The Priest of Rotting Talons

Toka fled deep into unspoiled lands, leaving all he knew far behind. The muscular man's flax overcoat was caked with dirt and sweat, and his unkempt hair billowed in the wind behind him. For the last day, he had wandered through a towering forest of stout trees and arching ferns. Beams of light filtered in through the canopy, as if they were supports for an arboreal temple. He leaned against a tree, and checked the sun's march across the sky.

In a split second, Toka's world vanished. The sky was replaced by an infinite void, a great black beast that consumed the stars. His senses went completely numb, as the chill touch of eternity caressed his bare skin. He felt as though a horrific taniwha arose from the darkest depths of the sea to devour him, like a minnow before a great white shark. He felt frigid winds bite at his exposed flesh, wounding him as though they pulled the flesh from his bones.

"Come now, Toka." An inhuman voice slithered through his head. "You cannot escape my grasp by aimlessly wandering into the wilderness."

"Matarere, I know not why you taunt me so." Toka searched the empty sky for motion, but found nothing. "Certainly you could find more willing pawns."

"You are not the only one to receive my gifts." Something stirred within the vastness, as if the obsidian darkness was a bubbling cauldron. "Do you believe yourself to be that important?"

"I will not be your pawn." Toka tried to stand defiantly against the unearthly chill, but could not move his body. "I could seek death at an enemy's hands or my own."

"Come now, Toka," the Harbinger taunted. "You could not deny your urge to live. Should you fail, you are mine for eternity."

Toka's resolve to resist slipped away as the Harbinger ceased communication. The sinking realization that the demon knew him better than he knew himself chilled the warrior far more than the featureless vacuum that surrounded him. The warrior felt his free will was no more than illusion before Matarere, who was more devious than even the wisest of men. For a moment, Toka's mind tasted the abject terror of his choices rendered meaningless by a terrifying power. The void seemed to collapse in on Toka, a grinding of the cosmos itself upon a single insignificant point. He felt as though he was pressed under the great mountain Koinga, gravity crushing him into a pathetic sliver. The warrior would have screamed, but no sound left his lungs.

A moment later, Toka found himself back in the forest. He exhaled a sigh of relief, a cleansing breath to accompany the Harbinger leaving his mind. Toka noticed that an unnatural stillness had come over the forest. Not a single bird called through the thick foliage, nor did any insects dare make sounds. No sooner had the air left his lungs than a shrill cry echoed through the forest canopy, a bleating that reminded Toka of a wounded beast. The warrior's reflexes sprang to life as he grasped his mere and pistol. Off in the distance, Toka heard the rustling in the undergrowth. Heavy footfalls resounded against the ground, like blows thrown at the earth itself. His pistol hand shifted to the ground as his eyes tracked every shift in the brush. Suddenly, a man burst out from behind a curtain of ferns, battering low hanging branches as he charged forwards.

Before Toka could react, he heard the high-pitched shriek again. A shadow flitted passt over the canopy, momentarily bringing night to the forest floor. Something massive crashed through the treetops, a descending maelstrom of flashing talons. Branches crashed and splinters flew as a thrashing form fell from the canopy. The stench of putrefying flesh assaulted his nostrils as his pistol thundered. The creature's claws left his vision when the gunsmoke cleared. All that was left was the barely-recognizable body of the man, with his torso raked by massive claws and neck crushed to a sanguine pulp.

Toka heaved his hoeroa towards as the creature fled into the open sky, but the shortened whalebone club fell short. To Toka, the creature's distant screeching seemed a mocking jeer as his weapons failed him. He reeled his hoeroa back in as he let a sigh escape. A man lay dead at his feet, slain by some flying monster, and he had more questions than answers. He knelt down at the forest floor and searched for the man's footprints. Toka noted massive torn feathers scattered on the ground, and hoped the unnatural abomination would not sample his flesh.

Toka followed the trail back into a clearing, emerging into an oasis of light. A quick glance showed he was not alone. The midday sun illuminated a makeshift settlement in the clearing, with wooden lean-tos and small storehouses ringing the edge of the woodlands. Half a dozen people were gathered around an older man with faded tattoos and skin like a festering wound. His followers' flesh barely clung to their bones, their sagging skin indicating starvation. The old man brandished a worn taiaha as his bloated paunch bounced up and down. The handful of people before him had eyes wide with terror as the corpulent parasite raved.

"Defy me and die by the talons of Hokioi!" He slammed the fighting staff into the ground. "Now, bring me more food!"

A skeletal woman with sullen eyes and a sunken face hobbled forward. She set down an empty woven pouch, and shook her head. "But Arapeta, you have already taken the last of it!"

"Then you shall die, Awa, as your insolent husband did." A cruel sneer marched across Arapeta's face. "Your child shall feed Hokioi first."

Arapeta grabbed a young boy with soft brown eyes and short hair, and slapped him across his face. Awa stepped forward to protect her son, but the brute easily tossed her gaunt frame aside. He shoved the screaming boy onto the ground and stomped his foot onto the boy's chest.

"Etera, no!" Awa screamed.

Arapeta pulled a small cylindrical object from his flax coat, something Toka had never seen before. It was the yellow of the rising sun upon the sea, and had the approximate texture of woven flax. Upon it were black marks arranged in rows and columns, forming pictographs that he had never seen before but instantly comprehended.

"Lords of the Dead, grant me the power of the deathless ones," Arapeta chanted as an eerie glow reflected in his eyes. "Deliver death on the wings of-"

Toka charged into the fray, with his mere and pistol in his hands. A feral cry left his lungs, feeling like it ripped the wind from his vocal cords. Arapeta narrowly moved his head as the greenstone club came down on his temple. Toka followed through with his pistol, pointing it directly at the madman's face as he pulled the trigger. A flurry of pitiful sparks fell from the frizzen as Toka cursed the weapon. Arapeta slid backwards with the grace of a dancer, scooping his taiaha into his hands and brandishing the pointed end at the younger warrior.

"Run!" Toka shouted to the others. "Take the boy and flee!"

A momentary glance showed the boy and his mother had already vanished into the foliage, with the others behind them. Toka narrowly dodged a blow from his opponent's taiaha, its sharp end scarcely missing his stomach. Toka weaved underneath the underside of the staff as Arapeta moved with the uncanny speed of a younger man. Toka heaved his hoeroa at the adversary, but Arapeta attempted to parry it, but the club's tether wrapped around the taiaha like a coiled snake, and a quick tug liberated the taiaha from the owner's flabby hands. Toka felt the reassuring weight of the heavy wood in his hands as he prepared to impale its former owner.

Arapeta stared nonchalantly as Toka launched the weapon at him. He snapped his fingers, and Toka felt the weight of the weapon vanish. Before his eyes, the taiaha unwound itself into a fine powder that blew away like dust in the wind. Arapeta crossed his hands behind his back and took a step forwards.

"My former master has granted me powers," Arapeta boasted. "But I serve the Harbinger's whims no longer."

"Powers you use for evil," Toka inched backwards, as he felt for a weapon.

Arapeta grinned confidently. "You need not worry yourself, for you shall be a meaty morsel for my pet."

A familiar call echoed across the sky, and Arapeta walked away with his scroll. Toka charged into the trees as fast as he could, seeking shelter from the bird-monster. The warrior charged through the underbrush like an angry rhino, running as his lungs screamed for air. Seeing a fallen tree in front of him, he dove for cover behind it. As he felt the cold, muddy ground against his skin, something warm pressed against his shoulder. A petite hand cupped his mouth, and he saw the face of the woman he had saved earlier.

Awa pressed herself against his head, and her son Etera covered his own mouth. A dark shadow passed over the canopy, and the boy buried his head in his hands. The eagle's silhouette passed against the sun above, a dark omen of approaching doom. Toka desperately fumbled to reload his pistol, but he knew it would not be enough.

"Hokioi has passed," Awa's hand moved from his mouth. "But we must be silent, lest we tempt fate."

"What manner of beast is it?" Toka asked. "And how does Arapeta command it?"

"Hokioi strikes down those who draw Arapeta's ire from the sky." Awa shook her head. "Before he commanded the beast, Arapeta was once the tohunga ahurewa, the highest priest in our hapu."

"Now he is a raving lunatic," Toka replied. "I fear Matarere has corrupted him."

"He was not always mad," Awa somberly stared at the sky. "He gained strange powers one day, and returned from a tapu coastal cove with the ability to command the dead."

"Then I must travel there," Toka whispered. "Where is the rest of your iwi now?"

"Arapeta deceived us, pitting us against ourselves," Awa sobbed softly. "So we are all that remain."

"I will avenge them," Toka stood up. "I suffered the pain of losing my own."

"T-thank you, stranger," Awa extended her hand. "Why do you do this?"

"Because no one else will," Toka replied. "Now, tell me where this cove lies. If I do not return, seek shelter with the Great Hunters iwi, and tell them Toka sent you."

Awa told him the location, and Toka set off as the sun sank lower. For a while he looked behind until the forest completely enveloped Awa and Etera. He gave them directions to Great Hunters territory and wished them well as he headed towards his destination.

The lightness on his body came from the sobering realization, that he was running low on food and black powder. As Toka stepped into a moonlit glade of ferns, he realized the lack of animals in the forest meant more food for him. Hokioi was certainly no herbivore. He foraged before sleeping, and rested curled in a gully beneath a gnarled root. Mercifully dreamless sleep came over Toka like a gentle wave lapping up against the shore.

He awoke the following morning to the rising of the sun and the distant calling of seabirds. A rotting wooden post by the path indicated rahui, a tapu against hunting seabirds during their breeding season. Toka ignored it, as he hunted for answers rather than sustenance. He followed the sound of the birds as a blue ribbon appeared on the horizon. A clump of hills rose from a nearby peninsula, and a blanket of fog settled snugly upon them. The summits were almost completely enveloped in the mist, floating in the sky like dark clouds. Toka headed for a narrow pass between two hills, just as Awa told him. The hills were not the gently curving ones that Toka had grown up near, but jagged shards of rock and earth calling to mind tremendous power and violence. His bare feet chafed and blistered as he clambered up jagged black rocks, vomited from the bowels of the earth uncountable eons ago.

As he ascended to a flat steppe, his feet came to rest on frost-touched mountain grasses. The warrior knelt down and rested as he surveyed the vista before him.

The golden rays of the sun caressed the deep blue and green coastal waters that spread out to the horizon. Toka took in the scenery, noting the lay of the land and recalling his own trail. His former home lay far behind him, but the warrior knew the present was all that mattered now. He looked down, and saw that the sea bled into a cove in the center of the hills. As his eyes scanned the shoreline, he came upon an unfamiliar object.

It was half-sunken into the water, and barnacles grew exposed on its belly. While it was unlike the one he had seen before, Toka figured it was another shipwreck. A quick look at the fallen masts and tattered sails indicated it was unlike the Anglavian merchantman he had seen beached. The sails were oblique and angular compared to the other foreign ones. The hull was lower and flatter as well, a sort of wooden tray kept afloat in water.

A quick look at the rotting carcass of the vessel indicated it had decayed for years in the elements. If Arapeta had visited here, the derelict would certainly be worth investigating. Toka readied his weapons, and descended towards the beached wreck. As he descended the hillside, he realized the enormity of the vessel. Even though it had been smashed in the surf for unknown years, the titanic hull of the vessel remained intact as a silent testament to the skill of its designers. Toka noticed a tangled net hanging over the side of the craft, and climbed onto the deck.

Toka's feet adjusted to the moist, soft wood of the deck. The leaning masts of the ship groaned slowly in the breeze, like dead trees listing in the wind. The sails of the ship filled with a phantom wind as they swept back and forth in the foggy sky. As he surveyed his environment, both alien and familiar scents assaulted his nose. The stench of death was rife on the vessel, and a look at the deck revealed why. Bodies in various stages of decomposition littered the deck, as if struck down by some unseen plague. The cast of their faces was different than the pakeha and the natives, having small noses, sallow skin, and jet black hair. Only rust-brown stained rags remained of their red silk shirts. The corroded blades and burst cannons scattered across the deck indicated they had not gone quietly. Scratch marks on the deck and wounds in their pitiful remains reminded Toka of the horrid bird and its carrion stink.

Toka could not help but entertain the possibility of Arapeta's involvement in the carnage. He searched for an entryway into the lower decks, so that he could investigate closer. Toka headed for the raised cabin at the aft of the ship, where he presumed the captain would reside. A wooden door barred access, but Toka had another solution. He kicked the center of the door with a brutal blow, opening the cabin wide. He ducked to enter the low, narrow doorframe down and examined the room.

A shelf in the back of the room was full of small alcoves, each holding a scroll similar to the one Arapeta had. A scroll lay unfurled on a nearby desk, barely illuminated through the nearby window, and reeking of mold. Toka approached it and held the delicate parchment up to the insufficient light. Sinuous lines filled the contours of the scroll, flowing with beautiful grace. The lines and features indicated it was a map, likely based on the surrounding landscape. A circle to the north was labeled with the same characters as the scrolls. Toka read them, and the Harbinger's gift granted immediate understanding.

"Site of mystical power found here," Toka read aloud. "Native priest guided us there."

Toka pulled a scroll off a nearby shelf, and began to skim over it. It detailed the daily events on the ship, so he skipped to the next one. It detailed the vessel's crew, a group of scholars hailing from the distant Zhao Empire. They sought locations rich in supernatural power, and so they came to Ipukarea. Toka put the scroll back, but noticed something behind the case. The scroll case was angled back slightly, braced against a door behind it.

As he shoved the shelf away from the door, Toka's eyes moved towards an object propped against the wall. It was a leather harness with a handle protruding from it. Toka removed the sword from its sheath and examined the blade. Unlike the rusted weapons outside, the thick, heavy blade before him gleamed immaculately, without a speck of rust or dirt upon it. Toka stared at his reflection in the blade as he read the characters on the handle, "Monster Chopper." He grasped the dadao in two hands, and swung the weighted saber as it sang through the air. While he had never seen such a weapon before, the weight and shape made its movements intuitive. Toka imagined that such a weapon would cleave wood and flesh with great ease. He sheathed the weapon in the scabbard on his back, and continued rummaging for supplies.

Toka found a small bag of silver coins, and slid them into a leather pouch on the harness. He had little use for them, but he recalled William tell him that foreigners used such things for trade. He took an empty drinking flask and a tin of black powder before turning back to the concealed door. His hand gradually moved towards the door, but stopped on the handle. Instead, he turned his attention back to the records, and the notable absence of a scroll in a single, unlabeled alcove. As he sorted through the scrolls, he thought he heard a soft scratching in the walls. Toka focused attentively on the last scroll on the rack, and skimmed through the details.

"The treacherous Arapeta had slain four guards after seizing the Manual of Tissue Mending," he read aloud. "Since then, the crew reported strange sounds from the cargo hold. I have put them on alert."

He set the scroll down as his ears pricked at the gentle rapping from behind the door. The hairs on his skin stood up like soldiers at attention, and he shoved the shelf backwards towards the door. The slight knocking became a frenzied pounding, and Toka raced outside as the shelf crashed to the ground. The skittering of claw-like feet across the ship deck filled the air, and Toka turned to face the creature with his pistol ready. He had only a momentary glance before the gaunt humanoid shape vanished in a cloud of gunsmoke, but that was all Toka needed. He drew his new sword, and brought the gigantic cleaver down upon the prone creature. A pitiful wail escaped the monster's mouth as the chopper separated its lanky body from its head. The cast of the face and skull resembled the others that lay rotting on deck, only the flesh on the fingers and toes had decayed enough to expose the skeleton. The bones were worn or grounded into warped and gnarled claw-like protrusions. The bow-legged creature had once been a human, but little remained of their clothing or digits.

A soft whine came from the foredeck, and adrenaline surged through the warrior. He looked up to see another corpse stand on its feet, another screeching undead abomination craving flesh and blood. Beside it, other bodies began to grasp and squirm, and Toka realized he would rather not be around when the rest woke up. He sprinted across the deck as fast as his legs would carry him, darting between the stirring dead. He dove over the side, and into the cold water below. Toka had begun to swim for shore when something sharp raked across his shins. He turned to see a ghoul grasping for his throat, but dove into the murky bay to avoid the flailing creature.

Toka swam furiously as the oxygen left his lungs, and rose to the surface for air. An instant before he breached the surface of the water, something heavy yanked him back into the stygian depths. Toka twisted and torqued his body like a fish in the beak of a heron, floundering helplessly in an unfamiliar medium. He whipped his body like a bent reed, and slipped out of the monster's grasp. Directly above him was a gash in the body of the ship, large enough to climb through. Toka's thick hands grasped the splintered wood and pulled his feet above water. The ghoul's head emerged from the inky waters as its blood-soaked talons pursued the warrior above the waterline. Toka cut the monster's head in half with his blade, and its brackish blood polluted the water into a dark shade of crimson. He greedily inhaled air as he checked his weapons. While his powder horn was dry, his pistol was thoroughly waterlogged. He cursed to himself as he slipped into the cargo hold of the Zhao ship.

The moldy odors of decaying provisions filled Toka's nostrils. A thin layer of water covered the bottom of the floor, making stealth harder. Slivers of light poured from holes in the sides of the hull, a midday twilight beneath the deck. Growling and snarling from behind a stack of crates indicated more of the ghouls were nearby. Toka peeked out from behind the crates to see enigmatic devices placed on a rack against the wall. Each was a red cylinder terminating in a stylized dragon head. Small fins and a coil of twine protruded from the end of each, along with a small strip of paper, bearing characters too small for him to read at a distance. While he was curious as to their function and use, the monsters were still present.

A sneeze erupted from Toka's nose and mouth, trumpeting his presence to the hungry beasts. A slavering humanoid leapt atop the nearby stack of crates, drooling and eying its prey. The hopping corpse pounced as Toka raised his blade. Its rotting arm landed a split second before the body went face down on the floor. The armless creature convulsed as its lifeblood mingled with the bilge water on the floor, only to be put out of its misery by a quick swipe.

Toka had no time to relax. He waded towards the other creatures. He raised the weapon above his head and charged as his vocal cords unleashed a savage utterance. A pair of hopping corpses came forwards to meet him, only for one to be decapitated before it could act. The other unleashed a flurry of frenzied blows, tearing the flesh off Toka's shoulders. Blood ran in rivulets down his chest, but the warrior rammed his shoulder against the monster before running it through. He felt a moist crunch from the creature's chest as the sword severed its spine.

Shadows passed over the holes in the deck as the enemy rushed into the hold of the ship, temporarily bringing total darkness to the hold. A tide of the living dead descended from the captain's door to meet the intruder below. More hopping corpses charged forward, only to meet their end at Toka's whirling tempest of steel. Dark blood and mangled limbs filled the dank hold of the vessel. By the time the beasts ceased their attack, Toka's barrel chest was drenched black with the viscous bile of the living dead. He staggered forward as his adrenaline rush wore off, and caught his breath. He tied rags from the bodies around his wounds before continuing on. He pulled himself up a ladder of splintering rungs to the captain's quarters. His eyes adjusted to the light pouring in from outside, and he exhaled in relaxation.

Suddenly, Toka was knocked to the ground, his head pressed against the splinter boards. Something pinned him as jagged talons dug under his skin. He forced his hips to face his attacker, a tall and gaunt hopping corpse. He reached for his sword, only to have the beast close its grip around his chest, pulling him into a fatal embrace. The beast dug its claws into his chest, ripping his flax coat open. Howling in pain, Toka slipped his hands free. He drew his mere and jabbed the jade club into the creature's pallid, decaying stomach, causing it to loosen its grip. Toka heaved his hips up, and slipped out of the corpse's grasp. Before his enemy could react, he bashed the undead monster across the temple, and then finished it with a blow to the chest. For a moment, Toka surveyed the motionless deck around him, silent save the wash of the tides. He wiped the blood and water from his weapons before descending back into the hold.

Toka emerged with one of the strange devices he had seen below and knowledge of how to deploy it. He leaned the rocket over the side of the ship, and held the fuse in his hand. He used his pistol's flintlock mechanism to create sparks, until one caught. The tallow-soaked fuse burnt surprisingly well for its age, but Toka kept well away as the flame vanished into the tail. There was silence for a split second, and then a loud and terrible hissing as contrails of fire propelled the engine skywards. The weapon erratically spiraled through the air, leaving a coil of smoke behind it before crashing into the water.

Toka was surveying the scorch marks on the deck from the rocket launch when an idea struck him. He retrieved what he could carry from the ship before departing. He hoped the souls of the crew could find rest, now that the monsters had been destroyed. While he could not read Arapeta's mind, Toka had a fairly clear idea of where the mad necromancer resided. He headed for the site of power he recalled from the map.

Toka caught his adversary's scent on the wind, and knew he was on the right path. He arrived under the light of a gibbous and waning moon, with the cold wind biting into his exposed flesh. Before him was a wooded grove, with a blue and purple fire casting eerie shadows upon the ground below. A dark avian silhouette perched before the flames, and its master knelt beside it. In the perverted light of the glade, he could narrowly see the features of the carrion bird. Its skin slouched off its skeletal frame, revealing rattling bones and pus-filled meat. Cracked and faded feathers clung to its torso and wings, like brown grass on a barren hillside. One eye was an obsidian orb of darkness, while the other socket was a hideous orifice full of squirming maggots. Toka relished the thought of destroying the abominable parody of a great eagle. As he crept closer, the bird called into the air.

"Come down, dog of the Harbinger," Arapeta called. "We have unfinished business."

"I do not serve Matarere like you serve your mania," Toka replied. "I know how you command those powers. I know how you betrayed the foreign scholars and your own kin."

"I found better uses for their knowledge than they did," Arapeta sneered. "They used this magic to heal wounds. I used it to command the dead."

"Why betray your hapu and iwi?" Toka asked as anger welled inside him. "Have you no honor or compassion?"

"They were more useful as sacrifices and servants." Arapeta grinned wickedly. "Even the foreigners' bodies could be raised as the unliving beings I believe they called the jiangshi."

"I have slain many of those abominations," Toka boasted. "Flee, and you may yet live."

"Why would I flee?" Arapeta stood up. "You are nothing compared to me!"

"And you are nothing without that flying carcass," Toka mocked.

The bird extended its massive wings, and cawed into the cold night sky. Toka ran away as the creature took to the sky, a grotesque and ominous shadow pressed against the moon. Toka ran into an undergrowth of bushes to retrieve something he had hidden there. He dove into a ditch and fumbled for the rocket and net he had scavenged. He drew his pistol, and pressed the pan against the fuse. He pressed the trigger, but the sparks fizzled out.

He cursed to himself as he drew his powder horn, and the black grains flowed out like sand in an hourglass. Above him, the beast's razor sharp talons penetrated the canopy, and the cyclopean predator scanned for him. It flitted between branches of a nearby rimu tree as it sought him. He pulled the weapon's trigger, and a spark jumped to the rocket's fuse. The bird craned its serpentine neck towards him, having seen the sparks and heard the loud bang. Toka waved his hands and stood up, as the flame crept up the fuse. Sweat beaded down Toka's face as fear and fatigue swept over him.

The beast descended upon him with jagged talons ready to rend his body apart. The warrior threw himself onto the ground as the rocket ignited. The corkscrew flight of the rocket cast a surreal lightshow in the dark woods, like an insect caught on fire. Behind the rocket trailed the net, which was tied around the fins. The undead eagle narrowly dodged the rocket, but not before the net caught its wing. The great bird of prey hissed and cried as it was dragged to the ground, trying to fight its way out. Toka charged towards the downed creature with his broadsword drawn. The bird futilely snapped at him as the blade fell, separating its head from its neck. He continued hacking long after the creature stopped moving.

Toka emerged from the woods with one hand on his broadsword and another carrying an object for Arapeta. Toka rolled the monster's head across the ground, stopping at the madman's feet. The fallen priest cautiously stepped back as Toka stepped forwards. Sweat was visible on his forehead, from both fear and the blue flames behind him.

"No more tricks." Toka raised the sword. "You may face me as a warrior or flee like a whipped dog."

"You shall never have my secrets," Arapeta hissed. "The Harbinger will always command you, and you will never break your chain."

"I am doubting you ever broke yours," Toka said. "You merely forged new ones for yourself, dragging down all who cared for or trusted you."

"And that knowledge shall never be yours." Arapeta pulled the scroll out and tossed it into the fire behind him. His mouth formed a spiteful sneer as he stepped backwards. "Nor my soul shall ever be your master's. I will die on my own terms. The same cannot be said for you."

Arapeta cast himself into the blue flames with a grin on his face. Purple and blue flames danced across his body, disintegrating it into a blackened husk. The flames jumped higher and wider as Arapeta's remains dissipated into ash. Toka stood idly by as he felt the unnatural heat made his flesh perspire. As the flames died down, an unwanted intruder whispered into the warrior's mind.

"Arapeta thought he could abuse my gifts for paltry tricks and his own glory," the Harbinger said. "You have done me a favor by assisting in his end. Let his demise be a warning to you."

"I am not your pet, Matarere," Toka replied. "But I am not Arapeta, either. There is no honor in his deeds."

"There is no honor in what you will do," the voice taunted. "Do not let any stand before me."

The following morning, Toka returned to the grove to find the massive blaze reduced to a pit of ash and cinders. The warrior began to kick dirt into the hole, smothering the dying embers. He only stopped once the pit was completely covered, engulfed in the dirt. With whatever was left of Arapeta buried beneath his feet, Toka continued his aimless wandering. Off in the distance, he saw Awa and Etera veiled behind a row of trees.

"I have delivered utu," he said. "But I can do nothing else for you. Remember that to the south, you will find what remains of the Great Hunters iwi. Tell them I sent you."

Part of his mind wished to accompany them, but feared Matarere's machinations could still harm them. Toka said nothing as they vanished into the woodlands behind him.