieging the pa on one side and Talbot's distracted troops on the other. In the eye of the storm, Toka did the one thing he could do. He arose with a charge as he smashed into the cultist lines, uttering a war-cry as he impaled one with his spear. The smarter cultists backed away, but many did not. Toka swung the butt of the heavy weapon like a club, bashing through bones and joints in a mad battle-frenzy. His adrenaline kept the sting of their weapons from hindering him, as he ignored the cuts and bruises. His sanguine calligraphy fertilized the ground with their lifeblood.
It seemed if as nothing would stop Toka, until a lucky bullet grazed his abdomen. He stumbled, and fell to the ground. He pressed down on the warm wound, but his vision went blurry. Off in the distance, Toka saw the distracted troops returning, with Talbot leading the charge. He fought to stay conscious as the mad cavalryman bore down on him. Suddenly, a fearsome cry echoed throughout the valley. Toka turned to see the warriors charging down from the village, with Hunapo leading them from horseback. Covered by their own gunners, the tribal warriors smashed into the dazed ranks of the cultists, continuing Toka's work. Talbot pulled the reins on his horse, causing it to rear up in surprise. Toka seized the opportunity as a second wave came over him. He retrieved his spear from inside a corpse and jammed the blade into the soft underbelly of the beast. The carcass came crashing to the ground, leaving Talbot dazed and confused. Toka struggled to stand up, but Talbot was already sprinting away like a coward.
"Master! Save me from these savages!" the fleeing man cried out. "Help me!"
Just then, a white blur shot past the still-dazed warrior. Toka limped forward to see Hunapo chasing down Talbot on her own mount. The cult leader turned to look behind him, and the last thing he saw was Hunapo's blade cleaving his head from his shoulders. A decapitated body flopped to the ground as the head tumbled away into the underbrush. Talbot had died in the same way Arana had. Toka exhaled in relief. His brother, friends, and hapu had been avenged. As consciousness faded from him, he saw the few remaining cultists retreat from the field. He slipped into darkness with a grin on his face.
Toka never thought he would have awakened, but he found himself staring at the roof of the storeroom. William hovered over him.
"You were lucky, mate," William said. "That flax coat of yours stopped the bullet. Must've hurt like hell, though."
"How about the cultists?" Toka asked. "How many remain?"
"Dead by scores," Hunapo interrupted. "I must thank you again, Toka, for your bravery helped us win."
"Your charge saved my life," Toka said. "And avenged my brother."
"It still will not bring back the dead." Hunapo hung her head low. "But the cultists have left a sizeable arsenal for us."
"I hope you use such weapons better than they have," Toka replied. "How about their stronghold?"
"Our scouts report that it was deserted, with the gates flung asunder and buildings left to burn," Hunapo said. "We shall search for any survivors, however. They have no friends in these lands."
Iritana walked descended into the storehouse, using her worn taiaha to prop herself up.
"Congratulations, young man," she said. "As thanks for your courage, you are welcome to stay."
"I thank you, rangatira." He bowed his head. "How about my friend, William?"
"He has already chosen to stay here," Iritana replied. "His expertise and skill will be welcomed."
"Thank you for sheltering him," Toka said. "I desire some time before I make my decision."
"Very well, Toka," Iritana beckoned to her daughter. "Come, Hunapo. Your animal is grazing on our crops again."
"Her name is Ahu, mother!" Hunapo complained as she left.
As William and Toka were left alone, the warrior turned to the healer. "Tell me, did you recover any records from the cultists?"
"Just Talbot's journal." William handed a small rectangular object to Toka. "Can ye read it?"
The black leather cover had the Church's stylized wave emblazoned in the center. Toka opened it, and began to skim through the entries. Most of it was nonsensical ramblings, and Toka had to force himself to read through every tedious word. As he read, he recalled the faces of Arana, Tane, Ruru, and all the others slain by their madness. William eventually left him alone, but Toka eventually found the information he desired. The cult worshiped a slumbering god called the Dreamer, and they believed they had in a divine mission in this land. They were to use blood rituals to seal away a rival god, a powerful entity known as the Harbinger. Toka slammed the book shut, and he ruminated for a moment. It did not take him long to realize the entity's true motivations for assisting him.
"Tell me, William." Toka said. "Would you return home if you could?"
The carpenter shook his head. "Much friendlier and kinder here."
"Then I would not want to ruin that." Toka commented. "I wish you luck in your new life, friend."
The following morning, Toka gathered his supplies and left the village behind. He left a note in William's language saying not to follow him, for he would be leaving for bad places. The warrior did not care to elaborate on how Matarere had used them. As he left the pa behind him, his heart sank as he imagined the life he might have had there. Deep inside his mind, a sinister laughter reverberated through his entire being. The Ebon Tide had been stopped, but the tide of darkness was only beginning to rise.